In R. K. Narayan’s fine novel The Painter of Signs, set in the fictional South-Indian town of Malgudi, the protagonist Raman lives with his ageing aunt. She spends her days tending the home, receiving friends, shopping to feed herself and Raman, and in the evening, attending the local temple to listen to the reading of religious epics.
At some point in the book, she decides to take a long journey of unknown duration, taking everything she could possibly need:
“She packed into her jute bag her possessions: a couple of white saris, a little brass casket containing sacred ash for smearing on her forehead, a coral rosary for prayers, a book of sacred verse, and two tiny silver images of Krishna and Ganesha. ‘These were given to me by my father,’ she explained.”
And that is all she needs to be self-sufficient and happy. Raman clearly envies her cut-down existence – “He marvelled at the simplicity of her life and her minimal wants” – and so do I. To live happily with such few things! To pack up and go with nothing but a couple of items of clothing, a few tiny important keep-sakes, and one book you can extract joy and sustenance from again and again!
It reminded me again of Thoreau’s Walden (a candidate for my book of sacred verse):
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. […] Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”
Raman’s aunt eats but one meal a day, she is Thoreau’s ideal personified. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau continues… Why indeed? Elsewhere he states his purpose for living simply in the woods:
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”
What is this “not life”? What is “life”?
Not life, perhaps, is working out when to get two cars through the overdue annual service, not-life is attending to a thousand messages and emails and websites. Not life is a hundred projects where one will do (“let your affairs be as two or three”…)
Life is an un-rushed walk, a lovely bike ride, a slow meal, a nice time with family and friends, spending unlimited time looking at plants and trees every day, having as few things as possible to tend to, as few inputs as possible robbing us of our invaluable time.
I read a great book on digital minimalism, but see that if we understand Thoreau and Raman’s aunt, and really live their way of life, then embracing digital minimalism and other similar ideas wouldn’t be necessary. We’d be so happy and complete living in simplicity that we wouldn’t dream of letting all that other craziness into our lives.