What’s your DIY footprint?

Indians are happy to eat local to reduce our carbon footprint, but we can’t spare the time to up our DIY footprint


MacGyver, the television action hero of the 1980s, could plug a sulphuric acid leak with chocolate. His name is now a verb in the Oxford dictionary.
MacGyver, the television action hero of the 1980s, could plug a sulphuric acid leak with chocolate. His name is now a verb in the Oxford dictionary.

When I dialled the Samsung helpline to ask them to send over a technician to fix my washing machine, the lady at the call centre replied: “Before I do that, why don’t you see if you can fix it yourself?” That’s radical advice for a country where a large percentage of us don’t even get ourselves a glass of water or walk up a flight of steps for the phone we forgot in our bedroom. We have someone for every job.

Restaurant employees, for instance, follow a complex hierarchy of tasks. Five different people in our overstaffed eateries will usually do the following: welcome guests, seat and hand them the menu; fill water glasses; take the order (I’m not counting the additional person who will have to be summoned if you have a question about your order); serve; and clear the plates.

We take our nannies along to the park to carry our bags (or just “deploy in case of emergency” perhaps?) when we play with our children. At the Bangalore Club’s Sunday lunch, half the lawn fills up fast, and the other half usually wears a deserted look until the seating options run out. There’s an easy explanation for this mysterious phenomenon: self-service section.

Even automatic parking ticket machines in this country are staffed. And if you want to see a gaggle of helpless Indians, just pause near the self check-in booth at any airport. The army’s whole sahayak system is based on the fact that officers shouldn’t worry about doing it themselves when there is a steady supply of juniors to whom they can delegate pretty much anything.

Am I being too harsh? After all we all know Pinterest-ers who quill snowflake-shaped tree decorations, homeschool, mix their own chemical-free bathroom cleaners, sew, upcycle wine bottles, make their own soaps and find 25 different uses for cream of tartar. But can they replace a washer in a leaky tap or use their iPhone as a spirit level? How often do they MacGyver it?

The 1980s television action hero could plug a sulphuric acid leak with chocolate and make an electronic jammer from electrical kitchen appliances (the MacGyver Wiki has an exhaustive list worth every minute of your time). His name is now a verb in the Oxford dictionary.

The occasional brave Indian brand encourages you to be a self-starter. Hawkins Cookers Ltd has a do-it-yourself repairs page on its website which offers detailed tips such as, “If the subsidiary or the body handle is difficult to unscrew, a second person holding the cooker body firmly while one person turns the handle screws anti-clockwise will make it easier...”

“We’ve always felt that for a product that lasts over 20 years in the home, some amount of self-service may be needed to keep it in tip-top condition, hence the DIY page,” a friend who works at the company told me.

The smart tech firm founded by an American Fulbright scholar in Beijing who designed an incredibly priced air purifier by essentially placing a HEPA filter against a box table fan, offers instructions to build your own too. Or you could just take the easy way out and buy one at Smartairfilters.com.

There are some great stories of our DIY ability, from apartment complexes setting up their own rainwater harvesting systems to experiments in sustainable terrace gardening and composting.

But these are stray examples. Somewhere along the 2-hour commute and the long hours in office, most of us decided we didn’t want to spend our spare time doing things ourselves. The fulfilment that comes from using your hands to fix things has almost become a luxury. Besides, when someone else can be hired to do the job cheaply, why bother? We are happy to eat local to reduce our carbon footprint, but we can’t spare the time to up our DIY footprint. An entire industry has sprung up around this decision.

Saran Chatterjee, CEO of Housejoy, a service which sends handymen and beauticians to your home, says we don’t allot time to such chores because they don’t feature in our priority list of things to do. In the 15 years he spent in the US, he painted his own house, did the odd plumbing job, and maintained household appliances such as the electrically powered food waste disposal in the sink. Doing things around the house doubled up as family bonding time back then, he adds. In India, by the time he’s done with his key responsibilities, there’s no time to look at such things.

As for me, I grew up in a hotel room where I dialled extension 168 every time I needed an electrician. When we bought an apartment a few years ago, my biggest worry was that if things went wrong, we couldn’t call the landlord for help. Then I found the laconic V. Raja, who supplements his day job on the shop floor with post-5pm household calls, doing anything from changing a tubelight to fixing a drawer handle.

He gives me a DIY lesson every time he visits, from what to do if the power goes to how to bypass the UPS. “But don’t try any pipeline work,” he says, looking at me sceptically over his glasses. “You’ll end up draining the tank.” I want to tell him that I recently tinkered with the drain pump propeller and fixed my washing machine, but I just smile instead.

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