Amid the Flock

In India, even strangers are welcomed with devout generosity

James Fisher

Harvest season had begun in Rajasthan. Mustard, chickpeas, and okra were ripening in fields beside the Aravalli mountains. Bullock carts trundled wheat sheaves to a threshing ground. Girls pumped drinking water into clay pots at a temple well. A boy pushed along a tire with a stick, firewood balanced atop his head. And after a day of prodigious heat, an elderly goatherd from the Rabari tribe turned his flock homeward. These nomads traversed the Thar Desert on camels for more than a thousand years; many have since settled in villages. "What are you doing here?" he asked, bemused by the appearance of an outsider on the road into his house, as animals pressed around us. In India, there is a saying, often quoted from the Mahabharata: Atithi devo bhava, the guest is god. Soon the goatherd was lounging on a rope cot as his married daughters in saffron saris pulled me into their kitchen courtyard. Excited children gathered. Fires were lit. Dough was rolled. Chai was offered in clay cups. Meals in rural Rajasthan are shaped by the severe landscape, so the same rustic goat stew, heavy with black cardamom, cinnamon, chiles, and garlic, will be served in a mud-caked hut as well as a prince's hunting tent. But it was precious ghee lavished on a single fire-singed flatbread, obviously all they could spare, that was the sign of a devout generosity to a stranger on their doorstep.