Jan 5, 2010

Love thy things as you would love yourself

A thought from the lady of the house struck as revelation one morning. How do we relate to the things around us? The refrigerator that keeps the food fresh, the cot that gives a good nights sleep with its warm embrace, the work desk that keeps us in good posture all through the day, the mobile phone that keeps us connected and all those devices and contraptions that we interact with every second of our lives. Do we respect them, do we thank them for their services. Does ownership give us the right to be inconsiderate and mistreat them ?.

At the dawn of civilization there were only a few equipments that our forefathers had to interact to – a couple of twigs and leaves to create fire, maybe logs of wood that helped them move heavy objects. The post-industrial society that we live in now has spawned millions of tools and devices that make living simple and comfortable. One way to look at the world that we live in is as the manufacture and distribution of devices/equipments to live our lives. They are every where and we touch them at every point in our lives from the scissors that the doctor uses to cut the umbilical chord and mark your entry into the world, to the spade that fills up mud into our graves and takes to the unknown – our lives could be read as a serial relationship with things.

Things have a grey, genderless, cold, non-living existence in our mental map. We don’t go kiss our refrigerators good bye before a holiday. Neither do we say thanks to the car for having driven us three hundred kilometers of rough country terrain. But they create a range of positive experiences and emotions in our lives. Imagine going into an air-conditioned room after walking through the streets of Madras in May or seeing world cup football for the first time - mine was a brazil match in 84 on a Sony TV. Things always give their intended output without much fuss. A reclining chair always gives a comfortable seating without asking to be fed and taken care of. At times it is their absence that reminds us of their presence. Try forgetting your toothbrush when on an overnight train journey or try making coffee without a gas stove. In being able to create a mood or sensation the objects fulfill one of the primary traits of living organisms.

A lot of our memories have links to the objects. One of my recurring images about paternal grandmother is a wooden chest in which she kept all her clothes and other precious things locked. She was very protective about it and only her favorite grandchildren among the fifty odd had the permission to have a peek inside. There were rows of white clothes, reading glasses of grandfather who had died earlier, some documents and sweet smell of attar ( perfume ) everywhere. On a recent visit to a close friend’s house the large sofa in the living room and meat safe in the dining stood out. He had changed homes about three or four times in the last fifteen years. But that sofa and meat safe were my locus standi to the fact that it was the same house where we spend endless nights - smoking cigarettes, sharing stories of first love.

Adaptability another cornerstone of the Darwinian world view fits well with object world. Any new TV could be programmed to thousand different set of color and sound combination. Washing machines now have intelligence to control the spin and amount of water to be used. If we look at adaptability from a higher perspective there is the equivalent of evolution in living organisms. The simple pen has evolved from a quill to the ball point variety through a process of mutation and inventions over centuries. Understanding of gravity, capillary action and metallurgy helped inventors of the time create the earliest fountain pen and since then the pen has gone through a cycles of adaptation. And with age of the computers pen is facing the threat of extinction. Maybe the pen might transform with another technology to create a device that will fit the new age. It is not difficult to imagine things as having a life of their own.

The concept of Ayudha pooja inherited from our tribal past – bears testimony to the importance our ancestors gave to these tools and objects in their way of life. In the Adivasi way of life they had a place almost on par with their deities and were worshiped with due reverence. Compare this with materialistic society we live in, where objects are to be possessed and disposed of at will. It is somehow reminiscent of slave trade from our not so distance past and success is judged by the possession of the latest gadgets and things –flat screen TV, petrol guzzling SUV’s and washing machine that can do small chat. They are not there for the value they deliver, but more as show pieces for others. The industrial complex thrives on producing and obsolescing things at a rapid pace. Ten years back tea was still served in steel tumblers and china cups at parties. Now we have the ubiquitous plastic cups. The tumbler could be washed and reused many times where as the plastic cup is use and throw. The average life span of a car was more than twenty five years in the seventies while average life of the cars now is less than ten years. Remember the second-hand Ambassador or Lambretta scooter which had the pride of place when it came into the family. Constantly bombarded with advertisements for newer models we are branded losers if things are not cycled rapidly. Fat with slim. Twenty four inch with thirty six inch. Where is the time to form an engagement? When was the last time we washed the cars ourselves?

The question then is to discover their rightful place in our lives, without being overtly attached to them. A deeper commitment to them can help in breaking the churn of things and use them better. When we wake up after a good nights sleep, do we ever think that that the comfortable cot and bed played their part well. Yes it was our hard or easily earned money. But in reducing it to a purely transactional model aren’t we falling in the same rut of not acknowledging what gives us happiness and comfort. What if we wink at the cot and say thanks and smile at the tooth brush and say good morning. The story of Prahalada and Narsimha is a testimony to the underlying sanctity of everything we consider as non living. Like a sculptor who gives life to a piece of rock every object can take a living form when steered by the right hands.

The lady of the house had to once dispose a red refrigerator that she so liked. She went around identifying proper suitor for the lady in red and found a young couple who couldn’t afford a new one. The money was inconsequential, but the bride would be respected and looked after well in the new home - the marriage was arranged. You see love blooms when it is given without restraint and so I love.


Belt Mathai said...

A delightful piece from, as die hard a romantic as I'm likely to find, Redwaterstew! Very true. Although it must be said that objects these days are often also made to be disposable. The first of such objects for me was a Reynolds 045 Fine Carbure given by a relative from Oman, which I found to my bafflement couldn't be opened to change the refill! Then someone told me people in Oman just threw pen away when the ink ran out and bought a new one. Of course when it came to India they introduced the model that could be opened and refilled. Recently we bought a new car and there was an on-going scheme (brought in by Gordon Brown in an attempt to kickstart growth in the recessive UK economy) where if we scrapped our 13 year old car, we could get a good sum of money off the new car which would make it worth buying even more than a second hand car. So we did it even though it was heart breaking. One thing I find in the UK is that things are so expensive to mend/repair. If the repair requires any tool that a normal household might not have, it almost always has to be thrown away and a new one bought. Most small objects even upto the size of a washing machine wouldn't be worth repairing purely because it would cost more than a new one.

Mohan Kannan said...

Hey Salil,

Another thought provoking piece from you. Alienation of goods, de-humanising goods etc were seen by me as a generation gap. From young, I saw things as 'things' and not as animate objects;where as my dad always saw things as animate objects. He used to even talk to his Enfield Bullet. But true to his credit, those days 'things' were built to last. Now a days things are built to be junked. Its faster in the developed countries, like the US where I have lived and experienced this phenomenon. I will list a few items, which knows the 'warranty period' or the 'two year' term, its as timely as the sanyasi and the Brahma Muhurtha. Panasonic Phones are one which will stop after the two year term, batteries of laptops and phones built for two years, a ford card after 50k miles etc....need to be junked. Because repair will be costing as much as a new one.

Hindu culture is one which has adapted itself along the way, to 'worship' things we were afraid of or which we didnt have a clue about. Snakes belong to the former, a myriad of things form the latter (dont want to even start about it).In the same way, Ayuda pooja has transformed to worship, Laptops, Cell phones, cars and bikes, refrigators (from your example), cots etc. You will see many more added materials in a Tamilian's house; lest us Hindus leave out the sacred weapon of one of the 3,08,00,898 gods, in Aravind Adiga's words.

Get 'em on, new lines of thought...you rock.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece redwaterstew…thought provoking too.
Don’t we have a phrase for the world we live in now?—“ consumeristic society”?, where everything is buy-use-throw- and buy. Don’t you realize we are not supposed to try and relate or “develop deeper commitments” to inanimate objects. If we start doing that we are shaking up a foundation that is built on billions of dollars and the entire global economy can fall flat on its face along with all the billions of livelihoods dependent on it. The cycle of demand and supply is set at a faster pace and the sad thing is we don’t have much of a choice. Having a choice seems more a luxury today; something perhaps a few urban, educated, rich intellectuals can afford. Or I should rather say there are too many cheap choices and opting out of them is the most expensive choice of all.

I also read one of your earlier posts on re-reading Gandhiji’s MEWT and it seemed pertinent to bring it up here. His teachings and philosophies are being resurrected and ideas like village democracy, “green economies” and local self-sufficiency that you mentioned are (apparently) being initiated. But again what worries me is who are these people initiating these movements? How genuine are they? Who is it really supposed to benefit? I don’t mean to condemn all well intended initiatives but simply being cautious I guess.
As somebody mentioned I am amazed too at the courage and charisma of this small, frail man to force nations to change although not surprisingly it did not keep him alive too long.

I apologize for the pessimism in my thoughts but I guess the romantic in me has got lost somewhere in the hustle and bustle. But you keep it alive and burning serving as a good reminder to people like me.

Excellent writing btw.


Sachin R K said...

Back to blogging...with an unusual choice of topic to boot..."Love for things inanimate"...hmmm...note a standard topic of discourse but some refreshing observations...may the average time between your posts reduce dramatically...