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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 457-460

Book Review 1

S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Fellow, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-2308, USA

Correspondence Address:
Amita Baviskar
S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Fellow, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-2308
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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Baviskar A. Book Review 1. Conservat Soc 2004;2:457-60

How to cite this URL:
Baviskar A. Book Review 1. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 May 29];2:457-60. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2004/2/2/457/55825

Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar, In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002, 403 pp., Rs 695. ISBN: 019-566197-4.

Straddling the nature.culture divide, the environment seems to demand interdisciplinary understanding. Material biophysical processes are mixed with the sediment of human labour, both physical and imaginative, in ways that are hard to separate. The meaningful effects of ecological changes such as deforestation can only be understood as the cultural products of political economy, the unequal, contested terrain that shapes social being and action. No surprise then that the most insightful contributions to studies of the environment have come from scholars whose work fuses disciplinary strengths or, at least, emerges in dialogue with other disciplines. The rewards of working with anthropology and history are manifest in the rich scholarship of David Hardiman on property regimes and water in western India, K. Sivaramakrishnan on modern forestry in Bengal, Nandini Sundar on colonial and post-colonial rule in the forests of Bastar, and Ajay Skaria on the negotiation of tribal identities in the Dangs in Gujarat. These scholars combine historical and anthropological theory as well as method. Historians Hardiman and Skaria draw upon oral narratives, while anthropologists Sivaramakrishnan and Sundar delve into a different archive.memory maintained in state documents. In seeking clarity on questions of power and knowledge, natural resources and cultural identities, most of these .fruitful journeys. (to borrow the title of Gold.s previous book on pilgrimage) have travelled via the field of subaltern studies, with its promise of darshan through grounded analyses of philosophical issues such as consciousness and agency, hegemony and resistance.

Gold and Gujar.s book In the Time of Trees and Sorrows is also routed through subaltern studies; its project is to articulate .voices from under a stone. (p. 14), the submerged narratives of poor men and women in the tiny former kingdom of Sawar in district Ajmer, Rajasthan. These tales trace the decline of Sawar.s jungle to conjoined natural and social transformations that are complex and contradictory. .In Sawar, the time of nature.s abundance was also the time of abundant sorrows endured under the rule of kings who protected the trees. (p. 14). In this recollection of .the past of nature and the nature of the past. . . we hear appraisals from below of power.s workings, framed sometimes in terms of helplessness but incorporating astute understandings of the structural conditions under which that helplessness is perpetuated. (p. 16). Through interviews, supported by ethnographic description, Gold and Gujar evoke memories, exploring history.s terrain with the tools of anthropology.

Yet Gold and Gujar also distance their project from the theoretical ambitions that inform most studies in subaltern history:

Our framing question is straightforwardly descriptive: What was it like for poor farmers and herders and labourers during the time of kings? All that we learned in this regard emerged from a prior inquiry: What happened to the trees? Our original impetus, then, was to learn the story of deforestation; in the process we found out a great deal about everything else, yet our expanded vision remains ecological in spirit. We seek to substantiate the answers to both questions through accounts of lived experiences located in space and time, often presented dialogically . . . . Our conviction is that the stories and testimonies gathered here have their most powerful impact as human expressions. To theorize them is not to enhance their worth, but only to locate them in fields of knowledge in order to aid readers in situating and understanding their meaning. Our book.s value, then, lies not in making new arguments about human relationships with nature or the course of environmental history; about power witnessed from below; or about the realities of a remembered past. Our claims are considerably more modest: to contribute a few thoughts and a greater measure of grounded substance to three currents of academic discourse.nature, power, and memory. I wish to characterize these more expansively as scholarship concerned with envisioning nature and tracking environmental transformations, with subaltern consciousness and struggles, and with the relationship between individual recollections and historical truths. (p. 5)

These claims are delineated in meticulously crafted prose that flows lightly over theoretically rugged terrain, eschewing conceptual arguments in favour of .voices. and finely observed ethnography. Yet the disclaimer about theory is qualified in the extensive citations in the endnotes and bibliography, which acknowledge the larger literature yet avoid detailed engagement with it. This simultaneous acknowledgement and refusal suggests that the disavowal of a theoretical project in the text is in itself an argument about the value of subaltern narratives over theory. If so, this argument is not made explicit. One is left wondering how the finely etched portraits in the book relate to the .fields of knowledge. that may .aid readers in situating and understanding their meaning.. What theories should one turn to in order to understand the conditions of possibility that produce these narratives? The sophistication of the text makes these questions puzzling.

The book succeeds beautifully in what it does set out to do: describing demotic perceptions of changes in the land and in the raj. Men and women of different castes recall their quotidian struggles during the time of the Durbar when Sawar was a princely state. The .sorrows. of that time are summed up in three sets of practises: lato-kuto (taxes on agricultural produce), begar (forced, unpaid labour) and pratibandh (prohibitions on access to forests and hunting wildlife). The recollection of .taxing times. in chapter eight is especially poignant, vividly bringing home the mute resentment and resignation of farmers forced to watch their ripe crops being arbitrarily decimated by the king.s horses and men. To have to surrender a large share of their produce to the Durbar, and bear the petty humiliations that accompanied this economic loss, was clearly a part of the past that no one mourned. Equally, the coerced unpaid labour performed mainly by Regars and Chamars.men running errands and carrying loads, the women grinding grain to feed the horses.was also consigned to the sorrows of the past. The prohibitions on forest use evoked more ambiguous memories. Farmers fretted against the ban on killing wild pigs, which raided their crops with impunity since they could only be hunted by the Durbar. Women collecting firewood often got into trouble with forest guards. Yet almost everyone regretted the precipitous decline of forest cover, especially the virtual disappearance of dhokara (Anogeissus pendula) that ensued once previous prohibitions were removed after independence. Herders in particular note the scarcity of forage that now limits the number of livestock they can keep.

In the Time of Trees and Sorrows organises its discussion of these themes into a .concentric architecture. of .spatially articulated chapters. where .jungle encompasses fields, fields surround homes, and the Court is located at the heart of public space.central but elevated. (p. 241). One of its more intriguing observations is about how people remember the Sawar ruler Vansh Pradip Singh (1915.47) as drawing a direct connection between his body and his kingdom.s wildlife. .Suppose somebody . . . complained to him, .Bhoju cut a tree,. then the Durbar would say, .My hand hurt all night, I feel pain in my hand, don.t do it again.. (p. 254). If Louis XIV equated the French state with his kingship, Vansh Pradip Singh seemed to assert a homology between his own person and the forest: le bois c.est moi. The body symbolism is an extension of how the Sawar ruler seemed to embody the concept of stewardship, conceived as a relation of personalised patronage and protection, harsh yet caring. The swift change in this body politic was marked by 1947, the year of independence, coinciding with the king.s death, the cutting of trees and the killing of pigs.

The notion of stewardship suggests a complex ideological relation, enabling authoritative interventions in the name of the weak and poor. Cowen and Shenton insightfully describe postcolonial development as a discourse of stewardship and Uday Mehta.s discussion in Liberalism and Empire offers a perspective from political philosophy on the concept. The hegemonic relation between Vansh Pradip Singh and .his people. seems inadequately reflected in Gold and Gujar.s focus on the joota (shoe) as a metaphor of princely power in chapter five. The shoe in question was a large leather one that would hang in the fort, reputedly wielded by a low-caste Bhangi at the Durbar.s behest, to threaten or punish offenders. Gold and Gujar ascribe the absence of resistance to the more oppressive aspects of princely rule to .fear of the shoe, with its threat of dishonour as well as damage . . . . The shoe, as corporal punishment or imaginary shame, lay at the foundation of the system as it was told to us. (p. 233). But the political practises and perspectives that the authors describe seem far too rich to be framed only in terms of the disciplinary effects of punitive power. Love and respect for the sovereign, and internalised belief in one.s own inferiority, are surely as potent a part of the values at work in securing consent to feudal, caste-based hierarchy.

Gold and Gujar.s informants paradoxically trace the transformation of power from princely rule to democracy as a narrative of loss of community. People connect moral decline with ecological deterioration, invoking kaliyug: .There is no rain because . . . the trees [have been cut] . . . . It is God.s manifestation in nature that there is less rain. In the days when God was happy, there was rain and the wells were full, but now God is angry . . . . People.s behaviour has changed . . . . Today nothing is pure; food and drink are bad, and from this our behaviour, compassion, love, have all decreased. (pp. 307.7). Yet this negative evaluation of change, evoking the commonplace tropes of a linear transition from pristine tradition to tainted modernity, is complicated by more ambivalent practises. This emerges most clearly in the discussion of .imported. species, technologies and goods in chapter ten where vilayati babul (Prosopis juliflora) is both cursed and grudgingly used, as are synthetic fertilisers and fabric, hybrid seeds and milled flour. Popular opinion may hold that flour stone-ground by hand tastes better, that desi seeds have more goodness, handloom cotton is superior to polyester, and cow manure preferable to urea, but at the end of the day, people still end up using the things they decry. Although people organise their evaluation of change in terms of folk categories such as tradition/modernity, indigenous/imported, their practises reveal more complicated negotiations of this terrain. More provocative or probing questions during the interviews may have fruitfully explored this divergence.

As Gold and Gujar sum up:

This now familiar tale of lost community feeling, lost trees, and an absence of responsibility, which is also an absence of tyranny, is evidently a social construction of the past, a shared story. It has its unexamined internal contradictions. If the village community were once united by love, mutual respect, and ecological forbearance (albeit under tough sanctions), why did it all dissolve so quickly when the feared ruling power was replaced by a constitutionally chartered .people.s power.?. ...Why should it be that a community deteriorates along with nature, and as a function of the advent of freedom? .... Bhoju and I do not have answers to these questions (pp. 318.19).

Yet one is left feeling that it is precisely an exploration of the rich ambiguity of these contradictions that may yield significant insights into questions of consciousness and agency, hegemony and resistance. Gold and Gujar offer a compelling, often moving, account that leaves one wanting more, a deeper consideration of multivalent modernity, of trees and sorrows old and new.


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