The Oxygen Manifesto is not for capturing power but to initiate direct action with or without getting into power.”
Atulya Misra’s The Oxygen Manifesto: A Battle for the Environment begins with an IPS officer at the end of his career searching to find himself in the Andaman Islands. Peace and purpose elude him – he is drawn into a social world of socialising and activity. One day, he sees a middle-aged school teacher who seems familiar. The narrative leads you to believe the schoolteacher might be a criminal – the officer stalks the schoolteacher, follows him, finds out his schedule until he is certain that the schoolteacher is in fact Ravi Chandra Bose.
What sort of dastardly criminal is Ravi Chandra Bose; that an IPS officer will follow him, stalk him, without regard to his privacy or dignity? Why, he’s not a criminal at all, but instead a famous grassroots organiser!
The unnamed officer has time on his hands, and is soon superannuated. Instead of finding Bose directly (because Bose is elusive, private, and it would be too easy), he moves to Moreh, Manipur, to meet Thambi Durai. Affectionately known as “Thatha”, Thambi Durai is a Manipuri native with Tamilian roots who rejuvenated a deforested valley by replanting seedlings every day over a period of years. Thatha is Bose’s mentor, and after meeting with him, the officer heads to Afghanistan to meet Dr Armugham, Bose’s brother in law. Wandering through Kabul randomly (instead of using his many RAW, IPS and other diplomatic contacts which one assumes he has, given his resume), the officer finally meets Dr. Armugham and learns of Bose’s youth in Tamil Nadu. The officer then travels to Mongolia to meet Rhea, Bose’s wife’s sister, who is a digital nomad. Rhea shares pictures of Bose and his wife with the officer. Finally, the officer tracks down Bose’s son, who teaches yoga (traditional yoga, not any of the new-fangled ones with beer or nudity) in the EU. Bose’s son shares Bose’s diary with the officer, to copy and take notes.
This part of the novel is meant to establish a picaresque tone and have you think of Bose as merely an outstanding example of an unusual family, but the narrative does not really engage with any of these characters. The unnamed officer has no personality besides his interest in Bose and his disinterest in Bose’s privacy. Bose’s relatives exist to live abroad, be uninterested in money, and reveal Bose to the officer without issue.
Ravi Chandra Bose grew up in Salem, reared by his Dravidian ideologue parents in “Tamil literature, social justice and self-respect”. (Tamizh pride is a strong undercurrent throughout the novel, struggling against the otherwise pan-Indian tone it tries to establish). Bose is phenomenally intelligent, a Renaissance Man interested in art, botany, astronomy, human nature, religion, dance, and sport – it is for sport that he is assigned to Manipur, where he marries Tara, a Meitei woman who works in the health ministry. He meets Thatha, whose simple, austere life and love of the environment is an inspiration to him, and the foundation for his later Oxygen Manifesto. The manifesto is the point of the novel, which is merely a thinly disguised front for the platform.
I wonder why Atulya Misra put this forward as a novel, rather than releasing it as a manifesto for change in the real world. Misra is the IAS Additional Chief Secretary of Government in Tamil Nadu – perhaps his position constrains him from such open declarations. It is a pity, because as a novel, The Oxygen Manifesto is a dull, disengaged washout without motive, characterization or plot. But as a platform, The Oxygen Manifesto stands on the “pillars of environmental protection, democratic decentralization, direct civil action and divinity.” Aside from the incoherent ‘divinity,’ the manifesto is a strong and coherent call to action, with somewhat radically optimistic views on humanity and our need for purpose.
Within the novel, Bose proposes “circles” rather than hierarchies of grass-roots communities, and posits that voting India would be glad to see new, fresh blood with new platforms that are pro-change, anti-caste, call citizens to engage directly with their communities and environment, encouraged upskilling and job creation. Bose rejects any engagement with the media, and the narrative proposes that in this digital age we can carry vast campaigns through word of mouth and digital calls-to-action.
The manifesto isn’t perfect – it ignores disability access, sexuality and transgender activism. It assumes infrastructural change will happen simply with good will and good faith. It makes no movement to ensure that these circles of community and grassroots activism won’t be taken over by people with the privilege of education and class. It assumes that utterly decentralized movements will hold to the same principles as they move and adapt without the need for centralized communication. The manifesto is an incomplete fantasy of peaceful transformation, with radical transformation occurring organically and peacefully, through elections and voting.
However, in this time when we have seen such widespread failure of public support for our health crises, against starvation in lockdown, for rebuilding, where we have seen tremendous work done entirely through individual funding, volunteering through NGO initiatives, I find it hard to criticize the novel too harshly. Misra’s fiction is thin, but his vision is hopeful, and relies on the essential well-meaning of the Indian populace. We have seen both the best and worst of that populace in the last two months – I find myself hopeful too.