Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Aman's properly army crawling at shocking speed and chasing patches of sunlight to the dusty window past my barricade of chairs etc (there's an AC fitted there I don't want him reaching)... 

I feel like I should be sitting here giggling at his antics. Instead I am chasing him down and returning him from cold floor (which he also wants to lick) to carpet repeatedly to his vociferous irritation.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cutting to the Crux of Clutter

Our old bookshelf we brought over from the capital has been bending down for two years too many — it's a matter of time before it goes the way of the London Bridge of the rhyme: breaking down altogether.

It has been burdened with too many books. Many more than it should hold.

Yes. Guilty as charged.

Last year, we sought to relieve the bookshelf of its burden. We rescued three lovely old bookcases from the place where shabby, second-hand vintage furniture goes to be reborn in Calcutta: Judges Court Road. Amit loved the glass fronts, which meant minimal dusting. Me, I believe books should breathe... but I hate dusting and dust mites hate me — so I gave in and consoled myself with the glass sides.

We were set to skim and separate — but first we had to unpack the still-packed boxes from our move...

By the time we were done with 5 of the 11 waiting patiently in the alcove for over a year, the three new cabinets were nearly full. The old bookcase was still double-stacked and top-heavy.

We had to admit it. We have more books than we know what to do with.

So, maybe I should be taking a leaf out of the very inspiring Minimalist Mom's book? But as I read her page (and mused, delurked and commented), I realized that... I can't be shed my paper cocoon and fly away a lightweight butterfly when it comes to my reading; I remain at best a minimal-ish bookworm, taking comfort in paper.

At first, this recognition caused consternation: Oh dear! the dusting will never be done and I will never be free of too-full shelves, never quite caught up!

Then, I felt miffed: Even if I did dare to make a clean cut (and we all know how painful a paper cut can be), how could I do without the sheer pleasure of paper?

Yes, I could borrow from the library... But I already do!

But then, why did I need my own home library? Because some books are so comforting, I like them near. Sometimes it is the story; sometimes the facts (as with my cookbooks); and sometimes it is the when and why and how of the book, its physical form and its possession of me. Sometimes it is the beauty of the book — its type, its textured and fragrant pages, its tooled or otherwise thoughtfully crafted cover, its heft — that comforts my senses, like a crisp winter morning or a good cup of tea.

No, I am not identifying myself with my books. Unlike most minimalist mavens, that has never been at the root of my hoarding problem. But I needed to know: What has? Why do I have excess fat even in my cookbook cupboard?

The more I thought, the more my reply seemed paradoxical. I had too many because I feared I might not have any — which means that now, a guardian of too many, I have every reason to shed my fear.

And indeed, it is this 'might not have many' that has for years fuelled the hoarding habit. In the closet, I would have (say) three perfect outfits. In my teens, my mum would complain that I wore the same outfits so often that I wore them out. I said it was fine — they were my best dresses, and I wanted to look my best. If I wore them out, then... well, there was a closetful of clothes I wasn't wearing, featuring miles of dad's sewing! But this changed. Sometime in my twenties — after our family had taken quite a lot of hard knocks in the wallet, after I had moved out to a new city and a new job that paid barely enough to make my rent and send a sustenance home to my folks, after I made the choice to get married or go study further one year — I woke up one day and found it had all changed.

Suddenly, I had become my father. I still had three perfect outfits in my closet — but now I wore anything but those three!

Like my partner, my dad had known the anxiety of lack, and had known it long and early in life. Unlike my partner, the lack was a real one of necessity, and not a matter of thrifting by choice (what my mother-in-law practised, and it has paid her well in later life, say what people and self-help gurus may).

Both my father and my partner are anxious about lack, about the possibility of not having enough. My partner dealt with it by swinging like a pendulum between self-denial and a desperate self-indulgence: He is the one who has dessert first, because what if in 10 minutes there is no dessert? My father dealt with it by saving for tomorrow — not his money, but the things money could buy! He failed to see that three dinner sets today would keep depreciating, even if mint-new; while actual money could grow in his savings account if left alone — enough to cover the cost of seven sets of plates, should the need for an extra one really arise!

My father's concern is 'running out'; my partner's is 'being denied'. And I had become my father. What if I can never afford a really perfect dress again? I'd better buy three, just to make sure I had one — and I'd better never wear them either, to make sure I didn't wear them out.

So while I carefully lined my nest, my closet, I had 'nothing to wear' — because I wouldn't wear what I had. And then I had to spend to rectify that situation and make second-best purchases on a budget — which made me all the more anxious about running out of money, which meant I wouldn't have any to pay for tomorrow. Meanwhile, I grew, I changed — and the 'perfect dress' ceased to fit. It even started to fade, to fall apart. So I soon had nothing wearable for today or for tomorrow!

It took a while to see the problem with this picture — for a long time, I was standing too close to make sense of it. It took another while for Amit and I to take courage into our hands and talk about our own patterns of consumption, as well as each other's — and to pick out the common thread of being taken with the sensual pleasure of a potential purchase: the perfect ivory salad bowl in the just-so fineness of ceramic (that just happened to be the same exact size as the utilitarian glass bowl we had got last year, which we never used because it was a pain to handle, being wobbly and heavy and slippery... and just plain awkward); the perfect grey sweater that cost more than my purse held today, minus the plastic (but which would make up for all the twenty awkward assorted emergency purchases and sentimental gifts that I either wore but felt wrong in, or hoarded and did not wear); the bag that cost more than we thought any piece of canvas could and which meant we couldn't buy the shoes we wanted that month (but which turned out to be the handiest bag he owned, despite my dire predictions about taking it out into rain and snow; and which means I no longer have to tote a tote to tuck his things into; and which makes him worry hours less than me when travelling because his gear is already figured out)!

It took us seven years to own up to the facts.

And to see the patterns in the picture: That we are birds of a feather, fearful of a windblown and unkempt nest — and the answer was not to line it with feathers, but to build it better to begin with. That we are consumer worms on the turn — and we aren't going far without our security blanket of beauty. That we would never be comfortable in debt or while living out of a suitcase (except when travelling) — and that we could spend less and own less by being pickier in what we bring home and making sure to enjoy it while we had it.

Which brings me back to the bookshelves. Yes, there's a spineless few that need to be shown the door; there are generic students' editions I can find online and let go. No, I cannot go clutter-free digital — not yet anyway.

I am still anxious, you see.

About the effect seven hours' of leisure screen time (after eight hours of working at one) has on me. About whether I would want that for my children, or theirs.

About spending on another expensive reading device which needs another clutter of wires, chargers, batteries, warranties... while being less then the perfect reading experience and needing safekeeping from water, tomato sauce and garden dirt (yes, yet again!).

About the issue of books available for only limited download, so that we pay again and again for the same book we've already bought — about the 'rightness' and 'fairness' of that retail model that commodifies the new reading experience of the 21st century.

About losing the comfort of a sensual read (no, I'm not thinking of a bodice ripper).

My anxiety is now about loss of experience and faculties, not possessions. And so this time, I feel comfortable listening. Most of my books, I'm keeping. Even more, I'm borrowing from our library (they even deliver to my doorstep overnight). Several others, I'm downloading.

Because I've decided to declutter the anxiety from my life, first of all, you see. I don't need to deny my senses. I don't need to give up comfort to have security (the idea!).

What I do need to do is make the optimal choice for me, maybe even the maximal — which may not jive with someone else's minimal.

I'm happy to be minimal-ish, rather than minimalist, if I can shelve the hoarding habit for good — downsize old habits and ditch tomorrow's baggage so that I can enjoy today and plan for a future. Save, not hoard. And not throw away the books with the bathwater!

Like my perfect dress, I hope to take comfort in them again and againuntil I can let them go for a finer edition, or because they lose their meaning (whichever happens first, and let's hope my vision's decluttered enough to see that when it happens!).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 brings frugal flowers. Tasty!

That was last year's lunch. And will be this year's dinner. In between, it is window dressing. Also counter topper. And table trimmer.

That's a 10-rupee bouquet of pumpkin flowers, which are in blossom at the wet markets just now, and glowing all along the highway so much brighter than the fog lamps.

Yesterday, there were twice as many. But we ate a bunch for lunch. Not even bothering to waste oil and batter on fritters; just munched them like Ferdinand did his flowers from the ring. In a bowl of baby spinach. So fresh, so lovely, so filling... and frugal.

Looks like a talisman for a bountiful new year to me!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flecks of a White Christmas

Once again, 'Jack Frost' surprised us with a festive show.

Three years ago, when we'd barely moved into our new home in December 2008, it looked like a rather strange holiday season over here. Hardly any neighbours. No tree. Packing boxes from the move stacked and strewn all over the place — upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber! The kitchen a gutted-out square at one end of the living room.

But we knocked together some chairs, unpacked the sole green-leaf-edged plate that survived the movers, and boiled up a pudding. And got started on fitting out the kitchen. Washing up was done in the bathroom sink for a fortnight.

And then, just as the sink was set in, we had to fly away north, like the birds.

Next year, the boxes were mostly gone. The kitchen, with its stove and oven and sink and larder in place, worked. Oh! and it was only me at home for Christmas. Half of this family would only arrive after work was done for the year, on the 26th of December.

But we put up some lights, put out artsy tabletop trees, and roasted bird and roots, boiled a pudding when he did arrive. We debated getting a real tree, but we weren't sure what we wanted to put in the ground. The garden wasn't ready to receive any new roots just then. So we got to work, in the single week we'd have until he headed back to Delhi again. It wasn't done until almost New Years', but at the nursery, we found — way over in a corner at the back, abandoned — two leggy-looking slender specimens with a spray of white at the top.

They reminded me of snow. And Oriental silk paintings. They turned out to be 'poinsettia' that hadn't quite made it big, and could be had for a song. We got a pair. They turned out to be Euphorbia all right — but not pulcherrima. These were Diamond Frost. And apparently they were new and cool.

We left them on the back porch for a year, while we still tried to start the garden. The clay was impenetrable, immovable; yet the weeds were rampant.

December came again. The 'rest of the family' moved to this city, finally. But he was still away for Xmas, on the train home. No tree, again — not yet. But guess who welcomed him home at the door? Though I'd given up on those two frail doormen of mine putting up any fight at all against the hot, wet tropical elements, they flowered! In two sprays of white that framed the garden door, harbingers of what could be.

And this July, when I was out of work and wondering how to make do, when the Diamond Frost had really suffered a roasting over summer and seemingly dried out, the unthinkable happened. A third man appeared among them! There was a tall shoot, hidden behind the untameable weeds of the monsoons. We didn't dare believe it could be the Euphorbia. But it looked like nothing else.

We put the other two in the ground finally, framing the porch. And they first white sepals unfolded, just in time for the holidays, and aptly — on 1 December.

It had risen again, out of adversity and into startling, heartening beauty. Unexpectedly. A parsimonious gift that nevertheless kept giving, multiplying even. A being epitomizing not just of joy, but hardiness and holding on, fortitude and fecundity.

As we celebrated our eighth anniversary yesterday, looking back on years of 'making do', we realized we didn't need a tree this year either — the slender shrubs we were 'making do' with for three years, with whom it was sometimes touch and go in these torrid tropics, would make sure we had our leafy marker of the holidays.

Odd how 'making do' becomes the best of traditions, isn't it?

Now there are three of my slender garden sentinels. Framing both doorway and window.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resolution: To Make Money...

Stop laboriously picking up peanuts from today.

A short and sweet resolution, because it's important.

Yesterday, I tied up a project of the kind I used to take on regularly. Low pay, relatively easy and enjoyable work, and slow going. Painstaking — which I tend to gravitate to. Painfully slow — because almost always revealed to be far more involved than it sounded on first correspondence. Painfully underpaid too, because the publishing industry has its own caste system, and freelancers are the scapegoats of it.

We get scalped, though often we do the lion's share of work on a book, save the writing of it.

We get condescended to, though we often end up with a clearer understanding of the texts published this year than the house editor ever will.

We get devalued because, ironically, we do it for the love of it and because we can't bear to see a hatchet job done on a manuscript with possibilities, and because in-house editors hardly ever edit any more, so that they are in danger of forgetting — or worse, never learning — what exactly it takes to do the job and do it well: the time, the effort, and yes, even the knowledge, both of the language and of the subject.

But we keep at it. For love and for money.

So why am I quitting?

Because I realized I can't afford a love so draining — emotionally, intellectually, temporally or financially. And conversely, because love can't be bought for peanuts. It's a costly investment. Beginning with the down payment of some respect.

I thought those few thousand rupees mattered too much to let go of, mattered enough that I could put up with less respect. I lost sight of the opportunity costs. No, I hadn't had to turn down too much other work to do it. Yes, I sometimes often let the house become a shambles because I was snowed under with this work I 'loved'. I had let myself become that bugbear: a workaholic, who has forgotten where work stops and other fun starts. And I had sacrificed time in which to find more fulfilling work, and skills that would help me grow into the life I wanted.

However, after many cutbacks and setbacks over the last several months, I have come to realize that no matter how messy things are, they aren't so desperate yet as I've made them appear to myself over the last couple of years. Which means I should not have been scrabbling for pennies (or paise); I should instead have been looking for meaningful, enjoyable work that also pays what it is worth in terms of my time and effort, and — dare I say it? — my expertise.

What was needed was not for me to scramble to do everything (I thought) I wanted to do. What was needed was for me to prioritize and do what was important to me.

I left it rather late — until lack of resources squeezed most other modes of procrastination out of my hands. But having to buckle down — to less impulsive food purchases; fewer wardrobe additions; no more books and magazines; hardly any it-all-adds-up nights at the movies and afternoons at coffee shops and fast-food dinners — and making do with less forced me to focus.

And once I focused on what was important, I saw in a few short months what had eluded me for several years lately — I saw what was really missing from my life.

I thought what was missing was money, because money can buy freedom. What I was really missing was freedom from constraints. I thought I needed to just throw money at my limitations, until they disappeared. Turns out all I had to do was live within my limits to have the life I had wanted all along — a life that was not missing opportunity or time in which to explore a new one. Once I started to work with my limitations, I felt liberated — because I wasn't wasting money and energy on the limitations, I could spend them on things that mattered.

It wasn't just money I had been wasting. I had been wasting time too — it's just that no one bills you for your time. (Well, not yet — but just you wait till someone figures it out.) And a lot of the time, I had been wasting time chasing 'easy money' — money it took far too long to earn... so long that it was devalued.

Because money that steals time also steals opportunity. It steals fun. It steals possibilities: A walk in the park; a run around the neighbourhood at dusk. Time to sing a song; time to sit down with friends. The leisure to enjoy the home I worked so hard to have; the leisure to curl up with a book in the sun. The chance to make time for family; the chance to make them a gift.

Too short-sighted a focus on earning money has robbed me of a chance to live my life a little more.

I can and should use my time better. To develop new skills. To take time for loved ones and loved activities. To give my brain a break from worry and drudgery. To stop and smell the flowers — really.

Making money should be an empowering thing. Not a stultifying situation I have to be stuck in.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Overwhelmed by Unmentionables

If there's a white elephant in my (non-existent) 'closet', it's the underwear drawer.

Our combined 'closet' is currently a four-drawer dresser—two wide drawers and two narrow ones that I share with my partner. Which means we should get one large and one smaller drawer each—so the fact that I had one entire narrow drawer of innerwear, stuffed in till they seemed to be vacuum-packed in it, was an unmentionable embarrassment. Especially as it meant that my handkerchiefs, scarves, camisoles, belts, swimming gear had ousted his stuff from the other smaller drawer.

This year, not wanting to repeat last year's obstacle course of sweater-filled suitcases piled at the foot of the bed for months, I decided to select a leaner winter wardrobe. Which would give his sweaters a home other than a pile on his bedside chair.

Taking on Project 33.3 helped clear out—not just un-stuff—my larger drawer. It was unprecedented, seeing my main clothes drawer half-empty. Which meant by swimming things, my homeless handkerfchiefs, my scarves-in-storage, and my score or so of socks could migrate to roomier quarters—out of Man's Land.

The funny thing was, with the stack of homelies shortened and the clothes 'closet' uncluttered, the smallest drawer, that smalls drawer, begged for a decongestion to match.

After some furious and frazzled trips to the 'outbox', several tippings in and dippings out, the embarrassment of inner riches has been curtailed to:
  1. A dozen knickers (yikes! and yes, that's the shortlist!)
  2. Half a dozen bras
  3. Four matched sets (typically reserved for the travel case)
  4. Two camisole sets for sleeping in (a top and a pair of bottoms each)
  5. Pair of slips
  6. Sixteen(!) pairs of socks—including sleeping socks, gym socks, 'slipper' socks (oxymorons, what with the rubber dots for traction), and just your everyday foot warmers and shoe liners.
Not a very descriptive list; but then I don't want to be accused of washing my dirty linen in public!

Ideally, item 4 belongs in seasonal storage; but they take up little enough room, so they stay put at the back of the drawer for now, rather than getting lost in the recesses of one of six suitcases.

What in the world was banished to the storage box, then? Well, all the stockings (about 10 pairs possibly); the half-a-dozen half-slips; the pair of shapers; oodles of other (new!) undies...

What was I thinking? Yeah—don't even ask! They're evidently called 'unmentionables' for a reason...!

'Home/work' togs

My no-dishwasher, no-driver, no-maid, no-cook, no-durwan lifestyle has a habit of getting mucky.

Especially since the gardeners and complex maintenance staff have decided they'd rather not come in our gate.

Perhaps they found it too arduous or too taxing to remember to move our coir doormat to wash the driveway. To avoid removing the leaves mulching the base of my hibiscus bushes when they mow. To stop trimming plants in some misguided lopsided fashion, making odd wall-high green parallelograms — when you only need to prune overgrowth and let the tree grow up and out of your way.

So it turns out I need a whole household army's worth of clothing to wear through my 'homework' hours. After all, friends and family and neighbours apparently have that many people in that many sets of clothes marching around on a daily basis, not to mention their own clothes for home, work, and play!

But still, the teeter-totter pile I had on the bench was getting to me. I needed a trimmer team of togs.

Since my daily dealings turn me—by turns—into (i) gardener, (ii) cook, (iii) cleaner, (iv) dishwasher, (v) online worker ant,* and additionally, at times, (vi) mercury-at-the-door, I figured I needed at least a couple of outfits for each function. One goes in the wash while I wear the other to wash up—that's the idea, anyway. That makes a dozen dress-up get-ups.

And because I'm also a paranoid android—which is how I got to overstuffed suitcases, crammed cabinets, and startlingly tall stacks in the first place—I thought I'd add three for emergency trails and tribulations (washer's dead! power back-up's failed! it rained on me, out of season! I sopped up spilt soup with my tunic!).

That's how I've ended up with 15 slightly scruffy to barely presentable outfits this morning. Made up of:
  1. Blue-green printed salwar-kameez set
  2. Black block-printed kameez
  3. Black knit churidar
  4. Striped maroon tunic
  5. Green-on-beige block-printed wraparound skirt
  6. Green-on-green T-shirt
  7. Blue-and-black striped 'fisherman's pants'
  8. Waffle-weave navy T-shirt
  9. Grey T-shirt (basic)
  10. Flock-printed black-and-blue T-shirt
  11. Blue-grey 'fisherman's pants'
  12. White elephant-appliqued T-shirt
  13. Multicoloured printed T-shirt (sadly sorta stained)
  14. Dark grey stretch pants
  15. Dark grey embroidered T-shirt
  16. Teal green T-shirt
  17. Grey T-shirt (v-neck, warm)
  18. Rose-printed red-and-cream skirt
  19. Old white salwar
  20. Navy-and-red tunic
  21. Blue striped tunic/kurta
  22. Pink printed kurta
  23. Brown 'tracksuit' loungewear (I actually bought them to wear around our chilly home in Delhi; fleecy on the inside, they aren't exactly the right fabric for actual activewear)
  24. and, of course, a pair of tattered-hem indigo jeans
So the stack's still tall, but has at least stopped teetering. Footwear at home is a pair of purple rubber thongs. As for the currently active sportswear, that consists of:
  1. Grey Dri-Fit capris
  2. White Dri-Fit T-shirt
  3. Black Dri-Fit capris
  4. Black Dri-Fit T-shirt
  5. Black swimsuit
  6. Black gym shoes
This set of activewear may not see as much use in these cooler months, though, so I should seriously consider bagging them up until spring.

Meanwhile, the nightclothes are currently an unruly horde, and assorted camisoles from the underwear drawer, plus the grey and teal T-shirts above, tend to migrate into the melee every so often:
  1. Green kaftan
  2. Red kaftan
  3. Flannellette 'holiday'-print nightshirt and pajamas
  4. Pink pajamas
  5. Pink-and-brown printed pajamas
Turns out 4 & 5 are cross-seasonal and make good travel companions too, especially if putting up in a hostel.

*I did try not having extra clothes for working out of home. Really, I did. But it didn't work out so well because: (a) I often had to switch from worker bee to general dogsbody in a jiffy, and wearing 'outside' clothes made the switch too scary for their life expectancy; (b) 'going to work' in the truly ratty, stained, bleached, paint- and sauce-splattered suits meant I was too conscious of what I wore: the opposite of what I'm trying to achieve; (c) some of the 'real clothes' are inherited from days in an office chair, and don't play so well when sitting tailor-fashion.

The good news: it's still a huge saving of space and money to not have a 'real-working-person's wardrobe'!