Thinking with Mud in the British Library

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This is the sixth post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren

To misquote Karl Marx, “all that is solid melts into mud, and that’s ok.” In the course of my research on the Permanent Settlement—a bundle of laws regulating land taxation in imperial India—I have spent time in places as varied as the Sundarbans mangrove forest and the British Library. The Sundarbans is a tangle of trees, creeks, and mudflats blurring the boundary between land and sea on the northern edge of the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library is a controlled space in which hush-voiced archivists monitor academics’ appropriate handling of material. At first glance, these locations seem to oppose each other on several fundamental binaries: nature versus culture, waste versus production, East versus West, instability versus stability… However, if we challenge ourselves to think with mud, these binaries dissolve and the world expands.

Bureaucracies like the East India Company (EIC) thrive on binaries, definitions, and regulations. One can find ample evidence of this in the 14 km of records originally produced by the EIC and the imperial Government of India, currently held by the British Library. A key record is the Permanent Settlement, legislation enacted by the then Governor-General of India, Lord Cornwallis, in 1793. The Permanent Settlement sought to measure, map, and assess the value of all land under EIC control. Having done this once, the monetary value of the land would be fixed in perpetuity, as well as the tax obligation the landholder had to pay to the Company. The EIC believed that the taxation structure would incentivize landholders to bring additional “wasteland” on their properties under cultivation. This would “improve” the countryside, increase agricultural exports, and foster a class of landholding gentry loyal to the British imperial government. 

Needless to say, this did not work as planned and the inequalities exacerbated by the Permanent Settlement continue in parts of rural India and Bangladesh to this day. This notably includes the persistence of a class of immiserated agricultural labourers, in part caused by unequal access to land and uneven control over crop prices and wage labour rates. 

While the Sundarbans were not part of the original land brought under the Permanent Settlement in 1793, by 1814 the EIC attempted to bring the “waste” of these wetlands under cultivation by declaring the area government property and leasing it to farmers at reduced rates. In 1816, the Company appointed the first Commissioner of the Sundarbans; his office oversaw the measurement, mapping, and assessment of newly-cleared farmland. In less than fifteen years however, William Dampier, a subsequent Commissioner, reported that much of the property created in 1814 was now “a map of dense Jungle… not distinguishable from the Salt Waste itself.” Time and again, the imperial government would find the Sundarbans resistant to the stasis required to turn wetlands into property. 

Time and again, the imperial government would find the Sundarbans resistant to the stasis required to turn wetlands into property. 

A vulgar excess of mud. Photo courtesy of Abhik Mukherjee

I experienced firsthand how the Sundarbans resists all sorts of human attempts to confine and categorise it. About a decade ago, I went for a mud walk in the Sundarbans. My family and I booked passage on a tourist boat launching from Gadkhali, a three hour’s drive south of Kolkata. For two days the brightly painted houseboat chugged up and down grey waterways. For the first few hours, all our eyes latched to the banks in anticipation of spotting a tiger. But then fatigue crept in. It is taxing to stare at nothing for hours on end. The Sundarbans has no clear vistas, no distant summit by which one can orient oneself. The melding of water and land and tree and sky disregard even the need for a fixed horizon. Indeed, nothing is stable; the muddy topography changes with the tide. To embrace the Sundarbans, in all its grey-green flatness, is to admit a love of mud.

And the mud of the Sundarbans is hard to love. It is dun-coloured, greyed by the Himalayan stone that tumbled itself into silt on its way down the Gangetic river basin. At high tide the mud hides beneath saline ripples, laced among the roots of hydrophilic mangroves. But as the tide pulls the rivers back into the sea, an almost vulgar excess of mud exposes itself, smeared on leaves and roots, wetly reflecting the hazy sun. 

To embrace the Sundarbans, in all its grey-green flatness, is to admit a love of mud.

Underfoot, this mud is at once slimy and viscous. With my first step off the boat’s gangplank, I sank. My body responded to the physical demands of the mud with a widened stance and splayed toes. By necessity I adopted the mincing step of egrets: raise, extend, lower, shift weight. Then all of a sudden my hard-won balance was upset when my foot came down on an aerial root. Mangroves cast out webs of these pneumatophores from their underground root systems to aid in respiration and buttress their trunks and crowns. They are a forceful reminder that the Sundarbans is as much of the mangrove as it is of the mud.

The author and her father-in-law, knee-deep in the Sundarbans. Photo courtesy of Abhik Mukherjee.

Regaining my balance, it only took a few steps into the mangroves to lose my sense of direction. It was even more uncanny than the experience of taking a wrong turn in a familiar neighbourhood. Not only did I not know where I was, but there was nothing to distinguish here from there. Binaries had failed. Foreground melded into background. Water and land oozed together. Trunks and roots both pushed up through the soil. Uneasy with this loss of place, I thought of the words of anthropologist Michael Taussig: “What you have to do is hold contrary states in mind and allow the miasma to exude.” Miasma—a thick cloud of vapour the British believed arose from the decay of organic matter in both colonised and domestic wetlands—is an appropriate image for the practice of thinking with mud.

Thinking with mud—holding contrary states in mind—allows us to accept instability. When I first found William Dampier in the archives and read of his failed surveying expedition, I remembered my own disorienting mud walk. How must he have felt, I wondered, stumbling through an unfamiliar environment, clutching his defunct map like a talisman? I can’t know what he felt, but I do know that he retreated when the certainty of his documents dissolved in the face of the ambiguity of his environment. I know this because, as a historian, my work relies on studying that which is preserved: in this case Dampier’s official correspondence, but not his private thoughts. The reference numbers (IOR-V-27-310-19), cotton ties, acid-free boxes, and requisition slips of the British Library aspire to maintain a stable system of preservation in perpetuity. But truly, all it can do is remove papers from the influence of the environment and arrest their process of decay. Historians must accept this illusion of permanent preservation and carry on with their work. 

Thinking with mud—allowing the miasma to exude—opens us up to ways of thinking that defy binaries, definitions, and regulations. The EIC spent decades tying itself in knots trying to force the watery landscapes of Bengal into discrete categories of cultivation or waste. Thinking with mud allows us to imagine how the messiness of wetlands supports lives and processes that are too large or small and too fast or slow to fit within anthropocentric measurements. Without familiar binaries, such as here and there, to orient ourselves, we can explore new possibilities presented by ambiguity and welcome uncanny ideas from the other-than-human world.

Binaries had failed. Photo courtesy of Abhik Mukherjee.
Feature Image: Photo courtesy of Abhik Mukherjee
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Erica Mukherjee

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