After having painted such a grim picture of one aspect of modern urban living, I felt the responsibility to follow it up with something about the way out. Even I remember growing up without any need for my parents to coordinate with anybody. There were safe open spaces outside our homes where I could just go wander in where my friends would join us as and when they could. If no one came, I would just spend some time by myself skipping or bouncing a ball, or watching a cricket match played by the older kids and return home. I could walk over to the next street where some of my relatives lived and knock at their doors. Wherever all us kids gathered, we’d all be fed and taken care of. I can imagine how much easier it must have been when my parents were young, when friends and family lived in pretty much the same village. This is still somewhat alive in one neighbourhood in Chennai, Triplicane, where my parents and a lot of my relatives live. It is one of the oldest settlements, where everyone knows at least a few dozen families living there. There is a certain free-flowing movement of people that you can see there!
We have all heard the saying Athithi Devo Bhava, which means ‘Treat your guest like God’. The word athithi actually means ‘the one who arrives and departs without announcing the date or the time’ (a=no; thithi=day/time). It was an aha-moment for me when I learnt the meaning of this word recently! How graciously open, welcoming and warm our ordinary lives must have been to guests for the word to have been coined with its focus on the ‘unannouncement’!
We rarely live in our homes these days. Fathers go to work. Children go to school and classes. Mothers shuttle between home, school, classes, stores, doctors, etc. In the current way we live, it is of course not easy to be or welcome an athithi. But let me now tell you a refreshing story of a family that stays home together.
Dev and Hema quit their corporate jobs to pursue more meaningful and creative lives. Abhi and Aparna are their two children who don’t go to school. This family that I often mention in my stories lives in the street next to ours. They ring our door bells more often than they call us. When our door bell rings when we aren’t expecting anyone in particular, we now know it must be someone from their family. They usually come to share with us sambar, chutney or a treat that they put together, or to just drop by for a chat. Initially I used to tell them “But why didn’t you call and come? What if we weren’t home?” Now I realize that they find simple and profound joy in just coming over without announcing; in knowing that they would be welcomed even if they visited unannounced. Hema and Dev care so less about coordination between themselves (unless absolutely necessary) that they, many times, don’t even mind to check when the other person is returning home even on days that they have travelled long distances. “I don’t know. He will come home sometime by the end of the day!” would be Hema's response.
Inspired by Hema and Dev, I’ve also started just dropping by their home unannounced. Rajeev and I are now being more conscious about our coordination calls with each other and are learning to leave notes on the blackboard and post-it cards! :)
How about we identify one other family in our neighbourhood who we can relate to in this way? This way, we can rediscover the joy of being and welcoming an athithi; heal the ailing spirit of