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Our strange secrets

It’s bizarre habits like these that give each of us our individuality. Our idiosyncrasies make us unique. More or less every thing else is held in common with other people, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Aug 08, 2009 22:58 IST

Do you have funny habits — strange, inexplicable, even pointless ones? I must admit I do. But it was only when I saw them through someone else’s eyes that I realised just how odd they are. One’s own peculiarities feel perfectly normal. No doubt that’s why we accept and do nothing about them. But view them from the other side and their weirdness is all too obvious.

My moment of revelation happened when Binayak Sen, the well-known social activist recently released from an unjustifiably prolonged spell in jail, dropped in for a chat. He’s a gentle, soft-spoken and unassuming man. Most of the conversation was with his wife, Ilina, and Kavita Srivastava, General Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan, who accompanied him. Until, suddenly, Binayak’s eyes fell on an ungainly pile of coloured pens on my desk.

“What’s that?” he asked. It was virtually the first time he’d spoken. Turning in the direction he was pointing, I became aware of something that’s been staring me in the face every day for the last year or more. On the left hand corner of my desk is a mountain of fifty or more cheap ball-point pens. The sort you use and throw away. Hardly a collector’s item and yet this was, quite obviously, a collection.

“Oh that,” I muttered, embarrassed by the object of his curiosity. “Every time I visit the CNBC TV18 studio I pick up a pen in case I need to scribble something during a recording. Then, if it turns into a satisfactory show, I pocket it for good luck. This is the result. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky!”

Maybe Binayak saw me blushing — or, perhaps, evidence of my bizarre behaviour provoked a similar revelation of his own — but he laughed loudly and said: “I have a very strange habit too. I collect pen nibs. Do you remember the old desktop pens with long nibs that you fitted on yourself? One used to dip them into inkpots before writing. Well, every time I come across one I pocket the nib. I’ve got quite a collection.”

I guess we all have such habits. I’m sure each of us finds comfort in salting away, like squirrels, small silly things that no one would value but which take on a symbolism and a meaning that is inexplicable yet significant. Mummy, who’s 92, has held on to a baby frock she last wore when she was one. Van’s ‘Mamaji’ used to collect newspaper cuttings. He ended up with a pile that stretched back 40 years. The Simla termites had a field day attacking them.

Gauri is one of many people I know who collects matchboxes. There’s a huge glass bowl on a corner table of her London drawing room full of matches from every hotel and restaurant she’s visited. The sight is a joy for smokers who often can’t find a light. Except Gauri is rather possessive and guards her collection jealously.

“Don’t touch them,” she admonishes if you reach out. “Those matches aren’t for use.” Which makes you wonder what other conceivable purpose they serve?

My answer might seem surprising but if you ponder over it you’ll probably agree. It’s bizarre habits like these that give each of us our individuality. Our idiosyncrasies make us unique. More or less every thing else is held in common with other people.

So, if you want to be you — and not just another person — cultivate the difference. It really is your unique identity.

The views expressed by the author are personal.