Appeared in Straits Times Singapore on 3 March 2019.
Marie Kondo reminds me of my mom. Petite, photogenic Marie, with her perfect hair and business savvy is nothing like my pleasantly plump, saree-clad, stay-at-home mother. To paraphrase a cliché, Marie and Amma are as different as sushi and curry. What connects them, is a passion for tidying up.
When Marie walks into spacious American homes to help people sort through their cluttered living spaces, I am reminded of my childhood home in Mumbai, a sparsely furnished, tiny 550 sq ft apartment that housed my parents, two brothers and grandmother. Pure and simple lack of money, space and resources dictated our minimalistic lifestyle.
“A place for everything and everything in its place”, Amma’s mantra, was implemented through a set of rules that began with the kitchen. She ordered quantities of household staples like rice and flour that lasted a month, optimising space and minimising deterioration and wastage in Mumbai’s heat and humidity. Limited space meant limited possessions and therefore the cardinal rule – first out, then in. Before we could ask for a new item, we had to answer three questions:
1. Do you need it?
2. Can you still use it?
3. Can anyone else use it?
Perhaps it was this survey that was responsible for books being handed down the line until they were in tatters, new shoes being bought when we outgrew them and school bags being replaced only when the old ones became completely unusable. My brothers and I shared a desk with three drawers that held our books and a cupboard with designated space for our clothes. Needless to say, if we had applied Marie’s “spark joy” test to every item in our home, the answer would have been a resounding yes.
Amma’s strict approach didn’t bother me, except when it came to books. I had long envied a girl in my class whose home, though not much bigger than ours, had bookshelves lining every wall. In contrast, our family read the daily newspaper and delighted in our monthly subscription to Reader’s Digest. I resolved early on that I would rectify this dismal reading situation when I had a home of my own.
As an adult in America, with no shortage of space, I wanted to start a home book collection, except for the irony of abundant books in well-stocked local libraries. Applying Amma’s time-tested three question survey meant that I could visit these book havens as often as I wanted, and keep a rotating selection of books within arm’s reach without having to own them, by truthfully answering the first question. I bought only those books that I really loved and wanted to own.
Fast forward 20 years, I find that Marie’s books, gifts from well-meaning friends don’t spark much of any response. Having come a long way from those frugal days in Mumbai, I have accumulated stuff – things I love and things that stress me out. But I have kept enough space in my apartment to roll out a yoga mat when needed and have left a few walls unadorned so that my kids can practise handstands. And yet, every time I shop, a familiar voice that whispers – do you really need it?I know the voice is Amma’s, not Marie’s, because the question drops into my consciousness in a mall as I contemplate an impulse purchase or as my finger hovers over the ‘buy’ button while browsing online. Will the fickle spark of joy, ignited by retail therapy, last? It is a relationship after all. Not to be entered into lightly.
Amma’s grocery order used to be delivered in packets made with old newspaper and brown paper bags tied with string. When daily milk delivery switched from glass bottles to plastic bags, the bags were washed and used to line shelves and transport leaky lunch boxes. Biscuit tins stored sewing paraphernalia, cloth bags were used for trips to the market. Before the term ‘recycling’ entered my vocabulary, it was a way of life.
Unlike my lukewarm response to her books, Marie’s Netflix show, has been a real eye opener. As I watched her demonstrate the simple art of folding laundry and organising a kitchen, I remembered Amma.
Marie amazed me, not for her superior technique but her marketing savvy. The copyrighted KonMari method teaches people to declutter by discarding items that don’t spark joy without giving any thought to their motives for buying them in the first place. Neither is there a discussion about making the most of what they have. As garbage bags are filled and taken to the driveway, a new path to reorganisation takes shape, with the buying of more boxes. While her method is sensible, useful for some and life-changing for many, to me, it seems woefully incomplete.
If Amma met Marie, I wonder what she would say?
I can’t answer this question because Amma died 11 years ago. The day after her death, I wandered around her kitchen, gently touching the coffee filter on the counter and the well-worn rolling pin tucked away in the drawer, items that she had handled everyday of her life, trying to connect with her spirit embedded in these objects. As I looked at the pile of previous week’s newspapers, neatly stacked in its designated corner, the sight of her unfinished Sudoku grid precipitated a flood of tears. In the following weeks, clearing up Amma’s personal items was a heart-wrenching but brief chore. She had left clear instructions for her jewellery to be equally distributed among her children and for her few sarees to be donated to the old people’s home. Only a small mound of stuff, pared and purged by her over time, remained for us to figure out. Of course, we used her favourite three-question survey.
Amma left the world, like everyone else, taking nothing with her. What made her special was that she left nothing behind either; no mess, no burden for those left behind. But she did leave me an invaluable inheritance; an affinity for simplicity that goes beyond decluttering; a philosophy for living, not just tidying up.