I grew up in a household where there were no garbage bins. Nothing was thrown away. Everything was reused or recycled; except the term recycling had not yet been coined. Kitchen waste was thrown into a huge pit near thepavazamali plant in the backyard. We thought a hundred times before buying anything new.
The most revered people of that time were the ones who could get an extra mile out of what they already had. My grandmother always took a second decoction out of the coffee powder and yet her filter coffee tasted fantastic the second time around, too. When our ballpoint pen ran out of juice we would go to this kid Prahalad who’d deftly pull the nib out of the refill and blow air through the other side until every remaining atom of ink moved to the very end towards the nib. He would then casually put the nib back and hand it back to us. I swear, I could write five whole sheets of paper with the Prahaladified pen.
Due to this conditioning, I dislike the idea of wasting. So, it disturbs me to see how much is frittered away by way of gifts. The statistics regarding gifts being wasted—unused or rarely used—is pretty shocking. North of 50 percent of Christmas gifts end up in the trash within a year.
Does your nephew really need a Nexus tablet when he already has an iPhone, Kindle and iPad? But you give it to him anyway because you are out of other gift-ideas. No wonder kids these days hardly value their expensive e-toys, let alone their insignificant pens.
Gift giving is an integral part of today’s society. Gifts are substitutes for apologies, affection, and even remorse. Then there are the calendar year gifts, birthday gifts, New Year gifts, Christmas gifts, got-back from vacation gifts, return gifts and Golu gifts. After Navarathri, I nervously counted three incense holders, one picture frame, four lamps, five candles and three pictures of Lord Balaji. Like a tiger waiting to pounce on its prey, I am anxiously waiting for the next suitable event to palm them away.
Re-gifting, though, requires a lot of thought. Seinfeld fans can never forget the hilarious episode where Tim Whatley re-gifts the label maker that Elaine gives him to Jerry. Elaine finds out and the whole gang ostracizes Tim. Re-gifting needs careful Venn diagramming and advanced probability theory. You cannot give the gift back to the original gift-giver, ever.
Neither can you gift it to a close friend or relative of that person. But, you can only strategize so much. All bets are off if your precocious six year old catches you red-handed, “Amma, why are you giving this to Latha Aunty? Remember, Priya Aunty gave it to us.”
A gift-less, waste-free society is a utopian dream. I sadly realize that it is unpractical. Gifts are used to show appreciation and in some cases, to show respect. Recorded history of gifts dates back to the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, the tradition of gift giving at Christmas is said to have started when Magi or the three wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for baby Jesus.
Given that gift giving is a necessary evil, can we as a society, try to make it less evil? Does appreciation always need to be in the form of material gifts? Can we think outside the gift-wrapping and find novel ways to celebrate the important people in our lives?
How about treating your friend to a home-cooked meal? What about penning a letter to your sister, for the New Year? It is surely okay to give your gardener some extra money instead of a box of chocolates. I took a fitness-freak friend on a daylong hike when she first moved to the area. The lush green hills, the chirping birds and our non-stop chatter amidst the strenuous climb warmed both our hearts. That definitely beat a twenty-five dollar gift card from Pier One Imports.
For my birthday, the men in my life decided to give me the gift of their clean-shaven faces. I had hated my husband’s mustache and my brother’s goatee. Both of them shaved it off for me on my birthday. I thought that was the cutest gift ever! Even better, they can keep giving me the same gift every year.
Sometimes though, we keep racking our brains but just cannot come up with a useful gift-idea. What do you take to your friend’s father-in-laws’ eightieth birthday party? I thought long and hard. What do you give a person who has it all? Then it struck me. Nothing! Yes, it is okay to give nothing. I was ecstatic when this Archimedean Eureka moment hit me. I convinced my family and myself that it is perfectly okay to show up empty handed at a party rather than presenting a useless item that will never get used. It just needed some courage.
After doing this a number of times, l’ve found that Newton’s fifth law of gift-giving, is absolutely accurate. This law states that the number of gifts you receive is directly proportional to the number of gifts you give. Yes, the fewer photo frames and scented candles you hand out as gifts, the lesser you will receive.
So, go ahead to your next party, empty handed. When you see shiny presents on the table, you’ll feel like a chain-smoker deprived of nicotine. Breathe. Don’t give up. Think about all the unwanted gifts stacked up in your garage. Smile. Pat yourself on the back. You are doing it for a greener planet!
Sujatha Ramprasad loves to read poetry and philosophy. She is an ardent fan of Harry Potter.