Today I want to write about Ishmael. Not the Biblical character who was the first son of Abraham.

The Ishmael on my mind today is a gorilla. A special gorilla who once, seemingly arrogantly, placed an ad in a newspaper that read, “Teacher speaking pupil. Must have the earnest desire to save the world.” Ishmael, who is the title character of Daniel Quinn’s book of the same name.

Some books have a way of getting under your skin and making you very uncomfortable. Ishmael was one such book. I couldn’t get the book out of my head for weeks after I finished reading it. It affected the way I thought and the way I lived from that moment on. It transformed me. More on the book later.

Thoughts on Ishmael today were triggered in part by a photo a friend posted on Facebook this morning. It showed an Orangutan in the last throes of life having been tortured by farmers who caught her eating fruits from their trees and her baby orangutan clinging to her desperately. The mother’s face looked beaten. She could not fathom the crime she had done. In her sense of the world, fruits grow on trees and she eats fruits. there is nothing wrong with that. She does not have a sense of ownership.

My mind was already in trouble due to the Chennai floods. It was disturbing to hear stories of people stranded with no food and potable water. My mind was further distressed battling the “Why”s behind that and the obvious answers to it.

The Delhi smog news just topped it and when I looked at the Orangutan, I was reminded of Ishmael’s wisdom.

Ishmael reminds us of two things which we seem oblivious to:

  1. This earth was not made just for us. In spite of the way we go about living in it, we don’t exactly own this place.
  2. What has worked for us so long may not work forever. To put it simply, just because one can float momentarily when stepping off a cliff does not mean one can fly.

Think about that.

Ishmael is the only book I have read which looks at human life from a non-human perspective. And that perspective is astonishing to say the least. For all our intelligence and the ability to travel to the moon and use smartphones, it really feels stupid to keep going on and on without taking real efforts to live more in tune with nature at every step of the way.

Some Minister remarked in Delhi that people should be able to sacrifice a few comforts to save the city, pointing to the rule of allowing only odd or even numbered cars to ply in the city to reduce traffic and hence air pollution.

I would go a step further and say, we should take another look at everything that is comfortable and be ready to throw it away, because chasing more and more comfort in the name of progress just is not working.

More to come on this. But in the meantime, read Ishmael if you could get your hands on it.


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