The true meaning of charity

This week I experienced what I can only describe as my most humble evening. I helped to serve food to rough sleepers and the less fortunate in Birmingham City Centre. I was volunteering with Midland Langar Seva.

What amazed me was the waiting list to volunteer. I was told I may have to wait two months (!) but I managed to join the team a week later.

Speaking to one of the co-founders, it’s a beautiful story of how they transcended from a life that they felt was draining them morally, to adopting Sikhism and fulfilling the desire to give back to the community.

They began Midland Langar Seva in Walsall on a weekly basis two and half years ago. They invested £40. It is now a daily voluntary service in more than 10 cities with no monetary exchange. The organisation runs on only food donations and volunteers.

The co-founder described how they have been offered money on several occasions but they have point blank refused and asked these donors to provide food instead. The offers were as much as tens of thousands of pounds.

I was left gobsmacked at this. Having worked in the ‘voluntary’ sector I have seen first-hand how uncharitable charities can be. Even places of worship are run like a business. Profits seem to be the fuel of this sector.

Yet Midland Langar Seva has kept everything simple and transparent. No money is involved. It runs on basic Sikh values of voluntary service, or “seva”, as advocated by the first Sikh guru; Guru Nanak Dev Ji.

I was overwhelmed by such a noble and honest practice being observed in 21st Century Britain, when the origins were from South Asia, 500 years ago.

Moreover, it was the passion with which the volunteers were participating. You could see they were experienced in what they were doing but they seemed as enthusiastic as I was as a newbie to the organisation.

Midland Langar Seva provides hot and cold food and drinks, and sometimes even sleeping bags, gloves and scarves to the less fortunate EVERY day – come rain or snow. The co-founder was laughing and saying he can’t remember the last time he watched EastEnders because every evening is dedicated to this noble cause that he holds close to his heart.

Such dedication is commendable.

On returning home that night, as I tucked into my homemade hot meal, in my cosy pyjamas watching television in my warm home; I couldn’t help but wonder all those hundreds of people Midland Langar Seva feeds every night.

We take so much for granted. We raise our nose to food we don’t find appetising. We throw away leftovers. We don’t hesitate when spending on dining out. Yet there are so many people on the streets who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or perhaps not even a meal but something, anything, to eat.

I donate to charities but I couldn’t say with confidence how much of my donation goes to the people it is intended for. However, when food is offered to someone less fortunate, you can guarantee you are helping somebody in need.

It is such a basic act but could make a world of a difference to somebody. A difference that we, the more fortunate, could not even relate to.

It really makes you put things into perspective. We talk about the richest in the world being millionaires and billionaires. But maybe the richest in the world are those who have food on their plate and a warm home to share with their loved ones.

Food for thought.

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Lohri

It seems every week there is an Indian cultural or religious festival of some kind to celebrate. I suppose Indians enjoy food and rejoicing so we need any excuse to celebrate! And today we do just that.

Lohri is a Punjabi cultural festival that originated to mark the traditional time to harvest sugarcane. And for farmers the day after Lohri; Maghi, is seen as the start to their financial year.

Food traditionally associated to this time of year is linked to the harvest as well – radish, rewri (sweet snacks made from jaggery), and the Punjabi trademark dish; sarson da saag (made of mustard leaves) with makki di roti (chapatti made of corn flour).

Over generations it became a trend to use this day to honour a new member of the family. Thus, when a son was married and brought home his wife, or when a son was born; the family would rejoice around a fire (seeing as its winter).

Daughters were not celebrated because in Indian culture generally – and other cultures from the subcontinent – a daughter is seen as an outsider because she will eventually marry and be part of another family; taking their name and adding to their family with children.

However, recently more and more Punjabis have been breaking free from this patriarchal tradition. They are using Lohri to celebrate the birth of their sons AND daughters, who are more commonly being regarded with equal footing.

It’s been an absolute pleasure and honour in my family that in the past few years we have celebrated the birth of my four nieces. Moreover, elders in the family have acknowledged that it is wrong to say daughters are “outsiders” because ultimately they are the ones who will support and take care of their parents, regardless of whether they are married.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that when a boy marries, he becomes more of an outsider to his family than a daughter who has moved home and adopted her husband’s name. That daughter will maintain a close, loving relationship with her parents and siblings; she will be there in times of need and celebration.

A good daughter-in-law will also build this relationship with her in-laws…a good daughter-in-law will.

This year, a campaign has been launched to highlight gender inequality and to encourage people to celebrate ALL additions to their family, regardless of their gender. So pink is being worn by those who have had a baby girl in the family.

Pink and blue ladoos (Indian sweets) are being shared to mark the birth of girls and boys respectively.

I think it’s a great visual concept that adds to the impact. However, I can’t help but wonder whether it exacerbates the notion of difference between genders rather than encouraging equality.

It shouldn’t matter what colour you wear, or what colour the ladoos are; simply celebrate the extension to your family. Embrace your baby son or daughter with equal love and happiness. Make a daughter feel AS valued as a son from birth, and they will grow up to be strong pillars that hold your family together.

I celebrated Lohri at work by sharing some Indian snacks and sweets. My colleagues thought the concept of marking the addition to the family was great. Here’s to hoping this festival will continue to spread happiness and joy in all families without a gender stipulation.

Did you know…

You may have heard the traditional folk song associated with Lohri: “Sunder Mundriye”. But do you know what it means and where it originates from?

The song is based on folklore about a Robin Hood-esque Punjabi man called Dulla Bhatti during the Moghul era, when Akbar was emperor.

Dulla Bhatti stole from the rich and saved women who were kidnapped and forcibly sold in slave markets. From his stolen fortune he would then marry these women off. Two of these women were called Sundri and Mundri.

Happy Lohri!

Is monogamy natural?

When you’re a 30-year-old, unmarried Punjabi girl – the first topic of conversation most people will have with you is about marriage. God knows how many times a week I’m asked “why don’t you settle down?” But when I speak to lots of married friends, they question “why do you want to settle down?”

It’s the age-old dilemma of wanting what you don’t have – a psychology study suggests that when you are single, all you see is happy couples; yet when you are committed, you see happy singles.

According to family and society in general – I need to be doing more to ‘settle down’ because I’m pushing my sell-by date. However, when I speak to married couples I’m shocked at how unhappy they are. Whether its issues with their spouse, the in-laws, pressure of being parents or financial worry of having a family – they tend to be unhappy and encourage me to enjoy the single life.

Sadly, many have considered or have committed adultery. They have flirted with somebody leading to casual dating, had a one-night affair, sometimes even a full-blown affair or booked an escort…

And it made me question – is monogamy unnatural? Is it normal to want to be with more than one person at the same time? Or are we made to be with just ‘the one’?

I look at my parents’ generation. The majority of them hardly knew their spouse before they married. Yet decades later, and through so many hardships relating to first or second generation Indian migrants, they have stuck it out.

I wouldn’t call them the most loved up generation. In my parents’ case; after 40 years of marriage there isn’t really a relationship because they’re simply not compatible. One of my uncle’s appears to be happy on the exterior because he is the type to compromise – yet he shares his frustrations with others. Another uncle has a fiery relationship with his wife because they are both hot-headed and strong-minded. But their love for each other cannot be denied.

I wonder if couples like these would have chosen the partner they ended up with. I wonder if they have remained together because of social norms. Have they conformed to cultural pressures and remained together because divorce is taboo? Or have they remained together because they feel they have nowhere else to go? Maybe they feel it’s too late to start again or move on.

I spoke to a friend who has recently separated from her husband and has a child. She happens to be English and I thought her perspective is one that women across ethnicities and cultures could relate to.

She believes men are smothered by their mothers, and when they find a partner she will mother him too. But once a baby comes along, it takes precedence and the man feels side-lined. He can react in one of many ways – he can stray and pursue attention from another woman, he can gain satisfaction from behaviour that may seem rewarding such as alcohol or gambling, or in some cases even turn to aggression to vent his frustration.

It may sound like a simple theory with extreme consequences but sadly, it’s one that rings true to a few couples I know. It hasn’t necessarily happened as soon as a baby is born but this male behaviour is prevalent in some of the married men I knew who are fathers.

On the other hand I wondered if this theory could be switched to women…are women smothered by their fathers? Do they search for a protective provider in a male partner? Do they expect their partners to give them as much attention as their father did but when a baby comes along this attention is diverted? This makes the woman feel unloved, unwanted and so the bitterness, depression or anger starts to boil…Wonder how many couples can relate to that.

Although when it comes to new mothers I think postnatal depression and body image has a lot to do with it too.

Maybe there is too much Freudian thinking going on here!

Another friend who is divorced and is now in a live-in relationship also questioned whether we’re naturally monogamous. She believes attraction may be important at the beginning of a relationship when passion is at its peak and you can’t get enough of each other. But with time, and the stresses of life, this attraction or passion may diminish. However, what is vital for the relationship to stay strong is friendship. You should be comfortable enough to be yourself or even be adventurous with your partner. You should have the confidence to share anything with them without the fear of being judged.

I suppose this is common in couples who no longer care what they look like in front of their partner – a stark contrast to the beginning of a relationship when appearance mattered.

But is this the wrong way to go about things? Surely, to maintain a spark in a relationship it’s down to both individuals to continue making an effort for the other. Whether it’s taking care of themselves in terms of their appearance or treating their partner to spontaneous shows of affection – I think it’s crucial to maintain passion otherwise one of you may feel inclined to stray.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not, in any way, condoning or justifying people who are unfaithful. Some people may be naturally promiscuous and cannot be with just one person for the rest of their life. But surely, if you let yourself go, don’t watch your weight, give up on dressing decently, no longer make time for personal grooming – then can you blame your partner for feeling less attracted to you?

Needless to say our bodies change over the years. Gravity and age (as well as childbirth for women!) will eventually take its toll. But I get really frustrated at people who complain they haven’t got time to get their hair done, or haven’t got time to get their eyebrows done, or haven’t got time to shave…it’s as simple as this: if you won’t make time to take care of yourself, who will?

Nobody is going to volunteer to shape and trim your beard for you. Nobody is going to offer a manicure.  Nobody is going to moisturise your body for you.

Yes, I’m referring to both men and women.

Some time ago I wrote about a (male) friend who believed relationships can only work if they’re ‘open’. By that he meant they are healthy if you are open to your partner experimenting with others. He was quick to confirm this would work both ways – for the husband and the wife. But the key is to let the other know.

So there is no secrecy, no cheating as such because you have confessed everything. Apparently, half the fun of an affair is the secrecy of it so by my friend’s account; your partner is less likely to cheat if this element is taken away.

I shared this perspective with a colleague who is married and recently became a father. With a cheeky grin he simply replied if both parties are consensual then fine, but such cases are rare.

I questioned his thoughts on monogamy. He believes men have a natural animal instinct to sow their seed as far and wide as possible. This is an evolutionary fact in the animal kingdom – although he wasn’t sure if women were as inclined.

So I questioned whether he thought the concept of marriage is flawed because of men’s natural animal instinct. He immediately responded: “No. Marriage is the test of faith and self-control, which separates us from animals.”

I must admit, hearing these words were music to my ears. I was so relieved to hear from somebody man enough to admit men are promiscuous but also humble to acknowledge marriage is an oath you take to be true and faithful to somebody.

And maybe that’s what it boils down to. If you can honour your oath of sanctity in a marriage; settle down. If you know you don’t have the self-control or even the belief in monogamy then save your partner the future heartbreak and be honest. Who knows, your partner may be accommodating to the idea of an “open relationship” or you could part ways and find somebody who is better suited to your mind set.

So maybe naturally we are inclined to be with more than one partner – men may have evolved to ‘plant their seed’ and women may have evolved to find the best seeds (!) but – hopefully – we have evolved into a civil society where we can differentiate ourselves from animals by self-control.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with polygamy – each to their own, whatever floats your boat. But in any relationship, honesty is the absolute minimum a person deserves and the optimum to achieve.

Let It Go

The dawn of a new beginning, a clean slate, the opportunity to start over – no matter how you see the New Year it’s a fresh start. It’s not just the first day of another month, but symbolic to remind us that we have made it through another year.

It sounds cliché but 2015 has taught me a lot about myself. Turning the big 3-0 was probably a big contributing factor. Moreover, the new people who have come in (and out) of my life, and the new experiences have made me realise just how resilient I am, how far I can push myself and when I need to walk away.

And the latter is probably the hardest thing to do. Knowing when a situation is best left alone; when you need to stop trying to make amends to something that is unnecessary or un-amendable…when you need to let go.

Initially, it’s tough. But that’s life. You need to let go of the old to allow the new in. When one door closes, another opens.

And one of the biggest causes of upset for people, me in particular (!) is expectation.

I set up a situation with high standards by expecting a lot to only then be tarnished with disappointment and vent this frustration with anger.

What does it achieve? Nothing but widespread irritation to all those involved.

Old habits die hard but it’s a habit I need to work on because when you have no expectations, you only ever gain – either in the form of receiving a positive outcome or by receiving experience of a situation.

Take a job interview as an example. Don’t expect anything but remain hopeful. Ultimately you will either gain a new job or have experience under your belt to help you develop and prepare in future. Win-win

A lot of the time we over-complicate life. We like to add shades of grey, which – let’s face it – makes life a lot more spicy, but most situations are black and white. They don’t need to be unnecessarily dwelled on or procrastinated over.

Another teaching of 2015 is that situations that cause the most problems or issues are often the ones that least deserve the time and effort. If something is meant to be, it will be.

Life is shockingly short. A lifetime may sound like a lot but you never know who will leave your life and how abruptly.

So why waste precious moments in bitterness and grudges. You may never have the chance to make amends. Life doesn’t wait for us to see clarity or change moods. Life has no control over time. And time can give or take anything, when we least expect it.

So why not focus on what brings us joy. When we’re down, think about times of happiness and the loving people we’re surrounded by.

There are so many people less fortunate than us. In a world of war, famine and poverty; we should look at things in the bigger context of life.

Be grateful. Be positive. Be hopeful.

Life is what we make it. So make it special, make it worthwhile and make it  beautiful.

Happy New Year!