Those obscure objects of desire

Like most other people I know, I crave new toys. The process kicks in early in childhood: coveting something, the object either imagined or actually seen; wrestling with reality so that it changes shape to put the object within reach; actually capturing the thing, either via a gift or a birthday present or the harder but sweeter route of earning/saving money to buy it; bringing home the treasure; unwrapping the booty; using it the first time. Forget one’s own infancy, perhaps this sequence is hardwired across DNA that has traversed millennia — the hunger for freshly woven silk or brocade, the lust for the feel of the ivory handle on a new sword, the hypnotic pull exerted by an intricate necklace or a beautifully crafted saddle and stirrups, or maybe just a simple chess set or a hookah. This craving for stuff is still very much the engine that runs the markets of the world but something crucial has shifted in perhaps the last three or four decades.

Valuing things differently

Call it Post-Independence Scarcity or think of it as the Poetry of Sparse Nehruvian Self-Sufficiency, people across most classes actually valued things differently. For instance, in my middle-class bubble, if someone gave you one of those newfangled Japanese erasers, you hung on to it ferociously, like an amulet of gold, and you jolly well used it till there was nothing left of it except a tiny nugget of green edging, too tiny for your fingers to hold. There was joy in getting a pair of new ‘keds’ (tennis shoes) but you rocked those things till the separated sole began to flap and your toes kept hitting the dirt.

For a boy of my age, a new cricket bat was, of course, the ultimate prize object. You did everything you needed to do to get one: finishing maths homework, eating baingan, being super-polite to hated aunts and uncles, namaste-ing your evil Hindi teacher, reciting shlokas to your grandfather, everything. Once you brought the bat back from GK Sports in Kyd Street, you had to do a week-long puja to it before you could use it: unguents of linseed oil were applied, an old ball wrapped in cloth was used to ‘knock it in’, some meticulous people even did a mix of sandpaper and oiling. Finally, when you smacked the first cover drive off the (quite small) sweet spot in the middle, you knew you had reached heaven. After a few months, that heaven would have receded, the edges would have dents, the splice of the handle would be ever so slightly loose but by god, you kept using that thing till you had extracted full value from it, till one day some wannabe Wes Hall severed the battered blade from the handle.

This habit of squeezing every last bit of use from something continued into adulthood. Whether it was a new fountain pen, its nib taking time to adjust to your handwriting, or a coveted pair of jeans, there was an understanding that objects took time to reach the point of peak use, that it took effort to make something give peak pleasure. If one of these special things tore or broke, or was lost or stolen before its time was up, there was regret, a sense of valuable usage time lost, and it made little difference if the replacement was ‘better’. Just as batsmen never go out to bat in a serious match with a brand new willow, just as serious scholars avoid taking a new pen into a big exam, there was something almost mystical about the value you had added to something by serious usage.

No emotional attachment

That the whole world didn’t think like this was driven home to me in the late ’70s when an American photographer came to visit Calcutta. At that time, upper-end SLR cameras were the most precious portable objects and people in India kept theirs in mini-Fort Knox cupboards strewn with packets of damp-reducing silica gel, taking them out only when necessary. This American couldn’t have been more different in the way he treated his equipment: the Nikon cameras would be left lying around in the vicinity of tea cups and food, the lenses would be taken out and kept on dusty benches while he changed them; every now and then, he’d even let me hold a camera and shoot a few frames, something no Indian photographer would do. The equipment was there to be used, to do its job and earn him money. When something became less than perfect, he had the wherewithal to replace it and carry on; there was no emotional attachment that I could discern.

Now, when younger people carry around mobile phones with a cracked glass, when they leave things lying around, things I would have once treated with the reverence reserved for rare jewellery, I shudder. I realise that there is this sense of plenitude that has broken out of its American and Western European pen and spread to the world: the most expensive, newest toy is there to please for a much shorter time before it is jettisoned for something even newer, even cooler. As for me, I can’t work with things unless I’ve developed a relationship with them. Whether it’s a fountain pen or a laptop, I only begin to enjoy using it once I’ve ‘knocked it in’; losing it or having to replace it before I’ve enjoyed its full use feels like I’ve been cheated out of something. We may all crave toys but some of us crave them for the attachment we develop with them.

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