I’ve lost more things than I could possibly list. I am careless. I leave things lying around. I never count my money so I have no idea how much should be in my wallet. I remove my earrings in the living room and leave them beside the phone, or I wander into the bathroom and forget them there. Or under the couch. I stash my bangles in my pants pocket and then I send the pants to the dhobi.
Lost: three gold chains (including a mangal sutra); one Mexican dress, hand embroidered, a magenta silk dupatta, five gold bangles, two rings, one set of earrings, seven singles, a sweet little ipod, red, a red silk robe (from an all-but-forgotten Syrian boyfriend), a cell phone – and money! Oh, so, so much money!
Losing things in India is tricky. Memsahibs agree that “these people” (servants, wallas, anyone poor) cannot be trusted. Most good memsahibs keep their valuables tightly locked up and carry the keys to their cupboards with them at all times. Some even lock the fridge. They know to a drop how much milk should remain; they have counted every mango.
I’m not a good memsahib. So, by logical extension, when I lose things I have only myself to blame.
Here’s what you cannot do when you lose things:
- You cannot ask anyone if they know where the thing might be.
- If you ask a family member they will scold you: “What? Again? Haven’t I warned you to keep things locked up? Why are you always so careless?”
- If you ask any of the staff (in my house there are five), everyone will think they are being accused. Tears, protests and hurt, angry silences will result and all anyone will do for the next six hours is to look for the missing article.
- You also cannot stay silent about the fact that something is missing.
- If you don’t fess up to your mother-in-law, eventually she will notice that you are no longer wearing your mangal sutra or your gold bangles. She may draw conclusions without even realizing she is doing it and you could have a problem on your hands which is far more serious than the loss of the item.
- If you don’t mention that something is missing, your staff will assume you really don’t even notice. Obviously you have more money than God, more jewelry than you can keep track of and an ipod? What’s an ipod to you?
- And finally, you cannot jump to conclusions. My heart has sunk so many times, convinced that yet another precious thing is gone forever, only to leap up again when I find it in the very place I could have sworn I had just looked in. Careless. Again.
It’s only a thing, I tell myself. How does it matter if I have it or if someone else does? Do I really need to keep accumulating more of the same? I lose one set of earrings, someone gives me another. Money flows out, money flows in. Someone, perhaps, needs it more than I do. And anyway, who am I to claim that a mango “belongs” to me?
But now I am wondering: Does it work with people also, or only with things? Loss is loss. If I am careless with things, does it follow that I am careless with friends? Can I talk myself out of the grief when I lose them, as if they were just a bangle, just an ipod, just a mango? Is it my fault if they disappear? Does it matter?
Lost objects, lost people. Lost years, lost dreams. How different are they, really?
Writing about loss, I found this remarkable poem – my experience, distilled into far fewer words:
STILL LIFE WITH A BALLOON
~ Wislawa Szymborska
No, at the time of death
I’d like to see lost objects
Avalanches of gloves,
coats, suitcases, umbrellas –
come, and I’ll say at last:
What good’s all this?
Safety pins, two odd combs,
a paper rose, a knife,
some string – come, and I’ll say
at last: I haven’t missed you.
Please turn up, key, come out,
wherever you’ve been hiding,
in time for me to say:
You’ve gotten rusty, my friend!
Showers of affidavits,
permits and questionnaires,
rain down and I will say:
I see the sun behind you.
My watch, dropped in a river,
bob up and let me seize you-
then, face to face, I’ll say:
Your so-called time is up.
And lastly, toy balloon
once kidnapped by the wind-
come home, and I will say:
There are no children here.
Fly out the open window
and into the wide world;
let someone else shout “Look!”
and I will cry.
Loss is complex and multi-layered. We lose the same things over and over again until we learn how to keep them safe, learn how to live with them in our lives and honor their freedom to go where they will.