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THE ART OF LOSING

Are abandonments ever accidental? Phones, passports, loved ones, wallets, keys: all kinds of people and stuff get left behind or misplaced, and are then reclaimed or lost forever, creating situations that range from the banal to the brutal. For dispassionate observers of human (and inhuman) error, these little dramas of inattention become even more piquant after the invention of, first, the irrational and then, the unconscious — flickering theatres in which human beings are caught, or caught out, between passivity and volition. So, it is at once bizarre, pathetic and comical when a couple leave behind their two-month-old daughter in a cafeteria at Delhi airport. They realize what they have done two hours later, only after they reach home, at which point they do come rushing back to retrieve the baby. One hopes that such levels of conjugal compatibility and coordination — when both parents together remain oblivious of their absent-mindedness — are reached only rarely. But not so long ago, the British prime minister and his wife had shown a less breathtaking version of such forgetfulness with one of their daughters; and Saki has a delightful story about a woman — one of those sandwich-snapping dowager duchesses — who thinks she has misplaced a niece during a binge at Harrod’s.

It is equally fascinating that people apparently leave behind stuff worth millions of rupees at Indian airports, of which only a small fraction is reclaimed by the owners. So, most of the things that pile up at Lost & Found or Left Luggage have to be auctioned away at the end.

Airports today are regarded often as “non-places” where people and things become purely transitional — defined in passage, as it were. Yet, these are places where people have to be particularly alert about their identities and belongings: passports and suitcases. The great modern airports of the globalized world are also where people publicly appease two vital forms of desire: the desire to buy and the desire to move freely from one place to another. Consumption and mobility come together here to create the taste of what it means to be free in the modern world. Inside this glass-and-metal cocoon of security and air-conditioning, to use a phone, log on to free WiFi or sit down with a cup of coffee after one’s luggage has disappeared along a conveyor belt could produce an entirely bearable lightness of being, in which a two-month-old baby, if not a spouse, might prove to be a bit of an encumbrance.

Who is to say, then, that this sense of freedom — probably illusory, but leading to being able, literally, to fly — would not make people reckless about losing things, and that wanting to lose things is not, in some mysterious way, the other side, the dark side, of wanting to possess things, in the same way as the instinct for life has at its core something as unaccountably contrary as the death-wish? Is this why a very good modern poet talks about “the art of losing” as not being “hard to master”, calling it the “One Art”?