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After my grandmother’s death, we found drawers filled with knick-knacks her pilot

son would bring her. Is it our anxiety to not forget and not be forgotten that

makes us collect things?

Did you read about what Mrinal Sen’s son has done with his parents’ things?” my Mother asked admiringly.

It turned out that on the first anniversary of the legendary filmmaker’s death, earlier this year, his son and daughter-in-law, who lives in Chicago, hosted a unique open house in Kolkata. They had let friends, wellwishers, acquaintances help themselves to anything they wanted from Sen’s possessions.

I understood my mother’s amazement. We come from generations of pack rats. We collect things. We have not quite learnt the art of disposing of them. When my grandmother died, we discovered in her drawers French soaps that had practically turned into stone, with not a whiff of lavender fragrance remaining. She had received them as gifts and saved them for years, waiting for a special occasion worthy of a foreign soap.


After my grandmother’s death, we found drawers filled with dozens of packets of fresheners and aeroplane cutlery, all neatly stacked and saved for some good days. My mother saves plastic bags, ballpoint pens that have not worked in three years, a cute little paper bag that looks like a purse and once contained cookies from Hawaii. She has little dessert bowls in bright crayon colours—electric blue, cherry red, buttercup yellow—picked up on a trip to Scandinavia. Every time we have pudding in them, my mother tells us proudly that they are older than I am. My nephew and niece, raised in a throwaway generation, are not particularly impressed by their vintage.

Like my grandmother and mother, I too am loath to throw anything away. But unlike them, I have no organizational skills. Even as she lay in bed recovering from a heart attack, my grandmother knew exactly what was where in the drawers of her almirah. I just create mounds of clutter that quickly resemble archaeological digs.


I like to think I store things on the off chance that one day I will need them. My mother insists that’s why she does not throw anything away—from old cheque books to my school report cards. Mostly things just accumulate, breeding like rabbits or perhaps, in this case, dust bunnies. When my family shifted out of the ancestral home in Kolkata, they found boxes and boxes of things left behind by three generations. There were photographs of ancestors no one could recognize, huge trunks filled with heavy pots and pans that were sold off for the price of the metal. There were share certificates for companies that no longer existed. Once the stuff of memories, it was now the stuff of a bikriwallah’s (scrap merchant’s) dreams. My mother and sister dealt with cobwebs and dust and silverfish. Sitting oceans away in

San Francisco, I just wallowed in the nostalgia. I saved my father’s old

Olivetti typewriter.


Deep down I think it is really about our anxiety to not forget and not be forgotten. Things anchor us to memories and perhaps we fear that, without them, even the memories would float away and vanish. My mother can look at a sari(a traditional Indian clothing) neatly folded on a shelf in her almirah, and remember where she bought it and who had admired her in it at some wedding decades ago. A Bengali storybook, stuffed in the back of a bookshelf, reminds me of the grandmother who gave it to me for my birthday. It still has her handwriting in it. A hand-knit sweater, unravelling at one end, still carries within it the memory of the uncle who wore it. Pharaohs were buried with things they might need in their afterlife—amulets, jewellery, weapons, games. Our afterlife is in the memory of those we leave behind and our things give shape to those

memories. But unlike memories, memorabilia takes up room. We do not have

pyramids to store them in.


Last ear when I went to San Francisco, I needed to bring back a few things from my

storage unit. I had dutifully paid the rent every month for years but had never accessed the unit. It took a while to even find it in a vast parking lot filled with rows of identical box-like units. I went armed with a dust mask. To my relief, the password

combination worked and the lock creaked open. But to my horror, I realized that

rainwater had leaked into the ‘weatherproof’ unit. Cardboard boxes were

sagging, brown with water damage. The futon smelt musty. I dragged out

box after box, labelled ‘kitchen stuff’, ‘office’, ‘cookbooks’, and, rather

uselessly, ‘misc’. I opened one and wondered why I had saved so many white

envelopes and markers. In the end, of course, I could not find what I was

looking for, buried as it was in some box under some other box.

When I complained at the front office, they were apologetic.

At that point, I suddenly knew it was time to abandon that storage unit, instead of rummaging through ruined boxes looking for scraps to salvage from another life. You could not just hold on to a past life for $79 a month. I did save some letters, an anthology now out of print where I had once had a story published, a favourite cookbook. And then I let go of the things that had once made up my life in San Francisco. It was the closest I had come to a Marie-Kondo moment. I felt strangely light-headed, almost untethered. I remembered something travel writer Pico Iyer had written when he's home on a Santa-Barbara hillside burnt down in a wildfire. He had managed to save nothing but his ancient cat and a manuscript of a book two weeks from completion.

Fifteen years of daily notes, half-written books, photographs and memories were

gone. It forced him to realize, he told talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, “that

home was not where I lived, but what lived inside of me”. His only solace, he

wrote, was a poem he had quoted in the manuscript he had saved. It was from the 17th -century poet Mizuta Masahide.

My house burned down.

Now I can better see

The rising moon.


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