Photo by Aaron Ostrovsky on Wikimedia Commons

The Environment: Not Quite Left Out

Joya Chatterji—

Most people of South Asia in the 20th century had a different understanding of the environment than we have today. Today we see speak of the impending “global climate catastrophe,” and some of us are “global climate-change deniers.” In the times I write about in the book, however, people experienced the environment in local, more intimate, ways, in which the environment was lived and negotiated space, terrain sometimes destroyed or defaced by local “known” faces and agents. That known face might be a beloved river in spate, having burst her banks after a heavy monsoon. It might be a state railway project that village men worked on for a few annas, but for which the government tore down trees hither and yon; soon ugly tracks and sleepers devastated that local sense of treasured space while fetid pools of waters along its banks which would see malaria rise. Or it might be a huge tree in which bandits slept during the day, which made it a dangerous place to forage.

Examples of this connection to the environment abound. Take Rabindranath Tagore. His work celebrated the (small) local environment of rural Bolpur, where his school syllabus included taking children on walks in its surroundings, stopping to admire local views and cherish the trees, bushes, flowers, and butterflies before their eyes, to listen to the boatman’s song. His paean to Bengal’s lush beauty, Amar Shonar Bangla, was written by a poet exquisitely sensitive to a region’s ecology and environment, but It did not conceive of a global environment that could be destroyed by humankind. The lyrical Telegu anthem of Andhra Pradesh was also drenched with images of “natural” (but ancient and unchangeable) beauty of the land.

When South Asians began to dream of free India, they saw “India” as a magic moving lantern of images of space after space. They heard the notes of “bulbuls”—nightingales. They remembered the mist rising from a river-gorge, seen for the first time ever. Or the full large red sun as it set over the dusty plains. Or the scent and majesty of a wild tiger emerging from the long grass. 

The land was changing around them, to be sure. Under the British Raj many forests had been felled and big cats slaughtered. Common lands and pastures had been reclaimed by the state and lost for popular use, for grazing cattle to roam, while water-harvesting was no longer regarded as the sarkar’s responsibility. Rural people appreciated what this meant to them in their growing poverty, but the wider (global) understanding of what this meant for the planet was limited. 

South Asian elites who took over after independence continued dam building with gusto, with little care for what was being lost. They had scarce interest in environmental concerns, even when they destroyed livelihoods. In this matter they were not so different from British officers who presided over a large part of the planet for much of the period covered by the book.

There were of course exceptions. Towards the end of the century the environmental consequences of the Green Revolution and relentless dam building raised questions in some minds. But it was not the zeitgeist: a few swallows did not make a spring.

For the most part people experienced the environment as cherished local space in which one lived as a social being, or were expelled from by new laws or changed circumstances.

The Kanchenjunga peak, which towers over Darjeeling, bewitches those who live near it. One feels one can reach over just a little and touch it, but it’s an illusion of perspective. Today, too ill to travel to travel to “my mountain,” I watch movies shot in Darjeeling for a rare glimpse of my cherished Himalayan view. I will never go there again. As I grow more ill, I have realized I should have gone to gaze at this mountain while I could. The Hill Cart Road (which we often traversed to Darjeeling) offered stunning vistas of the Teesta river rushing down gorges; sometimes bursting her banks, at other times rushing down beating against rocks. My family stopped at the same spot again and again to contemplate this view. All of us were soothed by it. It felt like ‘our very personal lived environment’, and it was rich with meaning for us: with family history (my grandpa built the road), imperial history (the British-designed suspension bridge across the Teesta), our reasons for driving there (my English mother’s claustrophobia in the patriarchal household setting.)  When my father died, we interred his ashes in this glorious river—the Teesta, a branch of the Brahmaputra—rather than the Ganges. My Hill Cart Road Brahmin family tried to talk us out of this very strange (to them) behavior, but we stood firm. My father was an atheist, and his favorite place on earth was the left bank of the Teesta. 

Indeed so besotted was I by this environment—we saw Royal Bengal Tigers by their tens in those days—that as a six-year-old, my greatest wish was to die with a tiger’s teeth sinking into my neck. I thought feeding it my body would make my paltry life worthwhile. (I suppose I was struggling to make sense of my life: why was I being blessed with wealth and education in a land full of hungry people? I was an eccentric child, and a curious one: I’ve never met anyone else who has confessed to wanting to die for a tiger.) But I have met thousands who cherish, or yearn for their sliver of lived environment, but have lost it forever.

Ordinary people were so impoverished by losing it that they had to migrate elsewhere, to new cities, with some memories but few hopes. Some partition refugees even carried little boxes of mud from their home villages, knowing that they would never return to “their soil.”

It is this sort of embedded, lived-in, environment that is everywhere in Shadows at Noon. So too is our deep human connection to it. Every few pages you will trip over it, and I hope, pause to imagine it, even to inhabit it.

If the climate catastrophe doesn’t figure in Shadows much, it is because South Asia’s people were less aware of it then, or had no way of knowing of it. They became conscious much later, years after the Green Revolution in Pakistan and India. People began to protest against genetically modified crops—in certain districts. Against water pollution and big dams in others. But people-in-space did not become big E Environmentalists until much later in the day. These ideas of a degraded global environment and climate have spread far and wide now, but this book is about the last century. It could not have given this subject its due weight, given its twentieth-century coverage and its focus on peoples’ life-worlds and their precious life-histories.

A work of history must guard against reading backwards from the present.

You will find this older conception of the environment everywhere in the book, flitting—rather like Nabokov’s white cabbage butterflies—in every forest of words.  

Joya Chatterji FBA is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, emeritus professor of South Asian history, and was longtime director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. She was editor of Modern Asian Studies for a decade.

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