A simple toolkit

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simple toolkit
A simple toolkit: natural wisdom. Photo taken at: Navdanya, India

Outrage, judgement, apathy, sadness, uncertainty, contemplation, solidarity, and reform, are words that are gaining in personal significance, to describe shared reactions to neatly categorised and conceptually organised political, economic, social, and environmental world events. But is this unidimensional structure all there is to the events, or is there something else that elicits in us this range of responses? For me, these events, regardless of categorisation and location, are analogous to a bowl of clear water in which, if I look, I see reflected my own image. Therefore, the reactions.

How can events such as, the farmer protests in Delhi, India, the arrest of Disha Ravi, a 22-year old climate activist from Bangalore, or the burning of effigies and posters of a singer from the United States of America and an environmental activist from Sweden, reflect my image? Unless actively involved, where do I come into sight?

When I looked at the farmer protests, what I saw staring back at me was my judgement: there it was an unpleasant image of me. Rather than giving me a clear view into someone else’s character, the impetus to judge made me see that my character needs to develop in strength.

This realisation and the accompanying agitation made me drop all judgement. I decided instead to take another look at the event and carefully choose my response. I chose not to let propaganda dictate how I apply myself, and I chose not to fall prey to hatred, avarice, and apathy: three friends that, unlike the three wise men, come to pay homage not to a compassionate mind but to a mind filled with ignorance.   

I chose instead to understand where in the case of the farmer protests does our collective benefit lie? 

Collective benefit is not the underlying goal of modern economics, because if it were then we would not have poverty, hunger, and depleted natural resources. And as part of the human collective, it serves us well to remember this without cynicism. 

Collective benefit does not require us to have a homogenous identity. It requires neither nationalism nor globalisation. It requires freedom. Only when we are free will we have the compassion and courage to take individual responsibility that is imperative to developing collective benefit. 

This understanding carries us beyond social freedoms to where the mind is free of self-serving ideologies: Rigoberta Menchu, David George Haskell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Banksy are eminent yet unobvious examples of this freedom. And like them are many others less eminent who make our everyday world that much more sane.   

So, in context of the protests, you and I can look to the youth of India for inspiration, and we can serve collective benefit by a simple and undramatic act of individual responsibility: We can choose well-being over convenience.

When we choose well-being, we will no longer be manipulated to generate demand for produce that is not seasonal, local, and indigenous (native). 

Eating seasonal, local, and indigenous produce will enable natural cycles to steer consumption. There will be no cash crops for traders and corporations to sell at a profit; this would mean no monoculture (cultivating a single crop in continuous cycles, in a given area), no need for unreasonable yields, and no depletion of soil expedited by our ignorance. Without demand trends to spike prices, traders and corporations will have little incentive to be part of this fragile and important sector—fragile because of climate uncertainties, and important because of delicate ecological interdependencies and because of our reliance on life-sustaining nourishment. 

This may seem like a simple view of a complex affair, but it is so only if we look through the lens of modern economics or politics. Deep truths lay below the complexity of human concepts, in a clear place where it is easy to see that in choosing well-being rests our collective benefit and our freedom. 

Our act of simple, good sense, if taken, may topple the structure of self-serving economic ideologies—the structure on which stand the hatred, avarice, and apathy that we are witnessing in world events. Would ours then be an act of non-violence, or will it be termed as a seditious act of anti-government sentiment?   

True Cost

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True Cost
Designed in the US, made in China using Italian fabric, and worn in India

A week back while I sat in the car waiting for my father, outside the branch of a commercial bank, I noticed a young man walking on the pavement. He was drinking soda from a green, plastic bottle that he thoughtlessly chucked at the corner of the pavement after chugging the soda in a hurry. I watched the urgency in his movement. As hurriedly as he chugged the soda and chucked the bottle, he turned to a street vendor minding mobile phone covers displayed colourfully on a wooden cart. 

The young man and the vendor exchanged words continuously while the man picked and examined various mobile covers. He finally chose one, paid the vendor, and left. Leaving no trace of his presence except for the chucked bottle. 

Segue into our homes; what do we see? Waste bins or trash cans (earlier called, waste-paper-basketsintentionally highlighted) filled with pieces and strips of plastic packaging, chocolate wrappers, and potato chip packets; replace these with protein bars and trail mix packs of the body conscious. Regardless of the contents or the branding, the packaging is the same: plastic and aluminium, with bits of paper included, chucked casually in the bin.

The corner of the pavement and the corner of our homes are different forms of architecture, and their function and design make them visually distinct, but they both hold trash—a trace of our presence. 

Consumerism, a movement that began in the 1950s, with an increase in industrial production and an improvement in chemical compounds that nature cannot breakdown, made it easier for us to package, transport, and store, and therefore to consume with urgency and without pause or thought. 

If we do decide to pause and are pushed not by the urgency of the young man (the urgency latent in consumerism), we may be forced to ask what is the true cost of the soda bottle, the mobile cover, or of our chocolates and protein bars? 

It’s a calculation you and I need to make, because equity traders, investment bankers, corporations, brands, and our educational institutions aka advertising agencies and digital media platforms are not going to do it for us.

To calculate true cost, we must include the following cost items

  1. Raw materials or ingredients used
    Are they renewable or non-renewable, local or imported. 
  2. Location or origin of these materials and ingredients
    If it’s native to your region then it’s more nutritious than acai berries and more sustainable than bamboo.
  3. Estimated amount of water used to grow, farm, or produce
    When you’re uncertain if rainwater has been used, consider water as a non-renewable resource in your calculation.
  4. Cost of extracting non-renewable fossil fuel
    Fracking injects liquid into the ground at high pressure to force open fissures and extract oil and natural gas. It has an undesirable impact on the seismic movement below, the activity that causes earthquakes.
  5. Place of manufacturing or making
    Does it need to be made in Italy or in China? Aren’t we skilled enough to create beautiful design and utility?
  6. Distance travelled to reach us
    The shorter the distance the better.
  7. Consumption trend to assess if it’s a high demand product
    The higher the demand the wider the distribution, and more the carbon footprint. Beware it’s a trend.
  8. The influence of advertising on our free will
    A mind that gives up agency is a deprived mind; a slave to propaganda.
  9. Impact of packaging on the environment
    Compostable, biodegradable, or long-life (immortal): Do we need packaging that lives longer than us? 
  10. Livelihood and wages of farmers, miners, workers, makers, artisans, machine operators
    Equal dignity. Equal Pay – Hold brands responsible to ensure they pay everyone in the value chain equally, because the computer engineer cannot do the work of the delivery boy, and both are essential for fulfilment. 
  11.  Price of contentment and our involuntary submission to greed
    Economics governs everything, then why leave out our sanity? If contentment is indeed priceless then it must be placed at the very top of the true cost list. Will that change the cost of the things we buy?

I recall the days when I went to Banana Republic and Gap, before we had Mango, Zara, and H&M arrive in India. I was thrilled to find a bargain on the sales rack, and even more pleased that I chose clothes only made of natural fibre in Bangladesh or India. 

It never occurred to me to calculate the true cost of these clothes. Ten or Fifteen US Dollars felt like a great deal. How far I have come since those days, and today this list of eleven does figure in my calculations. I consume now with less urgency and with a lot more contentment.

Choose a natural resource that you care deeply about and get started. I began with water and the implications of our production and consumption cycle on ground water resources. 

Wake up and turn out the lights

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Lost lives
Wake up and turn out the lights

When a glacier bursts do we hear our heart break?
When people go missing do we feel our heart ache?
When families cry do we shed tears?
We in our urban settings should hang our heads in shame
For the floods that drowned the cries of the people at Chamoli, Uttarakhand, carried the force of our greed. 
The climate has changed; what about our ways?
Can we change now while we hear the screams and feel the pain?

Let’s pledge to change one thing in our personal consumption cycle (whether of raw materials or products) and walk out of the shadows into the starlit night to brighten not our streets but to lighten our imprint on the planet and on the lives lost at Uttarakhand. 

Take a step on https://www.count-us-in.org and let’s make a difference together. I have signed up for a step titled Green Your Money on Count Us In. This means that for two months I pledge to only invest in businesses with sound environmental processes and practices. This is my second time signing up for the step. What step will you take?

Each of us is a consumer first

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Nature–life–consumption: we are consumers first

Do you think of yourself as a consumer like you think of yourself as a gender, a child, a parent, a professional? Each of these roles defines and shapes our self-image then why not the role of consumer? 

We have all been consuming natural resources from the day of our birth (our first gulp of air is a natural resource). Does reflecting on this thought reframe our narrative as consumers? 

Do we even have a consumer narrative or are we buying and consuming merely what is easily accessible or what is socially and culturally appreciated?

As an observer, writer, and initiator of a project that is trying to reduce consumer carbon footprint by integrating consumption choices with the production cycle, I question the consumer’s role in production? 

It may be sufficient for some of us to have an inactive, lopsided relationship with what we consume, but for those of us who see the far-reaching impact of individual choice this inactive arrangement is not enough: In a species and in nature, individual choices influence collective realities. Your reality, not just physical but also mental and emotional will be influenced unequivocally by my choices though we may never meet or cross paths. Nature is intricately connected, and we may be close to forgetting but we are still part of nature.   

It will be unfair if I expect you to take all this in and become an engaged consumer. Yet in the face of climate emergency we need to rise. Do we have the capacity? If not, how do we build that collective capacity? Can we ask this question, while empathising with our varied and changing social, cultural, emotional, and economic realities? 

We have now climate emergency on one end and our varied spectrum of changing realities at the other, both can’t be ignored. However, one is irreversible after a point and the other is transient yet influential. To move ahead, we need to link the two. With what? Life. 

Life is nature: they are not distinct. To be an engaged consumer that’s where we need to begin: by asking if the process that went into making, packaging, and transporting a product is respectful of life. Asking is our bridge. It will take us consumers into the production cycle. 

Here is a list of eleven questions that we can convert into steps towards making conscious purchase choices.

  1. Made by hand? – Yes
  2. Made using clean energy, such as solar, wind? – Yes
  3. Made by reusing and recycling water? – Yes
  4. Made without harming the soil’s natural composition, i.e. without increasing soil toxicity (the pH balance that we all love in our skin care products) – If possible then yes for certain
  5. Made locally or in a region where it can be transported over land? – Yes
  6. Packaged with a complete ingredient list – Worth reading and looking at
  7. Packaged in single-use plastic? – Do not buy
  8. Packaged in reusable materials? – Buy only if needed; you don’t want your house to become a store-house
  9. Packaged in recyclable materials? – Okay only for staples, such as spices and grains, and indispensables like toothpaste!
  10. Transported over land? – Works
  11. Transported by Air? – Do not buy except when your laptop or phone breaks down

When you buy from small, independent, and local producers, designers, and makers, you can ask if they will ship your purchase with minimal packaging if practical or take back their packaging to sterilise and reuse. You will be surprised at how willing they may be to accommodate your request. 

I have made such requests with many producers and suppliers in India, including Black Baza for coffee beans—they now ship to me without plastic packaging in unbleached, brown paper bags using ground transport only. Saucery during the subsequent delivery take back their containers used for preservative-free pasta sauces. Gouri’s Goodies joyfully agreed to keep aside for me orange and dark chocolate squares without the individual plastic wrapping. I simply picked these up whenever I was close to their workshop and kitchen.  

The consumer’s imprint on production may reduce production’s imprint on the planet. With this in mind, is it possible to ignore our role as consumers?

Writing Verse

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony
Writing verse

Awaken

Sky studded with stars
Gazing down from above
While we gaze from below
Separated by form and space
One seen, the other felt
One holds, the other held
Zephyr, a storm
Moonlight, rays of the sun
All in motion. All one.

Choose

Those who don’t
To apathy succumb
Those who do
Depths explore
Then they rise
With beauty in their eyes
For wisdom rests within

Love

A mind that surrenders
Feels
Love’s soft pulse
Manifest in form

Fare (you) well

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I stood near you
Hidden by your girth
Safe as though in an embrace.
Blissfully unaware
For there was little else to be known.

I knew not then that you would go
How could I?
For you were there before.
Your presence preceded mine
But now my gaze will watch you fall before ’tis time.

On the ground you shall lay
This would not have been, had nature had its way.
The ways of man are confounding indeed
And the mark of greed is such
It erases all
Even the one who did the deed; (Forget ye not).

Felled when you shall be
Empty space will your presence hold
Like it held your form
My eyes however will lose the awe
With which I looked up high
To see birds swing on your branches
And squirrels scuttle along
The owl, the parakeet,
And the coppersmith barbet, busy carving out a hole.

No wings have I,
But with tiny hands of a little girl I touched the surface of your bark
Your cork-the cells, my skin-the pores became one.
You and I, the large and small
Our truth it is the same
You will be gone, I bid you farewell. I too shall be gone someday.

May life beneath your bark not quiver
Your roots may they not cringe.
May you depart with dignity
That was yours while you stood tall.

A “bean” of truth received

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Bean of truth
“Bean” of Truth, a little larger than a grain

Note: I published this post first on November 26, 2020. Two days later, I removed it. A friend raised a question about the intellect’s capacity to understand Truth, and I realised then that my words were falling short of communicating what I intended to. This time the post in more true to my own experience and understanding. It will be wonderful if you read it and maybe even share your own beans of truth.

Please excuse me, I have a book in my hands.

That’s how precious Gora is. The 569-page masterpiece by Rabindranath Tagore is not a tome compared with the 1000-page book on mathematical theorems that my father handed me when I asked for help with a beginner-level math problem, as a junior college (high school) student. That book I was eager to hand back. But Gora, I could not put down. It revealed to me the brilliance of an insightful mind in its delicate ability to untie the strings of complex inner journeys, with a natural simplicity that brings humility and therefore joy to the mind of a reader.

What started gradually as a casual read of a page or two over my morning coffee, soon transformed into devoted immersion. I found myself surrendering to the beauty of an honest narrative that conveys insights beyond the grasp of the intellect.

Like a starved individual deprived of a meal for longer than the body can manage and mind can accept, I relished each word of Gora, with deep appreciation and abandon. How grateful I feel for this nourishment.

Gora is set in a time when women were secondary citizens of India, and yet the womenfolk in this story shone with the depth of purity, strength, and unconventional rebellion (often not illustrated in female heroes of an oppressed society). Their revolt was not that of a self-indulgent mind, it was a rebellion born of social injustice and inner awakening.

The male characters too were courageously trying to cross the chasm of ideas and beliefs that are thrust upon men in patriarchal societies. This made me think of how ideas limit an individual, while they give rise to and shape society.

Society may help organise individuals, but at the cost of intolerance for those beautiful differences that give life its shades and colour. The differences that are permitted by society divide us into groups—sectarianism is not a symbol of diversity! It leads to schisms, as we have witnessed through human history and are witnessing today in many seemingly pluralistic and liberal societies. Why else are civil rights not equal for all, LGBTQ+ included? Why is a temple being built, where a mosque once lay? Why do politicians not work with each other to serve the wellbeing of all people?

Diversity is an individual characteristic.

When we turn away from our diversity to see only a specific shade within ourselves and others, we rob ourselves of free will. The only true expression of free will, seems to me, is in our acceptance of individual diversity. Most else is a consequence of events that we do not control, if this were not true would we be worrying about or disregarding the presence of a highly contagious virus?

The characters in Gora, rise to wisdom and succumb to ignorance through their submission to gentleness, affection, trust, rebelliousness, arrogance, hurt, and hurtfulness. Aren’t these but shades of an individual? While different characters may represent each of these shades, there exists within each of us this varied spectrum displaying the richness of diversity.      

How many of us have struggled at some point or the other to fit into the society we were born in? Have we never stripped ourselves of our particularities for fear of what lies outside the line? Even when we dare to venture, we find a group that we can identify with. Very few manage to step outside the line into an open space, where they reside in harmony with their changing nature.

Gora, through the interwoven lives of the characters and their individual journeys, shows how true understanding and freedom lie beyond the precincts of society, not by rejecting it but by not identifying with it. This subtle difference is illustrated in the heart’s journey towards Truth—not an absolute idea of what is correct and what falls short, but Truth as religion, manifest in its purest form as an accepting heart.

Gora, powerfully unveils the insufficiency of the intellect in solving the ills of society. The intellect by itself fails, deludes, and divides. Its ideas and ideologies, and its perceptions and reason drown in discord the consonance of an accepting heart. But beyond the reach of the intellect there flows a completely different stream of experience that challenges all ideas and perceptions. Reason cannot make sense of it and ideologies cannot restrict it. Only when the intellect surrenders to silence and when all views quieten can this flow be observed.

It is then that the intellect becomes insight, and hate is left behind.

The intellect now understands that ideas and ideologies differ, but experience is the same for you and I—your mind is agitated when you are subjected to criticism and injustice, so is mine; your mind hurts when your dignity is demeaned, so does mine; your mind fears the threat to physical safety, so does mine. When I acknowledge your right to emotional and mental wellbeing your mind is at ease, so is mine; when you stand up to safeguard my self-respect my mind rejoices, so does yours; when we can trust those around us our mind is in harmony, collectively.

Epilogue

Tagore wrote of this truth; S.N Goenka pointed out this truth; You and I can live this truth, if we choose to. All we need to do is to let go of ideas and ideologies, and surrender to silence.

Finding the Feminine: An internal shift.

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Feminine: An internal shift
Finding the feminine.

Feminine in English (Oxford Dictionary) is defined as having qualities and an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. In German, one of the definitions of feminine is too soft/weak. In Russian, a set of characteristics traditionally associated with women come under the definition, and one of the characteristics is readiness for sacrifice. In Arabic, a synonym for the word feminine is not strong enough, along with delicate, classy, beautiful.

As a single woman in her forties who has left youth behind, and who has and never had an “innate” desire for motherhood that seemingly comes naturally to our lot, I see myself turning time and again to the question about what is feminine and what is femininity? Is the feminine in me linked to my appearance, a set of qualities, or to missed motherhood?

At a social visit, where I went wearing a new and radically different look—from decades of long hair to a short-cropped haircut, it wasn’t just accepted or commented upon, not by my female associates. I was told that celebrity women cut their hair short in the forties to look young—a trend in Hollywood, apparently.

It just so happened that I had turned forty-one that year and crossed the line that justified this new look—justification is usually a longwinded denial of reality, and short hair of ageing.

Till then it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to look young now that I was in my forties. That’s when I decided that if I cannot age comfortably then appearance as a concept linked to femininity is one that I shall not accept. To imagine youth and being young as beautiful, and anything other than that as a reality that must be denied is subscribing to propaganda of the beauty industry.

One part of my question about what the feminine in me is linked to collapsed like a melting glacier, shrinking my dilemma by one third. While shedding part of a problem is welcome, losing sea ice is not! If we wish to refer to the Earth as Mother Earth and feminise nature then this analogy is appropriate.

Assigning characteristics to nature, to women, or to any group of individuals for that matter is a way to subscribe to generalisations and to straitjacket diversity. That’s why the trouble with accepting people who are transgender, queer, or homosexual.

We romanticise nature as being beautiful, pure, nurturing, healing, and therefore feminine, while we ignore that nature is also furious, destructive, violent. Does that make her masculine at such times? For one who has lived through a tsunami or an earthquake, nature is not beautiful and healing.

I see purity and beauty in me, as much as I witness in me fury and violence. This either makes me both feminine and masculine, or it renders characteristics redundant in describing gender.

This left me with the third part of my question—motherhood. Across the world, motherhood is celebrated as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. By giving motherhood a miss, was I shortchanging myself, or was I defying nature by not fulfilling the role it had assigned me in the cycle of life?

I like children and I enjoy their company. A child’s wonder and curiosity are more enchanting than the self-assured worldliness of us adults. They keep the simple as it is, while we take the joy out of the simple with our complexities.

Despite this appreciation of children, I was not inclined to motherhood—whether through adoption or childbirth. I am not an anomaly; there are others like me, and this makes the desire for motherhood in women a questionable belief: Another generalisation that makes it hard for us to accept our diversity. Black lives do matter; LGBTQ is a gender; He is human first, an African migrant later; She was a girl till we made her a Dalit girl.   

Without appearance, stereotypes, or motherhood to define femininity, where lies the link with the feminine? Perhaps, in being afeminine—no, this isn’t a spelling error.

The afeminine woman does not strive for equality with men, she endorses equity (fairness) towards all beings. She does not punish or pardon a criminal, she helps develop a culture of inner-transformation (example: Kiran Bedi, who the NY Times called an idealistic reformer). She shows that courage lies in resolving differences, not ignoring or perpetuating them.   

When she—the afeminine woman—calls out to her daughter to clear the table, she tells her son to do the dishes. She teaches both her daughter and her son to respect modesty as a virtue. She does not try to be the linchpin of the family, but instead encourages tolerance, interdependence, and moral sustenance. Dignity of labour, for her, encompasses her role as a homemaker, and the kitchen is as emancipating as her desk. Motherhood is a matter of personal choice, appearance is a happy countenance, and qualities that matter are those that help develop her character.