by Raju Peddada
"The future of museums is inside our own homes."
—Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects, 2012
"First I surveyed the little trinkets on the table, her lotions and her perfumes. I picked them up and examined them one by one. I turned her little watch over in my hand. Then I looked at her wardrobe. All those dresses and accessories piled one on top of the other. These things that every woman used to complete herself -- they induced in me a painful and desperate loneliness; I felt myself hers, I longed to be hers."
—Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, Turkish Novelist, 1901-62
"If we are to find the other half of that conversation, we have to read not just the texts, but the objects."
—Neil MacGregor, A History of The World in 100 Objects, 2010
(Swans - May 5, 2014) For ages, civilizations, without recorded texts, have revealed their richness or indigence and Pacifism or predation through their material remains, specifically objects -- from Catal-Hoyuk to Mohenjo-Daro, and from Sumeria to Maya. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans were the first civilizations that had left copious written records in their wake, supplementing their massive remains. It is not entirely outlandish to advance the notion that a truer and deeper understanding of the our world is through objects. Objects are inanimate and dormant, but they are never vacuous. They carry infinitely more than their own weight. For that matter, what is an Object? Here's Merriam Webster's version: A thing, person, or matter to which thought or action is directed -- a person or thing with reference to the impression made on the mind or feeling or emotion elicited in an observer.
Would you like to read about an object, or see it for yourself? The object remains of Rome so moved and inspired Edward Gibbon as to induce him to write the marathon and magnificent work of history, The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. He was not a historian. Many in our educational institutions have separated the world of texts from objects. I advance the notion that thoughts and theories, in the text form, from an individual or a group, are anything but an object. An object manufactured by a single or a collective entity, from a specific culture, packs in the complete socio-cultural dynamics of a civilization; therefore, is replete with information, more so than any one perspective that a text can reveal. Apple's iPhone or iPad, if seen by some aliens from another planet, would reveal more of the state of humanity in the 21st century than say a text on it. Why do the doctors get a clear picture of your health from your stool and urine? Why not your verbal explanations? Because of the preponderance of material evidence, it's that simple -- blood, weapons of murder, etc, etc!
Text is anything but material, therefore an object, in every way, shape, or form -- unless it's still an abstract in someone's brain. To see text, we need to print it on paper, with ink. A million books would take 750 lbs of ink and three tons of paper. I'll take it one step further -- a person is an object, which even a child could read, and they do it better than adults. Body language and eyes are objects that move, and offer better insights to that person than any text could. The Mummy of Ramses the Great, pot shards from Babylon, Moche relics, the Friezes of Parthenon, and the pillars, statues, and carvings of the temple of Luxor are objectified texts, in various formats that we can read. Text on paper is an object, and objects are texts, in multifarious dimensions.
I am a designer of things -- a passionate aesthete, sensitive visualist, and a visual archaeologist that thrives on the objectification of not only beauty and experience, but memories as well. All abstracts and theories -- and all philosophical postulations, unequivocally bring on material consequences. Imagination and industry produce desirable objects -- and these objects lead to a better understanding of not only the people who create them, but more so, the people who used them. There's story in every object, and there's a whole cast of objects we possess in our theaters: homes, that we know nothing about -- because we have been led to believe that objects are mere things of use. What possibly could we learn from objects? In our schools, we are taught only to read texts, not to observe. If we learned to observe, we would read more, in everything around us, and in wonder.
One day recently, just before her departure to India, I milled around the kitchen, bantering with my mother. Then I happened to see two stainless steel plates, rudimentary forgings from an another era, that seemed out of place with the contemporary Calphalon type of vessels we had. Actually, I had seen them through the decades at our various residences, but for some reason they stayed on my radar today. So when I asked my mother, she looked at me with a peculiar smile, "What about them?" I responded, "Well, what about them -- where did these plates come from... are these the ones you exchanged for your sarees in Delhi?"
There was this racket in New Delhi, during the 1960s and '70s, when street vendors would bring newly minted steel vessels, and would knock on your door to see if the lady of the house had any old sarees to get rid of, especially with gold saree (threads on edges). The steel always looked good and shiny, while the old sarees had lost their appeal -- even with gold threads. The ladies, who could manipulate anyone and finagle everything out of their husbands, would regularly be fleeced by these vendors that gave steel in exchange for gold. I became curious about these plates, especially after the way she demurred.
"So, tell me," I said again.
"It's a long story..." she replies.
"I'm all ears!," I respond -- silence for interminable moments.
"As you already know, our marriage took place in March of 1955 -- Nanna (dad) was a radio supervisor in Nellore, he roomed with his colleague, Mr. Sunderam, and they ate regularly at the Komala Vilas -- it's still there, you know --"
"Must have been a great eatery to survive this long."
"-- 3rd generation runs it -- let's continue. Well, immediately after marriage, I had to go back to my parents till he found a place for us, since he traveled constantly, setting up radios in the regional villages. He didn't get to finding a place for about three months. This for me was an extension of my heaven -- 18 years with my parents dwindled fast."
"So, you went from heaven to hell?"
"Do you want to listen? -- Or try and put words in my mouth?"
"OK, OK -- carry on."
"Sometime in June, suddenly, your uncle (my father's younger brother) shows up in Ragolapalli (heaven) with Nanna's telegram. 'Please bring your sister-in-law to Nellore.' You could never understand how it was, leaving the place and people you loved so much..."
She's silent for moments.
I also stay silent, but think how that parting affects her, even today, and it's been 56 years.
"I can only imagine what you went through -- it must have been a scene." I muster up.
"It was a like stone in my stomach -- my frolicking days were over, my mother knew what I was feeling, she understood -- and said something to this effect: 'This our lot child, we have no choice but to grow up fast.' Farewell was excruciating -- just before I and your uncle left, mother gave me 25 Rupees, and said, 'I can't give you much -- here, buy something for your household use."
"My god, 25 Rupees?! -- was that much back then?"
"She never had money -- and, she usually gave away everything she had to her children."
"So, what did you do with the 25?"
"Well, your paternal grandmother had sent some kitchen utensils -- which I used, but after about two months in Nellore, Nanna and I went shopping. Now, steel was all the rage back then, so we purchased 3 sets of bowls, 2 tumblers, 2 small plates, 1 brass cistern for water, and 3 large plates -- 2 of them you..." I interrupt her.
"So, was this your first purchase?"
"Yes -- first ever for my house -- all these vessels for 25!" She had that distant look.
"Where's the cistern?"
"It's probably at your uncle's -- the one in Kakinada..."
"Oh brother! He's gotten rid of his own father's walking stick that I had seen for 45 years -- what would he care for your things?!"
She smirks and continues: "... there's a small bowl that Gautam (my nephew) dropped from our balcony in Delhi -- and before I could retrieve it, someone took it -- you are getting crazier everyday over these kinds of things."
"I am glad that I am, somebody's gotta be."
She didn't see this: I took the relics (plates) out of circulation. They represent my mother's youthful exertions in her kitchens, at all the places they both, and later, we, had lived. They were her first purchase, and they had been with her since August of 1955, and had traveled from Nellore, to Velangi, from there to Amlapuram, then, back to Velangi. In April of 1956 to Calcutta, from there to Gauhati in 1960, on to Sri Rampur and Gossaigaon in '61-'63, then back to Gauhati and Calcutta, then to Patna in '64, from there to Delhi in '66, with six house changes in Delhi alone. In 1980 to St. Lucia, over 12,000 miles away, from there to Port of Spain in Trinidad in 1983, then to Rousseau in Dominica in '84. Back to New Delhi in '86, then in 1991 to Des Plaines, Illinois. That's a lot of bouncing around!
Do they have a story to tell? My mother and father had built their family on these things -- they are the foundational objects of our family and being, just like the foundational objects of our nation that now reside in the Smithsonian. After that story, I saw the plates in a new light. I now can see movements of a frail young woman, making her way in her tiny kitchen and life, in the beginning, to make supper for her husband, and I can also see my father's appreciative look while they ate from those plates. Am I sentimental, and am I the only one with this affliction?
David Hume, referring to our sentimentalism, says "...morality is more properly felt than judged..." Epistemologists counter that by claiming that having sentiments is great, but sentimentalism must not be seen, or possessing authority, in ratifying the moral code of individuals, it should be cognition and reason. But Hume argues that "... characters and actions, amiable or odious, praiseworthy or blamable depends on some internal sense or feeling which nature has made universal in humans -- that evaluation, and in particular, moral evaluation, is somehow grounded in human sentiments."
How does this apply to what I am doing? Sentimentality also powers individuals with intuition, and imagination, enabling them to visualize and evoke stories from rather mundane things or circumstances. Old objects, for me, open the doors to the past in my mind's eye, in emotions or in imagination: my mother's old plates fetch me to her kitchen in that Brindavan house, in Nellore, 6 months before I was conceived. As that teddy bear, at the antiques place, that dissolves me to the port of Southampton, on the Wednesday, May 21st, 1913, where a little girl, holding her new bear with one hand, is sitting on her father's lap and clutching her mother's hand before boarding the ocean liner for America.
There are those who simply use them and chuck them away, and there are those who rescue and safe-keep their pregnancy tests and the last pacifier of their child. This sentimentality is what makes the human animal different from all other animals. Perhaps the reason we hold on to objects is because we cannot hold on to our loved ones. They vanish -- or we fall out with them, but never with objects. Objects acquire a spiritual dimension with age and association. They, to some extent, fill the vacuum created by ones who have departed, as the emblems and evidence of their existence. I sometimes seek refuge and respite from the deafening vacuity and incoherence of my fellow beings by being amidst seemingly inanimate things that whisper moving stories, in their profound silence and stillness.
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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)