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  • Ninay Desai

The Allure of Simplicity

Walking on a trail running along the fields near my home, I clicked some pictures of the reeds and wild flowers that sprout in the winter months. Nature’s variety seems boundless. Who knows how many kinds of flowers and plants there are in the world. How Nature creates such bounty, beauty and functionality while eschewing superfluousness is an absolute wonder. Of course, none of it happened all at once. It usually takes thousands of years for evolution to erode the pointless and perpetuate the essential. But then, Nature is never in a hurry. After all, it has a lot of time and space. (Yes, this is my idea of a Physics joke!)

A single palm leaf in a small glass of water against a greyish-white background. On the table, next to the glass lie six scrabble tiles spelling out the word simple.

Simplicity has a ring of truth about it, an elegance and a staying power that beats trends and momentary peaks and troughs. If you’ve ever seen a belt of sand dunes, you know what I mean. Functionally, it’s just piles of sand shaped into crescents by the wind and yet, one can keep looking at them, mesmerised. The same is true for sitting on a beach and watching the waves roll in and recede, and then do more of the same.

Perhaps, this applies to our lives as well. Yes, we live in consumerist times and there are unending mounds of stuff everywhere we look. And yet, the call of the classic and understated is eternal and cuts through the clutter.

I’m reminded of two photographs that were in the news a few years ago. One was a picture of a meeting between the Emperor of Japan and the Saudi Crown Prince in September of 2016 while the other was from the Saudi King’s visit to Japan a few months later. The coverage of the Saudi King’s visit was overrun by headlines of golden escalators, silk carpets and luxury cars.

This image shows the Japanese Emperor meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in September of 2016 in a room with screen walls, two wooden chairs and a small table with a flower arrangement. The impression created is that of austere but tasteful simplicity.

In contrast, the Japanese Emperor met with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in a room with screen walls, two wooden chairs and a small table with a flower arrangement. Even though the visits took place months apart, my mind has collated them into a single conversation of ideals and highlighted the distinctly Japanese trait of winning an argument by speaking the softest.

Wherein lies the appeal of simplicity? Is it only functionality and lack of embellishment that win us over? Or does simplicity strum a chord within us that longs to live unpretentiously with adequate belongings to make our lives easier but not smother our surroundings with everything ever invented. Clutter stresses us out, on a sub-conscious level. Which is why it feels good to live with less.

Not everyone needs to or can be Marie Kondo, arguably the world’s most famous tidy-upper, but it’s helpful to recognise that acquiring possessions must have a cut-off point. After all, there are only so many mugs, rugs, clothes or vases that a person needs. This is something I like to remind myself as well.

A few years ago, when I moved out of Delhi to our farm in Belgaum, I packed one large trunk of clothes I had never worn. Most still had their tags peeping out of the bags they came in. It shocked me and I was ashamed of my hoarding ways. I’m working on correcting that by cutting down my purchases and discarding before I buy. Which is why I find the story about the Zen monk who welcomed a traveller into his dwelling is so impactful.

The Zen monk had only a sleeping mat and a few wooden pots in his room. His visitor asked why he didn’t have any furniture.

To which the monk said, “Where is your furniture?”

His guest responded, “I don’t have any furniture. I’m only passing through.”

The monk smiled and said, “So am I.”

Travel light – that’s the message. And that doesn’t mean giving up on aesthetics. Instead, one can focus more on quality if the pressure to collect quantity is deducted from the equation. The one and only Leonardo da Vinci said,

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

He absolutely hit the nail on the head with that. Except that he too had trunkfuls of clothes, given his dandy ways. Aah well… so da Vinci wasn’t perfect, but at least he was working on it! So can we.

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