Egypt’s climate change conference produced a consensus paper that shows no real way forward. A recent Sanskrit novel for children provides just that. Its author, Radhavallabh Tripathi, is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and writer. I could read the lui manavi of him because he translated it into hindi. It is the kind of book that could change the direction of the world, provided it is read by millions of people. If Greta Thunberg knew about it, she would adopt it as a symbol of her campaign.
Even though the world’s environment is deteriorating by the hour, political leaders care little. Each global conference gives them a platform to raise their favorite issues and score points over rivals. Commercial interests do not figure in these meetings. Sensitivity is not the domain of business, not even in the theory of liberalism. It entrusts the enterprise to identify opportunities to make profits, even by doing good. No crisis is above that hallowed monetary motif; climate change is no exception. The various speeches propagated by the UN to tame this frightening alarm bell have only served to make the crisis appear manageable with technical solutions.
Radhavallabh Tripathi’s novel forces us to look in a different direction: towards ourselves, the way we live and think. Raghu, Manavi’s child hero, discovers this truth the hard way: by going through heartbreaking dilemmas about his role in Manavi’s anguish and survival. Through his existential struggle, we face a terrifying lesson of guilt.
Raghu faces the dire prospect of losing his beloved friend, Manavi, a migratory swan left behind in Nandanpur, an Indian village in July. This little boy does everything he can think of, invent and manage, to save his friend from death. Her flockmates have gone without her. She was delayed as she wanted to say goodbye to Raghu. Stranded in the hot plains during a prolonged dry monsoon, this Himalayan bird is anxious that her own relatives will blame her for getting so close to a human child. Will she prove himself worthy of her affection? This is the central theme of Tripathi’s novel.
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Tripathi dedicated the book to the legendary Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali, a character in the novel. In fact, the book opens with him. Although it is July, the temperature in some parts of Delhi has reached 50 degrees Celsius. Salim Ali read in a Hindi newspaper that a flock of swans has been sighted in a village of MP. He’s sure there must be a mistake, because by now the swans should have returned to higher latitudes. Wanting to verify the reported sighting, he takes the first flight he can get to Bhopal. From there he goes to Nandanpur where swans have been seen.
After this dramatic beginning, the novel moves to the swans themselves. Their leader is eager to leave Nandanpur even though he realizes that one of their members is missing. She went to see Raghu for the last time. Her companions can no longer linger and fly away without her. Raghu’s long struggle to keep Manavi alive begins.
For the reader, the suspense is unbearable. We traverse every aspect of social life to recognize how difficult it is for Raghu to stand by and help Manavi – alone in an environment that no migratory bird would choose to endure. The suspense surrounding Manavi’s fate and Raghu’s fight to protect her elevate this book to the ranks of classics like Meindert DeJong’s Wheel on the School and Michael Morpungo’s recent War Horse. The popularity of these books may prove difficult to match given the state of children’s publishing in India.
But I like to fantasize that a few million copies in different languages of the world, sold in the coming decades, will stimulate the next generations to an unforeseen resolution to save the environment from further degradation. Manavi offers the seeds of such determination. His critique of today’s humanity is both harsh and inspiring. Radhavallabh Tripathi spares no domain of contemporary life from surgical probing. The book exposes politics and bureaucracy in equal measure. It exposes the vain ideology of development that pushes rulers and experts to toy with the truth to feed false hopes.
While reading Manavi, we recognize the impasse environmentalism faces. His overarching concerns have been boiled down to compressed phrases like “carbon emissions” and “global warming.” These glib remarks inadvertently hide a thousand other concerns and efforts of impotent combatants around the world. Their failed campaigns become poignant memories. The demolition of the old neighborhoods of Sarojini Nagar in Delhi raised some youthful energy to resist but the plan went through. The debates over genetically modified mustard and the various mega-plans underway in the fragile Himalayan region are examples of the unequal battles facing the natural environment today. No single sentence, not even “climate change,” can encompass this monstrous reality.
Manavi gets to the heart of the matter: the breaking of the moral bond between nature and humanity. This link has now been cleverly replaced by a new one, between dispensers of comfort and reminders of concern. Young people, with their education crippled, have no chance to make sense of what is happening. The depth of Tripathi’s outrage has given him a creative grip on the crisis. His stature as a Sanskrit scholar allows him a level of confidence few contemporary writers can afford. As of right now, Manavi has a minuscule readership.
A major educational magazine of children’s literature let her go after a quick glance. Apparently, the discourse of ecological awareness has frozen around a handful of constructive stimuli. The range of emotions Manavi deals with finds little resonance among curriculum engineers. They have turned hope into a skill that excels only at encouraging mundane innovations. The late Salim Ali, who figures in Manavi as an expert iconoclast, tells us how to look at things more thoughtfully rather than trying to fix them with cheap bandages.
The author is the former director of NCERT