This year, I am pleased to say that it was the greenest Christmas I’ve ever done. All the presents were simple and inexpensive or even free, and bought from small shops (as opposed to buying from a large online store which shall remain unnamed!), and wrapped in old paper from previous Christmases or in newspaper (the Guardian does central spreads which are worth using as wrapping paper!). My cards were all homemade using leftover card, ornaments and paints. The food was all home cooked as ever. I made my own cranberry sauce this year- it was extraordinarily simple and very tasty. Finally, my fake Christmas tree and its ornaments – all of which have been going well for the last 16 years!
I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK. Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s. Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War. He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature. There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is. Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either. Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art. He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University. He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’
Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply. And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are. So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich. A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture. Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty. This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one. In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.
Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard
- Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
- Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
- Follow the design through as you walk from space to space. It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
- Remove and hide things seasonally. This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
- Eclectic collections have a charm of their own. Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.
Quite simply because you can cook with it!
Here is my Indian paneer (Indian cheese) recipe that I made for lunch. I had two small bottles of milk which my son sniffed and said, ‘Mum, it’s gone off!’ and proceeded to tip one down the sink. I managed to stop him in time.
My family never used shop bought paneer but paneer is now widely available outside India. Even in India, you can buy commercially made paneer. The commercially made paneer is quite hard and strangely enough softens up during cooking. If the food goes cold, the paneer goes hard again! Apparently paneer doesn’t like being refrigerated or being cold, but I am guessing there must be other ingredients in the commercial product to keep it fresh that make it behave in that way. Anyway, the homemade version is very easy to make and tastes lovely. It doesn’t go hard, soft, hard! And there is no plastic waste.
I took the milk and boiled it, squeezing a few drops of lemon juice in the pan with it. Soon, the milk had curdled up. Then I tipped the entire thing on to bowl covered with a fine cotton cloth and the liquid (called whey) drained away into the bowl, leaving me with the paneer on the cloth. I brought the ends of the cloth together and squeezed it tightly. The fresh paneer was ready.
I dry fried teaspoon each of cumin and coriander, and couple of cloves and inch cinnamon stick and a tiny piece of red chilly in a wok. After a minute, I took the wok off the stove and crushed all the spices using a pestle. Then I put a table spoon of rapeseed oil and put the paneer in the wok along with a teaspoon of turmeric and two teaspoons of dry ginger (fresh ginger is very nice but since I am trying to use up all my dried ginger, I used that). One tablespoon of dried mango powder and salt to taste. I fried this mixture for about five minutes.
I added half a cup of water and one cup of frozen peas. I also added a tablespoon of tinned tomatoes. After about 10 minutes, the paneer dish was ready. And it was so tasty! (The photo below was taken on another day when I decided to cut up the paneer pieces so that it cooked quicker. It was even tastier as the flavour of the sauce had penetrated the paneer more)
What of the whey left behind?
Whey is full of protein and dried whey is used by people wanting to build muscles. It is believed that it flushes out the kidneys according to Ayurvedic beliefs ( but I don’t know if that has been scientifically tested yet). But it seems stupid to throw it away! It has a pleasant enough taste, especially if lemon juice is added (some also add honey) but personally I don’t like it. So I used it to make the chapati (Indian bread), using the whey instead of water to make the dough. And that turned out to be a hit too. Certainly a zero waste lunch!
You can also make Western ‘sourdough’ bread with it. I leave the dough to rise overnight instead of one hour- that’s the difference. Otherwise, use your usual recipe and instead of water and yeast, use the whey.
The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising. Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy. In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill. Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK). Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).
So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone. In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes). Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die. When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there. And it was liberating to be just so. Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’
Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’. Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials? In the actual Japanese version of the book, Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy! But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.
Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding. The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them. Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house. For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons. Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well? Anyway, it was my gain. But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard. That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy. There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?
Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’). So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop? Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so? Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up. Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.
Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after. Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly. But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives. Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life. So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system. Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born. Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever. The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,
‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’ (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)
I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself. The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer. Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections? Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.
Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders. This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful. I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc. Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.
So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself? First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops. Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire. I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world). These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants. And there are lots of books! (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was) I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them. My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials. Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time. There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always. But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that. So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!
There are so many blogs, vlogs, books and other guidance on minimalism, money saving, and living simply these days, that it can be hard to distinguish between them and use the different techniques effectively. Does this thing spark joy? Should I put things in different boxes and if I haven’t used them in six months, then throw them? How should I go about getting a minimalist wardrobe (if I haven’t got a stylist!)? And how should I prioritise my day? How can I save money when I want to buy organic goods?
The title of this post comes from an ancient Japanese saying, used by many Buddhist philosophers, ‘When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated’. It has become a key part of how I try to deal with everyday life, including clutter. First, the concept is about clearing your mind, so that you can take care of the mundane- the things ‘on the ground’. When your mind is free of worries and in an expansive state like that of the sky, then you can ‘look down’ and see what the priorities are. These include in order- treasures of the store house, the body, and of the mind. As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk, says,
‘More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all’.
What he is saying is that the most valuable things are what is in our heart- our intention, followed by our health and matters of our body and lastly, come the accumulation of stuff. When our heads are clear, we can see instantly which work enables us to accumulate the ‘treasures of the heart’, then tend to our body, and then perhaps to material things. If we follow this advice, then clearly accumulating stuff is the last thing we ought to do.
So, for instance, for last couple of days, I decided to see some friends and listened to what was going on in their lives. Although they didn’t reciprocate and ask me what was going on in my life, curiously I wasn’t bothered as normally I would have been. I was accumulating treasures of the heart which mattered more to me.
Another simple thing I’ve been doing over the years for decluttering is the ‘non replacement’ technique. If something breaks down, then I don’t replace it. Usually I find I can manage quite fine without it. So when my food processor broke down several years ago, I found this piece of stone which was going to be thrown away from an exhibition stand on stone products, and a traditional Indian pestle which my mother had given me. The pestle had precious childhood memories for me. I now use this to grind wet spices and herbs- remembering this rhythmical action from my childhood, the sound of the stone against stone, my mother’s hands where my hands are now. I’ve not bought anything thus saving money (first by not replacing and secondly, by not using electricity); and also the hand pestle is a good way of exercising my arms and getting rid of tension (perhaps like kneading bread). Quite simply, as my experience with the pestle and the piece of stone proves, if you can associate something with the three ‘treasures’, then it is a keeper.
And what of the food processor? I recycled the electrical part but kept all the other bits as they are quite useful for storing liquids and dry stuff. One of the parts has become a an unusual plant holder for me. As the food processor was given to me by my son, again this is part of my three treasures concept- each time, I look at the plant, I remember my son.
Before the Black Friday deals, I had been toying with the idea of buying new shoes. I justified the purchases by thinking that I hadn’t bought shoes for a few years! I did try a pair of shoes at the store, and then realised that I had a similar pair at home, albeit in a different colour. I think this is what commonly happens- you end up buying the most comfortable type of shoe in several colours. As I have a flat foot with an injury sustained as a baby, it is very important for me to have a comfortable pair of shoes. I also have very small feet so it is difficult to find shoes that fit me, so I tend to hold on to ones I have. I hardly ever wear heels- after having children, I found that my feet had changed. So this is what I did. I changed the colour of the shoes I already had. One was a florescent yellow, still fine but a bit worn and going grey inside and outside. These shoes are seven years old.
I dyed it blue and left the inside yellow as before. I think it looks good, perhaps even more expensive with the yellow lining inside.
I cleaned it first as best as I could and used Dylon blue dye for shoes. Why blue? Because most of my clothes are blue so this works very well.
Next with my tan brogues which were looking a bit tired (they are six years old), I tried a different technique using what I already had at home instead of buying. I had seen this technique used in a Youtube video but I added my own twist to it. This is the ‘Doc Marten’ technique where black shoe polish is used to make lighter shoes look more expensive. Step one involved cleaning the shoe thoroughly.
Next I covered them in black cream polish- I used Ecco cream polish.
The next step was about removing the black polish after giving it a good ‘soak’ for 10 minutes.
Buffing and buffing until I got this!
I think both efforts look good! And so much better than either throwing them away or buying new shoes. I know you can donate shoes but because these are so old and my feet are tiny (size 2.5 UK), they would have been more likely not used by others.
Let me say this straightaway, ‘Don’t ever do it!’
It seems a bit strange to discuss the cons of taking what others have thrown out- in fact, there’s a saying to the effect that someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure. For many years, I took in stuff given by people and also those I found lying in the street. I believed that it was good manners to not only accept other people’s gifts but also use them, whether they proved to a hindrance to my daily life or not. I believed that picking what other people had left out on the street, not only could help me (just in case I needed those items suddenly!) but also helped to clean the streets and the environment, giving things a second life. My way of thinking also came from having been brought up in great poverty and having too little.
For years, these objects lay in my home, in boxes when I moved, and in my new home. Even if they were difficult to use, I had to use them. The turning point came when I realised that I had become so tired of taking care of these things, storing them and cleaning them when they are so patently useless. Of my gifts, I noticed that one of my friends had a knack of giving me stuff that cannot be washed in the dishwasher. Hand washing is one of thing I hate, having done it from childhood and I love my eco-friendly dishwasher. Dishwashing is one chore I would be gladly free off. One gave me flowers and bowls which although very pretty did not last. So I would be left with utensils (or broken crockery that I thought I would use for arts projects!) that I could not use and empty flower pots. I picked up stuff from the street, stuff I haven’t used at all- books, cutlery, glassware, etc. Of the things I have picked up, furniture has been my most used item and I have even sold some antique stuff for profit. But the money made is really negligible. But the most despicable thing I have done is, giving my own unused stuff to my parents. Perhaps out of love, they did not say they couldn’t use it and at times, they even tried to, but gave up. These items have been languishing in their homes for years.
Now my eldest son having left home, and my father having died, I am now finding stuff stored in all corner of my own house and that of my parents. My mother is going to move to a smaller place. I’ve spent more than two months trying to declutter and stuff keeps coming out of everywhere. I tried selling them on eBay and no one would have them (although they are either brand new, unusual or antique items). It is also an effort of put items on the website and then keep checking and then having to post them. I’ve had people who bought the stuff without reading t&c’s and told me that they thought I was going to deliver the item to their home! Really! I tried selling them at antique shops- they were interested but always told me to come back when their shop had a little more space. In the end I got tired of ringing them and waiting for them. They also would give me very little money, which really wasn’t worth the effort. Then I tried giving them to the charity shops which are also filled to the brim with other people’s junk. But taking them on public transport to various charities, really tires me- I’ve got an incurable blood disorder which is debilitating. So I’m now ‘freegling’ stuff which means people can take it away. Bu that has been a great pain as well. People promising to turn up at an agreed time and then not doing so. One person even kept me waiting for two days giving all sorts of improbable excuses.
I now look back at my time over the years, collecting all this stuff (dragging some huge pots or furniture from the street), looking after it, moving it, trying all sorts of creative ways of re-using or up-cycling it, trying to give it to others, selling it, donating it and having failed in all these ways, then storing it. What a waste of time (and space) that could have been spent more creatively and usefully! But I still will not litter the streets with my junk, even though I might have picked the junk off the street. But perhaps something in me has changed. Today, my younger son, who is a hoarder, has given away two boxes of children’s books to someone who was very happy to have them. He even hoovered and cleaned his room- a teenager doing this is very rare! I am slowly decluttering- things that have been collected for years will take some time leave. In Buddhism, the word ‘karma’ means action and also denotes the effects of the action. So I think I may have changed my karma. I have thanked all the junk that came my way for the lesson it taught me and how it has helped changed my ‘poverty karma’. I feel rich and full, without all the junk in my life. I will leave up-cycling, selling, organising and re-using to all those people who get paid for it, have time for it, and do it well. My life’s work is different although it is still very creative. Also, I’ve made many friends by giving away stuff but disposing of junk does take a lot of time from my work.
As for picking other’s people’s trash, I will never do it again! So here are some lessons I’ve learnt-
- Do not have a junk mentality- do not let junk enter your body and environment in any way- junk food, junk mail or junk stuff.
- Do not even consider a junk drawer- if you have stuff that you are unsure about, put it where you and your family will see it everyday. If the sight irritates you or you haven’t used it for a month, give it away.
- Do not give junk to others, especially your family and friends. If you receive what you know is junk, accept it gracefully and then give it away. No one will care or ask about it!
- If you have no skills in up-cycling, re-purposing, or DIY, do not ever pick up junk that you think might be useful.
- Do not clear other people’s junk- their karma is theirs, they don’t need your meddling.
What are your lessons? Do you agree with me?
The main premise of this blog post is about creating value using beauty, goodness and benefit. So I was wondering how to make a suitable gift for my son who is leaving home for University. In the UK, this is the time of departures for Universities, of leaving the nest and so emotionally this will be a sea change for us and him. I wanted him to have something that was homemade and practical. It was his birthday as well this month. So I made him a cook book and a ‘cooking tool kit’. It was in the form of two things- a cookbook (the software as I call it) and the toolkit (the hardware!)- plates, utensils, tools, etc. It took me almost a year of planning and making, so here are the steps-
- The cookbook– This is actually a photo album that I found in a charity shop. In it are my cooking, healthy living, and money saving tips, his favourite recipes and photos of him cooking as a baby and child. I did a cull of photographs which was something I had to do anyway and found a treasure trove of photos that reminded me of the recipes that he has always loved. Of course, coming from mum, the tips and recipes have corny titles! So the making the recipe book also served many other purposes.
The toolkit– Over the year, I ‘retired’ several items from the kitchen and cooked without them, just to get used to not having them. These included cooking and serving spoons, bowls, pans, etc. I rang up my son’s University and asked them what facilities he was going to have in his kitchen and based on what he liked to cook, I added some new items- either from charity shops or bought at sales. Some items had even been picked up from the street! Some items were repurposed from ready meals such as the china bowls from an environmentally responsible brand that makes chilled food and glass shot glasses from a French yoghurt brand. These ready made food items were also reduced so this made for a double reduction! Some items are also ones that came from my University days thirty years ago. Most items can be used in at least two different ways, for example the wooden tray can be used as a serving tray, a rolling board and a chopping board. Obviously this took a lot of planning and thought.
These items were then packed into his dad’s old rock n’roll box. The final toolkit looked like this when packed. All neatly tidied up into boxes and bags, using tissue and paper and strong bags I had saved up.
I know that some items might not come back and I am happy with that. Life is about loss. There are items I haven’t put in, deliberately- I need him to make some effort too which I I know he will. At least I know I have set him up, food wise!
Let me know if you’ve done similar things for your child when they headed off to University.
Recently with the squeeze on my finances, I have been looking at how much I spend on cosmetics. I don’t mean make-up which I hardly use but creams- face, body and hands. I tend to buy the best I can- organic, locally made and without any additives. The results are good- for many years worth of buying such products has been good for my skin as the skin is your largest organ and benefits from the best products used on it. However, now with the financial imperative, I began to wonder if I could replicate that quality at home using organic ingredients and save money and time.
So here is my first attempt-
I was out of face cream and looked around for what I had lying around. So here is what I found, all of which went to make this face cream-
One teaspoon of Neal’s yard Wild Rose beauty balm (you can substitute this with coconut butter and drops of your favourite essential oil)
40 grams of Shea butter (I have to admit this was 17 years old! and lying in a drawer)
One table spoon of organic aloe and rose gel (or use plain aloe gel as I did below)
I used a fork to whip these inside an old Neal’s yard jar and voila! I had my lovely soft nourishing face cream which smells of roses.
Then I used some of the Neal’s yard balm and added some scraps of lipstick and again, I have a tinted lip balm that gives me winter protection for my lips and cheeks.
For this year’s Mother’s day, I again replicated this formula to make face creams for my mother and friends. I have photos of the ingredients in this one (you can use your own), along with the empty jars I’ve used. This time the shea butter was not 17 years old!
This what one of the jars looks like now- I placed the jars on the radiators so that the shea butter would melt slowly (as per my philosophy of least work, maximum value!)
Lately, I have been thinking about how growing up in India in extreme poverty has made me into what I am. At one point, I used to be extremely embarrassed by our family’s state- especially as my father who was a very proud man told us never to talk about our lack of money. We wore badly fitting home made clothes out of scraps of materials that my mother found. Our school clothes were also made at home, while my friends had tailored clothes. In Delhi’s bitterly cold winter, we went without sweaters- sometimes wearing cast offs, and saving our school sweaters and blazers for school wear and occasions. We went to the local BATA shop where we bought shoes at least two sizes larger and cardboard was inserted so that they would last a bit longer as our feet grew. My mother went to the street market late in the evening when the sellers were selling off damaged or not so fresh produce at cheaper prices- I still remember her walking slowly in a distinct gait coming back with her shopping, as she has a pronounced limp on one leg. She bought rice, lentils and other goods from the government ‘Ration’ shop. These were of very poor quality. So I used to take a long time to eat- two three hours sometimes- picking out maggots and weevils from the rice and vegetables. We could afford fish and egg once a fortnight while chicken and goat meat were a luxury for once a month. My mother used to write each and every cost in a diary, the most meticulous record of expenses that I have ever seen in my life. We were severely malnourished though and in particular, despite being inoculated, I had every disease going- from malaria, whooping cough, diphtheria amongst others and nearly died from a severe case of jaundice. I remember being given steroid injections in order to make my muscles grow but evidently they never worked as can be seen today.
We (three girls and our parents) lived in one small room surrounded by an open terrace which was baking hot in the summer while the leaking roof and badly fitted doors allowed rainwater to come in during the monsoons. The kitchen was also outside and my mother used to get wet getting food from there and back. There was an outside toilet and bathroom with asbestos roof and tin doors that didn’t shut properly. There was one small table fan. The day when we got a ‘ceiling fan’ was wonderful- we sat, taking in the cool breeze that came from the top that cooled down the hot room. Mains water came in intermittently- once in the morning and once in the afternoon (as it still does). So everything from cleaning dishes to cleaning the rooms had to be done in those times- these were such hive of activity all around the neighbourhood. We each had a set of one dish, one bowl and one glass- all made of stainless steel and given to us at our ‘annaprashana’ when the baby eats the first solid food at 8 months. So we had responsibility to wash these after each meal. When I was 22, we got a fridge and then later, a television- both were welcomed with great joy. But it was too late to wipe off the humiliation we had suffered at the hands of various children who had visited our home and the relatives who wondered if we would even live to tell the tale, so great was our poverty. My father valued education, so via scholarship and scrapping money together, we went to a Christian school, which had a much better standard of education than the government schools. My school mates were rich, some even turned up in a car- a rarity in Delhi in the 70’s, so we were the target of many jokes.
The onset of teenage years brought on further humiliation due to poverty. Not only could we could not afford to buy bras, but also sanitary napkins. So we used my father’s old dhoti’s which were soft and I fashioned them to be like sanitary napkins that I saw on the packs in the shops. But my mother made us wash these rags out and re-use them which I found an terrible and embarrassing task, especially if men were around. Further, these home made pads would sometimes pop out of my homemade underwear when playing at the school. After much pleading, my mother bought us bras when I turned 13 years old. And when I got into architecture school, I had some money to buy sanitary pads. But the humiliations continued throughout. Even richer members of our family did not hold back. One of my uncles taunted my father, ‘You can’t even feed these girls, how will you pay for their dowries?’ Another rich cousin sexually abused me and my sister- it seemed we were the butt of every humiliation going. My father used a bicycle to get to his school where he taught. Although in the West, cycling is seen as a middle class pursuit, in Delhi where materialism is worshipped, he was taunted by not only his colleagues but also his students. Recently while cleaning, I found a report that he had been physically assaulted by a colleague in an unprovoked attack. I also clearly remember walking with him with some school boys hurling insults at us. I did not know why they were doing so, but I was afraid. When I grew up, I learnt that these boys were making fun of him because he seemed to have two of each shirt- he bought extra cloth to get two of each items made, thus saving money. So in those boys’ minds, he was a cheapskate. How angry I feel now!
But in midst of these dire times, there were also times of joy. My beloved Uncle, Meshai, who nursed me back to health after my attack of jaundice, encouraged us to paint. He also took us to see exhibitions of modern art, much of which we couldn’t understand but perhaps absorbed something by osmosis. So each weekend was spent in creative pursuit, using PVA paints made from turmeric (yellow), sindoor (red) and the blue dye used as a whitening agent. We made secondary colours out of these basic ones- green, purple and orange. But there was no black paint, which might explain why even today, I don’t use black! We had old calendars, on the backs of which we painted scenes from imagination and also copied pictures from our school books. He also bought us glitter, glue, cellophane, and shiny paper for our birthdays- again, I love these today as they remind me of my childhood joys. I used to steal the foil from his cigarette packs, smelly though they were, and used them. Waste seeds, lentils, scraps of cloth, paper-everything seemed imbued with the possibility of a rich new creation. My tendency to layer waste and found materials in my art today, is probably a nod to my past. The day my Uncle gave us a pair of scissors was a memorable day, but stupidly while playing doctors and nurses, I cut my sister (and deservedly got a good spanking for it!)
I know I have a tendency to hoard which comes from having so little as a child, and so doing ‘Konmari’ or even the ‘Swedish death cleaning’ has been a ritual to exorcise the past. I also used to store things to give to other people, and it took me many decades to realise that people neither appreciated these gifts nor reciprocated them. So now I give donations straight to the charities that I support. For me, this was personally a big lesson. To be messy may be my particular tendency but again, some of that comes from having too many bits to deal with. I used to have a cardboard box in which I stored many images from magazines and old calendars that I got from my Uncle- the foreign magazines were of good quality paper and so, were much desired. When I grew up, I stored a lot of images- pictures cut out from magazines, photographs and even digital photos. I am now getting rid of much of these photographs that Konmari called ‘Komono’ as a way of getting rid of my inclination to store things that I don’t use. The box is long gone but instead, I am slowly going through the images in my mind and visiting these places that I saw in some far away moment in time, in a calendar or a diary. It seems such a miracle to be alive and to be where I am today. My older son suggested I should tell my story, he said, ‘Mum, no one can imagine where you’ve come from when they see you today’. That is why I wrote this piece. Hope you liked it!