Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Look, It’s an Orphan Soul Hanging like a Dead Crow on the Tree…!

EVERY TIME I visit a super market or a mall to buy something, I come away with a sense of guilt because invariably I am holding a plastic carry bag like a dead rabbit.

I say dead rabbit because a rabbit is one of the cutest little animals I have ever seen in my life. I still remember the little white rabbit we used to have at home as a pet, and when I came to know people would eat it as a delicious dish I was aghast. But I think my revulsion was quite out of place because people must eat to keep themselves alive and there is a saying in our language that the sin you incur in killing is washed away in eating. So there is a natural and symbiotic relationship between the hunter and the hunted; the prey and the predator. It is the natural order.

But why describe this ubiquitous plastic carry bag as a dead rabbit? Because like a dead rabbit's rotting carcass, these plastic carry bags keep proliferating, clogging our sewage systems and endangering the ecology of our planet. Go the remotest parts of Pacific Ocean’s islands or the most inaccessible parts of Amazon’s evergreen forests, and you are sure to come across abandoned water bottles or plastic food carriages.

Even the dead are not free from this plastic menace. Some time ago I went to the ancient temple in Thirunelli, on a steep hill in Nilgiri Biosphere, off Mananthavady in Wynad, where people conduct the final rites for the dead and gone. The Hindu belief is that once you carry out these rites, the soul comes to its final resting place, or kaivalyam; it would not wander in purgatory. So when someone is dead, his or her bones are collected from the ashes and then kept in an earthen pot to be carried off to Thirunelli(or any other sacred place) for immersion in sacred waters in the steam there. This river is called Papanasini, or the destroyer of all sins, a beautiful imagery of a person’s soul being washed clean of all her worldly sins for her final journey to the Almighty’s presence.

So I was there in Thirunelli to do the final rites for a close relative who had died. We had taken the ashes in an earthen-ware to be broken for immersion in the waters.

As I reached the ghat for the rites I was aghast that times have changed and even ancient customs have changed. Many had brought the ashes in plastic containers which were of course very convenient and they had the added advantage that they would not break, and the ashes and bones accidentally spilled out. But what was heart-breaking was that people instead of breaking earthen pots, were shedding out the bones and ashes into the water and then to ensure that all the remains did get immersed, simply throwing the plastic containers into the stream.

Papanasini is a small stream in the hills where wild animals roam about for food and water. I saw these containers in muddied pools of water everywhere in summer and they were seen even on the branches of huge trees downstream as when monsoon comes and water levels rise, they float about wildly. The poor ancestor’s soul, trapped in a plastic container, then hangs on the branches of a tree like an orphaned bat!

But local people told me they do much more harm than that. These containers often carry bits of food and other articles and foraging animals devour them, causing death. They said even elephants had been killed that way. A fine example of a soul on a murderous spree on its march to the heavens… Good heavens!

That is why I feel guilty every time I purchase something in a plastic container. But often one has no option. But today I was thrilled as I was offered a new, beautifully designed paper-and-yarn carry bag at a super-market, which weighed only a gram or two and looks elegant. The girl in the shop apologetically told me it would cost me one rupee extra. I said I am glad to pay that because I do not want my ancestors hanging on a tree like a dead crow with their souls trapped in a plastic bag.

(A version of this article is published at, from London, Dec. 2008.)

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