Can a gift make up for a steadying presence at a doctor’s appointment? Can a ‘present’ make up for not being present? My parents have never once asked for anything
It is a sky-blue, hard-top suitcase. A bit battered now, from many trips to see my parents in India. Its once shiny molded plastic top bears the scars of baggage hold and the luggage belt crashes proudly, like badges of war. It travelled to other places - conferences, destination weddings, exotic beach holidays, but with a few years of wear and tear, it was relegated to being a faithful companion on my India trips. I am the original recycler, my grown-up daughters say. They are constantly surprised that objects around the house they saw as children, still exist and are used.
Experience of travel to India makes me look for it in the loft every time I have to make a trip. I have always had hard-top suitcases for travel to India. There was a time when it was prudent and necessary. In pre-liberalised India, when foreign goods were scarce and expensive, there were stories of baggage handlers or airport staff splicing open a soft- top bag with a knife and helping themselves to the alcohol and chocolates inside. It never happened to me and those days are long gone, but the habit remains. So I still reach for my battered blue partner to take to a modern India which has swish conveyor belts carrying branded leather cases with alphabet soup designs to their elegantly dressed owners; and airports that make Terminal 4 at Heathrow look like the third world.
And then there is me and my suitcase! Well, I am going home after all and what is home if not a place where you can arrive with rubbish-looking luggage and not be judged?
Mother's leftover shopping
I lay it open in my bedroom a full two weeks before I leave and gradually fill it with presents for my parents. It is a suitcase only in name. I don’t know if it is the colour, but for me it has always been a giant Tiffany’s gift box – ummm…slightly squashed and flat and without the white ribbon – but ok, let’s just leave it at colour resemblance. I should mention here that I have a complete set of clothes that are stored at my parents’ place so I never carry my own belongings in the suitcase. It is a gift box.
At one stage, when my parents were younger and able to come and visit me in England, the suitcase used to carry my mother’s leftover London shopping. She had no idea of what was practical to buy and would fit into her case and the result was another whole suitcase worth of gifts she had bought for various relatives in India that would be left behind. I would carry these for her when I next visited India: in the trusted blue box of course.
This arrangement was not without its problems. On one trip, I left out a pair of high heels because there was already an identical pair in the suitcase. My mother was incandescent! ‘I thought I explained to you that I had bought identical shoes for your two aunts. Now how can I give one of them a gift and not the other?.’ I must have been close to 50 years old at the time, but I blushed with embarrassment. That’s Indian mothers for you!
Changing nature of gifts
Over the years the contents of the suitcase have changed. I started out with gifts that could only be described as behavior-modifying, if not life changing. Any new trend in the Western world, especially in the kitchen, was something I wanted to share with them at once. A giant home breadmaker, an almost-as-large smoothie maker, silicon baking trays, an advanced coffee percolator, a gelato machine … they all found their way to my mother’s kitchen via the blue suitcase. Some of them were welcomed and used regularly, others were regarded as an oddity and put away. But I did not give up. The crowning glory amongst large presents was an electric blanket that both my parents agree was a very useful gift in a city where there is no central heating and temperatures can be dauntingly cold.
As my parents got older, I changed direction. Their comfort seemed to matter more than lifestyle and the contents of the suitcase shifted from kitchen appliances and smart clothes to heat pads and microwaveable hot water bottles. Even soup packets, salad dressings, and microwaveable meals… anything to make life easier. There was always something the West could offer, that was not available in India or available, but not as good. It used to be their favourite biscuits, cakes, chocolates and cereals. Lately, healthy alternatives such as dark chocolate instead of Mars bars, baked vegetable wafers instead of fried potato crisps, agave nectar instead of honey and red wine instead of spirits have found their way into the suitcase. This last trip also saw the introduction of health and nutrition supplements: multivitamins with zinc, calcium and magnesium, and tasteless protein powders in large unwieldy tins.
I realise I have been stuffing suitcases full of gifts for my parents for over 30 years now in an almost frenzied way. Is it a guilt complex for living far away? Can a gift make up for a steadying presence at a doctor’s appointment? Can a ‘present’ make up for not being present?
My parents have never once asked for anything.
(The author is currently a 2022 DCI Fellow at Stanford University USA. She lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI Mum’s Manual On Bringing Up Desi Children Overseas. Views are personal)