One of the things I love about India is how, in the midst of the colour and chaos of daily life, functionality, craft and beauty hold a prime place. The values of re-use, recycle and repair are woven in to the cultural fabric and it’s an aspect of the country that I actively look forward to when thinking about going there. In the West there has been a revival, to some degree, of ‘make do and mend’, a partial response to the very real problem of how to coax modern day life back from the cliff edge. Consumerism is ravaging the planet with India complicit in many practices that are far from supportive of the environment, waste disposal and pollution featuring prominently. There is at the same time an attitude in the country, however, of frugality and prudence which pervades every area of life.
A stitch in time
The evening before Kim and I set off for our trip to Nepal and India, I sat in my friends’ living room in north London laboriously sewing up a long rip in my sleeping bag liner. I’ve had the liner for about 15 years: yards of billowing dark blue silk, which felt dreamy to slide into after a hard day’s journey or hike. A few years ago it started to develop a tear along the seam. I ignored it till the point came where I was fighting to get in to the liner at night, putting a limb through the wrong part or not finding how to slip into it at all. Before leaving for this trip, I decided I couldn’t put off mending it any longer.
The only thread that could be found in the house was a deep red; there were several needles, all with minute eyes. If I’d done the repair job a few years earlier, threading the needle wouldn’t have proved so time-consuming and frustrating. Armed, eventually, with the needle and red cotton thread, I chatted while I sewed, nibbled on some dark chocolate and sipped peppermint tea. The whole operation took about an hour and the result, unsurprisingly, was a wonky, crimson track down the liner.
Once in India, I realised I could have saved myself the trouble and had a more relaxing evening with my friends by waiting till I got to my destination. It’s easy to find tailors wherever you go in India. Often, they’re set up in tiny, hole-in-the-wall type spaces. No job is too small. I’d taken my yoga mat with me on the trip and the bag had a hole in one end: if I didn’t sling it over my shoulder the right way up, the mat slipped out of the bottom. I realised I could get the bag repaired and thought I’d take the sleeping bag liner with me at the same time.
Good workmanship, Indian style
I found a man sitting in a diminutive space, in front of a sewing machine and surrounded by swatches of material. He didn’t bat an eyelid at either job and took possession of both items straightaway. I stood in the doorway and waited, watching him as he worked. The yoga bag repair took a minute or two and cost 50 rupees. The liner was a bigger job and involved unpicking all my uneven red stitches. Soon there was just one wisp of red thread left as a reminder of my poorly executed work, which I later pulled out. The tailor found a reel of silk thread that matched perfectly the colour of the blue liner, threaded his machine and ran a beautiful, straight line down both the long sections I had previously stitched. He worked with care, focusing on the job and taking no notice of me waiting in the doorway. When he was finished, he handed me the liner to inspect; his work was so good it was, in fact, impossible to spot.
Parcel to go
Another experience comes to mind which illustrates the same qualities of skill, industry and resourcefulness. I wanted to send a large mosquito net back to the friend I’d borrowed it from in Delhi. I was in central India and although it was hot I wasn’t using the net. It was taking up a lot of room in my rucksack, adding unnecessary weight; I didn’t want to lug it around anymore. I had nothing to parcel the net up with but was confident this wouldn’t be a problem. I went to the main post office in Aurangabad and asked if there was a parcel service nearby. They directed me over the road to where I could see a tiny shopfront with a young man sitting behind the counter. He was hemmed in by boxes, stationery items, chocolate, sweets and all sorts of other bits and pieces. He said, “not a problem”: he could make the mosquito net ready for the postal service.
First of all he wrapped the net in newspaper, making sure it was fully enclosed. Then he took a large piece of white cotton and, holding it up next to the net, quickly calculated the amount of cloth he would need. Pivoting around on his stool, he reached behind him and picked up a small Singer sewing machine I hadn’t noticed. He placed it in front of him and swiftly made a cylindrical sleeve with the length of cotton he’d just measured, which he’d cut out perfectly with an old, heavy, sharp pair of scissors. The net fitted snuggly inside the sleeve. The young man then sewed up the top by hand with a large needle. Finally, he burnt some red wax, took a seal and embossed the cotton envelope all the way round the seams, explaining that this needed to be done by law. Finally, he handed me a marker pen and asked me to write the address directly on the parcel. The whole operation had taken about ten minutes, no alterations needed.
A few weeks later, I got back to my friend’s in Delhi where I’d sent the mosquito net. She was so delighted with the parcel she hadn’t opened it yet, saving it as a “work of art”. She put it on a table in the hall in case I wanted to take a photo of it. I walked past it a few times a day while I was there, quietly, happily remembering the no-nonsense skill of the polite young man who’d packaged it up, every time I went by.
Back in London I found myself in need of a quick snack one evening as I was on my way to a meeting. I ducked in to a cafe that I’ve visited before. It’s a pleasant place, stocked with tasty, fresh food and appealing looking dry goods but afflicted by the inflated pricing that plagues an area that was until quite recently ‘cheap’ and now is anything but. I ordered the lowest cost item I could see and waited for it to be heated up; I waited, and then waited some more. Finally, the food arrived.
Although I’m normally a big advocate of attention to detail, I found the effort that went in to the presentation of something that had cost a couple of pounds and was going to be eaten within a few seconds, somewhat over the top. The staff were nice and attentive and the sole falafel with its garnish of salad was good enough, but I found myself thinking nostalgically of the typical food and service in India: speedy, tasty and served from stainless steel buckets on to stainless steel trays, populated with small tin pots for each of the different curries and sauces. It may not sound like a competitor for Broadway Market, London, E8, but as I stood amongst the heaving shelves of the cafe, I felt myself sorely missing the pace and substance of the Indian sub-continent.