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Missing 70 cartons and discovering minimalism

It took a move abroad in the midst of a global pandemic to make me think about minimalism seriously

We assign too much meaning to our stuff—experiences are more important than things.
We assign too much meaning to our stuff—experiences are more important than things. (Photo: Getty Images)

Reading Marie Kondo is all fine but it really took a move abroad in the midst of a global pandemic to even make me think about minimalism seriously. Let me take a few steps back and explain.

According to my well-meaning friends, the mid-40s is not a great age to shift base to a new country. Yet that is exactly what my husband and I did just two months ago. We packed our bags and headed from India, where we had lived all our lives, to Malaysia. He for his new job, and I, to be with him.

Vamsi and I packed what we thought were “essentials" for six weeks—the time it would take for our cargo to reach our house in Kuala Lumpur—into five suitcases. Some clothes, personal toiletries, a few books, all the gadgets needed to stay connected to the world and the wires needed to keep them juiced up, and a couple of kitchen utensils. The rest of our home—various sparkly odds and ends from 19 years of a life lived together—was packed up to be shipped to our new home.

Mid-February, we landed in a Kuala Lumpur of face masks and hand sanitizers, temperature guns at hotel lobbies and shopping malls, suspicious glances and furious rumours. We rented a sparsely furnished house that came with old furniture ready to be donated to charity once we got in our own. We bought a big bunch of groceries, got a superfast Wi-Fi connection and settled in for the wait.

Exactly four weeks into our Kuala Lumpur life, on 18 March, the local government passed the Movement Control Order, prohibiting people from stepping out of their homes except for grocery shopping and medical emergencies. Our cargo reached Malaysia the same day and has been languishing in a distant warehouse we know not where, ever since. We are now in our fourth week of lockdown, which has been extended until the end of the month.

A few nights ago, during one of our long stream-of-consciousness conversations, my husband asked, “What is it that you really, really miss from our things?"

I thought about it for a few seconds.

“I would certainly like a few more things in the kitchen"—we literally follow the “rinse and repeat" method through the day.

“My books."

“Actually, I only read on Kindle now, so the books would be nice to have but…"

After a minute, “I have not even looked at half the clothes I got."

I threw the question back at him.

“The books," he shot back immediately.

“And our fridge magnets…" He hurried on, seeing the look on my face, “It reminds me of our travels together."

Wistful sighs all around.

As it turned out, of the 70 or so cartons we had lovingly seen off, we had a need—or even desire—for the contents of less than 10. And yes, before the professional packers came in, we had pored over each thing we would carry into our new life. For weeks, our arguments had been not so much about their joy-sparking abilities but about their multifarious utility. Partially following Marie Kondo’s assertion that “tidying is about what you want to keep in your life, not what you want to eliminate", we created two piles of things, to keep and give away. At the end of it, we felt smug about our merciless culling abilities. What comes to Malaysia is what we need, we reassured each other.

What I find now is that we have gone back nearly two decades in time, to the early days of our marriage when we stored salt, sugar and spices in plastic Nestle dahi dabbas, carefully rationing spends between a Tupperware set and a television set. Our storage containers here are again Nestle Asli yogurt dabbas, and while we no longer have to squirrel away money for the next big purchase, our life here has an unreal quality to it. Last week, when my husband forgot about the milk he was boiling in the pressure cooker and left it to burn to a smoky and stubborn black, we were left with no means of making rice for lunch. But we laughed through it together—after I had finished berating him for his oversight, of course—and took turns in scrubbing it back to life.

Is this KonMari heaven? Certainly, each of the items in this house brings a great deal of joy to me. But that is mostly because of the invaluable use it has in my current situation; I wept tears of joy when I was able to whip up a pudina pulao for lunch the day after the near-incendiary incident. However, what gave me the most joy was the discovery that I could live comfortably on what I had—the itch to order a few things online is very real but so far not been scratched.

Have I finally come face to face with minimalism?

Minimalism is a concept that I have eyed for a long time with wonder and scepticism from a distance, even as I shopped for yet another red lipstick or my fifth pair of blue jeans. I curiously google “minimalism" and find about 459,000,000 results, which tells me I am not alone. Of course, the top results include criticism of this trend, as well as content that speaks straight to me, about how we assign too much meaning to our stuff, and about how experiences are more important than things.

When I shift my attention from these self-congratulatory musings, my eyes fall on the social media messages and stories about the situation in India these past three weeks. My friends share experiences about procuring a bunch of coriander or a can of beer in words that convey dismay, outrage and, bless them, humour. I am also seeing a rush of posts about optimizing everything and wasting nothing: chutneys from vegetable peels and substitutes for favourite meats, for instance. What is this if not mindful consumption, one of the facets of minimalism?

Of course, most people have been forced by circumstances. Writer Chryselle D’Silva Dias describes her ordeal watching her young son hesitate over asking for one more chapati in the initial lockdown days in Goa. She adds: “The last time I had these hunger pangs was when I was pregnant 11 years ago. This situation brought on a lot of negative emotions—feeling insecure, deprived, anger at the government for not thinking this through."

But life goes on. As behavioural scientist Anand Damani tells me: “We humans are amazingly adaptable creatures. That’s why we have managed to survive when most other species have perished." Indeed, if these times are about basic survival—physiological needs at the bottom of the Abraham Maslow pyramid—there is also something good coming out of it. Bengaluru-based therapist Supriya Kalbag says, “Tapping into our survival instincts also means becoming aware of our emotional resilience and being able to distinguish between needs and wants."

She shares this nugget from her home life: “Meat is hard to procure now so creativity has been the key to serving up delicious and satisfying meals for my family of carnivores." D’Silva Dias has adapted too. “Funnily, we are eating a wider variety of foods now that the daily menu planning is up to me and limited to what supplies we have," she says.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I am also aware that in all this talk about minimalism, I live in the faint hope that when the dust settles, I will be reunited with my things. My challenge then is to decide what I really need and what I have got used to living without, and can therefore give away to someone who needs it more.

It is indeed about mind over matter, as I have learnt.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, food, arts and culture.

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