Tuesday, September 2, 2014

In the Name of Progress

Artists represent our social conscience. It is not unusual to see initiatives started and foundations formed every other day, all at the whims of a celebrity. This is a trend that has flourished in the modern age. And there is a reason for it. Our world today, few will disagree, is in shambles. Man pits against man, and we have come to the point when beast has become more humane than our race. As Bernard Shaw’s Devil once put it, “In the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself.” This was written in 1903. How true that remarks sounds after more than 100 years on. Surely, you might say, there is still hope. Admittedly, as long as a few people hold the line against destruction and savagery, there will always be room for hope. But can this be sustained any longer?

Iranganie Serasingha has her doubts, and not without reason. In our country’s cultural sphere, she has occupied a formidable place. As the idealized and true-to-life archetypal mother figure in film after film, she has occupied a place in our cultural subconscious as well. Ever since she participated in her school’s production of Pygmalion, many things have changed, but some have remained. There is her stage-fright, for instance, which she tells me never really left her. There is her allegiance to naturalistic acting, enforced by fruitful years spent at the School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in London, which in the days of melodrama and overacting was practically outlawed. And, perhaps more pertinently to her personal life, there is her “greatest passion” – “Ruk Rakaganno”, her own initiative founded to aid nature preservation in our land.

For those of us who love nature, the modern world has become a savage beast. It is to people like Mrs. Serasinghe, whose passion has not ebbed away, that we owe a token of gratitude. Running down memory lane, she recounted the first time she witnessed whole-scale destruction of nature – during the 1930s, when vast tracts of land were being deforested for land resettlement schemes. This was something which, sadly, persisted even after independence, a motif that threads Lankan history ever since colonialism and its petty regard for the environment invaded our land.

But Mrs. Serasinghe is not one to dwell on the past without acknowledging its relevance to the present. “There were much less people here during our ancestors’ time,” she gently observes. Which meant that the vicious cycle of deforestation and land-burning was less unsustainable then. People did burn to cultivate land, but all too often there was room for growth and regeneration – in all, a much healthier relationship between man and nature subsisted then. This is also to say that our ancestors kept a more meaningful, pragmatic approach to the land.

Somewhere down the line, however, things changed. The biggest change, she argues, was the refusal to view nature as an interconnected whole. “When one part of nature is affected badly, the others begin to wither away as well,” she remarks, making a succinct observation on the unyielding harmony of ecosystems. “It is like a domino effect,” she adds as an afterthought. Indeed, a domino effect that never seems to die down, especially in our time. “It is not a very happy state of affairs.” How does she view this entire conundrum personally? “Human beings are so selfish.” A sentence that has become so clich├ęd that, I suspect, it could make its way to countless history books. And yet, how devastatingly true it still sounds.

On her own, Mrs. Serasinghe has taken a pragmatic stand on this sordid affair. “Ruk Rakaganno” is one of many grass-roots initiatives started for the benefit of nature preservation in this country. Preserving trees, of course, is her top priority, but there are other things just as important as well – like the problems of poaching and animal killings. This is where taking a pragmatic view has helped.

“We realized that merely preaching on the demerits of animal hunting to villagers would not be enough,” she says, “especially if those same animals – mainly elephants – were intruding on their livelihoods. Instead we worked on a practical solution – we decided to help them see how preserving our ecosystem would be to their benefit.” This was where teaching soil erosion prevention methods, water preservation methods, and sustainable cultivation methods, came in. People, after all, will almost always help in something if it is to their benefit. Selfishness, a distinct trademark of our civilisation, can actually be a force for good at times.

For all her rosy reminiscences, however, I could not help but notice a glum temperament beneath. This was where the question I had been dying to ask finally asserted itself. “Are you a pessimist over the way things are going?” Coming from people who had affirmed their faith and belief that “good things and hope always prevail,” I was a little disjointed and brought down to earth by her reply – “Yes, I am very pessimistic.” I was curious to find out what had made her so cynical, and whether there was absolutely no room for hope.

Prompted by me, she goes on, and as she elaborates on her cynical outlook, I was little surprised. She talks of modern civilisation, and its insistence on quick returns over slow and healthy development. She talks of our subservience to money, and its enslavement of natural progress. She talks of the futility of man’s selfishness and greed. And, more pertinent to our country today, she talks of all this being done “in the name of progress.” It is all too well to speak of development, but not to the exclusion of man’s intimate respect for and goodwill towards nature. “Nature ignores man, and she has a right to so do,” she says, “But man cannot afford to ignore and ravage nature.” How true that sounds.

Listening to her say all this, I was frankly disheartened. And yet I knew she spoke with honesty and truth. Having done what she has for our culture and our natural environment for the greater part of her life, I know she is in the best and most justifiable position to say all this. One can only hope her outlook is not wholly bleak. And it isn’t. “We are so blessed with such a beautiful land as this,” she concludes, “with such a rich and vibrant biodiversity hailed the world over.” But, she cautions, this isn’t enough. After all, “faith without works is a useless thing,” as the age-old proverb runs. And, as Iranganie Serasinghe remarks as a final point, “we must not rest on our laurels.”

Let us hope, most fervently then, for a better, rosier future, when good things will be done in the name of progress.