By Prabha Nayak Prabhu

On a recent blustery day, I had a tough time keeping my umbrella over my head. It kept folding and bending and twisting in every direction. When I realized that the frame was broken, I threw it in the nearest Dumpster.

Discarding that umbrella sent me on a trip down memory lane, to my childhood days in India. Suddenly the singsong words "Boots riperi, kodai riperi" of the itinerant cobbler rang in my ears. In those days, nobody discarded umbrellas because they were broken or torn. Same with shoes that had worn-out soles. People waited patiently for the person who could repair shoes and umbrellas no matter what their condition. No job was too small or too big, and there was always a verbal warranty on the work done.

Another cry we heard was "Kalai, hittale patre, Tambre patre, kalai." This character polished and plated tarnished brass and copper in his own ingenious way. Some people cooked in brass and copper pots back then, and whenever these were chipped, rusted, or stained, this guy would set things right. With his burning coals, bellows, mysterious-looking powders, brushes, and God knows what else, he made everything look like new.

Then there was the "Khali sheesha batli paper" croaked by the fellow who bought old newspapers and glass bottles by weight. (Separate bins for recyclables is a rather modern concept.) Everyone was aware that he used faulty scales, so there was much haggling. But people knew this was his living and realized that he was helping get rid of clutter. He then sold the newspapers to store owners, who either made small bags out of them to pack groceries or simply used them to wrap items. Talk about recycling.

Housewives, too, played a part. Back then plastic bags were practically nonexistent. People only used cloth bags made from old curtains, sheets, and bedspreads by the women of the house, usually during their afternoon gossip sessions. Old bath towels were cut up and converted to swabs.

I was still marveling at the memory of repair and recycling processes of yore when I was jolted out of my reverie by someone asking me for the time. I had to ask her to repeat the question. I wasn't quite ready to return to the present.