Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why I hope Sachin Tendulkar never gets his 100th hundred

Among some of my other character flaws, my parents instilled in me a lifelong passion for the game of cricket, turned me quite early into another hopeless fan of the habitually hapless Indian cricket team. Didn’t do a lot to encourage me to actually learn to play the sport with any level of skill, mind you – for that couldn’t possibly be my studious brahmin destiny; I was meant to be a Doctor! Mere hopeless passionate fandom it was for me when it came to cricket.

Many a times in my childhood, long before anyone in our neighborhood had television, Aai and Appa woke me up in the wee hours, or let me stay up into the wee hours, to follow the Indian team’s often dismal exploits on tours abroad. We would cluster around the shortwave radio, fiddle with the dial to try and catch distant crackling voices, from Australia, England, the West Indies, New Zealand, narrating the ebbs and flows of 5-day test matches from remote, exotic sounding cities and hallowed cricket grounds. I would let the commentators conjure up in my sleepy head images of Sunil Gavaskar’s perfect straight drive, Gundappa Vishwanath’s delicate late cut, Erapalli Prasanna putting the ball into magical flight. More often though, we would be cursing and groaning at why the batsmen kept hanging their bat outside the off-stump, gasping when they were trying to avoid body blows from the fast bowlers, moaning at how our bowling lacked any pace at all on those zippy foreign pitches, sighing in the habitual resignation of the Indian fan. And we would cling to that shining individual performance – that hundred from Sunny or Vishy, that five-wicket haul from the crazy spinning wrists of Chandrashekhar – even as the team as a whole routinely got thrashed outside home grounds, and sometimes even at home. You can only imagine how we celebrated when the team actually won a game or even a rare series or trophy!

I drifted away from the sport in the 1990s, having moved to America where they were passionate about stranger ballgames that could never capture my passion like cricket had. By then television had already replaced radio commentary (especially of the short-wave variety which proved impossible to catch in America), but there was no internet yet, with its covert video streams of live matches, and textual coverage on cricinfo. So I missed the first decade of the breathtaking career of that reigning star (nay, supernova) in the cricketing firmament: Sachin Tendulkar. I would read about him, try to catch glimpses of his magic with the bat whenever I was home in Bombay, hear about him on the phone from Aai and Appa, who were becoming part of the countless legions of his fans. It was his odds-defying boy-on-the-burning-deck exploits that rallied the nation even as the team continued to perform poorly, especially overseas. I am sure my parents continued to wake up in the wee hours, huddled around the TV now, hot cups of tea warming their hands, to watch Sachin bat, just like they had listened for Sunny’s straight drive a generation ago.

Judge their parenting as you may, but walking into school bleary-eyed, and dozing through classes until recess because of having stayed/woken up late/early, was as much a part of the rituals that punctuated my childhood as the series of festivals and holidays we all celebrated. And often, as we wanted to be awake for the more excitingly anticipated games, Aai would make us cups of hot tea, with just that perfect blend of milky sweetness I now try to recreate in California when I’m up again in the wee hours trying to desperately tune into some (pirated) live video stream on the internet showing me my beloved team’s exploits, which had become hugely better during this millennium even as Sachin continued to pile on the records.

I now know that on that fateful tuesday morning last week, Aai had woken up early again because she wanted to watch her beloved Sachin walk out in whites in Adelaide, in his last test match in Australia, still chasing that record 100th international century that has eluded him for almost a year now. No doubt she too had held her breath, like a billion others, every time he walked out to bat during that year, only to let it out in disappointment as he continued to sparkle in patches, but never quite seemed able to reignite the fire that had led him to this threshold of glory: the first (and likely only, for a while, or ever) batsman in the game to score 100 centuries in international games. An arbitrary landmark in so many ways, yet it kept him, his fans, and my Aai, on tenterhooks match after match, even as the rest of the team too crumpled after the glory of winning the World Cup last year, to now lose two major test series abroad in a row. Not merely lose, but lose by huge margins, getting a thrashing as bad as any I can remember even in previous generations. This farewell Australian tour for Sachin and his generation had already piled on plenty of misery. The series was lost. All that remained was the hope that he would get to that individual landmark.

She woke up early to catch the start of the Adelaide test beaming live on the television. And, as usual, she went to make herself a cup of tea. Perhaps she was too distracted by the game to notice her sari catch fire. The Indian team’s misery continued over the next four days while she battled for her life in the hospital. They lost the match not too long after she gave up her life. Sachin once again did not manage to reach his coveted, cursed 100th hundred.

I hope he never does.

Sari. Stove. Fire.

Sari. Stove. Fire.

Ingredients of life and death for women in India. Elements of sustenance, and of nightmares. Fatal accidents, not uncommon… often but euphemisms, for suicides, for dowry deaths.

Real accidents happen too, just from mixing those ingredients.

She had escaped one such accident, I dimly remember, back in my childhood when all we had was a pump-action kerosene stove. Her pallu (that lovely, deadly, end of the sari that women fly like a banner across their shoulders…) caught the flames. She was alert and quick enough to unravel the sari and drop it to the floor even as my sister ran to stomp on the flames.

Not this time. All she wanted was a cup of tea, not a fight for her life.

She’s much older now, bent with age, and chose to live on her own some years after my father died. Tired of being cramped in her daughter’s small apartment, perhaps. More likely – simply, finally, wanting that room of her own. She seemed happier being on her own too, by all accounts, although it was harder for me to reach her on the phone. It is the phone that brought me, in fragmented conversations laden with shock, despair, anguish, news of her latest brush with sari, stove, fire.

She woke up early that morning, as usual. And as usual, she needed her morning cup of tea. On a gas stove this time. I’m not sure if it was the pallu this time, or gas in the air from her having left the valve open too long. There was a flash, perhaps a small explosion which blew out windowpanes. And her sari was in flames, spreading too fast for her slowed reflexes to stop them. Yet she remained alert and strong and practical (she always was practical) enough to open the door and shout for help. Help, from neighbors, my sister, even the police, arrived within minutes – yet too late for her skin. perhaps too late for her life…

Emergency medical care. Hospitals. Nightmares of their own for most in modern India (Shining). Police investigating the fire sent her off to the ill-equipped, overloaded civil hospital. In my sister’s car since the ambulance didn’t show up in time. Several hours she sat in that hospital, mostly unattended. She is too old the doctor said, to hope for recovery from such burns. Even though she was still talking, even laughing at the absurdity of the accident. Take her to the national burn center in Airoli, they said. She is too old, said the burn center over the phone, filtering her out in their triage… over the phone… Seventy-three is old in India, to the surprise of my American friends. Human life is abundant in my bustling country. Abundant, and cheap. And ages rapidly. Too abundant, too cheap, in a culture too fatalistic for anyone to do anything about the ever-present epidemic of sari, stove, gas, fire. Accidents, real, and also staged, murders labeled ‘dowry deaths’. So at 73, she is too old for anyone to give any hope of recovery. Even as she lies in a private hospital bed, conscious, in pain. Alert enough to ask if she can sleep. In control enough to ask if she can sit up upon waking. Although 95 of her skin has peeled off, and the doctors won’t offer any hope at least until the first 48 hours have passed. As I write this, in the airport, waiting to board my flight from America to go see her, it has been 40 hours since the fire. She is fighting for her life.

All she wanted was to make herself a cup of tea, in that room of her own.

Sari. Stove. Fire.

——-

POSTSCRIPT  (27 January 2012):

About 6 hours after I arrived at her bedside, tried to get her attention, she finally gave up the fight. It turned out to be too much even for her stubborn self. She did hang on long enough for me to reach her while she was still alive, barely. Whether she registered my presence at any level of consciousness, I cannot begin to guess. All I know is: Aai is no more. She fought the effects of that devastating fire for 3 full days. I have just consigned her to the flames again, beseeching Agni to finish the job.

Gaia… we are orphans today

Gaia-orphan

 

I stood by the sea

watching a procession 

of mourners.

Clouds…

sombre, pensive

stood up, dark

against the glow

of the funeral pyre

to which they had just

consigned the Sun.

Waves… emotions welling up

in the brest of the ocean

floundered against the rocks,

lost in the increasing gloom.

The still wind caressed the Earth,

murmuring –

“Gaia, we are orphans today.”

– Words written by me on 29 September 1986 at  Marine Drive, Bombay.

Image captured by me on 2 January 2012 at Morro Bay, California

 

Homegrown subversive plots to feed the hungry and save the world!

It is passing strange to think that growing your own food in your own garden can be considered a subversive act! How did we come to this state, especially in the developed world, but also many cities in the developed world, that we are so alienated from the food on our own tables? Roger Doiron (see his TEDx talk below), founder of Kitchen Gardens International is correct though, in asserting that in our current industrialized global food production system, growing your own fruits and vegetables in your yard or balcony garden has become a subversive act. Because in doing so, we can take back some of the power over our own foods and lives that we have ceded to multinational corporations who control most aspects of global food production now: the policies, the money, much of the land, and the means of food production.

It is remarkable that we have lost power over something so fundamental as the food we must consume daily to survive. It was a mere 10,000 years or so ago that we invented agriculture, a huge step in humanity’s gaining power and control over our foods, and therefore our lives, by freeing ourselves from the vagaries of nature. That initial revolution fueled much of the growth of civilization and has brought us to where we are now – heavily dependent upon the industrial food production and supply system, and often with very little control over the quality of what we can put on our plates or how it is produced, or at what environmental and social costs. Yet this is one area where it should not be too hard for most of us to take back some of this power, some of the means of production: by growing our own little subversive garden plots! Doiron explains how we can do this and what we stand to gain through this subversion:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezuz_-eZTMI&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0]

via ted.com

Hard to think of a downside to this, isn’t it? We need not stop with just our own little gardens in the small bits of urban space we may control – we can, and must, also work collectively to subvert public spaces towards food production, converting vacant lots and even lawns in public parks into edible landscapes that can feed the thousands of urban dwellers who may not have the space or the means to grow their own gardens. The city of Irvine in southern California (yes, the city in conservative Orange County) has done just that: opened up some effectively vacant land to growing vegetables, which apparently feed up to 200,000 people! Here’s a video tour:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXLx0D9YkKA?wmode=transparent]

To put it in terms of the activist metaphor of the moment, gardening for food is an effective way to occupy the global food system, begin to wrest it back from the corporations (even though they still control it through the sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and all the other paraphernalia that goes with gardening) – while simultaneously improving our health and building community. In the process, we may even begin to help heal some of the wounds we have caused in natural ecosystems, and restore some parts of local biodiversity, as is being shown by recent work on the ecology of urban gardens.

So – how would you like a little healthy homegrown subversion on your dinner plate? Give me a double helping, please!

Homegrown subversive plots to feed the hungry and save the world!

It is passing strange to think that growing your own food in your own garden can be considered a subversive act! How did we come to this state, especially in the developed world, but also many cities in the developed world, that we are so alienated from the food on our own tables? Roger Doiron (see his TEDx talk below), founder of Kitchen Gardens International is correct though, in asserting that in our current industrialized global food production system, growing your own fruits and vegetables in your yard or balcony garden has become a subversive act. Because in doing so, we can take back some of the power over our own foods and lives that we have ceded to multinational corporations who control most aspects of global food production now: the policies, the money, much of the land, and the means of food production.

It is remarkable that we have lost power over something so fundamental as the food we must consume daily to survive. It was a mere 10,000 years or so ago that we invented agriculture, a huge step in humanity’s gaining power and control over our foods, and therefore our lives, by freeing ourselves from the vagaries of nature. That initial revolution fueled much of the growth of civilization and has brought us to where we are now – heavily dependent upon the industrial food production and supply system, and often with very little control over the quality of what we can put on our plates or how it is produced, or at what environmental and social costs. Yet this is one area where it should not be too hard for most of us to take back some of this power, some of the means of production: by growing our own little subversive garden plots! Doiron explains how we can do this and what we stand to gain through this subversion:

Hard to think of a downside to this, isn’t it? We need not stop with just our own little gardens in the small bits of urban space we may control – we can, and must, also work collectively to subvert public spaces towards food production, converting vacant lots and even lawns in public parks into edible landscapes that can feed the thousands of urban dwellers who may not have the space or the means to grow their own gardens. The city of Irvine in southern California (yes, the city in conservative Orange County) has done just that: opened up some effectively vacant land to growing vegetables, which apparently feed up to 200,000 people! Here’s a video tour:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXLx0D9YkKA?wmode=transparent]

To put it in terms of the activist metaphor of the moment, gardening for food is an effective way to occupy the global food system, begin to wrest it back from the corporations (even though they still control it through the sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and all the other paraphernalia that goes with gardening) – while simultaneously improving our health and building community. In the process, we may even begin to help heal some of the wounds we have caused in natural ecosystems, and restore some parts of local biodiversity, as is being shown by recent work on the ecology of urban gardens.

So – how would you like a little healthy homegrown subversion on your dinner plate? Give me a double helping, please!

Hamsadhwani: an inner dialogue contemplating humanity’s swansong on earth

Anirban Mahapatra (aka Bhalomanush, a good man I have come to know on Twitter) recently (well, a month ago) shared with me a thought-provoking essay he had written contemplating some of the deepest questions in conservation: where do humans fit into the rest of life on our planet? Is it hubris on our part to think we can save the planet or that we are even superior to other species when we have all evolved from a common ancestor? What does it matter if species go extinct, when we know that most species that have ever evolved are already extinct, and everything must die eventually? Questions that certainly haunt me as I try to find meaning in my own research and educational efforts aimed at conserving biological diversity on this little blue dot we inhabit. The essay, written in the form of an inner dialogue in the author’s mind, resonated with me immediately. Yet Bhalomanush said it was among the least read of his blog posts! Surely, this contemplation deserves more attention, so I offered to share it here to try to reach a broader audience interested in reconciliation ecology. He was kind enough to send it to me as a guest post! The essay is titled after a well-known “raga” from Indian classical music, the name of which literally translates as “Swansong” – an appropriate title, I think. I hope you like it – and if you do, please pay the author’s own blog a visit and let him know.

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An almost apocalyptic image of the fiery sky at dusk earlier this week at Morro Bay beach in California. via flickr.com

~~~

Hamsadhwani

by Anirban Mahapatra

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans. 

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that someday some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.

~~~

 

“God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance” (Sorry HuffPo!)

Hmm… in case you (like me) haven’t heard yet, HuffPo, that popular source of much pseudoscience and woo (especially Choprawoo), has finally decided to add a HuffPost Science section! About time, eh? But, wait, what do they start with? Ms. Huff herself holding forth on how unusual it is for scientific equations to have emotional impact (unlike, apparently the Iowa caucus results! Sigh…), and on the “false war” between science and religion. Because, you see, those battles are apparently all “misguided, outdated”! Really? Been to a school board meeting in Texas lately, lady? Or notice how the leading candidates in the Iowa caucuses chose to run away from science and retreat into religious ignorance?

Instead, we are urged to follow the model of those (like Ken Miller) with “inquisitive minds that can accommodate both logic and mystery” – as if we don’t get into science precisely because we are captivated by nature’s mysteries, and want to use logic and the scientific method to solve them! We are told that (paraphrasing Miller) science is “the key to understanding our relationship with God.” Why, yes, on that point: science has indeed given us many keys to understanding nature, and shown us over and over that “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance” as Neil de Grasse Tyson puts it so elegantly in the video below! Of course, he was responding to Bill O’Reilly’s ignorant remarks about god and the tides – but they apply equally well to the woolly-headed thinking pervading the liberal-left. Let’s hope Arianna runs into Neil one of these days, gets a good glimpse into his soul of a nerd, and learns something worthwhile about the real beauty of science. For now, though, the grand opening of HuffPost Science does not look very promising. Let me leave you, instead, with Tyson’s words:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5dSyT50Cs8?wmode=transparent]