Many years ago, in the late 1990s, I was studying abroad and had chosen to send my baby daughter back to India with her father while I finished with an exam which was due in 6 months. Those were winter months in London. It was dark when I left home at 7 am and dark when I came back, around 5 pm, to the hospital accommodation where I was staying. On getting back to my room I would usually watch the one grainy video I had of my daughter on a VHS tape (what can I say? it was the 1990s) and then I would cry for her, every single evening, before I got my dinner done and then sat down to a few hours of studying. (If that sounds tragic, well it really did feel that way back then).
I was earning a salary of course but the taxes were high and I was saving for my return ticket as well as to be able to take back some reasonable amount to start a life and a career back home.
I was planning to make a short trip home for my daughter’s 2nd birthday and had been doing some judicious shopping for her within my meagre budget. A tiny puppy doll with a rose in its mouth, a lovely book about Percy and Toto from a bookshop at Camden, a gorgeous little music box from Covent Garden, some cheerful dresses and T shirts from Primark. It may sound a bit pathetic now but I didn’t feel particularly sad or depressed about my apparent ‘poverty’ at the time. That was what I could afford and I had spent some happy hours deciding what was worth buying and what had to be left behind and I loved all those things that I finally purchased.
I had dreamt many happy minutes looking at those gifts and anticipated her joy at seeing them. I had spent many an hour packing and re-packing my bag, deciding what was too precious to check in and what had to be carried in hand, because pessimistic as ever, I fully expected to lose my checked- in bag and all the gifts in it.
So the puppy with the rose, the book and the music box came in my hand bag, along with some chocolates (from Tesco since the duty free was way too costly) and some gifts for my parents, husband and sister. That bag had been perfectly and spatially packed to its absolute utility down to the last molecule.
Then I got a call from someone who was kind of a family friend who ‘lived in London’, (the way someone in Khandala could be said to live in Mumbai). Not close enough to be useful but not so far that my family felt there was literally no one I could call upon in an emergency. Any of you who have migrated with the hopes of such distant connections will recognize the futility of it all and the reality that this is worse than useless. Anyway, luckily I had never had occasion to need to call them. But they called now and asked me for a ‘small favour’. Their elderly relative who lived near my place in Mumbai loved digestive biscuits so could I carry one packet for her? Remember this was the 1990s and in India we mainly had Parle G and Marie. So I said sure.
Then came the next ‘small request’. Since they lived so far away it obviously made no sense for them to travel down to the heart of London to give me this one packet since I could buy it at any street corner myself. So could I please do that?
Remember that at that point I was counting every penny and the biscuit packet cost 1 pound. It was almost 80 Rs in those days (which is almost 800 Rs of today given the inflation). It would have easily bought me a simple sandwich for a meal.
So basically this favour came down to me giving up a lunch to buy a packet of biscuits with my own money and then carry it back as gift ‘from’ them to the relative. So far so annoyed but ok….
Then came the step 3.
It might get crushed in the check- in bag so could I please make sure I took it in my carry- on bag?
Seething with frustration now I still said ‘yes of course’ because that is how we are raised.
They obviously did not realize how painful it was for me and maybe did not think they were being thoughtless at all. And maybe in retrospect it wasn’t such a huge deal at all really.
But for me, that day, sitting there with tears stinging my eyes at the thought of having to remove even one of those precious gifts I had packed with so much care and bought with so much anticipation and planning, and relegate it to ( in my pessimism) a certain loss in transit, this request and the emotions it caused are forever mixed up in a black cloud memory with my longing to see my child, the loneliness and the cold misery of London in winter despite that cozy room in the hostel, with its single bed made up with typical NHS linen.
That memory can still make me feel like reaching out to that young woman in 1999 and patting her and saying there, there, this too shall pass. (and resisting the temptation to add—my dear, you have no idea what else is still to come!!)
But at the time, oh boy, did it rankle me! I had to displace something from my perfectly packed carry- on bag that I cannot even remember now and when I got home I raved and ranted about it to everyone close to me. To this day Digestive Biscuit is a code word in my family for a situation when someone makes an unreasonable demand from you but somehow you would become the villain if you say no!
I remembered this entire episode after a very long time today when some people are making ridiculous demands on a close friend’s daughter while also trying to gaslight her into being the one to blame for saying no to them.
Ah well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles!
Maybe when life gives you a cookie…….you should dunk it in hot tea and eat it up quickly cos what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger 🙂