‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.
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.
In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?
The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.
That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.
The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.
The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.
The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.
Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.
Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.
Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.
Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”
The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.
… This post first appeared in the Rainforest Revival blog on 30 September 2012. Read the article in Fountain Ink, Coming Home to Borneo.
At the edge of the foaming sea, behind the spent waves on the beach, shapes materialize in the night. They are ancient shapes that have appeared countless times over millions of years. They slowly pulse towards the shore, their domed shells barely showing at the surface. Under a waning gibbous moon, scaly flippers strike the sand. Wrinkled necks emerge, stretching beaked heads with unblinking eyes to survey the beach. Like time travellers from some primeval epoch, a great wave of sea turtles has arrived on the land.
For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees only needed a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.
Today, along the roads, men come with axes and saws for the slaughter of these trees. They bring heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots out of the earth. Trees that stood for centuries are brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.
There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For, the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.
A lovely article written by Ian Lockwood, which seems most appropriate to read today—Earth Day, 2012—has been published in Frontline. The article ‘Breathing life back into the sholas‘, which also talks about ecological restoration, is accompanied by a little box item explaining this as a ‘New idea in India‘. The article speaks of the unique shola – grassland ecosystems of the high mountains of the Western Ghats and of the ongoing work there on restoration of sholas and grasslands that have been degraded, destroyed, or badly affected by invasions of alien plant species. For those not familiar with Ian Lockwood, he is a brilliant photographer, educator, and writer, whose work you can see in the website High Range Photography and on his blog.
It is well worth picking up your copy of Frontline magazine (Volume 29 – Issue 07 dated April 7-20, 2012) just to see the beautiful photographs, especially the black-and-white landscape shots and panoramas that Ian Lockwood is famous for. You can see a preview of some page spreads on Ian’s blog here. Frontline is one of the few magazines that frequently carries full-length and detailed articles on the environment along with photographs and it is always nice to read a piece such as this in the magazine.
Lockwood’s article describes the unique montane landscape, its history, and conservation concerns, all of which serve as the backdrop for the ongoing ecological restoration work by a local NGO, the Vattakanal Conservation Trust (VCT). Through pioneering restoration efforts and partnership with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, VCT is working to change the way we view and conserve the larger landscape.
In our own restoration work here in the Anamalai hills, we have learned much from and been inspired by the work of VCT, especially Tanya Balcar and Robert (Bob) Stewart of VCT. Bob and Tanya, both founders of VCT, are a couple of British origin settled in Kodaikanal for over 25 years. Sharing a deep passion for native plant species and their conservation, they are self-taught, top-notch botanists with wide experience of the incredible diversity of plants in the Western Ghats, including in the Palani hills. Concerned over the widespread degradation, especially in the Upper Palanis, for more than two decades now they have also done pioneering work on ecological restoration. This includes careful floristic studies, development of germination techniques of hundreds of plant species of shola forests and grasslands, implementation of restoration of highly degraded sites to sholas and their again-pioneering efforts at restoration of the unique montane grasslands (the famed habitat of the kurinji). Their contributions are also recorded in the monumental 3 volume TheFlora of the Palni Hills by K. M. Matthew, one of the botanical treatises and authoritative reference works to emerge from Southern India.
Bob and Tanya and the VCT staff also maintain one of the longest-standing and diverse native plant nurseries in the region, besides having developed a grassland nursery and techniques to propagate native grassland plants. These are also documented in a chapter in our joint publication here. Their success in convincing the bureaucracy of the need for ecological restoration using native shola and grassland species and in working with committed officers is something to be respected and emulated. Their work is also showing insights into the effects of alien plantations on grasslands and wetlands, and water tables, and how ecological restoration can help to reverse the tide of degradation with benefits both for nature conservation and local people. Ian Lockwood has also written articles earlier, including in Sanctuary Asia and Frontline, with a highly appreciative but modest mention of VCT, all of which you can find linked on his blog. Taken together, this set of articles, documents well the context and significance of the region and the ongoing restoration work.
This post first appeared on the Rainforest Revival blog on 22 April 2012.
There is a dark sea above and a dark sea below. With one I am transfixed, with the other forever moving. Above, the arched firmament is smeared with galactic grey and sprinkled with silver brilliance of stars uncounted. Below, a fathomless depth hides under a smooth lustre, crested with white ribbons of surf and the luminescent wake of our passage.
And there is, with the wind, the gentle wind, tugging at my t-shirt, sifting through my hair, my eyes, eyelashes, over my hands and my legs, sighing in my ears, a light swell on which the boat rises, and a moment poised on a vertex of consciousness, filled with being.
In boundless seas, I am transfixed, I am moving, I am.
Like the proboscis of a malarial mosquito the Andaman Trunk Road pierces the Jarawa forest. The road carries a steady stream of vehicles, bunched into convoys with guards. By the road are heaps of stones and the claw marks of heavy machinery: the road will soon be wider.
Just beyond, on either side, stretches the home of the Jarawa—lofty rainforests with tall dipterocarps and padauk, myriad trees and lianas, palms, cane, and bamboo. If the forest bears the human mark of the Jarawa, it is subtle and difficult to discern.