Growing up in Karimganj, a small town on the southernmost fringes of Assam, stashed next to the international border with Bangladesh, a very persistent memory of that period is my tryst with food. Of all the delectable concoctions I feasted on as a child, there is an anecdote I would like to start with.
What caviar is to the west, ilish maach was to me, us. Its lustful flavor, acute taste, and its lingering aroma is one of the most cherished highpoints of my gluttonous childhood. Every year, when the time would be ripe, after the onset of the monsoons, the main market of the small town would buzz in excitement as the load of the freshest Ilish maach would arrive. Small fist fights would ensue between the bidders and the winner would proudly return home, his catch dangling from his hand in an unabashed show of the booty.
Over the last few years, I have been reading about and witnessing the paucity of the fish that has almost mythical stature in Bengali cuisine. With monsoons becoming more erratic, it is becoming more difficult to net the prized silvery beauty. A few stories in the media in the recent past have now moved from concern to alarm, with the disappearance of the fish and its characteristic flavor becoming a very possible threat.
Culture is a very composite concept; one that encompasses a wide gamut of issues relating to our life and livelihood. And while cultures are bound to change and evolve, what we are witnessing is major disruptive changes. And while the usual suspect, globalization, has been blamed ad nauseum, we are at the forefront of what is perhaps the most alarming threat to our existing cultures: climate change.
Exodus, displacement, and migration have always been great drivers of cultural change. Political instability and wars have been the usual suspects in the recent history of mankind. However, things are taking a very interesting twist.
The United Nations estimates that in 2008, 20 million people were displaced due to adverse conditions arising from climate change. Foresight, a research body of the Government of UK predicts that by 2060, there will be close to 190 million people living in the vulnerable urban coastal floodplains, concentrated mainly in Asia.
Climate refugees are the latest humanitarian crisis and they will soon emerge as the most formidable one. Especially in areas which are low lying and in coastal regions, in riverine settlements. Incidentally, these are regions where culture is stupendously vibrant. After all, have not rivers been ancient nurturers of culture? And sadly, they have also been the most ruthless in wiping them clean.
The future, in such a scenario, can be extrapolated with ease: these repositories of our richest cultures will witness mass migrations. They, who lived and thrived there, will pack their belongings, whatever they can take, pots and pans and some clothes. They will move to the squalor of already squalid cities, bursting at the seams.
But who will take with them their culture?
In one of his most poignant poems, Keki Daruwalla writes about imagining the people fleeing well before the Aryan invasion, leaving their idyllic homesteads and setting up shop somewhere, well in time before the hooligans can dismantle them and their culture.
Can we imagine a similar future?
What is even more worrying is the position of women in such vulnerable communities. Women bear the greatest brunt of climate change, from running the household in an increasingly hostile environment, to suffering effects of malnutrition from changing nutrition patters, affected, in this case, by climate change and consequent migrations.
And incidentally, women happen to the most prized preservers and propagators of our culture, our cuisines and songs, passing them down to their children, knitting so aptly the thread that binds centuries of shared living, together.
Where does Assam figure in this scheme of cultures facing disruptions in the face of an increasingly adverse climate?
Tea has already succumbed to the initial brunt of climate change. From erratic rainfall to extreme spells of temperature, the production and more worryingly, the taste and flavor of tea, it is feared, shall be affected adversely. The initial effects are worrying enough, a full blow-up would be disastrous.
For tea has not only been the economic spine of Assam. It has been our most cherished cultural motif, an integral constituent of our composite culture that is spread across the hills and the valleys of the Brahmaputra and the Barak.
Along with tea, another iconic emblem of Assam stands at the crossroads of fate. Majuli has shrunk to a pitiable proportion of its original size and erosion continues unabated. Along with its topography, climate change has exposed the richest repository of our culture, from which our future generations shall draw sustenance, to a bleak future.
So while we continue to move from traditional to sustenance-based agriculture, we will continue to lose traditional crop specimens; our cuisines have already changed manifold as the pressures of a burgeoning population have made us embrace the Kharupetian school of agriculture as opposed to ousting traditional models, what we now eroticized as organic.
And slowly but steadily, we must move from mitigation to adaptation. From knee jerk reactions to greater systemic changes. Make sure that our Sattras thrive in the heart of Majuli, in a future where our cuisines and languages have adapted, yet remained, quintessentially same. A future like that will call for a dedicated, concerted call to action and climate change, thankfully, is now a global agenda with local points of action – a glocal concern.
And as Chewang Norphel rears and creates artificial glaciers in Ladakh and our very own Jadob Payeng makes a forest take bloom and thrive with his bare hands, such simple, localized solutions will hold the key to nurturing and protecting our future, our cultures.
Going back to the poem mentioned earlier, Keki Daruwalla ends the poem, writing about imagining the community at work and play again, in their new dwelling, though knowing deep inside what became of their fate. What a difference imaging the end can make, he says.
I fervently hope we shall never have to imagine such an end.
‘An end, any end, whatsoever.’ a