Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
Every family has its own peculiarities. Ours were all passed down from my grandmother. She was a product of pre-independence India and had been shaped by the times. She passed away 2 days ago. My sister and I had started writing a book about her peculiarities which we never finished. I am just sharing the introduction she wrote in this blog.
I am sure she will read this. Maybe we will finish it one day and release it.
Every family in India has its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. Often those idiosyncrasies flirt in marked ways with total idiocy.
Even so when you go back and think about those idiosyncrasies and the habits that you have imbibed, it leaves you wondering whether there was something positive that you inherited or not.
We - Sandhya and Vivek - have been pondering these questions our entire lives. It was recently that we realised that many of the idiosyncrasies that our grandmother - Paati - engaged in and tried her hardest to pass down to us. Many of these involved keeping things safe for an exceptionally long time (decades) in order to ensure that the next generation was able to take full advantage of a thing that was bought for the previous generation. I wore blazers that my dad bought 15 years before my birth - I think she was sowing the seeds for what we call Circular Economy today. At times, when she stored things hoping to pass them on to another generation and perhaps the fashion or the systems changed, it just ended up being an exercise in what an economist would refer to as hoarding.
We were born shortly before India's economic reforms, Tamil kids, raised in Delhi. A city, eager to assert India’s rise from the devastation of the partition. No attempt at opulence was missed. Living rooms were cluttered with knick-knacks collected from everywhere, as a display of all the possessions collected despite starting with nothing half a century ago.
Paati came to Delhi a few years after independence. She had no interest in the rivalry with Pakistan. She revered the British and had photographs of Queen Elizabeth safely pressed away in her diary. Thrust into hardship from a young age, she had no interest in displays of possessions. She always kept things safely locked away.
Her life was beset by tragedies that she could not have possibly seen coming. Her habits were shaped by her circumstances which included having to bring up two sons at a very young age, alone, in a city that was alien to her, where she did not know the language and an 8th standard passed woman was given the deadline of 6 months to clear matriculation in order to secure a job and hold on to the government accommodation which had been assigned to her late husband.
Not to mention in addition to this; the Soviet-style policy-making and 5-year-plans that this country was used to, meant that almost everything was in short supply all the time.
Suffice it to say, anybody who survives such conditions becomes exceptionally resourceful. But when the need to be resourceful dies, watching those same behaviours seems like an exercise in frugality running amok.
Paati did not waste anything. She went to extraordinary lengths to find utility for very ordinary items. Having grown up with her, I find it difficult to accept situations where things are thrown away for no reason. The habit of handing out 50 paper napkins and 10 packets of ketchup with a burger, which are thrown in the garbage bin by nearly everyone, seems nothing short of insane.
This book is intended as an affectionate reminiscence of the childhood our Paati and our parents gave us. Equally, it has made clear the fact that some circular economy problems have common sense answers. They are not new. They were in fact quite common when people had to live through times of scarcity. We hope to convey how fulfilling, even if occasionally befuddling, a life where abundance is not a goal can really be.