The unique thing about technology is that it can be your best friend and at the same your worst enemy. The realisation dawns upon me, the self-styled nostalgia specialist, every so often, but it hit me rather hard last Sunday when someone I know put up a rather unusual status message on Facebook. He said he was looking for a deserving candidate to take away his impressive collection of music cassettes. I hope he has found someone who understands their worth and preserves them – preserve for what, even I don't know, considering we now live in the digital era.

After reading the status message, I opened my cupboard and looked at my own dust-coated collection of cassettes. There must have been some 500 of them, hiding in the shelves like scared rats. As I ran my fingers through their spines, memories gushed up:

“Ah, this I bought in Kanpur when I was returning home from college that afternoon!”

“And these two I bought in Delhi when I was roaming around Connaught Place with this girlfriend of mine – well, what was her name?”

“Ah, this RD Burman collection was gifted to me by that woman – what's her name – on my 26th birthday. Or was it my 27th birthday?”

“This entire lot was bought at Music World in Spencer Plaza soon after I came to Chennai.”

In a matter of minutes, each of those cassettes had been accounted for – where they were bought, and during what stage of my life. And each of them would have faithfully burst into songs had I chosen to insert them into the cassette player. But why would I do that when the songs they contain are already sitting in the ‘Music' folder of my laptop?

Today you can build an impressive collection of music by spending just one night on the computer. Not only that: you can even carry around those hundreds of songs in a device smaller than your thumb. But that was not the case in 2001, the year I relocated to Chennai, when it required a large bag to accommodate those many songs. The cassette-filled bag turned out to be the heaviest part of my luggage when I said goodbye to Delhi one foggy night and boarded the Tamil Nadu Express. (The collection of books, which would have been heavier than anything else, had been locked up in a trunk and left behind, for the time being, in the care of a friend).

Those days, it would take you years to build a collection of music of your choice. When a particular cassette was available, you wouldn't have the money. When you had the money, the cassette was no longer there – and God alone knew when the collection would hit the market again. You were totally at the mercy of the retailer who, in turn, must have been at the mercy of the whims of the recording company.

And so you built your collection, brick by brick. Simultaneously, you also invested in ‘head cleaners' and in cassette holders, and paid visits to shops that recorded songs of your choice on blank cassettes for two rupees a song. You faced distressing moments when the tape would accidentally get entangled in the pin of the cassette player and you would rush to press the ‘Stop' button and carefully straighten out the numerous coils formed around the pin, making sure your fingertips didn't rub too hard on the magnetic tape. Retrieving an entangled cassette safely from the player was perhaps as challenging – and gratifying – as saving a child from drowning in the swimming pool.

Music, in short, was sweat and blood: you had to earn it and work hard to preserve it. But technology intervened one fine morning. Today, even an 8GB pen drive or iPod can hold more music than you would ever want to listen to in your lifetime. But what do you do with the collection of cassettes you've painstakingly built over the years? Give them away? Doesn't that amount to giving away a chunk of your childhood or youth?

Keywords: music cassette