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My pandemic year of excess and accumulation

A self-proclaimed minimalist and health-watcher gives in to retail therapy and junk food to survive the pandemic

Retail therapy is a slippery slope but this year, it became a survival strategy. (Photo: istockphoto)
Retail therapy is a slippery slope but this year, it became a survival strategy. (Photo: istockphoto)

I spent many hours in 2020 scrolling through Instagram, as the rest of the world was doomscrolling the internet. Although my job demands that I spend a fair amount of time on social media daily, it wasn’t news updates that kept me hooked to the platform, or even the voyeuristic titillation of peeking into other people’s moods and miseries. The truth, dear reader, is I was in thrall to the sneaky algorithm, which, with every downward swipe of my finger, revealed a whole new world of retail opportunities.

From the umpteenth hand-stitched notebook to a brocade shirt sold by an indie label that I am unlikely to wear more than once in a lifetime, the distractions were plentiful. The appeal of clicking on a post that takes you to a virtual shop, which lets you pay in seconds with an e-wallet, is a business plan dreamt up by a capitalist genius—and the boredom induced in the vulnerable millions by the pandemic during the long days of isolation was the opportunity it was waiting for all this time.

In the real world, window shopping, at least for me, tends to live up to its name. My inherited middle-class genes caution me, as my good angels, when I eye an exquisite ceramic mug priced at an amount equivalent to my monthly electricity bill. They whisper into my ear the incongruity of such a delicately beautiful object on my grubby kitchen counter. My sweaty hands feel too embarrassed to handle the cut-glass covet piece. And so, it sits on its perch, pitying me silently as I walk pass it.

Window shopping on the internet, though, is a different matter. One virtual window literally opens up another one, and before you know it, the (usually unnecessary) object of your desire finds its way into a “cart”. Those with stronger will-power than me are known to allow it to languish there for hours, even days, but my obsessive compulsion with finishing pending tasks impels me to quickly click “buy” and be done with it. Before long, the cart is pristinely empty again, along with a bit of my bank balance, as I await the arrival of this needless extravagance in the next few days.

Retail therapy was a relatively unknown concept to me—or rather, it was restricted to buying books—before the pandemic struck. Even before I had heard of the Japanese word tsundoku, the act of buying books and never reading them, I was aware of being afflicted with such a condition. It didn’t help that I went to work in a part of town with half a dozen book stores within a 10-minute radius. But covid-19 and working from home pushed me into a zone I hadn’t quite encountered before—the seduction of social media and its deceptive promise of filling a void in our lives, emptied of most of its familiar comforts by the devastating pandemic.

It all started with the food delivery apps on my phone. It’s not that I can’t cook a meal to feed myself—I have done that for more than 15 years now—but a few weeks into the lockdown and staying home, I was beset with a feeling of nonchalance. I did not care what I was eating as long as it was sweet, rich, or deep-fried—preferably all rolled in one. Naturally, tinned gulab jamun began to top my online grocery orders week after week.

My descent into junk food wasn’t an all-consuming (pun intended) hopeless condition (hand on heart, I didn’t make deep-fried Bounty bars even though Nigella Lawson’s recipe had nearly convinced me to). Long before the pandemic hit, I had already been trying to move towards a “clean” diet and minimalist, clutter-free lifestyle, though my good intentions outweighed the actual results for the most part.

I embraced veganism (“for the most part” being the operative phrase), much to the horror of my meat-loving Bengali family. After my doctor forbade processed food due to my hereditary cholesterol, I said adieu to the hot chips that my neighbourhood hot chips uncle fries in a giant wok swimming with oil and bought only overpriced oven-baked, oil-free, potato-free tapioca chips. I started visiting an organic produce shop, marvelling at the price of tasteless, joyless stuff like dragon fruit and avocado, schooled myself in the KonMari method, including the art of folding a T-shirt into a samosa-like triangle. I went with the works, because it made sense and felt like the right thing to do.

Even when the pandemic came, I held out against its dark forces. In the early days of isolation, I woke up early, sober and mindful of the demons that lurked in my mind. I spent a respectable amount of time on the now neglected treadmill, then sat down for a good 15 minutes to meditate. It was usually at this stage that my fortitude waxed or waned.

It’s hard to predict the rabbit hole you will descend into the moment you close your eyes, especially after the fatigue of relentless video calls, workdays that stretch like elastic on both sides of the day-night divide, and the barrage of bad news. Your good karma begins to crumble, the worthy habits you held so close to your heart start slipping away. Visions of deep-fried chicken that lurk on the edges of your subconscious suddenly start surfacing before your eyes. On some days, you may be able to turn your attention to your cholesterol count and resolve to stock up on quinoa. But when the spirit is weak, you will find yourself reaching out for that jar of Nutella you had “hidden away” in your pantry, just so you can liven up the rye bread you are about to eat for breakfast.

You are no longer 25 (haven’t been so for a good number of years), so you will not subject yourself to the indignity of eating fried food first thing in the morning. As a responsible adult with a host of mildly alarming health issues, you wait patiently for lunch hour to see if you are going to succumb and tap on your phone for the nearest fast-food outlet that will deliver home. People are known to swear by the virtues of delayed gratification because, unlikely as it may sound to your junk-food addled brain, it may cause your craving to pass, and let you hold your head high for the rest of the day. But hope, as the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, is the thing with feathers. It tends to fly away after offering a tiny glimpse. Then again, how are we human without our persistent hankering for hope, especially when it is being leached out day on day by death and disease?

As this murderous year comes to a close, I look back on my indulgence in excess and accumulation with more kindness than I would have allowed myself in the pre-pandemic days. Retail therapy, for me, is still a slippery slope and will always be. But this year, it became a survival strategy, and not because it saved me from an inner well of emptiness that I needed to desperately fill with objects. Instead, buying a shirt, a crispy new journal or beautiful knick-knacks for the home brought a sense of solace—a glimmer of hope for a future when there will be occasions to dress up again, to enjoy a warm brew with a friend in artisanal mugs, and crack open a notebook to write a happier story.

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