I hate packing bags. Granted, they’re usually full of things I’ll need where I’m going but it’s such indignity heaped on my possessions. Clothes get crumpled, food gets squished, valuables are scattered, and part of the space becomes a receptacle for the unwashed detritus that is the unavoidable consequence of travel.
Travel or not, there is more baggage we carry. It can get heavy. It evokes curiosity, pity and distaste among those who are unfortunate enough to notice it. The term itself implies a weight dragging you back, rendering you sluggish and unable to react appropriately to situations. Packing it takes years, lugging it around, a lifetime. Every piece of insecurity, slight, sadness and humiliation needs to be carefully wrapped and packed. And the most amazing thing about this reprehensible load is that it always has space. It doesn’t matter what you already have in there, there’s always room for more. And thus, it keeps getting heavier everyday.
Ever so often, we make space in it for a few things that still keep us sane. If the rest of it holds us back, this grounds us. If the rest of it slows us down, this provides the pause before the dash.
I remember two things I’d kept with myself for the longest time. The first was a gold “Om” that was gifted to my grandfather by DV Paluskar after his (my grand dad’s) first classical music performance. Pleased with my grandfather’s singing, and unable to procure any other token of appreciation at the time, he removed the sacred symbol from around his neck and gifted it to the promising young talent before him. Although the promise of that talent was eventually lost to a hurricane of personal tragedies and practical considerations, the pendant must’ve been an incredible memento for my granddad. To this day I have no idea why he gifted it to me. Perhaps he saw it as a magical talisman that waited in the wings till it found a deserving owner, or perhaps he wanted me to have it as an inspiration and a cautionary tale; that potential must never be allowed to lie dormant.
The second was a watch, gifted to me by my girlfriend from her first salary. We’d traveled that journey together for years, putting up with concerned parents, petty friends, difficult engineering courses and the trials and tribulations of any relationship. Her first paycheck was a sweet moment for her and an incredibly proud one for me. We biked over to the store and she let me choose my watch (we’d been pretty poor before that; I was a student and we subsisted on pocket money). I pointed to a wonderful, sleek Esprit. It was a tremendous luxury in those days, given our spending power just 24 hours before that moment. She paid. She paid with pride. Yes, it had a lot of pride and love packed into it.
It was also the one thing I ran back for when the earthquake came. A year after we were married, I was away in Gujarat on a training stint with my employer. I had rented an apartment on the eleventh floor of a residential complex, along with a classmate from business school who was in the same city. As we prepared to retire for the night, the floor vibrated, then swayed. Gujarat has its fair share of tectonic activity so we knew what this meant. Within seconds, both of us had made a mad dash for the stairs. We joined a stream of panicking residents stumbling over each other. We reached halfway down the first flight of stairs and I remembered I’d left the watch on the windowsill of my bedroom. There was nothing to it. I had to turn back. My friend gawped at me in horror as he saw me turn back to the house, shouted a few choice abuses at me and told me to run with him and forget the watch. I shouted back “ten seconds”. The floor was still swaying gently. Who knows, the whole building could’ve been reduced to rubble in ten seconds. I didn’t care. I dashed into the bedroom, which mercifully, was quite close to the front door, grabbed the watch and ran out again. (As I write this, it occurs to me that he was waiting for me; at the same point on the stairs I’d left him.)
As we reached the fourth floor after an arduous trek down the stairs everyone was visibly relaxed. If it hadn’t toppled over by now, it probably wasn’t going to. But we maintained a sense of urgency and made it out onto the street. It was three a.m. but the bustle was incredible, almost communal. As anxious family members sought out each other in the dimly lit streets of my township, I sat on a curb, playing with the watch, listening to my friend’s relieved sighs.
(I was watching Pulp Fiction the other day and Bruce Willis’ story reminded me of my watch. Thankfully my wife didn’t have to fight the VietCong to get the watch to me.)
I still have the watch. I don’t wear it anymore because it doesn’t work and it’s beyond repair. But it’s still there in a box of my most cherished memories.
There was a chance the expedition to retrieve my watch could’ve proven fatal, but it didn’t matter. Was it just the sentiment behind the watch that pulled me back to it? Or was it the fact that it was a symbol of a relationship we’d nurtured, leading to such an important milestone for her? Perhaps I went back because it is a symbol of what we can accomplish together; some hope for the inevitable tough times that lie ahead in any relationship.
A few days ago, I met a new colleague at work. He had impeccable sartorial sense – not a crease or seam out of place. Elegant shoes, a suit with a great fit that was most certainly tailored and yet, perched on his nose was a pair of worn-out glasses completely at odds with the rest of his attire. I had to ask. “A gift from grandpa” he smiled and replied. I didn’t probe any further. Presumably that one adornment was what kept him focused, centered, or optimistic. At any rate, it made him feel better than an expensive pair of Dolce & Gabbanas that would’ve completed his look.
Intrigued, I asked the good folks on Twitter about the one possession so dear to them they carried it with or on them at all times. What followed was an absolutely remarkable series of responses (which you can read here) that was a window into a world of possessions that have transcended from mere material objects to spiritual accompaniments. Just like my watch, some of them are crumbling, functionally useless and yet they carry within them a powerful symbolism that keeps their owners going. (by the way, a huge thanks to the folks who shared their personal stories.)
A ring from a sister who isn’t in touch these days, and yet a reminder of their relationship; a Hanuman Chalisa, bestowing a sense of protection, even though the owner isn’t religious; a pendant that reminds its owner of her failures and thus, the strength she possessed to overcome them. Or a note with a few lines from the Hanuman Chalisa, scribbled by a loving, protective mom. A ring from a father, a list of songs and raagas performed in all concerts the person attended, a rosary, a rupee note the owner possessed the day he landed in Mumbai. Symbols. Inspiration. Mementos. Positive memories.
Some of those mementos had sadness associated with them, like the deaths of loved ones. But it wasn’t their passing that was being commemorated but their lives, blessings and inspiration.
Just goes to show, not all baggage is bad. And we are what we keep.