What do you give to a person who has everything? This is a distressing question, and one that faces many urban Indians; certainly the readership of this newspaper. Gifting, these days, is complicated. Most people have enough extras, and what’s more, have very narrow bandwidths in terms of what they will use or carry. Some are related to causes: I won’t use animal fur or leather; or I will only patronize local designers. Some spring from a personal aesthetic: love Stella; as for Hermes or Chanel—no, thank you…not edgy enough. Some people want very specific things: only books and perishables, please. Most of us have enough things anyway and the thought of adding one more object doesn’t appeal even to hardened pack rats.
Caveat: This problem of plenty is one that only a very small percentage of Indians have. There are, as we all know, large swathes of India who would welcome any gift ranging from a used pencil box to plastic bags. Giving gifts to this segment is a very pleasurable operation simply because of the sheer delight it invokes in the receiver. But, they are not the subjects of this article. The segment I am talking about here is the jaded, well-travelled, comfortably-off set; people not unlike myself, lest I come off as snobbish. Giving gifts to this group, particularly if they are anything like me, is a real pain.
A long time ago, I decided that I didn’t like tangible gifts. I only wanted memories. Rather than easing the burden on my loved ones, this principle of mine has made life hell for them. When you think about it, buying a gift—at a shop or online—is a helluva lot easier than trying to create a memory. Not only do they have to think about what will surprise and amuse me, they actually have to create an event with no tangible leftovers. This may be hard for them but over the years, I’ve collected a lot of great memories: I went skydiving with my brother; hot-air ballooning with my in-laws; enjoyed a spa vacation with my best friend; received a lifetime’s worth of kisses and hugs from my kids and more memories than I can recount here from my husband. If all else fails, I say, simply take me on a holiday or just out to dinner.
Cause and effect: Philanthropy is a better option than a vase.
I do get gifts. Quite a lot, actually. I save perishables: candles, perfume, flowers, anything that will be finished with no lingering leftovers. The rest go into my ‘gift cupboard’, to be recycled for the next party, wedding or baby-shower. I am guessing that you all have gift cupboards in your homes where gifts you don’t need or cordially dislike are hoarded and passed on to the next unsuspecting host. I will go further. I am guessing that the same hideous gifts are making their way around the world—passed along from host to host. You know the type: curios of horses, clunky crystal vases (who actually buys these things?), knobby place holders, kitschy mirrors, brass boxes with the nails sticking out, framed photos of Christ, Ganesha or the Quran, ubiquitous ethnic handicraft sans statement or style. I think these objects are all trotting the globe and occasionally, in a stroke of cosmic humour, will return to you. It happened to me. At one point, a giant papier mache rhinoceros held pride of place and occupied lots of space in our gift cupboard till we smartly passed it on to someone who was going to Greece. Guess what my Israeli friend brought as a house-warming present last month? I am not kidding.
Recently, a happy trend, albeit amongst a small minority, is gifting for causes. I attended a 40th birthday party of a dear friend. This friend, let’s call her Reena, is hardly a shrinking violet. She has 100 shoes, a million handbags and a phenomenal appetite for life. But for her 40th birthday bash in Singapore, she offered one thing in her invitation: In lieu of a gift for her, people could write out a cheque for Pratham, her favourite charity. I thought that was a lovely idea. I have had friends who questioned Reena’s decision. In their view, both gifting and charity are personal and private things. You shouldn’t ask people to donate to your charity as a gift, they say. I disagree. If people can have a wedding registry and list out exactly what they want as gifts, why not specify a charity?
Corporate gifts are a grey area. There are some who see these as nothing more than a bribe but others who think they are harmless. I know executives who unfailingly return every expensive gift they get. Some have limits: Any gift above a certain amount, say Rs500, gets returned. Most Western news organizations (also Mint) discourage their staff from accepting gifts from ‘sources’. I have a better plan: that they go into the office ‘gift cupboard’, to be handed back to the next unsuspecting source.
(Shoba Narayan is carrying a giant rhino as a gift to the next party she attends. Write to her at email@example.com. Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan)