Heirlooms in the digital age

What counts as an heirloom in a rapidly changing digital world?

“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.” 

Margareta Magnusson


Every year before the festive season starts, I indulge in an important ritual. It has nothing to do with idols, lamps, and incense but is critical for a successful slide towards the end of the year. My annual rite of passage that I simultaneously look forward to and procrastinate till the last minute involves going through my saree collection.

Like many of my generation who grew up in urban India, I did not wear sarees while in school and college. My first experience of wearing a saree was on Teacher’s Day in grade ten when teachers got a break while senior students dressed up and pretended to teach the lower grades. 

In a rare photo of myself at that time, I stand stiff and unsmiling, wearing a pretty saree borrowed from my youngest aunt, annoyed at having to manage a slippery fabric instead of roughhousing with my classmates in my sturdy uniform.

The saree trail

In the weeks leading up to my whirlwind arranged marriage that would whisk me from Mumbai to Maryland, I selected suitably grand sarees – a peacock green Kanjeevaram, a pink Paithani, a sunflower yellow Pochampalli. Yet, when I landed in the US on a cold December evening, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get a chance to wear those gorgeous sarees. 

A mother and daughter smile at the camera
Ranjani Rao and her daughter (image courtesy: Ranjani Rao)

As a graduate student who worked in a laboratory, I switched to jeans and jackets. I seldom gave thought to the expensive sarees that remained at the back of my closet. They got their turn occasionally when I attended weddings or other functions, most often when I visited India. I wasn’t particularly attached to them but they were a reminder of my faraway homeland. Until I returned home.

One of the many joys of work life in India was the opportunity to wear various kinds of outfits. From trendy Western outfits, and colorful kurtas paired with stoles to wonderful sarees of various textiles and textures, I tried everything. My saree collection grew to include everyday crepes and cottons, to designer prints, and exotic weaves from many states. It was easy to accumulate and hard to part with most of what I acquired.

Moderation vs Materialism

My mother who wore sarees every day had a practical outlook on materialism. As a family, we occupied a small apartment, and since space was limited, so were our possessions. Her prized sarees were from her wedding decades ago and my maternal grandmother who lived with us, took great care of the sarees she had collected over the years. While they both appreciated the finer things in life, their practical streak dictated daily life. 

We wore our clothes until we wore them out or outgrew them. Textbooks were handed down to younger siblings unless the syllabus changed or we began pursuing a different course of study in our college years. Most things served a purpose and were seldom replaced unless they stopped being useful.

Did we have any heirlooms?

I remember trying on a precious diamond ring that belonged to my grandmother. Although she and I shared a love-hate relationship during my teens, this ring fit me (and not my mother) perfectly. It had three brilliant diamonds in a classic setting. Of the modest jewelry collection that they treasured and guarded with great care, this was the only piece that appealed to me.

“Will you give me this when I grow up?” I asked my mother softly, making sure my grandmother didn’t overhear my request. My mother didn’t reply then because the item was not hers to give, it belonged to her mother and she would choose the recipient. 

Years after my grandmother’s passing, on one of my visits, Amm took out the box and handed me the ring. It still fit. “You can have this,” she said. 

I protested. But we both knew that it didn’t fit her and Amma didn’t want to mess with the exquisite setting. To me, that ring is a family heirloom, not for its market value but for its intrinsic worth as a physical link that connects me to my mother’s family and her history. I wear it often and feel a visceral connection to the women who came before me.

Paring down possessions

At each of my moves across countries, I have had to pare down my possessions. Some things were easy to discard and others brought me to tears. Books, photographs, kitchen ware – each category had items that were hard to part with. Yet, I persisted, trying to match the recipient with the object in the hope that it would be used, if not valued in the same way.

Heirlooms are defined as valuable objects that have belonged to a family for generations.

In today’s culture of rapidly changing technology where new versions of devices supersede old ones constantly and not-so-old things are considered ancient, I wonder what will count as an heirloom?

What is the thing that I should hold on to and pass on as an heirloom for my children? I doubt my sarees or even my grandmother’s jewelry would be considered a valuable heirloom. Should I keep those items safe for posterity or use them while I live?

Prized family traits

I look at a picture of my parents that sits on my nightstand and pose the question silently to Amma. The answer lies in the soft smile on her face. Whether or not I wrap myself in a saree that belonged to her or wear her mother’s ring, what she has passed on to me is what sustains me today.

I see my greying hair that is a lot like hers in that photograph, I read her neat handwriting in a book of shlokas, my brother says he hears her voice when I speak, and my daughter asks me to cook something my Amma used to make. 

There is so much we inherit from our ancestors that doesn’t have a physical trace but inhabits our living space, our actions, and even our thoughts. The treasure trove of those intangible but invaluable memories gets handed over not on a particular day but with each word, breath, and smile. 

Like invisible digital footprints, that is all that I will be able to leave behind for my twenty-first-century family. 

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Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...