satish-kumar-photoBridport Literary Festival
Electric Palace 13 November
BR Rating ****
By Sam Barker

If there were a day for a saint, it was Saturday the 14th. In the rain and the wind, with new words such as ‘Bataclan’ staking a new place in reality, nearly 450 Bridport people came to hear Satish Kumar talk about his new book, Soil, Soul, Society.

A former Jain monk, who walked from India to Moscow to London and Washington DC, who practises peacefulness and environmentalism, Kumar sat on the stage as the living antithesis to the night of the 13th. One day earlier, only half the tickets had been sold. Come Saturday morning, everything had changed; people kept arriving, standing in the aisles, crowding into seats, bringing whole families to hear him speak.

Sitting on a chair beneath the stage lights, Kumar was at once diminutive and immense. An eighty-year-old man with the face of a benevolent eagle, he laid down the philosophy behind his book. His ethos is a reversal of the Maslowian hierarchy which says progression starts with the fulfilment of personal needs and ends with self-actuation. Instead, Kumar puts care for the soil at the core of well-being, followed by care for the soul and for society.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world,” he intoned. “Suppress your ego…be attentive…practise peace and non-violence every day.”

Someone posited a Manichean perspective during the questions that followed: “Didn’t he have the impression that a struggle between good and evil is taking place?”
“People are not evil, they are just unenlightened,” said Kumar. Light and dark both have their place in the world. Plurality is to be celebrated – no religion is better than another, respectfulness and celebration of difference are better than the compulsion to evangelize.

There were moments when English seemed too mean and guttural to express Kumar’s meaning. Twice, he switched to either Urdu or Hindi, and the lyrical otherness of the language resonated more deeply than the words that were more clearly understood.

When it was over, Kumar walked up the crowded aisle and it seemed that people were compelled to touch him. Outside, his book sold out almost immediately. Its message is unusually pertinent now.