Deep impact: A journalistic voyage by Arati Kumar-Rao
Written in meticulous detail, the timely book on India’s environmental issues prompts readers to think about the impending future with new findings
Long-form reporting has a beauty that allows readers to fully immerse themselves in the stories it unfolds. In her new book, Marginlands, Arati Kumar-Rao embarks on a journalistic voyage, delving deep into the current environmental crises. She takes us on a compelling journey from the Thar Desert––once deemed a barren wasteland––where the government is relentlessly promoting mining, to the cold and dry terrain of Ladakh that has now become prone to floods. She skillfully navigates through the lives of fishermen in the mangroves, raises concerns over the alarming decline of cetacean populations, and highlights the critical role of bees in maintaining our fragile ecosystem.
The book is not merely a product of months of writing. The author has undertaken extensive research and immersed herself in the stories she is determined to tell. Her prose is meticulous and impactful. Rao dives straight to the point right from the word go. She writes, “The people of the desert are archivists and cartographers of their landscape.
Theirs is a lived, intensely local knowledge. Desert dwellers invent words for what they see and experience; these words enter the lexicon and pass on orally as individual knowledge grows into collective knowledge.” The lines are reminiscent of the late environmentalist Anupam Mishra’s masterpiece Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab. The style in which Rao documents the traditional water conservation methods through the first chapter is an homage to the master. She goes on to show how the people live their lives in the water-scarce region, all while highlighting how the colonial idea of development poses a danger to the desert’s environment.
Among the most important issues she raises is the danger to the lives of freshwater dolphins. Much like China’s development led to the extinction of the Baiji, a species of the mammals, once hailed as the goddess of the Yangtze, the “serious issue of impounding water with diminishing river flows and disastrous waterways” poses a threat to the creatures in India that often finds itself competing with its northern neighbour. Rao notes that in March 2016, Parliament passed the National Waterways Act (NWA), identifying 106 waterways to be engineered into cargo-carrying ones. Environmentalists fear the move will further endanger the riverine flora and fauna.
Rao is a self-proclaimed chronicler of “the slow violence of ecological degradation”. With the book, she reiterates the claim. Citing studies that indicate fish stocks have plummeted by 70-80 percent since the construction of the Farakka dam (West Bengal), she notes that the Hilsa fish, central to religious festivals and weddings, particularly in the region, has vanished from areas north of the dam due to floodplain mining.
The author writes also of the tiger widows of Sundarbans––women who lost their husbands while they were fishing in the mangrove forest. Official data suggests that over 50 fishermen are mauled by tigers each year. “Left behind are hundreds of women dubbed ‘tiger widows’, considered bad omens and ostracised into separate enclaves,” writes Rao. The marginalisation makes it difficult for them to earn a livelihood, compelling them to venture out to collect prawns, despite the threats of crocodiles and occasional river sharks; “some have their thighs chewed off; some have lost legs”.
Despite the seriousness of the subject that can often seem morbid, Rao’s brilliantly crafted prose—only occasionally veering into sketchy passages––makes the book a delightful read. Readers are likely to find themselves pausing every few pages as she prompts them to ponder about the impending future with new findings. Equal parts shocking and thought-provoking, Marginlands is among the most timely non-fictions to have released this year.