At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

A sunset

I see you
in the glistening wet glades.
Even hardened woods
blush into pinkish shades.
I long for you to stay
and bring the silhouettes to life.
But you cast the last ray
as I turn my eyes to the sky,
murmuring a promise of tomorrow.
And, I wonder, could you ever lie?

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Reanimating the world

“Ah! there you are!” I exclaimed to a flat bean and plucked it gently while looking for more. The colour of the beans blends ever so perfectly with the leaves, that they seem to be playing an eternal hide-and-seek with anyone interested in harvesting them. I often lose time when hanging around plants, and trees. In retrospect though, it seems I just temporarily refuse to chase those ticking hands, a mirage of desires that snatch the present reality. Or, more aptly, plants sometimes allow me a peek of their world, where time no longer calls the shots. When I read Sumana Roy’s lament about post-colonial civilization as robbing us of living in tree-time, I could instinctively feel what she meant. Growing up in a typical urban space where movement is the order of the day, a pause is just that – a break from the animation, not a legitimate space of its own. I stare at the earth I dug up to plant a sapling. A few months back, it was a mix of decomposing organic matter. Now, the sweet smell of black humus envelops my senses, and a few moments later I see the heap of soil literally crawl with life. Who said it was “dust to dust”? Seems to me, it is life to life. Perhaps, just not the kind we usually acknowledge. Tiny tendrils quiver in the wind, looking for support that would help the plant climb. Roots search for water beneath the surface. The plant grows, as does the life around it. So much happens, yet we make children classify plants as “non-moving”.

As I walk down a street lined with trees, I inevitably slow down to admire them. The act of slowing down allows me to see some tiny red insects. One, two, many, and then many more. I see their dead bodies strewn across the pavement and feel as if I am walking through some place that was bombarded by violence. That violence being that of indifferent walking. Today, we walk through dead insects, tomorrow it would be axed trees, and then perhaps other suffering beings, all reduced to a fuzzy background one couldn’t care more about. This “psychic numbing” as Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it, seems even more dangerous than active aggression, for the latter still indicates a frenzy of passion which could be rectified. How do you rectify something that isn’t there – the inert vacuum of empathy?

Animism – the idea of attributing life to all things in the environment has been conventionally viewed as backward or childish. Our neat categories and increasingly compartmentalised lives extend the Cartesian duality of mind and matter all the way into our being, till we literally become ‘the ghost in the shell’. But then, we are not. Observe any child’s innocent wonder at a frog hopping by, or their sorrow for having lost a feather ‘gifted’ by a bird, or delight in the wooden rhythm of bamboos knocking each other in the wind, and the world seems more alive again.

I dig the soil, the warmth of its life breathing heavily in my hands. KN, a 13-year-old boy, is digging along with me. A few months back, he didn’t want to touch anything ‘dirty’. Well, how can you admire the flowers without nourishing its roots? So, began his weekly stint at gardening, and when seeds sown by him began to sprout, there was no looking back, only looking in. A few moments later, he unearths a sweet potato, and his face lights up with joy. My thoughts light up with hope.

hands flowers

 

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Forgiveness

Amidst charred ruins, a seed takes root.
Flags hang in shame, for the carnage in their name.
Generals stripped of their arrogance, what can clothe them now?
Maybe a common embrace, and the shared pain of loss.
The astronaut still finds the Earth draped in light,
even as the night wears on.
Sunlight doesn’t flinch from touching the scarred skin,
Perhaps there is a right for every wrong.

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A cycle of revolution

Since earliest recorded times, humans have been known to make tools to interact with the environment. Tools constitute technology, and today technology constitutes the society. Technical devices have come to engender ways of ‘knowing’ the world and play a key role in embedding cultural practices, as much as shaping them simultaneously. So, the instrumentality of a ‘tool’ has long extended itself into an extension of one’s ‘being’. Political theorist Langdon Winner offers a profound yet simple example by imagining a scene of two people traveling down a street in the same direction. One of them, however, is walking down the road, while the other is a car. The ‘world’ offered to both them radically changes by virtue of a technological device possessed by one of them. While the pedestrian is slower, s/he has the flexibility to gaze at windows of different shops, stop for a small chat and so on. On the other hand, the motorist is faster given that s/he can avoid ‘obstacles’ on the road and focus on the road ahead. Things that invite a pedestrian’s attention turn into distractions for the motorist.

In the words of Winner, “Individual habits, perceptions, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been powerfully restructured in the course of modern technological development. What is fascinating about this process is that societies involved in it have quickly altered some of the fundamental terms of human life without appearing to do so. Vast transformations in the structure of our common world have been undertaken with little attention to what those alterations mean.”

As an enthusiastic cyclist, the clash of ‘worlds’ on the perennially busy roads of Mumbai take a very literal turn. The effort put in climbing an uphill contour can’t be felt by a motorist who are literally transported in vehicles rather than using it. They can also be blissfully unaware of most topographical nightmares provided by badly maintained roads, as well as other sights and smells that any urban place is endowed with (Mumbai is especially rich in the latter). As a technology, the automobile, and the velocipede perhaps occupies opposite ends of a spectrum in terms of involvement and agency. As poet Christopher Morley writes, “In a car, you are carried; on a bike you go.” Many car enthusiasts describe a feeling of exhilaration while driving at top speeds across highways, but it seems to me the feeling can hardly be embodied in the way a cyclist feels the wind resisting the raw force pedaled into action by every muscle in the body. The speed achieved on a cycle does not rob one of the time needed to immerse oneself in the changing landscape. A cycle rides only as fast as it is pedaled, barring the downward slopes for occasional fits of giddy excitement. Even then, a balance ensues when one has to wrestle the way up again. Indeed a cyclical harmony. How can any car provide a similar sense of agency, when it uses what never belonged to us in the form of fuel, gas or electricity? It is energy devoid of feeling, and can thus only perpetuate movement without purpose. This is not to insult motorists, but to invite imagining the structure of a society in physical, and cultural dimensions if cycling were the predominant means of transport. Sue Macy describes how cycles became tools for the emancipation of women in the 19th century. Perhaps, now we need to be freed from the Faustian bargain made with automobiles and reclaim our bodies once more.

cycling

 

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The shame of victory

Was walking along, lost in thoughts

when I chanced upon those men,

their eyes fixed on the ground,

with a hungry gaze searching for something.

“What is it?” I asked, trepidation building up.

“It is vicious” said one, “poisonous” said other

“Crawled away so fast, must be deathly” quipped another.

Then my eyes fell upon their prize, a small being seeking refuge.

I shuddered at the sight of the ambush and pleaded to let it go.

“Yes, we will take it somewhere else, give a bag if you have one”

I fumbled to take out what I thought would save the poor soul,

but a deathly blow had already been dealt.

I gasped, asking why did it have to be done?

Its body writhing with pain gave way to a corpse lying still.

“It would have died anyway, it fell from a tree,” they said,

all the while barely wiping the look of triumph on their face,

proud to have killed the “vicious, poisonous” being,

“But why kill it” I ask again, helplessly staring at them,

A bunch of vicious, poisonous beings celebrating a murder.

I touched its cold body, but the world felt colder still.

Consumed by shame and guilt, I continued walking,

lost in thoughts, grief, and anger.

 

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To name a few

I still remember the decisiveness with which I decided to give up biology in higher education after glancing at the books that seemed to be filled with taxonomic nightmares. “How does memorizing the name of plant count as education?” I remarked to a friend. The teachers made no efforts to make the subject remotely interesting, and so I left in a huff, utterly convinced that I would have nothing to do with botany, zoology or any other discipline that insisted on pouring over directories of plants and animals. Perhaps, my conviction then also bore the quintessential arrogance of modern civilization that lives under the illusion of being above the natural environment. Why bother with names when life seems to hold its course through knowledge of local malls and Google search? However, years later I find myself helplessly staring at plants I have come to admire, yet know nothing about; if only I had a name to search for. Back then, I was staring at seemingly dull words; Now, I am hoping the plant introduces itself, turning one of those words into a name I can call.

Native American biologist Robin Kimmerer writes, “It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other but also with plants.” By guiding my attention to the intricacies of different plants, what was earlier a uniform green backdrop amongst trees begin to exhibit diverse variety, and I am stunned by my earlier blindness. Once seen, I can’t unsee it; still the mute spectator fumbling for a name I don’t know. Words allow a certain intimacy, a chance to remember something not available to one’s senses otherwise, and more importantly imagine what might be.

Most environmental education usually focuses on global scales of destruction, of a looming apocalypse that needs to be avoided. However, it more often than not leads people to tuck themselves into a sheltered existence, secretly hoping they are long gone before calamity strikes. All along it seems, our main worry lies in contemplating about our own survival. If only we were to realize how closely our survival maps onto well-being of other life forms around us. This realization, however, is not the outcome pedantic thought, it is to be found in sharing intimate bonds with the environment we are a part of. A sense of loss requires an act of love, and a feeling of love begins with a sense of familiarity. How can we be expected to act in an environment whose loss was never felt? We hardly even knew that it ever existed. Names are but a humble beginning to a relationship we ought to cherish. The words, however, become salient only in the context of experiences that serve to strengthen a bond. This is a glaring gap in our approach to education, which ends up arming children with words when they need names; they need stories to be told; they need to write one of their own. I was convinced of this when I first saw some children from an urban populace harvesting some Okra, ecstatic to see the fruit and the flowers. They had been eating the vegetable probably all their life without knowing how it grew. Now, for these children, Okra means something much more than the word. It is a name for a joyous experience they look forward to by growing more plants. There are many such names that require calling, may we know them all.

 

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A World ‘Rat’tled

In the 1920s, there was war, hunger, a few rich people and poverty. Today the situation is the same, except that there are many more people at war, hungry, rich and poor; not to mention the gazillion animals and plants who have died while we figure out better ways of killing each other. Anyway, while our questionable path to the even more questionable progress requires urgent counter-measures, I am trying to figure out some personal mess. My analysis led me to trace the substantial source of my mental unhinging to the 1920s, in particular to a tribe of scientists called ‘Behaviourists’.

These misdirected, well-meaning group of people thought that mind was a useless thing to study since we can’t see it or measure it; instead, one should focus on how different prompts can result in desired behaviour and measure these quantities. Voila! The mind goes out of the window. Their experiments were lauded as a success as they could make pigeons play table-tennis, make rats walk a tight-rope and do many other circus tricks by giving rewards for the right move and punishments for the wrong one. Well, that’s okay, but the act remains a reaction to environmental stimulus as the pigeons weren’t thinking of winning the table-tennis grand slam or the rules of the game. Scientists eventually moved on, but the behaviorist story seemed too attractive to let go, after all, who doesn’t want to be a control-freak? So began the cultural appropriation of an idea, in the form of schooling and parenting through a series of rewards and punishments; from chocolates to slaps to obsession with degree certificates. Humans are predictably more complex than pigeons and rats, and this form of mind twisting only allowed kids to figure out the rules, instead of understanding why they were there in the first place. It also made ‘things’ synonymous with happiness, and so here we have a hyper-thingified world with everything up for grabs.

By the time I was born, it seemed too late to save the world, and instead I was already one of the rats scampering along with other rats to find that extra tidbit of good grades and nods of approval. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t too good at doing these reward/punishment schemes. Sometimes good marks meant a treat, and sometimes bad marks also meant a consolation treat where they would generally do a good cop interrogation. Well, that meant they were open to reason, and that meant I could talk my way out!

Well, not always, but the idea remained. Now, look at the trouble it got me into. Neither here nor there, the metaphorical chimera of romantic ideas and peer pressure. I am not looking for the cookie but apparently, those are the only things one is supposed to worry about. I got jostled into an engineering degree, finished it and left the field altogether; walked into a PhD degree, walked out of it, later walked into another one and now contemplate being a farmer. People confuse introspection for whimsicality, and the courage to risk a fall by stepping off the perpetual treadmill as laziness. I am only learning to shrug off the labels. Looking around, I see many other rebellious rats too. If culture is a form of collective imagination, maybe we could bring to life a new culture of freedom; and we need be rats no more.

(Image credits: 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. Sourced from http://www.brainpickings.org)

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I’m wheel, thank you

The first time I saw a bicycle, I was simply amazed to see the grace and speed a person could acquire by mastering the art of maneuvering a pair of wheels. Naturally, I wanted to own one badly. However, like most Indian parents with limited financial means back in the 1990s, they had to be convinced that I was going to use to for eternity carefully . After all, they had to consider scrimping enough to buy a hyperactive seven-year-old what they considered a perennial accident voucher on wheels.

Always the smart one (according to himself), my dad struck a deal with me with the twin aims of weaning me out of my new-found love and teaching me how negotiations work (none succeeded). He suggested that I borrow cycles from neighbouring kids for two months, and, if I still felt like I really wanted one, we could buy it. Else I could just continue borrowing a cycle occasionally when mood beckoned. Sounds fair, right? Well, kids don’t exactly belong in the ‘saint’ category to lend their toys to others, especially when they can’t get anything in return. They are also as xenophobic as their parents. So, as a Bengali girl in an orthodox Punjabi colony, my chances of getting a cycle to practice where as much as someone making billions selling imaginary cow fodder(Oops, it happened). The girls wouldn’t allow me to touch their ‘ladybird’, an apology of a cycle just lacking a Barbie head for a bell, and I treated the cycle with equal contempt. One snotty-nosed boy, however, agreed to lend me his bike in exchange for a few cartoon stickers I had been hoarding.

Obviously, my first attempts were a far-cry from my imagination of sailing through the streets and whizzing past the crowd. I bruised myself enough to contemplate if the bike was possessed by the evil spirit of some grumpy old aunt. Never underestimate the ego and stubbornness of a 7-year-old though. I could have rivalled the pride of Edmund Hillary the day I managed a complete ride without falling off the bike. From then, I only wanted more; ride while standing on the pedals, ride without holding the handlebars, race against the wind; basically, I convinced dad that my existence would be useless without possessing a cycle. And, that is how I got my first bike.

Fast forward two decades later,  the mere sight of a cycle would still make my hands itch to ride one but a spate of unending, seemingly rational,  reasons kept me from buying one. I hadn’t ridden one in years. Then one fine day, my partner bought one for himself because, it seems for the IT guys, their increasing skills in coding is only matched by the girth of their belly. A sudden pain of adulthood on reaching the threshold of thirty convinced him that he had to get back in shape. Before his limbs turned into flabby pillows that is. So, began his furious morning peddling while a familiar longing grew in my heart. I still had plenty reasons to pass the idea of riding along, one of them being the onset of the infamous Mumbai monsoons. I convinced myself it would be wise to think about it after the rains. Then, the next day I found myself with a beautiful bike because I couldn’t ‘refuse’ my partner’s insistence on buying me one. Good one, you lying heart, good one.

The memory of our body is magical, for it remembers things we are hardly conscious about. The moment I climbed the bike, my limbs just knew what to do. Only, my nose didn’t. It turns out early morning rides in Mumbai don’t make for a gust of sea breeze caressing your face. For all the speed possible, I was stuck behind a garbage truck, finally overtaking the nostril-torturing machine only to realise that I was cruising past a giant landfill. There is no escaping the all-pervading stench. So much for riding your dream.

But again, a city is only what we make of it. We are forever making choices through our actions or lack of it. In Italy, bicycles outsold automobiles for the first time since WW II. The trend is catching up throughout Europe. Elsewhere, there are drives for local waste management. It seems the metaphorical wheel is turning anyway, and we can always alter the path it takes. As a growing number of cyclists inhabit the city, maybe wheels of change will follow too.

Image: (c) Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

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A strange silence

It is not the screams that keep me awake at night,

Nor the haggard faces in a queue.

Animals being killed numb me not,

Nor the bruised bodies nursing broken minds.

The apathy, however, sickens my being,

It numbs my senses to know

That there won’t a helping hand for those who fall,

Nor a sigh of grief for those gone.

No anger for justice long lost.

Not even a pause to see if we are at fault.

Only a strange silence echoes in the dark.

A quiet horror of a blinkered life,

till it blinds the soul out of us.

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Quiet flows the passion

Tucked away in the cantonment area of a city yet to feel the full blast of urbanisation and ‘smart development’ lives Mr D on his one-acre farm. A most self-effacing personality, he preferred talking to his plants rather than humans around him. “I always loved gardening, I grew vegetables at school too…” he mentioned on being asked the motivation behind his painstaking efforts to grow a plethora of plants around his house for the past 20 years. His latest achievements have taken the local horticulture society by storm, as he has managed to cross-pollinate different varieties of hibiscus plants to grow flowers having novel colours and leaf shapes. It is almost like watching Mendel in the 21st century, except that time seems to flow differently once you enter the garden, abuzz with the biological cycles of different plants, animals and insects; it is no longer linear. As he explained the various cycles of growth, maturation, death and rebirth of the plants he shares an intimate connection with, one is only made to realise how stark and artificial are the boundaries we create in our relationship with nature. Perhaps the paradox of our society lies the fact that the more we seem to ‘know’ about nature, all the way up to distant galaxies, the lesser we seem to ‘experience’ what it really is. Indeed, if the act of holding a ripe tomato grown in one’s garden can seem like a surreal experience, or walking naked feet on grass wet with the morning dew seem like a luxury, haven’t we lost connection with something fundamental to our being? As Alan Watts once wrote, “You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.”

At the centre of his farm, we came across a huge Mango tree. He explained it was planted by his father by tying four different varieties of tiny Mango saplings together. As they grew, the stems fused to form a single trunk such that now a the tree yields different varieties of mangoes. It seems miraculous, yet so natural for things to grow together. Now, he did the same with a few Hibiscus saplings and wonders if different coloured flowers will grow on the same plant. A tender bond of curiosity passed on from father to son.  Along with it a quiet passion to salvage the fast eroding biodiversity, and an intimate knowledge of plants gained through direct experience. Perhaps, more people will embody his spirit and find themselves re-awakening to ancient wisdom. As the Earth continues to speak through the more sensitive of us, through enchanting beauty or visceral pain, we are forever embedded in a web relationships often forgotten. If only we are willing to listen, there is much to learn, much more to unlearn.

(Illustration by Emily Hughes from The little gardener)

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