Saturday, February 26, 2011

Politics of Return Gifts/Favors

I was practically shocked when my old neighbor gave me a grand lunch immediately after I came back from finishing one of the small bank work that she had asked me to do. This was not the first time this was happening, every time I did something for her or gave her something she immediately made it a point to buy me something or treat me generously with her culinary skills and the way I was paid back was well calculated to maintain her superior position in the relationship. This happened when I went jewelery shopping with her for her daughter and literally functioned as the live model for her, happened when I spoke to the auto wala and the shop keeper for her , happened when I got her birthday presents, happened when I did pottery painting for her new house, took her dog for a walk etc..It went on... I used to always wonder why she does this??? I was always annoyed with this pay back! I found it irritating, annoying and attitude problem, but more than everything there was the pain of taking away the value of something that I did. It was almost like buying me! More so because I liked her company a lot and she was my friend in my lonely evenings when I waited for my parents to come back from work. I did everything that I did for her with lot of joy and self satisfaction, but when the paying back became a routine, I started feeling odd and it created a distance between us, which was unsaid, often dealt diplomatically and by excuses made to avoid instances of meeting her

But now It looks as something more to me than a simple action of reciprocating. It says something more to me. And I realize this is not just about her, a lot of us do this, finding some way to return back the favor that was done to us by somebody else, even if it is our close ones. Over the course of time, I have also fallen victim to this politics of returning.....I see this everywhere and we are also training our kids in this. From the day we ordered customized return gifts to be given away at the end of the birthday party to the friends who join the party with gifts, we are telling our kids: "Favors are to be returned!"
Is it so? If yes, Why do we do this? Are we afraid of living in debt? Or Is it our ego at work? or Even worse, Do we do this so that we can snap the relation with the'other' anytime we want and the favor that the other person have done to us won't bother us when we snap the relation? or Is it our inability to express our gratitude in any other way? What is the difference between this kind of reciprocation and the age old barter system? And how is the calculation done here? How do we give value to our dear one's love, their time, their concern etc.? It makes me wonder do we need to reciprocate like this? If not what are the other ways of reciprocating?
There is also another side. Do we give gifts and do favors to only those whom we are sure that will reciprocate?
Anthropologist Marcel Mauss asserts that in pre-market societies, and to a certain extent in modern societies, there is no such thing as a free gift-a gift that is not attached in some way to economic, social, and moral obligations. Indeed, the presence and use of the gift in such societies imply at least three levels of obligation: 1) the obligation to give gifts; 2) the obligation to receive gifts when offered; and 3) the obligation to reciprocate, with interest, after receiving the gift ; Mauss states that the refusal of any one of these obligations is perceived as a hostile act[1].

I should say that I have nothing against the concept of gifts/favors and I do enjoy giving and receiving, but there are some aspects of it which bothers me. And sometimes I do feel that , it is the absence of 'reciprocating' that give longevity to the value of a gift/favor given/received. I would prefer to receive with gratitude and give with joy. When giving becomes a obligation or an action of paying back , I would rather not receive. But how do I know? and Do I really have an escape from this obligatory giving and receiving?

I don't know the answer for most of these questions. As one of my favorite professors would say often "studying Politics doesn't make things easy for you".


[1] Holly Tucker, Corneille's Médée: Gifts of Vengeance, The French Review, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Oct., 1995


I am free,
I like to be free,
I enjoy being free,
I want to earn it,
But I will not take it by running away,
and will not take it as benevolence,
I refuse to be free,
If freedom means isolation,
I refuse to be free
If it means being thrown out of others life,
I refuse to be free,
If it means making victory speeches in an empty hall,
I would rather die a slave in company,
Than a free being left alone.

Flowers and Butterflies

A butterfly  travels from flower to flower in search for honey. Some flowers give it what it seeks and some doesn't, and some others doesn't give it enough  to fill its want. The most ideal thing for it would be to take what it gets, and move. A butterfly is not allowed to fall in love with a flower. It can't stay with a flower forever. If it does it will be the death of the butterfly and the flower would be so out of energy that , it  will refuse to bloom in its old glory ever again. I wonder if it is the same with humans, Do we also die by loving too much, by making it the only purpose of our life? and Do we also kill the love  by our never ending cravings? Like the butterfly do we also kill the flowers in our life  by refusing to move away? Are we not letting them to bloom in all elegance by sucking away the last drop of honey from them?
I guess the only difference is that , in the human world, all of us are both flowers and butterflies at the same time....