The art of gift swapping in 1990s India…

And how it has evolved over time.

As we all sat down to unwrap gifts excitedly around the center table in our “drawing” room (read living room these days), I thought, “We must have broken all previous records of getting the maximum number of gifts this time.”

If you’ve grown up in India in the 1990s, I think I can safely assume that this was Diwali (read Pujo/Dussehra/Navratri for other parts of the country) for most of us.

The exchange of gifts (or pleasantries during my mom’s growing up years in Jaipur with a plate of laddoos) during the festive time is not an alien concept to any of us.

The Days of Yore

But back in the 90s, these gifts were not crazy expensive like the ones today — branded stuff, imported chocolates/liquor or exotic boxes of mysterious things!

More often than not, they were four-divisional dry fruit boxes, crockery items (usually the cheap ones), assorted Dairy Milk chocolates (if you were lucky) or a “showpiece.”

It would have been hard to know the price when your age hasn’t even reached double figures, but just the act of counting the number of gifts the family received every year was overwhelmingly joyful for me.

The season of swapping would begin two months in advance — starting from making a list of families that would receive gifts that year.

Then would begin the search for the best but also economically viable gifts! My parents would visit so many markets in Delhi every weekend. Sometimes my brother and I would accompany them too.

For me, the best part was searching for stationary items such as planners and calendars all across the city. The worst was going to old Delhi for dry fruit shopping! And then the finale of visiting everyone to hand over the gifts in person.

My father and I during one of the evenings in Delhi, India, in the 1990s.

The Material Takes Over

Well, the days of innocent gift swapping are long gone. They have been replaced by items that are valued for their price tag and not for the emotion behind them.

Gifts these days must either be big brands, or real intricate works of art or expensive liquor. They can’t be those small boxes or potlis of cashew nuts my lovely Bua (aunt) used to bring with her. They can’t be those packets of Crax and Uncle Chips my bhaiya (big brother) would buy right at the last moment, because he couldn’t think of anything else. These didn’t come wrapped in glittery paper but would be inside the bag that the shopkeeper handed him.

As we entered the 2000s, this precious act of love (exchanging sweets and little thoughtful gifts) started to become a burden though.

With consumerism penetrating into the middle-class household like never before, clubbed with a higher standard of living for most, things started to get more money-minded.

There were comparisons now. Who got what? And why? And how to return/match up to the favor now?

The Consequence?

Our list started to get shorter and shorter. The gifts were now reflecting the exact “status” of a household, instead of mirroring the feeling behind them.

This meant that those who weren’t doing great in life, started to feel inferior to those who were only going upwards during this decade. It also became a ritual rather than a time to spread love and happiness through small gestures of gifting.

As more and more Western brands became available in our country, it became a norm to not go below a certain level (based on the social circle you were a part of) when it came to Diwali gift swapping.

Well, I know that we don’t receive as many gifts today as we used to. We also don’t give as many gifts as we used to.

The reasons for it may vary but the straw that did break the camel’s back was the ritualistic hue that this whole exercise had taken. It just became a task devoid of the joy we used to feel while going through the almost two-month long process.

Times They Are A-Changin’ Again

But hey there is some good news!

This joyless laborious task is evolving again. After a couple of decades of mindless gifting, we are finally going back to the good old ways of exchanging simple yet useful things. Things that are not just things, but are heartfelt gestures involving labor and love.

I feel so joyful when I see people making efforts towards sustainable gifting and choosing products that make a difference. Things that can last a lifetime, only through the emotion behind them.

Products that don’t require the price tag to be shown off, rather products that show off the heart behind them.

The heart matters and it always should.

“The idea behind a gift should always be pure joy and not any kind of pressure or expectation. That’s what makes the whole experience so worth it isn’t it?”

So, let’s gift something truly meaningful this festive season even if it means sitting up a little late in the night to wrap it in paper and add a personal little note.

On that note, let me start with making my list for this year!

Happy giving and receiving gifts!

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Writer. Buddhist. Feminist. Looking for freelance projects.