Monday, September 14, 2009

Gifts that only leave a Memory behind

Originally Published in Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 19, 2007

I have always been ambivalent about shopping.

And the season of “Holiday shopping” usually brings this ambivalence to the forefront.

I grew up in a middle class family in India, with parents who shopped only for things that were needed. And so, as a child, I perceived shopping as nothing more than a necessary adult chore to assist daily living.

My parents, who lived in Mumbai (Bombay), shopped for most of their non perishable groceries once a month.

“2 kilos of rice, 3 bars of soap…,” they would tell the store owner in person, or by phone, and someone would deliver the packages home, wrapped in newspaper.

On other sporadic shopping trips for incidentals, a person behind the counter would get the items my parents wanted and put them into their tote bag. My parents would pay cash, and move on to their next errand.

They did not have much opportunity for browsing or for impulse buying of unnecessary items.
Milk was delivered daily, and vegetables were bought once in two days at the nearby vegetable market.

Shopping for clothes was also based on need. My sister and I got new school uniforms every year, new clothes on birthdays and on some religious holidays, and before our long summer visit to our grandparents’ homes.

My parents bought clothes for themselves occasionally - sometimes on special holidays, but mostly to replace old, worn out clothes.

As we got older, my sister and I were sent on shopping errands – something that we initially enjoyed, reveling in our “semi-adult” status, but then got weary of, and tried to escape from.

Armed with this general apathy towards shopping, I arrived in the United States, twenty years ago, as a graduate student. Since I was here by myself, I could not delegate the chore of shopping to anyone else, and learnt to shop even for necessities in a completely different way.

Initially, shopping was an intriguing new cultural experience.

Even a trip to the grocery store required new skills of negotiating multiple brands for the simplest of items like toothpaste, checking unit prices, understanding the rhythm of sales, and searching for customer assistance.

And since I could now browse amongst the aisles, I sometimes bought things that I did not really need.

Thankfully, my busy graduate student schedule, my small income and my aptitude for a simple life, kept me from buying too many clothes or accessories. My downfall came when I found books at bargain prices, which I often bought, with the hope of finding time to read in some distant future.

While in graduate school, I met and married my husband, who also shared my love of leading a simple life, my love of books and my indifference to shopping.

Over the years, we put down roots in the US, and formed new friendships and relationships.

As our ties with people here became stronger, we began to give and receive gifts during the Holiday Season. And when our daughter was born nine years ago, we also began to experience the giving and receiving of gifts at birthday celebrations.

Gradually, the two suitcases that my husband and I had each arrived with, multiplied many times over. And about five years ago, the clutter of possessions in our home began to bother us, as we realized how much we had strayed from our ideal of the “simple” life.

During my Christmas shopping expedition that year, I had an intense reaction at the mall, as I watched people going around shopping for gifts, laden with bags, and buying even more things.
I could not shop anymore, and walked out without buying anything on my gift list. I simply could not bring myself to add clutter to other people’s homes.

My husband and I talked a lot that night about the practice of giving “things,” to symbolize love. We agreed that receiving gifts felt good, but only because they expressed that “we mattered” to someone. And giving gifts felt good, when the gift was something that the other person needed, or enjoyed.

But, what could we give people, who could buy everything they needed and wanted? What could we give, instead of objects - to show them that they mattered to us?

We reached back into our childhood for other ways of showing love, and remembered our mothers making snacks, to give to friends and family during the holidays.

We remembered our six month stay in Tokyo, where gifting food was common, and the stores were filled with elegantly packaged food items.

We adapted these two memories to create a new tradition in our family.

We decided against burdening our friends with snacks and packaged foods, which are sometimes unhealthy.

We opted instead to gift a healthy, homemade food that our friends liked, but did not make themselves. Since my husband and I are both vegetarians of Indian origin, we settled on two favorites - Vegetarian Chili and Channa Masala (a spicy chickpeas and tomato stew) – to give as gifts.

We spent a weekend, making both dishes and delivering them to a few neighbors and friends. They loved the food, and we got several requests for recipes.

We have continued this tradition ever since, adding more dishes to our gift list. We still buy gift cards or books for adults whose culinary preferences we are yet to learn. But we hope that as we get to know them better, we could make more gifts of food, as a labor of love to lessen their burden of cooking on a busy night.

Our nine year old daughter, in particular, has come to love this tradition of making and delivering food, and it has become part of her expectation of the Holiday season. This year, she has suggested that we add her new favorite food, Saag Paneer (a spicy, spinach and cheese dish), to the list of gifts.

We hope that our friends continue to enjoy our annual offering of thanks - of smells, colors, tastes and cultural experiences from faraway lands - from our home to theirs in Central Pennsylvania.

An annual offering that hopefully brings them some joy, while leaving no trace behind, other than that of a cherished memory.

1 comment:

Mayuresh Kadu said...

I am pleasantly surprised to see you echo my opinions on simple living in your post. I was beginning to worry there was something wrong with me (vairag!!). In any case, this simple living not only makes sense, but is also the demand of current age and time.

We are trashing our environment driven by our "wants". Simple living is not only eco-friendly, it is econo-friendly too.