Wet dhotis, satin shirts and pujor bhog

In his monthly 'Tasting Economics' column for The Times of India, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), discusses gift-giving, what gifting means for the giver and the recipient and its implications for economists. Abhijit provides anecdotal family memories, a poignant message from a popular poem about puja and a case from a Yale professor of economics to examine the social constructs of gift-giving.

In the piece, Abhijit writes, 'We give gifts to signal that we care, that we thought of the person, of what she would like and the way her face would light up when she realises that someone had thought hard about her preferences. Economists recognise that sending the right signal is important, say when you want a job or have something to sell. But when we think of how we build and maintain our social connections, our instinct is to think about personal likes and dislikes, rather than as a central strategic element of our economic lives, as it would be for an anthropologist. Hence, the focus is on the happiness from possessing the gifted object, rather than on what the act of gifting does to our relationship.'

As a gift to readers, Abhijit shares his family recipe for sheera.


My great-great-grandfather is one of the figures that most families probably have (or need to invent), whose impractical ways lost us our one chance of being really rich. My favourite from the many stories my grandfather told us about him is the one where he was bathing in the local pond when someone brought news that his stepbrother’s family just had a son. He was about to head over there in his wet dhoti (this was before Speedo) when the messenger reminded him that he hadn’t got his reward. He apparently hesitated for a few seconds, then just took off the dhoti and went off to congratulate the lucky family. In the buff.

I often think of this story from the point of view of the recipient. Was he happy with the wet and probably much-used dhoti? Would he have preferred to wait and get some money, say? Or was he delighted by the flourish of that gesture, or slightly embarrassed by it, or both?

This gets to the heart of the economics of gift-giving: why do we take the trouble to give gifts? Why not just send the equivalent amount by UPI? Tagore, perceptive as always, framed this issue beautifully in a poem that we read as kids. It was puja season, as it will be soon, and two brothers were pestering their mom to see their puja clothes. When she does, one gets very upset — he was expecting something nicer — but as she explains, they just didn’t have the money. The other, perhaps in reaction, says he loves the gift. The upset child runs off to the local magnate’s house, which was being readied for the pujo. People were milling around, some no doubt were making themselves useful, others, I suspect, in the quite reasonable expectation that this being Bengal, there would be some mishti (sweets) soon. In my imagination, someone comes around with a large thali of chanaboras, dark and glistening with ghee and syrup.

The Times of India