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Gifted and lifted

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:08 IST
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There's less than two weeks left for Christmas and if, like me, you are agonising over what gifts to give let me offer you a tip. A good present should be memorable, either something a person desperately wants, but can't get on his or her own, or something they haven't thought of but is beautiful or delightful to have. Everything else is soon forgotten, probably tucked into a drawer and rarely, if ever, used. Worse still, a large number of gifts are, in turn, gifted away.

However, I admit it's a lot easier to state the logic that should define what makes a good gift than it is to actually make the choice. The problem is where do you look? The truth is anything can qualify, from clothes and objets d'art, to music, watches, pens or furniture. The British have a fabulous tradition of eccentric gifts. Two that never fail to work are belly-button brushes and willie warmers. They are jokes and you usually know there's another, more expensive, gift that will soon follow.

In India, I would say, a gift needs to be more conservatively and cautiously chosen. More pertinently, for many it's not the thought behind the selection that counts so much as the fact it must have a cost a fair amount. Something that's clever but cheap is likely to be disdainfully appreciated. But if it sparkles it's bound to be likened to gold.

In these circumstances, believe it or not, I'd plumb for a book. However, let me quickly add a codicil - not the sort you would buy each time you enter a bookshop but something special. A sumptuous coffee table collection of glorious photographs and absorbing but undemanding text. Such books look expensive, they're fun to browse through and, when displayed, attract a great deal of attention.

This year there are two that I strongly recommend. One is Susan Stronge's Made for Mughal Emperors. It's a study of Mughal art from carpets and miniature paintings through to marble-inlay, jewellery, manuscript-illustrations, furniture, swords and enamel ware. And it's full of little gems. For instance, the insight into Mansur's portraits of flowers and birds is both revealing and satisfying. Did you know his zebra was painted as a reminder of "a bizarre animal" before Jahangir gifted it to Shah Abbas of Iran? A hand-painted reproduction adorns my own bedroom!

The other is Forts and Palaces of India by Amita Baig. This delightful book not only covers the well-known sites of the Rajput and Maratha kings but also the Burdwan Summer Palace and Ujjayanta Palace in Tripura, that few of us know of, and French, Portuguese and British settlements. The chapter on the Purana Qila is fascinating. Its original name was Dinpanah. Sher Shah called it Shergarh. The present name came into use only after Shah Jahan built the Lal Qila. I guess till then there was nothing 'purana' about it!

Both books have three qualities in common. First, they have stunning photographs. You can spend hours just staring and ogling. Second, the text is simple, interesting and readable. Its neither overly technical nor forbiddingly detailed. Third, they look sumptuous. You can't help wanting to pick them up. Add this up and I think that makes them ideal gifts.

Alas, these are not inexpensive books. I dare say they won't be the run-of-the-mill gift you give. But, by the same token, they could be the ideal special gift for someone you're prepared to spoil.

The views expressed by the author are personal