Our ancestors, and I don’t mean just Indians. I mean human ancestors. They engaged with the physical world in a way that was deep, meaningful and sensual. Today, our lives largely play out on screens through social media where everything is– like writing– representational, not really real. Now, I am not here to turn back the time or be nostalgic. I enjoy apps, games, instagram and my iphone as much as you. But I have become keenly aware that engaging with the real world is a physical act, not a virtual one. Today, with the proliferation of screens everywhere, doing this requires thought, a strategy even.
One strategy would be to pick up the phone and call someone instead of sending them a message. Another could be to cultivate a hobby that removes you from your screens, that forces you to use the five sense. You could garden, you could touch the earth. You could take up pottery and fashion clay. You could make your body a tool and engage in the physicality of dance, martial arts or sports. Even with writing, you can send physical letters, write on a notebook with a fountain pen or keep a scrapbook. In my mind, scrapbooks epitomise a certain type of physical object that is hard to replicate in the virtual world.
What types of books did our Indian ancestors write? Not read. Write. There were three types. One was a personal daily diary that many of them kept. The second was a statement of daily accounts: paid the milkman so much, the flower seller so much etc. The third was a scrapbook. A physical very ordinary scrapbook that contained…the story of their lives told in a very particular way. Unlike a diary, unlike an account-book, the scrapbook was a repository of one person’s dreams, hopes, intents, achievements and relationships. It was forgiving and all-encompassing.
They contained recipes. Not just any old recipe. Complicated ones for badam halva or lemon souffle or malai makhan paneer do pyaasa. As anyone who keeps a scrapbook will tell you, these aren’t just recipes. These are visions of the identity that we want for ourselves. We may hardly spend anytime in the kitchen. We may burn toast and coddle coffee. But for that moment when we paste the lemon souffle recipe into our scrapbook, we have become a domestic goddess. A legend in our own minds. This is how identity gets fashioned– through intentions of who we’d like to be. This is how character gets built in a book. Through a series of small recipes.
The second most common thing in my mother’s scrapbook was a whole spectrum of to-dos. How to do embroidery, crochet and tatting– do you know what that is? My mother wanted to master it. Tatting is complex. You use loops and knots to make lace doilies. I learned it as a child because my mother had clipped the techniques into her scrapbook.
The third was a randomized clipping of wedding invitations, phone numbers, hastily scribbled notes, photographs and coupons. The stuff of everyday life immortalized in a book through scissors and glue. It is resolutely ordinary. It is personal randomness. But when you flip through the pages, you see identity and culture, which is what all of my writing is about.