Green Counters 2018 | How green was the year

Every lemon in its own plastic bag

My mother, like many Indian mothers, was the original environmentalist in our family. In her reign everything was reused from the food delivery plastic containers to plastic bags. We did not think of her as being green. Instead we thought of her as a professional bag lady. When I came back from abroad, she liked the soaps and chocolates I brought back. But more than anything, she liked the fancy plastic carry bags which she would fold as neatly as her saris.

No one was measuring microns but there was an unspoken but strict caste hierarchy in her plastic bag hoard. At the top were the deluxe ones — Harrods, for example, glossy olive green with golden lettering, redolent of royal nostalgia. Next came Sturdy and Functional – for instance, Dubai duty free, no great shakes to look at but they acquitted themselves admirably. At the bottom of the pile came the plastic bags from local sari shops, bags that crinkled and crackled noisily.

When we needed a bag we would have to put in a request to my mother. She would weigh it and figure out what level of plastic it warranted and dole it out accordingly, accompanied with triumphant lectures about her eternally unappreciated far-sightedness.

When we started reading about an impending ban on plastic bags, panic hit our household not too unlike the dark days of demonetisation when nest eggs all over the country were suddenly rendered worthless overnight.

Habit of thrift

It seems strange to think of plastic bags and going green in the same breath but for us going green was not about being environmentally conscious. It was about thriftiness, of re-using everything.

My grandmother’s generation knew how to make vegetable stir-fries with just peels and scrapings that would otherwise have been thrown away. What was not used became compost in my grandmother’s flower pots. Everything that could be put to use was put to use or saved for another day.

Somewhere along the way everything changed, every lemon you bought from the sabziwalla came in its own plastic bag; in fact, everything came with too much packaging as a throwaway culture met a delivery culture.

The other day I went to my local bikriwallah with piles of newspapers and bottles. All my life every couple of months we would sell these and use the proceeds to treat ourselves to a family dinner.

The cry of the bikriwallah looking for old textbooks and notebooks, newspapers, magazines and gramophone players was a regular feature of Sunday mornings.

But now even as we are more green conscious, it feels harder to be green in reality. Plastic is easier to find than a jute bag. My local recyclingwallah was more interested in my sturdy American trash bag than any of the trash I had brought in it. Could you leave the bag, he said, as he weighed the newspapers. Newspapers were sold at two prices, one for the local Bengali papers and one for English.

What’s the rationale, I wondered. Must be a sahebi hangover, he replied, where we think English has better quality newsprint! He didn’t really want any of the heavy bottles we had lugged over. Glass had no market, he said. Only foreign liquor would work as long as it came in its original packaging. What’s it used for, I wondered. Film sets, the grey economy, he replied vaguely.

The next time we had a duty-free single malt we carefully saved its packaging, but when we took it over we were in for a rude surprise. No, no, he said, we can’t take this. But you said foreign liquor, I replied. Yes, like Johnnie Walker, he said. All these Scottish single malts with their peaty tones were just too foreign. Sometimes it takes so much effort to be green, it’s easier to just throw in the towel.

Five years less

But the need has never been more acute. This winter, Kolkata seems under a perpetual grey cloud of smog, a dystopian landscape through which no sunlight penetrates, a smog that leaches into my lungs making me cough endlessly. The landfills of Dhapa, on the fringes of the city’s consciousness, are smoking because deep in the piles of refuse, garbage is burning.

The University of Chicago tells us that Indians lose 5.3 years of life to the air we breathe every day but no political party talks about the air even as we choke in diesel smoke and tie handkerchiefs on our faces, like a Band Aid on a gaping wound, more out of hope than conviction in its efficacy.

Even in winter we keep the air conditioning on in our Uber cars, creating a bubble of breathable comfort in the grey smog that never lifts. Meanwhile the rich and famous have lavish weddings where fireworks burn, Beyonce sings and superstars serve food. It’s not just trash burning in India, for some Indians money is for burning as well.

I guess that too is a green revolution of sorts in the new India.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 9:42:33 PM |

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