This essay by Chitra Divakaruni appears in the Fall 2012 issue of Tiferet. Click here to purchase the full issue in digital format.
Growing up in a traditional family in India, I rarely thanked anyone. The word for Thank You in my mother tongue, Bengali, Dhonnobad, is a formal one, rarely used in everyday contexts, and never within the family. As teenagers we mostly used it ironically among friends, to express the exact opposite of gratitude.
Thinking back, I cannot remember a single instance when I thanked my parents. It was understood that they would give me whatever I needed, from buying me new clothes at Durga-puja, our biggest yearly festival, to paying for my college education. When I did something for my older relatives—from cooking a special dish they liked, to massaging their tired feet, to running to the store to buy them a magazine, it was accepted with a sense of entitlement. A sense of “Of course she should do these things. We brought her up the right way.” When servants helped make my life easier by performing chores around the house, cleaning my room, washing my clothes, bringing a glass of chilled water when I arrived home on a hot day, I took such acts for granted. If they did not meet my standards, I was quick to express my annoyance. If they did their job well, I didn’t pay attention. It was their job, after all.
People might say that these are examples of a tight-knit society where much is understood and expressed without words. I no longer agree. Words carry certain attitudes. They make us aware of certain realities. When we never say them, we begin to lose these attitudes. When I finally learned to say Thank You—to really say it with intention, it changed my life.
Saying thank you makes me focus on so much I am grateful for—my health, my writing, the many people I love, the strangers who helped me at crucial moments and then went their way. Thank you acknowledges that no one in the world owes me anything—not friends or family; not co-workers or students. And certainly not my teenaged children. They could choose not to do what they do for me, or do it with ill grace. Saying thank you has made me realize how much harder my life would be without the cooperation of the people around me, from my department chair to the UPS man who delivers my packages.
A Thank You can always be expressed. It’s never the wrong time or place. When circumstances aren’t suitable for speaking my thanks, I say them silently in my heart. I send the words across a busy room or across the world. I say it to people who are in another realm—such as my mother who died two years ago. I say it to God. Most times, if I am quiet and alert, I feel a returning warmth envelop me, and I know my thank you has been heard.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist and teacher of writing. Her work has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, the O.Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Russian and Japanese, and many of them have been used for campus-wide and city-wide reads. Several of her works have been made into films and plays. She lives in Houston with her husband Murthy and has two sons, Anand and Abhay, who are in college. Chitra loves to connect with readers on her Facebook page and blog.
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