Did my ancestors know about sustainability?

I wrote this piece to participate in New Writing North’s – A writing Chance contest and it secured my place in the final thirty. I am very proud to have achieved that given how little writing experience I had. Here’s what I wrote:

As the world came to a standstill in 2020, our lives evolved in a dramatic way. We started appreciating the little things we took for granted pre-pandemic. I found myself counting my blessings for being able to breathe fresh air and enjoy family-time albeit in lockdown. I strived to become self-reliant and started growing my own vegetables in my kitchen garden.

As I planted out cucumber and tomato seedlings I remembered my grandmothers who were both hard-working farmers. They would head to the field at the crack of dawn after feeding breakfast to the whole family and packing their lunches, typically a sustainable millet flatbread, called ‘bhakri’, and a spicy concoction of hand-pounded green chillies and garlic in vegetable oil called ‘thecha’.

They had never heard of ‘sustainability’; nevertheless sustainability was ingrained in their lifestyles. Laxmibai and Chandrabhaga were poor Indian farmers with no choice but to be self-sufficient just to feed their families. Wasting food was out of the question and any materials they could procure were reused until they fell apart. If they received anything in a plastic bag it would be reused a hundred times until torn beyond repair.⁣ I find myself doing the same subconsciously. Clearly, I inherited some of their frugal habits even before I became aware of sustainability myself.

My grandparents and parents are true pioneers of sustainability for me but they did it as a means of survival, not a lifestyle choice. Armed with education and resources, today I feel privileged to lead a sustainable lifestyle in whatever small way I can but for my ancestors it was a necessity. I have huge respect for them living the way they did and laying the foundation for me to choose this lifestyle. Sustainability is a choice for the privileged but a means of survival for the underprivileged. So it is important that the planet’s marginalised communities, who are often people of colour, are given the credit they deserve.

So 2020 turned out to be my first year of successful vegetable gardening. Given that the supermarkets remained open during the pandemic it’s fair to say this was a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. However, it helped my daughter and I learn a little about where our food comes from. I hope my grandmothers would have been proud of my efforts.

There will be many lasting changes from the pandemic, a lot of them negative. I hope we can take some positives forward too, especially learning to live more sustainably and appreciating the bounty on our doorstep.

I am truly grateful for this opportunity as it gave me a channel to express my viewpoint on sustainability and intersectionality, the two topics closest to my heart. As a foreigner finding her feet (and food) in the West, my first instinct was to fit in with the local culture to make myself more socially acceptable. But I realised, the more I did that, the more I was moving away from my own culture, the values I grew up with and the mindset I was raised with. For me, fitting in meant changing my lifestyle dramatically. It meant unlearning almost everything I had learned from my parents and grandparents, as a child growing up in India. Don’t get me wrong, I do want to blend in but within reason and without losing sight of my Indian heritage and roots. Over the years, I have realised that it’s achievable if done gracefully. So the moral of the story is that I am grateful to New Writing North for this initiative as it gave a voice to a few of us who are ‘trying-to-fit-in’. It was a great way to hear perspectives from under-represented backgrounds.

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