Fissured lands, unquiet woods, hungry tides, monsoons, droughts, creatures great and small — nature has long stirred creative minds in India. According to the Harvard academician, Sarah Dimick, who is doing a project on literature and the environment, even though ‘cli-fi’ has emerged as a genre recently, Indian writers have always been keenly attuned to the changing seasons and their patterns. Indian literature, thus, has a lot to teach the world when it comes to seamlessly weaving the vagaries of the climate into the literary narrative. Indeed, be it Kalidasa, who had sung paeans to varsha’s “praninam pranabhutah” — the life breath of all that is alive — or, more recently, Rajat Chaudhuri in The Butterfly Effect and Amitav Ghosh who has repeatedly chronicled what the ravages of climate change can do in works like The Hungry Tide and The Great Derangement, Indian literature is, indeed, replete with references to the importance of climatic patterns. In fact, India also has a rich body of regional literature on the environment: the works of the Sambalpuri poet and writer, Haldhar Nag, the Kannada poet, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, and the Malayali poet and activist, Sugathakumari, are relevant examples. Many of these works are an outcome of mass environmental movements like the Chipko, the Silent Valley protests, and the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Globally, there have been instances where engagement with literature about the environment has galvanised societal concern and change. For instance, Silent Spring by the marine biologist and renowned author, Rachel Carson, chronicled the environmental disaster unleashed by the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides. Readers were horrified and the uproar led the then US president, John F. Kennedy, to reconsider its national pesticide policy, leading to DDT being banned. However, in spite of the rich repository of environmental literature, collective ecological consciousness in the Indian context remains an area of concern. There is thus a case to argue for greater pedagogical investment in environmental literature to kindle a wider ecological renaissance.
But a push for the curriculum to foster a greater engagement with writing on the environment would not be enough. The field is far wider. Literature transcends the written word. India has a strong oral tradition — poetry, music, art and performance — that is inspired by the natural world. This genre needs to be tapped into. And it is best to start with the youngest of minds. Youngsters are saddled with environmental studies in school but little effort is made to use the vast and varied strands in children’s literature as an effective introduction to environmentalism: Sahaj Path is a perfect example of how nursery rhymes can inspire in children an awareness of the wonders and the necessities of the natural world.
If the world is to imbibe environmental sensibilities from Indian literature, translation would have to play a crucial role. It is, therefore, imperative that the publishers and the market facilitate a greater interest in translated works so that India’s literary genres could help leave a green tinge in the global consciousness.