Most environment- and nature-related books published recently position themselves as distinctive and authoritative voices on technological developments or naturalist practices that can mitigate or perhaps undo the impact of excessive human activity on our ecosystem. Environmental photographer and writer Arati Kumar-Rao distinguishes herself from this crop by focusing on individuals’ stories in her book Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink.

True to its epigraph, which invokes what Katherine Boo notes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Kumar-Rao seems to offer “stories of individuals” that are arguments in themselves for “better policies” that can help address several grave injustices humans have meted out to the environment. Divided into five parts and accentuated by beautiful illustrations – in black and white, perhaps signalling the bleakness – the book begins with the author’s own personal journey into documenting nature.

Her first tryst, she notes, was when she sent a vague pitch to Yahoo! – what materialised subsequently were her explorations of ignored and under-documented accounts of individuals, species, and natural resources hit hard by anthropological impacts. Interestingly, in each landscape, she manages to tell human-centric stories and folklore and captures what’s at the centre of any argument that’s made to save nature: that humans’ very existence relies on its preservation.

India’s untold stories

While documenting Chhattar Singh’s account, Kumar-Rao describes Beri, a percolation well, and notes how living in a desert “is a masterclass in the art of survival.” She writes, “It is old knowledge: in centuries past, when the Silk Road was a thriving artery of global commerce, such beris served as lifelines for merchants from Samarkand and Persia who traversed the Thar to reach Jaisalmer, a vital trading post.” Then she goes on to outline how “water acknowledges no divisions of religion, caste or status” – a hint towards the increasingly polarising India and a hope towards the close-knit, secular community the country has celebrated for aeons.

But as is the case with any archivist, she contributes to the culture by noting select communities whose stories haven’t been told. Sample this: “Khadeens date back 700 to 900 years and are the brainchild of the Paliwal Brahmins. There is no documentation, however; their origin stories are embedded in an oral tradition handed down through generations, immortalised in chhand – rhythmic poetry – by itinerant minstrels of the Manganiyar community, the fabled bards of the Thar.”

In an era obsessed by technology, she also notes how bhey are “unsearchable on Google Maps” and how shepherds in the deserts have mastered routes that have passed on to them in inheritance perhaps. But is the tradition going to continue? Maybe not, as Chhattar Singh points out that his son doesn’t speak their language anymore. Not only does it point towards several cultural risks, but it also notes how, in the absence of any interest in telling these stories, environment writers and activists are losing out on a treasure trove of information.

Then, in subsequent chapters, she traces Ganga and the many civilisations it helped establish. Perhaps the story of northern India is deeply dependent on this magnificent river and its distributaries. Yet again, what Kumar-Rao does is highlight the plight of people who don’t seem to have had any benefit from modernisation. She notes how when a woman went into labour “four men carried her on a khatiya some three kilometres to the ghat.” Someone like me, who hails from a tiny village in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, knows this to be a common thing. However, for someone who might feel that it’s a one-off case, she shares how this “story plays out in a generational loop. Rabha Bibi’s daughter has lost a child too. Her neighbour has lost a friend, a woman in her twenties, who died during childbirth.”

Additionally, she invokes the tradition of oral storytelling around Ganga. The story of a maali – the gardener – and teli – oil seller – is a case in point. She notes how the “gardener became a gharial and swam away. The oil seller became a bhulan and dived deep into the river. Legend has it that this is how two of the most iconic denizens of the Ganga river system were born – the fish-eating crocodilian with a bulge at the end of its snout and the long-lipped Gangetic river dolphin, the apex predator of the river.”

How the environment is ‘othered’

Then there are stories of fishermen tribes Lekhu and Ranjan from Assam. And how after the increasing decline of small indigenous fishes many such tribes are “sliding into poverty.” Kumar-Rao further notes that how a population of fish in “South Asian river systems have collapsed” to the extent that scientists are finding “it hard to put a number on how many species may be lost, as there is little baseline data. Many species not even known to science may have already been lost. The social fallout is that millions of fishermen all across South Asia have plunged into debt.”

Such stories not only make navigating this book easier as it continuously keeps it interesting but also underline the commitment of the author to provide an authentic account of people and folklore around the many natural entities India is blessed with.

Furthermore, what Kumar-Rao establishes is the links between economic activities, business interests, and callous exploitation of resources. She does it by taking Mumbai as a case in point. The risk of rising sea levels and exacerbation of the problem of “coastal erosion”. She also notes how Sonam Wangchuk’s team is solving the problems in the Leh, Ladakh area with engineering. However, no matter how focused the scientist with an interest in preservation may persevere, he notes that “it is not enough to come up with technical innovations, adapt and solve problems.” This is something that many writers celebrating technological advancements don’t cater to.

It is fitting that the book ends with the section that focuses on the “sound of cities”. It’s an exemplary exploration of what urbanisation has done. From the heat-island effect to rising decibel levels that disturb a variety of species, she underlines how the most urbanised among us, reaping the fruits of capitalistic interests, are complicit in what has caused the environment to be “othered”. All this makes Marginlands a must-read today.

Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink, Arati Kumar-Rao, Picador India.