An Age of Kindness

A glimpse into the past reminds us of a time of built-in benevolence

By Dr Christianez Ratna Kiruba Published May 6, 2024 14:49:52 IST
An Age of Kindness Illustration by Shawn D’souza

As the evening softly came in with the sunset, my mother and I sat sipping tea on the thinnai of her childhood home in Udumalaipet village. This raised and shaded sit-out, built along either side of the front door, overlooking the street and flanked by pillars, was a special place for us.

Serving the purpose of a verandah, this in-between space, painted green, acted as a crossover between two realms—the private interiors of the home and the outside world.

That evening, nostalgia had found Amma. Eating roasted groundnuts coated with palm sugar, I listened carefully as she recounted stories of past evenings spent on this very same thinnai, as the night lights start to dot our streetscape view.

Her expression mellows with memories as she flashes back to when family members would sit here, nap, read and catch up with visitors over a cup of coffee. Spices and chillies would be spread out to dry. The thinnai was the perfect perch to sit and watch the rain, enjoy the breeze or seek a brief respite after a long day before stepping inside to tackle the affairs of the home.

It was also a space where everyone was welcome, from hawkers who laid out their wares for residents and passers-by, to the homeless and bereft who sought shelter from the elements. It wasn’t unusual for Amma to step outside some mornings and find some stranger sleeping peacefully on their shaded thinnai. Many a weary traveller would settle here to escape the blistering sun on summer afternoons. And if a member of the household noticed the same, a glass of water was offered for their parched throats. The thinnai was a way to offer hospitality to people irrespective of whether you knew them or not, Amma said.

Unlike modern architecture that’s designed to cut off physical and visual access from outside, the thinnai blurred the lines between the ‘private’ and ‘public’. These days when mother reads news of defensive urban planning that compromises humanity for exclusivity and aesthetic (think, park benches designed to discourage homeless people from sleeping on them), my mother is amused. She grew up in a different world, she often tells me.

Life in her small village in Tamil Nadu was flush with a variety of ways to accommodate everyday acts of kindness. Benevolence and consideration, offered without ceremony or forethought, was then simply a way of life. Amma’s mornings, for example, started with prayers at home, and a ritual where a handful of her breakfast was given to crows as an offering before she took her own meal.

The belief was that crows harboured the souls of one’s ancestors and that feeding the birds would garner the blessings of family members from beyond the realm of the living. The gestalt of their way of life was that every act of kindness sent out into the world will always return—in this life or the next. So feeding the hungry, whether animal or a person, was a necessary aspect of worship. This guiding principle dictated the rituals practised at one’s home and in the temples of the village.

Amma also remembers drawing kolams to decorate the entrance of her home using coarse rice flour. One first traced dots of dry powdered rice on the ground to guide the design, and then used rice paste to connect them with straight or curved lines that formed intricate patterns. Rice flour was chosen for a reason—it would invite ants, birds and small animals living around the house to help themselves to a meal.

This practice of washing the entrance to one’s house and adorning it with a kolam every morning has fallen out of favour among city-dwellers. And most of those who do continue the practice use inorganic white powders, which are not edible.

Companionship was given just as freely. Before she left to study medicine in Coimbatore at 22 years old, Amma’s evenings were mostly spent with women from neighbouring households. They would oil each other’s hair and comb out knots and tangles while gossiping and drinking spiced tea decoctions. The women would gather jasmine flowers and weave them into ornaments to offer to the deities at home as well as to adorn their tresses.

These moments of measured leisure, rarely accessible to women, allowed ease and freedom from the oppression of everyday, mundane things. If one of them ever skipped out on these gatherings, the ladies would set out to inquire after her. She would then be coaxed out of her house and encouraged to share her troubles, as the other women massaged away her worries and offered solidarity and advice.

Even chores were not lonely activities—one always had company. With their kodams (urn pitchers) tucked into their sides, women walked with each other to collect water from the community well, spend hours grinding spices while humming songs, washed clothes in the stream, while their children played nearby.

Too many of us now know the bitter sting of loneliness, and the strain of fewer and fewer helping hands in our lives. Amma’s world always had friends around willing to mind your children, to listen to your woes or share a joke to lighten the mind. The company of other women imbued the time spent on repetitive acts of labour with camaraderie and laughter, allowing in moments of joy as one went about the day. Anyone who was falling behind on her chores was covered for by her peers too. There was always somebody to help you fill your kodam with water while you helped them fill theirs. In the end, no one would walk back home empty.

I wonder if there is a word for this—the incorporation of thoughtfulness and kindness in one’s day-to-day life. If there is one, my mother doesn’t know it. But she does know that lives these days are more and more distant, with people having no one but themselves to watch out for them. She often harks back to the past, when asking for help was easier, because the intent to assist was woven into the everyday business of living.

Living in the past isn’t going to lead us back to those ‘golden’ days—moving forward is the nature of all things. But perhaps, learning from and practising a way of living that is centred on doing a bit of good for one another, wherever you are, and whomever you are with, could help us feel a little lighter, when so much in the world today seems intent on bringing us down. Of all that we do hold on from the past, this to me seems like a tradition that should stand the test of time too.

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