Just Another Wake-up Call

Murali Sivaramakrishnan[Professor of English at Pondicherry University, India. He is also a poet and painter. His recent publication includes the poetry book Silversfish.                     E-mail: <smurals@gmail.com>

It had rained so heavily last night. But now the dawn has brought so
much soft light on the wet boughs and silken flowers. Everything appears
fresh and clean. The sky bears an amazing touch of blue. From where
I sit on the low balcony of my house I can see right up to the end of the
street where it turns sharply to the left and right hiding beyond the heavy
laden trees. Now there is a shower of insects. There are termites all over
the place. Crows, mynas, drongos and magpie robins are dashing in and
out of the strange volcano-like eruptions from the ground. Millions and
millions of tiny winged creatures zoom about only to be devoured in hundreds
by these birds and other little lizards and hairy mongooses which
join them. This is certainly a protein rich repast for them. Nature is so
strange. Each one thrives on the other. Life is one long unending chain.
And yet the survival of each species is ensured through different means.
The termites might be food for the birds but their sheer numbers makes
them outlive their predators. It is not the time span or specific niche in the
food chain that ensures this, for after all in nature time means different
stuff for different species.
They say that the Mayfly has the shortest life span of all living creatures.
It lives barely for one day. And within this short life circuit the entire
drama of birth, growing up, reproduction and the ensurance of the species
and death comes full circle. Some moths and butterflies live a little longer
and dragon flies live up to a week. While on the other hand, the longevity
of elephants and tortoises takes them close to a century and beyond
sometimes. All life forms on earth have their own intrinsic space and time,
and one significant point we have to bear in mind is that they are there
for themselves and they play a significant role in the biosphere and ecosphere.
We can say they have intrinsic significance which means they have
essential rights to exist independently of what we humans might consider
their worth. Of course we human beings have the definite capacity to decide
their fate and destiny because of our might and forceful histories. We
have become the dominant species on earth the masters of all our universe
(until we encounter such superior alien creatures in other planets or stars
which is a future possibility). But for the present we humans have absolute
right of control over all of this planet earth, this third rock from the sun.
I once heard someone state over the television that Americans have
such superior weapons nowadays that they can destroy the entire earth
nine times! This immediately made me wonder how such a threat is feasible!
Simply because once the earth is destroyed there would not be another
to destroy a second time let alone till the ninth! But the threat is obviously
a bit exaggerated for the sake of its magnitude! Of course humans do have
the power to annihilate all life forms including ourselves. This is certainly
a potential threat to all nature.
But nature thrives through creation and destruction. Even the giant
reptiles of the Jurassic age had to face extinction through the great ice age.
Nevertheless nature did find a continuity in ensuring the success of life by
permitting new and newer life forms to germinate even after such a massive
catastrophe. It is said that even after a horrendous chemical warfare
cockroaches can survive to live another day! Perhaps they have evolved
their own biological adaptations after encountering repeated attacks from
us humans inventing and reinventing several chemical and biochemical
atomisers and such stuff to eradicate what we hold as pests from our domestic
spheres! Life does find new ways!
We humans are indeed great consumers. We gorge on our planet. And
down the centuries as we read in our history books we have been exploring
and conquering new territories inside our earth as well as on the surface
and even above our earth. We have created cultures and civilizations,
languages and technologies that have helped us spread all over the globe.
There is virtually no place on earth which has not felt the shadow of a
human being! Our great creativity and adaptability has ensured our survival and success. There is little doubt that us humans are the sole owners
of this mass of rock from the sun. We might defend ourselves by saying
that we have every right to ensure our own survival because we are the
dominant species on earth. We can command the fate of all else. And now,
even if we do produce a mass of garbage which might pollute our earth and
water and air around us we can eventually find new scientific means to
get rid of all that. There are many among us who would strongly advocate
for human beings alone as the apex creations of god – after all we are the
direct decedents of god – he or she produced us in their own image (this is
what our religions would teach us).
This I have heard: humans are not the only creatures who leave debris
behind. Large herds of wandering elephants pull down and destroy
innumerable trees, thorny shrubs and bushes. Aren’t they then culprits of
destruction of nature and habitat? With the discovery of fire human tribes
have torched and scorched miles and miles of bush and terrain down the
history. So then, why only blame our present day generation solely for habitat
destruction?
Having said that, we come to realise that the axe and the fire have laid
waste miles and miles of living land through countless generation. But the
point is simply that now we have reached such a pass that we do not have
any more chance: we have reached a cul de sac in our history and the history
of our planet. We have the first wake up call.
We have built up our civilizations and cultures with us humans as the
centre of it all. When we put our interests in front of everything such a
view is called anthropocentricism – human centred world views. Little do
we recognise as the intrinsic rights of all other non-human stuff to exist.
But nature as we have come to realise through all our learning and pursuit
of science, is something that cherishes what is called biodiversity. There
are innumerable living and non-living things that are besides the human
existence and they too have a need and necessity to exist side by side. In
fact it is through the continued preservation of this vibrant harmonious
web of life that we can also aid in our own survival. Ecology teaches us
that everything in our universe is interlinked with every other thing else.
We break one and it makes a dent in all others as well. When each animal,
each bird, each amphibian, each insect is deprived of its survival space – its
biological habitat – we also are making dents in the other interconnected
chains. We are locked in with everything else that exists. Some we can see
and make out, others are invisible to us but nevertheless exist. We have
so little right to assert our own right over everything else. But yet, this is
exactly what we have been trying to do so far. Our history, or rather our
environmental history is so full of our own footprints and finger prints.
We are the culprits.
Our second wake-up call is one that tells us our earth is not a garbage
dump! All the nations of the world produce waste and they are of several
levels from chemical to bio-chemical to nuclear waste. What do we normally
do when we are left with some waste? We simply dispose of it over
our wall; if it is in our neighbour’s yard it is safe beyond our sight. Now that
we have come to realise that all of this is our home where shall we dump
our waste? Is there space beyond stars? Can we find a distant galaxy where
we can heap all our waste?
These are not mere lists of facts or a fanciful array of fantasies – but
his could be a clarion call to stay awake and recognise our responsibilities.
We should not reach out for the snooze button
There has been no time in our histories as in the present when our
wake-up call has been so persistent. It is screeching. We have so polluted
our earth, our waters – including fresh water lakes, rivers and the seas –
and our air. We have to change our ways of living. Before that we need to
wake ourselves up. Do we need to wait till the last and final call has to go?
Was it indeed Mahatma Gandhi who said that we have not just inherited
the earth from our forefathers but simply borrowed it from our children!
My reverie is rudely broken by the door-bell. Someone is at the door.
I need to go and get the front door. The sunlight outside has become warmer
and shadows have started to shrink. The sun is moving beyond the tree
line up into the blue skies. The termite volcano appears to have subsided.
The crows have already left. Satiated no doubt with their fill of sumptuous
protein-rich meal. Only a couple of stray mynas still hang about pecking
at this and that. A couple of squirrels dash in and out of the bushes. Probably
the late comers. It dawns on me suddenly that I have left the lights on
inside my rooms. It is imperative that I conserve whatever is left, including
our electricity. I definitely do not want that doorbell to be the third and
final wake-up call. I am up and about in no time!

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Revista rile, joão pessoa-pb, v. 1, n. 1, p. 289-292, jan – jun 2018 
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Thattekad Diary

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Sri Lanka Bay Owl

The forest closed in all around us as the sun was infringing the western-ghats in a halo of orange and red. And it was not just another evening for the four of us who treaded softly over the drying cluster of leaves that carpeted the jungle floor: it was so eventful. The guide who led us all the way here was suddenly waving excitedly for us to troop over—he was pointing out something up in a broad leaved tree. I looked and could barely make out the bird’s shape in the evening glow. It was the Sri Lanka Bay Owl. The excitement was visible on all four of us and our guide was just as equally excited. He was gesturing like a magician and practically dancing in his glee. It was a moment to freeze for all eternity. We were on a forest track that branched off Urulan Thanni near the well known Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Earlier in the day Usha and I had driven up from our home in Trivandrum. This was strangely enough my first visit to this famed part of the world—a haven for all bird lovers.

Continue reading “Thattekad Diary”

The Horror the horror!

Apparently it is impossible to continue to exist without righteous indignation at the present. There are more than enough reasons to exercise your anger. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to continue to contain ones anger. Everyday debilitating news brings us close and closer towards breaking our own vows of resistance and restraint at social indifference and rampant callousness. This one takes the cake: A man waited too long for an ambulance to transport his wife’s body, and finally gave up. He had to wrap the body in a bed sheet and carry it slung over his shoulder in plain day light over the street! In this country where each undeserving political autocrat is given undue security from God knows what and has a whole retinue of cars and jeeps to accompany him or her wherever they go it has come to such a state that an ordinary citizen cannot avail of an ambulance to shift a dead body! Cry my beloved country! My indignation swells over and so would yours my dear reader I am sure in sheer helplessness.
I am reminded of a forgotten chapter in my own life. I had just about taken up a job as a Lecturer in a college in Kerala. My parents and my kid sister were then in Trivandrum. Those good old days did not have instant connectivity and communication facilities like the present, one had to depend on the now-old fashioned landlines to get some sort of connectivity outside, and that too after waiting for hours on end to get the operator to connect your call across districts through their trunk facility.
But of course one would write long letters with the aid of Indian posts and Telegraphs. However once it happened that I rushed home for no obvious reason only to find to my dismay the doors all locked and lights turned off. I enquired with our neighbours and got to know that my father had suddenly taken ill and my sister and mother had rushed him to the nearest hospital. Shouldering my bag I retraced my way to the hospital and ran from pillar to post to locate my family. Finally when I did find them my father was in a dangerous situation, and beside him crouched my mother and sister helplessly. I don’t distinctly recall my mental state but I dashed over to the doctor who was kind enough to let me know that the patient was in a critical coma and was in urgent need of higher specialised medical attention. He coolly told me to shift him to another bigger hospital without delay! To my indignation he also let me know that this had to be done within no less than six hours! I was at a colossal loss. I just didn’t know what to do. Somehow I managed to put on a brave face for the sake of not upsetting my mother and sister and withdrew to the porch in search of an ambulance. As was to be expected none was available just then and I had to resort to a way side shop and beg the shopkeeper for the use of his land phone to call nearby hospitals. I succeeded eventually to trace a driver who was condescending enough to bring his ambulance over within an hour or so. I had never felt the ticking of the seconds and the minutes so loud as then when I stood out in the rain all alone in a strange evening waiting for a strange ambulance to deliver my father to another hospital! Gradually the rain cleared or I thought it had cleared when they lugged him on to the backseat of a decrepit van. The three of us crowded round my father in the dingy space while the van tossed and tottered and tooted its way meandering through busy streets and byways. And finally we were in front of a super-speciality hospital. Some helping hands came aboard and rolled the patient inward. We got off to follow suit when the van driver sauntered over to me and demanded his fee: Rs 90/-. I was flabbergasted. This might appear to be a paltry sum of money for many youngsters these days, but back in those days this indeed was a good deal. I searched all my pockets and drew close to forty. But that won’t do. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I took off my watch and handed it over to the exasperated driver! But he was a good soul deep within. He handed it back to me and said: please get me the money as quickly as possible. Now you run after you father and get him all the medical help needed!
I was left holding the watch and for a long minute didn’t know what I was to do. But then I looked at the watch once again and realised how fast time was ticking. There was barely an hour or so left as per the first doctor’s instructions. I dashed in with the crowd and caught up with the stretcher bearing the patient. We were extremely fortunate to run into many medical practitioners who knew us as family friends and their timely help saved my father.
Come to think of it, I was extremely fortunate—there were indeed helping hands that were wilfully extended all through my life in times of dire need. But the situation of the unfortunate man I mentioned at the beginning still turns my insides. Where have we gone wrong as a community? What has happened to our human selves?
Among his favourite poems that my father used to recite was this one Only a Soldier by Agnes Macdonnell: see http://cambridge.dlconsulting.com/cgi-bin/cambridge?a=d&d=Chronicle18800529-01.2.4#

Unarmed and unattended’ walks the Czar’
Through Moscow’s busy street’ one winter’s day.
The crowd uncover as his face’ they see:
“God greet the Czar!” they say.

Along his path there moved a funeral,
Grave spectacle of poverty and woe –
A wretched sledge, dragged by one weary man
Slowly across the snow.

And on the sledge, blown by the winter wind,
Lay a poor coffin, very rude and bare;
And he who drew it bent before his load
With dull and sullen air.

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”

“Only a soldier!” musing, said the Czar:
“Only a Russian, who was poor and brave.
Move on, I follow. Such’ a one goes not
Unhonored to his grave.”

He bent his head and silent raised his cap;
The Czar of all the Russians, pacing slow,
Followed the coffin as again it went
Slowly across the snow.

The passers of the street, all wondering,
Looked on that sight, then followed silently;
Peasant and prince, and artisans and clerk,
All in one company.

Still as they went, the crowd grew ever more,
Till thousands stood around the friendless grave,
Led by that princely heart, who, royal, true,
Honoured the poor and brave.

This might be read by the rabid post-colonialists that we are as the very embodiment of hegemonial power structure, or even how power is maintained by such devious measures as the fostering medieval values of loyalty and chivalry which lead to heroism. But if one were to read some vestiges of human value into it irrespective of class and cunning, one can still see this short poem as engendering what is dreadfully lacking amidst us these days. A poor man’s dead body is casually being lugged across the street, and the Tzar espies this:

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”

Move on, I’ll follow, and so saying the Emperor of Russia followed suit. Eventually there are thousands: Till thousands stood around the friendless grave, paying homage to the departed. It did not take long for the Tzar to recognise the significance of this ordinary soldier who is not to be thus dismissed. Each and every human soul requires to be honoured. How can we just turn our heads at the sight of another’s grief? When did we become as callous as to disregard the cries of another human? Sartre has written somewhere: “…all our philosophies fade into meaningless gibberish at the hungry cry of a third world child!” Forgive the discriminatory terminology (the i/thou, we/they, first/third binaries implied in the French philosopher’s statement) and let’s perceive the essential truth behind the observation. Aren’t we human’s still? Or has the machine entered our soul?

The image of the wretched man with the corpse of his wife flung over his shoulder meandering the streets uncared for, overlooked and disregarded by the world that passes this sight by mercilessly is one that is going to haunt a whole generation no doubt. Is he just another soldier battling the unjust elements in a lost world bereft of humanity?
As I said earlier there are indeed several reasons why the sensitive intellectual cannot hold his/her own peace. Life these days is not without its own share of horrors and dreadfulness. “The horror, the horror!” This phrase occurs in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Many have discussed the meaning of this in terms of the horrendous experiences that Mr Kurtz undergoes in the wake of colonialism and imperialism in deep Africa; this has also been linked to the profound state of the protagonist’s sanity that as in a process of onion peeling just comes off layer after layer! But perhaps taken out of context this could fit quite well with our own present day situation. The horror the horror!

smurals@gmail.com

Remembering Salim Ali, the Birdman of India

Remembering Salim Ali
Remembering Salim Ali

Salim Ali 2

This copy of The Book of Indian Birds was presented to me by Prof K K Neelakantan, the doyen of Ornithologists in Kerala, in appreciation of my work in connection with wildlife activities in the mid seventies. I still cherish this copy because the legendary Salim Ali himself signed it. We were assembled at the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests, Kerala. I recall vividly the animated conversations we had with him and later my walking alongside him discussing birds and wildlife. Those were wonderful days. A page from those wonder years…

 

Sri Aurobindo and the aesthetics of transformation

Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is thevedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.

This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics (1)

For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.

Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’

Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.

Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?

Book Review by MS Nagarajan in The Hindu July 1st 2014