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The Pre-Trip Gift Buyer’s Guide

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For the past few weekends, my friend Tam has been hitting the shops assiduously, rifling through bargain aisles; stocking up enough shower gels to clean a nation; hoarding enough chocolates to see her children through a famine. She’s also been voraciously active on the Internet, hunting out coupons and deals. Her most successful ones so far have been the free gift of a hair straightener with the purchase of three portable DVDs, and the high-end laptop that came with a selection of technical goodies and its own carrying case. Not that she’s going to use her laptop with all its frills though — the extra hard drive, headphones and even the carrying case will all be going separate ways once they cross the shores. For Tam’s gearing up for her once-in-three-years visit back to India, and the miscellaneous items she’s been squirreling away for a while now are all destined to be “foreign gifts.”

Since her trip is still months away, I couldn’t help admiring her thoroughness, and said so. “Forethought, bollocks,” she said, “it’s just that the folks back home have become kind of used to getting stuff from me…. Not that I mind, really, but these last few trips have been total disasters. Whatever I get, it looks like there’s a similar, and often cheaper clone back home…. I’ve simply run out of ideas!”

Once upon a happier time, not so very long ago, it was possible to earn the eternal gratitude of new mothers in India by carting along stashes of Pampers. Super small electronic gadgets, designer clothes (even fake ones), bars of soap and chocolates were welcomed with wide-eyed thanks. But not anymore.

With India’s economy almost beating the global warming, it’s possible to get just about anything there, confronting Tam with the dilemma, “What do I get them?”

Here are some suggestions:

Medical supplies

Hypertension monitors, blood sugar monitors, tablet organizers, pill breakers, glass repair kits, innovative magnifying glasses, automatic toothbrushes, easy-to-use thermometers and thermal strips are all good choices. For ages now, the over-55’s in my family swear by the tubes of Bengay I take along; the younger ones are thrilled with the gummy multivitamins; and young mothers rave over the tiny sachets of Nurofen that come so handy on airplanes. A visit to your local pharmacy could give you endless other ideas.


With Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, Fendi and Gucci outlets in India, mass-retail and designer clothes are easily available now, which means the ubiquitous baseball caps and colorful tees seem rather drab. But as almost every family has a potential undergrad or pop star, caps and tees with university logos; MJ gloves; Justin Bieber caps and even Lady Gaga wigs are still appreciated. Check with your kids on what’s hip.

Perfumes and accessories

Perfumes still retain their appeal.  With the newer versions hitting overseas stores earlier, fragrances, especially the ones in quaint bottles, are always a hit, as are the mini perfume sets found in department stores. Likewise, higher-end make-up brands have either yet to arrive in India, or are imported and therefore expensive — making a Bobby Brown lipstick or M.A.C mascara good presents for older girls; while pre-packed makeup kits are ideal for teen-age fashionistas.

If budget permits, semi precious stones (you can have them set into jewelry in India) and crystal jewelry sets are good ideas. If purse strings are tighter, then a quick peek into the accessories section of a store could set you up. Of course, earrings, brooches, hair clips and the like are very common in India, ranging from traditional to trendy. But since many of the accessories chains in the United States have yet to set shop in India, Western-looking ware from one of them could prove popular. For instance, my cousin was thrilled with a pair of angular lava earrings, and her mom with a crystal studded hair band from Claire’s.

DIY Stuff

With labor cheap back home, Do-It-Yourself has yet to catch on, making it an innovative gift category. Younger kids love the DIY photo frames, airplanes, bead sets, etc. Older member of the family could put together shelves or even coffee tables, if your own luggage and budget can hold.

Think about the recipients’ hobbies. For instance, camera accessories for an amateur photographer or fertilizer sachets for relatives with a garden (don’t bother with seeds unless you’re sure they’ll thrive in the tropics). One doctor friend requested for a state-of-the-art stethoscope and a structural engineer greatly admired the tool set we’d got him. Scouting around local hardware stores will throw up plenty of ideas.

For Kids

This is easy, because children are thrilled with just about anything. But these are plenty of creative ideas beyond the plain old pencil cases and remote-controlled cars.

Dolls and teddy bears are easily obtainable in India, but accessories aren’t, and are guaranteed hits. My niece was ecstatic with a gift of doll clothes, complete down to the shoes, bag and a tiny pink mobile phone. It doesn’t have to be all pink either. Many kids have a particular affinity for Pokemon, Bakugan and other innovative species from Japan, and love the collecting cards and games that go along with them. Toy shops have precarious customers, so keep updating their merchandise regularly. Chances are that anything new in FAO Schwarz, Hamley’s or Toys R Us has not yet made the market back home, and you could get away with the novelty factor.

Chocolates and Liqueur

If your folks aren’t teetotalers, then you can use up your quota of drinks allowed on board, keeping in mind the notoriously sweet Indian tooth. Kahlua, Schnapps, Amaretto are popular, along with the more drier and classical varieties of beverages.

Chocolates are, of course, perennial favorites. But since almost all luxury chocolates are now easily available in India, the trick is to find the unusual or uncommon ones. Consider, hand-crafted chocolates bagged with a box of cheaper bite-sized candies.


All my female relatives love the tiny silverware, cushion covers and sundry decorative items I pick up from Macy’s and other department stores. Yankee candles, essential oils and burners, colored deco sand, sea glass beads and pebbles to fill up vases and platters are great favorites. For a more personal touch, you could get photos of the kids done by a professional photographer and present them in unusual frames. Knife blocks, lint rollers, wrinkle-free starch sprays, stain removers and other cleaning supplies are always useful. A long look into your own kitchen counter would be a great starting place for ideas.

Planning for gifts to take back home is undoubtedly more challenging, and will become increasingly so as Western goods become ever more easily available in India. But it is still possible to get innovative stuff. All you need to do is set your imagination and common sense to work. For instance, a makeup kit thrown together with a few accessorizing trinkets would make an ideal gift bag for a young girl; and kitchenware, combined with a digital photo key chain and a bottle of perfume, makes a perfect gift for an older woman.

So go ahead, get those gift lists out, and hit the shops. 

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NRI | Travel | Arts & Entertainment | September 2011

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