With time, I have grown disillusioned about the gifts we often give people, and what it means to us or other people. When I was little, there was no trend of giving gifts every time we visited someone. Visiting somebody usually meant getting a box of mishti (sweets) from the local sweet shop, and getting a bar of chocolate if there were children at home. That was the standard norm. No one expected any more. Gifts like clothes were restricted to members of the family, once a year during Durga Puja. And then there were birthday gifts and wedding gifts. But that was it.
Yet now, I see people getting each other gifts all the time. I have done that myself. You visit someone, and you get them perfumes, jewelry, home decoration stuff, and what not. If you visit someone’s home, you get them gifts. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Friendship Day, Hug Day, Housewarming, Baby Showers, the list never ends. I have often thought about the value these gifts have in our life. Wrapped in nice and shiny paper and presented in colorful bags using ribbons, where do these commercial tokens of love eventually end up? Is it merely a formality, or did it really mean something? When my sister got married, I got to see up close how much of gift analysis and gift abuse went on- Who gave what? How many? Who did not give what? Everything needed to be remembered in precision, because the same quality of gift would be given to them when they invited you. That part I understand, but what amazed me was the huge number of gifts that were recycled. Clothes and jewelry and kitchenware that did not live up to our standards, or were duplicates. Since what we wear is so personal, it is only natural that what we did not like, we would not wear. But that gift was a token of love to begin with, so it felt wrong to recycle it at someone else’s wedding. But what if that gift was a recycled one to begin with?
It also made me think of another fundamental concept- the value (and not the price) of the gift. Gift exchanges usually happen based on their prices, but what about the value? To me, a handwritten letter from a friend, or a travel postcard from a travel buddy means a lot more than an expensive brand of lipstick. I have carefully preserved every letter and card I have received over the years, but commercial merchandise did not mean the same to me. If this is the case, why send gifts to people, especially people whose homes are already brimming with stuff? What value does it add to their life anyway?
So a few months ago, I made a decision. I decided, no more gifts. Only presents. What is the difference? I see a present as something that is valuable for the present, not necessarily a piece of stuff, but an attribute that one will enjoy. For example, taking the time out to spend an evening with someone and have dinner, instead of sending them a gift for something. Remembering someone’s birthday, and calling them, instead of sending them a message on Facebook. Sharing a list of favorite movies or favorite sings with someone. Remembering what is someone’s favorite dish, and cooking it for them. Taking someone’s children to the zoo or the park, instead of giving them an expensive toy. Doing something, teaching something, or helping someone with your skills to show that you care. I had my moments of doubts, when I feared that people might criticize me behind back, calling me a miser. But I remembered the famous saying, “Be the change you want to see.” And I think that it has worked out well so far.
Last week, I was visiting someone in Philadelphia who agreed to host me although there is a baby at home, and they don’t exactly live in a palace. I needed to be there for work, and was on a tight budget. So I didn’t want to spend money on hotels. Also, I saw it as an opportunity to bond with my friend, spend time with her, and hang out with her family, including the baby. But once again, fears crept up my mind as I was faced with the gift dilemma. I was visiting the baby for the first time, and tradition demanded that I got something for the baby. But here was my dilemma. I could not carry something big from my place, because I was taking a flight and had baggage restrictions. I have no idea about gifts for babies. Even if I did, I do not know what the baby might already have. America is the land of plenty, where most people suffer from excess and not scarcity. And knowing how picky everyone is about clothes these days, I did not know what clothes to buy for the baby. Knowing how unwanted gifts are recycled by many, I did not want to give something that would be a waste of time, money, and resources. So I went there empty-handed.
But I have one skill that I could use to give them a present. I am a photographer. So one evening, we all went outside, and I took hundreds of family pictures. And on another day, I did an indoor photo session for the family once again. I know that new parents (or even not so new parents) love having pictures of their baby. So I put in the time, and made the effort to make the baby smile, give ideas to the mom about how to dress the baby up, and took hundreds of pictures of the family that they have been proudly showing off to their friends on Facebook ever since. And that serves my purpose and makes me happy. If I gave them something from BabiesRUs, I would never know if the baby liked it, already had a duplicate, or was being put to good use. But the value of what I gave them was immediate, and palpable. I think my plan worked.
So this is what I plan to do from now on. Give a present, and not a gift. Spend one-on-one time. Have conversations in real time. Listen. Write a hand-written letter. Send a thank you note. Take pictures of people. Take the children to a park, or do hands-on fun activities with them. Teach a skill. Take time to call people on their birthdays and not just send a Facebook message. Make an effort to meet people. No more expensive toys or jewelry or clothes. The more materialistic we get, the more we miss out on the human touch. And people have enough money to buy what we gift them anyway. So what is the point?