Stories of Kindness from Around the World

A Gift of Cloth

--by anon, posted Dec 29, 2006
Although I walk through the world with a folio of smile cards in my wallet, and try to be ever-vigilant for opportunities to use them, it always seems that I am the recipient of anonymous kindness much more often than the benefactor. Here's a story about one such incident which happened just yesterday:

We arrived at Chennai Central early; our train did not depart for another 45 minutes. I took the opportunity to find a tailor to perform a simple repair for me.

Across the lane from the side of the station stood a building typical of those found in India cities, containing a warren of tiny shops – perhaps several hundred of them. These buildings would look like any of the zillions of faceless, multi-storied, style-bereft concrete abominations that proliferate in the metros, were they not covered with scores-and-scores of small peeling signs — most painted directly onto the façade, at least at ground level — announcing the presence of the merchants within.

“Is this building having one tailor?” I enquire at the bookstall situated near the entrance, and find the place straightaway. The shop is scarcely big enough to accommodate the three skinny men within, two at sewing machines, the proprietor busy cutting cloth from handwritten measurements. At the mouth of the shop, on the concrete corridor, sits an ancient man who is obviously associated with the tailors, though he seems to be well past his working years and is idle. There is one other irony to the scene: the old man clearly has no use for tailoring. He wears only a veshti — the white, sarong-like dhoti of South India – a garment that contains only weaving, no stitching.

The old man’s Veshti looks to be nearly as old as he is, and equally stained and battered. And yet, this supremely simple costume has an invariable elegance, which gives his bent, seated frame an air of dignity and stature. I am also wearing a veshti on the day – happy not having to chose between comfort and style for my upcoming 22 hour train journey – although I wear mine with a faded blue denim shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. The old man appraises my attire and gives me an approving bobble of the head. He turns to the head tailor and, in the lush, pop-corn staccato of Tamil, says, “Take good care of this guy. He’s alright.” Perhaps this is the old man’s role at the shop: taking the non-linear measure of the customers.

My veshti is beginning to unravel at one corner, and I ask the tailors to turn the edge in a hem. It is simple work, which takes one of the men at the machines only a few minutes to perform, most of that consumed by pre-stitching meticulousness which I deeply appreciate, but which, in all honesty, the task probably does not merit.

When I have retied my veshti, I pull my wallet from my pack. I estimate that the repair will cost me five rupees; but perhaps they will ask ten. As I pull out a ten rupee note, the proprietor smiles and says to me, “No money. We will not take money for this thing. It is one small thing only.” “I insist on paying,” I reply. “This is how you earn your living, and you have already shown me great kindness by making my repair on-the-spot.” His grin grows broader, and his position more resolved. After a little more back-and-forth, I see that he will not be moved, and I understand the joy it gives this man – indeed, all four men – for them to make me this gift of service.

“Very well,” I say, “but you must take something as my gift.” I reach into my pack and pull out a small box of fresh kaju-pista sweets I had purchased for my journey. The proprietor takes the box and raises it to his forehead as if in prayer, and the men thank me as I take my leave.

There are two very traditional types of gifts in India: gifts of cloth and gifts of sweets. The former signifies the interweaving of our lives, the latter represents a wish for prosperity and happiness. Our exchange, miraculously, incorporated both elements.

It was just another beautiful transaction in the gift economy, with both sides profiting in the giving as well as the receiving. I have purchased many excellent sweets in my time in India; but I think those kaju-pista rolls were the best ever.

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Readers Comments

poutine wrote: Such an unusual story to hear in North America!

Eleanor wrote: Thank you so very much for sharing your heart warming experience.
Go well.
Tammy B wrote: your writing was amazing..I could feel myself in the moment from your description..what a warm gift of sharing and compassion thank you
JuneBug wrote: Thank you for taking the time to share your story1 Very interesting!
JOHN MBAYA wrote: wecan be very happy if you support childrens with cloth [OVC]project
Addisu Dagnaw wrote: It is a very nice story. I always with yourselfe. thank you very much.
I am from Ethiopia.In the privous time I sernd you Ethiopian Millennium poist card. Did you recive it or not?
I always pray for you.God be with yopu.
Christine wrote: It seems that the veshti allowed the old man to feel a connection to you. I had a similar experience when shopping for special foods for a religious holiday at a supermarket. My request identified me to the clerk as one of "the tribe" and a similar exhange occurred.

Now if only we can widen the circle until every being is seen as a treasured member of the same community!
Hamza wrote: What a nice heart touching narration pliz write more to inspire others.
sonrisa wrote: It is so neat to see the gift economy flourish in these small acts of love -- thanks for sharing.
Tammy wrote: I loved your story. It was truly moving. And, I must add, that I particularly like the phrase: "taking the non-linear measure of the customers." Beautiful!

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