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How the National Geographic Magazine Opened Up Exciting Vistas of a Brave New World to a Kid who Had Never Travelled Out of Sri Lanka.

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by Sanjana Hattotuwa

Back home in Ratmalana, I have around 10 years worth of National Geographic magazines stacked on a bookshelf. My father subscribed to the magazine when I was in school. I haven’t yet asked him what drove him to do this, but I am grateful. Every year, the magazine sent subscribers a world map. The beautifully printed Mercator projection distorted size, but opened exciting new geographic possibilities to a kid who had never travelled out of Sri Lanka.

Here I could see boundaries I hadn’t realised existed, as they mysteriously snaked their way across continents – sometimes following terrain and topography, but at most times an arbitrary logic no different to an unthinking scribble. I didn’t understand then and don’t fully understand now how these borders all came to be made. But long before the vagaries of politics entered consciousness, the size of the map in relation to myself at the time gave a sense of how big the world beyond my room was. It isn’t a feeling digital media consumed on lap or palm is able to fully recreate now. Capitols, rivers, mountains, seas, cities, countries, roads and routes, harbours and hinterlands all came alive through a cartographic precision the magazine staked its reputation on.

And then there was the photography. Long before I started to appreciate photography as a medium or art, it was the message. The photographs in the National Geographic were, and still are, a visual feast. Critiques of this early, exoticising gaze or framing are now abundant and valid, but again, to a child of the 80s who had never set foot out of the country and whose only other visual teleportation device was a 21″ Sony Trinitron TV with two channels, the magazine’shigh-quality photos on glossy print were utterly captivating. From tribe to terrain, country to community, valley to village, each issue was a private portal into lands and landscapes I never thought I would see. Some of what I first saw on the magazine’s pages, I have now visited and witnessed in real life.

Many more palaces and people, I will never visit or meet. I realise now how little the father could afford the subscription, but continued with it nevertheless to bring lands to me, he could not afford to send me to. The value of this is lost on the young reader and child. But later in life, I can draw a direct link to what I love the most – travel within and beyond Sri Lanka, getting lost, mindful photography, unspoilt nature as well as mindfully constructed urban landscapes – to the framing of the National Geographic.

There was also something more. Whether the magazine set out to do it consciously, or whether for the reader, it was a more subliminal connection between stories and issues over the months and years, the National Geographic rendered the complexity, fragility and inter-connected nature of life on Earth. This is the most obvious thing now and even fashionable to tout. In the 1980s, clean energy, environmentalism, conservation, global warming and climate change weren’t issues and hadn’t even entered the popular imagination or political firmament.

Through its writing and photography, the magazine focussed on indigenous livelihoods, communities living with and the power of nature, the implications of poaching, the nature of rain forests, the life on rivers and riverbanks, how seasonal change impacted agriculture, animal migrations, the varied climates in various continents, livelihoods in littoral areas versus the lives of those in mountainous regions, space exploration and the borderless views of earth from geostationary orbit, the science of life as well as snapshots of life, in all its mundaneness, grandeur, vitality, cruelty, venom and boundless, incomprehensible love. Imagine the impact of this on readers at the time, like myself, across the world. We weren’t children of educationalists, activists, or cosmopolitan liberals.

We didn’t know or associate those richer in experience and wealth who could tell us stories of their lives and travels. We couldn’t afford to explore extensively within Sri Lanka, save for the annual pilgrimages to places where religion or relatives lived. Without any of the affordances now a thumb press, page load, click, flick, call or budget flight away, the magazine laid the foundation of appreciating, many years later, the complexity of ecosystems, essential fragility of nature and, importantly, our place in – not above – all this.

All this came back to me on Thursday evening, as I listened to a lecture by the legendary Jane Goodall. Some years ago, I listened to Maya Angelou in New York, speak about her life and then recite, as her final flourish,Still I Rise. I still get goosebumps at just the memory of her voice. Goodall, last week, offered a comparable experience, in a very different way. The two women are nothing like each other. Goodall’s diminutive figure in real life hides over six decades of experience bursting with insight, stories, forewarning and despite all she’s seen, hope.

At a meet and greet session before the formal lecture, she appeared with what appeared to be a single malt in a cut glass, perched herself on a high-chair and then signed various things for over an hour. Each person present was entitled to a professionally taken photo with her, but the usher warned us she would only look up for groups of two or more. By coincidence in the company of staff from the Jane Goodall Institute in Wellington, I learnt that she spent 300 days of the year travelling to events, fund-raisers, lectures and other meetings. The toll on the eyes of an 85 year old woman of constant flash photography was just too much to bear, but as luck would have it, the photographer informed me that she had blinked when he clicked my photo with her. Sheepishly moving back to her side, I told Goodall that at her age, she must find all of us, and all of this, a bloody nightmare.


I may have also used a mild expletive. Goodall loosened up, chuckled and through her smile for the photo, looking away from camera and straight at me, confessed it was bloody tortuous. My first and only conversation with the world’s greatest living anthropologist and primatologist was thus anchored to a honest appraisal of how little she enjoyed endless meetings with her giddy fans and ardent, loving followers.

How could one but not feel partial to and equally pained by this? I was told however that Goodall was very partial to dogs – something she hinted at in her lecture as well, when speaking about how animals showcase a range of emotions and social behaviour that were once ascribed only to humans.

Her lecture was pure magic – effortlessly enthralling, fearless, fascinating and profoundly moving. Aside from her life with and work around primates, Goodall also stressed the importance of addressing poverty as integral to and inextricably entwined with habitat preservation.

The choices she said that were made by affluent families around ethical goods and services were not those possible in poverty, where the cost of food mattered far more than source or how it was produced. Echoing David Attenborough, she spoke of how we were all part of larger systems where the loss or displacement of one species had a direct correlation with the health and well-being of humans.

Goodall’s holistic approach, which grounded the importance of environmental protection in frameworks that the disempowered and poor could also identify with, is what drives her work with communities and children.And while many would have latched on to what she said about her activism, I was more intrigued by what she said about her mother.

When girls and women continue to face derision today for taking up science, technology and medicine, she spoke of how her mother had been pivotal in supporting her choice to become what she was today – never doubting or shouting, quietly supportive, resilient, sacrificing much to ensure she had what she needed to pursue her dreams.

I have asked my parents to never give away those National Geographic magazines, which remain where I left them after I moved away from Ratmalana. Though the spines are now a faded yellow, and in various stages, succumbing to humidity, the pages remain in pristine condition. They are my Goodall. They are my Attenborough. They are my treasure. They are life.

Courtesy:Sunday Island

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