The minimalist

Amiya Chakraborti, one of the finest poets in Bengali literature writing around the middle of the last century, in a remarkable poem gave voice to a quietly defiant clerk in a government or mercantile business office defining in his mind what his superior officer could never demand or take away from him. The interesting list of little things of his secret desire that are seemingly out of bounds for the boss may appear quite inconsequential to most practical people, certainly someone qualifying as a boss. His likes included elements from both inanimate and those living around us and clearly suggest not only an ear for an inner harmony in the natural world but an agenda for tuning the human senses on to this global concert.

I knew a man in my childhood. I used to see him from across the street coming home from office at around the appointed time in the evening, in his unhurried careful strides, draped in a white shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up and a pair of trousers in more or less unvarying colors. There was nothing excessive about this man, reasonably tall, but otherwise not pushing hard in the other two dimensions. There was a quiet elegance about his looks with a wide forehead, a warm responsive face and bright eyes looking out of a pair of dark round-framed spectacles. He had a lightness in his steps, partly because he did not have to carry much corporeal weight. As far as I know he had never owned a car, used the public transport for commuting to his office, lived with his wife and a son in a rented house for most of his working life.

One of my lasting memories is about him carrying a folded daily newspaper under his arm, which was just about all he carried to or from his office, not to forget the occasional umbrella in deference to the elements. Thought to be a decent gentleman by his neighbors and respected as much for his calling and erudition as for his wit, taste and judgment in the wider community of friends and acquaintances without having to throw his weight about him. Here was a man who did not seem to try too hard to live a dignified life well within his means and completely on his own terms. He could have been the man the poet Amiya Chakraborty had in mind. Subtly rebellious against acquisition of assets of both material and spiritual kind and the ownership of hubris and self-righteousness almost invariably bred on them.

In today’s world, acquiring goodies, gadgets, as indeed grabbing any opportunity that comes on one’s way and encashing advantages one may have studiously accumulated have become a pressing need for everybody, a sine qua non for survival and growth. What is true for individuals is no less so for the society as a whole, for entire nations. Even if the current level of consumption and the rate of exploitation of the natural resources look increasingly unsustainable, affecting the climate and the bio-diversity, paring demands is unthinkable lest it limits economic growth. Similarly, given the pressure to remain abreast with efficient technologies and contemporary attitudes there is little time to pause and reflect about the consequences of a surfeit of networked devices and people through an ethereal cyberspace, relentlessly cross-referencing everything and everybody. So what if in the process we lend ourselves to become willing partners to a crooked and tangled web of worldwide surveillance by an unworthy Big Brother. Even if in the name of empowerment and democracy we are being served up quite an antithesis of freedom.

How much land does a person need in the end? Not too many square feet after all, and a little earth underneath. Those choosing fiery flames might end up needing practically nothing, though consuming fuel or firewood and generating smoke en route thus making some demands on our already fragile environment perhaps would fail the ultimate test of minimalism. May be the Tolstoyan question can be reframed in the modern context as: How much carbon footprint our current survival can’t help burden the posterity to account for and erase for the continuance of the human species on earth?


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