Nepali Times
Don’t give


Two elderly people in a retirement home are discussing the food they are served in this Woody Allen joke. One says, "They feed us such awful, tasteless food." The other agrees, and adds, "And such small portions."

My extended family and clan members are exactly like that. In the days before weddings were catered, they used to conduct vigorous post-mortems of the food served. A typical post-reception dinner conversation would be as follows:

Mum: "The meat dish, it was too salty and hot. And no meat chunks, just fat and gristle. Why bother inviting guests when you fear feeding them? And don't even get me started on the vegetables . and did you notice that the so-called 'pulau' was nothing but plain rice colored with turmeric? Terrible, just terrible. Some people have no shame."
Dad: "Even so, I noticed you took three helpings. But I must say the 'laal mohan' was quite stale."
Mum (interrupting): "But its staleness didn't prevent you from devouring four of them. Don't ask me for Eno in the middle of the night..."

Returning to Nepal after travels, I used to come home laden with gifts. Unfortunately, no one appreciated the presents. Younger brothers tossed out the t-shirts because they were made in China. (If I wanted a made in China t-shirt, I could buy it in Asan, I expected something else from Hong Kong.")

My aunts were equally rude about the saris, which were cotton. Expressions such as "French chiffon", "Japanese jaargette" and "Banarasi silk" were tossed like poisoned arrows at me. Even my beloved grandmother, who I hope has finally found peace and happiness, whose favorite grandchild I was, didn't spare me. "You know no one in our family ever wears anything but silk. And you come here with cheap cotton dhoti for your aunts. And what kind of colour is this for me? Red! Am I a young, blushing bride or what? Don't you know by now that I wear nothing but pure white silk saris?"

A blossoming, promising romance with a wealthy lass was instantly aborted when I proudly presented her with not one but six pairs of ear-rings (and matching necklaces), made of exotic, exquisite sea shells, that I had bought in a provincial Thai town. The guidebook informed me that buying such local craftwork sustained local artisans and their indigenous occupation. By presenting this gift, I was killing two birds with one stone-appeasing both my social consciousness and the social climber in me. Alas, it only killed the romance.

I must confess that I myself have been guilty of looking the gift horse in the mouth. At a precocious six, we had been visiting one crumbling relative after another for Dasain tika. When one uncle gave me a suka coin I was insulted and threw it away. My father slapped me and my mother asked an older relative to take me home immediately. But the others of my age thought it was cool.

Some years later, older and wiser I was at a classmate's birthday. This was in an era when perhaps one boy out of a thousand actually celebrated a full-scale, western-style birthday with candles on a cake. I had finally pried money out of my father to buy a birthday gift, which was like extracting a healthy tooth without anaesthesia: he firmly believed that receiving is better than giving and that such new-fangled, foreign practices as celebrating a birthday would soon undermine our pure culture. My gift was a box of Monaco biscuits wrapped in glossy green paper and a red ribbon stolen from my sister. However, all that stylish effort came to naught. The birthday cake was so small, and my slice was so tiny that I decided not to give the present.

Soon after an American official announced earlier this year that Nepal would receive $20 million to battle our home-grown insurgents, I overheard a native deconstructionist sniff: "What! Just 20 million? From the richest nation to the poorest, only 20 million? Why don't they just give us peanuts?"

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)