One scorching afternoon towards the end of Ramazan, while visiting a village in Sindh, I was intrigued by a large crowd of people, several dozen rickshaws and scores of bicycles and motorbikes in a narrow street. I stopped by to find out what the attraction was. Turns out a well-meaning charitable institution was distributing Eid gifts to the ‘under-privileged.’
The privileges being handed out in a sack included five kilogrammes of sugar, five kilogrammes of cooking oil, 20 kilogrammes of rice, one women’s unstitched suit of polyester, six bars of hand-soap and six of clothes washing soap. A content and price list was also in the sack. Total cost: Rs2,780.
This is what the gift-giving arena looked like: a gruff looking man seated comfortably in a shaded spot, list in hand, was reading out names much in the style of a court bailiff, demanding the accused appear immediately. The beneficiary of the gift was meant to present a token bearing his name, his father’s name and national identity card number, provide evidence by also showing his original CNIC and then receive this bag of provisions. He was then ordered to move along swiftly. Those whose paperwork didn’t satisfy the bailiff’s assistant were turned out without a hearing.
All these receivers of gifts were made to stand in line from late morning through the afternoon with temperatures rising into the mid-forties. There was no shade provided in the distribution area, nor any arrangement for water. Men, women and children, had gathered in the hundreds, were jostling for space in the line and as the jungle rule goes, the biggest and strongest were the ones who found their way through. So dense was the crowd and so intense the heat that even strong young men were dizzy and faint and some approached us asking for a glass of water.
A small group of women helplessly lay down under a tree outside the distribution area, waiting for the crowds to thin so they may get a chance to get in line. They carried bundles of hay that they spread out and sat down upon. Some nursed wailing babies, others chased after toddlers to make sure they wouldn’t be crushed in the crowd. One woman was frantically searching for a tiny gold nose-pin, the only piece of jewelry she owned, which she lost in the push and pull of the crowd. She didn’t find it. A pregnant, breathless young woman with tears in her eyes said she had waited all night in hunger, slept at the local dargah and even then was returning home empty-handed. This scene continued through the evening and even well after midnight, people bearing these sacks were returning home to their villages near and far.
The recipients were mostly impoverished even though brief conversations revealed most of them had enough rice, sugar and soap at home. Nevertheless, the hunger for provisions was clearly understandable. And the willingness to suffer? This, unfortunately, is the product of centuries of subjugation that has created minds desperate to receive handouts without effort or dignity. One recipient told me it’s human nature to want to get something for free if it’s just being handed out, so what’s a little shoving to endure?
Seeing all this made me pause to think about the giving of gifts. What a lovely and precious privilege it is to present a gift, even more so on the blessed occasion of Eid. There is so much involved. The excitement of deciding what to give, the thinking and re-thinking about whether the recipient needs and would enjoy this particular gift, and the making of recipient lists. Then, there’s the packaging, probably more enjoyable than the gift itself. Selecting how to make the parcel pretty, even on a shoe-string budget, the choice of words with which to present it and then of course, most importantly — the act of giving. The holding out of hands, the offering of a broad and hearty smile, the excitement of the recipient and the inevitable hug or warmth of a handshake.
On special occasions such as Eid, when we as individuals or charirtable institutions choose to give out gifts as a means of sharing blessings with those we think can’t afford them financially, why do we deny ourselves the pleasure of all the frills that come with gift-giving? Why instead, do we choose to dispose of a burden by handing out things we ourselves attach little value to or indeed wouldn’t use at all and that too without any love? The act of giving without warmth and love isn’t gifting at all.
Moreover, how abhorrent and contradictory is the notion of giving a gift with such contempt, such lack of dignity, such physical torture and humiliation.
Charities working in city slums or village neighbourhoods can easily change this system. With a little extra effort, these Eid gifts can be prepared more thoughtfully with things people will enjoy wearing and eating. With a little extra preparation, appropriate lists can be prepared and a distribution system worked out. With a little extra cost, these parcels can be delivered to peoples’ doorsteps as a welcome surprise. And with a lot of extra love, these can be handed over with the compassion and affection they are intended to show. These small steps will change this unkind and insensitive distribution into a true act of love, reflecting all the blessings that come with the season of Ramazan and Eid.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2015.
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