Last year, pre-Covid, I attended a wedding so extravagantly grand that I never ended up meeting the host. Lost between tonnes of imported flowers and a glittering sea of humanity, I commented on her Instagram post later to mark my presence. It seems almost incredible to think that was a mere 12 months ago when superfluities and blithe wastage, not to mention a humungous guest list, were entirely acceptable. If one must look for the proverbial silver lining in the corona cloud, it’s that the pandemic has made a strong case for scaling down. Social isolation has brought difficult questions to the fore that in good times, we so easily avoid: how do we really want to live? Is it possible that out of this chaos will emerge a very different, even a better world?
As the wedding industry reels from this disastrous year, I’m reluctant to criticise that statistically tiny number of Indians who feel compelled to invite a thousand people and organise the Cirque du Soleil for entertainment. The pressure to live the dream must be intense when you’re the Richie Rich among your contemporaries. Besides, what good is their wealth doing for the rest of us if it’s sitting unused in banks or tied up in trust funds? Far better they spend lavishly, and have some of it trickle down to the weaver toiling in obscurity in Benaras, or the sunar in Surat. What is offensive, however, is the stupidity on display by the 1 per cent which has unfortunately influenced the rest of India. They set the bar and now no wedding is complete without a bewildering array of cuisines. Not only is the sight of so much food aesthetically displeasing, often, the aromas of Chinese, Italian and Indian spices collide, creating a sensory overload for guests. Surely, there are more imaginative (and subtle) ways to show off.
It’s true that more and more, identity isn’t defined by what one is, but by what one spends or owns. The Covid year has made people question these absurdities we normalised trying to fit into a societal ideal. Otherwise, our lives go by in a fog of automated behaviour and all the little stresses that pile up in the business of existence. Actually, our real problems run much deeper than inflation and recession. Like a lack of meaningful connections and loneliness, or a vague sense of dissatisfaction that despite having everything, life hasn’t turned out as we wished. We replace a desire for belonging with aspiration, and try to fill the void by copying our peers. It took a mysterious virus to think about all these perceived needs: really, must fashion change every season? So, it would be a real pity if the experience of 2020, of terror and enforced frugality, has no lasting impact.
Through the ages, the wisest souls to have inhabited earth have propagated a simple life as a route to contentment. Great sages like Ramana Maharishi and Jiddu Krishnamurti, clad permanently in white cotton, were practitioners of minimalism before the term existed. They knew that the things we own end up owning us instead. “My greatest skill has been to want but little,” observed Henry David Thoreau in 1855, in the earliest critique of consumption culture, Walden. It speaks volumes about humanity that 150 years later, limiting acquisitions is as radical an idea now as it was then. There is reason to hope that a year of living intentionally—with a mask, maintaining distance — has become a habit that may transcend Covid, and spill over into other aspects of life.
At the beginning of the lockdown, a friend complained bitterly about cancelling his son’s meticulously planned wedding. After decades of handing out envelopes, he felt cheated he wouldn’t be collecting any. But he sounded elated when I called to say congratulations, after his 10-guest celebration recently. Human beings adapt, that’s why they can live like Bedouins in the desert and Eskimos in the Arctic Circle. It’s been a weird year alright, yet, some have made the wonderful discovery that a life stripped down to bare essentials is ultimately freeing.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 10, 2020 under the title ‘Leaving room for the important things’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films