Thursday, September 2, 2010

The pleasures of poverty

My childhood days were like any of those Bangaloreans living middleclass lives or lesser in the seventies. We did not have what we do today: telephone, gas stove, fridge, television, furniture such as a dining set, car, ‘own’ house and so many other things we own now. Today, my house is overflowing with books and clothes and electronic and electrical gadgets, and so many other things while the house of my childhood was almost bare.

That Spartan life however had countless happy hours which I remember to this day; I think I am missing that happiness now, because of the overeasy and abundant availability of things . The pleasure one finds in small acquisitions is great when one has very few things around. I still remember I had a small wooden box and I had filled it with chalk pieces, ‘balapa’ i.e. another type of a chalk piece, bits of candle, a matchbox and some broken and some intact marbles I had found on the road. I think I also had a stash of safety pins and hairpins. This collection was precious to me and I often opened the box to look and enjoy my store of things. I also remember feeling immensely proud and happy when the electricity failed and my grandmother asked me to give my store of small candles. Todays kids have tons of toys, games, books, electronic toys and what not. But I doubt that anyone of them experience the pride and joy I did when I gave those candles to my grandma !

I remember picking several objects on the road and bringing them home as I thought it would be useful to me or my family at some time. Usually the items were nails, bits of metal, hairpins and I cant remember what else. Even these items were a source of great pleasure to me ( Was hoarding, a habit I developed early?)

I seem to remember having more happy times when I had less of worldly possessions ; I have gradually become richer and I did buy things I had wanted. However there has been no proportionate increase in the happiness or excitement when I acquire these things. I have also noticed that when I had less things, the more I used them.

There was a time when there were a mere handful of books at home. I spent so many happy hours reading them over and over, and each time of reading/rereading was a pleasure.
I would get storybooks for each birthday and I would read the books over and over again till my next birthday ! (There weren’t any public or private circulating libraries near my house then;). There were a few favourites which I have read so often that the books practically fell apart.
Now I have tons of books at home and there are so many of them, I have not read at all and several half read and discarded books. The same goes for clothes, dvds, vessels in the kitchen, vases, footwear, ornaments, etc. The more I could afford and the more I got things, the less I used them. I think I now have stuff, lying unopened for months after purchase ! Now the excitement seems to be more in the hunt for the object than in using it. The excitement seems to disappear once I have acquired it and there is only a little pleasure when using it.

The same applies for movies and television. (There was no television in Bangalore in the 70s and my house did not have a television till the mid 80s). I was taken to one film a month as a child and I remember running the movie in my head with various changes ( I am the heroine !) daily and getting a kick out of it. ( This type of daydreaming is the cause of my poor academic performance). I have spent countless hours in these fantastic daydreams. When my dad bought our first television, I did not miss any program, however boring it was ! If you remember, there was only one government run channel initially and the programs were beamed only for a few hours every evening.

Subsequently, movies were shown every week on television and I obsessively tried to see all but of them. However, I could no longer remember them all and even started getting the story lines mixed up ! Now I have become so picky, that very few movies hold my attention or interest. I wonder if I would have been different that is enjoyed the movies, however mediocre, if I had been deprived?

I am happy to say, I still derive a great deal of pleasure out of television serials even today ! This maybe because I deprive myself of cable ! I don’t have cable ( after getting into a major argument with my cable provider) and get about 6 channels daily. I really enjoy seeing the serials available on these channels and I watch them in spite of the blurred and double images ! I have also bought a few dvds of some shows and watch them a few times over months. I pray to God that I don’t ever lose the ability to enjoy them.

I think the word I was looking for while writing all the above paragraphs was “jaded”. Now people are jaded with the surfeit of things they have while in the past, due to scarcity, they could appreciate and enjoy the few things they had.
I can remember all the toys I had as a kid though I am in my 40s now. But my nieces cannot remember the toys they bought last year I think ! They have so much and therefore play less with each toy and do not care to remember them.

There is a lot to be said for poverty or deprivation. I definitely got more pleasure out of each book/movie/toy/thing when I had very few of them or had very limited access.
Now, however, trying to find things which interest me seems to take more effort than in actually participating/enjoying the activity. For example, when I go to borrow a dvd movie, I scan several and can rarely find any movie which interests me enough to borrow. I go to a library and browse through many and often come out with nothing.
I am wondering what could make me so indifferent to things I enjoyed so much in the past. Am I jaded? Am I depressed? Am I getting old and is it true that the older you get, the less you enjoy ? Am I becoming picky and so it is only a narrow range of things which I enjoy instead of the entire spectrum of books or movies or whatever? Is it a change only I experience or a lot of others do? Am I becoming tired or lazy? It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what reason is affecting me. It may be a combination of them or only one of them.
But again when I am in a place with limited access to things I love, I again, completely use up what little I have and enjoy it ! Like when I go to India and cant lay my hands on books to read, I read whatever I can lay my hands on ! But in my home here, I have tons of books which I like but not got round to reading ! Is a state of deprivation mandatory for me to enjoy ? Does owning things make me feel comfortable/complacent about owning and make me postpone actually using or enjoying the item? The same goes for the dvds I have, clothes, accessories. Food too. When I have one sweet or snack item at home I relish it but when I have stocked up, I just don’t feel like eating anything ! (maybe I am lying about food. I think I do eat something as food is something which I am never tired of !)

I had very few clothes (Wednesday was the day we wore coloured clothes instead of the uniform to school) in my early days and I remember all the clothes I had then and how much I loved those few clothes and the joy I got wearing them. Now, either because we (my family) are better off than before or because Indian society itself has changed, there seems to be an abundance of all things . Yet I do not see a proportionate increase in satisfaction with this abundance. Children today have more clothes than I ever had and yet them seem to want more and are critical of what they have. The same goes for the variety of games, toys, foods available for kids today. I can imagine adults feeling jaded but children jaded?? And bored with what they have and always wanting something bigger or better or more exciting ? I think unless, kids (and all of us) experience some deprivation, they will be headed towards a life of constant boredom and constantly seeking something “more” thrilling or exciting or whatever.

And this makes me think of another idea. Is it that today’s children’s attention span or interest span is getting shorter? I mean that , children or yester years would be happy with one game or toy for many months before losing interest in it but today’s kids, explore a toy for a few days and then their interest fades and they want something new to stimulate their interest. I am not saying all kids are like this or all toys hold all kids interest for a short span of time. I don’t think the constant craving for something new and exciting is so bad. But I am concerned that these days, objects hold one’s interest for such a short period of time and one wants a new item, even before fully trying out the item in hand.
I wonder to what extent this problem is fostered by the fact that rich and indulgent parents frequently buy toys for their kids . If you buy a new toy everyday, why should a child play with a toy you bought last month?

Below is an account of what I went through to reach this stage of ennui and short interest span ….my experiences of financial insecurity followed by security and the pattern of enjoyment during the financially insecure period followed by a sort of ennui during financial security.
As I have told elsewhere in this blog, I emigrated from India to Canada and we had to start from scratch. We had to find jobs, live on less so as to not run out of money before we find a job, manage on what we got in our 6 suitcases until we got jobs. Though we were tense and focussed on getting a job, we did have the time to enjoy lots of things. We had a blast reading books from the libraries, buying used books from the Goodwill stores, watching shows on a black and white tv (someone had thrown out a black and white tv set on the kerb and we got it home), taking long walks and exploring the city, chatting with our families on yahoo chat, watching people ( and their clothes, hairstyles, jewels and accessories, ), etc.
Over time, we got jobs and started buying the things we could only enjoy through shop windows. And slowly the pleasure and joy started decreasing and the same sense of ennui set in. Now I feel the pleasure seems to be more in the chase to acquire something and once the object is got, it is used briefly and lies forgotten in some corner of my home.
One of the chase related rushes I get is when I am bidding for something on ebay. Fortunately I have cured myself of this ebay bidding habit and saved myself a lot of time and money ! ( Or rather, my office cured me of it…I was bidding at work and now the ebay site is blocked at my office computer)

Sometimes I think, I would like to start again, from nothing, as the excitement of the struggle lets me experience a plethora of emotions: I could do with the sense of achievement, the pride, the thrills but I could definitely do without the fears and tensions one has while struggling. The boy who repaired his cycle without any help from the father enjoys the sense of achievement which the boy who was helped by his father cannot.

Enjoying life beats the jaded feeling and ennui which some of us have. If it takes financial insecurity or job insecurity or “not being” rich, to appreciate and enjoy and experience things, then so be it. Many parents ( my relatives and friends and so many good people out there) want to provide their kids with ‘everything” and especially those things they wanted when they were kids but dint have. Parents also want their kids to ‘enjoy’ and ‘not suffer’ or ‘struggle’. I think they need to rethink about the benefits of ‘letting their kids struggle to achieve. They need to rethink the benefits of providing ‘everything’ to their kids. I see this a lot in parents who have had major transitions in their lives…those who moved from villages to the city, from India to other countries, from a lesser socio-economic status to higher. Maybe all parents have this need to provide everything for their kids, I don’t know.

I don’t have kids so it is easy for me to comment and criticize parents ! But I do understand the joys they feel when they buy their kid something ( I am now becoming convinced that parents get a greater kick out of buying their kids things than the kids get in playing with them !) .
I really appreciate the super rich parents who have to exercise discipline when bringing up their kids ! Imagine Bill Gates kids demanding sweets or toys or rides daily . He can afford it and he may want to give it to them to show his love but he has to ‘not’ give in to their excess demands if he wants them to develop good discipline or whatever….. Infact, I think it is easier for a economically ill off parent than for a rich one to bring up kids with discipline ! The ill off one does not need to be disciplined to not buy his kid…there is no struggle as there is no money ! But the rich parent, has a huge struggle on his hands ! He can easily buy but should not . Boy ! I hate that kind of a struggle as I have no discipline at all !

I keep telling my sister, that adversity or deprivation can be a blessing than otherwise as it gives her a chance to struggle and this struggle gives her so many things which wealth (by wealth, I mean, whatever is the opposite of adversity and deprivation) cannot give…the joy of achievement, the struggle which keeps her on her feet and saves her from boredom, the pride of doing it on her own without help. More importantly, the knocks from a struggle harden her and she is better prepared for any new knocks life has for her in future. The failures during a struggle, the taxing of one’s mind and body, all go towards building up the resilience and strength of the person. To be ‘lucky’ and hence to be deprived of struggle is like the body being deprived of essential exercise :one may become weak without facing adversity.
Wealth or comfort or support (support from family for one) really can be an obstacle in itself in that one misses out on valuable experiences of learning, growing, acquiring maturity, and misses on the emotions which follow a struggle: relief, happiness, thrill, anger, sadness. Remember, even emotions like sadness or anger or sense of failure can have positive consequences and not experiencing them can be a loss.
Children growing in families where they lack nothing and children from families where there is some deprivation are equipped differently to face life. I am not saying that one is better than the other. But I think I really liked my “to some extent deprived” childhood.

This which follows is vaguely related to the stuff I wrote above. I am throwing it in anyway for what it’s worth…….Another odd quirk I have noticed in me---I enjoy some songs (Like Kid Rock’s sweet home Alabama and Duffy’s Mercy). But I lose interest completely if I own the cd. I however get a great deal of joy if I hear it by chance on the radio or someone else’s system. Is it that the moment I own some things, I no longer care for it? Go figure.

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