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I hope Einstein was wrong

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,? Einstein is once supposed to have asked, ?of what, then, is a messy desk?? writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2007 12:25 IST

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,” Einstein is once supposed to have asked, “of what, then, is a messy desk?” I’m afraid this question has started to haunt me. Mine is a pristine desk, neat, free of paper, prettily arranged and always in frightening order. Until Einstein commented to the contrary, I was confident this was proof of virtue, discipline, structured thinking and high mindedness. Now I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t matter how you squeeze the toothpaste, whether your desk is strewn with paper or your cupboard is crammed with old clothes and forgotten sports gear. As The New York Times concludes: "Analysts say it just shows how interesting you are"

Let me therefore make a frank admission. I’m the sort of person who keeps his belongings in meticulous order. Everything has a place, often at right angles or opposite something else, and that’s where it stays. If guests move little ornaments around I, pretending I’m doing it unthinkingly, move them right back. After 15 years with me, even the servants have cottoned on. Every book, picture, ashtray, figurine or bowl has its appointed place.

Take, for example, the gods on my bedside table — Mummy gave them to me when I left for England at the age of sixteen and I accepted them as good luck charms. They sit in a carefully contrived formation. Krishna before Lakshmi with Ganesh to her left. And all three surrounded by a rudraksha ki mala. The lamp is at 2 o’clock from Krishna. Nisha’s picture at 10 o’clock from Ganesh.

Now, tell me, what does that say of my mind? My cousin Mala, who discovered this in 1976 when I was 20 and she was visiting Cambridge, has a very definite answer. “You’re mad,” she says. Whenever she enters my home she starts moving things. “Wait and see what he does,” she primes the other guests. When I start restoring the objects they all burst out laughing.

On the other hand, there are many people who haven’t the faintest idea where precisely their belongings are. That they possess them is, of course, beyond doubt. But whether they’re in a cupboard or on the dining table, under the stairs or in the car boot is not just uncertain but equally likely. The odd part is it doesn’t matter. The evident disorder and confusion doesn’t disturb their sang froid or trouble their conscience. In their place I’d be up all night putting things in place. Not them.

Now, tell me, what does that say of their mind? Einstein’s answer — if I understand him correctly — is nothing. There’s no connection between the disorder in their belongings and the state of their thinking. A man can be shambolic, undisciplined, dishevelled and untidy but still a genius. On the other hand he could be orderly, meticulous, tidy and a bloody fool.

Believe it or not, the Americans have started to study this. It’s called Mess Analysis. Irwin Kulla, the author of Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, claims that “order can be profane and life-diminishing”. In other words, the less you are like me the more you’re bound to have spark and spirit!

According to The New York Times — a veritable Bible on such matters — two gentlemen called Freedman and Abrahamson are about to publish a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder where they claim that “mess has a resonance … it can vibrate beyond its own confines and connect to the larger world.” Proof, it seems, comes from Alexander Fleming who only discovered penicillin because of the mess — actually filth — in his laboratory: “It was the overall scumminess… that led to his discovery of penicillin, from a mouldy bloom in a petri dish he had forgotten on his desk”!

If all of this is correct — and it could be — it follows that it doesn’t matter how you squeeze the toothpaste, whether your desk is strewn with paper or your cupboard is crammed with old clothes and forgotten sports gear. As The New York Times concludes: “Analysts say it just shows how interesting you are.”

And what’s the opposite? If you only squeeze your toothpaste bottom upwards, clear your desk each time you finish working and ensure your shirts are properly folded and your trousers carefully hung, you’re likely to be predictable and boring.

So here’s my New Year resolution for 2007 — I shall fling my clothes all over the bedroom, scatter crumbs on the carpet and spill the milk when I raid the fridge at night. Oh yes, I’ll also forget to raise the loo seat!

The only thing is: will it take an Einstein to appreciate this? I doubt if the servants will.