For the past four months or so, we went through research papers, news stories, blogs and other personal accounts on garbage. We met people involved with waste management in the city. And slowly, garbage slipped from being an afterthought to something intimate, tied intricately to the way we live. Some thoughts.
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My great-grandmother had a sleek cap of silver hair pulled back neatly into a bun like a spun egg. After a tragedy in the family, she became hypertensive, which meant salt was something she could not indulge in. She had recently crossed 40. But she continued to make pickles, salted and spiced for her brood.
Every summer, she would sort out kilos of raw mangoes, wash them, and dry them with a special towel, worn out with years of use. Then she would slice them patiently, while we watched. She would grant us a few pieces, depending on her mood. We urchins were not allowed to touch, for picklemaking is an exacting process, any bit of moisture from tiny unwashed fingers, and the whole batch could end up inedible.
I found myself thinking about my great-grandmother and her pickles after we visited Daily Dump, an organisation that works to change the way we think about waste. Lisa, whom we spoke to at Daily Dump told us about how some time ago, we ate food that was freshly made, wrapped in leaves, which we would throw out after use. Composting was not such a big concern. But now things have changed.
I buy pickles; they come in different shapes and sizes. Glass jars, plastic containers, metallized plastic packets, and even the occasional artisan-made bottle. The labels promise me that they are made from recipes passed on by grandmothers, and it makes me smile. My great-grandmother’s nose, skin, and eyes that were ringed with blue seemed to guide her. I am not sure how she could have written that down in terms that involve precise teaspoons and measuring cups.
The colourful, smartly designed info-charts at Daily Dump told us that it is prohibitively expensive to recycle metallized plastic packets. And so they end up in landfills. These metallized plastic packets are any of those packets that hold branded chips and savouries. The ones with a steel-coloured inside and a brightly coloured outside.
The porcelain jars my great-grandmother’s pickles were stored were never brightly coloured. A stripey ochre-yellow and white affair, they seem to have now become keepers of nostalgia. From these giant jars, a small amount of pickles used to be transferred to smaller bottles for daily use. With a dry spoon, carefully wiped, of course.
My great-grandmother never tasted any of the pickles she made. Not even one quick dab with a finger and smack of lips. I lack her discipline. There are rows of unused dabbas – impulse purchases, some disastrous experiments, and some out of sheer boredom. All would go soon to the waste bin.
What is deemed as ‘refuse’ is a function of utility and value in a culture driven by consumption. Every object has to be explained in terms of both—how useful is it and how valuable is it. Once the utility has been lost, the value vanishes too. And with that, our relationship with the object ends as consumers.
My mother continues to use the vessels her grandmother gave her. I use the vessels my mother did. There is a relationship with that material object, a relationship that grants meaning both to the object and her life.
Any ‘human’ relationship is like that. The connections do not die with death. There is ceremony, ritual, and grieving associated and that’s for the living too, not just for the dead. When my great-grandmother died, there was a celebration of sorts. My younger self was aghast, and it took awhile for my parents to explain that her life was a rich, full one, and death is but natural.
It is a human way of seeing, and that relationship we do not share with the objects of ‘use’ today, though we do live in an ecology increasingly characterized by these artifacts. Then there’s something deeply divisive within us, something broken. If we cannot form a full relationship with things, these things we have designed for ourselves.
Perhaps, the way we see ‘garbage’ is not just about questions of health and sanitation, it is about what it means to be human in today’s world.