“You’re such a miser,” my mother said. “You never spend any money.”
Well, hello 2008. Most people tell their kids off because they spend too much money – but she was mad coz I didn’t spend enough? Wasn’t this supposed to be a virtue? It is if you call it thrift, right? That’s what I am: thrifty. Rhymes with shifty but lives on the other end of the nicety scale. And it’s not like I’m some sort of modern day Hetty Green wearing out the same costume for years on end: I love to shop, it’s just not my raison d’etre. In any case, it’s Ma’s own fault that I’m the way I am. Hers and Daddy’s.
When I was a wee bit of a child, I was convinced that we were dreadfully poor. I mean, dreadfully. Which is sort of stupid now that I think about it because we never lacked for anything and lived rather well but I went about life with my mind occupied elsewhere (still do, for that matter) so my grip on my immediate vicinity has never been what I’d call firm. So for some reason, I was sure we didn’t have any money.
The other day someone was telling me about some interview Neetu Kapoor gave, in which she said she and Rishi Kapoor kept a tight rein on their kids’ allowances and only gave them 500 or 5000 bucks a week (I’m a little fuzzy on details but then so was the person who told me this).
Aw. Those poor kids. You know what my dad’s idea of a generous allowance was? Five bucks a day. Five bucks – for a South Delhi school kid. And this was after a raise, mind you. Before, when I first started going to school, it used to be a shiny new two rupee coin. And even that he’d tell me to save.
“If you put this money aside, I’ll match the amount you’ve saved every week,” he informed me, the very picture of open-handed largesse. “So if you save all thirty rupees this week, then I’ll give you an extra thirty rupees. Actually, no, you know what I’ll do? I’ll give you fifty rupees!”
And my eyes would go round. Fifty whole rupees? For li’l old me? Wow!
This conversation, by the way, took place not when I was toddler or something but when I was twelve. When I was a toddler, my mother handled my finances. And by “handled”, I mean she took my money! It’s true – my grandparents would give me a nice shiny one rupee coin to be spent on candy and other illicit things. And from the corner of my eye I could see my mother waiting to pounce on it. I was too little or too dumb to take evasive action, so she invariably got her hands on it and left me with no cash. Robbed! In my own home! Well, my grandparents’ home but whatever. She says it was a waste of good money coz if I actually wanted candy, I wouldn’t have paid for it anyway (things like that went on a tab at a marvelous little shop I’ve never so much as seen, run by a mysterious individual who was only ever identified as the Konkani). But I feel it’s the principle of the thing.
Strictly speaking, she was right. (Yes! My mother was right! Don’t tell her though, I’ll never hear the end of it.) I didn’t really have anything to spend money on. The only thing I ever really, really wanted to buy was books. Every weekend, my dad and I would make a trip to my favorite store where everybody knew us and buy at least a couple. The salespeople loved us coz we were a guaranteed sell. This was the 80s and the early 90s – eighty rupees would buy me at least two of my favorite school stories. And since we had an unspoken agreement that the weekend purchases were in addition to my allowance, this meant an extra two books for me. Bliss!
Clothes and make up were never in contention. Growing up as I did, the littlest girl in a big family of girls, the last thing I wanted was to plaster on more of the icky stuff that my mother and aunts regularly tried out on me to judge the effect. Nothing will cure you of affection for something faster than acting as a guinea pig for it.
“You blend this way,” one aunt would say, using some new foundation that matched both hers and my mother’s skin tone perfectly but looked hideous on me. “And then use this blush.”
My grandmother would watch expressionlessly from her armchair as her daughters piled on her bed and had great fun playing with what she called “paint”. Ma says my grandma would never allow any of her daughters to try on any of that “nasty stuff” until they were safely married and playing the clown on somebody else’s dime. This sounds harsh until you see some of the stuff they used to sell back then. One word: shocking!
I have this aunt who never uses any makeup but knew little kids love to play “Make Up” (ever had an adult who’d play that with you? It’s where you put make up on someone else’s face. Anything goes and improvisation is its bedrock. So if you’re missing some rouge, use lipstick instead! I bet that’s where they came up with the idea for those multi-use blush creams that you can use on practically every part of your face) so my aunt kept all the free stuff she got over the years from her sisters in a fascinating little cake tin that she stored behind the dressing table mirror. One of the joys of my childhood, and that of her son and several of my cousins, was to drag it out of its hiding place and paint her face with it. God, I love her! And if you ever come across a tube of bright orange lipstick manufactured circa 1975, apply some to your cheek and you’ll immediately understand all.
Anyway, it was too bad grandma’s strictures on make-up didn’t extend to granddaughters. Perhaps she thought anything – including painting my face inappropriate shades of beige and pink – was an improvement on my wild ways. “Wild ways”. That sounds confusing and it’s because I can’t tell you the exact phrase she used. Ever since I grew up and made the acquaintance of the term “politically correct”, I’ve realized that my grandma was very much a product of her time – by which I mean to say she said things that would probably get her sued these days. Moving on…
Clothes were out as a possible means of extravagance because I never bought any for myself. Seriously. The only time I ever bought something for myself was when I was ten and fell desperately in love with a tremendously ugly purple polka dotted frock (!) that I was convinced was the ultimate in class and style. I still remember the look on my mother’s face when I held on to it for dear life and insisted she buy it for me. My brief and exciting foray into the world of shopping ended right there and then, and we went back to the tried and tested way: my dad and my aunts bought me clothes until I turned eighteen and ran away from home.
Noooo! I didn’t run away. I just left for college and stayed “left”. Good times.
Anyhoo, so the five rupee allowance: not such a tragedy. Most of it was spent on the odd snack after school and lollypops for my elder brother. He’d like to deny it today but my brother has a sweet tooth that would astonish you and the cavities that pop up despite his OCD about hygiene are proof of it. So I’d buy him lollypops and I’d buy my mom candy. Where do you think he got the sweet tooth from?
My dad, who’s a finicky person, didn’t want anything. Back then I thought he was trying to save money but now that I think about it, he probably didn’t want my school-going germs on something he’d have to place inside his digestive tract. Because he did all his shopping abroad, far away from my prying eyes, it wasn’t until he retired that I got to see his spending habits. Once I saw them, I couldn’t understand where I’d picked up my habits of economy.
But for better or for worse, I have them and I’m stuck with them. And mostly, it’s a good thing. For one, since I never balance my check book, I’m constantly surprised by the amount of money I have in my account. And all of a sudden I’m un-poor. Also, when you never spend any money on yourself, people around you want to buy you things. Perhaps out of pity or something, but hey! I’m getting stuff! There’s nothing I love more than getting stuff.
Shopping, for me, can’t compare with the thrill of getting a present. As much as I love buying stuff for myself, I’m not an impulsive buyer so I seldom get the chance to just pop in and buy something for the heck of it. Correction: I seldom pop in and buy something for the heck of it. I get plenty of chances. I generally utilize them to buy gifts for other people, which is another thing I enjoy. But the best part of being so thrifty is the look on my mom’s face when I place something back on the shelf.
“You want to buy it?” she’ll ask hopefully. “I’ve got money.”
“No thanks,” I’ll smile. “What will I do with this?”
She gives me this look that says she can think of a million things but then just shakes her head and walks off. Because I’m her miserly daughter. Except I’m not. I’m thrifty.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.