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Narratives of hospitalities and hostilities

Hospitalities, Hostilities: From Theory to Practice. A Conversation with Saugata Bhaduri

Hospitalités, hostilités : de la théorie à la pratique. Conversation avec Saugata Bhaduri
Saugata Bhaduri, Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot et Marie Mianowski

Notes de l’auteur

This discussion with Marie Mianowski and Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot (Université Grenoble Alpes) was held ahead of the “Hospitalities, Hostilities: Narratives and Representations” conference in November 2020 and was followed by a Q&A session with the conference participants.

Texte intégral

Marie Mianowski. One of the questions I would like to ask during this conference is this: how is it possible to move from theory to practice in terms of hospitality, knowing that hospitality raises a number of fundamental issues in terms of human rights that need to be conceptualized and discussed, but knowing also—and in fact, knowing above all—that hospitality is a story of human lives, of meeting and taking place, and this very often in contexts of distress. My question concerns the role that literature and maybe art in general might have in facilitating the transition from theory to practice, in representing the complexity of the host-to-host relationship, and in giving voice also to the crowds of anonymous migrant people.

  • 1 The word “guestpitality” is not a neologism being used here for the first time. It is a term well i (...)

Saugata Bhaduri. It is a very pertinent question, because ultimately if we just go on with theory and do not put it into practice—and practice does not only entail, as you rightly pointed out, our own socio-political practices, but also our literary practices—then maybe the entire panoply of theoretical terms and our engagement with complicated theoretical abstract issues do not really come to much effect.
It is evident that we have to translate our notions of hospitality in our practice. And there are a couple of points I would like to make to answer this.
The first is that literature itself, literature as a process—and thereby I am speaking of it theoretically myself in spite of talking about bridging theory and practice—and writing itself, is always other-regarding, if one were to go by theorization on the same by the likes of Blanchot and Derrida. Literature itself is a means to reach out to the other. But unfortunately, we have often reduced literature to a platform of doing identity politics, or promoting self-same sectarianisms. But in the act of literature, the very idea is that of being able to read a document that must have been written by someone else, by definition—unless I’m reading my own diaries—and by definition, it was written at another point in time, because it must have come to my hand only after a certain length of time has elapsed, and probably from a different space too.
So obviously, the very act of reading literature, is itself an other-regarding process. It is itself an ethical process. And this gets further compounded by the fact that, more often than not, we do not read language-specific, or region-specific literatures, but we go through the domain of world literature, through comparative literature, through translations. Literature itself is a process that ought to redeem us from our cocooned self-same sectarianisms and make us reach out to the other, make us almost touch the other, make us go into the domain of the other. I believe that literary practice thus entails not just an abstract theoretical connection with hospitality, but is a real practical act of hospitality, because reading itself is an act of stepping out from oneself and reaching out to the other, embracing, often
literally, the other.
This leads me to my second point: in the act of reading literature, I am not the host, I am really the receiver. I am the one who receives the literary text, I am a reader, at the end of the day. Maybe a lot of the focus on theorizations of hospitality has been on an undermining of the act of receiving, insofar as receiving cultures have often been seen as passive. An example would be that of colonialism. When hordes of European migrants, without any visas, without any travel documents, without any authorizations for that matter, would land for centuries on the shores of the Americas, of Australia, of Asia, they were not the hosts, but the hosts—namely the colonized nations—did not have the power or the models of exercising any kind of agential hospitality. Thus the colonized nations were not really the agents in the interactive process, but nevertheless, they were receivers.
I would like to focus on the passivity of reception, and that is akin to the act of reading, and try to understand hospitality in terms of an active act on the part of the host who has power to either receive or reject the guest. The colonized countries did not necessarily have the power to either accommodate or welcome those European colonizers who had landed on their shores, nor reject them, nor for that matter develop any kind of resisting practice against them. They were passive receivers—but they were receivers nevertheless. I would like to focus on this act of reception; on this act of gifting and receiving a gift.
And that will lead me to the second part of this second point, which concerns the guest
per se. Often, because we try to look at hospitality from the agential perspective of the host, presuming of course that the host has power enough to either welcome or resist the guest, we often leave out the guest’s agency. And therefore, maybe we need to develop a model of hospitality that is more guest-driven, on the ethics that the guest also has to perform, on the agency that the guest also has to play in this reciprocal act of hospitality, leading to the possibility of a guestpitality1. The need is to displace the perspective and the agency to the point of view of the guest who also has responsibilities and duties. And that partly leads to some of the crises that we see in the world today, where the guests fail to accommodate. We always tend to focus on the hosts not being hospitable enough, but the guest also has a responsibility to play.
In response to your question, therefore, obviously the idea is to translate the abstraction of hospitality into practice, into literary practice, as literary practice
in itself is an act of hospitality. Because at the very basic level, reading is an act of receiving, being hospitable to other discourses, welcoming the other, opening up one’s cocooned mind leading up to the other. And more importantly, reading as an act of reception displaces some of the theoretical conceptions of hospitality: receiving as an act, leading to the idea of guestpitality.

  • 2 This work is referred to regularly in the following pages.

Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot. This idea of guestpitality and the notion of an active part to be played by the guest can be linked to debates surrounding mass migration today, and what one might expect from migrants when they come to well-off Western nations. This is linked to another paradox or limitation that seems to hover over the debate: that universal hospitality is not a realistic purpose. Derrida theorized this move from a universal ideal of hospitality to a hospitality with conditions2 (Derrida & Dufourmantelle, 2000a; Derrida, 2000b). In today’s debate, there is this notion that one should be wary of idealizing migrating populations, and this argument is sometimes used as a form of defiance directed at intellectual discussions of hospitality. How best could one respond to this defiance and try to approach hospitality with intellectual honesty, trying not to be naïve about it?

SB. That is really important. We cannot have this naïve innocence about the absolute certainty of a universal, unconditional hospitality. And precisely from that perspective, and his own critique of Kant’s “conditional hospitality” notwithstanding—Derrida himself would have introduced the word “hostipitality”, as we know—we have to continuously factor in hostility: the absolute presence of hostility within hospitality, always “built into” hospitality. This is very important because we have to consider these terms etymologically too. “Host” and “guest” come from the same source. And not only in French, where it is the same word, but even in English where “guest” and “host” are apparently two different words, as we know them, but they are derived from the same Sanskritic root: the word “ghasati”, which literally means eating or gorging, devouring. And the same “ghasati”, when the “g” is stressed on, becomes “guest” and when the “g” gets dropped and the aspirated sound at the beginning becomes a fricative sound, becomes “host”. Host and guest are thus the same word, even when they sound different.
Here is my entry point into the question of unconditional hospitality, and to a hospitality that is not necessarily a universal act of charity that the host has to mete out. Derrida in his article on “hostipitality” (Derrida, 2000b) draws our attention to the fact that while “guest” and “host” are indeed etymologically from the same root, interestingly, “hostility” and “hospitality” are not. “Hostility” derives from “hostis” (a direct derivative of “ghasati”, eating, gorging)—a hostile model of the guest who comes and eats and drains you of your resources; a parasitical image. But “hospitality” comes from “
hospes”, a compound word: “hostis” and “potis”. “Hostis” is the one who eats, the parasitical guest, but “potis”, which is connected to “potere” that is to say “power”, means “one who is a master.” So “hostis-potis” means “the master of the guest”. The cognate Sanskrit word for “potis” is “pati”, which, in Sanskrit and in current North Indian languages, means both “master” and “husband”. There is a gendered aspect to it, but that is not what Derrida draws our attention to.
What does this idea of the master / husband entail? Derrida draws our attention to the fact that “pati” therefore means “husband, lover, fiancé”—not necessarily one who domineers, who rules, who governs; it also means one who loves. I would not put that much premium on this “loverly” aspect of the “pati”, but rather on his “masterly” aspect.
One can thus see that as “hostility” and “hospitality” have different roots and meanings, there are lines of fissures even within the word “hospitality”. Hospitality means there is some master; someone who does the masterly act of accommodating the “hostis”, of tolerating the guest: there is an implicit hierarchy herein. And we could never wish away that implicit fissure by presuming an unconditionality of hospitality.
Furthermore, since we are evoking Sanskrit words, it is worth noting that in Sanskrit and in contemporary North Indian languages, there is no word for “host”. There is, rather, a word for guest. The word for guest is “atithi”:
a- is a negational marker, and the word “tithi” means “date”, or “day” (the lunar day). So, literally, “atithi” means a dateless one, someone who comes unannounced, without a date. Someone who just arrives; the word for guest thus means “the unannounced one”. There is no word for host per se, apart from maybe the derivative “atithipati”: again, the “master of the guest”. So, while the unannounced arrival of the guest might suggest an unconditionality, the word for “host” again suggests the possibility of there being a mastery.
But more importantly, the word for hospitality in Sanskrit and modern North Indian languages is “ātitheyatā”, a derivative of the word “atithi” (“guest”), literally meaning the state of being oriented towards one’s guest. In Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, the word for hospitality is thus “guestliness”. It is a derivative of the word “guest” rather than a derivative of the word “host”. This is why it can be relevant to shift the perspective on hospitality to the guest, to “
Thus, first, one recalls that hospitality is never removed from hostility. Hospitality and hostility are part of the same project, as etymology suggests; therefore, it can never be unconditional.
Secondly, even if we take hospitality in isolation, without connecting it to hostility, the word “hospitality” has within it, etymologically, the idea of the “potis”—of power, of law. It cannot be unconditional, without its share of hierarchies, because the word itself means “one who has power over the guest”.
And third, even if we divest the host of his power, and turn to the guest, the “guestliness
induced by Sanskrit or “guestpitality”, the conditionality, does not go away either. Because on the contrary, it makes it an even more responsible act and an even more conditional act: the guest also has to be responsible.
This is how I would understand that the abstract, absolute, unconditional hospitality is not possible at all. On the contrary, hospitality involves an extremely conditional, extremely bilateral, and extremely ethical project where both the host and the guest have to make conscious efforts—not abstract ones—to accommodate each other and reach out to each other.
In parallel, I brought out the problem of the colonial situation, rather than the contemporary situation of migration. To repeat: for centuries, without any authorizations whatsoever, hordes of Europeans arrived on the shores of America, Asia, Africa etc. In that juncture and the accommodation or not that could have happened there, the European colonizers were in fact guests: but, even as guests, they would have had some active role to play, for better or for worse. In this kind of agential matrix of reciprocal accommodation, you must understand hospitality as never abstractly unconditional but rather always ethically conditional.

MJD. You mentioned colonialism and that is interesting given that our conference involves many postcolonial scholars. Anne Dufourmantelle, who discussed hospitality with Derrida, mentioned that the existence of conditions to hospitality notably came up with emergence of commercial exchanges in the West from the fourteenth century onwards. Could you expand a little bit on this historical evolution of our understanding of hospitality? And perhaps that could be linked to the notion of polycoloniality developed in your book (Bhaduri, 2021), where you demonstrate that in Bengal, there were a lot of colonial contacts before, and alongside, the era of the British empire. How have the colonial enterprise and colonial trade in particular impacted hospitality?

SB. We often restrict our discussion of hospitality to the current reality of unauthorized migrants arriving in Europe and America. But, as pointed out before, Europeans would have migrated absolutely unauthorizedly to African and Asian territories for centuries. More importantly, just as we have been a receiving culture, Europe has also been one for long.
Europe being a receiving culture is not new. We must underscore here that Christianity is not a European religion but an Asian religion, and underscore the speed with which Europe embraced Christianity—I am using “embraced” benignly, there would have been forced conversions as well—and got rid of its own polytheistic roots of the Greco-Roman sort, of the Nordic sort or of the Celtic sort. Europe’s own pristine religious cultures were thus displaced earlier too, by receiving a culture, Christianity, from Asia. Some postcolonial theologians argue that the re-entry of Christianity to Asia through European colonialism is almost a homing of Christianity—Christianity coming back to where it rightfully belongs.
There have been channels of migrations, of different people moving to different shores, bringing with them their cultural baggage, forming amalgams. We have a long history of continuous human migration, continuous cross-fertilization. During the first millennia and a half of the Common Era, Europe would have been overrun by a middle-eastern religion, Christianity, and during the five centuries of colonization after that, European nations, unasked for, unwanted, would have swamped—like the migrants and refugees today—the shores of Africa and Asia; contributing in their own way as guests and playing an agential role too.
To presume the guest to have no agency, and the host to have
all agency to either accommodate the guest, or not, or to be hostile with the guest, is a rather precocious presumption on the part of a host who is empowered. Of course, the disempowered hosts of the African shores, which the Europeans colonized as guests, did not have this choice. But nevertheless, in the long history of colonization where the guest also played an agential role, the host also would have suitably, either got influenced by, or accommodated the guest, leading to a mixture or a hybrid of cultures. Becoming more cultures, becoming more fertile and less sectarian, more open and plural, is indeed what we have to look at rather than subscribing to the very Manichean view which postcolonial common sense presents us. The question is to displace your understanding of colonization from a binary, unidirectional Manichean model to what it indeed was, because at any point of time, in any part of the world (my study of “polycoloniality” concentrates on Bengal, but it could be a study based in Indonesia, in Latin America, or Americas as a whole), you will find that in many places, the English were there, but they were one of the players: the Portuguese were there, the Dutch were there, the French were there, the Danish and the Swedish were there, and even the forces of the Austrian Empire and Prussian Kingdom were there. So multiple players arrived together, and had their own internal rivalries too, because these nations had their own battles among them.
My theoretical plea is that when we try to understand colonization, and postcolonialism as well, of any part of the world, we ought to displace our very mono-national understanding of colonialism. Polycoloniality becomes a means to look at these pluralities. The moment we promote pluralities, the moment we displace the monism of our visions with a multiple, plural matrix, we will automatically end up looking at sites of hospitality, of accommodation, of hybridization, of adjustments, on part of the guests—that is, the Europeans—and on part of the hosts—that is the Indians, the Africans. When we understand that both are reciprocally entangled in this game, it becomes that much more prominent.
As far as hospitality is concerned, I would say that a polycolonial reading of history would indeed allow us to multiply our vision and step out of Manicheanisms, and open us to greater channels of hospitality. Maybe we have to talk about the host-guest relation in a reciprocal, ethical, conditional action: an ethical agency that both the host and the guest would have towards accommodating, tolerating and taking into account the other.

MM. You said that hospitality was unconditional from the point of view of ethics: can you explain what you meant?

  • 3 The phrase “atithidevo bhava” occurs as the fifth phrase of Verse 2 of Lesson (anuvāka) 11 of Book  (...)
  • 4 Mahā-Upaniṣad, 1.71-72 runs thus: “ayaṃ bandhuḥ-ayaṃ neti gaṇanā laghucetasām / udāracaritānāṃ tu v (...)

SB. Theoretically, hospitality can be truly ethical only when it is totally unconditional, because ultimately it is only when you accommodate the totally other (tout autre) without any strings attached—then only are you really ethical. But I went on to suggest that ethics is a two-way street. Ethics is a process. So unconditionality presumes probably a certain unilateral power on the part of the benign host who tolerates. But I presume ethics itself to be a two-way affair, where the guest himself or herself also has an ethical role to play. Colonizers came as guests, but they would have breached the line of “guestiality” so to say, and were really “bad” on the hosts. We can probably similarly say that today the flow of migrants often does not succeed in adjusting to certain basic principles that the host—namely Europe—believes in. But these have to be seen as failures on the part of the guest to also understand his or her ethical role.
Ethics is not a non-conditional act. Ethics in itself conditions, and its conditionality comes from the reciprocity of
both the host and the guest having a role to play in adjusting with each other—not the host alone.
Our canonical reading of hospitality, in Eurocentric academic readings, probably derives from models of hospitality from the Judeo-Christian tradition alone, that does not take into consideration Islamic or Indic models of hospitality—ironically, the very cultures from which most of today’s migrants to Europe come, and thus most pertinent to hospitality and hostility in Europe today. To build up a comprehensive model of hospitality, we have to take into account hospitality as discussed in other religious sources, not just the Hellenic and Hebraic sources.
While it is understandable that Derrida would only know his Judeo-Christian sources, we have to look at Islamic sources too. The Quran does not necessarily say everything, but there are hadiths, or the prophet’s reported sayings as well. There is this hadith by Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari (No. 6135, in “The Book of Al-Adab” i.e. on good manners) where hospitality gets discussed, with a very interesting perception of conditionality of hospitality from both the host and the
guest. The prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said that a true Muslim must provide “superior” hospitality to a guest for one day and one night, after which one can provide further general hospitality for three days. Beyond that, it is like charity and it is contingent upon the guest to behave in certain ways so as not to become a burden on the host. (al-Bukhari, Hadith 6135)
In the Indic tradition, I already brought in how the word for hospitality is “ātitheyatā” (“guestliness” or “guesterliness”). But in the Indic tradition there are also numerous adages on how to be hospitable; notably in Taittirīya Upanishad (1.11.2). This is a very famous phrase, that most Indians know just like that, which is: “atithi-devo bhava”3. “Atithi” as we know is “the one who comes without a date”, that is to say “guest”; “devo” is “god” (deity, dieu, the divine, etc.), and “bhava” is an injunction to “become” in the imperative mood. So this verse says that you have to become such that you treat the guest as your god, the idea of the godliness of the guest thus becoming important in Indic models of hospitality. On another note, in the Mahā Upanishad (6.72), as also in the Hitopadeśa (1.3.71), there is another well-known phrase that embodies the Indic notion of hospitality, which is also engraved in the entrance hall of the Indian parliament: “vasudhaiva kuumbakam,” which means “the world is but one family” (“vasudhā” means the world, “eva” stands for a rhetorical emphasis, and “kuumba” means family). This oft-quoted phrase actually comes at the end of a verse which is even more poignant in its entirety: “One is a friend while the other is a stranger, is a calculation that narrow-minded ones make; for the broad-minded ones, the whole world is but one family”4.
If it really wants to look into current multiculturalism, if it really wants to look into the issue of accommodating—or not, for that matter—the other (the Muslim other, the Chinese other, the Indian other), our theoretical reading of hospitality and hostility has to step out from the Hebraic and Hellenic roots and look into the whole body of theorizations on the same available in other cultures. We have to look into Islamic, Indic and other models of hospitality to have a far broader understanding of how hospitality has been conceived of in other cultures.
Coming back to your question: ethics is what ethics does. The so-called “unconditional” ethics has often meant:
I alone have the possibility of unconditionally bestowing my charity unto you; I have the power, I am the subject, while you are just the passive object. But, this is not ethical. True ethics happens when both I as the host, and the other as the guest, act together in reciprocal ways. Both have the agency to make hospitality work, and wherein it becomes a conditionality of receiving, of being adjusting of, of being accepting to—and this has to be a two-way affair.

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Al-Hadees (2022), Sahih Bukhari, 6135, available at <> (21 July 2022).

Bhaduri Saugata (2021), Polycoloniality: European Transactions with Bengal from the 13th to the 19th century, New Delhi: Bloomsbury India.

Caribbean Tourism Organization (2014), available at <> (21 July 2022).

Derrida Jacques & Dufourmantelle Anne (2000a), Of Hospitality (R. Bowlby, trans.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida Jacques (2000b), “Hostipitality” (B. Stocker & F. Morlock, trans.), Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 5(3), 3–18.

Dufourmantelle Anne (2012), “L'hospitalité, une valeur universelle ?”, Insistance, 8(2), 5762.

Maha Upanishad (2022), Chennai: The Theosophical Publishing House [1953] (A. G. K. Warrier, trans.), available at <> (21 July 2022).

Nagle Myers Gay (2017), “Practicing guestpitality, gauging customer satisfaction”, Travel Weekly, <> (21 July 2022).

Riley Hugh (2016), “Informed Opinions on Caribbean Tourism”, available at <> (21 July 2022).

Sanskrit documents (2017), Maha Upanishad, available at <> (21 July 2022).

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1 The word “guestpitality” is not a neologism being used here for the first time. It is a term well in use in hospitality practices of the Caribbean Tourism Organization with its 33 member countries following a Guestpitality Program, with surveys conducted twice a year among visitors to the Caribbean to see how they as guests have experienced their destination. As Hugh Riley, the Secretary General of CTO says, “While hospitality is all about customer service, Guestpitality encompasses customer satisfaction.” (Nagle, 2017; Riley, 2017; Caribbean Tourism Organization, 2014)
Here, however, it is being used, for the first time perhaps, not in terms of tourists’ satisfaction with services offered in the hospitality industry, but for the philosophical need to understand “hospitality” from the guest’s perspective.

2 This work is referred to regularly in the following pages.

3 The phrase “atithidevo bhava” occurs as the fifth phrase of Verse 2 of Lesson (anuvāka) 11 of Book 1, ŚikṣāVallī, of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, i.e. in TU, 1.11.2. The original phrase in the Devanagari script, in Roman transliteration, and a somewhat free English translation can be found at On this page, the phrase is translated as “May the guest be to thee a God”, while a more literal, and appropriate translation would be “May you be to the guest as you would be to God”, though the import of the two may be quite the same.

4 Mahā-Upaniṣad, 1.71-72 runs thus: “ayaṃ bandhuḥ-ayaṃ neti gaṇanā laghucetasām / udāracaritānāṃ tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam”, while in Hitopadeśa, 1.3.71, the first three words are replaced by “ayaṃ nijaḥ paroveti”, while the rest of the verse is the same. The difference between the two is not much; the first would literally mean “one is a friend, while the other is not”, and the second would mean “one is one’s own, while the other is a stranger”. In my free translation, I have combined the sense of both.
Discussions on the concept of vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam can be found in numerous sources on the internet: the Sanskrit text of Mahā-Upaniṣad (Maha Upanishad, 2017); a 1953 English translation (Maha Upanishad, 1953).

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Saugata Bhaduri, Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot et Marie Mianowski, « Hospitalities, Hostilities: From Theory to Practice. A Conversation with Saugata Bhaduri »ILCEA [En ligne], 50 | 2023, mis en ligne le 13 mars 2023, consulté le 29 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Saugata Bhaduri

Professor of Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory at the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot

PhD candidate Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4.

Marie Mianowski

Professor of anglophone literature, Univ. Grenoble-Alpes, ILCEA4.

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