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HomeViduraWe need to redefine waste and usefulness, don’t we?

We need to redefine waste and usefulness, don’t we?

Can we wage a war on poverty by widening our concept of re-use and recycle? Because poverty is as much a national disgrace as defeat is in an armed war. We don’t need laws or Acts of Parliament, we need commitment from each and every citizen, says SakuntalaNarasimhan

Clearing away a lot of accumulated stuff from my apartment, I had made a pile of papers, old clippings, books and notebooks that I no longer needed, when a friend to whom I had promised some used furniture that I no longer needed, looked at the pile and said, “Don’t throw those notebooks and promotional pamphlets. My blind friend can use the stiff covers for her Braille writing.” It had not even occurred to me that those thick notebook covers and pamphlets could be of use to someone, especially the sightless students depending on Braille. It was a revelation.

It is fashionable to trot out the slogan ‘reuse and recycle’ but the philosophy of preserving and conserving resources has a much wider connotation than what the average citizen imagines. Like stiff paper, used for writing Braille. You cannot punch Braille letters on thin paper. There are an estimated 31.6 million sightless persons in India – the world’s largest (up from 18.7 million in 2007), many of them from poor families. Where will they go looking for thick card paper, if they want to learn to write?

A carved root of a tree.

So, before throwing away my pile of discarded papers I carefully tore off the thick covers, and sent them off to the school for blind children. It was an invaluable lesson in the usefulness ofwhat we normally perceive as ‘rubbish’ fit only to be thrown.

I have earlier written about how the rural populations in particular, recycles resources more successfully than urban citizens. In my mother-in-law’s house in the village, water used for washing rice and vegetables went into the trough that fed the cows in the shed. Bath water likewise, was diverted to the back garden where it irrigated plants and vegetable patches. Leftover food went into the bin that collected food for the cattle, instead of being dumped on to the trash heap.

Some of these habits cannot be appropriate for urban dwellings (we don’t have cattle to feed) but some can – how many urban families bother to have facilities for  turning their kitchen waste into compost  that can be even sold to nurseries or those having gardens?

I got another lesson in the value of  small scraps of leftover cloth too when I saw a cloth bag decorated with appliqué work using cloth bits which were shaped into small flowers and animals and tacked on. The ordinary black cloth bag became a work of art, and a conversation piece.  Applique work is today fashionable, but I was appalledto realize that leftover cloth pieces were not used, instead fresh cloth was bought and cut up.

I remember my grandmother making a cloth parrot when my daughter was born; all she needed was a palm-sized piece of green cloth left over after stitching a blouse, and a tiny, barely half an inch long piece of red cloth  folded into a triangle, for the beak. Fifty years later, I still have that parrot, preserved as a family heirloom. I am told that most grandmothers of that generation made similar parrots for their grandchildren, to tie on the cradle for the infant to gaze at. It cost nothing, and gave a lot of pleasure and creative joy to the women. Today, we have lost these traditions, though we have resurrected the slogan ‘Re-use, recycle’.

I  have already, earlier, written about the godhri that north Indian women, even in the poorest families, made, by  tacking together layers of old, faded and torn  saris and bed sheets, to make warm  cotton blankets. It cost nothing, and all it needed was a needle and thread and some spare time for tacking. It was ‘recycling’ and re-using’ old cloth. I don’t suppose anyone makes godhris today, not even in the slums, thanks to the demonstration effect of watching ads for ‘new stuff’. ‘Buy, buy’, is today’s mantra, because everything is measured in terms of money and profits, not resource conservation.

We pontificate about ‘cutting down forests’ to make paper, but how many of us bother to use both sides of every sheet of paper? How many thousands of reams of good paper get discarded like this, when they could make good rough notebooks? The modern outlook is to consider thrift as ‘infra dig’; wastefulness is one way of showing off that one can afford to waste. What a shame in a country that is home to millions of families living below the poverty line!

During my travels through the rural areas, I came across a man who fashioned ‘monkeys’ out of coconut shells. All he needed was a chisel and hammer. The monkeys were works of art, cost nothing, and became conversation pieces when I used them for storing pens and pencils.

In Assam, I was given a souvenir carved out of the root of a tree which is usually discarded. The root got carved into a work of art, with a woman standing under a tree. The man spent noting on creating it, except for a few minutes of his time while he waited for his goats to graze.

When I was living in Japan, I was told about how, in the postwar years, it was considered ‘unpatriotic’ and a ‘crime’ to waste anything. Lavish weddings were considered wrong. Thrift was lauded. In spite of being defeated and destroyed by the war, Japan rose quickly to become a leading, prosperous country. Because of the thrift practised by the citizens after the nation was devastated  and reduced to rubble by war.

(The writer who lives in Bengaluru is a veteran journalist, a recipient of the Media Foundation’s Chameli Devi Award for Outstanding Woman Journalist 1983. She was a columnist for Deccan Herald for 27 years and had earlier worked for The Times of India Group in Mumbai.)

October – December 2022