A national lockdown was imposed in India in March 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic. Offices, educational institutions, transportation services, judicial services, physical contact, all were regulated. Some humans fortunately had safe living spaces, some grappled with being confined within walls, some were left on streets without basic support, while some so-called warriors went to battle, and others continued to grind through filth and human waste, the only change in their life being a piece of cloth covering half of their face.
Before all of this started, my miniscule existence decided to resign from my job, travel to new places and observe the lives of people who worked on Environment and Sustainability. I wanted to start my journey from my hometown and thereby reached Kerala on March 21st. And the infamous Janta Curfew was declared on March 22nd. Though the curfew kept on getting extended, I felt privileged that I could afford a roof over my head and live with artists who gave me space to practice my environmentally sustainable decisions. Yet, I craved to travel, make some movement on the environment front and to get in touch with like-minded people.
Even though I had made changes in my lifestyle before I decided to travel - replacing shampoo and soap from stores with homemade products, buying a menstrual cup, refilling from the milk booth instead of buying milk packets and carrying my own coffee cup and tiffin box for takeaways - I wanted to do more. I started documenting my lifestyle choices on social media, only to slowly realise that I was unconsciously taking a moral high ground and that it is not my job to change people. I would take a condescending opinion on somebody not willing to stop buying fast fashion or try a menstrual cup, etc. It took me several online and offline conversations and interactions with other environmentalists to realise that everybody has their own pace, fears and socio-economic concerns. Another turning point in my learning curve was while practicing Plastic Free July with the support of Project Zero Waste and their daily emails on Plastic Free July Challenge. I visualised different areas in which one could attempt a zero waste lifestyle, such as ‘bath’, ‘periods’, ‘kitchen’, etc., clicked pictures in accordance with these themes and shared stories on Instagram. Even though I did not follow it completely, it was a start for me to get comfortable with sharing my interests on a public platform and accept that I have my areas of improvement.
A few months later I had an interaction with someone who suggested I “should do something” to make use of the resources I have. I had been idle since August and had not travelled due to lockdown restrictions, and there had not been any interactions with the outside world for me apart from the daily Instagram consumption. I seemed to not exist in the sense that I was just passing through breaths and not interacting with people outside my apartment.
Around that time, I also started seeing people gearing up for Inktober. Every year, artists participate in a month-long online challenge in October called Inktober, to practice and explore different mediums and expressions of art. A list of prompts is provided by the organisers, which becomes the guideline for artists. I wished to participate in it, but I was no artist, given that I could not replicate real life on paper or make digital art. Also I had never put out any of the paintings I made on any public platform.
The feeling that I would not be adding anything of value scared me. I wanted to make art and wanted it to be meaningful at the same time. I was worried that I would not follow it through like Plastic Free July. I questioned my abilities. My imposter syndrome was having a party. I would see my artistic flatmates practice art everyday and I would not dare take my paints out of my room in front of them. I started to realise, years of being an introvert in school and being bullied for supposed inadequacies can have lasting impact.
To cope with this, I made my first sketch for the Day 1 prompt Fish, and requested my flatmates to click its picture for me. I must mention, my flatmates are brilliant artists who work with different mediums, and after clicking the picture, they complimented my art. I was embarrassed. This person who was lost in life and unsure of future was finding hope in a painting being complimented by artists! The power of validation by people whom I look up to was tremendous in encouraging me to put my thoughts out. I felt so happy that I decided to add my own ideas into Inktober by connecting the prompt with organisations that worked with fishes and marine life.
This was another reason why I decided to incorporate perspectives on mental health into my Inktober series. Everybody needs a support system. We are not beings of all daily-positivity. Sometimes we need an external source of inspiration. I reiterated in different prompts that it should be acceptable for everyone to ask each other for help, and be ready to be vulnerable with people whom one trusts.
This incident, and the little spark to read up on initiatives that worked on the environment led to the thought of starting my own version of Inktober - Ecoctober - from the second day onwards. I understood the importance of Ecoctober while I was racking my brain on a daily basis to represent each prompt creatively and connecting it to organisations and people whose work related to the prompts in some manner. I could get a glimpse of the process that an artist works through, albeit at a smaller scale.
Every prompt was an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone, facing my imposter syndrome and accepting the results of my creativity. Yet, I chose to comfortably stick to watercolors and pens because I still was not ready to learn the digital medium of art. I guess that is a challenge left for another day.
Another boost for me to follow through with Ecoctober was the suggestion by Ashik from Travellers’ University, that these posts be compiled as an e-book. It was a learning experience for me to know about ecoconscious individuals, environmentally sustainable alternatives, publishing houses, mental health services, farming collectives, etc. that I had never heard of. The process of drafts, re-drafts and incorporating more initiatives was exciting, but at the same time made me feel nervous whether the e-book would be received well by readers.
The book was digitally published by Travellers’ University, and I was surprised with each mail and positive message from the readers that were passed through Ashik and the ones I received personally. The most wholesome compliment I received was one where a reader said they would use the book for their students. There was a widely spread out group of people who worked in their own ways to make the world an easier place to live in. I feel fortunate for the time and my privileges to be able to know about them and connect with them.
To realise that the final product was a result of days of contemplation and finally opening up, is scary. To think about all the opportunities I might have foregone, is scarier. Yet, to know that I have a safety net of good humans around me is comforting and inspiring.
I continue to paint and find ways to share my passion with people. Ecoctober will hopefully pave the way to compiling a more comprehensive list of people and organisations working to make the world a better place.
'Ecoctober 2020' can be downloaded for free from https://www.travellersuniversity.org/publications
Saumya John grew up with the feeling of not belonging anywhere, and gradually realised that the world is her home. She studied History, and later Social Work, worked in a NGO and realised her vocation does not fit into an organisational space, but in a farm. She is vocal about the relationship between mental health, intersectional feminism and environment conservation and likes to interact with people working in such spaces.