Ask Amma

Why doesn’t Gandhi have clothes?

In Why on 25 August 2015 at 2:24 pm

We were recently reading a book on Grandpa Gandhi to my 3 yr old.  The picture of Gandhi with his naked body caught her imagination and she got started on her “why?”   It started out with me explaining that Gandhiji doesn’t wear a shirt and ending in why do the poor not have any money.  Here is part of our conversation:

Gandhi spinning cotton on the charkha. Image: WIkimedia Commons.

Gandhi spinning cotton on the charkha. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

N: Gandhi tata ke paas kapde kyon nahin hain?

Why doesn’t Grandpa Gandhi have clothes?

M: Kyonki unke pas paise nahin the… wo garib the.

Because he did not have money.  He was poor.

[At this Bala corrected me with a better answer/correct reason.]

M: Kyonki wo garib logon ki tarah rahna chahte the.  

Because he wanted to live like the poor.

N: kyon? Why?

M: kyonki garib log unke dost the. Because they were his friends.

N: garib ke pas kapde kyon nahin hai? Why do poor people not have clothes?

M: kyonki unke pas paise nahin hai Because they do not have money.

N: kyon? Why?

M: kyonki unko koi kaam nahin deta Because no one gives them jobs.

N: kyon? Why?

M: kyunki unko padhna nahin ata Because they don’t know how to read.

N: kyon? Why?

That put me on a  spot and my efforts at coming up with an answer she could understand were not convincing enough because the Whys kept coming.  How do you explain to a toddler why the poor don’t have food or clothes?
Living in a middle class neighborhood in Portland, she has not seen any poor and I doubt she remembers seeing poor people on our India trip.. So how do you teach empathy to kids here?   Not to waste clothes & food?  To explain what Bapuji did and why?
Maybe you can bridge the gap for me with your own and your daughter’s experiences.
Divya, Amma to 3-year-old daughter in Portland
Thanks for sharing this conversation.  It’s great when we take the time to write these down, especially when we look back and read them later.  While I might not have the answer to your daughter’s question, I can share my thoughts about answering such questions.
The whys keep coming even for us and I don’t know what is a convincing answer for why the poor don’t have money without also asking the question why the rich have money and what is money and why should anyone have it.
This is entirely separate from the question of how to teach empathy or why we should not waste.   I would not insult the question or the search for answers by tying it to some practical outcome such as not wasting.
As a pure question I think we have to acknowledge that it does not have a satisfactory answer.  We sometimes satisfy ourselves with explanations related to employment or literacy but those are not real answers and kids can see through them.  Especially if we add something like “that is why you should study / work hard” then it really becomes a sham.
In trying to answer the questions of the child, I would consider two points:

1) how to give an honest answer, respecting the child and maintaining their trust in us to honor their questions.  At the same time it must be in terms they can understand – but of course they will take care of that aspect by continuously asking more questions when we say something that they don’t understand. Often their questions compel us to think more deeply and may at times expose a fault in our explanation (or in our society.)

2) how to give an answer that respects humanity, and respects the poor

Saying that people have no clothes because they have no job or cannot read is in one way an honest answer in the sense that if we ask ourselves why we have all the comforts that we have, we can directly relate it to our jobs which we would not be able to have if we could not read.

But this begs the question of how resources are distributed, how skills are valued.  Those who made the clothes may also not know how to read.  And they get paid so little.  If those who made the clothes (and grew the food) were paid living wages with proper working conditions, then the prices of these goods would go up and we would not have (so much) more than we need, and they would be better able to afford what they need.

So a meaningful channel for our empathy is to buy from people who have the ability to earn fair wages either as independent producers, including tailors and farmers, or as part of a union and to support legal protections for workers.  Most of the products available in the standard shops do not meet these criteria.

As long as we are getting products so cheaply that the human / social / environmental impacts are paid by others then we have to make extra effort to remember all the resources and hard work that went into making it and out of respect for all that work, remember not to waste it.

If we spun our cloth ourselves how differently would we regard clothing!

More thoughts on:  Why do the poor not have money?

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