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OP-ED: The small pleasures of life

  • Published at 07:45 pm August 22nd, 2020

Have we lost the ability to appreciate the little things in life, taking it all for granted?

Dear reader of another generation: Do you recall the age of innocence in your life, ruled by the heady days of Gold Spot, Campa Cola, and packets of crisps, and the family outing constructed around the simplest of pleasures?

Do you remember the weekend expedition of delight to the local grocery store? The event was organized over several days, and precious pennies were scrupulously hoarded and calculated down to the last naiya paisa.

On the appointed day, the family marched to the store, barely controllable children in front, the more measured gait of the parents bringing up the rear, ordered the essential provisions in a happy hubbub over the smiling supervision of an indulgent store-owner and went about enjoying the rare treat with great gusto.  

Can you still feel that curtain of contented silence that descended on the complete concentration which accompanied the weekend treat? You could have heard a pin drop.

What about that rare occasion when a series of fortunate events combined to permit you to enjoy a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and a bottle of Campa Cola in the quietest solitude? To put it in the correct perspective, let’s just say that the experience would have been not unlike that enjoyed by the young boy negotiating a bar of exquisitely wrapped confectionery in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Piece on piece would be slowly examined, savoured, nibbled, and eventually demolished in slow ritual fashion, care taken to extract the fullest flavour from the smallest morsel. Similarly, every careful sip of soda pop was negotiated with the deliberate finesse of a seasoned wine taster, till the cool and delicious liquid was eventually permitted to slide down the throat.

Hark back to the times when you and your sister laid siege to the ice cream bhaiyya and his card of iced goodies. The garish images of the iced lollies and cream bars fluttering ever so seductively on the cardboard sheet advertising the full wares of sale of bhaiyya.

What it would be, oh greedy tongue? The Raspberry Ripple, the Mango Duet, the stick of vanilla cream sheathed in a blanket of chocolate, or that tantalizingly exotic-sounding Cassata?  

Or, in a complete agony of indecision, when you are tied up in helpless knots, would you resign yourself to the tangy goodness of the stately orange bar, the staple of generations whose price remained constant to defy the capriciousness of inflationary trends, an unwitting miracle of economics. Oh, the joy!

The hard cover version

Will you share my delight at becoming the proud owner of a rare comic book? Growing up in far-away Kathmandu, an oasis situated on the edge of the universe, I would haunt the quite spectacular bookshops located in the bustling heart of the city.  

On one of my frequent trawling expeditions with parent in tow, I chanced upon a Tintin adventure which, it so transpired, was available only in the hard cover version. The mother succumbed to her son’s pleadingly forlorn expression and obtained for the apple of her eye the prized edition of “Tintin in America” for the sum of 48 rupees. 48 rupees! In the Stone Age when I grew up!  

If not a king’s ransom, then surely a prize befitting a prince. This prince went home content, notwithstanding the minor earthquake of recriminations and counter-accusations that the purchase engendered at home. Happiness coursed through my being, and I couldn’t sleep for a week.  

Once I had my fill of examining the attractive cover, I fell to reading it. Fell indeed! I handled the comic book lovingly, gingerly, like an art restorer returning a masterpiece to its original glory, cautious to leave not a single blemish on each carefully-owned page. Each detail of each frame, each expression, each conversation was processed, devoured, and digested.  

Much like that fabulous bar of chocolate! My parents were soon reconciled to their son’s happiness and would have observed the drama with the comic book with amused pleasure. I was oblivious. Laugh all you want, folks, but care to join me in seventh heaven?

Fast food

And how can the milestones of reminiscences of another age be complete without devoting a couple of sentences to that fast food phenomenon which revolutionized the concept of outdoor eating and permanently transformed the palate of the Indian middle class?  

Who can forget the interminable but mandatory waiting at Nirula’s at Chanakya cinema hall, virtually perched on the shoulders of a customer wolfing down his instantly cooked banquet, eagerly waiting to pounce on an empty table after wading through the swirl of delicious aromas?  Heightened passions, the do-or-die attempt to get seated, the not-uncommon verbal spat which could ensue with competing patrons, you could cut the air with a knife.  

But once a table was captured, and its surface swiftly covered by the trademark hamburgers, mutton chops, sausage pizzas, and chocolate shakes, the pain of waiting was worth every tortured second. And what completed the party? Nothing less than the king of desserts, the imperial Hot Chocolate Fudge. An outing to end all outings.

Where have these pleasures gone?

Where have the simple pleasures of life disappeared to? The age of innocence has passed. It must be so wonderful to live the life of an adolescent today. Everything is a click of a button away.  The luxuries of yesterday comprise today the staple of a fridge filled to bursting. Life functions devoid of the once-crucial supply chain of basic human contact in a platform-based milieu where all necessities and unnecessaries can be ordered on-line, and with an attractive cash-back to boot.  

The eclipse of simplicity coincides with the advent of a way of life underscored by a monumental taking for granted of everything. There is a singular lack of appreciation and the blurring of, or rather a negation of, the distinction between what is necessary and what was deserved. There has also been a singular erosion of the value attached to small objects and actions and an appreciation of what life has to offer.

In his book The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm had described a rootless generation which appeared to exist in a “permanent present.” They seemed to have no anchor to the past and no perspective of the future. This cadre of intensely individual human beings literally lived their whole lives by the dictum of “live for today, for we know not what tomorrow will bring.”  

With a past forsaken, and not a care to the future, this was a generation of young people with no moorings, no anchor, with their own synthesized and fabricated reality, marked by the only tenuous of living now, and right now only. The generation that Hobsbawm lamented has passed into middle age, but tragically has been replaced with a synthetic generation even more virulently determined to live for today.

We blame our children for how they turn out. But children learn from their parents. In the permanent state of heightened over-competition in which we find ourselves compelled to thrive, have we as presumably responsible adults introduced a sense of what the small pleasures of life are all about?  

Have we instilled in “generation next” the ability to appreciate the routine of daily life periodically punctuated by blips of small pleasure and excitement? The answer is sadly, resoundingly, in the negative. The middle-aged are embroiled in a million personal struggles for remaining relevant in a world which has transformed beyond belief.  

The fight for survival manifests itself in a myriad ways, but is demonstrated most sharply in the pandering to every whim and fancy of the progeny. We pretend to be born again, with no past but possessed nevertheless of a glittering permanent present. We were nourished on parathas, but like to hold out to the world that only pasta was consumed while growing up.  

Take a moment to contemplate the plight of a generation of parents, insecure and suspicious, competitive and destructive, honed only in the finer craft of negative one-upmanship. Countless Whatsapp groups, organized by class and section and residence and including the occasional father, churn out a torrent of messages, always jockeying for that strategic advantage.

Where, then, is the time, space, and inclination to introduce a child to the delights of the simple?  We have gone beyond the natural tendency and, indeed, necessity to discover those crucial spaces for simple and basic recreation and relaxation. For the castle of the intricate and sophisticated can only be erected on the foundation of the simple.

Come Sunday afternoon, sit your children down on the balcony and introduce them to the delights of bread, aloo bhujiya and tomato ketchup, and give them an oh-so brief and delicious glimpse into that world which caused you to smile.

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in Gurgaon, India, and is a freelance contributor.