The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.
Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river named for the rainforests, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on that far tree’s branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people—including Kadar forest dwellers—on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.
Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet black birds with golden leathery wattles on their heads frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.
Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails tipped with wires and black spatulae. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch the side of his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green. After his scratch, he sidles over to the nearest flower. Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendent hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns nosing and nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north now here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree top violinist fiddling fast and high pitched: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain around the tree. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep red cups, they even look like they are having a party.
It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say—a generosity hiding an agenda of its own. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about eighty to hundred anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.
Weeks later, by April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers—those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs—form oblong capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a ticking clock of the spinning earth.
My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.
It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to these trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a ‘togetherness of beings’.
At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.
On 8 March 2020, while the citizenship protests in New Delhi were ongoing, an edited version of this article appeared under a different title in the Indian ExpressSunday Eye.
I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.
Speak, Memory (vladimir Nabokov)
The pandemic came from nowhere and everywhere and grounded us. Grounded us to place and to a renewed appreciation of our joint and earthly vulnerability, our collective insouciance to planetary health. Perhaps it will all change: the destruction of nature, the desecration of land for profit, the dissembling of reality to concoct a narrative of progress that hides multiple spirals of decline. Meanwhile, in the sudden and welcome quiet, a quiet that may presage a dawn or a storm, there are moments to reflect, to read, and to speak. To speak of what we have seen, what we have done, what we could still do for ourselves and for the world that we may yet wake up to.
Over the last year, from our home here in the Anamalai Hills, Divya and I have participated and spoken in a few online events, podcasts, and interactions, and had one documentary feature our work. The topics are as scattered as our interests and work have been: books and reading, hornbills and civets, rainforests and restoration. Nothing world-changing here. Just our plodding pursuits and local efforts to do what we can, where we can, because we’d rather be doing this than anything else. I am just parking it all here for you to watch or listen at your leisure. In reverse chronological order, here goes… and take your pick.
Valley of Words Literature Festival online session on The Wild Heart of India
My book The Wild Heart of India made the English nonfiction shortlist of the 2020 Valley of Words Award, along with four excellent titles.
The literature festival, meant to be held at The Savoy, Mussoorie, was held online during 20 – 22 November, 2020. While the award itself went to Ankur Bisen’s book Wasted, as part of the litfest I had the opportunity for a discussion with Dr Malvika Onial, Scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and Dr Dhananjai Mohan, Director, WII. The recording of our discussion on my book, on conservation, and on writing about the natural world was streamed online on the 22nd.
Valley of Words Podcast on The Wild Heart of India
This conversation with Manoj Nair on my book The Wild Heart of India, which aired on 15 November, meanders through writing about the natural world, my personal journey in conservation, nature deficit and reconnecting people and nature, and where we are headed… do listen!
Restoration and Ecosystems
On September 25, 2020, Divya joined a panel of leading scientists on the Biodiversity Collaborative in a session on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,where she spoke on restoration, afforestation, and our experiences from the Western Ghats.
Such a lovely conversation: Do scientists give enough love to individual trees, the role that botanical gardens can play in conserving plants and spreading information, is it time for us to push harder for a different view of trees—one that recognises trees for their intrinsic worth, can illustrations capture trees better than photographs? Especially loved the part where Divya, Sridhar and Jonathan talk about how we can judge the health of a society by looking at how it treats its trees. Beautiful—thank you for this!
Carl D’silva Memorial Lecture
On August 30, 2020, Divya and I spoke at a lecture in memory of Carl D’Silva, an outstanding wildlife artist and illustrator who died in 2015. We then joined the discussion with Dr Madhura Niphadkar on forests, reforestation, and conservation.
On the Malabar civet
And Janaki Lenin interviewed Divya on her work on civets and the strange case of the Malabar civet as part of her #WildWomenInterviews series on 24 October 2020.
A Dream of Trees
And last on the list, but the first for us in the year past, was this stunning documentary about our work in the Anamalai Hills, made by the remarkable Sara and his team at Evanescence Studios. The film appeared on YouTube on 8 January 2020.
This film tells the story of the ecological restoration of degraded tropical rainforests in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats, India. It shows how Divya and I have been working with our team to restore degraded patches of rainforest in the Anamalai Hills in partnership with tea and coffee plantation companies since 2001. It speaks of the extraordinary values of rainforests and how restoration helps revive forests, bring back wildlife, and pull carbon down from the atmosphere in a time of climate crisis. An instructive story of challenge, limitation, and hope, A Dream of Trees is also an inspiring tale of restoration, of reviving the connections between plants and animals and between people and rainforests in a shared landscape. Do watch!
Note: This post was updated on 8 January 2021 to include the Valley of Words recorded video session of 22 November.
This essay owes inspiration to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), a powerful commentary set in Antigua, on tourism and colonialism and the lived contradictions of travelers and citizens.
February 26, 2020. If you go to Corbett as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you arrive by airplane at New Delhi, the glossy artificiality of the Indira Gandhi International airport will assail you. (Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, four times, and you may wonder whether she would have wanted an airport named after her, rather than a National Park, say, like the one named after a white man, Jim Corbett—your destination.) If you come by train, it is the grime and the smells and the city’s exhaled air that will accost you. You will step out of airport or station into the great old city snug in its world-famous smog, made infamous now by the smoke pluming into the skies, swirling black from homes and mosques, from fires lit and riots raged in the city’s northeast.
And you will want to leave it behind, soon, taking your bus or taxi on the roads and highways leading east out of the city. Your vehicle’s tyres churn the miles and the Lutyens bungalows and gardens, the old fort and India Gate, the tree-lined avenues, the markets and condos, and the broad highways looped with flyovers fall behind, and the throng of suburbs and the sprawl of conurbations pass, with fewer trees now and more buildings and more people and vehicles and you pass them without looking back, with only a sideways glance, for you are looking ahead all the time—to the promise of Corbett, to forests and grasslands and elephants and tigers—always tigers—to places not like this city where the houses and the mosques burn not too far to the north, where the cops may beat you and force you to sing the national anthem, where a politician of the party supposed to govern the nation can incite men to mobs to violence and the honorable courts can find it in their wisdom to look away… There is no looking back at a place that is only looking back to a time and a world and a blinkered idea of that world that should have been left all the way back there in the first place.
There is only one place, just one, where your glance is directed upward—above a hill, a seething tenebrous hill over which a great swirling mass of five thousand black kites mills and turns under a dour, smoke-stained sky devoid of blue. A hill of garbage, a great mound of filth rotting, rising daily with the offal of Delhi, a hill taller than the buildings, the roads, the overhead metro lines, and the thought strikes you that the Parliament in Delhi, the President’s home in Delhi, are on hills, too.
You are glad to pass, now, through the countryside, seeing the farms and dhabas, the winter-stricken trees, the sin-burdened Ganges, the low mist forming over the fields of mustard and wheat in the distance, even the fire burning in the sugarcane fields. This fire is just a fire, the smoke just smoke, the match that lit it just the match of a solitary farmer tending his field along a road that leads away from the city you, the tourist, can afford to leave behind.
Hours pass. It is evening. The sky darkens with cloud. Your vehicle leaves the open plains and the town of Ramnagar behind and climbs into the foothills. The vehicle swerves and slews up the curves, the headlights swinging a misty beam speckled with gold glints of falling rain. The forest is dark, rendered under purpled skies in sudden chiaroscuro by a great unseen flash. You feel the crash, when it comes, in the pit of your stomach, in the percussion in your chest, in the shudder of the vehicle. The vehicle does not stop, it hardly even slows, the frantic wipers clearing just enough of a view to keep going.
You keep going, past the roadside sign that warns Elephants Crossing Zone Go Slow but the driver does not slow, past the long string of resorts and hotels in the middle of the forest, each signboard flashing past advertising luxury with adventure in Corbett—in the dark forest split by them on either side of the road.
The rain abates. A chill descends. The driver says he will not return to Delhi tonight. The mussalman log have created a mess, he says. You do not want to confront him with the news you were just reading on your phone that it is the mosques that are burning—you are here as a tourist after all, and this man will go and you will never see him again and how can you be sure and who knows what news is true and what fake and what is the point of arguing anyway. The driver will stay tonight at Ramnagar, where a man with a name like his can be safe.
As for you—you will not stay at a lodge or hotel. They are too tasteless for you, perhaps, or you want to be the conscientious traveler, you who like to think you tread light. You stay at a home-stay-like place run by a couple, friends of friends. The proprietors love wildlife, believe in a different form of tourism. Beside the glitzy lights and walled-off, power-fenced compound of a nearby resort, their place is quiet, dark, full of trees, with paths that even a wild elephant may walk on. The modest, tasteful surrounds, named for a bird of the mountain rivers, becalms you. Tucked under thick blankets, you fall asleep to the soft hoots of owls. Tomorrow you will enter Corbett.
If you go to Corbett as a tourist—and now you are actually there—you will enter the National Park through one of the gates, say the Dhangarhi Gate, which looks like the entrance to a fortress. You will submit the permit and the reservations you had already obtained to the forest guards and show your ID cards and those of your partner and your friend and you will wait at the gate to enter at the designated time in the morning (10 a.m.) in your designated vehicle, for you understand that the park cannot remain open to just anyone, to curious wayfarers, itinerant traders, anonymous riffraff, the Gujjar herders who used to graze their buffaloes here not too long ago, the people who used to live in one of the four villages located here not too long ago, the random photographers, the foreigners or citizens—the nation’s capital you left behind is still confused about who is who in those latter categories anyway—no, you convince yourself that it can’t be just anybody who enters this National Park that belongs to everyone and yet no one. So you wait.
Finally, the gate opens and the two waiting vehicles in front of you—one a small bus full of excited, uniformed schoolchildren in coats and ties, the other a jeep with tourists like you—rev their engines and zoom ahead. Then the guard at the fortress-gate waves you through and you are overjoyed. Your real journey begins now. Or seems to. You are so happy that the guard waved you in, you want to go beaming into his little room behind the small window by the gate and pump his hand in gratitude.
You are happy to be on your way—you are happy that you are cruising in an open-top, 4-wheel-drive Gypsy with modified seats on which the three of you can sit facing forward, you are happy to see the sal trees with corrugated bark and bright, rain-washed leaves, you are happy at the pleasant morning, cloudy with a hint of sun, you are happy to listen to the conversation in Hindi between JP, your soft-spoken naturalist guide from Ramnagar, and the driver Harinder, you are happy that the latter has been thoughtful to fill just a tad less air in the rear tyres to make a more comfortable ride in the Gypsy, you are happy at the narrow unpaved, unsealed forest road where you have to drive so slowly that the basking snakes and lizards can escape the tyres, you are happy to glimpse the sparkling river and the rounded boulders in white, grey, and pastel colours jumbled along the raus feeding into it—you are happy happy happy.
The road swings along a rau and you see a flicker of birds in the trees and stop. Half a dozen large woodshrikes—plumaged in greys and browns, a streak as of thick mascara through their eyes—chatter and flit from branch to leaf expertly harvesting caterpillars that you didn’t even know were there. They keep company with a dark-winged and dark-hooded maroon oriole whose eyes gleam bright, whose voice screeches out to his mate across the forest. A small flock of Indian white-eyes, cheeping softly and probing the flowers, rides the bird wave as it sweeps tree to tree. And you can watch them and wonder how here in Corbett like elsewhere in India—save yesterday’s rioting city—birds of many-a-feather can flock together, too.
You can take your time, now that you are past the gate, watch the eagle quartering over the canopy, the woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks, the blackbird perched in the shrubs, the mugger crocodile placid by the river viewed from High Bank—one of the few spots where you can get off your vehicle, stretch your legs, put your feet on the earth, take in a view of the mountains, the forests, the unsullied river below. Take a few selfies, too, if you must.
Onward again and you near your destination and the road takes an older, grander feel with sal trees rising, curving, vaulting the road, and you feel like you are entering a cathedral, a grand hall of pillars in a place of worship, sensing perhaps if you pause a bit that it is this ambience, this kinship with and among the trees in a forest that those places of worship are trying to evoke. By the side of that vaulted, famous road, a nonchalant muntjac, impervious to fame, indifferent to worship, grazes and fades into the forest as your vehicle clatters past. You click and click trying to capture the deer, the trees, the grand avenue of this grand National Park, but you’ve captured nothing. The deer and the trees are still there. They are still there as you pass, eyes on the road to Dhikala.
The forest breaks suddenly into a large expanse of grassland. This is the famous Dhikala chaur you’ve heard so much about, admired so many photos of on Facebook, surely, and seen plastered across the pages of travel magazines and tour pamphlets promising adventures, thrilling experiences, close encounters with wildlife—yes, this is that famous place, that unparalleled Indian wilderness you’ve always wanted to visit and you see the row of buildings ahead hiding in the open behind charged fences and gates and that is where your rooms are in the new Forest Rest House (FRH) not far from the old FRH and you take it all in as your jeep rattles along, the grassland, the buildings, the line of trees along a dip in the land that promises a Himalayan river but is not a river that flows and is actually a reservoir—yet it is the river, the grassland, the forest, the elephants and the tigers—always tigers—that you will choose to identify with this famous place.
You have arrived. There you are deep in the Indian wilds, in the most famous spot in this famous Park named after Jim Corbett, the famous wilderness writer—a long dead white hunter with a rare affinity to the India under the Raj, a writer whose books still fly off the shelves especially the ones he wrote about man-eating leopards and tigers—always tigers—and how he shot them and saved the lives of natives, a writer whose bust, a slightly misshapen bust under a tent-like shelter, faces every single visitor who enters through the Dhangarhi gate, a writer and sahib still remembered by some of the older mountain folk, a shikari who was a white hunter but also wasn’t really one, a man followed later by many who aspired to be white hunters of a sort, but weren’t really.
Check-in. You are happy that in this famous place, this Indian wilderness, you have clean, newly-furbished rooms with electricity and a large clean toilet and piping hot water and a room boy who promises you bed tea the next morning at 6 a.m., a porter who will haul your luggage upstairs from the jeep and not ask you for money because he knows, just looking at you, how you must be a good person, a fortunate, privileged person to have arrived in this famous place and that happy as you are to be here, you will doubtless give him a good tip. You are the guest, after all, you reserved the room with your money, and he is here only to serve. You settle down in the room, pull the curtains aside, take in a view of the trees, maybe even open the glass windows to let in some of the air and the bird calls and peer contentedly at the beautiful welcoming world through the mesh that keeps the not-so-beautiful, not-so-welcome world of flies and mosquitoes and macaques out—out where they belong. This is your room. The view framed by the window is your view. You can take photos to remember it by.
Shoot the tigers—always tigers. There is dawn talk. A tiger, Paro, with her two grown cubs, is about, goes the buzz, spreading from jeep to idling jeep behind the closed gates, the drivers alert, their eyes on the forest officer who has brought a chair out and a mobile phone to check the time and make sure no one leaves for the safari until the exact designated moment. He checks the time. He picks his teeth. He checks again. He raises a hand. The gates swing open. The tyres spin, kicking dust. The convoy of jeeps zooms ahead, carrying their jacketed and blanketed loads of camera-burdened tourists, you among them, and before you know it, you are cruising along the river, heading into sal forests where there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of Paro.
Alarm calls of chital. Harinder kills the engine and you wait. You are glad that there are only six other jeeps waiting here for the tiger who is somewhere in the forest, up the slope, away from the trees whose canopies are festooned with a garland of langurs but you have little time for them because you cannot miss your only glimpse of the striped cat in the bushes. But the cat does not show.
You are now before a grassland. A mesmeric sweep of waist-high and knee-high grass spreading away, away till where, you have no idea, it could spread all the way cleaving past the Himalaya to Tibet and Mongolia and beyond for all that you or the Siberian stonechat sitting on the bent spear of a grass blade know. The grassland is sliced by safari roads and the hunters, you among them now, sit in the jeeps, triggers cocked, to shoot the tiger if she crosses, to collect her head and her beautiful striped skin and pin them up, later, on your digital walls. But the cat does not show.
You now have a view of the river. A braid of grass and smooth boulders and land, shining and sparkling in evening light, topped by the flame of a tall silk cotton tree abloom on which a Pallas’s fish-eagle sits, his eye absorbing the landscape and the waters and the life beneath the waters with a level of detail and discernment you can only aspire to. The tiger and her cubs had walked across this braid of land and water. Someone had seen them less than an hour ago. And so you scan and scan with your binoculars and telescope, past the eagle and the sambar doe with her fawn grazing by the river, past the turtle and cormorants and gharial basking on the banks, past the black-winged kite and crested kingfishers stalled as if by an invisible hand in mid-air, wings aflutter, one over the grass the other over the water seeking their suppers, past them all to where the river takes a bend and disappears, onto the Ganges, into the ocean and who knows where else. But the tiger does not show.
The tiger does show, to someone else. Someone who is ready with their cameras just at the moment when Paro is licking her paws reclining on the ground as her cubs rise on their hind legs, face each other, and swat playfully at each other in a sparring match in full view and good light, captured in a series of hundreds of photos, one of which has already been uploaded, shared, captioned, liked, commented, praised and plussed, bounced and rebounced, phone to laptop to tablet, until it pings in your own phone, in whatever you feed on, the virus arrived at your door, and you look at it, nonplussed, saying how did I miss that.
It is time to leave. You pack your bags as the world is shutting down because someone far away shot or killed an animal they shouldn’t have, because they had caught more than just the animal, and because now a person’s cough in Wuhan, China, can reverberate around the world.
One virus put out by the man in the next room, a photograph flitting from server to server around the world before arriving in your hand, received eagerly in your phone, and another virus out there that you will have to evade all the way back home and learn to keep avoiding. You are glad to see the porter and room boy when they come to help carry your heavy luggage down the stairs to the waiting jeep. As the jeep departs, they watch you leave and you realise you do not know their names and the thought strikes you that you are leaving while they will stay on, and that all the while they have had the better reason to be there in this famous place, earning a livelihood assisting people unknown to them and it is you, ultimately, who will remain forever anonymous.
Time rolls the forests and grasslands past, under your wheels, and the grim visage of Corbett’s bust watches you exit the gates of his park. You have had your happy moment, but it seems to be already receding there behind the closing gates, and ahead is Delhi, city of strife, city of pollution, city of pain. Corbett, Delhi, home. Yet, there is something you can take with you: something that arrives as a wisp of elation. In a moment of reflection and clarity you see what you came to Corbett to see. And what you remember and what you forget do not just happen to you but are of your choice.
Art and science come together rarely, and they come together with humour even more rarely. In this book, as in much of Rohan Chakravarty’s work, they all meld beautifully, with touches of allure, sensitivity, and grace. Here, he brings to life in his unique style the lifestyle quirks and natural history of a hundred species of Indian birds. Each artful page on a particular species grabs you with its visual and aesthetic appeal. It also distils information on the bird’s habits and natural history, and bustles with the vitality, peculiarity, and idiosyncracies of that bird’s behaviour. And all of this is done in a manner that no field guide, bird book, encyclopedia, or video documentary on Indian birds has ever achieved.
This is a chirpy and sprightly book, brimming with life, with scarcely a dull moment in its pages. The birds leap and glide and whistle and wag and swoop and spear and court and cavort. They dive into oceans and wing over mountains, they chisel into trees and probe into mud, they sing their hearts out and serenade their mates, they nest in trees and houses and earth-tunnels and mounds, they gobble garbage and slurp nectar, they drink and dance and do the doo-doo.
There’s so much liveliness in each page and the behaviour of each species is illustrated so well that you may be tempted to flip quickly to the next page, skipping past the words to the next eye-catching illustration. But that would be a mistake. The writing, too, is not to be missed. Rohan’s brief word-portraits of the birds and accurate and charming descriptions of their curious adaptations and behaviours will bring you many a chuckle, much jaw-dropping astonishment, and ultimately a new or renewed intimacy with these wonderful birds.
For children and adults, there is much to learn within these pages. I say this not just as an admirer of Rohan’s work, but as a hobby birdwatcher for over 35 years and a bird researcher for at least half that period. I learnt much that I never knew and felt delighted afresh in the little that I did, seeing it portrayed in this unique way. The species illustrated here also offer a glimpse of India’s remarkable diversity of 1300 bird species: from the house sparrow and barn swallow familiar to almost everyone, the black kites of our cities and the cattle egrets of our countryside, from daytime larks and eagles to nightjars and owls, and rarities like the satyr tragopan and the endangered great Indian bustards.
The book both reveals and evokes a love for birds and a concern over their plights and lives. In our rapidly changing planet, the plight of birds only reflects our own plight and, in that sense, bird business is our business, too. This, you can discover for yourself, when you turn to the delightful pages that follow.
There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.
The book unfolds
with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its
landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and
the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop
for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a
trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from
forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in
recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has
transformed the relationship between people and land from one of
respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the
remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing
voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of
the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western
Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed
introduction to the region and its ecological history and human
diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an
author impatient to get started on the journey.
The first six
chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From
the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast,
the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal
tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated
extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments
often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five
phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the
opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of
agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests,
the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally,
from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries
and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the
mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger
Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju
traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local
people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains
Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the
effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology
and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the
Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the
recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry
into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the
forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused
by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the
indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down
through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at
the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property
and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The
floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around
Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two
centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of
pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.
Moving north to
Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the
threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also
the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal
communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay
public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive
projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills,
and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the
people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place:
tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road
expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest
degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has
affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.
One of the longest
chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues
impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban
expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land
distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of
vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic
understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is
essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the
better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’
can only lead to conflict and disaffection.
The book thins out
as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka,
Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are
short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to
the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the
safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg
has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep
slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the
extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region
susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining
has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests
(including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and
traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the
author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa
Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as
the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in
Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of
the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A
little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though,
in the two short closing chapters.
There are a few
other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of
“ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of
ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use
of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current
scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other
tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and
association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the
Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the
“most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed
Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire
wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points,
Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references
to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the
text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying
columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations)
providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its
own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the
book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he
cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that
established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by
the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds),
it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the
book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the
best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with
valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change,
geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and
supported the narrative.
In writing about the
destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the
resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in
the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how
different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists
came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests
against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke
for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which
culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least
partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that
“Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and
publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of
the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are
academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to
paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that
the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of
academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats
could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their
findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation
could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books
like Flood and Fury, too.
These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.
On the 10th of November 2019, I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in a session with Harini Nagendra and Nirupa Rao. The session, The Secret Lives of Trees, offered us an opportunity to talk on a subject dear to each of us: trees.
Following Harini’s vivacious and insightful lead, our conversation swooped and veered, sallied and swung around trees. On the science of trees, on the connections between people and trees, and on the challenges of trying to portray the majesty and wonder and individuality of trees in art and in words. We spoke of the wood-wide web and the values of trees in our daily lives, of Myristica swamp forests and silk cotton trees, and even of what trees can help us discover about ourselves and our views on citizenship and belonging to place.
Listen on and leave your thoughts and comments below!
It began as a whim, a resolution for the new year, a year now already passed. At least, it seemed like a whim, sitting there by the campfire in the Kalakad mountains, with friends, under the star-sequinned night sky quilted with cloud. The rainforests were silent but for the creak and click of insect and frog; only the cataract over the nearby cliff continued its unceasing conversation with the rocks. Among friends announcing new year resolutions—more out of amusement than determination—I outed mine, as sparks crackled in the fire. I’ll read only books written by women in 2019, I said. Fifty books written by fifty women.
It was a strange resolution, like nothing I’d made before. And on its surface it carried the obvious problem: a quest for good literature, writing, and writers made sense, but why women writers? Why reduce women to an adjective? Writers are writers, aren’t they?
I’d always read writers without bias to gender—or so I thought—on my many book-reading binges since 2011. My stats on Goodreads, where I keep track of what I read, recorded that I’d read 100 books in 2011, 57 in 2012, 101 books in 2013, 40 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 each in 2017 and 2018. I’d picked books up from independent bookstores, chain stores, used book stores, pavement sellers, online e-book retailers, public and university libraries, airport and train station bookshops, and my friends’s bookshelves, across at least half a dozen countries that I’d traveled to since 2011. I’d scanned the covers, browsed reviews online and in print, asked friends for recommendations, simply picked books out of curiosity or boredom, or on occasion found a book more or less by serendipity. And I read widely—ridiculously, distressingly widely according to some friends—more gourmand than gourmet in my reading as one put it. Excluding some technical books I read as part of my work as a wildlife scientist, I read literary fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, poetry, detective stories and murder mysteries, creative nonfiction, classics, westerns, popular science, spy thrillers, philosophy, nature writing, erotica, and comic books. From the Bhagavad Gita and the Therigatha to Anaïs Nin and Lucky Luke, from Gustave Flaubert to Shubhangi Swarup, from John Grisham to John Steinbeck, from Mahasweta Devi to Maya Angelou, from deluded Dawkins to marvellous Matthiessen. Almost anything except Chetan Bhagat.
Four hundred and forty six books over eight years: an eclectic but unblemished and unbiased record so far, I thought. Why bias my reading now towards women?
And then, one day, I decided to check. I skimmed the list of 446 books I’d read since 2011 and my apparently unbiased reading streak revealed itself to be something very different. It was obvious even at a glance. If I had only taken a few moments to reflect, which I’d not done all these years, I’d have noticed this earlier. I sat down and counted. To be sure. Of the 446 books (including 2 books that had been co-authored by a woman and a man), only 79 were written by women. Just 17.7%—or less than one in five books!
I began to look at all bookshelves with a new eye. Two wooden bookshelves at home held 333 books, of which only 68 (20%, or one in five) were by women. As did bookshelves in some of my friends’s houses—one friend’s bedside bookshelf stacked 71 books, only 8 by women. Airport bookshops, city bookstores, pavement sellers—more often than not, they all featured more male authors. Take a look at your own books—it is likely the disparity exists in your shelves, too.
It was true for Indian writing as well, and moreover, seemed unrelated to how good the writers were—at least, how much I enjoyed their writing. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik dwarfed the immeasurably better Arundhati Roy and Shobhaa De and Janaki Lenin. In one airport bookstore, atop a heap of apparently lesser volumes, Shashi Tharoor‘s books sat flamboyantly, rather like the prolific, sometimes prolix, writer-politician himself, while the equally prolific writer and novelistShashi Deshpande‘s memoir graced a corner that only someone determined to find her would discover. I understood better now why Deshpande had titled her book Listen to Me. I resolved then to not just read women writers, but only buy books written by women this year. I bought a copy of Listen to Me before I left the store.
Clearly there was something askew here—an unconscious bias or a bias I’d refused to discern or admit to myself. A bias that may not just be mine, but one compounded by how publishing, promotions, and book reviewing works to the advantage of men. One analysis of the New York Times Best Sellers List for novels showed a bias towards male authors from the 1950s through the 1990s, reaching near parity only in the first decade of the 21st century. (This is despite gender disparities within genres: best-selling spy novels are more often written by men, best-selling romance more often by women, for instance, while literary works are more evenly matched.) The VIDA Count, by the Women in Literary Arts organisation, tracks publication bias and parity in leading literary publications and, barring a few publications, reveals widespread gender disparity. Their 2018 VIDA Count reports:
Meanwhile, at 4 years in a row, the Feckless Five are back, with fewer than 40% of women writers in their publication totals: Times Literary Supplement (38.5%), The Nation (36.9%), The Threepenny Review (36.6%), London Review of Books (33.7%), and The Atlantic (33.6%).
The New York Review of Books, once again, had the worst numbers of all 40 publications at a measly 27.1%, which is, sadly, the highest percentage of women they’ve published since the beginning of the VIDA Count [in 2010]…
The 2018 VIDA Count also showed that less than 40% of the books reviewed (only 26% in the case of NYRB) were books written by women. The work of authors who identify as non-binary genders is barely gaining ground, too. And besides gender there is also the issue of race, which remains another factor of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the reasons that drive these trends may be many, complex, and more nuanced than a simple male bias. As Kamila Shamsie wrote in 2015, commenting on a literary ‘manel‘ discussion where four men discussed ‘The crisis of American fiction’:
I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex.
One needs to examine the proportions of books in review in relation to the corresponding proportions of books by male and female authors published. One study reports that, in Australia, two-thirds of the books were written by women, but two-thirds of the books that get reviewed were those of male authors—an entrenched bias evident over nearly three decades between 1985 and 2013. But at least one editor has argued that more books by men are reviewed because some leading publishing houses publish men more often than women. Shamsie also notes how publishers submitting books for literary prizes do so with “a strong tilt towards books by men”.
Other factors, too, could be at work that relegate women writers to the background and devalue their work: how women writers are written about in the media, how books by women are priced less than similar books by male writers, how manuscripts written under a male pseudonym are more likely to be considered by a publisher, and how women are paid less than male writers. Shashi Deshpande in Listen to Me writes how she was described as a ‘grandmother’, how people often commented on her looks and the dresses she wore, how male editors who did not bother to read her work advised her to submit her work to women’s magazines, how some famous male writers denigrated and wrote and spoke dismissively of women writers.
It all adds up. A reader browsing a bookshelf or making what seems to be an informed purchasing choice has likely already been swayed towards male authors. Any personal bias, conscious or unconscious—more likely towards male authors given our social milieu—only accentuates the skew.
In May 2019, my own book was published by Oxford University Press: The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays on nature and conservation. The book slipped out into the world and I watched as it found its own place among the thousands that appeared on the shelves. I did no promotions or events, as authors apparently are expected to do these days, but for a single book reading event at the wonderful independent bookstore, children’s library, and cafe, Champaca, in Bangalore, and a joint session on trees at the Bangalore Literature Festival in November with writer and scientist, Harini Nagendra, and the artist, Nirupa Rao.
The publishers of my book had sent it out to a number of outlets for review and a couple of the reviews raised a pertinent point. Of the 60 essays in my book, I had written 10 with Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist and my partner, but nearly all the essays owed something to her as well. As I wrote in the Preface to the book:
Most of the essays emerged from journeys and field experiences with Divya… Journeying with Divya has always been an enriching experience of witnessing, photographing, and forming the impressions, images, and ideas that finally found expression in these words. I co-authored 10 essays (or their earlier versions) with her, but most of the others, too, are from our time in the field together: out of a memorable encounter, an extended conversation, a close observation, a shared silence.
Two reviewers made the point that her name deserved to have been on the cover, too. I was glad that the reviewers, both men, pointed that out—clearly, there are many people out there sensitive to this. There is sometimes a thin line between a considered decision and the perpetuation of a latent bias. Applied to my own work, it struck me that I may not even be the best person to realise or understand on which side of that line I myself stand.
As the weeks passed, I did little more than share links or send emails to friends about my book’s existence. But I could not avoid an egoistic urge to check every bookstore I visited whether they had my book on their shelves. Except at Champaca and a stall at the Lit Fest, none of the dozen or so bookstores I visited in 2019 stocked my book. Save one. And there, I was in for a surprise, a pleasant, yet short-lived surprise.
In December 2019, there, on the top rack of the Wildlife/Gardening shelf in Starmark bookstore, Chennai, stood my book flanked by works of two authors I greatly admire. Julian Hoffman‘s Irreplaceable, one of the most beautifully-written books on nature and conservation of recent times, stood on one side. One book away on the other side was a recent anthology of essays by the late M. Krishnan, probably India’s most well-known nature writer.
Books by women writers were there, too: Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember on the Chennai floods and Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies. But then, I stepped back a bit and took in the whole shelf.
Leaving aside the encyclopedia volumes and a couple of misplaced books, there were 43 books. Of these, an astonishing 37 books were by men, and only 6 books were by women (of these, 3 had a male coauthor). Several authors were white men, of course, including the long-dead Jim Corbett, a shikari famed for his tiger and leopard shooting exploits.
This was in a large bookstore in Chennai. The city I was born in. A city that considers itself one of the biggest in India, with a cultured citizenry and a vast population of readers.
There was not a single book by a woman author from outside India. Why Peter Wohlleben’s pulp nonfiction, but no Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction? I was thrilled to see Julian Hoffman’s book and bought a copy, but it would have been equally wonderful to see and buy a book like Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. And isn’t it time we grew out of Jim Corbett and read better natural history writing?
I looked again at my own book on that shelf. I turned and walked away.
I had begun 2019 with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces, Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and the Therigatha in translation. The latter, a collection of verses in Pali by ordained Buddhist women or therīs is considered among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world, some from as early as the 6th Century BCE. I tried to mix fiction and nonfiction with poetry and classics. I read books old and new. From Austen’s 1813 classic, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1949) and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954) to books published just this year: Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, and Ali Smith’s astonishing Spring. (Okay, I must admit I cheated with that last one. I began reading it on New Year’s eve and although I could hardly put it down any free moment I had, I could finish it only after 2020 had arrived.)
Through 2019, I’d tried to read whenever I could, but travel and work kept me from reading. By December 31, it was clear I was not going to meet my target of 50 books. I’d read only 42 books. Not a bad number that, in literature: 42. Still, thanks to the anthology Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, I managed to read, in total, the work of 63 women. And many extraordinary writers.
Looking back on 2019, I found no cause to regret my ‘whim’ of reading women. In fiction, I will remember it as the year I first read Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018.
A delightful book that had me both chuckling and reflecting seriously on how we as humans relate to animals. This book is many things: murder mystery, Cannery-Row-esque story set in rural Poland, a biting critique of hunting and Christian ideas of human dominion over nature, a commentary on the similarities between astrology and sociobiology, and a tale of one woman’s determination. How Tokarczuk manages to pull all that off, while keeping you turning the pages for more, is something of a wonder. I can see why she is considered one of Poland’s “most celebrated and beloved authors.”
Then there was Joan Didion, who wrote powerfully of life and society rendered bleak and chaotic by loss and disruption. Her graphic description of her protagonist undergoing an abortion in a shady clinic and the character’s ensuing tailspin down the freeways of America is like nothing I’ve read before.
An unflinching look at social and mental breakdown in pared-down prose by a writer I’m sure I’m going to be reading more. If a book can take you down a path, or send you tearing down a freeway, into the desert, into nothingness, into nothing, into knowing how much it matters when nothing matters, then maybe this is that book.
I read the wonderful poetry of Mary Oliver and Anne Carson and Kathleen Jamie, adding them all to my list of favourite authors without a moment’s hesitation. I read nonfiction that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in today’s world: history (Time Pieces, Nayanjot Lahiri), archaeology (Devika Cariapa), memoir (Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald). On environmental science and politics and for good nature writing, here are two books well worth your time.
A clear, hard-nosed, and incisive look into environmental issues and battles fought. This is a book anyone concerned with the environment in India or more broadly in relation to the developing world must read. Sunita Narain’s is one of the most informed and compelling voices in the world and the work she and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, have managed to do, against immense pressures and push-back, is remarkable. This books tells all in that same compelling voice, sharing her experiences that are eye-opening, sobering, and inspiring at once.
Part memoir, part quest for self, family, and nature in Taiwan, this is a gentle book with a gentle narrative voice that carries the reader along on a very personal journey. I like it for its simplicity and clarity, and its evocation of Taiwan and her family that is both personal and yet placed neatly within the great sprawl of the island’s history and geography.
Of course there were places where the writing sagged or books in which I felt I would have liked something more, something different, a different perspective of women by women. But, then why not perspectives of men by women or of anything, for that matter, by women? Anyhow, I am no critic, and worse, I’m a published male author, and how male authors see women often just doesn’t cut it. So I won’t even try. What I can attest is how much I enjoyed reading what I read.
It was not just books on themes that one might ascribe, not without the stain of bias, to women: family, women’s lives, sexual abuse and rape, mother-child relationships, love. These themes, and they are great literary and social themes, were certainly present in powerful, compelling, provocative stories told with a rare empathy by powerful and tender narrators. But the writing often rocketed out of these pigeonholes and soared into the skies. You could place some of these books on a family-themed shelf, but to do full justice, it is the shelf that would have to expand enormously to fully capture the range in these books: the idea of home, belonging, and caring for a differently-abled sister in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, the contemporary life of women in India in Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair, the sexual abuse of a girl child in a fake godman’s ashram in Anuradha Roy’s searing book Sleeping on Jupiter, the fabric of a family shredded by the brutal rape of the mother in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, the love and lust and longing in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, and Ismat Chughtai’s The Heart Breaks Free and The Wild One.
Other books brought to the fore thought provoking and powerful stories—fiction and fact, fake news and real—of racism and white supremacy, power dynamics, gender discrimination, our current crises of climate and immigration, of democracy losing to demagoguery, of life under slavery and colonialism. The works of Mary Beard (Women and Power), Sunita Narain (Conflicts of Interest), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Ali Smith (Spring), Wilma Stockenström (The Expedition to the Baobab Tree), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and several women writers of colour in Well Read Black Girl, are just a tiny sample of that spectrum of work by some of the best writers who are both of our times and timeless.
If, having read this far has sparked your interest in reading (more) women writers in 2020, you could mosey over to Reading Women and take their 2020 reading challenge.
Or if you’d like a peek at what I read in 2019 and check out some of those books, here they are.
Whether you take the challenge or pick women to read from my bookshelf or any other shelf, chances are you will have a wonderful year of reading ahead. And when a woman’s voice lingers in your mind as you turn the last page of her book, you may find that it has been worth your while to listen to her.
After a long hiatus, I’m getting back to blogging here at View from Elephant Hills. Over the next few weeks, I aim to move my posts from the presently-dysfunctional Coyotes Network blogs. Do bookmark this page or take the RSS feed from below if you’d like to follow my work.
Update (8 Jan 2019): Most of my posts till 2014 are here now. Still have a bunch to bring over from the Coyotes Network. Should be done in the next few weeks!
Last year, it was for a billboard carrying an iPhone advertisement. Seventeen trees poisoned, thirteen more with branches chopped off, “so that a billboard of an iPhone advertisement is clearly visible”.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
Before they were felled, the trees stood along the streets of Bangalore, a city that goes by the name of Bengaluru these days. Bengaluru, capital of the state of Karnataka, a city of over twelve million people and the third most populous city in India, where nearly one percent of the nation’s 1.3-billion-large population is packed into 2,196 square kilometres at a density of 5,700 people to a square kilometre. Bangalore, the garden city, now become Bengaluru, city of traffic snarls, burning lakes, glitzy billboards.
The loss of trees is not new. Between 1973 and 2016, according to one study, the area under paved and concreted surfaces in the city increased over tenfold while vegetation or green spaces declined by nearly nine-tenths. With just around 1.5 million trees remaining, Bengaluru has only one tree for every seven people, although there are even fewer—one tree for every thousand people—in densely populated wards such as Shivaji Nagar and Kempapura Agrahara in the heart of the city. The trees are not enough even to sequester the carbon dioxide breathed out by the city’s citizens. In the run up to the 2018 state elections, in April alone, around forty trees were chopped in various parts of the city. Many more may have gone unnoticed, unreported.
The forces that swept away the trees are many: urbanization, suburban sprawl, road widening, paved parking lots, cement-smothered compounds, built infrastructure, and a warped aesthetic that prefers lawns to trees. And billboard advertising, which thrives on spectacle and grabbing attention, which tolerates nothing that curtails the human gaze.
Cutting trees to make billboards visible is not a new trend either. In 2014, in the heart of the city along the road named for Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence, 15 trees were axed for a better view of a hoarding, a billboard within a walled compound. It was a “ridiculous and mindless” act, driven by “unbridled greed”, reported one newspaper. It left behind “mutilated stumps, standing lifeless sentinels”.
When will it stop? When will it be the turn for the billboards to fall?
* * *
When the trees fell, citizens took to the streets in protest. In April, residents of the RR Nagar locality voiced their protest with placards:
Hug Me, 30 years I have been. Help me re-grow. Here silently cleaning your environment… Speak up for me… be my voice.
In May, at Bellandur and Iblur, other residents lamented that the trees that had been cut had been planted four years ago and were twelve feet tall. They protested on the street with placards declaring the values of trees. One held by a child said simply:
You cut a tree, you kill a life You save a tree, you save a life You plant a tree, you plant a life.
It was not just that growing trees had been cut. Lives had been planted: deliberate acts of nurture, looking to a future with promise, for a flourishing that was now no more. The anguish came not just from looking back at the loss of what had been, but from a sense of longing for what they could have become, for the lives never lived. It stemmed from a vision in which street trees are integral to life in the city of the future.
Gardeners are good at the business of waiting, they are in tune with the rhythms of the earth, which are slow. There is no anxiety in this kind of waiting, only anticipation.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
In response to the tree cutting, small groups of concerned citizens do what they can. They attempt to revive the hacked trees with the help of conservationists, tree doctors. They coat the stumps with a traditional concoction of coconut oil, Indian wormwood extract, and bees wax to prevent wood rot. They make collars around the roots to add a reviving panchagavya mixture to the soil. They wait and watch for the tree to sprout again.
And they fight. This year, when trees were cut for billboards, citizens lodged complaints with the authorities to pull the billboards down and take action against the advertising agencies. For the trees should not have been cut at all. The anti-corruption ombudsman of the state, the Karnataka Lokayukta, had declared in 2017:
No one will cause any damage to trees or any branches of trees. It is the duty of the forest wing of BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike or the Greater Bengaluru City Corporation] as well as BMTF [Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force] to take legal action with the assistance of jurisdictional police. If any ad agency or representative of such agencies cause any damage to the trees, BBMP is required to remove the hoardings [billboards] and cancel the permission/licence granted to such agencies.
The Lokayukta’s order clearly placing tree protection within the mandate of the BBMP and BMTF was welcomed by the city’s tree conservationists. Yet, there’s a long way to go. The BBMP presents on its website, under citizen services, only how to apply for and carry out tree cutting, not how to source seedlings of appropriate species from local nurseries, how to nurture and protect planted trees, or how to raise and pursue complaints when they are illegally felled. The BMTF’s online complaints portal, meant to register complaints for any destruction of government property, lists only “Property/Building/Site”—there is no mention of “Tree(s)”.
In June, I travel from the mountains of the Western Ghats to Bengaluru, with Divya Mudappa, my partner, arriving at Bengaluru’s international airport one afternoon. Among other things, we have come to work with Nirupa Rao, an artist and botanical illustrator based in Bengaluru, on a book about some remarkable trees of the Western Ghats—a book that we had dreamed up years ago but which had taken shape only over the last two years. Trees on our minds, we pass through the automated glass doors at the arrival exit that leaves me wondering how one can arrive and exit at once. Shouldn’t the door be labeled ‘EXIT’ on the outside for those going into the airport and ‘ENTRANCE’ on the inside for those arriving? The swanky airport holds many charms, no doubt, but it is just a building, an air-portal, ultimately it is this city, this place, we come to or leave.
At the airport curbside, a few trees give us pause. They are fig trees, a few metres tall, planted and growing in small, constrained spaces in the sweeping expanse of tiled floor under the airport’s high, curving, metallic roof. There’s a pair of Ficus benjamina or weeping fig with small shining leaves modestly hidden under a patina of dust. Three other trees, identified later by Sartaj Ghuman, another artist friend working on the book with us, are Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig whose leaves are shaped like lyres or the bouts of violins.
We leave the fig trees to their weeping and silent music and take a taxi from the airport, watch the airport’s gardens rush past. Lush lawns, colourful ornamentals, the airport’s retinue of tamed trees and palms transplanted by mechanical crane. Plants from as many countries, perhaps—befitting such an airport—as the airplanes arrive from. And yet, the native plants and trees of this destination, this landscape, this place, are scarce. The gardeners must have grubbed out any wild vegetation with their mechanical arms.
Along the highway leading out of the airport, exotic palm trees and bougainvillea bushes with pink and white flowers are packed tightly into the median. Further south, into the city, the median peters out into strips of straggly, dust-encrusted ornamental plants along and under mile upon mile of overhead roads, above which the airplanes fly into and out of the international airport or nearby airfields. Roads above roads, flyovers above flyovers. Against the highway’s flanks, billboards blaze by day and night, angled to catch every arriving, passing, or departing eye—some flaunt Government schemes with portraits of the Great Leader, others advertise homes and phones and the chattels of city life, wants and dreams and personal status. One billboard even advertises a block of apartments as a rainforest. And no trees block the view.
A clutch of monsoon clouds hangs in the rain-washed sky blue as a bird’s eye. The taxi driver is playing a Hindi film song on an FM channel on the car stereo. Soon, the song ends, a string of ads begins. The driver pushes the buttons, changing channels. Ads. More ads. He leaves it playing on a channel where the endless banality of chatter and ads is punctuated by music in constrained chunks. For some reason to do with traffic, the driver takes a short detour off the highway through Doddajala, ‘big lake’, a village being devoured by the city’s conurbation speeding north along the airport highway. It is pleasing to travel by a smaller road, with views—and time for views—of the landscape, even as we move faster than the vehicles creeping through highway traffic. Amid tessellated fields, houses, and shops crowding the road, stand neem, Eucalyptus, tamarind, jamun, and Ficus trees—over a wayside temple looms a great banyan, rooted in its place. Passing Doddajala, and back on the highway, Chikkajala, I see no lake big or small—I must have missed them or they have withered like the lakes around the airport or been built over like other lakes in the city.
It strikes me that this landscape would have looked very different in the past, a past that would have had no billboards, certainly, but also fewer buildings and even fewer trees.
* * *
When Bengaluru was founded in 1537 CE by Kempe Gowda of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhu dynasty, it was already in a landscape peopled for millennia. The city lay at the interface of the hilly malnad landscape to the south and west and the gentler, meadowed maidan terrain to the north and east. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book on the ecological history of Bengaluru, Nature in the City,
The landscape was shaped by its topography, with agricultural settlements irrigated by wells and lakes in the undulating terrain to the north and east, and pastoral communities in the dense scrub and jungle of the south and west.
Kempe Gowda expanded the city, creating the Kempambudhi and Dharmambudhi lakes, reinforcing the city’s fort and surrounding pete or markets with a mud wall and moat, bolstered by a ring of thorny shikakai climbers. Over the next two centuries the city continued to be transformed through the reigns of the Bijapur Sultanate, Hyder Ali, and his son Tipu Sultan, and the establishment of the British colonial administration at the end of the 18th century. As the city grew in population and expanded, slowly swallowing the surrounding villages, the string of rulers and administrators developed new lakes and markets and gardens and roads. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s ‘Cypress Gardens’ established in the eighteenth century, remains as the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in the city today.
Yet, in the eighteenth century, Bengaluru city was mostly treeless, embedded in a countryside that was open.
Bengaluru’s reputation as a garden city was not passively gained, it was actively cultivated: all sorts of people—from citizens to satraps—planted trees, nurtured gardens, and protected them to form the city’s tree cover and greenery. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book, multiple influences and aesthetics dictated the transition from open countryside to a city with tree-lined streets, parks, bungalow gardens, and lakes. The English colonial influence, certainly, but also those of earlier rulers, all built upon the abiding, deep, and old relationships that India’s peoples have always had with trees, viewing nature as a source of livelihood, as alive and sacred, at once.
Across Bengaluru, in groves and gardens tended with care to vacant lots running wild, from slums to sacred spaces thronging with people, trees stand testimony to those relationships. To the city’s northeast, in the Nallur grove, great, gnarled, aged tamarinds, two to over four centuries old, sprawl their branches amidst the ruins of an old fort. Near temples, alongside railway tracks and stations, and along congested and otherwise treeless city roads, there still stand massive banyan and peepal trees rising from raised platforms or kattes—platforms that serve as places for meetings, markets, shrines, or simply for resting in the shade, present in almost every town and village in the Karnataka countryside.
The neem and champak and jack will continue to reside in the city in the names of places—Margosa Road, Sampige Road, and Halasur (Ulsoor)—whether the trees remain in these places or disappear with more buildings, widened roads, or billboards. In their sample survey across 328 home gardens in the city, Harini Nagendra’s research team found people nurturing 91 tree species, from petite henna and spindly coconut to sprawling mango and jack that gave of their shade and sweetness through the summer. In the city’s crowded slums, where each family has just a few square metres of floor space to itself, people still made space for trees around their homes and in common areas where children played, people washed clothes and dishes or socialized with each other, and vendors set up stalls to sell tea and snacks, or flowers.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the city mushroomed, trees were planted by government authorities, too, chiefly the Forest Department or the Forest Cell of the BBMP. One forest officer, S. G. Neginhal, is credited with spearheading the planting of 1.5 million trees in Bengaluru in the 1980s, in areas like Indiranagar and Koramangala that are now expensive residential and commercial spaces embedded in the city. The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, enacted in 1976 and amended in subsequent years, created a framework for regulating the planting and felling of trees overseen by the appointed ‘Tree Officers’. Along sidewalks and parks, around government buildings and lakes, sprung up numerous trees that grace the city even today, both native species such as mango and neem and jamun, and exotic ones such as the Madagascan gulmohur, African tulip, Australian silver oak and Acacia wattles, and the Tabebuia, jacaranda, and mahogany of tropical America.
The trees waft coolness over surroundings baking in urban heat. In the afternoon, the ambient temperatures in tree shade are a good five degrees Centigrade cooler than over shadeless road, and 20 degrees cooler than the blistering tarmac. The value of shade itself is inestimable for people on foot or on two wheelers, street vendors and residents. The trees trap dust and freshen the air. They shelter birds and squirrels and monkeys and butterflies and bats, and provide fruits and flowers and firewood and fodder. They bring an uplifting aesthetic amidst glass and metal and tar and concrete. Rooted in place, they share their goodness as the world passes by.
Bengaluru once occupied a landscape with few trees. But without its trees, the city would be unimaginable today, and unlivable in the years ahead. The trees that remain stand, yet, as contingent markers of place, aesthetics, utility, and history.
* * *
Our book is nearly done. We had settled on the title, Pillars of Life, taken from an essay Divya had written years ago, when the book was still a seed of an idea in her mind. We tack on a subtitle, Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. The rest of the text is ready, the beautiful artwork—painstaking botanical illustrations by Nirupa and evocative sketches by Sartaj—has been digitally scanned and corrected for colours. An attractive layout has been chosen. Only the page for the dedication is blank, but Divya comes up with one that we instantly know is apt:
To the trees ~ the original landscape historians
In Bengaluru, street trees tell their own history of the city. Between our friend’s home in Judicial Layout where we are staying and Canara Bank Layout near Sahakara Nagar where our organisation, the Nature Conservation Foundation has its small office, the landscape around the University of Agricultural Sciences is a transformed one. From open and thinly populated a few decades ago, it is now a crowded suburb burgeoning with homes and apartments and shops, new ones cropping up every month. Along the roads, the trees that grow—pongam and mahogany, beach almond and kadam—are thick as a thigh to stout as a waist with canopies reaching only a few metres, dwarfed by the apartment buildings.
In older parts of Bengaluru, as in Malleswaram, Indira Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, and Halasur, and along wider roads, stand commensurately older trees: especially, rain trees of giant girth splaying their stout limbs over the roads, filtering out sunlight by day, letting in what starlight and moonlight they can through their folded leaves by night, obscuring even the multi-storey buildings that huddle along the roads.
One afternoon, I head downtown to M. G. Road and Church Street, in search of books, coffee, and trees. Named after Mahatma Gandhi, M. G. Road had few trees even in the past and is now a throbbing highway of concrete, tarmac, and traffic with overhead metro to boot. The few trees one can see are hidden on the northern side behind the metro, constrained within the bounds of the Cariappa Memorial Park.
At Church Street, I pause to consider my urban priorities: books first, coffee, or trees? Coffee, of course, at the Indian Coffee House, then trees, then books, then coffee again with books-in-hand. Easy.
The Indian Coffee House and Gangaram’s bookstore were old haunts of mine when they stood on M. G. Road, until both were forced to shut shop and move. Fortunately, the transplanted café and bookstore still survive in Church Street. The café retains its modest streetside ambiance, white-caparisoned waiters, and eclectic snacks. In price and flavour, its distinctive coffee, made from a strong decoction and served in plain white cups and saucers, beats the brews concocted in the swank café-turned-lounges with plush seats down the road. The Indian Coffee House’s existence remains tenuous, though, as its takeover by other café chains seems imminent. The Gangaram’s bookstore, too, survives with others down the same street: Bookworm, Blossom, and Goobe’s. I say survives, because two other famous Bengaluru bookstores that used to be nearby, the venerable Premier Book Shop and the Strand Book Stall, have already shut shop—their spaces swallowed by other commercial imperatives. Not transplanted. Axed, like the trees on M. G. Road in 2014 that stood in the view line of a billboard.
Opposite Blossom Book House in the compound of Falnir House—an old building standing like a marker of vanished time—stood large mango and jack trees. Along the street, a few trees spilled out of compounds and small spaces by the sidewalk: Araucaria, tamarind, peepal, and monkeypod. I stand under their branches in a light breeze for a while. The soft susurrus of tamarind leaves and the gentle patter of quaking peepal leaves against each other are barely audible in the noise of passing vehicles and the chugging of an electric generator at a construction site nearby. Further down, a cluster fig slants from the sidewalk near Coco Grove hotel and someone has parked a bicycle beside it. Opposite the Highgates Hotel stand peepal, false ashoka, camel’s foot, and rain tree, in which a pair of common mynas chuckles and a lone rose-ringed parakeet screeches. A bit further down, near Koshy’s looms a large mahogany, holding brown pods like arboreal eggs packed with seeds waiting with wings.
“You don’t have to stare at every single tree, you know?” Divya chides me as we drive back to Judicial Layout after she and a friend picked me up from Church Street as evening fell over the city.
I smile. I was obsessing over every tree. Teak trees covered in a creamy fuzz of inflorescences; Indian cork trees putting out bunches of white pendant blooms; the African tulip holding aloft clusters of large, crimson flowers. Trees with brush-strokes of colour in their leaves: the yellowing leaves of pongam and jack, the moon flash below silver oak leaves in the wind, the senescent leaves of beach almond in scarlet and burnt umber falling, returning to the earth. And the roadside Markhamia whose branches held long, twisted hanging pods and sprigs of yellow flowers like little trumpets playing a music now drowned by traffic noise; the Tabebuia flowers bunched in soft pink against dark green leaves forming a contrasting backdrop to the metallic colours of the vehicles strung along the highway; the wayward fig trees stretching their trunks and limbs out over the road through gaps left considerately in compound walls; the fruit-laden Jamaican cherry trees that flicker with flowerpeckers by day, bustle with bats by night. And every standing, swaying, sighing neem and mango and whatnot. I really didn’t need to stare at every tree.
Yet, what if the next time I came to the city that tree wasn’t there?
* * *
The city is changing. Fast. Harini Nagendra writes:
In the twenty-first century, the city has entered a technologically driven era where topography is subservient to real estate. Across the city, marshy wetlands are filled and granite hillocks are razed to the ground for construction. …The clearing of trees and desiccation of lakes has impacted the microclimate of the city, leading to urban heat islands that trap heat and exacerbate pollution. Bengaluru’s survival and resilience in the decades to come will depend on the future of nature in diverse spaces of the city.
Narrow roads, usually in congested residential neighborhoods, have fewer trees, smaller sized tree species, and a lower species diversity compared to wide roads. Since wide roads are being felled of trees across the city for road widening, this implies that Bangalore’s street tree population is being selectively denuded of its largest trees. Older trees have a more diverse distribution with several large sized species, while young trees come from a less diverse species set, largely dominated by small statured species with narrow canopies, which have a lower capacity to absorb atmospheric pollutants, mitigate urban heat island effects, stabilize soil, prevent ground water runoff, and sequester carbon. This has serious implications for the city’s environmental and ecological health.
Although the city boasts of 1,200 neighbourhood parks today, they occupy less than 0.1% of the city’s area, and many are gated with restricted access, depriving sections of the community that need them most. Of the wooded groves and urban commons, the gunda thopes, that were once scattered about the city, most have disappeared, too. It is only along roads that many people have daily, public access to trees, but tree cutting isn’t sparing them either.
Bengaluru’s citizens are not taking all this sitting down. Groups organise and lead campaigns to protect trees. They hold festivals to celebrate trees. They try to map trees in the city. And they protest. In 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets to oppose a state government project to build a six-lane, 6.72 km long, steel flyover in the city at a cost of around Rs 1,800 crores or 18 million rupees. The project, touted as one that would improve connectivity to the airport, would have entailed the cutting of 812 trees according to the proposal, although field survey by citizens showed 2,244 trees would face the chainsaw. Facing sustained protests by thousands of citizens on the streets, an online petition signed by 35,000 people, over 100,000 missed calls made to a designated number, written petitions to bureaucrats and administrators, and a string of critical media reports, the government scrapped the project in 2017.
Bengaluru was not alone. In June 2018, more than 1,500 people in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, poured into the streets to protest a planned cutting of over 14,000 trees for a housing redevelopment project. Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, who was to write the foreword to our book, was caught up in the protests that erupted and wrote to us saying he could only send the foreword later. After citizens approached the Delhi High Court and the National Green Tribunal, both courts stayed the felling of trees, although the former has since modified its order to restrict tree felling in only seven redevelopment projects. Citizen petitions to the Central Information Commission, under India’s Right to Information Act, wrested disclosures by the State Government on its website, placing on record the number of trees already cut or slated to be cut by builders, contractors, and state agencies. For a city suffering the worst air quality of any major city in the world, the figures are sobering. Between 2005 and 2017, over 112,000 trees had been cut in Delhi, mostly for the Metro, roads, and other construction projects. One tree cut, for every hour of day or night, for thirteen years. And that’s just the official record.
These urban victories secured from the courts signify a surging public awareness on the values of trees in cities. They also serve as a synecdoche for a new environmentalism: one that melds the personal actions of individuals, the community efforts of groups, and the political activism of an empowered citizenry. The gardener planting a tree by slum-home or apartment-block or watering sidewalk trees demonstrates individual commitment. The communities, from apartment residents associations to civil society organisations, which lead street protests, petitions, and activist campaigns, signal the strength of the collective. And the coming together of individuals and groups to trigger political action—upholding the tenets of law, seeking justice from the courts, and demanding accountability and transparency from the government—heralds what an informed and empowered citizenry can achieve. The motivational roots of individual and community efforts toward nature conservation extend back into India’s old traditions and examples abound from India’s forests and rural areas. It is in their manner of joining forces and their form of political engagement that one sees a glimpse of something new. A contemporary and effective environmentalism that can be inclusive and diverse, aspirational and inspiring, that builds and deepens connections from person to person, people to place, and humans to the rest of nature even in the midst of our most crowded cities.
For as long as they are alive, trees remain where they are. This is one of life’s few certainties. The roots of trees go deep and take many directions, we cannot foresee their subterranean spread any more than we can predict how a child will grow. Beneath the earth, trees live their secret lives, at times going deeper into the ground than up into the sky, entwined below with other trees which appear in no way connected above the ground.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
Bengaluru’s billboards case is, however, still in court.
* * *
I think that I shall never see A billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933 (in ‘The Face is Familiar’, 1941)
The billboards are falling. It is early September and Bengaluru is transformed. Back again for a conference, I can hardly believe my eyes. I am astonished at the hundreds of empty metal frames and structures along roads and highways, each of which earlier had garish vinyl flex advertisements stretched across them. Once again, the courts had stepped in.
At the ‘Nature in Focus’ conference, a gathering of nature photographers, filmmakers, and conservationists, Divya and Nirupa have a session on our book Pillars of Life that was published in July. Nirupa speaks about what it took for her to depict the beautiful rainforest trees—botanical illustrations made with accuracy, blending science and art, detailing bark and branch and every leaf. Later, participants compliment us on the artistic work, on the evocative yet brief text. Their kind words are gratifying, yet we hope the book will evoke greater appreciation and wonder towards grand trees, whether they stand by roadsides or in rainforest fragments, along city streets or winding hill roads. The conference photo exhibition showcases dozens of spectacular images, yet trees, if they appear at all, are only backdrops to animal portraits or lost in landscapes. Nirupa took up to a week to paint a single tree, but the trees themselves took a century or more to draw themselves from earth to sky: isn’t every tree a piece of art, too?
Will the billboards rise again like earlier, or will citizens reclaim the city and its trees for themselves? And yet, ads are still omnipresent. Spanning the cover pages of newspapers, filling radio and TV channels, crowding the pages of magazines, blipping into our phones, squirming into our email inboxes, flashing on our browsers, plastered across airports and railway stations and bus stands, and occupying place after public place where they have no business to be. With the fall of the billboards, perhaps the day will come, too, when all commercial advertisements will be constrained within print and online catalogues, shopping malls and complexes, yellow pages and directories, where people who need them can find them and they don’t arrive unannounced and unsolicited to stare you in the face.
With the vinyl flex gone or hanging in shreds, Bengaluru’s billboards frame views of buildings and trees and open skies. Flyovers of pelican and cormorant flocks in formation sweep through the sky to nearby lakes. As black kites and crows perch on the billboards’ metal bars, clouds drift through the billboards, as do mynas and sparrows and parakeets flying to the trees behind. Now, rain trees and eucalypts, mango and jack, shades of lime and jade and emerald, flicker into view. A few branches even poke their way through the emptiness of the billboard.
As the billboards fall, the people and the trees rise into the world and open their arms.
This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.
When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.
Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.
This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.
In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.
Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?
Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that
…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…
and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):
Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.
Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:
What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.
Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:
John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.
Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.
Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.
My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.
When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.
Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.
In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.