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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Earthly reasons

Saving the planet seems like a huge task - but start small and do your bit anyway

The one thing that annoys me no end about the election campaign in India is that nobody even bothers to talk about the environment. Climate change doesn’t even get a look in. Air pollution is not an issue for any political party. And not one political leader feels remotely concerned that we are destroying the planet on which our children and grandchildren will one day live - assuming that they can cope with the rising temperatures, water shortages, and such natural disasters as floods and hurricanes.

But after fulminating for weeks I have decided that there is no point beating myself up about this. Instead, it is better to take a constructive approach and do my little bit in my own life to leave the world a better place - or at the very least, as a place worth living in.

So here, for what it’s worth, are my top tips to do your bit for the environment. If you can think of any more, please feel free to add to the list.


  • Carry a cloth bag with you when you go shopping for groceries or vegetables. By the end of the year, you will have ensured that there are hundreds less plastic bags in circulation.

  • If you do end up taking plastic bags homes, make sure that you dispose of them responsibly. Don’t just dump them on the street or even in a roadside bin from which they could fly out and potentially be eaten by a cow or a dog. Not only is this disastrous for the health of the animal, you will also end up introducing more plastic in the food chain. And like karma, it will find it’s way back to bite you in the posterior - or more accurately, it will come back as you bite your food ten years down the line.

  • Look for brands that do minimal packaging. And choose them every time over those who pack their products in layers and layers of plastic.

  • Throw out all those plastic water bottles from your kitchen. Invest in a set of glass water bottles. This will be good not just for the environment but for you as well. There is evidence to suggest that drinking out of plastic bottles - especially those that have been left out in the sun - can lead to your water being contaminated with dangerous compounds. And that’s quite apart from the fact that a plastic water bottle takes 450 years to degrade. (Yes, you read that right: 450 years.) And that a substantial number of them end up in our oceans where they endanger marine life for decades to come.

  • If you are eating out in a restaurant where you know the water is safe, don’t order bottled water. Even one less plastic bottle in circulation is a plus.

  • Unless you have a medical condition or a disability, say no to straws. Plastic straws make a disproportionate contribution to environmental waste, taking up to 200 years to decompose. Many food and drink outlets in India have made the move from plastic to paper straws. But even though these are biodegradable they are still a drag on the environment. So just say no to straws if you don’t really need them.

  • In the Delhi winter, when it gets bitterly cold outside, give the guards a heater. Pool your resources and make sure that your Residents Welfare Association (RWA) gives all the colony’s watch staff some shelter and heating. Not only is this the humane thing to do, it is imperative to ensure that there are not a hundred bonfires raging all across your neighbourhood, further contributing to air pollution.

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by eating local as much as possible. Choose apples from Kashmir rather than New Zealand; cherries from Himachal rather than Japan; melons from Punjab rather than Bangkok. And yes, eat seasonal as much as possible.

  • It is said that the mark of a great society is when old men and women plant trees whose shade they will never sit under. So, put aside a little bit every month for planting trees. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a garden or even a small patch of green. There are many reforestation efforts being waged in our villages and hills. Find one such campaign that you can get on board with and make them a generous contribution. This is one of the best ways to offset your carbon footprint.

  • If that seems a huge ask, then start small. Invest in potted plants that are proven to improve air quality and place them in strategic areas around the house and in your balcony. It may not amount to much, but in crisis situations every little bit helps.

  • Most important of all, cut down on your water consumption. I am not saying you need to revert to the days of bucket baths but taking a shower rather than a bath will save tons of water every year. Not using a hose pipe to clean your car will do the same. And don’t forget to recycle the run-off water when you use your RO machine. Store it in buckets and use it for cleaning the house or watering your plants. As the saying goes, waste not, want not. Let that be your mantra as you go about saving the world, one drop of water at a time.

Fifty shades of grey

It took two women – Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – to give us three-dimensional female characters with complexity and nuance

I grew up on Hindi cinema that only allowed women to exist in broad stereotypes. There was the teary, all-sacrificing mother, usually a widow, who worked herself to the bone to provide for her kids. There was the adarsh Bharatiya nari who lived only in service of her husband, her kids, and most importantly, her in-laws. There was the glamorous vamp who announced her evil intentions of luring the hero away from the heroine by smoking and drinking copiously and wearing very skimpy clothes. There was the spoilt rich girl who would be tamed by the poor but masterful man she fell in love with. There was the poor little girl who would find her life transformed by the love of a rich but good man.

I could go on, but I am sure you too have seen all those movies.

As I grew into adulthood and then teetered into middle age, I hoped that Hindi cinema would begin to reflect the changes that I saw all around me. They may have only existed in a privileged sliver of the urban middle class, but there were strong, empowered women everywhere I looked. Women who didn’t just take their own decisions, but owned them. Women who faced the challenges life threw at them head-on and lived to tell their tales. Women who were, in the immortal words of the late, great Nora Ephron, the heroines of their lives.

But, much to my disappointment, the heroines of Hindi cinema remained pretty much confined to the broad stereotypes in which they had always existed. There were a few cosmetic changes but the broad brushstrokes remained the same. Ma was now called Mom, and she had a corporate job rather than a sewing machine; but she still expected her son to bring home a good bahu. Both the Good Girl and the Bad Girl were now allowed to wear revealing clothes but only the one with good Indian values would land the man of her dreams.

And so on, and so clich├ęd.

But just when I was in danger of being bored into a despondent stupor, I was jolted awake by not one, but two, complex female characters over the last fortnight.

The first was Saifeena, the female lead of Gully Boy, played by the incandescent Alia Bhatt. In the movie, you first see her through the prism of her hijab. So, even if it is at subliminal level, you expect her to portray a traditional Muslim girl who prays five times a day and ends up marrying the man her parents chose for her. But before that thought can even coalesce in your mind, the character springs a surprise on you. She has been in a relationship with a young man in the neighbourhood for years now – conducting her affair with admirable sneakiness and breathtaking chutzpah, spinning tales even as she looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

There is much to admire about Saifeena: her passion for her boyfriend; the canny pragmatism with which she navigates her life; her ferocity when it comes to defending her corner; her ability to get her own way no matter what. This is no little girl who follows the rules set down by her parents. This is a grown woman who makes her own rules – and then breaks them when she feels like it. Because this is her life. And she is determined to live it on her terms.

Tara Khanna, the female lead of the Amazon Prime series, Made In Heaven, is a slightly different creature. Again, you start off by seeing her as a young socialite playing at being a businesswoman, backed by her husband’s money. But as the story develops, it reveals hidden depths in her character. Tara, played by Sobhita Dhulipala in a career-defining performance, may be on top of the heap today, but she has clawed her way there, while making sure that her manicure stays immaculate. The journey hasn’t always been pretty, and she’s done some awful things along the way. But such is the nuanced portrayal of her character that you can’t really condemn her for what she’s done, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

And that is down to the brilliance of the writing. It is not a coincidence that both Saifeena and Tara have sprung from the imagination of two female writers, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – ably assisted in Made in Heaven by a third woman, Alankrita Shrivastava. It is thanks to them that we finally have women characters who are not two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs but fully fleshed-out women who live their lives – like most of us do – in shades of grey.

It is that complexity, that nuance, that makes these characters come alive – and take residence in our hearts and minds.