Walking through the busy streets of Triplicane (in Chennai, India) as a child, there’s one scene that always caught my eye- The flower sellers stringing beautiful Jasmine flowers while engaging in joyful banter with their counterparts. What fascinated me most, was the way their fingers worked with utmost ease and precision. While they chatted away, they seemed completely oblivious to the fact that their fingers twirled so artistically, as if in a dance. Those fingers worked magic! In a few minutes, they could easily string flowers the length of 3 or 4 cubits.
By now you must be wondering what all this has to do with the title. Well, just like these strung flowers, my memory of this scene is intertwined with some valuable insights from the past.
When these strung flowers were sold, they were carefully bundled in a piece of plantain leaf, or what we locally call the Vaazhai ilai, and tied up with the Vaazhai Naar, or the natural plantain fiber, and handed to the buyer. This Vaazhai Naar was also used as the twine to string these flowers together. But today, I see neither the leaf nor the fiber being used. These flowers are now conveniently packed in thin, clear polythene bags and arranged on the little table, ready for sale. Whether they do this for ease, or because plastic bags come cheaper than plantain leaves is something beyond me. But this is just one of the many ways plastic has invaded our lives.
Here’s another. Growing up, I remember soda pop came in reusable glass bottles, unlike the disposable pet bottles that dominate the shelves today. Tea/coffee shops used glasses or steel tumblers to serve beverages. Plastic or Styrofoam was never in the scene. We always wondered whether the steel tumblers/glasses being used in these shops and restaurants were cleaned well. But looking back, I feel they were so much safer than the health hazards caused by drinking hot beverages from Styrofoam and plastic cups, or packing hot food in plastic take-away boxes. Back then, when we opted to take away food from a restaurant (or ‘parcel it’, as we love to call it here), the food was first packed in plantain leaf, then wrapped in newspaper and tied with twine. The speed at which this was done by the seasoned hands of the ‘parceller’ was a sight to behold.
Similarly, disposable plates were hardly in use. I wonder how and when they managed to sneak into our homes. There’s no denying that they’re convenient. Not having to do the dishes after a party or get together means one big worry taken care of. But that doesn’t make them the best choice. Our moms and grand-moms however had an eco-friendly alternative when there were many guests. They simply served large meals in plantain leaf. And for smaller meals or tiffin, as it is referred to locally, the ‘Mandarai Ilai’ was used.
This Mandarai Ilai, is the leaf from the ‘camel’s foot’ tree. A few of these broad leaves are stitched together using tiny wooden sticks to make a round plate. This is also called ‘Thaiyal Ilai’, meaning ‘stitched leaf’. Sal leaves were also used in a similar fashion. Alongside being a natural, completely biodegradable alternative to paper/Styrofoam plates, all these leaves are believed to have a lot of medicinal value. And what’s more, once eaten from, these leaves didn’t go to waste. They became food to cows on the streets- A practice that seemed to blend into the food cycle very naturally!
Speaking of plantain leaves, I’m reminded of their use in weddings. Weddings in India are synonymous with good food! And in South Indian weddings, even today food is served in plantain leaf. But sadly, what has changed is the way water is being served. Small-sized disposable pet bottles have replaced steel tumblers. These bottles are given to the hundreds of guests who attend a wedding. Since typically Indian weddings involve not just one feast, but a minimum of 2, a staggering number of plastic bottles are thrown away by the end of a wedding. Each day, hundreds of weddings, business meetings and other events take place, where these bottles are being distributed. And as if enough damage hasn’t been done already, some people drink not just from one plastic bottle, but from many, and then grab a few more to-go!
Back then, carrying food and water from home was a key part of every outing, especially when on a train journey or road trip. While there was no question of buying water bottles on the go, we even carried tea/coffee in a flask. The cup that served as the lid of the flask was handy to drink from. And we felt absolutely no need for a disposable cup. Yes, it required more work and planning, but that was exciting in itself. But now, packing food for a journey means using aluminum foil, disposable plastic boxes, bottles, and plastic spoons.
Accompanying the adults of the family to buy groceries is another one of my vivid childhood memories. Sometimes we went to the nearest grocery store and sometimes to the mandi (a large wholesale market), where the items we needed were manually weighed in a balance, packed using old newspapers and tied with jute threads. No plastic packaging was used. The same applied to vegetable markets too. We always carried our own cloth bag or handwoven wire baskets to bring back veggies. But veggie-shopping in the current day involves bringing home 5 or 6 plastic bags on an average.
So where did we go wrong? How did these eco-friendly practices make a silent exit from our homes? Blame it on our changing lifestyle or our need for convenience in everything we do and everywhere we go, the blatant truth is that we are all plastic-dependent at some level. The key to freeing ourselves and our eco-system from the perils of plastic lies in our past. We have to bring back some of these long-forgotten practices- at least the ones that are viable in the current day- like taking reusable cloth bags for shopping and carrying a spoon and cup in our bags to avoid using disposable ones, remembering to take a water bottle from home, refusing plastic bags! A few simple strides and undeterred faith in the cause- these are the only things we need, to begin with. No doubt it’s going to be a long and tough war against plastic- but it’s one completely worth fighting!
Featured Image: FreePhotos