by Vani Viswanathan
The doorbell would ring, and I’d see Appa at the door, back home from work. And no, I wouldn’t go running to him saying ‘Appa!’(although that would have made for a nice, cinematic moment of affection) I would immediately scan his hands, though: was there anything other than the Safari briefcase that he took to work? If there was – a plastic bag, a paper package – my excitement would know no bounds. But I’d keep my calm: what was inside? Sweets, kaaram? Books for my sister, or even better, me? A toy, a notebook, or a pen? Or the sweetest surprise of it all, a new audio cassette? These unexpected gifts would thrill me down to bits, whatever they were.
A few days ago, I returned from a trip and excitedly opened my bags to give my partner the precious few gifts I’d picked out for him. He took them like an adult would (should?), scanned through them, adding a comment here, a question there, and put them in their rightful places around the house.
For a few minutes, I was deflated. Where was the excitement? Didn’t everyone have a childlike streak that would pop up whenever gifts came into the picture? Especially from overseas – mystical, foreign objects?
Gifts were so much more fun when I was younger. Because they were really hard to come by. I didn’t get gifts for my birthday – I only got new clothes. The few that I got came in in spurts, when parents were feeling generous or I had to pester them to buy me something, or I was unwell and they wanted to cheer me up, or there was some benevolent relative meeting me after long. I didn’t really have birthday parties, so no scope for gifts there. Whatever I got was kept safely for years together, discarded only when there wasn’t anyone else in the family it could go to, or it became unusable.
I remember fighting with my mother – when I was in class 9 – for a pencil case. We spent a good few minutes arguing at the shop for a pencil case that cost all of 50 rupees; we could definitely afford it and I hadn’t asked for a new one in two years (yes, I remember). Finally, my mother succumbed to my arguments and bought it for me. I forgot all about it after I finished school, but many years later, my mother showed me the case, saying she’d kept it as a reminder of the (silly in retrospect) argument that we had. ‘Why did I fight so much for this?’ she wonders to this day.
Today, gifts have become so commonplace. I hardly think before spending on something for my parents or my sister or my niece and nephew – though increasingly the problem is of buying something that they will want to keep, or something that they don’t already have. It is expected that I bring my partner something from my travels (and he, for me, when he travels). There is social pressure on gifting and making a big deal of someone’s birthday, anniversary, Diwali, New Year, and so on. We have so much of everything – be it clothes, books, watches, accessories, stationery, anything – that finding something new to gift is a tormenting exercise.
Even as I enjoy the privilege of being able to buy (most of) what I might want, I miss the days when I would want something without knowing whether I’d ever get it (we’re speaking strictly in material terms, of course). There was a certain charm to frugality when your other basic needs were taken care of, something that most middle class 90s kids would understand. The element of surprise, the unspoken declaration that whoever it was loved you enough to gift you something after spending time thinking about it – those feelings are hard to come by when you’re an earning adult. I’m no longer the wide-eyed child waiting for gifts.
Which is why it is with a lot of fondness that I recollect the time when the door would open to Appa, home from work, sometimes with a packet that could have something unexpected. Once, it was a Casio watch after I’d kicked up a fuss that my older sister had been gifted a watch but not I (I was 6). Another time, it was a huge pair of Philips headphones that sister and I would spend hours using, plugging it to our ‘stereo’ system. Long ago, it was a train set with lovely red tracks that I could lay out in a circle and watch a train chug away. In the early 2000s, it would be mixtape CDs, full of dozens of albums – a time period when we were digitising our music collection.
I do love the convenience and ease of life that my discretionary spending power gives me today. All the same, I’m toying with the idea of minimalism in an attempt to find more value in what I buy or gift. More focus on experiences and memories, than in things. Less pressure on days ‘of note,’ like birthdays, anniversaries or festivals. I wonder how this experiment will go, and how people around me – and I, too – will react. But it’s all I can do to see if I can recreate the magic that the idea of gifts would once light within me.
Picture from https://www.flickr.com/photos/icultist/