First a disclaimer:Nostalgia alert: Not everything old is or was good. Not everything new is or was bad. But nostalgia feels so good. So enjoy and keep the salt handy.
In the world before plastics, glasses were made of glass, or copper or silver and water tasted better in them. Bottles were transparent glass or opaque ceramic. But both were breakable and did. Plates were ceramic beautifully painted. Also breakable and did. We also had steel plates which didn’t break but were less classy. Buckets and tubs were unbreakable, made of copper or galvanized iron and made a loud clang when you put them down and dropped the handle. So you were careful to put the handle down gently.
Shopping bags were cloth, washed and reused until they wore out and then served as dish and polishing cloths until they vanished. Chairs were wooden or metal – some foldable, some not. All heavy and unstackable. So when plastic bottles, plates, cups, buckets and tubs and above all plastic bags came to be, we were thrilled out of our minds. Transparent like glass but doesn’t break? Buckets and tubs lifting which didn’t break your back? Chairs that could be stacked and put away when you didn’t need them? Shopping bags that you could print your label on and which the customer could use for other things or simply throw away? No need to wash and dry and reuse. Truly a vision of convenience heaven. Beds were wooden cots without springs with cotton mattresses on them. Every year a man would come with an instrument that resembled a great bow and would be shut into a room with all mattresses. He would unstitch one side, pull out the cotton, prong it with his bow until it was fluffy once again and then stuff it back into the mattress. When you entered the room to give the man a cup of tea, you had to look for him in the white cloud of cotton fluff and dust that he generated. The drumming sound of him working was like an out of tune sitar. What it did to his lungs breathing in the cotton fluff, is not something that either he or we were conscious of but thanks to spring-less beds and firm mattresses we didn’t have backaches. PUF was unheard of. Foam was on soaps, not mattresses. And soaps were in the bathroom, not on TV. There was no TV. Our home had resident wildlife – sparrows in the rafters making an infernal din every morning belligerently defending their nesting sites from intruders. In Urdu they are very aptly called Khana Chidiya (Khanchudi in Deccani) – house bird. Their feathers and at nesting time, all the grass and other tidbits they brought and then allowed to fall – they are incredibly messy nest builders – meant that the house had to be swept twice or three times a day. Occasionally a sparrow would get brained by a lazily rotating fan because they never seemed to realize that trying to perch on a moving fan was a bad idea. We would pick up the dazed bird and revive it and put it on a window sill so that it could fly away when it wished. It never occurred to us to de-sparrow the house. Sweeping was preferable to an aseptic house devoid of the chirping of the sparrow. Today with all the concrete and glass and pesticide sprays in the fields, sparrows are gone. Municipal water came when it came so everyone had storage tanks in bathrooms. If those ran out there was the Bi-hish-ti (literally: man from heaven) who came with a leather sack slung over his shoulder and topped up the tank. More usually he would water the garden and simply sprinkle water in the yard after sunset to cool the place down before our cots would be set out for us to sleep under the stars all through summer. Those who didn’t have gardens had terraces or flat roofs used for the same purpose. How did it feel to lie in bed and look at the moon and stars through your mosquito net, secure in the thought that your house was not being burgled while you slept? I don’t think I can even tell you to try it out today . The world before plastics was different. In that world we had no computers but we had time. We had no TV but we had friends. We had no cell phones but we spoke to people face to face. Conversation was an art, taught and learnt and grunts didn’t substitute for words. Language had value and was acquired and husbanded – new words tried out to see how they worked – phrases repeated, shared and appreciated. Poetry was an actual form of self-expression that underlined the thought and the ability to quote the right couplet at the right time was a mark of a person’s education. Conversation didn’t simply revolve around politics or controversial matters but we talked about thought leaders, exemplars of our past and shared their thoughts and writings, often verbatim – memorizing and quoting them being a sign of our own worth. An hour or two passed in this way, drinking tea and reciting poetry and marveling at the turn of phrase, expressing thoughts that touched the heart was something to be looked forward to and back on with great pleasure.
We worked in the home or for our families for love or duty but never for money. We were never offered money and would have considered it an insult to be offered payment for doing something for our family members, no matter how distant. The concept of paying children to work in the home was unheard of and considered deplorable. Money was called ‘dirt on the hands’ – we dirtied our hands for the experience. The dirt came as a result – we didn’t work for it. Mentioning what anything cost, what anybody earned or what anyone had spent on a gift, meal or any other form of hospitality was considered insulting and crass. Hospitality was a value, not an industry. The guest was someone you invited home to a meal. To take him to a restaurant was considered a lapse in the standard of hospitality. Even if you did it, it was done under duress. Never as a choice. If some family member informed us that he or she was arriving from another city, it was the standard for us to meet them at the station and bring them home.
I will never forget the picture of my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed standing on the platform on Chennai station with garlands when I arrived there in 1985 with my newly wedded wife Samina. He was staying with his daughter, Aunty Jahanara, who we would be transiting with on our way to the tea gardens where I worked. Even though it was not his home that we were going to, Mamujaan honored us by personally receiving us at the station. But then what am I saying? How can the daughter’s home not be his home? Just as my aunt’s home was my home. We learnt from the actions of our elders. Tradition was to keep those memories alive – not only by talking about them, but by emulating the actions. For a family member to stay in a hotel instead of at home with us, was an insult to our honor. The thought that elderly parents could be sent away to a ‘home’ was unimaginable. Home was where we lived – not some place to shunt old inconvenient elders to, to be taken care of by strangers. They were our elders. We remembered what they did for us when we were little. To do the same for them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.
In that world we played real games on real earth not virtual games on a gadget. We ran, sweated, yelled ourselves hoarse, tore our shirts, fell down, skinned our knees, got covered with dust and when it was raining with mud and considered all this as having a whale of a time. In these games we learned leadership, sharing, standing up for our friends, being done in by those we trusted and learnt lessons from all of them. We learned to work as a team, strategize and see the result of that strategy. We stood up for each other, never reneged on our friends, even when we sometimes had to pay the price for that loyalty. We settled with our friend in private but stood by his side in public. You didn’t turn your back on your friends. It was as simple as that. It didn’t matter to us what the color, religion or social status of the friend was. It didn’t matter what car he drove because we all rode bicycles. It didn’t matter what brand of clothing he wore because we all had clothes custom tailored by the Darzee (tailor) in our Muhalla (neighborhood). Bell bottoms were in fashion and we wore them. So were pointed shoes, and Brylcream in the hair. It didn’t matter whether the friend was rich or poor because at the end of a good football game, we all looked the same – the color of mud. It didn’t matter if he was tall or short, handsome or ugly. What mattered was that he was my friend. That was all. In that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect to elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elder had to carry a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you as the youngster who stood by and watched. Manners meant that you spoke politely after asking permission and listened more than you spoke. ‘That is why you have been given two ears and one mouth’ – we were told. Manners meant that when guests came home you served them, not servants. That you were in the middle of studying for your exam meant nothing. Guests were more important than exams. When the guests left you went back to studying and still got straight A’s. No compromising on results.
In that world, we read books. Not occasionally but every single day. We had our favorite authors but we still had to read the classics mandatorily. Books were (and still are) our best friends, opening doors into worlds unexplored. We saw the scenes as we read about them, laughed with the actors in those stories, shared their joys and sorrows.
Books opened for us doors into the hearts and lives of the writers and their times walking through which we discovered ourselves. We read everything. J.R.R Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Alvin Toffler, Iqbal, Ghalib, Ibn Al Qayyim, Louis L’amour, George Orwell, Romila Thapar, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, John Steinbeck, Munshi Premchand, Jakata Tales and many others, all spoke to us. They influenced us and shaped our thoughts and values and taught us to question, critically analyze and choose intelligently. Above all they taught us that we are not unique or more special than anyone else. That others also cry tears and laugh their way through difficulties and that in many cases our worst complaints are the dreams of others. We read and we learnt to write. We saw and we learnt to show by drawing vividly colored pictures with words. We dreamt and learnt to deal with the reality that some dreams are simply that – dreams. But that even the most unrealizable of them, opens vistas to that which might have been and leads to that which can become a reality. We learnt the value of philosophy and the solace it gives to a sore heart. We learnt to choose – sometimes painfully – but learnt the lesson that we could and must make choices. Sitting on the fence invariably gives you a sore crotch. We had never heard of recycling but we always wore clothes that had graced the bottoms of our elder siblings. We used and reused them until the thing simply fell apart. Only then did we get anything new. Clothes covered our bodies, not our egos. Manners, not possessions were our statement. Not to say that we were always good mannered – one of the things we prided ourselves on was the ability to describe another’s ancestry in colorful terms for ten minutes without repeating ourselves. A skill that comes in handy when one needs to de-stress. The secret is to do it alone facing a wall. Otherwise it increases stress levels instead of de-stressing. Since we didn’t have copy paste or auto correct, we learned spelling and wrote clearly in longhand. Ah! The joy of the feel of a fountain pen gliding smoothly across the page – these were the days before ball pens came into being. You chose your pen depending on the width of the nib. Sat with an inkpot and medicine dropper, filling the pen. Then screwed the top back on and carefully wiped the residual ink on your head and you were good to go. We wrote letters not only to give news but poured out our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you would get a letter with a circle around a suspicious stain labelled ‘tear’. Then we waited days and sometimes weeks before we got a reply.
We couldn’t see the face, didn’t get instant responses and had to struggle with translating emotion into words – so we learned to write properly. Our vocabulary was a lot more than, ‘Ugh!, gr8, Like, youknowwhaimean? LOL. We didn’t explore – we checked. We didn’t reach out – we contacted. We didn’t try to reach – we reached. We used shorthand to take notes and short forms only for telegrams. We learnt to imagine, anticipate and adjust. We learned patience and we learned to write legibly because the addressee had to read what we wrote. We learned to write concisely because we didn’t want the reader to get bored and throw the letter away. We learned to write correctly and grammatically because not to do so was a sign of ignorance and a poor education. It still is.
In this world without instant coffee or tea bags we learnt the value of process – warm the tea pot before you pour in the hot water – and the reward of a properly done job – drink a cup of freshly ground coffee and you’ll see what I mean. And the lesson that everything had a use – used tea leaves are excellent mulch for roses. Drinking tea was also about demonstrating upbringing – hold the cup by its handle between three finger and thumb with the little finger (pinky) sticking out and you don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. And god forbid, never slurp it out of the saucer. Not to say that doesn’t have it’s own pleasure but you didn’t do it.
Not that everything in the plastic-less world was hunky dory – we had power cuts or to put it more correctly, we were delightfully surprised when we had power. But we had candles and lamps. We had no cooking gas and so our rotis came with a wood smoke flavor. Corn was always on the cob, roasted on live coals, rubbed with half a lemon dipped in salt and eaten hot. What all this cooking on wood did to the forests is another story. We had no refrigerators so we gave away all leftovers and always ate fresh. Milk would be stored overnight in what was called a Hawadaan (literally: air container) – a cupboard with a wooden frame and mesh sides. If it still turned we converted it either into a sweet or into ghee. As I said, we recycled out of necessity and it was very enjoyable. My generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.