All that Remains

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This piece by Amulya B is the fourth post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.

this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine.

– The Tempest (5.1.267-276), William Shakespeare

The myth goes like this:

In her loneliness, Goddess Parvati fashioned a boy out of the dirt in her body. She scoops the waste out of her hands and legs and her face and moulds it into a human figure. She brings it to life. A living, breathing boy. The waste that should have been discarded, the waste that is the end of things, becomes the beginning. Waste births the God of beginnings.

Or so goes the story about the birth of Ganesha. A God born from the bodily waste of his mother. 

But, he is not Lord Ganesha yet. The boy is just Parvati’s son. 

When her husband Lord Shiva returns, he is enraged by this strange boy guarding Parvati’s living quarters, who calls himself the son of Parvati. The next moment, the boy made of waste is decapitated by Shiva. Soon, realising his mistake, Shiva brings him back to life – but with the head of an elephant. 

Shiva’s recognition of Ganesha as his own son, comes at the cost of the latter’s head. He considers him his son after he replaces his head with an elephant’s. Only through the acknowledgement of Shiva does Ganesh have a future – as the leader of his father’s devotees (ganas).  

The Curse of Birth

This turn of fortune is not afforded to all. Those who are born in waste, often die in waste. India’s caste system ensures that. Here, most of the people engaged in waste collection predominantly belong to the lower caste. As the father of Indian Constitution, BR Ambedkar notes, “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.” 

When you are born as a lower caste individual, you not only handle waste. You become waste. When your education is subsidised, when reservations are provided to improve representation in public life, you are called waste. “Wasting the taxpayers’ money” is a phrase you hear often. Here, some people are considered as waste due to birth and they continue to be, irrespective of whether they free themselves from the occupation of their ancestors. 

How do you have a future as a country, when you do not acknowledge the caste system as the waste – a creation of your own?

So, India continues to live in denial. How do you have a future as a country, when you do not acknowledge the caste system as the waste – a creation of your own?

No Future

Like most of the cities in the world, the city I live in does not have a future. When the sea levels rise, the cities on the coast will drown. Those cities that survive, like mine, will drown under the weight of the garbage. 

Or burn with the garbage that it has accumulated over the years. In the anthropocene, water no longer extinguishes fire. It catches fire.

The city I live in has a lake that burns. 

News reports tell me that the chemical waste and construction material is dumped in this lake along with the usual garbage. So, the lake burns. Once, I hear, it burned for over 30 hours. When it rains, the foam rises up like the poison halahala when the ocean was churned in the Samudra Mathana episode of Hindu mythology. The foam rises up like detergent in a bucket of water and blesses the passerby and those on two-wheelers with chemical clouds on their heads.

Even today, if the ocean is churned, huge swathes of plastic may rise up to the surface. In the Mountain Mandara’s stead, the garbage mountains from Jakarta or Delhi will be the churning rod.

The residents of Leonia, in Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” too, are surrounded by a “fortress of indestructible leftovers” whose height continues to grow. Leonia can be any capitalist city that is obsessed with the next new thing and excels at making new materials and thereby improving the quality of rubbish, “resist[ing] time, the elements, fermentations, combustions.”

Like people of Leonia who reinvent everyday, the nature of rubbish too changes everyday. 

This is the reason why, 

Furthermore, the distinction between waste and humans has collapsed. When we live breathing the most polluted air, drinking the water contaminated by arsenic, when microplastics are being found in placenta – even before a human is born – waste is not an object anymore. Waste is not something humans produce. Waste is us. Us is waste. 

Waste is not something humans produce. Waste is us. Us is waste. 

For historian Zachary Riebeling waste has “become part of what humans are, both biologically, and […] historically” and characterises anthropocene fuelled by capitalism. 

So, you can never throw away the waste. You can never discard it. Waste is part of us. The more we try to separate and suppress it, the stronger it comes back. 

A beach in Mumbai covered in trash.
Mumbai. 2015. “The edge of India: trashed” by Wayan Vota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Monster from the Id

Waste has a future, because it will return. But humans cannot. That’s what the anthropocene is about. You are gone, but your rubbish remains. Your rubbish will replace you. 

In Bora Chung’s short story, “Head,” that’s all the eponymous “head” wants: a future. It is the discarded part of the protagonist made up of her faeces, hair and other bodily waste. One day, it  peeps out of the toilet and asks the protagonist to  “keep dumping [your] body waste in the toilet so that I can finish creating the rest of my body.” No matter how much the protagonist tries to flush it away, the “head” keeps on coming back. 

Like the Monster from the Id – from the 1956 American Science Fiction film, “Forbidden Planet.” An all-powerful creature made from the subconscious thoughts of the lone scientist Morbius, the Monster from the Id is a direct reference to the Freudian conception of the human psyche made up of id, ego, and superego. The id is where the undesirable impulses and instincts of the human mind reside through the process of repression. 

But the repressed always returns.
In the form of monsters that we create.

In the “Forbidden Planet,” Morbius acknowledges the monster as his, but it’s too late and results in his death. But, in Chung’s “Head,” the acknowledgement never occurs. In the end, the creature berates her “mother” for giving nothing but “feces and trash” and takes her place by pushing the protagonist into the toilet. 

The “monster” here not only escapes from the id, but replaces its own creator for refusing to acknowledge it as its own. 

Not that different from the city I live in where the garbage trucks carrying the unsegregated garbage – most of which were thrown away stealthily in street corners sheltered by the darkness of the night – returned back.  Because the villages and its people in the outskirts refuse to become the dumping yard for our waste. 

The Othering

We drive the waste away, because we cannot seem to look at it. It reminds us of the greed fuelled by capitalistic consumption. It makes us feel different emotions from disgust to shame, ultimately apathy. The more you remember that this trash was once part of you, the more it causes you distress.

We drive the waste away, because we cannot seem to look at it. It reminds us of the greed fuelled by capitalistic consumption. It makes us feel different emotions from disgust to shame, ultimately apathy. The more you remember that this trash was once part of you, the more it causes you distress.

So, you drive it away. 

But waste does not go away. As Julia Kristeva writes, it continues to challenge us “from its place of banishment.” Like the head from the toilet. It reminds us of the impending death and our existence as corporeal beings. This is abject – that which stands in opposition to the subject and that is its only identity. 

It hardly matters whether the waste we throw away is organic or inorganic. Paper or Plastic. When confronted with this “other,” the default action is to turn away. 

But, turning away is a luxury only few can afford.

Confrontation: Horror to Hope

As Environmental Historian Marco Armeiro notes, “waste winds up situated precisely where the geographies of social and environmental inequalities that design the world dictate that it ought to be.” So, it is easier to turn your head away from the sight of waste. In fact, one doesn’t even have to take the trouble to turn away because the site/sight of waste is always hidden. If not in some inaccessible corner, then under the earth. 

Moreover, in India, the regime of waste is closely tied with caste. It is the oppressed who have historically handled waste, who continue to live around the toxicity of it and are disproportionately affected by it. So, in India, the confrontation with waste is also the confrontation with the caste system. 

But, only through this recognition, confrontation, and acknowledgement can we hope for a future free from current regimes of waste. 

Feature Image: “Burning Rubbish at Rampura Lake” by Mike Prince is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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Amulya is a writer, multimedia journalist and translator based in Bengaluru, who works in both Kannada and English languages. She is the winner of ANK Memorial Prize for young Kannada Writers (2012), Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay (2018) and Toto Funds the Arts (TFA) Award for Creative Writing in both English and Kannada (2021)

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