The plastic magnet tree

I was taking my morning walk at a very scenic place where the air was fresh, trees flanked the road, and birds flitted here and there. There was an overall sense of peace. Of vastness, of nature at its gentlest, relaxed. Here are some pictures.

nice morning walk scenenice morning walk scenenice morning walk scene

And then, I spotted a tree that looked different.

From a distance, I thought some sort of unusual fruit was hanging off the branches. Then I went closer and realized those weren’t large fruit, nor were they nests; they were plastic bags. Apparently people had flung garbage (tied in plastic bags). Why target this tree? Was there something special about it? I stood there for a while, but found nothing different about that tree, in terms of its type, size, or location. No religious symbols nearby, that could imply these were plastic wrapped offerings to the gods. No sign saying, “please throw your waste here.” The tree looked like the trees near it, except for the plastic bags hanging off it.

tree with plastic bagstree with plastic bags

A few months later, passing by the same route, I noticed a few more plastic bags hanging on the tree, and also some plastic bags hanging off the lower branches of a neighboring tree.

This is what I suspect: someone flung the first plastic bag, or maybe a bunch of them, maybe from a bus or car or while walking past. And now, once in a while, when people who have seen this tree are walking nearby and they have a bag they want to dispose, they throw it here because the tree has already been “marked.”

I call this the plastic magnet tree.

There is, of course, no garbage bin around. Not needed, I guess, because there is this tree.

On the convention that women should be (called) beautiful…

Everyone likes to look at beautiful things, and most people (men and women) assume that the best compliment to give to a woman is that she is beautiful. Other than when a person is downright-unbeautiful, people give such compliments. I consider this norm not just irrelevant but also somewhat shallow when given unsincerely, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. It rarely involves noting the person’s expression or mood or character or actions. It’s just a token.

As a child I was distinctly unbeautiful (as per the ruling conventions). (Still am, but it no longer matters to me).

Persons who wanted to compliment me (on my looks, because when it comes to girls, that is what matters), would be stumped about what to say. They would, instead, dole out advice on how I could become beautiful. Daily facepacks with gram flour and cream and lemon? Avoid the sun? Clean the face with milk every night? Get multani mitti and rosewater? And since they couldn’t say I was beautiful (there’s a limit to believable lies), they twisted their compliments to imply that my beautiful persona was just around the corner if I kept rubbing lemons on the face a few more decades, please. She’s fairer now, they’d tell my mother after squinting to inspect me. She’s getting fairer.

Beauty = success = opportunities is deeply ingrained in all strata. It emerges at strange moments at unexpected quarters. When in my final year of MBA (at IIM Ahmedabad), just before job placements, we were sitting in the dining hall, a group of girls from our batch, chatting about jobs, when one of them suddenly turned to me, deep concern in her voice. “But what will you do, Swapna! Where will you get a job! You are not beautiful!” The other girls laughed in an embarrassed way, but it was clear that the classmate who had blurted out the sentence genuinely saw my lack of beauty as a major handicap. She considered herself beautiful, and though my grades were well ahead of hers, she pitied me and genuinely worried about poor little me, doomed because unbeautiful. I don’t think our male classmates had similar exchanges/ episodes/ concerns.

Complimenting a woman on her beauty is considered the right thing to do. Not being able to call a woman beautiful makes interactions clumsy. Even social media abounds with such conventions. When a woman posts a picture, “friends” rush to gush there with a “like” and a “You look beautiful”, or even “You’ve always been beautiful” or “You were the most beautiful girl in school and you haven’t changed a bit.” (Of course, there may be some implied return “like” or compliment math involved).

I think calling someone beautiful, is a bit of a short-cut to giving a compliment that seems socially required. The trite “you look beautiful” can possibly be typed without looking, it is so standard a phrase. “Friends” may even have keyboard shortcuts to paste that whenever they see a new photograph (of a female) posted online. I can think of many other words that show a higher degree of observation/ personalized attention: happy, joyous, radiant, energetic, determined, active. There may be descriptive phrases–your smile warmed my heart, your eyes are sparkling with energy. Sound mushy, eh? But perhaps “you look beautiful” is so desensitized (and socially empty) it no longer sounds mushy.

Anyway, there is a limit to what one can say of a person based on a photograph that shows a mug-shot, no action, no context, just a camera-facing pose.

When we write stories, a standard writing-craft instruction is to avoid words like this. Focus on characteristics that actually tell us about a person rather than use sweeping and common words like beautiful, we are told. Tell us about their expression, their mood, their actions. Calling someone nice or beautiful tell the readers nothing about what matters to the person, say the books. Even describing their complexion or hair does not help readers feel involved with the character. I think the advice is relevant even in interactions.

I’ve noticed that some people who give compliments on beauty mention seeing the person’s inner beauty in a photo, but the only word they use again is “beauty.” That really puzzles me. What is inner beauty? Is it more in someone who is fair, has a straighter nose? Is it more visible when you wear an expensive Kanjeevaram saree? When you dye your hair or get them set by a stylist? Is it less in people beyond the help of better lighting and Photoshop filters and airbrushing? Is it less if you have wrinkles? Or, if you are working in the elder care sector, is it more if you have wrinkles?

And here I was, naive me, assuming that inner beauty was about character and ability to love and feel for others, and about behavior and how a person responds to situations and persons 🙁

More important, should the non- beautiful persons to be considered undesirable/ bad/ lacking inner beauty?

This equating/ correlating of beauty with goodness is recognized as a root for peer pressure, isolation, bullying, inferiority complexes, disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Yet even persons who talk against environments of objectification or pressure often resort to (probably without realizing it) the knee-jerk “you are beautiful” response when they feel it is expected/ wanted.

This post got triggered by the fact that yesterday, I saw the “every woman must see these” Dove ads on “Real Beauty Sketches” and I was extremely uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to go gaga over the video, as if watching it would liberate every woman who had not known how beautiful she was.

I agree it can’t be nice to think you look bad, but surely the answer is to see that looks are not so important an aspect as to get you down? Is it really liberating and empowering to know that your nose is straighter than you thought it was?

Fact is, howsover they are packaged, these are advertisements, folks, by a company making beauty products– naturally they perpetrate the impression that a woman must think of herself (or “know” herself) as beautiful. I was relieved to see I was not alone in my discomfort when I chanced upon this post Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry.

Methinks that this social focus on beauty is a gone-awry mechanism. Evolution-wise, we are designed to note wholeness and symmetry and some other characteristics as desirable because they are usually indicative of better health and hence, better survival. But hey folks, we are far beyond those caveman survival days. In our times and context, we don’t need to evaluate everyone as a potential mate who will bear us healthy offspring that can outrun the tiger or hunt the dear or climb trees or till the lands all day long.

Here’s my suggestion: Next time, before you call someone beautiful, or before you want to be called beautiful, please pause. See if you are forgetting to notice the person as a person. See if you are looking at relevant characteristic/ skills for the context at hand. Consider whether your “compliment” can hurt/ put pressure on other persons who feel inferior because they don’t fit. And then check if you still want to comment on beauty, or whether you are ready to find something more individualistic to compliment them on.

And while you are at it, here’s another thought: would you rather spend three hours in a café with a beautiful person whose sole claim to compliments is their beauty? Or would you rather spend time with someone interesting, warm, genuine, energetic, cheerful or whatever, even if their nose is crooked and chin weak and they have a few warts under their eyes?

Maybe calling someone beautiful is not a compliment after all. Maybe there are better compliments to consider.

[Edited to add: I created this post to share my concern at how women and beauty and being good are too tightly interwoven in many social interactions, and how we can consider separating them. The post was written as a reaction, and in a hurry, and in retrospect I see some points I would argue differently if I rewrote it. I’d also probably have focused more on the consequences of this overemphasis on “beauty” on increasing number of persons with body image challenges, an aspect I mentioned but did not pursue. But there are enough articles and posts on such topics, anyway. ]

A hot day, buttermilk, and the satisfied discards of the litter-ati

So, right in front of our car is a bus. And somewhere, way ahead, is a closed railway gate. It’s a hot day. The bus is a long-distance bus, but not of the luxury sort.

The situation presents a business opportunity.

Sure enough, along comes a man with a cloth bag. There are plastic straws in a plastic pouch in his shirt pocket. His bag is full of plastic pouches with buttermilk and he takes out a couple of pouches and waves them out to the passengers in the bus. Hands wave back at him.

Business is brisk. Dozens of packets are sold. Some passengers even get down to buy them.

The vendor walks away.

And then the plastic packets start flying out of the window, sucked empty. Straws, too. They are thrown by the persons inside the bus, who do not even bother to check if anyone is passing near the bus; one packet almost falls on a scooterist who is trying to squeeze his way to the front of the winding queue of vehicles.

I’m sure you can picture what happens.It has taken just a few minutes and a buttermilk vendor to convert a relatively clean stretch of roadside mud to a splatter of discarded plastic.

bus stopsvendor selling stuff arivesvendor does businessvendor does businesspacket thrown outheap of littered packets

We are a culture without dustbins. I don’t think the bus had a dustbin; roads rarely do, anyway. And I don’t think anyone would have even looked for one, because these things are all inter-connected–people don’t look for or demand dustbins, they don’t expect them. They also don’t miss them. Packets can always be thrown out of the window, right?

Years ago, too, there were such buses, such vendors, such quenchers of thirsts. But the buttermilk was supplied in glasses that were collected back. Or in glass bottles that were paid for, and the money refunded when the bottle was returned. Or in earthen cups.

Not in plastic packets that won’t bio-degrade.

And here’s a thought: If they priced plastic packets to take into account the environmental costs, I suspect we’d be serving buttermilk in washable and collect-back glasses again.

Litter, litter everywhere

There are many awareness campaigns around us on waste management and waste segregation, because our cities seem to be bursting with all sorts of jumbled and unnecessary waste. Alert persons could have segregated it, composted off the wet waste, done appropriate recycling of dry waste to the extent possible, and many concerned citizens and activists are busy explaining which sort of waste should go in which dustbin.

Segregating waste means being aware of the consequences of piled up mixed waste. It assumes a basic degree of civic sense and concern for fellow human beings, and a sense of responsibility and willingness to work.

Me, I think we still haven’t got to step 1, that is, making people assume the responsibility of disposing waste properly. I’m talking of littering. I’ve seen people throw wrappers out of cars and buses, I’ve seen them throw plates of prasadam in front of temples, I’ve seen them throw garbage right outside their own doors (where they also light lamps to greet the Goddess of Wealth). And if someone has thrown something on a road, that becomes a magnet for others to add their contributions to that pile 🙁 Even signs that say, don’t throw garbage here seem to attract garbage.

litter around a don't litter sign

And scenic places, and places considered tourist landmarks and/ or religious are not immune either. In fact, they probably gather more litter because more people visit them and eat at the food stalls near them and then discard the plates and packets and whatnots. Here’s the famed Hussain Sagar lake of Hyderabad, and the litter near it.

Hussain Sagar HyderabadLittering near Hussain Sagar Hyderabad

What I wonder is, if most people are not even bothered to put obvious waste (wrappers, leftover food, crumpled ATM slips) in a dustbin, how committed will they be about sorting out waste into separate categories?