Here in the West, the same tale is told as the story of four ages. The primal unity, in this case, is represented by the Golden Age, long in the past, in which humans lived in balance with the world. The subsequent degradation moves downward through Silver and Bronze ages to our own Iron Age, a time again of egoism and strife. This in turn is mirrored by the fulcrum-story of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the myth of the Fall. Again, we hear of a time in which humans lived in deep communion with God and with Earth, in a garden no less. We could have stayed there for eternity, but there is something in us, some thorn, that will not grow that way. We wanted more, we wanted knowledge and power, we wanted to beat God at His own game. We were banished from the garden, and now we wander as exiles, torn between pleading to be let back in and defiantly building our own, better home here on Earth: a genetically-modified smart garden, arranged entirely around our own self-love.
Eden is fascinating to me. I think that this four-thousand-year-old Biblical myth tells us more about ourselves than we would like to admit. In his novel Ishmael, Daniel Quinn frames the story of the Fall as a narrative of the human shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture. The primal garden, claims the narrator, is a fragmentary, mythologised version of the world before farming. The Middle East – the ‘fertile crescent’ in which the Biblical peoples lived – was one of the first centres of agriculture on Earth, but agriculture can only flourish when roaming cultures are replaced by sedentary ones. This replacement usually happens by force, as tribal cultures are displaced, their lands seized and turned over to fields and livestock. Eden, in this telling, is not myth but prehistory: a dim memory of a time when humans really did live in some form of communion with the rest of nature, before farming transformed the non-human world into a product line, and we were exiled forever by our decision to choose control over acceptance.
During my time running the Dark Mountain Project, from 2009 to 2017, we were always on the lookout for writing from beyond the usual quarters, the usual quarters being the pens of middle-class Euro-American cultural outsiders like myself. Not that there’s anything wrong with what flows from these pens, necessarily, but any publication will be limited by its own cultural milieu unless it tries to look beyond it, which is harder than it might sound. What interested me then, and still does, is a simple question: where can we find writers who could paint a picture of the world beyond our tired Occidental stories, whether the mainstream stories of progress’n’growth or the well-worn counter-cultural ruts of ‘resistance’, ‘social justice’ and a more egalitarian version of megacity machine living? And in particular, my ongoing question: are there any writers out there who can point the way back to the garden?
The more I thought about these questions, and the more we failed to find many people who could answer them, the more I began to realise that my founding assumptions were wrong. Going out into the world looking for ‘uncivilised writing’ is after all, as the more perceptive critics of our manifesto pointed out in the early days, something of a tautology. What’s more civilised than writing? Written language, as I wrote (irony alert) in my recent book Savage Gods, is one of the supporting pillars of civilisation. Voices which really represent an alternative to the over-civilised way of seeing that is eating the Earth are unlikely to be written in globalised English prose, and may not be written down at all.
So where to find them? Are they to be found, and do they even want to be? Should they be? A few years back, the writer Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement, suggested to me that stories told by non-human voices are rarely if ever found in contemporary prose, especially in Western fiction, because it is simply unequipped for the job of representing much outside the individuated human mind. You can find those voices though, he said, in ancient Indian poetry. Reflecting on that, I thought of the fairytales of old Europe, in which the woods are alive with magic and witchcraft and unknown beasts and talking animals, and the boundary between the world of humans, the world of nature and the world of spirit is always thin if it exists at all.
What is it that these old stories have that modern ones do not? What are we missing – or what do we need to let go of in order to hear?
What is it that these old stories have that modern ones do not? What are we missing – or what do we need to let go of in order to hear?
The best answer that I ever found came from a modest Indian man whose surname I still do not know, despite having corresponded with him, and published him, for years. I can’t remember how we came across Narendra, or whether he came across us, but when I look back now I think that his writings were some of the most important that Dark Mountain ever published.
All that I know about Narendra comes from his writing, and he gives little of his story away there. For years, he has been recording his impressions in a series of email ‘dispatches’, which he sends round to a handful of friends and acquaintances on an occasional basis. His dispatches record his long association with, and his impressions of, the Adivasi (tribal) communities of the Bastar region of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Our books were the first place his writings were published outside India; I’m not sure they had ever been published anywhere before. This is one reason, though not the only one, why I am excited that HarperCollins India has seen fit to publish two collections of his life’s writings: Bastar Dispatches and A Sense of Home.
From 1980 until 2013, Narendra lived in and then visited the remote Abujhmad region of Bastar, one of the last bastions of traditional Adivasi people in India. When he first visited, the region was virtually untouched by the outside world. There were none of the intrusions of the modern state – schools, roads, sewage systems, taxes, ideologies and the rest. The dialect had no more than 500 words, and people still counted no higher than five. ‘The more interior villages’, writes Narendra, ‘had not known the impact of the wheel.’ The region had ‘neither trade nor industry, commerce, occupation or other modern apparatus,’ he explains. Perhaps not coincidentally, ‘neither was there hunger, starvation, beggary or lingering disease.’ The people lived in tiny bamboo and thatch huts, but their real home was the land itself. When Narendra asked one Adivasi why they didn’t build bigger homes, given all the land available to them, he didn’t understand the question. ‘This is our home’, he said, indicating the forest itself.
Perhaps this is the first lesson. The Adivasis of Abujhmad did not live ‘close to the land.’ They were the land. The conceptual understanding of the world which Western people, whether imperious progressives or dreamy Romantics, might wish to impose on their life will inevitably be wrong, because there is no ‘conceptual understanding’, there is only being. The word that Narendra uses again and again to refer to the spirit of Abujhmad is ‘inscrutable.’ Even after four decades, he cannot get to the true heart of the Adivasi understanding of the world. There is a ‘stalemate’ in the language outsiders use about Adivasis, writes Narendra. ‘Such dissonances occur when referants for an ancient community come from modern categories such as state, progress, democracy, development, economics, governance, market, equality, ecology and the rest. They have little or no echo in the Adivasi’s experience and memory.’
This is the second lesson which Narendra’s writing teaches: no matter how many questions an outsider asks, they will never receive a satisfactory answer, because the questions themselves come from a frame of reference which, to the Adivasi, makes no sense. Bastar Dispatches contains some profound and often very funny passages of dialogue in which Narendra, in anthropological mode, asks various Abujhmadias why they are doing something, only to receive a series of koans in reply. On one occasion he meets an Adivasi sitting in an empty shop during a festival. Surprised to see an Adivasi shopkeeper – commerce had not yet penetrated Bastar – he asks him if it is his shop. It turns out it is not his shop, he is not minding it, he has no idea whose shop it is or where they are, and he has no intention of buying anything from it. Then what are you doing here? asks Narendra. ‘I just came and sat some time ago,’ says the man.
The problem with this kind of interrogation, Narendra realises, is not the confusing non-answers, but the questions themselves. ‘I – as a modern man – have far too many questions seeking far too many answers…When one does not have many questions, or seek many answers, one addresses life differently.’
This is probably the key to living in the garden: not asking questions. The simplicity, and the acceptance, of Abujhmad life is on beautiful display in these books. The religious festivals, the act of gathering water from the well, the bamboo huts, the tigers in the forests, the monsoons, the hermits, the aimless walks and conversations – all of it adds up to a picture of a place that just is. It is not going anywhere, it has no goals, nothing is wrong that must be fixed. This is the third lesson: living in any degree of harmony with the world requires acceptance: something which we Western people, surely, can never attain, our whole culture being built on a refusal to accept anything at all that we cannot change or explain or define in words. Limits, says Narendra, are the key to the deep peace of Abujhmad: ‘the Abujhmadia’s intent is to stay within such limits; not conquest and supremacy.’ Once limits become borders to be broken through, rather than sacred boundaries to exist within, the cycle downwards has surely begun.
To read these two books is to be immersed in a world whose values, whose understanding, whose way of living is so alien, because so ancient and primal, that the stories are both heartbreaking and inspirational. Inspirational because can see that a true human life is, after all, possible. Heartbreaking because it is so far from us, and because it is rapidly being destroyed by the forces of the Indian State, Maoist insurgents, Western NGOs, the World Bank and all the usual panoply of outsiders who, in their various ways, have nothing but contempt for the chosen limits of Adivasi life.
What is that life? It is above all, an Adivasi from the village of Gond tells Narendra, ‘being located in ones’s landscape.’ This is the ‘primary ingredient for love, warmth, generosity, freedom and good governance.’ Abujhmad, says the Adivasi, in a moving passage, has always been a welcoming place: but now there are intruders who are not welcome, or welcoming in turn:
Since time immemorial, outsiders have come and settled here, adopting our ways of living and dying. We have shared our land, forest, water, home and hearth with them … They belong to Bastar as much as we do. Now there is a large-scale intrusion of another kind, of outsiders attached to an axis of power. He extracts, controls and exports profits. He has come and yoked Bastar to the global corporate chain. For him, being located in a definite landscape, memory or its ethos and values is not the reference point wherefrom life and its measures are ascertained. He comes from an axis of dislocation and discontinuity.
Lesson number four: it’s not where you come from that matters, but how you live in a place. If there is a line to be drawn, it is not to be drawn between ethnicities, nations, religions or tribes, but between the dislocated and the located: between those who put down roots and nurture a place and its people, and those, whether Maoists or marketeers, activists or missionaries, who see a truly wild community as a product to be exploited, or a staging post on the road to utopia. ‘Abujhmad is not in search of some utopia’, writes Narendra. ‘It never lost itself.’
Lesson number four: it’s not where you come from that matters, but how you live in a place. If there is a line to be drawn, it is not to be drawn between ethnicities, nations, religions or tribes, but between the dislocated and the located
Narendra continues to write his dispatches, and send them round to his small circle of contacts. One pinged into my inbox just this morning. He insists, as he always has, that he has no expertise and nothing special to say about these people and their lands. His writing ‘is of a meagre kind’, he says, ‘and would have negligible value or relevance in these times.’ I disagree. I think his writing is some of the most important you could read, and that his own agenda-free modesty is one of the reasons for that. Narendra is not trying to sell you anything, or to push some worldview onto you. Until very recently, he has had no expectation of his work even being read by more than a few dozen people. He is simply trying to work his way to the heart of his inscrutable place, knowing that he, and not the Adivasi, is the one in need of help.
‘Without a home’, he writes of the Adivasi in his tiny, sparse hut, ‘he is at home – like the trees, hills and horizons. Man outside is the only one who is homeless, and cannot find one amidst societies, processes and institutions that were meant to secure it. He has lost the way home and even the sense of home. It is as if he has been affected by the Tarin Taan plant that causes temporary amnesia and illusion. If one grazes past, one remembers neither home nor hearth, nor the ways to reach them.’
You can read some of Narendra’s dispatches published by Dark Mountain here
Bastar Dispatches and A Sense of Home by Narendra are published by HarperCollins India