Bark, sky, earth

Published: Tue, 04/14/2009 - 06:39 Updated: Wed, 07/01/2015 - 07:47

Amit Sengupta Delhi         

In a beautiful book on ecology and its sublime relationship with human history, with filtered sunshine through leaves, night springs, winter rains, summer storms, poetry, memory, story (Between the Earth and the Sky, Penguin), Smitu Kothari wrote an extraordinary essay, Evolutionary Struggles: The Forest as a Site of Regeneration and Resistance. He excerpted an extract from the creation myth of the Hill Miri in Verrier Elwin's Myths of the North-East Frontier of India:

Everything was water - water as far as the eye could see. But above the water rose the tree Teri-Ramula. As time passed a worm was born in the tree and it began to eat the wood. The dust fell in the water, year after year, until slowly, the world was formed. Then, at last, the tree fell to the ground. The bark on the lower side of the trunk became the skin of the world; the bark of the upper side became the skin of the sky. The trunk itself turned into rock. The branches became the hills...

Now, that he has become bark and sky and earth, and now that the saline waters are still soaked inside the eyes and hearts of his father, wife, brothers, friends, strangers and comrades, it's the tree of life which must hold his eyes and his mind, like leaves, flowers and seeds, as his legacy of regeneration, retreat and resistance. It's a legacy which works through complex ideas and enters the fingers of the poorest in the margins and those who worship nature like the river worships the stone, the shore worships the river, the folk worships the narrative. In this resistance, lies a hundred thousand slogans and songs of the women of Narmada Valley, the adivasis of Kalinganagar, Kashipur and Niyamgiri, and the people of the forests and the village by-lanes, richer in inner thought, imagination and image, working hard to preserve this ancient existential realm, becoming forest and land, blood and tears at the same time.

Like a book which becomes a weapon, like a flower which becomes graffiti, Smitu Kothari's humanism broke the bloated and egoistic barriers of artificial intellectual cobwebs, and resurrected the organic intellectual in flesh and blood, with a heart which would forever beat for the struggles of the margins, and a soul dreaming of a dawn of equality and justice which must arrive one day. More than that, he inherited the non-dogmatic, non-violent traditions of inclusive synthesis and assimilations, as open-ended as windows and doors of perceptions, opening up for new rainbows of revelations, never reductionist, forever critical, self-critical, on the side of doubt, clarity, truth and justice.

Besides, the intellectual depth and rigour stretched the academic threshold, became integrated to the complex threads and webs of life, grappling with new ideas, visions, frames of references and footnotes, not allowing lethargy, indifference or insensitivity to drug him to sleep. His vast body of work proves that. His protracted integration with the people's movements proves that. His body of humanism proves that.

That is why he remains, in memory and meaning, his black and white beard flowing, his eyes melancholy and laughing at the same time, human, all too human, like an idea which should have lived as life affirmation for many, many more years. Life is ephemeral. We must all evaporate one day. But, even death must wait when face to face with such simplicity and goodness. And a mind so fine. Like a tree: bark, sky and earth.

Scholar, author and activist Smitu Kothari passed away early morning on March 23, 2009, 6 am. He died of a cardiac attack after having undergone a heart surgery one day before at AIIMS in Delhi.  Smitu was attending a Delhi Solidarity Group meeting with Himalaya Niti Abhiyan to discuss support for the people's struggles in Himachal Pradesh against displacement, mining and environmental destruction on the afternoon of March 20, when he had a cardiac attack.


He has been a visiting Professor at Cornell and Princeton Universities. He was a Contributing Editor of The Ecologist and of Development. He has extensively published critiques of contemporary economic and cultural development, the relationship of nature, culture and democracy, developmental displacement, people's governance and social movements. Among the books he has edited are: Voices of Struggle. Social Movements in Asia (2006); Voices of Sanity, In Search of Democratic Space (2002); A Watershed in Global Governance? An Independent Assessment of the World Commission on Dams; The Value of Nature: Ecological Politics in India (2003); Out of the Nuclear Shadow (with Zia Mian, 2001); Rethinking Human Rights: Challenges for Theory and Action (1991); and, The Non-Party Political Process: Uncertain Alternatives (with H. Sethi, 1988); He was currently working on a new book, Ecological Justice: Nature, Culture and Democracy.

A Tribute to Smitu Kothari Amit Sengupta Delhi

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