We come with nothing, and we go with nothing. Or so they say.
My daughter is not due for another two months, and already she is the owner of plenty of stuff of which she has no knowledge. Well before the purchase of legally required items (read: car seat) and despite her great-grandmothers’ cautions against gift giving before baby’s birth, she has for some time now been the recipient of various tokens and accoutrement. As of mid-February, Epsi (short for Epsilon—“a small quantity”—the fetal name chosen by my mathematician husband) could claim the following worldly possessions: a green cloth Frisbee from an ultimate-frisbee-playing uncle; a small silver tree from friends in India; a large pink pig from my college roommate; a tan cloth hat resembling a dunce cap; a pram quilt from a great-aunt; thimble-sized cloth shoes from a trendy Kochi boutique; a book of bilingual children’s poetry; and a newborn’s onesie, so tiny it might fit in utero, with a rainbow-lettered, reassuring message for her dissertation-filing father (“my daddy is a math superhero”).
And that was it, all of it. Everything she owned in the world. We pictured her, in onesie and dunce cap, green shoes unlaced, dwarfed by the stuffed pig and hardback book, sitting on her dandelioned quilt, toothless gums gnawing on cloth Frisbee, the quintessence of minimalist existence. One day, we thought, she will find herself in an apartment full of books, clothes, and shoes, and gadgets plugged into walls and other gadgets strewn about (never enough plug points), a stocked pantry, something going bad in the fridge, quilts and throws, a microwave, car keys, toothbrush, tissues, and tea. That day it will be impossible for her to imagine a time when all she had were these barely-somethings—not nothing, but few enough items to check-out at a grocery store express line, little enough to describe in three lines of prose.
That was February. Just six weeks later, Epsi boasts a dozen outfits and is acquiring gadgets and accessories at an alarming rate. Once she’s born, she’ll grow out of these cotton skins even faster, necessitating the purchase of next sizes and latest versions. She’ll articulate preferences, if only in spittle and tears, and we’ll jump to respond with the purchase of more stuff, some of which we’ll keep for other babies (not necessarily our own), some of which we’ll box for memory’s sake, and some of which will go the way of the soiled diaper. Before long, Epsi will have so much stuff she’ll require what Virginia Woolf once longed for—a room of her own—and despite our best academic efforts and socialist impulses, she’ll open lips to pronounce that possessive “mine.” She’ll grow older. She’ll acquire more things. And, if we’re fortunate, to paraphrase poet Kay Ryan, things won’t be “so hard.” Her life will leave “deep tracks.” Her things will “keep her marks.”
Meanwhile, my grandmother is in the process of giving away all that’s hers. Like many widows, Patti has long since stopped wearing her nicest saris, the bright colors and silks. Now, she is giving them away to her sisters, trading them for simple cottons, with thinner and thinner borders. Already her wedding album is lost in the cat-filled home of a widowed sister-in-law, who has no recollection of it. Her sketchbooks are gone. Taken by a well-meaning niece, they were nevertheless thrown out during some clumsy house cleaning.
On my last trip to Chennai, I walked into the open hall of Patti’s house and suppressed a yelp when I realized she’d even given away her couches, her chairs, given away an ottoman that the dog used to sleep on when no one was looking. The ottoman was filthy and worn, and I never sat on it because of the dog, but it belonged to my grandmother and so I was disturbed to see it gone. An armoire that previously stored photo albums had been replaced with a low plastic table, its contents nowhere to be seen. I blanched, seeing my grandmother in a neighbor’s ration sari, sitting in a near-empty room on a plastic chair better suited to a political rally or gana mela, but she just covered her toothless mouth and laughed.
Now, my grandfather-in-law, having decided to move himself into a retirement community, is doing the same thing. He’s calling up friends and relatives and asking us to loot what we will from his two-story home, so that he can lighten his load before moving on. “Come; please take something,” he called his grandson, my husband, who has too much stuff as it is and no place to put it. But his grandson said yes, and gave instructions to his father to pick out something of Grandpa’s we can keep: something small, some little thing, but not nothing.
Grandpa is ready to let go of the material things of his life, but not ready to let go of the idea that they carry the traces of his living, the signs of his time. His wife’s silver. Their antique player piano. And why should he? Epsi’s things, things she doesn’t even know about and will likely never remember, are already imbued with her future presence. Wordlessly, they speak an owner they currently have only in name.
I touch the Dr. Seuss footed sleeper her body is to fill and can’t believe the input from my fingers. There is something there; there will be someone here. She will inherit a world of stuff. She will partake of and contribute to what philosopher Hannah Arendt termed “the human artifice.” She will read this book. She will wear this hat. She will play with this Frisbee. And then one day she will look at everything around her and call out to someone dear. “Come,” she’ll say, “and take something.”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.