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The Gods Next Door

When hospitality knows no bounds

Our neighbors in Hyderabad, where I was teaching poetry on a Fulbright, were Govindulu and his wife, Damayantidevi. It took weeks for our brains to contain all the syllables of their names (the “devi” at the end of the wife’s name—meaning “goddess”—turned out to be dispensable). From the kitchen window of our second-floor faculty apartment Charlie and I could see across the courtyard into Govindulu’s study. And though we tacked a little dish towel in our window to protect them from our curiosity, it was impossible not to see though it. Without trying, we could make out the altar in the corner of his room in front of which he’d pray, naked from the waist up. He’d kneel, facing its icons, versions of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, in red and yellow and gold, arrayed with leaves and something that sparkled. Every night, through our open windows, we could hear him intone a long series of prayers, loudly and in a rush. It seemed intensely dutiful, if not especially devout.

Our first morning, as we were leaving for breakfast in the campus mess hall, Damayanti popped out of their door to invite us in. We were offered Rice Krispies and peanut butter. But when we indicated that we were not suffering any deprivation, that was the last culinary gesture toward the tastes of home. The three of us—Govindulu, Charlie, and I, were served fresh papaya slices, delicious milky sweet coffee, and some poha upma, a South Indian breakfast dish with flattened rice, and roasted peanuts with dark green curry leaves, the whole a lovely turmeric yellow. Damayanti stood behind us, offering to refill whatever glass or plate was emptied. We, of course, invited her to sit. She declined with a smile.

Our apartment at the International Institute of Information Technology (called “Triple I-T” by its inhabitants) was gigantic, with many tall-ceilinged, white-walled rooms. The lighting was accomplished from on high with harsh fluorescent fix-tures. Also high up was what looked like a cuckoo clock, a tiny alpine cottage replete with painted vines curling around its tiny lintel. It housed the doorbell chime, which was equipped with a hilarious variety of popular tunes, played ear-splittingly loud, in seemingly random sequence.

On our second morning, a rousing rendition of “Home on the Range” announced the arrival of Damayanti. She offered Charlie and me a metal bowl filled with another delicious breakfast food made from urad dahl (black lentils) and channa dahl (split chickpeas) and flavored with toasted mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and wonderful roasted cashews and peas. Later in the day, when I crossed the hall to return the bowl, I was asked in and served tea and biscuits, and invited to return whenever I wanted. That turned out to be the first of many casual teatime visits.

I had Damayanti cast as a shy woman. As soon as Govindulu arrived home, around five each day, I was ushered out of the kitchen, where I had been peering over Damayanti’s shoulder to learn how she did things—kitchen shelves lined with newspaper, balcony doors shut at exactly five o’clock, when the mosquitoes came out—to sit with him in the living room. He would go through his mail, glance at the TV, and speak about various translations of the Mahabharata he thought I’d be interested in. Sometimes he’d fetch from his astonishing library a book of contemporary American poetry. His study was lined with books in English as well as Hindi, though by profession he was a computer scientist. He had taught at Harvard and now functioned as a dean at Triple I-T. Whenever he visited their son, who lived in D.C., Govindulu would spend hours in bookstores buying second-hand volumes in English to bring back. When Damayanti had finished what she was doing, she would perch on the daybed that was also in the living room—a clearly subordinate location.

One afternoon I asked Damayanti who was in charge of the landscaping that was going on around the faculty housing. I had noticed fresh plantings—baby papaya trees, tomatoes, roses, and basil. Huge and rapidly growing morning glories with wide pink faces bloomed and grew like fairy-tale plants, gaining six inches in a day. Out the window was a collection of healthy-looking plants, each in its own little circular pit, which allowed them to be watered copiously each day. Somebody was obviously in the process of realizing an ambitious vision.

I was surprised then to learn that the author of all this was none other than Damayanti herself. After that, I noticed in the mornings that I could see her standing at her balcony directing the workers outside. Her plans were to demolish the small cement building, to clear weeds out from around the gigantic boulders that framed the view outside the approach to our building, to plant a green grass entrance, and to create a play area for faculty children. When I told Govindulu I was impressed with his wife’s efforts, he deflected my admiration with a dismissive hand gesture. She was just doing what a housewife does.

One day in mid-January, I mustered up the courage to walk down the crowded dusty road outside the calm sanctum of the campus to Indranagar, the little village that had swelled with the rest of Hyderabad and its outskirts in the wake of ballooning construction. There was a little grocery store, which I entered in search of a gift to thank Damayanti for her many kindnesses. I lingered over the shelves of grains I didn’t recognize, the fresh produce in bins with flies hovering above, and the minute containers of stuff that Americans are accustomed to buying in bulk—toothpaste in travel-sized tubes, Nescafé in a box the size of a deck of cards. Then I saw tucked on a bottom shelf some dried figs in a gold-lettered plastic package. I bought them, feeling triumphant. At last I could reclaim a sense of having something to give instead of always being the grateful recipient.

No sooner had I delivered the gift than Govindulu set me straight. “Why did you give those dried fruits to that lady in there?” He often called her “that lady,” as though she were just someone who worked in his house. I again felt the impulse to praise her, her cooking and her clever landscaping, to return to her the dignity I thought she deserved. Then he explained that such a gift, coming from a guest to the country, is a real burden. They would need to reciprocate, and it would go on and on. Leaving the gift unpaid, they would have an obligation even into their next life.

“But,” I objected, since he seemed to be open to further discussion, “you have given us so much. The food Damayanti has cooked for us is so delicious.”

“You are guests,” Govindulu explained almost impatiently. “You are like gods, visiting. We are to honor you. It is part of our religion.”

“Can’t I even give flowers?” I was not quite taking in the seriousness of what he was saying.

“Yes,” he replied, as if pointing out a quite obvious distinction. “They are not substantial—they are symbolic.”

“So were my figs,” I insisted, now very curious about how this notion was construed.

“You have to buy figs. Not flowers. They grow. You just pick them.”

“Oh, no,” the words burst out of me. “I couldn’t pick that rose outside”—I meant the stunning red one Damayanti had ordered planted.

“Why not?” he asked calmly. “Somebody has to.”

This was before I had noticed how many people could be seen in the course of a day picking berries, seeds, leaves, bark, papayas, and mangoes, and stashing them in their sarees. I thought about how assiduously Westerners avoid picking what grows, unless it is grown expressly for harvest. From our perspective, we are harming the environment if we casually pluck a flower. From the perspective I now inhabited, the earth is a mother—generous and loving in her gifts—whose whole purpose would be insulted were we to avoid touching her.

I was surprised one day to be invited into Damayanti’s bedroom and given a tour of her closet. Back home I’d never been bidden to paw through a friend’s wardrobe. It seemed an extraordinarily intimate moment. Little did I know that this invitation would be repeated in three different households, by three other new friends. One’s collection of sarees was a point of pride and honor.

Damayanti’s garments had been carefully folded by the woman who did her housework, and I didn’t want to mess up the neat, silky bundles. But Damayanti seemed intent on taking them at least partway out, announcing the provenance of each one. I held each saree gingerly, not knowing what I was to value. Secretly, I didn’t like the colors, which seemed to veer between mustardy earth tones and black and pink, nor did I appreciate the texture. Some were thin but rough to the touch. I’d learn later that these were machine-made. I certainly couldn’t distinguish between silk from one place and silk from another.

“Why you not wear saree?” Damayanti asked.

“I would like to, but I don’t know how to buy or wear one,” I said by way of an offhand explanation.

Several days later my work was interrupted by “The Rain in Spain” blasting from our doorbells. It was, of course, Damayanti.

“I go to pick up sarees. You come?”

Understanding little more than that it would mean a guided tour, I accepted. Off we went, unusually, in an auto-rickshaw. “My husband don’t like to shop here like this,” she said, confirming my impression of his rigidity and adding an element of defiance and feistiness to my impression of her.

In the saree store, as I should have predicted, the focus was not on my companion but on me. Fabric was piled in neat columns behind the counter, and the salespeople would pull out one fabric after another and unfurl it onto the counter before me. “You like?” Damayanti would ask.

So many conflicting nonanswers swirled in me. I did sort of like. But I hadn’t any idea what I was seeing. First of all, I didn’t know what each fabric was. Dimly I had registered the campuswide fascination with indigenous cotton, hand-loomed, and thought perhaps that was the way to go. Cotton was supposed to be cool, which seemed a preeminent value as we headed toward the always-warned-about hot summer. But I had never thought about the drape of the saree, how it folded into a neat fan at the right hip, how it swept over the left shoulder and at best would float gently and without resistance down the left back. Cotton, I’d learn later, if thin enough, if who knows what enough, would, after a washing, do this. Or it might just as easily remain stiff and poke out instead of draping.

But there was more at stake. Who was I? Who was I in Indian clothes? What were my values? I realized that I’d taken years—well, all my adult life—trying to determine which of the multiple identities available to me in Western clothes was mine. Through much of the sixties I wore little flowered cotton shirts, seeking without knowing it the comfort of sweetness. Then I shifted to bold earthy-colored padded-shoulder dresses with large belts and heels. In recent years I moved through a stage of ritual long black skirts and black sweaters, black blouses, and black purses to a stage of black with a rather predictable accent color in imitation of what I saw around me, such as lime green or orange. A watered-down version of Parisian, by way of New York, and muted by the reticence of Boston nonstyle. By the time we left for India I was wearing a few more colors. I’d been convinced to buy some deep browns.

Here in India, solid black was not an option, except for Muslim women. How floral did I want to be? Damayanti’s taste seemed to depend on the nature of the fabric (which struck me as a more astute and reliable basis of judgment than my previous halfhearted following of fashion). I had no idea how a saree might look on me, much less what color to get. But there were no years to recalculate my preferences. Damayanti kept asking “You like?”—followed by the confident “Which one you like?” And I felt compelled to choose. So I picked a greenish one with a small but abstract design in white and rose.

That propelled us into Step Two of the process. Off to the matching-shop, where anyway she had to pick up her blouses. This was a stall about the size of a walk-in closet, with a grandmotherly woman and a young man behind the counter fetching cloth to complement the saree at hand. I didn’t and still don’t understand the role of the petticoat except to hold up the saree. No one sees it. Was it somehow, unseen, to enrich the color of the saree that covers it? The matching-shop needed my measurements, so we took another auto-rickshaw to the tailor’s house, where six women sat on the floor with sewing machines. One of them stood up as if on command and measured me, over my clothes, quietly calling off numbers to the tailor.

Days later, Damayanti appeared at the door bearing the finished saree, wrapped in brown paper.

It took me a month to work up to the symbolic event of putting it on. Before arriving in India, I didn’t believe people who told me that wearing the local clothes would be regarded as an honor, not a form of mimicry. I was unprepared for the almost universal delight that greeted my saree. Damayanti, who helped me wrap myself—in spite of watching a “sarees for dummies” video, I was mystified—clapped her hands and said all I needed was a bindi, the dab of vermillion powder between the eyebrows, and some proof-of-marriage toe rings (which she gave me as a going-away present months later). My students grinned. Strangers on campus bowed as I floated by, trying not to step on my own long skirts and so undo the whole effect. The grace of the saree seems to make everyone who wears one graceful. It slowed me down, made me feel the flow from shoulder to floor. The bend and movement of the waist reconfigured my whole sense of my body in space.

A feature of life in hyderabad is the fine, gritty dust that daily, hourly, coats people’s homes. You couldn’t walk across a room of your apartment without getting orange dirt ground into your feet. And your computer and desk were likewise filmed. We tried to keep up with it, wiping the floors down with soap and rags. But the apartment was large, and the windows that let in the dirt were wide. Before long, neither of us had any interest in the daily project of washing the floors. So one day, I griped to Damayanti about the unending dustiness of it all. I only meant to relieve myself of the embarrassment, housewife to housewife, hoping for the shared verdict that it wasn’t really important. I had deferred to a familiar social convention that was completely out of context here.

Without a breath, she sprang into action. “You must tell that man,” as Damayanti called the small figure in the hallway, with a dismissive flick of the hand, “to clean it!” That man had, already, many other roles.

He was the one who kept our large water jug filled with fresh water. We could not tell if this water came from some water company, like the bottled water at home—or whether, except that we hadn’t gotten sick, the water company, if it existed, was any improvement over the water in the tap. Anyway, sometimes, and lately, with a rather fetching little smile that made us feel cared for, he anticipated our needs, and arrived unsummoned with a full five-gallon glass jug, which he flipped effortlessly upside down into the receptacle on the counter in exchange for our not-yet-empty one.

He was the same man who arrived most mornings, very early, to wash down the halls and stairs of our building. For weeks I didn’t realize, because I couldn’t have imagined, that he was not only that early-morning washer, but also the bringer of clean sheets and pillowcases and remover of used ones. He was also the ironer.

To iron, he would set up on the first floor, where he had a table more or less in the afternoon shade. On the table was a flattened cardboard box. On the box was a strip of fabric. This was his ironing board. The iron itself was a huge, heavy thing filled with heated coals. The temperature those days was above ninety degrees Fahrenheit. He’d go door to door, ringing the awful doorbells, which you could hear throughout the building, to collect wrinkled clothes, and would work into the night to iron them. All told, he worked around the faculty quarters from about six in the morning to nine at night.

These days, we had come to what appeared to be a cordial communication, the factotum and I. Used to be when I gestured to ask if he could do our ironing as well, he’d utter a definitive no. Then a self-preserving “Tomorrow.” And then for days he wouldn’t be there. Now when I noticed, by the reassuring thump of the iron, that he was there that day, I’d been responded to with a nod of comprehension and assent. The agreement to take on our laundry even late in the day—for which he charged fourteen rupees (about thirty cents) an item or a little more for a saree—seemed a major victory in trust.

But Damayanti, in response to my casual comment about dust, instantly picked up her mobile phone. There ensued a long interchange in Telagu. Not necessarily a problem since as far as I can tell, everything in Telagu, the language of Andhra Pradesh, is a long interchange, even when it is communicating “good morning.” But I was slightly concerned.

When I crossed the open-air hallway back to our apartment, he, the washer/waterer/ironer, was there. I felt bad that he’d been called to our house over and above his already full work load. Moreover, he seemed to be scowling a little, and sweeping dispiritedly.

Suddenly, he let the broom, a bound collection of palm leaf spines, fall to the floor. It seemed a gesture of supreme indignation.

I stood there, embarrassed and hurt. Embarrassed that this man had been ordered on my behalf to fulfill a mere whim. Hurt that he must be blaming me, when I hadn’t wanted to make a fuss.

I retreated to Damayanti’s with a sense of helpless frustration. “He’s dropped his broom on the ground and is glaring,” I said, feeling now very sorry for myself.

“What?!” Damayanti almost shouted, sounding much more outraged than I felt. She was again instantly on the phone (did she even take the time to dial?) in a long harangue, which concluded with the satisfied announcement: “His supervisor will come.”

“No, no,” I said too late, too lame. “I don’t want him berated.”

“No,” she said, our noes colliding and canceling each other out, “no, he should not do that. He is not good man. The other man, young man, he is nephew to Narsingham”—D’s washing person—“and he is good.”

Now I was aware of this other dimension: Damayanti’s washing/cleaning person had a nephew in the wings, looking for a job. Was this an opportunity for him to be slid into the position? Not only that, but with this substitution Damayanti would oversee more people working at the faculty quarters. Was that what was happening?

By the time I returned from her apartment (mobile phones performing the role of instant and constant communication throughout India, in defiance of any stereotype about the slowness of things), a two-second walk across the open-air hall, the nephew was already there, quietly and meticulously sweeping.

But what of the washer/waterer/ironer? To where had he been dispatched? And how, so quickly? And what of retribution? How would his—let’s face it, quite justified—rage be expressed? Would he damage my clothes?

When I posited a theory that his displeasure came from being asked to do more work for the same pay—I’m not the daughter of a labor union lawyer for nothing—Damayanti conceded I was right, but said that was his job. His job, as she described it, was to take whatever care of us we required. And then she mentioned, perhaps to take the burden of accusation off me, that other people had noticed his sullen attitude. Now I wanted to defend him. My frame of reference severely limited by my lack of language and weak grasp on the nuance of the situation, I observed, “He does seem happy doing the laundry.” Now I was trying to match his job with his preferences. Even at the time of this exchange I was aware of my cultural limitations—my American preoccupation with his “happiness,” his state of mind, and my inability to know much more than what I thought I could see on his face.

“Oh yes, he is getting paid lots for that—last week I give him a hundred rupees,” Damayanti replied, with seeming annoyance at the rip-off, which amounted to approximately two dollars.

“But couldn’t we pay him for the extra work?” I persisted, hoping that would solve the issue. If he would be doing extra work, shouldn’t we pay him something extra? A beneficent gesture from the rich Americans . . .

“No, no, no!” She was adamant. “No. He should do it.”

It seemed that taking care of guests was part of his job. The path to enlightenment had to do with karma—doing what you are meant to do, without attention to the outcome. And for him to demur was profoundly unseemly.

I liked the calm of the young man, the nephew, and the sense that he wanted to do the job well and was learning, and I was nervous about encountering the other, about the anger that was restrained behind the fear of losing his job, and what would happen if it were unleashed. I worried off and on.

Later that week, the doorbell rang its crazy, jazzy ring—and there he stood, the factotum, with a bundle of clothes. “Ironing?” he asked, miming the action with his right, ironing hand, as if nothing had happened. I gave him an armful of wrinkled clean cotton. He responded with his small crooked smile. Somehow the jangled disorder I had experienced was soothed. And I wondered what it might be like to live as if those nearby were gods, just visiting.

REBECCA KAISER GIBSON, a lecturer in English and a widely published poet, has been awarded an Artist Fellowship in Poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Last year, as a Fulbright Scholar, she was invited to teach poetry writing in Hyderabad, India, the setting for her essay in this issue.

  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155