‘Manjal pai’ memories: An ode to the sustainable yellow cloth bag

About the size of an A4 sheet, the manjal pai is a framework for sustainability

About the size of an A4 sheet, the manjal pai is a framework for sustainability

“Divide them equally between yourself and your brother,” instructs my mother in a grave tone, adding: “No fighting.” She is not talking about family property. My mother decided to give away her precious manjal pai collection last week. Some of which are real gems, dating back to when telephone numbers consisted of five digits. They bear names of retail stores such as Anto Cutpiece Centre, Madras, AG & Co Jewellers, Madurai, SR Gunavathy Lucky Centre, Kumily, and were handed down to her by her father.

The yellow cloth bag is back in the limelight, thanks to Meendum Manjapai, a campaign that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin launched last month. “One never bought a manjal pai ,” says Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. “They were given to you when you went shopping to say, a textile store.”

He has fond memories of eating groundnuts and sweet tubers off the bags when he was a little boy. “I would accompany my grandmother when she visited my aunt in a village five kilometres from Tiruchengode, where we lived,” he recalls: “We travelled by foot and I vividly remember her manjal pai . She always carried something to eat for my aunt.” Perumal Murugan says that he continues to use the bags for vegetable shopping. “But people look down on it these days,” he adds, chuckling: “There have been times when my children refused to come out with me if I carried a manjal pai .”

About the size of an A4 sheet, the manjal pai is more than just a cloth bag. “It is a framework for sustainability,” says Krishnan N Subramanian, who runs YellowBag, a Madurai-based organisation that makes cloth bags.

The manjal pai has vintage value and precious memories associated with it

The manjal pai has vintage value and precious memories associated with it

“It satisfies all parameters for a sustainable product: has a long shelf-life, can be washed and reused, can be recycled as a dust cloth once worn out, is locally-made. I know of women in Madurai who paid for their children’s school fees by stitching the bags,” he says.

The manjal pai ’s roots can be traced to the fact that South Indians associate the colour yellow with auspiciousness. “Which is perhaps why the bag came in that colour,” says 82-year-old M Velayutham, the founder of publishing house Vijaya Pathipagam, Coimbatore. “Families used the bags to give wedding favors of coconuts and fruits. On it, they printed names of the couple along with the date of the wedding. I printed some for my daughter’s wedding in 1989,” he remembers.

People did not employ the bags only for shopping. “I used it as a school bag,” says Velayutham, recalling how he would walk with it in the crook of his arm. “I also took it when I travelled light,” he adds. Velayutham recalls that khaki bags made from the fabric spun at Binny Mills, in erstwhile Madras, were once popular too. So were slightly big white ones in which lentils and rice were sold.

Reused and repurposed

“My mother would tailor these into pillow covers with the printed portion turned inwards,” recalls A Pandimadevi, whose father owned a grocery shop in Dindigul. “Father used the same manjal pai for years, in which he carried the keys of the shop,” recalls the 60-year-old. “The first thing he did once back home was hang the bag by a nail on the wall.”

The bags have also been used to carry cash. “A businessman myself, I remember placing cash inside, folding it and walking with it secured at the armpit,” says M Pratap Kumar, who runs Gem & Co at George Town. “Stand at a street corner in North Chennai and you will see that it is still used by a lot of people today, especially senior citizens,” he observes.

With vintage value and precious memories associated with it, it is no wonder that some people will not part with their manjal pai . “My grandmother had a few that she would refuse to give away to her daughter or daughter-in-law no matter what,” laughs Krishnan. And as for my mother, I am sure she has another secret stash hidden in her almirah.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 1:05:28 am |