Sunday, August 15, 2004

Lost & (maybe) Found -- (previously published in the Pioneer)

This appeared in the Pioneer, in 1998.

Built into the foundations of most human dwellings is a vast, innaccessible space. It does not appear in any engineer’s plans, nor does it feature in the journals of designers. It has no physical dimensions. Most of us know of its existence, yet none of us has ever visited it. Which is a good thing, because by and large, once something has gone in, it can’t get out.

The Lost Goods Limbo is the final resting place of all those straight pins, rubber bands, hair clips and gold-earring back screws that all of us are forever misplacing. It is the cemetery of ball-point pens, the caps of favourite fountain pens, the unused labels of computer diskettes, the only functional pair of scissors in the house, the missing button of the school blazer, and the “z” tile from the Scrabble set. It is the grave-site of the second volume of the Alexandria quartet and the last volume of the Tolkien trilogy. It is the tomb of single socks and shoes and woollen gloves and all other items whose life in the real world has no meaning except in pairs. It is the Valhalla of sealing wax stubs at the time that a registered parcel needs packing and the happy hunting grounds of all slips of paper on which precious addresses and telephone numbers are written.

Not that the place is without its rules and regulations. For instance, certain types of objects will remain in Limbo only so long as their absence has nuisance value. Air-line tickets, for instance, will disappear for as long as there is still time to catch the flight. The moment it is too late to reach the airport, the tickets will rematerialize in jacket pockets and glove-compartments. Keys will vanish at the moment that something needs to be unlocked in a hurry but not otherwise. The objects which wind up in the LGL are not usually expensive. Heirlooms and cameras, are more likely to be stolen than lost.

And one class of objects is Limbo-resistant. Hard contact lenses are a good example. They are so light and insubstantial, one would imagine that they were custom-made for being lost. But lens wearers develop such a powerful dependence on them that they do not lose them. A friend of mine claims that lens wearers call up their Kundalini force to locate the tiny, near-invisible cup of plastic even when it has flown off during a dust-storm or a riot, even while being blinded by the loss of the lens.

I can remember one evening in boarding school, when the whole school was practising for sports day, one of the girls lost her contact lens on the sports field. This was a grass-covered area the size of two football fields. While the rest of the school was ordered back to the barracks, Banoo and her friends combed the field using a torch and actually found the lens.

The Limbo is the repository for things that have slipped out of the beam of our attention. Anything that has not been thought about or looked at for more than a week or ten days is in danger of being sucked into the void. The only way to ensure firm control over one’s possessions is to fondle them one by one every day, but since this is hardly practical, the only other option is to be philosophical about loss. I have lost all kinds of things and have usually gotten over them in time. Yet there are those few instances when I have pined so strenuously for something that the usually implacable inventory keeper of the LGL relents and yields up the prize.

One such occasion was again when I was in boarding school. I had lost the stone from a ring that I especially loved. It wasn’t precious, but I was very attached to it. It was a mottled green blood-jasper, a dome-shaped oval the size of a fifty paise coin. The stone was loose in its setting and dropped out while I was on a school walk. I noticed the loss and walked back and forth over the route with my nose to the ground, but couldn’t find it. I mourned unreasonably. I couldn’t get over it. I dreamed of finding it again. Two months later, while on another school walk, someone to whom I had described the stone, pointed to a pebble by the side of the road and said, “Look! Isn’t that the stone you lost?” And it was.

Some years ago, I lost a dearly beloved book in my sister’s house in Madras. She has an unusually active Limbo at her disposal and whenever she tells the rest of her family that she's kept something very carefully, we know at once that it’s gone forever. I was neither able to replace the book nor get over its loss. Last month it turned up again. It’s called The Animation Book and is neither expensive nor especially useful to me. Getting it back is proof that the Limbo is not unreasonable or unkind. If you really, really care for something that you’ve lost, it comes back.

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