The advertisement for Maval Srushti painted on to this car parked in the apartment building across the lane from us finally intrigued me enough to sit down at the computer and see for myself. “Nature’s own dream.” When I log on, I find a resort, Maval Srushti, advertising a twenty-acre mountain “paradise” with “lawns, gardens, and trees all around, excellent Maharashtrian cuisine, numerous walkways through the foliage, and peace and tranquility.” Though we have yet to visit a hill station near Pune, I recognize well the retreat to the peace and tranquility of nature. I imagine such paradise would attract the resident of the city with enough income to consider a few days in the hills. Still, these all-too-familiar words for nature, echoing the pastoral ideology of the West and the urban necessity of keeping nature apart has only complicated my attempts to understand the strange place of nature in the life of Indians.
The place of nature in the lives of the Indian people is strange only because I do not understand it. Because I’ve been hanging out with intellectuals and scholars and poets, I’m now conversant with some of the concepts of nature that are less visible on the streets of the city. I’ve learned of the Tamil concept of tinai, a concept best compared to the Greek oikos, and I’ve been studying the nature poetry of my friend Murali. Ecological thought and criticism in India is indeed alive and well—a vibrant mix of tribal tradition and imported Western ecocriticism, rural lifeways and urban experiences. Too, it seems that any conversation I have about nature leads back through words to the life experiences of the person and family who have only recently found themselves living in the chaos of the modern city.
The phrase “Nature’s own dream” suggests not only a fiction of the pristine but the idea of nature as improvable as well. The manicured lawns and numerous walkways of Maval Srushti are, I can imagine, something apart from the urban and industrial life of the city. And I am willing to bet that one can walk the footpaths of Maval Srushti in city shoes and retire for the evening in comfortable bungalows without insects and bugs and snakes. This place apart is not nature, but nature’s nature—a dream, as the promoters of Maval Srushti would have it, improved by man.
Ever since coming to India we’ve been faced with this dreamscape of nature. Much like in the US—though more blatant here—the developers and the city planners are busy promoting that strange hybrid called sustainable development (a concept, to be sure, as muddled as the process that it seeks to describe). Outside a huge housing complex under construction in Hyderabad—with bulldozers—out back pushing fill into what was once a streambed), a large billboard announced that the developer was “in collaboration with nature.” The newspapers we read tell a story of nature as threatened by the overwhelming pressures of human population. Farmers, some taking their own lives in despair, are cajoled to sell their lands to the developers; the residents of the high rise buildings complain of the dumping of debris and the flow of raw sewage into the stream that still lives out back. Students rally for the environment. But their voices are drowned out by the relentless consumerism and seducative promises of convenience. And then a leopard: running lose in the city, chased for hours by wild men intent on quelling a threat; one of them, finally, a marytr of sorts, is mauled by the desperate animal, battered and bruised, a civilized man-against-wild nature story then retold by children’s posters on the walls of Ellinore’s classroom.
With over a billion people, India is reeling from the pressures of unmet human need. But there is very little education that takes into account the finite resources that are being destroyed here every day. It is quite distressing. Last night I talked with Sujata, Rebecca’s colleague, about her interest in fostering a more deliberate approach to environmental education in the primary schools, as well as in her law classes at the college. She told me about the impact of her evening ornithology class at Pune’s Garware College with Dr. Pande. (This is the class in which Rebecca and I were invited to speak—Rebecca on wetlands and the law, and me on Rachel Carson and Silent Spring.) Her example was the cutting of a tree and realizing how the loss of a tree has multiple and significant impacts. We talk about how one learns to think ecologically (to think about not one thing, like the tree, but about relationships, in this case between the tree and its surroundings). And I remember what Carson said about the need for a wider view of the world, something more than what the specialist in a subject area can provide. For in an era of specialists, Carson insisted, each person too often “sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits.” Sujata asks me for reading lists and curricula. And I promise to provide them.
This morning, after dropping the kids at the bus, I walk out to Jungli Maharaja Road and then back through Fergusson College. I’m hoping to capture a few images of the city coming to life. It is hot already, and the streets are full of peircing sounds and acrid smells. The morning air is full. The sidewalks are torn up. Trash is banked against walls, some of it is burning. And the garbage pickers are sorting into large white bags whatever can be salvaged.