Of poetry and tigers

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

Ruth Padel: "The more we understand an animal's point of view, the more we can respect them and understand their needs."-VIVEK BENDRE

Ruth Padel: "The more we understand an animal's point of view, the more we can respect them and understand their needs."-VIVEK BENDRE

Interview with Ruth Padel, British writer.

HER writing speaks volumes about her her spirit of adventure, sensitivity to languages, fascination with myth and tradition, respect for cultures. Her work has the solid bedrock of science and scientific information, yet it is presented with the eye, ear, feel and imagination of someone who is primarily a gifted wordsmith.

This is Ruth Padel, the 63-year-old prize-winning British poet and writer. She is also a respected academic, a popular broadcaster and an authority on Greek myth, opera and rock music. Her first two prose books were In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self and Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness. They delved into the minds of the ancient Greeks and explored ideas about the mind and madness. She began her academic career as a classicist, having studied Greek in Oxford, Berlin and Paris. She later taught Greek at Oxford, Cambridge and Princeton. Among her best known non-fiction works are 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey, two books on reading contemporary poems which were written for a wide range of readers.

She has a great love for nature something one would expect from a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin and of late has incorporated this into her writing. In Tigers in Red Weather, an eco-travel book published in 2005, she uses her love of science and draws on her Darwinian ancestry while wandering in the forests of Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Thailand to understand and report in her unique style on what humankind is doing to tigers.

It took a while for her creative side to get in touch with her ancestry. She says that until she started work on tigers she had not noticed how Darwin had influenced her. Ever since the realisation struck, she has written quite a bit about her illustrious ancestor. In 2009, she wrote Darwin A Life in Poems, a mini-biography in lyric verse; it looks at his science, travels and family life. Ruth Padel's maternal grandmother, Nora Barlow, was Darwin's granddaughter and she was responsible for editing his autobiography and letters and starting the Darwin archive at Cambridge. Padel's website also has some essays on Darwin.

Her book of poems The Soho Leopard, published in 2004, was influenced by Darwin's understanding of the interdependence of all forms of life. Her debut novel, Where the Serpent Lives, published this year, is set in London and India and blends literature and science. She is at present working on a prose-and-poetry book on migration and immigration and collaborating with the composer Michael Zev Gordon on a choral work, Music from the Genome, which uses words, music and science to explore the possibility of a gene for musicality.

In Mumbai to give a lecture on literature and science at the Bombay Natural History Society, she spoke to Frontline about the new influences in her writing.

You speak of divinity of nature with great ease and a lack of self-consciousness. What are the general reactions to it when you speak, for instance, of the polite tiger [from a story in Tigers in Red Weather, in which an old man who lives in a forest explains that if one is courteous to tigers there is no need to be afraid of them because they will return the courtesy]?

It's part of my work and my attitude. The polite tiger!... well, people are interested, though of course all audiences are different. It stems from the need to understand things from the animal's point of view. For example, if I am looking at this book I see about 60 images of this in one second. A dog will see many more. It's called the flicker fusion rate, and a dog will see more of this in one second than I will. And that's a very interesting image for how animals see the world they see the world differently. And the more we understand an animal's point of view, the more we can respect them and understand their needs. With the tiger, for example all it needs is to be in a forest, to eat enough, to bring up children it needs to be left alone.

Addressing this issue of human arrogance the we-know-what's-best-for-all-species attitude does this generally accepted perspective not make it all the more difficult for conservationists to put across the view that there should be respect for all forms of life?

It is. That's true. It's very interesting the whole debate about Darwin last year and the mad creationists in America, and so on. I think emotionally what they minded about what Darwin did was stopping seeing humans as the centre of the world and asserting that humans are only part of nature only a part of the world, and I think that some people find that infuriating and upsetting. Their narcissism is upset, if you like. So this narcissism can make it very, very hard for the conservation movement. Also, in India the conservation movement is divided because the enemies, if you like, of conservation are the miners, the loggers, the people who want to make money out of the land on which the tigers and all the other animals are. But there is a conflict in India between people people' and animal people'. This is tragic because they have the same enemies and the enemies are the miners, the loggers the people who displace people are the same enemies that the conservationists are facing. But they've managed a sort of divide and rule. If only the people people' and the animal people' could join forces they would be much stronger against the vested interests. It's tragic.

You talked about China. How some sections of the Chinese have gone from painting and worshipping tigers to killing them. India also has a strong tradition of animal worship and living close to nature. Consumerism is catching up everywhere. Is it making people enemies of animals in India, and how far are we from becoming what China has become today?

When I went to China I nearly had a nervous breakdown. The poets were wonderful, but the conservationists in China are fighting desperately against a huge system of corruption. There is also this attitude that nature is there purely to be used. The Chinese have a saying We eat everything with four legs except a table; we eat everything with wings except an aeroplane and so everything is eaten. The Chinese think of nature as something to control foot-binding things like that or the panda they like to think that this animal would actually be much happier in a nice clean cage rather than out in the cold woods, that's their attitude it's a prevalent attitude. There are some wonderful conservationists trying very hard, and some wonderful scientists, but they are fighting against all sorts of things.

I went to a South China tiger reserve where there were clearly no tigers. I don't think India could ever become like China. I also try to understand the history of the people wherever I went. China had the dyke-makers the people who stopped the flooding of the Yellow River every year. They were the heroes. So the history goes right back to say that nature is to be controlled. And in India I think it's different. There's a wonderful outfit called Wildlife First in Karnataka and they have a fantastic system across Karnataka of encouraging the young, showing them the forest, showing them how things really are in the forest. When you say love Nature there are lots of different ways of doing that. For instance, in one of the parks there is a little shrine. Ten years ago it was just a little shrine where people were putting flowers.

Gradually people came, things sprang up around it and more and more things were built around it, a road was built to it. All that is actually destroying nature because it is bringing people into the park in that way. So somebody having a good feeling about being in nature is not the same as understanding what nature means.

How different is the human-animal relationship here from what you have observed in the West?

In my novel Where the Serpent Lives the worst part of animal cruelty happens where I live in England where there is a scene of badger killing. It has been a criminal sport since medieval times. Since the unfortunate badger just evolved never to give up when it fights, so men can make a sport of that... so they set the dogs on it... they hammer a badger's foot to the floor and set three dogs to biting it. It's horrible to think about that but I wanted to put that in. There are passages of poaching and things in Indian poetry, but poaching is done for money, greed and hunger sometimes there are hundreds of thousands of rural poor who are desperate. But in England it's done for sport. And I wanted to make that difference.

Is this a new shift for you... for your poetry and writing to incorporate current topics like conservation?

It came to me through tigers really. Tigers are a burning issue here all the time. In Britain it's not. Conservation is seen as one thing and the British media have an obsession with balancing one thing against another. A journalist actually said to me, Oh you're writing a book about tigers. Are you going to write it from a conservation point of view or are you going to be more objective? And I said, What do you mean by objective? Do you think that the science of what is happening to the tigers is not objectively done? He didn't know what I meant. What he meant was that you've got to have another point of view. The British media are like that. And you know, there is no other point of view. You either have tigers or you don't.

George Schaller, the naturalist, has said, Obviously humans are evolution's greatest mistake. To atone in a very small way, we need to help maintain all the diversity we can. Who are we to judge what is expendable? What do you think of this?

Well, it's a great pity that we evolved from the point of view of the rest of the world. We are a parasite on the face of the earth. Schaller, more than anybody, has seen all over Asia all over the world there is a great dying, and we are causing the deaths. We are causing quicker extinctions than the meteorite that caused the dinosaurs to die out.

As a writer what can you do about this?

I don't know. All I can be is a witness. I'm very concerned with the next generation my daughter's 24 that we don't just give them pessimism. We give them ways to help. When I went all around Asia and I asked people how they feel about what's happening [to forests, animals] they all had different answers but one answer was from a wildlife vet, and he said Well, you have a choice you either do some thing or you do nothing.' And I know what I decided I decided to do something. So you do what you can. I write and do what I can through my writing.

Now I'm writing a book about migration and human immigration, and I want to put it all in the context of migrationthe world's first cell however it came herewe don't know how it came herebut it was a little cell, and it was blue-green algae, and it spread. And that was it you know, the world was made by migration and people who are against immigration human immigration have to see things in the context that migration makes the world. It's made the world throughout history. And it makes the world biologically. The migration of birds every year from Asia to the Himalayas, from Africa to Europe or down to the Americas or up again that is the great heartbeat of the planet. We are part of the world, and who are we to judge what is expendable when, if the animals go, we go?

When did science come into your writing?

It started really when [I wrote] this book A Soho Leopard, which was a book of poems I wrote at the same time I wrote the tiger book. And there is a poem there about alligators. I wanted to write about animals from the point of view of science. Hence this poem about the alligator's great need and great desire to be thermally stable. Poetry should be able to be about anything.

It's just that we are so conditioned to think poetry is...

Yes, about poetic subjects. I hate that word poetic'. It suggests that poetry has a very small province which is pretty. Instead of anthropomorphising the animals, I want to find ways in which we can relate to the animal's strategies for survival.

Yes, in your stories you do stay away from the typical cute' image of animals. Your stories are just like another point of view being put forward about another living being.


In Where the Serpent Lives you talked about an autorickshaw driver who was also a snake catcher in Mysore and how the next generation may not take this up. We have all grown up with communities like that, but we have moved away from them. We don't even know what has happened to them even though at one time we used to exist along with them. Once this chain of people who exist in between us and the animals is broken, what is likely to happen?

I don't know. In England a parallel is perhaps craft. There are traditional skills in the English countryside of making thatched roofs or making things which are now made cheaper in China and so those skills are going. We do live in a frightening time of disjunctions between what is natural. I don't know really know the answer. Ullas Karanth and Valmik Thapar both feel that if part of the forest service could be a proper wildlife wing then they could enlist the help of the local people who still know the animals, who, at the moment, are paid by poachers to tell them where the tigers are.

If you enlist them, pay them enough, protect them so that they are on your side and protected against the poachers, that would be the best thing. As you say, it is about involving peopleit is always involving peopleoften the people who have been marginalised by capitalist society.

In medieval times there was an unusual practice of treating all living beings as equal. There is this documented anecdote of a farmer approaching the Church to complain about the locusts that had demolished his crops. And the Church responded saying that he will be given a hearing but so would the locusts and a lawyer was appointed on behalf of the locusts.

That is fascinating if only that could come back! The thing is that animals don't have votes, and so it doesn't pay to protect the forest or the tigers, that is the problem it doesn't pay and so they have no voice.

And that explains their current position.

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