It started when I broke my clothes drying stick. You know the one I mean, the thin bamboo cane that traditionally stood behind a door, unobtrusive, till we needed the superpower to extend the reach of our hands by a good 5-6 feet. Well, this was several years ago. It wasn’t broken beyond use, but
I was aware of the need to get around to getting a better one. This one was carefully chosen from among three contenders I had purchased for about Rs. 40 each, which was a touch overpriced for those sticks back then. Two were thicker than this (over an inch and a quarter thick), this was the slimmest (a touch more than half an inch thick, maybe three quarters at the base). I chose the clothes drying stick with all the attention one gives to selecting a magic wand. The right stick can make hanging clothes on a line high above you effortless.
I did like thick sticks. Much better for hanging bulky clothes, saris. The best one I ever used was about 5 feet, thickish and beautifully balanced, slightly shy of an inch thick, in my grandmother’s home, where it probably still is, a good 40-50 years later. (Note to self: Maybe I can try to inherit it.) The selection process to choose my own magic wand for hanging clothes to dry took place about 25 years ago.
Of the two thicker ones, one was too heavy (it would be perfect now…). The other had rough, blunt ends that weren’t sharpened after cutting it to size (would be a simple matter to sand them down now…). The one I chose to be mine was the slimmer one. It was shaped somewhat like a pointer, tapering to the top, but with a nice blunt end that didn’t catch on clothes and pull them accidentally. It was a touch too tall for my taste – 6 feet, but that was okay.
Eventually, between moving to places, that stick got left at my parents place, where it was put to good use over the years. It finally cracked when I moved their belongings to this home. A veteran of the weekly local market, I kept my eyes peeled for the sticks – usually found with the fellows who sold the brooms, if memory served. Alas, I never saw them.
I was unable to understand how an entire civilization was thriving here with no bamboo sticks available. If memory served, they were everywhere. Not just drying clothes, but used as handles for mops, those duster-brooms to get the cobwebs off the ceiling… Nope. Even the those duster-brooms I purchased now had plastic handles. The floor wipers always had plastic/metal handles. Hmm.
I tried finding on Amazon. Nope, nope, nope. Some garden stakes of 5 feet length, made out of bamboo that looked about right could be purchased for five thousand odd rupees. A bo stick for martial arts (lathi for us desis) looked right – the cheapest being for 680 rupees. But the reviews said it was flexible, so probably… nope.
When Ranjona Banerjee posted an image from her time in Bombay long ago, it was like a rant building up within me broke.
Make no mistake, I’m not the ones insisting that we go back to a vedic age, but it seems like a lot of precious things were lost in the mad chase for progress.
I posted on Twitter, remembering a few things that used to be there and now are not, and they were nice.
And then I remembered more…
And several others remembered other services gone missing.
It sort of has put me in a thoughtful mood. Those of us concerned about lives and livelihoods, the economy, the environment and so on… I think we too don’t think deep enough.
We may see the value in recycling and reusing and so on, but we don’t actually do it or recommend it enough to influence enough people for the demand to be there.
As a child, I have accompanied my father countless times to junk shops and flea markets, salvaging some obscure treasure that my father would bring home and get working again. We have used and gifted TVs rescued like this at a time when having any TV at all was a big deal. Countless radios, rechargeable torches, musical keyboards, even a couple of video games.
The junk man was a kind of artist, with knowledge of what could probably be rescued and what was scrap altogether. He accepted any and all junk, though he paid only for the items that could definitely be recycled, and his shop always had unexpected items he picked out from the trash, kept there for sale. Rs. 5 onwards for broken gadgets. Rs. 2 for novels. You could ask him to keep an eye out for specific things and save them for you. My father used to have a running list of spare parts he wanted.
This kind of recycling not just was better for the environment, it provided incomes or at least inexpensive products for countless people. It encouraged frugality, creativity and a general attitude of thinking out of the box.
Today, the fellow who collects junk is not interested in anything except plastic and paper. Maybe glass, depending on his mood and the day of the week. No rubber. Any gadgets will get taken for the price of plastic. As a business strategy, it would be fine. But if I go to his shop, there is nothing he appears to have scavenged that is for sale. I’ve seen him take apart a refrigerator for recycling!
Among other missing things are the wells. There used to be wells. Now they are filled or covered. There used to be useful trees. Fruit trees, herbs, flowering plants planted for greenery. You may still see those trees near older buildings. Jamun, mango, eycalyptus, sitaphal, lemons, hibiscus, jasmine, coconut, oranges… sometimes maintained, other times not, but the intention behind planting them was to be useful and frugal. Now we see more of utterly useless ornamentals that no one has the time to sit around and look at.
I once spoke to a builder, tested the idea of growing more useful plants around the compound. Surely that would be an added factor to sell more flats? He didn’t care one way or the other. Muttered something about Municipality having a list of allowed plants.
Our choices have become those of mindless consumption rather than an investment. A chair with a broken leg gets thrown away rather than the leg repaired. Once I saw an entire set of chairs thrown away (two broken, four perfectly fine) and a matching set purchased. Contrast this with what we grew up around, where the carpenter would come and fix the broken leg on a chair, which was made of wood and would last for a lifetime!
We talk of the load on the environment, yet we have daily use products being purchased online. A 40Rs papad packet with a 70 Rs shipping that spends on fuel and packaging and human effort to get that exact package to you. When the grocery store down the street has hundreds of them.
Somewhere, something has to change. We need to get out of the mindset of consuming more and more disposable or less durable items and choosing carefully what we invest in, how we nurture it. There is little thought that goes into it, and often, people have different products with near identical functionality. Both purchased, because their labeling assigns them to specific tasks. We are increasingly spending more on automated gadgets that consume electricity to save us effort while paying memberships to gyms in order to do effort for our health. Automated grinding I can understand. Automated tooth brushing? Scooters to travel locally instead of bicycles.
A cracked bucket was something that could be fixed not so long ago. Now the buckets are made to be thrown away because buying new is good for sales. It is a weird cycle of products that promote ease to the point of fear of effort.
It is as though we spend more to get things that will make us spend even more. It is a kind of thoughtless privilege for its own sake. And yet, we are not so good at manufacturing, as a country. We also want to reduce imports.
Somewhere, we need to declutter drastically and use more versatile tools for longer. Not just for the economy, not just to create more grassroots economic networks, but to actually THINK of what we use and how.
I have no idea how to do this.