Real India: a land soon without tigers, and maybe orchids

BANGALORE — Suprabha Seshan — a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India — is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the “New India,” which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a “virtual” prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way. It’s an underlying premise among Indian chatterers, as they keep telling us, that often the best point in an argument is one whose direct opposite may sound equally plausible, even true. So let the conversation continue, through many paradoxes. “Is it possible,” she asks herself in conversation, “to live a life without contradiction?” — i.e. without petroleum, chemical fertilizers, technology? “In today’s society,” she answers, “it’s not possible.” There’s a cutting Indian edge here on the global contradictions of growth in a collapsing biosphere. Tea and eucalyptus plantations under the British Raj upset the balance and beauty of the green range of India’s Western Ghats in the 19th Century, and destroyed vast natural forest lands — but not so much that the state of Kerala doesn’t still market its mountains as “God’s own country.” For 20 years now there’s been an eco-tourism boom in Suprabha’s jungle — with roads, hotels, breaking-up of farms and new construction to serve high-end and mass visitors. The “eco” industry gets its name from the jungle, Suprabha says, but the jungle is withering. Ayurvedic medicine, the rage in New Delhi as well as Los Angeles, draws heavily on plants from Kerala wilds, “but where will we get them in a few years?” Better eco-tourism, I wonder, than the coal and bauxite mining that is churning a tribal rebellion in Eastern India? “Mining is rape,” Suprabha responds. “Eco-tourism is prostitution.” The good news from her own two decades on 60-plus acres in the wild is that forests and all their complexity do grow back. “The forest will return if given the chance. We call it ‘gardening back the biosphere.’ It can be done.” The bad news is that no one in or out of power will say “no” to eco-tourism and the promise of jobs. How, I asked her, will all this be remembered in the emerging story of the new India?

SS: I cannot relate with the new India at all. We have nothing in common in terms of what we seek as a possible future. The new India is appalling to me, if the new India means the exclusion of the forests. The new India means the end of nature to me. The two cannot go together: this is an apocalypse in the making. Because what is new “Shining” India going to shine with if it doesn’t have its rivers and its plants and its forests? What will it go forth with? CL: What piece of the old India are you invoking? And what is it in the old India that might ring an alarm? SS: The old India, what little I’ve known, is the diversity of things, the beauty and the sacredness and the diversity of things. In people, in the land, in trees and plants. Everything was sacred, and this was commonly felt. But modern industrial civilization, colonialism, all the powers that be have made it their special mission to destroy that relationship. The sacred doesn’t mean worship necessarily. The sacred means seeing each thing for what it is, and that it has its own right to be. And unfortunately it seems that a lot of mainstream religion has ritualized the sacred and has made an idol out of the sacred. So the sacred is now a plastic idol ringed by lights in someone’s concrete home. And so you worship your elephant that way. And meanwhile, the actual elephant is dying of tuberculosis, and herpes virus.  So my question has always been with regard to the so-called famous Indian tradition which is spiritual and so on: it’s become so symbolized and so ritualized and so separated from the actual earth that it has lost its meaning. It is virtual. It’s a virtual religion. CL: You sound like high Hindu priests I’ve read about, who teach this reverence for the single wasp, for every form of life… Is that a foothold for India to catch, against environmental disaster? This reverence for the planet, for life. SS: Reverence of any kind, of course, would be a very very powerful foothold. But I just don’t see it. Except in textbooks and stories. I do feel the modern media are crowding them out. Because you can have this experience of nature, of the wild, of the sacred, of anything, and you can almost believe that it’s true. And that’s the danger of the new technology to me: you can track a tiger in the forest through your computer and feel all that adrenaline rush, but you don’t have a relationship with a tiger. Because when you are with a tiger in the forest and your adrenaline rushes you’re a life and death situation… One gym instructor told me in the city, when I told him I live in the forest. He said “Oh, the jungle is a deadly place to booze!” That’s a crude version of what a lot of people do. They go to the jungle and they’re shut away from the jungle. The new technologies and this kind of removal that we see: it’s a severing that’s happened. They’re blind when they go to the forest. They have no means to look at the forest, to see it in a simple way. Just the beauty of it, let alone sacredness. Sacredness is so much more, it’s part of a life and a relationship, a recognition that we all have our spaces and relations with each other.

The deeper messages of entering the forest, and the silence, and the sensitivity, opening up and so on. That is a very quiet thing. That can’t happen in the way outdoor education is being sold to people: you work in an IT company and then you go for a weekend to the forest and then you have this outward bound experience. I don’t think it can happen like that. A relationship with nature is built over generations for the human species — the human species has come out of this million-year evolution, eye-to-eye contact with snakes, and elephants, and plants. You can’t really do it instantly. But a lot can be done: awareness is a pretty instant thing. People can be suddenly opened up in a pretty instant way. But, for that to build into a living relationship of sensitivity and mutual care, I don’t think that is so simple.

Suprabha Seshan in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

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  • Ashok Rajasingh

    I have been living in New Zealand for over 18 years. Before that I had the great privilege of visiting various remote forests in India – ranging from Mundanthurai, the tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu; the Maiumuthar River to the Valley of Flower and Hemkund Sahib, one of the most revered of Sikh shrines. Dachigam in May was incredibly quiet and lofty while the Sariska National Park and tiger reserve in Rajasthan in March were wild and wonderful. Dimbum was unspoilt and unknown. Today I am told that the Indian white-backed vulture is seriously threatened by veterinary medication given to cattle and that the common house sparrow is threatened by cell phone towers and their signals! What is happening to India???

  • nother

    “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, then be crowded on a velvet cushion.” – Thoreau

    Suprabha Seshan makes me want to run right out and sit on a pumpkin, or a bed of high grass. Seshan tells us “awareness is a pretty instant thing,” and I believe her because this interview made me instantly aware that there are thinking thoughtful Thoreaus still out there preserving the integrity of the human race.

  • Great interview, another I will come back to again and again.

    We have such a big challenge ahead of us. Most everyone is using the wrong metrics, measuring every kind of success in ways that are destroying the planet, and ways for people to contribute for the betterment of our species, any hope of finding beauty in anything. I’m trying to teach myself what I don’t need, trying to develop a reverence for nature and for the beauty in man’s world (I am, honestly, horribly deficient in this regard), but the real task is to help others. At the moment I’m so frustrated that someone I know back in Oregon is unemployed, in debt, and looking to buy a washing machine and dryer for her new apartment. “You don’t understand, I -need- them!” And she’s a lot better than most people, this is nothing.

    I’m going to send this show to my younger sister, who is majoring in “fish and wildlife management.” It will be interesting to learn what value she has for this, what she has to add.

  • wow that was a vivid conversation, almost made me spill my cup n’oodles and can of beer! It highlights the i dont know existential crisis we all face in this “new” world. at what point do we stop and put the styrofoam cup of soup with poison down and resist the currents of “progress” that are consuming everything we hold dear to us? i dont know, my mind kept wandering to the wars in iraq and afghanistan where the u.s. is now employing a ‘kinder, gentler’ counterinsurgency to “repair” the destruction done to those civilizations, and the prospect that those wars will fall into a cloud of invisibility as the u.s. officially “withdraws”. metaphorically, as a detached listener is only capable of, the story of Suprabha’s work at the beginning was heartening: that with some attention and real access to natural forest, it is possible to repair the damaged web of life…maybe it is possible?! even with the an enormous existential and epistemological re-evaluation of ourselves that it might require…that perhaps exceeds the seductions of pretty HD ‘planet earth’ videos, eco-tourism, and buisness/eco friendly new tech sustainable development schemes that act as the sycophantic foot-soldiers for a much larger, unstoppable (and non-negotiable!) project of corporate globalization.

  • The story of the Cosmic Fig Tree from Hindu mythology is so appropriate for what Suprabha is saying…

    In this story, the proverbial rich uncle visits his nieces and nephews who are playing inside their hut. He tells them, “Why are you inside, playing with your twigs and rag dolls when the Cosmic Fig tree is right outside? Go out under the tree and wish for anything you want and the tree will give it to you.” At first, the children are hesitant but by and by, they get out and start wishing under the tree. They wish for sweets and they get it! But they gorge on the sweets and they get sick. They wish for fancy toys and they get them, but they soon get bored of these toys. They didn’t comprehend that the fig tree always granted wishes in pairs – what was wished for always came with its exact opposite. For that was the way of the universe as everything comes in complementary pairs.

    The children grow up, but they can’t stop wishing under the tree. As adults, they wish for sex, fame, money and power, the four main fruits of the fig tree. They get their wishes fulfilled, but sex comes with jealousy, fame with isolation, money with worries and power with palace intrigues. Yet they go on wishing and wishing and wind up leading miserable lives. As old men and women, they congregate once again under the tree to contemplate their spent lives. The first group, the cynics, say, “This has all been just a big hoax!” Obviously, they had learned nothing. The second group, the know-it-alls say, “We must have been making all the wrong wishes. If only we could go back and wish for different things, we would have been a lot happier during our lives.” They had learned less than nothing.

    The third group, the depressed, wish that they were dead. And the obliging tree grants them their death wish. Except that they are immediately reborn underneath the same tree for the tree always grants wishes in complementary pairs.

    A lame child had been watching all this from the window of the hut, for he was too weak to push through the enormous crowd thronging to wish under the tree. He had only wanted to wish for a strong pair of legs, but as he saw the spectacle of people struggling to cope with the consequences of their wishing, he was filled with compassion for their plight. And he lost the desire to go out and wish, thus, slicing that fig tree with detachment!

    There are some of us who see the destruction of the forests, the destruction of the oceans and the pollution of the atmosphere and feel that the dominant western culture has perpetrated a giant hoax on humanity. A second group feels that the environmental destruction that has happened is simply due to the tragedy of the commons. They assert that if only the ocean and the forests and the atmosphere would be fully privatized, the owners – presumably, a few benevolent corporations – would find a way to preserve nature. A third group is so dejected by the environmental destruction they see around them that they wish humanity would soon depopulate and die out.

    But, truly, the need of the hour is for all humans to follow the example of the lame child.

  • Potter

    I’m glad she’s there doing what she is doing and telling the truth about the consequences of the choices and trade-offs we make, unknowing. I think, that the way things are going it does not look too hopeful for India or the planet as a whole gardening it’s way back even though it can possibly be done. ..or rather it’s “do-able”.We lose the tiger, most of us, without knowing, or with a shrug, or even a tear, and then go on.

    The pictures I see on her website are absolutely spectacular. I look forward to exploring the site further.

    How in the world would I see any of this, or hear her, without this complicated world which has evolved in these destructive ways?

  • Thank you for sharing this conversation with such a wise woman. Forest gardening, with the modern culture of destruction as the backdrop, of this talk. Towards the end of the program, Chris, you ask about the political resistance it takes to deal with the appeal of jobs. Suprahba rejects “jobs that are connected to this kind of society where your work for another… Jobs have not brought about a better society, people working in their small communities can’t be massed, empires of employment.”

    One form of employment; in this smaller community system; is worker cooperatives. Worker cooperatives in the U.S. are low on the awareness level of my fellow citizens, and I think this should change. Rather than working for a large corporation, worker cooperatives are typically small, and provide a connection between the people who work in them and the community that supports and is supported by them. I know this an extreme tangent from the wonderful conversation which began. But the last time I heard Chris mention/address an issue nearer to cooperatives was one of micro loans nearly 10 years ago. Thank you for the good work.

  • all i can say is, as long as we are addicted to the illusion of perpetual ‘economic-growth’ under the obsolete banner of neolib ideology [of materialism]. We might as well [enjoy!] consuming to extinction at worst or start composting now!
    Supi’s description of the ‘new’ India that has nothing in common with he [and mine] values can be extended to the whole industrialized/developed world and developing world still aspiring to industrialized by means of econ-growth. Real sad n stupid at same time.