At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

The journey of re-enchantment

“Bael?” My ears pricked up when I heard the word, my thoughts flooding with memories of Dadu cracking open the fruit, and removing the orange fibrous pulp to make a delicious drink later. It had been years since I had tasted the fruit, but somewhere, the memory had been patiently waiting for me to relive the experience.

This has been happening to me frequently. In the past 7 years, or so, since I have deliberately decided to distance myself from the rush of “bigger, faster, better”, the slow, complex, symphony of relationships, of both human and more than human beckon me. As political theorist Jane Bennett describes, the world can open up in unexpected and delightful ways if we’re willing to be enchanted by it. After all, didn’t we all once live in enchanted places, when we spoke the language of stones and trees, rivers and hills?  Only when I slow down, can I see the wild growth of cherry tomatoes by a busy roadside, or hear the distinct sounds of different leaves fluttering in the wind, or spot the native green vegetables that many people have abandoned in the favour of exotic, expensive options… each time, I feel like I am gathering ancient wisdom, while also travelling down a familiar path with a new sense of gratitude. I ask my mother for recipes of vegetables that might cease to exist if we forget how to eat them. Food has become that thread of connection, weaving its way through my sense of identity and purpose. How easy it is to break the long line of culture and knowledge? Just by forgetting an ingredient of a meal. But then, the remembering is also a way to restore, and revive the lost voices; Of the birds, animals, trees, rivers, and our ancestors.

It is a humble beginning, but when I see my students, all excited to munch on raw Ambadi leaves they have just plucked from their own farm, I believe it is a good start. An ethics based on care and generosity must begin with a sense of wonder and respect. As they begin to care for their beloved sour-tasting plant, spending their time peering into its pink calyx, admiring the shape of the leaves, they are drawn into a world of reciprocity and dialogue. Now, when the plants speak to them, they slow down to hear it murmur.

 

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Travel ke log

Part I: The arrival of the tempest

Sometimes, a situation is normalised to the extent that one’s unique perception simply doesn’t count. I felt this way regarding my maiden voyage to the U.S.A a couple of months back. It is so commonplace an event that even sounding out loud my reservations and fears seemed embarrassing; someone would invariably exclaim, “even 10-month-old babies and 80-year-old grandmas travel happily, you’ll be fine!” Well, for starters, that is my problem; Having the aforementioned group as travel companions. The best part is the ease with which co-passengers, especially females (all assumed to be bursting with indiscriminate motherhood), are expected to completely understand and give endearing looks to the irritated, seemingly possessed scream-bags because, well, babies. The situation seems only slightly better than a bus, where, at any moment unoccupied female laps like mine could be arbitrarily handed a child if the mother didn’t get a space to sit. But then again, bus rides are rarely 16 hours long, and I could get off anywhere in between!

Anyway, once I was aboard after what seemed like an endless immigration queue and multiple security checks, I slumped into my seat in sheer exhaustion. It seemed only minutes since I had closed my eyes when I heard an “excuse me” and a simultaneous poke near my shoulder. It was snack time at morning 3 a.m, duly served by the flight stewards. Before I could mumble a “no, thank you”, the snacks were shoved on my tray table, and the steward moved on. My co-passengers were expectedly an elderly Gujarati couple and seemed quite familiar with the routine of the in-flight services. They enthusiastically began watching the movies available on the screen, as I later realised, for almost the entire flight duration. I opted for a meta-experience by standing near the rear of the aircraft and watching multiple screens flashing at any given time of the journey. As luck would have it, my screen wasn’t functioning so I, alone, had a blank screen for entertainment. Thankfully, I had enough sleep to catch up with so didn’t mind napping whenever I could. However, as it happens on long journeys, especially with Indian co-passengers, a lone woman traveller of “marriageable age” will soon be asked to reveal her entire life history. I wasn’t going to be spared either. Sure enough, the next time food was served, I heard the dreaded opening question,

Aunty: “Aur beta, kahaan se ho?”

me (in my mind): Shit. (Aloud) Mumbai se, aunty.

Over time, I had learnt the trick was to keep answers as short as possible, and agree with whatever they said if one wished to have a relatively short conversation.

Uncle: “padne ja rahe ho, America”?

Me (in my mind): Damn. (Aloud) Haan uncle, ek conference hai.

Aunty: “Hamaari Beti New Jersey mein rehti hai. Hum jaathe rahte hain, har saal. Bahut acchi jageh hai.

Me (in my mind): Why the hell am I supposed to care about that? (aloud) Haan aunty.

Uncle: Aap akele travel kar rahe ho? Family hai aapki U.S mein?

At this point, somehow mentioning marriage and relatives seems to quell all curiosity and fake concern.

Me (in my mind): Damn. (aloud) Haan uncle, mere husband nahi aa paaye. Mein relatives ke saath rahungi U.S mein.

At this point, further interrogation was mercifully stalled with the arrival of the steward to offer tea, coffee, etc. I spent the rest of the journey with earphones plugging my ears irrespective of whether I listened to music or not. Finally, the claustrophobic nightmare came to an end, and the aircraft landed amidst the grey surroundings of Newark airport.

Like typical Indian passengers, most people were jostling into a queue even as the aeroplane was taxing on the runway. Habits die hard, even if in a foreign country. I eventually made my way to the baggage collection area and went to collect a trolley to stash my suitcases. However, I realised that I had to pay only 6 dollars to avail the trolley. Convinced that I had misunderstood him, I asked the guy if the money was refundable once I returned the trolley since I needed it for just 5 minutes till the car parkway.

Guy: “No, ma’am. It’s 6 dollars.”

Fresh off the Boat (FOB) is the term used to describe immigrants that have arrived from a foreign nation and have not yet embraced the host nation’s culture, behaviour etc. I, for one, had not, and would not for the rest of the journey assimilate even the currency value. So, an alarming Rs. 400 to avail a trolley (which costs nothing in my homeland) briefly knocked me off my senses. A false sense of self-esteem and embarrassment won that battle though, as I kept a straight face and paid up quietly, even managing a constipated smile later. So, this is how I was ripped off even before I got out of the airport.

Part II: Of action-scripts and bus journeys

Ever felt like the world is a great theatre? Turns out that it is a truer statement than mere expressions of romantic writers. We do ‘act’ all the time. In fact, action scripts is a cross-disciplinary theory which describes that “people organize their experiences in script like formations they can refer to in the future to understand the same, or similar new, situations. Scripts contain instructions for how to behave, what is expected, and what to expect. Scripts are acquired through experience, interaction, and observing.” As it happens, travelling in a foreign country is the best way to realise the embedded drama of interactions, especially when you haven’t mastered the role yet. My greatest fear for the first few days involved walking into a restaurant to buy food. What they call friendly customer service (“Hi there! How can I help you today”) sounded like an alarming, “Haven’t you decided your order yet?!” to me, and I would invariably stutter the first item I could lay my eyes on. Of course, that was not the end of the ordeal. Next, the person would rattle a range of options that I mostly had no clue of and would quickly nod my head, feeling all eyes rest on me (mostly my own imagination). The result? I ate some really weird sandwiches and burritos there. So, I decided to discreetly observe other people ordering, and gradually made sense of the intricate affair of placing orders in restaurants. The same story played out while commuting in the local metro trains of NY. However, I am not sure if my panic-stricken face at such times evoked extra pity, because people were rather helpful. Within a couple of weeks though, I knew I had become a pro when I started travelling without having to consciously think about where I was heading. My brain had already relegated most of the job to my legs, which did a pretty good job of it. I still avoided ordering food until the last day though.

When travelling on a shoe-string budget as a student, cheap accommodations are a high priority, and free ones are to be accepted with no questions asked. It also means opting for an affordable commute, which in the U.S is their notoriously inadequate bus service. The automobile sector here makes sure that individual cars remain the most viable option, so public transport in any place apart from NY, and few college towns is abysmal. It also means that only people who can’t afford a car would opt for the private bus services, thus earning the mode of transport an even more dubious reputation of being ‘unsafe’. It is ironic how the marginalised communities are associated with being dangerous just because they can’t afford the gentrifying commodities of middle classes. In so many ways, the expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I, however, managed to have completely uneventful long journeys, so much so that I was secretly hoping for some action to take place. The only disturbing thing that I could notice was the driver munching on an excessive amount of mints for the entire duration of the ride. I think she finished a big bag of those. Another leg of the journey involved someone taking off their shoes off to elicit a rather nauseous wave of odour, resulting in the driver bringing the bus to a screeching halt, cursing no one in particular, and spraying the entire coach with an equally horrendous air-freshener. I am guessing I blacked out for a while, because the next time I opened my eyes and unclasped my pinched nose, everything seemed normal. Life goes on.

Part III: Of beds and hosts

If someone were to ask me to summarise the hardest part of the trip in one sentence, I would do it in just a word – bed. I live in a tiny hostel room, but I love my bed, pillows and cover. My partner is a witness to the satisfaction I derive from making our bed every day, because I look forward to sinking into my earthly heaven every night. Small pleasures; and I sorely missed it. My partner was right in his suspicions that the “I love you” at the end of our phone call every night was meant mostly for my bed. My rather nomadic itinerary in the U.S meant that I had practically slept in a different bed every week, in rooms ranging from attics to places that looked like abandoned museums, with one similarity – an extra springy mattress that had me feeling like I slept on a trampoline.

In my defence, I would say that my sleep deprivation played a major role in my diminished capacity for friendly social interactions. My brother tends to disagree by saying that my social skills are abysmal, to begin with. Anyway, for the better or worse, I did try. One place I stayed for a couple of days was a nice suite with two rooms provided by the university. I was happy to have a room by myself. I was sharing the suite with a nice Finnish girl, who had arrived a few days before me. As soon as we exchanged pleasantries, she asked if I had any issues if she exchanged her room with a guy who wanted to stay there with her friend. The conversation went something like this:

FG (Finnish girl): So Deborah, are you okay sharing room with a boy?

Me: What?

FG: Oh! Is that a problem?

Me (head abuzz with random thoughts, including a discussion with my partner about polyamory): Well, I usually don’t share beds with strangers. If there is some issue, I’ll try an sleep in the living room.

FG: Oh no! Not your bed. Ah ok, I meant this apartment. He will sleep in my room. I will be sleeping with my friends somewhere else.

Me (relieved): Oh ok. Sure, please go ahead.

FG: Ok, great. My friend may join him.

Me: Cool.

We were soon joined by an American guy and her friend. I was too tired to hang around for dinner, so I bid them good night and said that I was going to have an early night. The next day, I was up pretty early and was almost finishing my breakfast, when the guy woke up and casually asked me if I slept well while making a cup of coffee for himself. I just jokingly remarked that I must have slept well because I didn’t hear him jumping on his bed. It was supposed to be a dig at the flimsy common walls in American housing and the springy beds. However, he then turned red and remarked there might have been a little jumping. I just laughed it off and didn’t get it till the girl came out and asked the same question. Stupid me. For the rest of the time we spent together, I steered clear of bedroom conversations and noises.

As days progressed, and I spent time in different places, I came to realise the stark loneliness of the typical American life. In India, ‘personal space’ ends about 25 inches from your body, and you can never be too far to ignore your mother shout for dinner. American suburbs, on the other hand, look like rows of abandoned, and eerie, doll-houses. I could literally hear some ghoulish version of Pete Seeger singing “ticky-tacky houses” somewhere around the corner. On the other hand, during this trip, I finally made sense of sitting in coffee shops. Till then, I always wondered about people sitting alone in cafés. However, one afternoon as I found myself sitting with an expensive cup of mocha, and wistfully looking outside the window, I knew. I couldn’t bear to sit alone in my room, and had braved the snow to sit alone in a café, surrounded by people doing their own stuff. And, it was much nicer. It seems, the warmth of human company, even if not directed at you is not a myth after all (But filter coffee is much better). I also realised that the ‘almost equal’ ratio of cats and dogs to human population has more to do with a desire for a company than anything else.

One AirBnB place I stayed at, was owned by an elderly lady, who lived alone with her three cats. Now, I don’t judge cats but I am pretty sure they have nothing but contempt for our species. I would often hear the long monologues she had with the cats, encountered only with baleful looks from their end. The numerous rooms in the house had quaint Victorian interiors, that I may have admired if I didn’t have to stay in them. The house itself was apparently almost 80 years old, and the boards creaked like rheumatic limbs, adding more suspense than I would have liked for the night. Mostly, it would be a pair of gleaming eyes and scary portraits of sadly over-dressed people that would freak me out. So, when a couple came to stay for a few days along with their dog, I was far happier than I usually am when it comes to sharing space with strangers. As it happened, one evening they asked me if I could babysit their dog, Cassie for a while. They had noticed that I was extremely warm towards her, mainly because I have a dog back home and was missing her notwithstanding zero resemblance physically or character wise (mine is a bitch, in the meanest sense possible; but the eyes!). Anyway, the weak moment of nostalgia and homesickness won as I said “sure” far too quickly. 10 minutes into the job, Cassie soon helped me remember details of doggie anxiety that I had chosen to gloss over when peering into those puddles of innocent eyes. Soon, her small whimpers turned into anguished howls that no amount of petting could lessen. My bribes of dog treats did little good; instead, she learnt to time me so that I was punctually handing her the treats every 10 minutes to stop her from dramatic doggie overtures. Her tiny size also made her the perfect target for the cats, who would smugly come just near enough to quickly slap her before hopping onto a comfortable high chair and purr in content. I spent the next two hours literally carrying her around in my lap, feeding her way too many treats than she was supposed to have (Yes, I know I won’t make a good mother; never added it to my resume). Her human parents finally came back and promptly handed me a gift as a token of appreciation. Now, that was unexpected and nice! “I did want some nice American souvenir”, I thought to myself and opened the box. The next moment though, I am not sure how twisted my smile seemed as I mumbled a “Thank you so much!”. It turned out to be a box of Assam Teabags. The guy said, “I knew you would like it! It’s Indian tea.” Yeah right; ‘Indian’ tea, as if it were a thing. I eventually bought myself some souvenirs; They had nothing to do with tea.

Part III: Food

Food is a touchy subject for me. The journey from being a ‘fussy eater’ to an ‘environmentally conscious fussy eater’ has involved many ideas, discoveries, farm visits, and recipes. Thus, the army of junk food flooding American markets in shiny, ‘easy-to-eat’ packets is a nightmare that I, unfortunately, see unfolding in many Indian cities as well. Such food items are also cheaply available thus making it the only option available to many marginalised communities in the U.S. The places inhabited by poorer classes may not have a single fresh vegetables and fruits market for miles around! In response, many such communities finally decided to take the matter into their own hand to grow their own edible gardens on empty lots. In the era of Monsanto and seed patents, growing one’s own food is a supreme act of rebellion, and it is one that I completely endorse. Of course, cooking the vegetables grown is another matter altogether. One of the things I noticed very early on was the lack of cooked food in a typical American meal. Copious amounts of salad with chunks of meat thrown into it form a major part of the cuisine (if there is any). Now, as a Bengali, the art of cooking is especially dear to me. So, seeing the entire spread of typical American food reduced to flavours of sweet/salty/pepper withered most of my taste buds. A few of my hosts kindy took me to different Asian restaurants but, the Americanised version of most cuisines just meant that an ‘extra spicy’ food item was sprinkled with a few red-chilli flakes (face-palm). So, while staying with some American hosts, I offered to cook some Indian food, much to their happiness and my relief. I made a decent four-course meal with whatever spices and vegetables I could find in a nearby Indian store. As it turns out, my hosts were most surprised by the ‘rotis’ (flatbread) I made using make-shift cooking vessels of pizza rolling pin, wok etc. Apparently, the dough ‘spinning’ under the influence of the rolling pin was pure magic. Looking at their excited faces, I came to think it is.

Anyway, in the end, I discovered that ‘Uncle Sam’ wasn’t that scary after all, African-American braided women look exquisite, sunsets and clear skies are indiscriminately beautiful, and Google maps are a unique combination of helpful and irritating. When it comes to people, differences are plenty, but similarities many more. I ended up sharing smiles, hugs, maybe a bottle of wine too many, and all to a good end. I’ll never get over the American fetish for sparkling water with generous amounts of ice though…Um, and the huge cups of black coffee, the creaking floors, and the horrible public transport, yeah, and add the excessive use of tissue paper to the list…!

P.S Some photos along the way: https://www.flickr.com/photos/140987662@N03/

 

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For the love of the earth

Though my ears were still ringing as I got off the patent rickety state transport bus of Maharashtra, it didn’t miss the crackle of dry leaves carpeting the dirt road. I have grown up amidst the crowded lanes of Delhi, and as a result was the typical urban millennial until a series of experiences convinced me that restoring our relationship with the land that sustains us lies at the foundation of healing our abused bodies, minds and the surrounding environment. Nowhere is the interdependency manifested as vividly as in the act of farming, where the reciprocity of food, nourishment, and care goes all the way down to the sweet-smelling soil teeming with micro-organisms. However, there is much that our generation has forgotten. As botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, the restoration depends on re-story-ation. What are the narratives we can rewrite for ourselves and others? The stories we choose to believe and enact have adaptive consequences; perhaps now is the right time to change the dominant narrative. In some small part, I have tried to do so by exploring multiple alternative threads of city life in the form of urban farming. The past few years in Mumbai have been spent in learning the intricacies and miracles of soil, only to realise we don’t know much about it. We can, nevertheless, share an intimate relationship with it by growing plants and watch life take roots.

My journey has also connected me to kindred spirits who like me, share an abiding love and awe for the complex web of natural processes. One such person is the SundayFarmer (SF), whose endearing blog about his experiences at an acre of a farm owned by him caught my eye. Though he calls himself a weekend farmer and generously credits his Man-Friday, Mangal for a lot of the leg-work, it was easy to see that he would prefer to spend much more time ‘far from the madding crowd’ if circumstances allowed. We got in touch and decided that I could visit the farm whenever he went next, except that I didn’t know that my decision was jinxed. A series of unfortunate and unexpected events ensured that I had to wait for almost a year-and-half before I finally made the trip on Christmas Eve. My uncle, a retired forest officer decided to accompany me at the last minute, and as a result, had his first rendezvous with the crowd of Mumbai local trains. I must admit, he was pretty game about the experience though.

So, here I was, trudging on the dirt track after nearly 3 hours of travel, to finally set foot on the SF’s weekend farm. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to observe the stark difference between his patch of earth and the nearby plots; the latter forced into artificial rows of identical trees or crops, surrounded by trimmed grass. His one-acre patch on the other hand, blooms with diversity. What may seem like a disorienting sight for anyone accustomed to the uniformity and monotony of industrial culture, is actually a model for resilience. Diversity ensures that a single pest doesn’t damage the entire farm; it ensures that a ‘pest’ doesn’t become one in the first place because there would be a suitable habitat for its predator. ‘Weeds’ don’t become a nightmare because they have their own role to play in the ecosystem as live mulch or nitrogen-fixing properties and co-exist with desired plants. Termites scuttle around in hordes slowly decomposing the abundant leaf litter, creating conducive conditions for plants to grow. Everything thrives and dies, only to be born again. SF introduced us to each plant and tree on the farm as if introducing a relative, with a warmth independent of their ‘productivity’ in terms of bearing fruits. After all, they are family. Over the years, he has experimented with growing a variety of plants, and has had his share of failures. His recent attempt of bee-keeping also ran into a number of issues, though “each time there has been a different problem, so I learnt something new” he commented with a wry grin. Years of decomposed leaf-litter made the ground soft to walk on. So, it was difficult to imagine that the area is actually a very rocky terrain. “I bought this place because it near the river, then I realised that everywhere I dug there are stones to be unearthed!” he chuckled, pointing towards heaps of stones found on the farm. “But it is ok, the plants manage, and we are also learning how to grow different crops in such a terrain”, he continued. We walked through the banana grove, and were generously blessed by its giant leaves trickling cold morning dew on our heads. We stopped to admire the fragrant flowers of gandha-raj, the giant bamboo groves, the abundant papayas, the beautiful flowers of rose-apple tree, the bare branches of a tree that he has nick-named as silver oak, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies among the many others sensuous attributes of the farm. Be quiet enough and one can hear the flow of the stream and walk towards it. I was delighted to dip my finger and watch tiny fishes gathering around it like a curious bunch of school children.

As we parted, he gifted me some seeds, a raw papaya, and some banana stems. Kimmerer writes, “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How rich would we be to enjoy more of such relationships rather than empty transactions of plastic money signifying nothing except the symbolic power of greed. My uncle, though appreciative of the place, later whispered into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be better to build a room in some corner and open this up for tourists to spend some time etc., they can see the farm, enjoy the river and he would earn a lot!” I whispered back, “Yes, but that’s not love.”

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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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