It’s that time of the year again. The season to clean out closets, almirahs, box beds or wherever else you had stored them, wrap them and get them ready. It’s Diwali after all, everyone gets a new outfit, including past presents! Culturally, Diwali has been seen as an opportunity to express gratitude to people who matter, a sentiment which was conveyed by exchanging gifts. Over the years gifting has gone beyond following tradition and sharing revelry. It has become a way to flaunt one’s eclectic taste, appease top officials and foster contacts to enhance business ……..and get rid of unwanted presents of the past.
The last motive, although the most irksome is also the most harmless. Everyone gets their share of useless gifts. Like in a game of passing the parcel these gifts spend their entire life exchanging hands, never put to use, just passing from one household to another. They stay in motion till the music stops and they look too old and worn out to be regifted. Every household has its way of dealing with these space occupying lesions. Non perishable goods are separated from the perishable ones and stowed for ‘recycling’. This is an encumbrance because they take up valuable storage space. The easiest way to put such items out of circulation and stop this state of perpetual motion is by changing their orbit. Launch them into a lower rung of society and they will come to rest. So the vase that looks too flashy to gel with your home decor can become a conversation starter in your maid’s home. Similarly the overly sweet sweets that will eventually rot in the back of your fridge can sweeten the Diwali of someone less fortunate.
A bigger problem is the increasing trend of using Diwali gifts as a style statement. This ‘competitive gifting’ is the other end of the spectrum of cheap thoughtless gifts. Carefully chosen gifts to epitomise one’s aesthetics and social position. Kalamata olives, gherkins, macaroons, macadamia nuts, Marcona almonds, exotic cheeses which have nothing to do with Diwali and everything to do with declaring one’s social standing. Gifting is thus reduced to branding, a type of gift casteism. If bragging was the only fallout it could be excused, but it also encourages wasteful spending in a needless game of upmanship. A recent happy trend in this strata of society is the arrival of the ‘ evolved consumer’. Those who buy gifts from organizations that work with the less-privileged sections of society. A sort of conscious consumption that helps to spread festive cheer in dark alleys and slums.
The trend of gifting with ulterior motive is much more devious. Presents and hospitality have always been culturally accepted in emerging markets such as India. However, there is a paradigm shift where in they are used to buy loyalty. This is prevalent across the entire business ecosystem. Diwali gifts are used as bait to tempt employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.
But the most sinister development is using this occasion to give high value gifts (gold coins, international trips, expensive gadgets) to people in position of power with the aim to secure favours and further business interests. The unspoken question is, are we using Diwali as an excuse to gift wrap bribes? Compliance professionals say the answer is simple. The motive behind the gift determines whether it is a bribe or not, irrespective of its pecuniary value. To avoid ‘festivities’ from being misconstrued as bribe corporates should ensure that gifts made to public officials are reasonable, infrequent, appropriate, of nominal value and are not given with an intent to influence.
Gifting needn’t be so complicated. As children we would carry cloth napkin covered thalis of homemade goodies to neighbours and friends’ houses. A gesture that would be returned in equal measure after the evening was spent amid laughter and animated conversation. Uncomplicated and sweet. In this fast paced age of consumerism we tend to forget that the greater purpose of exchanging gifts was to meet up and rejoice with family and friends. This Diwali lets do it the old way …..let’s shift the gift off centre.
( published in my column in the Tribune on 19/10/19)