This Feeding of the Birds

08 Jun 2006

Well, I'm off for a quick trip out of town tomorrow, returning next Tuesday. It's doubtful I'll be able to update the 'ol blog before then, but I didn't want to let everyone off the hook without hearing some sort of quirky tale. (Well, that and I'd hate to actually do any work this afternoon.) So, here's an oldie but a goodie -- another in my seemingly endless "Adventures with Kumar" series.

***

I've long considered Indian people to be superlatively hospitable, far surpassing any other nationality of people I've come in contact with. Of course, I could be wrong in at least two ways: First, it could be that, coincidentally, most Indian people I've met have been uncommonly accommodating. Or, it could also be that there is some other culture out there with which I'm unfamiliar that exceeds the level of hospitality I've encountered. (Or, both of these things could be true, which would constitute a third way I could be wrong.) Time will tell.

Anyway, my first encounter with this phenomenon came in New York City about twenty years ago. At the Indian restaurants on the lower east side (especially the to-die-for "Calcutta" establishment), I couldn't get over how patrons couldn't even attempt a second sip from a water glass before it was promptly refilled. That's damn fine service in my book. (I'm a thirsty S.O.B., and I really appreciate such attention to my parched state.)

Later, I'd seen similar displays at private gatherings, mostly at Kumar's house (see earlier blog entries). At one such affair, I remember being offered a drink literally seconds after entering the household -- and not some ordinary drink like beer or wine. The bartender in this case meant to extend a gesture of utter class. He proudly panned the scotch section with a wave of his hand as if modeling it for an advertisement. "Whiskeesoda?" he suggested.

Of course, not wanting to appear rude, and in spite of (1) never having acquired a taste for scotch, and (2) somewhat of a language barrier, I accepted a tall drink on good faith. Within fifteen minutes, the bartender noticed my mere sippage of the drink and demanded, "You are not liking this?!"

"No, it's fine, really . . ."

"No. You are not liking this. I get you something else."

I felt slightly embarrassed -- mumbling, "uh, maybe it was a bit strong for me" -- and even more so after practically guzzling the replacement drink, a Screwdriver.

"Ahh, Screwdriver!" the man had said. Communication had been established.

I'd seen it withinIndiaas well, where I came to understand the principal of hospitality having a certain grounding in economics -- and not just exclusively demonstrated by hotel staffs or others interacting with foreign tourists like me. There is the principle of baksheesh , for instance, which seems to translate into a broad area lying between straight-out tipping and offering alms to the poor. Drilling down further below this economic grounding, I think there's a religious meaning to it all. After certain fasting periods, and for certain holy days, our Indian friends often offered the hospitality of celebratory gatherings.

Tapping the deepest essence of hospitality, perhaps, is the ubiquitous and utterly essential English phrase of communication while inIndia: "No Problem." Used by everyone, the words cannot be precisely described as simple idiom.In fact, the definition, or translation of the phrase is often relative. For instance, from the Indian perspective, it can mean as much as, "What you are asking is not normal procedure, but I will do it for you anyway (and a tip would be nice)."From the tourist perspective, it serves a remedial function, translating into "You have perceived that I have a problem, but I assure you that there is none, and furthermore that I am okay." (It's sort of like the phrase "forget about it" from Donnie Brasco.)

So, there I am, all settled in with my Screwdriver.It's one of the first few parties I'd been invited to at Kumar's house. So, I didn't know everyone yet.In fact, many of the men there were simply "the husbands" and, as such, didn't necessarily know one another. Most of them wore suits, as older businessmen tend to do at social affairs.They sat along the perimeter of the fancy living room rather quietly, with only brief bursts of conversation about politics or cricket.

During one of the lulls, I figured I'd try my hand at sparking a conversation among the group. "I work inDupont Circle," I said, generating a few nods of recognition. "And, you know, there's a really weird story about the park there. There's a woman who cares for all of the pigeons. Ever hear about her?"

A few guys shook their heads, prompting me to continue.

"Well, the story goes something like this.The woman was down on her luck -- broke, destitute, and without any prospects for turning her life around. With nothing else to do, she sat among the pigeons inDupont Circle, idly feeding the birds scraps of bread. Suddenly, she came up with an idea.I'm not sure exactly what it was. But, it was some kind of innovative business idea. She went from depressed and lonely to fully invigorated in an instant. And, guess what?"

They stared at me, awaiting more.

"The business was a huge success!"As they politely smiled and nodded, I added, "But there's more! After her business took off, she felt a deep gratitude toward these park birds. So, she vowed to feed them every day.That's how I know her. Every day when I'm walking to work, she's feeding them an enormous bag of bird seed -- probably something like fifty pounds a day. Every day!"

This caught their attention. It stirred something deep within their ingrained Hindu philosophy. An older gentleman, barely able to speak English, spoke up first in reaction. In a thick Indian accent, he said, "This feeding of the birds . . . is . . ." And then, before offering anything further, he turned to the other older guys and said "What?" as though asking them for a precise definition.

They proceeded to discuss the matter in Hindi for about three minutes, seemingly debating the nuances of the story the whole time. Finally, they reached agreement (a fact I inferred through their unanimous nodding) and turned back to me. The wise old sage looked at me, his index finger pointed upward in the posture of a guru about to deliver some pearl of wisdom. "This feeding of the birds," he said again, "is ..." And then, after a pregnant pause, he said with peaceful, sincere smile, "very good."

Everyone nodded in agreement and looked at me.I thought at first there would be more -- possibly some insightful reflection about karma. But, in the end, that was exactly what they wanted to tell me.This feeding of the birds is very good.

Remember that, my friends, as you venture out into the world.

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