Sunday, February 8, 2004

When shopping becomes a compulsion
Taru Bahl

WHEN Arun met and later courted Ruby, he was floored by her thoughtfulness. She possessed an intuitive because of which she was able to zero in on the exact needs of a friend or family member. She went out of the way to procure what they needed. The sense of gratitude from the other person always made her feel good. But when the gift-giving ritual became a recurring phenomena, going beyond the regular birthday, anniversary, Divali and New Year gifts, it began to get embarrassing, especially for a self-respecting, simple man like Arun.

Even if she was spending what was still her own money, since they were yet to be married, the expense seemed wasteful. It didnít make him love her any more for her these gestures. He wanted to establish an effortless rapport and understanding rather than get into a continuous exchange of presents. He was not a materialistic person. He felt bad when he could not reciprocate her generosity. He wanted to secure their future together by taking loans for a house and car. Surely every penny counted. Though he was not banking on her earning, having a working wife made such investment decisions more possible.

Apart from brief discussions, the couple did not talk about the issue seriously. It didnít seem important at the time and he did not think it would be right for him to make a prestige issue about something that stemmed from love, concern and generosity.

The problem became acute once they got married and had children. They also had to shoulder the responsibility of ailing parents and pay monthly instalments on loans they had taken. He found that every time she felt cornered or found herself in a situation which diminished her sense of self, she went on a shopping binge. It wasnít as if she went with the specific intention of picking up something for the house. She drove her car to the nearest outlet and bought random objects Ėsoup packets, jars of jam and pickles, hordes of cups and glasses and umpteen lipsticks.

Once she got home mentally and physically exhausted she crashed out and slept for hours on end. When she woke up remorse would hit her and she would cry for hours. With an overriding sense of guilt she would drive back to the shop, at times getting lost on the way, for these were not places she patronised and try exchanging the things she had bought for more useful items.

Arun knew she had a serious problem. In the initial years of their marriage she had agreed to give up her credit cards. Once she realised that hers was a sickness, she opted to surrender her cheque books and also closed her bank accounts. Most of the shopping was done either by Arun or by both of them. Arun also told shopkeepers in the vicinity not to entertain "memsahibís" shopping outbursts.

However, when these measures did not work Arun knew he had to find a more reliable solution. He realised he had to enlist psychiatric help. Since results would be slow in coming, he knew he had to work on building her self-esteem. Persuading her to engage in activities which were pleasurable and giving her respect was the only way he could help divert her attention to more constructive pursuits.

He remembered she used to be fond of reading. He pushed her to become a member of a bookstore. She later started handling the promotions at the store. Organising book reading sessions and meetings with the authors kept her busy. The best news came when she was made incharge of sourcing and became responsible for someone elseís money. This enabled her to be conservative with her spending. There were times she got carried away but these were moments when Arun pulled her back and she was thankful for that. She knew that if she was a better more anchored person today, it was thanks to his support.