It was the summer of 1845. The Irish potato famine raged. In Leipzig, after six years of hard work, Felix Mendelssohn’s piercing and pathos-laden Violin Concerto in E minor premiered to a stupefied audience. Sarah Chang,and Anne-Sophie Mutter have all played it, but Janine Jansen’s rendering will make your hair stand on edge with its “double-stopping” notes reminiscent of Carnatic brigas.
That same year, in Concord, Massachusetts, the 28-year-old son of an American pencil maker bought 14 acres of wooded forest land, built himself a small home and embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living. That man’s name was Henry David Thoreau and the result of his project was Walden, a seminal book that examines the notion of self, solitude, simplicity and living with nature.
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Thoreau retreated to the woods to pursue the Socratic ideal of the examined life. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” Prodigious ambition for one so young.
Withdrawal and restraint are recurring philosophical themes in pretty much every culture, ranging from Plato’s allegory of the cave, to Vedic philosophy’s injunction about controlling the five senses or Pancha Mahabhootas as a path to enlightenment.
My own experiment with self-control didn’t begin at Walden Pond but in my own home. Over Christmas, I looked into my closet and confronted the eternal feminine dilemma: so many clothes and yet, nothing to wear. This happens to most of us. The Cavalli gown that Niira Radia told Ratan Tata about had never been worn for a reason—it probably looked wonderful on the mannequin but perhaps lost its sheen once it moved to her closet.
What is your relationship with the objects you own? Do you enjoy them or do you tolerate them simply because they are there? Do you enjoy having a lot of things or does it bother you to be surrounded by them? Are you a pack-rat or an ascetic when it comes to the stuff you own?
Those of us who are over 30 can remember a time when we craved certain things. Remember longing for that perfect summer dress or those purple rhinestone sandals that made you feel like a million bucks? Remember saving up to buy your first bottle of Joy perfume by Jean Patou and then savouring every drop? Remember walking by the Fendi boutique countless times, staring at the siren red baguette bag before plonking down several months’ worth of salary for it? Here’s my question: Do you feel the same way about that peacock blue Kanjeevaram sari, polki diamond necklace or Burberry trench coat even now? Or are you over them? Do objects excite you in the same way that they did when you were young?
If you, like me, have become jaded, you have two choices. One is to up the ante so much that it will take your breath away. The other is renouncement, but more on that later. Upping the ante involves buying the most expensive things that you can afford: better wine, fast cars, Cuban cigars, aged single malts, the Jatin Das painting you’ve been eyeing. Throw caution to the wind and see if you can get the excitement back. Buy that Royal Enfield you’ve fantasized about; or that emerald solitaire ring the size of a mini-paperweight.
The other approach is what I am experimenting with. This New Year’s, I have come up with a resolution that I am fairly confident I can keep. For the year 2011, I am off things. I will not buy anything that is non-perishable. I will indulge in all the things I love—vacations, massages, dark chocolate, food and drink—without having to be stuck with clothes, handbags, accessories, you know, all those things that you buy on an impulse and regret later.
It is not so much frugality that is driving this resolution. Rather, it is a desire to recapture my old self and the sense of excitement I felt about buying things. Just as a fast will increase your desire for food, a one-year abstinence from consumerism should make me appreciate an Anupama Dayal dress or even a handcrafted Hyderabadi bangle. That’s my rationale anyway.
Like most resolutions, this one too is tricky. It is not so much about abstaining as much as it is about managing the feelings of loved ones. Unless I am on vacation, I don’t care much for shopping anyhow. But how to tell your beloved aunt or your friend visiting from abroad that you cannot accept the crystal necklace or silk scarf that they have bought especially for you, because you are off…er, stuff? I mean, you can be off meat, garlic or liquor, but how can you be off stuff? Those are the things I am contending with.
The resolution has already started working though. I look at the jewellery I own through new eyes because I know that they will be my only companions for the next 10 months. I can try to wear them creatively, but I cannot afford to get bored with them because they’re all I’ve got. The same goes for clothes, gizmos, furniture, stuff. It’s like an object version of the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages fall in love with their kidnappers simply because they are there. Disposable income is all very well but it also makes the objects that you buy “disposable”, at least emotionally. Constraints, even self-imposed ones, have one great virtue: They force you to value things and not take them for granted. As for me, I am enjoying my year of abstinence. I have fallen off the wagon only once so far for an object that I am too embarrassed to talk about.
Shoba Narayan will be drinking lots of champagne in 2011. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org