Nature And Nation
Sanctuary's Assistant Editor Anirudh Nair reviews Mahesh Rangarajan’s Nature and Nation.
By Mahesh Rangarajan
Published by Permanent Black
Hardcover, 346 pages, Price: Rs. 795
An essay titled ‘Five Nature Writers: Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson, Sálim Ali, Kailash Sankhala, and M. Krishnan’ piqued my interest in Mahesh Rangarajan’s book Nature and Nation. It is one out of 10 essays written by Rangarajan as part of his engagement with ecology and history over the past several years and compiled in this book under the classification Nature’s Past, Present and Future.
While it would be a bit of a stretch to call most of the essays focusing on the colonial period and its aftermath in this collection lucid, their arrangement provides a coherent look at India’s environmental history. Despite the author suggesting otherwise in the preface, the essays do give a rounded view of the issues and timelines discussed. Attention to detail is evident from the extensive sources used to put together these essays. Though cited information, for example the number of tigers and wolves killed during the Raj, makes the reader pause and think at intervals, they also tend to break the narrative at times.
An essay on the political history of the lion in India is one of the highlights of this book. So are the ones titled ‘Striving for a Balance: Nature, Power, Science and India’s Indira Gandhi 1917-1988’ and ‘The Politics of Ecology: The Debate on Wildlife and People in India 1970-1995’. These long essays enable the author to bring his skills and expertise to the fore. Passages in these essays detailing key interventions to protect the lion in India, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s affinity towards nature, and categorising the voices in the environmental debate leave a lasting impression on the reader. Some of these points, however, are invariably repeated in other essays, which narrate events whose timelines overlap. Shorter essays on ‘Gandhi’s Notion of Ahimsa and the Human-Nature Relationship’, ‘Of Nature and Nationalism: Rethinking India’s Nehru’ and the five nature writers mentioned previously not only make the reader question many historical assumptions, but also add value to the whole book.
“The past matters as it can illustrate how the present came about. By knowing better what choices were made in the past, when and why, the dilemmas of the present can be seen in a more holistic way.” These sentences from Rangarajan’s essay titled ‘Park, Politics and History: Conservation Dilemmas in Africa’ could well be the idea that he hopes to leave the reader with in Nature and Nation.
Reviewed by Anirudh Nair
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.