I would get butterflies in my stomach every time our family visited from abroad. There would be the drive to the airport at those odd hours when the city would be inching towards sleep, the quiet excited expression tucked into extra-tight hugs and high-pitched how are yous, the coming home, a second welcoming by family who couldn’t fit in the car that went to the airport, drowsy from waiting through the same late hours, and a second round of dinner in the pretext of feeding the arrived. Stretching the already long night would be the event I, as a six- or seven-year-old, anticipated the most — wheeling out that one suitcase that had gifts for the entire family.
We were raised to never show up anywhere empty-handed. “Oh, you didn’t have to get us all this,” they always say. It’s more of formality than real. So, it is unsurprising that the visiting Indians feel the pressure to get every uncle and cousin and their friends a gift. All the things that you couldn’t get here, roughly translated. And I ended up associating their visits with what they unfailingly brought along in pink-tissue lined gift bags. If it was close family, I was asked what I wanted, almost like they were a genie from a land where nothing from your imagination was too hard to get. From older family members, there would be handbags or perfume, sweaters and winter lotions. If it was someone once or twice removed, it would be the staple Ziplock of chocolates — Kisses, Hershey’s Nuggets, Toblerone, Twix, and Mars.
Some twenty years on, while the gifts continue to be given with the same fervor, they do not hold the same value of remarkability anymore. Over the years, Indian markets have expanded to accommodate American brands. You don’t need to look far to see that a majority of the brands that have entered the markets are ones popularized by the diaspora. Chocolate brands have set up their own manufacturing units to cater to the Indian crowd, while some have scaled up their imports. Snickers and Mars these days are as ubiquitously available as Dairy Milk once was. Strolling through a mall in a tier-1 city, you don’t have to take more than ten steps to be standing outside a Sephora or Tommy Hilfiger, located unassumingly between a Westside and McDonald’s. In 2019, some of America’s top fashion brands met with the Indian government to scale up sourcing with a view of investing over a hundred million in local production. With an ever-changing global trading scenario in Asia, India is a valuable target market.
These gifts shaped everything from what I read, what I played with, how I dressed and where.
Growing up, I considered myself very lucky, to have an aunt in the US. Going with my grandad to a phone booth with international calling to reach her, it would be in that dark cubicle where she would casually slip in, once a year, that she would be visiting in a month. With her would come an influx of various spoils — Disney branded crayons and coloring books, chapsticks and hair ties, soft cotton skirts and dresses (most of them with a Made in India tag), floor-length gowns with itchy sequins, lacy frills and multiple layers of mesh and muslin, faux fur-lined jackets which didn’t make sense in our weather. Along with numerous bags of chocolates, of course.
Some of these would seep into my schoolbag like a colorful notebook or a fragranced strawberry eraser.
Having things no one else in my class did, unsurprisingly gave me an undeserved air of superiority. Further, this exposure to foreign culture in terms of books and media led to an odd sense of othering, albeit one reeking of extreme privilege. I couldn’t wrap my head around how my best friend did not know the names and stories of all the Disney princesses or how someone didn’t recognize Granny Smith Apple was a crayon color. These gifts, eventually, shaped and dictated everything from what I read, how I read, what I played with, what my favorite chocolate was, how I dressed and where, what aesthetic I subscribed to — Nancy Drew was the best book series ever, Hershey’s chocolates were everything; while wearing a gown to school was odd, decorating school projects with elaborate glitter glue designs, was oddly unique.
“Somebody is either wearing Bath & Body Works or Victoria’s Secret,” my friend commented one day as she entered the college bus, having picked up a whiff of a scent that didn’t seem to have any business being there. “Oh! That’s mine,” I claimed. Clarifying, “my mom’s friend is visiting from the US.” Beauty, after electronics, is a popular category to gift — perfumes, skincare, cosmetics appear on every online “what to take back home” gift guide at least once. But what was cherished as a gift from the US a few years ago, is not so anymore. Bath & Body Works, arguably the most widely gifted beauty brand by the diaspora, which entered the Indian market to much rejoice in 2018 and further plans to invest ₹80 crores over five years to set up 50 stores in India, is a testament to that.
A market still in its nascent stage in India, beauty is a promising area — India’s largest beauty e-commerce platform Nykaa was valued at $14 billion on opening at the stock exchange recently. Their success comes from how they have been able to create a platform for not just brands established in India for years now, but also the number of international brands they have signed and made easily accessible in the country, from Estee Lauder to Bobbi Brown. With Victoria’s Secret too rumored to be in talks to open its stores in India, and having already started business online, the divide between markets of the two countries is shorter than it ever has been before and perfumes and lipsticks that were quintessentially American are not so much anymore. Though there is a visible price difference, for the Indian with a buying capacity, accessibility trumps having to wait till someone visits to get the product.
When a friend who was planning to visit India asked my mom if there’s anything she would like her to get, I overheard her going, “Aiyo, don’t bring anything. Is there something we do not get here now?” Five years ago my mom would have shyly requested a pack of Hershey’s Kisses that she would then slowly savor, one every morning after she sent me off to school.
The gifts someone got us from abroad would last months, long after their fifteen-day trips back home would be over and calls or cards letting us know they’d reached back safe would have arrived. I, would ration out the chocolates and lotions, saving them for special days or weekends, making them last for as long as possible; my mind instantly circling back to their visit for a second, every time I used it. Opening the fridge door to take a Twix out and eventually seeing the packet lose its fullness as the chocolates hit the bottom, a lingering feeling of momentary happiness slipping beyond reach would set in, leaving me to inevitably wonder when the next time I get to have these chocolates would be.
However, with globalization and liberalization picking up pace over the years, we have now reached a point where what was once a treat, a pleasant surprise when received, has turned into an everyday commodity, one step away from being almost Indian itself. Kids these days, unlike when I was younger, don’t see the US as a shiny land of magical goods. With almost all major brands either having a direct presence in India or having an Indian equivalent producing the same product, the cultural divide has significantly decreased.
While this influx has aided ease of everyday living, it cannot be denied that it is also leading to a homogenized global culture.
We are not looking westward and upward, instantly crediting anything American as superior in quality and taste. Trends which previously took years to find ground in India now take mere seconds, courtesy of the internet. Neither are we clueless about robot house cleaners or how to sport a crop top. This oddly fused mass market, mass-consumed for convenience, is slowly pushing away routines built around what was available and inherent to India — a Hershey’s bar replacing a box of Mysore Pak when visiting somebody or going to grab a burger instead of a dosa. While this influx has aided ease of everyday living, it cannot be denied that it is also leading to a homogenized global culture.
But for now, I can offer a little respite saying brands moving from one country to another is a two-way street. While my American cousins look to get me something that is not available in India yet — the answer is Ghirardelli chocolates, NOT scented handwash, please — a friend was faced with an unusual solution. For her mom’s birthday, her sister staying in the US shipped $400 worth of sarees to India. We’ve come full circle.