With the school year drawing to a close, the overarching concern in my mind is not if I should seek out summer camps or let my kid be a ‘free ranger’ in our backyard. Rather I find I am consumed by a strange manner of anxiety mixed with excitement centered around ‘suitcases’! The annual rite of passage – our trip to India is around the corner. Taking on the proportions of an existential conundrum, it looms ever closer… spiking my propensity for planning, shopping and list making into high gear. 

You’d think that 26 years of life as an NRI and countless mini-migrations across the oceans each summer, to visit the country of my birth, would have eased this quandary. Uhh…NOPE! Come summer, the dormant slumbering creature inside me best described as ‘part maniacal consumer – part packrat’ springs to life, and off I go on the seasonal dance of list-making, shopping, standing in the returns line, packing, weighing, repacking, and checking in… phew! 

It isn’t just the gifts. I find the same tendency extends into packing clothing for the 2 month pilgrimage. Especially for my child! Like laundry facilities are an unheard of thing back in India! LOL. (shock face emoji). Amazing isn’t it?

“What do you gift family and friends these days?” my friend asked me recently. I had asked the same question not too long ago. With the discussion that ensued, it became clear that it is indeed a daunting task! Global economy and consumerism has leveled the playing field tremendously over the years. There isn’t much that is not available in an Indian marketplace today. Added to this, online shopping has made our job of finding interesting and unique gifts even more difficult!

But despite this, we find ourselves filling suitcases to the brim and transporting them back and forth. Of course I wouldn’t dare generalize! But all you have to do is observe the baggage carts lined up at the check-in lines of any India-bound international carrier. They are literally groaning under the weight of the umpteen cases and boxes piled in a manner defying the laws of physics! At this rate, I am convinced that very soon, airline companies are going to charge us for breathing the recycled air on the flight! So… back to the question of the season.  “What do we fill ‘em cases with?”

NRI or otherwise – we are, at the root of it, a generous culture. We prize our guests, just as much as we prize the art of hospitality. And we absolutely abhor walking into the home of a loved one empty-handed. I get that. Totally understand. I am living by the same cultural moires after all. So it isn’t just the act of shopping until I drop that confounds me. My seasonal raids of wholesale warehouses yield much of the same stuff as my cousin’s shopping list, and that of her sister-in-law’s. In the end, piles of similar consumables end up stuffed in refrigerators and closets of the network of common relatives along our family trees! They could open a warehouse of their own, if they’re enterprising enough!

Maybe it is time to change this ritual? I am in no way suggesting that we should turn into rude, thoughtless goons. But it bears thinking. Is it just my brain hardwired with “What if I need…, or “How will it look if I don’t…?” OR, is it just that I have let myself get habituated to this way of consumerism? I swear I am a normal, practical individual on most days. Just not in the weeks before summer break.

You will find me “pinning” blogs and information about ‘Minimalism’ and ‘Mindfulness’ – my personal M&Ms! And I try. I really do try to live by these tenets. So what happens to me when I’m confronted with a suitcase? It is as if my brain goes into paroxysms of guilt over pockets of empty spaces – calling out to be filled. And M&M fly straight out the window! 

Last night, trying to avoid the yawing mouths of two suitcases, I indulged in a bout of nostalgia from my childhood. My father was employed with the Indian Railways and we moved around quite a bit. Helping my mother pack, my sister and I acquired a knack for it over the years. Everything we owned, our whole life, was carefully packed into three mammoth ‘trunks’ fashioned out of timber from sleeper beams. Large sealed padlocks adorned them as they were transported from place to place. Before we started packing, we embarked upon a ritual of combing through our possessions and eliminating the inevitable clutter that had made its way into our necessities.  We had the “Want” list and the “Need” list. As hard as it was to part with the wants… we managed well enough. We learnt early how to make do and improvise. And we had fun! The biggest take away from these experiences were the wonderful memories we acquired with each move!

I am determined to try and make a go of this upcoming trip to India – with – ONE suitcase! (Ok. Maybe… a duffle bag along with it). And except for a small list of specific personalized gifts, I would like to try and spend more time with the ones I love. Because, I’m pretty sure they would appreciate it. There is the prospect of day trips being planned that is sure to yield a treasure trove of fun. My daughter is looking forward to time with her cousins. She is eager to start her own ‘Want Vs Need’ list! 

And Me? I’m looking forward to packing my single NRI suitcase full of precious memories for the return journey! 

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.