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The five sacks contained rags. Ashwin picked them up, and then quietly threw them out. “Even the beggars refused to touch them,” he says.

The sacks belonged to his mother, Molly, a resident of Andheri in Mumbai. Molly is a compulsive hoarder. She gets a gleam in her eye at the prospect of accumulating junk discarded by friends or neighbours. Behind the family’s cupboards are planks and strips of wood which she has accumulated over the years. “If I throw out anything she’ll be angry for days and can even remind me of it after two years,” says Ashwin.

Most people tend to collect something as memorabilia or for a hobby. But there are some who amass junk, fearful of throwing anything away in case they need it some day.

Pooja Nair, 25, a public relations professional in Bangalore, is one of them. She hoards anything from scraps of paper to clothes that no longer fit, from chocolate wrappers to empty bottles and cans. Her friends joke about it. Some tell her that she suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which forces people to keep repeating an act like washing hands or checking out locked doors. “I guess I do,” says Pooja softly.

The cardinal features of hoarding are excessive acquisition and an inability or great difficulty in discarding junk such as old newspapers or magazines. “Hoarders collect things with no desire to use them,” says Anjali Chabria, a Mumbai psychiatrist.

Every month, Mumbai psychiatrist Ruksheda Sayeda counsels one such hoarder such as a doctor or a housewife who hangs on to every newspaper or scrap of cloth. Many of them are also victims of depression. Pooja has other problems she goes through short spells of “blankness”, has a poor short-term memory and attention span, and sharp mood swings.

The most effective treatment for hoarders is not medication but cognitive behavioural therapy, says Jack Samuels, assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the US. “It helps patients decide on strategies to restructure hoarding-related beliefs and guides them through discarding sessions,” he explains. “Most clinicians used to think that hoarding was a subtype of OCD, but now we suspect that most people with the disorder do not have OCD.”

Unlike people suffering from OCD, who are usually bothered by the disorder and try to resist it, a hoarder may not battle the symptoms, find them unpleasant or even see anything wrong with their behaviour.

There is, however, a sense of secrecy in their acts. Unlike collectors, who are happy to display their sets, hoarders are often embarrassed and secretive about their cluttered households, says Samuels.

In central Mumbai, last month, 3,000-4,000kg of newspapers were found in a locked flat. More than 55 large bins of wet clutter were removed after sludge from soggy paper began leaking into another flat. The owners had locked up and moved out three years ago after a brother died.

The root of the problem could lie in extreme insecurity caused by something or somebody being taken away from a person, says Chhabria. She recently counselled a young woman who flooded her house with everyday articles, fearing she would be termed a “bad” housewife by neighbours who came borrowing.

Varsha Patil, a 45-year-old bank employee who has a mounting collection of crockery, cutlery and linen, says she fears being looked down upon by guests for not “measuring up” to their expectations.

The answer, Samuels and his co-researchers conclude, lies in the 14th of the 46 chromosomes. “Our study found that genetic markers around a region on chromosome 14 were statistically ‘linked’ to hoarding in families with OCD,” he says. “This suggests hoarding may be linked to variations in genes on this chromosome. However, specific genes for hoarding have not been identified, but the linkage region we found is large, and contains lots of genes.”

The tendency is seen even in childhood or adolescence, says Samuels. “In our study of OCD families, 30 per cent of those obsessed with hoarding were below 18. Half of these were severe cases of clinical hoarding.”

Pooja, who began playing competitive tennis at the age of 10, started early too. She says she would stash away empty chip packets or sweet wrappers that she’d munched in between matches. As a teenager, she started hoarding scraps of papers, bus and movie tickets, and empty boxes. Then she began collecting books. “I just liked the thought of having a lot of them, but had no plans of either reading them or even giving them away,” she says.

Pooja also collects cigarette lighters. Until a few years ago, she even gathered her friends’ empty cigarette packets, throwing them away only when her parents visited her when she lived as a paying guest in her student days.

Hoarding can get compounded when people leave home to live on their own or when older people lose their spouses or lose touch with relatives, says Samuels.

Shanta, a middle-aged IT professional, says she discovered 250 dish rags and paper napkins in her mother-in-law’s junk pile after her death.

Psychiatrist Sayeda sees more women patients, but Samuels cites two US-based studies that portray men as bigger hoarders. Men, however, are less likely to seek treatment or volunteer for studies, he adds.

Families of hoarders, the experts say, have to help them tackle the problem. A couple of weeks ago, Pooja’s mother threw out some 10 shoeboxes of junk. Pooja said she was left feeling irritated and lonely. “I just said, ‘Oh my God! Everything is so neat and empty.’”