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keerthik sasidharan

Good Fences Make Lonely Neighbors

Good Fences Make Lonely Neighbors

When I was a child, every summer my parents would leave me for two months with my aunt who lived on a large property in northern Kerala. Their hopes for my stay was simple: I would acquire some Malayalam, learn the ways of our people, and learn to enjoy, if not love, Kerala. For me, those two months were an opening, a wormhole through which I entered only to emerge into a world of freedom. Far removed from the archipelagos of flats, tenements, and housing colonies of urban northern India in which I spent 10 months of the year, the constants of my imagination were now teak, jackfruit, peepul, asoka, banana, neem, acacia, and mango. Often in the afternoons, when they were done with their daily chores, my cousins and I would wander across the fields and uncultivated land to play cricket, swim in the temple ponds, and chase dragonflies. It was hard to say on whose lands we walked. There were no formal fences, although the discerning eye may have noticed landmarks — a rock, a bramble, or a tree — demarcating ownership. Every so often my cousins would caution against entering this or that field, for it was protected by a particular minor deity of the woods whose malefic prowess were unknown to a city dweller like myself. For most parts, people freely criss-crossed each other’s lands and courtyards, waded through streams, and walked past other people’s plantations and estates.

In my head, I began to associate Kerala as a place without fences and boundaries, a place where ease of movement was the default setting. Years later, when I read the great 19th century American naturalist John Muir’s book titled A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, wherein he recounts his travels on foot from Louisville, Kentucky to the Gulf Coast of Florida, what struck me vividly was how freely he travelled. He doesn’t mention running into property owners who denied him the right of passage, or seeing signs that declared ‘no trespassing’. This is not to suggest, as the scholar Eric Freyfogle has argued, that 19th century Americans had no concept of private property but rather that they viewed open uncultivated lands as something to be shared, to be traversed, and used by all.

In 2017, when I visited my aunt, now well into her old age, I saw that the areas nearby where I had wandered freely as a child were now filled with fences and walls. Tracts of lands that were once publicly accessible were now partitioned and rendered beyond a wayfarer’s reach. To walk through them meant seeking the permission of the owner. Cattle now no longer grazed freely but were often sequestered.

Signs in Malayalam and English threatened passers-by, like overzealous drunks, that ‘trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law’. Even in everyday language, I noticed a shift. Instead of referencing lands by an old markers — the land where the tamarind tree blooms or the grounds where the toddy tapper was bitten by a snake — the lands were now explicitly tagged with the name of their owners. Nature had become indistinguishable from property. Not just had an older way of description and remembering been lost but rather it had become inconceivable to think and talk about the woods and uncultivated land without thinking of it as a property to be bought and sold. Disconcerted by this subtle shift in temperament and language, I ran into lines by the sage of Walden Pond, H. D. Thoreau, who wrote 150 years ago about the consequences of a culture that begins to think of nature as private property: “The day will come when [land] will be partitioned off… in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only — when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men.”

Faced with this zeal of private property owners to exclude others from their lands, a few European countries like Sweden began to formalise laws to protect public usage through concepts they called allemansrätten (the everyman’s right). The U.K., passed in 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that overnight granted the English and Welsh to walk and wander through 3.4 million acres of privately held lands. What these efforts tried to do is address the perennial problems of the tragedy of commons (‘poromboke’, as the uncultivated public lands are derogatorily referred to in Tamil and Malayalam) by allowing for these lands to retain their legal status as private property while still enabling non-commercial usage for everybody (“don’t disturb, don’t destroy”, as the Swedes summarise their ethos underscoring their laws).

On my part, as I saw the open grounds of my childhood partitioned and hidden away behind walls and boundaries, I couldn’t help but feel a wistfulness, a regret. It was not necessarily nostalgia for the days of childhood that would never return, but a minor form of melancholy upon realising that a place that I had mistakenly believed to be filled with the promise of movement and the beauties of untrammelled freedom could come to an end in less than a generation’s time. The earth may outlast us, but our worlds can fade away before our lives end. []


A version of this was published in The Hindu on April 22nd, 2018.  

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