The Subverse - Season two

Join Susan Mathews for Season Two of The Subverse podcast. In this season, ‘water’ is our main theme. Join us as we explore the multifaceted dimensions of this life giving molecule.

episode 10

Drawing the Line: Inventing Rivers, the Dissent of Rain and Embracing Wetness

In this episode, we speak with architect and planner Dilip da Cunha, based in Philadelphia and Bangalore. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and the recipient of a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship. He has authored several books, such as Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (2001), co-authored with Anuradha Mathur. His most recent book (and the subject of our conversation), The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019. In 2020, he received the ASLA Honour award and the J.B Jackson Book Prize for his work.

In 2017, Mathur and Da Cunha founded a design platform called Ocean of Wetness. The organisation is dedicated to imaging and imagining habitation in ubiquitous wetness rather than on a land-water surface.

Our chat was a wide-ranging one, starting with the premise in many of his works: the line which separates land from water, which he terms “as one of the most fundamental and enduring acts in the understanding and design of human habitation.” He calls this the first colonialism, which took a wetness that is everywhere and turned it into a land and water binary. This led to the invention of rivers and source, course, and flood, leading us to see a river that flowed between two lines and flooded. Alexander’s eye represents the cartographer and surveyor, and Ganga’s descent is rain, colonised by river. Rain is no longer seen as feeding wetness but contained in gutters.

Da Cunha invites us to acknowledge wetness all around us, not contained in a place, and embrace living between the clouds and aquifers. He writes that “water is the first principle in the nature of moist things.” The city reinforces the line which separates water from land on the earth’s surface and it has become the quintessential settlement while reducing other modes of habitation to less settled or unsettled, creating hierarchies. He writes, “those educated with the map, inhabit a surface articulated with rivers, and their extension in pipes and drains.”

All this calls for a new imagination, driven by the celebratory event of rain — a re-heralding — and gradual steps, including learning from indigenous and other communities who have extended and nurtured ways of living with wetness.

To learn more about this remarkable work, visit

Episode 9, Part 2

Of Relationality and Water: Stories of Kinship, Care and Belonging

In this episode, we continue to explore relationality when it comes to water, and learn more from three women who have made water, and bodies of water, their life’s work. The politics of kinship can be complicated, but how would we approach our bodies of water if they were kin? Through a range of questions, we attempt to see, through their eyes, how water has shaped them, and how their ties with water have evolved.

Our guests are Sejal Mehta, Divya Panicker, and Tasneem Khan. In Part 1, we were introduced to their work as writers, scientists, educators and adventurers, and learned about how their projects and interventions make an impact. In Part 2, we go deeper into what fascinates them about water— the flow of the tides; properties like solvency; its creative force; acoustic camouflage that can soothe us; and the thrill of bioluminescence.

When we asked for water-related memories that stood out, they spoke of the rain and monsoons, diving in the deep blue ocean early in the morning, and listening to shallow water chimes. Not all memories are pleasant, and we hear more about the fears that being in water, or in deep spaces, can invoke, and what it takes to let go. We also find out more about underwater acoustics, and how the sonic signatures of marine creatures are changing with the changing climate.

To treat water as kin is to first acknowledge our own relationships with water—our oldest memories, hidden fears, our delight and joys, how we experience the sounds and taste of water, and the stories we’ve listened to growing up. Through sharing their stories, our three wise and wonderful guests invite us to do the same: to discover more about ourselves, to examine how we relate to the natural world around us, and to delve into the unknown and unknowable.

Our guests are:

Sejal Mehta is an author and editor based in Mumbai, India. She is a published author for children’s books and one feminist anthology, and a debut non-fiction book on intertidal wildlife called Superpowers on the Shore, published by Penguin Randomhouse in 2022. To further her individual outreach goals, she has launched Snaggletooth, a line of nature-inspired merchandise that illustrates positive associations between humans and animals.

She tweets and posts on Instagram as sejalmehta06.

Divya Panicker has recently completed her PhD in Oceanography from the University of Washington. Her work focuses on cetacean distributions, habitat use and behaviour off the southwest coast of India.

Tasneem Khan is a biologist, photographer, adventurer, and educator who has spent the last decade facilitating interdisciplinary initiatives in the fields of ecology, conservation, education, and science communication. She is now focused on place-based education through a co-founded initiative Earth Colab and also started Sea School in Ireland.

Find Tasneem Khan on Instagram.

Episode 9, Part 1

Of Relationality and Water: Stories of Kinship, Care and Belonging

Water has played a central role as a resource and property in our dominant worldviews. It has made and unmade empires. In our nation-building, watercourses, waterways, oceans, rivers and freshwaters have all played leading roles, part of a continued and relentless drive to choreograph and subjugate our waters. But it is the indigenous, the subjugated, and the oppressed who seem to best recognise water’s power as both a life force and a catastrophic threat. For them, water is kin, creator, and protector.

In this episode, we wanted to explore relationality when it comes to water. Inspired by, and quoting from, a kinship project run by the Center for Humans and Nature, “with every breath, every sip of water, every meal, we are reminded that our lives are inseparable from the life of the world and the cosmos — in ways that are both material and spiritual.” As they ask in their project, “what are the sources of our deepest evolutionary and planetary connections, and of our profound longing for kinship?”.

The politics of kinship can be complicated, but how would we approach our bodies of water if they were kin?

So, we asked three women who have made water, and bodies of water, their life work a range of questions. We wanted to see through their eyes how water has shaped them and how they have shaped their relations with water. All three guests, through their writing, scientific research, and hobbies, share a lifelong passion for all things water and marine creatures.

We put together a few questions for our guests, giving them free rein in how they wanted to interpret them. In part one of this episode, we will hear descriptions of their work and play as it relates to water, how it has shaped them as people, and why they consider their projects or interventions so important.

Our guests are:

Sejal Mehta is an author and editor based in Mumbai, India. She is a published author for children’s books and one feminist anthology, and a debut non-fiction book on intertidal wildlife called Superpowers on the Shore, published by Penguin Randomhouse in 2022. To further her individual outreach goals, she has launched Snaggletooth, a line of nature-inspired merchandise that illustrates positive associations between humans and animals.

She tweets and posts on Instagram as sejalmehta06.

Divya Panicker has recently completed her PhD in Oceanography from the University of Washington. Her work focuses on cetacean distributions, habitat use and behaviour off the southwest coast of India.

Tasneem Khan is a biologist, photographer, adventurer, and educator who has spent the last decade facilitating interdisciplinary initiatives in the fields of ecology, conservation, education, and science communication. She is now focused on place-based education through a co-founded initiative Earth Colab and also started Sea School in Ireland.

Find Tasneem Khan on Instagram.

Episode 8

How to Breathe, and Other Survival Lessons From Marine Mammals

In this episode, we interview Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a writer, independent scholar, poet, activist, and educator based in Durham, North Carolina, United States of America. From her earlier work on Revolutionary Mothering, she has transformed the scope of intellectual, creative, and oracular writing with her poetic triptych of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (published in 2016), M Archive: After the End of the World (2018), and Dub: Finding Ceremony (2020).  All of Alexis’s work is grounded in a community-building ethic and would not be possible without her communities of accountability in Durham, the broader US Southeast and the global south.

Her most recent book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, 2020, part of adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy Series at AK Press, won the 2022 Whiting Award in Nonfiction, and is an artifact and tool for interspecies ancestral listening. The book flows from her previous works in a poetic continuum, with water playing a central role.

In Undrowned, Gumbs takes us through 19 thematic movements, lessons from marine mammals, and kindred beyond taxonomy. From echolocation to the evolution of dorsal fins, each movement takes us deeper into listening, breathing, practicing, surrendering, refusing, honouring our boundaries, slowing down, and taking care of our blessings, amongst a range of other meditations. Through anecdotes and illustration, she draws us into a world of breathing in unbreathable circumstances. Learning from whales, dolphins, seals, otters, and walruses, we discover surprising ways to care, love, and survive.

Gumbs disrupts and critiques our mostly unthinking and unexamined acceptance of capitalist narratives and discourse. As a queer Black feminist love evangelist, as she describes herself, and a marine mammal apprentice, she draws on archives of Black feminist practice and theorists. Gumbs asks in the book, “What indentation am I making on the surface of this Earth, even if it is so far underwater no one can see?”, something we all need to be asking ourselves.

She is currently working on her next book, The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

More about the guest

For more about Alexis Pauline Gumbs, visit her website.

You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Episode 7

Sea turtles, Island fever and Magical mysteries: the adventures of an evolutionary ecologist

In this episode, we interview Kartik Shanker, who was inspired to begin a career in ecology by an ancient reptile, a sea turtle that crawled ashore late one night in Madras (now Chennai). As faculty at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, his focus is the ecology and evolution of frogs, reptiles, birds, plants, and marine fauna. His group works on evolutionary biogeography of different taxa, and on the ecology and behaviour of mixed species groups of birds and reef fish. He has recently initiated work on sharks and rays off the Indian coast, and on reef associated organisms in the Andaman Islands.

Shanker is also a founding trustee of Dakshin Foundation, where he leads the Marine Flagships and the Community Wellbeing programmes.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about how he started off with evolutionary ecology around three decades ago, through sea turtle walks which continue till date. We discussed conservation in India, the often exclusionary and elitist ways in which programmes and schemes are rolled out, the differences between terrestrial and marine paradigms, and the importance of working with local communities.

Shanker spoke of his love of writing, both fiction and non-fiction and the research and collegiality at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, the joy it gives him, and  the sea change ethos of the work they do at the Dakshin Foundation. He also talks about  the new book he is working on in the area of paleobiogeography.

More about the guest

Shanker has established long term research programmes on olive ridleys in Odisha, leatherback turtles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and green turtles in the Lakshadweep Islands. He also served as the president of the International Sea Turtle Society and regional vice-chair of the IUCN/SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group.

As part of his desire to improve environmental education and the public understanding of science, he started the magazine, Current Conservation, in 2008. He is the author of the book From Soup to Superstar, a historical account of sea turtle conservation in India. He has also written several children’s stories including Turtle Story, The Adventures of Philautus Frog, Moonlight in the Sea, and Lori’s Magical Mystery.

His website is at:

For the exploits of Kart El Shockington, see this link

You can find him on Twitter @kartik_shanker.

Episode 6

Floating on a Bed of Rights: Water, Sanitation, and Legal Currents

In this episode, we interview Catarina de Albuquerque, Chief Executive Officer of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA), a global partnership which has positioned SWA as a vital contributor to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke of what human rights as a discourse brings to water and sanitation, the realities on the ground, and the backdrop in which the General Assembly recognised not only water as a right, but sanitation also in 2010. Together, they are vital for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, education, and economic productivity of populations.

In this episode, we discussed the need to link the right to water with water injustices, particularly the politics of water governance and equity. If not connected to social movements, the right to water risks being an empty signifier. Commercialisation, privatisation, and the commodification of water have resulted in a situation in which those who can pay for water have it readily, leaving many without affordable, or accessible water sources.

We spoke at length about inequalities, with her outlining issues around access to water and how gender, caste, class, and disability determine access to water. Women often suffer the most from water scarcity, given that the responsibility of collecting water, and managing this scarce resource to meet diverse household needs rests with them.

We also touched upon how the existing legal arena and human rights discourse may not allow for discussions around existential questions, focusing our gaze on narrow, human frames. She also outlined the obligations of states and other actors, including private actors and international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have often crippled states in terms of allocating towards social and public goods. In fact, Covid-19 has brought more attention towards water and sanitation, in a good way. But human memory is short, and so it is crucial to hold on to any gains made. Towards the end of the talk, she spoke passionately about building forward from Covid-19, and focusing on what we can all do in our own ways to support social movements and the fight against the climate crisis,  in which our water sources are at the greatest risk.

More about the guest

Catarina de Albuquerque was previously the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2008. In 2010, she played a pivotal role in the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly. Her work also helped ensure that the rights to water and sanitation were incorporated into the language of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For work of the SWA, please see this link.

You can find Catarina on Twitter.

Episode 5

Subduing Unruly Waters: Learning from South Asia’s Environmental History

From Asia’s mountain core flows ten great rivers that run through 16 countries, serving a fifth of humanity. The struggle for water in modern history is a global story, but nowhere has the search for water shaped or sustained as much human life as in India and China. In this episode, we speak to Sunil Amrith, historian and writer, about his book Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History published in 2018.

Unruly Waters tells the story of how the schemes of empire-builders, the visions of freedom fighters, the designs of engineers, and the cumulative actions of hundreds of millions of people across generations, have transformed Asia’s waters over the past 200 years.

Today, the quality as well as the quantity of water is under strain from a multiplicity of new demands and uses. Despite rising sea levels, deeply contaminated and shrinking groundwater, we continue to subjugate our rivers through building big dams and depending on artificial irrigation for our farming.

The Indian subcontinent is the crucible of the monsoon, and the thread that runs through this book is the monsoon— interconnected with weather and global climate systems, with effects far beyond South Asia. The monsoon has shaped the limits of cultivation and the distribution of crops, and its ecological niches have created economic unevenness, the stuff of which political power is made. The reach of the monsoon also marks the junction, the ecological nexus, between two very different ideas of India. One is as a settled agrarian empire; the other as the outward-looking heart of the Indian Ocean world.

In the conversation, we also cover some of our parched histories, and the histories of the empire. The catastrophes of the late nineteenth century left many people—Indian economists, British administrators, water engineers and humanitarian reformers—with an acute anxiety about climate and water. Climate was at the heart of a new ecology of fear’, something we also face in our contemporary contexts: old and new anxieties and fears. How does reading these parched histories equip us now, or can they?

In this wide-ranging conversation, we also speak about hydro-colonialism, the many names of rain, signs of hope, and taking from Zadie Smith, how there is a sense of loss that climate change brings with it. We also examine our relationship with animals, trees, our kinship, our duty of care, elements now animating environmental history, and his own scholarship.

More about the guest

  • Sunil Amrith is the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History at Yale University. His books include Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), and Unruly Waters (2018). He is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, and has recently been awarded the A.H. Heineken Prize for History (2022). Amrith is currently writing a new book on environmental history.For more details, please see this link.You can find him on Twitter.

Episode 4

A story made of water: of incantations, mermaids, and moonlight

In this episode, we talk to Sharanya Manivannan, who writes and illustrates fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for children and adults.  She is the author of seven books, and her work has won a South Asia Laadli Award, and has been nominated for The Hindu Prize, The JCB Prize, The Neev Book Award and other honours. Her two most recent books are the graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, and the picture book, Mermaids In The Moonlight. Sharanya grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and currently lives in India.

Ila is the mermaid protagonist in her two recent books, and the stories are set in Mattakalappu (Batticaloa), on the northeastern shore of Sri Lanka. We are introduced to a lagoon teeming with magic. For those who live there, the idea of fish-tailed women is not out of the realm of possibility. And yet, while these mermaids appear as motifs throughout the lagoon, their stories have been erased. In these books, Sharanya breathes new life into these tales and other accounts of mermaids from all over the world, challenging the often eurocentric focus of these myths.

Ila’s journey extends through the war on the island and the silence of those years, and the tsunami of 2004, when “the water stripped back like linen to reveal its bed and afterwards, beings that would resist record lay stranded briefly.”

It is the capaciousness of water, and the hybrid and fluid body of the mermaid that really offers us a beautiful escape in these books. It gives us a whole new world, a whole subverse for us to partake in.

There is also joy and grief in equal parts. As we have learnt from myths and folklore, loving and living between worlds is a tenuous, precarious thing. With mermaids forfeiting their fishy limbs for a mortal existence, and the existence of curses, black magic, trickery, blood betrayals, bewitchery, and broken covenants.

Unfortunately, there is a twist in this tale. Incantations over Water, which was published in December 2021 is now out of print, and so is Mermaids In The Moonlight. Westland, the publisher that released both books was closed by Amazon earlier this year. So, for now, we will have to wait with the patience of Ila, for this book to return to us. Some magic conjured up by the sea we hope will do the trick.

More about the guest

Follow Sharanya Manivannan on Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 3

A River Dammed: Oral Histories from the Narmada River Valley

In this episode, we talk to Nandini Oza about archiving oral histories around the struggles against dam projects in the Narmada River valley. The former President of Oral History Association of India (2020-22), Nandini is a researcher, writer, chronicler, and an archivist.

For over a decade, she was an activist with the powerful people’s movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). In 2004, Nandini began recording the oral histories of prominent leaders and activists of the NBA—both local and from outside the Narmada valley—and of impacted women and men belonging to adivasi, farming, and other natural resource-dependent communities.

The Narmada is India’s longest west-flowing river, and it makes its way through the three western states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is the terminal dam on the river in Gujarat, and is part of the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP) which includes 30 big, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams on the river and its tributaries. In an article published in The Hindu in 2016, Shiv Viswanathan wrote, “To me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam. The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. It demands a different kind of storytelling. This struggle is about a collective history of a people challenging the official history of a nation state.”

For Nandini, oral history is people’s history—the history of the marginalised and exploited, narrated in their own voice, which is often actively suppressed by mainstream history. Even in people’s movements, when history is written, it often focuses on the key issues, programs and strategies, or on known faces, and the people who form the backbone of the resistance and their battles do not find a place of prominence. These interviews also help us understand how turning a free-flowing river into a reservoir of stagnant water by building a mega dam destroys the very way of life of people who belong to one of the oldest river valley civilizations.

More about the guest

Follow Nandini Oza on Twitter and Instagram.

Further reading and links

We play some compelling clips, and invite listeners to hear the clips and see the translations as follows:

  1. Short clip of Pervi – Oral History Narmada (time 0:01:30)
  2. Short clip of Rehmat
  3. Short clip of Champaben Tadvi
  4. Short Clip of Sitarambhai Patidar

The oral history archive can be found at:

To buy The Struggle for Narmada: An Oral History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan by Adivasi Leaders Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave, Nandini Oza, Translated from the original Marathi by Suhas Paranjape and Swatija Manorama, With a Foreword by Indira Chowdhury

  • For readers outside India, Orient BlackSwan posts the same and it can be
    ordered here.
  • The book can be purchased from Amazon at a discounted price.

Episode 2

From the stars to the tidepool: water as the matrix of life

In this episode, we talk about the molecule of life, the matrix of the world, cosmic juice — water.

As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “It is the gold standard of biological currency.” She says, “Water is life, it’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive. It makes up two-thirds of our bodies, just like the map of the world; our vital fluids are saline, like the ocean. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

This episode is part tribute, part meditation on the journey of water from the stars to the tide pool. John Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez about how all things are one thing and that one thing is all things — plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. He advises us to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

For the remainder of this podcast season, we will cover various dimensions of water — from history to folklore, to the impact of big dams, to the challenges of providing drinking water and sanitation, and more. This episode is also an introduction to the remainder of the season and how we can speak of our current crises in view of the space of water as an urgent territory of engagement.

From the stars to the tide pool is a tale of magic, of diving into a wreck, of embracing differences, articulating agency and accounting for our water wounds. It is a journey from the outer to the inner space of water, to coming to terms with our fishy beginnings, and our watery selves and learning to swim towards unknowable futures.

Credits for the Rig Veda quote and Paracelsus quote: H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000

Special thanks to Tushar Das, who added the wonderful effects and sound designed the episode.

Further reading and links

In preparing this episode, there are lots of wonderful works we relied on, but a few sources really propelled and added richness and depth to this monologue. See below the following:

  • H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000
  • Water, A Biography, Guilio Boccaletti, 2021
  • Bodies of Water, Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Astrida Neimanis, 2017
  • Fresh Water, Barbara Kingsolver, National Geographic, April 2010
  • What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, Jamie Linton, 2010
  • Diving into a Wreck, poem by Adrienne Rich

Episode 1

Art as resistance: the future of activism in a changing climate

In this episode, we talk about art and activism with Kumi Naidoo, a seasoned activist in South Africa during its struggle against apartheid who is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for human rights, gender equity, economic justice and environmental justice. He headed Civicus, Greenpeace and Amnesty International and continues to serve in an honorary capacity as Global Ambassador for the Pan-African civil society movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.He is presently a fellow at the Robert Bosch academy in Berlin, Germany.

Having been on the frontlines of social and environmental justice for decades, Kumi spoke of the aftermath of the Conference of Parties 26 (COP 26) in Glasgow which was the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the over-representation of the fossil fuel industry and how close we are to the cliff on climate change action, Recent IPCC reports speak of the dire situation we face and the shrinking window of action, something referred to in this conversation. While in Glasgow, he had a discussion with Olafur Eliasson, an artist based in Berlin, on how art and activism can learn from each other. Art is a way of making visible that which is invisible or maybe even rendered invisible and activism can learn much from art. James Baldwin once wrote, “the artist must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” We need to move beyond the limitations and entanglements of political activism as it stands now, and the hierarchies and intrinsic hegemonies built into our institutions and our norms. Art, fiction activate our imaginations and are important forms through which we can imagine other forms of human existence and other futures.

Kumi spoke compellingly of the need for youth to take the reins of leadership and not wait for it to be handed over, along with continuing to celebrate life, to love, laugh, embrace joy, to go down fighting, see these fights as marathons not as sprints and ensure accountability and justice in the process.

More about the guest

Follow Kumi Naidoo on Instagram and on Twitter.

Further reading and links

Read the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report which assesses the impacts of climate change, looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels.