By Aakash Karkare:
I entered the world of online shopping, as one enters most things, while in the midst of an existential crisis. I was in Pune studying law which I didn’t want to and spending time with people I didn’t really like. Long ago, I had read books like The Stranger and The Trial, books that told me what I was feeling was normal. But now I needed something more in tune with my situation. On the internet, I looked for “best existential books” or, “top 10 books about loneliness” or, “top 10 books of the year.” Not a single book on those lists was available in either of the chain book stores in Mumbai or Pune. I was sure that I wouldn’t find any answers to life, the universe and everything else in John Grisham and Maeve Binchy books. Perhaps, I would be doomed to the fate of most adults, with nothing to help explain the gamut of emotions I was feeling in my adolescent years. I would give up books altogether. It was around this time that online book stores entered Indian shores, and with cash-on-delivery, meaning that I didn’t need a debit/credit card, which meant that purchases didn’t have to be mediated through parental channels. I began ordering books with a vengeance.
That was 2009. In 2015, with a constant stream of short visual media and my attention span reduced, my book buying has slowed down considerably. Around this time, I began living alone. The first problem that strikes you when you live alone is the problem of feeding yourself. Where I live, the only options that used to be available were the local fast food places where you can have dosas, pav bhaji and the ubiquitous dal khichadi. The food becomes repetitive so, for variety, you move on to fast food chains. Even that gets boring so you begin relying on new start up food delivery services. Their USP is food in impeccable packaging that tastes like packaging. Meanwhile, you realise that you are no longer a young man, and if you want to get through a day without acidity, you need ‘ghar ka khana’. As a result, you must learn to cook.
There is no time to go shopping in the local ‘bhaaji’ markets. Nor do you know what most ingredients look like; how is toor dal different from urad dal? You don’t have the will to bargain and consequently you always feel cheated. So from the safety and comfort of your bedroom, you order groceries from various hyper local online delivery startups. You can double-check and triple-check with pictures on Google and buy from two-three different sources to get the best deals. You become so addicted to online shopping that you order everything from dustpans and brooms to scented candles and cuts of pomfret. Slowly but steadily, you become an adult and are finally able to feed yourself.
No one taught you to completely scrape off your pots, pans and plates before dumping them in the sink. So your pipes clog and water leaks out everywhere. While soaking up the puddles of water that slowly spread over the house, you wonder why you went to school after all. Why couldn’t they teach you important things, the things that really mattered – like the proper way to soak up water in the shortest possible time. You don’t know any plumbers so you look for them on the internet. Since Facebook stalks you constantly, you are given recommendations for online housekeeping services on your timeline. It all sounds very professional, as if robots will come to your house and magically fix everything, so you choose one of the services.
When the man finally arrives, the air becomes thick with uncertainty and dread. No one know he is here or where he came from. After he’s done, he asks you if you have anything else for him to fix. When you say no, he asks if he should take a look around the house and look for broken things. His smile seems too creepy, he has realised you are living alone, or maybe you are a little too paranoid, but you decline his offer. You must pay the ‘champion’ whatever you wish. You don’t mind paying it but you went online to avoid the messiness of offline interactions. You would have liked it if the the company had actually sent robots. For reputable plumbers, you would have been better off asking the building watchman or god forbid, one of your neighbours.
The sink unclogged, you return to cooking with gusto. But something starts to claw at you. You live alone at home so you do everything. You unpack all your groceries and tear them out from layers of plastic. You remove all the cardboard and bubble wrap from the books you order. You collect in a cheap black plastic bag and leave it outside every night. You remember a documentary you saw long ago, in which the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek stands in a dump, pontificating on the nature of garbage, “part of our daily perception is that trash disappears from the world.” The perception has shattered for you because you can quantify the amount of trash you generate. You can feel the trash in your hands, you feel it everywhere. If you generate so much, how much does the world generate?
The horror of what you have been doing slowly dawns on you. Every single thing you order comes with cheap packaging that occupies landfills for millennia. You can do nothing with the French fries’ containers or with pizza boxes. At least, the round plastic containers that the Udipis send can be reused as lunch boxes. The plastic boxes that electrical appliances come in are of no use to anyone. Not even the rag pickers – the green collar workers, who are the only people who seem to recycle in this country. When you buy furniture online, just before you pay the bill, you are asked if you would like to plant a tree. While you happily pay the extra fee, something about the transaction is unsettling, so you return to the world of Zizek and watch The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he talks about the ingenuity of this type of sales tactic, “In the old days of pure consumerism, you bought a product and then you felt bad. You had to do something to counteract your pure destructive consumerism.” With packaging that says it is recyclable or soaps that contribute to the education of children, this bad feeling is taken away without you having to do anything about it. In an ideal world, everything would work perfectly and you could trust the corporations unconditionally. In our imperfect world, you question them unceasingly.
In the depths of Mumbai’s never-ending summer, you relax with a glass of sugarcane juice and observe a multitude of tempos go by. They are packed with all the products you’d ordered. All the products the whole city had ordered. Shipped in from different parts of the world. You see the exhaust pipe release fumes into the atmosphere. It goes into your eyes and nose and you cough. Later that night, you switch on the air conditioner to full blast. It has become impossible to sleep without it. It gets hotter and hotter outside while you make it cooler and cooler inside, which makes it hotter and hotter outside. You try to reduce your consumption but like a junkie going back to get one last fix, you keep making “one last purchase.” You feel guiltier and guiltier so you began watching stand up to cheer yourself up. Just as you are about to relax and enjoy a good laugh, Bill Burr predicts your future, “Everything you ever used is out there somewhere. New phone can’t fit the old charger? You gotta throw it out and it ends up around some octopus’ neck. Six months later, you go out for sushi, you think you are being healthy – you’re eating your own rollerblades.”