We’re holding our first formal meeting next week about the next version of our collective—the first meeting, at least, that isn’t a chance conversation in the kitchen or an open-ended daydreaming session after the weekly house meeting. We’ll be sitting down with Ed, Marnie and Muktha, all of them connected through the Fund for Democratic Communities and through Cakalak Thunder, and all of whom have expressed an interest in helping whatever it is that we have started here grow and change into whatever it is that it is next meant to be.
In the middle of the back-and-forth emails scheduling that meeting, Muktha sent this lovely piece of writing to Mark, who passed it on to me. It’s a reflection on her childhood on the southeast coast of India that she wrote for Mother’s Day—“many of those memories,” she explained to Mark “were triggered by our conversations recently about conservation and community.” Many thanks to Muktha for letting me reprint it here.
I can’t think of childhood, and therefore who I am today, without Amma at every turn. She is like those gifted actors who play 15 different roles in one play, and the difficulty is in separating those identities of Amma. For this year, maybe I should focus on the ‘green’ Amma – the person who gardened with a passion, who conserved beyond measure, who was creative in every move of conservation, and played a fierce role in animal husbandry that would put any environmentalist to shame today.
The beauty of it all is that every role, every task, every initiative was so integrated into her role of mother and she carried them all out without a book, magazine, website, organization, cooperative, forum, collective, or trust. It was the way she thought and lived as she raised a family, including an extended one. And of course, she didn’t do this alone. Family, relatives, gardeners, neighbors, and children all pitched in.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning about reclaiming water as soon as I woke up. As I got a tumbler of water from the kitchen faucet and in the typical playfulness of a child let it flow over and all over my hands, the excess water drained through the pipe below and out into the garden. Carefully laid out pipes sucked every drop of waste water from the home that was organic and biodegradable into the garden, and the garden itself was no blank plot of cultivated land. The entire garden was made of numerous clusters of small plots that were home to a bunch of banana trees, green beans, eggplants, jasmine flowers, roses, lime trees, papaya trees, coconut trees, peppers, tomatoes, and all kinds of greens, ginger and garlic.
And here I should pause to specify the most valid argument for Amma’s green gifts. In 1970, when we moved to our new home along the beach, the brand new 3-bedroom home sat on loose beautiful sand. If we dug a foot, we saw water seep in at the bottom. In 1977, when my father died suddenly and the family was uprooted from there, we left the home surrounded by a modest lawn with lilies, zarbeerahs, and evergreens on one side, dwarf coconut trees in one corner, a rose and jasmine garden on another side, a full fledged edible green vegetable garden on another, and numerous fruit trees in the backyard.
Amma was the alchemist who turned the sand into food.
My own favorite was the banana garden. Perhaps it was that the wastewater flowed into that patch first, or perhaps it was because of the ‘holy’ aura around the banana world in Hindu homes, but that patch was the most vibrant, dynamic, colorful, and sweet patch of yard that I remember. Like Amma’s love, it was tender, 100% accepting, forgiving, and always welcoming.
The most creative role of the banana in a Hindu household is that of
incense holder. Come to think of it, I don’t remember but one stainless steel lotus-shaped incense holder at home in the Pooja(prayer) room, but incense-lighting was a common and everyday task. Since the windows and doors were wide open during the day, the smoke from the incense never really collected in the home. We kids often heard an adult yell for a banana after a bunch of sandalwood or rose incense was lit, and they were easy to find on the initialed rectangular stainless steel plate that sat on the dining table. You grabbed one and scurried to the adult, who gently stuck the bottom of the incense sticks through the yielding banana skin.
As I said, when I washed my hands in the kitchen sink, the water didn’t drain down into a black hole and disappear. Well, it did just for a second before it splashed out on the other side of the kitchen wall and into the beginning of a complicated maze of trenches that reached every fruit tree and vegetable patch in the backyard. Sometime after the home was built and the plumbing was in place, Amma decided that the plumbing must be altered in order to serve the garden in the backyard. Water is precious in tropical contexts, and it must not have made sense to her to let all that water drain into a black hole.
The first stop for any water from the kitchen was the little banana grove about 6 feet from the kitchen. You see, banana trees are like families. There are several shapes and sizes all the way from the tall and tired grandpa banana tree to the lush little baby at grandpa’s feet, and they all huddle together to claim a crowded green outline against the blue sky.
Maybe because the cycle of life was so lucidly transparent in our own backyard, or maybe because I still begin my day with a banana, I am quite fond of those memories. The banana stem is like a smooth pale green pillar, tall and upright, and can grow up to 10 or 12 feet. From the top of each of those green pillars, numerous long leaves would grow up and out and hang all around the stem. From somewhere in the middle of those leaves, a chalky fat maroon casing would grow out and hold numerous little bright yellow banana flowers within each fold. The closest it comes to is an artichoke, but in different colors. Each maroon casing would curl up to reveal a soft and deep-maroon underside that had just protected the tiny flowers. Thus would start a magical cycle of the life of the huge and hanging cluster of bananas.
There wasn’t a part of the banana tree that went unused. The outer casing of the stem would dry out like an onion skin, but lent itself to being torn into long and slender threads that would be wetted to string beautiful jasmine garlands for the pooja room. The fruit was everyday food. The juice from the corm of the banana was used as medicine; so were the bitter flowers.
My favorite part of the plant was the leaf. It was about 5 feet long with a sturdy spine in the middle and a smooth but ribbed leaf about 10-12 inches on either side of the spine. I can’t possibly describe all the ways in which I’ve seen this leaf used. During the relentless monsoons, I saw two leaves double up as an umbrella for the poor. During unannounced visits from rather large families, they served as plates. Cut in threes, the leaf served as a beautiful plate on which the various foods were served in an elegant style. And this was no accidental plate. There were prescriptions about how the waterproof leaf was to be placed on the table, how it should be opened, which end faced which direction, and how it was to be closed as a sign that the person was indeed done with the meal.
The best part, again, came at the end. Of course, there were no dishes to wash, just leaves to be thrown away, and yes, eaten again. This time, the milk cow from the neighborhood would be led to the bin for organic waste that held the after-party plates, and would make a meal out of the banana leaves.
I can go on and on about integrated, deeply meaningful, funny, loving, even tragic experiences from my childhood, but the point is that they all taught me something about life that was sustaining, beautiful, joyful, and completely with value. Much of everything I know now, I learned from those spaces that were fashioned by Amma’s creativity, frugality, love for nature, especially water, and love for all of us around her.
I know now that I first encountered the idea of ‘craft technology,’ one of many of Gandhi-concepts, at home through Amma’s (mother) handwork. I didn’t hear the words until I became an adult or discuss the concept until I was transported to an American classroom, but I was well educated about how it worked.
According to Gandhi, technology must always serve the human, and humanity’s right to freedom and democracy. It must be engaged in the protection of livelihoods, and to conserve the environment. It is only in a decentralized democracy where life, livelihood, and environment are protected that craft technologies can thrive. Craft technologies use resources wisely and there’s a sort of multiplied and multiple use of everything.
Every time I hear about cell phones and their tie to traffic deaths, the dangers to human health as a result of sophisticated food technologies, TV watching and obesity, Net-addictions, impersonal and inaccurate medical technologies, and the numerous other signs that our technologies have failed to serve our needs, I make that mind-trip back home to Chennai in the 60s and the 70s to the home and life where Amma designed our technologies to serve us.
This kind of greenness, this wisdom, this interconnectedness, affected everything we did. A side effect of this kind of lifestyle is thecomplete lack of competition, I now realize. She raised my brother and sister and I (and even the cousins) to co-exist, to cooperate, and to live in love and laughter. She made the simple things matter to us.
Pete Seeger’s ‘One Grain of Sand’ is a favorite lullaby of mine, but I can tell it has quite a different meaning, thanks to Amma.
You can go here to listen to a snippet of Pete Seeger singing that lovely song.