Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review | Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

I just finished reading Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It is strange that it is only now that I finally read this masterpiece; six years since I first went to Ladakh and began my journey of academic inquiry and personal growth. Ladakh was the place I discovered my love for ethnographic study and found the inspiration to undertake a PhD. Ladakh was the place I stood up to a corrupt Goba (village head) to support a women's Self Help Group I had closely worked with. Ladakh was the place I began understanding that the journey is the destination. But even if Ladakh was not such an integral part of my growth, I would still have been very sorry to miss Ancient Futures.

Drawing on decades of ethnographic work starting in the 1970s, when Ladakh was first 'opened' to tourists, Norberg-Hodge starts by painting an evocative picture of the social contentment and ecological harmony in traditional Ladakhi communities. It is so palpable that at first, she suspected that the smiling faces and cheerful communal work was a well-orchestrated lie. Acutely conscious of her perceptions coloured by a mechanistic worldview, Norberg-Hodge takes time to immerses herself in the Ladakhi life and as a result, skilfully discusses how religion, social norms, communal bonds, and environmental dependence made Ladakhis a content and sustainable community.

In the second half of the book, she turns witness to the recent inroads 'development' has made in Ladakh - from stories of shrinking families and severed social ties to shifts towards commercial (and unsustainable) agriculture; from incidences of previously unheard diseases like depression and obesity to increasing communal conflict in this largely peaceful land. Most importantly, she captures something I have witnessed across rural India - the alarming crisis around erosion of identity and shame over one's traditions as inferior when compared to the West. She holds that 'modernisation' (as defined and perpetuated by movies, advertisements and media) is often coveted without a clear understanding of the side-effects such a developmental model has spawned in the West.

Reeling from this dismal picture, the third section of the book offers a ray of hope. Here, Norberg-Hodge talks about various initiatives in Ladakh that are providing alternatives to the current top-down, infrastructure-heavy modes of progress. She elaborates on 'counter-development' a paradigm through which she envisions informing communities about the implications of the Western development model and working towards ecologically-sound, culturally attuned and autonomous development.

Religious sanction, communal norms, and ancient traditions collude to make life in Ladakh's resource constrained land inherently sustainable.
Long before 'bottom-up development' and 'climate-smart agriculture' became a fad, Ladakh's rural communities were practicing ecologically
sustainable agriculture and locally governed and managed their lives.     
Whether or not you know (or want to know) Ladakh, Ancient Futures is a book to read. Whether or not you are studying development and its discourses, Ancient Futures is an incredible read. If you have ever questioned the ease with which the allure of the West subsumes your own culture and identity, wondered about ecological sustainability and whether is is even possible in this day and age, toyed with metaphysical issues around contentment and happiness, Ancient Futures is a stimulating read.

For those interested, you can watch a documentary based on the book here and a TEDx talk by Helena Norberg-Hodge here

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