Book Review: M. Nadarajah: Living Pathways

Living Pathways_CoverBOOK REVIEW
M. Nadarajah: Living Pathways: Meditations on Sustainable Cultures and Cosmologies in Asia. Penang: Areca Books, 2013, xxi+153pp., ISBN978-967-5719-09-7

The first thing that struck me about this book, when it came to me for a review, is its visual appeal. It is layered with photographs and graphics which have, not so obvious, resonance with the themes and textual content of the book. It is pleasure to leaf through a book which has an excellent layout and design; a rarity I think for books engaging with a thought provoking issue of where humanity is headed. M. Nadarajah asks: “Is urbanism the terminal stage of human civilisation as we know it” (p 27)? He strongly believes that we have become “acclimatised creatures of careless convenience and blind citizens of urban centres” (p 27).He avers that ‘mainstream urbanisation is a torrential river that has swept away many fine tuned tenuously sustainable cultures that have taken years to build’.

It is clear that Western model of development, even with its modified versions, and consumerist oriented capitalism that is responsible for selling the glitters of a modern day world. Spearheading this consumerist orientation is America .Nadarajah gives figures to bring home the point that the rich devour much of the resources of mother Earth. It is worthwhile to quote some of these figures: “The US per capita consumption is rate is 10 to 100 times that of most of the world’s countries. Globally 20 % of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditure-the poorest 20% account for a miniscule 1.3 %. Specifically the richest fifth (1) Consume 45% of all meat and fish; the poorest fifth, 5 %: (2) consume 58 % total energy; the poorest fifth less than 4 %” (p 48). The figures show rather clearly that the regnant model of development has done precious little for the poor, besides, it has ruined the very fabric of human life, psyche and people’s relationship with nature. The author insists that “it is mandatory that we find pathways back to the forests-to simplicity, sanity and sustainability” (p 49).

The book, appropriately titled the Living Pathways, is a journey and a “research pilgrimage” searching for answers to sustainability, among people who are less touched by the glitter and glamour of the urban way of life. The author embarks on a journey, informed by his own life’s trajectories and questions, into the interiors of Asia and meets many indigenous tribes and communities: the Henanga, Ainu, Lanna, Karen, Konkanaey, and Balinese, among others. He travels through much of Asia: Chiang Mai, Jakarta, Bali, Manila, Baguio City, Sagada, Ifugoo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Nara, Tokyo, Hakkaido and Hiroshima. What he learns from these communities and through this journey is that people do not just practice (emphasis mine) sustainable development, but live it. “The difference between the two is between ‘having’ and ‘being’”, he writes (p 11). This difference makes Nadarajah drop the word sustainable development and use the word sustainability which indicates textured narrative of a cosmogony where everything is linked to each other.
The linkages between material and non material, between living beings and the sacred world , expressed in the dynamic triad of nature-spirit-society, the author argues, is prevalent in all communities’ with their culture specific articulation. This conception and way of being is certainly far removed from the disenchanted world of rationality and business-as-usual approach. The “ecologic” exhibited by the indigenous communities hold within it a conception of interconnectedness, best seen through various cultural notions around personhood. He argues that in all the communities that he interacted with, the individual is not an atomised being but connected embedded being. This interconnectivity coupled with a deep awareness of one’s own actions and thoughts, or what the Buddhist call mindfulness, is what informs the way people relate to the world, and in that sense the way they consume or not consume.

Such communities, which have this philosophy of sustainability, are still in existence. The book strongly argues for an action oriented pathway wherein these communities and their philosophies and practices should be the guiding principles for the sustainability of mother Earth and all its beings. Nadarajah provokes us to think as to how many of us have resisted the onslaught and seductiveness of empty consumerism? He asks why is that none of us have come up with resistances such as the Bhutanese State who refused to be measured in growth oriented parameters and schema. And who introduced Happiness as a parameter for measure. What mark this book as distinct from other writings, which question the growth oriented development models, is its forays into cosmologies, something that is not a subject matter of discussions on sustainability. In a way it makes one realise the biases of an empiricist, rationalist orientation in all our methodologies and research endeavours. This and the fact that the book is praxis oriented, calling on us to engage with the world, is what makes it distinct. Nadrajah has few pointers that could help resist Western notions of development. He recommends that practices of sustainability and cosmologies need to be preserved, recovered, promoted, reinvented (where necessary) and be shared. He espouses these recommendations in the context of Asia, but I believe these recommendations are easily applicable to other contexts, including India.

The book, in short is inspiring, it combines intellectual acumen and scholarship with emotional insights and sources into a seamless narrative, making me realise that the Cartesian mind body separation has become de rigueur in the world of letters and scholarships, and that rarely a writings combines the spirit and the body. The book also makes me wonder why is that in the Indian context we have not been able to maintain this deeper interconnectivity, a triad as it were of spiritual-natural-human world, despite the many pools of spiritual founts and sources? What is that makes people be seduced by the here and now world of crass consumerism? And why is that some communities have resisted this onslaught of growth oriented consumerist material world? As a sociologist/ social anthropologist my training has been to ask why people do what they do, before I can engage with what is an ideal. Iam not sure the book answers some of these questions. But surely the spirit of the book should push us into answering those questions through further research.

Kiranmayi Bhushi
Associate Professor
Sociology, School of Social Sciences
Indira Gandhi National Open University
New Delhi