‘Cluttermania’ v/s Minimalist living

As we become older, more so when we have become senior citizens, we generally seek more neatness in our lives…

Writing about my old scoutmaster and his single room habitat last week set me thinking about our propensity towards ‘cluttermania’ as our lives roll out. Clutter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means ‘a crowded and untidy collection of things’, and to clutter is to ‘crowd untidily, to fill with clutter.’ As a rule I would think that as we become older, more so when we have become senior citizens, we generally seek more neatness in our lives, if only because we tend to forget. We therefore try to have things like important documents, personal cards and similar paraphernalia sorted out and kept in pet places that we can easily access.

For some of us, this habit for tidiness and order extends to all the other stuff that we have gone on crowding our houses with all these years. But for many others, perhaps, this is not the case, and they are quite happy to let things lie around or scattered about, a tendency which endures even when they have matured. I remember a colleague’s wife telling me once how, in the absence of her husband one evening, she had gone into his consultation room and gasped at the mess on his table.

Thinking she would be doing a good thing, since she assumed that lack of time and pressure of work did not allow him to put the papers and other stuff away neatly, that’s what she proceeded to do. Little did she expect the reaction from her husband afterwards: ‘Why the hell did you mess (!) around on my table! Now I can’t find my this, my that where I had kept them!’ He could not be convinced that his table was tidier now and he would be able to find whatever he needed more easily. ‘No!’ he told her, ‘just leave my table alone next time, will you! I know where to find my things when I need them!’

So there are two aspects we are looking at here: the things that we have whose number somehow keeps growing down the years and what use we make of them, and then where/how they are to be found in our homes. It is an undeniable fact that all of us possess a few objects which have great personal sentimental value, and to which we will remain attached till our last breath and therefore hold on too preciously. These would include, for example, certain items that are shared by couples such as jewellery and other mementos; gifts received from our very near and dear, our children for example; perhaps some letters and cards (birthday, New Year, etc.,); and then objects we associate with special occasions or events, or are of historical/traditional value. These make up quite a bit already!

For those who are married and with family, which means most people on the planet, as the children grow up that means more and more stuff around the house, which is like a secret cave most of whose contents remains even after they subsequently go and live on their own. Don’t they insist that nothing must be discarded in their ex-rooms, even as they start filling their own houses with ever more and different paraphernalia! So the aging parents have to keep dusting and maintaining those spaces as they used to be!! At the cost of being chided if things have even so much as inadvertently been moved! And as we would say here with a mixture of sentiment and a little exasperation, ‘enfin…’

Recently someone sent me a clip about how in the later part of our lives, especially when we become less active professionally and socially, we do not use nearly 80 per cent of the things that we have accumulated. It is worth just taking a look around and realizing the truth of this observation. Just think of the kitchenware to be found in the cabinets and cupboards, or the clothes in the wardrobes. And what about the furniture in the living and dining rooms, and the frames hanging on the walls? None of them will go with us, why even our bodies will not leave this earth! They will go back to the Earth Mother as ash or as food for microbes and worms, be recycled as it were in the greater cosmic game of which we may or may not realise we are but a minuscule if not insignificant part.

Needless to say, such thoughts don’t come to us when we are caught up in the hustle and bustle of the prime of our lives, busy developing careers and engaging with our social circle, experimenting to find the most comfortable and stable niche to settle in. A time when, especially these days, there is so much pressure to keep up with the Joneses. This invariably means indulging in the growing trend of the times, that of conspicuous consumption, like it or not, to the extreme of luxury for those who can afford it.

Even for the common mortal no shopping trip to the glittering malls whether locally or abroad feels complete without some splashing, buying to please the eyes or to show off as it were. Many if not most of these things will be on display for a brief while until we replace them with others that will have a similar fate. The replaced ones will be tucked away out of sight, and forgotten till maybe years later they are ‘discovered’ afresh – by which time they are no longer as ‘fresh’! May be covered with mould for all one knows, and no longer desired or desirable. But still, they will be kept until…

This reminds me of what I had read about Indian President Abdul Kalam when he had been nominated to that position. The Indian Air Force had been sent to take him to New Delhi, from Hyderabad where he was based. The officers went to his residence, that of the bachelor that he was. It was described as a simple one, a small sitting room and bedroom, and small bathroom and kitchen. They asked him what belongings of his were to be loaded on to the plane. He told them only his books and his clothes, because all the rest – which was not many – was rented: furniture and TV, fridge, etc.!

He was simplicity personified from what I have read about him and in his autobiography and other writings. He spent his whole life thinking not about himself but about his country and how to make it great. And for a thinker the most basic needs are more than sufficient. That’s why the rishis of yore stayed in ashrams in the forest in the midst of nature where minimal consumption and maximum giving of oneself through one’s thinking was the rule. And what sublime thoughts they have left us with!

However, their kind are few and far between, and most of us cannot be like that at least for a good part of our lives. There is also the fact that the objects we gather are at that time needed, and that they have a cultural and an economic dimension too, in that they represent the creative and artistic skills of those who make them and, besides, they also allow their makers to obtain a living.

However, at a personal level getting overly attached to any object can become an unhealthy obsession. That is why, at a certain stage, we must learn and apply the lesson from the great minds and start cutting down on our attachment to these externals, and retain only the essential. This means therefore begin to take a look around our living space sooner rather than later, and separate the wheat from the chaff. This is bound to take some time, but must not stretch interminably for obvious reasons!

We can start by at least getting rid of the clutter, and then we will be able to make out what is essential and what is not. With an exception for the books…

RN Gopee                                                 

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