Grains of wisdom, seeds of doubt
She had thick, luxurious hair and shed more of it than anyone else I’ve ever known.
We were students renting a barn-shaped house that didn’t include a vacuum cleaner, so occasionally I would use a strip of masking tape banded around my fist to pick up some of the loose strands on the couch and the downstairs carpet.
I could have reconstructed a Shih Tzu or a Persian cat.
Most evenings, we watched Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” and commentator Eric Sevareid, “the Grey Eminence,” on the CBS Evening News.
She and her partner were particularly attentive, animated and upset when an ongoing topic on the newscasts was “the Emergency.” That was the name given to the 21-month stretch in 1975-77 in which Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister of India, imposed a state of emergency across the country allowing her to rule by decree because of alleged internal and external threats.
Many of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the normally exuberant Indian press was heavily censored. A mass forced sterilization program was led by Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s younger son, who was widely viewed as the heir apparent until his death in a plane crash in 1980 at age 33.
Indira Gandhi would be assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 and be succeeded as prime minister by her elder son, Rajiv, who would be assassinated seven years later by a suicide bomber.
And that’s the way it was.
Vandana and her partner were from India. She, like me, was enrolled in the graduate philosophy program at what was then the University of Western Ontario in London.
She would go on to get a PhD, focusing on quantum theory and the philosophy of physics. I would bail with an MA, soberly acknowledging that the last thing the world needed was (yet another) timorous philosophy professor with a mumble mouth.
More than anything that fall and winter, members of our household bonded over episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satirical soap opera that aired weeknights from January 1976 to July 1977.
You had to have a pretty good handle on the absurdities of traditional soaps and North American society in general to become a fan of the cult spoof produced by Norman Lear. Maybe you remember that it starred Louise Lasser in the title role.
It’s the only show I can think of in which one character drowned in a bowl of chicken soup and another was impaled on an artificial Christmas tree. A lot of it revolved around Mary’s anxiety, as a conscientious homemaker, of developing a waxy yellow buildup on her floors.
Different time. You had to be there.
Vandana cottoned on to the satire immediately and enjoyed it as much as I did. Jayanta, her partner, never got the joke. He thought the show was sheer idiocy. He wasn’t wrong.
On my first day as a housemate, I was introduced to Vandana by Joe from Georgia and absorbed his drawled mispronunciation of her name (as Van-dannnnnn-ah, accent on the second syllable, rather than the more phonetically correct Vun-dunna, with the accent on the first). She was too polite to correct us.
Vandana and Jayanta found the Thanksgiving turkey we were so proud of that October unbearably bland, but were as gracious as they could be about it. The other roommates and I found the food they cooked impossibly exotic and spicier than anything we’d ever encountered (this was the mid-Seventies, remember, when Indian restaurants were novelties in much of Canada). I seem to remember a celebrated philosopher of physics almost passing out at our table after downing a chilli pepper.
I lost touch with Vandana Shiva after that academic year, but would read about her from time to time. For example, when the woman soon to be known as the “Gandhi of grain” — Gandhi as in the Mahatma, not Indira — would publish one of her more than 20 books. Or when she’d show up in dozens of documentaries. Or when she would amass scores of major international honours and awards for environmental activism.
As one does.
The Delhi-based, Brahmin ecofeminist, now 69, is one of the luminaries of the worldwide anti-GMO, anti-globalization movements and a perpetual thorn in the side of proponents of pesticides, genetically engineered crops and corporate patents on seeds.
Bill Moyers, no less, has referred to her as “a rock star in the worldwide battle against genetically modified seeds.”
The Guardian, Forbes, Asia Week and Time have all listed her as among the world’s most important activists. In 1993, she won the Right Livelihood Award (aka the Alternative Nobel Prize).
The New Yorker has reported that transgenic crop opponent Prince Charles keeps a bust of Vandana on display at his family house in Highgrove. Prince frigging Charles!
One couldn’t become a planetary leader in the organic food movement and a vocal, effective foe of the giants of industrial agriculture —Monsanto in particular — without attracting powerful enemies and some scorching media attention.
Her Navdanya (Hindi for “nine seeds”) International organization, which advocates for the use of traditional farming practices and distributes native seeds to Indian farmers, was accused in a leaked classified report by India’s Intelligence Bureau in 2014 of hampering the country’s economic development. The Indian government banned most contributions to Navdanya from foreign NGOs that June.
In her response to a searing article about her by journalist Michael Specter that appeared later that year in The New Yorker, Vandana wrote that “ever since I sued Monsanto in 1999 for its illegal Bt (genetically engineered) cotton trials in India, I have received death threats.”
The “concerted PR assault on me for the last two years from (Mark) Lynas, Specter and an equally vocal Twitter group is a sign that the global outrage against the control over our seed and food, by Monsanto through GMOs, is making the biotech industry panic.”
A sample Tweet from Lynas, a British environmental writer who went from being an organizer of the anti-GMO movement in Europe a decade ago to an ardent supporter of the technology: “Notable that pseudoscience guru Vandana Shiva, who charges $40,000 plus business class travel to jet around the world touting the benefits of poverty, is calling the (Indian state of) Maharashtra pro-GM farmers ‘criminals’ and demanding Government targets them.”
A sample Tweet from @drvandanashiva: #MarkLynas saying farmers shd be free to grow #GMOs which can contaminate #organic farms is like saying #rapists shd have freedom to rape.”
Not for the faint of heart — or ego — these wrangles over food.
As I did decades ago on my stillborn career as a philosopher — once again hopelessly out of my depth, over my head and beyond my pay grade — I’m going to bail at this point on the fraught, labyrinthine debates over GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Ditto re. the use of synthetic fertilizers, hybridized seeds and herbicides/pesticides in agriculture, not to mention whether the so-called Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s in India and elsewhere was a blessing or a curse.
There is no shortage of YouTube videos in which Vandana makes her case against all of these developments (you might want to start with the Russell Brand “luminary podcast” in which she rips Bill Gates). There’s even a new documentary about her by award-winning filmmakers Camilla and Jim Becket.
“Industrial farming is the biggest single destructive force on the planet today,” the environmental icon thunders in The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, which screened this month to acclaim at the Sydney Film Festival.
“The war against the Earth begins in the minds of men. And I mean men.”
Ouch. But even as I bail, the mind of this man looks back in wonder at the time I got to spend at that rickety brick house at 145 Broughdale Avenue with Vandana Shiva and Jayanta Bandopadhyay, who himself became a distinguished scientist, environmentalist … and somewhere along the road, her ex-husband.
Hemmed by the Thames River on three sides and cheek by jowl with the university campus, Broughdale Avenue became notorious in the 1980s and beyond for its riotous student parties.
There were dozens of student tenants on the street in our day, but the closest we came to a party was a sober gathering one night on the balcony in which we pondered why falling snow immediately melted on the pavement while piling up on the lawn.
Someone might have cracked a beer. That someone might have been me.
But it’s funny how one can be in the presence of greatness and have no idea that the bright, demure, seemingly ordinary person giggling along with you at a silly soap opera spoof is going to one day have millions of admirers and a legion of detractors.
I dare say that neither one of us worries much about a waxy yellow buildup on our floors, but that’s as revolutionary as I ever got. She changed the world and she’s not done yet.