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April 25, 2007

Chat with Partapji

It was a rather cloudy afternoon and I didn’t want to miss out an opportunity to walk in the beautiful campus. So I headed out. A bunch of people were working on putting a fishing net on the drying platform so birds wouldn’t eat the grain that was put out to dry. I saw an older person with a flowing white beard working with them. I hadn’t seen him before. Soon Ananthu walked over and introduced me to him. He was Partap Aggarwal, another founding member. Some basic introductions and a mention of sustainable development ensued. Partapji immediately said there was nothing to development. All that mattered was for me to figure out what kind of life I would like to live. I had been expecting such a reaction from someone about the term development and here it was. It didn’t bother me. In fact, I couldn’t agree more with him. It was anyway an interesting way to start off a conversation. Soon I tagged along with Om, Ashwini and Partapji to check a point to dig a bore well. Om and Ashwini were working on clearing the area to provide some space for the machine and I started talking to Partapji.

He told me how this place was a dense forest only a few decades ago and how it is now very close to desertification. Left to him, I felt, he would have just let the place be with no human intervention. We got talking more about this and he said the current state was due to cultivation…organized farming. I had heard this opinion earlier from Bob Jensen but that occasion had not allowed further discussion. I wasn’t too happy to hear something negative about farming, with my current belief that small-scale farming is sustainable but was curious about his opinion on this matter. He simply said that the unsustainable cities we see and live in today are but a natural consequence of agriculture. Agriculture made it possible for hunter-gatherers to move towards hierarchical societies and cities are just a manifestation of this historical agricultural revolution. Our desire to control nature has resulted in us occupying enclosed spaces, cut off from nature. This has made us encourage highly unsustainable systems – systems that exploit nature, people and other forms of life.

So what happens next, I ask. Well, the system will collapse. All past civilizations have fallen and so will ours. The conversation was taking a turn towards the inevitable doomsday scenario, as I saw it, and I found myself resisting. He was calmly explaining why it was natural that such a cancerous system collapse. I said it did not sound optimistic. His response was that it could not be more optimistic than to hope that a tumor in your body collapses. Wouldn’t you want to get rid of the tumor as soon as possible, he asked me. I would rather hope we change how we live, I said. Which he immediately replied was exactly what he was talking about! Oh well, I guess so, I said but the whole inevitability is leaving a sense of despair in me. So I got a good pep talk.

P: There was nothing to be depressed about. The first thing is to realize that you are not running the world. That takes away most of the expectation and hence the depression.

A: That’s all alright, but if what I do does not matter in the larger scheme, why bother?

P: Just because you are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, it does not absolve you of responsibility. You need to work on doing the right thing, as you see it, but not be under any delusions that you are saving the world. Just the fact that you can even lead your life in the way you think it should be is important. You ought to feel privileged you are out visiting places and learning, whereas most people will never be able to do this.

A: Ok. But how do you then tackle forces like the SEZs?

P: Well, I don’t support them. And I think it is important for you to voice your opinion against them in whatever way you can. But don’t make your life a string of protests alone. You need to have something meaningful going on, something positive. If you are interested in living off the land, then that could be the source of your positive energy. Live on the land, try different sustainable ways of living. Provide people with an alternative so that when people listen to your protests and say ‘ok, what do you want us to do instead?’, you have something to show.

This got me thinking about how Bharathi Trust, Lok Samiti in Mehdiganj were all protesting different systems in the mainstream society but they were at the same time working on creating a society they want to live in. Bharathi Trust is doing this through its Resource Center. Lok Samiti has not only been fighting Coca Cola, they have also been working with the community in questioning certain social norms. They recently arranged group marriages for poor people who cant afford dowries, sending the message that one can find a partner in a simple, dignified manner.

Back to our chat. As long as we feel we need to control Nature, our efforts of small scale farming will not lead to much, he said. Only when we feel a part of Nature, will we able to listen and learn from her. So what does he think of natural farming. He said he had worked on it for 8 years at Rasulia and I was wondering where I had heard that before. Ah, he wrote the foreword for Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution! He answered in the positive and then the conversation turned towards his experience there. He believes that if you listen to Nature, you will not come up technologies that are unsustainable. You first need to realize that you are nothing. He mentioned Fukuoka’s spiritual experience that sent him on his quest of natural farming. The sun had set by then and we slowly walked back towards our rooms. It was a pleasure talking to this down-to-earth, 76 year old whose enthusiasm just rubs off on you.


Lori said...

As a teenager, I came to know Partap and his family, when he taught at Colgate University, in NY. His daughter and I were the best of friends. He and his family greatly influenced me, with such influences lasting all of my life. I was lucky enough to spend time with him, when he visited the US, last fall. He is one of the most fascinating and insightful people I have known in my life. I am planing my first trip to India, this summer...and Navarshanam is a MUST for me to visit. I enjoyed reading your posts, and enjoyed the photos, especially the photo of Partap.

Gaia said...

Thanks for leaving a comment for me Lori! I enjoyed spending time with Partapji. He is indeed a very fascinating person.

I hope you have a good trip in India. Do drop me a line if you are lost around Bangalore! =)