Author: TR Shankar Raman (page 1 of 7)

Why I will not review or write for Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial scientific journals

A few weeks ago, a message pinged into my inbox asking if I would peer-review a manuscript submitted to a reputed scientific journal published by Elsevier. I was tempted. The topic of the manuscript was related to my own research on what happens to wild plants and animals when previously forested landscapes are transformed into large plantations of a single crop species. A quick look at the journal website showed that the journal published quality research and a bunch of academic grandees sat on the editorial board. Their request to me indicated a recognition of my expertise in the field. By accepting to review the paper, I could learn something new, share my expertise and comments with the authors and editors, and add a notch on my academic belt, so to speak.

And yet, I refused.

Scientists track their credentials and calibre by how many papers they manage to publish in such peer-reviewed journals and how often they are called upon to review manuscripts for them. In brief, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly of it. The good: the process of independent and anonymous peer review serves as a crucial quality-check and enables authors to hone and rectify their work before it is published. The bad: peer review can be a flaming hoop you are forced to jump through, more difficult if you are not a native English speaker, if you are from a less-privileged background, if you are from a relatively unknown institution in the Third World. The ugly: the process can degenerate into a situation where jealous peers and conniving editors disparage your work and obstruct publication, or simply display how racist, sexist, and patronizing they can be from their positions of power or anonymity. If I did the review, I would not be paid for it—that’s how scientific peer review works—but I could include the journal in a section in my CV listing all the national and international scientific journals that I had reviewed for. I could even register on a commercial website where academics track and showcase their journal peer review and editorial contributions. Still, it was not my skepticism over the peer review process, nor my lack of interest in counting review-coup that brought me to refuse.

Instead, here’s what I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief, copied to all members of the editorial board:

Dear Dr _____ and other members of the _____ editorial board,

Greetings for 2021 from India! I trust the year has begun well and you will all have a productive, healthy, and peaceful year ahead. I recently received an invitation… to review a paper for [_____ journal]… I am writing to you to explain why I am declining to review (or submit for consideration) any paper to [_____ journal]. At the outset, I would like to state that I have great respect for the work that the journal publishes and for all of you on the Editorial Board. My decision is based on the fact that the journal is published by Elsevier.

You are doubtless aware of the concerns already raised by many in the academic community and the media on the business of scientific publishing, particularly the role of companies like Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature. You may recall that many editors have resigned en masse from these journals as well in the past to protest against their practices.

Recently, Elsevier along with others (including Wiley) filed a lawsuit in an Indian court against Sci-Hub and Libgen. Leading Indian scientists and researchers (and a group of over 2000 signatories) have protested this highlighting how Sci-Hub has greatly enabled access to scientific research in India and other countries. Sci-hub struck at the heart of the oligopoly of purely commercial publishers, which includes Elsevier and Wiley, who run scientific publishing like a fiefdom, charging exorbitant subscriptions or publishing fees, making exponential profits, and treating the intellectual output of scientists and institutions as if it was all their personal property. This is the case although the research published in these journals is funded by public agencies or other funders, and the papers are written, reviewed, and edited by scientists who seek no compensation for their intellectual inputs and time. With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

To the argument that shunning such journals will compromise science, I can only point out to many journals of repute published by scientific societies and academies worldwide (such as the Indian Academy of Sciences) that make all their published papers free (diamond/platinum open access) and are able to run their journals with modest subscriptions and advertisements. There have also been initiatives like Amelica and Coalition-S. The alternatives are there for us to adopt as scientists and scholars if we wish.

I realise that, for early-career scientists, publishing in some of these journals is still important because of the undue importance still given to them by academic institutions in their scientific recruitment and recognition policies. I, too, have published in these journals and realise I am implicated in the perpetuation of this system. I will respect the views and needs of students and others I collaborate with on where they seek to publish in or review for. But as a token of protest, I declare that where it concerns my own work I will not submit a paper to these journals or review a paper for them, until such corporate predatory practices end. I do realise that my action is a mere token and not enough. There is more I myself need to do to make science universal, free, and accessible.

I hope you do not see this as an attack on your or the journal’s credibility but consider it in a more progressive spirit. If you have read this far, I thank you for taking the time. Kindly accept my regrets once again.

Best regards,
Shankar

It was a rant, a polite one, but a rant, nonetheless. As you can imagine, the Editor-in-Chief was not too happy about it.

§

Before the Editor-in-Chief wrote back, another member of the Editorial Board—the person handling the manuscript—wrote me appreciating my email and agreeing that scientific publishing had a lot of room to evolve, but personally preferred, as an editor, to engender small and positive changes from within. (Another member of the editorial board, a leading woman scientist from India, wrote saying she was not on the board as far as she knew. It turned out she had been invited a while back and had agreed to be on the board, but the journal had never involved her in its work, so she wrote again indicating that she would prefer her name to be removed. Why a woman scientist from India was on the editorial board but never involved in it is another story perhaps.)

With the Editor-in-Chief himself, a back-and-forth exchange of emails ensued, which I will paraphrase here. [I have tried my best not to misrepresent anything and have chosen to leave out names of the concerned people and journal as I have no issue with them individually and prefer to keep the focus on the issue of commercial scientific publishing rather than any individuals or particular journal. I have rearranged the discussion slightly for clarity and placed my interjections and asides, like this one, in square brackets.]

He started off by partly agreeing with me. He then said that Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are no more predatory than many other businesses that one has to deal with these days. He said that as academics we clearly have a duty to try to find alternative models, and emphasized that his journal was an open access journal, for which the authors had to pay USD 1650 to publish in, unless they were from a World Bank low-income country where they could ask for a waiver. [Actually, the current rate is USD 1820 for a paper of 12-15 published pages, which is about as much as a Masters student would need for a 5-6 month field research project in India.] He wrote about how they receive a large volume of papers and how many scientists they approach to provide their peer review. They needed over 1000 volunteer reviewers he said in one email, changing the figure in a later email to indicate they had more than 1000 authors and over 2500 reviewers each year.

Then he wrote that if every paper had to be reviewed by 2-3 scientists, every scientist who wants to publish in these commercial journals are also obliged to review 2-3 papers for every paper they intend to publish, otherwise the system would not work. He said that if I did not want to publish in such journals, I should then also not read these journals or allow my students to do so.

That last bit got my goat. I wrote back respectfully disagreeing with him. I said readers have a right to access the research (which is publicly funded or funded by other agencies) irrespective of whether they personally support commercial publishers. I did not need to stress the importance of enabling wide access in the case of socially relevant studies or conservation research as the editor himself was doubtless aware of it. It also struck me later that the published research itself would have referred to other earlier research in various journals. In papers related to my field of work that may have included my own work or those of colleagues. Saying I cannot read a paper in this journal was just as absurd as saying the authors have no right to refer to my work or any other research published in non-commercial journals. Science simply cannot work that way.

The Editor-in-Chief raised a number of other valid points. He said that there was a suite of publishing options available for authors these days and another member of the editorial board was planning to launch a new conservation journal that addressed some of these issues. He named one journal that offered a reader-pays alternative for authors who cannot pay the Article Processing Charge (APC), and another that was open access and “provides competition” to his journal. So if you don’t like a journal for its policies you can find another one that better suits you. But, someone has to pay, he emphasised. Non-profit publishers don’t have to take a large cut for shareholders but, according to him, they did not achieve the same efficiencies as the large commercial publishers. He noted how most society-owned journals, earlier published on a non-profit basis, have shifted to Wiley and other commercial publishers and been forced to charge huge fees because it costs too much to publish a journal. As far as the journal he edits was concerned, he pointed out that authors retain copyright alongside scholarly usage rights and Elsevier is granted publishing and distribution rights. Authors are paying Elsevier for publication and distribution only, which to him was reasonable. Furthermore, the articles were released under a Creative Commons license so people could use and re-use them in different ways (with attribution), so what was I complaining about? I should be reviewing for them since they are not doing any of the terrible things I was accusing them of.

There was stuff I agreed with and yet, much I still disagreed with. If someone has to pay and the authors are forced to pay to publish it is still an absurd payment in some ways, if you think of it, I wrote back. Companies like Elsevier rake in profits of 30-40% every year through a business model that appears unique to scientific publishing. Based on the figures the editor gave me, just this one journal he edited had more than 3000 highly-qualified scientists voluntarily contributing each year to Elsevier’s extraordinary profits. Imagine that! As a 2017 article in The Guardian puts it:

Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup.

Then there is the question of the APC that is levied by commercial journals that use an author-pays model (in journals that are not fully open access, an extra charge has to be paid to make it open access.) The APC is typically imposed without any transparency as to the real costs incurred by the publisher. Studies indicate that commercial publishers charge nearly 3 times more than similar non-profit publishers of reputed standalone journals. One can ask whether the huge profits made by the publishers under the guise of “efficiency” or “scale” are not better ploughed back into scientific societies (and nonprofits that support science) rather than to the pockets of wealthy companies and their shareholders. The commercial publishers appear to call all the shots. As Brian Nosek, a Professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Center for Open Science, said in an interview to Nasdaq, academic publishing is

the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.”

Even where learned societies had failed to run the journals on their own and had succumbed to handing it over to a commercial publisher to handle, as the editor pointed out was increasingly the case, most fail to disclose the terms of the arrangement with the scientific society. For instance, one of the leading societies in the field of nature conservation is the Society for Conservation Biology, whose flagship journal Conservation Biology is (unfortunately) published by Wiley, which levies a charge of USD 3000 for publication as open access. Fortunately, the society enables authors to publish their work at a reduced rate or ask for a waiver if they cannot afford the page charges: although such articles would be held by Wiley behind a paywall (about USD 42 per article, at present rates, for online access and PDF download). The journal website hosted by Wiley claims that “payment of article publication costs furthers the work of the society and conservation worldwide” but gives no indication as to what their deal is or what fraction of the profits are actually shared with the society.

For almost every commercial journal, I retorted in an email to the Editor-in-Chief, there is a non-profit equivalent that achieves the same quality at a significantly lower cost. They also make all papers available free for readers after a period of 6 months or a year (for instance, the journal Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science versus Nature produced by Springer; the Royal Society journals and PNAS, say, versus some sub-journals in the Nature crop). Further, any profits made from the academy or society journals contribute to a scientific rather than a business enterprise like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, or other big commercial publishers.

Take, for example, the journal Human Ecology, a Springer journal that paywalls its articles or publishes as open access after you cough up a cool USD 2780, every dollar of profit going to Springer’s coffers. Contrast that with a superb journal in a similar field, published from the global South, like Conservation and Society published by the Indian non-profit and think-tank ATREE. This fully open-access journal, which recently was forced to go from diamond open-access to an author-pays model, has a transparent ownership and publication policy and levies an APC (only on authors from higher middle-income and high-income countries) of USD 600—just one-fifth of Springer’s rates. Another Indian journal, Ecology, Economy, and Society-The INSEE Journal charges nothing to authors and readers for open access. For a comparable non-profit or society journal published from the West, the Resilience Alliance publishes a fully open access journal Ecology and Society levying an APC of USD 975, or just 35% of Springer rates.

In the Indian context, there is also this absurd situation where Springer republishes many diamond open access journals, such as through their republishing agreement for the journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The journals are entirely edited, printed, published, and distributed by the society or academy imposing no page charges on authors and making the publication freely available to readers on the academy’s journal websites. Springer does zero editorial or publishing work but still charges the academy (for what? hosting on their online platform) and then paywalls the same papers at >USD 30 per paper. Just for parking it on their website! [Correction: Springer paywalls the papers, yes, but apparently does not charge the Academy.]

Another example is the journal Tropical Ecology published by the International Society for Tropical Ecology, which was diamond open access with no page charges until 2019, when they unfortunately succumbed to the ‘efficiencies’ and enticements of Springer. They now levy an APC of USD 2780 to authors who wish to make their paper open access, failing which they impose a paywall to each reader of ~USD 42 per paper.

Still, on the charges levied by commercial journals, the editor I was corresponding with had a different take. Like many things in life, you get [what] you pay for, he wrote. Journals like Nature have open access publishing charges that seem outrageous, but they were justified by the editing services of full-time professionals and unmatched quality they provided, and the citations the papers generated. If he had the money and his students produced something worthy of such attention, he would scrape it together to pay up.

This left me stupefied. If the publishing charges seem outrageous, it is perhaps because they are outrageous. Instead of figuring out a better way to make their work openly and freely accessible and appear on global databases and platforms, if leading scientists and academies worldwide subscribe to the costly vision of payment and efficiency and impact sold by commercial publishers, there is definitely something broken in the system. As a scientist from a non-profit organisation in a lower middle-income country like India I somehow could not countenance such sums of money being shelled out ostensibly to advance science. Have these journals come to command such power and clout that top scientists in the world will simply pay up unquestioningly? Do we still believe that counting citations is the way to build reputation in science? Can scientists who are so meticulous in preparing their papers and so generous with their time in reviewing them for free, in order to contribute to scientific growth and the growth of their community, not find better ways to advance science, academia, and community than relying on profiteering journals? Could we not invest more as a community in society-run, non-profit, open access journals and enhancing the list and quality of free journals, of which, as one can see from the Free Journals Network and the Directory of Open Access Journals, there are many?

According to a 2021 survey, at least 29,000 diamond open access journals are published around the world. While diamond open-access journals face many operational challenges, 70% of them manage to produce the journal at an annual operational cost of under USD 10,000. In other words, the amount of money a scientist pays as APC to Elsevier/Wiley/Springer or similar publishers for just 3 or 4 journal articles can be more than enough to support an entire journal for a year and produce science that is freely accessible worldwide. Even now, about 356,000 diamond open access papers are published per year compared to approximately 453,000 papers where the scientists have shelled out the APC (453,000 x average APC of USD 2000 implies ~1 billion USD). Imagine if those funds can be routed to support scientific societies and their journals, produce free and better academic community resources and databases (rather than the tyranny of science citation indices and Clarivate Analytics, for instance). Imagine if that money could be used to provide free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications!

§

Free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications is what Sci-Hub provides. In our email back-and-forth, the editor and I never discussed Sci-Hub, which was why I started off on my rant in the first place. And yet, the exchange had made me acutely conscious of my debt to Sci-Hub and of my own failings as a scientist.

Alexandra Elbakyan (cropped)
Alexandra Elbakyan at Harvard University (Photo: Apneet Jolly, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history. Sci-Hub offered a way to access scientific publications, including those behind paywalls. One just had to put in the link to the paper or the DOI and Sci-Hub delivered it online (in PDF) almost instantly for free. In recent years, it has been invaluable for scientists in countries like India who have no other access to these journals.

Before Sci-Hub, if I wanted to read more than just the abstracts of pay-walled papers (or more than just the titles of papers that had no abstracts), I would have to ask friends in some (usually foreign) university to download it via their library access and send it over, or write emails directly to author after author and wait for them to respond with PDF soft copies. Neither did that work all the time nor was it even remotely an ideal way to do research.

It should hardly come as a surprise then that open access papers are more likely to be read and cited. In fact, a 2021 study published in a Springer journal (some poetic justice there), found that papers downloaded via Sci-Hub were cited 172% more often than those that were not. I am no fan of citation counting, but irrespective of whether scientists want greater readership, open access, or more citations, they must acknowledge Sci-Hub does a service. There are other points of view about Sci-Hub, but after the last few years as an admirer of both Sci-Hub and Alexandra Elbakyan, I know on which side of the fence I will stay.

Sci-Hub is not just for scientists. It provides access to everyone. It is also particularly valuable to journalists and science communicators who often have no direct access to journals and find scientists both difficult to reach and reticent to communicate with journalists on a deadline. Take what the journalist and writer, George Monbiot, had to say, for instance:

After definitively disrupting the status quo, Elbakyan soldiers on, while commercial publishers who feel threatened by her keep filing lawsuits. The recent case filed in a Delhi court by Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) brings charges of copyright infringement and asks for a dynamic injunction to block internet access to Sci-Hub nationwide. These three are among the top scientific publishers in the world, with ACS, despite being a scientific society and one of the wealthiest in the world at that, being opposed to or a laggard in supporting open access. The Delhi case —a David versus Trio-of-Goliaths case, if ever there was one—is still in court. Legal experts indicate a strong basis in law, ethics, and equity, going for Sci-Hub. One prays the court rules likewise.

§

It is easy enough to point a finger at greedy Goliaths, but what about the other fingers curled inward, biting into my fist, pointing to me? What had I done, as an individual scientist or as part of the scientific community, to make science free, open, and accessible? The floodgates opened. My thoughts and mortification came pouring out. I could barely keep track of the list of personal failures and all that I myself needed to do. I made a list.

  1. Many of my own scientific papers were in pay-walled journals. I had shared them as much as I could earlier, but I could do more to ensure that every one of them was accessible.
  2. A boycott of journals published by companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Sage was one thing, but there were positive contributions I needed to make. I could do more reviews for diamond open access journals and also serve on their editorial boards, if invited. My record in this remains miserable. After turning down two such invitations in the past, I had served on the editorial board of one diamond open access journal (Current Science), only to resign after about three years giving workload as an excuse. I am one of the editors of a new diamond open access journal, Hornbill Natural History and Conservation, but I have done almost nothing for the journal so far. A society-run journal invited me to their editorial board and after the Editor-in-Chief assured me they were planning to make it open access and also bring a diverse editorial board with better gender representation, I have agreed to join, but am yet to contribute anything of significance.
  3. Instead of paying outrageous sums to journals, I could donate instead modestly to Sci-Hub itself or other individuals and non-profits supporting open science (such as the Center for Open Science, for instance). I could become a member of one or two scholarly societies relevant to my work, which publish open access journals.
  4. Even if scientific papers are accessible, they are rarely intelligible to the wider audience, beyond our peers, that we are often interested in reaching: journalists, science communicators, policy makers, and interested citizens. I could put more time into sharing relevant research in more accessible avenues, especially Wikipedia, where my contributions have been minuscule so far. An encyclopedic review on a bird species, could be contributed to something like the online Birds of the World (which has made all species accounts open and freely accessible in India, although requiring a sign-up), rather than to any pay-walled journal, however reputed.
  5. As a naturalist and biologist, I only have contributed a small fraction of my species observations to citizen science portals like eBird, iNaturalist, and India Biodiversity Portal. I have stockpiled thousands of useful and educational photos and other media, but shared only a tiny fraction so far where it can be used by the wider community, such as on Wikimedia Commons. There was a lot more I could do.
  6. As for my scientific datasets, I have sat on most of them for years. I could easily share them on open repositories like OSF and Data Dryad, with CC-BY or Public Domain licenses, so other scientists have access to the data and could do more with it than I myself can by clutching onto it as personal intellectual property. Technical reports (grey literature that academics typically consider less worthy than journal publications), too, often contain valuable information and material unavailable elsewhere and I could upload mine to public archives like Archive.org with free licenses. I can make academic presentations and talks available, too, through suitable repositories.
  7. I could re-do my CV to highlight public contributions to science and open access rather than try to pad it with an impressive list of publications in so-called high-impact-factor journals. For instance, the following summary of my contributions to Wikipedia should be in my CV. Although it only catalogues how little I have done so far, it should be at least as important to chronicle this as any other scientific work and publications of mine. (A bonus: as a regular editor I can gain access to scientific publications and digital libraries like JSTOR through the Wikipedia Library.)
A summary of my Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons contributions (2007 to 2021).

8. Finally, I can ensure that in our own hiring and assessment practices, we do not privilege publication in the so-called high-impact-factor journals of these commercial publishers. If the scientific community does not privilege these journals, it will take the wind out of their sails and curtail the power commercial publishers currently wield. For an academic appointment, if publications are an aspect to consider, then the quality of the person’s work, motivation, and aptitude should matter more than any journal they have published in (or are yet to publish in). We have applied this rationale as far as possible in our research and it has paid rich dividends by attracting people with excellent capabilities in basic and applied conservation science.

§

Even if one accepts that the system of scientific publishing is unjust and broken, the responses to this so far (besides Sci-Hub, of course) seem like half measures. Boycotts like mine remain little more than tokenism. Deals arrived at by universities with publishers like Elsevier remain riddled with holes. Even the proposed “one nation, one subscription” policy that the Government of India proposes to negotiate where, in return for a centrally-negotiated payment to journals, all individuals in India will have access to journal articles, avoids the question of whether such huge payments should be made to benefit commercial publishers. As a nation, India’s science budget (R&D) is only 0.7%, much lower than most nations in our position, and a large part of that budget goes to the private sector (42%), defence and space (29%).

In a way, each of the above half-measures is a lost opportunity to shake the system loose of its existing anchors to sail on new voyages in the sea of science. We need a far deeper commitment to and more active engagement with free and open access to science and scientific knowledge in all its various stages and shapes. If science itself has the innate capacity to shake free of old paradigms and shift to new realities, perhaps it can happen in the system of scientific publication, too. And the time for that is now.

Citizens of the Earth

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.

Bombax ceiba flowering in the Anamalai Hills (Photo: Srinivasan Kasinathan & Ganesh Raghunathan)

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.

Red silk cotton tree

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.

Red silk cotton in full bloom

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 Express Sunday Eye.

Speak, Memory

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 Valley of Words Award 2020 shortlist in English nonfiction.

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.

Watch: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Understanding, Restoring and Conserving Biodiversity to Ensure Our Future

Conversation with Jonathan Drori

On September 12, 2020, we had a lovely chat with Dr Jonathan Drori, centered on his book Around the World in 80 Trees.

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!

Janhavi Rajan

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.

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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.

A Famous Place

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.

§

Dhangarhi Gate, Corbett National Park (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

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.

Forests, mountains, river, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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.

Large woodshrike (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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.

Mugger, by the river (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

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.

Road through sal forest to Dhikala (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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.

A Pied Bushchat keeps watch in the grasslands near Dhikala, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

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.

Garland of langurs (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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.

Grassland, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

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.

Gharial and cormorants (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

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.

Turtle basking, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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.

This essay first appeared under a different title in The Wire on 16 August 2020.

Bird Business—Foreword

My foreword to the book by cartoonist and illustrator, Rohan Chakravarthy: Bird Business: Illustrated Peeks into the Daily Lives of Indian Birds (Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, 2019, 106 pp., Rs 550, ISBN 978-93-84678-09-8).

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.

When Nature and Culture Disconnect

My book review in Biblio (Jan -Mar 2020) of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats by Viju B (Ebury Press/Penguin Random House India, 2019, 285 pp., Rs 399, ISBN 978-0-143-44761-0)

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 and floods.

In Pathanamthitta, 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.

The Secret Lives of Trees

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.

Harini and Seema Mundoli’s book, Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities had hit the stands last year, generating widespread interest on the trees among us. Nirupa, who’d earlier worked with Divya and me on Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, had had another book published recently, Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats illustrated with her spectacular artwork. I was roped in thanks to The Wild Heart of India which carried a few essays on forests and trees in the countryside and wilds of India.

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!

Video courtesy: Bangalore Literature Festival

Listen to her

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 novelist Shashi 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]…

VIDA COUNT, 2018

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”.

Still, it begs the question why more men are published, when there are clearly so many women writers out there. An equal or larger proportion of women graduate with Masters of Fine Arts degrees in writing in the US. Paradoxically, women dominate in senior positions in the publishing industry in India. In the US, too, book publishing is mostly white and mostly female.

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.

My book at the Starmark Bookstore, Royapettah, Chennai

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.

The shelf that tilts to one side.

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.

Krupa Ge’s book on the Chennai floods was a saving grace. So was the presence of a few copies of Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s lovely Cities and Canopies and the single copy of Meera Subramanian’s excellent Elemental India. But where were the other women writers who have been writing as much if not more on wildlife, nature, and the environment than men? Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals (2 volumes), Sunita Narain’s Conflicts of Interest, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Swati Thiyagarajan’s Born Wild, Ghazala Shahabuddin’s Conservation at the Crossroads, Mridula Ramesh’s The Climate Solution, and Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing? To name just a few. Sure, there are other books by men that should have been there on that shelf as well, but some or all of these books by women should have found place, too.

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.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

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.

Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

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.

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement by Sunita Narain

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.

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee

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.

Take the 2020 Reading Women challenge

Or if you’d like a peek at what I read in 2019 and check out some of those books, here they are.

Books of 2019

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.

A new home

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!

When the Billboards Fall

It was for a billboard advertising “anti-bacterial underwear” that they cut the trees. The ten trees, along the highway through the city, were hacked down in April this year.

They were not the first to be cut, nor the last.

A month later, down the same road, they axed over two dozen trees for a billboard advertising a realty project, “Sobha Dream Acres”, which on its website presents make-believe images of residents in their advertised property moving about in tree-lined avenues. Who cut the trees for that billboard? Miscreants did it, said one newspaper. Unknown people.

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”.

One can now see clearly all that the billboards stand for. As for the trees, the words of William Blake come to mind:

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.

Rain tree, Sanjay Nagar

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?

MG Road, June 2018

* * *

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
Trees planted on sidewalk, Judicial Layout, September 2018

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)”.

Even when citizens do complain and the billboards are brought down, a few days later they mysteriously rise up again.

* * *

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.

Bengaluru International Airport, July 2016 (Photo: Sunnya343, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

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.

Airport road, October 2013 (Photo: Bishnu Sarangi, via Wikimedia Commons, CC0)

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.

South view of Bangalore in 1792 with the fortress in the distance, by Robert Home (via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

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.

East view of Bangalore in 1792, with the cypress garden, from a pagoda, by James Hunter (via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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.

Nallur tamarind grove, June 2018 (Photo: Shyamal, via WIkimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

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.

Banyan in Mysore, August 2017

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.

Trees and traffic, September 2018

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

Judicial Layout, June 2018

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.

Sanjay Nagar, June 2018

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.

Rain trees, Sanjay Nagar, June 2018

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.

Hidden trees, MG Road, June 2018

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.

With crisp new books—Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived and Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination—purchased from the bookstores in my backpack, I step out back onto Church Street. I didn’t expect to find many trees as the road stretches within what is perhaps the most expensive and built-up area in Bengaluru’s central business district. Pleasantly enough, a few trees still grace the street.

Cluster fig, Church Street, June 2018

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?

Pale-billed Flowerpecker with a fruit of the Jamaican cherry Muntingia calabura in southern India.

* * *

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.

In a 2010 research paper, with tree cutting rampant and the multitude of benefits that trees bring to the city being whittled away, Nagendra and her co-worker Divya Gopal sounded a warning:

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.

Peepal tree at junction of 27th Cross and Kanakapura Road (Photo: rednivaram, via WIkimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

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.

Delhi street with Indian laburnum in bloom, 2014 (Photo: Ashutosh Dalal, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

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.

Billboards with flex removed, September 2018

On August 1, the Karnataka High Court had ordered the city’s municipal corporation, the BBMP to remove all the hoardings (billboards), banners, and buntings across the city by the same afternoon and, further, make the city completely free of advertisement flex hoardings by August 14. The court chastised the BBMP,

What policy you make is your prerogative but Bengaluru must be free of flexes and you must see to it.… You should close [BBMP] down if you cannot work properly.

In the clouds, September 2018

Forced into overdrive, the BBMP removed over 5,000 billboards in three hours. Within a week over 21,140 billboards were removed and the BBMP announced a ban on all advertisements and billboards in public spaces for one year. By the end of the month, the BBMP drafted a new policy and bylaws on ‘Outdoor Signage and Public Messaging‘ that limited advertising to notified locations, government schemes, and sponsor’s ads on public utilities like bike-share and car-share facilities. In September, the BBMP also began to remove the empty frames and structures along roads, atop buildings, within compounds, and elsewhere.

Cover, Pillars of Life, by Divya Mudappa, T. R. Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao, and Sartaj Ghuman

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?

Flex in shreds, Sep 2018

Bengaluru, sans billboards, seems poised at a cusp of a civic renewal. In late June, the Forest Department announced an initiative to connect citizens to local plant nurseries to enable citizen-powered urban greening. Project Hasiru (Green Project), now online, enables citizens to reserve tree saplings, purchase at a subsidy up to 500 saplings of native, naturalised, and non-native species, and pick them up from any of seven city nurseries to plant in their gardens and neighbourhoods.  A mobile phone app for tech-savvy Bengaluru citizens is also under development.

Trees and clouds, September 2018 (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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 blog post is inspired by two very different books by two very different authors, one nonfiction and one fiction: Harini Nagendra‘s Nature in the City and Anuradha Roy‘s All the Lives We Never Lived. Our book Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats is available here.

It first appeared on my blog on the Coyotes Network on 18 September 2018 and was republished in Scroll.in on 26 September 2018 under a different title.