Review: Marginlands by Arati Kumar-Rao - Hindustan Times
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Review: Marginlands by Arati Kumar-Rao

BySyed Saad Ahmed
Mar 15, 2024 07:54 PM IST

Presenting the wonders of the land and also the environmental catastrophes being unleashed by detrimental policies conceived without consulting those who will be most affected by them

Like most tourists, I visited Jaisalmer in the winter. Witnessing the Thar desert traverse hues of gold through the day and the cloudless sky transform into a speckled celestial playground at night remains one of my most memorable experiences.

“After the most enchanting descriptions of how the Thar’s residents have coaxed water and agriculture from a seemingly punishing terrain, she reveals how limestone mines, windmills, and a canal — supposedly harbingers of development — have destroyed its water sources, wildlife, agricultural fields, and knowledge nurtured over centuries. “ (Dietmar Temps/Shutterstock)
“After the most enchanting descriptions of how the Thar’s residents have coaxed water and agriculture from a seemingly punishing terrain, she reveals how limestone mines, windmills, and a canal — supposedly harbingers of development — have destroyed its water sources, wildlife, agricultural fields, and knowledge nurtured over centuries. “ (Dietmar Temps/Shutterstock)

Later, in Arati Kumar-Rao’s essay Forty Names of Clouds, I learnt something I had not encountered during my brief sojourn there: “They say Eskimos have 40 names for snow. I get that — they are surrounded by snow all year. The people of the Thar have just 40 cloudy days in a year — and yet they have as many names for clouds!”

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264pp, ₹699; Pan Macmillan
264pp, ₹699; Pan Macmillan

The essay was a revelation, not just for its insights into the water culture of the Thar desert, but also for how compellingly it described the “rhythm” of the land and its people. While I had known of Kumar-Rao’s photography, the acuity and depth of her writing is no less dazzling.

I once worked with a travel publication, bouncing in and out of destinations, chronicling their attractions and gathering information to help people navigate them. Over the years, with budget cuts and the transience ushered in by digital media, the time we spent at the places we were documenting for others kept shrinking — from months to days. This trend of scratching the surface is now all pervasive. In such a scenario, Kumar-Rao’s distinctive, deeply engaged storytelling stands out. It bristles with insights that only intimacy can yield, conveys a sense of place, upends notions of what or who is worthy of a story, and highlights the writers’ impressions without obscuring the people around her.

In the prologue to her first book, Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink, she explains how she went about her travels: “I learned a lesson that would set the tone for how I would tell my own stories: to really understand a landscape, you have to invest time, live in it, become one with it.” It was a realisation seeded by her host in the Thar desert, the shepherd-farmer Chhattar Singh, who told her on her first day in his village: “You can’t tell this story if you don’t see for yourself how the desert changes with the seasons and how my people adapt to it.”

This sustained engagement comprehensively underlines not just the wonders of a land or the wisdom of its people, but also the detrimental policies and environmental catastrophes they are being subjected to. After the most enchanting descriptions of how the Thar’s residents have coaxed water and agriculture from a seemingly punishing terrain, she reveals how limestone mines, windmills, and a canal — supposedly harbingers of development — have destroyed its water sources, wildlife, agricultural fields, and knowledge nurtured over centuries.

At other times, stories of boundless wonder run into jolting facts. There are fisherfolk in Assam who harpoon fish with the help of the Gangetic dolphin at night! But fish populations in the Brahmaputra have dwindled to such an extent that 90% of the fish in Dibrugarh’s markets comes from Andhra Pradesh, about 2,000 kilometres away.

From 2013 onwards, Kumar-Rao journeyed across various landscapes: the Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Indus river basins; the Sundarban mangroves; and the Kerala coast, among others. She travelled slowly, often on foot, spending time in a place to get to know the lay of the land and its people. For her story on the Thar, she told her editor that she would need a year!

“The Farakka barrage, built to make the Hooghly navigable, failed to do so, but “succeeded in creating a far more sinister problem”: widespread erosion and floods.” (Shutterstock)
“The Farakka barrage, built to make the Hooghly navigable, failed to do so, but “succeeded in creating a far more sinister problem”: widespread erosion and floods.” (Shutterstock)

From these journeys, emerges a chronicle of “misguided decisions, warnings wilfully ignored, evidence disregarded, inevitably paving the way for impending or currently unravelling disasters that may never make the news”. In Kerala, the Vizhinjam port is not only eroding the coast and fisheries, but also leading to landslides as stone is quarried from the Western Ghats to build it. Sixty per cent of major landslides in India since 2015 have occurred in the state. The Farakka barrage, built to make the Hooghly navigable, failed to do so, but “succeeded in creating a far more sinister problem”: widespread erosion and floods. In the Sundarbans, both India and Bangladesh are building thermal power plants and expanding shipping routes even though multiple capsizing vessels have released tonnes of oil, fly ash, and fertilisers into the mangroves, threatening its fragile ecosystem.

As she describes these environmental crises, what stands out is how pointless and preventable many of them are. They are the result of projects often envisioned and implemented in a distant power centre by policymakers who have not bothered about long-term consequences or consulted with communities that would be most affected by them. The purported benefits fail to appear, even as the predicted disasters do. At other times, however, things are not as straightforward. In Ladakh, for instance, an increase in the population of feral dogs is decimating native wildlife. While garbage from army camps and tourists is mainly responsible, so are the residents feeding the dogs out of compassion.

“In Kerala, the Vizhinjam port is not only eroding the coast and fisheries, but also leading to landslides as stone is quarried from the Western Ghats to build it. Sixty per cent of major landslides in India since 2015 have occurred in the state.” (Kev Gregory/Shutterstock)
“In Kerala, the Vizhinjam port is not only eroding the coast and fisheries, but also leading to landslides as stone is quarried from the Western Ghats to build it. Sixty per cent of major landslides in India since 2015 have occurred in the state.” (Kev Gregory/Shutterstock)

This litany of woes might send most careening into climate anxiety, but the book does not succumb to doom and despair. For as Kumar-Rao says, “The ancient practice of listening to the land and doing right by it can yet be reclaimed.” For some, traditional wisdom or “listening to the land” might seem like woolly concepts — perhaps feel-good, but with limited utility. But often, these are based more on evidence and scientific principles than many of the ad-hoc projects and policies governments have legislated.

Author Arati Kumar-Rao (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Arati Kumar-Rao (Courtesy the publisher)

Kumar-Rao further adds, “Much of the subcontinent still has its ecological assemblage in some semblance of intactness, giving a fighting chance to make itself resilient in the face of change. All we need to reclaim even broken cities like Bangalore is a willingness to go back to basics, to understand and acknowledge the local geography, and the inclination to work with the land rather than in defiance of it”. She cites the work of the engineer and educator Sonam Wangchuk, who is building artificial glaciers to mitigate water scarcity in Ladakh, and the incredible biodiversity that can thrive in our dysfunctional cities — if only we let it. But as long as we prioritise the carbon-guzzling lifestyles of a select few, our precious landscapes, and by extension, all of us will continue to suffer.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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