These Knives are Made for Dicing

(Essay)

“Well”, my wife Bharati said as she emptied the dishwasher, “Looks like we had another banner year at Hotel Shenolikar.” Bharati was not referring to any business enterprise we own or manage. She was referring to our house in Fairfax, Virginia. It was late September and our house was quiet. It was something we were not used to.

For the past few years, we have had so many visitors that our neighbors have taken notice. They see cars with out-of-state license plates parked in our driveway. They see Bharati leading a group of ladies around our garden explaining the various flowering trees and plants (with me and the men following close behind). They see the group-picture-taking on our lawn and us waving goodbye to our departing friends. It has all become a routine — so much that when we meet our neighbors at a community get-together, it has become common practice for them to say, “What was going on in your house the other day? Looks like you had another batch of guests at Hotel Shenolikar.” Frequently they have suggested that we should just say “No” to potential guests. But their visits have lot of value for us.

The cycle of visitors usually starts around Mother’s Day. Invariably, we get a phonecall from a relative, a friend, a friend of a relative, a relative of a relative, or a friend of a friend. They inform us that they will be in Washington, DC  on such and such a day and whether we would mind if they visited us. The reason for their visit could be anything from attending a conference in DC, wanting to see the Cherry Blossoms in full bloom, or bringing their offspring to see George Washington’s house in Mount Vernon.

We tell them we would be overjoyed to have them visit. We have a big house. It will not be a problem at all. Gone are the days with limited space and the scramble to find comfortable sleeping spots for everyone. Still, being a host is more than providing a place to sleep, cooking meals, and making smalltalk. Being a host means transforming into an economist, a town planner, a politician, a historian, a gardener, and a cook (among other things). I have faced questions such as, How was DC’s underground metro system built? Why are there panhandlers on the street of such an advanced country? How do auto companies decide how many cars to build? How tall are the famous monuments?

I don’t think my savoir-faire on the subjects is always adequate enough to quench my guests thirst for information. Some visitors, not satisfied by casual responses, ask follow-up questions in search of more satisfying answers. In such cases, I try to change the subject by asking whether they faced any problems in their travel or offering them a drink.

Our guests have included physicians, professors, entrepreneurs, artists, authors, and industry executives. After dinner, our casual talks have turned into heated discussions on recent political events, books we have had read, great restaurants, and  conflict resolution with relatives and friends. Our talks have dissected our social lives and our attempts at preserving our culture in the United States. Some younger visitors from India have observed that the memories of long-timers like us have “frozen in time” and that we do not know the “new India.”

We have been impressed by the achievements and talents of many of our guests, such as my cousin Sushama and her husband Suresh. When they visited a few years ago we had not seen them for almost three decades. During their visit, we learned that Sushama had published a book about people who have appeared on Indian stamps. Suresh knew the botanical name of every plant in our garden and was an exceptional cook. When Bharati was preparing to make Upama (a spicy snack made from farina), Suresh showed her a south Indian recipe that turned out to be more delicious than our normal preparation. Upon noticing the A.J. Henckel’s knife set on our kitchen counter, he balanced the knives on his palm and said to Bharati: “Do you know why these knives are great? It is the balance. Look,” he said forwarding his hand that held the knife, “These knives are made for dicing.” He then proceeded to chop the onions for the Upama. That night, after dinner, Suresh perused the music CDs from my collection. He found one containing the Arias sung by Andrea Boccelli. Suresh gave me a discourse on the Arias that was new knowledge to me. I had purchased the Boccelli CD purely to listen to the emotional melody, especially at Christmas time, without knowing the meaning of the songs. It was from Suresh that I learned that these Arias were sacred songs praising the Lord and offering thanks for the gifts of life.

We are often overwhelmed with emotions when such guests leave our home. They make us realize that there is so much to learn from others. The slight inconvenience and extra household chores that come with accommodating guests is a small price to pay when one considers the fulfillment it brings to our lives.

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