Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Give no take

We are not givers, us Indians. There is a deep seated, beeping voice in our heads that goes, “Don’t part with this pair of shoes, never know when you might need them.” And again, “They may be worn out and faded, but you might want to make a VIP missile out of them someday, what is stopping you?!”  And so we sit on piles of clothes, heaps of books, stacks of paper, row upon row of empty containers….all in anticipation of the impending Armageddon.

It is the great Indian paradox. We do give but we cannot bring ourselves to give away. Oh we are quite happy offering our tiffin to strangers, dishing out small change to beggars, even feeding bananas to monkeys, not leaving out the dough for the cows and our sundry grain for the birds but demand anything larger in scope, and we dry up. We are attached to our things. Even when we do take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be pummelled by the unfamiliar sentiment of charity, we keep an eye on our gifts, wondering if they will reach the “right place” and will be put to “good use”.

Now let’s see who we can blame. Is it our culture that is so smitten with the whole idea of recycling? A good homemaker in India reuses and saves. Nothing is thrown; everything has a destiny including the commercial disposable yoghurt containers. The pistachio shells are stored away for creative use in craft creations. The tiny water bottles dished out in aircrafts are tucked away for later reuse as handy, handbag aqua holders. Used milk packets are rinsed thoroughly, folded and stacked to make water proof lining. Flattened toothpaste tubes are cut open with scissors and the dregs used to clean silver ware. Expired aspirins are plopped into vases full of freshly cut flowers.  Lemon peels are kept by for subsequent rubbing over heels and elbows. Everything we own has some specific application that defines and justifies its storage.

You have got to see us in the bazaar. It is only of late that the Indian salesmen have taken to speaking a foreign language. The overriding concern of the buyer, over and above the product features and colour and price used to be, “How long will it last?” We believe in long term investment, hang the national growth rate. It is common for a batch of utensils to last four generations and more sometimes. Utility effects get handed down. Gadgets are repaired and pushed into service again and again. When new buys come in, the old are packed away in lofts. So we continue to live in swamped homes, hoarding, storing, saving, piling. The lifestyle is not without benefits. There is certain sustainability as also, a cleaner associated environment, considering the lesser electronic and automotive garbage.

But on the flip side, we remain a mingy culture with no free flowing donation and not for want of trying, mind you. We do set it all out for giving away but the trouble is, just as soon as it is put aside, it begins to look attractive and back it gets snatched in.  Our genetic thrift and racial insecurity both keep us in check, leaving us bereft of classic altruism.  

Charity ought to begin at home but strangely enough, there is somewhere in my head, a guilt that I am being wasteful and extravagant while giving away on a scale. It is quite the paradox for a society so imbued with religious strains of magnanimity and generosity and renunciation.

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