My father, who is all of 95 years old today, once told me of two very important lessons that his mother had taught him when he was a little boy — one of nine children.
The first he learned on a day that has been etched in his memory forever. Mother and son were standing by the double-shuttered window of their one-room tenement in a chawl in Dongri, Mumbai — she was leaning out from the upper one, whilst he was squatting on the floor and dangling his feet out from the lower one. Quietly, they were watching the world go by.
Suddenly, an open truck came into view, with loudspeakers blaring. On it, a couple of men, perched on mounds of clothes, were calling out to onlookers: “De do! De do! Give, give! Old clothes. Blankets. Vessels.”
“What are they collecting for?” the little boy asked his mother. “There have been severe floods in Gujarat. People have lost their homes, money, livelihoods and even family members. These people are collecting things to help them at this difficult time in their lives,” his mother replied.
At that time, my grandmother was a struggling woman, working very hard to provide for her nine children single-handedly. There was no surplus in the house, but she had just bought some provisions. She pulled out a bag of rice and lowered it in a basket from her window into the eager hands waiting below. My father noticed the smile that lit up his mother’s face, as the bag was being lowered. It was a smile of joy at being able to help in her own little way. He wanted to participate, too. He wondered what he could contribute. Suddenly, he remembered a sailorsuit that a relative had given him. It was new, still awaiting an occasion to wear it. It was one of the most precious pieces of garments that he owned.
“Ma,” he called out, “can I give my sailor suit?” She smiled and said, “Of course you can.”
My father ran and fetched his lovely blue-and-white outfit. He reached out of the upper window and flung it onto the waiting truck. He says he still remembers seeing it slowly drift down, it seemed to be dancing on its way, a dance of joy, because it would soon make a small boy who received it very, very happy.
His mother could have told him, “Beta, why give away your new suit? Give something old, you know that I’ll not be able to buy you another one.” But she didn’t. She supported him in his decision for she knew that the joy of giving happily to others was far greater than keeping it for oneself.
It was a lesson he never forgot. Throughout his life, through all of its ups and downs, he gave generously to all those who approached him. When his business was doing well, he gave more, when there was a downturn, he gave whatever he could afford, but he gave for the sheer joy of giving.
A few years later, my grandmother’s fortunes were on the mend. Her oldest son had a job in a mill and was bringing in a steady income. The children were in school; one daughter was married into a well-to-do family. They were no longer living hand-to-mouth. However, they still continued to stay in the old tenement in the mohalla.
Every year, their street livened up on account of an urs or fair held in honour of a saint. The streets were lined with goodies. Every day, as he walked to and from school, my father would pass by a small make-shift stall laden with toys. On one of the wooden shelves stood a red fire engine, sparkling in the sunlight. It had a ladder that could be raised, a long water hose and even a bell that rang. One day, he persuaded his mother to come with him to the stall and see the fire engine.
“You’re right” she said. It is beautiful.”
“Please, please, could you buy it for me?”
“I could, but I won’t.”
“B-but, why, Ma? I really, really want it.”
“That’s exactly why,” she said. “If I buy it for you, you will grow up believing that you can have all that you desire. But, my son, life does not work that way.” That was it. Case closed. No further arguments.
He told me this story, years later, when I was about to give in to my child’s demands for a toy. “If your child grows up believing that she can have whatever she wants, she is going to be one unhappy woman.”
I was quiet, confused. Then, I burst out, “But she is so little. What is wrong about giving a child a gift that she so desires?”
He continued, “In life, my child, wants are endless, should we indulge them all? They are mere baubles. Everyone is chasing them, but think about it, will they bring her true happiness? Believe me, she will grow up to be a better and stronger person, because you had the courage to say no.”
Case closed. No further discussion.
As time went by, I realised more and more the wisdom of his words and the joy of giving and not getting. Today, as I sit by his bedside holding his hands, I try to jog my father’s memory about days past – hoping to find more nuggets of wisdom. But, alas, dementia has claimed his memory and all that is left of him is his physical presence. So, I treasure the ones I have, passing on his legacy to my children and hope that they will, in turn, pass it on to theirs, keeping my father’s wisdom alive in our collective conscience.