I heard a commotion one morning, a day before Diwali. One raised voice and another pleading one. When I went to investigate, I saw a huge basket of fire crackers and another basket filled with of all kinds of imported goodies I had only heard about in the mid-60s. My eyes widened at the generous spread under the yellow cellophane paper covering the cane baskets. I quickly called my brother and we both peeped from behind the curtain gazing greedily at the fancy fire crackers and eatables while our father scolded the gentleman who had brought the gifts. We heard him ask the gentleman to take away the baskets as they were too ostentatious, while the gift bearer pleaded with my father to accept it for the kids. A sentiment that echoed in our hearts!
My father, a senior government official, believed that accepting expensive Diwali gifts amounted to taking bribe. This was immediately post the Nehruvian era, with idealism still running strong in many veins. My father ordered the baskets to be taken away much to our disappointment but told the gentleman that he would be happy to accept a small box of sweets instead. Bursting our meagre fire crackers the next evening with other children in the government residential complex where we lived, we saw a couple of them carrying the same baskets my father had sent back. The variety and quantity of fire crackers made those two kids the most popular with everyone trying to ingratiate themselves so as to be the lucky ones to be given a chance to burst the fire crackers. The sense of pride about our father's principled stand overcame some of our disappointment but the lure of the attractive fire crackers remained and we too gathered around the kids with the elaborate baskets.
Many years later, in the 1990s, married to a government officer, and living in a government complex in Mumbai, I had a different Diwali gift experience. A week or ten days before Diwali, the doorbell rang during a weekday afternoon. As I opened the door, with my two little ones standing behind me, I saw a uniformed chauffeur holding two colourfully wrapped boxes. He asked my name, handed me the two boxes that had the visiting card of the gift giver stuck conspicuously, and asked me to sign a register. Bemused, I did as asked and while I was mulling over how to react to this strange experience, my super excited kids had torn open the wrapping and were prizing open the boxes. While scolding them for making a mess, I helped them open the gifts, curious about what the boxes contained. A large assortment of dry fruits in one box which was promptly attacked by my eager little beavers and a small flower vase were the first Diwali gifts I received in Mumbai. From a chauffeur at that!
I promptly rang up my husband in his office and recounted the entire experience, asking him what was to be done as I did not know the person who had sent the gift and also that it was delivered by an employee of the gift giver. I told him with some trepidation that I had signed my name in the register after accepting the gift because I was so overwhelmed by the process that it had not even occurred to me to protest. He asked me to read out the name on the visiting card, which I dutifully did. It turned out to be someone who came under my husband’s jurisdiction, but he too was flummoxed about the bizarre manner in which the gift was delivered. He told me that he would get back after consulting with his colleagues about whether to accept the gifts or not.
I did not have the heart to tell him that we had already polished off a large part of the dry fruits. Within minutes, he called back to say that this was the norm in Mumbai during the Diwali season to have them delivered in such an impersonal manner and we could accept it as it was just a customary gift of not much value.
We were both unsure about what was the right thing to do and a little uncomfortable about both the Diwali gift concept as well as its mode of delivery. After some discussion, we agreed that as long as these were gifts of dry fruits or small items with a token value, it would be alright to accept the gifts. On many occasions, we had to refuse gifts (politely, of course) which appeared to be expensive. This wasn't very different from what I had seen my father do almost thirty years ago, except that now the gifting had become so detached and commercial. But this was thirty years later, with changed times and attitudes.
For the next few days our doorbell did not stop ringing with a continuous stream of gift-bearing chauffeurs and sometimes personal assistants standing at our door at all hours of the day and night. When I stood at the balcony, at any given time of the day, I could see at least three to four gift-filled cars from which chauffeurs carried identical gifts to the various houses on their lists.
Later, one of the persons, who had sent a gift which had been declined by us, asked my husband whether he had liked the gift. My husband gently explained what had happened. The person was shocked. Seems his driver took home the gift rather than returning it!
Dry fruit boxes of various shapes and beautifully wrapped chocolates, Indian sweets and savories, vases of metal, pottery and glass, small idols... the house was overflowing with Diwali gifts and I was running out of space. I decided to ask my neighbour, an older and wiser lady, who had seen many Diwalis in Mumbai. She advised me to get rid of the perishables, we could not consume immediately by distributing them to friends, family, household help and buy airtight containers to keep dry fruits that would last for months. She suggested that other gifts were best recycled when attending birthday parties, anniversaries and weddings. I decided to follow some of her advice as it seemed the practical thing to do.
On Diwali day, as was the convention, we visited some of the senior officers and a few colleagues, with boxes of sweets bought from a well-known sweet shop in Mumbai. We wanted everyone to be sure of the authenticity of our gifts being personal and not recycled. While having a cup of tea in living rooms, I saw many vases, statues, serving bowls and plates. One could make out immediately that these had been received as gifts. Many of the sweets, savouries and snacks were a duplication of what we had received at home. Although, we were a little embarrassed, we realized that everyone else was extremely comfortable with this Diwali gift jamboree. They joked and teased each other about the identical vases, serving bowls and trays in their homes. They even quizzed each other good humoredly on seeing or eating anything different from what they had received. There was an atmosphere of general bonhomie about the Diwali gifts in the large circle of government officers in Mumbai.
The Mumbai style of Diwali gifting gradually spread across the country and the concept of personally visiting people with gifts has almost vanished from metropolitan cities. Courier services do brisk business during the festive season with many corporates and even big businessmen hiring their services during Diwali.
Exchange of gifts on Diwali has taken on a character of its own which has nothing to do with the original tradition of meeting friends and family on the festival. Diwali gifting is now seen as a tool for networking and business development. Corporate houses now take their Diwali gifting very seriously involving their marketing teams to create innovative gifting ideas. Jargon like "top of the mind recall" has entered the arena of Diwali gifts with corporates trying to outdo each other. When I recently visited a well-known retail store in South Delhi that caters mainly to expats, I saw hundreds of pure leather bags being packed with unimaginable varieties of delectable. Curious, I asked who the bags were for and was told that a large corporate had ordered these as Diwali hampers.
When consulting with an upcoming Real Estate company recently, I realised the extent to which Diwali gifting has entered the psyche of businesspersons. The discussion on Diwali gifts began more than two months in advance with the proprietor firmly believing that sending Diwali gifts was an important way to network and expand business. A stream of Diwali gift vendors was lined-up and every day at least a couple of hours were spent examining and discussing the gifts. A team was sent to scout for reasonably priced Diwali gifts from wholesalers and it dutifully returned with many "free" samples. Many animated discussions and several arguments later, the Diwali gifts were finally selected and dispatched. There were Class A gifts for important clients and Class B gifts for regular clients. And then there were the high-end gifts for government functionaries.
Government functionaries are the main group at the receiving end of Diwali gifts. If they are in an important post, their houses overflow with gifts. Heaven forbid if the chauffeur or the courier service bearing gifts gives their houses a miss. It’s all about the chair – kissa kursi ka – as they say. They can only stand forlornly behind the curtains, watching the huge parade of gifts going into other houses. Many times, the importance of a government officer is judged by the number of Diwali gifts he or she receives rather than the work they do.
The early days of idealism has given way to commercialism. There is no black-and-white as was in the days of my father. Now there are many shades of grey.