The major gift giving season in the world is, no prizes for guessing, Christmas time. However for us, Christmas or any other festival does not come close to matching the amount of gift buying we need to do before our annual or, at times, biennial trips to our native places in India. It is an exercise that requires time, imagination, perception, tact, forethought and last but not the least, deep pockets. It has to be handled carefully or else the fragile balance between the different components can go off and things can blow up faster than a minefield.
Before we go in to the details of this military operation, let us take a moment to understand why this is necessary. Now if you are an expat living away from family and friends, you already know all about this and you can skip over to the next paragraph. If you are still reading this bit, then let me tell you that there is this unwritten rule that a person living abroad should bring back presents for all those left back home – this is as a gesture filled with love, remembrance and a desire to enable the recipients get a small taste of the donor’s life on foreign shores. I remember when I was a teenager in India fifteen years ago and my sister immigrated to the US, I used to wait eagerly for her visits not just out of sibling love but also for the gifts she would bring as they unlocked for me a world I had never experienced before. I fell in love with Reese’s peanut butter cups, fluffy bunny ear slippers, and cute fridge magnets of places I had only read about in books. Now of course the times have changed. The shoe is on the other foot. I am an expat living abroad and as such my role is now that of the gift donor and not the recipient. That is not the only change. India has changed enormously in the last 2 decades and people are no longer impressed by snow globes or Lindt chocolates. That makes things a little challenging of course.
Whoever thinks gift buying and giving is not a big deal, should buy themselves some magazines around Christams time and just count the number of articles telling people how to deal with prezzie time stress ! Gifting is not just a little magnanimous act of love – it is time consuming and head bangingly stressful. Ideally the planning for this whole exercise should begin well in advance. The best time to start planning for the next round of gift giving might even be when you are actually doing the first round. Taking note of preferences, interests, ages and headcounts always helps. At times people even tell you what they want when you come around the next time. Mind you, you might get some weird or super expensive requests in such a case. I have definitely filed the request from one of my sisters-in-law under ‘Weird’. During our last India trip, she asked me get her a set of kitchen knives. I do not know if that is because she has been planning a homicide or has just read a glowing review of Australian knives. (Pssst … does she know most of the stuff available here is made in China anyways?)
My sister has made an art of this whole gift giving business. Of course, she has had 16 odd years in perfecting this art. However what she does is still very admirable. She has a huge list for people she buys gifts for – I guess the numbers are range anywhere from 50 to 80. With this mental list, she is on the lookout for appropriate gifts 24X7 throughout the year. In the last one month before her travel, she starts on the task of wrapping the stuff gathered. When she and her husband finally land in India, they have designated suitcases filled with colourfully wrapped gifts, each neatly labelled with the recipient’s name. And as we are Indian and not Greek, she is welcomed with open arms everywhere!
I wish I was half as organized as my sister. With around one and a half months left for my upcoming India visit, I have not started on my shopping for family and friends. All I have are all half formed thoughts and questions circling in my head. How old is the second child of Cousin X again? Is Cousin Y’s newborn a boy or a girl? Female relative Y would probably like some kind of make-up stuff (she was giving some broad hints the last time!) – but the question is what kind (eye makeup, lipsticks/glosses, liquid foundations or maybe even generic lotions)? What can you buy for a pre-teen boy? It is tough enough choosing for one’s own self – but buying for countless others whose tastes you don’t know too well is taxing in the extreme.
I know a lot of you are thinking why doesn’t this silly female simply pick up the phone and ask the relevant people what they want instead of dithering around? Well, my friend, it doesn’t quite work that way. The presents are supposed to be surprises for the recipients! Yes, they are expected and almost mandatory (unless I wish to become a social outcast back home) but still outwardly there will be the usual ‘Oh, dear girl! You shouldn’t have gone to all this effort!’ from the people getting the gifts. If I call up and ask people, most will say ‘You need not bring a thing.’ Well, take that statement at face value and you are doomed.
So it is crunch time. I need to get cracking on the shopping lists and the actual shopping both at the same time. For I know if I delay any longer, I will have a complete brain freeze in the end and then in a moment of madness, I might even end up buying Australian knives for everyone! I wonder what the airport authorities might make of it if I am discovered with suitcases full of boning knives and meat cleavers!