Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Osheen Siva
It was just a rhetorical question. A comment made to a young relative who had come to Delhi from Chandigarh for a family wedding. I was intrigued by her faux pearl-studded pink top and wondered out loud about how the Beautiful Young Thing managed to have it cleaned. Pat came the ennui-laden reply: “Oh, I wear it a couple of times and throw it away.” She might as well have added: “Who is this miserly oldie, asking such stupid questions?” Well, sustainability was obviously something she didn’t care about.
The dumping brigade
These days most of us are in self-imposed exile at home, trying to keep the other big C — COVID-19 — away. We have plenty of time to replay the past in our minds: our missteps, indulgences, carelessness, and much else. Many of my relatives and friends belong to the “throwaway brigade”. Actually, make that the “dumping brigade”, from food not even halfway to its sell-by date, to an outfit or furniture bought even less than a year ago.
This relatively young tribe can be quite brutal. I fear they wIll throw out the oldies with whatever else they are discarding when they no longer have any use for them. Perhaps, the ‘youngies’ just want more room in their homes and believe that less is more. Yesterday is so, well, yesterday. The word “repair” is anathema to them: mint condition is the ideal state of things, or beings. The lady from Chandigarh and her ilk would probably recoil at any suggestion of having anything darned — never mind her facelifts or chin-firming exercises. Interestingly, the Urdu word for darning is rafoo. Rafoo chakkar is to make things disappear — darn away a hole in a fabric or get rid of the wobble in a chin.
Sustainability has been the modus operandi of generations of Indians. How to make things used to be a cherished, guiding principle. Thus, we had hand-me-down clothes (often resented by those way down on the family tree), leather patches on jackets and sweaters where the wear and tear took its toll, hems that could be let down for a taller person from Generation Next or taken in for a shorter recipient. It was much the same with interiors: curtains, furniture, upholstery, beds…. The sofa that I inherited from my parents, bought in Washington DC during the late ’50s, has seen many avatars. Very little of the original has survived, other than its American springs. Even those have lost their, well, spring. And so it is with our rosewood dining table, which, I suppose, can never go out of fashion since it was never in fashion.
This ‘inheritance’, for want of a better word, endured. Perhaps even better than us mere mortals who are burdened by nostalgia. Though, I would rather say, enriched. Sentiment keeps us attached to old furniture and clothes, even at the risk of being mocked by the young and trendy — some of who change their upholstery and curtains with the seasons, magnanimously unloading them on poor relations and poorer friends. Generosity isn’t their raison de giving: they want to keep up with the mint-fresh rich moving into their once-exclusive neighbourhoods with dogs that are as toffee-nosed as they are. Not only do they agonise over upgrading their cars, wardrobes and upholstery, but they also worry about how to unload their circle of friends or relatives who are becoming a little frayed around the edges. Wilting, if you will.
The drowning temples
Then, there’s the larger and more crucial concern about a sustainable environment. Most of us are aware of the consequences of abusing it. Hell hath no fury like nature scorned or abused. Gobbling up what belongs to it in the greed for land has inevitable and unhappy consequences. Many believe that tsunamis are nature’s way of punishing us. That’s what a Mumbai taxi driver once told me during the long drive from the airport to Colaba. He was referring to the destruction of the mangroves.
If you are lucky, you get a taxi driver who is a fount of information and insight. The voluble one driving me from the Chennai airport to the Taj Connemara hotel in the city some years ago told me that there were seven temples underwater near Mahabalipuram. These were once on firm ground. Indiscriminate building along the shoreline had caused the waters to rise and swallow these temples. The gods, he explained, were angry. As was nature.
Maximum City, as Mumbai has been christened, has been making inroads into what belongs to nature — reclaiming chunks from the Arabian Sea to house the millions who pour into it in search of a livelihood and employment. Something had to give, and it did. Can we reverse this process? Make a pact with the environment and nature, promising not to trespass too much? In the pursuit of pleasure and the appeasement of our ambitions, we should remember to factor in what’s viable for the universe as well.