My affair with the minimalist lifestyle began long before the Marie KondoS and The Minimalists came into existence.
Now that I sit down to write this, it seems like a lifestyle most of us followed in middle class India back in the 1980s-90s. It’s as if we were all forced minimalists. “Jugaad” doesn’t come close to the concept but let me just throw this word at you here.
Coming back to my love for all “things” minimal, it must have started in the 1990s when I would look outside our one-room abode in Delhi, India, through the only window we could afford and find this little hut (or should I call it a shack?) across the road.
It fascinated me at the age of 6 how an old woman’s world or needs shrank so much that they could fit inside this tiny shack.
Actually I might be older, anywhere between 5 and 10 years of age because that’s the time when we lived in that house. Also, I don’t think I remember much of what happened before I turned 5.
The budhiya (not a politically-correct word but that’s how insensitive we were in the 90s!) always seemed happy, irrespective of what my grandmother ordered her daughters-in-law to give her as leftovers.
There was a wide gap between her upper set of teeth and it made her seem like she was grinning all the time, even when she was just smiling.
Now when I imagine her face, the mouth opened in a way that it wasn’t possible for her to smile at all. It was always a grin. Always.
Maybe that’s why I found her an ideal role model to deduce the perfect size of one’s accommodation.
I would often sit near our window on the first floor with my eyes riveted by her shack across the road, as my mind ran around imagining all the things she possessed. What magical stuff did the shack hold?
My assumption that she had everything she needed to be happy was also strengthened by the fact that she didn’t have to even cook for her meals!
The concept of “begging for food” was as alien to me as Game of Thrones might have been to my grandmother if she were alive today. It actually seemed like a more sustainable way to get food to an 8-year-old. Yes yes I know so twisted!
Her clothes were sarees that looked more like rags because they never covered her shoulder or her calves. I never saw her hair as the head hid under the end of her saree.
On one of those scorching Delhi afternoons, while strolling outside, I got a chance to peep inside her little hut. The main road was deserted. The shops were closed for the lunch break.
But I wasn’t sure.
It had never occurred to me until that moment that once I’ve looked inside and discovered all the things she possessed, I would no longer be able to weave those magical stories in my head.
It would be like solving a great mystery and ending the wonderful journey that brought me to the “khul ja sim sim” moment.
I couldn’t muster the courage.
Days passed and she kept coming back for the leftovers. Her happiness seemed permanent. How could that be?
The storytelling sessions in my head kept me busy during my time at the window.
I would also, on some days, wonder why I had never seen her cry. Children can be so insensitively cute.
I got my answer a few weeks later when I watched her wailing like an infant on the footpath next to her abode from my window.
My mom asked me to finish homework as she closed my only connection with the old woman.
The wailing must have stopped in sometime. But my curiosity didn’t.
Next day, I found myself in front of the shack again. This time, I drew the rag covering it like a door and entered.
Well I can’t say I entered. Because it ended before I could take the second step inside.
I looked around. A total of four items filled the hut. A chulha, a bigger rag used as bedding, a matka for water with a steel mug and a pile. It looked like clothes to me but I wasn’t sure.
My next instinct was to leave. As I walked towards home, I couldn’t help but feel lost. I had so many questions.
In my 8- or 9-year-old head, I was just confused as to why she needed almost nothing and we needed so much more (ironically in our one-room setting).
We moved to another location soon after and I did see her around for the next few years while visiting relatives at the old ancestral house.
I also got to know many years later that her only son had died the day she was seen crying her eyes out on that rugged footpath.
As I look back to understand my fascination for everything small, compact and less, I can identify people and the circumstances that made it possible for me to not think of minimalism as an alternative but the only way to live responsibly on this planet.
My love for her small shack never died.
Growing up, minimalism was inculcated in me not through obvious intervention but through the smallest of gestures and everyday life lived by those around me.
In this series of write-ups, I will talk about how diving into my own past has helped me go back to the basics and not get tempted by the capitalist/consumerist culture around me.
It’s a work in progress and I hope to make substantial stride in 2020.
Here’s what I’ve been working on this year:
- Downsize my wardrobe by donating and repurposing old clothes
- Stay away from malls and fast fashion stores as much as possible
- Buy what’s essential rather than buying what’s cheap
- Research ways to reduce the “number” of stuff in my house
(It doesn’t mean just I will be throwing away what I already have but use everything I possess more wisely and then donate/discard it wisely too)
I’ve a long way to go. But I’ll not give up.
If you are also trying for a more sustainable living, do let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
I appreciate feedback and criticism equally.
You can also read me here.