Looking beyond hype and nostalgia

To most modern Indian writers, the environment means trees, birds and animals -- and human beings, in aesthetic or metaphysical communion with them.

 
By Mridula Garg
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- LITERATURE, they say, is a reflection of the way a society perceives itself. Indians have, from time immemorial, celebrated the interdependence of human beings and nature. The modern era saw them grow apart. The greater the distance between them, the more romantic became the treatment of nature in literature. Indian writers, like their Western counterparts, saw the image of the lover or God in nature.

In the last decade or two, environment has emerged as the new religion of intellectuals. As far as Indian writers are concerned, all they did was to trade nature with environment. Their attitude to it remains as romantic as ever. But a new dimension has been added: nostalgia. To writers, environment means trees, birds and animals, and the human beings in aesthetic or metaphysical communion with them. They see either the forgotten face of God in it or the "oh so peaceful and green village" they left long, long ago, for economic advancement. Very few show an understanding of ecology or of the need for a balanced environment for the well-being and sustained development of society.

I am amused at the frequency with which the image of the bonsai tree appears in modern Hindi literature. Bonsai of the pipal and banyan trees symbolise crass and materialistic city-bred women. An elderly visitor from the village is usually shown bemoaning the loss of the majestic expanse of trees that once grew there. Please note, it is not the cutting down of the trees that is mourned, but their being dwarfed to fit into a space-starved urban situation. As if removal of the dwarf would automatically create the space needed for the giant!

This nostalgic romanticism is of recent making. Before environment became a fad, writers showed an intuitive grasp of the role played by it in the lives of the ordinary people.

The earliest example is from Pather Panchali, a novel by Vibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyaya, from which Satyajit Ray made his classic film. The writer shows his two child protagonists foraging for food in the forest. It is a facet of their daily life. "They had never tasted anything good ever since they were born. Their virgin taste buds longed to experience every possible taste, specially sweetness. They did not have the means to buy sandesh or other sweets. So for these poor and covetous children, the forest goddess gave the lowly, wild forest vines, flowers and fruit filled with honeyed sweetness."

The children are shown collecting a variety of fruit from the jungle. Singhara from the water pond and senvra, kamrakh, wild gourd, bainchi fruit and matia potato from the earth. It is indeed moving to hear Durga say as she eats with relish the bitter-sweet senvra fruit, "What if it is somewhat bitter. How can it all be sweet?"

All is not lost, however, in modern literature. One can still find instances where there is a spontaneous understanding of the relationship between human beings and the environment.

A sequence from Anaro, a novel in Hindi from the 1970sby Manjul Bhagat, underlines the perverse effects of the shortage of fuel on the nourishment of the poor. In it, Anaro rationalises there is not enough kerosene oil to cook all the chapatis and so she makes little balls of wheat flour and instead of rolling them out, puts them to boil along with some left-over vegetable mush that one of her employers had given her. The pot bubbles for a while and then goes dead. She divides the half-cooked mess into three portions and though her little boy refuses to eat, her daughter pushes it down her gullet quickly, swallowing it before her tongue can rebel. "Good," muses Anaro, "She is growing up. She will learn the lessons of poverty well."

In Parion ka Naach, a story by Mrinal Pande, a song-and-dance session at a wedding in a mountain village brings out the importance of the forest to women. It is a "women only" night and some of the women dress up as men and flirt with the other women. As the charade progresses and one of the women mimes the forest guard's lecherous and high-handed gestures, the others recognise him and immediately start to recount their own experiences.

I am sure there are other examples of this kind of writing, but not many, I'm afraid. The hype overtook writers before they had time to recover from the romance. Now there are only two options: Either they learn much more about environment and ecology or unlearn the hype and trust their intuition. Dare I say women stand a better chance of success in this?

Mridula Garg writes short stories and novels and frequently uses environmental issues as her theme.

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