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Meet the new urban minimalists

Ready for a zero-waste life? Let these green warriors inspire you to live more mindfully, intentionally and ethically this year

Jahnavi Pai with her spinning wheel. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint
Jahnavi Pai with her spinning wheel. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

Tender coconut water and paani puri are a few of Sahar Mansoor’s favourite things. As popular street food across India, these items may cost little, but they exact a steep ecological price. Their immediate by-product is usually a plastic straw that cannot be recycled or plates often disposed of carelessly, leading to clogged drainage. The empty coconut shell has a better chance of being turned into coir.

“For a long time, I would try to drink the coconut water without the plastic straw and end up pouring most of it all over myself," says Mansoor, 27, who lives in Bengaluru. “Until I finally made the switch." A couple of years ago, she began carrying a stainless steel straw and an empty lunch box everywhere so that she could enjoy her beloved snacks without adding to the burden of urban waste. Soon Mansoor was buying foodgrains only from a city store that sold them loose, free of packaging. She began to use home-grown personal care products made with ingredients her grandmother once used—multani mitti (Fuller’s earth), shikakai and reetha (soapnut). That led to further reduction of plastic waste. By the time Mansoor started her venture, Bare Necessities, in 2016, the amount of non-biodegradable dry waste she produced in over two years fitted into a 500ml jar.

Bare Necessities makes a range of products with ethically sourced and zero-waste ingredients, supplying them in eco-friendly packages using recyclable material. Sold from select outlets in Bengaluru, items such as the compostable bamboo toothbrush or the Boondh menstrual cup are steadily attracting buyers. “Our customer base is mostly women between the ages of 18 and 40," says Mansoor. “Many of them are young mothers and millennials who want to consume more mindfully and associate with ethical brands that reflect their personal values."

Bare Necessities founder Sahar Mansoor with the dry waste she generated over two years. Photo: Vanmayi Shetty
Bare Necessities founder Sahar Mansoor with the dry waste she generated over two years. Photo: Vanmayi Shetty

While Bengaluru (a hub for urban minimalists) has a rich and long-standing tradition of green living, the trend seems to be catching on in other metros too. Mansoor says she is invited every month to give multiple talks about zero-waste living and conduct workshops in different cities. From corporates such as Google and Godrej to apartment complexes and coffee shops, she has spoken to a variety of audiences. “The goal of Bare Necessities is not just to sell products," she says, “it is to convince people to change their thinking and lifestyles."

In the last few years, green warriors and urban minimalists across the country have begun to consume more consciously, cutting back on excesses and opting out of the rat race. In their quest for a low-impact life, people are retreating from the urban bustle to the stillness of rural farms. Some have shrunk their material needs to fit all their possessions into a few bags, while others have improvised ingenious strategies to make their habitats eco-friendly, even as they continue to live in cities.

In the examples set by them are lessons of frugality and conservation, which are not only integral to living meaningfully in the 21st century, but also surviving its multiplying challenges.

A few products Bare Necessities brand.
A few products Bare Necessities brand.

Spinning the wheel

The concept of minimalism, especially in the contemporary global context, traces its roots to the Zen Buddhist heritage of China, which travelled to Japan and Korea, and to pared-down Scandinavian aesthetics. The idea has also spread across the US, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. If the American Dream was once about owning a condo, it has been overtaken by the “tiny house movement" to beat shooting real estate prices. Minimalists like Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn are now celebrities. Their journey from corporate opulence to a contained life has yielded a popular website, a best-selling book, a hit documentary, and their ubiquitous presence on the global lecture circuit.

Minimalism in India isn’t a new phenomenon, though the opening up of the economy in 1991, followed by the wave of globalization, has dimmed its impact considerably. Even so, all major religions in the subcontinent advocate simple living and a philosophy of renunciation. In the 20th century, the most influential proponent of such ideas in the social sphere was M.K. Gandhi. Dressed in his trademark loincloth made of handspun yarn and subsisting on a frugal diet of fruits, nuts and boiled vegetables when he was not engaged in lengthy fasts, Gandhi fashioned himself as the archetypical minimalist, almost impossible to rival. If his sartorial tastes are harder to emulate in the 21st century, the charkha, or the spinning wheel, which he turned into a tool of resistance, has found an enduring place in Indian life. Promoted by Khadi Aur Gram Udyog Aayog since 1956, handspun yarn and handloom weaves signify both elegance and simplicity.

Two years ago, Bengaluru-based Jahnavi Pai, a 37-year-old ecologist who loves handloom clothes, decided to pay tribute to weavers by learning to spin yarn on the charkha. “When I was working in villages around Challakere (in Karnataka), I saw weavers moving to cities to work in garment factories," she says. “Most of them were resolved that their trade should end with them, they didn’t want their children to carry it." So profound was the sense of disillusionment, the younger generation preferred jobs as security guards to the life of a village weaver. “That’s when I thought, we have to be part of the system and bring dignity back to the profession," Pai says.

Since weaving required elaborate infrastructure and specialized technique, spinning seemed a good place to start at. But finding a teacher proved challenging, especially since the local Khadi centres weren’t encouraging. Eventually, Pai took lessons from Madhav Sahasrabudhe, a proponent of the charkha in Pune, and was joined by friends, one of whom was growing cotton in her garden. Since then, Pai and her fellow enthusiasts have organized about nine workshops at Navadarshanam, an ashram-like setup over 100 acres of land near Anekal in Tamil Nadu, and also at Melukote in Karnataka. Some 200-250 people have learnt spinning from them.

Apart from helping people slow down, spinning returns them to the origins of one of the most essential items in their lives. For Pai, the awareness of the physical labour that goes into the making of a piece of cloth has segued into more intentional living choices. On the path to leading a minimalist life, she and her husband don’t own a refrigerator, car or RO filter (which leads to water wastage during filtration). They don’t employ domestic help. “We don’t buy dairy or meat products, cook at least once every day, and get supply of fresh fruits and vegetables daily," she says.

Waste not, want not

The discipline, rigour and self-control that minimal and eco-friendly living requires seem near impossible to infuse into a public culture like India’s. According to 2016 data from the Press Information Bureau, India generates around 62 million tonnes of mixed waste (containing both recyclable and non-recyclable material) every year, most of which ends up in landfills. While in some cities, like Bengaluru, there is a robust practice of composting wet waste and segregating the dry, such norms are far from common across the country. The bulk of dry waste usually comes from the packaging used in fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Add to it gadgets and electronic appliances—programmed to last a limited span (“planned obsolescence" in industry jargon) and now increasingly discarded by users to “upgrade" to better products.

For someone who once worked in industries that mass-manufacture products, Bengaluru-based Arvind Shivakumar has come a long way. Trained in tool-and-die-making, the 40-year-old has moved away from the assembly-line model of making moulds for disposable objects over the last 15 years “to earning a meaningful living by facilitating and hosting conversations that matter," as he puts it. “When I was five-six years old, I attended a nature camp in Ragihalli (on the outskirts of Bengaluru), where waste had been dumped on part of the site," he says. “The trainer asked us, ‘How do you want to leave this place?’ So we cleaned it up a bit. All these years later, I realize that question has become the larger theme of my life."

In the last two decades, Shivakumar says, he has internalized this question, and acted upon it at many levels. Despite growing up in a meat-eating family, he turned vegan over a decade ago. He stopped buying silk and leather as these are non-compassionate towards animals. Once attached to his wardrobe, he reduced it from 200-250 pieces to 50-odd items—and still did not need to buy clothes for almost 10 years. Recently, after living in a rented house, Shivakumar moved into his parents’ home with his partner. “The nuclear family is a model that feeds into the capitalist ideal of over-consumption," he says. “Living with my parents, for instance, has meant less consumption of water and electricity for all of us."

Shivakumar describes his journey into minimalism as incremental deepening of self-awareness, which finds resonance in the experience of another practising minimalist, a water management expert, also based in Bengaluru. Speaking on the condition of anonymity (that’s part of being a minimalist, she explains), she mentions the big and small changes she has made in her life in the last six years. It started with cutting off her hair, on which she had once lavished attention. But a shorter crop meant less time and resources spent on its upkeep. By the same logic, life in a smaller house, with a leaner wardrobe, a concise library and no vehicle can free up precious hours every day otherwise spent looking after these items.

Rajesh Shah at his house. Photo: Gurpreet Kaur/Mint

Far from the madding crowd

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist philosopher and a precursor of present-day minimalists, embarked on a remarkable experiment to push the boundaries of ethical living, with low impact on the environment. For two years, this city-bred man of the world retreated into a forest by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to live off the soil. He subsisted on what the land yielded, drew on natural resources to build his shelter, and wrote a remarkable account of his days and epiphanies. Thoreau’s leap into a hermetic lifestyle set the template for generations of recluses and spiritual seekers—but most of all, it captured the imagination of people whose destiny is to live in the “city pent" (as poet John Keats once wrote), pining for the simpler, but infinitely richer, life in the country.

The urge to periodically escape into a sylvan idyll seems but a logical consequence of the uniquely urban condition called “stuffocation". Coined by social scientist James Wallman in his 2015 book of the same name, the word captures the spirit of the 21st century with acuity. It was to escape the clutches of stuffocation that Venetia Kotamraju and her husband, Gautam, decided to change their lives.

“We thought we would buy some land and start spending some weekends here," Kotamraju says on the phone from their farm in Sakleshpur, in Karnataka’s Hassan district, where she spends most of her time with her two children. “Over the last year-and-a-half, since I started living here, we fell in love with a bare minimum lifestyle. We realized so much of what we think we need is actually unnecessary."

Their life on the farm began with the absolute essentials—a tent in a jungle, some sleeping linen and water. They built a compost toilet, which doesn’t create waste, a bathroom to shower in, and a woodfire stove. “Then we realized we needed a storage area, so we put in a shipping container," she says. After the birth of their younger son earlier this year, the Kotamrajus built a basic mud hut with earth bags. “We’ve given ourselves the luxury of a tap coming in from the water tank so we have running water," Kotamraju says. “There is a solar water heater so I can do the baby laundry."

While her husband works in Bengaluru and spends weekends at the farm, Venetia says she finds it difficult to exist “in our ‘modern’ world" when she goes back to the city now. At five and a half years, their older son is being unschooled—instead of actively teaching him, the parents facilitate his interests—which also ties in with their philosophy of rejecting the trappings of urban life.

Like the Kotamrajus, Sameer Shisodia, another Bengalurean, also planned to move to a farm in Coorg with his wife, once their children went off for higher education. The idea led to the formation of the Tamarind Valley Collective in 2016, made up of 47 co-owners, who own 75 acres of land in Thagatti village, 100km from Bengaluru.

The roof of Shah’s driveway is lined with solar panels. Shah sold off his car and commutes mostly by bicycle. Photo: Gurpreet Kaur/Mint

Founder of the parent company Beforest, which manages the collective, Shisodia met over 350 people before he picked the buyers. The initial investment for each co-owner is 37 lakh. The collective consists of professionals, mostly in high-income corporate jobs, who have moved to the site, or visit it on weekends and take periodic breaks there, or are planning to retire there eventually.

“The idea behind the farm is that your entire plate should come from what you grow," says Shisodia. About 35% of the land is reserved for forest cover, while millets and other crops that aren’t water intensive are grown on the rest. “We have hired a team of farmers, who carry out the daily grunt work," he adds. “Most members participate on the weekends."

Understanding the source of the food we eat, as well as the products we use on our bodies, is indeed key to living more intentionally, ethically and minimally. In 2000, Smitha Kamath, 46, who describes herself as a “spiritual ecologist", began to reflect on these questions when her daughter, then 2, suffered from severe allergic reactions. In 2006, Kamath took a sabbatical from her corporate job and worked with Greenpeace for a year. But the inflection point came in 2011, after attending a workshop on sustainable futures at Auroville, Puducherry. “I realized the solution does not lie with a corporate, but with shifting our individual lifestyle at the grassroots level," Kamath says.

Soon after she began working on her farming project, Devara Kaadu, in Channapatna, near Bengaluru, where she focused on rain-fed crops and millets. She refrained from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Leaf mulch and bird droppings became the pillars of her zero-budget natural farming programme, implemented with minimal investment. The harvest was vulnerable to attacks from various organisms, but that is the way things are. “Earlier, one-third of the produce was always reserved for the birds and other animals," says Kamath. “Now we want everything for ourselves."

Kamath believes in devara kaadu (literally forests of the gods or the sacred grove), a practice of holistic living common to Karnataka as well as parts of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Inspired by its principle of living off the earth, abjuring synthetic products, she eventually started the PraanaPoorna Collective. With 24 members based in Bengaluru, Gurugram, Coimbatore, Madurai and Chennai, the group makes a range of everyday household and self-care products using natural ingredients like soap nuts, shikakai, beeswax, coconut oil and jaggery.

At her home in Bengaluru, Kamath runs her “production unit" from an outhouse, where she makes floor cleaners, body butter, soaps, shampoos and hand-wash with citrus peels, jaggery and bio enzymes. These are packaged in used water or beer bottles and sold to people locally. “We want to break the habit of picking up these items from the shelves of convenience stores," she says. “So we urge people to come and pick up these products from our homes because buying from those you know closely is one way of community building."

Smitha Kamath with the self-care and household products she makes with everyday ingredients. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

Home truths

Tucked away in bustling Whitefield, on the eastern fringes of Bengaluru, water management expert Rajesh Shah’s home is an oasis of eco-friendly living as well. The water requirement for his family is met through rainwater harvesting. The water for the laundry is reused to flush the toilets. The kitchen water is recycled to irrigate the garden. Depending entirely on solar panels, the house is off grid. Rajesh, 56, and his wife, Vallari, grow seasonal vegetables on their terrace garden to meet some of their daily demands. And for the last five-six years, they have an open-door policy on Fridays for anyone who wants to join them for an evening of meditation and quiet reflection.

Rajesh says he was “born a minimalist". “In Bombay, where I grew up, I recycled textbooks as a child, hated wasting paper and went to the sahakari bhandar with a thaila (cloth bag)," he says. While working at Bell Labs in the US, he introduced the practice of double-sided printing at his workplace. After he moved to Bengaluru a decade ago, he convinced the local milk supplier to bring them milk in their own steel containers instead of packets. In the last few years, the Shahs have moved to a vegan, oil-free and gluten-free diet. Processed foods and white foods don’t enter their kitchen. Having got rid of his car, Shah commutes by bicycle or takes a bus.

A workshop conducted by Bare Necessities. Photo: Vanmayi Shetty

The scale of the environmental challenges facing urban India is daunting, and growing each day. Nothing short of a valiant and sustained collective effort can make a dent in the crisis looming ahead of us—but it can only begin at the level of the individual. “Can you think of one Indian city where the air and water quality is improving year by year?" Shah asks. “We must strive to get to such a goal—that would be the mark of real success."

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