The irony of the white powder routine

The tragedy of ubiquitous garbage needs to be countered; let’s have a design for the community at large

May 30, 2016 11:00 pm | Updated May 31, 2016 08:58 am IST



Every morning, millions of women across South India do a ritual, the origins of which stretch back several centuries — they clean their front yards and adorn the ground at the entrance with an elaborate design created out of rice powder. The process starts with a vigorous sweeping of the front porch/step/slope, followed by an equally lively splashing of water onto the patch that will feature the design of the day. As the water runs off, the process of creation starts — a few small dabs of flour to serve as a guide, then deft movements of the hand to lay down just the right amount of powder, the lines not too thick or too thin. The end result is a work of art, and it changes from day to day.

So what’s the irony, you ask? Seems like this is a perfectly normal activity that produces something of aesthetic value. How could it have a negative side to it?

The pile-up The answer is to be found when you look away from the houses with the kolams in front of them to other parts of the street in that particular locality. Barring the odd exception, you are almost guaranteed to see the same old story repeating itself — garbage piled up high, spreading across the road like a living organism that grows by the day, emitting nauseating odours and harbouring disease-causing vectors such as mosquitoes, flies and rats. The tragedy is not in the kolams themselves, but in what they represent for the shared environment — a complete absence of responsibility for maintaining the level of cleanliness that one adheres to at home. The kolam is, quite unintentionally, the symbol of sanitary apartheid, a sort of lakshman rekha that conveys the message that everything to the inside of the kolam is hygienic, but everything outside is – well, who really cares?

Apathy to public spaces This apathetic attitude that we Indians, along with our South Asian neighbours who split off from us, have towards public spaces is, unfortunately, known throughout the world. Any comment by a foreign visitor to India, after the usual pleasantries about our innate curiosity and friendliness, quickly turns to the topic of filth and squalor. Our menfolk clearly lead the way in this assault on the environment, unzipping or lifting apparel at a moment’s notice to wash down public walls, and spit paan in a manner that would do an erstwhile nawab proud. Women, while generally cleaner, are more concerned about their own homes and steer their kids away from the overflowing trash bin, holding their noses closed with the end of their pallus or dupattas, all the while cursing the authorities for not taking action.

Hardly a dent The Swachch Bharat campaign is about to enter its third year, but other than the occasional public relations stunt by a politician, film star, cricketer or other celebrity, it has scarcely made a dent on making the nation any cleaner. And that’s because we treat it like a one-time activity — an hour spent in cleaning up your neighbourhood, and you’ve earned enough karma points for the next life. Well- meaning citizens’ groups come together, armed with brooms and trash bags, attack an area — and then recede. The front line of the effort is left to the underpaid, underfed, underclothed sanitation worker, who has to contend with this every day.

Kolam for all How do we turn this tragedy into a celebration? By embracing the idea of a daily kolam not just for our own houses, but for the community at large. Stop regarding the exterior as something that exists simply to provide you with an outlet for your needs, but as a valuable part of your existence. When Chennai was flooded last December, people reached out and helped one another — and yet, each day when we pass by rubbish piled up high and do nothing, we undermine that very spirit of community that defines living in an urban environment.

So tomorrow, as you get ready for your next kolam adventure, take a few minutes and help clean up your street along with your neighbours. While you may compete on who has the better kolam, a cleaner city is possible only if we realise we are all in this together.

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