“Is that really what I need to be happy?”: How one Summer in Bombay Changed Me Forever

Ami Desai Mathur was born in New York, a first-generation natural-born American citizen. Her parents were born in India and immigrated to the United States after getting married. During her first few years of life, Ami spent half the year living in New York and half the year in her aunt and uncle’s home in Bombay, India visiting family. Even after she started going to school, Ami and her mother traveled to Bombay for a few weeks every year or two until Ami graduated from high school.

The home her aunt and uncle lived in wasn’t just the home they lived in at the time. It was the home her mother and uncle had grown up in, and the one her grandmother had grown up in, and her great–grandmother had grown up in.

But if you’re picturing a fancy suburban estate the family owned, think again. It was a two-bedroom apartment they’d been renting for generations. In addition to the two small bedrooms, it had an eating area with a simple table and a cabinet against the wall for dishes, and a kitchen about five feet by five feet with a refrigerator, sink, and pot burner. And there was one bathroom with a sink and a hole in the ground for a toilet. By Western standards, it would be considered severely impoverished. But by local standards, it was quite normal.

And Ami has fond memories of visiting Bombay. During those visits, that simple two-bedroom apartment housed six people: her aunt and uncle, mother, grandmother, sister, and Ami. During the day, she would go shopping with her mother and buy all sorts of exotic things with their Western-size bank accounts, which were large by local standards, although quite modest back home in New York.

Well, at the end of one her visits to Bombay, Ami vividly recalls her uncle feeling some pressure to give her a gift before she left for home. And then he gave her, with some fanfare, a tiny gold-plated clock. She said, “I remember they were so excited and proud to give it to me. But I also remember feeling guilty taking it. I knew they didn’t have much money. And we had so much.”

But that wasn’t the only reason Ami felt awkward accepting that gift. The other reason was that while they clearly wanted to be generous, she realized they probably thought what Ami needed to be happy was a gift. In other words, they thought that for her to be happy, she needed more stuff.

The Lesson

That’s when it dawned on her, still at a young age, that more stuff wasn’t necessary for happiness. And she didn’t have to look far to see examples. Her aunt and uncle and grandmother living there were very happy people, and they had next to nothing.

So she started watching how they spent their time and noticed some differences.

In the U.S., what seemed to make people happy was buying a new TV, or some other material possession. But my aunt and uncle seemed so happy just going to the market to buy their daily food, or picking up a visitor at the train station.”

“When we got home every day, my grandma would cook the most wonderful meal for us. Then we would all go out and play together.

And friends and family were always stopping by to visit. We’d have tea and biscuits and talk with each of them every time. Back home in New York you’d need an invitation before showing up at someone’s house to visit. It would be rude to do otherwise. But in Bombay, it happened every day because you had dozens of friends who lived in the same building. We were never by ourselves and never bored. It was like an adventure every day.”

So, how did that trip affect Ami’s perceptions of money and material possessions? She told me, “I remember being upset just before leaving for that Bombay trip because my mom wouldn’t buy me the Keds sneakers with the blue dot that was all the rage at school.

But by the time I got home, somehow it didn’t seem all that important. The cheaper pair she got me at Walmart suddenly seemed just fine.”

Not everyone can afford the time and expense of a trip halfway around the world to learn the lesson Ami learned in Bombay. But you can start by sharing her story with your young person. Then talk about ways to spend your time that doesn’t involve buying lots of stuff.

As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. How does your home compare to the one Ami’s family rented in Bombay?
  2. If having a fancy home isn’t what they needed to be happy, what do you think made them happy?
  3. How would you feel if you found out that your friends and family thought what you needed to be happy was a constant supply of gifts and other material possessions? Would you agree or disagree with that assessment? Would you be proud of it?]
  4. What does make you happy?
  5. What are the few basic material possessions you think you would absolutely need to be happy?

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Source: Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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