The Return of the Pishvee

By Aarti Johri 

First things first, what is a pishvee? A pishvee, in Marathi, is nothing but a square piece of coarse cotton cloth, or jute, stitched together with a foot long handle, and slung on the shoulder. In other words, it is nothing but a re-useable, definitely re-cycleable bag that reduces the use of innumerable plastic or paper bags. In the city of Pune, where I grew up, it is slung carelessly over the shoulder of every housewife as she does her daily purchases. It is seen on bike riders, on overfull buses, on scooters, and in the energy efficient but pollution causing auto-rickshaws. I would dare to guess that even in the air-conditioned “Marutis” and “Toyota Quallises”, somewhere amongst the fancy Shopper’s Stop and Bombay Store paper  or plastic bags, there lies a folded “pishvee” made of humble cloth.

I recall my mother using these bags when the daily vegetable seller or “bhajee-valee “showed up at the front door, or when we stepped out to the market. I have even spied these bags in Silicon Valley, with the give-away names like Shaniwar Peth or Laxmi Chivda, telling me that the complete stranger in the crowd is from my home town.  It was therefore with a bit of delight that I received my first free “pishvee” in the Bay Area, when Whole Foods opened a store locally some years ago. It was not that I had never seen these bags before in the USA. My children’s pre-school provided me with a cutesy version; the end product of an art project with my children’s hand prints on it. But now, this bag from Whole Foods was more than mere nostalgia, it was meant to be used. Since then I have seen them mushrooming everywhere around me;  for a mere 99c at Safeway, or  the drug store, or the local library, I cannot get away from them. It is especially karmic because it reminds me of my first visit back to Pune after the birth of my two children.

In my mother’s living room, there was the usual collection of “aunties” giving advice, and offering sympathy, at my plight of bringing up children in the USA. They deplored everything from disposable diapers to plastic milk bottles.  One of them chided, “Huh, why do “they” complain so much about the environment when they have forgotten how to consume?”  “You mark my words”, she said, “one day someone will design a pishvee, and they will start using it instead of all their plastic and paper bags and then they will award him the Nobel Prize”.  I am often reminded of that conversation in today’s globally-warmed, environmentally-warned, and gas-price-depressed world. Of course I realize the wisdom of the “auntie’s” words. 

I grew up in a world where plastic bags were a luxury, where old newspapers were saved and sold to a “raddi-vala”, and where old clothes and glass bottles were exchanged after much painful bargaining with the “dabba-batlee valee”. There was a whole minor economy around this consumption and recycling. The “raddi-vala” further recycled the newspaper which showed up as paper bags elsewhere, the “dabba-batlee valee” exchanged our old clothes for a shiny new steel plate or bowl bargained for by my mother. I recall arguing with my mother; why did she spend precious time haggling over our old clothes for a cheap plate or a bowl that didn’t match anything else we had? Her answer was simple, it didn’t really matter to my mother that we had a new plate or a new cup. She wanted to ensure that the lady parting with it was giving a fair price for the old goods, ensuring that she then made further good use of them.  My mother’s newly acquired utensil would reincarnate itself in the form of the house help’s “baksheesh”. When I thankfully dump our “old”, barely-used clothes and toys at a Goodwill truck, I look into the dubious interior, wondering whether such good use is being made of them.

It is ironic that as the US is being introduced to the advantages of re-cycleable, re-useable goods, the emerging economy of India is being introduced to the delights of disposable plastic and paper. At train stations where you were once offered tea in clay “kulhads”, you now receive plastic ones that are then summarily thrown on the railway tracks. In cities, where the garbage removal systems appear to be non-existent, the irresponsible pile of paper and plastic clogs the already narrow streets. I argue with my friends that serving glass dinnerware at a dinner party and loading the dish washer is better for the environment than using inexpensive disposables from Costco. We have never arrived at a conclusive answer to this dilemma. In our own ways we each try to test the ways of Nature, forgetting that its forces are much more powerful than we are; and that, as Michael Crichton reminds us, “Nature always finds a way”.

Of course, being environmentally conscious comes with some effort. I have at least four re-useable bags but often forget to carry them with me on an unplanned grocery store stop. I remember a story my friend Vyjanthi told me. Vyjanthi’s parents returned to live in Madurai, India, after living in the USA for several decades. Her mother had adjusted well, but on a visit back to the US she admitted to Vyjanthi that she hated vegetable shopping in India; she missed the bagging done in American grocery stores. She looked forward to her grocery store visits in the US. As they set out on the first one, she looked in the trunk of the car. What are those bags, she asked her daughter?  Vyjanthi smiled, “India has arrived Amma, we too carry our own grocery shopping bags”. For Vyjanthi’s mother, it was a case of “the pishvee strikes back”. Perhaps I too should remember to keep my stock of pishvees handy in the trunk of my van. Or perhaps it is now time to dispense with the gas-guzzling van itself.

2 thoughts on “The Return of the Pishvee

  1. Shreyasi Deb

    Aarti,

    Your article made such wonderful reading– full of nostalgia yet subtly putting the message across! I could relate to every bit of it.
    In India, even branded stores of clothes and accessories are going back to the ‘pishvee’ or the ‘jhola’ as we call it in Bengali

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  2. Swati Prasad Siddharth

    Hello Aarti,

    As an Indian living in India, I share your sentiment regarding the de-grading westernization we are permitting in ourselves. We seem to insist on repeating everybody’s mistakes! But yes, its good to see the return of the pishvee. I also feel good to be able to say that our desi re-cycling system is very much in place – even in our fancy metro cities. Perhaps you could try lining your dinner ware with banana leaves – if you can grow them in your garden! – even mini eateries in the South of India do this – it saves a lot of labour on the dishwashing front. Or you could ask some local Indian store there to access bio-degradable disposables that are available easily here – made from the palm tree. And if they hold in rasam without leaking – they should hold in any American food!

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