Mother earth tales

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Women belonging to the "hargila army" at a meeting organised by a local conservation group to save the adjutant stork at Dadara village west of Guwahati. The bird is called hargil in Assamese. The women sing hymns and weave scarves and other items on their handlooms with the motif of the bird in order to create awareness about the need to protect the species. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

The book draws a connection between women and ecology through folk tales from all over India incorporating tribal world views and offers the double perspective of the Gaian earth body and the subjugation of the subaltern.

THE book Nature, Culture and Gender: Re-reading the folktale (2016) by P. Mary Vidya Porselvi is a rich compendium of Gaia-centric folk tales that interweave holistic ecofeminist perspectives using the methodology of narrative scholarship. The book helps the reader make the connection between women and ecology and brings home the truth of Judith Plant’s powerful observation: “The rape of the earth, in all its forms, becomes a metaphor for the rape of the woman, in all its many guises. In layer after layer, a truly sick society is revealed, a society of alienated relationships all linked to a rationalisation that separates ‘man’ from nature” (page 5).

The eclectic “mother earth discourses” in this book demonstrate the need for the communal sharing of stories. To quote eco-critic Ian Marshall: “We tell stories because we see sense in the feminist argument that the personal is the political…. We tell stories because they bring thoughts and theories back to earth.” The book uses the genre distinctions of ancient Sangam literature—the aham (inner space/home) and puram (the outer space/world) to classify folk tales. Nature, Culture and Gender provides alternative ways of looking at folklore discourse and employs the woman-nature lore as a tool to raise earth-consciousness. In her foreword, the environmental activist Vandana Shiva observes that this book “creates another discourse—richer, non violent, more diverse and more inclusive. It reclaims the sacred in our daily lives” (viii).

Shared concerns

Although ecofeminism is a multi-stranded philosophy, Mary Vidya Porselvi defines it holistically by affirming and valuing woman-nature relationships on the one hand and the nature-culture continuum on the other. The author recognises shared concerns between women, nature and other subalternised groups by situating both human and non-human actors in the matrix of an enspirited, spiritual earth that is replete with intrinsic values. The book invokes the organic perception of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, of the earth as a single organism in which both the organic and inorganic components function as a complex, self-regulating mechanism to sustain and further conditions for life on the planet.

The folk tales in this book are classified under innovative titles such as “Isis Panthea”, “Amma-I-Appan”, “Her-Meta”, “Athena’s Wit”, “Woody-Woman”, “Vana-Devi”, “Tellus-Ma”, “Aqua-Stree”, “Aves-Eve” and “Fauna-Fem”.

These motifs of the folk tales map a broad spectrum of the woman-nature relationships. The Isis Panthea tales are creation stories that foreground woman’s relationship with nature as one that is characterised by a sense of power, contentment and obedience. The Amma-I-Appan tales emphasise the importance of respecting man and woman alike in order to cultivate what ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant refers to as “partnership ethics”—the greatest good for men, women and non-human beings which lies in “mutual living interdependence” (page 191). The Her-Meta folk tales raise interesting questions about the silence of women and the implication of woman’s language for the environment. The Athena’s Wit collection powerfully invokes the triad of Shakthi-Ahimsa-Shanti (power-non-violence-peace), thereby offering a vision of a democratic space wherein the environment offers a woman the right to expression and harmonious relationships. The Annamangai oral tales offer a dazzling variety of perspectives on women who as custodians of food preside over its transformation from the raw to the cooked stage. There are folk tales that accentuate nurture, sharing and love, and also other tales that “showcase food as a source of conflict, crisis and a tool of power politics” (page 89). The Woody-Woman and Vana-Devi tales narrate the close bonds between trees and women, the common ties they share as agents of nurture and also the ways in which they are exploited by a patriarchal consumerist society. The mythopoeic imagination embodied in the folk tales brings to mind non-violent forest conservation movements such as the Chipko movement in which women were at the forefront.

The Tellus-Ma (“tell-us-ma”) tales voice ecological concerns related to land and the soil, whereas the Aqua-Stree tales detail women’s self-individuation in the face of obstacles that symbolically takes place in the vicinity of a flowing river. These tales talk about the myriad ways in which women care for life by foregrounding the relationship between women and waterbodies in natural environments. The Aves-Eve tales celebrate the relationship between women and birds and affirm the core tenets of the Animal Manifesto propounded by Marc Bekoff, which declares that all non-human beings have intrinsic value. This chapter contains striking modern-day parables such as “The Girl Who Understood the Birds” in which the female protagonist, a medium of communication between the world of humans and nature, is able to warn others of changes in weather patterns owing to the expertise she has in the language of birds.

Another folk tale titled “Where Do the Sparrows Live?” draws the reader’s attention to the disappearance of house sparrows in India as a result of the impact of radiation from ubiquitous mobile towers. The woman-animal connection is further explored in the Fauna-Fem stories, which can be read as “parables, fables or allegory, with animal characters representing the world views and consciousness of the native storytellers”(page 158). These folk tales have a strong advocacy function and raise powerful questions about reversing anthropocentric world views. These basic rubrics accentuate what the writer refers to as a “Bhoomi register”—the topical register that is found in the language of indigenous people when they voice their concern for the earth. The book connects folk tales from all over India, incorporates tribal world views and also does the admirable task of connecting the local with the global.

The alter tales presented in the book offer a cornucopia of world views that question the invisibilisation of women in a patriarchal society and also discuss women’s concerns ranging from menstruation, puberty, childbirth to abortion and other issues. However, the reader is also simultaneously provided the double perspective of the Gaian earth body and is asked to make the connection between the instrumentalised earth body and the subjugation of the subaltern classes and inferiorised women.

Aham-Puram poetics

These stories bridge the classical divide between the aham and the puram by proposing a new ahampuram poetics that points to the inseparability of nature and culture in relationships that are both biophysically and socially formed. With the emergence of environmental humanities and its widening fields of inquiry, this book will resonate with other approaches such as animal studies, participatory epistemology, care theory, biodiversity and new materialism, among others.

Written in a lucid and elegant style, Nature, Culture and Gender brings home the essence of Vandana Shiva’s Earth Democracy. In this alternative world view, “we are connected to each other through love, compassion, not hatred and violence and ecological responsibility and economic justice replaces greed, consumerism and competition as objectives of human life”.

Swarnalatha Rangarajan is professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

References

Bekoff, Marc (2010): The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, Novato: New World Library.

Marshall, Ian: “Why Ecocritics Tell Stories”, https://goo.gl/B6fM8y

Merchant, Carolyn (2003): Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western

Culture, New York: Routledge.

Plant, Judith (ed.) (1989): Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism,

Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Shiva, Vandana: “Earth Democracy”, http://www.navdanya.org/earth-democracy

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