The Family Gold: An open letter to South Asian parents

Earlier this week I received a phone call from my mom asking me if I had heard of the egregious criminal activity that has caused many South Asian Americans in the DC area (specifically Northern Virginia’s Fairfax and Loudoun counties) to become worried and to take steps to protect their family jewels. My mom, probably typical of most desi moms, is overly sensitive to ANY criminal activity or health hazard (seemingly anywhere in the world) that has ANY chance to impact me…by whatever stretch of imagination. If Ebola breaks out in the Congo then I receive a call from my mom that evening. She just wants to make sure I am not hanging out with friends that have recently returned from the Congo…just to be safe. She is, of course, worried about her jewelry. It has all been safely relocated to a safety deposit box at an undisclosed bank.

When Raman Kumar’s Centreville home was burglarized in late February, he became an early victim in a crime spree that has continued across the county and into Loudoun, spiking last month.

“This is no ordinary burglary,” Kumar told the hundreds of residents, as well as numerous police officers and detectives, gathered at Colin Powell Elementary School in Centreville last Thursday, Oct. 29. He said the burglars who have been targeting the homes of South Asian residents for their gold jewelry were obviously well organized and well equipped with sophisticated equipment and information.

Three similar burglaries had been carried out that day, one in Oak Hill, one in Chantilly and another in South Riding, bringing the total to around 30. Two days earlier, two homes in Lorton had been burglarized, as well as one in Centreville and another in Fair Oaks. As in previous cases, the perpetrators broke in through back doors and windows in the late morning or afternoon and ransacked the master bedrooms, making off with gold jewelry, electronics and other valuables. In cases where homes were armed with security systems, those systems have been defeated. Any fake gold has been left behind…

Police believe South Asians are being targeted because they traditionally pass high-karat gold jewelry heirlooms from one generation to the next, and the price of gold now is especially high. Some victims have reported tens of thousands of dollars in losses. [link]

Since desi gold is on our minds, I would like to take the opportunity to address some fundamental “best practices” advice regarding gold within our community. Gold holds a special significance in desi culture and thus, demands a special discussion. I believe the following discussion will be even more useful if it can generate a conversation with our parents, many who are getting up there in age (hint: forward this post to them and see what they think):

1) Take a digital picture inventory of every valuable piece of gold (or otherwise) jewelry in your possession

You have collected a lot over your lifetime, loaned a lot out, and maybe even lost a lot. Take the time to document everything so you know what you have and can communicate to others what you may have had stolen. Plus, I know some of you will like flipping through an album of all your jewelry just because you can. Don’t be ashamed.

2) Estimate and document the rough cost of each piece.

The value is the first thing the police are going to ask about if something gets stolen. Also, if I am your kid and you hope to pass it on to me some day then please know that I don’t know jack about jewelry. $5 or $5000? I won’t have a clue and neither will many others I know. We grew up watching movies like Blood Diamond and Titanic and think all jewelry is either evil or should be thrown into the waters of the north Atlantic as a romantic gesture. Assume I will be fleeced by some charlatan, the kind you are always warning me about, or that I will gift that precious family heirloom to someone at the office White Elephant Christmas party. Or use it as part of a Halloween costume.

3) Write down for me what each piece means to you. Tell me its story.

Did you hide that ring deep in the folds of your sari as you crossed the The Rann of Kutch avoiding dangerous bandits? Was that necklace a gift your father gave you on your 16th birthday because you finished first in your convent school class? Have those earrings been in the family since the time of Sepoy Rebellion of 1857? I want to know that stuff! That’s where the real worth of your gold lies. How else am I going to understand or appreciate the significance when it is time for me to gift that to your great grandchildren? I care about the story a lot more than the monetary value or “bling” factor.

4) “Divide it up” in the manner of your choosing…before you pass on.

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p style=”margin: 0in 0in 10pt” class=MsoNormal>I know this is a tough one because neither of us wants to think about life after you’ve passed on. But we should. Money and greed is the root of much evil. Don’t leave that door open as part of your legacy because it might infect your children. Divide your precious jewelry in any manner you wish but try and make your wishes clear. The last thing your kids need in their lives is a petty squabble over jewelry and family heirlooms, especially if they don’t know the cost or the sentimental significance. They will be happy with whatever you leave them, or even if you ask that it all be donated to charity, but don’t shirk your duty to purposefully and responsibly pass on some of your most cherished possessions.

Any other helpful advice that I am forgetting SM readers?

40 thoughts on “The Family Gold: An open letter to South Asian parents

  1. Great post, Abhi. I especially love the suggestion to catalog the stories behind each piece, since that information is often lost or forgotten.

    For those who are not in this area, I’ll emphasize how scared people are (Persians as well as Desis) and how precise the thefts have been– wedding saris have been stolen, while less ornate silks are left behind. The crooks know their loot and they know it well.

  2. wedding saris have been stolen

    That does it. If I catch him, he is gonna be one saari bandit.

    Saari. Couldn’t rejhist.

  3. Good post. We live in Fairfax, and this string of burglaries has been popping up in various forms of local news. My understanding is that the thieves have partially been targeting homes by finding ones with Ganesh or other Hindu iconography visible from the outside, which initially raised alarm from fear that the burglaries were motivated by religious hatred/intolerance before the connection to desi gold jewelry was made. My husband and I aren’t that worried, but, then, we have two large dogs that do not take kindly to strangers coming into the house without our say-so.

  4. Make that line item jewelry insurance. (There’s a limit to the amount of jewelry insured on a home owner’s or renter’s insurance policy.)

  5. Take a digital picture inventory of every valuable piece of gold (or otherwise) jewelry in your possession

    D00d! Not cool!

    When I took a picture of the family jewels and mailed it some folks I knew, all I got was a visit from the cops.

  6. Abhi: Wait till your mom reads this. She is going to bug me to go to bank, bring ‘em all stuff back, take pictures, divide it up with you and your bro………etc.. Can’t a man enjoy the last few days of warm weather left this summer, rather than spend a day (or two) making sure her gold is safe and secure? Folks Abhi is right. He does not know “jack” about “Gold”. Give him fool’s gold and he will think it’s 24 Karat or is it carrot?

  7. One of the best defences would be to prepare Indian food without using any exhaust fan. Add lots of garlic, onions and spices. Keep a bowl of this curry near all doors and windows.

  8. I’m from Chicago and this sounds very similar to things that have happened there. South Asian households targeted and burgled, only jewelry and fabric stolen. Probably better to leave the valuables in a safety deposit box in the bank, as we do.

  9. tuk tuk, not only is what you wrote offensive, but it doesn’t seem that you’re a desi because no desi would call what you described ‘curry.’ Curry doesn’t exist, fool.

  10. I’m from bangalore-India,the usual pratice is to put all valuables in the locker of a bank,very few and not expensive pices can be kept at home,lots of women use fakes on a daily bases.

  11. When people start hoarding tens of thousands of dollars of gold in their sock drawers this is inevitable. I know that after we heard about this (very common) my mom moved all (most of) her gold to the bank. If nothing else, I give the thieves credit for thinking outside the box. Also, I dont think any other group of people would behave this way. Its almost like the ignorance of a teenager who thinks he/she is indestructible. Desis are relatviely new immigrants to this country and I think that their “otherness” is strong enough for that they couldnt imagine this happening to them.

  12. what do desi aunties do with all that gold. i have a few aunties that have a whole bunch of gold. i dnt really ever see them wear a fraction of it though.

  13. what do desi aunties do with all that gold. i have a few aunties that have a whole bunch of gold. i dnt really ever see them wear a fraction of it though.

    grillz for when they hit the town with their g’s.

  14. what do desi aunties do with all that gold. i have a few aunties that have a whole bunch of gold. i

    it’s the traditional way of saving for a rainy day. people do it all the time, tho not necessarily in as ornate a fashion. i know a couple of people who have bought bullion – expecting it to retain value better than stock or cash. heck the reserve bank of india did the same with the 200 tonnes. better than holding USD. same thing with phillygrl’s mom. the trousseau is traditionally used as a backup plan.

    all that said. make a will. it isnt about writing a list and assigning names. get a legal dude to frame this properly and make sure there’s an executor (who typiclaly collects a small % as fee per canadian law) to handle this.

  15. Back home in Canada, I would make many visits to the bank with my Mom who had a safety deposit box full of gold. It had wedding jewelry, things to wear to functions, stuff she bought and collected for fashion, grams for investment, etc. Always teased her about her gold bug – but this is very common. Just glad she kept everything at the bank, even if it meant always having to go with her to open the box as a co-signee.

    The will / legal breakdown is such a smart move – I hear so many stories of people’s relatives either just taking stuff because they are the Aunt / Uncle who were either taking care of the deceased before they died or were among the first to visit or arrive. Or there is always the disagreements about who deserves it more, etc (we didn’t get much when we got married, etc etc). It can be amazing how petty people can get about splitting the ‘goods’ (or other family property).

    Not just gold – this also goes for things like family pictures and albums – this stuff gets claimed and moved so easily.

  16. In addition to the savings comments – it can also just make a person feel good. The more shiny jewelry you have to wear the nicer you feel you look and come across as prosperous. Gold (and diamonds) are the original anti-depressants.

  17. Abhi: Here’s another suggestion – Have an alarm system installed. But, it’s not enough to wipe down the shiny keypad everyday so it doesn’t get dirty. You actually have to turn it on at night or when you go out for extended periods of time.

    GurMando: Gold and diamonds were not the original anti-depressants. Back in a nation and time when men alone were allowed to own property, the only way parents and husbands could assure their daugters’ and wives’ financial safety was to load them up with high-quality gold and diamonds. That was the only real property these women had. It’s still the case in many parts of India.

    I hail from a long line of South Indian maamis and am one of the first ones not to place any emphasis on gold and diamonds other than my wedding ring. The thieves can have my .925 sterling silver collection – oh wait, they don’t want that cheap stuff.

  18. Ha – Maitri – I understand the historical socio-economic reasons for the gold fever in Indian, but the humorous bottom line is: gold is shiny – people like shiny things…….and puppies.

  19. #14… buzz off Anon.

    Was what I said offensive? In India people often do tend to have gold in their homes (at least my relatives did) but then again windows tend to be protected by iron cages.. Im simply saying that immigrant enclaves, even if geographically dispersed, can tend to have a subgroup of people that are relatively insular, especially of there is a large community.

  20. The will is not a particularly effective way of passing on movable property like gold. Are you going to go to court if the executor refuses to obey what’s in the will? Or if one of the people in your family decides to hold on to the assets in their control? In most cases, the answer is no. Doubly true if it is someone like the blogger who’s not that interested in the property in the first place.

    It is much better to divvy up and hand over things like gold when the owner is alive and medically sane.

  21. Curry doesn’t exist

    Can someone explain this from #12? I think I read it somewhere else and thought it was strange as curry does exist.

  22. for some, “curry” conflates too many different dishes. its a form of “they all look alike” racism. for others, its inclusive like “south asian.” it doesn’t exist in the sense that california rolls don’t exist at real sushi bars. chow mein is offensive too, though not as offensive as rahul’s meatball curry.

  23. I had always understood “curry” as referring to the liquid part of a dish otherwise referred to as “gravy.” A “curry” dish would be a dish that is served swimming in its stew. This is differentiated from a “fry” which is would basically be the same thing served dry.

    Of course, if it’s just vegetables I call it korma. And other times we call veggie or fish based stuff pulusu which is usually waterier than the thicker stuff we tended to call “curry.” And then there are saambar and rasam which are their own things.

    So really, there are no rules to this.

  24. I guess thinking outside the box ain’t so special, Anon.

    Look, Im not defending robbery here but if I was a thief I I’d want to strategize a little bit. Whats wrong with using the old noggin? Good for them, and poo on you for stashing your gold next to your tighty-whities. At least get a damn safe…

  25. I had always understood “curry” as referring to the liquid part of a dish otherwise referred to as “gravy.” A “curry” dish would be a dish that is served swimming in its stew.

    This is my understandingt, too. And I’ve always seen and heard the word in India as well so obviously it’s not a case of it not being “authentic”.

  26. Hmm. I’m catching up on the Mutiny. I too have a sinking feeling my mom has already read this or will read it soon and then I will spend several days with a camera documenting everything. Abhi, I’m with Yo Dad. What have you wrought???

    :-)

  27. excellent post! it’s important to keep track of the gold jewelry that is in our families. the robbers looted one of our family friends’ homes and it was traumatizing for them because not only of the monetary value but the sentimental value as well.

  28. In colonial times, the British refused to let women inherit land or houses. ( Eg Jhansi Rani’s kingdom was taken away by force after her husband died.) Dowry, especially gold and money became important, as woman’s only protection and often to hold family land when land taxation was exhorbitant and unrelated to income. You do not hear of dowry deaths before colonial times. Traditional streedhan, standard practice all over Bharat, let a woman own anything and it was hers to gift to whoever she chose. Also taking the man’s name and becoming a part of the husband’s property was demanded by Brit law as per Europe.

  29. Hey Abhi…… very thoughtful of you to share this out, great article!!! Honestly one doesnt need one more thing in life to stress over. One has to play safe and look after their possesions in the right manner (lots of ideas above)but you know what??? If it has to go it has to go, like everything else, whether stolen, lost or sold… nothing is permanent!!! I take it as a karmic debt been paid off…. :)

  30. The attachment assigned to material wealth will only lead to suffering.

    This is the premise of Buddhism, which was a break from the Vedic tradition.

    I may be a Muslim, but I find many guiding principles encoded in Buddhism, a religion where the question of God and the existence of God is not important.

    With the price of gold going up, and with people familiar with Desis hoarding wealth in their home, these burglaries most likely are being committed by fellow opportunistic Desis. This is nothing new.

  31. With the price of gold going up, and with people familiar with Desis hoarding wealth in their home, these burglaries most likely are being committed by fellow opportunistic Desis. This is nothing new.

    lol, well at least some of the robbers aren’t desi robbing desis – looks like we’ve got some opportunitistic folks from other races, except unlike the opportunism you see among the overwhelming statistics of Indians in this country, it doesn’t come from high education performance and high socioeconomic indicators, it comes from greed, theft, and laziness.

    http://www.fairfaxtimes.com/cms/story.php?id=592

    My take is that greed, theft, laziness and stupidity (a negative form of opportunism) has nothing to do with ethnicity and more to do with indiv experiences :) .