Books

back to issue

MEHRAULI: A View From the Qutb. Text by Charles Lewis, photographs by Karoki Lewis. Harper Collins (distributed by Foundation Books), Delhi, 2002.

Karoki Lewis is a superb photographer. I enjoyed looking at the pictures in his earlier book, Delhi’s Historic Villages. This one is different – in colour, not in black and white. There are some stunning shots of most of the buildings I love in the Mehrauli area – details of the facades, as well as portraits of the people who live there.

The text has many nuggets of information (like the story of Haji Roz/Haji Rozbih and Roz Bihan). There are satisfyingly copious extracts from Farhatullah Beg’s lively piece on the Phulwalon ki Sair (rendered into English by Azra Kidwai). I was delighted to read about Gandhiji’s visit to Mehrauli for the Urs of Bakhtiyar Kaki on 27 January 1948, and his plea to ‘Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who have come here with cleansed hearts, to take a vow at this holy place that you will never allow strife to raise its head, but will live in amity, united as friends and brothers.’ He also commented on the beauty of the marble carvings at the dargah, and noticed with sadness how much of it had been destroyed. ‘It is sheer vandalism.’ How wonderful to learn that he was a pre-member of our Conservation Society of Delhi!

Mehrauli has been a landscape to escape into – whether it was the later Mughal rulers and their entourage going there in the rain drenched months, the British enjoying elegant picnics in the winter sun, or present-day children racing through the landscaped slopes near Jamali Kamali. It is also a miniaturised multi-faith shrine, with a dargah, a masjid, a mandir, a Jain shrine and a church. There is still room for a serious history of its multilayered architecture, built by successive rulers, and modified by Metcalfe and Sanderson.

This particular book can be read in many ways. It is a window to one area of Delhi, and hopefully will prompt others write on Karolbagh, on Civil Lines, on Kalkaji. So far, the only area in Delhi to have been discretely studied has been Shahjahanabad. Another way of seeing it is as a walk through a heritage area, a spin-off from the Conservation Society of Delhi’s pioneering venture of guided walks in historic areas, the first of which, incidentally, was one in Mehrauli in 1984, conducted by Reena Nanda. A third is to read it as an attempt to enlist public support for conservation by making the argument in powerful visual terms, again taking off from the CSD’s audio-visual presentation on Mehrauli. A fourth is to see it as a grown-ups’ version of CENDIT’s engaging little book about children from upper-class Delhi exploring Mehrauli – its ecology, history, architecture and social profile.

The buildings and the treescapes of Mehrauli are distinctive, the people are not. This is why I am not sure what is meant by saying that ‘Mehrauli should not lose its identity.’ The identity foregrounded is that of the premodern qasba, but the people who live and work in Mehrauli are, whether we like it or not, part of modern Delhi. To deplore its ‘heedless expansion’ and to feel nostalgic about its ‘old-world charm’ and refer to its ‘heart’ and its ‘soul’ may strike a chord in many of us, but it also suggests that this book is a view not from the Qutb, but from Delhi.

The problem with being a historian is that one sees things through bifocals – the distant-vision section of the lens sees the long history of Mehrauli, the near-vision one the problem of conserving what survives from the past. Why should we freeze things at this particular point of time when they have not been preserved earlier? Mehrauli has been continuously modified since the 11th century. Why not in the 21st? Who are we, who dwell in DDA mansions which we modify constantly, to dictate to people who live in older houses as to what they should not break down or extend? As a citizen, I doubt that stern laws can achieve anything.

This beautiful book will go some way to make people realise that there are artefacts and mini-landscapes in Mehrauli which should be retained. It will draw some individuals out from their air-conditioned homes into their air-conditioned cars to see these sights for themselves, to walk through Mehrauli’s one-way street, and to plunge into the paths bordered by undergrowth beyond Jamali Kamali. But one has to carry the community along, and there must now be an effort to actively involve the people who live in Mehrauli in a continuous and committed exercise.

Narayani Gupta

 

AND THE BAMBOO FLOWERS IN THE INDIAN FORESTS: What Did the Pulp and Paper Industry Do? (Volumes 1 & 2) by Manorama Savur. Manohar, Delhi, 2003.

Manorama Savur’s sharp and sensitive, sometimes impassioned account of the impact of the pulp and paper industry (PPI) on large tracts of forests in the country is a tale worth telling. Responding to a growing demand for paper, the first industrial scale units made their appearance in India in the first half of the 19th century; by the end of the century there were many more.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun discovered the virtues of bamboo as a pulpable material. The subsequent commercialisation of the technology led to an era of unprecedented growth for the industry – and the concomitant destruction of wide swathes of hitherto pristine forests. A reasonably straightforward proposition, backed by a half decade of diligent research across the spread of the country, led and coordinated by Manorama Savur.

The problem is that the reader has to dig it out. The two volume narrative is 705 pages long, dominantly prose, but some verse as well. It is liberally peppered with adjectives. Through the text flit a motley crew of characters – the rapacious industrialist, the ineffective forester, the conniving administrator and the simple tribal, and a host of institutions and committees.

The book is structured around eight chapters dedicated to seven states and the North East region. Each chapter contains a veritable mass of material on the state and its people. The material is informative and wide-ranging, although not always connected to the central theme. The 84 pages devoted to Orissa span a couple of thousand years ranging from the beginnings of Aryan civilization to its evolution as a state of the Indian Union. It exhaustively covers the JK Paper Mills and its functioning, but expends considerable paper as well on topography, drainage and the boundaries and extent of Forest Department territorial divisions.

Painstaking research, as Ms Savur and her team have indisputably carried out, deserves good editing. Spelling and typographical errors (amboo, firmaly) detract, and 60 word sentences are hard on the reader. Despite the distractions, the book contains fascinating and incisive insights into the evolution and practice of the management of forest wealth. Largely exploitative, uncaring and unsustainable, the system worked to the undoubted advantage of the PPI, and to the detriment of communities and people who had coexisted with the forests for generations.

Most of the research was carried out in the early 1990s. If the date of the preface is any indication, the book was ready to be published by mid-1996. The seven intervening years before it was made available have seen unprecedented change in forestry management systems and attitudes. Judicial interventions, and not just at the level of the Supreme Court, have decisively altered the way in which forests are managed and produce extracted. The basis of these changes, far reaching in their consequence, was the activism and determination of environmental and social crusaders, and to whom this country owes a debt. Savur and her work are a part of this legacy of change, and the delay in publication is both inexplicable and unfair.

The opening out of the economy has since enabled the PPI to access cheap imported wood pulp and low grade timber. In the last 15 years or so, there has been a significant shift away from bamboo and forest timber to agro-residues and process waste as feed-stock for paper manufacture. Occasioned by uncertainties of supply and gradually increasing practices, and enabled by liberal imports of machinery, this has engendered major changes in the relationship between the PPI and the Forest Departments. Disadvantaged by delay, Savur’s book does not cover the post-1997 period. It would have made the account more interesting – and complete.

The working of bamboo forests rightly receives considerable attention. Ironically, the release of the book is extremely timely. There is a resurgence of interest in bamboo, going beyond its traditional and myriad applications. There is an emphasis on value addition, on utilising bamboo for newly emerging industrial applications to manufacture electricity, wood substitutes, composites and plywood, charcoal and activated carbon. In fact the Government of India has launched a major series of initiatives to harness the potential of bamboo to create employment and income, to add value through industrial processes and applications in much the same way that many countries in East and South East Asia have demonstratively been able to do in the last decade.

For almost a century, pulp and paper has been effectively the only industrial usage of bamboo. A host of alternative industrial applications are emerging, and will compete for raw material. The point that Savur’s book reinforces is that technology and markets alone cannot transform this age old material into an agent of change for the 21st century. The development by the Chinese of industrial applications using bamboo was preceded by two decades of structural and technological transformation of the sector, resulting in productivities of as much as 30 tonnes per hectare. This contrasts with the average productivity of bamboo forests in India of half a tonne per hectare. The Chinese have focused on agro-forestry, allowing communities and cooperatives to grow bamboo on large plantations, and spent considerable effort on plant material, packages of practices and the management of bamboo.

Forest Departments in India are, however, not cultivators of bamboo, but as Savur points out, simply extractors, in many cases through a complex system of contracts and leases. This system is wasteful and inefficient. Bamboo is a grass, and not a tree. It is a truly renewable resource, if managed well; a clump, once stabilised, should be harvested each year, and not through the rotation cycles practiced by forest agencies. Such cycles are derived from timber management, and quite unsuited to bamboo.

The system of leasing out tracts of forests to contractors is a reasonably sure path to declining productivity and even destruction. The author cites numerous instances where large scale working of bamboo forests (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii in Nagaon, and Dendrocalamus strictus in central India) has triggered premature flowering, and subsequently stunted culm and clump growth.

One possible answer lies in the oft-implied and occasionally stated premise of the book, that people and communities are the best managers of their own resources. Homestead productivities for bamboo cultivation across eastern and North East India approximate those of Chinese plantations. Tribal communities have long and sustainably managed community bamboo forests. Here lies a wealth of knowledge and experience, one that needs to be studied and documented, adapted in packages of practices currently being developed, and supplemented with improved plant material and of course a fair market. The future of bamboo rests not with the Forest Departments, but with community and small holder plantations.

Bamboo accounts for less than a fifth of pulp intake now. It has come a long way from the 1950s, when bamboo accounted for over 80% of the raw material used by the mills. There are new opportunities ahead; bamboo can still be both catalyst and vehicle for change, if managed sustainably and used well.

Manorama Savur’s book is important because it documents the process by which common resources were first transformed to administered property and then used substantially for private profit.

Vinay Oberoi

 

GANDHI IN HIS TIME AND OURS by David Hardiman. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003.

SATYAGRAHA is a quest for truth, a mode of engagement, which seeks to establish a moral ground. It is by being truthful and moral that the possibility of self-realization is established. In the introduction to his autobiography, Gandhiji said, ‘What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.’ It was this pursuit that moved his being. For Gandhiji self-realization was not merely a goal for an individual being; it was the basis of civilization. Civilization for him was ‘that mode of conduct, which showed man path of duty.’ Self-realization or knowing oneself was swaraj, because it is only those who are capable of knowing themselves who are capable of self-rule. Swaraj is a moral quest, simultaneously personal and societal. Dialogue is the essence of this quest. It is a dialogue with the self, with the civilization and with other utopias or modes of knowing one’s self.

Gandhiji’s autobiography is a testimony to his continuous and deep dialogue with himself. He called his autobiography Atmakatha, which in general usage would have meant just an autobiography or one’s story, but he restores to the term its deeper meaning: a story of the soul. At one level, by seeking to speak only of the journey of the soul in quest of moksha he ‘Indianized’ the autobiography. To write the Atmakatha, Gandhiji takes scientific method from the West and transforms it to become an inward analytical gaze and a form of self-experimentation. It is by bringing together ‘scientific’ analysis and religion as morality that Gandhiji creates the possibility of speaking about the self as a soul. It is literally through his soul-searching that he crafts a genre that is uniquely modern, truly Indian, but which also harks back to the theological origins of the autobiography as medieval Christian practice. The Atmakatha is essentially a dialogic exercise.

It is possible to view Gandhiji’s life as a series of intertwined, continuous dialogues. He carried on a deep dialogue with the West. At one level this was a dialogue with Christianity and the passions of Jesus. At another level it was a disconcerting encounter with modernity that sought to locate the focus of human judgement outside the human being; it made ‘machines as the measure of man.’ It also led him to engage with figures and traditions from the West who were seeking to locate themselves beyond the realm of modernity. The result of this dialogue was the Hind Swaraj which poses a moral question. Is it possible, the Hind Swaraj asks, to create a civilization where being moral and doing one’s duty is possible, where the human worth is not measured by a non-human yardstick?

He also carried on a life-long dialogue with Hindu religion and Hindu society. At times it manifested itself in his dialogues with the Jain ascetic Shrimad Rajchandra, at other times in a debate with Dr. Ambedkar.

He created and nurtured spaces, which allowed self-experimentation and fostered a dialogic existence. His ashrams and the Gujarat Vidyapeeth were such institutional spaces but his finest contribution was the satyagraha. Satyagraha for him was not a technique; it was a mode of engaging with the self, with the civilization and with others in search of truth.

The idea of dialogue lies at the centre of David Hardiman’s book. The book he says, involves first, ‘a scrutiny of Gandhi’s desired practice, that of striving to keep a wide range of dialogues open’ and at another level, ‘an examination of dialogues between... Gandhi and his ideas and practices, both during his lifetime and after his death, in India and outside India.’ It is both an audacious and a fascinating enterprise.

The book thus deals with two broad concerns. The first of understanding Gandhiji’s dialogues with himself, with his son Harilal, with the idea of nationalism, with the dalit, the adivasi and the Muslim questions. The other is with grappling with Gandhiji’s legacy and what continuities are available to us.

David Hardiman presents to us the broad range and concerns of Gandhiji’s dialogues. He is both sympathetic and troubled by Gandhiji’s ideas and practices, in particular his unwillingness to comprehend Harilal’s desire to be part of the modern world and by his inability to grant Dr. Ambedkar a moral ground.

The originality of his argument, however, lies in the second part of the book – the legacy of Gandhi and the nature of our engagement with his thoughts and practices. For Hardiman, the essential legacy of Gandhiji is dialogue and the practice of satyagraha. He discusses a wide range of concerns and individuals that have sought to establish continuities with Gandhiji’s ideas and methods. He assembles a cast of characters that are fascinating by themselves; Vinoba and JP, Medha Patkar, Baba Amte and Petra Kelly, Lanza Del Vasto, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. He shows that the nature of their struggle has been moral and truthful. Their struggles sought to reaffirm the possibility of a plural and multiple cosmologies, ways of life. Their struggle also involved self-suffering, an essential part of the Gandhian satyagraha.

His sympathetic account of these individual lives and mass movements also harbours some disappointments. These disappointments are with the inability of our times to establish continuities with Gandhiji and his dialogues. This disappointment is most apparent in his account of Vinoba – a man Gandhiji described as an ideal ashramite, a man who carried the ashram within himself. This is largely because David Hardiman shares Ramachandra Guha’s characterisation of Vinoba as ‘a pious, puritan, and self-righteous man, devoid of humour and the capacity for self-criticism.’ In his account of Vinoba and others, Hardiman concentrates of their obvious ‘political’ movements. Vinoba, however, was not only the man who endorsed the ‘Emergency’ on grounds of discipline but someone who carried on a lifelong dialogue with Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. He was also the person who gave us one of the finest commentaries on the Gita. However, this part does not inform Hardiman’s analysis.

It is perhaps his unwillingness to discuss the spiritual aspects of the individual and mass struggles that gives his analysis a tone of disappointment. Of course, David Hardiman knows that the self-suffering of a Baba Amte and a Medha Patkar is not only political but also a deeply spiritual and moral act as well. Why then does he not speak of the spiritual basis of modern political struggles? Is it because he is troubled by Gandhiji’s own obvious spirituality? Is it because he knows, like all of us, that the idea of the spiritual is no longer a dialogic entity in the realm of the political and that it, as a political and cultural discourse, has come to be hijacked by forces that are anti-dialogic?

top

Tridip Suhrud