Most students who have completed their GCSEs in the UK, will have at some point read an anthology of poems from across the country. In it, I recall a memorable poem by Moniza Alvi, entitled Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan. It spoke about a girl’s experiences of the interesting gifts she’d received from abroad, comparing several textiles to bright fruits and moments of joy.
It got me thinking about the whole system of exchange as part of cultural identity. Of course presents are exchanged between friends and relatives all the time, but can this sometime get out of control? In a land where bridal dowry and materialist wealth has played an important role in the past – are we going to see any of these habitual tendencies carry through in the future?
I take my most recent case from my father’s experience of visiting friends and relatives in India. Yes, we’re often likely to get asked for presents from the west, this is quite a natural thing to expect from those in a far away prosperous land. In the past, we will have taken things that were difficult to obtain in India. In return we would have brought back items of domestic use to London (such as a plentiful supply of combs, toothbrushes, toiletries) saving us those trips to Boots. In return, our cousins and family friends will have received some ‘British-branded’ clothes – or perhaps hand-me-downs for the village/town neighbours. My mother would collect at least a year’s worth of old clothes – and never consider donating them to charity. Quite often, she’d say, we can give this to so and so. When I replied that we wouldn’t see so and so for months, and that the Red Cross were doing a collection right now – she’d tell me not to worry, we’ll just wait and amass a collection of things to give at the end of the year. Of course this caused a bit of trouble with baggage control at the airport.
However, on recent engagements with relatives, it seems that this whole thing is getting out of control. But who is to blame, and how can we maintain control of the situation? For example, my sister once phoned some cousins asking them what they’d like to receive from England. They replied by asking for two mobile phones, an X-Box...perhaps a PlayStation if we could squeeze it in. Naturally, this was quite a surprise; it was a series of incredibly high expectations. I can only blame the growth of the internet and global advertising for making everything seem within reach. Of course, this was in the years before the global economic crisis.
As incidents like this grew more often, I began to understand my mother’s reasoning in collecting goods to take abroad. They would therefore seem new and exciting and bountiful in quantity (if we were clever about presenting them in the right way). We may not be able to bring a PlayStation, but we could perhaps recycle a few unwanted Christmas presents, surely that would be reasonable enough?
As I’ve come to realise, things have significantly changed in the modern day and age. Even recycled presents and saved items of clothing aren’t enough. In the last week or two, as relatives descended upon us, simple days out in London started to eat heavily into our salaries. This is in part due to certain museums and tourist traps charging the earth, but also due to relatives having an unrealistic understanding of the exchange rate. A small fortune easily gets consumed within minutes when entertaining or appeasing many. This simply leads me to believe that, at some point, everything is going to crash all over again. The key issue here is that amidst all of the material angst – one important thing is being lost – and that is the concept of value. When things are gifted or demanded, why does value become insignificant?
It’s also important to realise that these concepts do not stem from how much something costs. It goes a lot deeper. It’s about intent, purpose, respect and consideration. It’s about comprehending the value of something in its respective context. It’s about understanding that in a restaurant, the specials may cost more. In The Tower of London, the Ravens are the real treasure and in a museum – the gift shop is nothing next to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Moniza’s poem goes on to feature the following stanza:
My mother cherished her jewellery -
Indian gold, dangling, filigree,
But it was stolen from our car. T
he presents were radiant in my wardrobe.
My aunts requested cardigans
from Marks and Spencers.
From this we take away that aunts have clearly tapped upon the institutional treasure that is Marks and Spencer and that the mother has appreciated the traditional treasures from abroad. It’s almost reminiscent of a golden age when silks, opium and gold were genuine foreign treasures to be adored and appreciated. People valued scarcity. Can modern gifts still be treasured in the same way? The idea that everything is available almost everywhere seems to render the notion redundant. People have therefore become driven by the exchange rate alone. Of course, we’ll do anything we can do to help the situation. Even if this means telling relatives that Primark is indeed a shop worth buying at or that Nando’s is haute-cuisine.
Ultimately though, it’s simply the birth of desire that ebbs and flows. My sister and I often go crazy whenever anything we own goes missing. My mother then tells us of a time, when amidst three sisters and two brothers, she didn’t own anything. Everything belonged to everyone, so nothing was ever lacking. It is a far cry from the capitalist set-up we have today, but certainly admirable for its charms. The aim will be to make sure that we’re all speaking the same cultural language when it comes to the exchange of material goods in the future.