Lakshmi Menon & Her F-Squad Inspire Us With The Gandhigiri Style Of Pure Living
- IWB Post
- April 21, 2017
Residing in a quiet home in Kerala, Lakshmi Menon with her mother and grandmother is saving every bit of waste she can for a healthier planet earth under The Pure Living. Having lived in the US as an artist and designer, she decided to return home to find fixes. Her innovative eco products, projects, and wordplay are questioning every pen you purchase and every light bulb you leave switched on.
In this time and age of instant gratification and instant discard, Lakshmi’s products force us to pause and consider the what, why and what if not this behind all the tiny things we take for granted, like sunlight maybe.
Her Eco-pen, with love, sprouts into plants when put in the soil after use. Her Wicksdom project helps the aged and dependent find their independence again. Lakshmi’s passion towards life and conservation charges her up to take matters into her own hands and jump right into the problems.
Lakshmi’s ideas to combat life’s shortcomings. As she said, all we need is a willing heart and time on hand.
Here is a transcript of our conversation.
IWB: Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?
Lakshmi: I was born with a happy gene. I try to find happiness in everything I do and look at the positives every time. Even in the face of tragedy, I search for the better part of what happened. And this is what gives me the strength to do what I do. Unless I am happy, I cannot spread happiness. I am fortunate to have been born in a family where social commitments is not a priority.
My dad would always tell me, “Coming from a well-to-do family, it is our duty to serve and give back to the community. Give rather than take. And always be on the lookout to do just that.” My dad was the perfect role model for us to emulate. He isn’t here anymore. He passed away 20 years back. So, there is a greater sense of responsibility now that he isn’t around.
His presence though is an undercurrent. And luckily enough, opportunities presented themselves. I was in the US for a long time but I was aware of the problems back home in India. There is this thing about me… I don’t wait for someone to come around to solve the problems that I see in front of my eyes. I get down to finding solutions by myself. I try to do my bit. It was always about “what can I do?” to be a part of the solution. It’s a simple equation, you know. If you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. There is no guarantee of success but at least there is this sense of satisfaction that I did what I could in my capacity. So this is what encourages me to take up more things. There are a lot of
It was always about “what can I do?” to be a part of the solution. It’s a simple equation, you know. If you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. There is no guarantee of success but at least there is this sense of satisfaction that I did what I could in my capacity. So this is what encourages me to take up more things. There are a lot of stuff that I am involved in. How much do you know about me?
IWB: The kind of work that is put up on your website is extraordinary. Please don’t mind me asking but how old are you?
Lakshmi: I am 42.
Lakshmi: I was married once, but single for the past hmm… 10 years. Lost track of it too. That seems like my previous life. I have evolved so much after that that I’m finding it hard to connect with the life then. I believe there is the reason why everything happens. So I am just embracing every moment of my life now.
IWB: I had to ask you this. There is a pattern that I have been observing since I started speaking to people through the Indian women blog. A lot of people who are into works such as yourself or environmentalists, or anybody for that matter… but women who are really working passionately toward something, are all by themselves. Again, it’s not a generic statement but just my encounters. Is there something that I am missing? Is it hard to balance?
Lakshmi: The passion that one has for issues that they are sensitive about, is what keeps them alive. I am a very socially sensitive person. I feel the need to do something, to deliver something. I have a sense of civic responsibility. And I think it comes down to priorities. If I am okay with certain things not being in my life, I am prioritizing something else that I am passionate about. I would rather live this way than giving up everything that I care about to keep others happy. That is not life. You only live once and I want to live mine to the fullest.
It was a phase of life where I was supposed to meet somebody. The phase came to a natural end.
IWB: How did pure living come to life?
Lakshmi: I was an artist working in a gallery in San Francisco. When I had the time, I would visit the orphanage and work with kids. Teach them craft. I always felt the underprivileged kids had a difficult life ahead when they had to compete with the well-educated, well-equipped and well-groomed kids. So the competition was never going to be fair. It was imperative we teach them skills that equip them to earn a living. It was true then, it is true now.
It was a paper craft workshop. I love working with paper. That was the time I became aware of the amount of plastic that is trashed around. I didn’t know what to do about it.
Now, especially in a place like Kerala that sees 100% literacy, everyone uses a pen. Gone are the days of ink pens too! It’s the use and throw culture and there seems to be no going back. If we could curb the plastic in at least this item, we would make a headway. I was already working with eco-friendly products, water harvesting. This area was my forte. During one such workshop with kids in Kerala, seed pens found their beginning.
Pure living is a manifestation of my social intentions. Pure stands for product upcycle and recycle, because I really loved how Martha Stewart Living sounds.
All my activities and products exist for a social cause. Helping Pure Living helps the underprivileged. Pure Living employs paraplegics for making these pens. There’s another project that I initiated – Wicksdom. Grannies help us make lamp wicks.
These are such simple things – pens, wicks. Required on day to day basis and on large scale.
The pen, for example, is made by waste papers acquired from printing presses. People of all caliber and abilities are employed in its production.
IWB: So Pure Living is not just creating employment but also creating equal employment opportunities.
Lakshmi: Exactly. Also women empowerment. It’s an all women run group. Add my grandma and my mother to it. My grandma is the CEO. She is 92 y.o. with serious Alzheimer’s. She works from home. One of our rooms has been converted into our workspace. It’s only me and my mother that she recognizes. So, we are 3 single women living under a roof. All from different generations.
Lakshmi: My gran is up in the verandah by 8:30 am waiting for the ladies who do the packing of these pens. She is amazingly active. She helps us sort the caps for our pens. She believes it’s because of her that the product is up and running. And we make sure we make a feel that without her around we are all very useless. So she feels very proud of her work and there is a sense of being a contributing citizen in the society in her. There are times when she comes to us requesting to lie down in her room for a little while and she is worried about whether we’d be able to manage work without her!
IWB: It’s strange that only yesterday I was conversing with my granny and she happened to mention how bored she gets sometimes doing nothing all day. And I realized Wicksdom is such an important project.
Lakshmi: No, it is true. These ladies have given all their lives to the children. Had they lived differently, had they gone out and built a life for themselves, they might have been in a better position today. During that time they never thought of acquiring a skill learning something new because there were satisfied with the kind of life they were leading. So today it is our duty to find something that keeps them engaged, that kindles the joy of life in them.
This wicks project can be an amazing project for her as well. At her age, commonly, people feel like devoting a certain amount of time in service of God. So what better than making wicks that will be used in the oil lamps to be lit in Pooja rooms.
IWB: So is the Wicksdom project a local one currently?
Lakshmi: It is but I’m sure this is a project that can reach far and wide. I won’t be surprised if there are many such projects already running in the regions of the country. Because this requires no training or business plan to begin. The raw material is readily available all over the country. You could engage your grandmother in making these wicks and ask her to gift it to people who visit her. There is immense joy in gifting things that we create by ourselves.
IWB: Maybe I will. Or maybe she would like to do a storytelling session because she loves telling stories. Some brainstorming with gran today! So about pens. Entree you call them?
Lakshmi: These pens are actually called with love. In Malayalam means seed. The generic name for the pens is open (o pen!). This particular series is called with love because we have incorporated the seed in them. So it’s opened with love. See the word play?
Once the ink runs out, all you have to do instead of throwing the remains into rubbish is to insert the pen into the soil. Voila! See it sprout in some time.
IWB: So what is Entree?
Lakshmi: Entree was the campaign that I started this year with the intention of selling over a lakh open with love pens. Even if 50% of them were given back to the soil, we would have 50,000 seeds being planted all over the country. Entree is an opportunity to enter into greener living, and in Malayalam en means mine. So entree was a campaign of creating ‘my tree’. Trees that you will plant.
IWB: Do you know you’re amazing at word play! Anyway, do you think your pens can take over the regular ballpoint pens in the long run?
Lakshmi: Not really and I don’t intend to also. Recently we ran a campaign called the pen drive. It was mainly to create an awareness about the amount of plastic that is discarded in a month. The plastic coming out of pens. The response was overwhelming. The Kochi biennale joined hands with us and agreed to create an installation out of all the plastic pens we collected from across the state. In a matter of 2 to 3 weeks, we happened to collect about 7 1/2 lakh pens and that is coming out of about 150 institutions. In a state like Kerala with a population of say about three crores, even if one person is discarding one pen every month, can you imagine that refuse that we are creating?
It’s time we travel back to the era of ink pens. Ink pens are the only permanent solution to this menace. There was a time when ink pens were a sort of medallion and something precious that we all want to get our hands on. I remember my dad refusing to gift me an ink pen on the basis that I wasn’t mature enough to handle one.
It is just about being ready to adjust a little bit. A little inconvenienced today can give you a better future. But people want to realize it until we quantify it for them. They think of pain as very inconsequential in terms of creating waste. So this campaign was very very important for us.
IWB: What are your other important projects?
Lakshmi: There was one project called the orange alert. This was in response to the potholes and the uneven surfaces on roads that pose a serious danger and risk to drivers especially the ones on two wheelers. I witnessed a couple of incidents in my neighborhood and I decided to take the matter up with the concerned parties. I phoned them regularly to understand what they’re going to do about the potholes. Do you know they just ignored my calls?! It wasn’t a matter of priority for them. I could have taken a backseat and retired and let the matter to rest. But that wasn’t going to create solutions.
What was the next best thing in hand? Warn the motorists about the danger ahead. We created road signages on streets itself – 3 long triangles 50 feet ahead of the damaged area. Bad road ahead. The signages are visible even at night. Volunteers joined in and started creating such alerts all across the state. I wasn’t going to wait around for permissions to get this done because I knew this was about saving lives. We weren’t interested in pointing fingers or blaming anybody. You could call it a Gandhigiri style of working. At least this reveals the indifference of the concerned officials.
IWB: It’s amazing how you totally ignore the rules that define who is supposed to do what work and take up the matter in your own hands.
Lakshmi: You’ll always find paint, brush, and reflectors in the trunk of my car.
I want to turn this into serious statewide things. I am currently collaborating with the company in Bombay that was helping me develop an app for this project. So this is going to help me and all the volunteers to tag the damaged areas on the map of the region. These tags are reversible. Can be undone once they get repaired. And not just that, we are going to be able to relate a particular tag to the concerned authorities’ name and contact details. Hold the responsible accountable. How about that!
I want to turn the school children into orange alert volunteers. They really can charge the entire campaign up. A path to nation building.
Hopefully, this app will also help tourists decide on the best route to reach their destination.
IWB: What a revolutionary tool that could be in our hands! There was another interesting project mentioned on your website – water bottles as light bulbs. Please tell me more about that.
Lakshmi: In fact, this has already been done in places like Brazil. Somebody sent me a YouTube link and when I watched the video I was amazed at the innovation and the results it was generating. I was looking for an opportunity where I could try this. Fortunately or unfortunately, Kerala does not have slums. This technique would want to work in slums because the light that comes through even a single window would be much stronger than the light that is generated through these water bottles. For one of my projects, I was traveling to Bhopal; in partnership with an organization and with the help of few of my friends I knew I could do something in that area.
I went and showed the video to the people from the slums. They have hardly anything you can call a home and I was suggesting to drill a hole in its roof. I never imagined they would willingly offer their homes to me.
The specialty of a slum house is that they have no windows. All walls, except the entrance from the common walls of the neighboring house. There is absolutely no light inside. No sunlight either.
This water bottle makeshift light could be revolutionary for them. Something they could do independently instead of stealing electricity from the mains. Moreover, if we are able to create a single source of light, say one street light – mercury or solar lamp, over 10 water bottle lamps, these would work at night as well.
It’s basic physics – refraction of water particles. I am no good in science but I know that refraction can put a smile on someone’s face. Hard to believe but people spend most of their time in darkness when there is such glaring light outside.
IWB: If only our education in physics in high school could enable us to think this innovatively. I cannot understand why more people do not enter the problem areas to create solutions? People more equipped and more capable! Where are we all running and what do we want to achieve for ourselves?
Lakshmi: Somehow, I feel very bad if I am unable to contribute. There are thousands of problems around us and in 99% of those cases I will be of no help. But what is required is will. I always believe that God never asks your ability… only for your availability.
IWB: Can we somehow improve this approach in our mainstream education? Education today seems to be about industrialisation and consumerism. There are unbelievable number of students even at this moment who are sitting in classrooms absorbing what is being given to them. And what is being given to them is important and needs to be re-examined.
Lakshmi: Totally. I feel utterly disheartened.
You know there is another initiative I am starting – a water friend. Water is the need of the hour and something needs to be done in that direction.
I am not very happy with the mineral water bottles especially because of my fight against plastic. Secondly, we don’t know what the source of the packaged water is. We have no clue. Even though they print ‘Himalayan’ on it, are we sure it’s not regular tap water?
Secondly, we don’t know when the water has been packed. Plastic was never meant for food storage. Expose plastic to sunlight for long and BPA from plastic leaks into water. Low cost plastic isn’t treated for being leakage free. This is the reason why we are asked to not keep plastic water bottles in cars.
In Kerala, the water authority provides 1000L of water for Rs. 25. That is how cheap water is. This is the non-domestic use cost. On the other hand we have 1L of packaged water costing us Rs. 20. So we are being charged 500 times more for water which source we do not know.
Despite all these negatives, the reason behind its popularity – easy availability and the myths against regular water.
So this campaign is about making cheap, clean water easily available to the mass. Start by installing water friend counters!
Most of the bakeries and tea outlets in every neighbourhood have water filters with reverse osmosis facility these days. Why can’t we walk in and ask for water? Ego, maybe. So if the water was made an item in the menu – 1L for Rs. 1 or 2, people would come in and buy. It’s going to be like a refilling centre and drink as much as you need sort of source place.
Packaged bottles give you more than you need. That is disrespecting water.
IWB: Fingers crossed. But how do you make all these projects economically viable for yourself?
Lakshmi: Most certainly, it all comes out of my pocket.
IWB: Don’t you think a lot of people don’t opt for this life perhaps for this reason? They need to make money.
Lakshmi: I have a good home to live in. I have food on my table. My life and my projects are a way of showing my gratitude to all this that I am blessed with.
Know more about Lakshmi’s inspiring projects here and reach out to her on firstname.lastname@example.org