Action, reaction, and inaction: what makes the difference?

V. Arun

I frequently ponder over the theme of this issue. Why do some people feel a need to act while others do not? Also, how do people choose their scale of action. Is it chance? Personality? Does it have to with the influences? I have not really found the answer, but I will share my own journey and through that try and explore what made me respond to life in the way that I have.

Anyone encountering me as a child wouldn’t have predicted the trajectory of my life, of that I am pretty sure. I was a very unremarkable child. I am not putting myself down. Just stating that being so shy and inhibited I barely engaged outside of my immediate circle of friends. However, there were two interesting aspects from childhood that need to be shared.

The first was that my father was in a transferable job and I switched schools ten times within 14 years which meant I was forced to adapt to a new social setting every year or two and make new friends. This of course is true of all children whose parents have transferable jobs. The second one was that when I was 14 and 15, I lived in a small village near Salem. That was my most striking experience in life. The beauty of the country side captivated me. Walking to school through fields, climbing hills around the village, observing trees with fresh foliage are fond memories of the time. But more impactfully, I came face to face with poverty with most of my classmates, in the Tamil medium Government school that I studied in, coming from homes of landless labourers or small farmers and often in very difficult financial circumstances. I was struck by the hardships of their lives versus the privileged one of mine. I felt very guilty and vowed that if I could, I should do something about this in my life. Once we moved out of the village though, the feeling moved into the back burner.

A difficult phase in life

We moved back to a city, Chennai for my 11th and 12th standards. Little did I know that I was also moving in to my most difficult phase of my life. The next 12 years turned out to be very tough. The transition to the city with very competitive bright children in a private English medium school, from a laid-back village where I was the brightest student set me off on a journey of insecurity. Academically, I was almost at the bottom of a class of 50 odd students. The switch in the medium of education, the new social setting, there were many things I struggled with. I decided to work hard and over the next year, broke through the top 10. I did draw something from my own efforts but the overall feeling was a bit hopeless.

Next stop was Engineering in a non-descript college. This choice was taken because older cousins who had struggled with unemployment through the 70’s advised me that it was the safest option. If I had had a little more confidence and clarity, I would have chosen to study what were my real interests – psychology, philosophy, literature. But these are retrospective thoughts. At that time Engineering it was, though I couldn’t connect to it at all and went through an unhappy four years in terms of learning.

Shy kid to extroverted teenager

At some point early on I switched from being a super shy kid to an extrovert teenager, always playing the joker and ready to perform and entertain. I always had a lot of friends. The same was the case in college as well. I would engage with teachers and students of all years when most of my peers would only engage within their batch.

One interesting facet in my very unremarkable college life was the discovery that I was fearless of authority and was in constant clash with the administration over student’s rights. I was always the chosen one among students to raise issues. I did this with a lot of conviction and was nicknamed the “Truth speaker” by the Principal of the college. This didn’t lead to appreciation. I was constantly on the verge of being suspended from college for these activities. I didn’t do any other objectionable things. Never smoked, consumed alcohol, copied etc. I had a crush on my lecturer though and that brought some notoriety for a while.

Growing insecurity and existential questions

On finishing Engineering, I wanted to take a year’s break to explore other things. Unheard of within my circle, but before I did anything interesting, I was overcome with a sense of fear that I would not land up with a job when I finished my year’s break. To check if this was true, I applied to many jobs and didn’t even got a reject card. In my 21-year-old mind it was a big deal. I became desperate and dropped the break year after a few months and grabbed whatever came my way.

Thus began a six-year stint in the Engineering field. What a time in life it was. I felt so ill-equipped knowledge wise and was quite consumed by self-doubt and insecurity. I didn’t find any interest in production work and moved to a marketing position. At least there I could use my extroverted qualities and I enjoyed travelling. I travelled 5 states for nearly three years, struggling to sell very expensive equipment. I was quite unsuccessful initially and I blamed myself. Later when a lot of success came in sales, I couldn’t take credit for it. In reality both the blame and credit were undeserved. But I saw a lot of corruption and a lot of pollution, irresponsible disposal of waste and lack of values. These things hit me hard.

Honesty was always a big value for me and this was put through a tough test. I personally couldn’t lie and struggled with corruption. Add to this my own insecurity, it was a nice heady mix for being miserable. That I was, in abundant measure.

Purpose of life

I would often reflect on what I was doing with my life. At 23 the question that seized me was whether life had a purpose. I really stayed with this question and got an answer too. I realized firmly that there was NO purpose to life. My logic was that if my life had a purpose, then so did the mosquito I so casually swotted and killed. I felt that it was just humans assigning importance to our own lives. This was an AAHA moment. But far from freeing me to go on living my meaningless life, it made me enquire more. It struck me with a lot of force that what I was doing as a marketing engineer was so inconsequential, that if I were to disappear that instance, it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the world. This certainly didn’t fill me with a lot of cheer.

In my struggle with my own insecurities, I had completely forgotten about wanting to do something about poverty. I had had a notion of starting a small-scale industry with profits being shared by all and doing a lot of philanthropic work etc during my earlier years. A classic case of “within” the box thinking.

Two turning points

One: The life-changing Silonda trail

My friend from my first job who was a naturalist kept trying to get me to visit the Borivali national park which was so close by in Bombay. For some reason we dragged our feet about going there for nearly one and a half years. One Monsoon Sunday, we finally made it and went to a trail within the National park. It is called the Silonda trail. It has a thick forest and a stream running alongside it. It was love at fist sight for me. Completely smitten. We spent hours in the stream. Left only when it was nearly dark. I went to this place without a break for the next 54 weeks. The year was 1993.

While I always enjoyed nature and was reasonably observant as a kid, this sort of visceral experience hadn’t happened before.

I took everyone I knew on the trail. Thus began a journey in nature engagement and education and a learning experience. I soon got interested in birds and a tryst with Salim Ali’s Birds of India book and discovering the magic of birdlife. I created my first seed bed for forest trees and began tree planting in the neighbourhood. I joined Bombay Natural History society and started joining their camps. Romance happened along this trail too.

Two: A partner for life

The second turning point was meeting my life partner, Poornima, and along with her, her uncle Ananthapadmanabhan, or Ananth. Both were big game changers for me. She who was totally an action person full of energy as she has remained 3 decades later. I tended to be maudlin and wallowing always ready to see the larger hopeless picture whereas she was impatient with such a position and was all for action within
the local context.

Ananth, an IIT graduate, who had quit an engineering job, within a month of joining and now was a teacher in the Krishnamurti School in Chennai. He was very encouraging of me to quit and presented a different world view to me, which was a very big eye opener for me. I hadn’t really met anyone at that time from the alternative world and his thoughts, vision, and way of living were very attractive and appealing to me.

At this point my life in the engineering industry and my growing immersion
in nature were in direct contradiction and I was getting more and more disenchanted with my life in the industry. It was obvious to me that I couldn’t go on with the former. But what to do? With my limited skill set and knowledge base, not to speak off, confidence levels deep underground, the future looked very uncertain.

There is one aspect I have reflected upon a lot over the years and haven’t really found an answer. As my interest in nature grew, I found more and more articles in newspapers which spoke about destruction of forests through various development projects. I seemed to be noticing them newly, suddenly. What I have reflected on, was whether these articles were always there and I was noticing them now because of my new-found interest or was there a surge in environmental reporting in the early 1990’s. I would like to think it is the latter, as the other possibility is quite scary though probably closer to the truth.

Around this time, an amusing incident happened. I got a letter addressed to me in my office which addressed me as vice-president. The actual vice-president called me and told me “Not yet, Arun but soon, very soon”. Those words were meant to encourage me, obviously, but instead filled me with horror. To think that I would land up in a position like his! I decided to quit then and there and set the ball rolling.

Somewhere along the line, Poornima and I responded to a call for action by Campaign Against Child Labour and while both got involved, it turned out to be the calling of her life, initially through working with street children and soon into education of the under-privileged. My most valuable contribution I think was in connecting volunteers across BNHS and CACL to help in both causes.

The first step for us seemed to be to move back to Tamil Nadu where we could work in contexts more familiar to us. So, we shifted back and after a few missteps I joined The School as a gardening teacher. I didn’t feel confident to join as a regular teacher, so a new post was created for me. Poornima joined Olcott Memorial School, a school for under privileged children, mostly from the fishing community, as a teacher. She went on to work there in all capacities for the next 13 years.

To teach or not to teach

In the years that I was an engineer, it seemed to me that just to stop being part of the destructive process that I was in, would be good enough. The full focus was on getting out and I felt that this would put me out of my misery. Fortunately, that did turn out to be right. I felt like Atlas, with the world taken off his shoulders. I felt light and happy.

When it came to what next, the only things that kept coming up were tree planting and organic farming. Tree planting, I knew a little bit about. Organic farming, nothing. The School had an organic farm and I felt that while there I could learn some farming and move on to a farm in a few years. I never fancied myself as an educator, having worn out last benches all my life, as far away from my teachers as possible.

Behold my surprise, therefore, when I found myself easily attracting students and being drawn to them. I was an instant hit. Not with all my colleagues. It seemed that, having acquired some very good life skills in the last bench, I was able to attract all the disinterested students. My own expectation of students was commensurate with my own performance as one. In other words, it was at rock bottom.

So began a happy journey of not teaching, ahem, teaching. 12 tumultuous years followed. Life became one big vacation. Clouds lifted, birds chirped, butterflies flitted…you get the picture. To add more cream to the cake, Chennai was the city where legends like Romulus Whitaker, Zai, Shekar Dattatri, and Kartik Shanker had initiated turtle conservation. The city of the famous turtle walks. It was the most obvious choice to join in. The rest is history. Recorded elsewhere. It has been 23 years of walking with turtles now.

Activism, self-aggrandizement and what not

Like all young people, smitten by a cause, the first outcome of our newfound love for nature was to turn into evangelists. Some of us friends, designed a badge which said, “Save nature to save yourself”. I began wearing it all the time. This was still while I was in the engineering job and often would draw disapproving looks and some would even ask then why don’t you go save it instead of being in the industry.

Having quit the industry I was full of righteous zeal to save the world and imagine landing up in the Krishnamurti world with that. My senior colleagues, looked at me with sad eyes and felt sorry for me. How to save him from his journey of self-aggrandizement? Was their question. Poornima had no such constraints placed on her. She was packing her life with full action, while I was left quite confused – why was I doing what I was doing? Did nature need me or did I need nature to save to feel good about myself? When K spoke about the limitations of ideology my limited intellectual abilities collapsed. I surrendered. I more or less quit all action.

The only thing that was without any conflict in my head was the involvement in the turtle walks and so that went on. In my first year, I had also tried my hand at activism as a part of the National Alliance of People’s Movement, started by Medha Patkar. I had a chance to interact with her a few times and was very inspired. But my experience on the ground was quite depressing with the hundreds of factions on the ground and free style wrestling going on between the various activist groups for power and control.

The only real learning from my stint in activism was how bad I actually was at being an activist. I have been dragged over the coals over my lack of activism by my activist friends since then.

Small picture vs big picture

I wormed my way into being a regular teacher in the school or maybe teaching wormed its way into my being. Either way my cup of joy overflowed and dreams of living in a farm were fast receding. I was teaching environmental education, doing my bit for turtles and life seemed full. But the question of whether I was doing enough kept coming back to me or if it didn’t there were enough friends to bring it to my notice.

By this time, I had gotten completely absorbed by K’s teachings and I felt committed to be in the school. Ananth in the meantime had moved on and was the executive director of Greenpeace India and many of my friends were part of it. He once told me that if one really wants to take on Global warming, one’s only bet is with Greenpeace or some such global organization. This caused me a lot of heartache, as I wanted to act in a scale that would have a chance of an impact and at the same time, I was very happy and contented with my life. By this time Madhavan was born and he was growing beautifully in the safe and secure campus of the school.

The question that gnawed me the most was whether my contribution
to the environment through my work in Greenpeace would be important enough to compromise on Poornima’s work in Olcott school and Madhavan’s life in the campus. This was because I was required to move to Bangalore for work. This was quite a tortured period for me as I was struggling with the decision. I consulted everyone, including all my students and got nicely confusing advice. Then one day Ashish Kothari came to the school. At that time, he was the chairperson of Greenpeace Trust. He told me to just listen to my heart. He said the world is not saved by one type of action and that people should do what they are most inclined to do. We need teachers and small conservationists (like me) as much as we need activists who fight on the world stage, he said. I took this sagely advised and stayed put in my little island or oasis. And some friends gave up on me.

In 2009 we moved to Thiruvannamalai and joined Govinda and Leela in the afforestation effort on the Arunachala hill and started Marudam farm school and community life on an organic farm. We definitely see ourselves as small picture people and happy to remain so, but are also in complete admiration of people who do far more difficult work in difficult circumstances on a national/global scale. Over the years, through the public walks on the turtle conservation programme, I have interacted with perhaps more than 25000 people.

In the initial years I used to make a desperate pitch for people to do their bit for the environment. But after 23 years I only credit myself for still being able to interact with people, having long given up hope for any turn around in human mindset to make the world a more just place for both non humans and humans. In an ultimate ironical position, I fill up my life with positive action like planting trees, saving turtles, educating young children, while harbouring no hope for the future of the planet. Thus on a day-to-day basis I live a very contented life full of action while at the same time carrying grief over our action on the planet in my heart and wider perception.

I must say I am grateful to life for having been given this opportunity to contribute on many fronts and to have rescued me from the industrial hell that my life was drowning in. But the question of what is right action remains an ever present one, every moment of life and I am happy to keep that question alive and the quest for the answer alive as I wander through life.

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