Monday, April 07, 2014

Not Throwing Anything Away

Cristelle Hart Singh and her husband, Ravinder Singh, run 'Amay', a shop which deals in recycled clothes, bags, and knick-knacks

Photo by Melton Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, when Cristelle Hart Singh was pregnant with her first child, she did not suffer from food cravings. Instead, this British-Swiss woman had a desire to do carpentry. And so was born the idea of making a large chess board. “Neither Ravinder, my husband, or I play chess, but I insisted on buying a saw and plywood,” says Cristelle.

The couple, along with a friend, made large knights, rooks, pawns, bishops, queens and kings. Then, in their shop, they made a chess board, with black and white tiles, at one side on the floor. “Unfortunately, not many people took the time to play chess on a big board,” says Cristelle. So the board remains a charming attraction, while the pieces have been stored elsewhere.

Four years ago, on the island of Mattancherry, near Kochi, Cristelle and her Punjabi-origin spouse Ravinder converted a godown, with a sloping tiled roof, into a shop called 'Amay'. It is a Sanskrit word which means fair. “We want to be fair in our practices,” says Cristelle. “We try as much as possible to source our products from NGOs, like the Bangalore-based Belaku Trust, or woman's groups which are ethical. So, if somebody says that their products are recycled, it should be recycled, or if it is natural, it must be so.”

In fact, the charm about 'Amay' is the way the couple have used ordinary items as props. A wooden shelf rests on two pairs of old tyres. Bags are draped over a ladder as well as an old door. Plastic crates, flower pots, and water canisters have been used to hold up rods on which hang shawls and t-shirts.

On a low table, there are unusual glass trays. “This is made by a person called Joy, who melts beer and Caesar brandy bottles and makes trays,” says Ravinder. “The idea is to encourage reusing things, instead of throwing it away.”

Then there are note pads and greeting cards made from elephant dung. The dung is collected, cleaned, cooked, salted, then it is pulped and dried. “Then sheets are made from it,” says Ravinder.

They also sell recycled salwar kameez suits and cloth bags. These are made from leftover cloth at tailors shops. These could be a part of a dress material, furniture cloth or ends of curtains.

The couple make their own T-shirts under the brand name of in:ch. IN stands for India while CH is for Confoederatio Helvetica, the official name of Switzerland. One T-shirt has the legend, 'Coconut Republic', a nice reference to Kerala.

Not surprisingly, in tourist-magnet Mattancherry, 90 per cent of their customers are foreigners. “Most are looking for gifts to take back home,” says Cristelle. “So, our products sell well, especially during the November to March tourist season.”

The Britain-based Fiona told Cristelle, “We love your shop. There is so much of space to walk around. Don't change anything.”

A sale of part of the products is used for the upkeep of 'Dil Se', a boys home in Manasery, which is run by Cristelle. There are six boys, ranging in age from 5 to 18. “They are from destitute families,” says Cristelle. “Some are orphans.”

Meanwhile, despite living for so many years in Kochi, Cristelle is still trying to get used to the Malayali mind-set. “The Malayali has a child-like curiosity,” she says. “It can be fun, but sometimes they ask too many personal questions.”

But there are positives. “A stranger on the train, after just ten minutes of talking, will share his food and invite me to come home and meet his family,” says Cristelle. “You will not get this kind of hospitality and friendliness in Europe. It's wonderful.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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