My mother’s mother, my grandmother, back in New Delhi keeps a glass case by her bed locked. The key remains in her pocket or around her neck as she moves through the house, cooks meals, watches her soap operas, and chats with her children over the phone. Sometimes she even touches it subconsciously during conversations. It has never left her possession.
The glass case holds of an odd collection of Happy Meal trinkets, Disney figurines, and a jar full of 100 origami stars I made when I was 12. Sometimes she unlocks the sliding panel to pull out an item or put one back, but mostly she admires her toys from the outside. Every night before bed she checks the door on the case again, just to be sure it’s still locked.
In New Delhi, middle-class homes are often robbed. Many natives have been burgled more than once and each time thieves make off with bundles of cash that had been kept hidden in the corner of closets, stacks of jewelry, gold and costume alike, and small appliances. Despite this, my grandmother still keeps only her beloved tchotchkes under lock and key.
My mother, by small contrast, has maintained a 0-clutter policy in the house. We lived in a series of small apartments during our slow migration across the country and it was necessary to shed extra possessions like ecdysis. Combined with the social decorum of keeping gifts for show, she has collected a restless stack of saris that are somewhere between being worn and being forgotten.
Stray and wayward objects like library books and shoes were very quickly put back in the right bedroom if they were found in communal living spaces in the house, usually deposited on beds in a pile. This has the dual use of organizing the house and causing anxiety in messy family members. Sometimes I slept with stacks of clean laundry and toys that fell off the bed in the night.
Despite her yard sales and trips to the Goodwill dumping grounds, my mother held firmly on to two plastic boxes that were carefully lined and full of things like 80s wool sweaters, pleather purses, dolls from Japan, and wicker baskets. She brought these boxes like a bridal trousseau when she moved to America to marry my father and she added to them things like shells other people collected and stamps from letters.
In me she fostered a deep need to love and leave things quickly. A sweater was only as loveable as it was useful. If it had a hole it had to be thrown. If it developed a stain, you first had to try cleaning it, pawing at it with detergent, before it inevitably ended up at the top of a brown paper grocery bag on its way to Goodwill. The constant reminder that I had a closet overflowing with “junk,” as my father designated all my books, clothing, art supplies, and ephemera, usually prompted me to do a Stalin-esque purge of everything I loved every month or so.
I found these massive clear outs extremely cathartic. My mother found them stressful.
“But this, you never wore this,” she’d say, standing over a stack of neatly folded t-shirts, one in her hand. “Or this! Nadya, you spend so much money on clothes and never actually wear them.”
But to me these were clothes I had worn, had learned to hate, and ultimately cut loose like sandbags from a hot air balloon. I no longer considered them a part of my wardrobe or me. So they went into the grocery bag without a second thought.
It’s been about 6 years since I used to throw things away like this. In that time it’s felt like everything in my room has gotten heavier. I went away to college then to London and now I’m back and I can’t think of moving anything, everything feels nailed to the floor even though this is a different house than the one I left. I even walk through these rooms, full of second hand books and balls of yarn, slower. It’s like my center of gravity has lowered and I’m barely trudging through.
I can’t get rid of things so easily anymore. The lack of use and wear has made everything somehow more important. Everything is now invested with 6 years of dust and memories of it just being there. I can’t throw things out now because I’ve had them for too long and to think of my possessions floating out there in the universe hurts.
My family has always been nomadic, by choice or by need. My grandfather left Pakistan when he was a child during Partition. He left behind all his possessions in a big house that he never saw again. My grandmother, like all the women in my family, left home to be married. My mother left her country multiple times. When I was younger, my parents chased jobs around the country, sometimes staying only 6 months in one spot.
And our attempts at holding on were haphazard — one cross country trip saw my two goldfish in a water jug settled in the front seat of the moving truck, jostled by the rocks and potholes along the road. Only one survived the trip. Dishes came out broken from boxes. We crossed out old descriptions on the cardboard for new ones — “Kitchen” became “Bathroom” became “Fragile” and “Misc.” It was disorganized.
Now we have more space to spread out and every surface has something on it. Getting rid of things now requires needling, long-term nagging, and a burst of fevered productivity. It’s not a natural process in any way. The things we keep now have the invested significance of having remained in the same spot for years. This is new for us. And things unmoving make us all feel a little heavier.