At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

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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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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A voiceless speech

There it stood, even when it was hacked.
For roots run deep; not fast, not away.
A hundred years had passed before it,
a hundred more could have followed.
But when a road had to be carved,
like a stake through its heart,
What can the voiceless say?
Voices were given to deified stones instead,
with chants that could kill or revive.
But never will roads pass through it,
rarely do mortals and gods collide.
So, they rather hacked a muted living being
to pave the way for a promised tomorrow,
among spectators many, and mourners few.
For, who could partake a dying tree’s sorrow?

 

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Shattered

I am not free, though the space stretches endlessly
I am tired, yet I am restless
of the forced linearity,
the imposed definitions,
the false security.
The haunting shadows under scrambling footsteps.
The blaring neon signs.
Those scattered minds,
those prejudiced eyes,
those greedy hands,
those hungry lips.
But wait! Am I not standing in front of a mirror?
Then who do I see staring back at this madness?
Shatter! The sound of breaking glass.
Now I only have a wall to break.

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Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan

Bombay or Mumbai as people call the place, swearing all the while that a name makes all the difference has inevitably brought a scowl on my face. The simple reason being that it stinks—Apart from the unique sights and sounds of the place to which I will get to later, the amazingly heady mix of dried fish, sea breeze and ever increasing garbage was enough to jolt me out of my senses the first time I set afoot in this land. Whatever followed next seemed like LSD induced nightmare for the city felt like a giant ant colony abuzz with movement; a rush that would never stop, a din that would never reduce, a societal current that would sweep you off your feet. I felt like the proverbial Alice in Wonderland being told by the Red Queen, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Oh, and running I was, from rabid buses, hooting rickshaws, people who always had a train to catch and of course the sudden sauna treatment called ‘rain’ here. So, when it came down to choose where I would want to settle down with my partner, you can well imagine where this city ranked. My mistake I realise now, was to make my distaste public news by announcing to all and sundry that Bombay was the last place I would literally stick my nose in. Murphy heard it all of course, and four months later, much to my chagrin I was packing my bags to head for what should be called the most populous marsh on earth. My partner wasn’t any bit happier for the city held no charms for him either, yet as the familiar sweat trickled down our face and the ‘creek (ki)’ smell hit our nostrils we knew there was no going back now. Besides the sights, sounds and smells of Bombay, the other unique problem of this city lies in housing. For a price that can get you a spacious home elsewhere, Bombay will throw you a hovel as if it were doing a favour by keeping the walls in its place. Even this has to come via brokers i.e devils incarnate who ensure you are broke by the time the deal is done. My partner had been running pillar to post in search for a suitable home, and in the process fallen sick due to exhaustion (duly euphemised as weight loss) before cosmos decided to bestow a roof over our heads. What we had got was a barsati but given myriad childhood memories associated with such type of houses I immediately liked it despite the fact that the terrace was larger than our room and bathroom combined. Bathrooms in a typical apartment in Bombay deserve a separate entry but here’s a bit about them—they are made for pygmies. I am curious about the postures adopted by the old timers here because it is possible to relieve oneself only by entering in a particular angle and subsequently placing the posterior end on the commode in a manner to ensure that contents of the bowel are flushed away; all this while the walls press against your knees and in my partner’s case the head too! Being rather optimistic by nature, I can appreciate the fact that the size discourages most people from carrying electronic gadgets inside to enable them to sincerely answer calls from nature for a change. Slowly but surely as I became familiar with the surroundings, I couldn’t help but notice fragments of harmony amidst the seeming chaos in the form of strangers smiling back despite the crazy jostle, girls dressed brightly as if mocking the fatigue due to the heat, the unique defiance of spirit in a place that constantly leaves one at the mercy of time and chance. Despite my wild anxieties comes a beckoning of the setting sun to explore new horizons and a promise that tomorrow will be a new day. And yes, there is much to enjoy in a dabeli while on the run. Acquiring taste? Guilty as charged.

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“The man who planted”

The other day my eyes fell on a small article about a gentleman having spent most of his retired life growing plants in his terrace gardens, so much so that he has set a record for number of plants grown. I along with my father found the news interesting enough to pay him a visit, and after much hunting on the internet found an address to go to. As we reached the area, my father was astounded to find a dingy locality, replete with low hanging cables, stray cows, generous puddles and the now rather universal smell of garbage. “Somehow, I hadn’t imagined a lush terrace garden in such a place” muttered my father, much to my amusement because I had been asking him to put our small backyard to better use. He had always been of the opinion that nothing less than a farm is will do if one has to grow some vegetables and fruits. I could see that he was probably imagined some spacious villa and fancy gardens instead of the crumbling dark staircase that was supposed to take us to his apartment. We reached the nondescript entrance and found a doorbell with some difficulty. After ringing twice and waiting for about 5 minutes, a lady finally opened the door. After stammering some introduction due to the awkwardness of the situation, we were nevertheless allowed inside the house which seemed was little more than two tiny rooms, stacked with old furniture and memories. She led us to the balcony, where a mango tree was growing happily from a sack full of soil. As we made our way to the terrace, I noticed each step containing some plant or the other growing in tiny broken cups, toothbrush holders, coconut shells and anything else which could hold a bit of soil. The terrace was blooming with flowers and lent a surreal ambience to the otherwise noisy and polluted air of Delhi. Most of the plants grew in sacks used for packing wheat and flour or discarded plastic vessels. It was truly difficult to imagine such a beautiful place tucked in the underbelly of a city that is forever hungry for “growth”.  We couldn’t meet the gentleman himself, but the lady described the effort he put into taking care of all those plants, a work he thoroughly enjoyed and encouraged youngsters to take up as a hobby.

They say generosity is not a luxury sport. I’d say the same holds true for environmentalism (whatever you mean by it) or any other ‘ism’ that apparently requires time, money and effort spent on something or someone besides one’s own life. The truth is that by expanding our life beyond survival instincts, we only stand to gain in spirit and happiness. As eloquently put by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create.” An old man quietly planting hope, one seedling at a time is a beautiful reminder of the fact that creating value in life is a manifestation of intent rather than resources.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

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Guitar Guts

I had always fancied myself casually strumming the strings of a guitar as a perfect accompaniment to my philosophical musings. “It might even enhance my capacity of meaningful wastage of time” I had concluded, after observing that no thoughtful rebel in movies made it to his “eureka” moment without involving a guitar along the way. Thus, after quitting PhD, with my head full of idealistic aims and ‘Into the Wild’ soundtracks, the first thing I wanted to do was learn to play a guitar. My parents were unsure of my mental state given the seemingly bizarre decision I had made, and thought it would be best not to excite or reason out my immediate fancies. They were hopeful I would come to my senses soon and have more practical ambitions to pursue then. Well whatever the reason, I was handed a guitar soon enough and was elated to finally look at the thing at close quarters. I tried fitting it in my lap and hold it like in the films but the giant of an instrument it was, I could barely fit a quarter of it against my rather thin frame. “Don’t they sell some in a smaller size?” I asked bro who had used his shady sources to procure the guitar. “Yeah, the one smaller than this comes in plastic with buttons on it.” sniggered the brat. I gave a nonchalant shrug but was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the guitar butt jutting into my thigh. “I think this much practice for a day is enough, I’ll go for some lessons from tomorrow.” I announced and promptly packed the instrument. Now, my brother is the incarnation of James Bond in the world of musical instruments. It does not take him more than 5 minutes to pick the basics and so, he was soon strumming the soundtrack of ‘Jurassic Park’ as I tried to look as unimpressed as possible. “That’s just because you play the violin, you already know the string stuff and notes etc” I commented without much success. My lessons didn’t quite match my expectations either. My teacher turned out to be a south-indian martinet who made me pluck the strings relentlessly till I had the notes of C- major drilled into my head. Looking back I think that was the first dig in the grave of guitar. The trauma induced by hammering those notes in my head ensured that I never made past it. So, the routine followed for a week or so wherein I would come back with swollen pink fingers sans any song to play, while my bro would graciously borrow the guitar and play some new tune everyday. This wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, my determination to learn atleast one tune only resulted in sore fingers, a problem exacerbated because my hands are perennially sweaty. The taut strings just seemed to cut into the fingers and suddenly guitar wasn’t as fanciful a companion I thought it would be. In addition, my teacher graduated me from ‘zero’ level and proceeded to torture me with tunes of “Happy-Birthday” and some other cheap Bollywood songs. This was the last straw. My dreams of being Alexi Murdoch having gone down the drain, I made peace with the ground reality and declared I have better things to do than while away time plucking strings. The decision was rather quickly supported by family members and as a final sign from the universe, I soon got busy with work and projects that came my way. The guitar would have breathed its last in a closet but for my bro who began playing it with increased interest. I came to terms with the fact that love for music doesn’t assure a musical hand. Some just pick up a guitar and play, other just pick up a pen and write. Guess the world would be more peaceful if every teacher would embrace this truth of life.

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