Friday, April 19, 2013

Pay per napkin - the tissue issue

“Where do you keep your tissue paper?” my 10-year old niece asked me.
“Nowhere. There’s no tissue in this house,” I replied, and received a nonplussed expression in return.
Even though this relatively young kid had gathered over the years that I was somewhat strange, this was carrying things too far, her expression conveyed.

When did paper napkins become an integral part of an Indian household? And how, and why?

Arguably the biggest of the contemporary gods, Convenience is an inadequate explanation. Indians travel greater distances than ever before – on a daily basis and on longer trips for business or leisure. And travelling complicates many activities – eating, eliminating bodily wastes, sleeping, lazing, washing, even falling sick. Disposable cleaning agents come in here for some of us.

For some others though, they come in even when there’s no travelling with constrained provisions happening. For “hygiene”, it is said. Hygiene? In its broadly understood narrow sense, hygiene refers to physical cleanliness, and implies frequent washing and wiping. Cleansing has occurred for centuries, in fact, well before paper was invented. So, how this focus on paper napkins for hygiene? Flowing water, and a piece of cloth, or just dry air did the job, and did it pretty well, all this time.

A runny nose, and/or watering eyes: (a) An infection? Some may argue that this calls for disposable towels because real, enthusiastic germs are at large. I would stick to a couple of handkerchiefs – one for the eyes and another for the nose – and wash them frequently. (b) An allergy? Then there isn’t even anything dangerous that could be spread. So why the stack of tissues?

It’s remarkable how hand hygiene – all the rage in the prevention and control of communicable diseases – frankly demands disposable paper. Campaign after campaign describes in great detail how you ought to rinse, soap, scrub and rinse again using warm water, and then use a paper towel to wipe your hands, and another paper towel to turn the tap off! What’s the fuss about? Why are we treating our (healthy) body parts like vulnerable convalescents? What’s the problem with dousing the tap with a palmful of water at the end of the washing session? What’s the problem with the quick wipe on a personal handkerchief  or a moderately public towel, or even the swipe on the dupatta/ pallu/ skirt/ trouser leg? How do we come to treat everything we are exposed to as a potential threat, a paper napkin as a neutral agent, and the discarding of a used napkin as summary freedom from dirt and infection?

One clue lies in the appearance of the paper napkin. Carefully constructed to resemble cloth, and almost always white to indicate purity. But is white always pure? White is not exactly a natural shade for cloth or paper; it is achieved through bleaching – with strong chemicals that do not exclude your body from their sphere of influence. Besides snow, salt, milk, chalk, and curd, I can barely think of anything that’s naturally white. And even this list is sometimes off-white, or “half white” as some prefer to call it! Most white substances in daily use, e.g., sugar, cloth, paper, and certainly disposable napkins, are bleached – with something strong enough to erase the natural colour of an organic entity. Is your skin or mucous membrane as tough? Really? Still, if white equals pure in the mind of the contemporary person, here’s my next question: Is “pure” always the best thing to have? But this is an avenue for another trip.

Why not use the real thing – cloth that shows grime in time so it can be cleaned promptly? How do we come to associate use-and-throw with cleanliness? Why are we unable to use a scrubber or a brush on a surface and rinse it later? Why this drive to use a paper towel and then eliminate it from view?

Going beyond the physical acts of washing, disinfecting and drying, consider where paper napkins often play a role in “health” – as an oil-blotter. Too many quick and easy recipes that end in complex, well-presented, and supposedly salubrious dishes call for paper napkins to soak up excess oil from deep-frying. Why not ditch deep-frying? Okay, okay. Why not at least use a colander to let the oil through into another receptacle?

How can makeshift sheds on the highway, ramshackle food carts on busy city roads, and rather more upscale restaurants sprinkled across every residential and commercial area, all have bunches of paper napkins on offer, in addition to the blue drum and water jug/used paint bucket and steel glass/ miniscule wash basin with Lifebuoy soap/marble washrooms with sensor-equipped taps? The quality may vary, but paper napkins are cheap. Too cheap to have taken into account the colossal dent they make in the environment in their sourcing and manufacture. And too cheap to have considered the unaesthetic mess they make in their thoughtless disposal. If paper napkins were priced in consonance with their environmental cost, people would discover in a blinding flash that they could rinse their hands with water from a blue drum, or skim over a Lifebuoy soap and under a tap, and let their hands dry, without perturbing either their schedule or their ideal of hygiene.

Back to my niece. I asked why she wanted tissue, so I could make an offer from a range, mostly of cloth: Handkerchief? Mop? Towel? Counter-wipe? Dust cloth? My own palm to be washed later? 
She complied, for the moment. She needed a mop, and got it. 

I have no hope of weaning her away from paper napkins though – she’s surrounded by the benighted things at home, at school, in restaurants, at friends’ homes, at social gatherings, in short, everywhere but in my house. 
‘Can’t wash my hands off this one…

1 comment:

Gita Madhu said...

Well said! At the most, old newspaper comes in handy to mop a spill but we are always tempted. Dinner guests weep, requiring a paper kerchief, should the host not keep a box of paper towels handy on the dinner table. The toilet has to have rolls even if the toilet paper user is a rare animal in the house.
Sadly I too have all these paper abominations now-but glad to say they are hardly used