The complexity of simplicity
Recently, I have been reflecting on the act of giving gifts. My thoughts were partially triggered by the frenzied shopping sprees I witnessed during the Christmas season in the United States. They are a shocking reminder that rampant consumerism has replaced the finer instincts of the giving process. We in the East are also not totally immune from this malaise that dominates most urban societies. The array and choice of gifts may be different, but the competitive exchange of material items is as much a trend in this part of the world as in the west.
Lest I sound like Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, let me clarify that I do believe that giving a gift is a beautiful gesture of goodwill toward a fellow being. It certainly helps nurture friendships, strengthens relationships and cultivates a sense of sharing. As much as I lament the excesses of today's consumer-oriented society, I must admit that I simultaneously partake in it. However, I find two particular aspects of the gift giving process rather discomfiting. The first is the element of competition that appears to have crept into our "gift purchase" decisions—some people seem to be focused on upstaging others by gifting expensive items or pitching gifts according to the recipient's income level. The other disturbing trend is that gifts are often chosen with minimum thought and care and the process ends up becoming a task accomplished on a list of "things- to-do". Personally, my choice often veers toward what my friends would value most. For example, sometimes, sharing a cup of coffee, a work of art, a song or even the transcendent beauty of nature with a loved one can be more gratifying than receiving a material object purchased from a prestigious store.
Whenever I am wrestling with social dilemmas my inner compass turns to the halcyon days of my childhood and youth. I can vividly recall the sheer simplicity and utter joy of giving and receiving gifts on occasions like Eid, marriages and other celebrations. The memory of opening the packets and feasting on the colour and texture of a dress or a sari or the fragrance of a perfume still fills me with joy and happiness. It was a shared experience between the giver and the recipient—with an element of surprise infused into it!
Unfortunately, today unfettered consumerism has attained a level of unquestioned acceptability. We routinely receive blatant emails about wedding registries that include gift options ranging from bed linen to kitchen appliances. The most shocking was a list of honeymoon items: airfare, hotel, meals and even "massage for two". Obviously, maximising economic returns from gifts has become the new priority!
I must admit that when I contrast this wasteful materialism with the unfulfilled basic needs of the millions of disadvantaged people I feel a deep sense of guilt and shame. Fortunately, many people are now reacting to the staggering income inequities of our world and asking that gifts be channelled as donations for deserving causes. Hopefully this movement will gather momentum and become a social norm.
Let me revert to my reflections on the commodification of gift giving – a phenomenon that we observe each year in the US during the holiday season. This December, while strolling in the neighbourhood mall, drowned in the beautiful melody of the popular Christmas carol "Little Drummer Boy", I had a kind of epiphany. The song narrates the story of a drummer boy who is invited by the magi to visit baby Jesus. The poor boy has no gift for the newborn. He decides to play his drum to honour him, but is unsure of the value of his gift. A smile lights up Jesus's face—reassuring the drummer boy that his gift is precious since it is from the heart. The carol with its resonating drumbeats and haunting melody has a hypnotic quality. But listening to it in the midst of the Christmas bustle, I was reminded of the disconnect between the spiritual message of Christ's humble birth and the unfettered materialism that marks the celebration of his birthday each year. The lavish window displays tempting shoppers toward overindulgence seemed insensitive and appalling. Yet the beautiful ambiance created by the music, the colourful decorations and the laughter of children looking forward to a season of loving and giving overwhelmed me...Yes, difficult as it may be, we have learnt to live with the discord between our simultaneous loving and loathing of capitalism. A system with its brazen allure of wealth and status, but which also permits one to optimise life's opportunities.
Interestingly, every sage in history has propagated the mantra of frugal simplicity as the path to real happiness. And yet one wonders why we haven't embraced it as the ultimate way of life… Perhaps, living a simple life isn't so simple after all?
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.