Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gift Giving at Diwali

This may be a somewhat controversial post.  It's not that I'm trying to cause any trouble here, it's trying to understand Indian culture more and in particular giving gifts at Diwali.  

I'd heard on the bus and at school that during Diwali it's common to give the people who help you:  apartment building guards, garbage men and women, drivers, etc a Diwali gift.  There are about eight girls, some of whom ride my bus, who all live in the same building.  One morning ride, they chatted about how much they should give for their Diwali gifts so that each tenant would give the same amount from their building.  I get that.

I do live in a building with other ASB employees but the amount I heard they were giving, was I felt too much.  I've visited my friends' apartment buildings where guards open doors, carry items, sign you in and are awake at all times.  My building doesn't have or do those things.  It's not the cleanest.  My guards, if they are in the front of the building are usually asleep; be it 10 a.m., 2 p.m. or 10 p.m. and don't help me when I return from shopping with my arms full.

I believe that if people are helpful, then I'm more than happy to give extra.  Whether they be a rickshaw driver, delivery guy, guard, whomever, it's appreciated and I'll tip them for that extra service.

With the lack of service in my building, I decided to talk with my housekeeper Espe to get her advice as she's worked in the building a while and has worked for expats.  We started at one amount and then decided on another due to the performance.  She's honest and I asked her, "Am I being fair?"  She said I was so I felt confident with my decision.

Before I left for Diwali, I didn't connect with the building employees.  They weren't around for whatever reason.  So I anticipated having to connect with them when I returned after my trip. Yesterday they stopped by.

First the building cleaner stopped by.  She smiled and said, "Happy Diwali."  I knew this was my cue to give her my Diwali gift.  I gave the amount that we'd decided on.  She smiled and then gestured upstairs, toward my ASB colleagues apartments, opened and closed her hand to demonstrate she wanted more and that they had given her more.  I smiled and said, "Happy Diwali" again and waited.  She smiled and then walked away.

About two hours later, my building guard stopped by.  At this time I didn't have change so I told him I'd give him his gift later.  Again, I wanted to be fair.

Now here's where my background kicks in.  Being American, unless you're a child under the age of five, you just don't ask flat out for gifts.  I don't show up on my birthday to my family or friends and say, "It's my birthday," and expect gifts.  I've also lived in two other countries where I did give gifts at Christmas but again, they weren't asked for at all. So people showing up to my door at all is just different for me but I understand it's part of the culture so I wasn't put out by it.

I also haven't celebrated Diwali before.  I haven't lived in India, so I knew it'd be different here.  I wonder now if the building employees think that I'm a cheapskate.  Really it's not about that. I talked with ALOT of colleagues about how  much they were giving and it varies a lot depending on service and the number of employees in the building.  I want to be fair and give what I think it right.

I'm not sure what others have experienced in India or elsewhere but this is all new and I'm trying to take the new culture I'm living in, mix it with what I grew up learning and toss in my other experiences.  The blend isn't quite right but it's one I thought others, whether you live in Mumbai or across the globe, might learn a little from too.


  1. great post megan! just another day learning to live in india! our building folks at Aashna pooled ALL of our money and gave out gifts from the entire group - one for guards, one for cleaners, etc. etc. and they split it equally among their group. it worked well! but we forgot to give a diwali gift to the choice foods delivery guys and they DID show up looking for their money. xxx

  2. Ty - It is funny how you think you've covered everyone but then there's always someone to forget. Also, just knowing your first year who celebrates which holidays takes a while too. Since Diwali my guard's been more present and saying good morning and good evening. Perhaps he's already working on next year's gift?