In this four-part series, I invite you to explore geographies (yes, plural) in a different way. Such exploration has certainly changed my life and educated me a lot. I hope you, too, will find the same.

My friend, colleague, and fellow-geographer, Dr Heidi Nast (DePaul University, Chicago, USA) argues that we need a new kind of geography. One that looks at and nurtures a ‘motherly’ (nurturing) relationship not just among ourselves, but with the entire planet. We know this argument from that lovely verse:

इयं मे परो वेति गणना लघुचेतसाम्  |
उदारचरितानाम् वस्धैव कुटुम्बकम्  ||

iyam me paro veti gananā laghu-chetasām     |
udāra charitānām vasudhaiva kutumbakam ||

‘That he is of me or that he is other, such classification is for the narrow-minded
For the broad-minded, though, the whole world is an intimate family.’

Here, notice the choice of the word kutumbakam. kutumbam = family, kutumbakam = intimate family.

Not one, but many

There is no one geography. Rather, there are myriad geographies. All of them are interconnected in very complex ways. Some inspire love, others inspire fear, still others loathing, … In Indian art, nine rasas (navarasas) are recognized (rasa = mood, taste, essence): śrngāra (love), hāsya (laughter), karunā (compassion), raudra (fierceness, ferocity), vīra (courage), bhayānaka (terror), bībhatsya (disgust), adbhuta (awe), and shānta (tranquility).

The nine rasas (navarasa).  Image courtesy: Ms Ardra Suresh

Every rasa is connected to geography!

The navarasas are part of life. There is hardly anything that I can think of that does not involve one or more of them. Every life is a story – biography. All stories, without exception, occur in the context of time (history) and space (geography). You take these two elements away, and you have no story.

Every life has its own geography and history. These interact and connect with a myriad other geographies and histories: our lives are interconnected. Therefore, we are kutumbam (family).

When we recognize all that unites us and nurtures us, and when we foster those things, the kutumbam becomes a kutumbakam – and the world is better off. This recognition is the Citizen Geography that my friend Dr Nast argues for.

Landscapes of the rasas

Some years ago, I was teaching an IGSCE geography class for class 10 students at an international school in Bengaluru. As usual, I found the textbook (this one published in the UK) dreary beyond belief (even though it was still better than what Indian state syllabi provide).

In this book was a chapter on rural-to-urban migration and the factors that cause it.

I wanted to take a different approach from the textbook. Though rather vague and distant, the concepts, definitions, and examples were in the book. So, with consent from the school Principal, I told the students to read the chapter and come to class armed with the definitions on Monday of the following week. This gave them several days to read it.

On Monday, I gave them copies of selections from a report I had written for a project that Jagruthi, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) had conducted a few years earlier. The project had aimed to find ways of helping girl children who had migrated from rural areas to Bengaluru and had become trapped in prostitution.

In trying to understand this topic in class, I had used the concept of landscapes: landscapes of fear, of abandonment, of exploitation, of danger, of disease, etc. These were the difficult or challenging landscapes. Many of these children did not live in one place – they kept moving frequently. The places they occupied were full of these elements (fear, etc.). They had to cope with all that just to survive.

This discussion brought a few of my students to tears. I had not anticipated this. So, I quickly reassured them that there are other landscapes also that we will be studying. We did this soon after.

These were the landscapes of hope, recovery, healing, empowerment, etc. In this, NGOs such as Jagruthi help these children. Providing them options away from danger and towards safety. These landscapes are particularly important because here we approach the kutumbakam concept as Citizen Geographers.

Did you recognize the various rasa landscapes here?

At the end of that case study, my students demanded a meeting with the Director of Jagruthi, Ms Renu Appachu. She came to school and had a very intense two-our discussion with my students.

I devoted the following class period to getting my students’ reactions to the case study and the discussion with Ms Appachu. Without exception, everyone said that they understood the power of the geographical approach to issues.

Their parents approached me at the next Parent-Teachers’ Meeting and expressed thanks for introducing this important topic to their children. They, too, expressed surprise that geography could provide a context to understand such issues.

The common comment from the parents was along these lines: “We should be talking about these issues in the safety of our homes, but you know how it is … we are just not comfortable talking about such things. But you have done that in your class, through geography. Thank you.”

Even within the safety and security of home, supposedly the safest place for us all, especially children, there are certain taboos (comes to us from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu meaning ‘forbidden, prohibited’). [Quick! Locate Tonga and Fiji in your atlas!]

No matter where (i.e., in whichever geographies … home, school, public spaces, etc.), these taboos have real consequences. Some of the consequences are not good.

As Citizen Geographers, we must examine these taboos and try to understand what the consequences are. How would the Citizen Geographer approach this?

Through the Four Questions of Geography, of course!:

  1. Where is something?
  2. Why is it there?
  3. So what?
  4. What if?

In the next part, I will discuss an example (or two) of school children, such as yourselves, who took the four-question approach to topics that they cared about. I will also share some of the discussions that came from their work.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 26 July 2017.


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