(Published in Business Standard on August 9, 2014)
The excellent thing about a family reunion, when the youngest of you is middle-aged, is that when it’s over you can heave an audible sigh of relief, and nobody will be offended. They won’t actually hear you over their own audible sighs of relief. One loves one’s family madly, but after a point one is discreetly eager to get back to one’s own life before one gouges out one’s own eyeballs.
At the conclusion of our family reunion, therefore, all the family members in question shot off in different directions with loud screams of joy. My brother, who had understandably been complaining of nausea, immediately stopped vomiting and drove to Rajasthan; my sister was found clawing at the gates of her flight to Hong Kong four hours ahead of schedule; and my mother, traumatised afresh by the sheer number of children she has, fled to a German university to do a month-long course in Old Javanese. (She does unspeakable things in her study that require her to know Old Javanese, which is why I stay out of there.) She’s been sending heartrending emails about experiencing college life at 66.
Since I wasn’t going anywhere—in so, so, many ways—I decided to clean up. My mother has trouble throwing things away, and rains hellfire upon anyone who tries to. That creates clutter—think Augean Stables, but not as neat. I’m no Hercules, but on a cloudy night, if you close your eyes tightly, I can pass for Alexander, so I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, which is a mere trifle compared to the umbilical cord—and if you think my metaphors are messy, you should see my mother’s study.
I began there. I took a large garbage bag and placed it open-mawed in a small clearing at the centre of the room, and then walked around picking things up and sentencing them to death. Flat-out rubbish went. Maybe-rubbish went. Not rubbish, but unnecessary, went. Unidentifiable went. Spent went. Unused went. New, but useless to man or beast, went.
I trashed dozens of small decorative boxes. I uprooted a large number of inexplicable eggs—wooden eggs, marble eggs, ceramic eggs—of all sizes and colours, from nests of paper. (As I said, unspeakable things that I don’t want to know about.) I found my math homework from 1980. I performed ruthless triage on about eighteen thousand bottles of homeopathic pills, some of them older than homeopathy. I threw out countless used envelopes. I tossed broken gadgets, and noodles of wires fossilised in dust. I threw out dust.
I went rampaging through the house, pillaging and spreading fear. I shone bright lights into the eyes of a family of toothbrushes huddled in an unsanitary mug, nine of them living in squalor, wallowing in their own filth and probably stealing from the six hairbrushes next door to stay alive. I showed no mercy. A basket of potions and creams older than recorded history went. The mortal remains of shower caps that had long ago died from feelings of worthlessness, went. Dusty eye masks from countless airplane kits, went. Whole piles of paper I didn’t feel like reading, went. Drums rolled and cymbals clashed in my head. From time to time I adjusted my crown. It felt so good.
My sister warned me, on the phone, about how my mother would react to finding her cities sacked and her eggs plundered. I’m not worried, though. I can fight the old girl off—if you turn your back to me while wearing a blindfold, you can see my conqueror’s sword.
Plus, I happen to know that she has back pain from walking to class carrying a backpack filled with textbooks.