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January 6, 2000


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The Recycling Race

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Shoba Narayan

"Not only is our family idiosyncratic but they compete with each other's idiosyncrasies," said the man in the gray suit.

The innocuous action that prompted this denouncement was this: his father tore off the top half of a greeting card, wrote a charming message on it, and re-sent it to a friend, thus putting one good greeting card to two good uses.

"Why can't you just buy another greeting card? Why use every scrap of paper umpteen times?" the man in the gray suit lamented.

"This is a wasteful society," his father replied. "The amount of paper that gets wasted in this country is galling."

I agreed with the father, being no stranger to paper recycling myself. For years, I have written my grocery lists on the back of the coupons I get in my mail. I even tear the coupon in half if my grocery list is less than four items. I use the other half to write nasty notes to my dry cleaner for ruining my husband's shirt.

But none of us are a patch on the master of recycling -- my mother in law -- who would not only tear the top half of a greeting card and re-send it to someone else, but also re-send it without any message so the receiving party could reuse the top half of the greeting card.

Having entered my marriage fresh from a new-age graduate school where all the cool people were environmentalists who spoke of adopting babies simply to recycle the number of children in the world, I was full of admiration for my mother-in-law.

For years, my husband received birthday cards from his mother with nothing written inside, the rationale being that the sentiment of sending the card was more important than the hand-written words inside. The unwritten instruction to my husband, of course, was that he reuse his birthday card by sending it to someone else.

We are a race of recyclers -- we Indians. Our third-world thrift combined with the multiple uses that a resource-constrained society finds for each object causes us to be champion recyclers. The same plastic bag that is used to carry coconuts to the temple is then used to wrap idlis for the train journey, washed and reused as a head-covering during a sudden monsoon downpour and then reaches its final resting place as a mildly torn garbage bag.

While Americans use and throw away paper towels with gay abandon, Indians treat them like cloth, reusing paper towels to wipe kitchen counters after wiping their hands. We use shopping bags as garbage containers, never throw away the extra ketchup packets from McDonald's, and reuse our 20-pound plastic rice bags to carry pickles from India.

When I went back home, I was amused at how my mother had used and creatively reused all the gifts I sent her. Clinique's Turnaround Cream had been turned around into a container for camphor. An old Oil of Olay bottle now squeezed out sandalwood paste. An empty Godiva chocolate box contained smelly laddus and other prasadams that were too spoilt to eat but not spoilt enough to throw away and attract the wrath of the Gods. My mother received too much prasad from the temples she visited frequently for her to eat. For a while, she had fed dogs, cows and erstwhile sparrows the remnants of her prasad hoping to pass on some of the good karma. Then one day, our dog developed diarrhea after eating Lord Venkateswara's laddus, ending Amma's charitable distribution of prasadams to the animals surrounding her. The Godiva box came to the rescue and stored ancient foil-wrapped pieces of badam, pista, along with sacred ash, sandalwood, and kumkum that she collected from temples. And there they lay till someone in the house complained of the smell.

My father never throws out diaries, even old ones. He makes all his astrological calculations on diaries. During the years preceding my brother's marriage, Appa's diaries were filled with horoscopes of suitable girls, along with his comments on their merits and demerits. January contained a list of girls from Madras along with their biodata, horoscope and family background, February contained girls from Bombay, March from Delhi, April contained the names of girls recommended by friends, May represented close family friends who had daughters of marriageable age.

And so it went. Whenever he wanted me to look up some detail of a girl he was considering, he would call cryptically, "Look up January 28th's birth date. I want to make sure she is suitably younger than your brother."

My Dad is one of the few people who hates traveling with the requisite two gargantuan boxes that most Indians carry back and forth across the Atlantic. If it were up to him, he would come for a six-month visit to the US with a 60-inch box. This single-box practice of my Dad's would have continued forever were it not for my mother offering to help with my spring cleaning. When Amma saw me carrying garbage-bags full of clothes out to the curb one afternoon, she intervened.

"Why are you throwing away all those good clothes?" she asked.

"Well, they are old, and I have grown out of most of them. If we place them by the curb, the Salvation Army will pick it up for recycling," I replied.

"Why donate good quality clothes to the American Army when they can be used by the poor people back home?" my mother said.

After that, my father was forced to carry two suitcases. He came with one suitcase mostly empty and returned with it filled with old clothes that would be distributed to the servants, vegetable vendors, the flower lady, the iron-man, and all their respective children. When I returned I saw my old Gap T-shirt being worn by the iron-man's 14-year-old daughter. She had braided her hair with oil, worn a large vermilion dot on her forehead, washed her cheeks with fresh yellow turmeric, worn dangly Indian ear-rings and looked resplendent above the gray Gap T-shirt.

It gave me a queer sense of deja vu to watch the Levi's blue jeans (that I couldn't fit into) worn by the scrawny vegetable vendor, my husband's torn Ralph Lauren polo shirt on the flower-seller who we all called Midnight Manu because he was so black. All of them came and thanked us profusely for bringing them 'Amricaan,' clothes. With the characteristic generosity of the poor, the flower-seller gave me extra strings of jasmine, the fruit vendor gave me a few more oranges and the iron-man ironed my clothes for free, all in gratitude of my old clothes that I was going to throw away.

Nowadays, magazine articles have been written proving that recycling is a waste of time and doesn't help preserve the earth's resources. But I think that for us Indians, recycling is second nature and reflects our inborn outrage at waste. I don't think that we recycle to save the earth; I think we do it to save our souls.

Shoba Narayan has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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