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One Blood

Screen Shot 2019 01 25 at 4 20 23 pm

This month, along with thirty other researchers, I had the pleasure and honour of being hosted by the Australia India Institute to discuss possible collaborations and priorities in Australia-India research. Following that discussion, this post is to flag an essay I published in the Indian journal Seminar which positions some of my India research interests. Seminar, which has a readership in the hundreds of thousands, is legendary in intellectual and policy circles in India. Ramachandra Guha, named as one of the world’s top one hundred intellectuals by ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine in 2008, described Seminar as ‘an indispensable national institution.’ It’s a unique publication: each monthly issue is themed, and contributors are invited by the editors.

Issue 673 had contributions from researchers at Stellenbosch, Uppsala, New Delhi, Harvard and Chicago universities, amongst others. It opens with an editorial called ’The Problem’. It was edited by Gunnel Cederlöf and Mahesh Rangarajan, and the focus is ‘Nature and History: a symposium on human-environment relations in the long term’. Mahesh is a distinguished Indian environmental historian and author of many books on conservation. He is currently Professor of Environmental Studies and History at the new Ashoka University in New Delhi, as well as being a regular election commentator in India’s national elections. Gunnel is Professor of History at Uppsala University and KTH, Stockholm, and has published extensively on India.

My essay uses Indian and Australian social and environmental histories to explore cultural adaptation and mal-adaption to change. Extending ideas explored in an earlier journal article, Climate change and Australia, with Lesley Head, Helen McGregor and Stephanie Toole, I consider the paradoxes of living in the centre versus living on the edge. The essay also explores human-animal relationships, and the concept of ‘tolerance habitat’ – places where there is a cultural disposition to sharing space with other species, even when doing so is inconvenient or dangerous. I question a focus on fear and grief, and instead foreground attention: ‘Attention is to attend, a fundamental of spiritual or mindful practice…Attending closely when we encounter strange others – whether individuals, cultures or species – helps focus awareness of the larger dimensions of understanding our place in the world.’

‘Considering ecological and social histories through a lens that accentuates adaptation and capacity rather than pathology reveals different landscapes of hope. These are landscapes of hope not only for human societies but also for all the other beings with whom we share the planet. Acknowledging the potentials in ancient and vernacular knowledge systems, close ties to regional landscapes, and propensities to accept uncertainty and change as fundamentals of the everyday might be the basis for recognition and revival of critical practical and cultural skills. The continuity of older, more environmentally and socially benign relationships between people, animals and landscapes hold potential for responding to unfolding uncertainty’.

The title is from Rudyard Kipling. I was born in India, and grew up reading Kipling. In one scene in The Jungle Book, Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, is taught to say in multiple animal languages, ‘we be of one blood, ye and I’ – this is his passport to safety in the jungle, the more-than-human world in which he lives. When he encounters strange others, ones who might harm him or help him, this phrase is the bridge that connects them. Bringing my Indian and Australian selves together, for me this echoes the wonderful Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil’s words in the documentary about his life, One Red Blood: ‘We are the brothers and sisters of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re bird, snake, fish or kangaroo. One red blood.’

Kipling, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, continues to have a controversial position in literature. Novelist Henry James called him a ‘man of genius’, poet T.S. Eliot described him as ‘a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle’. Other critics have thought him an accomplice of empire. Indian historian Kishwant Singh considered Kipling’s poem ‘If’ (not my favourite!) to be a reinterpretation of Arjuna and Krishna’s famous dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi described the Gita as his ‘spiritual dictionary’, and it has also been described as the ‘first book of yoga.’ I have puzzled about the gory message of the Gita on and off for years. Starting my own personal study of yoga last year has brought all this into renewed focus. I am learning yoga as part of ‘full-immersion’ methods for my freediving research (very many freedivers practice yoga). So, while it seems pretty obscure, this Seminar essay on dogs and people in India and Australia is also linked to my freediving work.

A version of this first appeared on the blog of the Australian Centre for Cultural Environment Research