The year of reading gluttonously

Earlier this evening, I sat down to write a blogpost about the better books I have read over the last few months.

There has been – due to all manner of complicated reasons — a lot of reading. The months that immediately followed the end of my states reporting project for Scroll saw me pick up a bunch of long overdue books. Among them, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, Nilanjana Roy’s sequel to The Wildings, The Hundred Names Of Darkness. And then, travels with Charley, a really good exploration (on bicycle) of pre-Brexit United Kingdom, and Superorganism — Edward Wilson and Bert Holldobler’s fascinating work on insect societies.

Other fabulous books in this period include a look at the sudden resetting of human-animal relations in Japan which culminated in the extinction of the Japanese wolf, John Dower’s look at how history treats modern Japan (in a fairly cherry-picked way, as is the habit of history), Jan Vansina’s brilliant (I use the word deliberately) Paths in the Rainforests, where he builds a 3,000 year long history for equatorial africa — a place long dismissed by academics, due to the absence of written records, as a place without history where people lived as hunter-gatherers right up to the point colonialism arrived — by surveying local languages, and tracing back the origins of commonly-used words. A technique he calls Glotto-chronology. I take notes as I read, flowcharting my way through a book. It is the only way I can ever remember anything. A good book will take up, say, two pages in my diary. Paths In the Rainforests? It stretched over 12 pages. I now have to read his book on the Kuba during colonialism. And his account of working in Africa. And then, there was Sujata Gidla’s AntsAmong Elephants.

Each of those books, except Gidla’s, was read for fun. To give the brain a taste, as with the Vansina, of large questions and grand answers. Essential for a reporter whose months and years go into chronicling ugly, petty processes. This is also why I read fab books like the gorgeously produced ‘Extinct Boids’. To give the old brain, sagging after writing too damned many depressing reports, an injection of wonderment and delight.

And then came Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been described by some as a sort of pupating James Baldwin. Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, Consuming Life, Wasted Lives and, most recently, Moral Blindness. And Tzvetan Todorov’s “The Inner Enemies Of Democracy“. Bauman and Todorov are the two writers who have helped me understand our modern times the most. And then, there was Victor Klemperer’s “The Language Of The Third Reich“. In the book, Klemperer, a professor and a person of the jewish faith living in Dresden during the Nazi regime, decides to study its language. Read this bit.

“What was the most powerful Hitlerian propaganda tool? Was it the individual speeches of Hitler and Goebbels, their pronouncements on this or that theme, their rabble-rousing against the Jews, against Bolshevism? Certainly not, because a lot of this was not even understood by the masses, or it bored them with its endless repetitions…No, the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not acheived by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously… language doesn’t simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”

One reads this book. Thinks of phrases like ‘Love Jihad’ entering our everyday lives –with all the bigotry and insinuation wrapped into them — and finds it impossible to differ with Klemperer. I have to now read the first volume of his account of living under the Nazis. I Will Bear Witness (1933-1941). Here is historian Peter Gay’s review of that book. Reading Klemperer– and Bauman before him — was shaming. Their books are vital for understanding our present and yet, I had not been able to make time to read them till now. Or take Vansina. I bought that book in 2007, around the time my MA at Sussex was ending, but read it only in 2018!

The next book was again about the Nazis. In the first month of the break, I had also read this biography of William Shirer which ended by saying that he, Berlin correspondent during the Second World War, author of a very good book on Gandhi, and the writer of “The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich”, had failed to spot the holocaust while reporting from Germany during the war. This was a larger failing. The New York Times, despite being headed by a family of the Jewish faith, failed to report on the holocaust as well. Which raises questions about journalism. It is a profession which wraps strong myths around itself. Go to journalism schools and you will run smack into this self-aggrandising narrative — Watergate, Bofors, you name it — but a more accurate history of journalism would include its many failures. In some ways, the failures are more instructive about our profession than its wins. And so, I read Laurel Leff’s book damningthe NYT’s holocaust reportage.

Next, another book on cycling — this one by a climate change scientist. Then, The Work Of Kings, on Sri Lanka’s militant monks. Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth. I had stumbled upon him after reading his grim warning, drawing from the holocaust, about climate change. Next, the prescient Amusing Ourselves To Death. An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism. Carl Safina’s book on animals‘ emotions and communication. David Remnick’s biography of Barack Obama — a sort of a followup read to Coates. James Comey’s book. Winner-Takes-All Politics. Paul Kalanithi’s very moving When Breath Becomes Air. All of these books were very good. I am not banging on about them only because this post is already very long.

And then, a tremendous book. This one by Piers Vitebsky on Odisha’s Sora tribals. In Living Without The Dead, he looks at the last fifty years for the Soras. A period in which they went from their shamanist traditions (which included talking through shamans with the newly-deceased whenever illness struck) to Christianity and, now, Hinduism. The book’s explanation for these dialogues with the dead is remarkable. Death always leaves the living with unresolved questions and hurt. Talking through shamans with the dead, says Vitebsky, gave the living a chance to work out those questions, hurts and fears and brought them nearer to closure. As ever, one reads books like this and fills with marvel about ancient societies and their wisdom. I have to now read Vitebsky’s work on Siberia. And also this book about aboriginal wisdom, this one from Australia.

Other good books. Nature editor Helen Pearson’s The Life Project, which tells us about the UK birth cohort studies and what they taught us. Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology. Rauf Ali’s very enjoyable Running Away From Elephants. Saeed Mirza’s Memory In A Time Of Amnesia. A book updating what we have found in recent years about dinosaurs. And then, another tremendous book. This is Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy. She details his capture of Russia — and how he transformed it from a country run by oligarchs to one where das oligarchen pay tribute to Putin, survive only at his pleasure, and how he and his cronies have enriched themselves at the cost of Mother Russia. Extraordinary book. Minxin Pei’s China’s Crony Capitalism and Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires are good. But the Dawisha book is superlative in its forensic detail. And then, Riot Politics. And The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.

Like I said, this long break from work wasn’t a planned one. But the reading has been a bonus. The tyranny of the here and now obscures everything else about the world. And so, it has been good to step back for a while and just read. In a few weeks, I will be back at work. And this will be one challenge. To retain space for reading.

Update (Circa January, 2019): The highlights of July included Zygmunt Bauman’s Moral Blindness, Greil Marcus’ Listening to Van Morrison, Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society, Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China and Reporter, Seymour Hersh’s biography.

August started with a graphic novel set in the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Japan, In This Corner Of The World. Other highlights that month? Evicted, on the American crisis of poverty and housing. Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class. By the middle of that month, I was back at work. But managed to read I Will Bear Witness, the first part of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. And then, a delightful little book by Alan Bennette titled The Uncommon Reader.

Next up, a closer re-reading of Balagopal’s Ear To The Ground. I had read this book earlier but, after the Scroll states’ reporting project, it was good to read his essays again. And then, the second part of Klemperer’s diaries. In his foreword, Peter Gay describes these diaries as hypnotic. That is exactly correct. These are a haunting account of life under the third reich, by a person living at the very margins. That was September. Four books that month. Work was making its presence felt.

And then, another extraordinary book. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, on the biology of good and evil. And then, Frank Pasquale’s book on how algorithms structure and run our world, and how we are more poorly informed than ever about the decisions that impact our lives. This is Black Box Society. And then, John Hemming’s The Conquest Of The Incas. Followed by Steve Coll’s history of Exxon, Private Empire.

The highlights of November? Eduardo Galeano’s Days And Nights Of Love and War. Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company. Nikhila Henry’s book on the flowering of youth agitations in India. And a history of the Yellow River. And then, December. Its highlights? Eduardo Galeano’s mesmerising Football In Sun and Shadow. And Shehan Karunatilake’s Chinaman.

I look back now and think 2018 was my best year for reading since that year a decade back at the University of Sussex. The world forces an impoverishing intellectual straitjacket upon us — we are surrounded by a cacophony of news and information about places, events and people close to us in space and time.

It was good to slip that straitjacket in 2018. Must try and stay out of it in 2019 as well.

Power. The ignorance it engenders. And some photographs.

Towards its end, “The Post”, Spielberg’s film on the Pentagon Papers, says: “The role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.” Which makes one think. Who are these people we are meant to be serving in India?

Take a look at the snaps above. These people — belonging to Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — were photographed in the last three years. So much of our policy debates play out in their name. And yet, how little we know about them. And how static/outdated even that limited awareness is.

Some of this is about distance. Out of sight equals out of mind. Ergo, the periphery gets far less attention than what surrounds the centres of power.

And some of this is about power. As Brett Walker writes in The Lost Wolves Of Japan, “Power engenders a peculiar kind of ignorance: dominant humans almost never take the time to really get to know the peoples, plants, and animals they subordinate”. A curious drive to diminish is at work here. As Walker writes, we rejected the notion that flora/fauna might have their own emotional lives — reducing them to just gene-directed automatons. They come to be seen, not as discrete individuals, but as a broadly similar category. Which is something that Barry Lopez writes about in Arctic Dreams. About how the Inuits knew the personalities of every caribou, seal and what have you around them. Killing any of these, for them, was a far more considered process than it is for any big game hunter.

With biodiversity, some of this is due to a resetting of power dynamics between us and other species; some of this is due to how our thinking changed (more focused on what can be measured, for one, keeping the scientific method in mind) after the enlightenment; And partly, as in the case of Japan’s wolves, is about economic imperatives trumping old cultural systems.

As Walker writes, such diminishing, for want of a better word, extends to humans as well. We see it every time a demagogue wants to stoke up bigotry. The process starts by reducing their targets to broad categories — reducing flesh and blood individuals to identity markers (like Jewishness or Islam or the colour of their skin or caste) they cannot transcend. We also see it in governance. An instance: Back in 2011, when the Planning Commission wanted to delink minimum wages and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, activists organised a workshop in Delhi where they called Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a discussion. The audience? Mostly NREGA workers. Faced with the task of explaining to the workers why they should get less than the minimum wage, each of the visibly discomfited bureaucrats said their piece in English — and then left instead of staying for the discussions.

So much easier to clinically discuss workers/poor as an abstract category defined through a couple of traits than see them as real, living people.

There are questions here for us reporters as well. This stuff about our immediate context determining our priorities raises questions about us knowing whom to serve. A related question takes us further beyond. How does one serve? Report without knowing much about these people, or the latest forces acting on them, and the risk of us mischaracterising the problem/fighting the wrong battle cannot be ruled out. Take one instance, is today’s agrarian crisis in India is the same as the agrarian crisis we faced ten years ago? Or are there subtle (or large) differences?

Journalism is a knowledge producing trade. It needs method — if we are to capture a representative slice of whichever emergent process we report on. Ignore such questions. And we will end up with journalism with unchanging — and increasingly irrelevant — analyses which cannot do good.

Which is why India needs far more local reporting. For deracinated hacks like me, one answer, I guess, is to keep doing periodic deep dives into the field to update our understanding re the issues we write on. Essential given the rapidity with which societies change.

Another, I think, is to maintain a certain watchfulness towards how our brain arrives at its conclusions. To be aware of the cognitive traps we carry with us. And to work correctives for those into our reporting/writing process. To get time/freedom to report. And to read more — especially about the unknowns.

PS: I am blogging more than before. I used to when this blog was hosted at And then, I got busy and the blog just became a place where I aggregated links to my reportage. Trying to change that now.

And now for something completely different


No ‘End Of The Year’ cycle ride (see this and this and this) this year. One of my two co-conspirators was scrambling to finish his long overdue book — writing, not reading, it. The other was busy prepping for a marathon. And so, January 2018 saw the ‘End Of The Year’ trek. Eleven days of walking in Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.

How was it? Life shrank to the basics. The quest to stay warm. Finding quiet patches of forest and sitting there with little more than the spotting scope. A few minutes of sitting still and the forest would come to life. And then, up went the scope as I gaped at the birds in one of the most biodiverse places in India. Back to the campsite by two or so. A quick lunch. And then sitting down to read The Lost Wolves Of Japan, write in my journal, or a smaller walk followed by sitting down to watch the sun go down. By seven, it would be getting seriously cold. And so, dinner. Nip into the tent and read some more. And asleep by eight or so.


These days were therapeutic. Over the past months and years, the brain has felt increasingly like a slab of meat getting electric jolts of stimuli with rising rapidity — emails, social media notifications, messages, the news cycle itself. The fallouts have included a collapsed attention span. A deepening addiction to the dopamine hits of social media. Increased stress levels thanks to a surfeit of uncivil conversations on social media and elsewhere.

The costs of all this run high. My friends find me more irritable, more graceless than before. At a time the work needs to be more rigorous than ever, I find myself saddled with an attention span butterflies would spit at. And so, with the end of ‘Ear To The Ground‘, my reporting project for Scroll, I have been trying to disentangle myself from some of this. The twitter account has been deleted. After reading books like Irresistible and The Shallows, I am trying out new restrictions on distraction/interruption technologies like cellphones and the internet.

The initial results — before I headed for Eaglenest — were promising. With twitter out of the way, the brain found itself reading more. Two standout books read during this period included Superorganism on how insect societies evolved and function, and Island Story where author JD Taylor cycles around the UK to give us an excellent introduction to pre-Brexit Britain. Two other books — Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch and Steve Wick’s account of William Shirer’s years reporting on the Nazis from Berlin — raise the important question on what it takes to truly belong to the time one lives in. Other notable books were Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story Of A Brief Marriage, a hagiographic — but instructive — account of Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, and more.

The hike helped consolidate some of those early gains. Partly because these days were marked by the complete absence of any connectivity. No phone signals. And no power source to charge the phone anyway. This ebbing of stimuli and the resulting silence brought in some calm. The forest too imposed a mindfulness towards the ongoing moment. And so, the brain gradually began getting used to a new normal — of doing a few things in a day, each for extended amounts of time. The challenge now is to hold onto these gains — instead of lapsing back to the old normal. In that context, a friend has suggested this book called Deep Work that I have just ordered.

In other ways too, the hike was useful. It is important for us green hacks to be reminded of why we do what we do. At one level, Eaglenest is one of the more primeval forests I have seen. Ancient trees that soar up high and all that. And yet, it was impossible to escape mankind’s stains on this place. My guides and I saw signs of hunting. In the snap below, that building is our campsite at Sisni, and the reddish stuff in the foreground is the coagulating blood of some unknown animal. This is what we saw shortly after reaching Sisni.


In the park’s southern reaches, logging by Bodo groups is said to be underway. Walking through the park, one encountered plastic. Gutkha packets. Abandoned cement sacks fraying into thin plastic strips. Beedi packets. Plastic bottles. Broken glass bottles. An abandoned floor mat. Wafer packets. One could go on. Things came to a head on the day we saw elephant droppings which contained a piece of tarpaulin.


These are familiar processes. Take habitat destruction. Assam seems to be getting a lot of its timber from the forests of Arunachal (Which is what we saw during last year’s cycle ride to Namdapha as well). A lot of Arunachal’s political economy pivots around road construction. These roads, built in a manner which results in frequent landslides (see below, road between Kalaktang and Tenzingaon), seem to create livelihoods more through road construction than economic activity engendered by these roads. The outcome is a constant building/expansion/relaying of these roads with accompanying environmental impacts — the damage to hill slopes; an influx of underpaid road crews who cut trees for firewood/to clear plots for farming; etc. ; the damage to hill slopes. And then, there are the local communities. Leading economically marginal lives, they too fall back on the forest for firewood — to use or sell.


The Lost Wolves Of Japan touched on this desire for economic improvement. Japan used to worship wolves. And then, after the Meiji restoration kicked off a modernisation project in the country, it began seeing wolves as a threat to Japan’s ranching businesses. And hunted/poisoned the species into extinction. Economy trumps culture. Not to mention old systems of restraint/respect towards other species. Across India too, economic marginalisation — due to inquities in wealth distribution — seems to be taking similar tolls on human-biodiversity relationships.

Eaglenest has fared better than most parks. It draws birdwatchers from around the world — and uses them to run highend tourist camps with some of the proceeds going back to local communities. But even so, for all manner of complex reasons, buy-in from one community (Buguns) seemed to be higher than the other (Rupens).

All this triggered large questions. Was tourism growing? Was it helping everyone in the communities or were the gains flowing to a few? If tourism was rising, was hunting coming down? Or had it already made enough inroads to reduce the numbers of megafauna? At the same time, do we make a mistake by focusing on hunting? Isn’t habitat destruction the biggest threat to the park?


In all this, the forest department’s response was ineffectual. Understaffing is high. Budgets are low. There is a certain wariness towards tangling with the Rupens, whose members were said to be hunting/picnicking in the sanctuary — which looked like male-bonding/insistence on persisting with old tribal cultures to me. All this seemed to have bred a passivity where the forest staff I met had stopped challenging even the processes they could — like ensuring construction crews brought back all the cement sacks they took into the forest, safe plastic disposal by the camp operators, and so on.

Walk through the park and one saw forest department boards talking about the campsites. Each of them described the location and then spelt out the department’s conservation infrastructure sited there — “An anti-poaching camp of the forest department is located here,” as the board below says. The catch? None of that exists on the ground. It is all governance on paper. There is a larger observation on the Indian state here. In 1992, the Supreme Court banned all logging in the North East. But in the absence of a functioning state administration, that writ too exists only on paper. At the most, formal players cannot log. The informal sector (not to say non-state actors) chop away with impunity. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All this adds up to heartbreak. Those elephant droppings with tarp. A leopard cat cub we saw which had been separated from its mother. I do not know if it is still alive given how young it is, how cold Eaglenest is at this time of the year, and those hunting expeditions. One evening, a bull elephant carefully walked around our campsite through the undergrowth instead of coming up onto the path. Watching it walk into the gathering dusk, it was hard not to feel anxious for its future.


And yet, there is everything to fight for. Last year, I went walking in the Alps. One thing that stood out about that trek — apart from my bone-tired fatigue — was how empty those forests were. Eaglenest, despite the pressures acting on it, still has staggering biodiversity. One day, in two hours, walking just 8 kilometres along the road, I — massively clueless about bird species — saw no less than 20 different species. Eaglenest is said to have no less than 500 species of birds alone.

All of which is what we saw, in March 2015, at Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve. Huge biodiversity, yes. But with deep poverty and militant groups posing threatening the forest in their own distinctive ways. And, again, an ineffectual state — thanks to a combination of cash-strappedness as well as governmental indifference.

There is complexity here. As I finish this post, I am wondering about all the other layers/nuances I have missed. I need to think about all this a great deal more. Probably head back to Arunachal on rejoining work. And try to see where the solutions lie — Local communities? Getting government institutions to work better? Or, as a friend says, creating employment for people to reduce pressure on the forests — which also calls for a recasting of the elite capture that characterises states like Arunachal.

And now for something completely different

This year’s EOTY (end of the year) bike ride started at Guwahati, Assam, and ended at Miao, Arunachal Pradesh. The route (Guwahati, Mangaldoi, Dekhiajuli, Pabhoi, Majuli, Sibasagar, the coaltown of Margarita, Miao, followed by a visit to Namdapha Tiger Reserve) stretched along the north bank of the Brahmaputra till the river island of Majuli and then crossed over to the south bank before entering Arunachal. Moving from west to east, Assam seemed to change from day to day. The profile of the local population gradually changed (from Bengali influences to Muslim dominated to Axomiya hindus to a greater tribal composition as one neared the Arunachal border). As did the houses, diets and local markets.

Some pictures. That snap you see on top left is the endangered Pygmy Hog. The beneficiary of what is described by my biologist friends as India’s only successful wildlife reintroduction programme. The two snaps below it were taken as we (three friends and me) pedalled towards Majuli. The snap of haystacks in the middle was taken on the second day — en route to Orang National Park. The snap on the top right? That is the sort of house we saw in the initial days — houses with attached fishponds.

The snap of a bridge, mustard fields and the setting sun? That was taken en route to the ferry for Majuli (which stars in the next snap). The two misty snaps were taken the next morning in Majuli as we cycled to catch a ferry from Majuli’s eastern bank. That was a morning to remember — us cycling on the fine sand of the Brahmaputra’s riverbed, with the mist swallowing up everything beyond 20 or so metres. The next snap, of my sand encrusted cycle, was taken after this ride.

That shack you see was a place where we breakfasted shortly after getting off the ferry. The gent wearing the adidas sweatshirt was running that eatery along with his wife. The two people below him? We met them, at another tea-stall, on the way out of Sibasagar. Ditto for the young man from Bihar selling cakes, puffs and pastries from his cart. Around here, the houses had changed. We saw fewer houses with ponds. Most houses had a canal running out in front with these cane bridges over them.

Then came Margarita. And that is where the next set of snaps — like that of the vegetable sellers, including the one with the coal mine in the background — were taken. Around here, the houses (and the profile of the local population) had changed yet again. And then, we entered Miao. The vertical snap you see was taken inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve. The rest were taken in local markets in this part of Arunachal — the first set of women are selling, among other things, local turmeric. Rs 10 for each page’s worth. In the snap to the right, you will see what looks like white cookies in plastic bags. That is yeast, using for making local rice beer called Loh-Paani.

In the final snap, the woman holding up that newspaper belongs to the Apatani tribe — look at the facial tattoos. She was eating jalebis when I took that snap. This, of course, is little more than a random sampling of snaps. That week of cycling left us with more impressions than what a quickly-written blogpost can handle.

PS: It was a good break. No email. The phone on DND. The brain caught a break from its usual ADD, spending hours at a stretch cycling or reading. Two notable books from this trip: Jon Prochnau on the adversarial reportage by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Mal Browne and others during the early days of the American quagmire in Vietnam. And another on Aristotle’s staggeringly accurate (and sweeping) effort to make sense of life’s diversity on Earth.

PS: You will have to forgive me the multiple snaps of my cycle — my Surly Cross-Check is tough and beautiful. And I keep photographing it.

PS: And here is a blogpost on the trip by my fellow cyclist Vidya Athreya.

Reading Zygmunt Bauman

during these months spent on #eartotheground, one of the largest social processes my colleagues and i have written about is this rising intensification of caste and religious identities.we saw that in punjab. and we saw that in tamil nadu. our story at tamil nadu advanced an hypothesis that stagnant economic fortunes of the intermediate castes combined with an improvement in the status of dalits when they left farm labour for construction labour, etc, in a rapidly urbanising tamil nadu.

but how did that newfound equivalence translate into an intensification of caste/religious identities? did what freud called “the narcissism of small differences” kick in as equivalence increased? was it something else? right now, i am reading “modernity and the holocaust” by sociologist zygmunt bauman. there is a bit in there where he talks about modernisation, and how it began to erode the social and legal barriers between jews and christians…

“modernity brought the levelling of differences — at least of their outward appearances, of the very stuff of which symbolic differences between segregated groups are made. with such differences missing, it was not enough to muse philosophically over the wisdom of reality as it was- something christian doctrine had done before when it wished to make sense out of the factual jewish separation. differences had to be created now, or retained against the awesome eroding power of social and legal equality and cross-cultural exchange.”

this created a problem for the anti-semites. new differences needed to be created. how was that done? they knew religion alone could not provide an enduring foundation for the differences sought to be created. religion itself was becoming a hostage to human self-determination. and so…

“under conditions of modernity, segregation required a modern method of boundary-building. a method able to withstand and neutralize the levelling impact of allegedly infinite powers of educatory and civilising forces; a method capable of designating a ‘no-go’ area for pedagogy and self-improvement, of drawing an unencroachable limit to the potential of cultivation. if it was to be salvaged from the assault of modern equality, the distinctiveness of the jews had to be re-articulated and laid on new foundations, stronger than human powers of culture and self-determination. in Hannah Arendt’s terse phrase, Judaism has to be replaced with Jewishness: ‘jews had been able to escape from judaism into conversion; from jewishness there was no escape.”

now to get into more detail.

the retreat of the elephants

Working on the hydel stories, thinking about how these dams will change the Brahmaputra, feeling the country will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for a long, long time, I am reminded of this passage from Mark Elvin’s The Retreat Of The Elephants.

A paradox has to be confronted. The same skill in water control that had contributed so greatly to the development of the Chinese economy in ancient, medieval, and even in the early part of late-imperial times, slowly fashioned a strait-jacket that in the end hindered any easy reinvention of the economic structure. Neither water nor suitable terrain was available for further profitable hydraulic expansion.. A remarkable but prescientific technology was approaching the limits of its capacities. Deadliest of all, hydrological systems kept twisting free from the grip of human would-be mastery, drying out, silting up, flooding over, or changing their channels. By doing so they devoured the resources needed to keep them under control or serviceable. And made these resources unavailable for other purposes prior to the coming of modern engineering. No other society reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy as did the Chinese, nor on such a scale, but the dialectic of long-term interaction with the environment transformed what had been a one-time strength into a source of weakness.

The context:  For hundreds of years, the Chinese have been trying to control their great rivers — the Yellow, the Yantze and the Huai. Take the Yellow. Carrying large volumes of silt down from the mountains, it used to make frequent (and sweeping) alterations to its course. Once, it swung so far south it actually merged with the Huai. This was a problem. For one, Beijing, up in the north, was serviced (transport of goods, etc) by the Grand Canal which connected in the south to the Yellow. And since you cannot have a functional canal if the river feeding it with water keeps swinging here and there, the Yellow needed to be tamed. So, in the 16th Century, the Chinese built massive embankments, got the Yellow to flow along one predetermined channel. In response, the river began dumping silt. So much that, as Elvin writes, the river bed rose by over 2 metres in just 13 years. Higher and higher embankments had to be built.

A technological lock-in without fully understanding the attendant consequences.

Turn now to Arunachal and Hydel. Developments here are taking India down an irreversible direction as well. And the strange thing is this. We know enough to not take such decisions. But all that knowledge and wisdom seems to be powerless before the political economy at work. For, what we have is a system of environmental governance which only pretends its decisions are scientific. But take a closer look — at the minutes of the MoEF committees set up to evaluate projects or how our policies on environmental clearances are created — and you see that it is the political economy that calls the shots.

That is one question. How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to reason and science? Also, is such a system desirable — or can it become a technocracy? So, maybe I should rephrase my question as “How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to interdisciplinary reason and science”?


(Also cross-posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for the Economic Times).

The Dov Ospovat Book

A couple of hours ago, I finally finished reading Dov Ospovat’s The Development Of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838-1859.

I had blogged about this book some weeks ago saying anyone reading The Origin Of Species will be struck by several paragraphs where Darwin describes painstaking experiments he carried out seeking answers to questions that were puzzling him – similar vegetation on far-flung seashores, how did the seeds get there? Or, how did poorly mobile species like snails, etc, manage to spread across the world?

These experiments were largely conducted in the 18 years that passed between Darwin getting off the Beagle and the publication of The Origin Of Species. Which basically suggests that in this period, Darwin was hard at work chasing down hypotheses, testing and proving/disproving them, working on his theory.

And what Dov Ospovat has done, in this book that he finished just before he died at 33, is reconstruct, well, the evolution of Darwin’s theory during that 18 year period.

It has been a mesmerising read. It’s not often that one gets to read about how ideas take shape. And the way the theory of evolution took root in Darwin’s head itself is fascinating.

Why? Because when Darwin left England on the Beagle in 1831, he believed that each species had been independently created with characteristics that suit it admirably for the conditions under which it was destined to live. This was the teleological explanation, which held sway in the mid-nineteenth century. This believed in perfect adaptation. It held that organisms are created, either directly or indirectly, by God. (Cuvier, Paley)

By the time Darwin got off the Beagle, many of the young naturalists were starting to reject the teleological explanation. However, even those who shifted away from teleology continued to believe in perfect adaptation. They too believed that organisms are created by God. But where the teleologists attributed the perfection of organisms to their having been specially adapted for particular conditions of existence, those who rejected the teleological explanation said the perfection of species was the result of harmonious laws established by the creator to achieve his purposes. (Owen, Martin Barry, Bridgewater Treatises, Geoffrey St Hilaire, Carpenter, Whewell)

Similarly, when he wrote the “Essay of 1844” where he put down his evolving thoughts on evolution, this is what Darwin thought as well. He believed that, in general, species are perfectly adapted by God for their conditions of life. This was, admittedly, a different notion of perfect adaptation from what Cuvier and others preached. Darwin and others challenged the notion that there is one form that is better than all others and that is what is chosen by God by pointing at things like vestigial organs, etc. Theirs was the doctrine of limited perfection. Organisms are created by laws and they are only as perfect as they can be within the limits set by the necessity of conforming to these laws. And that organisms are formed with reference to the law of unity of type or of heredity, etc.

He also believed in harmony. That the number of species would remain constant. And that perfectly adapted forms do not vary. That organic change occurs only in response to environmental change.

In the intervening 18 years, his thoughts on all of this changed. He moved from perfect adaptation to relative adaptation. And from a view of nature built around harmony to one built around struggle. As Ospovat writes:

“Rather than a single decisive break we find numerous shifts in emphasis, some obvious, others subtle. In 1844, Darwin supposed that change in the organic world is inherently intermittent; in Natural Selection, he implied that it is potentially – but probably not actually – continuous. In 1844, he supposed that inorganic conditions are the principal determinants of structure; by 1856 he considered them less important than organic conditions. When he wrote the “Essay of 1844”, Darwin assumed that variation occurs only as a result of environmental change; in Natural Selection he assumed it is always occuring because conditions never remain absolutely unchanged. In 1844, an increase in food is allowed to be perhaps a minor cause of variation; in Natural Selection it is said to be an important cause; and by 1868 Darwin called it probably the single most powerful cause… In the “Essay of 1844”, natural selection is supposed to produce perfect adaptation; in Natural Selection it produces forms only as perfect as their competitors. In 1844, Darwin saw nature as a system of inorganic change and organic response; in Natural Selection he saw everywhere organic change and reaction.”

The question is how these changes in his thinking came about. According to Ospovat, these emerged, after 1844, out of “Darwin’s complex, creative response to the thought of the leading naturalists of his day.” Indeed, scientific history too is written by the victors. Darwin has come to appropriate the centrestage in our understanding of how the theory of evolution came about. People like Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently thought up the theory of natural selection while struck down by malaria while collecting specimens and sent the paper he wrote up to Darwin at a time when the latter was still working on his theory have not received their due.

Nor have countless others. How many of the names in the brackets, for instance, can you recognise? Richard Owen, for instance, one of the greatest paleontologists the world has ever seen and the man who set up the Natural History Museum in London, was almost written off as someone who did little more than challenge Darwin. (Only in the 1970s did his rehabilitation start. For a more recent book, see Nicolaas Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin).

This is one thing that Dov wanted to correct in this book. He wanted to, as Adrian Desmond writes in the foreword, “make Darwin less of a seer, standing out of time, and more a man of his day”.

It is a point that is driven home very successfully. But that said, what makes the book special for me is its detailing of the process through which the idea of evolution came about.

For instance, Lyell, who wrote the Principles Of Geology, the book that so influenced Darwin while he was aboard the Beagle, “argued that the history of the earth is cyclical and when the current cycle of an earlier geological cycle returns, then Iguanadons, Icthyosaurs and Pterodactyls, which were perfectly suited to the ancient climate, will again inhabit the earth. This was the teleological explanation for succession. This also meant that organisms were primarily adapted for inorganic landscape, not to other species around them… This was opposed by Carpenter, Owen and Louis Agassiz, among others. They did think that external conditions were designed with the organic world in mind, but felt that external conditions at any period, though known beforehand by God, were the product of geological forces and laws, not of special adaptation to the living things then or about to be in existence.”

Or take Owen. For him, “There was no strict relationship between external conditions and organic form. He believed that the structure of successively appearing organisms was determined not only by the conditions to which they must be adapted, but also by biological laws, such as unity of type and the law of the succession of the same type in every country. He supposed that new forms were related not only to conditions, but also to their predecessors.”

This, incidentally, qualifies as a real, breakthrough insight. He had identified some of the processes at work!

There are several things that strike me here. First, I cannot but marvel at these hypotheses, all trying to explain what the age of exploration was telling naturalists about species, their distribution, etc. There is an earnest, groping quality to so many of these as they try and make explain the world using the limited information with them.

Or try this. “The problem with advancing such thoughts (challenging perfect adaptation) is they seemed to support transmutation – species changing into another. And naturalists like Owen, Carpenter and Agassiz were anxious to explain that they did not see their viewpoint as tending to denigrate God’s power or to minimise his influence in the creation. Some, like Agassiz held that ‘biologists contribute most effectively to natural theology not by discovering more examples of the adaptation of structure to function and organism to environment, but rather by discovering the laws that constitute the creator’s plan’.

This is how ideas evolve. In the short term at least, the new ideas we get are strongly determined by the ideas we already have. Only if we plug away long enough, and only if we question our assumptions rigorously, might we end up with radically different ideas from what we started out with. Remember, Darwin started with assumptions about harmony and a benevolent creator. It took him 18 years to so utterly recast his views.

But that is also what makes Darwin such a remarkable scientist. He was smart, knew enough to challenge his assumptions, and above all tenacious. Not to mention a keen monitor of how ideas on evolution were, again, evolving and he tried to explain them through his theory.

For a journalist, there are salutary lessons in all of this. We too develop hypotheses in the absence of enough data. And what we resultedly end up with are hypotheses that fare as poorly as MacLeay’s Quinarianism. And we certainly keep writing on the same things over and over again (banking correspondents, financial inclusion, microfinance, yah da, yah da) for the new (story) ideas we get are strongly determined by the ideas we already have.

Anyway. That is how it goes. I should shower and cook now. I am heading out on a long field trip soon and am wondering which books to carry. I think I should get deeper into this fascinating epoch and read Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors next. Should be fun.

(A modified version of this review has also been posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for ET)