Thursday, 26 January 2017

The More I Learn, the Less I Know:

It was back in the year 2006, when I worked in a media house in Delhi. One day, a colleague randomly came up to me and said: “You are a Bengali; you must know tantra and black magic.”
Caught off guard and without any knowledge of the connection between Shamanism and Bengal, I had shot back: “If I knew that, don’t you think I would be somewhere else and not slogging my a** here?”

In one of the serendipitous instances when I randomly pick up the right books at the right time, I chanced upon a book at the Oxford Book Shop in Darjeeling a couple of years back. The subtitle of the book - ‘Life Lessons from the Himalayas’ – had caught my attention. Surprisingly (or not so), the story turned out to be about the author’s Shamanistic (Shaiva Tantra) journey in the mountains. Consciously or unconsciously, I was getting drawn to the mysticism around Shamanism and Tantra at that time. A slow read, the book opened up a whole new philosophy to me along with the realization that, way back in 2006, both the colleague and I were not only highly ignorant but also had fallen prey to the popular notion that Tantra was bad as it dealt only with black magic and sex.  

(Shaiva and Shakti) Tantra, as was followed in the East of India and Nepal, predates Vedas. Tantra is not a religion but a heterodox tradition which has been passed on orally by teachers to students chosen by them. Loosely translated, Tantra would mean expansion of your mind for liberation. None of the written materials found till now on Tantra really do justice to what it really is. Distortions to the Tradition started with the brahminical hegemony which saw Shiva (Tantra’s prime ‘deity’) as a low-caste uncouth being as opposed to Vishnu, a typical representation of a brahminical god, fair skinned, erudite and upper caste. But despite their efforts, Shiva remained extremely popular among the people. As a result, they had to incorporate him into the ‘Hindu’ pantheon of gods. Similarly, to show women their rightful place in an evolving patriarchal system and to tame their potency, all representations of Shakti were given secondary positions as wives of the gods. Vilification of the Tradition started perhaps due to its unorthodox philosophy and practices as against some of the ‘Hindu’ teachings, and also perhaps to bring people under the brahminical fold. Unlike other religions which put restrictions on people’s conduct and behavior by terming them good or bad, Shaiva Tantra allows people to experience everything (practical knowledge) but mindfully. The ultimate aim is to understand the self, the interconnectedness of things and balance of nature, and through that free ourselves from our self-created and self-focused rigid confines.

Paintings by Mira

Shaiva Tantra’s Aims of Life:

Dharma: Fulfillment of moral duty (to oneself first); to choose to think, say and do nothing to one’s or others’ detriment; to actively engage in living and loving fully and wisely; and not just for personal gains but to restore balance in oneself, family, society etc.

Artha: The greatest of Earth’s hidden treasure is self-knowledge. It aims to achieve prosperity in our material endeavors but within the confines of Dharma, that is, not for personal gains or through means which harm others. Worldly achievements are not separate from so-called ‘spiritual’ achievements as other religions emphasize; but to be achieved to sustain a society where all can flourish according to their own nature.

Kama: Embrace, heighten, and explore all pleasures accessible to our senses in everyday life. Touch, smell, sound, nature, music, art, dance, friends, alcohol.  And yes, sex! To be fully active in the world and not be enslaved by it. Because only a happy, healthy, and gratified body and mind can attend to other aims of life.

Moksha: To learn to find resolution to apparent contradictions – kindness and cruelty, light and darkness, beauty and suffering, compassion and indifference etc. To understand that all these play a part in the balance of our universe, to develop empathy and dynamic compassion, to realize that we already have all we need to be complete, to be all that we can be.   

Some of the Yamas (vows or restraints on personal conduct):

Ahimsa: The wisdom gained in learning to avoid causing harm to oneself or others by either thoughts or words or actions. Even personal gain at the detriment of another by whatever means – including at the price of your own self-respect and integrity – is considered a form of violence.

Alobha: The wisdom gained by learning to live without selfish ambition. Aspiration in every aspect of life is essential but not at the cost of inner violence of greed, pride, and jealousy. To discover that it is not in taking from others, but by giving to ourselves without thought of personal profit that we truly gain the most.

Asteya: The wisdom gained by learning not to steal – neither by body, nor intellect, nor word. To extinguish the desire to possess something that belongs to others – material wealth, social rank, talents, reputation, appearances etc.

Tyaga: Wisdom gained by learning to release attachment to material possessions. It does not propose a state of poverty which would be unrealistic and miserable, but it encourages us to recognize that the desire to possess is a tireless cycle that can never be fulfilled, and to value only that which is necessary to live healthily and freely.

Brahmacharya: Not sexual chastity as commonly believed. But to resolve the deep conflict that we suffer due to the disparity between our true nature and the familial, social, religious expectations, and beliefs we keep conforming to. The wisdom learnt in seeking to live according to our true nature.

But what I liked the most about the Tradition, is its philosophy of the Shakti (female energy that is the Universe) and the place it accords to women in the society as a result. In the Yogini Tantra, women are encouraged to speak and act with the same social, familial and sexual liberties as the menfolk. Consider some of these excerpts from texts related to Tantric as well as ‘Hindu’ philosophies as it developed over the years.

“Respect and consideration for women mark the very foundations [of the Tradition]. All women are to be looked upon as manifestations of the Great Mother [Shakti]. An offending woman should not be beaten even with flowers. A woman of any age, even a girl, or even an uncouth woman, should be bidden a respectful farewell after salutations.” (Chapter 10 – Kaulavalinirnaya Tantra)

“Women are light-minded. They are the root of all troubles. Attachment towards them should not pursued by wakeful persons who desire liberation. [For] there is none more sinning and more sinful than women.” (Uma Samhita XXIV:3,16)

“One should approach [a] woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, [a man] should bribe her. If she still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with fists and overpower her, saying: ‘I take away the splendor from you with my virility and splendor.” (Brhadarankyaka Upanishad VI.IV:9,21)

It’s therefore easy to understand why Eastern India, the mountain states and Nepal are societally so different from the rest of the aggressively patriarchal states, why women have a far more equal status and mobility still (even with a high patriarchal influence), and why men there don’t need to be macho to be ‘men’ or women docile and feminine to be ‘women’.  

In 2004, while backpacking in South India, my travel partner and I had come across a Shiva-Parvati statue in Dakhshina Chitra, Tamil Nadu. It had an explanation at the bottom: ‘Shiva denotes all things positive and virile. Parvati is the Shakti or force behind Shiva. Without Shakti, Shiva is impotent’. I had found this concept profound then, but little did I know it was sourced from Tantra philosophy and not from ‘Hindu’ philosophies as we know it.

The more I learn, the less I think I seem to know.

Disclaimer: A lot of the content of this blog post (the teachings and practices) has been taken directly from the book Limitless Sky by David Charles Manners. This is the only book I have read on Tantra, and I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of something far more deep and mystical than just what is in the book.

For those who might want to know more, check:

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Lessons from the Mountain Kingdom:

D: “So what do Indians think of Nepal?”

We were sitting at Almond’s, a restaurant frequented by the locals in lakeside Pokhara, and feasting on spicy momos and soul-satisfying hot bowls of thukpa. Looking down, the street lined with shops was abuzz with tourists and travellers of all kind; the sights familiar from many places in India, yet there was something distinctly different about it. It was our third day in Nepal, and I was unable to place this difference in my mind.

Me: “I don’t think we look at Nepal as distinctly different from India; more like an extension of our country.”
D: “Oh wow. That is the ultimate humiliation!”

D’s comment, however jokingly said, represents the changing attitude and growing aspirations of the youth of Nepal. Decades of political instability, insurgency, attempts at stabilizing democracy, lack of livelihood opportunities, economic dependence on India and its resulting ‘big-brotherly’ arm-twisting ways, and the recent earthquake coupled with almost a year-long trade embargo by India - all have been instrumental in shaping and reshaping the country’s societal outlook. Like India in the pre-90s and Uttarakhand in recent times, the youth and able-bodied men are moving out of the country in search of better work and life opportunities leaving behind villages with only older generation and women. Kathmandu is now a sprawling city growing by leaps and bounds as people continue to migrate here – some statistics say, almost a quarter of the country’s population live in this city alone. It’s a story which is similar to the burgeoning population in cities of India. The country is still struggling to put basic infrastructure and amenities in place with rural Nepal bearing its brunt, just as rural India continues to struggle even now. Similar traditions, culture, attire, food, religious practices, a caste system which might not be as complicated as in India, yet discriminating in nature, a multitude of ethnic groups and languages – all point to notions of semblance with India.

Yet, as I travelled, observed and conversed with people there, I realized the differences are not only numerous but stark and glaring. There’s a particular strength and equanimity that I sensed in the people here, just like that of the sublime mountains. Despite years of hardship and instability, the people have found ways to grow and better their condition. Like the owner of the shared jeep that we took from a village in the Annapurna region who mentioned that when the government do not give any budget for roads, the villages will still pool in and built kaccha roads. Like the youth groups, individuals etc. who are helping rebuild villages in Gorkha which fell like pack of cards during the earthquake. Unlike India where poverty is worn on the sleeves, there’s a quiet dignity even in the poorest people here. Unlike India, where people are overtly friendly, meddlesome and inquisitive, Nepalis are friendly yet reserved giving you the space that you require. Unlike India, where societal violence towards women is right on your face, it was liberating to travel around without fear. Unlike India, where cleanliness if just an abstract notion and streets are littered with garbage and plastic, Nepal seems to be largely a clean(er) country.  Beyond Kathmandu, the landscape is exquisite – with heavily forested green slopes, blue-green free-flowing rivers and villages with traditional architecture. A landscape and a way of life that many mountain states of India have lost, forever.  A landscape and a way of life that I so desperately yearn for.

Nepal is at a stage where it can chose to go the India route; that is, chose the western model of development and destroy everything natural. Or it can build on its strengths and traditional knowledge and show the world an alternate model of development with environment and people at its core. And I believe it can.

Lying on the overgrown grass in a park in Pokhara, lost amongst the mountains, the blue autumn sky, the lazy drone of dragonflies, and with nobody to disturb you, I realized what an amazingly beautiful country it was. On the last day of our stay, a gloriously silent Diwali night, we walked all the way to Patan Durbar Square through bylanes decorated with rangoli and diyas. Windows of the old houses were lit up with these diyas where women stood and prayed in the dim earthy light. The Durbar Square was surreal, with stunning architecture, some fallen, some still standing, lit by mellow yellow lights and full of people getting ready for a candle march. In that moment, surrounded by the mountains and history and holding on tight to my friends P and G, I knew I was truly and absolutely in love.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

An Ecosystem called FORT:

The clock chimed the half-hour past seven in the evening; it was a medieval sound, made more so by the empty streets and a constant drizzle. The Rajabai Clock Tower in the University Campus at Fort was lit up with a purple light; the building’s gorgeous and ornate pillars, sculptures, motifs, arches, towers etc. sharply visible even in the dim light. A group of night heritage walkers stood outside the building huddled under their umbrellas listening to their guide. Beside this, the Bombay High Court with its softly lit passageways looked pretty and romantic. Well, nostalgically so.

I had forgotten what a joy it is to walk and discover the Fort area of Mumbai, especially at night. With empty roads and yellow lights, it’s easy to let time rewind to a few centuries ago. In the daytime, it gets transformed into a totally different world, buzzing with the energy, sights and sounds of today that are constantly shifting. I believe that one can come here for 365 days a year, and can still find something new each day.

Rajabai Clock Tower as seen from Oval Maidan. Photo credit: Amita Pitre

Beyond the obvious famous buildings, it’s a veritable treasure trove for people who have any interest in architecture, history, or arts. The buildings are an amalgamation of various styles - from Gothic, Victorian, Art-deco, and Indo-Saracenic, and with Roman, French, Dutch, Mughal, other Indian influences. You just have to look at the now dilapidated Esplanade House (right in front of Fabindia) made of cast iron, the ornate motifs of the Standard Chartered Building, the medieval-castle-like LIC building right next to it, the Parsi Agiaries, Knesset Eliyahoo Jewish Synagogue, St. Thomas Cathedral, and the Asiatic Library to even get a sense of the variety that can be found here. The happy mix of arches, spires, turrets, steeples, the cast iron weather vanes, sculptures, wooden balconies, spiral staircases, tree-lined streets, all probably brought forth the character that continues to define Mumbai.  

I have always believed that it’s not the GDP that keeps our economy going, but food. If you need evidence, well, a visit to this area is a must. There is food for every taste and every pocket! From road side vendors selling breakfast items, parsi bakeries with freshly baked bread and cookies, to swanky and elite restaurants, all exist almost cheek by jowl along with numerous Khao Galis. Poha for Rs.20, a plate of crunchy vadas and soft idlis for Rs.30, chicken sandwiches for Rs.45, Pongal for Rs.70, Parsi chicken dhansak for Rs.150, muffins of Rs.15, pizzas made on tawa for Rs.20, road-side chicken biryani for Rs.50 (which gets over in one hour!), kheema pao for Rs.120, south Indian lunch thali for Rs.80, berry pulao in Britannia for Rs.400, the baked yogurt at Food for Thought for Rs.180, the list here is endless. If you are a food adventurer, you will love to roam the streets and experiment with your stomach and taste buds here.

Cafes and Book Shops:
Forget the GPS. The romance is in wandering the lanes and by-lanes and chancing upon cafes and book stores tucked away between shops and buildings. Two of my favourite bookshops are already here – Kitabkhana and Strand. The fairly new one Wayward and Wise is a bookshop where you can browse for hours like that in the old days, their range of books being fairly eclectic and different. There are also other tiny bookstores which make you feel good that e-business hasn’t taken over all small businesses yet. As for cafes, whether they are stand alone or part of a bookstore, quaint or quirky, I’m terribly glad they exist despite Starbucks. All of them perfect places to catch up with friends over a nice cup of tea or coffee. Need I say more?

Shopping and People:
Once I saw a man setting up some bottles in the corner of a lane. A few women quickly gathered around him, some of them in burqa. He was selling itar. An hour later, on my return I found him and his business gone. Another time I wanted to find somebody who could repair my daypack. I asked a shop selling bags who gave me precise directions to an old Bohri Muslim man called Hassan Bhai. Sometimes there is a terrible flurry of activities, vendors rushing to wrap up their businesses before the police arrived. In one hour’s time and with the police gone, it’s all back to normal business once again. Like food, one can find almost everything here. Fruits, grocery, mops, photo developers, printers, coffee grinders, gifts papers, raw and boiled eggs, cobblers, vendors selling shirts and belts, coconut water, tea stalls, watches, pen drives, mobile phones, mobile phone covers, saree, soaps, masala. Despite competition, there’s a place for everybody and everybody looks out for everybody else. It does not matter if you are a Parsi, Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu. That’s how and why this ecosystem continues to thrive, and not just survive.

In the many tiny park, corners, and main roads, one can find life size statues of erstwhile Bombayites. Many of the names are new to me, but whenever I pass one such statue, I do look up and say a silent thank you. For making Mumbai, the amazing city it still is today.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

India’s Biggest Environmental Scam:

A google search on companies/polluters in India fined for polluting will throw up just a handful of results which does not even cover the first page. This can probably give you an indication of how dismal the state of our environmental safeguards and justice is in. Most of our environmental laws and policies including those related to wildlife were constituted on strong principles way back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (even though some provisions allowed conservation and management of forests to move away from communities to the Forest Department like that in the British Era). The Indian Judiciary, especially the apex court, in the past has upheld many of these laws, made relevant changes, and forced government departments to act in their judgements; however some of the orders which went against the environment, basic principles of law and people have managed to do a lot more damage than the goods done by other orders. Some orders, which were meant to maintain a balance, managed to create that ‘loophole’ which has been fully utilized by corporations/governments to further destroy forests and eco-systems and alienate communities.

Even then, there was hope because we had the laws.

In the past two years, the current government has systematically gone about changing/adding/deleting/rewording the various acts/rules/notifications and even particular clauses to create loopholes, ambiguity, and opportunities for misinterpretations. New bills and draft policies have been outlined (some carried forward from the previous government) with such alacrity that it’s difficult to stay updated. (Atleast you get to know that the government mechanisms can be fast and efficient if it chose to be). But the best part of these new bills, policies, alterations etc. is that they are so beautifully worded that lay people like me would almost swoon because of the department’s ‘concerns’ about the environment and climate change. It requires a slow detailed reading to understand that once you string these changes together, collectively, they are leading to India’s biggest environmental scam.

Some examples: from notices I have read; there could be more which I might have missed.

Draft Wetland Conservation and Management Rules – 2016: The detailed definitions/categorisation of what constitutes wetlands and the list of activities that should not be allowed around them have either been removed or made limited in scope. The states have been given the power to define what may constitute as Wetlands according to their process of identification. This draft Rules completely waters down the objective of conservation and preservation and puts more emphasis on the principle of 'wise use' of Wetlands (no definition given), its conservation, ‘regulation and management’, ‘integrated management of land, water and natural resources’ which converges with existing state development plans that 'promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way'. There is no mention of Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), monitoring of implementation, or process of appeal to a court (NGT) in case of violations. There is no mention of what should be strictly prohibited; instead it opens up the Wetlands to opportunities for various ‘wise uses’.    

Draft Environment Laws (Amendment) Bill - 2015: This amendment deals with penalties for damage to environment – which here has been limited to air, water and gaseous pollution only. Though the Bill increased the fine for polluting from a mere Rs.1 lakh to upto Rs.20 crores, it has created ambiguity by defining pollution vaguely as ‘minor violations’, ‘substantial damage’, and ‘non-substantial damage’ and capping fines accordingly. What happens when the environmental damage is irreparable like a nuclear disaster or another Bhopal gas tragedy? These provisions allow for corporations to pollute, pay and get away with it. Instead of overhauling a decaying or an already dead system of pollution control, the Bill merely focuses on penalties for pollution with no provisions for preventing future damage. The biggest issue in this Bill however is creation of another vague Adjucating Authority which will bypass NGT thus reducing its power over such matters.

Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification - 2016: This is one of the most hilarious drafts. As well as one of the most damaging. Hilarious because it copied word for word from a US environmental policy. Damaging because it attempts to legalise violations made by corporations on environmental clearances. Currently, EIAs are the only environmental check which allows for taking crucial and sound environmental decisions on ‘development’ and any environmental clearance violation is regarded as a criminal offence. However, this Notification allows a violator to continue with the business if they agree to pay a sum of money as compensation for the damage already done, and also implement an Environmental Supplement Plan to restore the environment. This notification goes against all basic principles (precautionary principal and polluters pay) of environmental laws across the globe and will allow corporates to violate, pay and operate.

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) & Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act – 2016: This is where the laws become deadly. This is also an example of how a supposedly good judgement created a loophole which can go down in history as one of the deadliest for India’s environment. In order to deter parties (user agencies) from cutting down forests, the apex court asked the government to create a central fund, put a value to our forests and use the money collected for compulsory afforestation. The government (previous) helpfully put such a low value to our forests, that most of us can easily afford to buy a hectare or two. The idea of preserving green cover by first chopping down trees and then afforesting them itself is bizarre. If one needs to conserve natural, virgin forests, why cut them down in the first place? The Bill drafted by the current government allows for private parties to pitch for tenders for afforestation projects. Though the Act mentions afforestation includes regeneration of degraded forests and conservation of natural ones, it also mentions afforestation using plantation for timber. This Act has absolutely no mention of tribals and other forest dwellers, protection of their rights over their land and/or their involvement in the conservation process. Given the history, one can easily see how this Act will unfold - private parties grabbing land, forcing eviction of tribals from their land, planting single species of trees which will further destroy eco-systems and wildlife, and making profit by again cutting down these trees and selling them for timber.

Draft National Forest Policy – 2016: The MoEF had invited comments from public on this. But it took me one whole day of extensive search to find this draft hidden in one corner of the MoEF’s website rather than its home page. That in itself tells a tale. Because of a furore in media and elsewhere, the draft policy was quickly removed and a notice sent out that it was not ‘the’ draft policy and was put up on the site by mistake. Beautifully worded, the draft policy (in other words forest governance strategy) aims to give back all control of forest land to the Forest Department and divert forest land for plantation (forest industry) purposes again through a PPP model as mentioned in CAMPA. The interesting part of this ‘policy’ is that in all of its 40 pages, again there is not a SINGLE mention of tribals and other forest dwellers. As if these indigenous communities don’t exist in India.  

String all these together and you can see a pattern emerging – instead of putting actual efforts in protection and conservation of nature, the laws are being twisted to help grab/use more of our limited natural resources for business, making it easier for polluters and violators to continue, transform natural forests and other eco-systems into plantations, and not even acknowledge the existence of communities whose lives depend on forests and natural resources, so that they don’t get a chance to demand their rights.

If these changes are accepted, we are all set for not only an environmental crisis but also a human rights crisis as well.


PS: Two more laws have come up for revision as I write this – Wildlife Protection Act and Indian Forest Act. This might mean that even the Forest Conservation Act will be reviewed soon. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Home is Where the Kitchen is:

There was no road going from Korzok towards Leh, back in 2002. We bumped along the plains in a jeep for miles. The Changthang region, stretching to Tibet, was home to the nomadic Changpa tribe who reared Pashmina goats and supplied its wool to Kashmir. They lived in tents and along the way, in one such tent, we had stopped for some hot butter tea. The space for cooking was right in the middle of the tent, with an opening which was used by the chimney to direct the smoke out. Everything else revolved around this space.

Subsequent travels to Ladakh revealed the importance of the kitchen in a home. Larger than most rooms and also the most adorned, this is a space for cooking and entertaining people over unending cups of butter tea poured from bottomless flasks, khambir and tsampa with sour curd. The low tables are strictly not meant for sitting, for which one can use the mattresses kept on the floor around the wall. In some homes, the fire at the centre of the kitchen still burns; in most others, the cooking gas stoves are taking over the corner spaces. Like men in the North-East, I have seen Ladakhi men helping out in the kitchen. The kitchens in Nagaland houses are also big, if not as big as the Ladakhi ones. Here, everything happen around the fireplace where the fire burns throughout the day - warming water, making tea, cooking food, skinning chicken or ducks, eating, friendly chats with neighbours etc. The smoke from the fire dries the meat hung above it and also lends a flavor to it.

traditional kitchen in a village in Nagaland 

In our childhood homes, the central aangan was the space where most activities took place; but for me, it was the kitchen area which was always filled with laughter, gossip, stories, wonderful smells, and always something to eat. We would run around in the mohalla and into anybody’s home heading straight to the kitchen where some kakima or chachi would hand out home-made namkeens or mithais. Before cooking gas came to our town, we used to prepare food on chulhas or kerosene stoves. The process of preparing the chulha every morning was elaborate and so was the process of dowsing the fire after cooking. Each day, after dowsing the fire and removing the half burnt coal pieces, the chulha was given a wipe with a thin layer of wet mud. The smell that arose from that still warm chulha was divine. Children were strictly forbidden to go anywhere near the stove or chulha, as accidents occurred often. Like the time when our nanny’s sari had caught fire. It was because of my quick thinking friend who poured a bucket of water over her, that she escaped with some minor burns.

Most kitchens in rural homes that I have visited across states are clean, organized and dark making it a cozy, mysterious place – for me. The shafts of light that filter in through the roof or wall, add to the charm especially when the shafts of light get patterned with the smoke arising from the stove or are speckled with golden-white dust. In the plains, it’s the women who work in the kitchen, methodically and efficiently. Men come in only to eat. Here kitchens are smaller than other rooms and situated in one corner or outside of the house, from where women have to trudge constantly with tea, water, food etc. for the rest of the household. Modern houses seem to follow this pattern with smaller corner kitchens disconnected from the rest.

Food and its spaces in a home bind people like in the mountain communities; and perhaps that’s why we, in the plains, now constantly struggle with our relationships, both inside the house and out.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Garhwal Disaster:

At the small town of Tapovan, a few kilometers ahead of Joshimat, we stopped to buy some eggs. We were on our way to see the hot-springs at a bend in the road. There was a mesh build around the hot-spring, but people had broken it off long ago to go and place packets of rice and eggs to cook. One of the persons accompanying me even mentioned biryani in cookers. Scalding hot water was bubbling out constantly while the area overflowed with Sulphur and other minerals rich soil. The water was channeled downhill to a few bathing rooms if people wanted to take a dip. The once pristine area now lay desecrated with most trees that lined the slopes cut down and constructions for a dam in progress. The hot-springs stuck out like a sore thumb in that surrounding.

In the distance was the village of Reni, the place from where the Chipko movement had started. Parts of the hills behind it lay barren just like most hill ranges across Garhwal. Deforestation, which is sweeping Garhwal like a scourge has reached even there. Oh, the terrible irony. I sat at the side of the road looking at the broken egg-shells strewn all over wondering if I could find some last remaining vestiges of hope buried somewhere in my heart.  

Something is terribly amiss in this region. It would be extremely easy for me to put the blame on government policies and its corrupt ways of handling everything. But the malaise to me seems to run deep. Ofcourse, the largest part of the problem comes from unplanned and unsustainable urbanization that the state government is hell-bent on following. Corruption in the state’s Forest Corporation, the arm which deals in the commerce part of forests/ forest produces, has ensured that trees are cut down indiscriminately. As explained by Suresh Bhai, an activist, post Chipko movement tree-felling for commercial use was banned in the mountainous region. But in 1994, the ban was lifted for dead pine trees. The Forest Corporation needed just this excuse to start cutting down all types of green trees. Even now I saw green pines marked for cutting in many areas. The Corporation which sells pine gum worth Rs.50 plus crore annually, uses this trick to cut down pine trees because once the gum is taken out, the trees slowly die. Localised environmental movements have helped identify corrupt officials who have been sent to jail, but the corruption is so huge that it continues unabated in other parts. Now add to this developmental activities which started after the formation of the new state in 2000 – urbanization, roads, dams etc.

Gopeshwar with barren hills
A recent proposal sent by the state government to MoEF (&CC) seeks permission to cut down all pine trees. The arguments given are that pine trees are exotic and not local flora, its leaves burn easily in summer setting fires to forests and that it is taking over local varieties of forest patches. The state government wants to plant local broad-leaf trees in its place. Now, the arguments against pines are correct to an extent, but the proposal reeks of a different motive. If MoEF gives a nod to this (which the current MoEF is likely to give), it will lead to unchecked felling of all trees and not just pine. If the state government was so serious about planting broad-leaf trees, it could have well started with all the deforested lands first.

But what I find unsettling is the change in attitude of the communities from the time of the Chipko Movement. People complain of harsh winds and water scarcity but somehow fail to mention the barren hills. The one constant question I have asked everybody is why there are no trees and I have mostly got cagey answers. Some have pointed uninterestedly to patches of pines saying there are enough forests. Somehow I ended up getting the feeling that people’s priorities have changed a lot. They know that they are connected with nature but that sense of ownership is not there. Now it’s a grudging reality which somehow has to be ‘suffered’. The lure of the plains and money is too strong. I have travelled to all the mountain states in India but I have not come across this attitude in other communities till now. The NGOs are very much aware of the issue but are defensive of the fact that people are not interested or sometimes aid the forest officials in felling trees. The situation is like that of an elephant in a room – everybody knows of its presence but nobody acknowledges.

Add to all this the increasing influence of climate change, which has hastened in the last few years (as per people’s perception) – receding glacier, lesser and lesser snowfall, less or no winter rain, increasing temperature, erratic rainfall, winter fog, soil erosion, water scarcity, movement of tree and plant species to higher altitude, pest attacks, unseasonal flowering of trees etc. – and you have a full-fledged recipe for a prolonged disaster waiting to unfold.

What a waste of the efforts of the women behind the Chipko Movement. And what an insult the region has become to their sentiments.

Sign the petition for an alternate development policies for the Himalayan regions

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 2

“It was so strange: this mix of tribal identity and Christianity which is a little on your face. Even largely Christian countries, including ours, is not……so Christian.”

It was early morning in Nongriat, Meghalaya, and a few backpackers, including me, were sitting in Byron’s verandah waiting for the sun to peek from the hills and him to serve us his amazing porridge breakfast. The topic of conversation, as in most backpacking gatherings, had turned again to travel experiences (and thankfully not to Game of Thrones!). While all the travelers dispersed after the sumptuous breakfast, I stayed on at the homestay nursing a sudden bout of back pain and weak knees and thinking of what the Australian couple had said about Nagaland. It had piqued more than my curiosity, it set the tone of my travel onwards to Nagaland.

I spent Christmas with M’s family in the pretty village of Mima attending Christmas Mass in the village’s Baptist Church filled with people dressed in the best of their attires – both western and oh-so-pretty traditional ones with distinctive Angami colours and patterns – and followed by a delicious community feast of rice and pork and some more pork. Moving out from the ‘city’ of Kohima and traveling further north and south, the contradictions that the Australian couple had talked about, became more apparent. Most parts of Nagaland are now highly westernized, both in lifestyle and attire, perhaps a little less in local and clan traditions and customs. Unlike Arunachal Pradesh where tribal culture, lifestyle, attire and traditional homes, are still very much prevalent, in Nagaland one gets just glimpses of a culturally rich past mostly during religious and social occasions. H, who works on tourism and community development, said with a bit of regret that Christianity has erased most of the tribal lifestyle and culture as it’s now considered a taboo. His grandparents are the last generation of ‘Pagans’ or people who followed the old ways of animistic living.

Christmas at Mima, near Kohima

As my friend J explained, Christianity came to Nagaland after the British almost 150 years ago. The Baptists have been there since the beginning while Catholics and Revivals came much later. Unlike the European ones, the American missionaries did not accept any of the tribal culture, considering anything to do with animism, a taboo. From head-hunting and tribal warfare days, people have come a long way in terms of modernization, largely due the influence of these missionaries. As N in Khonoma pointed out, the last few regions who live the ‘Pagan’ lifestyle (mostly eastern Nagaland) are still largely poor. With visible improvement in lifestyle and economic advantages arising out of mainstreaming, generations have consciously let go their tribal past, even refusing to talk about it. H, who has experienced such a transition since his childhood, said that earlier hygiene and sanitation practices were abysmal and it was especially bad with pigs, chickens, mithuns and people all roaming around the village freely, reminding me of the conditions still prevalent in many villages across India. Akole from North East Networks (Chizami), who was wearing a traditional mekhala when I met her, felt that it was easy for people to adopt Christianity as there were a lot of similarities with the Pagan belief systems.

High heels in a village - western with the traditional

It is however the youth – the fourth or fifth generation Christians – who are beginning to question their socio-cultural identity just like they are doing with their political identity. Fashion conscious and so effortlessly stylish that they can easily put our metro fashionistas to shame, the youth are looking at different ways to resolve their ‘crossroads’ moment. A section of youth want to reaffirm their identity by going back to their roots, by understanding their ancestral history and keeping their heritage alive. AVT, a TISS Mumbai graduate, who met us in Kohima, took us down narrow bylanes past old houses to a decrepit place which served the local rice drink Dzutho. Any form of alcohol is officially banned in the state including the local rice drink. Sipping the rice beer and watching the sun go down across the valley, AVT enthusiastically talked about tribal practices and customs he knew of and showed us burial practices that existed before. He rued the fact that there were too many western influences in the society now. C, who took me to the forests around Khonoma on New Year’s day, said that the youth want to know more about their roots but parents are not really interested in telling as it’s against their religion to talk about taboos. He felt that his generation is the last who can do something to retain their rich heritage, after which everything will be lost forever. L, who took me around the fields of Khonoma and narrated all the stories/folktales related to the village’s history and monoliths scattered around, is passionate about his village’s past and want to write down all the folklores and stories of his village.

The other section of youth is going back to religion in order to forge and strengthen their identity. Like my friend K, they feel that it is religion which has helped them through decades of conflict and improve their lives. It is also finding oneself and others through religion that will help them resolve future issues and bring them together as a strong Naga community.

A Totem put up by an ex-hunter at Khonoma

Walking around the forests and the fields of Khonoma, I could not shake the feeling of being watched by ‘somebody’ amongst the gnarled alder trees, the sudden shriek of a bird, secluded ponds, and the mellow sun filtering through the trees – making me want to believe all the nature spirit stories that I heard there. It was magical. Perhaps it is a bit of this magic, faith in Christianity and the inherent strength of the people who have held on despite odds stacked against them that has made Nagaland a beautiful and distinctive place like no other.