Plants, as the curriculum in my 4th grade environment textbook stated, were living organisms, just like you and I. They exhaled oxygen and inhaled harmful carbon dioxide making them important to our ecosystem. I, like every other naive and untrained kid in my class, bought this causation, and the next year, like my textbook, abandoned it in the realms of my subconscious mind.
After grade 4, the subject “environment” slowly got merged and eventually diminished into the larger ambit of social sciences. This was way back in the early 2000s, but I can say with some surety that generations have gone past without proper emphasis or pointed literature regarding the environment, mostly because they had eluded the mainstream educational discourse.
However, this is not an argumentative rant about curriculums in schools or its pedagogical approach, this article is a personal account of my relationship with the environment and my interactions in the domain of ecology via understanding a simple concept, a mantra—as many put it—of composting.
I grew up in a town, known for its chemical factories and engineering industries, located in a tiny corner of southern Gujarat. If the hot and arid weather did not enervate the dying plants in my backyard, daily visits made by our “lesser evolved” ancestors did the job of plucking and destroying every bud or vegetation that ever grew in the open spaces of my household. My relationship with plants always led to bitter, brutal endings, and it mostly ended in me deracinating the plant in sheer frustration. Maybe because I had never actually grown one myself, and I leapt for joy when I got the opportunity to grow a plant, as part of a school project.
I was given a week and told that sprouts were the quickest plants to grow, and there began my scavenger hunt. I searched tooth and nail for seeds, although I found half-grown plantations ready to be sold, I could not possibly find seeds near my area. My project finally ended with me transplanting a plant that was growing on a random patch of my front yard, and my tryst with plantation ended there. A hopeless attempt at doing something that farmers did everyday of their lives bogged my spirits hollow.
They were only reignited a little less than three years ago when I moved to Bangalore. I had no idea behind the mechanics of composting. I always thought that one had to make a pit and dump all the food waste into it and the magic would happen. It turned out, quite to my surprise, that composting was essentially transportation of your daily food leftovers into almost any container and the process thereafter, quite simple. To cut a long story short, with the help of my aunt (you don’t need a lot of help, but it is always good to have “a lot” of aunts), who introduced me to the technicalities of composting, I was able to produce my share of compost within 45 days. I did not even realise 45 days had gone past. I had almost forgotten about my Khamba, which lay in the corner of the balcony, working its magic with the invisible microorganisms working their way to turn a neutral odour wet kitchen waste, into a sweet-smelling pot of gold.
Chefs will give you advice on what particular spice to add, to go the extra mile, that will completely change the nature of your recipe causing an aromatic twist, or a transformation of the basic taste. Well, with my little experience in composting, especially the aerobic type, if you want to go that extra mile and add spice to your compost, a good booster is a whole lot of leftover coffee powder. As embarrassing as it sounds, the aroma of my compost was so inviting that I was almost curious to taste it. This is just a friendly tip, and maybe I am going out of the way to categorically emphasise that properly done compost does not smell. In fact, I can go as far as to say that you can use it as an aromatic room freshener.
Hurdle two was putting my hard work, or rather lack of it, to some use. I was haunted by my childhood nemesis: The growing plant. With some help from my aunt which involved mixing the compost with soil, making holes in the mixture and sowing the seeds, eureka! My first set of beans sprouted. All I had to do was add water and make sure there were no monkeys in Bangalore, of course I mean literal monkeys. The entire routine took a little more than a month. I am sure this article and my thoughts are more convoluted and difficult to comprehend than the process of growing a plant.
I have studied economics, and to this date have never been able to rationalise the trade-offs between growing your own compost, and buying some chemical fertiliser to boost your plant growth. The former is absolutely free, more effective and much safer than the latter.
Here, I am talking about Indian urban households who are generally tight on their budgets and go to great lengths to be as cost-effective as possible. If sensitisation did not appeal to the larger urban diaspora, why isn’t basic economics catching their eye? All I am saying is that if a person so historically unsuccessful and ambivalent towards composting and gardening can grow herself pots full of beans, tomatoes and what not! There cannot be any force deterring urban households to follow the same trend.
By Aarti Shastry
Aarti has a Master’s degree in development studies from Azim Premji University. Apart from her nascent interest in the environment, she loves performing arts, poetry and lawn tennis.