What Growing up in an Indian Middle-Class Household Taught Me About Sustainability

I grew up in a Indian middle-class nuclear family – the kind where you squeeze the toothpaste get to the last little bit, use the soap until it’s so tiny it could evaporate and use the empty Bournvita jars for storing pulses and grains. In essence, we made sure wastage was minimal and went all out to repurpose any item before deeming it ‘garbage.’

Trust me when I say that a middle-class family knows how to use items in the most creative ways.

For instance, an old T-shirt never makes its way to the garbage bin unless it completes its rightful duties as a household mop cloth. Bonus points to extra creative families like mine, who turn old clothes to rugs and cushions. Old pots and buckets are made to breathe a new life as planters. Newspapers don’t just serve the purpose of delivering news – they can be used table lays, notebook covers, shelf liners, and as an occasional housefly swatter.

When I was young and naive, besides being environmentally ignorant – I considered these sustainable measures as penny-pinching, often labelled as ‘being cheap or stingy’ by us laymen and more famously depicted in the Indian television space. Remember the famous Maya Sarabhai’s dialogue from the TV classic Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, “Monisha, this is so categorically middle class?”

With such influences, I was ashamed of carrying my lunch in a steel lunchbox, while my friends flaunted their bright yellow Pokemon lunchboxes with an extra compartment at the top for storing the complimentary Pikachu fork and spoons. Meanwhile, I had to wash my steel spoon and fork before putting it back in my lunch bag.

While my friends were dropped off in a car by their driver or parents, I took the bus or walked to school.

My family had the privilege to own a secondhand Santro car only after I turned 15. The car was mostly used when all the family members had to travel from point A to B. If there were two people or less, riding a bike, walking or taking the public transport was the most viable and fuel-saving option.

As a callow kid, I often wondered if we were poor, and affordability was an issue. I was wrong. It was a choice my parents made. A conscious one. An environmentally conscious one.

Now an educated adult, I understand the importance of sustainable living. I am rather glad and thankful for the upbringing my parents have given me.

It took me a while, but I realised the steel lunchbox (which I hated then and considered a status symbol) was a much healthier option to store my food. It was safer and more sustainable than plastic ones. Unknowingly, I became a non-contributor to the largescale plastic problem. But knowingly, my parents had made that conscious choice.

Walking or riding a cycle was a more environment-friendly way to reduce our carbon emissions (plus the health benefits). Using motor vehicles only when necessary, was a way I learnt to maximise cognisance.

From a girl who despised her mother for using delivery food containers as storage boxes – to a girl who hoards hundreds of jars for repurposing – the middle-class mentality has shaped me as eco-conscious human.

This mindset has made me more thankful for things bestowed to us by mother nature – the roof over our shelter, the clothes we buy with every changing season and more importantly for the food that we require to survive.

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Ironically, that’s the first thing we are destroying – the food. From crops to marine life, our human cruelness has left no stone unturned. We have taken our shears and ripped the food chain. With an ample supply of food, we are spoilt for choices.

The privileged dump tonnes of their leftovers in the garbage, while the poor die without a morsel of rice. But the debate on economical unbalance is a broader discussion for another time.

For the sole purpose of sticking to the topic, let’s rewind to our middle-class etiquettes.

When I was young, my mother always cooked fresh meals (with food purchased from local markets where the vendors didn’t clingwrap every third tomato in plastic.)

We rarely had any leftovers. I don’t understand if mothers are equipped with some extraordinary mathematical powers, but they always seem to know the exact amount of food required for the day – keeping in mind the hungry child who is home after playing with friends, the other child who is a fussy eater and the big manchild who is famished after a full day of work. A mother knows it all.

Even if there were days where the calculation was hindered by the fussy eater’s tantrums – the food was carried over to the next meal. The leftover rice was revamped with some spices and veggies – and voila!

This approach of eating every last bit of food doesn’t have an expiry date once engraved in our minds, I believe. We humans have little to zero tendencies of unlearning things. We can merely just forget things and let it sit in our hippocampus.

The middle-class mentality has equipped me with the quality of being mindful about wastage. Although, I will admit I have personally taken the wrong route a few times, wasting food for the sake of my tastebuds – the fact I could afford to do so played a crucial role.

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I now enjoy amenities which cannot be deemed “middle-class” with regard to the income flux. I can afford to buy all the fancy plasticware I want, I can travel alone in a car without having to think about the fuel, I can throw the leftovers and order a pizza if I wish. But my middle-class outlook has taught me better than that.

I walk when I can. I try to minimise plastic use, recycle when I can’t. I try to take whatever steps I can to reduce my carbon footprint. I try.

As more and more of us make efforts to reduce our carbon footprints, more ideas are being sparked, more entrepreneurs are introducing environment-friendly consumer products. The steel tiffin that I frowned upon long ago is now an eco-friendly fad product. The trendy shampoo bars – a sustainable cult product – were something we used daily in our households long ago. Rugs made of recycled fabric sell for big bucks.

The so-called ‘stingy’ use of products – has been revamped, packaged and marketed targeting the higher socioeconomic population.

But the middle-class did it way before it was cool.

In the end, the sustainability component etched in the middle-class mindset is far outstretched. Amidst the lack of resources and income, they learnt to be sustainable the hard way.

As for me, I couldn’t be happier about the middle-class upbringing and mentality I was exposed to in my budding years. It has now formed the foundation of the eco-conscious journey I hope to continue on.

Sonia Singha is a journalist and freelance writer based in Australia. A travel enthusiast and sustainability advocate, she likes her coffees black and puns intended.

Featured image credit: Alena Koval/Pexels