Having left the city, we have time for long, relaxed family conversations in our Himalayan village home. Yesterday my two kids – my daughter is 8 & my son 10 – asked “What are the things from your childhood that are not around anymore?”
“Well, we had transistor radios.” I replied
“What’s that?” came the question.
“Oh, you listen to music and stuff on them. They are typically battery powered and my grandfather used to listen to them all the time.”
“Isn’t that the same thing Mohan da listens to? You know, when he is gardening and doing stuff.” My son asked.
Mohan da (da is big brother in Kumaoni, our local language) is our landlord, neighbour, go to person and an amazingly nice guy. He loves gardening and doing other little house stuff around the place – lighting the open chulha (wood-fired hearth) to heat water, sweeping the fallen leaves and so on. As he potters around, his constant companion is a battery-powered transistor radio tuned to All India Radio Almora, playing hindi film songs from the Palaeolithic era.
“Yes, that is a transistor radio.” I replied, somewhat sheepish.
“What else did you have?” They asked.
“Well, we had electric heaters with coils that turned red and hot to cook on. And white stone bases” said the wife.
My 8 year old daughter looked at her with some disdain this time “Mama, there’s nothing old about that. I’ve seen it in Kuku’s house – her mother cooks on it.” She went on to describe what could only be an old-world electric heater.
“Well, we had cassette players and cassettes.” I continued.
I described a tape recorder, and this one passed muster. Phew!
“And we had kerosene stoves to cook on. We had to pump the stove, and had a pointy little metal thingy with a pin to clear the fuel flow. They made a mess and one helluva racket.”
After the two imps were done imitating my “helluva” my son exclaimed “Isn’t that what he uses in the tea-shop in Sitla?”
“BT Costa.” A voice inside my head says. I have christened the three village tea-shops in the neighbourhood BT Costa, BT Starbucks and BT Barista. Each has a nicer view, ambience, and character than any of their namesakes. And much simpler menus. BT stands for “Better Than.”
“Yes, actually he does use a kerosene stove.” I remember.
The kids push for more. I am feeling less and less sure of myself. Next, I hesitantly mentioned Black and White TVs that were too big & fat to hang from any wall. Even that had been seen by my kids. We go on, talking about Kerosene lamps and rotary telephones and so on. Then the topic switches to all the things that exist now that did not exist 3 decades back.
It was a revelation that so many of the things I considered obsolete are very much in use in our little village. Was it poverty? In a few cases, maybe. But many people around could afford better. Was it habit? Conscious choice?
I remember a conversation I had with Mohan Da. He doesn’t own a television, and we had arrived from the city lugging truckloads of stuff including a 32 inch Sony TV, a satellite dish and two set-top boxes. Having forsaken television, we offered the whole thing to him free.
He declined. He didn’t need to think. It was a simple choice of what he thought was important to him. Pottering around and gardening probably won over television for Mohan da.
This whole conversation made me questions my assumptions about obsolescence. Why do we continuously buy new stuff? And does it really make us happier? “Happiness doesn’t come from what you have, it comes from who you are.” I had read somewhere. And Vicki Robin, the author of “Your Money or your life” says “If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough.”
The critical word is “enough”. Enough to Mohan Da is a defined set of things that make him happy and keep him happy. The same enough is constantly changed, pushed, altered and moved for most people exposed to media and its motor – advertising. John Kenneth Galbraith once famously said “A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.” That doesn’t say much about how deep those emotions run.
Everytime I visit the city, the advertising barrage overwhelms: the new car model, that new phone, sales, clothes – just so much stuff. It is all about bigger better faster more. And I want all this stuff. And then I go back to my little Himalayan village, and suddenly that desire fades.
I think I need to travel less to the city. That way I always have so much more.
About Chetan Mahajan: Chetan is a full-time author who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. He published his first book with Penguin, and is working on his next one – a novel. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com . He also writes and edits this blog.