‘No Buy July’: rethinking consumerism

buy-nothing

I’ve just finished what I called ‘no buy July’. At the start of the month I decided I would go a whole month without buying anyTHING. (I would still spend on services, and of course, on food and drink. But I wanted to see if I could go a whole month without buying things.)

First, the rationale behind my decision: it was not about saving money, but about taking a good hard look at my own consumerism and minimising my own impact on the planet. If you stop to think – as I made myself – about the amount of resources that go into creating, packaging, shipping and selling things, and then question whether you really truly needed all that material, energy and money spent on fulfilling that precise desire… honestly, not many things would pass the ‘do I’ test.

My decision was prompted, in part, by my frequent visits to India in the course of this last year. As any of my migrant friends will appreciate, a visit ‘back home’ is almost always a shopping expedition: all those special treats you really only get out there, the traditional clothes, shoes and accessories in colours and designs you’d be hard pressed to find in London stores (and when you do, they’re certainly not at comparable prices!) By now, the impulse to buy in bulk is an almost automatic one.

But as I made more than a couple of trips back and forth this year, I realised I didn’t really have to stock up quite as much, and I certainly didn’t ‘need’ to go shopping on each trip. More to the point, my decision to exercise sensible restraint was in glaring contrast with the behaviour I witnessed while in India…

As the country has ‘developed’, with globalisation bringing most brands into the domestic market, and the urban middle class enjoying more and more disposable income thanks to salaries starting to reflect international collaborations, consumerism has become quite the phenomenon. So much so, I found myself wondering if people were even conscious of how impulsively (compulsively?) they were buying things!

Every single time I made plans to meet family or friends in India, they would suggest we met at a bar or restaurant – either in a mall, or in the middle of a ‘shopping area’. (Not surprisingly, the food and retail markets seem to coexist, and feed each other.)

Every single time we met, at least one (but usually more) of my drinking/dining companions would be carrying a shopping bag, with something they had just bought.

Every single conversation with friends was therefore inevitably punctuated by exclamations over what had just been bought. Discussions over where similar – or better – items had been bought by the others. Arguments over whether similar – or better – prices, alternatives, other brands had been found.

And no one seemed to stop and think, did I really need to buy that?

Perhaps as an over-reaction to what I saw as absent-minded consumerism, I decided I would impose mindful un-consumerism upon myself.

I was determined to see if I could go a whole month without buying anything, and force myself to think of clever alternatives to buying the things that would only contribute to plunder at one end of their life-cycle, and waste at the other.

Here’s a small sample of the choices I made:

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  • Cooked my friends a present instead of buying them one.
  • When visiting friends, took them flowers from my garden, arranged in a once-used gift bag I had saved. (Yes, I always save wrapping paper… and would probably have wrapped them in recycled paper if I didn’t have an old gift bag at hand!)
  • I started baking in glassware and covering dishes with plates instead of taking the easier way out with aluminium foil and cling film. (Even though I was already using recycled foil and biodegradable cling film)

And yes, I didn’t buy any new clothes or personal effects: but then, as someone who doesn’t wear makeup, and never paid much attention to trends, that wasn’t hard for me to do either.

In fact, I ended my no-buy July by wearing a shirt** that I recently realised (thank you, Facebook memories!) I have been wearing since 2005!!!

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If this sounds like a challenge you would enjoy too, do check out the wonderful Buy Nothing Project, from whom I borrowed the title photo on this page.

** And yes, I cheerfully wear a decade-old shirt on my own birthday too! 

On the sidelines of History

I write this post with acute self-awareness. To be more precise, acute awareness of the many privileges I enjoy, because of/despite the many labels I carry, and the unique privileged perspective it gives me on the sidelines of history.

I write as an educated woman of Indian origin, and now a British citizen. A self-employed, tax-paying, citizen of a well-established welfare state. And I write as I travel across the English channel in comfort… indeed, some style and romance even, on the  Eurostar.

I travel for work… and every word of this is important: it is fulfilling, cerebral, paid work. Work I enjoy, no less. And work that renews my connection to my roots.

I do so in a week where I witnessed, on a symphony of screens, events that are quite simply, History in the making.

In India, I watched a polarised debate take place, kicked off – as the best debates are! – in a university campus where the drama continues day by day. The debate has sparked intense discussion, as passionate citizens spanning generations search their souls for what their idea of nationalism is. Define what their patriotism looks like. And articulate loud and clear: my nation is bigger than my opinions. But equally, it is bigger than yours!

A demonstrator shouts slogans and waves Indian national flag as she takes part in a protest demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar in New DelhiProud to be a ‘military daughter’ I nonetheless found myself on the fringe as some of my friends, service kids themselves, railed against the JNU students with surprising ferocity and (without taking the time to explore the many facets of the Truth behind all the media clamour) were, perhaps reasonably, outraged at the forgotten sacrifices our soldiers make on the frontiers, guarding a nation that these young ideologues were so ready to challenge, seemingly keen to discard. I was unsettled by the juxtaposition of these two ideas, so I found it deeply reassuring to read this piece by Admiral L. Ramdas, no less than ex-Chief of the Naval Staff, ‘Looking Back, and ahead‘ and concluding: In the ultimate analysis , human security is the best guarantee for National Security. (If it’s a choice between reading on and clicking through to a link – click through to this one now. The Admirable Admiral makes a far more important point, and says it far better than anything I have to say.)

Meanwhile, in my other home country, an equally polarised debate is occupying news space: are we better in the EU or out? What will it mean for us as citizens? And travelling unchecked, unnoticed almost, on my new British passport, I’m reminded again what this debate would have meant as recently as last year – when I would have worried about the implications of this decision on my personal life.

I’m reminded, also, of the many times a Schengen visa (or lack thereof) stopped me, kept me from important life events. The meetings I had to leave to my colleagues. The business opportunities I had to pass up on. The weddings I missed, and the much-loved-from-a-distance children of dear friends that I simply wasn’t able to cuddle when I wanted. I am so glad, today, that I was able to plan this work trip at relatively short notice. But unless we vote to stay in, my red passport may be no guarantee that I shall be able to do so at will in the future.

And then there’s the harsh, but inevitable reminder of yet another privilege I can’t forget: As I chugged across the Channel, cocooned in the comfort of the train, I’m reminded again of the critical difference between a refugee and a migrant. And as I roll up my trusty rain-proof jacket and stow it comfortably above my well-upholstered chair, I’m reminded of the flimsy lifejackets that some refugees (the ‘lucky’ ones) trust the lives of their children to.

In a few hours’ time, I’ll be settling in to a comfortable, conscience-soothing bed at the Conscious Hotel – with sustainability standards, and a commitment to most of the big ethical standards, it works to earn that name. But as I turn in to that comfortable bed, I won’t forget to be grateful for my continuing safety, even as families in Calais face further disruption to their already-troubled lives. Closing their camp, their one refuge, can only mean further displacement, condemn them to continued fleeing for their lives. Can the displaced afford to dream of comfort, security and dignity? How long can the human spirit endure in basic ‘survival’ mode?

no-jungle-1401Displacement and survival bring my thoughts full circle, back to India. Where tribal rights activist Soni Sori was viciously attacked yesterday, as a signal perhaps, to all those who have the audacity to speak up against police brutality, forced displacement of tribals, and the flagrant violation of community forest rights to make way for mining operations.

I like polarised debates, if only because they force people off the fence. Sometimes you can’t afford to be neutral, can’t afford to sit out the fight. So I will continue to play my small part in this history… speaking up where I can, writing some pieces when I can’t, and urging my friends – many with the same privileges I enjoy – to remember those less fortunate than them, invest the time to explore your truth, and pick which side of these Histories you’re going to side with.

Silence is no longer an option.

Following my Ikigai

Ikigai

Recently, I came across this Facebook post about Ikigai (生き甲斐]) a Japanese concept, meaning “a reason for being”. According to the Japanese, everyone has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self.

How fortunate I am to have found my own Ikigai years ago. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I felt myself ‘being rooted’ when I first started working with Greenpeace, in India. No, even before that – I still remember the mounting sense of excitement I felt, reading that recruitment ad and ticking off their checklist. I knew I had learned – and was good at – my job, it involved all that I (then) knew and cared about, I saw how the world needed Greenpeace, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity to ‘get paid for’ the combination! That was it – no deep questions asked, no search of self required. I had my Ikigai.

In the years since, I’ve worked with a bunch of other organisations, of different types and sizes – indeed, some very effective campaigning groups that are too small to even be organised – and have found my centre strengthened for it. (Ok, so I always don’t get paid for it but I figure, if I have to sacrifice one quadrant, it better be that one! And it’s always been a conscious choice: I set up Cause Impact precisely so I could offer my support and professional advice to groups that needed help, but couldn’t always afford it.)

2015 brought me full circle, back to where I first found my Ikigai: Greenpeace India. I went back to ‘my home team’ – as I always thought of them – at a time they were under attack… but as we put it in the very first piece of content I helped to write while there, they were are Undaunted, undefeated, unstoppable.

A few months in, and as 2016 began with the usual annual planning process, I found myself making a much larger commitment than I first intended to, and agreed to support the organisation’s team for this whole year, though one of my top priorities will be to help recruit a Comms Director to replace me. It wasn’t the easiest decision to make – but perhaps that search of self was long overdue?

“You love this work!” I told myself.

“You’re good at this,” they told me.

“It’ll be stable income,” my husband and business partners reminded me.

“They need me,” I told myself, “and the world needs this work; India matters more than ever before.”

But in the end, none of that really matters.

The truth is, I was only following my Ikigai.

Not quite the same story…

Nine years ago, I left my family, my friends and my work in India. There were teary goodbyes, farewell gifts, and large suitcases full of poignant, if useless, reminders of ‘home’. There was nervous excitement, a touch of melancholy, and the overwhelming promise of a new life ahead. A different life, one where I’d need to adapt, where I’d absorb new cultures, evolve a new identity and reinvent the ‘me’ I’d been living for years.

A few weeks ago, Aylan’s family left their home, their friends and their lives in Syria. There may have been teary goodbyes, but I doubt anyone was thinking of gifts. If they did have the room to bring things along, they would most likely have been utilitarian, practical things; things likely to improve their chances of survival away from the destroyed homes they were only too eager to leave. I can only imagine their nervousness, a touch of desperation, and the overpowering hope that life lay ahead. Life. Not ‘a better life’, or ‘a new life’. Just life, as opposed to the constant threat of death they’d been living with for years.

About ten days ago, probably around the same time as Aylan’s family was waiting for the boat that was meant to carry them to their new chance at life, I was waiting too. While they waited, with countless others, on a beach, I waited in the reception room of a beautifully appointed stately old home. While they probably handed over large sums of money to be squeezed up against hundreds of their compatriots in a rickety boat, I simply handed over a piece of paper that I had received in the post, was greeted with effusive smiles and invited to partake of refreshments while I waited, along with people of six other nationalities, to be greeted by officials from my local council.

IMG_3449I remember swallowing a lump in my throat as, with a few simple words, I renounced my citizenship to one country and received the rights to another, to the sound of applause. And now I am haunted by the thought of them, gasping with fear each time their boat was hit by a swelling wave. Each time they saw an official looking boat patrolling the waters.

My journey ended, in one sense, as a little red booklet arrived by messenger. Of course, this is the start of a lifetime of journeys, as the proud bearer of ‘one of the world’s most powerful passports’.

And Aylan’s journey? Well, we don’t need to see that photo again to remind us that he didn’t make it. Not him. Not his brother. Not their mother. Not the hundreds of others who brave the same perilous route to escape their realities in search of life, in a bid to stay alive.

Me, I’m a migrant. A well-integrated, settled one, fortunate to have a home and friends and rights in more than one country, including the right to espouse what one MP has called a ‘pathetic, trendy left-wing view‘ of compassion towards my fellow human beings. Armed with my new passport I can travel at will, including back to a welcoming home country.

Families like those of Aylan? They are refugees. People whose situation in one country was so perilous that their lives literally depended on making it across a border. Their reality is that it is too dangerous for them to return home. Denying them asylum can mean the difference between life and death.

There’s a difference. And it matters.

For now, all I can do is show my support, show that I’m one of those who believe refugees should feel welcome in the UK, and use my newly strengthened voice as a citizen to call on my MP to ‘End the Calais Crisis’.

If you live in the UK too, please will you sign? Several lives do depend on it.

#RefugeesWelcome

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve been enjoying the recently-introduced Facebook memories function, not least because it makes me more aware of what (and who!) I have in my life today, and the eventful journey it took to get here. Yes, not every memory is pleasant, as some users have pointed out, but dare I say, personally it is proving to be an exercise in gratitude for my habit of sharing small pleasures and ignoring (most!) minor irritants.

While most of my Facebook memories seem to celebrate time spent with family and friends – and all those who blur the lines between the two! – every now and then, a more momentous one pops up. Here’s what it showed me on 11th May 2015. (Remember how the old timeline layout forced us to refer to ourselves in the third person?!)

7 years ago:

Namrata Chowdhary updated her status.
has finally moved to London. What a wait!!

Seven years.

That kind of memory forces you to pause, to take stock, to consider… seven years ago, so much was different! Yet so much is the same.

There were friends we hadn’t met yet, and children who weren’t born yet, who would go on to occupy such large chunks of my heart. But there were so many others too, who were there then, had been there before, and are still here for me now.

There were parts of London I hadn’t even explored yet, but would start to call home soon. From that first flat my husband and I moved to in London, we moved not once, but twice; and each time, with each new home, whether large or small, we managed to fill it with the love and laughter of people who mattered. And I always managed to find my piece of the London sky.

There were charities I hadn’t worked with, causes and campaigns I had no clue about, that I would become a passionate advocate for. But considering the inter-connectedness – of values, of causes and of the ‘global campaigner community’ – some things have come full circle with an air of inevitability. Social justice intersected with climate politics,  gender neutrality with child rights, livelihood struggles with ecological principles, animal welfare with disaster preparedness… and almost everything with economic justice and that beautiful, all-encompassing phrase: sustainable development. (I use it with only mild irony.)

The one thing that hasn’t changed at all, though, is the worst fear that expats everywhere must share: the sheer helplessness of being away from your family and friends when tragedy strikes close to home. It takes one news headline, one text or tweet, to send your heart rate soaring and your hands reaching for the phone.

That unchanged reality was brought home today: as I texted back and forth with my parents-in-law about their upcoming visit to our home (and whether or not they should bring banana chips – yes! and home-made ghee – no!), there was a sudden, long gap in the conversation… Followed by a slew of terse messages:

“Just felt tremors and rushed out.”

“Massive earthquake but all well here, do not worry.”

Immediately turning to the news, I realised that the earthquake was centred in Kathmandu again, so my family in Delhi were reasonably safe. But of course, it made me think immediately of the three people I know personally, one of them a good friend, two – actually, all three! – of them ex-colleagues currently in Nepal as part of the international aid effort, and a fourth who has taken up residence there. So I spent the next few hours closely following news reports, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and the television, hoping to hear good news from these four individuals even as I felt awful for the impact on the people of Nepal.

So yes, in that one regard, nothing has changed in these seven years. And probably won’t for the next seven either. Because at the end of the day, tragedies on this scale only become really real to us when they’re personal. And when you’re an expat (or when you otherwise belong to a group as diverse as international charity workers) somehow, it is always personal. Or becomes that way.

Walk with me?

Image credit: movebetterfeelbetterplaybetter.com

Moving, as I do, between well-populated cities and lovely leafy suburbs in two distinctly different parts of the world (I try and holiday ‘at home’ in India at least once a year and yes, there are pockets of suburban quiet there too!) I often notice the not-too-subtle differences in crowd dynamics and social norms. How many people you can fit into a square metre of space isn’t simply a question of physics, after all! The definitions of personal space, of boundaries (both physical and psychological) are so vastly different in the two countries I interchangeably call home, it becomes a fascinating revelation of human nature for a people-watcher like me.

Walking from a crowded shopping centre towards a train station in London today, I noticed I had fallen into step alongside a woman in audible high heels – you know, the kind that you can’t help noticing because they clip-clop-clip-clop down the street? I had been listening to music as I walked, but found I was matching her beat instead. As I turned to look in her direction, she smiled at me, so I took my headphones off and told her, “You know, hearing your heels on the pavement reminded me of something.” But she had interrupted me at ‘heels on the pavement’ and said, “Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you!”

But as I told her, it wasn’t that she had scared me, but that she had reminded me of a social experiment I had read about. One that described how people invariably change their pace when a stranger walks beside them for a while. I can’t find that link any more (please link to it in comments if this sounds familiar) but I did come across this video when looking for it.

Funnily enough, though, despite my telling her about this – and after she had smiled in my direction, after all – she laughed, but immediately sped up and walked away!

Searching for the actual experiment once home, I realised I’m not the only one who finds this fascinating – there’s an emerging field of science dedicated to observing, understanding and predicting crowd dynamics, and a suitably dense scientific paper written about it too, cryptic formulae and all.

When you think about it, as growing urban populations put increased pressure on public spaces and facilities (try boarding an early morning city-bound train and the suburban station won’t seem quite as genteel!) planning around human behaviour and crowd dynamics could mean the difference between a stampede and a successful evacuation in an emergency. As the crowd scientist (what an interesting job title!) Mehdi Moussaid points out, it requires an understanding of physics as well as cognitive behaviour, and essentially means you have to adjust for cultural bias.

And here’s an interesting conclusion from Moussaid’s report: A comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Just a complex way of acknowledging that I walk differently when in India – for a whole variety of very scientific reasons! And that my journeys are no less effective for it. In a few days’ time, I shall put this theory to the test!

Saying YES and meaning it!

Lots has been said – and rightly so! – about developing the ability to say no when we mean it; over a range of different contexts, from parenting to consensual sex to professional authority, we are so often reminded to emphasise, to stand firm and be clear that “No means no!” But choosing to say yes and truly meaning it… that can be hard too!

I’ve been reflecting on the differences between agreement and acquiescence: how do you say a whole-hearted yes, without the simmering discontent or quiet regret that often accompanies a ‘Yes, though I mean maybe’, or the rolled eyes and steaming ears as ‘Okay fine, yes’ is growled through gritted teeth? Or even the hesitation and self-doubt that can plague the thereafter with a “Should I really have said yes?” For me, it comes down to two active processes: before and after each choice, and I’m trying to remind myself to focus on these better.

1. Respecting my own reasoning: Before I arrive at any conscious decision, whether trivial or profound, I’ve invariably weighed several factors: some of which I am aware of (how much pleasure I’ll get from another coffee vs my struggle to fall asleep tonight) while others are background processes (the smell of roasted coffee beans, for instance) that make a choice more obvious or more irresistible. But I reason, I weigh my options, and I choose to be led by my desire or my rationality. What I need to do next is honour that process. Trust in myself better, and accept without regret once I have made that choice. Whether the choice was made by my head or my heart, instinctively or empirically, I need to respect the reasoning that got me there… And stop second-guessing myself!

2. Committing to the decision, wholly: Saying yes is often only the beginning! The real challenge is to follow through with a truly open heart, and participate whole-heartedly in what follows. Whether it means giving up something, giving in to a temptation or giving of myself, a ‘Yes’ can be rendered meaningless without generosity and commitment.  Choosing to work freelance, for instance – one of my bigger professional decisions – would be so much less fulfilling and less effective if I did not commit to it, invest in it and stay true to the decision once I had made it. That’s not to suggest there is no going back or reconsidering a decision when new factors emerge. There always is. But, until something significant changes, I need to remind myself to commit myself fully to each decision I’ve made, and stay generous in spirit as I go along with the decision. (If I agree to cook a meal for friends but grumble through the afternoon as I do it, I would certainly not be much fun by the time the meal is served!)

And the best part of the yes cycle is what follows next: Gratitude. Saying yes, and consciously choosing to live up to that yes, has opened me up to greater gratitude – and I am hoping to get better at both expressing it, and accepting it. But maybe gratitude deserves a separate post all of its own…

Until then, I close with a beautiful Thich Nhat Hanh visualisation technique; use it to approach your next YES!Reflecting on choices

“Breathing in, feel something positive; breathing out, say yes.

Breathe in energy, breathe out yes.

Breathe in calm, breathe out yes.”

(Some of my thinking along these lines has been triggered by my current reading of  The Righteous Mind“. A fascinating exploration of morality related to politics and religion, it prompted me to question how we make the choices we do. I’m only just beginning to read the book, so I won’t/can’t share much more, but I do recommend it highly!)