Category: Writing (page 1 of 1)

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

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

And yet, I refused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,
Shankar

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

§

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

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

Speak, Memory

I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.

Speak, Memory (vladimir Nabokov)

The pandemic came from nowhere and everywhere and grounded us. Grounded us to place and to a renewed appreciation of our joint and earthly vulnerability, our collective insouciance to planetary health. Perhaps it will all change: the destruction of nature, the desecration of land for profit, the dissembling of reality to concoct a narrative of progress that hides multiple spirals of decline. Meanwhile, in the sudden and welcome quiet, a quiet that may presage a dawn or a storm, there are moments to reflect, to read, and to speak. To speak of what we have seen, what we have done, what we could still do for ourselves and for the world that we may yet wake up to.

Over the last year, from our home here in the Anamalai Hills, Divya and I have participated and spoken in a few online events, podcasts, and interactions, and had one documentary feature our work. The topics are as scattered as our interests and work have been: books and reading, hornbills and civets, rainforests and restoration. Nothing world-changing here. Just our plodding pursuits and local efforts to do what we can, where we can, because we’d rather be doing this than anything else. I am just parking it all here for you to watch or listen at your leisure. In reverse chronological order, here goes… and take your pick.

Valley of Words Literature Festival online session on The Wild Heart of India

My book The Wild Heart of India made the English nonfiction shortlist of the 2020 Valley of Words Award, along with four excellent titles.

The Valley of Words Award 2020 shortlist in English nonfiction.

The literature festival, meant to be held at The Savoy, Mussoorie, was held online during 20 – 22 November, 2020. While the award itself went to Ankur Bisen’s book Wasted, as part of the litfest I had the opportunity for a discussion with Dr Malvika Onial, Scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and Dr Dhananjai Mohan, Director, WII. The recording of our discussion on my book, on conservation, and on writing about the natural world was streamed online on the 22nd.

Valley of Words Podcast on The Wild Heart of India

This conversation with Manoj Nair on my book The Wild Heart of India, which aired on 15 November, meanders through writing about the natural world, my personal journey in conservation, nature deficit and reconnecting people and nature, and where we are headed… do listen!

Restoration and Ecosystems

On September 25, 2020, Divya joined a panel of leading scientists on the Biodiversity Collaborative in a session on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, where she spoke on restoration, afforestation, and our experiences from the Western Ghats.

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

Conversation with Jonathan Drori

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

Such a lovely conversation: Do scientists give enough love to individual trees, the role that botanical gardens can play in conserving plants and spreading information, is it time for us to push harder for a different view of trees—one that recognises trees for their intrinsic worth, can illustrations capture trees better than photographs? Especially loved the part where Divya, Sridhar and Jonathan talk about how we can judge the health of a society by looking at how it treats its trees. Beautiful—thank you for this!

Janhavi Rajan

Carl D’silva Memorial Lecture

On August 30, 2020, Divya and I spoke at a lecture in memory of Carl D’Silva, an outstanding wildlife artist and illustrator who died in 2015. We then joined the discussion with Dr Madhura Niphadkar on forests, reforestation, and conservation.

IMG-20200826-WA0030.jpg

On the Malabar civet

And Janaki Lenin interviewed Divya on her work on civets and the strange case of the Malabar civet as part of her #WildWomenInterviews series on 24 October 2020.

A Dream of Trees

And last on the list, but the first for us in the year past, was this stunning documentary about our work in the Anamalai Hills, made by the remarkable Sara and his team at Evanescence Studios. The film appeared on YouTube on 8 January 2020.

This film tells the story of the ecological restoration of degraded tropical rainforests in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats, India. It shows how Divya and I have been working with our team to restore degraded patches of rainforest in the Anamalai Hills in partnership with tea and coffee plantation companies since 2001. It speaks of the extraordinary values of rainforests and how restoration helps revive forests, bring back wildlife, and pull carbon down from the atmosphere in a time of climate crisis. An instructive story of challenge, limitation, and hope, A Dream of Trees is also an inspiring tale of restoration, of reviving the connections between plants and animals and between people and rainforests in a shared landscape. Do watch!

Note: This post was updated on 8 January 2021 to include the Valley of Words recorded video session of 22 November.

A Famous Place

This essay owes inspiration to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), a powerful commentary set in Antigua, on tourism and colonialism and the lived contradictions of travelers and citizens.

February 26, 2020. If you go to Corbett as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you arrive by airplane at New Delhi, the glossy artificiality of the Indira Gandhi International airport will assail you. (Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, four times, and you may wonder whether she would have wanted an airport named after her, rather than a National Park, say, like the one named after a white man, Jim Corbett—your destination.) If you come by train, it is the grime and the smells and the city’s exhaled air that will accost you. You will step out of airport or station into the great old city snug in its world-famous smog, made infamous now by the smoke pluming into the skies, swirling black from homes and mosques, from fires lit and riots raged in the city’s northeast.

And you will want to leave it behind, soon, taking your bus or taxi on the roads and highways leading east out of the city. Your vehicle’s tyres churn the miles and the Lutyens bungalows and gardens, the old fort and India Gate, the tree-lined avenues, the markets and condos, and the broad highways looped with flyovers fall behind, and the throng of suburbs and the sprawl of conurbations pass, with fewer trees now and more buildings and more people and vehicles and you pass them without looking back, with only a sideways glance, for you are looking ahead all the time—to the promise of Corbett, to forests and grasslands and elephants and tigers—always tigers—to places not like this city where the houses and the mosques burn not too far to the north, where the cops may beat you and force you to sing the national anthem, where a politician of the party supposed to govern the nation can incite men to mobs to violence and the honorable courts can find it in their wisdom to look away… There is no looking back at a place that is only looking back to a time and a world and a blinkered idea of that world that should have been left all the way back there in the first place.

There is only one place, just one, where your glance is directed upward—above a hill, a seething tenebrous hill over which a great swirling mass of five thousand black kites mills and turns under a dour, smoke-stained sky devoid of blue. A hill of garbage, a great mound of filth rotting, rising daily with the offal of Delhi, a hill taller than the buildings, the roads, the overhead metro lines, and the thought strikes you that the Parliament in Delhi, the President’s home in Delhi, are on hills, too.

You are glad to pass, now, through the countryside, seeing the farms and dhabas, the winter-stricken trees, the sin-burdened Ganges, the low mist forming over the fields of mustard and wheat in the distance, even the fire burning in the sugarcane fields. This fire is just a fire, the smoke just smoke, the match that lit it just the match of a solitary farmer tending his field along a road that leads away from the city you, the tourist, can afford to leave behind.

Hours pass. It is evening. The sky darkens with cloud. Your vehicle leaves the open plains and the town of Ramnagar behind and climbs into the foothills. The vehicle swerves and slews up the curves, the headlights swinging a misty beam speckled with gold glints of falling rain. The forest is dark, rendered under purpled skies in sudden chiaroscuro by a great unseen flash. You feel the crash, when it comes, in the pit of your stomach, in the percussion in your chest, in the shudder of the vehicle. The vehicle does not stop, it hardly even slows, the frantic wipers clearing just enough of a view to keep going.

You keep going, past the roadside sign that warns Elephants Crossing Zone Go Slow but the driver does not slow, past the long string of resorts and hotels in the middle of the forest, each signboard flashing past advertising luxury with adventure in Corbett—in the dark forest split by them on either side of the road.

The rain abates. A chill descends. The driver says he will not return to Delhi tonight. The mussalman log have created a mess, he says. You do not want to confront him with the news you were just reading on your phone that it is the mosques that are burning—you are here as a tourist after all, and this man will go and you will never see him again and how can you be sure and who knows what news is true and what fake and what is the point of arguing anyway. The driver will stay tonight at Ramnagar, where a man with a name like his can be safe.

As for you—you will not stay at a lodge or hotel. They are too tasteless for you, perhaps, or you want to be the conscientious traveler, you who like to think you tread light. You stay at a home-stay-like place run by a couple, friends of friends. The proprietors love wildlife, believe in a different form of tourism. Beside the glitzy lights and walled-off, power-fenced compound of a nearby resort, their place is quiet, dark, full of trees, with paths that even a wild elephant may walk on. The modest, tasteful surrounds, named for a bird of the mountain rivers, becalms you. Tucked under thick blankets, you fall asleep to the soft hoots of owls. Tomorrow you will enter Corbett.

§

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

If you go to Corbett as a tourist—and now you are actually there—you will enter the National Park through one of the gates, say the Dhangarhi Gate, which looks like the entrance to a fortress. You will submit the permit and the reservations you had already obtained to the forest guards and show your ID cards and those of your partner and your friend and you will wait at the gate to enter at the designated time in the morning (10 a.m.) in your designated vehicle, for you understand that the park cannot remain open to just anyone, to curious wayfarers, itinerant traders, anonymous riffraff, the Gujjar herders who used to graze their buffaloes here not too long ago, the people who used to live in one of the four villages located here not too long ago, the random photographers, the foreigners or citizens—the nation’s capital you left behind is still confused about who is who in those latter categories anyway—no, you convince yourself that it can’t be just anybody who enters this National Park that belongs to everyone and yet no one. So you wait.

Finally, the gate opens and the two waiting vehicles in front of you—one a small bus full of excited, uniformed schoolchildren in coats and ties, the other a jeep with tourists like you—rev their engines and zoom ahead. Then the guard at the fortress-gate waves you through and you are overjoyed. Your real journey begins now. Or seems to. You are so happy that the guard waved you in, you want to go beaming into his little room behind the small window by the gate and pump his hand in gratitude.

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

You are happy to be on your way—you are happy that you are cruising in an open-top, 4-wheel-drive Gypsy with modified seats on which the three of you can sit facing forward, you are happy to see the sal trees with corrugated bark and bright, rain-washed leaves, you are happy at the pleasant morning, cloudy with a hint of sun, you are happy to listen to the conversation in Hindi between JP, your soft-spoken naturalist guide from Ramnagar, and the driver Harinder, you are happy that the latter has been thoughtful to fill just a tad less air in the rear tyres to make a more comfortable ride in the Gypsy, you are happy at the narrow unpaved, unsealed forest road where you have to drive so slowly that the basking snakes and lizards can escape the tyres, you are happy to glimpse the sparkling river and the rounded boulders in white, grey, and pastel colours jumbled along the raus feeding into it—you are happy happy happy.

Large woodshrike (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The road swings along a rau and you see a flicker of birds in the trees and stop. Half a dozen large woodshrikes—plumaged in greys and browns, a streak as of thick mascara through their eyes—chatter and flit from branch to leaf expertly harvesting caterpillars that you didn’t even know were there. They keep company with a dark-winged and dark-hooded maroon oriole whose eyes gleam bright, whose voice screeches out to his mate across the forest. A small flock of Indian white-eyes, cheeping softly and probing the flowers, rides the bird wave as it sweeps tree to tree. And you can watch them and wonder how here in Corbett like elsewhere in India—save yesterday’s rioting city—birds of many-a-feather can flock together, too.

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

You can take your time, now that you are past the gate, watch the eagle quartering over the canopy, the woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks, the blackbird perched in the shrubs, the mugger crocodile placid by the river viewed from High Bank—one of the few spots where you can get off your vehicle, stretch your legs, put your feet on the earth, take in a view of the mountains, the forests, the unsullied river below. Take a few selfies, too, if you must.

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

Onward again and you near your destination and the road takes an older, grander feel with sal trees rising, curving, vaulting the road, and you feel like you are entering a cathedral, a grand hall of pillars in a place of worship, sensing perhaps if you pause a bit that it is this ambience, this kinship with and among the trees in a forest that those places of worship are trying to evoke. By the side of that vaulted, famous road, a nonchalant muntjac, impervious to fame, indifferent to worship, grazes and fades into the forest as your vehicle clatters past. You click and click trying to capture the deer, the trees, the grand avenue of this grand National Park, but you’ve captured nothing. The deer and the trees are still there. They are still there as you pass, eyes on the road to Dhikala.

The forest breaks suddenly into a large expanse of grassland. This is the famous Dhikala chaur you’ve heard so much about, admired so many photos of on Facebook, surely, and seen plastered across the pages of travel magazines and tour pamphlets promising adventures, thrilling experiences, close encounters with wildlife—yes, this is that famous place, that unparalleled Indian wilderness you’ve always wanted to visit and you see the row of buildings ahead hiding in the open behind charged fences and gates and that is where your rooms are in the new Forest Rest House (FRH) not far from the old FRH and you take it all in as your jeep rattles along, the grassland, the buildings, the line of trees along a dip in the land that promises a Himalayan river but is not a river that flows and is actually a reservoir—yet it is the river, the grassland, the forest, the elephants and the tigers—always tigers—that you will choose to identify with this famous place.

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

You have arrived. There you are deep in the Indian wilds, in the most famous spot in this famous Park named after Jim Corbett, the famous wilderness writer—a long dead white hunter with a rare affinity to the India under the Raj, a writer whose books still fly off the shelves especially the ones he wrote about man-eating leopards and tigers—always tigers—and how he shot them and saved the lives of natives, a writer whose bust, a slightly misshapen bust under a tent-like shelter, faces every single visitor who enters through the Dhangarhi gate, a writer and sahib still remembered by some of the older mountain folk, a shikari who was a white hunter but also wasn’t really one, a man followed later by many who aspired to be white hunters of a sort, but weren’t really.

Check-in. You are happy that in this famous place, this Indian wilderness, you have clean, newly-furbished rooms with electricity and a large clean toilet and piping hot water and a room boy who promises you bed tea the next morning at 6 a.m., a porter who will haul your luggage upstairs from the jeep and not ask you for money because he knows, just looking at you, how you must be a good person, a fortunate, privileged person to have arrived in this famous place and that happy as you are to be here, you will doubtless give him a good tip. You are the guest, after all, you reserved the room with your money, and he is here only to serve. You settle down in the room, pull the curtains aside, take in a view of the trees, maybe even open the glass windows to let in some of the air and the bird calls and peer contentedly at the beautiful welcoming world through the mesh that keeps the not-so-beautiful, not-so-welcome world of flies and mosquitoes and macaques out—out where they belong. This is your room. The view framed by the window is your view. You can take photos to remember it by.

§

Shoot the tigers—always tigers. There is dawn talk. A tiger, Paro, with her two grown cubs, is about, goes the buzz, spreading from jeep to idling jeep behind the closed gates, the drivers alert, their eyes on the forest officer who has brought a chair out and a mobile phone to check the time and make sure no one leaves for the safari until the exact designated moment. He checks the time. He picks his teeth. He checks again. He raises a hand. The gates swing open. The tyres spin, kicking dust. The convoy of jeeps zooms ahead, carrying their jacketed and blanketed loads of camera-burdened tourists, you among them, and before you know it, you are cruising along the river, heading into sal forests where there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of Paro.

Garland of langurs (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Alarm calls of chital. Harinder kills the engine and you wait. You are glad that there are only six other jeeps waiting here for the tiger who is somewhere in the forest, up the slope, away from the trees whose canopies are festooned with a garland of langurs but you have little time for them because you cannot miss your only glimpse of the striped cat in the bushes. But the cat does not show.

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

You are now before a grassland. A mesmeric sweep of waist-high and knee-high grass spreading away, away till where, you have no idea, it could spread all the way cleaving past the Himalaya to Tibet and Mongolia and beyond for all that you or the Siberian stonechat sitting on the bent spear of a grass blade know. The grassland is sliced by safari roads and the hunters, you among them now, sit in the jeeps, triggers cocked, to shoot the tiger if she crosses, to collect her head and her beautiful striped skin and pin them up, later, on your digital walls. But the cat does not show.

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

You now have a view of the river. A braid of grass and smooth boulders and land, shining and sparkling in evening light, topped by the flame of a tall silk cotton tree abloom on which a Pallas’s fish-eagle sits, his eye absorbing the landscape and the waters and the life beneath the waters with a level of detail and discernment you can only aspire to. The tiger and her cubs had walked across this braid of land and water. Someone had seen them less than an hour ago. And so you scan and scan with your binoculars and telescope, past the eagle and the sambar doe with her fawn grazing by the river, past the turtle and cormorants and gharial basking on the banks, past the black-winged kite and crested kingfishers stalled as if by an invisible hand in mid-air, wings aflutter, one over the grass the other over the water seeking their suppers, past them all to where the river takes a bend and disappears, onto the Ganges, into the ocean and who knows where else. But the tiger does not show.

Turtle basking, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The tiger does show, to someone else. Someone who is ready with their cameras just at the moment when Paro is licking her paws reclining on the ground as her cubs rise on their hind legs, face each other, and swat playfully at each other in a sparring match in full view and good light, captured in a series of hundreds of photos, one of which has already been uploaded, shared, captioned, liked, commented, praised and plussed, bounced and rebounced, phone to laptop to tablet, until it pings in your own phone, in whatever you feed on, the virus arrived at your door, and you look at it, nonplussed, saying how did I miss that.

§

It is time to leave. You pack your bags as the world is shutting down because someone far away shot or killed an animal they shouldn’t have, because they had caught more than just the animal, and because now a person’s cough in Wuhan, China, can reverberate around the world.

One virus put out by the man in the next room, a photograph flitting from server to server around the world before arriving in your hand, received eagerly in your phone, and another virus out there that you will have to evade all the way back home and learn to keep avoiding. You are glad to see the porter and room boy when they come to help carry your heavy luggage down the stairs to the waiting jeep. As the jeep departs, they watch you leave and you realise you do not know their names and the thought strikes you that you are leaving while they will stay on, and that all the while they have had the better reason to be there in this famous place, earning a livelihood assisting people unknown to them and it is you, ultimately, who will remain forever anonymous.

Time rolls the forests and grasslands past, under your wheels, and the grim visage of Corbett’s bust watches you exit the gates of his park. You have had your happy moment, but it seems to be already receding there behind the closing gates, and ahead is Delhi, city of strife, city of pollution, city of pain. Corbett, Delhi, home. Yet, there is something you can take with you: something that arrives as a wisp of elation. In a moment of reflection and clarity you see what you came to Corbett to see. And what you remember and what you forget do not just happen to you but are of your choice.

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

The Secret Lives of Trees

On the 10th of November 2019, I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in a session with Harini Nagendra and Nirupa Rao. The session, The Secret Lives of Trees, offered us an opportunity to talk on a subject dear to each of us: trees.

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

Following Harini’s vivacious and insightful lead, our conversation swooped and veered, sallied and swung around trees. On the science of trees, on the connections between people and trees, and on the challenges of trying to portray the majesty and wonder and individuality of trees in art and in words. We spoke of the wood-wide web and the values of trees in our daily lives, of Myristica swamp forests and silk cotton trees, and even of what trees can help us discover about ourselves and our views on citizenship and belonging to place.

Listen on and leave your thoughts and comments below!

Video courtesy: Bangalore Literature Festival

Listen to her

It began as a whim, a resolution for the new year, a year now already passed. At least, it seemed like a whim, sitting there by the campfire in the Kalakad mountains, with friends, under the star-sequinned night sky quilted with cloud. The rainforests were silent but for the creak and click of insect and frog; only the cataract over the nearby cliff continued its unceasing conversation with the rocks. Among friends announcing new year resolutions—more out of amusement than determination—I outed mine, as sparks crackled in the fire. I’ll read only books written by women in 2019, I said. Fifty books written by fifty women.

It was a strange resolution, like nothing I’d made before. And on its surface it carried the obvious problem: a quest for good literature, writing, and writers made sense, but why women writers? Why reduce women to an adjective? Writers are writers, aren’t they?

I’d always read writers without bias to gender—or so I thought—on my many book-reading binges since 2011. My stats on Goodreads, where I keep track of what I read, recorded that I’d read 100 books in 2011, 57 in 2012, 101 books in 2013, 40 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 each in 2017 and 2018. I’d picked books up from independent bookstores, chain stores, used book stores, pavement sellers, online e-book retailers, public and university libraries, airport and train station bookshops, and my friends’s bookshelves, across at least half a dozen countries that I’d traveled to since 2011. I’d scanned the covers, browsed reviews online and in print, asked friends for recommendations, simply picked books out of curiosity or boredom, or on occasion found a book more or less by serendipity. And I read widely—ridiculously, distressingly widely according to some friends—more gourmand than gourmet in my reading as one put it. Excluding some technical books I read as part of my work as a wildlife scientist, I read literary fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, poetry, detective stories and murder mysteries, creative nonfiction, classics, westerns, popular science, spy thrillers, philosophy, nature writing, erotica, and comic books. From the Bhagavad Gita and the Therigatha to Anaïs Nin and Lucky Luke, from Gustave Flaubert to Shubhangi Swarup, from John Grisham to John Steinbeck, from Mahasweta Devi to Maya Angelou, from deluded Dawkins to marvellous Matthiessen. Almost anything except Chetan Bhagat.

Four hundred and forty six books over eight years: an eclectic but unblemished and unbiased record so far, I thought. Why bias my reading now towards women?

And then, one day, I decided to check. I skimmed the list of 446 books I’d read since 2011 and my apparently unbiased reading streak revealed itself to be something very different. It was obvious even at a glance. If I had only taken a few moments to reflect, which I’d not done all these years, I’d have noticed this earlier. I sat down and counted. To be sure. Of the 446 books (including 2 books that had been co-authored by a woman and a man), only 79 were written by women. Just 17.7%—or less than one in five books!

I began to look at all bookshelves with a new eye. Two wooden bookshelves at home held 333 books, of which only 68 (20%, or one in five) were by women. As did bookshelves in some of my friends’s houses—one friend’s bedside bookshelf stacked 71 books, only 8 by women. Airport bookshops, city bookstores, pavement sellers—more often than not, they all featured more male authors. Take a look at your own books—it is likely the disparity exists in your shelves, too.

It was true for Indian writing as well, and moreover, seemed unrelated to how good the writers were—at least, how much I enjoyed their writing. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik dwarfed the immeasurably better Arundhati Roy and Shobhaa De and Janaki Lenin. In one airport bookstore, atop a heap of apparently lesser volumes, Shashi Tharoor‘s books sat flamboyantly, rather like the prolific, sometimes prolix, writer-politician himself, while the equally prolific writer and novelist Shashi Deshpande‘s memoir graced a corner that only someone determined to find her would discover. I understood better now why Deshpande had titled her book Listen to Me. I resolved then to not just read women writers, but only buy books written by women this year. I bought a copy of Listen to Me before I left the store.

Clearly there was something askew here—an unconscious bias or a bias I’d refused to discern or admit to myself. A bias that may not just be mine, but one compounded by how publishing, promotions, and book reviewing works to the advantage of men. One analysis of the New York Times Best Sellers List for novels showed a bias towards male authors from the 1950s through the 1990s, reaching near parity only in the first decade of the 21st century. (This is despite gender disparities within genres: best-selling spy novels are more often written by men, best-selling romance more often by women, for instance, while literary works are more evenly matched.) The VIDA Count, by the Women in Literary Arts organisation, tracks publication bias and parity in leading literary publications and, barring a few publications, reveals widespread gender disparity. Their 2018 VIDA Count reports:

Meanwhile, at 4 years in a row, the Feckless Five are back, with fewer than 40% of women writers in their publication totals: Times Literary Supplement (38.5%), The Nation (36.9%), The Threepenny Review (36.6%), London Review of Books (33.7%), and The Atlantic (33.6%).

The New York Review of Books, once again, had the worst numbers of all 40 publications at a measly 27.1%, which is, sadly, the highest percentage of women they’ve published since the beginning of the VIDA Count [in 2010]…

VIDA COUNT, 2018

The 2018 VIDA Count also showed that less than 40% of the books reviewed (only 26% in the case of NYRB) were books written by women. The work of authors who identify as non-binary genders is barely gaining ground, too. And besides gender there is also the issue of race, which remains another factor of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the reasons that drive these trends may be many, complex, and more nuanced than a simple male bias. As Kamila Shamsie wrote in 2015, commenting on a literary ‘manel‘ discussion where four men discussed ‘The crisis of American fiction’:

I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex.

One needs to examine the proportions of books in review in relation to the corresponding proportions of books by male and female authors published. One study reports that, in Australia, two-thirds of the books were written by women, but two-thirds of the books that get reviewed were those of male authors—an entrenched bias evident over nearly three decades between 1985 and 2013. But at least one editor has argued that more books by men are reviewed because some leading publishing houses publish men more often than women. Shamsie also notes how publishers submitting books for literary prizes do so with “a strong tilt towards books by men”.

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

Other factors, too, could be at work that relegate women writers to the background and devalue their work: how women writers are written about in the media, how books by women are priced less than similar books by male writers, how manuscripts written under a male pseudonym are more likely to be considered by a publisher, and how women are paid less than male writers. Shashi Deshpande in Listen to Me writes how she was described as a ‘grandmother’, how people often commented on her looks and the dresses she wore, how male editors who did not bother to read her work advised her to submit her work to women’s magazines, how some famous male writers denigrated and wrote and spoke dismissively of women writers.

It all adds up. A reader browsing a bookshelf or making what seems to be an informed purchasing choice has likely already been swayed towards male authors. Any personal bias, conscious or unconscious—more likely towards male authors given our social milieu—only accentuates the skew.

In May 2019, my own book was published by Oxford University Press: The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays on nature and conservation. The book slipped out into the world and I watched as it found its own place among the thousands that appeared on the shelves. I did no promotions or events, as authors apparently are expected to do these days, but for a single book reading event at the wonderful independent bookstore, children’s library, and cafe, Champaca, in Bangalore, and a joint session on trees at the Bangalore Literature Festival in November with writer and scientist, Harini Nagendra, and the artist, Nirupa Rao.

The publishers of my book had sent it out to a number of outlets for review and a couple of the reviews raised a pertinent point. Of the 60 essays in my book, I had written 10 with Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist and my partner, but nearly all the essays owed something to her as well. As I wrote in the Preface to the book:

Most of the essays emerged from journeys and field experiences with Divya… Journeying with Divya has always been an enriching experience of witnessing, photographing, and forming the impressions, images, and ideas that finally found expression in these words. I co-authored 10 essays (or their earlier versions) with her, but most of the others, too, are from our time in the field together: out of a memorable encounter, an extended conversation, a close observation, a shared silence.

Two reviewers made the point that her name deserved to have been on the cover, too. I was glad that the reviewers, both men, pointed that out—clearly, there are many people out there sensitive to this. There is sometimes a thin line between a considered decision and the perpetuation of a latent bias. Applied to my own work, it struck me that I may not even be the best person to realise or understand on which side of that line I myself stand.

As the weeks passed, I did little more than share links or send emails to friends about my book’s existence. But I could not avoid an egoistic urge to check every bookstore I visited whether they had my book on their shelves. Except at Champaca and a stall at the Lit Fest, none of the dozen or so bookstores I visited in 2019 stocked my book. Save one. And there, I was in for a surprise, a pleasant, yet short-lived surprise.

My book at the Starmark Bookstore, Royapettah, Chennai

In December 2019, there, on the top rack of the Wildlife/Gardening shelf in Starmark bookstore, Chennai, stood my book flanked by works of two authors I greatly admire. Julian Hoffman‘s Irreplaceable, one of the most beautifully-written books on nature and conservation of recent times, stood on one side. One book away on the other side was a recent anthology of essays by the late M. Krishnan, probably India’s most well-known nature writer.

Books by women writers were there, too: Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember on the Chennai floods and Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies. But then, I stepped back a bit and took in the whole shelf.

The shelf that tilts to one side.

Leaving aside the encyclopedia volumes and a couple of misplaced books, there were 43 books. Of these, an astonishing 37 books were by men, and only 6 books were by women (of these, 3 had a male coauthor). Several authors were white men, of course, including the long-dead Jim Corbett, a shikari famed for his tiger and leopard shooting exploits.

This was in a large bookstore in Chennai. The city I was born in. A city that considers itself one of the biggest in India, with a cultured citizenry and a vast population of readers.

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

There was not a single book by a woman author from outside India. Why Peter Wohlleben’s pulp nonfiction, but no Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction? I was thrilled to see Julian Hoffman’s book and bought a copy, but it would have been equally wonderful to see and buy a book like Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. And isn’t it time we grew out of Jim Corbett and read better natural history writing?

I looked again at my own book on that shelf. I turned and walked away.

I had begun 2019 with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces, Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and the Therigatha in translation. The latter, a collection of verses in Pali by ordained Buddhist women or therīs is considered among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world, some from as early as the 6th Century BCE. I tried to mix fiction and nonfiction with poetry and classics. I read books old and new. From Austen’s 1813 classic, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1949) and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954) to books published just this year: Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, and Ali Smith’s astonishing Spring. (Okay, I must admit I cheated with that last one. I began reading it on New Year’s eve and although I could hardly put it down any free moment I had, I could finish it only after 2020 had arrived.)

Through 2019, I’d tried to read whenever I could, but travel and work kept me from reading. By December 31, it was clear I was not going to meet my target of 50 books. I’d read only 42 books. Not a bad number that, in literature: 42. Still, thanks to the anthology Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, I managed to read, in total, the work of 63 women. And many extraordinary writers.

Looking back on 2019, I found no cause to regret my ‘whim’ of reading women. In fiction, I will remember it as the year I first read Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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

A delightful book that had me both chuckling and reflecting seriously on how we as humans relate to animals. This book is many things: murder mystery, Cannery-Row-esque story set in rural Poland, a biting critique of hunting and Christian ideas of human dominion over nature, a commentary on the similarities between astrology and sociobiology, and a tale of one woman’s determination. How Tokarczuk manages to pull all that off, while keeping you turning the pages for more, is something of a wonder. I can see why she is considered one of Poland’s “most celebrated and beloved authors.”

Then there was Joan Didion, who wrote powerfully of life and society rendered bleak and chaotic by loss and disruption. Her graphic description of her protagonist undergoing an abortion in a shady clinic and the character’s ensuing tailspin down the freeways of America is like nothing I’ve read before.

Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

An unflinching look at social and mental breakdown in pared-down prose by a writer I’m sure I’m going to be reading more. If a book can take you down a path, or send you tearing down a freeway, into the desert, into nothingness, into nothing, into knowing how much it matters when nothing matters, then maybe this is that book.

I read the wonderful poetry of Mary Oliver and Anne Carson and Kathleen Jamie, adding them all to my list of favourite authors without a moment’s hesitation. I read nonfiction that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in today’s world: history (Time Pieces, Nayanjot Lahiri), archaeology (Devika Cariapa), memoir (Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald). On environmental science and politics and for good nature writing, here are two books well worth your time.

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

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

A clear, hard-nosed, and incisive look into environmental issues and battles fought. This is a book anyone concerned with the environment in India or more broadly in relation to the developing world must read. Sunita Narain’s is one of the most informed and compelling voices in the world and the work she and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, have managed to do, against immense pressures and push-back, is remarkable. This books tells all in that same compelling voice, sharing her experiences that are eye-opening, sobering, and inspiring at once.

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

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

Part memoir, part quest for self, family, and nature in Taiwan, this is a gentle book with a gentle narrative voice that carries the reader along on a very personal journey. I like it for its simplicity and clarity, and its evocation of Taiwan and her family that is both personal and yet placed neatly within the great sprawl of the island’s history and geography.

Of course there were places where the writing sagged or books in which I felt I would have liked something more, something different, a different perspective of women by women. But, then why not perspectives of men by women or of anything, for that matter, by women? Anyhow, I am no critic, and worse, I’m a published male author, and how male authors see women often just doesn’t cut it. So I won’t even try. What I can attest is how much I enjoyed reading what I read.

It was not just books on themes that one might ascribe, not without the stain of bias, to women: family, women’s lives, sexual abuse and rape, mother-child relationships, love. These themes, and they are great literary and social themes, were certainly present in powerful, compelling, provocative stories told with a rare empathy by powerful and tender narrators. But the writing often rocketed out of these pigeonholes and soared into the skies. You could place some of these books on a family-themed shelf, but to do full justice, it is the shelf that would have to expand enormously to fully capture the range in these books: the idea of home, belonging, and caring for a differently-abled sister in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, the contemporary life of women in India in Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair, the sexual abuse of a girl child in a fake godman’s ashram in Anuradha Roy’s searing book Sleeping on Jupiter, the fabric of a family shredded by the brutal rape of the mother in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, the love and lust and longing in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, and Ismat Chughtai’s The Heart Breaks Free and The Wild One.

Other books brought to the fore thought provoking and powerful stories—fiction and fact, fake news and real—of racism and white supremacy, power dynamics, gender discrimination, our current crises of climate and immigration, of democracy losing to demagoguery, of life under slavery and colonialism. The works of Mary Beard (Women and Power), Sunita Narain (Conflicts of Interest), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Ali Smith (Spring), Wilma Stockenström (The Expedition to the Baobab Tree), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and several women writers of colour in Well Read Black Girl, are just a tiny sample of that spectrum of work by some of the best writers who are both of our times and timeless.

If, having read this far has sparked your interest in reading (more) women writers in 2020, you could mosey over to Reading Women and take their 2020 reading challenge.

Take the 2020 Reading Women challenge

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

Books of 2019

Whether you take the challenge or pick women to read from my bookshelf or any other shelf, chances are you will have a wonderful year of reading ahead. And when a woman’s voice lingers in your mind as you turn the last page of her book, you may find that it has been worth your while to listen to her.

A new home

After a long hiatus, I’m getting back to blogging here at View from Elephant Hills. Over the next few weeks, I aim to move my posts from the presently-dysfunctional Coyotes Network blogs. Do bookmark this page or take the RSS feed from below if you’d like to follow my work.

Update (8 Jan 2019): Most of my posts till 2014 are here now. Still have a bunch to bring over from the Coyotes Network. Should be done in the next few weeks!

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.

14 to 41: where I had always wanted to be

There are times in your life, when, in an unexpected moment, you come face to face with yourself. It could happen anytime, to anyone. It could happen over your breakfast as aroma and sound—hot coffee swirling in your cup and a dosa sizzling on the stove—suddenly release a sensory cascade of recollections as history intersects happenstance. It could happen in a memory or a dream, where past and present merge into a fused and frozen time indistinct, even, from the future. It could happen while you walk down a street and momentarily catch your own full-length reflection in a shining, shop-front glass. In that moment, the person who you were confronts the one who you have become. Chances are, it might catch you unawares.

… This post first appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 15 November 2013. Read more in the Prologue of The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

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.

The whistling thrush

The whistling thrush sings—the clouds approach—
Lilting tunes smooth—as the river’s flow
Is it for love, or gain—for intruder, reproach—
Who am I to say, or know?

The stream speaks softly—the banks glisten
With sparkling shingles—and damselfly wings—
Earthly purpose—no place for heaven
Is this the reason—the whistling thrush sings?

The voice of generations—across the firmament of time
Or ripple song—damselfly idyll anew—
With sprightly pose—the thrush sings sublime
A river-melody, an earth-harmony—I wish I knew—

The song-stream flows, slows—eternal
The sparkle-sun dips, slips—funereal
Is this the way—of space and time to go?
Who am I to say, or know?