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]