For the love of Baramaasis…

June 10, 2011

By Ashka Naik, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Second Nature
(This post is part of a weekly series by the Second Nature team about why we do what we do.)

One late evening, around dusk, my mother and I were walking into our house, making a beeline through my grandma’s garden. While we were passing by some neatly laid flowerbeds, I saw a pink Baramaasi (a perennial flower, which literally means “perennial” in Hindi, Bara=twelve and Maasi=months) on the side of the brick path leading to the patio. My mother was holding my hand to balance my little figure as I paused and started to bend my knees to pluck that beauty from its stem. My mother, not a very vociferous person, watching me do what I was about to do, very lovingly said, “Ashkee, do you know her mother puts her to bed every night, just the way your maa does? Imagine how she must feel when she doesn’t find her baby in the bed tomorrow morning.”

I often saw my grandma worship random shrubs in her garden. One specific day of the Hindu calendar she would worship one plant, and on a different day she would worship another. I always wondered why one needed to venerate rather unattractive shrubs to understand the mysteries of the universe or to please the Gods above. However, I did understand why we worshiped Ganesha (the Elephant God) and Naagraaj (the Snake God), as I was informed that these creatures were embellished with bizarre powers to wade off evil forces and misfortune. Looking back at the time when I truly believed that a species other than of Homo sapiens could ever have such power over others, I find myself succumbing to the naïve imagination of a child’s mind.

Anyways, as Hindus, we were also to follow vegetarianism. We were to give bird food to birds even though they smeared our verandah with their mucky droppings, because it was drilled through our brains that one of those could be our brother or a sister from a past life. We were to take a few morsels out of our dinner to offer to the wandering cow or a street dog (same logic about past lives, brothers, sisters, etc.).

We had a different cuisine for each season, and sometimes even for each month. We had and still have hundreds of festivals, days on which one can only consume certain things, each festival having its own menu of delicacies and rituals. How else could all this have evolved, if not in respect of and in response to the rich diversity of crops and life in general in the Indian subcontinent! We even have a million and a half Gods, pick one that suites your taste the most. One size fits all just wasn’t the way.

All in all, we didn’t need Greenpeace to tell us that whaling was bad and Food Inc. to tell us that monocultures were unhealthy.

One day in school, and there were indeed many such days, when I hadn’t finished my homework, the teacher punished me by asking me to sweep the classroom floors for two consecutive weeks. Nothing unusual about the punishment though, since every student had to sweep and mop the floor for one week in a year in spite of an impeccable homework record. I must have been in the 5th grade then, so you could argue how a 12-year old could be punished in such an uncaring manner. I can imagine repercussions of such punishment in the US of A! Anyways, a little background on my school, I received my K-12 education in an institution that espoused the Gandhian thought – the institution was founded during the British Raaj by a small group of freedom fighters. Self-reliance was Gandhi’s mantra, and asking a child to sweep the floor wasn’t an inconsiderate act. As part of our education, we were to clean our classrooms, we were to sow the seeds and follow their growth in the hundred acres of farmland that encircled our school building, we were to spin cotton on a spinning wheel – the spool with the finest thread was used to make garlands for guests and the rest were taken to the loom to make our uniforms – we were to bow down to our teachers with a formal gesture of Namaste (“I bow to you”) every time a teacher entered the classroom.

That was then, when it was difficult to distinguish where spirituality blended with daily chores to concoct a wholesome life.

In the past two decades things have changed. Everything, good and bad, rich and poor, old and new, was somehow interwoven before India opened its door to globalization – the trees, the school uniforms, the education, the Elephant Gods, the Baramaasis – all seemed connected. Now the trees are gone, clothes come from Bangladesh, education is for sale to help one compete in a high yield job market of developed countries and Baramaasi, this perennial flower blooms very rarely (mainly due to severe water shortage and changing weather patterns).

However, the irony is that today more people use the word “sustainability” in India, just like everywhere else in the world, than ever before. If you had asked us then, we wouldn’t have known the meaning of it. It wasn’t discussed in the way we refer to the subject today. There were many different nuances of it, but no names. It could have been thrift for some, and religious practice for someone else.

Sustainability was a novel word to us as students of country’s premier architecture school, when the first time I heard the term being used in the context of buildings – Sustainable Buildings. These were not the LEED certified, Energy Star buildings. They were vernacular dwellings of indigenous peoples of the desert regions of Kutch and the forests of Daang and the mangroves of Sundarbans; buildings built by communities that have evolved to build, sustain and flourish with the land, and not off it.

Once I went through higher education, especially after my education in the UK where I studied Sustainable Product Design, then I understood what sustainability actually meant. The absurdity was that by then I had been pushed as far away from a sustainable lifestyle as I possibly could’ve been.

However, I returned home to India after two years, when reality hit me head-on.

This was the first time I was seeing what I had seen for twenty-five years, but in an entirely different light. Hunger stricken children with skeletal bodies begging on the streets, plastic bags clogging sewage, concrete forest replacing my school’s farmlands… Though nothing seemed that new, since the poverty had been in India’s veins for ages, and the physical transformation had already begun a few years ago. However, what was new was me suddenly finding every brand of luxury SUV on those same tiny streets where children still begged for food, school kids not being able to ride bikes to school because to let them loose in the maddening swarm of cars and trucks was nearly fatal, McDonalds and Starbucks being erected where once stood the street vendors who served scrumptious seasonal delicacies, monstrous shopping malls replacing the greens of the town, and my Grandma going to Wal-Mart like chains to buy her groceries? Until then the change that some call “progress” had stopped at my doorstep, but now, it had reached the heart of my home. It was unacceptable for me not to find the snack-vendor and to actually see my Grandma walk into a Reliance-Mart to buy vegetables that she had been buying at a local farmers market for last seventy years. Not only that, everyone, and I mean everyone, I knew now had a cell phone. But when I went to the fruit market to buy seasonal fruits, I wondered how a middleclass family could afford those? (But of course, they could afford the cell phones.) Even worse, I only found kiwis and strawberries on the shelves, hardly any babugoshas and chikoos. Kiwis and strawberries?! In Ahmedabad? There was certainly something wrong with this picture.

The interconnectedness was lost.

Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism, from which many Indian languages have evolved, has 65 words to describe various forms of earth, 67 words for water, and over 250 words to describe rainfall; each word depicting the myriad of nuances of that specific element of nature, each word capturing the context, the importance, the beauty, the usage, the geography, the climate, the ecology, and even the personality of that element. The way water would mean differently to a man of the desert than to someone living in the flood zone, these words emphasized the relevance and interconnectedness of objects. But now, that context has vanished, rather, there is a new context; the context of how eminent, lucrative and globalized a company that manufactures water is. And, based on this logic, we have a new set of words for water, “Dasani,” “Evian,” “Fiji,” “Aquafina.”

So, I may say that I work to make people forget about Aquafina.

As a society, we may just need anterograde amnesia to overcome the ways of life popularized by industrialization in the last hundred years and reminisce what we once already knew. Instead we have the retrograde type, where we have forgotten the very lessons our ancestors had learnt after living with the nature for eon after eon.

So, I see my responsibility as first reminding myself that there could be another reality and then sharing that vision with others. Vision of an alternate reality where the fabric of life is woven in veneration of mother earth, with the warps of natural principles, and wefts of sustainable choices, and embroidered with the splendor of diversity and preserved by the species with the intellect to get the job done.

What Second Nature offers in this journey, is a strategy to help the society realize this vision. I have heard a few times how the organization gets its name, and in my mind its mission, hence our mission, is to second nature… to re-connect the pieces to create a beautiful portrait of a life that I was fortunate to live as a child and am confident that my children will live one day.

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