My middle-age, middle-class, hoarder-mentality makes me store plastic packets. When I get hold of one, my first impulse is never to throw it away, because, I know for a fact that these are extremely harmful to the environment. They are non-biodegradable; hence, choke landfills or water bodies and, in our country, seem to be a particularly favourite gourmet dish with cows and goats left to their own devices on the streets of our metros.

Then, my jugadu-hoarder mind goes into an overdrive on how I can put the packet to the best use and thus, save money. So, depending on the type of plastic (I'm talking about Low-Density Polyethylene-LDPE, the type which is very difficult to recycle and yet, most commonly used), I sometimes wash and dry them and thus, reuse and recycle the plastic packet at least a couple of times. I'm just one of the millions of women across our country who do exactly the same. I’ve mastered this sorting bit down to an art form and my creation is the ‘Packet-of-Packets’.

Listed according to importance and regularity of use they are:

- The one in the kitchen which is moderately voluminous and has inside it the very thin grey, green, black and transparent packets. These are the ones which the vegetable and fish vendors - by instinctive reflex - hand out to us and we too take them unthinkingly, unless we’re savvy enough to carry a cloth bag. I use these thin ones for lining the dustbin, storing veggies, disposing smelly cat litter, storing cut and cleaned fish and meat in the freezer and other sundry purposes.

- And then there’s the less-used; but, more voluminous packet which stores in its depths all the ‘bhalo’ (read: classy) ones, brought out to daylight on important occasions. I didn’t grow up with this variety of packets myself. Till the late ‘80s plastic packets were only seen when a relative came home from a foreign sojourn bearing all sorts of vilayiti goods. More than the goods, the shiny plastic packets in which they came in, were highly prized and revered items. They were stored away only to be used on very special occasions.

The Packet of Packets must be both accessible to the homeowner, yet invisible to a guest’s eye – either hung from a hook behind a door, or placed in a small niche between the wardrobe and the window, or a wall and - if you are lucky enough to have enough space - you can devote an entire shelf to storing these. The outermost packet is the biggest and sturdiest of them all; capable of holding inside itself a whole world of shopping and gifting. Putting a hand inside and rummaging about is like diving into different geological ages. Oh! Here’s an ancient Flex packet from the Pre-Cambrian period. They once made shoes; now they’ve gotten into the Ziplock making business and have rebranded themselves as Uniflex, so this is a relic of a bygone era. Or a packet from Nanz, one of the first departmental stores in Delhi, in Archana Shopping Complex (comment if you remember!), where the NDTV office is currently located. There, we met Arnab Goswami when he was still human.

My mother who’s nearly eighty, does it old-school style. She has her hoard of packets stored under the thick coir mattress on her bed; carefully laid out so flat that they don’t have a single crease. These are from the nicer shops and I’ve grown up seeing her re-use them for gifting sarees. My aunt who’s not as fastidious as my mother, can’t be bothered in laying the packets out flat but stores them in a similar manner. As a result her mattress has an undulating topography, you may sit on the bed and hear an ominous crunch from underneath. I’ve embraced and passed on this reverence for polyethylene, to such an extent that even my progeny had a Packet of Packets during her four-month stint in a PG.

In the pecking order of packets, the more fabulous the shop, the more prized the packets. Nowadays Good Earth, Killol, Sephora, Zara and M&S take pride of place over good ol’ Bata, Pantaloons or Globus, which have been relegated to the bottom of the Packet of Packets. The newest additions to the hoard which I just can’t bring myself to throw away, are the small and impossibly sturdy, bubble-wrap-lined Amazon packets. Bubble wrap! Who would throw that away!? Someday I might need to transport eggs inside! FRAGILE.

If you’ve noticed, the more exclusive the shop, lesser the writing on the packet and therefore, more flaunt-able. For example, contrast a packet from a smallish Kolkata saree shop with that from Nike. The former makes scrunchy noises at the slightest provocation and has the maximum script possible per square area – example “BANGALAKSHMI SARI BHANDAR, MANUFACTURERS OF SHANTIPURI AND DHAKAI HANDLOOM, CLOTH PROPRIETOR B.K.SEN AND SONS, MUKTARAM BABU STREET, OPPOSITE 3 NO. BUS STOP, KOLKATA-740007”.

Nike on the other hand has just a swoosh.

Why do we store packets? Why do we like them so much? Unlike my parents, who carried a cloth bag on their regular grocery run, I am an opportunistic shopper who grabs her groceries on the way back from someplace else. We folks love the lightness, durability, impermeability, ability of the packet to be squeezed into purses or pockets and so, in spite of knowing all the harm it can cause, we mollify our conscience by trying to reuse it whenever possible.

Plastic here, plastic there, plastic, plastic everywhere. Drains, landfills, seabed, roads — the trusty plastic bag is found even in places where no humans have tread, lo-behold the Mariana Trench. It is a testament to the convenience and low cost of plastic, but also to our shortcomings, which moulds itself to match. That is, after all, what the word plastic means; derived from the Greek word plastikos, it means easily shaped or moulded.

Illustrations by Aakansha Pushp