As I have mentioned before, the series of English essays in THE HINDU, India's finest newspaper, with which I made my debut as an amateur journalist in the 1960s, had a classic literary quality, whether they were psychologically insightful character studies (like The Marker, The Liftman, The Railwayman, The Old Boys, The Family Doctor) or just purely humorous sketches (like Hankies Galore!).
So here are my reflections on keys, published in Madras 50 years ago, which are likely to ring true anywhere in the world today:
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Sunday Magazine, 1965
Causerie On Keys
Keys have a way of growing on rings. Time and again you suddenly discover that you are carrying a surplus of keys, and you simply can't imagine what they're all wanted for. The locks they could have opened have long been left behind, though the keys have remained faithfully with you. However, you never can prune your key-ring without a lot of misgivings; so you just put the extra keys in a drawer while you're thinking it over, and they accumulate rust for the rest of your life.
The prudent man seldom loses his keys; but when he does, he finds himself in no less tight a corner than the sloppiest Bohemian. I don't know where exactly all one's duplicate keys go, but I'm certain that they can never be found when they're most desperately needed. Not infrequently, they would be inside some box whose key is among the ones you've just lost. There's often nothing you can do about it except smash things up a bit. Of course, when there's a car or a safe to be considered, the situation is a pretty grim one ; but there is never any sense in panicking. In some respects keys are like pigeons: and when they're misplaced they have a powerful urge to find their way back to you. The important thing is to keep a cool head, and await developments confidently. It does turn out almost always that the wretched things were only in the other pocket, after all -- unless, of course, they had been under a cushion in somebody's drawing room or in your own car.
Keys signify many significant things. They may no longer be a reliable index of one's property, as they must have been in the distant past; but they still are a tangible measure of your authority and responsibility, and of the trust placed in you by your family and friends, your employer, or even the public. The latch-key of your little apartment could be a yardstick of your happiness (or, of course, your misery). A turn of the jailer's key deprives the prisoner of his freedom, yet it has only to turn again to set him free once more. Certain keys, moreover, are symbolic per se, like the ones presented by hospitable city fathers to visiting dignitaries. Naturally, keys make an impact on their custodian's emotions. But they're as varied in appeal as they are different in design: some keys could make you quite sentimental, while others are capable of remaining so coldly impersonal.
I think collecting keys ought to be a fascinating hobby, and I am surprised that it doesn't seem to be a popular one, even in these original days when everything from pen-knives to picture postcards is grist to the collector's mill. I dare say it's a pity, for keys do come in such interesting shapes, and they have a way of suggesting such intriguing associations. You could often wonder what part in history or romance each key in your collection had played; you could stroll about, so to say, near a treasure-house of imagination, and patiently wait for some magic key to reach your hands and throw its doors open for you. But unfortunately, although everyone does pile up his or her share of them in their cup-board, keys by and large seem destined to elude the true collector's fancy.
Locks are a challenge to mankind's ingenuity, as well as a verdict on its character. Millions of them lie scattered all over the world, each made in its own unique way, protecting not only the fabulous wealth of the rich but also the pathetic possessions of the poor. Keys reflect, above all else, a glaring inadequacy of goodwill among civilized men. Perhaps what society awaits is a daring innovator -- you might say a philosopher endowed with a burglar's genius and a Henry Ford's enterprise -- who would mass-produce a master key to open all the world's locks; but is such an unusual keysmith likely to succeed any more than the poor alchemists who groped so uselessly for the mysteries of metal and the elixir of life?