Tag Archives: ecology

On Tribal Honeygathering In The Nilgiris In National Geographic Traveller

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In mid-2012, I had the amazing experience of accompanying five Irula tribespeople on a honeygathering mission in the Nilgiris, where I watched them harvest combs off a cliff using 2000-year old traditional methods. I wrote about it for the July issue of National Geographic Traveller India, which you can subscribe to here.

[Update]

Or you can see it in pdf, below.

Sting in the Tale

The Venus Flytrap: Original Instructions

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In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Paradise In My Pocket

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When people talk about ecological damage, what bothers me most is not that future generations will gradually have less and less to subsist on – I believe too much in abstract ideas to fear that. This is selfish, but I am saddened by the knowledge that even within my own lifetime, sacred places are going to be lost.

When I speak of sacred places, I do not mean pilgrimage monuments. I speak of those things that have allowed my soul to touch centre by being in their presence. These things are paradise only to me. I believe the earth is sacred, and so are coasts and trees. I do not think this is important to anyone but me, just as I expect people to respect that I may not share their beliefs.

I recently resumed work on the novel I have left alone for almost a year, a novel that was begun at all because of one such place: Pasir Ris.

Pasir Ris is a beach in north-east Singapore. It’s a strange place, an aberration in a nation known for its perfectionism – unkempt, wild, lonely, and the water sometimes coagulates with oil. It is barely a beach, by any standards. When I tell Singaporeans that it’s my favourite place in their whole country, they are puzzled. Some of them have never even been there; why would they? There’s nothing there.

But I am writing an entire novel in which the characters, the plot, entire lives and events, are just a way to tell a story about this place that moves me so.

I became obsessed with Ris because of a poem someone else had written. It was years before I discovered that it had been fiction, and by then it was too late. I was miles deep in a story that was more real to me than the scars those lies caused me. By then, it had become my personal sanctuary.

There isn’t the space here to describe all the synchronicities I’ve seen relating to Ris, but one particular incident matters. I had gotten it into my head to have a photoshoot there, dragging a friend clear across a border and then across the island to do it. It transpired that this friend, a multi-award-winning prodigy, had written his first poem at the same beach. We used a clay vessel in the shoot. I left it there because I felt I needed to give something back.

I went back a month later. A single piece of that vessel remained, almost impossibly given all that would have happened in a month. I knew only blessings return that way.

The last few times I was there, I saw that the amusement park nearby was being expanded. I don’t know when I will next go, but I do know it will no longer be my Ris.

Here is the irony of all this: Pasir Ris, like many Singaporean coasts, is reclaimed land. “So much sand,” someone told me. “I don’t know how they found so much. One day it was just there.” Tampering with ecology produced one of my places of pilgrimage, and yet I worry about ecological damage.

I cannot explain this, except to say that the same person who told me about the reclaimed land also told me that because he had grown up by the sea, he did not realise it  had a smell until he was nearly an adult. We only know the worlds we inherit, the metaphors and realities we are lead to believe. We lose these worlds. And we do what we can to immortalize them, to keep paradise in our pockets. I write.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.