It was a warm, summer evening in Mumbai: fans were whirring, pressure-cookers were whistling, and in the corner of a suburban housing society, a 20-year-old resident was having a full-blown meltdown in her apartment. She paced up and down her tiny room, wailing one minute, laughing the next, balling up her fists, punching the air, all in a desperate attempt to summon the courage she needed to deal with the situation at hand.
That situation was a fridge full of maggots.
That girl was me.
How I landed up there is a whole other story (suffice to say, one must ensure the electricity bills are paid when one is travelling), but the part of that experience that lingered, for a long time after, is the sense of abject terror I felt when I opened the fridge and hundreds of tiny white maggots came tumbling out. Fifteen years later, I am happy to report that the terror has faded, I no longer live in Mumbai, and my relationship with maggots in particular and creepy-crawlies in general has changed dramatically. The majority of this transformation I attribute to embracing the simple practice of kitchen composting.
I started composting my kitchen waste about three years ago, when I moved to Kodaikanal and set up a veggie garden in my backyard. Here, in the lap of the magnificent Palani Hills, my partner and I have learnt the joys of regenerative gardening: an approach to growing food in a way that enriches the habitat, rather than stripping it of resources. Our closest human neighbours are a few minutes away by road, but there is always company around, from swifts and mohawked bulbuls to toads, spiders, moths, snails and gorgeous garden skinks that shimmer in the morning light. My motivation to begin composting was simple: why chuck nutritious food scraps when they could be transformed into compost for the plants in my garden and, eventually, food to eat?
For the uninitiated, composting is the process of recycling leaves, twigs, veggie peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, meat scraps—anything organic really—into a soil-like matter that is nutritious for plants. This work of breaking down organic matter is done by numerous living creatures, from earthworms, beetles and—you guessed it—maggots to microbes, like fungi and bacteria. Together, these alchemists decompose organic matter, consume what they need and excrete the rest, thereby returning nutrients to the soil.
The forest floor is a good place to see this process in action. Stroll through any wild, wooded area, and chances are, you’ll be walking on a nice layer of organic matter. Bend down and carefully separate the dried leaves and twigs, and you’d see that the bits get finer and finer, until it is soil—rich, aromatic, life-giving soil, that sustains the forest around. In essence, composting is a similar process, recreated in a controlled environment.
Why not just fling your veggie peels in the veggie bed, you ask?
There are two reasons.
The greater the size of the food waste, the larger the animal it will attract. For example, if you’ve got bits of rice, hunks of fruit, and bones sitting next to the tomato plants in your garden, odds are you’ll soon have visiting monkeys, squirrels, maybe a colony of rats, too. I tried this once, and was rewarded with a warren of rodent burrows that rendered two of the vegetable beds in my garden useless for months. By waiting until the waste has been converted into compost, we steer clear of these uninvited guests, thus making our lives a little easier.
Reason number two is this: Most of the nutrition in our food waste is not bio-available to plants. (Stick with me, here.) This means that our peels, scraps and other kitchen waste contain nutrients that are valuable to plants, but they cannot access them until the microbes et al break them down. Much like our own digestive system—we eat meals full of protein, carbs and fat, but the nutrients in the food cannot be utilised by our bodies without the microbes in our gut biome. The microbes break the food down and make the nutrition bio-available to our system. In this sense, soil is the digestive system of the habitat.
So when we think of nutrition, whether it’s compost or our own digestive system, there are always two parts to it: organic matter (food) and facilitators (microbes etc). The greater the diversity of organic matter and facilitators, the greater the nutritive value of the output and the efficiency of the process.
But really, this is about so much more.
Watching kitchen scraps turn into compost over a couple of months is nothing short of a miracle—and the more I observed this system at work, the more I came to appreciate the role of worms, maggots and microbiota in the ecosystem at large. Like many creatures that evoke a feeling of fear in my mind, I realised that my initial discomfort (fine, terror) with maggots was simply an indicator of how unfamiliar they were to me. Once I understood these wizards of waste management, I went from Ewww-maggots to Wowww-maggots without noticing, until one day, I found myself gazing adoringly at a clutch of Black soldier fly larvae, marvelling at their speed, and the way their bodies moved. I might even have whispered some words of thanks and encouragement.
A lot of people associate composting with rot and stink, but this is not necessarily true. Peter Fernandes, a permaculture teacher of mine from Goa, had a compost unit sitting on his dining table, where he took all his meals, even when he had guests over—just to illustrate how smell-free a composting unit can be.
Composting has also brought my attention to the beauty around us. For years, I swatted at flies without giving them a second glance, but some time ago, I caught myself observing one perched on some pumpkin peels in the wet-waste vessel in my kitchen. I noticed the gossamer of its blue-green-pink wings, the remarkable design of its compound eyes, the way it rubbed its front legs together every few seconds.
In the grander scheme of things, perhaps the grandest of them all, composting shows me that we are all connected in the most matter-of-fact way. What is a tomato today is soil tomorrow. What is a bird today is soil tomorrow. What is a tree today, a sprawling ficus that sustains countless birds, monkeys and squirrels, is soil tomorrow. And thanks to our friendly neighbourhood composters, we will all be transformed into beautiful, life-giving soil to be reborn, once more, as peach, pear, tomato.
Where does one end and the other begin? The closer I look, the blurrier the lines get, until I see no boundaries at all, just an intricate web of interbeing that spans the cosmos.
And to think, it all began with some kitchen scraps.
For a guide to composting, see ‘DIY Guide: How to Make a Kitchen Composting Setup for the Home ‘.