While I was growing up, receiving a box of hand-me-down clothes was like finding treasure.
I think it all started when I was growing up too fast for the comfort of my parents. Before I tell you how me growing up troubled my parents, let me tell you how I interpreted my growth. For long I didn’t realize that I was growing up….I thought my clothes were getting smaller. That’s why I kept my red and white shirt (one that I proudly wore when I was four years old) for two years under my bed thinking someday it would shrink enough to fit my brown teddy bear. Alas, it never did.
Anyway, since I was growing up fast, my parents bought clothes for me only on Diwali and on my birthday. Their strategy was to ensure at least one good fitting pair every six months. Due to this strategy of my parents, at any point of time I owned two pairs that I could go out in – one that was a perfect fit and another that I couldn’t go out in.
When I was five years old, I came to know that I had seven-eight-nine year old cousins staying in different parts of Madurai. Eventually, we started meeting them during summer vacations and I started getting the hand me downs.
My cousins would generally pack their old clothes in an air-bag (that’s what our parents called their travel bags, if you remember) and pass them on to me. My parents wouldn’t let me open it in front of my cousins fearing I would immediately do my war dance and embarrass them.
Needless to say, that night I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I would stay awake wondering what kind of clothes were inside the bag, and what toys were waiting to be picked up, what colored shoes were available to be worn etc. Thanks to my cousins, I used to have a choice while going outside or staying at home and playing with my toys.
When I grew up and became a teenager, I started getting hand-me-downs from my uncles. And in turn, I started sharing my clothes and toys with younger cousins. The feeling of sharing was amazing because I knew exactly how I had felt when I had got the treasure troves.
Now, my uncles would share their shirts and trousers with me. Sometimes, it would be part of the yearly ritual and on other occasions it would be a specific request, like that time when I had to participate in a Debating contest at LOSA competition (conducted by Lakshmi Old School Association every year) at Madurai and needed a good trouser to go with my black shirt.
“Saravana mama, I need one help.” I approached my uncle, whose stone-wash jean I had an eye on. He had only recently finished his BSc Forestry from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and was looking for a job.
“Tell me, Rajan.”
“Will you be wearing your stone-wash jean tomorrow?” I asked meekly.
“Which one are you talking about? And why?”
“The white stone-wash with black dots? The one that has ‘Love is sweet poison’ written on both sides of the trouser?” Mind you it was 1991 and we were talking about a stone-wash of a college grad….so ‘Love is sweet poison’ can be excused.
“But why do you need it? It isn’t washed.”
“I am participating in a debating contest tomorrow at LOSA and will be on stage…so needed a good trouser to go with my black shirt.”
That’s all my uncle needed to hear, he immediately washed his trouser and asked me to pick it up after it was dry. I didn’t win the debating contest, but the pride with which I stood on the stage that day was enough – I had already won.
I never returned it to him, and he didn’t ask about it either.
When I joined college, I asked my father for a TV Champ. TVS Champ was the bike that you had if you were a cool dude in college way back in mid-90s. My parents couldn’t afford a TVS Champ so resorted to the same old trick: “Why don’t you try the bus for the first year and if you score well you get a TVS Champ?”
Next year when my parents still couldn’t afford a TVS Champ for me, one of my uncles without me asking gave me his TVS 50 – a moped from the same family.
“I heard you are pretty upset with your parents over a TVS Champ?” He asked.
“Yes, uncle. They promised to get it for me this year. I know that they can’t afford but they shouldn’t have given me the hope, right?” It was my teenage frustration.
“I am planning to buy a Splendour….why don’t you use my TVS 50?” If the sun was coming out of the clouds, it surely was very bright.
“Sure uncle. So how much do my parents have to pay?”
“Let us just agree that you will not ask your parents for petrol money.” He had the patronizing look in his eyes, which I loved. For don’t we all want God fathers to spring out of every corner to help us when we need them?
I agreed on the spot. Due to lack of petrol money the TVS 50 would be parked most of the time, but it felt awesome to have a moped of my own.
I finished college and started working. Now, I was earning and still using the same TVS 50. It is surprising how your needs come down when you have to answer for your own needs.
I had been working only six months, when I got a call at my office landline from a cousin of mine who was still in college. He was point blank: “I have sports day at college tomorrow and my sneakers have given up. Can I borrow yours?”
In a momentary lapse of judgement, I told him: “How about buying new ones. I only have one.”
He just mumbled something and kept the phone down.
And then it stuck me…I had erred. I had broken the code of hand-me-downs…if you were a member of the club once, you could never refuse. I knew he wouldn’t be rushing to the marketplace to buy new sneakers.
So, next day at 7.30 am I was at his home when he was getting ready. In my hands I had the new Lotto sneakers my father had bought for me from the CSD canteen only recently.
“Here, I bought it for you.” I didn’t display any emotion. I couldn’t afford to…it was part of the code.
But at that moment, it meant the whole world to my cousin. The only thing on his mind was the sports meet – participating and eventually standing on the podium (if his shoes allowed) with torn shoes didn’t appeal to him.
He gave me a big hug and at that moment I knew I had bought his soul with this small gesture. After the event, he called to ask when he can come to give the shoes back….but I knew he needed it more than I did.
When in my third job, I met Rekha (my wife). During a casual discussion I was telling her how I grew up mostly on borrowed stuff. She started laughing….and when she could catch her breath she narrated: “You know I also grew up on borrowed stuff. First I would get hand-me-downs from my elder sister. And as if she wasn’t enough, there were my cousins from Mumbai (whose fathers worked in the Navy) who would bring stuff for us during summer vacations.”
I don’t know if it was Rekha’s this statement or that rainy day when we spent two hours on my bike which made me marry her. Either ways, these two incidents would be in the top two reasons.
Coming back….this give and take went on till we lived almost like a joint family – separated by a few kilometres here and there. Thanks to the growing economy and excellent job opportunities in different cities the big, almost-joint family drifted apart. Or is it that only I drifted apart and all others are still in touch? Perhaps, I would never know.
What pains me is that today I am in a position to share so much – desktops, shoes, clothes, mobiles, toys, books, gadgets, DVDs, Music, old bike etc – but nobody calls me for help. And I dare not ask for the fear of being rejected.