The rubbish, the recycling, the street.

Everyone who has been to India knows about the rubbish; the rubbish which piles in the corners, around the sides and on the ground, around the back and under the steps.  Those who do not look at ground level too long, but just above, have a better time in India.  The cities are the worst and often the tiniest villages with the least “facilities” are the cleanest. My own eye level has mostly been above rubbish level for almost 20 years now, how time has flown. I look at the shiny bindis on display and the tiny sparkles in people’s eyes. I love India but of course not the rubbish - especially the PLASTIC rubbish that nobody wants. It flaps in the trees and gets stuck in the bushes, or lies soiled in the gutter. It frequents every street. But there is a thing about the rubbish in India… most of it is actually not rubbish. It is at best food for cows and dogs, monkeys and donkeys, all food waste gone. The disposable leaf plates on which fast food is delivered are also good roughage for cows.  These are sadly fast disappearing in the race for cheaper and “better” plastic. Paper plates are more fashionable - but far less healthy for cows. I hate to see a cow chewing away at a plastic bag in the middle of the road.

Cardboard and paper, of course, is recycled by the paper pickers - famously small boys with long skinny legs, filthy clothes and huge bags in which to collect. The plastic bottles, that tourists drink mineral water from, are - please note here,   good to keep and hand over to these boys or indeed girls. They mean hard cash. I prefer not to crush them like the bottle sometimes suggests to “Avoid Misuse”, think of those people who do not have any vessels to carry anything in… how many people actually need them? 

The other plastic is the plastic cups that, sadly,  most chai across India is now dispensed in. Twenty years ago all chai came in a glass that was washed and reused or a mutki cup, small clay cup. You would drink your chai and throw the cup away. It would disintegrate on the railway tracks, become part of the road, another bit of the dust, friendly reddish dust. A great product, "Use and Throw", said the proud Indian man who first saw me admire them. Now most chai comes out of a tiny, extremely poor quality plastic cup that threatens to implode when you pick it up. It somehow does not enhance the experience of drinking the chai. These cups build up in corners, sickly sweet corners with flies gathering. And now too, the leaf plates and leaf bowls that tasty roadside food vendors would dish out their food in, are fast disappearing in favour of plastic and paper plates. This really upsets me since the leaf plates are themselves amazing pieces of art, stitched together with tiny twigs.

Pushkar Lake is the closest beauty/holy
 spot to me X
I get quite upset to see big cars arrive in beauty spots in India, full of huge families, tired and squashed with travelling. They all get out, stretch,  and gape at the view. All have a mango juicy drink, throw the carton and straw on the ground, pile back in and drive away. Someone else will pick up the mess...

 So this time I am again in India with more time for a creative flow and with the summer collection ready and the invites for the show underway,  I’m working on new ideas and the world is in economic turmoil, petrol prices are up and everyone is talking about banks, property, land, silver and gold prices and China and Europe and everything is up in price. Even onions are more expensive than in the UK, due to some kind of corruption seemingly only available in India. Many Indian Business folk wave the air and simply say “world” when we try to bargain our price.

In this climate I don’t feel the urge to start splurging money, my business head says “be cautious”. I know we have lot of work to do with the increasing range of clothing made from recycled saris, in fact 1500 saris are piling up at my door to be selected and sorted, colour coordinated. My order goes out to Teja Ji who lives in a tiny mud hut village we normally visit every year. All the families in the village are involved with recucling. They buy scrap materials from the garment industry and sort them out. Bits of old and new embroidery make bags, wall hangings. I am thinking a lot about recycling.

I start to look at the rubbish, avert my eyes down to street level. It is free, (at least it is kind of free.. until people start to collect it for me!) it is colourful, plentiful, sometimes interesting… in fact I should do that archive of biri/bidi wrappers that I have always thought would be an interesting excercise. Biris, pronounced bidies, are tobacco and leaf, hand rolled and with one quick stitch fastened, Indian cigarettes. They are paper wrapped in bundles of 20 or 10 and cost about 8p a pack.  The is no national brand of biri, they are locally made in villages and each local brand has its own unique paper packet, sometimes with an interesting sticker, often with a photo or drawing of the man who founded the biri business. These stoic photos of Indian entrepreneurs look out from the biri packets proudly, in a way only Indians know how.

These great figures of biri brands remind me of the huge photos of deceased that stare out at you. When your parents die in India you often get their photo and get it printed huge poster size. The photo is  then framed,  put in a prominent position, often in an office or a shop or business that they have founded and  everyday a garland of fresh marigolds is used to adorn the ancestors photo. Sometimes these photos stare out at you a bit over poweringly, making you feel bad for wondering if their sons or grandsons are cheating you,  or not doing your jobs today but tomorrow, tomorrow and again tomorrow.
All biri packets also now have “tobacco smoking is injurious to health” labels and some badly printed photos of terribly sore gummy mouth diseases caused by smoking.  The packaging of the biri, along with all kinds of other local products has slowly got cheaper and nastier over the years of course, some of the cut out stickers have disappeared. Still there is a  charm to the packaging that is quintessentially Indian, and worth documenting since I have a feeling the biri is on its way out. I even find a few oldish tin plate adverts for biris and other older parafanalia in an old curious antique shop with a charming owner, Krishna, whose twin sons go to the same school as our Daniel.  Slowly it seems that lots of things are disappearing from the subcontinent in place of newer more desirable and “western” alternatives.

So, I need to start collecting the rubbish. I arrive in Pushkar and the business folk are eager for me to start the work…but for the moment they will have to wait since as I walk along the street my eyes fall to ground level, to the rubbish, and I am instantly drawn into the world of the paper picker,  the street sweeper, the harijan. The look of shock and disbelief on every ones face “what are you doing Madam?”! I have of course become “pagal”, crazy.

After just a couple of days it becomes apparent to me that I need some help to collect. Trelock, my Indian friend/brother, after some badgering agrees to take me out to the rubbish dump. There are plenty of places to stop on the way and I find myself on the back of his bike, curb crawling on the filthiest streets looking for treasure. We stop and start and get quite a bit collected,  but we soon realise that much of it is just too filthy to catch. It is a slow process to sift, and we wonder about poos and use our noses more than normal. At one point as we scrummaged about under some steps near a group of old boys playing cards Trelock finally said “My god, here I am, a Hotel and restaurant owner, a tour leader an and International Traveller, and you now have me picking up this dirty rubbish on the streets of my home town”! Trelock is a very good natured fellow luckily for me.
“OK then Trelock, I will ask the man who sweeps Chotti area”
“He is untouchable Jo”
“and what does that have to do with anything?” I reply somewhat perturbed by his whole archaic caste attitudes!

Tara Chan is the majestically tall man who sweeps away the rubbish in our square. He is reported to have the biggest penis in the area too. This of course does not interest me in the slightest since I am a good catholic girl. I am only interested in his rubbish collection… not the really soiled ones. So I speak with him in my terrible hindi and he looks me straight in the eye and says he understands what I want,  biri papers, match boxes.
Dinu and Raju and the staff where I live with Trelock are all on alert to collect too,  and soon some of the brightest start to bring all kinds of rubbish into my boundary… I imagine the stuff piling up around my garden…“No no, no plastic please!”

But then in the spirit of take what you are given I do indeed start to look closely at some of the plastic that has been brought to me. I wash it and cut it open and look at it some more. Mostly it is shiny wrappers of single portions of chewing tocacco, pan, breath freshners, suparis. Lots of Indians chew various things throughout the day, or after supper in the evening. Some chew and spit all day, a fairly unsavoury habit, but the things they chew are not all nasty tobaccos. So these chewing things are sold in tiny plastic pouches. In fact I read once about the penniless villager who fist discovered that  packaging things up in 1 rupee plastic pouches made products affordable to millions of people who would otherwise never afford them. He became very rich from this idea. I am familiar with the shampoo pouch and the washing detergent pouch, both useful items for the traveller, but less familiar with all the other shiny pouches, some of which are full of things that quietly get you off your face.

The pouches are indeed interesting and I find myself washing them, drying them, sticking them, sewing them together with silver thread. I soon realise that some, despite being washed are just too noxious to work with, these all have a black scorpion on them to warn the purchaser of the poison contained within. I start to make laminated book covers with them…and various bits of art….so the hunt begins for turquoise , blue and green brands, and Tara Chan is told to add things to his list. He now comes every few days with my bag of rubbish which I pay him a little for. Actually I pay him  more than I feel comfortable telling my middle class Indian friends about,. They would say “you spoil him Jo” I think actually that they spoil my 4 year old son Daniel. Tara Chan is never going to be rich from this.
When he comes he likes to empty the rubbish right on my doorstep and sift through it messily to make sure there is not anything of his own fallen amongst it. I would rather he did not do this on my front doorstep but I don’t want to fuss at him about babies and uncleanliness, it all seems somewhat inappropriate.

luckily the baby has an adoring trail of people to entertain her.
Then comes the news in the paper.. THE GOVERNMENT ARE BANNING THE POUCHES! They want rid of the plastic rubbish that collects and they want rid of these terrible chewing tobaccos. Good news for cleaner streets and mouths and good news for my arty collages which we are now making into book covers, with beautiful handmade paper inside. The books will be collectable! And so will my art!
Some people though! Really MEAN! I stand in front of their shop looking at the rubbish I can see they are about to throw and I say I am collecting and can I have it. They ignore me, or demand payment. I took to saying “I will become lakh Pati if you give me a piece of your rubbish, will you help me become rich from your rubbish?!” Some laughed out loud at this and willingly gave me stuff, others still scowled grumpily, or worst still completely ignored me. (He must really dispise me that man.) Trelock’s sister in law however has a brother with a shop selling all this stuff in Bikaner. He is willing to collect! This is great for me. Brands are local  so there ill be a wealth of other designs and colours! She asks him to collect from the people as they buy, eat, throw and go. Lots comes from him and lots of different brands that I can not find in my town.

Sorting and washing and drying, I can piece together tiny threads of the people who came into my town that day. Every day many Hindu pilgrims from all over India come to Pushkar. They are on their life’s pilramage to the only place in the world where there is a temple to the great God Brahma. They say prayers at the Lake. Many bereaved men come too, to scatter ashes in the holy water, with their freshly shaved heads still raw with the sharp edge of death. They carry baskets with ashes to throw in the holy water.  Their brothers, or uncles may have similar baskets with ashes in them, and similarly shaved heads, but they will have gone to Banaras to the Ganges, or to the source of the great Holy river in the Himalayas.

Lots of these people drop rubbish and some of it inevitably ends up on my doorstep. I like to think of the three farmers from Maharastra who all drank chai together, just on the street outside here, and all smoked their own brands of biri, all smoked the last bidi from their village, and then dropped their rubbish and went to find a tobacco shop! I think of the last biri in the pocket of a bereaved son who has travelled on a night bus from Gujarat with his young son to say his final goodbye.  Was that last biri the one he smoked just before he went down to the lake and found a priest to perform the poojah and scatter the ashes… or was it the one he needed just after the act had been performed? The karma, after the karma?

I think and sort, and think and stick, and the thinking is too much. What I am doing is a drop in the iceberg, is almost nothing. Tiny working ant.. Indian friends laugh and look at the work in disbelief. Lalit said “People will buy this?” My foreign friends think it is “Great”, especially the folk who love India. Most people think I am mad.

Then I realise that eventually all these plastic pouches will disappear and the one rupee portion will only be available in fifty or one hundred rupee containers. How the street will change. And what is actually available? Jam? All kinds of masalas and spices, pickels, chutneys, so many items. For under fifty rupees which is about .80p you can buy an array of products to stock your kitchen for a few days. I shock a couple of shopkeepers by going out on a mission to buy them all. They should be documented too. If these all disappear then what happens to the people who actually cannot afford to buy more of that today. And what happens to that whole culture in India of only taking what you need, today? That habit we could really do with.   Alex reckons this is what corporate business will push for with their packing because it is not cost effective to produce in tiny pouches. Who knows? Only that the world here in India is smelling a bit different. Since the last 10 years as the multi national companies have been allowed into the Indian market lots has changed, even the rubbish. And as the local businesses struggle to compete and many have had huge success in this huge economy, many people too have just been left behind. They can not afford even biris now since they have very recently gone up to .15p for 25 almost double in price in one year.

my morning work table, waiting for todays delivery of rubbish!
some of the books we made.

And on a final note, why is it now that dispite the terrible rubbish problem in India that they are actually world leaders in recycling. So the infastructure is not in place for rubbish collection in the way we have grown to expect but indeed most things are recycled and the Government has actually banned use of all plastic bags in Delhi! Some years back?! So why are there still plastic bags everywhere? Well because of course it is impossible to enforce this rule.. but it is actually a rule.. and now the newest thing is that they are going to ban the companies from making plastic bags. So in response they are forced to make something else which is now readily available not just in Delhi but all over this touristy town too. (Lots of “right on” hippies have frequented this place for years and some of it has rubbed off on the locals) It is some kind of  light felt made from fibres, very fine bags. Even a big supermarket in Jaipur last week sold Alex some baby food in a bag made from recycled sari material. So please please India, back to the clay mug for chai and the leaf plate for picnics! And then lead the rest of us firstly how to use less, and secondly recycle more. Why is it that our own government has not already done this? Thinking of the huge amount of packing churned through our system, chocolate ├ęclair containers spring to mind, I can not believe the amount of rubbish we deem acceptable. But then, must not think of those whilst I am here. They are not available here at all!
Get back to my real job, recycling saris and checking wall hangings made from scraps of material. Then it is back to the other side of the business, the silver jewellery and the price of silver is sky high so I look more and more at semi precious stones and a few precious in the mix and start to make bead necklaces.. but of course it is much more profitable to work with these expensive items.. or is it?!