Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The call of the wild

One of the most purposeful and to-the-point book events I’ve been to recently was the launch of Voices in the Wilderness, an anthology of wildlife writings edited by Prerna Singh Bindra. Bindra, whose own work in the field of environmental journalism I’ve long admired, kept her talk simple but oriented around the book: she used a Powerpoint presentation to take us through each of the 22 pieces in the collection, throwing in an additional bit of information about the topic or the author every now and again. (Note: I might steal the idea for my film-essay anthology!)

Voices in the Wilderness is a very eclectic collection, in terms of its content as well as the styles on offer. The personal essays and journalistic accounts (by such writers as Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal, K Ullas Karanth, Tom Alter and Ruskin Bond) feature tigers, dugongs, birds, turtles, even the “humble” caterpillar (a finely observed piece by Ranjit Lal about “the making of a butterfly”). The range stretches from reportage-dominated writing (such as Bindra’s own “Red Cancer Green Quarry”, about the effects of Naxal insurgency on India’s forests) to free-flowing bits of whimsy (as in Janaki Lenin’s amusing “My Husband and Other Animals”, about living amidst assorted wildlife – mongooses, toddy cats, rat snakes, red scorpions, a leopard, you name it – in a farm on the outskirts of Chennai).

I enjoyed most of these pieces, but I have a special affection for “Barefoot Among the Turtles”, Shekar Dattatri’s vivid account of witnessing and photographing an “arribada” – the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles – on the Gahirmatha Beach in Orissa:
After she had laid all her eggs, “my turtle” began closing up the nest. She pushed the sand back into the hole using her hind feet and pressed it down firmly. Then she did something remarkable. Raising herself up on her flippers, she began to pound the sand with her plastron. She rocked her body from side to side, hitting the ground with force and packing the sand in the nest tighter and tighter. This thud of shell meeting sand can be heard from quite a distance away. By now there were thousands of turtles around me, in various stages of nesting, and the unearthly drumming could be heard from all sides.
I find that image so compelling – one human on a moonlit beach late at night, surrounded as far as the eye can see by thousands of ancient reptiles purposefully going about their life's work
(“I seemed to have been transported back in time, to a period when dinosaurs ruled the earth”), their efforts often ruined by other turtles coming in and digging up their carefully laid eggs. It’s a splendid vision of the beauty as well as the implacable detachment of nature, but even more poignant is the account that follows, of the cruel fate of thousands of olive-ridley turtles caught up in trawling nets each year. “If we don’t act now, one more of the great wonders of the natural world will disappear before our eyes,” is the closing sentence, but this could easily be an epigraph for most of the pieces in the collection.

[Photo courtesy Dattatri's website]

A big part of being human and having relatively sophisticated brains - capable of reflecting on the interdependence of life and the fragility of ecosystems - is that the species must take some sort of responsibility for the planet. Speaking up for voiceless creatures is a big part of that responsibility. Despite the glimmers of hope in this anthology (as in “Munzalas in the Mist”, an account of the heart-lifting discovery of a new macaque species in Arunachal Pradesh), these stories are mostly a reminder of how much work still needs to be done in the field of conservation, and of the role literature can play in spreading awareness.

[Some related posts: on Ranjit Lal’s Wild City, Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck, and a chat with Vandana Singh, who wrote the essay “The Creatures we Don’t See”. Also, Prerna Singh Bindra's blog is here]


  1. Reading books such as the one's mentioned above may be the only pieces of information left in the world, about these magnificent creatures, for future generations. It is painful to even visualize a world without so many of the beautiful creations of nature being destroyed by the greed of just one species.

  2. Sorry Jai, but this comment is not about this article actually. It's just about the new layout you've chosen for this blog. To be blunt, it's poor, clumsy and amateurish. Basically, it is everything your writing and thoughts are not. As an almost a daily visitor, I must request you to take one more crack at this. Jabberwock is too good blog to be seen around in a Doordarshan style look and feel. I hope you take this rather strong criticism in the right spirit. Cheers, Jai.

  3. Anon: no problem with taking criticism in the right spirit, but I happen to disagree: I think the template is fine. A lot better than the old one, which was extremely dull - a bit like Doordarshan seen through a static haze.

    Thanks for the bluntness though!

  4. Jai - I faced a few issues after using the new blogger designs and I realized that thouse using Internet Explorer browser (especially an earlier version which is still used a lot) does not work well with the design. The blog has a dark green loud look but the same looks great in Chrome - a few complaints by fellow bloggers may be because of that...

  5. Jai,
    I am a long time reader, first time commenter. Let me first say thanks for writing this blog. I really enjoy reading it.

    Anyway, have you read 'Tigers and tigerwallahs'? It is an omnibus of 4 books with one of them being a collection of stories by Jim Corbett recounting his hunting of man-eating tigers. It is interesting to note that many of the famous conservationists were hunters at one point in time.

  6. Jaideep: thanks for the comment. No, I haven't read that omnibus - in general, have to catch up a lot on wildlife writing.

    And yes, I think it makes for very interesting reading (as well as an interesting psychological profile) when a hunter becomes a conservationist or generally acquires a new perspective on other species.

  7. hi, its very informative, HCG diet , thanks