Gifts - A Double Edged Sword?

By Shyama Parui

A huge package arrives at your doorstep. It is wrapped in velvet that shimmers in the sun and is topped with a gigantic bow. What could that gift be? What if you unwrapped and found a fully-grown crocodile? That would be my worst nightmare. I wouldn't even think of predatory animals as gifts, yet the keepers of online information tell me that heads of states often receive exotic animals as gifts. Among many other gifts, Queen Elizabeth II has received mini hippos, kangaroos and you guessed it, a Nile crocodile. It's a good thing that the British royals have resources, such as zoos to house the animals where they can be appreciated. An unexpected gift that the Queen did receive at her wedding was from none other than Mahatma Gandhi. It was a piece of handspun khadi fabric with “Jai Hind" embroidered on it.

Gifts, although appreciated are never a requirement. Perhaps as kids, depending on the culture or family traditions, children may expect it at birthdays and holidays. When I was growing up in India, grand birthday parties for kids were not a thing. My parent's blessings and some cash, five types of homemade delicacies, and a handful of friends who came over for snacks, seemed plentiful. Whatever the occasion is, in our hearts we are simply seeking a reaffirmation of love and caring. If the present conveys that he or she has been listening to you, and truly knows you as a person then it ends up being the most precious. Artwork from two of my childhood friends, given on separate occasions bears testimony to the fact that we are indeed connected. Handmade cards crafted by my children, a set of bindis gifted by my sister, and books that were thoughtfully selected by my husband have been some of my favorite gifts of all time. In the spirit of honesty, I would like to point out that I am not entirely opposed to receiving gifts of materialistic indulgence.

Candid reactions to gifts are more likely to stem from the innocence of children leaving the parents aghast. One Christmas, my kids had listed a cardboard box on their wish list. In my overenthusiastic attempt to please the children, I bought them a cardboard kit that they could build to make a ship and color it. “But mommy, all we wanted was a box so we could make a submarine out of it," was what I heard. Oops, what a blunder! It probably won't be my last one either. Between you and me, I wish I had given Santa the credit for that item on the list. In hindsight, I appreciate their yearning for creativity. It would have been far more disappointing if they had complained about not receiving the latest, mind numbing video game.

Shopping and selecting the right material and style of gift wrapping can be a lot of fun, with one caveat. You cannot please everybody. Nevertheless, it makes sense to avoid personal products like deodorants or mouthwash even if you are desperately trying to send someone a message. An additional layer of complexity comes into play if the exchange is occurring in a different country or in a cultural setting that you are not accustomed to. For example, potted plants are believed to invite illness in Japan, and in Ireland it is polite to refuse a gift a few times. The Irish seems to have something in common with the elders in my family. Usually, I have to be prepared for refusal and gentle admonition when I present them with gifts. A persuasive approach eventually leads to acceptance and profuse praise. In India, gifts are not typically opened at parties when the guests are around, but in the United States that seems common, especially at children's birthday parties.

If you search for gift ideas online or in brick and mortar stores, you will face an avalanche of possibilities. The many conundrums of gift giving are solved by the practicality of gift registries. Department stores in the US started having wedding registries in the 1920s and I am a fan of its convenience. Due to cultural differences, it still hasn't been adopted in India. I know some of my Indian-American friends felt uncomfortable setting up registries for their baby shower, because it was perceived as overtly asking for presents. Personally, I prefer to select something that the person of honor likes and finds useful rather than hand them another coffeemaker or diaper bag depending on the occasion. Cash is still king and as is customary in India they are expected to be odd numbered. A gift of $101 is considered more auspicious than $110 or $150.

The best gifts don't cost money and yet they are the hardest to offer. If I ask my children to not fight on Mother's Day as a gift, I may be disappointed because as they often explain, “It's not fighting, that's just what siblings do." Their words, not mine. Asking your loved one to ditch purchasing exquisite jewelry or monogrammed cuff links, in favor of promises of listening without judgment or not bringing up the past, can arguably test the relationship.

Truth be told, presents are not necessary, but make-up, chocolate sundae, and television aren't either. Gifts are in my interpretation, symbols of your feelings towards the other person. Perhaps, before you make your choice of what to buy or create, you may want to nail down your emotions toward the person/s, and identify what you want to genuinely express, and ponder over what you would like the person to experience when they receive it.

The Trojans would have won the war had they examined their gift before accepting it from the Greeks, but for most of us there is value in following the old adage, “Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: