Punctuate Life

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The Rise of Heart

Had enough of the negativity and the ugliness that is popping up everywhere? Do you believe that the world is on the brink of an apocalypse? Do you really think that all the good is gone and only dark days lie ahead of us? Then this one is for you.

In the midst of death, despair and devastating loss, I’ve seen ordinary people do extraordinary things. Now it’s easy to open your heart and show kindness to less fortunate folks when everything is going plum good in your life. However, it takes a different kind of heart to shift your focus from your suffering to the plight of another.

A friend’s friend, who is recovering from a serious illness with prolonged complications, is constantly in pain and sometimes unable to perform day-to-day activities. In the midst of her health crisis, she managed to rescue two injured cats and even opened her home to a dog recovering from surgery. Mind you, she already takes care of five cats and an ailing relative. She truly has a big heart and is a blessing to all the animals she cares for.

When my parents returned from Sweden after visiting my brother, their house help quit due to ill-health. Luckily, my mom encountered this lady who used to work for my grandma and later for her before relocating to another state. She couldn’t afford the rent in Chennai and her step-son asked her to vacate under the pretext of renovation. Being a widow, she is entitled to the widows pension granted by the state government and visits Chennai every month to collect it. Now when word got out that she was not residing in Chennai anymore, the authorities refused to pay her. To make ends meet she decided to work for my mom. She found a temporary place to stay and was provided two meals a day. My mom packed breakfast for her in the morning and also gave her a cup of tea and snacks in the evening.

All was well until the landlady started acting up after a couple of months. She made it abundantly clear that she wanted our house help to leave. Poor lady had no where to go. My parents decided to let her stay with them. In her retirement years instead of living a quiet life with a roof over her head and enough dough to sustain her, here she was homeless and forced to earn her living.

Recently another lady who worked for us and is now unemployed showed up and my mom took her  in as well. She now cooks for my parents. They really don’t need two people to help out around the house but they couldn’t turn her away because she has to support her family.

I think everywhere everyone’s heart has opened just a little more. I was surprised when my mother-in-law offered to feed our kitten – the one we had to leave behind. We raised it as an outdoor cat although we fed it a few times a day. She knew how to hunt for lizards and mice so we resigned ourselves to the fact that she could survive without us. But the fact that we may never see her again after we left for the U.S. broke our hearts. Seeing how distraught the kids were, their grandma decided to do the least she could do to make the kitten stay.

Then there are some brave souls who are in a vortex of adversity and still look out for others. A friend of mine suffered a loss, was sick and had to fend for herself. She had endless paperwork that had to be followed up and submitted and had to deal with uncooperative staff. She still found time to call and check on me and give me hope during what was a very dark year for me. Her dad’s friend’s sister was in the hospital and she offered to cook and provide meals for them to the extent of neglecting her very own health.

So is there still hope for this world? I’d say YES! It may not be obvious and it may not be breaking news but in small ways, small people with big hearts are showing us that love and kindness are alive and well in the world.


On Gratitude and Giving

This is one of my favorite topics, so forgive me if I keep rehashing it and presenting it in yet another blog to you. Drawing from my earlier post on nature versus nurture, I had the good fortune of knowing three very generous ladies. Two of them were my grandmothers and one was my ‘adopted’ grandmother. My Dadima (dad’s mom) was a businesswoman and she did really well selling cooking gas to households and hotels. Ganga (my adopted grandmother) lived with her and took care of the home, the dogs, the garden and cooking. My Mutasshi (my mom’s mom) lived in the quiet village of Viakkom in Kerala with my grandpa, who was retired. They lived off his small pension and some money they made by selling coconuts, cashews and other things that my grandpa grew in his huge backyard.

Although they all had different incomes, they were infinitely compassionate. People would come to them, steeped in debt or unable to shoulder an unexpected expense and the money was given. My Mutasshi has gone as far as pledging her gold chain to help a maid. Ganga denied herself a home and paid a huge sum towards a loved one’s home. Dadima has married off some of the younger maids and provided utensils and other things they needed to set up a home. This blog is too small to share their acts of generosity. Suffice to say that at both my grandmas’ funerals, strangers came to us weeping and relating stories of their compassion and altruism.

Give to receive. I learnt this lesson when I was still a schoolgirl. Riding a bus back home one day, I sat next to a gray-haired lady of somewhat frugal means. She was short of 25 paisa (equivalent to a quarter) and the rude conductor was yelling at her. I quickly fished out some change and thrust it into the conductor’s hand. He muttered and withdrew to his seat.

A few days later, I didn’t have change for five rupees and the conductor (not the same one) refused to take it and give me change. I pleaded with him but he told me to get off at the next stop. I was nearly in tears. One lady overheard the whole thing and asked me how much the fare was. I told her and she quietly extracted the coins from her purse and gave it to the conductor. Karma or pay back! What else can I say!

When I was still in school I would look for ways to help and had a mental checklist. If I helped someone I said to myself – you have done your good deed for today! Growing up meant burying all of this in the whole money-making, getting ahead in life and succeeding craziness that we all buy into. How right we are as kids, with our hearts in the right place. And then we unlearn all of heaven’s wisdom and replace it with a worldliness so nonsensical to become grown -ups! Our intellects expand but our hearts shrink.

Gratitude means different things in different cultures. In some cultures a simple thank you is enough. In Japan, one way of expressing gratitude is to say that you are indebted to the other person and owe them a favor. They don’t stop at just lip service. They actually go out of their way to help the other person – sometimes more than once. In some cultures this kind of generosity may be taken advantage of.

Acts of kindness have a ripple effect beyond the giver and receiver. The gift of gratitude keeps on giving. It all adds up in your karmic record and comes bounding back in heaps and loads, when you least expect it.

If life is not going well for you right now and you are not receiving all that you are wishing for, stop and find ways to give. Give exactly what you need to receive and watch the magic happen. Just the act of selfless giving creates joy in your life. And being in a state of joy helps. It attracts good things to you and possibly the very thing you were missing will show up.

Another way of doing it, is to be grateful for what you have every single day instead of harping on what’s missing. Gratitude was the one thing that turned my life around, followed by giving. So when I wasn’t getting any calls for interviews, I jumped back into volunteering. After my first meeting with other volunteers, I came home and found an e-mail from the school district asking if I was still interested in the job I had applied for! Later someone from a staffing company called me and told me she was interested in hiring me. What more proof can I give you? Gratitude and giving open the flood doors to great gifts. Give and you shall receive. And when you receive, don’t forget to send a thank you note. I highly recommend keeping a stash of thank you notes in your stationery drawer. You never know when you will need one.

Have you experienced the boomerang effect of giving in your life? Do share your stories.


Make Room for Others

I read this book years ago and wanted to share this with you because it really jolted me out of my apathy and excessive narcissism . I hope it will inspire you to care about the less fortunate and do something for them this year. The title of the book -Leaving Microsoft to Change the World- was what got me to grab it off the shelf and start leafing through it feverishly. Who in their right mind would give up a lucrative career in Microsoft? And by lucrative I mean the kind of person who gets to talk to Bill Gates and other top people in the company on a weekly basis. Someone who gets to travel the world promoting Microsoft products. Someone who can vacation in Nepal. Someone named John Woods.

Little did he know that the trip to Nepal would change his life. He stopped by one of the local schools for an impromptu tour. The kids did not have desks and sat huddled together on benches with their books on their laps. Woods asked to see the library and was shown a cupboard half filled with tour guides cast off by tourists and other assorted novels which were not age-appropriate. As a child, Woods used to bike to the library every week and he couldn’t stomach the idea of kids growing up without access to books. He promised the headmaster that he would return with books. The headmaster didn’t think he was serious because none of these tourists ever came back!

Back home Woods wrote to all his friends and asked them to collect children’s books and ship them to his Dad’s address. Before long his Dad called him and told him that the garage was full of books and that he needed to make a trip to Nepal to deliver them. The front cover of his book is a picture of a smiling John Woods right next to a yak piled high with books. So he did go back and was greeted by a very excited bunch of kids. They were so happy to get books and the whole experience moved Woods so much that he decided he would continue collecting books for other schools in Nepal.

What started as a project ended up as a charity – Room to Read – and spread to other poor nations of the world. John Woods quit Microsoft to grow his charity and reach more children. About 7 million children have benefitted from this program. Room to Read does more than donating books. They help built libraries and new classrooms for schools, publish books in local languages and provide scholarships for girls.

Well, he was rich and can afford to quit his job and help others you say? What about Derreck Kayongo who fled Uganda with his parents and ended up starting the Global Soap Project? His charity collects soap from hotels (which would otherwise end up in land fills) recycles it into new soap and ships it to Africa where people can’t afford soap. Imagine not having access to basic sanitation. People get sick and die because they can’t wash their hands. Kayongo says that he feels blessed to be living in the United States but at the same time he cannot forget what it was like to live in Uganda. He knows the right thing to do is to lend a helping hand.

When I was studying in Women’s Christian College I remember hearing the story of two girls who had just graduated from the very same college. They founded the Banyan- a home for mentally ill women who end up on the streets. After trying to help one such woman they found that there was no place for them to go. These girls had their whole lives ahead of them but they chose dedicate it to service. They were just regular people like you and me but with bigger hearts maybe.

All of us cannot start NGOs or give up our jobs to help the less fortunate but we can in our own small way contribute. Not caring is not an option. Turning a deaf ear to pleas for help is not cool. Look how far we have come. We earn more than we ever earned before. We live in the lap of luxury, spend and waste with gay abandon. We can throw food and let it rot in our garbage cans but we can’t feed a beggar! Forget feeding them, we hurl insults at them and chase them away. A few hundred years ago it was a person’s responsibility to give food and water to anyone who came knocking at their door. Whatever happened to that? We don’t even want to feed our maids these days.

Can you maybe find it in you to be more sensitive to the suffering of others? Maybe care a little more this year. Give a little more and take a little less. Waste less and save more. The new earth is being birthed but it needs your help, your care and your love. We are in this together no matter how separate and disconnected our lives feel. We cannot rise without helping others onto their feet. We cannot shine while others live shrouded in darkness. So make room in your heart for the others.


My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 1

The other day as I chatted on the phone with my good friend G, with whom I have shared many a happy meal, I was flooded with food memories. Those of you who have seen me or pictures of me, know I have this figure that belies the foodie that I am. And yet food is such a big part of my life and my relationship with people. I guess if you are born in India, food is a big part of your life. We Indians spend a long time prepping, cooking, and enjoying meals.

Right from the womb I imagine every Indian baby floats in amniotic fluid laced with spice. Once out in the world, they take in the exotic aromas wafting through the warm air. Parents can barely wait to get their toddlers accustomed to spices. If you can’t take spice you aren’t fit enough to be Indian. I laugh when I see Indian parents fret and fume when their kids push away plates of spicy curry and ask for mac and cheese.

When I was a kid growing up in India my grandma had an amazing cook, Ganga. Her caramel custard was to die for and she made the best meatball curry (back then I used to eat meat). Fish fry and chicken curry were top notch and her biryani was awesome. Her dosas were crispy and brown and her chutneys always hit the right spot. Her parathas were flaky and soft and her garlic pickle was so famous that my friend M would bug me to bring some to school every day. Well you get the picture – I grew up in the lap of culinary excellence.

My best friend G lived across the street and I was always at her house. Her parents were from Punjab/ Uttar Pradesh and the food they cooked was entirely different from what we ate. I’m drooling here just thinking about Aunty Sharma’s Aloo and Methi paratha, arvi fry and just plain simple dal. I used to hang around all day until dinnertime and then they’d ask me to join them. I’d rush to the table after quickly calling my grandma to tell her I won’t be home for dinner. Dessert was another exotic experience at the Sharma’s. Malpua, ladoo, kheer and doodhi ka halwa to name a few.

At G’s place everyone helped out in the kitchen. At my grandma’s house I was not allowed to do any chores so I really enjoyed cooking and eating together at G’s place. I think my love for cooking started here. I used to bug my Mom to make cakes and puddings and she was most indulgent. Sultana sponge cake and coconut castle puddings were my favorite. She even got a second-hand cooking range (with an oven) – sort of a rarity in India. My brother and I used to invite our friends over and my Mom would cook a feast from scratch. Sometimes I’d test out some dishes on my unsuspecting friends (like baked cauliflower and potato).

My grandma from my Mom’s side lived in Kerala and she was an excellent cook. We visited her every summer (see Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country) and she baked us cardamom cake in her electric oven. She made marvelous shrimp curry and other fresh seafood. Her sambar was out of the world and she even made chocolate for us from her cocoa tree. Her neighbor used to help her make giant vats of mysore pak for us to take home.

In school we shared lunches with our friends and I remember R used to bring the tastiest Rajma (red kidney beans) and rice. When I was in college I was the only one in my group that brought lunch from home. My other friends ate in the mess or ordered food from the canteen. At the university, my dear friend A used to bring the tastiest Bisi Bela Bath. She actually brought two boxes. One for herself and another to share with the rest of us. Years later I wheedled the recipe from her and make my own BBB these days.

G and I decided to fast every Friday when we were in college. Looking back, I think it was crazy for two girls who live, breathe and dream about food to take up fasting. But we did it all the same. We only had tea and biscuits (cookies) in the morning and then drank water for the rest of day. We broke the fast in the evening by having dinner at my place or her place. Ganga and Aunty Sharma would go all out and cook multiple dishes for us poor starved girls. It would be a regular feast that we polished off. We’d end up stuffed, lying on the bed, so happy that we’d end up giggling. Giggling to the point where our tummies hurt. This went on for sixteen weeks and then we stopped because even God has His limits!

Now you all know I moved to the U.S. 11 years ago and the food culture here has influenced me in many ways. But that is a topic for a whole other blog – Part 2 of My Gastronomic Adventure follows…until then like Julia Child says – Bon Appetit.



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Guest Blog – My First Volunteeri​ng Event at Dream a Dream (by Dinesh Damodaran)

Sometimes I think about the life I’m living
I seem to take more than I’m giving
More vengeful than forgiving
More reluctant than willing
Cynical without believing
Need to start emptying the bad
So the goodness can start filling
The opposite of death is not life but birth,
And we make that journey to figure out what we’re worth.

As I embarked on my first namma metro ride and DaD (Dream a Dream) journey literally and figuratively I have come to realize why I wanted to be a volunteer in the first place. Even though we all lead very superficially successful lives there is this gross feeling of inadequacy that we all feel (I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit this), and we can’t help but feel there is more to life than just being. I think the verse above that I wrote a few months back captures this sentiment perfectly.

I was among the 20 volunteers who had the privilege of undertaking a train ride in the Namma Metro with 80 very happy and excited school children of the Mt. Everest School.

Besides being my first metro ride it was also my first event as a volunteer. It was reminiscent of how one feels on his/her first day of school…play school! By the time I had joined the party at the Byapanahali the kids were already gathered around the DaD volunteers singing songs and doing roll calls. The energy was palpable with a heady mix of the positive vibes and playful banter coming from both child and volunteer alike with a nice warm draft of the afternoon breeze made the atmosphere warm and fuzzy. Puzzled onlookers in the form of commuters, station personnel and passersby completed this very happy picture.

2 Volunteers each were assigned to a group of 10 children for the remainder of the trip that started and ended at the Byapanahalli Metro train station.

Station personnel gave us a complete run down of how the metro functions and the advantages of commuting in them. The children were attentive and answered any questions that were asked of them during this talk.

We then lined up at the platform and waited with bated breath for our train to arrive. I tried to strike up a conversation with some of the kids while we waited. They were all looking at the escalator and were noticing how it slowed down to a stop when no one was using it. I used that moment to point out to them how the escalator had a sensor that was sensitive to weight. (Boring I know!).

The train arrived and we all poured in and the kids scrambled to get seated. One of the first things I observed once the train started its journey towards MG Road was how cold some of the children were feeling because of air conditioning. I felt bad for not having carried my jacket that day, could have given it to one of those kids.

The kids had their heads turned towards the window for most of the onward commute taking in the sights. I explained how one must go about reading the route displays and upcoming station information. My audience of 4-5 students understood and didn’t have any doubts or questions.

We alighted at MG Road and made our way to the other platform for the return commute. Many of the kids now turned their attention towards each other and us and started striking up conversations.

I too made an effort to speak to the kids on the return commute. I asked a few of the kids their names, which class they were studying in, why they were wearing canvas shoes on that particular day (I used to wear canvas shoes on days when we had PT periods). What their favourite sport was (I was surprised to hear cricket). And I asked them about the DaD football coaching programmes in their school and if they liked it. I also asked them if they were enjoying the outing.

These children are exceptionally well behaved and courteous. They kept addressing me as “sir” till I asked them to drop the “sir” and replace it with “anna” (big brother). They almost immediately complied with a very warm smile. One boy also let me know by what name I could call him. (That wasn’t so hard now was it?) I salute all their parents for having raised their children so well, I am sure you must all be very proud!

We arrived at Byapanahalli station shortly afterwards. And we assembled outside for the wrap up and experience sharing session. While I couldn’t follow what was spoken mostly because it was in Kannada, the look of content and happiness on the faces of the children spoke volumes.

Volunteers were asked to share the feedback, I was a little too tongue tied to say anything meaningful and hence passed up the chance then, but I am going to take the opportunity to do so now.


Dear Kids,

Thank you for

  • helping      me understand that the greatest gift one can ever give another person is      time and the greatest virtue undivided attention
  • reminding      me that no matter how grown up I am or appear to be, there is always a      little room and time to be a child
  • helping      me realize that the time I spend with you lighting up your life, you are      also lighting up mine, more so
  • being      underprivileged is a state of mind indoctrinated by social dogma and if      you peel away those layers you and I are not so different in what we want      and who we are
  • helping      me appreciate that the real joy of giving is when its unconditional and      without expectations


One particularly endearing incident for me during the ride was when this girl caught hold of the hand of a volunteer and pulled her towards her. “Are you having a good time”, she asked the volunteer. “Of course I am happy, I’m spending time with you and if you are happy I am also happy.” replied the volunteer.

Such a selfless gesture from a supposedly underprivileged kid. It was both a turning point of this event and a humbling moment for me. I realized that many aspects of our life are equally underprivileged and impoverished and it takes a kid like this to enrich it as much as we enrich theirs.

I would love to hear how volunteering added more meaning to your life. Do share your experiences below.


About the Author

Dinesh is a mallu but culturally, a mish-mash of Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai, the cities he has lived in and fallen in love with. Poet, calligrapher, compulsive googler, self-proclaimed dogfather of the strays, ardent sports fan (Arsenal, CSK, Michael Jordan), foodie, anti-pop music curator (Underground & Alternative Hip Hop, Electric Blues & Jazz), world movies cinephile and classic car enthusiast, this left-hander tries hard to keep it right-brained (pun intended). By profession, Dinesh is a Marketing and Sales professional and a volunteer at dream a dream.




The Help (Part 2)

I had to write this because I did not mention one stellar person in my last post (Let’s Help “The Help”). Probably because I never did consider her the help. She has been around for such a long time that she is part of our family. When my friends came home I always introduced her as my ‘other’ grandma. Her name is Vijayalakshmi. My grandma called her Thankam. I call her Ganga. All the kids who came after me adopted the same name – Ganga – and so it stuck.

When I said she was around for a long time, I mean a really long time. Like right from the time she was a kid of say 9 or 10. She came from a well-to-do family. But tragedy struck, taking her father away and leaving her mother with a house full of kids to fend for. Ganga was pulled out of school even though her teacher thought it was unwise to deny such a bright child an education. Her mom simply couldn’t afford it and sent her off to work in my great grandmother’s house. My grandma was just a girl then and a couple of years older to Ganga. Ganga almost instantly took a liking for her and wanted in her heart of hearts to follow my grandma wherever life took her. Her wish was granted and she became my Dad’s nanny. My Dad is the son she never had. In the queer way that I was raised by two grannies, my Dad was raised by two mommies. One doting and fussing over him, while the other was disciplining and demanding.

By the time I arrived my grandma was widowed. She had moved from Bombay to Guwahati and then to Barauni and finally to Madras (after grandpa died). With Ganga always in tow. She shared my grandma’s love for me, dogs and entertaining. She is an excellent cook and could dish up a feast in a trice that would put the chef at Taj to shame. She loved gardening and single handedly managed my grandma’s garden. All grandma had to do was make regular visits to the nursery. Grandma went to work and dropped me off at school. Ganga packed lunch and took care of me when I got back from school. You get the picture right? They were a team.

Every night my grandma would talk to Ganga about her day and she would add her two cents’ worth to it. Such was their relationship. They had been through thick and thin, untimely deaths to joyous birthdays and celebrations. From the village of Kollengode to the plush bungalow in Barauni and then to her cozy two-bedroom home in Madras. I’m sure if she had to, Ganga would have laid down her life for my grandma. One time she almost did.

After a long day working at the gas agency, my grandma would come home with a bag full of cash earned from the sale of gas cylinders. Ganga usually opened the gate and stood there waiting for her. Or she would sit on the porch telling me stories. One night when my grandma got off the car, a man came charging and grabbed the bag of cash from her. Ganga quickly grabbed the bag from the man and held onto it tightly under her arm. The man proceeded to beat her with an iron rod he had. But she did not let go of the bag. By then, the driver got out of the car and charged at the man. The robber gave him the slip and disappeared into the dark. Ganga had a few bruises but was  otherwise unharmed.

Things have changed since I left Chennai. Ganga retired and left for Kerala. She would come running to Chennai everytime I visited. Her sisters children are in Kerala but she hardly bonds with them. Her heart aches to be with my Dad, with me, with her true family. My heart yearns to be near her and take care of her, the way she took care of me as a child and as a mother (after I gave birth to Anjali). Maybe God will grant me my wish, maybe he won’t. But I will always be grateful for my ‘other’ grandma – my Ganga.



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Getting, Giving and Receiving

The world teaches you to get rather than give in order to ‘get ahead’ and be successful. How can you give unless you have enough for yourself right? Only billionaires can be truly generous you say. Let them give. I don’t have enough to give. I need more for myself. If you are always looking  at what is lacking in your life and always looking to get rather than give, then chances are you are unhappy, unfulfilled and don’t have enough. More, more, more is your mantra. You only see yourself and your unfulfilled needs, desires and aspirations. There are no others. And if there are, they jolly well wait. Yours is a bottomless well that will never fill up. Never overflow.

Then you have the givers. They love to give, love to please. They give their time, money, resources to others. They give too much and are offended if they are compensated in some way. They don’t even like being thanked. I am guilty of this kind of behavior and I can safely say most women fall into this category. The loving, nurturing and caring feminine self sometimes forgets to love, nurture and care for itself.

The mistake I made was thinking that I was a bottomless well that would never run dry. Wrong! I did run dry. And did I stop giving? No! I gave and gave and gave till it hurt. I gave till I became resentful. Compromised my own happiness and thought I was some sort of martyr. It’s hard to break this cycle because you don’t see the damage you are doing to yourself. You only see others. It’s as if ‘you’ don’t exist.

It takes a really good friend to shake you up out of your vicious cycle of hurtful giving. Or as in my case a really good book. I realized it didn’t feel good to give anymore because I felt I didn’t have enough. And for a while I became a go-getter. Looking only to my own needs. But as you saw earlier that is a vicious needy cycle of just me, me and more me. But I guess I had to be in that cycle long enough to fill the well till it brimeth over. I think I stayed longer than necessary. How did I know? I had lost the flow (and lost her marbles, you must be thinking. What on earth is she talking about??!!)

To understand what I am talking about I’m going to introduce you to the amazing concept of receiving. Receiving is a very different energy compared to getting. Getting or taking is a struggle. Things you want don’t flow to you. You have to fight for it, work hard for it. Take it forcibily and make it your own. But receiving is the consequence of giving. As you give you will receive. It’s a law as sure as gravity. Works whether you believe in it or not. But you have to be open to receiving. It will show up in many disguises. Not at all like you imagined. A kind word, a thank you, a gift, a card, something bigger and better than what you wanted. Receiving is also the act of accepting the gifts that flow into your life. Feeling worthy of them.

All you givers out there, accept praise, accept a compliment (took me ages to do that!), accept a simple thank you. Accept help. Givers are guilty of trying to be a one man army. They want to help but never like to ask or receive help. To balance you out and let life flow, you must give and receive. Don’t wait till your well runs dry.

To all you go getters…Pause. Look around you. See the others. Others who are worse off and feel content with what you have. Balance your life by giving to a cause (not just as a one time token effort!) and then see how your life opens up. How things you always struggled to get, just show up at your doorstep. And that’s when your life flows with a perfect balance of giving and receiving.