Why People Who Have Less Give More

The incident happened three decades ago when I was in high school. But I still remember it vividly. We had gone on a “culture trip” to spend a few days in a remote village in central India to learn about village life. The village was nondescript, clusters of mud huts surrounded by wheat fields. For someone who grew up in the maximum city of Bombay, it was a remarkable experience.

After the village leader had welcomed us, I was walking around the village when a beaming old woman loudly beckoned me. She was at least 70, grizzled and lean with the build and posture of someone who has laboured in the fields all their life. Her hut was very basic, essentially a one-room shack made of mud and cow dung and a thatched roof. When I peeked inside, it had little more than a charpai, or a traditional woven bed, a few pots and pans in the corner, some containing stored foodstuffs, and a smoky fire burning in the centre.

Everything the woman possessed could be easily stacked on the single charpai bed with plenty of room to spare. Despite her meagre house and few possessions, her face lit up with the most brilliant and welcoming smile. Because I could not understand her language, she gestured to me to sit on the charpai. She offered me a steaming glass of tea and a plate of food. After I finished it, she offered me even more and would not take 'no' for an answer.

I was floored. Here was a woman who had barely enough to eat and little else besides. Yet she was offering me, a perfect stranger, a large fraction of what she possessed. On a relative scale, this is greater generosity than I have encountered before or since. What is more, her offering was made unreservedly and with complete good nature, with no expectation of receiving anything in return.