04 March 2015

Reflections on the Water-Haiku of Shree Padre

A reference to a Haiku poem in a recent article provoked my friend Errol Alphonso to unearth a fascinating and multi-layered gem from the vast storehouse that is his memory. He spoke of the Haiku master Matsuo Basho, widely acknowledged as the greatest poet of Japan’s Edo period in the 17th Century.  I had never heard of Basho.  Errol said that in the year 1969, he had read how Basho taught one of his pupils the art of Haiku as they walked among black pepper vines. 

The pupil had said, ‘Pepper pods take on wings and become dragonflies.’

Basho had disagreed: ‘If you want to make a real Haiku out of it, you should say, “Dragonflies shed their wings and become pepper pods.”’

The inversion makes all the difference in aesthetic terms.  The exchange of clothes or body parts calls for pause and reflection.  The exchangeability itself empowers because of possible replication as well as extrapolation.  

Coincidentally, I received a communication from a man called Shree Padre, a journalist turned evangelist for rain water harvesting.  Inspired by the travails of arecanut farmers in Karnataka to start a magazine that would help them communicate with one another, Shree Padre’s ‘Adike Pathrike,’ launched in 1988, now boasts of a readership of over 75,000.  The Basho connection, at least to me, was in an initiative of the magazine to collect information about water conservation techniques. 

In 1995 Adike Pathrike started a series on ways of conserving water, grandly titled ‘A 100 ways to save water’.  Padre expected a deluge of write-ins.  He was astounded by the drought.  Inquiries revealed that relevant government departments had little or no information about the subject. He handed over the business of running the magazine to others and devoted all his life to propagating water conservation, documenting local as well as foreign methodologies.   It is reported that Padre ‘drowned in the subject’. 

‘My own farm has 'surangas', man made caves on the hill side into which water drips, forms a shallow pool and flows by gravity into my farm. In many farms 'madakas' --which are strategically located percolation tanks -- have been abandoned. In Ahmedabad, there were 10,000 'tankas' or huge basement storages that are now in disuse. In one they recently found water that was 50 years old-- when tested it was found perfectly potable.’

Padre asks a question: ‘Why have we suffered such a disconnection with sustainable ways?’  Padre makes an observation: ‘We seem to have developed a perverse notion of 'modern science' and lost our esteem for proven, sustainable methods.’

In the clash of civilizations, the shedding of blood to placate a self-confessed jealous god, the plunder of resources, wanton desecration and indeed razing of places of religious significance, destruction of livelihoods and fracture of communities, the cruel intruder did not say no to complaint, but spared no pains nevertheless to ensure that the primary articles of faith remained untouched or at least unscarred: modernity and science. 

Somewhere down the line we’ve shed our ability to see and started inhabiting someone else’s version of our reality.  We let ourselves be blinded to that which we have, our resources, the sources of our resilience, the values and customs that made and sustained a civilization and all of a sudden we find ourselves confronted by scarcity, incapacity, poverty and a terrible lack of imagination. 

I have nothing against pepper or pepper pods and prefer butterflies to dragonflies.  I think that it would be fascinating to replace dragonfly, wing and pepper pods with other things that can be similarly clustered.  We could say, for example, that culture was painted with ‘quaint’ and turned into and artifact to help fill the British Museum.  Or, conversely, that the British Museum descended here, saw culture, said it is too heavy for people to carry and took it all away given the prerogatives of ‘White Man’s Burden’.  The possibilities are endless, aren’t they?

Basho’s line is neat and positive.  Life is a mixed-bag though.  There may very well be giving dragonflies, but certain wing-clips are not about sacrifice but dismemberment.  Some people’s lives and life chances improved at the cost of the impoverishment or even massacre of others. 

It is not just physical extraction only that we are talking about.  Padre’s observation indicates a certain learned, cajoled or thrust-down-throat inabilities, myopia, memory-loss and ‘tongue-tiedness’ of the mind.  Needless to say this inhibits communication and therefore sharing. 

Maybe things have been misnamed and their constituent elements scrambled and mixed up with one another. Perhaps this is why the misnaming and rearrangement embedded in the Basho proposition is so empowering. It persuades us to question the arrangements before us which we think or have been made to think are ‘natural’ and therefore best left untouched. 

Sometimes the eyes and mind have to be nudged or jerked out of lethargy, made to open, forced to recognize dragonfly wing as dragonfly wing, pepper pod as pepper pod.  Perhaps then we might recognize that someone’s been pinching someone else’s clothes, someone’s robbed someone’s water and that we have been robbed of our bearings or willingly divested ourselves of the same out of ignorance and remain bereft out of arrogance. 

The most pernicious scarcity, perhaps, is the abdication of the critical faculties. We just don’t think, do we?  It is not that brain-water hasn’t fallen. It is not that we cannot conserve it.  The harsh sun that has ‘dried up’ our reservoirs is not resident in the sky but in our minds.  So too the water that will quench centuries of collective thirst.  That’s what Basho is saying I think. And that’s what my new friend Shree Padre proves with his work. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Nation’ and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was first published in the ‘Daily News’, March 1, 2011.  Errol Alphonso is sadly, no more.  He was a wonderful man.  Read: And skylarks will not be silenced by order or deceitDid you say hello to Errol Abu al-Mughith Husayn Mansur al-Hallaj Alphonso? and  Errol Alphonso my friend and benefactor.