CHENNAI: It has been more than 30 years ever since the Bhopal gas leak tragedy happened. Ramifications of the disaster raising their ugly heads every now and then and elaborate analysis have been leading to an endless road of debates. Making the tragedy form an integral part of her novel Final Instructions, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, who teaches English Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Madras, has come up with a new-age fiction.
“The gas tragedy is one among the several themes of this novel. It is not a realistic fictional rendering of the Bhopal gas tragedy, but is definitely inspired by the magnitude of the tragedy. The grim materiality of the Bhopal gas tragedy is a classic example of what environmental theorists like Rob Nixon call ‘slow violence.’ The effects of toxicity leach silently into the porous boundaries that unify the soil, the human and other-than-human in a network of connections, and the deadly effects silently affect everything from genes to food chains. The country has seen similar cases of ‘slow violence’ in the last few decades,” she says, talking about the novel which was released recently.
Swarnalatha, who holds a PhD in American Literature from the University of Madras, has undergone Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard University and a Charles Wallace Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. She has been with the IIT-Madras for close to 10 years now. Specialising in Environmental Humanities and taking courses in ecocriticism — an earth-centred approach to literary studies — she has been focusing on environmental ideas and their representations that are sometimes partly concealed in the cultural spaces.
The author, whose earlier works include short fiction, has guest edited issues on Indian ecosophy for the Canadian Journal of Deep Ecology and The Trumpeter. Final Instructions has a multi-layered trajectory; the mythic dimensions of the novel set in the Himalayas are influenced by the author’s mountain sojourns in Rishikesh and Ladakh. She says, “I have been influenced by the writings of Swami Rama, specially his significant book, Living with the Himalayan Masters. The novel also mirrors my own academic interest in environmental philosophy. I have had the privilege of collaborating with respected deep ecologists like Arne Naess and Alan Drengson, whose writings emphasise that the well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves. The earth-healing sections of the novel are deeply influenced by professor Drengson’s idea of developing ecosteries that are sacred and honoured dwelling places where ecological values, knowledge and wisdom can be learnt.”
The heart of the novel is the real instances of tragedy narrated through a language of surrealism and religious symbolism. “The novel uses the ancient trope of the apocalypse to imagine the place of humans on earth. The novel’s environmental tragedies are real and mirror the toxic earthscapes of the global South, the rising ecological burdens borne by the marginalised poor, the violence done to the land and also to women’s bodies. The myth of the Sanjeevini plant and the Ramayana lore used in this novel are my attempts at ecosophy (the wisdom of the household requires that we function as good stewards of the earth),” she says.
Moving back to the biggest tragedy, Swarnalatha believes that the episode which continues to haunt the country after three decades in various forms, is yet to see a closure, adding that there needs to be consistent efforts made towards earth democracy. “Indra Sinha’s brilliant novel on the Bhopal gas tragedy Animal’s People is a clear illustration. Bhopal’s ghosts still live on — the local struggles against noxious pesticides and resource extraction that are happening all over India with environmental justice as a common horizon — are evidence that we need to keep working towards an earth democracy,” she says.