Where Do the Children Play?

By Mark Ulyseas
For the Bali Times

To Dewi, Laxmi and children living in Bali and around the world – when you become the custodians of this paradise, don’t do what we are doing to it. Forgive us for squandering a part of your inheritance.

Well I think its fine, building, jumbo planes

Or taking a ride on a cosmic train

Switch on summer from a slot machine

You can get what you want if you want

You can get almost anything

I know we’ve come a long way

We’re changing from day to day

But tell me where do the children play?

Well you roll on roads, over fresh green grass

For your lorry loads, pumping petrol gas

And you make them long, and you make them tough

But they just go on and on till you can’t get off.

– Cat Stevens, Where Do the Children Play?

The world is changing ever so quickly. What was is not now and what is is soon losing out to what will be – a concrete jungle mushrooming and growing at an alarming pace across the planet. Forests, species, natural resources are all being squandered by a spendthrift generation.

So where will this all end?

Today we have a United Nations conference on global warming in Bali. People from all over the world will congregate to discuss ways and means to halt the rape of the planet. This is nice, comforting and a bit ludicrous considering the pollution that will be caused by the private planes, automobiles etc. We don’t need these people to decide the future of our planet. Or do we?

Many years ago, when TV was absent from our lives and the ubiquitous cellphone had not been invented, the main attraction in the village where I lived was the Bore Tide. It resembled a large wave that ran along the riverbank once a month. It carried away the boats, destroyed the small wooden jetties and created a lot of excitement among the people who lived on the banks of the river Hooghly. I remember my brothers building a machan (wooden platform) on the branches of the mammoth banyan tree that grew on the bund. Its branches hung over the brown swirling waters of the river like a dancer in tantric trance.

We used the machan as a safe post from where we could observe the Bore Tide and also to do a lot of fishing. The catfish, betki and rohu were in abundance. The bait used were earthworms that we dug up from our garden, much to the annoyance of the maali (gardner). I still recall the time when I caught my first betki; it weighed about a kilo and my scrawny 7-year-old frame was no match for a fish fighting for its life. I fell into the water and was carried away by the treacherous tide. The muddy water that entered my lungs had a calming effect on me. I thought I had died. Fortunately, further down the river, a fisherman dived in and rescued me. He carried my lifeless body out of the water and laid it on the Jute plants drying on the riverbank. Sensing that I may have drowned, he kicked me in the chest and out came all the water. He left abruptly, before my brothers could thank him. We never got to ask him his name. My humbling experience has remained as a constant reminder of the power of nature.

My village embraced the river like a child suckling its mother. It gave us sustenance, transported us to many other places. This elixir of life that fed our village also carried away our dead to the netherworld. The river Hooghly was the fulcrum on which our cycle of life rotated, albeit in fits and starts.

It was from this village that we would travel on dinghies down the river to the Sunderbans, the Gangetic Delta that was home to tiger, deer, crocodile and many other creatures that had flourished in the mangroves. It had some of the best fishing spots outside Calcutta. We would boat down the delta along the mangrove forests, where fish was plentiful. At times it became a farce, as we didn’t have to wait hours for a bite. We would catch quite a few fish in minutes. At night we anchored in midstream for fear of tigers. We had heard stories of man-eating tigers swimming out, capsizing the boats and carrying away the hapless villagers. I admired the villagers because they ventured unarmed deep into the tiger-infested mangrove forest to collect honey, even though many of them ended up on the dinner table of the resident tigers. But their reverence for life and acceptance of their kismet (karma) kept them from carrying arms. For me, this was frightening.

Many years later, I returned to my village but couldn’t recognize it. The banyan had been cut down to make way for construction of an anchorage for boats. Most of the villages on the embankment had disappeared and in their place were sad little cement buildings that resembled grotty little public conveniences. The smell of fresh earth after the first monsoon rains was replaced by diesel fumes from motorized boats, and the cacophony of the numerous herons that had nested in the surrounding trees was gone. In fact the trees were all gone. The only sound that I could hear was the clamor of civilization gone mad. I never could sum up the courage to visit my old childhood haunts in the Sunderbans for fear of being confronted with the reality of man’s greed. I wanted to preserve the memories of lush green forests teeming with birds and beasts and the tiny crabs leaving their footprints on the muddy banks of the river.

Fortunately, destruction like this did not happen in areas where the urgent need for preservation was paramount in some enlightened people. In fact some decades ago, in the foothills of northern India, unscrupulous logging companies decided to extend their business, sometimes illegally, by carrying out their activities in nearby forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. A man by the name of Sunderlal Bahuguna decided to stop this. He spoke to villagers in the area and convinced them that the forest was a living-breathing organism that sustained all life.

Hence the Chipko movement, started with the simple action by the villagers, who would venture out everyday to hug the trees in open defiance of authority and bulldozers, thus preventing them from destroying the forest. Their action aroused a whole nation and the forest was saved. Sunderlal Bahuguna, who won the Magsaysay Award, a humanitarian accolade, is only one of the many people across the planet fighting a losing battle against large industries and governmental apathy towards the preservation of the environment. I guess no amount of international conferences or agreements can change the state of man’s mind and perception of his or her view of a sustainable world. It must come from within – an intrinsic desire to preserve the planet’s natural resources. And who should know this better than children, inheritors of the land.

There is still time to halt the growing destruction of nature.

Hindsight is not an option because by then it would be too late.

At the rate we are decimating our lands, it is conceivable that one day we will awake to a world without forests, the roar of wildlife subdued to a whisper and the blue yonder devoid of the geometric patterns of migratory birds flying to another part of the planet.

When this happens, there will be only one question that would remain to be answered by us: Where do the children play?

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Filed under: Paradox In Paradise

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