Photograph by Akshay Mahajan

How do you ascribe value to an object? Is it how much money it cost? Or is it something more? Often, the things we own and consider most valuable have bigger stories. Maybe it’s an object that’s accumulated meaning over the years, or perhaps something that was instantaneously valuable the moment you laid hands on it. We reached out to a range of people, across ages and professions, to ask them about the objects they hold close. Keep reading. 

A Forest in an Apothecary Jar

When I was a child, we lived in a pigeon-hole of an apartment in Bombay, our lives piled on top of each others’ in that beautifully misunderstood city by the sea. The small 6 feet by 3 feet balcony was my mother’s little green jewel — overflowing with plants in every conceivable nook and cranny. I used to help her make bottle gardens in old apothecary jars, building them layer by layer of charcoal, gravel, and moss. We had plants like Asplenium nidus — a bird’s nest fern that thrives with a plain old philodendron (one of those plants nobody can kill) — supported by long sticks, adequately watered once, and sealed off for eternity. A closed little glass world within a world, a completely self-sufficient piece of nature. Every morning, it would mist in the semi-tropical sunshine; and one monsoon, the entire system almost died out to fuzzy white fungus, only to spring back to life by winter. I have one of them with me now—it’s almost as old as me.

—Akshay Mahajan, photographer

A Christmas Crib

Every December, when our Christmas tree, decorations, and lights come out from the storage, so does our crib set. It’s a tableau of Jesus’ birth, along with Mary, Joseph, the three kings, and the shepherds. This crib has been in my house for a very long time — I remember finding it in a Tibetan shop on Janpath, Delhi, hidden among singing bowls and laughing Buddhas. But the ritual of ceremoniously placing baby Jesus in his crib goes far back for me — I remember every year while growing up, we’d do this after coming home from Christmas midnight mass at my parents’ house. When I got married, the venue changed but the ritual didn’t. We moved houses, kids in tow, and the participants in this ritual increased, but it remained unchanged. There’s a permanence to this sign of hope and goodwill that surfaces every year. It’s likely the most valuable possession in our household — not for the monetary value it holds, just for the message it carries year after year after year.

—Clement DeSylva, architect and co-founder, Aani Ek feni

A Library of Books

We grew up with books all over the house — my father had a stack in the bathroom and my mother had her Nora Roberts. But more importantly, we also grew up watching our father separate his books into two categories — those that were displayed publicly should someone want to borrow one, and the special ones that were hidden away. Over the years, I’ve built my own little library. I doubt I will ever understand the appeal of a Kindle. Give me a fast-paced adventure, a racy romance novel, a comic or even a recipe book — I will collect them all. Although, unlike my father, all my books are in plain view, but you have to be very special for me to let you borrow one.

—Flavia Lewis, pastry chef and founder, Salt by Flavia

A Hand-Painted Piece of Textile 

On my recent work trip to Kutch, I met a batik artisan, Shaqeel, at his studio, where I came across a hand-painted batik piece lying amidst piles of old, dusty fabrics. When I asked him about it, he told me that it was painted by his sister many years ago — back when the tradition of hand-painted batik still existed. My introduction to hand-painted batik was when I was travelling to Sri Lanka earlier this year. In India, it is usually block-printed. Nobody really practices hand-painted batik in India for commercial purposes since it is extremely time-consuming. Since I loved the piece so much, Shaqeel called his sister to ask if she would be okay with selling it to me.  Instead of letting me buy it, she gave the piece to me as a gift. I’ve only had this Art Deco style of batik, which is not usual at all, for 10–15 days but it is already one of my most valuable possessions. I cannot wait to frame it and put it up in my house. 

—Harsh Agarwal, founder and creative director, Harago

An Emotional Support Pillow

My most valuable object is actually a pillow I bought in my second year of college. It was a difficult time for me emotionally, and for some reason, I felt drawn to this random pillow in the middle of a supermarket. I bought it on a whim. I don’t even like the colour. However, even now, whenever I’m struggling — like with a recent writers’ block in my very writing-oriented career — the pillow calms me down. 

—Pratikshya Mishra, entertainment reporter, The Quint 

A Collection of Encyclopedias 

Growing up in a sleepy town, I often dreamed of escaping my mundane surroundings. My collection of encyclopedias helped me find that escape. Dinosaurs, Egypt, and deep space offered the comfort and imagination that my hometown could not. They connected me to the past, both distant and untenable — akin to my dream of chasing a more exciting life. My first encyclopedia was a gift from my late Nana ji, a beloved mentor. So revisiting my childhood collection is now almost like therapy.

—Samarth Mahajan, documentary filmmaker

A Home

My most valuable possession is my home. I bought it just when I turned 30, as that was the dream, and it has become one of the safest places for me. In addition to being a roof over my head, it is something that I am proud of owning as it gives me a sense of security, comfort, and peace. And now that it is loan-free, it gives me an immense sense of satisfaction too!

—Veena Sivaramakrishnan, lawyer and partner, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas

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