Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth about Conveniences

Glaciers are melting. Polar bears forage around human discards for food. Mr. Gore, if only you had looked to the third world for tips many years ago when countries like India didn’t know about conveniences.

The South India as I knew it forty years ago was a master recycler of old goods, a crusader for natural products. Outside our home in Chennai, the most popular form of transport was the cycle rickshaw, an ungainly bicycle carrying two passengers in a bucket seat. Everything we discarded was bound to be a treasure to someone else. A man came home monthly to collect papers and newspapers. Families made glue out of all-purpose flour. We lined our eyes with home made black kohl made from soot. Polyester fabrics still hadn’t gained yardage over cotton and silk. Few cars mowed the roads. We used only public transport. We knew only slow food; the only fast food I knew of was from roadside vendors who sold hot roasted peanuts in cones fashioned from old newsprint.

A wedding in the family? Water and coffee were served in reusable steel glasses. Long banana leaves were spliced in the rib, cut into sections about a foot long, washed and laid out on wooden or steel tables. Guests ate out of these banana leaves which imparted an earthy flavor to the meal; dessert was served in a cup made of lotus leaves stitched artistically by white cotton thread of likely poor thread count. But who cared? These were all perfectly biodegradable; used leaves were tossed into an open muddy trough where cows had a field day eating vegetarian leftovers from lush green banana leaves.

In the new, remodeled India, the bicycle and the banana leaf are phasing out. At wedding feasts today, banana leaves are laid out now on long rolls of paper for simpler clean-up; dessert is served in plastic cups. One-pint water bottles rule. The once liquid bindi (the Hindu dot on the forehead) is now sold as stickers on laminated packets. Local stores supply plastic bags when, years ago, my parents had to carry five cloth bags every time they went to the market or the grocery store. Looking for the milkman on a bicycle bringing slightly adulterated milk directly from his farm? Sorry, milk now comes in paper or plastic cartons at Foodworld supermarket. At 7AM at Chennai's famous Murugan Idli Shop in T. Nagar, waiters quickly snap cardboard boxes into shape for takeout idli orders; in the old days, we took out idlis in containers made from dried lotus leaves.

Welcome to the new India where modern conveniences now live in happy coexistence with age-old privileges. Where else can you find musty lending libraries with 1950 collections of Superman comics where reduce, reuse and recycle (at a paltry sum) is the order of the day? Contrast that with a stop at an upscale bookstore called Landmark in Chennai's Nungambakkam where the just-published hardback editions of Nandan Nilekani’s “Imagining India – Ideas for the New Century” are stacked up in a six-foot column to sell at Rs. 700 each. In just six months–from July to December 2008– Chennai has undergone massive changes. The city has fast built plaque with spanking new flyovers (overpasses) which, of course, do little to ease traffic. The main thoroughfare in Pondy Bazaar, Chennai’s shopping Mecca, which once was crossable just by flailing your arms madly at bus drivers, is now a manic bazaar choking with autos, buses, bicycles, stylish vast malls, juice shops, streetside vendors selling tissue boxes, flowers, bangles and night pyjamas, you name it.

In the side streets by Pondy Bazaar, I see an impoverished lady whose income depends on collecting all forms of plastic she sees discarded by the roadside. Like my fellow Indians, I turn a blind eye to the lady because I have more pressing matters at the moment. I'm tempted to buy an armload of bangles which the owner gingerly wraps in old newsprint and drops into my handbag. Just behind the bangle stall, I'm attracted to a cotton Kurta set on display at Krishna Collection, an air-conditioned store with a wide variety in fashionable Indian garments. Between the plastic-collecting lady, the bangle kiosk owner, Krishna Collections and I, we all want a piece of the action. And that's the new, inconvenient truth about conveniences.

1 comment:

Ramakrishnan Thiagarajan said...

yes it absoluely true... Chennai has changed so much...All the traditions are now in dustbin.Though the changes might might be healthy, sometimes it is the old traditions which gives a feeling of happiness... Eating in that banana leaf is always more cherished than eating in a paper plate.. Any time ;)