Isn’t It Time for a Politics of Frugality?

I write this in my hometown Chennai, India, the day after a report in the newspapers declaring the city to be the most water vulnerable in the whole world. I’ve been here in my mother’s house for three weeks, in the midst of a near-unprecedented heat wave and a delay in the onset of relief-bringing monsoons, but have experienced little water scarcity. The water scarcity is real, though. My differing experience is, no doubt, both a matter of luck (there is enough groundwater below my mother’s house for us to access through a bore well) and class privilege.

K—, the maid who works in my mother’s house, does not have any privilege. Her family of four, who live in a one-room not far from my mother’s house, get metro water provided by the city once in two days for about an hour. They must store this water, which serves for everything from drinking to bathing, in buckets for use over the following two days until metro water briefly comes gurgling through their pipes again. If they run out in the meantime, they might be able to get more from a water truck that the city administration sends to their street now and then. That however would require someone to stand in line hot and dusty, possibly for an hour or more. Failing the truck, the next option is to buy water. K—has never bought water because it is an expensive proposition, not something she can afford.

In my mother’s home, we too have not yet had to buy water because of our good fortune, but I know people similar to us around the city who do so routinely. Currently, it costs anywhere from 4000 to 6000 rupees for a tanker of water, a princely sum for someone like K—, and not inconsiderable for my mother, though she can certainly afford it. For me, since I live in the United States, that would be $57 to $87 at today’s rates—a pittance for water that would last for days, probably more than a week depending on usage. Certainly an amount I would spend without a second thought for the comfort of having water flow through a faucet when I need it.

Nevertheless, something in me has made me change my water practices even in the few days I have been here. I have taken to flushing the toilet every three or four times when it is yellow as opposed to brown (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow…”). I have replaced showers with old-school bucket-and-mug bathing, something familiar to me from my Indian childhood. When I cook, I try to prepare dishes that don’t require quite as much as water. I watch how many dishes I make for washing, and how much I launder.

Small changes, amounting to a nominal kind of frugality, for a temporary period of time. Still, it’s enough to make you think more consciously about the meaning of frugality and its politics. When I curtail my use of water, quite possibly I am being frugal. But is K-, who in her home uses water way less than I do? I have a choice, she has none in the amount of water she uses. Is it possible still to call her frugal? Or does frugality necessarily entail choice, a conscious choosing to make do with what is enough rather than what one is able to afford?

Frugality is regularly recommended by those conscious of saving the planet amidst global warming (“switch off the light when you leave the room”); but my experience in Chennai suggests it is also meaningful in addressing global poverty. In this age of not only environmental crisis but widespread poverty on a global scale, to consume or not to consume is a political act. If I in Chennai am frugal in my consumption of water, perhaps K— who consumes so much less than I do without being frugal might actually be able to increase her consumption without worsening the environmental catastrophe besetting Chennai.

Is it necessary to draw the lesson out for this one lonely planet on which we all—in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Tokyo and Baghdad and Cape Town and Chennai—live?

A politics of frugality recognizes that the poor cannot be frugal; they don’t have enough to be. The poor are indigent, and because of their indigence they can and should consume more—their physical health and spiritual well-being depends on increased consumption. Telling them to be frugal is surely obscene. It is we the privileged who need to be frugal. Frugality might very well be the most radical of political acts in this age of the Anthropocene and global poverty.


Shakespeare Was Wrong–All the World’s Not a Stage: Sexuality and Freedom in Chennai

[Note—Picture Credits: Mohandas Vadakara]

I recently saw Marappachi’s play Naanga Ready (We Are Ready) in Chennai. In an open-air auditorium called Spaces on Elliot’s Beach Road, I sat with the capacity audience on jamakaalams spread out over sandy ground. The evening was sultry and the Bay of Bengal lapped at the Chennai shoreline a short walk away. On the crowded beach, where I had gone for a stroll before coming to the play, vendors of all kinds plied their wares. The old and the young, the rich and the poor, had come to the beach to escape the heat. They strolled down to the water or else sat on a low wall to watch. Couples promenaded… no…

No, that won’t do. It won’t do to blithely write couples; as far as the world knew, heterosexual couples promenaded, sometimes with their families. If there were people on the beach who were not heterosexual (and surely there were), they were not visible.

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That was the beach. Inside the auditorium, things were different, for Naanga Ready tries to make visible that which society renders invisible. In a series of vignettes loosely held together by the characters, the play explores the impossible gender choices that society forces upon us. Mangai is the director and presiding impresario of the play, which was written by Prema Revathi based on interviews conducted by Sumathi Murthy and Sunil Mohan. Mangai is a veteran of alternative Tamil theatre in Chennai. Her roots are in equal measure in indigenous performance traditions like koothu and political theater from around the world (she is, I know, a keen reader of Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Both influences were apparent in Naanga Ready. The set design—a clothesline from which clothes and body dummies hung, a net from behind which a gay character spoke of his tortured relationship to his mother—was abstract and suggestive; and the impressive concluding sequences of the play featured folk traditions, including the performance of divine possession, prominently.

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Rather than narrative drama, Naanga Ready is “movement theater” meant to articulate positions and provoke reflection. Ideas rather than narrative are at the heart of the play. That the play goes about its serious activist task without compromising entertainment value is an indication of its success. Naanga Ready initially makes its points about the “constructedness” of gender identities through humor. The powerful opening scenes of the play, set in a school for “gender correction,” are horrifyingly hilarious. Later the play turns more somber when the characters—representing a range of trans identities and sexual orientations—set out into the world to find jobs, housing, relationships, a measure of joy and security that the “normal” heterosexual world takes for granted. Based on actual interviews, these aspects of the play has an air of reality about it. The play’s strength is in creating for the audience through a cast that delivered strong performances a temporary space of safety where difficult truths can be spoken and acknowledged. (See the Naanga Ready leaflets in Tamil and English below for full credits.)

Shakespeare was wrong. All the world’s not a stage. Sometimes, thankfully, the stage is a welcome refuge from the unrelenting cruelties of the world. It is a bounded space of exploration in which to articulate ideas and desires ruled out of bounds in the world. Not all boundaries are bad. Theater has a long and distinguished tradition of calling intolerance to account from within its bounded space. Naanga Ready belongs proudly to this history. It calls to strict account the prejudices of the world at large, so blissfully taking the air on the beach nearby.


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