Maybe you can start by telling us more about your modules?
Well, for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology module, the importance of the subject can be discussed from several angles. One, the ethical or the philosophical issues that need to be discussed. A fundamental question we may ask ourselves is: does human species want to live on this earth by itself? Or do we want the company of all other fellow travellers that have evolved before us? Therefore, biodiversity must be conserved for its own sake. Second, from a purely anthropocentric view, biodiversity is very important in our everyday lives. We use it all the time, whether it is medicine, food, fibre, or even as an informational resource!
As for the module on Questioning Sustainable Development, it started with the idea that how were the poor of this earth responsible for all the problems of earth’s environment that we are faced with. This was kind of an oxymoron for me. How is poverty polluting? It is the big industry that is polluting; it is the vehicular emissions that are polluting; it is all kinds of human activity from the developed world that is polluting. Surely, poverty can have its own set of environmental problems. And then, the second problem was the prescription: if you want to reduce environmental problems, have more economic development. How can doing more of the same be sustainable? You can have sustainable lives; you can have sustainable living, but not sustainable development. If you want development, then you have to forego some parts of nature. So we have to just try to make our lives more sustainable, that’s what we can do. And that’s what we discuss in that module.
You’ve done quite a lot of research in the Himalayas. Have you been involved in any conservation efforts or dialogues regarding sustainable development regarding the area?
Well, no…there’s a difference. As academics, as teachers, or researchers, one of our roles is to create a robust kind of information for a broad-based dialogue. I’m not an activist; I’m a scientist. I don’t have any agenda, and my role is to go out there, carry out rigorous studies and report it as it is. Of course, we also suggest measures to solve a problem. As a teacher, my role is to produce a student population that is able to make intelligent conversations in the public. I’m deeply thinking about it though. Ultimately, yes, I want do something for the larger good of society than pure scientific studies – more ground-based work. One of the things on my mind is to start a school for young children in a Himalayan area where good educational institutions are lacking or poor and middle class citizens cannot afford them; access to good education is a major challenge. We want students follow a science and proof based learning approach – learning by doing. So in that sense, yes, I want to contribute to the society.
Could you tell us an anecdote about your research experiences in the Himalayas?
Once I was at a river skipping from boulder to boulder till I reached the middle of the river because I wanted to get a V-shaped picture of the valley from where the river was descending. Then, suddenly, I heard a shout. There was a local tribal gentleman gesturing (rather furiously): “Come back, come back!” I didn’t know why was he getting agitated! So once I returned (quickly, of course), I asked my translator what was he saying. He laughed and said, “He was telling you that mountain rivers are like daughters. You never know how fast they grow up”. And it’s true, you have to be very careful, because there might be a cloud burst up in the mountains and before you reach the riverbank again, you might be washed away. I found this analogy very interesting and when my daughter went to university, I told her this story, saying, “I don’t know how you grew up! You grew up so fast!”
Since you do so much work with plants, is there any plant that you would like to be?
Well, I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I’d like to be a lotus. One reason is that lotus is a plant that grows from the sediment, yet it makes the whole muddy area look remarkable! Another reason I would want to be lotus is that it lives in water, but it doesn’t get wet. In this world, there is so much that can cling to you. So you should be like lotus leaves – the water should not stay on you. You should just let go. The other important thing about lotus is that all the parts of this plant are used. Whether it is the flower, the seeds, the root, the leaf – everything is used by us.
You have spent a lot of time doing research and teaching, but do you have any other hobbies?
Yes, I do a lot of photography. My teacher introduced me to it during my undergraduate days. He would take me to the field when he went researching, and he would make me take the camera – we used to use SLR cameras since digital cameras were not in use yet – and tell me to hold my breath when taking the picture. He also taught me about taking close-ups, how to frame a picture and so on. Now, I enjoy photographing birds, although of course I also photograph plants.
I also write poetry and children’s stories. I like writing stories for children and have finished a few but am still working on others.
That’s interesting; what got you started writing?
In Kashmir, my family owned land and one parcel of 3-4 acres was exclusively set aside for growing willows. We needed the willows for firewood to keep us warm in winter, and for cooking (since at that time we didn’t have gas to cook with). We didn’t collect the wood ourselves, though. We would ask somebody who had sheep, and he would prune the willows for us, give us the firewood, and partake the leaves to feed his sheep. So, I had a habit of going to that willow grove after school or on holidays. One day, on the second or third day of the pruning of the trees, I looked up and was able to see the bright open sky because the canopy was gone! Then I thought to myself: till yesterday, a dove used to live in this grove…now, she no longer has a home! Where will she go? That was when I wrote my first poem. That feeling of a homeless bird left me with an indelible impression. We, for our own benefit, keep on lopping trees, but there are others who use it as home. With our actions, we have demolished a dove’s or a sparrow’s home! Since then I have been writing things and meditating on my days when I go to the Himalayas.
Your childhood seems very different from what we would experience in Singapore, could you tell us more?
Well, a story that most of my USP students would know is this: during my schooling days I would go home for lunch and then go back to school. There used to be a dog along the way, sleeping and sunbathing. I often kicked it (very cruel). One day, when I got back from the school, my mother asked me, “Did you kick the dog?” And naturally, as a child, my first response was: “No!” But you know mothers, they eventually find out the truth. So she told me one thing: “In the next life, you are going to be that dog, and he’s going to be you, and he will kick you, then you’ll feel the pain”. That was the earliest I was taught about respect for life.
Another interesting episode of school life was that there were many times when our teacher would give us lessons in the compound. There were two huge cherry trees in the school and everybody would vie to get to sit under them! [No one was allowed to pick cherries lest one got the Headmaster’s reprimand]. So you opted for the second best thing: you expected birds peck at the cherries and some would fall and we would eat them. Even today, the kind of joy I experienced waiting for a fallen cherry has stayed with me. That’s the kind of childhood I had.
Seems like a very different childhood from ours! On a lighter note, is there a colour that you would like to be?
I’ve always liked blue – blue is the colour of both ocean and sky: limitless.
Do you have any last piece of advice for Singaporean students?
I always tell my students: please find time to travel! Meet people; go and get lost in some villages! Travelling is one of the greatest teachers.