Deep Green

I.

The jungle is a torture chamber. Anyone who goes on rigorous nature walks will tell you. Within it you can be stung, pricked, cut, torn, stabbed, injected, bitten. It is humid and asphyxiating. Everything is fighting everything else and you soon join battle yourself as you slash along. Creepers smother smaller plants, the tall trees refuse to share light, the floor is covered by rotting leaves and mutilated insects. The jungle thrives because of these struggles for life.

Yet in spite of its brutality, I am full of affection for the jungle.

“I love it, I love it very much but I love it against my better judgement” says Herzog in Burden of Dreams. I also love the jungle.

For me, being in the jungle, has nothing to do with “being a man” but more about seeking out the human being under the layers of modernity. Being in the jungle, one is confronted with the reality of existence. It is a reality that is about diurnal calculations, signs of the river, hints at a passing, smells on the wind and knowing one’s own limits. The jungle makes you aware of how heavy you have become, how ungraceful and unbalanced, how tar-filled your lungs are. It will smash your teeth on a rock if you are too quick, it will smash your elbow in if you overreach. It is a critical mother who does not care for us, and somehow we are driven forward by her sneering. We love her like a hostage loves his captor.

We become more appreciative of company within the jungle. It reminds us of how terrible, isolation can be and how sweet the companionship of other people is. It is misery – ineluctable and embedded – that brings us together. Within the woods, our deadliest phobias – of fangs, spikes and claws – rush at us and we are forced towards a camaraderie.

Clutched together, against this maddening orgy of thorns, vines and webs, is it any wonder that our first ancestors were troglodytes? They must have sought out the dark because the jungle could not grow there. They sought out the cold, black void of the caves to shelter them from the chaos of the jungle.

II.

The jungle is the greatest experimental lab in the world. It is the direct and violent opponent of the garden. To quote Herzog again, in the jungle, “Creation is unfinished”. This is true, Creation – Biblical and grand – could only take place in the garden. Paradise – derived from the Persian word pardesu – that is a ‘walled enclosure’, that is, a garden, cannot dream up the monstrosities of the mad jungle. But it is a monstrosity borne out of necessity. The garden, paradise, in comparison, is a control set – an enclosure designed to hold its in-mates – with the hope of erasing any traces of savagery. But the jungle stays on inside.

In his poem, The Common Life, W H Auden reminds us that the life we have today is only possible by the presence of “… the very latest engines, for keeping Nature at bay”. The only way Men may control the jungle is to slash at it, to burn it into the ground. You cannot control the jungle while it’s transpiring. You must kill it if you want some respite.

Even then, its agents – the mosquitoes, flies and snakes – sneak over the parched earth into human habitation on an hourly basis. Every day the jungle is at war with us trying to reclaim the spaces we have won from it. The old buildings of Calcutta know this all too well. Like a parasitic cordycep, ficus plants perch atop these buildings whilst their tendrils rip into the brick-and-mortar flesh. The struggle continues.This is how the jungle makes us humble.

Man cannot triumph over the jungle because we are not separate and distinct from one another. The jungle is part of us and we – though we fear to admit this – are a part of it.

VAB is not the Issue

For the good part of two years, we have been hearing a lot of noise about the Village Administration Bill (VAB). There were protests and speeches about it, demonstrations and weary policemen. The people against it seemed to be in the majority and only the government side seriously thought it was a good idea. In Jaintia Hills, it went off fairly well and was passed without much delay or opposition. People who studied the JHADC VAB say it is a superior document than the one proposed by the KHADC. Well, that’s a short summary of the VAB imbroglio thus far.

Now, I have been thinking and I have got to ask one question: why should it matter at all? Before you raise your voice please let me continue. Why should it matter how we administer our “villages” when they are so ‘dead’? Please keep in mind that I am referring here specifically to urban and semi-urban villages. In particular, I am referring to the Shillong “dongs” (localities). Most of these hardly have any social vibrancy left in them. I am referring here to the community life that I remember as a child. I am not Romantic about the past, it was not all sunny days and cheerfulness but I think it is fair to say that we generally had more community participation back then than we do today.

Why should some law threaten us so much? We should be more alarmed by the way in which we have become alienated from one another. When we were children growing up in Mawlai, my friends and I had a playground of about 500 metres, that is, to say we played together everywhere in our neighbourhood. We didn’t know one compound from the next, we didn’t fear anyone and everyone’s garden was open to us. Needless to say, hide-and-seek was ridiculously difficult. Today when I look at the old neighbourhood, I feel nostalgic and a part of me wishes it was still the same.

What has changed in the last few decades? For one, we all “grew up”. Not always in a good way. For some reason, many who played in the local woods and fields, when they were children, do not want their own offspring to do the same. When you question them about this they usually say things like, “In our time, the world was less dangerous”. Well, I personally think that “danger” keeps the mind sharp, but that’s my own personal opinion. Firstly, if we agree that the world has become more dangerous today, will withdrawing from it make it less dangerous? Will deserted streets be safer than a street filled with night walkers? We are horrified about the seemingly rampant rapes and multiple molestations that occur in Meghalaya so instead of reclaiming the streets from the ‘bogey-men’, we lock ourselves in. In Calcutta, I regularly see women walking around at ten o’clock at night. Think about what that implies next time someone says, “Tribals respect women”. In our society, if a woman is out after 4 PM, the daddys start calling like maniacs! Maybe they should just lock them up like Rapunzel in her lonely tower.

The solution that many well-off “liberal” Khasi parents have for this “after-hours” conundrum is to give their children a car so that they’ll be “safe”. But again, this doesn’t make our streets and neighbourhoods safer. It just makes your own kids safer; there will be no pedestrians and the streets will continue to be sinister and nameless. Now if you don’t see a problem with just thinking about yourself and your own nest, then I am afraid you’re part of the problem. I’m not saying that we should all turn into compassionate Saint Teresas but we need to get more young people more involved within the local community. Our neighbourhoods and “dongs” are becoming worse off not because of the VAB or imagined evils but because we are retracting from them.

It seems that at the heart of it, no one has the time anymore. No one has the time to read books or listen to music – not while working or driving, just listening to it for its own sake. All we want to do is chillax after work, watch X-Factor and drink a peg or two (or five or six). No one wants to take part in some silly community activity so they contribute money instead. Sorry to break it to you, but what use is money when it is your presence that is sought? The relationships and sharing at a community event, whether small or large shows, are invaluable. If these lived-in spaces – “dongs”, neighbourhoods, localities – are not worth our time, what is? Let us clear some time for important things. Facebook and Instagram are not real social media; talking and contact are.

When I first stayed in Jowai, as a deracinated Shillong Pnar, I was immediately struck by the camaraderie and closeness that people there have. This is changing as well of course, but people there still enjoy being closely sociable. Sometime in the 1960s, some wise “wohs” (uncle sorts) foresaw a social schism, so they decided to foster community spirit by formalizing an event with the goal of bringing people together. Now, Jowai society is very closely knit even today so I often wonder how close they were before the 60s! The institution of the yearly “Chad Kut Snem” (dance rally) was probably drawn from the Christmas community feast which we still enjoy in Shillong (“bam doh”) but it has grown into a large secular event that embraces all (even deracinated Pnars).

Every Jowai locality competes with the other in devising the best dance tunes and parade floats. It is healthy competition which benefits Jowai community in general. Every locality has a name that needs to be upheld and an arch-rival to be bested. This is why Jowai carnivals consistently bring in bands from all over and it is a pleasure which draws in everyone from everywhere. Earlier, in Shillong, we had fetes and carnivals which were a real treat. Whatever happened to those? It is sad to say that most community fairs and “locality weeks” that I have been to seem like bad government shows. Every chief guest, usually an MLA or retired officer, seems hell-bent on telling you their entire life history. How boring! We need to take a few pages from the Jowai model and revamp our villages. Then we can worry about VAB.

N.B. Another thing that I have noticed in Jowai is that there are a number of open grounds in each locality where neighbourhood children can play in. These are ‘picnic’ areas during the annual feast at the end of the year but are mostly open throughout the year for other events. In Shillong, most of our small fields are being completely dug up in order to make way for indoor stadiums which, sad to say, are mostly locked up by local administrators, except for a few days in a year. Either that happens or high fences are constructed to keep intruders, and players, out. Most people have to go all the way to Polo to play games.