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Claude Alvares: How to sponge off your loved ones and save the world while you’re at it


This article is not about giving anyone a sponge bath. But it’s about cleaning up your family networks of purposeless cash lying around in those quarters which, if not salvaged and used for your personal learning and liberation, will invariably get squandered on some new discount racket at the mall-next-door or Ponzi schemes like bitcoins.

Claude Alvares, Families Learning Together Magazine

Before you go further into this piece of salacious advice from a gainfully unemployed intellectual bum who is still struggling to keep his humanity intact, beware of the way in which the establishment creates “bad” words and how we need to side-step the guilt associated with them. After all, the quest at stake is huge: how to ensure, after having grabbed a bit of life involuntarily from our parents, that we keep it safe from being hijacked by predators.

For example, I am appalled at the negative connotations attached — like leeches — to the word “lazy.” My favourite inspiration was my nephew Lucano who once wrote a piece, “In Praise of Laziness.” Contrasted with the zillions of zombies who pay hard money to get “processed” through management courses and who then try even harder to join companies that actively take down chunks of the natural environment every day in the name of development and profits, we have to admit that the “lazy” guys, by doing no socially and environmentally destructive work, will enable the planet to survive another million years.

Deplorably, “sponging off” is another one of those “bad” words. It means you are doing nothing but living off someone else, like a flea on a dog, shifting opportunistically to another dog only when the need or occasion arises. In fact, the words “lazy” and “sponge off” are guaranteed to raise the hackles of any decent bloke that has passed “successfully” through the racket called modern education and has swallowed, hook, line and sinker, all the junk values of competition, rat idealism, ratting on classmates, trying to please superiors, aiming to convince others of being above average, smart and bright, including being a good and submissive dork drafted easily to carry out the programmes of those destroying both your future and planet.

The main anxiety that most young people I meet carry about with them — as if it were a compulsory Aadhar card — is how can I do the things I want, if I do not work and get the money to be independent? And if I have to spend all my day light hours working to get the money, when do I get the time to do the things that I want, the things that make my heart flutter and my eyes gleam? Difficult question, but in the Indian context, the art of sponging off one’s relatives, family and friends provides a benevolent, even saintly, answer which I am sure would gain the approval of even a guy like Pope Francis.

When I grew up, my dad and mum had to work hard because they had, without consciously knowing it, landed up with 11 kids. There was no concept of food wastage: by the time the vessel came down from child 11 to 1, not even a grain of rice escaped notice. Curries were rationed, fish quartered into dozens of pieces. Today, families do not cross the limit of 3 or 4 (including the principal producers). There is so much food, it has to be eaten throughout the day and the result of that is we are all loaded with extra layers of fat and Ganesha paunches which we will spend the next 70 years of our lives trying to get rid off in expensive gyms.

But you know, the same thing can also be said about money! Most middle class families nowadays have adequate cash and many save too much. (Many, too numerous actually to mention, kick the bucket after putting aside huge savings, so what was the point of it all? Sadly, they are never around to answer.) But if you widen the circle of immediate family to include uncles, aunts, grandparents, close cousins and friends, the amount of pointless money stashed and available for use for your personal self-directed learning simply multiplies and can sometimes even be staggering.

As I said earlier, if not used wisely, that money is going to be used to get one more flat, or another cell phone or simply dumped on the share market or on mutual funds or bitcoins to get more money! For all of us, this appears to be sheer evil and quite appalling, considering the fact that the decision makers in the family actually prefer to hand out family assets to total strangers (bank managers, speculators) when it was originally — painfully and hardworkingly — harvested to meet the needs of the family, which is you. So how come they are willing to hand it over to fat cats like Vijay Mallya, Adani, Mukesh Ambani and that huge mob of respectable gangsters called NPAs?

The only problem that I see is one of logistics: how to get that surplus cash released to work to achieve what your parents, grandparents and relatives really want for you (not from you) in life. If you strip that down to bare essentials, they all want you to be a carefree, happy, secure individual, alert to life, joyous every morning, tension-free till the funeral pyre, able to use your wits to survive long after they are gone.

The problem lies in their mental baggage: they mistakenly believe you can get to this status only after 12 years of dumb schools, 4 or 5 more years of sitting on hard wooden college benches listening to equally wooden lecturers, and finally having you dispatched through the high-cost Laundromat of a professional course like IIT or management, after which happiness/joy will invariably come to you on a plate.

Never does.

Learning to arrive at what you want to be does never need heavy wads of cash. Learning needs time, space, the whole wide world, wanderlust, zero pressures, support of an extensive community of experienced human beings (not lecturers). The demand that you get a job or work effectively kills all that. Not a single person in the world today is given a salary to do what he likes, but only what someone else likes. So between the ages of 16 and 40 is the time for you to discover yourself, the world, all creatures bright, small and large, things which bite and spit and sing.

My best advice: to live during this period, loving life and doing the things you love and with the people you want to be with, whatever you do, don’t get a job. If you do, it’s over.

You might just as well have put yourself in a cage or a circus and merely putting on some lipstick is not going to make things look hotter. So how do you survive? How do you get food and bed, which is all you really need to be free and which destroys the need to work for some no good? Well, you sponge on family and relatives. You invite them all to look at you with benign eyes, feed you, and generally take care of all your needs (except for a BMW) so you can follow your heart. If that option is available, why the hell do you need to work? Just remember, between you and total wacko strangers like bankers, you have first right to the family money! All depends on how you get the message across to those with keys to the stored asset.

For parents who are illegally reading this aide-memoire written exclusively for walkouts, maybe you might be willing to consider what my wife and I did (or are still doing) in such situations. We have three boys, all perfectly equipped by millions of years of evolution to grow naturally, fill up biceps, deal with new hormones, and generally look after themselves. Even when they were doing nothing, we figured this did not mean they were doing nothing. We only thought what a lousy idea that we look at them as beer bottle openers: either a good beer bottle opener or a bad one, one in the top grade or one in no grade at all, ungradeable, unschoolable.

So we thought (never said it openly) let these guys stay with us as long as they wish. (Other parents sent their children “successfully” to Australia and now mostly weep they don’t get even an email.) The spaces and time needed by the boys to do their own thing were zealously protected by us, which is all that we (and they) ever wanted us to do, besides of course sleeping. No learning emerges under pressure, compulsion or gun to the head. Likewise, earning under pressure is never going to be more rewarding than popping chewing gum: the sweetness always evaporates in seconds unless you are congenitally equipped to love a life of hardship.

In any case, we never thought our sons were sponging off us since it is we who brought them into the world. They didn’t ask. And if we, being their parents for life, could not provide food and bed for them as long as they wanted without placing any demands for reimbursement, why would we call ourselves parents at all?

In India, most middle class families are not poor. Every family in that category can feed one or two extra people and also house an extra person, if required. If a middle class family is not capable of this, that family is not middle class, but poor.

However, there are a few important principles connected with sponging which you should keep in mind, depending upon the situation. First and foremost, you have to be nice to everyone, parents, uncles, the whole lot since they (not you!) control the cash. Run errands. Bring bread from the baker. Cut potatoes. Carry bags. Iron the family clothes. Remember, you’re not working anyway, so you have all the time in the world to be genuinely nice and helpful. Being nice, polite, helpful and loving is part of the sponge package, even if it’s hard in the beginning. You can rob a bank with a gun, but that’s not nice and they will eventually come for you and get you, with all those cameras. Love thy parents, grandparents. No fights, no displays of anger.

Remember, you’re helping them spend their money on their favourite daughter or son, instead of giving it to those who kill rivers and tigers.

If for some reason, things have reached a stage where pops has become a military bully or moms is hysterical, look carefully around the entire stable of uncles, aunts, close friends, grandpas/grandmas and check out someone more hospitable, then bolt. Every Indian family has a surplus of people (50% good, 50% bad) and at least one or two of them will gladly feed one additional mouth even if it is open and hungry most of the time.

At least one of them is bound to be doting on you. Spend more time with them instead and they will gladly help you spend their extra money doing the things you want. Every learner learning how to save her own soul from the grasping reach of the global slave labour camp must use her wits. No cunning, no manipulation, no lies, no dishonesty. Wits yes, love yes. Nothing more than this is required.

Sponging therefore is an ethically-just activity. Becoming the fodder for the army that feeds, fuels and services the industrial-military complex or the destructive consumer markets and malls of the world is the pits and should get at least three rebirths in a dungeon. This is not the reason why people are born to live their lives on this planet. They have an inherited inborn capacity to want to live a life of freedom and happiness. The education system (and parental expectations) actually turn them into serfs doing involuntary labour for others for life.

To prepare for this, they are induced to go through 20 years of painful education based on cramming textbooks, an activity better left to termites. Then parents die and leave the youngsters holding the shit. The present awards system is based on making profits from the exploitation of nature or the exploitation of human beings or a combination of both! If parents and children are able to use their wits jointly to bypass this system and live their deepest dreams, they deserve the Nobel Prize.

Claude Alvares is a grandfather to many social movements in India. He lives with his family in Goa and is always ready to entertain a few young spongers there. This article came from a speech that was given at the Learning Societies Unconference 2017 in Bangalore.

Shikshantar copyleft 2017 — www.shikshantar.org

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One Response “Claude Alvares: How to sponge off your loved ones and save the world while you’re at it”

  1. Deepa
    15th January 2018 at 7:40 pm

    Love it! Though I am in this particular dilemma itself, it gave me a chuckle. Thank you mr. Alvares. Can’t imagine what the talk would’ve been like..

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