As a teen, I had evidently spent too much time at the local British Council Library. When I wasn’t researching for my college project, I read up about the harmful effects of plastic on the environment. I didn’t understand much of the scientific details. However, it was pretty apparent that when my father scrunched up the remnants of our packed lunch into a packet and squeezed it through the bars of the train window to dispose it, it would leave a trail of non-biodegradable plastic along the lush countryside we were passing through. To be fair to my father, back in the 1980s, this was the most convenient way to dispose things during train journeys. To be fair to me, I don’t remember why I picked that particular day to speak up.
I tried reasoning with my father about why we should not treat the countryside like a communal dustbin. I could offer no solutions, other than to either stuff the packet down the always-too-small, already full, cockroach-infested dustbin under the washbasin at the end of the compartment, or to keep it with us and let it ferment overnight under our seats, attracting aforementioned cockroaches until we found a dustbin at our destination the next morning. I suspect that a midnight tryst with cockroaches must have weighed heavily on his mind, because he seemed to have had enough of his offspring’s precocity, and flung the packet out of the window.
That I had drastically cut down on my use of plastic bags was of no consequence if I couldn’t convince my own family to do the same.
My father proceeded to read his newspaper, and my mother tried to find ways to keep me and my brother from squabbling. The train sped past the tropical countryside of Kerala, rendered emerald in the gloaming and I spent much of that evening imagining all manner of fauna foraging in that wilderness. In a twist that typified much of Malayalam cinema’s penchant for unexpected endings, my imaginings ended with a spotted deer choking to a painful death on the disposable plastic spoon I had used that very afternoon.
I wonder, if I would have been better off, if either of my parents had pulled me aside that day and given me perspective about how learning curves differ by person or if I could predict that one day, my father, having long forgotten that train journey, would enthusiastically introduce me to biodegradable packaging. Casting aside his role as an authoritarian, he would genuinely seek my advice and consider my point of view. But back then, the word ‘parent’ was not a verb, and I was still early on the learning curve about learning curves.
Perhaps that early inarticulate attempt played a part in my becoming a writer. When I write, I can bang out an essay like this in the time it takes for one to troop down to the nearest dustbin to dispose off the remnants of one’s lunch. But words continue to fail me when I speak — I still blub in frustration as my emotions block my ability to present a valid argument. I become the teen who couldn’t convince her father against throwing waste out of a moving train.
On some days, living in a city with a large senior citizen population, I come up against this wall of ageism that demands obedience from the young, or in my 40-something case, the relatively young. It even happens with complete strangers. I relive the raging helplessness — the heat rising to my face, the smarting of my eyes and the acrid taste of futility — that I would encounter often as a younger person who was sometimes wise beyond her years and too earnest for her own good.
I didn’t grow up to be the environmental activist I could have been. I assumed that I had to be convincing enough, didn’t know how to argue, and hadn’t yet added nagging to my arsenal. Also, for the longest time, I believed that I was responsible for the outcome of any argument that I was part of. That I had drastically cut down on my use of plastic bags was of no consequence if I couldn’t convince my own family to do the same. What luck would I have with the rest of the world?
In hindsight, my belief didn’t take into account that my father belonged to a different age group, generation and had a different set of life experiences and belief systems than my teen self. In my father’s case, it was understandable why garbage would be inconsequential on his list of priorities when he spent half the month touring his sales territory by road and train.
I thought I had given up my expectations of others making sustainable choices, until maybe a decade later. I was now married, and had a new family. Emboldened by articles on the subject that were now appearing on the internet and in Indian media, I had an engaging conversation with my husband and my mother-in-law. We were all on the same page, but when it came to actually changing our lifestyle, it amounted to little. It all came to nought over hardwired habits.
While my husband adapted quickly where logic was involved, my mother-in-law’s reluctance to change would set off a fresh self-inflicted inquiry into my inability to change the world by changing people. On some days, my mother-in-law returned from the vegetable shop with a plastic bag containing produce. On other days, the bag of produce would also contain each type of vegetable ensconced comfortably in its own plastic bag. I took to nagging her about the flowers for the daily puja being delivered in the flimsiest of plastic bags, until she took to leaving a cloth bag in the letterbox for the flower seller to use. Still, those flowers turned up in plastic bags that would go into hiding, discovered months later in the Bag of Bags in the kitchen, with pressed flowers to honour the memory of the day they came to us.
It was with a sense of relief that I greeted the first day of 2019, when the Tamil Nadu government’s ban on disposable plastics came into effect.
No amount of logic can create change in a society that prizes plastic bags enough to store them in the lockers of our steel ‘berows’. I realise that my parents and my mother-in-law’s generation had left behind the frugality and the (incidentally) sustainable ways of the generation before them, to savour the sweeping changes of convenience brought into their lives – nuclear families, two-wheelers, television and disposability in the form of plastic bags, paper cups, Styrofoam, aluminium foil and cling film. The frequent arguments between my generation and theirs are not about politics or sports, but about the pointlessness of non-stick cookware when metal scrubbers are involved and the ineffectiveness of NRI-relative-gifted ziplock pouches with their pouty mouths left tantalisingly unsealed.
It became increasingly apparent that all this was causing a lot of conflict, mainly for me. I was nagging my family on one end, and feeling guilty about it. And over the years, I had turned into my authoritarian father from my teen years.
It was with a sense of relief that I greeted the first day of 2019, when the Tamil Nadu government’s ban on disposable plastics came into effect. The onus of ensuring that my family (and the entire state) lived more sustainably no longer rested on my weary shoulders.
But that’s not how this story ends. Exactly a day after the ban, my mother-in-law returned from the vegetable shop and narrated how she reprimanded a couple for not bringing their own bag. She told off the shopkeeper for continuing to use plastic bags after the ban. So what if their new bags, possibly food starch ones, hadn’t arrived? When a relative whined to her about the ban, wondering how she would manage without disposable plastics, my mother-in-law simply brushed it off, saying that she would just have to get used to carrying cloth bags like the rest of us.
I gently chided her that this trendiness on her part had come after two whole decades of my incessant nagging, but it took just one day since a government ban, for her burst of activism to kick in. I said it, not only to prove a point about how right I had been all along, but to hint that as a new activist with the backing of a government sponsored ban, she had it much easier in convincing people to change, than I had as an individual, all these years. But I also anticipate that if I keep up the ’I-told-you-so’s, she will have the last word by magnanimously complimenting my younger self for being ahead of her time.