My mother, born in the 1950’s, grew up in a scenic village, tucked in the hill country of Sri Lanka. She lived through a strange paradox of having a life of abundance but also experiencing specific lacks. Being one of ten children meant that though my grandparents were considerably well-off, everything had to be rationed. They lived by paddy-fields and had copious amounts of rice for daily meals; however, if an imported chocolate made its way into the family, it was a rarity and therefore split according to the number of children who wanted to eat it — which meant you didn’t get much.
To this day, even in among the three children she had of her own, she will divide the simplest of chocolates into equal parts. No matter that our fridge almost always has an imported chocolate, either gifted to us or bought from a store, she always says, “we don’t get these every day, no” though, in reality, we kind of do.
60 odd years later, she is still a child who probably longs for her more than one-piece of chocolate.
This practice irks me even now. I hate rationing chocolates. As children, even the number of smarties were counted and put into little bags to ensure we all had the right amount. My brothers didn’t mind and liked a sense of justice served — no one was favoured. Yet, to me, it always felt like we did not have enough, or that delicious treats were scarce — that we were always in need.
Briefcases and Barbies
Up until I was eight, both my parents worked. My father was a lawyer, then working for The Employers’ Federation, and my mother, (also a lawyer) was working for the legal department of a government bank. Though their jobs were pretty secure, we lived in a tiny two-roomed flat, (about 600 sqft.) and owned a beautiful old navy-blue Colt (car) that got us about. Granted the children were small, but all four of us slept in one large bed, in the bigger bedroom, with the youngest newborn in his cot. I have only blissful memories of this stage, making “tents” with bedsheets with my mother and brother.
Every Saturday was a visit to the beach close by, a sea-swim and hot milk rice with grated Kraft cheese. An odd combination of the milky sweetness of the rice with the salt of the cheese was a delight after an exhausting time in the water. We could get sand in the vehicle — my parents didn’t mind. Fun was more important than a tidy car.
Sundays meant church. Afterwards, my father would buy me a sponge cake (now called a cupcake) from a nearby bakery that called it “ispungee” and this was the best part about church, obviously.
I don’t remember being “in need” in my early years, nor comparing myself with others. Until I was about nine, I didn’t know how much our family “didn’t have”. Childhood was idyllic.
As I grew older “being in need” became more a frequent occurrence. I remember my mother collecting money to buy my father a “proper” briefcase because he used to carry a worn-out leather bag tucked under his arm for years. If I remember right, we bought the new fancy one for two thousand rupees — a lot of money in the 90’s — from the only mall in Sri Lanka, Majestic City.
That’s the first time I realized that my father didn’t have what other richer and posher people had. It was the first recollection of our family trying to “reach”. It was a reminder that we were in need, when in fact we had all essentials and a pretty damn sweet life.
Then, the narratives of being in need get stronger through all my memories. I remember asking Santa for a Barbie for Christmas, only to be told that if Santa bought me a Barbie, he wouldn’t have money for any one else’s toys. I settled for a toy sewing machine that year, feeling dissatisfied.
We had a lot of toys and clothes growing up. A vast majority of them were second hand. My cousins would pass on any toy they had outgrown, but kept in good condition, over to us. Soon the toys became clothes, clothes to shoes, then extended to bags, or anything someone else was getting rid of or felt we could benefit from.
Did we need all this stuff? Probably not, but we kept them anyway. I didn’t need fifteen t-shirts and faded shorts. I didn’t need plastic foldable toothbrushes, but we kept them anyway. We kept all the oversized clothes and the shoes that didn’t fit but would grow into “someday”. We collected all the bags, we stored boxes of books that went unread, and we even kept old shower caps hung in the bathroom for ages. We began to hoard.
Everything and anything someone was willing to throw our way was accepted as though we were in need.
Today, the three children now grown into a teacher, lawyer and analyst earn enough to keep the family afloat. Yet, I will always feel like we are in need.
My mother cannot throw things away. Even now, she will hold onto used shampoo bottles, or just keep them in the bathroom for months after use. Be it ice-cream boxes and even the little margarine boxes to store excess food, she collects them. I don’t even notice the mess anymore.
This house is not just a mess; it is, to me, a permanent reminder of a lack. The oodles of stuff- useless stuff- meant we never felt like we had enough, so we had to “hold on” to half-good and expired things.
What’s kind of awful is that our family now “gifts” to those around us “in need” as we received them. Our old clothes go to the daily help. My not- to- be- worn- anymore “good” clothes go to our nieces. Even in the giving, there’s a twisted hierarchy — I’m ashamed to say.
I have mixed feelings about this generosity. Giving also involves a kind of ‘well-meaning pity’ and my mother, with a heart of true gold, indulges in this habit.
You may argue, that to those in need, pity is irrelevant, and that it is the fulfilment of material necessities that’s important.
But what if I learned to save my pocket money to buy a nice saree instead of running to my friend to borrow one? What if we took care of our things better because there was no such influx of abundant, but faded, second hand things? What if we were happy with the little we had, with what we earned ourselves, rather than a guilt and obligation forged because of the vast generosity that plagued our lives?
I’m thankful to those, especially family, who rallied around us so we never ever went hungry. Not one day. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if a few hungry days would have meant more dignity and perseverance to work ourselves out of “being in need”. It is never the fault of the giver but rather on us, the accepters, for complying, for taking the easy route when on occasion we could have graciously declined and suffered a little more.
It’s important what we accept into our lives because we tell stories through the things we give and get. Some (healthy) people have no such qualms; they take left-overs home, they accept old but useful things and they are happy to receive from someone’s free flowing generosity. Done and dusted.
But to some of us, for whom being in need was a story told through our things, it is hard. It becomes hard to accept a ride home for free; it’s hard to accept a gift of an extra eye-liner; it’s hard to ask for “some cake for home”, simply because it’s a reminder of the days we did not have and were dependent on the kindness of others.
Today, my fiancé brought me a few sachets of hot-chocolate, only because I was feeling down. Instinctively, the ghost like reminder that these sachets had to be rationed irked me and I felt his “gifts” were laced with pity for a “poor” girl who never gets to have this. However, I consciously unlearned that reaction and told myself “he’s just trying to make you feel better, not poorer.”
I don’t hope to take these toxic traditions into our new life, just the lessons.