“I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain’t it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me
That’s too bad
Oh, all the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world…”
Sang the pop music group, ABBA, in the 70s and in this case at least, things haven’t changed much. Money governs the economy, and our lives. Among teens, in both rural and urban areas, there is a need to earn money, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. Everything these days, it seems, is focused on the ultimate aim of having plenty of money in life. We go through the endless rut of exams and studies, in order to get a degree. And for what? To get a job with a good starting ‘package’ and gradually increase our bank balance.
There is a Mewari proverb that says; “The river never drinks its own water. The tree never tastes its own fruit. The field never consumes its own harvest. They selflessly strive for the well-being of all those around them.” Everything in Nature gives unto itself for something else; nothing is done with a selfish intent. In our post-World War 2, materialistic, consumerist, capitalist, environmentally-destructive, and ultimately selfish society, this sentence is of no value, no significance, and most importantly, no meaning. Economics says that the ultimate aim of Man is to consume or ‘allocate’ scarce resources for meeting his unlimited needs to achieve well-being. But as we strive to produce more and more, in order to consume more and more, is well-being really achieved? And can money really buy us happiness, or is another, completely different dynamic at play?
In the light of our ‘fast-growing’ economy, there are problems of inflation and exponentially increasing prices. Poverty hasn’t been eradicated, there in widespread inequality of incomes even today, the rich are getting richer and the poor become poorer. There are growing levels of stress, loneliness and increasing cases of depression. Perhaps, as many people feel, there is a need to re-think the idea of economics, and create an economy that doesn’t promote the ideas of materialism, competition and wastefulness.
Of the many alternatives proposed, one that epitomizes the core value behind the Mewari proverb is the concept of a ‘Gift Economy’. What is a gift economy, exactly? Wikipedia describes it as “a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards”. Very simply, the idea is to give away ‘gifts’, in the form of anything – food, clothes, household items, books, information, other services – without expecting a reciprocation or a ‘charge’. In some indigenous societies, gift culture is practiced in the form of ‘potlatch’, a ceremony held on special occasions by a family that gives a feast to the community and distributes its wealth to the people gathered. The value of the gifts given away indirectly increase the family’s social stature in the community; it earns respect in the eyes of the villagers. One could argue that it isn’t completely based on ‘gifting’, since there is an expectation of return, even though it maybe intangible.
On a philosophical level, the ideal of gift culture is the complete lack of expectation of returns. Where the driving force behind the giving isn’t the need to receive, but the need to give. It operates out of love, and what certain old romantics refer to as unconditional love. But is such a drive, such an ideal, even possible? There are certain people who experimenting with the concept. Like ‘Sewa Café’, in Ahmedabad, which runs completely on the idea of gift culture. As their tagline says, ‘Living is Giving’, it is a volunteer run café that doesn’t have fixed prices on its menu. Guests can pay whatever they want, it is anonymous and you don’t pay for your own meal, you pay to ‘gift’ a meal to a future guest. And amazingly, it manages to cover its costs and even make profits! Except that the profits are more in terms of people’s love than monetary.
Inspired from this idea, Madhusudan Agrawal of Ahmedabad has started a new initiative, called the ‘Smile Store’. It is “a place for sharing, connecting and recycling. It’s a complete volunteer run gift store. There are no price tags, anyone can leave anything, anyone can take what they need and put any donation to run the store. Without any strings attached, this store is an experiment to spread trust, love and smiles.” *1
Many such small ‘karma kitchens’ and ‘free stores’ have sprouted across the length and breadth of India. But how can we implement this idea in our own lives. First of all, THINK. How often has ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment’ been link inexcusably to money? We go to ‘hang out’ at Café Coffee Day, go to watch movies and end up spending quite a lot of money. We zoom around on our scooters or go for long drives in our cars, and more money is spent. We ask for ‘treats’, and when it’s our turn give some too! Most of what we do with friends results in lighter wallets and sometimes empty ones as well! So, is there a way through which we can have fun, but which is conducive to our pockets, as well as the environment and society?
A friend of mine organizes cycle adventures on the outskirts of his city. During weekends, some people gather and head off into the wild on their bikes (pedal-driven ones!) for a day of fun, adventure and new stories to tell. How easy is that? Some years ago, I had invited some friends over and done an impromptu mural-making session on a wall outside my house. We did warli art, and the designs still look beautiful and attract people to the house! Another friend of mine was sick of constantly giving and receiving gifts in the form of material presents… most of which she never used, and to others she felt compelled to give a ‘return gift’, the pressure of which she didn’t like. She has resolved to not accept such ‘presents’ anymore, and instead, as ‘gifts’, she usually gives a service to the person concerned, like a meal she’ll cook, or clean somebody’s garden, or give a nice head massage. “It is more engaging for both the receiver as well as me, because I don’t just give a ‘thing’ that I’m obliged to; instead, I give my time, my attention and my service as a form of love to that person, and this is obviously more special.” She says. The gifts she accepts also are ones in such forms only.
Two friends of mine and I, once decided to delve into the art of cooking and help each other learn to make three new dishes in the period of three weeks. Each week, we met at one person’s home, and made the ‘special dish’, while shooting the whole process of cooking on a basic video camera. We made a snack, a main course and a dessert. They weren’t fantabulous, of course, but we relished them! (Our parents ate a little reluctantly, though). And in the process, we learnt not only the finer aspects of cooking, but also many things such as basic video-shooting and editing, improvisation (once, the electricity went and we had to cook in candlelight), making the best from what we have, working in a team, disaster management, and basic marketing skills as well (How to Make a Dish That is Terrible into Something That Looks Edible 101, and parents always needed some convincing before they would taste!). More than anything, we learnt how to have fun – differently, creatively, and without spending money and time just on consuming stuff.
And if I were to summarize what ‘gift culture’ truly means to me, I would quote a much-loved Beatles’ track that goes –
“I don’t care too much for money
‘Cause money can’t buy me love…”