Her photographs are a eulogy to a planet on the brink.When a copy of Arati Kumar-Rao’s Marginlands landed on my desk, I wondered: could someone who is so adept with the visual craft also play magic with words? A few pages into the book, and I realised that if her pictures are a brushstroke, her words are definitely her sword. Kumar-Rao writes with searing clarity, weaving strands of history, prose, and science together into a compelling narrative.
Marginlands : Indian Landscapes on the Brink
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Marginlands does not weep; it shares the wisdom of ancient people and mixes their native language into the main story. As Kumar-Rao points out in the first chapter, it is not just the landscapes or creatures that are vanishing; even the words used to describe them are dying a slow death. Writers who celebrate nature will always get an easy audience. But write the tough story—of landscapes that have vanished, the traditional knowledge of pastoralists who have walked the desert, and the sellout to big projects—and it is a complex story to sell.
You could argue: in a world fraught with environmental disasters, who needs another reminder of dying species and a planet on the boil? Marginlands takes that risk, and in doing so offers us a front-seat view of the subtle yet tectonic changes taking place in ecosystems across the country.
A haunting account of dimishing landscapes
The book is a haunting account of landscapes that are diminishing mostly owing to human folly, failed government schemes, and exaggerated promises. And so Kumar-Rao follows the desert dweller who can construct a patali kuan [Artesian well] from a sand bowl in Rajasthan, and the shepherds, documenting their traditional wisdom of the land and the rapid changes it is undergoing.
The book is divided into five sections covering different landscapes from the hot desert in Rajasthan to the vast cold desert in Ladakh. Each chapter is a stark reminder of what is going wrong and its impact on the marginalised—not just the communities but also the species that cannot speak for themselves. The final section on cities brings the story closer home, when a casual spray of pesticides wipes out the bees and ants in her neighbourhood.
On every journey , the author immerses herself in the story. She is not a traveller or a mute observer; she throws herself into the rhythm of the land, seeking a deeper connection with the people. And so you meet Tarikulbhai in Malda in West Bengal and his painful story of a livelihood lost due to his land being swallowed by big development. Tarikulbhai shares stories of people who have had to move 17 times in two decades when the river swells up and whisks away homes.
You venture into the Sundarbans with Sunanda, who lost her father, her uncle, and then her husband to the tiger. Hundreds of women like Sunanda get labelled as “tiger widows”, who are shunned by society and ostracised into separate enclaves.
Slow journalism leads to beautiful poetry, and each chapter takes you close to the land and its people. There is perhaps only one chapter, “When the glaciers disappear”, that I found a bit predictable. Kumar-Rao writes of her meetings with Sonam Wangchuk, a celebrity who has been immortalised by a Bollywood film that was loosely based on his life. Wangchuk’s seminal work in building artificial glaciers has been well documented. Those were the only parts of the book I found myself skimming over.
“I would urge you to read this book as it creates a space for nature writing that goes beyond poetry. This is bold writing.”
Fortuitously, the story moves on, and Kumar-Rao turns her lens on more recent problems that are not so well known, such as the presence of dogs in this fragile ecosystem. The dogs are thriving due to an unregulated tourism industry that has, in turn, brought in food waste to the roof of the world. The dogs disturb local biodiversity such as the black-necked cranes, already reduced to small numbers.
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There are other chapters where Kumar-Rao minces no words in naming power companies that have caused landscapes to be further pushed to the brink, and big development projects that have disenfranchised communities. Where others use their camera to show the might of the tiger and the joy of the safari, Kumar-Rao paints her words on a dark slate, a world on the edge but tarred by greedy contractors, large government schemes that create a chimera of “development” but are far from it. Kumar-Rao describes the painful beauty of this natural world through the heart-rending story of an Indus dolphin with its calf and the “addictive” experience of dolphin watching.
The pencil sketches add to that feeling of a world teetering on the edge. I would urge you to read this book as it creates a space for nature writing that goes beyond poetry. This is bold writing.
Bahar Dutt is a journalist, author and Associate Professor at the Shiv Nadar University.