Thursday, January 17, 2008

Brown-paper packages...

I once raised a storm when I was 8. I was a bit of a dimbulb, loser type of kid, and had banded up with three nice, equally low-wattage girls in class. One was called Lorraine, the other was a tam-brahm called Savitha, and I am sure there was a third, only I can't right now recall her name or face. Our school had a wonderful demographic - there were the few very rich, and then there was everyone else. Both Lorraine and Savitha came from homes that were slightly disadvantaged and frugally middle-class respectively. At school, we only gave out sweets for birthdays, and with my ‘group’ there were no birthday parties or sweets or anything, till one day I was told at home that it was my birthday next week.

No one at home was really saying anything about any party, and I had had one the previous year, so in my slightly duh way, I decided to take matters into my own hands and invite S and L over, and maybe, well, shoot the breeze a bit? Eat some cake, perhaps? You know, just hang out some? Thursdays were our weekly off, and I asked them to come over, at, say, six pm? Comes Thursday morn, and just as mom was setting out to office, I remembered the party. I mentioned it to her, casual like, and the house imploded around me. My mom was / is one of the chilled-out-est people on earth, but even she completely freaked. Cousins were sent out to get cake and who knows what else, while I just sat back, frankly a bit dazed by the yelling and the scurrying. That evening when all of my three guests – S, L and S’s brother came – it was a bit of an anti-climax. I think the family were expecting droves and were a bit startled to see the rag-tag company which walked in. After that, the memory grows duller – I remember everyone looking a bit
embarrassed, and that’s it. My memory spikes again at one point – S had got me a tiny paperback of Birbal the Wise. It was from a popular, cheap imprint of them days, but I can’t remember the publisher’s name. I studied it for days and weeks later, turning it around and marveling at its small, rectangular perfection. It was the only gift from a fairly disastrous birthday party (I still didn’t know what I had done so bad), and I was soooo delighted, so grateful.

Why I remembered this is because N walked in from school today loaded – as usual – with a bag of 'return gifts'. For some reason, in her school, every child hands out these bags full of amazingly crappy, expensive,
prodigiously over-packaged stuff. Today, for example, she came in with a toy gun, a mask, a monginis three-cake set called 'stripe tease', two toffees – all tossed into a plastic bag. Costing – at the very least – 40/- per head, and there are 52 kids in class. Do the math. And this is one of the smaller return gift packs. There are days when she gets bigger things, and more of them – cups, sun visors with dark-glasses built in, imitation patent leather back-packs, tetra packs of drinks, lays, perks, and more strange Chinese chocolates. And they are all, without fail, looked at for two minutes and then forgotten.

There’s very little thrill left in gift-receiving or giving any more, because it’s all a matter of going to Crawford Mkt and picking up the cheapest lot of Chinese stuff, bunging it all into a plastic bag from the next shop, and handing it out in class. We were traumatized by the loot bags that came in initially – they were all so expensive, so environmentally unsound and so gross somehow (I mean, those chocolates and weirdly coloured candies? They are so strange-tasting, so acidic somehow, that I’d fear for the health of any kid who ate them. And let's not even go to the Lays and the tetra pack drinks.) One child even had an event-managed bash in school which had a ventriloquist, a magician and a massive loot bag. How great was it? When we went in to pick her up, n was among the 40-odd kids sobbing and shrieking in hysterical fear. The ventriloquist’s jokes were loud – as in decibel-levels – and went right above the kids’ heads. The magician was the scariest I’ve ever seen.

When we went in to hand out toffees and a couple of books at n’s birthday the next week, one child heard the words ‘happy birthday’ and burst out sobbing. Looking back, I feel we really didn’t have to, but just then, we were anxious – would n have registered everyone else’s celebrations and would she feel bad? So we did something small and kept it plastic-and-crap free – I hope!

Where I’m going with all this is really nowhere great. Just felt a bit chagrined by the way n casts aside each loot bag after the initial excitement; at how the mere fact of receiving isn't a novel experience any more. I remembered how I gazed at that book for months later. And something else just struck me. That impromptu birthday bash had my cousin’s new fiancĂ© who was visiting in the middle of all the confusion shocked. When he was growing up, there were shortages everywhere, and parents expected older kids to stand in ration-shop queues and lug back bags of rice and dal. Understandably, my cool cheek must have startledand who knows saddened him. But he used to grin and predict in a mock-dire voice that my next party would be my own wedding bash which I’d organize and plan myself.

Each generation has something to be distressed and shocked about in the next, I guess…