Tag Archives: memory

2012 Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture by Mahesh Rangarajan

As mentioned here recently, the inaugural Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture was given by historian Mahesh Rangarajan during the Student Conference in Conservation Science in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago. The entire lecture is now available on youtube for those of us who were not able to attend in person. It is a long video, but well worth the listen, so settle down with this when you have an hour or so free:

Here is my own tribute to Ravi, written during the immediate pangs of grief when he died.

Elinor Ostrom, champion of the sustainable commons, RIP

I just read the very sad news that Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 2009), and an inspiration to many of us struggling to understand and transform the dynamically intertwined human and natural systems, passed away earlier this morning, after a battle with cancer at age 78. She was a remarkable scholar whose life’s work demonstrated that the tragedy of the commons was not an inevitability, but something that people had very often found ways to avoid by building a diversity of institutions for governing the commons for the benefit of all instead of mere private profit for a few. Here she is, in a simple short video, explaining the basic concept of how truly sustainable development can avoid the tragedy of the commons:


I last met Lin Ostrom a little over a year ago, very briefly, in a hallway in Arizona State University’s Memorial Union, in one of the interstices of the Resilience 2011 conference (I shared my talk here). I remember well my nervous thrill at getting to shake the hand of a Nobel Prize winner (my previous meeting with her, which I’m not sure she remembered, had been well before she won the prize) for the first time in my life! She, of course, was very kind and disarming and took a few minutes to sit down and talk to me about our shared connections. My last postdoc mentor, Marty Anderies, is one of her close disciples/collaborators, and I am grateful to him for introducing me to her work, which I consider one of the truly transformational influences in my life. She was happy to hear how one of Marty’s postdocs was now doing in trying to apply some of her ideas to urban water and biodiversity issues. We also talked about one of my newer collaborators, Harini Nagendra, who worked closely with Lin in studying the governance of forest ecosystems in India and Nepal. She told me how she looked forward to speaking with Harini, now based in Bangalore, during their weekly Skype conferences! I wish I had had more opportunities to get to know this truly remarkable, inspirational woman, but am glad I was at least able to meet with her and speak to her on a couple of occasions. One must make the most of whatever chance happenstance grants one a brush with true greatness.

Her website at Indiana University has more details of her life (and death), with links to videos of other talks, photos, and texts. CHANS-Net, the International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems, offers this obituary.

If you want to know more about her work, start with her landmark book Governing the Commons, which should really be required reading for all ecologists, especially those who are enamored of the more cynical and popular “tragedy of the commons” meme. Anyone concerned about how to build a more sustainable world, who calls themselves an ecologist/conservation biologist/environmentalist/green activist/deep ecologist really must read her work. It took the Nobel committee long enough to recognize the value of her work at a time when the world’s economies are crumbling under the dictates of the very free-market Chicago-school economists they’ve rewarded far more often. We ecologists had better pay good attention to her work as well, and absorb and internalize her deep insights, as we go about trying to find ways to build a better, more sustainable, more biologically diverse, and more environmentally equitable world. She would have liked to see us try, harder.

“… the tea would glitter like a garnet waterfall.”

That wonderfully evocative description, in a paragraph about of a cup of chai being made, can be used to describe this entire piece of memoir written by my friend Samina Najmi. It is a beautiful, moving piece about place, displacement, and family, about how families are torn apart, scattered, and brought together in strange, heartbreaking, beautiful ways. And if you let Samina’s words catch the light as you read, they too glitter like a garnet waterfall. Here’s a taste – but go read the whole thing:

          But my great­est con­nec­tion with Abdul cen­tered on our com­mon love of strong, hot tea, no mat­ter how warm the day. He would come in from the bal­cony and, eyes shin­ing brightly, ask: “Should I make some chai?” Most of the time I said yes because I wanted it, and some­times I said yes so he could jus­tify mak­ing him­self a cup. He would make his way to the kitchen and put his favored ket­tle on the stove. It was a small, alu­minum ket­tle with a han­dle that was nei­ther heat-resistant nor firmly attached to the body of the con­tainer and a lid that had an inde­pen­dent life, falling out entirely if you poured at too steep an angle. The ket­tle wavered threat­en­ingly as you guided boil­ing hot water out of its spout and at the same time tried to keep the lid from unleash­ing its scald­ing breath on your hand. Abdul, who dis­missed any glossy whistling ket­tles that my mother or I might have tried to foist upon him, would grasp the over­heated han­dle with one of his many rags, his thin, unsteady hand dan­gling the ket­tle over the teapot. Loose Lip­ton tea leaves awaited as he poured the hot water into the teapot and placed an embroi­dered tea cozy over it to keep it warm–even if he him­self was swel­ter­ing. While the tea steeped, he would heat the buf­falo milk my father had pur­chased from the neigh­bor­ing farm that very dawn. Then out came the mis­matched china cups, into which Abdul would pour the rich, aro­matic tea through a strainer. If it caught the light while he poured, the tea would glit­ter like a gar­net water­fall. Then Abdul would plop milk and sugar into each cup to suit his own taste. He often car­ried sev­eral cups of tea as they chat­tered with their com­pan­ion saucers on a tray, an ensem­ble that made its way trem­blingly to the liv­ing room.

If you’re still lingering here (why?), instead of clicking on the above link to read all of Abdul’s story, allow me to add a personal note of thanks to Samina for catalyzing my own (rather less glittering) forays into more personal memoir-ish writing (especially on this blog of late). As you may have gathered, like so many of us in the diaspora, I too have been preoccupied with questions of place, displacement, home, and identity amid our globally scattered lives. Samina has been a good friend to talk with about some of these notions, over not nearly enough cups of chai (will have to remedy that when I get back to Fresno next week!). She also inspired my very first piece of such personal (as in not having to do with ecology, or science, or my work in any direct way) writing in this post over on Reconciliation Ecology written after my first visit to her home.

The universe itself exists within us… (a note of thanks)

Thank you, my friends.

The past several weeks have been difficult ones. I write this as a note of thanks to all of our global villagers who have rallied around us in the wake of my mother’s passing two weeks ago. I wrote to keep my anguish at bay while I traveled to her deathbed, and then shared what I wrote as a way to shield myself from having to relive the horror of what happened in the retelling to all the friends who would want to know, to share the grief, to express condolences. I am not very good with the spoken word, especially under such trying circumstances, but seem to have found a better outlet in writing. I am grateful to everyone who read and left comments and condolences, on this blog, on my facebook wall, in emails, and telephone conversations. Thank you, those of you who knew her, and also those who didn’t know her and don’t even really know me, but have shared my grief. I have been overwhelmed that so many tell me my writing touched them, moved them to tears, and in those tears I hope to drown the flames that took my mother.

While I am bad at knowing what to say to people expressing condolences and sympathy, it is even harder to respond to the many who said they would pray for her, and me, and said “may god rest her soul in peace”. I turned away from religion a long time ago, as did my siblings. Even Aai, who had followed many a ritual in our childhoods as a matter of course, had given up her pujas and prayers over the past couple of decades, preferring instead to read Marxist accounts of our cultural evolution such as “Volga te Ganga” (Marathi for Volga to Ganga), and writing angry feminist notes in her notebooks raging against the patriarchy. That is, when she wasn’t worshipping at the television altar of that other reigning religion in India: cricket. I am not sure, therefore, what she would have said to those wishing her soul peace in god, for she too believed in neither soul nor god.

Some of her loss of faith I know about from conversations we had during college days, when we, her kids, brought back what we were discovering in science and philosophy, following the path she herself had set us out on in insisting we become scholars. At least after she had reconciled herself to my failure to become a doctor, her first and biggest ambition. It was that disappointment, deepening through years of frustration at my lack of financial success, which made it difficult in later years for me to talk to her about anything as exalted as faith or souls. Reading some of her notes now, I regret not having been able to engage her in conversations deeper than the ones we had about mundane things. I do know, though, that she never really went back to her seasonal religious rituals, and only wanted to do the bare minimum asked for by society even when her husband died seven years ago.

Some of the nurses tried to tell us that in her delirium in the ICU, before she slipped into unconsciousness, she had blurted out something about god, and had appeared to be chanting some religious hymns. Did she turn back to religion and rediscover god in her final moments, as we atheists are told is inevitable? I don’t know. My sister, who was with her, talking to her, holding her hand as she fell into her final sleep, doesn’t recount god figuring much in their conversation. Vaijoo said Aai held her hand to her heart and asked her what was happening, why she had gathered friends and relatives, was she going to die, was this the end? Earlier, looking at the burned skin on her arms while on the way to the ICU, she had laughed at the absurdity of her accident. Now it had sunk in, and perhaps she was afraid that this was it, there was no coming back from this. What will happen next, she asked Vaijoo. Masking her own emotional distress, Vaijoo said she didn’t know, but that a lot of people who loved her were gathered outside, including her beloved brother whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years, and that her son was also on his way to be with her shortly. She squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes, told her to rest, try to be calm, and go to sleep. Then the doctor came, gently slipped Aai’s hand out of Vaijoo’s and into his own and told her he would stay until she was fully asleep.

That was the last lucid conversation my mother had, hardly regaining consciousness at all over the next 36 hours before she was gone. I don’t know how much room there was for god or religion in the cracks of her fading consciousness, nor do I find much solace in seeking out god to explain the accident that took her from us. Nevertheless, I deeply appreciate the sentiment from friends and strangers who said they prayed for her. Rituals of mourning are, after all, more for the still living left behind by the dead. So, thank you again, my friends, for your condolences.

I also find greater comfort in knowing something I know would have evoked wonder and awe in her spirit as well: that we are all made of stardust, that, as my favorite contemporary preacher put it (at c.2:40 in the following video), “Not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us“. So allow me to leave you with these cosmic (and hopefully not too disturbing) thoughts from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDRXn96HrtY?wmode=transparent]

Thank you.

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.

Because forgetting is another kind of extinction…

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

Another documentary to look out for…

Once, flocks of over 1 billion passenger pigeons darkened the skies for days. By 1900, a 14-year-old boy shot the last one. How did this happen?

The Lost Bird Project is a documentary about the stories of five birds driven to extinction in modern times and sculptor Todd McGrain’s project to memorialize them. The film follows McGrain as he searches for the locations where the birds were last seen in the wild and negotiates for permission to install his large bronze sculptures there.

McGrain’s aim in placing the sculptures is to give presence to the birds where they are now so starkly absent. “These birds are not commonly known,” he says, “and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction. It’s such a thorough erasing.”

McGrain’s passion for form is apparent when he speaks of the physicality of a life of sculpting. “Touch is literally the way we come in contact with the world.” The memorials are not naturalistic works of biological detail, McGrain’s intention is to create shapes that capture the presence of the birds, to make them personal and palpable, to remind us of their absence.

Travelling all the way from the tropical swamps of Florida to the rocky coasts of Newfoundland, McGrain scouts locations, talks to park rangers and speaks at town meetings in an effort to gather support for his project. His memorials now stand in the places where the birds once socialized, courted and fed their young — a testament to what we have lost and a reminder to preserve what we have left.

The film is an elegy to the five birds and a thoughtful and sometimes humorous look at the artist and his mission. The Lost Bird Project is a film about public art, extinction and memory

How to make a dent in the universe before you die…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc?wmode=transparent]

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” – he said, while speaking of his own first brush with that change agent. And now that single biggest invention of Life has taken perhaps the single biggest inventor of our times.


Way to “stay hungry, stay foolish”, Mr. Jobs… right up until the day you die (how many called Apple foolish for releasing merely an iPhone 4S just yesterday?). You certainly made a dent in my universe. Rest in peace.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi: that magnificent voice will summon the monsoon no more…

Many will remember his more magnificent classical musical performances, running out of adjectives to describe the wonderful voice, its fantastic range, and his scarcely credible control over it. For me, though, this particular song, an invocation to goddess Laxmi, remains the one that has resonated throughout my life. It is perhaps one of the few things that still marks me out as a Kannadiga – that I can’t help but be moved by the devotion in this song! I grew up listening to my mother sing a version of it, she who was also trained in the same vocal tradition as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi; eventually, through my inadequate education into Indian classical music, I came to love his rendition of this classic. Years later, as a father walking around the house late at night to calm a cranky infant in my arms, I discovered that his voice had even more amazing powers: somehow this song, his voice, worked wonders that no lullaby could, instantly calming down both our daughters in their infancy! I am told that we even have a distant family connection with the maestro (genetically I am a Joshi, although my father got adopted into the Katti clan), through my paternal grandmother – but that is not the only reason why I can feel his rich voice resonating in my very bones.

A true musical highlight of my life: a concert he performed over 20 years ago on the shores of Dal lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. It was 1989, the last summer before the insurgency began, when the corrupt state government was making ever more desperate attempts to hold things together and bring in tourists. One of the incredible things they did was to team up with the Times of India, which was celebrating its 150th year, to host a series of classical music concerts at open air venues throughout the valley, free to the public, with transportation provided by the state! Not sure who thought that would calm the waters of the seething unrest, but I remain grateful for some truly wonderful musical experiences. The most magical was an evening in a park at the edge of Dal lake, with the lake and the mountains providing a magnificent background appropriate to his rich voice. And, as he got us deeper into the spell he was weaving, to the monsoon raga Megha Malhar, I remember monsoonal thunderclouds gathering over the lake behind us, catching the last rays of the sun, adding their own percussion to accompany his voice! It was July, and the mountains do get thunderstorms in the evenings anyway, sure – but surely his voice alone had summoned the very elements that evening, and all the troubles of the valley were washed away for a night. I still shiver thinking about the experience, feel the electricity of the evening.

Here’s one sample of his singing the Malhar:

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is no more today. Here’s one short account of his remarkable journeys through an astonishing life. May his voice, at least, remain with us forever…

UPDATE: Aai (mom in Marathi) reminds me that the relation is not all that distant – Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was actually my Ajji’s (grandmother’s) cousin! He was also married to another cousin of hers (cousin marriages were common in that part of the country) – although that arranged marriage was a miserable one for the poor woman shackled to this freewheeling free-spirited (pun very much intended) mercurial genius. As a child I even visited his house for a wedding it seems, but clearly well before any lasting memories formed in my brain. How I wish I had remembered the exact family connection when I saw him in Kashmir!