Surviving the shadowlands: Interview with Arati Kumar-Rao, artist and author of Marginlands

The author brings us stories of people who inhabit the most hostile corners of the subcontinent in her new book 

Updated - June 28, 2023 08:37 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2023 12:41 pm IST

Kabita Mandal waits for a crab to bite her line as the tide begins to rise around her in the Sundarbans.

Kabita Mandal waits for a crab to bite her line as the tide begins to rise around her in the Sundarbans. | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

Chhattar Singh draws water from the belly of a dune in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. In West Bengal, Tarikul bhai lost everything to the Ganga after the construction of a barrage and has rebuilt his life several times over. In the Sundarbans, a crab-hunter, Asit Mandal, shifted to farming after a tiger dragged him by the head ashore. Author, artist and photographer Arati Kumar-Rao, in her new book Marginlands, captures the tumultuous lives – both human and non-human – of those who inhabit the margins of the subcontinent.

In her travels across some of the most hostile environments, for which she often took personal loans and exhausted her savings, she has been fortunate to have sighted the endangered Indus dolphin in the Beas, its “teeth gleaming white through its trademark ‘smile’”, and saved herself, just in time, from toxic corals in Goa’s tidepools. In one chapter, Kumar-Rao recounts the distressing tale of a hilsa fisherman’s young son who was kidnapped by pirates in Bangladesh’s Sundarbans. The gangs, she is told, notoriously course the waters at night, armed with Chinese-made 0.22 rifles, looking to abduct fishermen they release for a ransom. The boy was freed nine days later, after his parents paid up 20,000 taka (approximately ₹15,000). 

Kumar-Rao, who has always been drawn to the imagery in the storytelling of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, believes in ‘long observations’; it takes her back multiple times to the places she has visited so she can “follow the lives of people I’ve come to know, who are intimately tied to those landscapes.” Edited excerpts from an interview:

Author Arati Kumar-Rao

Author Arati Kumar-Rao | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The personalities you’ve met reflect astonishing resilience: whether to destructive dykes in Assam, tarmac in Mumbai or the ravages of climate change in Ladakh. Which story has lingered the most with you?  

It’s hard to pick one. Each experience was so strong. I feel like I carry them within me. Perhaps the one person who influenced me deeply and early on, was Chhattar Singh. The way he saw the land and experienced it, his reverence for life-giving water and flora, his deep understanding of the desert’s rhythms and interconnectedness taught me how to read landscapes. Moreover, he was a man who never hurried; he took his time and allowed things to happen. That, I have come to realise, is the essence of harmony. The story of the desert’s water resilience is something that moved my core and schooled me in many ways. 

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

What draws you to life in the peripheries that journalism leaves largely unexplored? 

I’m guided by landscapes, by what plans we have for them, and by warnings that fall on deaf ears. I go to places not because they are already margins — they’re not — but because that is where these issues seem to be playing out. I follow trails, gather strings. And what becomes clear is that we seem to be systemically pushing large swathes of our society to the edge: a fallout of how we treat the land. In this age of the Anthropocene, with climate change upon us, the worst thing we can do is undermine the innate resilience of the land. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we end up doing. 

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

Can you describe your journey with Paul Salopek who set out on a 24,000-mile “experiment in slow journalism”? 

I met Paul at the Wagah border and we set off to walk through India, starting in Punjab and then into Rajasthan. He had walked out of Africa, in Ethiopia, through Turkey and the Caucasus, through the Stans and into Pakistan and arrived at India’s doorstep. Paul takes the walk seriously, there is no other kind of transport involved. We simply woke up every morning, hefted our backpacks, and walked. Walking teaches you to read the land with everything you have. Human interventions like the Harike Barrage and the green revolution have changed the landscape and livelihoods here; while walking along the canal that carries Himalayan waters of the Beas to the Thar we saw the changes and the pitfalls of such engineering quite plainly. 

A camel in the rain

A camel in the rain | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

Siang plains in Arunachal Pradesh

Siang plains in Arunachal Pradesh | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

How does the process of illustration and photography assist the stories you recall? 

Words, photos, art, sound… these are simply tools we all employ to tell stories. I’m not trained as an artist, I’m simply experimenting, teaching myself to see. Illustrating teaches you to observe closely, details photography tends to miss. Photography is all about seeing and feeling the quality of light. All of these are layers in a story. They have information. They allow me to see the story in different dimensions. I also use photography as a memory-enhancer, taking a lot of documentary shots, just so I remember how something looked at that time of the day. If there is a particular tool a fisherman is using, or some scene described that I find moving, I make a sketch in my notebook. All of this helps when I sit down to write. 

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

Has journalism shed a sufficient spotlight on urban ecology? You have spoken of citizens’ movements to save Bengaluru’s lakes from pollution and encroachment; of individuals monitoring Mumbai’s biodiverse coast. 

Many Indian cities have so much of their ecology in pretty good shape. Something we can preserve. There is so much scope for more citizen groups to document and preserve or restore these urban landscapes. We also have a huge opportunity to involve the right people in urban planning so we have more inclusive cities: cities that sustain and allow humans and non-humans to thrive. Not just journalism, how about tourism? How about walking nature tours in our own backyards? If we create these educational spaces within communities, we’ll gift ourselves the joy of reconnecting with the land. But for this all to happen, we need to slow down, turn away from the spotlight and begin to notice what’s in the shadows, in the quieter places. 

A secret river

A secret river | Photo Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

What projects do you have planned next?

Thanks to a grant from National Geographic Society, I will be setting off on a transect across the breadth of India — from Arunachal Pradesh to Kutch — documenting soundscapes, biodiversity, land-use change, livelihoods, migration, realities and aspirations of this slice of rural India.

divya.gandhi@thehindu.co.in

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