by Raju Peddada
"Canonical events -- the making of the Roman Empire, the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, the European Renaissance, the Napoleonic wars, the bombing of Hiroshima -- are not center stage. they are, however, present, refracted through individual objects."
—Neil MacGregor, A History of The World in 100 Objects, 2010
"Years later, as I struggled to understand why she was so dear to me, I would try to evoke not just our lovemaking but the room in which we made love, and our surroundings, and ordinary objects."
—Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, 2009**
(Swans - April 21, 2014) We enter an antique mall with excitement. In anticipation of making that find, something that had been undervalued, or overlooked. Something specific for our home, or anything for a quick flip on eBay. For me, the trek to an antique store is rather different -- I am predisposed to be reflective and melancholic. Wandering in a space full of objects that once had occupied an important place in the lives of those who had lived; now they are just sold memories of the vanished.
A wash board from 1899 -- who was that woman who toiled daily on it? A hair curling iron from the 1920s -- whose beautiful hair was rolled in it? What did her life turn out to be? A pipe-cutting tool from the '30s -- who was that builder? How about those postcards and pictures? I noticed that almost every postcard was handwritten in a beautiful cursive, which is a dying art. Hundreds of faded and sepia photographs: of faces, couples, groups, families, dapper and pretty individuals dressed for occasions -- they have vanished, just like the occasions -- I drift away, into all our occasions that have dissolved. It's always a struggle to retain myself from drifting in such places -- I yank myself back.
Scuffed and grimy currencies from various nations lie in wait, to tell their tales. I found a pristine 1 Rupee note from 1963 -- I froze. Suddenly, Calcutta and Gauhati dissolved me -- a revisitation, in this grainy-streaky black and white mental film: a summer picnic at the edge of Kaziranga forest, in Assam, mother buying milk from a cycle vendor, father leaving for work in his official jeep, our swaying apartment in the hail storm in Sri Rampur overlooking the train station, and scurrying centipedes on the outhouse walls -- I come back, as the young attendant peers at me, clueless.
"... when in one of those windows I saw a yellow jug I felt compelled to go inside and buy it. Unlike any other object acquired so casually, this yellow jug drew no comment from anyone during the twenty years it sat on the table where my mother and father, and later, my mother and I, ate our meals. Every time I touched the handle of that jug, I would remember those days..."
The most curious were Deutschmarks, in huge denominations of 10,000 through 100,000 Marks, in different papers, colors, and graphics -- as if labels from different wine brands. As it turns out, most Marks were from those Germans who had migrated to the west in the early 19th through the early 20th century. They hung on to their old currencies, to keep their old world lives alive. Disparate regions had their own currency, as Germany was a social and economic basket case between the world wars. Inflation- marred regions propped up their currency with mere looks -- in some cases they spent more on their printing quality -- telegraphing value -- than it was actually worth. These Marks couldn't buy much. The only thing they tried their best to buy was a ticket out of their hell. What stories these Marks could tell! And they do reveal volumes, only to those who could imagine. Worthless currency? Yes, but masterpieces of the graphic art, and priceless evocation of history -- surviving, in their indestructible metaphor, long after the issuing governments, authorized printers, and exchanging public had wasted into dust.
As I strolled through the aisles of antiques, I flipped through the clothes, in their arcane odors. Some slacks were thread-bare at the seat -- I have this sudden conjuration: a man, sitting on a wooden bench by his trunk on a steamer, staring at the horizon to get a glimpse of the statue in the New York harbor. There were King James and German Bibles, and Torahs in Moroccan leather, sometimes with family names inside the cover. One said, "May God bless our journey and keep us together." This dials up cinematic memories, like in the movie, "How the West Was Won." Children frolicking despite their dire the circumstances, young adults looking to the future, while the aged looked for a place to rest, as the middle-aged managed to cobble their survival in the present. Has anyone seen "Grapes of Wrath," by John Ford?
In the adjacent booth, everything was French. Books by Victor Hugo, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Alas! I don't know this beautiful language. There was also a check for dinner, in pencil, dated 1919, from the "Moulin Rouge." The check was for 29 Francs, now priced at $175. Ironically, this price tag is the very amount they'd charge a couple today for a dinner and show. There must be a juicy story in this check that we can only speculate. Someone who saved it must have been a man, perhaps an American soldier of the Great War, who never saw his date again, or who married the girl and brought her home -- and stayed together all their lives, till the last of them passed away -- we'll never know. We only know that someone treasured this bit of paper, symbolizing their personal and private moments, that's almost a 100 years old. It was utterly romantic, yet evoked a profound despondence.
"...to designate this as my happiest moment is to acknowledge that it is far in the past, that it will never return, and that awareness, therefore, of that very moment is painful. We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant. These mementos preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments."
Some of the most poignant items on display were toys, especially the stuffed animals, like the old teddy bears, all thread-bare and scuffed, yet still there, well after the ones who held them close and cherished them are gone. Many bears appeared to be forlorn and listless, as if they were missing their old friends -- or perhaps longing for new friendships to rescue them. There is an inexplicable spirit about them. These toys telegraph a painful reality -- I read into it more than necessary, perhaps even unhealthy. Our childhood is so fleeting, so ephemeral, it dissolves so rapidly -- and we remain in denial for the rest of our lives -- holding on to the toys, clutching at these emblems of childhood, as we recede into oblivion. Toys are our "Rosebuds." Remember Rosebud from "Citizen Kane?" Arguably, the greatest film of all time is about a lost childhood, symbolized in a boy's sled.
I am not addicted to the mystifying sweetness of melancholy, and I don't go to antique malls for it, but anyone with a touch of sensitivity and imagination will not be able to avoid it. A Victoria Secret underwear is simply an object of use, in material value, when it is being rolled out by their brand store. But the moment it is purchased by Michelle, for her Valentine's Day date, a transmutation takes place and a mere underwear becomes an integral part of Michelle's aspirations and her nascent life. Let's say she gets proposed to by Mike that evening. Later, in the throes of passion, he slowly peels that red underwear off of her body, with his teeth. Coitus consequences conception. Forty years later, Michelle finds the same underwear in Mike's cigar box, stashed among his books. She throws a fit: "You fucking old bastard, wasn't I enough for you all these years?!" Michelle, in the early stage of Alzheimer's, is coddled by Mike, with tears in his eyes -- and so it goes. Objects!
My father's things, things he used daily: his Wilkinson's razor, inherited from his father; his shortwave radio; his watch, pen, and books; his wallet and its $32; his scuffed shoes, shirt, and the pair of pants he wore on that last day in his house, before we rushed him to the ER -- have suddenly accrued the status of sacred relics for me. Ordinary objects, with seemingly no importance, have become the crutches to my emotional well being and conscience. More than anything, it was his Fiat 1100 that evoked a pathetic longing in me for those halcyon days. I will harvest this similitude of pathos, beautifully expressed by a great writer:
"Following Cetin's directions, I drove to the garage owned by Sevket Usta, who specialized in Chevrolets, in the streets behind Maslak; in the empty lot behind the garage one look at our '56 Chevrolet under a fig tree produced a paroxysm of emotional turmoil. The trunk was open, with chickens from the adjacent coop wandering through the wreck, and around it children were playing -- when I poked my head into the wreck, to peer at where the fuel gauge and the speedometer had once lodged in mint condition, and the radio knobs, and the steering wheel, I caught the scent of the leather rising from the seat coverings in the gentle heat of the sun, and my head began to swim. By instinct, I touched the steering wheel, which seemed almost as old as I was. And soon the intensity of memories compressed into these remains overwhelmed me and I broke down."
Is the antique grandfather clock or the clock on our wall there to alert us of the time? Or is it there to warn us of the impending changes in our lives? Well, I think the clock is actually there to convince us that everything will remain the same, and that nothing really has changed -- that we all will eventually die, and the things we leave behind, perhaps, would remind someone who we were.
** All excerpts within the article are from the book The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)