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Musings-The Gift of Giving

December 2006
Musings-The Gift of Giving

The holiday season is a busy time for exchanging gifts, but when we buy and—more often than we're willing to admit—recycle them, are we doing it out of love, or out of social obligation?

On a friend's recommendation, I saw the movie The Raincoat. My first impression made me feel a bit removed from the experience, thanks to poor acting for certain characters. But by the second half of the film I was thoroughly involved, appreciating the significance of the theme. So when the credits mentioned that it was based on O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, I remembered reading the famous short story in school and went straight to the computer the next morning to reread it.

Of course, I first marveled at O. Henry's fabulous skills with words, turns of phrase, and humor, laughing and exclaiming and reading bits and pieces aloud for my husband to enjoy as I read it onscreen. And by the end, the love shown in the story and the truth of O. Henry's comment in the last paragraph brought tears to my eyes:

"The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

Of course, differences may be noted between the movie and the short story: the location (the movie is set in Bengal, not in O. Henry's West) and culture (the movie has nothing to do with O. Henry's setting of Christmas gifts or the Christian connotations of gifts of sacrifice). Yet, common ground is found in the theme of the gift of love, love that is shown even though it necessitates personal sacrifice. It may be argued that the gifts given in The Raincoat involved even greater personal sacrifice than those in O. Henry's story.

One particular line in the movie struck a chord with me, highlighting something that I have noticed in the culture of many Indians in America, something that I wondered if the filmmaker was also noting and contrasting to the point of the theme. The line was said by the pleasant, appealing, modern wife of the protagonist's Calcutta friend: something to the effect of "it would be a good idea and the appropriate thing to do to take her a gift ? I have plenty of gifts sitting around that you could choose from, many saris still in the wrapping paper."

Yes, isn't that true, I thought. Go to the house of most of the Indians here, and what do you find? Down in the basement, before you get to the activity room, there is a pile of presents to pass by; some boxed, some not, ready for the next gift-giving necessity—party, birthday, wedding. (I have not seen this in India. Is the filmmaker saying that this custom—of everyone giving so many generic gifts that they receive more than they need or want, and can store them for the next impersonal round—is spreading to India? It is bad enough here, but I would be sorry to see it become part of the modernization, westernization, materialization of India.)

The West is criticized, often rightly so, for being too materialistic. If the typically American love of shopping and "keeping up with the Jones's" is overdone, especially with the use of credit cards, much harm can be done, not just financially but also environmentally and spiritually. Such emphasis on materialism is what gives us customs such as that of gift registries. Take the wedding registry for example. Should the focus of the engaged couple be on what material things they want? And especially on what they want people to give them?

The recurring scene of ready-to-dispense gift items in many Indian-American households brings forth many questions about cultures and traditions, and their abuse. Of course, we all know there is much to learn from the meeting of cultures. There is much to appreciate in the West and in the East, and we often decide that we like the way some things are done better than others. We can choose to apply lessons from around the world in our own lives.

For example, it may be convenient that people don't have to go shopping every time, since they have presents ready to give (presents given to them and unwanted, in the basement), but does it feel good giving leftovers? Doesn't it become a ritual of socialization rather than a gift chosen with love specifically for the other person?

I have wondered, especially, how anyone can afford the constant buying of expensive clothes, usually the first topic of conversation among women at a gathering of Indians in America. And I wonder about this emphasis on expensive clothes given the knowledge of the condition of the average Indian back home.

There is much food for thought in both O. Henry's story and the movie The Raincoat.

"O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest."


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