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The things we leave behind

After my grandmother’s death, we found drawers filled with packets of fresheners and aeroplane cutlery, that her pilot son would bring her. Is it our anxiety to not forget and not be forgotten that makes us collect things?

A year after Mrinal Sen’s death, his family gave away all his belongings.
A year after Mrinal Sen’s death, his family gave away all his belongings. (Photo: AFP)

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 film-maker’s death earlier this month, his son and daughter-in-law, who live in Chicago, had hosted a unique open house in Kolkata. They had let friends, well-wishers, acquaintances help themselves to anything they wanted from Sen’s possessions. The Left Front’s chairman Biman Basu had taken Sen’s bed to donate to the People’s Relief Committee, a diagnostic centre. A film society had taken his glasses. A shawl had been kept aside for actor Nandita Das. Sen’s starched white kurta-pajamas had gone to ordinary people who needed them. It was a gesture of unusual generosity, writes journalist Priyanka Dasgupta, this act of willingly turning personal possessions into public property. “I know now my connection with my parents will be at a conceptual level," his son Kunal told Dasgupta. But in the process, writes Dasgupta, he has “given strangers a chance to create personal memories of the master".

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. My uncle, her son, was a pilot. He would bring back little sachets of eau-de-cologne soaked tissues they handed out as fresheners. 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 achhe din.

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 me. 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. When I moved from San Francisco to Kolkata almost a decade ago, I waded through file cabinets filled with tax returns, bank statements and cuttings from old articles, shoe boxes stuffed with photographs and aerogramme letters from India. There were once-trendy jackets picked up at garage sales and an old briefcase filled with audio cassettes. I remember sitting in the basement going through dusty storage boxes, sneezing at the debris of years in San Francisco. Upstairs, I could hear my half-blind old dog pacing anxiously, her nails click-clacking on the hardwood floor of an emptying house. It was hard to imagine that all my possessions had fitted into the back of my Honda hatchback when I first moved to San Francisco from a college town in the Midwest.

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 chequebooks 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 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 dealer’s) dreams. My mother and sister dealt with the 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. It does not work but I could not jettison it.

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 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-knitted 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 year 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. They offered me a glass of kombucha as if kombucha, though it smells foul, is good for the frazzled nerves of those whose memories suffer water damage. They ran through a long list of what I needed to do to file a claim. 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 his 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 Japanese emperor Basho.

My house burned down.

Now I can better see

The rising moon.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

Twitter - @ sandipr

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