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Guest column: NRIs and the art of gifting

NRIs and the art of gifting

With  India having undergone a major transformation in the last three decades or so, some of our NRI brethren are a confused lot now. Even as Smart Cities came into being (inside the heads of planners, if not on the ground), even as unicorn startups sprouted alicorns aplenty, even as everything from across the whole world started appearing on Indian shop shelves, a new dilemma arose for NRIs: what to gift the folks back home on the annual or biennial trips. The old Impulse sprays and scented tissue packets were no longer going to do the trick, that much was clear; but surely the kith and kin in India wouldn`t have graduated to the newest Fenty perfume or Bohemian crystal?

While I`m not for a minute suggesting that all NRIs are parsimonious gifters, a cursory check amongst one`s circle(s) will throw up a hilariously outrageous list. I asked around and this is what I got: a packet of black beans. Itsy-bitsy — no, not bikinis but  skincare samples from top-notch houses like Shiseido, Caudalie, Clinique.  Lace doilies. Soaps and assorted toiletries which solemnly state that they originally belonged in some Hilton or Marriot hotel bathroom somewhere in the world. Keychains with risqué messages on them, ordinary wooden chopsticks. Gray and brown rexine purses. A paperweight that candidly confesses it is from Des Moines.  A set of neon shoelaces. One solitary pea-sized jade stone  from New Zealand. Talcum powder dating back to Queen Nefertiti`s time.

Then there are gifts that are duly handed over by visiting NRI kith and kin,  wrapped up in pretty purple or radiant rose. You tear off the wrapping with an anticipatory smile playing about your lips. You set eyes on the gift, the smile vanishes and you stare in stupefied silence. Because the gift is a brass lamp, an ayurvedic pain balm, a book on Ashtanga yoga, or in one outstanding case, a brass filter coffee decoction set. It`s not that you were actually expecting a Murano lamp, a Le Creuset skillet  or a Bialetti Moka pot. It`s just that it doesn’t take rocket science to deduce that these desi gifts were clearly gifted to the NRI aunty  who is now passing them on to you, thus setting a gift conveyor belt in motion.

For the delightful gift of every vibrantly painted stone platter from Mexico, Cajun spice rack from New Orleans or Kente fabric from Africa, there are other presents like a melamine plate that proudly proclaims it is from Arizona, a small bottle of rosemary from some dollar store, a cat toy… and never mind that the giftees are allergic  to felines  and everyone in India and abroad knows that.

It`s not merely stinginess that lies behind these gifts, it`s also a disinclination to give too much thought to who would love to receive what, plus the fact that old habits die hard. For far too long, the visiting NRI family would open up their supersized suitcases and out would spill an assembly line set of cheap cologne, lurid T-shirts,  fluorescent  socks and a Panerai watch that looked the real McCoy but mysteriously stopped ticking after a few days.

That presentation moment is when the giftee realizes the unassailable truth behind the murmured `Oh,  you really shouldn’t have.`

This appeared in the Sunday Express magazine of 17 Apr 2022.

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Sheila Kumar • April 17, 2022

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