The Sanskrit phrase Átithi Devo Bhava (The Guest is God) from the Taittiriya Upanishad has been misquoted and misused many times in both historical and social contexts, but the essence of this ancient thought remains deep rooted in many Indians to this day. I had the pleasure of experiencing this first-hand a few months ago.

This was in a tiny cafe in Rishikesh that is famous for its South Indian food. I had spent a happy afternoon walking across the magnificent Ram Jhula bridge, assimilating the silence that pervaded the green-gold waters of the Ganga and visiting the tiny, tranquil temple dedicated to Shatrughna, the youngest brother of King Rama. I was in deep bliss savouring the aura of the place when I stopped at this cafe, recommended by a local friend for its South Indian food.

I ordered the South Indian staple Masala dosa and coffee, and sat making my notes about the ancient streets and the temple town that appears older than time, whose history is so old that it is indistinguishable from legend, and yet it is there for all to see, every stone bearing testimony to the stories of yore that make up the history of Bharat.

‘Enjoy your food,’ The waiter’s voice shook me out of my reverie.

I thanked him and took a piece from the brownish-white crepe rolled over the potato stuffing and tasted it, and froze. It was the most tasteless dosa I had ever eaten, with the batter invoking the texture and perhaps the flavour too, of thin cardboard. The lump of potato mash within it had no flavour whatsoever, and the accompanying chutneys and sambar tasted more of water than anything else.

The cashier at the counter, a lovely young woman gave me a bright smile and a small wave as she attended to the next customer. I waved back and looked again at my plate. There was no way I was going to eat the cardboard dosa or the gooey potatoes. And then a group of people at another table left, one of them coughing as they passed by my table.

I pushed away the plate gleefully and beckoned the waiter.
‘Please bring me the coffee and the bill.’
‘But you’ve hardly eaten!’ he said in an offended voice before whispering something to the cashier who looked over at my plate.
‘Didn’t you like the food?’ She sounded concerned, and so warm that I did not have the heart to tell her the truth.
‘It’s excellent. Just that someone passing by coughed, and well, we can’t be too careful in these times of Covid.’
‘Is that all? We’ll get you another one,’ she beamed. ‘Replace it,’ she told the waiter who obligingly took away the plate.
‘But you don’t have to-‘ I said, ‘it’s not your fault, you know.’
‘It’s not your fault either, how can we take your money if you were not able to eat?’ She said with so much warmth that I could not refuse.

Á fresh dosa arrived, no different from the earlier one, the same cardboard-like texture dripping with oil, the same gooey potato filling, the watery chutneys…I looked miserably at the cashier.
‘Please eat,’ she smiled with so much warmth that I found myself returning her smile, despite my horror at the dish in front of me.
I fell to, and managed to swallow a little more than half of the dosa and washed it down with the coffee which was fairly good, and left a large tip.

I have almost forgotten how bad that dosa tasted. What remains is the the warmth of the young woman’s words and her genuine kindness, and the memory of that uncomfortable situation that made me smile today.

Here is a short excerpt from my first novel The Reengineers, a conversation between one of the main characters Siddharth and his potential love interest Laura, in which Sid explains how Indians of today have re-interpreted the ancient saying which equated guests to God.

After a pause, Siddharth asked, ‘Shall I drop you at your hotel or would you rather have lunch first?’
Laura’s bored expression had fallen away as he spoke, and she looked at him in amazement.
‘You do realize I was being rude? Are you being polite because I am a guest and guests are like, what, gods in Indian culture?’
‘Only in the history books. We now treat guests the same as most people do around the world. Guests are fine as long as they respect boundaries and don’t wear out their welcome. But you are more than a guest, Ms Mackenzie. You are a client. And clients are the gods of any business, anywhere in the world.’
He grinned. Laura looked at him steadily for a moment. Then she started laughing.
From The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan