“Our education teaches us that the environment is in danger, not how to tackle waste, or curtail our greed. How many pens should a person possess, how many clothes? During the festive season, our packaging comes with frills. We create waste for nothing, and many of us don’t discard or recycle. How safely is nuclear waste secured at the bottom of the ocean?” asks Atulya Misra, IAS, when we meet at his office on the busy Anna Salai.
Misra, who is Additional Chief Secretary and Chairman and Managing Director of Tamil Nadu Power Finance and Infrastructure Development Corporation, makes the planet and its supportive ecosystem the hero of his second book Vultures of Paradise (published by Rupa).
For decades, eco-fiction has sounded the alarm about the damage that may not yet be visible on the planet, although of late, so much devastation is already staring us in the face. Misra too believes that fiction is a better tool to raise environmental awareness. “Academics have said enough about our relationship with the Earth. When you create a fictional character who deals with the planet, anyone will be drawn to read it, as it sounds less like moral instruction,” he says, adding that the book was conceived during the pandemic, in the spaces between his busy schedule working towards the containment of COVID-19.
Misra, who focussed on migrants during the pandemic, says, “It was a difficult time because, as a Government we were dealing with human liberty and how far we could impose rules. I used to go for long solo walks at the time, and that is how the idea for the book came about. It was written over six months.”
Vultures of Paradise traverses the world, beginning in the Balearic island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea, through the Black Forest of Germany, verdant hills of Africa and the populous plains of North India. It follows the story of Neha, the rich, lonely scion of a business family who tries to climb the pinnacle of the business world by taking on an unusual ecological enterprise that threatens the very people who created it.
The cultural, historical and geographical timelines of the book merge; the pendulum swings between the conservative societal mores of an Indian business family during the Raj and a more liberal lifestyle in Europe, decades later; between life during the Revolt of 1857 and the Communist uprisings in Spain; between the remote Himalayas and the fashionable streets of Milan.
Every chapter is a cliff hanger, where the lives of the characters fleetingly intersect, hurtling towards the prequel to the apocalypse.
Misra writes in terse prose, stripped of the adornment of dialogue, about environmental change, bitcoin and carbon credits as he balances human fragility while staring into an ecological abyss.
For this, Misra draws upon his eclectic childhood spent across India. “My father was in the Indian Air Force and I was born in Cuttack. My only long spell of schooling was at the Scindia School, Gwalior before I pursued a degree in Life Sciences at Hindu College, Delhi. I cleared my UPSC exams shortly after my Master’s, but it was a job offer from a tea company in the intervening period that first introduced me to South India,” says Misra, of the time when he travelled to Bengaluru and spent days on trains and nights in Railway retiring rooms, journeying to discover himself and an India his work would soon be part of. “I love to travel; my experience with Ship for World Youth helped hone my knowledge on culture.”
Misra’s tenure with the ministries of ports and transport helped him reduce the environmental impact of port operations, by offering greener fuel and introducing port electricity. It also led to a study of carbon footprints and a doctorate in the field.
Keen on authoring a play on RTI, Misra, who writes in long hand, says, “Writing is a lonely exercise. As you grow in service, it gets increasingly lonely at work too. I would like to write my next book seated in a cafe, surrounded by faces and voices.”