Hobbies maketh a good lad – that’s what we were told in school, anyway. And while we picked up one or two back then, none of us have held on to any of them after we’ve grown up. Do old school hobbies still exist, therefore, or has technology completely erased them?
I didn’t have many friends growing up, nor was I into sports. My parents, sensing a dark (and possibly psychopathic) future, had me enrolled into a bunch of extra-curricular activities that they thought I would have a knack for. Thus I was sent off to painting-sculpting classes, music lessons, swimming training, guitar-sitar-tabla-violin tutorials, yoga, bird watching classes and mountain trekking camps. They hoped I would make friends, I suppose (it worked).
But, funnily, to also allow me to enjoy solitude and instill a sense of me-time from my childhood itself, my folks introduced me to philately and photography. I inherited my uncle’s stamp collection, and every month, my father would buy a fresh batch of stamps for me (this was cheating, of course, like every true philatelist will know, but it was our little secret). My grandfather, who travelled a lot, would send letters and parcels from every country he was in — quite unnecessarily, sometimes thrice a month — just to add to my stamp tally. My father taught me how to wet the gum, peel the stamps off the envelope with forceps, let them dry between two sheets of muslin and then carefully tuck them into one of the plastic strips in the stamp album. I would spend a lot of time with them, learning about historical details and personalities of the country who featured on the stamps, reading up on them in — surprise surprise — encyclopedias, trying to spot obscure countries on the globe, flipping through photo catalogues in my school library to see larger prints of museums and famous buildings I had spotted on stamps — yes, I was as nerdy as it can get. I had a couple of friends who were hooked on to collecting stamps, too. We traded (I was always eager to buy their stamps with a couple of the UK’s colourful “queens” — thanks to my uncle’s collection and my grandfather and father’s combined efforts, I had quite a lot of them), quizzed each other on capitals of countries and dreamed of what camping in the Gobi desert would be like.
A cousin of mine collected coins. Everywhere we travelled, we would keep a few of the country’s lowest denominations for him. It was something the family was aware of — stamps for me, coins for him. A friend of mine collected matchboxes. His dad used to be a chain smoker and would buy matches all the time. While my mother didn’t quite approve of this one, I used to be fascinated by the variety of artwork on them. Thanks to him, I learned that all hobbies did not have to be of the intellectual variety. They were about enjoying some time, every day, doing something quite pointless. That is when I took to collecting stones. It made no sense, but even today, when I go to the beach, I pick up a smooth piece of rock and love rubbing it between my fingers. This also reminds me of people I have known who collected shells. That is a cumbersome hobby. You have to soak the shells in salt water to coax the slug out and kill it (because if the slug dies inside the shell, it will rot and stink), then clean it with soapy water, brush it to remove debris or moss and finally varnish it for protection. Stones were easier.
My parents enjoy gardening, as did my grandfather. I was taught how to plant saplings, de-weed gardens and water the plants. I never took to gardening myself, but as a kid I used to enjoy walking around my grandfather’s garden with a pipe, watering his young papaya and mango trees. At home, I would be quite a nuisance, often drenching myself in the process, with mud under my fingers. My father encouraged me anyway, and during the summers, one of our favourite activities would be to visit our orchards and pick mangoes and water apples together (he was quite good at twisting the stems of the fruits with a long fruit rake, to tear them off, while I would run about trying to catch a falling fruit in a canvas bag — I would often miss, and my father would scratch his head, worrying about my motor skills). This was also when I started obsessing over earthworms, and would love to watch them curl up when touched (it is a cruel preoccupation I still have). A friend of mine used to often tag along — she loved collecting leaves. She had a created a beautiful album, with thin cardboard and kite paper pages, and filled them with various leaves. Drying the leaves out was a long and patient process, but at the end of it, it was always enchanting to hold up the dried, skeletal relic of a leaf against the sun, to watch kaleidoscopic patterns of veins and cells in the amber-gold dead skin.
As you grow up, hobbies change. A sense of utilitarianism seeps in, and you want to take up something that satisfies an artistic or intellectual craving. I took to origami for a while, but got bored of it soon. I have known people who got hooked to wood carving, etching on rice grains and pencil lead sculpture. For people like me, who had received serious tutelage in music and painting for almost a decade, after deciding not to pursue them professionally, they became light hobbies that helped unwind. But one of the most fulfilling activities has been photography. My father used to be obsessed with it, and trained me a little on his cameras. He made me fall in love with black and white, portrait and film photography. He is a fine photographer, although moving to digital has been met with skepticism and confusion. My mother still complains that he hasn’t shot a single good portrait of her.
Hobbies are chicken soup for the soul, and while faux-hipsters are bringing back retro (us original hipsters haven’t let go), the majority of this world – and this generation — will never know the beauty of them, lost forever to social media and Instagram. I fondly remember how, in school, we used to scoff at kids who mentioned “reading” as a hobby. “Reading should be a necessity, an addiction,” I would say. These days, that addiction is selfies, I suppose.
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