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Taking nature out of literary margins

Meghaa Aggarwal | Updated on June 01, 2018 Published on June 01, 2018

Out of sight: Writers across India had long been writing on environmental issues in their local languages, but they remained obscure.

Despite its long and vibrant history in India, literature about the environment remains on the fringes of public discussion, thereby affecting how we engage with ecological issues

Fissured lands, unquiet woods, hungry tides, creatures great and small — nature has long stirred creative minds in India. For instance, it is difficult to isolate RK Narayan’s stories from the fictional town of Malgudi situated along the banks of the river Sarayu, close to the Mempi forest. Within his fiction, Narayan weaves in the influence of the natural surroundings on the characters.

Literature about the environment takes many forms, from fiction to non-fiction to poetry, pulling you to a specific place, reinforcing the interconnectedness between living beings and their environment. It discusses environmental protests like the Chipko movement through various social and historical lenses. It can present scientific research as prose that lies at the intersection of science and the human experience within natural surroundings. Sometimes, it may just be an intimate ode to nature, such as a particularly tender poem by Rabindranath Tagore: “On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not/ My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”

From words to action

On its own, literature — to quote WH Auden — “makes nothing happen”. However, by engaging with literature about the environment, it is possible to galvanise broad-based societal concern and instigate change. For instance, in the summer of 1962, The New Yorker serialised a long piece of writing by marine biologist and renowned author Rachel Carson. She wrote about the environmental disaster unleashed by the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, especially DDT. By fall, it had been published as a book, Silent Spring, which caused a furore in the US. Readers were horrified by the revelations in the book, and the powerful lobby of chemical companies was determined to discredit the exposé.

The uproar led the then President John F Kennedy to set up a Science Advisory Committee to examine the issues raised by the book. When the committee’s report vindicated the book and its author, the government was forced to reconsider its national pesticide policy, leading to DDT being banned. Silent Spring became an epic in the modern environmental movement, highlighting the unquestionable merit of environmental literature in stirring meaningful discussions that can inspire long-term change.

Silent no more: In 2013, students of a government school in Kozhikode, Kerala, staged a play based on Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, widely considered to be a landmark in environmental literature   -  BusinessLine

 

In India too, literature — from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman — has often inflamed passions and spurred widespread debate. However, despite the strong presence of nature in Indian literature, the influence of literature on environmental consciousness in India remains largely unexplored. Murali Sivaramakrishnan founded the India chapter of the global Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1992, in order to meet a “growing demand for exploring the role of literature in environmentalism.” He points out that contemporary Indian literature concerning the natural environment has generally not provoked a reaction from the public, unlike in the West.

“Religious intolerance, political power-structures and their impact on imagination consume much of the public’s attention. On the other hand, environmental writing has evolved only fairly recently so it could take some time to reach the forefront,” he says.

Missing readers

Would it be possible to argue that India’s widespread poverty and illiteracy are the underlying reasons for the low environmental consciousness and lack of public engagement with nature writing? Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha disagrees, “A concern for roti-kapda-makaan is important, but that does not make literary interest in the natural environment irrelevant. A great deal of folk poetry, music and art is inspired by the natural world.” This view is echoed by environmental journalist and author Bahar Dutt, who points out that for centuries, nomadic communities have travelled from village to village sharing stories drawn from folklore and mythology that often refer to the natural world. “It is easy to consider a discourse on the role of literature in environmentalism as an elitist preoccupation. But let’s not forget that the literary tradition is not just print. It is also oral,” she adds.

In print, literature on the environment is hampered by the worry that it may not appeal to the lay reader. One of the reasons for this is that the readership for books published in this field is imagined to be decidedly academic. For instance, Oxford University Press (OUP) India has a formidable list of titles on the environment. Sugata Ghosh, director of academic publishing at OUP, says, “The books we publish generally feature scholarly analysis and use an interdisciplinary approach to a subject, and thus the readership mostly consists of academics, researchers and policymakers among others.” He, however, adds that over the past year they have started publishing similar books for the trade market too.

Guha, who co-authored Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India with the renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, says, “Some of my books may cater to readers with a more serious interest in the environment, but others, such as my global history of environmentalism, can be understood even by high school and college students.”

Dutt, on the other hand, thinks that this issue can be addressed by including new voices in the field. “Every time we speak of literature on the environment, we tend to mention the same scientists and academicians, giving the sense that the field is restricted to a limited number of people,” she says.

Starting with children’s literature

When it comes to drawing in a wider public to literature on the environment, it is odd to see the neglect of children’s literature. Children are saddled with environmental studies in school but little effort is made to use literature as an effective means to introduce them to environmentalism.

Author Zai Whitaker, who is also one of the founders of the Madras Crocodile Bank and the Snake Park, corroborates, “I believe children’s literature is neglected, when in fact it is absolutely pivotal to the environmental movement. When we meet student groups here at the Crocodile Bank, it is obvious that their knowledge and interest levels have increased and I am sure EVS is part of it. But our education system remains bureaucratic and textbook-based. To inculcate eco-values, you need to take students outside, sit under trees, be amazed at the colours of the birds and snakes, get wet crossing streams. I was a facilitator for environmental literature during a workshop on children’s literature in Thiruvananthapuram years ago and I think many more such [initiatives] are needed to encourage children’s writing in this field and bring it up to another level.”

Unless children are inspired, discourses of the kind induced by Silent Spring may never be realised in our country. It is also worth noting that the simplicity with which environmental concerns are discussed in children’s literature makes it easy for anyone to access it. One of Guha’s favourite reads is the poem ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ from Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales from Here and There. “Although the poem is written for children, it can be enjoyed by all age groups. The motivating theme of the poem — the conservation of water — is framed in such a way that you want to read it again and again.”

Literature in translation

India has a rich body of regional literature on the environment, such as the work of Sambalpuri poet and writer Haldhar Nag, the Kannada poet Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre or the Malayali poet and activist Sugathakumari. Many of these works are an outcome of environmental movements of the ’70s and ’80s like the Chipko Movement, Silent Valley Protests and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, that struck the collective imagination of common people, especially those living in the heart of such strife. Unfortunately, a lot of such literature has remained restricted to local geographies. Sivaramakrishnan says, “Much before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, obscure writers in India had already been writing on environmental struggles in their native languages. Unfortunately, their writing was not in English and, hence, it was not widely available or discussed.”

However, the problem is not limited to translation from the regional languages into mainstream languages, especially English. It also extends to making the large body of environmental literature in English available to the masses in their native languages. “In a country like ours, language becomes an obstacle, thus limiting the information to only about 10 per cent of the society — the section that is proficient in English. I feel it is our responsibility to make our rich content available to a wider audience and increase awareness among other sections of the society,” says Ghosh.

To address the situation, some publishers — Tulika Publishers, Chennai and Orient Blackswan — are looking at translations from and into regional languages. For example, OUP has launched an Indian Languages Publishing Programme that will initially make its titles available to Hindi as well as Bangla readers, and gradually expand to include other languages. However, the dynamics of publishing translations, whether in English or in regional languages, are also tricky because publishers need to grapple with everything from selecting the text to be translated and maintaining the quality of the translations, to marketing the translated book.

A slow and steady wave

India may still be on the lookout for the unprecedented success of Silent Spring. However,literature on the environment continues to be published by mainstream publishers as well as organisations such as the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Kalpavriksh, raising hopes for the future. As Ghosh lets on, “Our books, particularly in this genre, like Talking Environment by Vandana Shiva have always received an extremely positive response from readers. There are fantastic books from publishers that have been able to create a space among the broader readership and are increasingly becoming popular.”

Prominent voices, such as M Krishnan, Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil, Amitav Ghosh and Mahesh Rangarajan have greatly enriched and impacted literature on the environment, while literary festivals, such as Tata Literary Live and the Jaipur Literature Festival, regularly feature discussions and panels on ecology, nature, and conservation. For example, the World Book Fair in Delhi this year was themed on environmental issues such as climate change, global warming and water pollution. Sumant and Asha Batra of the Delhi-based NHP Centre have also founded ‘Fellows of Nature’, a community of nature writers, to build interest in writing and reading this form of literature.

Perhaps our literature — like many other things in our diverse and dynamic society — should be viewed as part of a great wave of influences quietly shaping our attitudes to the natural environment, one step at a time.

Meghaa Aggarwal works in children’s publishing and also writes features on education and environment

Published on June 01, 2018
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