The holiday season can mean many things. Diwali can be about connecting with friends and family for some and dispelling darkness, physical and spiritual, for others. There is the metaphor, a veritable archetype, of the triumph of good over evil — so often deployed for cynical political ends. But this year, for the first time since the pandemic cast its veil over all celebrations, there’s the return of something that’s ubiquitous but not often appreciated. The gift – and the purchases and consumption that fuel the exchange economy – are back in full force.
According to the Confederation of All Indian Traders (CAIT), purchases this festive season have surpassed last year’s figures and are almost double the amount of the pre-pandemic year (2019) at $27 billion. One way of looking at it, that of economists, is that ‘pent-up demand’ has finally been released; that despite inflation and rising prices, the animal spirit of the Indian consumer has been unleashed. But that’s only part of the story.
There is a way, in the milieu of late capitalist patriotism, of thinking of spending as a duty. After all, all that shopping spreads wealth and drives the economy. But in the exchange of gifts, in the spirit of generosity of the season, there is also something more important than monetary benefit. Business relationships are established through the exchange of gifts, as are social hierarchies. As Marcel Mauss pointed out, it is in the act of exchanging gifts that society is constituted. And it is this social structure that the Covid-19 threatened. Yes, the shopping spree this Diwali is the expression of a repressed demand. But this demand isn’t just for things – gadgets, cars, clothes and phones. It is, more importantly, a mass act of reaching out and building social connections. This is what makes Diwalis the happiest – the connections with others.