Simple Living, High Thinking

RR House 2009 023This holiday season I can’t help but chuckle again at a conversation a good friend of mine (let’s call her Devi) and I had earlier this year, comparing notes on our respective upbringings with specific regard to things, stuff, gifts … you know, materialism. She was telling me how her mother had one very principled and very uncompromising refrain: We believe in Simple Living, High Thinking. (And given her mother speaks with a Malayali accent, it goes: Simmbile Living, Hiiiiigh Dinging.) On top of childhood trauma, Devi is still reeling from the fact that her mother stuck to her principles even during kanyadaan, refusing to weigh her daughter down with multiple, overlapping strands of 24-karat gold on her wedding day. Now that’s quite a feat; a desi parent sticking to no-materialism principles at her daughter’s marriage!

I too had a sob story to share. Although I grew up in the highly secular spirit of academic / university environments saying Eid Mubarak, Merry Christmas, Happy Diwali and Shubho Bijoya with equal gusto, my parents (especially my Dad) seemed to take on a grumpy, Scrooge-like demeanor around festivals and celebrations. On Holi day, while all other families on the various campuses we lived in were out in their stark whites being rambunctious, my parents went underground, lurking like prisoners in their own house with a decoy padlock dangling on the front door to fool neighbors into believing we were not in. It was only when I was older that I insisted on going out to play with colors, and was allowed on a bunch of conditions; and my mom clicked her tongue in extreme annoyance when I returned soggy and dirty-brown (the resulting effect when all colors have mixed in with water and mud). Diwali was somewhat similar, though slightly better; we were allowed a few phuljharis and anaars, but no rockets, no bombs, no … And certainly no exchanging silver and kaju barfi with any neighbors or colleagues; that was tantamount to accepting bribe, and we honorable people simply didn’t do that! During Christmas I gazed forlornly at the neighbor’s Christmas tree and shining red star at its pinnacle, hoping against hope that somehow Santa would forget his way and come to our house instead. But alas, not even the tooth fairy ever visited me. And birthdays, you ask? Well, a new piece of clothing and some payesh from my mom, and perhaps a Chinese dinner somewhere from my dad, but no birthday parties, balloons, cake with icing or pink frocks, and certainly no exchanging presents.

It has taken me a tumultous journey into adulthood to understand the “High Thinking” that Devi’s mother, and no-doubt, my father extolled and lived by.* I’ve come to appreciate that my dad didn’t believe children should be taught materialistic values, or to focus on which gift which friend had brought them. He wasn’t being ungenerous, he was trying to give us less stuff and more of those no-things called values. But when you are three years old, which part of you gets why you can’t don a pretty frock and hang multi-colored balloons, and instead have to go to an elegant, grown-up dinner somewhere, where you have to behave? What kind of birthday celebration is that?

So understandably, I grew up into a precocious, responsible, high-principled, high-functioning adult … only with secretly harbored desires for balloons, soft toy animals and colorfully wrapped, surprise presents. I didn’t realize that I had such an affliction until I was well into my late twenties, and now have full realization of it in my mid-thirties. As the developmental psychologists say, all stages of psychological development must be visited in an individual’s life-journey, and since I skipped one or two when they should’ve happened, it is apparently normal for me to be a sucker for the soft, baby-blue “pillow-pet” dolphin I bought for my friend’s newborn and struggled hard with wanting to keep on my own bed instead. 

I’ve decided that to combat these sudden, overwhelming regressions into infancy and toddlerhood, the best way is to turn into a parent to my own inner child, and tenderly tend to her unmet wants. And it helps tremendously to have a partner who refuses to grow up, and is frequently given to a 7-year-old’s humor and impulses instead; on weekend mornings I am often woken up with the calls, paw-rubs and beak-pecks of various forest animals and birds. Sometimes it’s the flitting chickadee, at other times the fluttering butterfly, and when I refuse to wake up, it’s the big, unyielding grizzly bear. Developmental regression, did I hear you say?

So this Christmas – my first after my boyfriend and I moved in together in late Fall – guess what we have in our living room? A CHRISTMAS TREE!!! Granted, a small, recession-sensitive one, but nevertheless, a real, live, decorated tree. I could hardly breathe in my excitement to get it all decorated: in reds and golds and sparklies and shimmeries … and the little glass animal ornamenents I found somewhere a long time ago. I even have a stocking for JW that he doesn’t know about yet; shshsh……. And we’re also planning to roast a goose for Christmas dinner, building on the success of our experiments last year.

As my friend Devi’s two kids tell her when she feigns a dutiful attempt to pass on her inherited values, “Mamma, we believe in Simple Thinking, High Living, hai na?”

*Update: As parents of grown-ups, all reports show that both my father and Devi’s mother have themselves now regressed into apparent valuelessness. My dad wants to buy me everything I touch in any store, and Devi’s mom gifted her something huge this Diwali. Devi and I are now confused adult-children.

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Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    Merry Christmas! I hope the day was wonderful and the esperiments turned out good. I was traveling, so did not get to the computer before now. Love.

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Tana, I have been reading your posts for more than a year. I can see you are much happier now which is great. Really enjoyed the ride. Keep writing ! What did JW say about the stocking?

  3. Tana

    Thanks, Anonymous. JW was surprised indeed – Santa had to come in through the mailbox rather than the chimney, but it all worked out 🙂 Khushi, our food experiments worked really well too – roast goose, risotto with Arborio rice, a spring and cherry tomato salad, and potato bread rolls with pecans in them, with warm German Gluhwein! We had another couple over and had a lot of fun!

  4. Chandana


    I absolutely love love love ur written pieces. Its take me a while to read all of them, but Ive gone thro all ALL of them here. Uve gone thro a lot in life….and I wish u the very best in everything. Ones ur book is published…can I get the first signed copy?

  5. Tana

    Hi Chandana,
    Thank you so much for your lovely note. I am in India right now, hence the delay in responding. The proofing is in its last stages and I should be ready in a week. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and love.

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