Q&A With Environmental Humanities Student Lav Kanoi

January 26, 2023

Lav Kanoi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Yale School of the Environment. Previously, he was a researcher and teacher at Jadavpur and Ashoka Universities, and he also worked in the private sector. His current research focuses on water management, access, and infrastructure in urban India.


What is your research about?

For my dissertation research, I’m looking at urban waterscapes particularly in Delhi, one of the most populous cities in the world that is battling issues of water scarcity. The idea is to explore what I’m calling ‘waterscapes’, a term that’s been going around in sociocultural studies in the last few years, to see how water becomes a ground for different kinds of expression between citizens, the state, and the city.


How does water management work in India?

That’s a big question! But outside of networks of dams and pipes, and treatment plants, for better or for worse, there’s now a whole question of water resilience or water security. In urban contexts, people have been coming up with new planning and architectural terms (such as ‘sponge cities’) to describe how cities are being remade or are being sought to be remade. Nevertheless, the urban area has become a place where the rain falls and flows away. We’ve built up the city so much, and now there is very little space for water in the city or to infiltrate the ground. Unsurprisingly, in this part of the world, there’s now a recognisable groundwater crisis. When pipes and such were not available (or even when they were available but were not very reliable), people started basically planting tube wells to suck water out of the ground. Individual households, but industries as well, which resulted in the rapid depletion of groundwater reserves. Today, you have a situation where tarmac and concrete urban structures reduce the amount of water that can return into the ground, which means that you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb.
Delhi is India’s capital city so, on the one hand, there’s a confidence that natural resources will be arranged to meet the needs of the city. But perhaps ironically, Delhi residents have also been battling water security for decades. Some people have been facing the brunt of this, more so than others for a long time. The government estimates that there is a deficit of 200 to 300 million gallons a day. There’s also a question of unequal distribution because certain neighborhoods might get more water than others, with some having to pay more for it, too.
Just about the time I was starting on this PhD, India’s national policy group—NITI—put out a report detailing the groundwater crisis, and there’s now a huge movement around better water resource management. The government, NGOs, and individuals have started doing their bit to make the city a place that nurtures its inhabitants. Due to public discourse and climate change over the last five or six years, this question has received an urgency that perhaps was missing in the 1990s. Very often, we think of cities as spaces where people are constantly battling for space, time, and money. There’s this mad rush in New York City for example, or Chicago or Tokyo. But then there are also elements of the city which recognize that, beyond this mad rush, there are also people caring for each other.


How many languages do you know?

India is a very polyphonic country. If you go to a marketplace or walk the streets (or even at home), your ears will pick up so many different languages. This was certainly the case in Calcutta, where I grew up. My ancestors are from Rajasthan, but I grew up in Bengal, and so I know some Hindi, Bengali, Mawari or Rajasthani, as well as English. These were all languages that I was growing up with. But I was also trained in Sanskrit and some classical European languages, in Latin and Greek.
I’m a votary, I think, of the importance of the classics in what they bring towards understanding the world. ‘Importance’: literally what they bring in. When I learnt Latin and Sanskrit, I realized that there were so many cognate possibilities in related languages that made it so much easier for me to understand them. All these classical languages not only inspired me to look at language(s) with more alertness, but also to appreciate them, their similarities and differences, their patterns. So as a result, I’m able to read Spanish on the Latin side of things, or French isn’t too hard either, and parallelly find my way through, say, Assamese on the Indic side of things.
Sometimes I wonder, though, do I know English or do I know Hindi? Can I express everything I want to express in or through a given language? Can I understand everything that is expressed in a given language as it passes through different political and artistic moments? I’m not sure.


You’ve put your linguistic skills to work by doing translation projects in the past. What was your favorite work to translate?

I suppose it’s a condition of the 21st century postcolonial world where a lot of academic production and thinking has been happening in English primarily. Some of that’s changing now, though, because of an increasing awareness of the politics of language as well as the availability of newer publishing technologies and markets. When I first went to school, there was a privileging of English as a language of upward mobility, aspiration, and a marker of class etc. But I realized gradually that this apparent mobility was coming at a great loss. In gaining English, we were, unfortunately, losing many other rich indigenous worlds. And so I thought that one way for me to participate in these many different rich linguistic worlds was to partake of them through translation. So, generally, I try to find projects that are intellectually stimulating or that inspire my creative impulse. For me, translation is equally about the politics of language as it is a creative exercise. I’ve translated work across classical and modern languages: from Bengali to Hindi, Latin and Sanskrit to English, and from English to Hindi.
The Latin to English translation was a work of scholarship, an attempt at translating a section of Virgil’s Aeneid into English. There’s a bit of a backstory, but Virgil’s Aeneid was actually amongst the first non-biblical classical European texts to be translated into any modern Indian language. A man named Henry Sargent had done this translation in the early 1800s while he was a kind of officer-in-training of the British in India. But then, this initial translation had actually gotten lost until my former professor, Dr. Abhijit Gupta recovered it at a library in Oxford, and knew this to be a very important text in terms of the history of the Bengali language and the history of publishing. But many Bengali readers would not be able to read the original Latin, and so it would be hard to determine the unique features in themselves of this early 19th century Bengali versus the translational decisions that Sargent would have taken in presenting the Aeneid in Bengali. So, then working with Professor Amlan Das Gupta, we tried to translate the Latin into English as faithfully as possible in order to capture the syntactical complexities of the original language which may have informed Sargent’s translation. And so, our new English translation, we believe, acts as a comparative text for the Bengali version that had been translated 200 years ago.
That work was very different compared to my latest one which was an early 20th century manuscript on tea by Okakura Kakuzō. He composed this powerful collection of essays which described not just tea drinking practices but also the beauty of, and philosophical premises underlying, tea. For him, tea became a representation of the many positive things in Asian culture, which could be held up in opposition to expanding Western colonialism at this time and its orientalist representations of Asian worlds. And so, Okakura-San’s work was equally a commentary on 19th and 20th century colonialism as it was also an appeal to a transcendental humanity through aesthetics. The message resonated so much with me (and not just because I love drinking chai) that I had to translate the text into Hindi, as I felt that Hindi readers too would resonate with Okakura-San’s work. And this is not just because India is probably one of the greatest tea-drinking nations in the world today, but because Okakura-San’s anti-colonial politics, grounded in a deep understanding and advocacy of (inter-)Asian traditions, continues to hold great relevance for us today. 
This was a complicated little book. It was philosophically dense, but very readable in English, and to translate the density and technical terminology into Hindi while retaining the readability factor was a challenge. I started the work in 2017, and it was published in 2021. I think I stayed with (and will continue to stay with) that text for a long time.

You have quite a musical background too. What instruments do you play?

I was trained at the violin but I also strum the guitar. And I had some foundational training at the tabla, a classic Indian percussion instrument. The tabla is a pair of small drums you play with mostly your fingertips to make delicate sounds and very complex, intricate rhythms, which are very much a feature of Hindustani classical music. I’ve also been trying to learn the mridangam which is also a percussion instrument but is held horizontally in your lap, but unfortunately, all these instruments have taken a backseat in my life at the present time. There’s only so much that you can do in 24 hours! But I’m inclined to stay open to the possibility of such activities, to trust that there will always be other moments in my life to continue pursuing and developing these vital interests.


On that note, what are your future plans?

I feel very strongly about the university and its ideals. I think the university is a place of possibility, creativity, critical appreciation, and scholarship. And so, I want to continue working in the academy, but also cultivate these other pursuits while I work on climate change-related or, more broadly, environmental issues at the same time. Higher education can, I believe, provide the opportunities to pursue such different questions, find some answers, and nurture varied interests, and gradually make the world a better place. The immediate goal, of course, is to complete my PhD. And then hopefully find a position in academia. But who knows what happens after a PhD.