Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why wrap gifts?

Let’s face it  -- gift wrapping is superfluous.

If I ever wrote the story of my life, the gifts I have given or received would feature in just a few sentences, and the wrapping of those gifts may not even get a mention.

Why, even in Indian religious mythology, historical accounts or literature, although gifts feature either as a piece of fact or as a device to convey deeper spiritual insights, very little is mentioned about the actual embellishment of the gift when it is presented.

In mythology, the story of a poor woman Shabari who took refuge in a forest hermitage never fails to touch a chord in me.  She lived in the hope of getting a glimpse of the exiled king Sri Rama, and performed chores every day like seeing that the forest paths were cleared of stones so they did not hurt the feet of the king, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, if they perchance visited the hermitage. She made sure that the brambles were cleared so that they did not get caught in his hair which no doubt would have grown long.  Berries were plucked, and in order that only the sweetest and best fruit could be given to Sri Rama, Shabari tasted a bit of each berry… which is really unthinkable even in modern India where it is taboo to give food that you have bitten or put to your mouth to others. Eventually, Rama did visit this humble woman’s hermitage and partake of these berries, despite knowing that she had tasted them. He saw it as a gift given from the heart, given with childlike innocence and pure devotion. I can’t think of this gift of berries being given to him in anything other than a simple bowl made of leaves tacked together with bits of dried grass stalks, or maybe a reed basket woven painstakingly by Shabari in the evenings as the light dimmed in the forest.

Gifts were often given by Gods pleased with the penance of sages or the deeds of mortals. For instance, pleased with the penance of Yudishthira, Lord Surya (the Sun God) gave him a wonderful vessel called the Akshyapatra which would give an endless supply of food to the Pandavas every day. In books or comic books that re-tell these stories to modern children, such divine gifts often pop up  from the skies without any embellishments, and often on a torso-less hand, possibly to make it easier for mere mortals to comprehend the message of reaping of what one sows. It would have been difficult to convey the same effect if the said gift appears wrapped in layers of cloth or paper.

Likewise, in an example from Indian history: it is reported that King Ambhi of Taxila gave Alexander, the Macedonian king, gifts of 3000 fat oxen and 10,000 sheep and gold and silver. Somehow, I get the feeling that King Ambhi wouldn’t have bothered too much about wrapping these gifts, nor would the outward appearance have mattered to young Alexander who doubtless was already thinking about his next conquest.  

In the classic stories by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf”, gifts form the central theme -- the former features material gifts that the protagonists gave each other which in a heart wringing twist are ultimately of no use to either; while in the latter story, it was the gift of his time and art and ultimately his own life, that the aging artist gave the invalid girl. The stories were so gripping when I first read them years ago, that I never once wondered about how the gifts might have been wrapped. Closer home, Prem Chand’s story “Idgah” tells us of a poor young boy given a few coins by his old grandmother despite their poverty, so that he could go and enjoy himself with his friends at the fair held during the Id festival. The young boy spends time roaming in the fair grounds clutching the coins and watching his friends purchase small toys and other whimsy. Ultimately, he does buy something -- a pair of tongs for his grandmother so that she does not burn her hands while making rotis on the stove. I have not read the original story in Hindi, but going by the era during which the author wrote it, the gift may not have been wrapped at all, or maybe just loosely covered with a piece of old newspaper and tied with a string.

Gift wrapping with paper and ribbon is not an Indian tradition. It appears to have entered the country along with other western traditions like birthday cakes and birthday parties. Even in the early 1980s, I cannot recall much paper (let alone plastics or aluminium foil and cling film) being used in middle class households in my home town, Bangalore. During festivals, gifts were exchanged among neighbours and friends, but usually these were simple gifts of fruits and delicacies cooked fresh and arranged on a tray and covered with a dainty cloth kept specifically for such purposes. When the tray reached its destination, the contents were transferred onto a tray kept for the purpose by the host, and the original tray and cloth were taken back home. Simple, elegant and fuss free.  

For birthdays, apart from gifts like toys and books (or money as one outgrew toys), what was most important was the early morning bath and prayer, followed by drinking a glass of sweetened milk flavoured with saffron usually served in a special silver tumbler. This was followed by paying respects to the elders of the family and asking for their blessings. In honour of the occasion, a sweet dish would definitely be prepared; the focus again would be on using pure and auspicious ingredients like saffron, ghee, nuts and raisins, as well as grains like rice. A visit to the temple would be mandatory in most households.  In north India, the first reaction to any good news (like the birth of a baby or good exam results) is to quickly make a sweet dish or purchase a box of sweetmeats and offer it to all visitors saying “Mu meetha kijiye” which translates to “Come and sweeten your  mouths”. The focus everywhere was on good food, fun, sharing with others, and respecting the elderly. The gift usually was secondary (at least to adults) to all the excitement and hustle and bustle of the day. 

Even during landmark events like the birth of a baby or a marriage, the gifts were presented formally and openly (in fact even if something like a sari came in a box, it would be displayed openly) at a specific time during the ceremony and were usually arranged on a tray with other customary offerings like fruits, coconuts and betel leaves. 

In present times however, there has been a sea change in attitudes to gifting. Gift coupons, expensive jewellery, books, small knick-knacks, toys...the choice is endless. There are different occasions and new traditions to keep up with global trends, and gifts to suit each occasion. Usually there is a distinct difference in private celebrations at home and larger gatherings.  Travelling long distances to reach events also means that some amount of gift wrapping is necessary to avoid damage to the gift. Large gatherings also mean that it may not be possible to formally present each gift to the recipient in the old manner.

Gift shops usually offer gift wrapping with some basic gift wrap paper free, and this usually leads the busy shopper to go in for it. In fact, I started thinking of novel gift wraps and customizing them for the recipient for this reason. Whenever I took my son to a birthday party, especially in the same housing society we live in, I found that many gifts looked alike -- not just were they bought in the same bookshop across the road, even the gift wrap used was the same because there were very few designs! I felt that the children deserved better and even though they usually rip through the wrapping in a few seconds to get at the gift, sparing a few minutes to wrap things better made ME feel better.

It requires  some effort to look the shop owner in the eye and say “Thanks, but I’d rather not use the free shiny non-biodegradable wrapping paper you use to wrap gifts in two minutes, but I’m going to go all the way home to wrap the gift myself thereby taking an extra hour or so ….” . Yet, it’s all so worth it when I see the extra excitement when the gift is handed over, so I fully intend to go to all the bother.


  1. You know what - i don't care wht you wite about - i just want to read it. Tomorrow you can write about 'lepoying' with cowdung and i'll be here -reading all about it. Avidly. You write so well. You SERIOUSLY should send this piece to a newspaper/lifestyle mag for publication. It is SO VERY GOOD.

    Or maybe to children's magazines - like Hoot and Toot - where it can have a great print as a potted history and sociology of gift wrapping in India. Hell - you write too well.

    I loved so many parts of it - i don't think i'm going to point to specifics - BUT the thought of 3000 fat oxen and 10,000 sheep being gift wrapped - the traditional way - fully covered, was such a hysterical thought - i couldn't stop my imagination or my laughter.

  2. Namitha, this is lovely, and very informative for a non-Indian like me. Thank you so much for your thoughts!


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