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Present tension

Last updated on: December 11, 2007 11:36 IST

The millions of people of Indian origin living in North America and Europe face a conundrum this holiday season: what to take, or send home, to relatives in India? Thanks to India's increasingly open economy, no one there seems to want much from the West any more.

How things have changed. In Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, the protagonist's mother precedes a visit home to India in the early 1970s with a shopping trip in Boston. She buys 'percale pillowcases, coloured candles, soaps on ropes.' At a drugstore she purchases 'a Timex watch for her father-in-law, Bic pens for her cousins' -- all items that were scarce or unavailable in India, or simply regarded as luxuries by people who had lived in a state-controlled economy since their independence from Britain in 1947.

Lahiri's account rings true. Trips home have always been considered both a pleasure and a duty for Indians living abroad, and a central theme has been foreign largesse bestowed upon grateful family.

Ravinder Singh, a burly limo driver in New York, has had similar experiences - although his betray a certain Sikh exuberance in contrast to the understated Bengali quality of the shopping in The Namesake. He remembers a trip back to his native Punjab in the early 1990s: "I had $500-worth of chocolates in my suitcase. Basically, one of my three suitcases had only chocolates in it. Snickers, Hershey bars, M&M's, After Eights, Toblerones. Lots of Toblerones."

In decades past, Indians could be seen lining up, hours early, at the Air India counters in New York or London, lugging suitcases the size of small cars. Requests for mounds of cheese or blue jeans were not uncommon from Indian relatives, even as recently as 10 years ago.

And while all this giving could prove expensive, it was also true that an emigrant's status was inflated by the goods he took home. But massive economic growth in India has fundamentally changed the ritual of gift-bringing from abroad.

Now, there's nothing the Non-Resident Indian - as he is classified by India's bureaucracy - can get in Manchester or Toronto that cannot also be bought in shopping malls in Bangalore or Gurgaon.

"The days of chewing gum and shampoo are over," says Gurcharan Das, the author of India Unbound, a book that assesses the impact on the country of the past decade's economic reforms. "People now bring the sort of gifts that they'd take anywhere in the world - items tailored to the taste of the recipient rather than generic things that weren't available during the 'licence raj'." This is the phrase Indians use to describe the decades when virtually every aspect of entrepreneurial life was regulated by the state.

The experiences of Amitava Kumar, a professor at Vassar College in upstate New York, echo this analysis: "In the early 1990s, my relatives in Patna, even those who had no interest in reading or writing, wanted Parker fountain pens." His old college room-mate "wanted me to bring a copy of Playboy. The others wanted cigarettes and alcohol." Now, Kumar's relatives want glitzier gifts. "I'm not even expected to bring anything - not if I can't bring digital cameras and the very latest iPods."

Inevitably, some gifts misfire. "I thought I'd be the first to introduce herbal tea to Patna," says Kumar, with a hint of resignation. "White tea, ginger tea, rooibos, camomile. No one touched it. On subsequent visits, I'd find the packets decorating the shelves in my parents' dining room."

Singh, the limo driver, says the most popular gifts his wife took home to Punjab last year were "wall hangings, showing American themes and scenery." A generation ago, taking back a wall hanging would have been deeply eccentric.

Suketu Mehta, 43, moved to Queens, New York, from Mumbai at the age of 14. Mehta, a writer, reminisces: "In the Seventies, our relatives marvelled at the bounty of America: toasters, razors, two-in-one radios, pens with digital clocks." Visitors from Mumbai would walk up and down 74th street in Queens, filling their Samsonite suitcases with CorningWare.

"On my trips back to India," Mehta adds, "I'd get lists of requests from family and friends, including, once, the bra and panty sizes for the daughter of our conservative Marwari neighbours - 'preferably Marks & Spencer.'"

Now it's the Manhattan-based Mehta who has the extra empty suitcase when he travels to India. "I buy jeans, watches and stoneware for my dinner table - all cheaper in India. And it's my family in India that gets sent long lists before their trips to America. Revenge is sweet."

Tunku Varadarajan is a contributing editor of the FT.

Tunku Varadarajan