I’ve been looking for gifts for the past few days for my impending visit to India from New York. And I’ve been looking in vain.
Last year I bought some bottles of perfume with people’s names on them –unfortunately not mine but say Calvin Klein’s or Elizabeth Arden’s or even Justin Bieber’s. Sometimes they were not names but only initials. They appeared everywhere–clothes, shoes, leather handbags–with shiny tags that said CK, MC, AB, CD, EF, GH or something else.
I suppose that in the realm of gift-giving, even if there was some confusion as to who had given the gift, there would be no confusion as to whose idea it was. Calvin Klein’s.
But on my way, at my long layover in Dubai, I realized the folly of carrying these several bottles of unnecessary fluids and leather bags (yet so necessary for the human condition) over long distances.
Dubai airport was a great, wide, beautiful, wonderful mall which happened to also have airplanes. And it was newer and more sparkling than any mall in New Jersey or Florida.
In Calcutta, which took to American style malls a little later than many other Indian cities, I saw that the same perfume bottles that I had bought and lugged through airports from so far occupied central positions in gigantic stores inside brand new local malls. (The prices inside were several times higher than the prices outside the malls for similar things, sometimes even higher than the dollar equivalent for the same thing in the US.)
I should have known because I do see people from India increasingly “liking” these brands on Facebook.
So carrying a lot of things from New York to Calcutta seemed silly.
Yet I have to think of something to buy now.
When two places are so different and yet not so different any more in our globalized world the business of gift giving takes on some complex dimensions which reveals curious things about the two places in different stages of coming together. By places I mean people, but people, in some ways, cannot be separated from places.
While buying gifts, two things come into play–the things available where you live and the personality of the gift giver. The things available are fixed while personalities can be variable.
There are those who buy things that they would like very much as gifts themselves. They pick up 98% dark chocolate if they like dark chocolate because of course, that’s what everyone likes or a green sweater because green is the world’s best colour.
The shopping experience is simple for them.
Then there are those who put themselves in the giftee’s shoes and see what the giftee would like to get.(I see that I’m misspelling this word giftee since it’s being underlined in red but I don’t trust spellcheckers.) The necessity to put yourself in the giftee’s shoes makes shopping about understanding people as much as things.
And people are more complex than things, especially when they speak the global language of things.
Before my very first visit to Calcutta from the US as a student many years ago, I had gone excitedly to the local plaza in the small town in search of things. A few things that would be affordable and yet would tell my folks back home that they were from this new place that was very different.
In India, in those days, if you visited a place, you bought things typical of the place. In my limited view of India (for we didn’t travel that much), for example, if we visited the seaside in Digha, we’d come back with necklaces made of sea shells. If we went to Shantiniketan, we’d get leather goods with typical Shantiniketan patterns or fine cotton with batik print. A pair of clay horses from Bishnupur with erect ears were my constant companion in the living room for many years until their white pattern faded and one of them lost an ear completely.
In the US though, in the small town I lived in, there was a Wal Mart and a Target accessible by bus. So I went to one or the other in the plaza, looking for things. I did find a nice shirt made of fine cotton. The tag said “Made in India.” It had travelled all the way.
What sense would it make helping the shirt on a round trip back to its location of origin?
So I found another. This time, it said “Made in Bangladesh.”
Our neighbour in India.
Finally I bought some Hershey’s Kisses and a few ball point pens that clearly said “Made in USA” and looked new and shiny.
On the way home to India my plane stopped in Seoul where I had a very long layover. In my meanderings through the airport, I was eager to see some things typical of Seoul. But again, other than the fact that most people did not speak English, the things that I saw were roughly the same as what I would see in a mall in the US. People in jeans checking out printed Ralph Lauren handbags.
Back in the US, now that I don’t live in a small town anymore, I decided to visit a different kind of store. These, I knew, are frequented by the other Americans, the ones who speak a more informed language of things. In these stores, the people have understood that the popular American brands are suspect.
So items are several times more highly priced than those at the local malls in America (that are now fixtures in India). Both the people and things in these stores are different–not your regular CK or DK or AB or CD.
Once inside, I was in for a unique experience.
These stores were indeed completely different from a typical American mall or a big box store.
From the inside, they looked like an Indian local marketplace of the most regular kind! Like my local bazaar in the street corner.
Bath salts in open gunny sacks populated the beauty section, the floor was rough and unpolished, jute bags and stainless steel lunch boxes occupied the shelves. The pricier the handbags, the soaps, the shampoos, the mugs, the shabbier they looked. They were several times the price in regular stores but they had irregular shapes and coarse packaging. I even spotted a super expensive jute bag (of the kind very cheap in India with two jute handles people use to buy vegetables from the market) with a picture of Lord Shiva (the kind of picture you’d see in the cheapest variety of colourful wall calendars hanging on sweet shop walls at Sealdah maybe but never on a bag) in a pride of place in this expensive store.
What was I to do? Items that look like this are available 24/7 at any local shop in my lane in Calcutta. They did not remotely seem to have the “foreign” polish that would set them apart. If I got these as gifts, people would surely assume I was too cheap to go to the mall.
Ergo: I think I’ll only buy lots of chocolate chip cookies. No one can have too many of them and no one really cares where they’re made or what shape they’re in.
©bottledworder, 2013. https://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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