Socks, Chocs and Saris
The hectic time of year marking the festive season is thankfully behind me as I write this post. Australians spent an estimated A$48 billion on Christmas gifts in the 6 weeks leading up to 25 December (source: Australian Retailers Association). That’s a lot of socks and chocolates!
It was during this seasonal shopping period that I discovered socksandchocs – a registered charity based in Birmingham England, founded by ex-soldier and policeman Ian Northcott. He has put our penchant for spending to good use by urging the donation of basic needs for the homeless. By Christmas 2016 donations had reached 9601 pairs of socks, 8298 boxes of chocolates, 136 sleeping bags and 4078 miscellaneous items such as gloves and underwear. If you are wondering why chocolates have been included on the list (as I did), I urge you to read Ian’s story. Ian’s charity now operates in over 30 localities between England and Northern Ireland since its inception in 2010, and also provides emergency accommodation.
Closer to home, Share the Dignity’s #itsinthebag Christmas campaign caught my attention. My yoga teacher collected unwanted handbags filled with toiletries for women fleeing their homes at Christmas due to domestic violence. I donated a new Lonsdale backpack that I had originally bought my son for his Birthday, and took pleasure in purchasing personal items to fill it (he didn’t like the colour. I’m glad I gave it to someone who would be more appreciative!).
In addition to the giving and receiving, there is a flurry of socialising in the lead up to Christmas. My first invitation was for early November – to Sunday lunch by a friend in my writing group. Details were scanty: don’t bring anything. It is just a casual get together.
I arrived at a neat wooden home with a large leafy garden in the nearby suburb of Strathfield. As I approached the house I recognised my colleague and host greeting people at his front door. There was a procession of sari wearing strangers pulling up in cars. Their beauty reminded me of butterflies emerging from a cocoon as they navigated their way out of their vehicles in their colourful traditional costumes.
A casual get together with writing friends this was not turning out to be.
I counted a total of 20 guests from the Indian community and to my horror realised that they were all non-alcoholic drinking Hindus just as I proffered my hostess a gift of liqueur chocolates. She politely put them on display (I so wished for them to be placed at the back of the nearest cupboard, and conveniently forgotten until the next spring clean). As I was being introduced to the guests I noticed the men wearing freshly pressed collared shirts, and began to feel a bit underdressed in my casual backyard lunch wear.
We were ushered to the rear of the house, where a large table had been set up under the awning for our communal feast. It was refreshing to see orange juice and water being offered, no alcohol in sight (except what was hidden inside my chocolates!)
The sari wearing guests and their partners were immigrants from Bangalore, all fluent in the local dialect of Kannada, which they eased in and out of throughout the gathering’s conversations. The food was stupendous. Of particular note was hostess U’s dessert, a recipe from her village: pancake stuffed with lentils and brown sugar, with warm milk poured over the top.
Another surprise: the 4 of us representatives from the writing group were asked to give a short informal talk. We sat in a loose circle and took turns. I chose to speak about why I ended up in the group and what impact it has had on me personally: I had found my tribe. Another colleague, a retired French teacher and poet, recited a poem she had written about a garden in Paris she was particularly fond of. Though she had to compete for our attention with a flock of noisy rainbow lorikeets feasting on the banksia tree next door.
‘B’ shared his experiences of travelling around India with his yoga group. An accomplished actor, he had us all laughing throughout the narrative. ‘A’ described her youth on a farm in rural NSW where she was home schooled and a brown snake joined her for a lesson. This sparked immediate interest. Some of the men present stopped fiddling with their cell phones. Even the procession of ants that had gathered under my feet seemed to slow down as she regaled her near miss with death story.
The Indian guests happily shared their experiences when I prompted them. One particular woman stood out: visiting Sydney to assist her 2nd daughter with the recent arrival of her baby. She confessed to being nearly 60 (she looked 40!). Hers had been an arranged marriage – at 18 – and she indicated that she and her husband were ‘out of love’ now. He is a workaholic, leaving home at 7.30am and returning at 9.30pm. Her mother-in-law has lived under their roof since the marriage and still treats him like a small boy. I was horrified. She lamented the fact that she never went to work or furthered her education. She spends as much time as possible travelling to her daughters in Sydney and in the US.
Bare feet were the order of the day, guests leaving their assorted footwear at the front door. Being shoe-less brought an immediate sense of community, of belonging. There were some good healthy feet on show!
Among us there were professors, engineers, self-employed entrepreneurs, officer workers and taxi drivers, even professional entertainers: ‘S’ sang a traditional song in Hindi from her appearance at the Pink Sari Project concert, which raised breast cancer awareness among women in the Indian and Sri Lankan communities. I felt honoured to be included in their company, if only for an afternoon.
The women present wore lined faces and warm smiles, laughing and chatting, touching each other in a familiar way. They could have passed as sisters, so playful was their interaction. The intense colours and patterns of their saris heightened the visual pleasure of looking out to the shaded garden with its magnolia, frangipani and hibiscus .
Most guests chose to eat in their traditional way with their hand, not spilling anything. Those ants underfoot were getting hungry! I opted for cutlery which had thoughtfully been left out for the westerners.
The early afternoon breeze picked up the edges of the women’s saris as they talked and listened. There was a surreal like quality to this gathering – sharing stories and a meal with these friendly, engaging people of different backgrounds and life experiences from mine.
One guest confessed that she didn’t like Sydney at first and they emigrated because her son was accepted at university here. She told him that as soon as he finished his engineering degree she was going back home. Time brought a change of heart: she decided to stay once she got a job, made friends and started to integrate further into society.
All those who had moved here admitted to issues of assimilation when they first arrived from India. And that their command of English provided a helpful tool. Saris I was told are very difficult to keep looking so beautiful. I could only imagine as I inspected the layers of woven silk at close hand.
I am grateful to be living amongst a diversity of cultures, and for the rituals and mindfulness that come with Christmas. An opportunity to share, meet and celebrate with people and connect with my tribe, wherever that may lead me.