Updated: April 18, 2021 9:27:35 am
My in-laws moved home after 50 years. An amazing assortment of stuff tumbled out of their cupboards. Shawls neatly packed away to be brought out for future ‘special occasions’ which lay forgotten for decades. A brand new ‘hot plate’, an old-fashioned device that predates the ubiquitous microwave to keep food hot on dining tables. Delicate fine china, faded in its packaging while they ate every meal on Melaware. During the shift, I sensed a hesitation to open entire cupboards for fear of facing the mangled remains of what lurked behind. Nevertheless, they determinedly carted their redundant belongings to their new home.
The curse of hoarding, to some extent, affects nearly everybody. The reasons are complex but, ultimately, an inability to let go lies central. No one likes admitting, even to themselves, that they wasted money on rubbish. Sometimes things carry emotions and memories. Preserving them provides an illusion of control in an unpredictable world. Previous generations of Indians who grew up in times of scarcity are less inclined to part with their stuff. Brought up on principles of scrimp and save to acquire and display, they valued everything and threw nothing; sea shells found at the beach became treasured knick knacks alongside expensive crystal and family photographs. Perhaps, those little bits of paraphernalia from different stages of life have an important esoteric value to connect us to our past or to a younger version of ourselves.
Clutter and what to do with it, is one of the definitive quandaries brought forth by the pandemic. Forced indoors, people around the world have been re-evaluating their possessions, trying to make better use of objects and space. After a year of panicky seclusion, many are re-embracing their finer things, having reached the conclusion the sages have been saying forever, that life is now. As Walt Whitman observed, not another hour, but this hour — is the correct time to enjoy life. The anxiety of this moment has an element of magic realism but in these endless days of collapsing time, we are also thinking hard about the way we live. It’s clear that change is imperative going forward. Items that are tender keepsakes of personal histories must be cherished, the rest must give way to new systems of order.
For example, my in-laws’ vast and unnecessary accumulation of goods were mostly gifts, which they had no use for but neither did they have the heart to junk. Covid is bound to influence gifting behaviour in the future. At a basic level, we give gifts because we are supposed to. Otherwise, who needs anything, really? Prettily packaged miniature soaps and lotions aren’t going to change anyone’s life. Books, considered a thoughtful gift, are slightly better, but tastes differ wildly. The most avid of readers haven’t read the books sitting on their shelves, that they picked themselves. What are the chances they will get around to reading a gift? None, whatsoever. Yet, gift-giving is a ritual that serves a vital purpose: expressing appreciation. These social niceties bind us to our circles, so it’s a pity that most of what we give and receive rarely sparks joy. On her website http://www.konmuri.com, the high priestess of clearing up, Marie Kundo, says you shouldn’t shove unwanted presents in the back of a closet, rather use them once. It makes it easier to bid them farewell.
The fact is that all those hampers, scarves and perfumes are just adding to the trash in the ocean. Unwarranted gifts are the rule rather than the exception but modern etiquette requires that recipients keep up a charade of enthusiasm. It brings to mind the ironic conclusion of O Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, a rite of passage for every Indian student of English. A husband and wife secretly sacrifice their favourite things to buy each other Christmas presents. Their gifts ended up cancelling each other’s out but not before revealing a beautiful truth, that it’s never really about things. Sometimes, sincerity trumps insight.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 18, 2021 under the title ‘Of hoarders and their clutter’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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