One of the striking aspects of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is that his Indian “natives” are characterized by their repeated acts of strained and naïve generosity. Strained and naïve, I say, because their gestures are more self-effacing than selfless, childlike but not considered. Take, for instance, Dr. Aziz’s removal of his own collar stud to give it to Mr. Fielding.

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“Not if you’re wearing it yourself,” Fielding protests.

“No, no, one in my pocket,” comes the lie from Aziz, who then wrenches off his own collar and removes the gold stud that was gifted to him by his brother-in-law.

Later in the novel, Aziz plays host to two English ladies, taking them via train for an elaborate picnic in the Marabar Caves. In order to host them, he spends the entire preceding night in the train station, borrows money and servants from friends, and incurs the wrath of his boss. Yet this is how Forster imagines Aziz’s take on the event: “[Aziz] had been allowed to show courtesy to visitors from another country, which is what all Indians long to do…Hospitality had been achieved, they were ‘his’ guests; his honour was involved in their happiness, and any discomfort they endured would tear his own soul.”

Forster pointedly (and patronizingly) exaggerates Aziz’s desire to extend his hospitality, but the irony is not lost on the reader. The individual Indian goes to considerable lengths to play host to individual Brits, while as a group the British are uninvited guests in India—guests of the worst kind: domineering ones, who have made themselves at home and refuse to leave.

What, then, was Forster trying to say about Indian hospitality? Is Aziz a slavish mimic man whose self-image requires the approval of an Englishman? Does he give out of a desire for power, for the satisfaction that the colonist is enjoying something in his possession? Or are his acts of generosity driven by a simple desire to feel … competent? What does the Indian expect in return?

As children, our earliest lessons are arguably in the politics and conventions of giving and receiving, the coded languages of “please” and “thank you.” Over time, certain norms are ingrained in us. Their absence in others is deplorable, evidence of poor rearing, or a deliberate effort to slight someone. My brother and I learned early that you never go to anyone’s home empty handed. A container borrowed should never be returned empty, but with something inside it—even if just fruit. Birthdays always warrant gifts. Thank you’s must always be timely.

And my mother’s cardinal rule: never question an impulse to give, to be generous. I think about that a lot when I find myself battling my inner curmudgeon: “Why take the $20 bottle when they serve $5 wine?”; “Why buy the tickets when you already paid for the dinner?”; “Why give a gift when ___ never does?”

I haven’t the space to delve deeply into the dynamics and regulations of the gift economy. Scores of social scientists have written on this subject, including Jonathan Parry’s famous work on “the Indian gift.” I am simply interested here in the stories we tell ourselves about why and how we give and receive. What does the achievement of hospitality do for the giver? How do we receive what is given to us, and how does the identity of the giver condition our stance in reception?

Sometimes, we give in an effort to equalize a relationship within which we have previously received much. We give out of feelings of obligation to those who have done something for us or our loved ones. We give to kin we are bound to by familial expectation. We give out of love and on whims; we give in bursts of generosity or to spread our good fortune.

In our lesser moments, we give to draw attention to ourselves. We give because everyone else is doing it. We give because we feel we have to. And although we have all been cautioned that true giving means giving without expectation of receiving, we give because we want something back. She gives to be liked. He gives to look good.

Of course, it gets more complicated. We grow wary of the friend who gives too much or too often. A gift given in ill-spirit or with undue expectation may need to be returned. Even the most well-intentioned hosts grow cranky when guests overstay their welcome. We re-gift gifts we don’t want. And who isn’t guilty of looking some gift horse or the other in the mouth?

Then there’s the fact that some givers do not wish to be recognized for what they have given; recognition and thanks only creates awkwardness in the face of a natural gesture. My grandmother loves to surprise her grandchildren with our favorite foods and treats, but she positively squirms when we thank her. “What thank you, what thank you,” she shakes her head in annoyance. “You don’t say thanks for all these things.”

American that I am, I’ve noted with curiosity the Indian injunction to perform, not speak, one’s gratitude. My grandfather, too, used to laugh at what he saw as the superficial British politesse of “sorry, sorry,” and “thank you, thank you.” You are sorry. You act thankful. You don’t say those things.

Which brings me back to Aziz, his gold stud, and his hospitality, which I’ve been thinking about as I write a not-insignificant number of thank you cards to my own wedding guests and gift givers. Suddenly Aziz seems less naïve and more noble, giving what he had in the hope of establishing some relation for the future:

He never questioned the impulse to be generous. He did not doubt the worth of the recipient. He did the best he could.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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