Name: Indu Radhakrishnan
Year: Class of 2019
Hometown: Ashburn, VA
Intended Path of Study: Public Health
The Art of Moving On
“Here,” my mother says, tearing the plastic wrap off a pack of flattened cardboard boxes. She hands me one before unceremoniously shoving a bundle of heavy-duty trash bags under my other arm, looking me up and down, and sighing exasperatedly. Noting my bewildered expression, she knocks on my forehead with force, as if trying to get through my thick skull.
“Ah!” I rub my forehead and pout. “Amma, why are you mad? I didn’t do anything…”
“Exactly! You never do anything I ask you to do!” Her voice is tinged with frustration as she admonishes me. “You haven’t cleaned your room in weeks! Are you a pig? How can you live in such a mess?”
The box, she says, is for any mementos from high school that I want to keep. The trash bags are for everything else.
“If your room isn’t spotless by the time you leave for college, I will be the one to clean it.” I glance up at her and I know that she means it. I shudder at the thought of my mother tampering with my sanctuary and hang my head, defeated by her persistence, as always.
“Okay, okay, fiiiiiiiiiine, I’ll do it.”
Once I’m safe, hidden behind my bedroom door, I exhale and survey my room. It truly is in shambles, books and clothes strewn about, stacks of school work and notes scattered on the floor.
How exactly am I supposed to do this?
I start with the school work and the notes, figuring that they would be the easiest to part with. BC Calculus was the first to go, then biology, then government – all of it (except for a few pages with particularly stellar doodles, withering asides, and useful notes scrawled on them), I drop into the recycling bin with relish.
Maybe cleaning isn’t so hard, after all.
I handle the laundry next, bleaching my karate gi and sorting the rest of the clothes into piles – this is for donation, that’s coming with me to Hopkins next year, this is going to be torn up and used as rags by my mother, surely…
Sorting through the clothes is tougher than sifting through my old homework assignments – the logos and designs on the shirts are like little time capsules: a gray shirt with “Enshin Karate” down the side is from a summer wrangling unruly summer camp kids, a maroon and gold “Class of 2015” shirt is from my high school orientation, a sweatshirt with “iykwim” emblazoned across the front harkens back to an out-of-use inside joke, a striped dress shirt is part of my favorite debate outfit. That striped shirt is what I wore to my Johns Hopkins alumni interview, too – it has the uncanny ability to make me feel powerful and confident. Incidentally, it’s white and blue. Maybe it had some subconscious influence on my interviewer. I hold it up in front of me and chuckle, recalling the clammy palms before the interview and the immense sigh of relief afterwards. I put it in the Hopkins pile, of course.
Other articles are not quite as fortunate. The donation pile, by far the largest mound, is full of my older sister’s hand-me-downs and clothes that my mother bought for me before she gave up on making me dress prettily. The rag pile is mostly just clothes that are in terrible condition, worn out from overuse or from too many rounds of sparring and grappling.
This is going much better than I expected…
I take out any trash and other miscellaneous items that have found their way into my room before turning to face the dreaded enemy, the reason why I avoided cleaning in the first place.
The cardboard box sits in the center of room and mocks me. More than the box itself, the questions that it poses me are overwhelming.
How much life can you live in four years, it asks. And how do you fit it all into a 16’’ x 16’’ x 15’’ box?
I have never been attached to material things in the way that people tend to be – the price of something, the prestige of something, none of that matters. The sentimental value of something is what I prize above all else. Alain Ducasse might be one of the world’s greatest chefs, but my mother will always have an impossible four Michelin stars in my book. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” may be one of the world’s most acclaimed pieces of music, but I will always think that my sister’s off-key rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” from the Muppets is infinitely sweeter. Despite the fact that I can appreciate the technical excellence that lends Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Jan Six” its value, my favorite painting hangs on the wall beside my bed. It’s an authentic Sreenivas Radhakrishnan, circa 2001, a painting of a winter sunset. I still remember sitting cross-legged on my parents’ bed on summer mornings, watching my father painstakingly blend the colors, wondering how he could be so sure of the strokes.
Looking around my room, I see memories rather than possessions, and I find that my eyes are watering. These things, material as they may be, mean so much to me. My room, a place where I laughed and cried and grew for so many years… My room has to be packed into a cardboard box.
This is not a new feeling, by any means. I remember when my family relocated from my birthplace in New Jersey to India. I was five at the time; it was my first move and I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of moving. I figured that I’d be able to go back to Scotch Plains whenever I felt like having a playdate with my friend Markie, or that Sneha’s parents would call my parents and put her on a plane to India whenever I felt like missed her. I remember playing with packing tape and carelessly putting things in boxes, not realizing that everything that wasn’t going in a box was going to be donated, given to a friend, or thrown away.
When, after a year in India, we packed for our return to the States, I was older and wiser. I knew that my friends and I would never see each other again. I knew that I couldn’t bring Pooja or Anju with me. I knew that someone else would soon inhabit the flat that I had lived in, someone else would stand on that balcony and watch the Diwali fireworks, someone else would make domino effects and block towers on the marble floors. I knew that the things I put in the boxes had to be my most important and treasured toys and books.
After that, we moved three more times, and each time was a lesson in space maximization and material minimization. In one apartment, we never even bothered to buy beds or chairs, eating all of our meals cross-legged around a small coffee table, the one piece of furniture that we owned. In another townhouse, we didn’t get around to unpacking all of our boxes (the few we had left) because we were off to the next city within months.
We finally settled here, in Northern Virginia, where I went through all of middle school and high school. Boxes were no longer omnipresent, save for a few storage bins in the garage. My older sister went off to college, my little brother entered elementary school, we put down some roots, we even got a dog. We started calling our little townhouse “home.” I thought that my itinerant days were behind me.
And yet, here I am, confronting my old nemesis once again. I realize that I have been staring at it for close to twenty minutes and that it is still empty. I start with the debate trophies and the assorted plaques and certificates that have been gathering dust, quietly reliving the sense of pride that I felt swelling in my chest when I received each one. Mementos and birthday cards from my closest friends are tucked into one corner; my cap and gown are placed in the other. Copies of my graduation speech and various school newspapers featuring my articles are thrown in.
There is a sense of catharsis to all of it, and I savor the fleeting moments of nostalgia. I am surprised when I am done – the box is not nearly as full as I expected it to be. Everything looks bigger outside of the box, my mind subconsciously seeing feelings, memories, adding weight. But once they are in the box, I see that they are not quite as big as I thought.
They fit neatly together, these years of life. As I tape the top, I find that I have changed my mind about the box. Now that it carries such precious cargo, I cannot help but look upon it more fondly.
With the past sealed away, I survey my mostly empty room and imagine its next occupant – perhaps my brother will claim it, or my father will make it into an office, or it will be turned into a guest room.
And me? Well, I will be occupying a new space, will be making new memories. I will be at Johns Hopkins, my dream school. I will be laughing and crying and growing somewhere else, somewhere new. I will not be taking the box with me – it will find a place beside my sister’s high school box, somewhere in the garage. But I know that the box will be out there, that my room will find some use, and that moving on is not the same as leaving behind.