Joys of consumption

SOME YEARS ago, when I bought my refrigerator, my landlord beamed at me and said: "Congratulations."

It left me rather bemused. I hadn't realised that owning a fridge was an achievement, like winning a gold medal. I had bought it for a sound reason: to stop perishables from shrivelling up or going sour. And here was my rent-collector, sounding like a message from the manufacturer: "Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of... "

That's the second weirdest reason I know for shaking someone's hand (the first is, for getting married). It doesn't make sense. It's almost like a mix-up in a greetings telegram: you write out number 32, to save money on words, and the telegraph office dashes off number 3 instead, so that "Wish you a speedy recovery" becomes "Heartiest Bijoya Greetings". I believe a new acquisition, especially in the consumer durable department, should be greeted by heartfelt condolences. After all, it's a source of major aggravation; you immediately think of all the things that could go wrong with it, and all the money you're going to spend on repair and maintenance.

This might explain the popularity of the "exchange scheme". Before your apparatus has a chance to even begin to think about packing up, you hand it in for a new one. "New lamps for old", cries the manufacturer, and a horde of consumers immediately beat a path to his showroom. Now, I can sympathise with the thrifty housewife who hands in a battle-scarred frying pan or physically handicapped pressure cooker and gets a few rupees knocked off the price of a new one. But I cannot fathom those who surrender their almost-new gadget for a leaner, meaner, sexier, costlier model. Car finance companies have caught on. You're almost through paying off a car loan over three years when the company calls, saying, guess what, we love you so much we'd like to offer you yet another loan on yet another car.

The next step in the exchange game is, of course, throwaway - for an advanced course in this field, see USA, the place that launched a thousand garbage ships. An Indian friend of mine in Ohio saw a hi-fi system in a garbage can. He brought it home and found a loose wire sticking out. He fitted it back in and the system worked perfectly. I wonder how soon we in India will start flinging large mechanical objects into the dump-yard. Why repair when you can replace?

A Bengali friend tells me that in the Calcutta of her dad's heyday, even light bulbs were repaired. You might call it parsimony but anybody who has mastered the technique of inserting a new filament into a bulb has my undying admiration. It's been a long time since I heard that phrase: "Why simply waste?" I used to hear it all the time, for I am the child of frugal parents. The timepiece they got as a wedding gift was still ticking 40 years later, and when its dial disintegrated, numbers neatly inked on a circle of white cardboard served the purpose just as well.

That gets me thinking: what if a house contains no objects that last long enough to peg a memory on? A great loss for its children, I would imagine. An object need not be beautiful to merit a place in the mind's antique store. You might look back in affection on a lopsided tea-kettle or ghastly porcelain cat or much-abused wooden dining table merely because it was a silent, innocuous backdrop to your fleeting childhood.

Tomorrow's adults are bound to suffer if they don't have a single permanent object to hold in memory, if everything around them is transient, exchangeable.

The problem with growing up in a waste-not-want-not household is that it makes you act suspiciously like a miser in your later years - it's a thin line, isn't it, between thrift and stinginess? There are probably many among you who, like me, treat your watch like a life's partner and not a clothes accessory, own no more than three pairs of footwear, and hang on to your favourite clothes until they're faded or frayed beyond redemption. But after you take a fresh cake of soap out of its wrapper, do you paste the sliver of your old soap onto the new one? If and when you use a face tissue, do you tear it in half and stow away the unused piece? Do you pour water into your near-empty shampoo bottle and shake well before use - and use, and use? If you're not careful, this sort of thing can lead straight to Scroogedom.

But these days, an incipient skinflint can turn into a saviour of the universe in one simple twist of phrase: conservation of the environment. I'm not just talking about wood-free recycled paper and biodegradable plastic. Squeezing the last gasp out of your toothpaste tube, or wearing hand-me-downs, can be seen as noble acts since you're helping conserve the earth's resources. Every time I write a shopping list on the back of my obsolete visiting cards I feel like Gandhiji.

I recycle plastic covers. Whatever I buy - books, milk, rice, or vegetables - go into the two covers that I carry around with me constantly. Pin a medal on me, now. And say it. Don't be shy. "Congratulations."


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