(Excerpts from an interview I did with author Ruth Padel, and a part-review of her new book; in this week’s Business Standard Weekend)
Journeys, literary and otherwise, must necessarily begin with a single step as the cliche goes. For scholar and poet Ruth Padel, that step was the painful end of a long relationship a few years ago. Suddenly adrift and desolate, she turned to a dormant interest in wildlife to help keep her mind occupied. The result: a two-year journey through the tiger reserves and jungles of India, China, Russia, Bhutan and many other countries.
One of the many remarkable things about the book, Tigers in Red Weather, that emerged from these travels is how it moves from being an intimate, very personal story into a magnificent study of an animal whose fate is more relevant than the world realises. Padel's journey may have begun as therapy for a broken heart - "I was being pulled towards the great animal solitary…Tigers are about surviving, alone" - but it soon turned into an obsession in its own right. Writing the book as part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-wildlife primer was a literary risk - it could easily have opened her to accusations of using an important topic to exorcise her own demons - but Padel pulls it off beautifully. "Mine was a journey of learning," she says, "and I wanted to root the reader in my own life to help provide a personal perspective."
If you're a layperson, with little or no knowledge about the issues surrounding tiger conservation today, you'll be drawn into the book for this very reason. More knowledgeable tomes on the animal have been written by men like Valmik Thapar and Ullas Karanth (both of whom feature in Padel's book) but they are so close to the subject, having spent so many years studying tiger conservation, that their work can be daunting for the casual reader. Tigers in Red Weather, on the other hand, is an exploration - from the simplicity of the writing and the careful articulation of things that experts would take for granted to the lovingly detailed index, which took Padel three weeks to put together. Throughout the book, we accompany Padel on her quest, learn with her, feel the wonder and dismay that she does. It’s comforting (even if much of what we learn isn’t).
Every country Padel travelled to has a unique set of problems. In India there is the depressingly familiar issue of corrupt middlemen and collusion between poachers and officials. Beginning her journey in the Panna reserve in Madhya Pradesh, Padel gradually learnt about the inefficiency that cripples the forest service. "There is no centralised body for wildlife," she says, "Some of the best scientific minds in the world are right here in this country but they end up persecuted when they try to make a difference." Like Ullas Karanth, whose move to radio-collar tigers – a reliable, modern method of monitoring wild animals - led to accusations that he was spreading cancer amongst them.
Even so, Karnataka, where Karanth operates, is relatively well off because of the strong network he has built across the state. "Similar networks are badly needed in places like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh," Padel says. "People need to be trained at the lower levels. If you can have armed police guarding banks...well, forests harbour greater treasures."
In Russia the issue is one of political instability and of an enormous country struggling with too many internal conflicts to count. In China the tiger has traditionally been revered as a symbol of power but has simultaneously been betrayed like nowhere else. ("China is the black hole pulling in all dead tigers," Padel was moved to write.) This is where the greatest demand comes from: for tiger meat, tiger bones for dubious medicinal purposes, tiger skins for the nouveau riche, even tiger-whisker toothpicks! This is where grinning tourists get their adrenaline rushes by sitting atop bound and drugged beasts and posing for photos. This is also where denial has been turned into an art form. "If China is to be the economic model for the world, wilderness is doomed."
And everywhere, around the world but especially in poorer countries, there is the problem of apathy - human beings looking out for their own short-term interests without caring that tiger protection and forest conservation can only benefit them in the long-term. "Forests are protectors of the great rivers," says Padel. "The fall of civilisations through the ages - from Babylon down - can be traced to the destruction of forested land. Saving the tiger means saving everything in the ecosystem - right down to the smallest butterfly."
"But how does one expect a poor villager, who has children and grandchildren he has to feed now, to understand or care about the larger picture? And when the authorities themselves are too myopic and greedy to educate and help people, this becomes a losing battle."
Padel's own ability to see that larger picture can be traced, at least in part, to her genealogy: she is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, whose famous vision was that of balance and harmony in nature, and who helped us understand how the various parts of an ecosystem – humans and tigers included - interlock and sustain each other. But even this vision is easily misinterpreted. Traveling in China, Padel was perplexed by a Shanghai novelist's statement that Darwin represents human progress. "Darwin had made our relation to animals central to our vision of ourselves, made us see ourselves as connected to other animals," she writes, "If you take him to stand for human progress, that connection is lost." Later on the same trip, she was dispirited by a visit to the Jade Garden: "This was nature squeezed and planned, not the natural balance of animal and plant..."
Isn't it idealistic though to see the world today in terms of that grand vision? Hasn't human selfishness already tipped us too far over the edge? "But we have to try and save what there is left," Padel insists. "In India, for instance, less than 4 per cent of land is forested. Surely it isn’t much to ask that in just that territory the interests of the tiger should be allowed to override short-term human benefit?" Even this would be a sad compromise. A century and a half after Darwin dreamt of a vibrant, interdependent ecosystem, Padel herself will continue to see the tiger dreams she describes so vividly in her book, knowing that the wild tiger might soon exist in only those jungles of the imagination.