TR Shankar Raman

Category: books (page 1 of 1)

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.

The Journeys of the Elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge.” The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant ‘Soliman’ in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.

Trophies 101: A year of books and bookstores

I went trophy hunting—in the year just past—roughly twice a week, every week, without fail. It was difficult, it was wonderful, it needed the patience of a stalker, the resistance of a gone junkie. On my hunts, I roamed the alleys and mazes of concrete jungles, scoured dark recesses and dusty nooks, scanned thousands before selecting the few, the chosen, the one. I have them all now with me, waiting to be proudly displayed on my shelves. My trophies of 2013, harvested from five countries across three continents, from over two dozen places: books.

It was an unusually good year for book hunting. I had had to travel on work or for taking a break from work to places far from the small hill town of Valparai where I live. The icy grachten of Amsterdam in January, sun-drenched northern California in April and May, verdant Vermont in July, quiet Uppsala in August, the dour streets of London in October, the dense forests of Mizoram in December, passing through Bangalore or New Delhi or Mysore or Coimbatore or Chennai, Indian cities that I visited on other trips on work or to see friends and family, always coming back home to the Anamalai hills, to Valparai. A little too much travel, if you ask me, and with too much time in workshops and meetings, places where there is always too much talk and too little done, so many moments when you itch to leave the room, go home, take a cleansing bath. On the work front, it was a year of moderate and quiet progress in Valparai itself, although the world around appeared to careen towards catastrophe and conflict, whether from extreme climate events around the world, or, closer to home, over disputes on how to conserve the Western Ghats or coexist with wild species like elephants. On the personal front, too, it was not an easy year, with deaths in the family, illness and stress among people close to us, worry and guilt about personal time infringing the ineluctable backlog of work. But wherever I was, there were always books at hand, or else I went looking.

The books were an attempt not so much to escape from it all, but to find solace and space, as they say, in the scheme of things. To make sense of the world around us, to see the world through other eyes, to feel transported, thrilled, or transformed by great art: what does that better, if one pays attention, than books, than literature? So, at the least opportunity, I hauled myself out of whatever I was doing or wherever I was, on quests for books. Books in public libraries, once-used books in curbside shops and on pavements, books in small, independent bookstores and larger, lavish bookshops, books in digital formats online for my Kindle, books borrowed from or gifted by friends (what are friends for, anyway?), books rediscovered in the shelves that Divya and I have lovingly filled and tended over the years, here in Valparai. As Emily Dickinson wrote of these “kinsmen of the shelf”:

Unto my Books—so good to turn—
Far ends of tired Days—
It half endears the Abstinence—
And Pain—is missed—in Praise—

Emily Dickinson

And so, with the books in hand, I read. I read for the sheer joy of reading, for meeting my self-imposed challenge of reading one hundred books in 2013, for filling every empty space in everyday life. I read with a vengeance, read with heart. I read with attention, and read myself to distraction. I read on buses, on trains, on flights, in bus stations and train stations and airports. I read while waiting, secretly exultant at the delayed flight, the slow unpunctual train, the taxi stuck in traffic. I read while the morning coffee brewed in the filter, while the computer booted up, while being driven from somewhere to anywhere, while listening to music, while watching but not really watching the rubbish on television, while the rotis baked and the dal cooked in the kitchen, while waiting for meetings to begin, while waiting for them to end. I read on the couch, in the bed, sitting on chairs, on rocks, on river banks, in cafés, in bookstores, in a watchtower overlooking ranges of hills, in a cave in deep rainforest. I read sitting, standing, reclining, or lying down, in places a few feet below sea level (in The Netherlands) to over thirty thousand feet (on transcontinental flights). I read in sun and shade, under streetlamps and fluorescent tubes, using a LED headlamp or by candlelight. I read under the sharp buzz of caffeine from one-coffee-too-many, with that lightheaded feeling that one gets in the other ‘coffee shops’ of Amsterdam, with a mind mildly muddled by beer or vodka or wine. I read with both eyes flitting left to right and left again, or sometimes, just with one eye, the other drooping closed, moments before melting slowly, deliciously into sleep at night. I read on the shores of Lake Tahoe, on the banks of the Singelgracht, in my cousin’s swanky apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, on BART and Caltrain in California, in the homes of friends and family wherever I went, and most of all in the hills of the elephants here at home in Valparai. I just read and read and read.

The year that began with reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, filled up quickly with many books whose authors and voices I will remember and continue to hear, speaking to me as to a confidant or companion, for long. Still, eight books stood out as my best reads of 2013, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I read on my Kindle, and others that I read as paperbacks. Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a powerful novel on hunger and the depravity of totalitarian regimes set in the Russian Gulag during World War II, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a stark novella set in the American west of the 1920s, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, stories remarkable for their imaginative detailing as for narrative technique, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, describing three journeys of a lost young man, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a classic, more like a non-fiction novella than an essay, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a hard-hitting early book about homelessness, poverty, and living on the street, and finally, William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic for all writers, The Elements of Style, a book I re-read for perhaps the third or fourth time.

Best books of 2013

On 29 December 2013, as I clicked past the last page on my Kindle of the hundredth book, I found myself dissatisfied with ending a year of reading with Thoreau’s Walking, more a long essay than a book. So I picked up a paperback from a friend’s bookshelf and ended the year reading this fine classic: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Through the year, I had kept track, on my online Goodreads account, of what I read and what Divya and my friends were reading. Among ourselves, we sent and received book recommendations that led to more reading, or helped find new authors to read. It was also interesting to compare impressions about books and authors with Divya and friends who had read the same books, to see what we agreed on and what we felt differently about them.

Still, not everyone takes kindly to such reading. On 2 January, when I wished my mother-in-law for the new year and invited her over to our home in Valparai, she replied: “Yes, I will come, but you must not be reading.”

So at this point, 101 books, 18816 pages, and more than five million words later, a statutory warning: Relentless reading can cause injury to friends and family.

***

What is good etiquette for a person who is reading a book? I am not talking about posture or mothers’ reading instructions (“Sit up straight, hold your book at least twelve inches away from your face, read in good light.”) This is about when and where it is appropriate to be reading a book, especially in company. Occasions when one is at a dining table or hosting guests are certainly out there in the forbidden list. I never read at a dining table, unless I was alone or waiting for people to show up. Still, I watched with envy as people at dinner tables, at home or while eating out, whipped out their so-smart phones, caressing their email and twitter feeds on touch screens, or their hands under the table, fingers flitting at the virtual keys, sending that all-important text message. And if the phone rang, of course, it must be picked up, the clangorous urgency of its shrill metallic cries immediately mollified with soft words and conversation. Even guests are forgiving, if you say, “I have to take this call” and step out with your phone for a quick chat, an extended ten minutes, or even longer. Imagine their chagrin if you say, “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I was just in the middle of this wonderful passage in The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.” Or, their horror at: “Wait! I’m pages away from finishing Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and I cannot rest until I know how it ends.” The tyranny of the mobile phone, I tell you, trumps books any day.

Yet, there are grey areas. Can you read during working hours, for instance? And is it okay if you are reading non-fiction, connected with your work, but not so if you are reading fiction or poetry? As a nature conservationist, would reading Richard Mabey’s The Ash and the Beech or Edward Abbey’s polemical Desert Solitaire be forgiven, but not Patrick White’s extraordinary The Tree of Man or Rabindranath Tagore’s ecstatic poetry in The Gardener? If you have a social conscience, then should you read Michael Sandel’s Justice or Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, say, but not Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, or Mahasweta Devi’s Bitter Soil? And does that mean, by extension, that for working hours, stuff like Anaïs Nin‘s erotica or Ursula K. Le Guin‘s science fiction are a strict no-no?

How much time can one spend reading in a day? I calculate that, from the books I read last year, I read about 50 pages a day, on average. At my reading pace (moderate, not fast), that is about an hour and fifteen minutes of reading time, ranging from a low of a few minutes on some busy days to around five hours on days when I had more time or was travelling by train. This did not include time spent reading newspapers, magazines, stand-alone essays, the occasional scientific paper that I was reading or reviewing, in print or online. All told, it would still be about two hours a day, on average, of reading time. Is that a lot? Compare that with television viewership in Indian metros, which apparently exceeds two hours a day, while it averages around five hours per day in the US. Still, I can’t use these numbers to my advantage, as the hours add up for me because I watch TV, too. But: I sometimes watch TV while reading a book! (Is it really so odd, that while reading about the almost unendurable depravity and deprivation in the concentration camps of The Hunger Angel, one finds a kind of release watching the slaughter of Nazis on TV as portrayed by Quentin ‘The-rant-ino‘ in Inglourious Basterds?)

Excuses, excuses!

***

Still, if you find yourself seized this year by the idea of making it your year of books, and you happen to be in or near any of the places I was lucky to visit, here are some pointers to places where you may find something of interest, too.

Public libraries: Check out the great Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, although it is a library with no members and books can be read sitting there, but not borrowed. The small public library in Valparai itself is a good place to find local and regional newspapers and magazines, and titles in Tamil (a bunch of books on nature and wildlife that we donated last year is yet to pass through the bureaucratic channels and appear on its shelves). Still, I wish we had better and bigger public libraries, like the one I enjoyed visiting in San Mateo, California, for instance, or the wonderful Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam. With excellent collections, comfortable and inviting reading spaces, and ancillary facilities including internet, audio-visual materials and public documents, these are truly fantastic public spaces for local people and casual visitors.

Another quiet and enchanting library is the public library at Craftsbury Common in Vermont. In this rustic Vermont community (less than 200 households), the library was housed in a clapboard building along the road on one side of the meadow-like common until about a decade ago. As recalled by David Brown, a long-time resident and Director of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop that is annually held here, when a new building was ready on the west side of the common, members and volunteers from the Craftsbury Common community formed a long human chain to pass the books hand-to-hand to move the entire collection to the new building. I thought almost everyone from Craftsbury Common would have had to gather to make the chain. Imagine that: almost all the books of a public library passing through the hands of almost everyone in the community!

The public library at Craftsbury Common (Courtesy: Craftsbury Public Library)

Institutional libraries: If, on reading the above, you are tempted to visit Craftsbury Common in Vermont someday, don’t miss the other library, a short distance down the road, the Brown Library of Sterling College, which is open 24 hours a day. One of the smallest colleges in the US, Sterling College lays strong emphasis on nature, conservation, farming, forestry, and sustainability, and it certainly shows in their library. It has one of the widest collections of environmental periodicals I have seen and an excellent collection of book titles, too. In California, I spent a lot of time in two of the libraries at Stanford, where I was enrolled in a creative non-fiction course (a Stanford Continuing Studies course taught by a superb instructor, a poet and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Peter Kline). The Green Library was my refuge for many happy hours of reading just about anything from the New Yorker to Earth Island Journal, fiction and reference. Down the road, past the grand main quad and the green oval, is the Falconer biology library, where I spent many hours reading, even sleeping, on their comfortable plush chairs, and writing at the large tables with views of trees through the windows. In India, I did not much enjoy the institutional libraries, perhaps because I felt a bit lost when I was there. The library in the new building of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was a bit of a disappointment, given that it did not have much on nature and conservation, or literature, that I could find. The Centre for Ecological Sciences library, an old, cozy haunt, in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is also displaced now to a monstrous new building with an elevator and imposing corridors confusingly flaring away in all directions. I confess: during a short visit there, I could not even find the library. The tiny library of our own institution, the Nature Conservation Foundation, is just a few shelves and stacks in the garage of our Mysore office. Still, I found a book or two to pick up there.

Smaller, independent bookstores: Of all the places where I loitered and lingered looking for books, some of the best were the smaller independent bookstores. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam is a fantastic place located near the heart of the world heritage canal district with an eclectic but tasteful choice of books for the book aficionado. Its proprietor, Liesl Olivier, knows her books and gives you superb recommendations. Thanks, Liesl, for James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In nearby Leliegracht, walk into Architectura & Natura for a selection of titles on architecture, landscapes, gardens, and nature.

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

In California, around San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Rockridge near Oakland, there are so many bookstores, and although I tried to visit as many as possible, I managed only a handful. The absolute best and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever visited is Mrs Dalloway’s at Rockridge. Named after a famous book by Virginia Woolf, whose book A Room of One’s Own was one of my 2013 top reads, this store also keeps a selection of Woolf titles, on a shelf rather quaintly named ‘A Shelf of Her Own’. As a double bonus, you can walk down the road to Pegasus Books, to whet your appetite even further. In San Francisco, you shouldn’t miss City Lights Bookstore, a large store where the hours spin away so fast that you end up missing your trains, or Green Apple Books, which is just packed with more books than I, unfortunately, had time to see.

Beautiful interior of Daunt Books (Photo: RachelH, Wikimedia Commons)

If you are in London, I highly recommend a visit to Daunt Books, a short walk down the road from Baker Street or Bond Street tube stations. This store focuses on travel literature and is charmingly organised: the shelves for each region or country contain not just travelogues and guides, but fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles written by authors from that country or region. On the Argentina shelf, I found Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, which I had searched for in vain in many other places, and from the Canada shelf, I picked up Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s Runaway. While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we stopped by the Kew Bookshop, a good place for books on all things green.

Larger bookshops and chains: The smaller bookstores are a greater pleasure to visit, but one is sometimes tempted to go book hunting in the labyrinths of larger stores. Crossword and Landmark in India have stores worth visiting, although their collections are not exceptional and I watch with trepidation as their space gets taken up more and more by ‘lifestyle’ products and toys and gaming consoles and CDs and DVDs. In Bangalore, Gangarams shut shop on M. G. Road and has moved to Church Street. Although the store looks like they have not really settled in, it is worth a visit. In London, there are monster stores, which you would need weeks to see in their entirety: particularly Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, Waterstones, and Hatchards, the last priding itself as the oldest bookstore in London founded in 1797. Blackwell’s, also on Charing Cross Road, has an impressive array of academic titles. In Amsterdam, the Athenaeum is great for titles in all world languages, while the American Book Center across the road is the place to go for English titles. Another huge place to get lost in among books is the Polare store near the flower market, Bloemenmarkt.

Used Books: Roughly half the books we bought last year were from stores that sold used or second-hand (shouldn’t it be third-hand, assuming the first person may have held the book in both hands?) books. Top of the list is certainly BookBuyers at Mountain View, California, followed by Books Inc, just down Castro Street, and Bell’s Book Store in Palo Alto near Stanford.

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

Although these stores don’t have that new and spacious look that some of the larger bookstores have, they are absolute treasure chests. You can find an incredible diversity of books here, including old Penguin paperback editions, out-of-print titles, almost good-as-new books at less than half the price, or often available for as little as a dollar per book. I had to borrow an extra suitcase from my brother and sister-in-law in California to carry the books I picked up there back to India, leaving yet others behind in another bag for my cousin’s husband (bless his soul) to carry to India a few weeks later. I struck it rich again in Vermont, as the public library was having a dollar sale of old books, finding hardbacks in impeccable condition of Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In London, I had little time to visit used book stores, but for a single Oxfam store. In Amsterdam, the Saturday street markets at Noordermarkt and the nearby Lindengracht has stalls with used books that are worth checking out, if you can overcome the temptations of the wonderful selection of local foods and other things also available in the dozens of other stalls down the street. Back in Bangalore, I never got a chance to beat time and traffic to revisit Blossom Book House in Church Street. Fortunately, one of our friends, who practically lives in this massive bookstore when he is not out in the field looking for otters and such, has been mining it for all kinds of interesting books and sharing some of those with us.

Online: Then, of course, were the books downloaded online: e-books from the invaluable Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or purchased from Amazon for Kindle. From Valparai, we also ordered many printed books online, from Amazon or its Indian wannabe equivalent, Flipkart. Last year will perhaps be the last year of reading books on e-readers for me. In October, while reading Richard Jefferies’ post-apocalyptic novel After London, my e-reader, a Kindle 3 keyboard model, suddenly turned hot in my hands, almost burning my fingertips, forcing me to shut it down. After it cooled, I booted back up to find that images were no longer displayed, but I could still read texts. But not for long. After three years of regular use, on 29 December 2013, minutes after I clicked past the last page of the hundredth book of the year, my Kindle froze, gave up its ghost, and died. Amazon, of course, refused any replacement as it was past warranty, and offered at reduced price newer machines with back-lit or paper-white touch screens and other completely unnecessary embellishments that somehow were not as attractive as the older reader. Besides, they should make things that last, shouldn’t they? Like books.

***

So what were these 101 books that I read: the trophies? Why do I call them trophies? Only because I am displaying them here, like the books in our wooden, glass-fronted shelves at home are displayed. In Mizoram, I remember visiting two decades ago, the home of a Mizo tribal, Liando, whose walls were adorned with hundreds of skulls of animals that he had hunted in the past. It was a display that signified prowess, that symbolised his prestige within the community. My trophies signify neither prowess nor prestige, they are merely the documentation of an accomplishment of reading about fifty pages a day, for a year—of these 101 books.

My 2013 bookshelf:

I could go on about these books, but I am no critic, only a reader, so it is difficult to give you further insight into these books or the kind of incisive comments about them that you might want. All I can tell you is that I wish you a good year of reading ahead and hope you find the time to visit those independent bookstores and libraries and bookshops of your choice. You will find that, if you can put aside those two hours every day for reading, it will be two hours well spent. You will find that something miraculous happens, as if the author who is not there physically is speaking to you, the reader, or through you, by your presence and your reading, to the world, like a bubble that expands from your hand to enfold the universe. In 2013, a hundred years after Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I read his rhapsodic poetry in The Gardener. How strange, then, to discover that the poem ends with this final stanza!

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Gardener’

It is time I wound up this essay. And besides: the new year is already here, the hours rush on, and in the bedroom, J. M. Coetzee is waiting.

The library with no members

In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?

The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.

Anna Centenary Library (Photo: Rajeevecpr via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.

The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.

The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.

The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.

Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.

Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.

Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.

Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu on 10 February 2013 and also online here.

Sailing on a sea of words: My 100-book year

There is a little gem of a poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Its a poem about books, perhaps just one of a handful she wrote on books and reading.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Emily Dickinson

In the year gone by the frugal chariot had beckoned, and I’d set sail on the frigates across a sea of words.

The year 2011 thus began for me with a peculiar challenge to myself to read one hundred books before the year was out. I would read any book that seemed worthwhile. The list would naturally, so to speak, include a staple of nature writing and wildlife books. But I would read more. I would plunge into other non-fiction, history, and economics, read a smattering of poetry and philosophy, and a generous dose of fiction, especially good literature and science fiction, and finally, not less than and not more than ten comic books. I opened an account in Goodreads, where I could maintain a book catalogue online and track my progress. I was all set.

I quickly realised that in the last few years I had neglected reading fiction, and had barely glanced at a few pages of poetry, and that if it inadvertently caught my eye. In the bustle of work, in a world that seemed to value the words ‘pragmatism’ and ‘practicality’ as more weighty than ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’, it had seemed that only reading work-related non-fiction was a justified way to spend reading time. There was so much to learn, to read, just to keep abreast of the changing times, the open floodgates of world knowledge. Far more important, surely, than the humdrum drama of real life and tales spun by the story tellers, the literary word-smiths. After all, they were only stories, right? How wrong I was!

As I read and read and read, I was sucked into the worlds of words, into lives of people who never existed except in and around human imagination, into an ambiance, an intangible aura of the mind, carrying the thoughts of many familiar strangers, the authors. Works of fiction, good literature in particular, made by far the best reads. For the duration of the book and in that delicious wake that follows when a good book is done, when one lives the ebb of thoughts, the retreating wave leaving its wavy line on the sand, when the book is closed, placed away, then you sense that your world has strangely expanded. You now carry with you the voice of the author, an unobtrusive but intimate voice, arguing, chiding, shouting, laughing, or just whispering gently in your ear. The voice of a friend by your side, a palpable presence, telling you a story, not telling you what to think, but leading you to think, even what seemed unthinkable, unknowable, eventually to set you free on your own voyage, your own story. Emily Dickinson says it better, as always.

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.

He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Emily Dickinson

As the year dawned, I also had a new gadget in hand, a Kindle e-book reader, which I instantly liked for its simple look and feel and the easy-on-the-eye, e-ink reading screen. It looked like a page of printed text and mercifully was not a back-lit screen like those on computers and iPads and such devices. Reading on the computer and back-lit screens, although inevitable at times, is ultimately annoying or at best a highly unsatisfying reading experience. Yet, I did not abandon the book. How could I? Can one replace the feel of a book in the hand, the imprint of ink on paper, the smell of books new and old, the sturdiness of a hardbound volume, the ease of a paperback, the look of its cover? In 2011, I read 36 e-books on the Kindle, 49 paperbacks, 15 hardbound books. For the e-books, I dug into the riches of Project Gutenberg and Amazon‘s online bookstore. I dug into our bookshelf to read books lying there for years, perhaps waiting for this year to arrive, walked and surfed bookstores to buy many others.

And at midnight of 30 December 2011, with one day still left in the year, I closed Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, book #100 for the year, with a satisfied smile and went to sleep. One hundred books, 23,901 pages, over eight million words: I had sailed on a sea of words.

Turgenev, who I was reading for the first time, was preceded by an array of wonderful writers. Booker-prize winning authors such as Julian Barnes, Iris Murdoch, and John Banville, Nobel literature laureates such as J. M. Coetzee, Yasunari Kawabata, José Saramago, John Steinbeck, and Nadine Gordimer, and other award-winning writers of fiction including Cormac McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, and Peter Matthiessen. I read Jonathan Swift and Gustave Flaubert, Lewis Carroll and Herman Melville, Chinua Achebe and Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka. A priceless experience, reading wonderful books by great writers. I read a generous dose of nature writing, ranging from the beautiful, almost lyrical work of Loren Eiseley, J. A. Baker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to more forthright books on environmental history, conservation of elephants and other wildlife with authors ranging from Aldo Leopold, E. H. Aitken, Martin Meredith, Gay Bradshaw, Bernd Heinrich, and others. I managed a generous dose of science fiction, another favourite genre. I had scarcely read a decent science fiction book in years. Now I read and enjoyed Frank Herbert (Dune), Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog), Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens of Titan, Timequake), Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Ursula le Guin (The Wild Girls), Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl), H. G. Wells (The Time Machine), and Philip K Dick (We Can Build You). The ten comic books were all from an old favourite: Lucky Luke! Emily Dickinson’s poetry is what I read most, from her collected works, although this is on an “forever-reading” shelf, and can scarcely be counted as ‘read’ in one year. I read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali) and I even read the Bhagavad Gita.

The books ranged from a few that were a little more than long essays (Swift’s A Modest Proposal) to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, his epic 912 pager, condensing his Watson trilogy, a brilliantly written book that was one of the five books of 2011 that I gave a five-star rating. The four others were Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer & Diaries, and the incredibly good J. M. Coetzee’s incredibly good The Lives of Animals which I have written about elsewhere. It was also fun to compare and discuss books with Divya, Daktre, and others on Goodreads.

And if you’ve read this far and are curious to see all the books of 2011, here they are.

This post first appeared on the Rainforest Revival blog on 31 December 2011.

In the interest of other animals

How should we as humans value and relate to other animals? When we use animals in research, in zoos and aquaria, as food items or body parts, as specimens or experimental models, as pets, as machismo-inflating trophies to be bagged, or just as objects for entertainment, do we fully understand their needs, their welfare, their interests? Do we also comprehend our own underlying values, overt or covert, that are revealed in the way we deal with other animals? Is it right to speak of animal interests, pain, and suffering? The implications of the knowledge we have gained in recent times from scientific research on animal societies, behaviour, and cognition on the way we view animals is profound. This year, I was fortunate to read two very different and remarkable books, both compelling and thought-provoking, which bring these issues to the fore. Taken together with the leading primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy, that I have referred to in an earlier post, these books are a valuable read for wildlife scientists and all those who have the interests of animals at heart.

My first reaction to these two astounding books, as a practicing wildlife scientist with a claim to be involved in animal research and conservation over the last two decades was: “Why were these profoundly important issues never a formal and thorough part of my academic training or practice?” Is it because issues of human values, morals and ethics are considered outside the pale of training to be a wildlife scientist or ecologist? Is it because they are considered wishy-washy or vague, or, devil-take-you, too subjective? Or is it simply because most present-day wildlife scientists actually do not have a deep understanding or appreciation of the central issues, or if they do, they prefer to keep it to themselves? But why not? We use animals in research. We make claim to efforts to understand them. We make conservation appeals, ostensibly, on their behalf. We probe, we peer, we collect, we tag, we trap, we handle, we follow, we even sometimes kill animals for scientific study. Do we really do all this on the basis of a comprehensive ethical and moral foundation? Or do we shy away from these issues because of being tagged an animal-rights activist even if we are not really speaking of rights? In the context of conservation, can we achieve our goals if we lack a foundational conservation ethic? These books give plenty of food for thought.

The Lives of Animals

The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant work by a Nobel laureate in literature and a wonderful book to start the year with. A superb form of academic novel (a novel genre, I could say, if the pun may be forgiven), this is top-notch writing on a theme of profound and enduring significance for anyone concerned with human values and connections with other animals.

J. M. Coetzee, invited to Princeton to deliver the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values, presents the lectures as a fictional story with debate and dialogue crafted into the form of this book. Within it is the story of Elizabeth Costello, herself an academic, invited to deliver lectures at a University, and the lectures she delivers and the ensuing responses. Reading it as a sort of literary dialectic, one is swept by Coetzee’s tight and engaging prose into central moral, philosophical and ethical issues related to the lives of animals. The four commentaries that accompany the central work by Coetzee are excellent, too. The book’s introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann, and accompanying essay commentaries by Wendy Doniger (religion scholar), Barbara Smuts (primatologist), Marjorie Garber (literary theorist ), and Peter Singer (moral philosopher and author of Animal Liberation reviewed below) are worth reading and add great value to this book.

Coetzee touches on vital issues that relate to whether we perceive other animals as beings with interests or as objects for our manipulation. Cruelty, sentience, sympathy, empathy, and the morality of our actions towards other sentient beings is the undercurrent of Coetzee’s words, of Costello’s debate. Vegetarianism, animal intelligence and how we perceive it even as trained scientists, pain and suffering, animal slaughter or ‘sacrifice’, these are all themes seamlessly woven into a gripping narrative thread. Coetzee brings sudden and scathing clarity and depth to the work of a litany of earlier writers, scientists, and philosophers: of Thomas Aquinas and Jeremy Bentham, Franz Kafka and Tom Regan, Wolfgang Köhler and Mary Midgely, and many others.

And yet, the implications are not thrust on you as absolutes, as dogma. It comes in measured words, prompting a dawning awareness. To do this Coetzee draws brilliantly on Kafka’s Red Peter, the ape presenting A Report to An Academy, and Costello’s words only seem to echo his own hidden voice:

I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.

A phenomenal work, worth reading and re-reading, even if only to be touched by Coetzee’s prose, or perhaps for introspective and outwardly illumination.

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (P.S.)

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement by Peter Singer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compelling and well-written, Peter Singer’s book is a classic that should be required reading for anyone concerned with the interests of animals. Without taking recourse to the issue of the rights of animals, Singer explains how moral and ethical positions we can take and understand become inadequate if restricted only to humans. Trying to separate humans as a species as somehow distinct and above beings of all other species (speciesism), if pursued logically and through all its implications, only leads to moral, ethical, and philosophical positions that are untenable.

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to detailed and balanced consideration of two major issues affecting the interests and welfare of animals: (a) the millions upon millions of animals used in research and vivisection, and (b) the billions and billions of animals ‘reared’ (=imprisoned) in factory farms and other facilities in cruel conditions and inefficiently (from social and ecological perspectives) only to be ultimately slaughtered, often painfully, for use as food for humans. This is not to overlook the (ab)use of animals for other reasons, such as for fur or other animal products such as leather, but just that the number of animals cruelly treated for vivisectional research/animal testing and for food is enormous. According to Singer, the greatest impact on the largest number of animals will result from immediate changes in these two areas: by avoiding and finding alternatives to animal testing and vivisection, and by going vegetarian, vegan, or being far more circumspect and choosy about where the animal flesh or produce you eat comes from and how the animals were raised and treated.

Besides bringing these issues forward and in-your-face for serious consideration, Singer’s major contributions in this book are a lucid articulation of some central issues. First, the issue of what equality involves (not assuming that everyone is equal as there is undeniable variation, but the ethical imperative of equal treatment). Second, bringing consideration of the interests of animals to the forefront (without need to draw on or call for animal ‘rights’). Separating issues related to preventing pain and suffering, from issues related to the actual killing of animals is another distinction that leads to nuances in treatment of animals and animal welfare in various contexts.

The book is perhaps titled Animal Liberation to raise analogies with other liberation movements, for instance against slavery, racism, and sexism. In fact, many ethical and moral issues raised are consistent across these various movements. The way these are highlighted by the author and the analogies that he draws are very useful both to understand issues and to strengthen reasoned debate. One can ponder on the ideas Singer presents. One can grasp practical suggestions he gives for more ethical personal choices. And one can act.

Worth reading, absolutely.

This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 21 October 2011.

New booklet on rainforest restoration

What is rainforest restoration? Why do we need it? If we wish to restore degraded rainforest, what should we do? How do we go about it? Where is it needed? And when? Motivated by these and many other questions, we have put down our thoughts and experiences gathered over the last decade in the Anamalai hills, in relation to those of other restoration ecologists and practitioners into a beautifully-designed and richly illustrated 40-odd page booklet:

Mudappa, D., and Raman, T. R. S. 2010. Rainforest Restoration: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.

Download from here: PDF 6.7 MB

Or from the Website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India, here.

The cover

The booklet aims to present concepts of ecological restoration along with guidelines and suggestions for practice and on-ground implementation in a simple, easy to understand manner. Attractively designed by Pavithra Sankaran and richly illustrated with beautiful photographs, the booklet is a visual treat. Here’s a sample:

Inside pages

Take a look at the contents:

Contents

The booklet was brought out with support from the IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands, Ecosystems Grant Programme (IUCN-NL EGP). The text of the booklet may be used under a Creative Commons licence.

Take a look and let us know what you think. Here’s looking forward to your feedback!

This post first appeared on the Rainforest Revival blog on 10 August 2011.