It was with great delight that I entered into the studios of WNYC on Varick Street to sit down and talk with Arun Venugopal, who was guest hosting the Leonard Lopate Show. We talked about the costs of the Green Revolution, of Hindu priests who asked, “What is your duty?” to a farming family considering going organic, of holy waters. Our conversation ended too quickly, and I didn’t quite get to elaborate on my answer to his last question, about the direction PM Modi is taking the country. I said Modi has a choice. What I felt like I didn’t make clear enough is that he can develop India at the expense of the environment, the direction he seems to be heading now, or choose to tap into the exploding number of opportunities to develop in a more sustainable way, providing a model for the world. I’m rooting for the latter, and met the people in India who hope so too.
I spent a good chunk of last winter stepping into women’s kitchens in rural India to see what was cooking. Rice. Rotis. Dal. Curries. But regardless of the meal, most rural homes were cooking over open fires. With the incredible support of a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, I was working on a book about environmental stories across India, including doing research and reporting about what — if anything — was helping women move away from the polluting form of cooking with biomass. Today, the journal Nature published my piece that tells a little bit about what I found. Deadly Dinners (a heavy-handed but unfortunately devastatingly accurate title) begins:
After returning from her nine-and-a-half-hour shift as a security guard, Savita Satish Dadas begins plucking fenugreek leaves from their stems for dinner. She and her two children, along with three of their cousins, gather in a shed-like structure next to their house in the Satara District of Maharashtra, India. As goats and cows settle in for the night a few metres away, Dadas and the children sit down on a packed dirt floor around the family hearth.
Whisps of smoke rise up from their chulha, the Indian name given to a traditional cooking-stove fuelled by wood and other organic matter often gathered from the countryside. Dadas’s stove, like several of her neighbours’, is sculpted out of clay. But many make a rudimentary three-stone fire — a triangle of elevated points to support a pot — that humans have used for millennia. Dadas feeds roughly chopped logs into the stove and her hands shape moistened flour into bhakri bread, the rhythmic movement illuminated by the flickering flames.
With this simple daily act, Dadas shares a connection with more than one-third of the world’s population, the three billion people who depend on solid biomass fuels — such as wood, animal dung, agricultural waste and charcoal — or coal for their cooking needs.
Five months of a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship is coming to a close. Given that the fellowship involves both the US and Indian governments, there was just a wee bit of paperwork. At. Every. Step. [Has anyone else ever known where I’ve slept each and every night?] As it all wraps up, there was a final report. Actually, two. A couple questions seemed worth sharing. [Read more…]
I have missed chasing birds on this trip to India. Mostly it’s been about people, in all their human glory, although the partial focus on vultures meant that the reporting about birds actually involved very few live creatures, but rather discussions and strategies for how to make a world where, once again, the skies becomes full. But one thing that a vulture conservationist said has stuck with me. He said that the South Asian vulture crisis has made him not take any bird for granted. (This, of course, could be extended to: take nothing for granted.) I’ve been trying to take his words to heart, directing my camera at the ebony and grey scavengers that remain, the Indian crow, Corvus splendens. [Read more…]
Some way or another, poet and friend Vivek Narayanan and I figure we’re related. Some of his people hail from Besant Nagar in Chennai, as do mine, even sharing a street if not during the same decade in time. And his poetic alter-ego is a man named Mr. Subramanian. On a warm winter night we met up in Chennai with plans to see music. First we wandered on Eliots Beach, a place transformed with each return, more people, more glowing and squaking toys, more vendors selling roasted corn on the cob, rubbed with lime, chili and salt, which I have a serious weakness for. That kind is known as “normal,” though the new “American Sweet Corn” is also available. Oh, sorry, am I talking about food again? With my lips still numb from the chili and lime, Vivek led me into Spaces, a place I’ve walked by a hundred times yet never entered, though the granite posts that serve as a fence have always caught my eye. Inside, it is a space removed, the same peacefulness offered by the nearby Theosophical Society, where trees and the quiet space between them dominate, the sounds of the city set back, only the occasional roar of the Besant Nagar boys on their bikes speeding along the beach penetrated into our realm.
We were there to see other boys. More talented boys. Much more talented boys. [Read more…]
It’s the one year anniversary of the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi. The date also marks the night — The Times of India reminds us this morning — when a nine-year-old boy named Raju was assaulted and sodomized in the city, and Razia left her toilet-free home for relief and was attacked. It’s not just the young modern educated girls out carousing with their boyfriends (How dare she. A movie? Out at 9:00 pm?) who are at risk. It’s not just girls. The protests that erupted were in the name of Nirbhaya, the student, but they were also for these two, and for all those whose skins and boundaries have been unwillingly transgressed at the hands of another. [Read more…]
Bengalaru, nestled in the Deccan Plateau in the center of southern India, is known as the Garden City. On Sunday morning, I set aside the work that brings me here, set aside the old name of Bangalore and the new moniker of Garbage City (this IT capital doubled in size in the last ten years, to 8+ million, but never quite got a sanitation system in place. And don’t get me started on the traffic…). Instead, let’s just revel together in the presence of Vijay Thiruvady, who led a group of us on a tour of the Lal Bagh Garden as part of Bangalore Walks. History! Culture! Discovery! Gorgeous, oxygen-producing greenery. I drank and drank of it. [Read more…]
Breyten Breytenbach, in tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski:
Listen: you must continue traveling because the earth needs to be discovered and remembered again and again, cyclically, creatively, with her season and her sounds, with the warm breath of hospitality, with the healing touch of strangeness…lest it become cold and impenetrable — a barren place of power and politics.
On my way back from Mussoorie, I stopped for a couple of days at Navdanya. Here’s how they describe themselves:
Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 17 states in India.
Navdanya has helped set up 111 community seed banks across the country, trained over 5,00,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped setup the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country.
Navdanya has also set up a learning center, Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed / Earth University) on its biodiversity conservation and organic farm in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand, North India. [Read more…]
I stepped into the small shop in Mussoorie to get a bag I’d asked too much of stitched up. The man sat on the floor of the shop, which was not much larger than the strapping SUVs that wrangled their way down the narrow old streets. His wife sat in a chair, stitching by hand. He motioned me to sit on a low bench as his hands reached for black thread, and slipped it it into the spool of the hand-powered, well-oiled sewing machine. His hands moved with a precision born of decades of this motion — gossamer thread, eye of the needle, the smooth movement of cloth under the jabbing point, fingers safe, hand spinning the wheel. As he worked, I looked at the sign taped to the wall above him:
Someone belatedly caught the typo. Made a correction with pen. The tailor was done. He lifted a pair of golden-handled shears that could have cut through armor and with a delicate snip, finished the job. “Kitne?” I asked. “Das rupees,” he answered and I handed him the worn red note worth sixteen cents and gave my thanks to him and his wife and returned to the winding road that led uphill.