Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tigers in Red Weather

(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.


  1. Good review and will read the book.

    '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..." '

    One reason why I don't like bonsai.

  2. Great review. I once had the opportunity to do a couple of stories on the tiger crisis. And from what I gathered from conservationists, Sher Khan is fighting a losing battle. It's only when something like Ranthmabore happens that the powers-that-be seem to wake up to this looming catastrophe. But then the reaction is mostly knee-jerk, like instituting a probe or something. Padel is bang on when she says, "China is the black hole pulling in all dead tigers." The demand for tiger parts is highest in China and other countries in the Far East. The Gulf nations are also big culprits. Also, for poachers the route of choice is the porous Indo-Nepal border, along Uttar Pradesh, which sees some of the heaviest trafficking in tiger parts. However, while everybody seem to talk of the tiger, very little is written or discussed about the leopard, which is disappearing fast, if not faster than its bigger sister. Coming generations will probably get to know of the magnificent animal only through Jim Corbett's books or the Natonal Geographic channel!

  3. Great review.

    She did a book reading at college on tuesday, followed by a discussion with people asking her about 'the role of the West' in accusatory voices. I liked the bits of the book she read - very funny and touching and personal. I will get the book...when it's out in paperback. I'm poor.;)

  4. Mrudula, Mumbaigirl: yes, bonsai is mentioned in the same context in the book too.

    Rumman: read the book. I know I'm full of recommendations, but this one's serious.

    Aishwarya: amazed you didn't just *make puppy eyes* and ask if you could borrow it :)

  5. That actually works? I'm always worried people who have actually met me will try to imagine me making a puppy-eyed face and die of laughter/horror/both. ;)

  6. That was excellent. made me want to read the book ASAP.

  7. hi,
    iam surely impressed with your writing skills but am very sorry to say that the way you look at ruth padel's approach towards the issue of tiger conservation and places where this issue is relevant i.e south asia is completely different from mine.
    i havehad the oppurtunity of hearing padel on this book of hers and i was horrified to say the least,i feel she is strongly driven by the notion of the orientin her perception of south asia ,its problems and it's people.
    what especially upset me was her attitude towards the tribals and the way she spoke about them as a community that digs up animals etc etc ,will someone pls tell her that tribals hae forever managed the forests better than a zillion conservationists put togethar.
    well all of this was enuf to not let me read the book but after reading your review i guess i should give it a shot to only understand closely why you like the book so much.
    good job anyway:)