In a free-wheeling chat, award-winning poet and scholar Ruth Padel talks to MEENA MENON about how her great great grandfather Charles Darwin influenced her outlook, her concern for tigers, her love for India and her first novel.
A t 64, fame and age sit lightly on Ruth Padel, elected first woman Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in May 2009, a post from which she resigned later. Charles Darwin's great great granddaughter was in Mumbai recently at the invitation of Phiroza Godrej, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the PEN All India Centre to read from her first novel Where the Serpent Lives. In an interview, Padel, a Greek tragedy scholar, award-winning poet, musician and excavator, talks about her love for India, Darwin and the relationship between humans and other animals.
In her talk at the BNHS, she went back to Darwin and his use of the word “tangle” to explain the inter-relatedness of life. It is this tangle that she develops in her new novel set in the dense forests of India, London and Devon. “I wanted to launch the book particularly in India because the book is on India. I have already published Tigers in Red Weather, in 2005 in which I went all over Asia and all over the jungles that had tigers as their habitat… the Sunderbans, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sumatra, Russia and China but, of course, India was the centre and I came back to it at the end. Many wonderful Indian biologists taught me — Dr. Ullas Karanth in Karnataka, Valmik Thapar — and I realised that, perhaps, in writing fiction I could reach more people. I think the most essential thing that I am writing about whether in poetry or prose is the relationship between humans and the wild and, when I wrote a book of poems on my great great grandfather Charles Darwin, I realised that his inspiration came from the relation between humans and the rest of nature. This is very different from when I was in China in 2003 for the tigers. I was very shocked because writers there admired Darwin very much, and say he is the symbol of human progress, but I think that is not the right way to think of Darwin, I think of Darwin as somebody who put us in natural relation with the other animals and that is the central message that we should take from him,” she starts off.
What are her reasons for turning to fiction after many works in prose and poetry? Padel says, “I have written a lot of other prose books, but we are story shaped animals, aren't we? That's one difference between us and other animals. We think in terms of stories so I think in terms of stories too and I wanted to write a novel as well.”
Her grandmother, Darwin's granddaughter, was very important to her. She would show Ruth, like her mother did, the garden, flowers in the garden, their names, how they were classified. “You try and imagine why something is happening. I think it is about understanding Nature as well as loving it. Now at a time when species are going extinct every day, there is all the more reason that people in cities should try and understand Nature. Yesterday we had terrible news that an activist in Gujarat Amit Jethwa was killed outside the Gujarat High Court. He was the one who drew attention to the mysterious, sinister and criminal death of lions in the Gir sanctuary. It shows us what a huge battle it is to protect the wild,” she points out.
She is frank that the desire for tigers in China is driving the loss of tigers in India. She is equally critical about tiger farming. The trouble with tiger farming is that, apart from the animal welfare aspect — that tigers are grown in order to be killed for their parts — once the tiger part is in the shop you can't tell if it's from the wild, poached from Ranthambore or farmed in China.
Admitting there is a lot of despair about the future of wildlife, she holds out hope. “Recently I saw a very good film “The truth about tigers”. This is not my country, so I don't want to be prescriptive but from what I gather from my Indian wildlife friends, if there could be a special wildlife preservation set up, which was just to protect wildlife, things could be better. The goodwill is there, India has brilliant laws, has brilliant and wonderful scientists and conservationists. What it needs is implementation. Finally it is an issue of political will to restructure things for the protection of animals.”
People versus animals
On the people versus animals question, she is clear. “A lot of people say that India is the largest democracy in the world. It has lots and lots of problems and animals, I think, are the least of its worries. But if India cannot solve the problems on 98 per cent of its land that it has given humans, how will taking away that last two per cent on which the animals live, help solve the problem? In fact it will make it worse.”
“I went to see one settlement in Karnataka where wildlife protection people and conservators worked with people in villages who wanted to move out of the forest. I talked to two old men, both waiting for their grandchildren to come home from school by the bus. I asked them what it would be like if they were waiting in the forest. They said the children would have had to walk six miles through snakes and elephants. ‘We could not see each other because we would have to cross a river to see each other.' I asked what's good about living in the new place. They said they had power. In one sense it meant electricity but, in another sense, it meant power over their lives. Every road means one more killing in the forest.”
She also admits that, in 1972, when Project Tiger was set up many villages were moved out by force and that had wrong consequences. But now it needs to be done with good will and help from villagers and their input. That's the only way the animals will be preserved.
She is not sure about her next novel yet but she knows she will come back here once again.
the most essential thing that I am writing about whether in poetry or prose is the relationship between humans and the wild