I love a gift. Who doesn't? But my taste was very plebeian.
On an occasion, I remember I was bemoaning after a birthday party that I had received only four books, when my mother serenely tried to console me by saying that I had received three board games. Ungratefully and inconsolably, I said I would have preferred to receive fewer games and more books.
What books meant to me came back with force when I recently attended the memorial meeting of a childhood friend who had just passed away I sat there and went over in my mind the events and incidents I had shared with him. The cricket matches where we had competed ferociously, the comical games we had played at childish parties, the interminable fights we had about politics and literature. But, I was astounded, the memory that kept vividly hovering on my mind was the gift his ever-smiling, soft-spoken mother had bestowed on me in my eighth birthday party: a book by Abanindranath, whose superb literary skill, I was to later find, had somehow been obscured by his artistic legerdemain.
My preferences have broadened since then. I have learned to appreciate thoughtful gifts of other kinds. My daughters have given me delightful records and film collections, my brothers, who live in a different land, have supplied me with exotic cologne and spiced tea, my friends and neighbors enriched me with handwoven cardigans, artisanal products and even beautiful (not Yacht-master) watches.
Perhaps the most memorable gift that I ever received was one that had unusually dramatic consequences. I was the US consul in Nepal, working in my highly secure office in the Kathmandu embassy, when one of the marine guards came rushing to tell me that I had received a letter-bomb. Apparently, I had received an oversized box, carefully gift-wrapped, that revealed metallic wiring inside in the x-ray machine which scrutinized all incoming mail. (The unique 18-years-long letter-bombing career of Ted Kaczynski, the brilliant mathematician turned bomb-maker who had killed three persons – professors and officials – had just ended.)
Not all my official decisions could have pleased everybody, certainly not the visa requests I had turned down, but I could not imagine having enraged anybody enough to attract a bomb. I turned over political decisions in my mind and couldn’t locate one that could have triggered a plan for bodily harm.
The mailroom personnel had promptly alerted the security personnel, who followed their protocol and very carefully, with suitable equipment, removed the package to a safer area. Then came the bomb disposal people in their special gear and with a panoply of delicate instruments. They gently removed the tying ribbon and folds of the colorful wrapping paper. Inside was nothing more murderous than a large-sized illustrated book of poems. Even such looks can be deceptive, so the bomb specialists carefully opened the book. Inside was a brief handwritten letter, attached to the first page of the book with a somewhat large paper clip, which must have given the x-ray machine the impression of an incriminating “wire.”
The security people brought the letter to me to ascertain if I knew the author and the missive was genuine. The letter was from a friend who worked for the UN. It said, “Dear Manish, I am leaving tomorrow morning for a long tour in west Africa. I remembered your birthday is next week. Perhaps this book of poems, which I have enjoyed so much, will add to your birthday cheer. Best wishes.”
That was perhaps the most complicated gift I ever received – but not the most beautiful. That credit must go somewhere else.
Some years ago, my neighbors, a young couple, were kind enough to invite me for dinner on my birthday. At the end of a delicious meal, their little girl, six, who was learning origami, shyly walked over to me, gave me first a hug and then two spectacular gifts: two small paper birds, one red and one white. Those two birds still sit on my desk and I look at them every morning. I don’t know what kind of birds they are, but they are tiny and they are beautiful. Though made of paper, every morning, in tandem with the birds outside, they seem to sing. My heart sings too.