DURING A TYPICALLY SURREAL PASSAGE of arms in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty remarks loftily to Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” This accidental observation on the mutability of categories could be applied to almost any literary genre, including nature writing. In each case the critic is forced to set a boundary depending upon the problem under discussion. The difficulty of defining nature writing becomes especially acute in the Indian context, where examples of it are few and far between. The most serviceable analogy might be with literary fiction, for, like it, nature writing is marked by inherent complexity of language, thought and structure. It’s this that sets it apart from the much broader category of books about nature, whose essence is didactic and whose sole purpose is to inform.
Modern nature writing stems from a profound sense of disquiet at the destruction of the natural world. In the United States, this anxiety became visible during the second half of the nineteenth century—privately at first, in the journals of an obscure writer and lecturer named Henry David Thoreau. It found public expression once the Civil War ended in 1865, and railroads thrust westwards, pulling farmers, cattle ranchers, and businessmen out to make a quick buck in their wake. The ravaging of the American West inspired a nascent conservationist ethic, whose representatives were, for the most part, ordinary citizens. The writings of John Muir—farmer, sheepherder, inventor and naturalist—were to play a key role in the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. In nineteenth-century Britain, a small but significant sector of the landed gentry developed an enthusiastic interest in natural history just as the Industrial Revolution was reshaping the countryside and schemes of agricultural improvement were ascendant.
More relevant for our purposes is the period after the Second World War. The post-war economic boom in western Europe and the United States rippled outward to affect the global economy. Agricultural intensification went hand in hand with the mass use of fertilisers and pesticides—more and more in newer and newer combinations—until they saturated the environment, with dramatic effects upon previously common species. The steady concentration of organochlorine pesticides up the food chain precipitated an astonishing decline in peregrine populations across the western world. Small animals and birds ate food contaminated with pesticides, which passed into their bodies. The birds of prey who ate them accumulated these toxins in even greater concentrations. One of their chief effects was to make the shells of eggs laid by poisoned peregrines much thinner. These eggs failed—fewer and fewer fledglings hatched successfully. By the 1960s, the peregrine was thought to be dying out in Britain. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a marine biologist abandoned her discipline to describe the graveyard the American countryside was becoming—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first serialised in the New Yorker, touched off a fierce debate on the overuse of pesticides.
Much of what we recognise as nature writing dates from this period, when the destruction of the natural world seemed unprecedented in its scale and thoroughness. No sooner was one problem fixed than others became visible—organochlorine pesticides were banned, the peregrine recovered, but neither intensification nor chemical use abated. Other kinds of birds are threatened now, along with a much greater proportion of insects, including bees (key pollinators of food crops worldwide).
In India, acreage under crops expanded significantly during the nineteenth century, with a concomitant decrease in forests, woods and grasslands, but this affected only the lives and livelihoods of social groups at the margins of society. It came to worry colonial policymakers, however, for reasons both commercial and environmental. Their solution was to take forests into state ownership, restricting access to them, especially for the poor. The first wave of nature writing in India—by colonial bureaucrats and civil servants—is marked by effervescence rather than anxiety. This began to change by the 1930s and 1940s, as the economy diversified and industrial activity increased sharply.
The modernisation of the Indian economy after 1947 ratcheted up pressure on the natural world. In scale, it probably equalled and may well have exceeded the most intense periods of colonial exploitation. Dams, mines, infrastructure projects and industrial concessions reshaped the countryside. Meanwhile, natural-history research stagnated and agencies such as the Botanical Survey of India and the Forest Research Institute decayed rapidly. The Nehruvian state starved the field of resources and expertise; the Forest Department strove to exclude researchers from overseas and largely succeeded. The American zoologist George Schaller managed to write a pioneering study of large mammals in Kanha National Park in 1967, but it forms an exception, not the rule. In the absence of state funding, insularity masquerading as nationalism set back knowledge of Indian ecosystems for two generations.
The notion of conserving wildlife in designated enclaves took root in the 1970s, but any idea that it represented a definitive solution to structural problems was soon swept away. New dilemmas appeared. Indian vultures were decimated by the indiscriminate use of a veterinary drug, diclofenac, absorbed from cattle carcasses. During the 1990s, the most efficient scavenger of the Indian countryside all but vanished without attracting any noticeable attention from state authorities or the lay public.
Since the turn of the century, the pendulum has been swinging back ever more sharply. Protected areas are marked by endemic failures of management; economic growth threatens habitat fragments outside them that still remain (relatively) undisturbed. Research into the possible effects of climate change is opening up frightening possibilities. The natural world as we know it seems more endangered than ever before.
India’s environmental crisis first became visible in the 1970s, but it took two decades for social developments to diffuse the shock of recognition through a small sector of the middle class. A mass readership for English (excluding textbooks and other forms of utilitarian reading) fructified by the 1990s. As growth rates increased, the middle class began to earn more and spend more (destroying more of the environment in the process). Natural-history research expanded with the setting up of privately funded institutions, new research programmes and a greater choice of academic courses. Measured purely in terms of newspaper reportage, nature clubs and nature tourism, awareness of the natural world is much more widespread nowadays than it used to be.
This remains a minority interest, variably expressed—ranging from a superficial interest in scenery or physical exercise to birding or butterflying as a pastime. It certainly does not imply any change in patterns of consumption that do so much to damage nature. Nevertheless, in absolute terms the numbers are clearly much higher than in the past. In theory, at least, the market for books about nature should have expanded noticeably during the last thirty-odd years (and certainly since the turn of the century).
This market was hobbled not just by readership but also by publishing networks during much of the twentieth century. Before 1947, the pool of potential readers was small and weighed disproportionately towards British residents (although a reading public in Britain also existed). Their departure had the effect of restricting it even further. Regulatory barriers ensured that Oxford University Press dominated publishing for much of this period, but nature writing, like fiction, requires trade, not academic, publishers. These barriers began to break down from the 1990s on: there is a plethora of publishers in English now, and a much larger pool of potential readers.
For these reasons alone, one would expect to find a growing number of books about nature and a more varied corpus of nature writing. But even a cursory survey of the literature is enough to falsify this assumption. All that we have of nature writing belongs to a period when relatively few people bought or read books in English. There has been nothing new since the 1980s, and although more books about nature are indeed being published, they rarely stray out of well-worn grooves. In order to understand the absence of nature writing in the present, we must begin with a brief survey of the past.
MY STARTING POINT for the purposes of this essay is the late nineteenth century. By this time the natural history of the Indian subcontinent was reasonably well established. Its characteristic ecotypes, with much of their flora and fauna, had been described; almost all the birds we know had been identified. The language is English, for the kind of nature writing being discussed presupposes some knowledge of natural history, and because it’s a language I’m familiar with—there may well be texts about nature written in Marathi, Bengali, Telugu or Tamil that would be fascinating to compare, but I don’t know them. Within these limits is included any work on nature written by anyone resident in the Indian subcontinent for long enough to be able to speak knowledgeably about it.
The first Indian nature writers were British residents (colloquially called Anglo-Indians), who had grown up in the country or spent the greater part of their lives there. The bulk of their work dates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s usually in the form of short vignettes mixing observation with a strong streak of facetiousness. Douglas Dewar, ornithologist and civil servant, remarked that popular books “on Indian ornithology resemble one another in that a ripple of humour runs through each.” His Jungle Folk, a collection of newspaper articles on birds, originally published in 1912, has recently been reissued by the publisher Aleph. Dewar’s prose zigzags erratically through different registers, from the highly coloured to the unpretentious to the banal. Anthropomorphic metaphors proliferate; the writing provides commentary and information rather than insight or transcendence.
The best representative of the Anglo-Indian school is, in many ways, the most atypical. EH Aitken—or Eha, the sobriquet under which he wrote—was born and, somewhat unusually, educated in India. He got a job in the Bombay government in 1876 (in the Customs and Salt Department), serving in various parts of the Bombay Presidency and Sind. He was one of the founder members of the Bombay Natural History Society, and a gifted writer of what, for want of a better word, might be called nature essays. His prose is learned, full of classical allusions and Latin tags. It modulates fluently from the comic to the meditative. The natural history is rather sparse, with many digressions, but Aitken never loses sight of the main thread, the animal under observation.
Strikingly, Aitken chose to write about the quotidian rather than the exotic: animals and insects encountered around the house instead of tigers or elephants. His subjects include not just birds (the usual suspects) but also rats, termites, butterflies, ants and frogs. His comic passages have a gusto that harks back to the eighteenth century, the age of Fielding and Sterne, rather than the late Victorian period to which he belonged. Here he is hunting a rat:
From box to box it scurries, with me at its heels, raining blows on the floor and choking myself with dust. Then it is up the bed-post, down again, up the book-case and behind Webster, where it regains its wind before I can dislodge it, from shelf to shelf like a monkey, across to the almirah with one bound, and then nowhere! I mount a chair and reconnoiter the top, lay my face to the ground and explore the bottom, peer behind, but it simply is not. … After much pondering I decide to open the almirah, and sure enough it bounces out of a nest of neckties, and, lighting on my foot, clambers like a lamplighter up my pantaloons, happily on the outside. An agonized spring which an adult kangaroo would be proud of, flings it to the middle of the floor, and ere it can recover itself and reach any shelter, I swoop like a falcon on my prey.
Yet another Anglo-Indian writer—by far the most successful commercially—falls into a very different category. This is Jim Corbett, whose work has been kept more or less continuously in print by Oxford University Press. Its enduring popularity is not easy to explain—after all, reminiscences of hunting were a dime a dozen in the colonial tropics. This literature of shikar was aimed chiefly at other Anglo-Indians and an audience in Britain; of its many practitioners, Corbett remains the only one whose work found anything resembling a mass Indian audience after 1947. To its narrative drive—those interchangeable stories of interchangeable tigers—he added suspense, sentimental anecdotes about “ordinary” folk, conventional lyricism and a cloying sense of nostalgia, to create what are, in effect, proto-novels.
Most of Corbett’s books were published in the 1940s and 1950s—he left India in 1947 to live in Kenya, still a British colony at the time. His writing is thoroughly middlebrow, making no demands at all upon the reader. He adds nothing new to his favoured themes—Tolstoy’s brief account of a shooting expedition in Anna Karenina provides more insight into the addictive fascination of hunting (and far greater truth of description) than the whole of Corbett’s oeuvre.
Corbett’s popularity had a stifling effect on his contemporaries. Although M Krishnan was to write a nature column for the Sunday Statesman for 46 years, his published books sank like a stone. It was only after his death in 1996 that interest in his work revived. Along with EP Gee, a British tea-planter who chose to stay back after 1947, and the ornithologist Salim Ali, he formed a triumvirate of proselytisers for conservation in the new nation. As a writer, Krishnan adheres to the Anglo-Indian template and shares its defects—simplification, anthropomorphism carried to excess, the stress on behaviour over ecology and science. His prose is terse, expressive, clear. There’s a strong sense throughout of taking little for granted by way of prior knowledge in his audience.
Krishnan’s only academic work, a survey of mammals, is barely known (less creditably he also supported the Forest Department’s penchant for excluding researchers from overseas). Like almost all the writers discussed thus far, he was largely self-trained—a generalist rather than a specialist, writing consciously for a lay public.
The only professional Indian naturalist to write about nature with real distinction was Salim Ali—not, paradoxically, in his autobiography, but in the ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, written in partnership with the American ornithologist S Dillon Ripley. It remained the standard work on the ornithology of the Indian subcontinent from the appearance of its first volume, in the late 1960s, to the completion of the last volume of the revised second edition, in 1998.
Ali is usually regarded as the epitome of the successful scientist, but his research output was, in fact, rather disappointing. His most productive decades—the 1930s and 1940s—had been spent in field surveys, gathering data on problems of taxonomy and distribution (to be written up in the Handbook). After 1947, he chose to sidestep state structures altogether by adopting the Bombay Natural History Society as a research base, obtaining funds through his excellent personal connections. Inevitably, this affected his output. Unlike some of his peers in the West, he never went on to produce a substantial study of any species or group of species despite an abiding interest in avian behaviour and ecology.
It may seem perverse to describe Ali as a nature writer, but he is one, albeit of a specialised kind. The barriers to appreciation of his work are formidable: the Handbook is written in an academic format for an academic audience. From the beginning, it attracted a tiny minority of birders by virtue of incorporating detailed field observations (still unobtainable anywhere else), but that remains the extent of its general readership. Nevertheless, it’s in this data—marshalled under the rubric of “General Habits” for each species—that some of the finest nature writing in India is to be found. Ali wrote these (Ripley was responsible for the taxonomy). The prose is clipped and laconic, with not a word wasted or out of place, but its vividness transcends technical writing. Here is a description of the characteristic display flight of the oriental skylark (Alauda gulgula):
From a perch on a clod or stone, the bird soars almost vertically up on rapidly quivering wings—legs dangling loosely below—singing as he mounts higher and higher till almost lost to sight. He remains suspended in the heavens more or less stationary, hovering on vibrating wings and wafted here and there by the wind, while he continues to pour forth an unbroken torrent of spirited loud and clear melodious warbling. This exuberant performance may last for over ten minutes without an instant’s pause; at the end of it the singer closes his wings and drops like a stone for some distance, opens them out to hover a little, drops once more, and so on step by step, until when within a few metres of the ground he flattens out at a tangent and lightly comes to rest near the starting-point.
Like Corbett, Ali’s work was published by Oxford University Press. As time passed, the publisher’s production standards—a matter of some importance—slipped steadily: a comparison of the early volumes of the Handbook with those of the second edition shows very noticeable erosion.
SALIM ALI DIED in 1987, on the cusp of a period of significant change in India’s environmental policies—during the decades that followed, his academic discipline, ecology, was to become increasingly narrow and specialised.
Let us summarise some of the more important developments: A separate ministry for the environment was created under Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in 1985. Ecological considerations were foregrounded in the New Forest Policy of 1988, and new methods of managing some forests, ostensibly in partnership with local communities, were tried out. Proto-environmental movements against logging and large dams caught the public eye. Interest in nature and awareness of its fragility percolated to a small fraction of the middle class. A trickle of books on nature began to appear. Unfortunately, Corbett’s example inspired a generation of Indian conservationists to cast their own accounts in the form of the individual exploit. Autobiography became the centerpiece of narratives about “saving” nature, usually in the form of the tiger; the work of Valmik Thapar being a prime example. In all these books, the photographs are rather more interesting than the text. New field guides to aid in the identification of animals (and much more seldom, plants) were published, including Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp, and Pradip Krishen’s superbly designed Jungle Trees of Central India. Yet, thirty years after his death, Ali remains our last nature writer.
India’s environmental crisis grew much worse during this period as growth rates skyrocketed. We’ve now reached a tipping point, where, despite piecemeal additions to the network of protected areas, the number of species at risk of extinction keeps multiplying while absolute numbers keep falling. The halting expansion of knowledge has failed to keep up with the tide sweeping away the natural world. New species of plants and animals are still being discovered, perched at the lip of a precipice, which naming does nothing to alter. Two recent books on wildlife conservation lay out the scale of the problem—and the inherent difficulties of tackling it even if our elites wanted to, which they demonstrably do not.
Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing, published last summer, is a muckraking account of India’s conservation crisis by a conservationist and journalist. It outlines the principal threats to wildlife—roads, sand mining, dams, defence infrastructure, ports—and some of the species most at risk: the great Indian bustard, the gharial, the Gangetic dolphin, vultures, the Olive Ridley turtle, and so on. The fluctuating fortunes of the tiger receive close attention. The book is notable for its depiction of a largely corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Institutions don’t work, committees are subverted, forest officials are at the forefront in pushing through projects that decimate habitats and wildlife. This shift in emphasis from corrupt or ineffective politicos (though they also feature), the usual villains of daily journalism, is welcome.
Bindra traces the roots of the current crisis to the single-minded focus on economic growth at the cost of environmental sanity during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure from 2004 to 2014, and especially in its second term. The most aggressive proponent of this viewpoint was its prime minister, Manmohan Singh. One of the strengths of Bindra’s book is the recognition that high rates of economic growth are incommensurate with long-term ecological security. Unlike most conservationists, who blandly ignore the wider economic realm (or argue implicitly that one can consume prodigally and save wildlife too), she is at least willing to discuss the structural effects of unfettered capitalism—and the impacts on the poor (as well as wildlife) when common resources are handed over to private interests for a song.
A Life with Wildlife by M K Ranjitsinh, also from last year, is the memoir of a well-connected civil servant who helped set up the first substantial network of protected areas in India. It begins with a genealogical account of his family (his grandfather ruled the princely state of Wankaner before 1947)—a subject of no demonstrable interest to anyone but the author. The rest of the book makes two points at somewhat inordinate length. The first is that shikar in princely states, far from decimating wildlife, fed directly into conservation. Hunting reserves created for the exclusive use of rulers went on to form the bulk of protected areas after 1970. The second is that conservation policy in India was created from the top down, thanks to the personal efforts of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.
There’s some truth in both observations, but not as much as Ranjitsinh would like us to believe. Hunting reserves became important refugia in the 1950s and 1960s partly because of the environmental havoc wreaked all around them by Nehruvian policies. The sheer wastefulness of these policies is striking—those were decades (as Ranjitsinh reminds us) when the mass extermination of wildlife and the export trade in skins and animals was officially encouraged.
A small group of individuals may have played a disproportionately influential role in devising conservation policy in the 1970s, but this does not imply that there were no structural factors at work at all. Inter-governmental forums and agencies had already begun discussing deforestation and the decline of large mammals by this time. Policymakers in India have always been sensitive to ideas that happen to be in fashion—economic policy being an outstanding barometer—and it is likely that the prevailing anxieties influenced Indira Gandhi’s advisors—and some bureaucrats in the Forest Department—as much as her own predilections. It also helped that the economy was growing slowly, which meant that rent-seeking economic interests were easier to resist.
Ranjitsinh traces the current crisis of conservation back to the 1990s, when, in his view, prime ministers ceased to evince any commitment to it. One might argue with equal plausibility that India would have become an environmental desert much earlier (for all Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s interest in wildlife) if the 1970s and the 1980s had witnessed current rates of growth. A view centred upon personalities is incapable of offering any insight into the failures of management that were to hollow conservation out from within, or the economic interests that actively began rolling it back, from the late 1990s on. The instincts of aristocratic ex-shikaris jibed with the latent authoritarianism of the forest department to create a conservation model based almost entirely upon policing. Project Tiger became a fetish, inhibiting rational ecological management and research into other species, habitats and problems. The result was a festering mess that has never been cleared up.
Describing his own career in government, Ranjitsinh points with justifiable pride to his successes (in expanding the area under parks and sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh many times over, for example), while admitting that his recommendations were not always acted upon. This habit, all too common with civil servants, of discussing success and failure almost wholly in personal terms, skates over the structural problems of India’s bureaucracy. This memoir gives the impression they don’t exist—which is clearly not true. Ranjitsinh’s privilege—all those junkets to out of the way places to see rare animals!—feeds into his insistence that things began to go downhill as soon as Rajiv Gandhi demitted office. It tells us absolutely nothing about the complex and problematic relationship between politicians, businessmen, interest groups and all too many civil servants—which is a pity, for it undercuts an otherwise interesting account of conservation laws and policies in modern India by someone who clearly cared about wildlife and was willing to bestir himself to save it.
NATURE WRITING is nothing if not protean. There is the scientific variety, which commences with Charles Darwin—On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, is one of the first academic books written for a general audience, and the first scientific bestseller. Some contributions to the New Naturalist series in the United Kingdom—a hundred bulky volumes and counting, crammed with technical information for a lay audience—are its lineal descendants. In recent years, it has become a fashion for ecologists to write popular books on their area of study—unfortunately these have largely replaced academic texts that could be read with pleasure as well as profit by the non-specialist (John Buxton’s The Redstart, Oliver Rackham’s Hayley Wood).
Other forms are more familiar. There is nature writing as observation—Thoreau’s Journals—and nature writing as warning: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, founding texts of the modern environmental movement in America. There’s nature writing as travelogue, a form that goes all the way back to Darwin (The Voyage of the Beagle), and the self-effacing naturalist who independently discovered the principle of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace (The Malay Archipelago).
The primary purpose of these writers was to show how nature works, or describe man’s relation to it, actual or ideal. It took more than a century after Darwin for nature writing’s explanatory mechanism to be abruptly exploded, by an unknown English bird-watcher. In The Peregrine (his hypnotic account of following a single species) and The Hill of Summer (a lyrical evocation of the changing seasons), JA Baker untethers nature from any relation outside itself. Language becomes a tool of pure description applied to one of the most densely occupied corners of the globe, a small patch of countryside in southern England moulded by centuries of human use. In Baker’s prose, the observer is omnipresent but wholly detached: there are no personal details, no emotion in the conventional sense. His “I” is an abstraction, transcribing what it sees and intuits of nature with all-enveloping awareness. Here he is, cycling through a wood:
Green fields stream up and meet above my head. The fine rain is like a cloud of twigs parting endlessly in front of my face. Strange distorted trees stride past. I plunge deep into the darkness of the valley: wet stars, owls calling, the forlorn bark of a fox. The white parsley flutters at the wheels. There is a prickling of black swifts in the grey river sky. The Lombardy poplars have grown tall with night. I am lost in the shining forest of the rain.
This is less description than a vision wholly unique and personal. What’s striking about it resides principally in what is stripped away and jettisoned, how all communication beyond the purely sensory—visual, tactile, auditory, expressed in jolting, lambent metaphors—appears to vanish.
The Peregrine was widely praised by contemporary reviewers but Baker’s books soon dropped out of sight, only to be rediscovered in the early years of the twenty-first century. Nowadays, two very different groups of writers cite him as inspiration: one is the British school of “new” nature writing, whose chief representative is Robert Macfarlane. Saturated with literature, it’s as much about aesthetic responses to nature, its cultural history, as it is about nature itself. The second tendency is encapsulated by Mark Cocker, who edited a collection of Baker’s writings. This takes ecology as its chief frame of reference, excavating habitats, wildlife, interconnections—and the economic and social forces that endanger their very existence. A few years ago, Cocker pointedly took his compeers to task for their silence about political economy:
One of the central concerns of the new literature is the idea of re-enchantment, a diffuse term which seems to mean whatever the author wishes. What it usually involves is clothing a landscape in fine writing, both the writer’s own and that of other historical figures … The problem with this formula is that landscapes readily persist when all that makes a place enchanting—the filigree of its natural diversity—has long since vanished.
Clearly, Bindra and Ranjitsinh belong to a different category: they’re writing popular books on pressing problems in fairly undistinguished prose. There are quite a few of these books nowadays—certainly more than there used to be—but the considerations that guide publishers’ choices are hard to fathom. Coffee-table tomes on tigers, crammed with glossy photographs and shopworn reminiscence, probably outnumber all other books about nature combined—it’s difficult to believe that this assembly line of mediocrity actually makes money. The problems extend further to a set of themes become stale and repetitive through overuse. There’s not a single book on Indian vultures to set beside the dozens on mammalian conservation. In sharp contrast to Aitken, far too many writers make a fetish of wilderness, as though protected areas were the only zones of nature worth observing. Hardly anything has been written on the natural history of rivers, coasts, grasslands, deserts. There is nothing about croplands (the default setting for most nature writing in Britain) apart from the older literature on birds. The poisoning of the Indian countryside since the 1960s still awaits its chronicler.
The fetish for wilderness obscures the fact that forests have been transfigured by human use (including forestry) since at least the colonial period—they are not notably wilder in the strict sense of the term than grasslands or meadows. Ecologists tend to write of them as a place apart—which they may be in the sense of sheltering plants and animals not found anywhere else—but the complexities of change are usually glossed over, despite a strong body of work on environmental history published since the 1980s.
Nature writing in Britain is marked by an abiding sense of place, the complex history and land-use patterns of each region and county, each small patch of land. This sense of place is notably absent in India, where landscapes are rarely put in any kind of historical context. It’s true that the written record for the Indian subcontinent is much sparser than for Europe or China, but it does exist, and so do attempts to decipher it. Some knowledge of regional and sub-regional land-use patterns from the colonial period would do more to improve books on nature (of whatever kind) than almost anything else.
A persistent problem with popular books is the tendency to oversimplify. This risks detonating a train of writerly vices (condescension, banality, platitudes and half-truths). In future, it might be better to demand more of the reader: after all, ubiquitous Google (potentially sinister too) is always close to hand. Still, there now exists a fairly substantial body of material—monographs on environmental history and environmental regulation (or the absence thereof), articles on the possible effects of climate change, popular accounts of conservation policies and the conservation crisis—that could, in time, feed into more ambitious texts. In general terms, we know far more about the diversity of life and our impact upon the natural world than Krishnan or Ali ever did. The time is ripe for a new generation of nature writers to take the genre in new directions—but for that, writerly ambition, publishing opportunities and a large enough pool of potential readers will have to come together in a way they haven’t up until now.
The impulse to transcribe emotions evoked by nature involves not just aesthetic appreciation but also feelings of guilt. In India, a sense of malaise about our relation to the environment is, if not pervasive, more widespread than it used to be. After all, nature was the immutable bedrock of human history until fairly recently: premodern farmers may have modified natural habitats on a planetary scale, but they were forced, in the final analysis, to work with nature. With the advent of industrial farming we’ve finally reached the point of abolishing it entirely. For many of us, nature has become almost invisible; some believe we can escape it altogether. This is delusion, for the vagaries of weather, magnified by climate change, are not going to go away.
In a deeper, more fundamental sense, the natural world is quite independent of our relationship to it (even if this relationship is reshaping it in every way)—the fact that the human species would not long outlast the insects is irrelevant in this context. What we are engaged in doing has profound aesthetic and moral consequences, and one of the functions of nature writing is to point them out. As a genre, it is inherently capacious, capable of encompassing natural history, literature, political economy, travelogue, poetry and more besides. Which is why we need it more than ever in our current predicament—not just more of it, but more varied, and (last but not least) better written.
Shashank Kela is the author of a novel, The Other Man, and A Rogue and Peasant Slave, a book of history.