Archive for the ‘General’ Category
February 2013 wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with departure and demise of dear ones. It started with the death of an elephant. She was found in a stream after many days of her death. Fishes in that stream and maggots on her body were having a feast. We couldn’t really tell which herd she belonged to. Several speculations were made—she could have been unwell, or that she probably slipped while crossing the stream, and so on. In the government records her passing on was registered as a “natural death”. May be it was.
This was followed by the death of a leopard. A very young leopard was found dead amidst tea bushes. Again, the reason for her death was not clear. It was presumed that she was killed in a territorial fight with another adult leopard. Traces of blood and drag-marks were all over the place. She was half eaten. She was taken away for a postmortem.
Individuals like these will continue to live in the government records, in a researcher’s field notebook, technical reports, and as photographs or newspaper articles. But there are certain deaths that will go unnoticed, even by us, and no one may even be aware that it happened—like the roadkill of a mouse deer that I saw in mid February. The driver of the vehicle might be aware of that or he/she may simply have heard some noise, a thud, or a squelch and moved on. Or the driver may not have even known that he/she had killed a living being. Few passers-by like me, in the middle of that night, probably noticed that dead mouse deer, or probably did not.
Incidents like these make us feel sad for a few minutes, hours or sometimes may even last for a few days. We may or may not remember these again. Even if we do remember, we may not feel the same way as we did when we first saw it. But if we know the individuals, if we are attached to someone or something or some place, if we feel the connection even if it is only one-way, then, when we lose any of them, the sense of loss will haunt us forever. Because, we are not just losing them, we are also losing the connections we once had with them. This will be painful, like how we feel at the demise of a friendship or a relationship; much more painful than the physical death of a friend.
Few years ago, while passing through Kavarkal, Divya said,”I am missing that guy ya”. Across the valley on a hill, in a degraded grassland patch, near the electric pylon, we used to often see a tusker grazing peacefully. She was referring to him. Some months after that, somewhere near that place a tusker was found dead. Anand went and looked at the decaying body but was unable to recognize that individual. He doesn’t want to conclude that it was that guy we used to see there. Before that death, even if “our guy” wasn’t seen there, we knew that he would be have been roaming elsewhere. But after that death, that hope slowly faded away. Even now, whenever I happen to pass through that place my eyes involuntarily look in that direction, scanning, searching for him, and remember Divya’s sentiment.
Similarly, usually while heading back to Valparai from Coimbatore, we stop at Nalumukku Sungam for a cup of tea. Nearly a year ago, on one such occasion I noticed that something was missing there. Sridhar said in a shocked tone, ”Damn, they cut that tree”. There used to be a large tamarind tree in one of the corners of Nalumuku Sungam. On the ground, no trace of that tree can be seen now. I never paid much attention to that tree until it was cut and removed from that place. There is a large void now. That tree would have been planted at least several decades if not a century ago. I miss that tree now. Sridhar has been commuting through this route for over a decade and he would certainly miss seeing this tree more than me. I wonder if (and hope) there is someone who lives in that town, who went and stood under the tree for its shade, or grew up along with that tree, or harvested the fruits from that tree, feels the same way or fondly remembers that tree. Those people probably miss that tamarind tree more than any of us do.
Then, there used to be a huge log near the Selaliparai club. Two years ago, just before the NCF annual meeting in Valparai, I remember Divya mentioning in a sad tone that a huge Calophyllum tree has fallen. This was a large tree, one of those identified as a heritage tree by us in this landscape. I only vaguely remember seeing that tree when it was alive and standing majestically. But I am more familiar with that only as a Calophyllum log, with its deeply fissured bark and heavily laden with epiphytes—just as majestic and alive horizontal as it was when vertical. In late February, while driving past that place we saw a crane about to lift that log and take it away. Now without that log, that place wears a desolate look. In coming days or months or years, when we go that way, we are sure to tell this story to others with us or sigh with sadness amongst ourselves.
I feel personally connected to that tusker, the tamarind tree and the Calophyllum log because I liked them. I knew that the connection was one-way, but I still feel bad when I don’t see them in their spots. But what if someone reciprocated the affection which we gave but suddenly vanished from our lives? Obviously, the magnitude of loss will be immeasurable, and drive us to despair. I realized this when Baby disappeared.
Baby was Anand’s cat. When he moved to a different house, although close by, Baby moved to Divya & Sridhar’s place. She also made our office her home. I am not a cat person. To be honest I was not fond of pets at all, until I met Baby. She was an exceptionally friendly cat. I often felt that she was a talking cat. I loved the way she greeted me when she saw me for the first time everyday. It was not just me. She was friendly with everyone over here. She captivated us with her sheer friendliness. It was a great feeling when she came to me and mewed in the middle of the night or gently tapped me with her soft forepaw to signal that she was hungry or wanted to play. She always liked to be with people, among people. I had not taken care of her all her life. Only on a few occasions or few days when the others were away. But she had had a deep impact on me. I can imagine how the true cat lovers and caretakers—Anand and Divya—would have felt when she suddenly disappeared one night. Soon after she was missing, for many days they would call-out for her, with hope and prayers. It was unbearable to hear their voices. She never turned up. It was unlike her not to respond or stay away from home. Although Divya kind of knew the minute she had disappeared since she had heard some scuffling noise outside. Divya had the feeling after hearing the noise outside that our neighbourhood leopard had paid a visit to our doorstep. It is nice to know that he is still around, but wish the evidence had been something else. Or maybe not. We do not know exactly what happened to Baby, but I hate to think that she has passed on.
Baby’s disappearance made me think of certain other things which went out of my sight and my life. But they will be etched in my memory for a long time to come.
In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?
The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.
That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.
The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.
The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.
The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.
Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.
Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.
Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.
Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”
A new herd had been spotted and I got news that the herd was out in the open. I rushed to the spot as soon as I could and found the herd in a swamp surrounded by tea. It was 5 pm and the sun was going down casting a blanket of gold on everything it touched. The elephants were aware of our presence but seemed relaxed. This herd had 3 calves. The male calf seemed to be the oldest and was full of life.
The herd in a small swamp amidst Tea.
An adult elephant scratches herself behind the ear.
An adult female with the smallest calf in the herd following her closely.
Elephants are social animals and have strong bonds. The adult female watches calves play.
The young male calf got a little too excited and tried to mount the smaller calf. I was surprised to see the adult who was looking away, suddenly kick the calf with her hind leg. How did she know what he was upto?
The adult female kicks out at the young male calf.
The calf does not give up and tries his luck again.
His antics caught the attention of the few other family members who were close by.
He tried his luck again.
This time a calf that was close by lunged towards him. It reacted much before the adults did. Are the elephants communicating to split them up?
The adults reacted soon and pushed him away from the little calf.
Play mounting is common among young ones and is a process of learning adult behavior during their course of development. Sometimes, when calves are harassed by older ones, adults will try to safe guard the young ones.
This young elephant did not participate in the disciplining session. He was happy stripping away the bark.
The calves bonding again. This time the adults kept an extra eye on him.
The sun was going down and the elephants decided to leave. A large adult female took the lead and checked the air. They knew people were around. They slowly walked away with the calves between their legs. They went around a hillock and went out of sight. It is amazing to see how the elephants have a strict code of conduct.
That ended another fascinating evening today at Valparai.
After the NCF annual meet I returned to Valparai. It was the 31st of July and I was to leave for Bangalore that evening. I got a call saying that one of the herds that we have been following is out in the open and a female had given birth that morning!
Elephant herd in a tea estate
Anand (assistant) and I rushed to the see the herd, but by then, they had moved off with the new born into the coffee plantation, which is much denser in vegetation. So, we climbed a hillock to get a view of the elephants. My hands began to tremble with excitement when I saw the little calf emerge for the first time, partially hidden safely, from under the belly of its mother. Its pink eyes looked BIG compared to its body and its tiny trunk was wriggling around. The mother was a young elephant and an older one stayed by her side the entire time.
First glimpse of the new born
When the wind changed direction, the older female caught our scent. She showed her irritation by uprooting a plant and throwing some mud over herself. Then they slowly moved deeper into the coffee plantation. Since we did not want to disturb them, we did not follow them and returned to the office. I headed back to Bangalore that evening.
Elephants relaxing in a swamp adjacent to a tea plantation
I was at the SCCS in Bangalore when I got a call that startled me. I heard that when this herd had gone to the river, the newborn had slipped and had been washed away by the strong current.
The fragmented landscape
To my relief, a few hours later, I heard that a few plantation workers who had seen this happen, jumped in to the river and helped it to safety on land. The Forest Department and media persons contacted us for advice on how to best handle the situation–whether to just look after it or to release it with the herd? We suggested to keep as few people as possible with the calf (to reduce trauma because of human presence & to reduce the possibility of the herd rejecting the calf due to human smell on it) to start with.
After consulting with other biologists at SCCS, we suggested the calf be fed with a mix of baby gripe water, electral & mineral water but only if it would not take long for it to be reunited with it’s family. Importantly, fresh elephant dung rubbed over the calf to mask the smell of humans. Later in the evening the calf was taken to the place where the herd was and left at some distance from the herd.
Apparently, a little later, amidst a lot of trumpeting by the herd, the mother stepped forward, went to the calf, smelt it and immediately let the calf suckle! From what I heard it seemed like the elephants were celebrating! It was really nice that the forest department and the locals took so much interest and care in wanting to rescue and re-unite the new born calf with its family.
I returned to Valparai a couple of days later and started following the herd that had split into two hoping to get a glimpse of the new born. Early next morning, the anti-poaching watchers called to inform me that there was a herd of elephants in the tea fields and they were behaving in a strange manner, looking disturbed and aggressive. We requested the tea workers who were working close by to move elsewhere and not to get too close to the elephants since they seemed already stressed by something.
Elephants stressed and huddled together with the calf on the ground
By the time I reached the site, there were only a few elephants around. A few tea bushes had been pulled out and the five elephants seemed tense. The watchers said they had heard the call of an elephant calf a little earlier. With some effort, to our horror, we saw a calf and realized that it was the same calf which had fallen into the river, now lying down motionless. The old female was trying hard for about two hours to get the calf up on its feet. Many times, the large female would walk some 100 m away, then turn around and rush back towards the calf trumpeting. Clearly, she did not want to abandon it or us to get any closer to the calf. Finally, even she gave up and started moving away. They may have moved away due to our presence as well, although we were about a 100 m away. We will never know.
The adult stands guard unwilling to leave the calf (on ground) behind.
Finally after all the elephants had left the place, we approached the calf. It was raining heavily and the track leading to it was very slippery. We found the calf lying at the edge of the tea bushes covered in a thick layer of slush. It seemed to be gasping for air, and its breath was sounding labored. Things did not look good.
First look of the calf
I called Divya and Sridhar (NCF colleagues) to inform them about what we had just found. The Forest Range Officer instructed his team to assist us with everything we needed as there was no resident veterinarian in Valparai. Once Divya and Sridhar arrived, we tried to administer some basic medication to help the calf gain some energy by consulting our veterinarian friends over the phone.
Medication being administered
Its body temperature was very low and we had a hard time in administering the medications. We were then required to find a shelter where we could bring up the body temperature and then help the calf as much as possible. The Bombay Burma Trading Company General Manager Mr Suresh Menon and the Manager Mr Tarun helped us in moving the calf to a near-by bus stop, a make-shift dispensary, with power, hot water, doctors and other arrangements required to nurse the calf.
After a few hours of heating up the place, feeding it little by little a mix of things as advised by the vets, holding it up to be able to breath more easily, it looked a lot more comfortable than the time when we had found it. Our hopes of its survival were raised. The forest department staff and the local people worked very hard to ensure that the calf would survive.
But by the evening, the news had got around and lots of people began to gather, both out of curiosity and concern. Crowd management was becoming tough. However, the calf also seemed to have regained some of its strength. And it was time for the next step – release.
Scouting elephants to re-unite the calf
In the mean while, our assistants had kept track of the natal herd, which, by evening had started to move towards the larger patch of forest near by. There was little time to re-unite the calf with its family. After dark, the calf was taken to the herd in a canter and set down on a path that the elephants were headed towards. Everyone left the area so as to not disrupt the movement of the elephants. We left hoping for a miracle, and hoping to see the calf reunited with his mother and herd the next morning.
However, it was not to be. The calf was found dead in the same spot.
Despite our best intentions and efforts, the calf had not pulled through. It was just 10 days old. The forest department staff were very disheartened. They had developed a special liking to this calf. They were not fully convinced of the need to try to reunite it with the herd. They felt that sending in into captivity might have probably saved his life.
We felt that the herd probably knew that the calf would not make it. They stood with the calf for as long as they could and their grief at abandoning it had been evident. We had thought that we could save it. But we were far from being able to ….. we just did not know enough – about its condition or even the basic technique of how to handle a situation like this.
We were also in a dilemma as to whether we should intervene in this play of nature or not? Do we know enough to do it – both in terms of technical expertise as well as nature? Had the mother been too young? Was the calf therefore quite weak and no so healthy? Had the earlier drowning caused some other internal damage? Aren’t deaths such as these, as long as not directly mediated by us humans (electrocution, poisoning, etc.), a natural process?
From an ethical angle, since it seemed like a natural death to us, it seemed acceptable. We felt quite strongly that a ‘graceful‘ death in the wild is better than a ‘disgraceful‘ life in a camp. Is it always only about survival? Is it not about how the life is lived? Would we even be aware of the on-goings in herds that are mostly in the forests? How many calves are born and how many even make it to adulthood? Would the elephants have managed to pull him up had the place been somewhere else where there were no people? Should we not restrain ourselves and not intervene in most cases when we find young ones abandoned or dying? Unless, we are sure that the life we are going to give it after ‘rescue’ is better than death itself. I am certain we could have addressed the situation better if there was a specialist veterinarian based out of Valparai.
But one main thing was that everyone wanted to save the calf. No one had anger or irritation against these elephants, despite the damages they sometimes do. The people are really tolerant here and we need to foster it.
The rainforest of the Anamalai hills in the Western Ghats provide ideal conditions for the occurrence of a wide diversity of remarkable fungi. Over the last few years, we have tried to document with photographs many of these fungi, trying to identify the species and learn more about their ecology. Over 27,000 species of fungi are known from India, and the Western Ghats is home to hundreds of species, with many more undoubtedly awaiting discovery. In an effort to stimulate interest in the fascinating fungi of the Anamalai hills, we have pulled together photographs and information into a new, beautifully-designed, and richly illustrated 56-page booklet:
Fungus Among Us: An Exploration of Fungi in the Anamalai Hills
by Ranjini Murali, P. Jeganathan, T. R. Shankar Raman, & Divya Mudappa
Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore (2012).
Download from here: PDF (3 MB)
This booklet presents a brief introduction to the rich diversity of fungi in the Anamalai hills, which we hope will encourage naturalists to observe this fascinating group in the field. Introductory sections outline fungal anatomy, reproduction and dispersal, and interesting facts and present a brief guide to field identification. The text of this publication is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0. Copyright for images remain with the respective photographers.
The fungi are grouped according to their macroscopic features as: cap and stem fungi, jelly fungi, coral and club fungi, shelf and bracket fungi, and other fungi. It was the observation of one such fungus, a purple-coloured clavaroid fungus (see the top-left photo on the right-side page in the spread below) that piqued our curiosity further and stimulated us to work towards bringing out this booklet.
The booklet took us nearly two years to put together. Here are a couple of other gorgeous page spreads from the booklet…
The fungi are identified only to Genus level, with photographs and brief accounts presented of 38 genera of fungi. A number of people helped in identification of the fungi (see below). The authors accept the responsibility for any errors that remain and would appreciate comments, corrections, and suggestions. Please send these to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are grateful to Kalyan Varma and Pavithra Sankaran for helping design this book and for their valuable suggestions. The booklet was published with support from the M. M. Muthiah Research Foundation, Chennai, and the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. We are extremely grateful to Dr. N. Parthasarathy, Dr. Vadivelu Kumaresan, Dr. Gunasekaran Senthil Arasu, Dr. James Lindsey, Ms. Tanya Balcar, Mr. Robert Stewart, and the members of the mushroom expert forum for help with identification of the various genera. We would especially like to thank Dr. Tom May from Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne for taking the time and trouble to give us detailed comments that helped improve this booklet. We thank Atul Joshi for bringing the bioluminescent fungi to our attention. We also thank all the photographers for their generous contributions (photo credits on page 56).
The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.
The tea estates lie quiet, now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last twelve years here in southern India. Later, the drone and whine of the motorized pruning shears on the hill across the Naduar will kill the silence and the sounds of the hills. With visor and machine, the workers will swing shoulder and hip, arms tensed, grasping the handle, scything and slicing the green, leafy bushes to a prickly, wounded, brown fuzz. Smarting and stark, the shorn hills.
There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for ten days, laces, sandal straps, pulled tight, the keys snapped onto the key hook in the backpack, they are ready to leave. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo. The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.
* * *
The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo’s poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai city. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first fifteen years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist. Sitting on the porch, he looks to where the tree stood: the mango tree, now long dead, where the purple-rumped sunbirds built their nests, their downy, pendant homes. He does not hear, now, the lively gossip and chatter of the babblers, but the new, raucous conversation of treepies can be heard from the trees around. Trees younger than him, but taller three times, five times over.
The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.
Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he flies now over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft’s wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.
The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditional tropical air, out.
The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once-called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by. As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.
* * *
The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.
She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. Their companions on this trip, they are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.
Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the logging trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?
Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?
It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.
The palm civet and bearded pig find themselves in a blaze of light on the road. They only want to escape into the welcoming dark, perhaps. They pause, they look, but find nothing to see in the blazing beams. The vehicles pass, one by one and another and another, and one more. From inside the cars, eyes peer out into the forest where the civet has entered. They pause, they look, but cannot see anything in the depths of darkness. The civet can perhaps see them now, if he turned to look, but then does he really want to?
Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?
The insects trill, they chirp and chitter, they utter sibilant and metallic squeaks. The patter and clack of frogs punctuate the night chorus. The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.
* * *
He turns forty this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant dipterocarp tree that is ten times as old as he is and twenty-five times as tall. The air is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands straight and tall.
The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.
Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over four hundred square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.
Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.
From a little distance, across the vast gulf that separates him from them, it looks like they are rolling ahead on wheels. The wheels that need to be buried to nourish the earth, feed the young and bring forth a new generation, and plant the entrapped seed of the rainforest tree. It is just a piece of dung. But nothing should go to waste, after all.
* * *
One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise on Danum. More than six hundred species of beetles from just five individual ferns. Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform. Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like some more?
He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can really take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves turned just so, and so, the upper surface shiny and smooth, ribbed with veins, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, so particular, yet pliable and ephemeral, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath. And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the six hundred beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?
He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels. Megapixels? Mega, as in big, and pixel, as in small area. Eighteen big small areas? No, megapixel, as in the mathematically precise number of two raised to the power of twenty or one million forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six. A screen, a window of observation, of photographic record, parcelled into more than a million little pieces of information. At three hundred frames a second and eighteen of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.
Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its four-hundred-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.
The rain pelts down in heavy droplets and finer drizzles, merging with mists skimming the treetops, the mists seamlessly melting into the overcast, grey sky. The air is humid; under the thin raincoat, he sweats profusely as he walks in a stupor through a world that seems now saturated with moisture. The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.
* * *
Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together, in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
No, that doesn’t fit him at all.
Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?
He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager’s territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid flat, sliced flat, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.
Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue. And from the ashes of the fires will rise the new Phoenix, the palm that has travelled, too, across the oceans. The oil palm is the new fruit of the land, the one stubborn shade of green that will replace the many subtle greens.
The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.
Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?
Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. If going into nature, into Danum, is like coming home, then isn’t going home also only coming to nature, coming to terms with nature? He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world: “Nature”, the man said, “is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.” He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?
He’s no poet. He’s an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. Ecology, from the oikos and logos of the Greeks. Logos, as the scripture, the study, of oikos, the home. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.
It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning. Tomorrow, he must return home.
Guest post by Kashmira Kakati
When you hear a gibbon call, time stands still and flies past. When that ‘song’ tumbles around the forest mists, it is hard to tell which is the call and which, the echo. It comes from the deep jungles of aeons ago, and hearing it is like having an ear to infinity, a bit like looking at the stars.
In my dreams, the sound of the rainforest always comes to me in this, the call of the gibbon. If there was a sound that had to stand for everything truly wild and free, this would be it. It is also a love song. We now know a lot about our sub-continent’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon—found only in northeast India, south of the Brahmaputra, and the adjoining forests of Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are so few left that they count, regrettably, among the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. We know that they are among the few mammals that pair monogamously, often for life; that they give birth every two years or so and the young live with their parents for almost 8 years, learning the ropes of survival in the high canopy of the rain forest. There is no other animal as agile or gracile as the gibbon in that lofty world. We know that each gibbon family defends a small territory, not by violence, but by singing! We also know that they eat a lot of different kinds of forest fruit, but that they need some leaf as well. Then, there is a lot more that we do not know.
Six kilometers from Margherita in Upper Assam is a Singpho village called Inthong or the village of a “thousand houses”. In the 1960s though, Inthong didn’t actually have a thousand houses. It was just a settlement of 10-20 households surrounded by forests, and what seemed like hundreds of howling gibbons. The young Singpho men even tracked tigers in these forests.
We had driven out to Inthong from my camp at Digboi—not to sample its unique, organically grown phalap or Singpho tea—but to see a half-wild, half-pet hoolock gibbon called Kolia, the Black One. She may be nearly 30 years old. Kolia’s guardian is a gentleman by the name of Bhupeshwar Ningda. From the verandah of his traditional Singpho chang-ghar, Ningda calls out to Kolia. In a trice, out of the betelnut tree, swinging hand over hand on the rafters and rope-walking on the railing, comes Kolia. We are thrilled. In so many years of studying gibbons, this is only the second time I am within touching distance of one. (The first time was when a sudden monsoon shower sent me scurrying for shelter under a tangle of lianas beneath a stately hollong tree in the Borajan forest. The wild female I was following apparently had the same idea. Hearing a noise just above my head, I looked up at the same time she looked down at me. My heart missed several beats. I looked away, and so did she. I don’t know how long we sat there behind that liana curtain, within 3 feet of each other. It may have been minutes, it felt like enchanted hours. Until, as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped, and we resumed our roles as the observer and the subject.)
Kolia. Ningda remembers the day—but is not sure of the year—when his dog caught the young gibbon as she scrambled along his garden fence behind her parents. Ningda rushed to her rescue and handed her back to her mother. He named her Kolia, because she had the jet black coat of young gibbons. What a surprise he must have had then, when about 8-10 years later, she started turning golden as female gibbons do when approaching adulthood. It was too late to change her name and he still believes, erroneously, that she is male—but that is not important to the plot. Anyway, to continue the strange story, Ningda says that after the dog incident, the gibbon family started staying in the patch of forest around his homestead more often. They were among two or three groups of gibbons that lived there.
This forest patch, formerly part of the Upper Dehing Reserve Forest (East Block), was separated from it when the Powai Bongaon (Forest Village) was set down in that area around 1960. In just over two decades most of the gibbons would disappear, in a familiar but unacknowledged sequence of circumstances that took place all across northeast India. The official term is forest fragmentation—when forests become progressively smaller and isolated from one another by the hand of man. The effective term is death sentence—for the isolated forest, and everything in it, as the incredibly complex system that is a living forest breaks down and ceases to function.
By 1995, Kolia had lost both her parents and she was the last gibbon left in the Inthong forest patch. Ningda started putting out bananas for the lonely orphan. She started approaching the house closer than she ever had, seemingly for the bananas, but possibly just for the company of another living being. I’ve seen wild sub-adult gibbons exhibit separation anxieties, lasting months, when the time comes to leave the family and strike out on their own until they find a partner. It has been 14 years this year that Kolia has not seen another of her own species. Her social contact is with Ningda and his large family. She takes food from their hands, and she will groom their heads. She often holds the mirror on the verandah and peers intently into it, trying to touch that familiar animal on the other side. Maybe she understands it is just a reflection. I hope the high intelligence of her species fails her and that she doesn’t understand.
Mostly, she is safe. But sometimes, school boys pelt her with stones. One time, poachers shot at her, taking off a finger. And another time a man approached Ningda, offering him money for Kolia’s heart, which he said he’d grind into good medicine. Such is the nature of the human beast.
When she hooted, we laughed, amused. But it was a song without any context. In the wild, from up on high, she would have been singing a duet with her mate once in the late morning. She would have been singing to celebrate her ‘married’ status, to guard her territory for her family. At Inthong, Kolia would launch into crazed hoots every time someone prompted her. As everyone laughed at the antics of the funny ‘monkey’, I suddenly recognized that she was demented. It was there in her eyes, and from that slightly open, down-turned mouth. I have watched wild gibbon eyes for hours on end, for months together. They are curious, intelligent eyes. Or playful, indulgent eyes. Sometimes they can be angry or annoyed or fearful eyes; and sometimes just sleepy, lazy eyes. They shine. They used to first warily, then calmly, directly, watch me back. But Kolia’s brown eyes were empty. Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. Inside them were two bottomless pools holding all the loneliness of the world, all the burden of being alive when everyone you knew and loved, or could love, has gone.
On the drive out, a tremendous April cloudburst surged down the car windows and brought to me an old memory of a story. It was called the ‘The Fog Horn’, by Ray Bradbury. It told of an ancient sea monster that emerges from the bottom of the sea, answering the call of a lighthouse’s fog horn on a cold, misty night; clutching desperately to a shred of hope that another of its kind was finally calling to it. As it approaches, the frightened keeper switches off the foghorn. The monster is first confused by the silence, then enraged by it. In the anguish and fury of a hope lost forever, it cries out and lashes at the lighthouse, destroying the unbearable untruth. Bradbury sends it back to the depths of the sea, never to be seen again, to wait another million years for the merciful death that would release it from its intolerable existence. Kolia has all the gentleness of her species, none of the fury of the monster. But her call is the lonely monster’s call is the echo of the foghorn blowing:
…whoever hears it will weep in their souls,
whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity…
Note: Hoolock gibbon populations continue to decline across its range, leaving many Kolias calling hopefully, hopelessly, from the tattered, disappearing patches that were once their soaring, vine-tangled forest abodes. In the worst of these forest fragments, they no longer call.
A long time ago, I was madly in love with a girl. At first, she was not aware of the fact that I was crazy about her. During those days all I wanted was to see her. I was happy and contented just by the sight of her. When she unexpectedly walked past me or sent a casual glance in my direction, I was overjoyed. Then, I started observing her routine and I knew what she would do at particular time and where she went. I tried to walk along the same route that she generally took so that I could see her. She was not a very talkative person. She did not announce her presence unnecessarily. As far as I knew, she did not mingle with anyone very easily. Still, she had a small group of friends. Sometimes when I heard her talking, I would go to see her. Sometimes she would look at me, sometimes she just ignored my presence or not even notice me. I would become very nervous in her presence and spoke to her very rarely. But I remember every occasion when I did. I never told her how much I like her, however, after sometime it must have been apparent and she became conscious of the fact. Once she knew, she began to avoid me; leaving the place immediately if she found me there. I knew that she did not hate me, but perhaps she was more practical and did not wish to encourage an adolescent love.
Like I said, this was a long time ago. Now, I don’t even know which part of the world she lives in. Why should I then write about all these things now? I write because I realize now that the excitement, awe, thrill, ardor, joy, and frustration that I had gone through during those days (or those moments) weren’t different from the emotions that arise while I watch certain wildlife. How much contentment there is in seeing the Malabar tree nymph gracefully fluttering its delicate wings and glide, in listening to the Malabar whistling thrush, in watching the flight of Great pied hornbill! And the list will go on. I am sure every one of us will have our own such list.
But there is one species that, when seen by us, will overshadow whatever else we have seen: the leopard. Isn’t this true? Sometime back, I went wildlife watching with some of my family. I showed them many species of birds, amazing colorful butterflies and damselflies. On our return, we saw also plenty of black-naped hares. Still, it was only when they got a glimpse of a leopard in swift motion crossing the road, that one of them said, “Our trip is complete only now. Now we can go home”. They were not really serious wildlife watchers, but even they were most captivated by the big cat.
It’s an obvious tradition among the naturalists and researchers to ask the person who went out looking for wildlife at night,”What did you see?” If you have to pass through a forested area to reach the place where you live, then you are the luckiest person in this world. As soon as you reach your place, the first question your folks would ask, “Did you see anything on the way?” You may have seen several spotted deer, sambar, black-naped hare, porcupine, or a few nightjars and civets. But the answer would be, in a very tired tone, “Well, nothing much, a few deer, hare, and yeah, a porcupine, that’s it.” But if you had seen a leopard, they don’t have to ask you any questions. With a victorious smile on your face, you would ask them, “Guess what I saw?” The immediate response from the other side would be, with wide-open eyes,”Leopard?”
Although I loved to see leopards, I secretly disliked this form of answer. So I made a resolution that if somebody asked me what I saw, even if I had seen a leopard, I would first mention other species that I saw and only then would mention my leopard sighting. Well, the resolution hasn’t worked. I can never resist: the leopard would get first mention. I would call up to tell them or send an SMS ahead. Why does this happen to me or to most of us? What is there in a leopard? What makes the sighting so special?
To figure this out, I gave it some serious thought. Before I explain my views, let me tell you about my very first sighting of a leopard in the wild. In 2001, I was returning from Cuddapah to the place where I was living at the time—in Jerdon’s Courser country. We were in a jeep and saw a leopard about a hundred metres away. The Jerdon’s courser was one of India’s most endangered birds and I was excited and happy on those rare occasions that I saw the bird. Yet, the feeling of seeing the leopard was something different.
Let me explain why the leopard is so special. Watching Jerdon’s Courser, Nilgiri marten, or a snow leopard are like sighting some very very popular stars such as Rajinikanth, Kalyan Varma, Katrina Kaif or Sachin Tendulkar. You won’t get to see them often. It may happen if you made a serious effort, but that would be like once or twice in a lifetime. But the leopard is like your girl next door (or a boy next door, for girls). If you know that they are there, you will be looking out for them, and if you do it, you know that there are chances that you would get a glimpse. When you have this little hope or a wish somewhere in the corner of your mind or heart, while you are passing through the forested road, and if you then did see the leopard, imagine how much you will be elated! Can anything beat that or even come close to that feeling? Nothing I think, other than a leopard—at least for me.
There is another reason that makes leopard sightings so special. We all like good surprises. The song Yeh Ishq haaye from the Hindi movie Jab We Met is one of my favorite songs. I have saved this song whereever I could so that I can listen to it whenever I want to. Still, when I am not carrying my music or any of those gadgets and it suddenly plays on the radio: that brings the smiles to my face. This does not happen often. When it does, it is special.
Among the other things that I love watching are the protruding vocal sacs of Pretty Bush Frogs, the glittering green flashes of Stream Glory damselflies, and the dance of the fantail flycatcher. You can spend time watching all these to your heart’s content and then you would probably leave. But the leopard won’t pose for you for long. The leopard is a big teaser. I began this post, describing my old flame. Do you know why? She reminds me, now, of the elusiveness of the leopard. Their elusiveness is what makes them so alluring. You always want more. You are never contented with just one sighting. It’s like eating good potato chips. The salt and chilli taste linger for a second in your tongue and disappears instantly. So you dip into the packet for one more.
It is for this reason that I always look out for the leopard every time I go out. I have seen her many times. I don’t know how many times I missed her and I don’t know how many times she skillfully avoided me. I had seen her in quite close quarters. On one occasion, we even looked into each other’s eyes. What an awesome moment that was! It was just about 15 seconds and then she slowly walked away from me. On another occasion, I was driving past a huge Ficus tree and I saw her resting at the base. I wanted my friends to see her so I called them and they rushed to the spot. They saw her slowly walking into the woods. Another day, I saw her walking beautifully on the road and I was just following her, for a while. She would walk away a bit, then stop and look back inquisitively. Oh, that was bliss! All I would do was to move away from there and just let her be. I have also heard her call many times. Seldom have I gone looking out for her, though, after hearing her voice.
The recent sighting was the best so far in my life. It was like a dream. It was a completely misty night and I was driving in the car, moving slowly, very slowly with my headlights on low beam. I could hardly see beyond five metres in front. And there she emerged through the mist, in a slightly hurried gait, crossing the road. In that split second, her beautiful yellow coat glowed in the car’s light, and she was gone like an angel.
I have to go now. It is time. She may be waiting for me.
An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012.
For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The wide, old roads radiating from Coimbatore city, in particular, had long rows of grand tamarind trees on either side. One could see them on the road to Mettupalayam and the hazy blue mountains beyond, on the road to the sacred hill of Marudhamalai, towards the Sathyamangalam hills and Mysore to the north, through the expansive plateau and plains to Salem, and southwards past Pollachi to the ancient hills of the elephants, the Anamalai.
The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, quite unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees seemed only to need a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.
They stood like this until the men came with the axes and saws for the slaughter of the trees. The men brought heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots of the tamarind trees out of the earth. Trees that had stood for centuries were brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.
The tamarind tree is an old and dignified citizen of our city avenues and gardens, our countryside and farms. Its name, derived from the Arabic tamar-ul-Hind or the ‘the date of India’, finds mention in written historical accounts of India going back centuries. There is irony in this, for the tamarind is native to Africa and not a species that grows naturally in India’s forests. Despite being alien to India, the tamarind has not run wild and become an invasive pest, becoming instead what biologists call a naturalised species. Embraced by a deep tolerance and cultural acceptance into Indian cuisine and culture, the tamarind is today a familiar and inseparable part of Indian life and landscape.
Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance. Their wide trunks rose above stout roots that pushed into the soil, like muscled and flexed thighs gripping the earth. Their fissured bark was thick and brown, aged and toughened and weathered, like the wrinkled face of the old woman selling mangoes in the patch of shade below.
Under the dense canopy, thousands of pedestrians and riders of two-wheelers found quick shelter from rain. Or, in scorching summers, a refreshing coolness cast by the tiny leaflets—how many leaflets does a tamarind tree have, a million, ten million? Even the air-conditioners seemed to waft easier and cooler in the metal cocoons of parked cars that escaped roasting in the sun. The trees seemed to abide, they granted benefits, and their beneficence was taken for granted.
Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with skins like coarse felt covering pulp, tart and tasty, and disc-like, shining seeds. The fruits were there for the taking. The adept and nimble climbed the branches to knock down the fruit. Their friends darted around to grab the fallen pods, dodging traffic.
On the roads, many tamarind trees had managed to rise above anonymity: each tree, even if not named, was numbered; each individual claimed by negotiation or auction by someone from the village or panchayat for its fruit. Collected, dried, and packed, the fruit of the tamarind trees would eventually find its way into a thousand dishes, enrich the palate of millions, and become inseparably incorporated in people’s cuisine, in their lives, in their very bodies. And no one could stop the children, who needed only a handful of stones to claim their share. The trees brought utility, food, cash, plain fun.
And yet, there is more to the tamarind. Beyond the utility and the benefits of the trees, there is something intangible, amiss, overlooked. It seems to emerge as a touch of beauty—an enlivening green in an increasingly dour landscape. A beauty fragile forever from the prospect of loss just a chain-saw away. It seems to emanate from the trees, too, from the sounds where a few still remain. The soughing of wind through ten million leaflets, in mournful restlessness, carrying the delicate aroma of the tamarind’s modest, finely-marked flowers. The creak of branches and the click of twigs holding the tamarind’s pendant fruit. Or, when the wind abates, a calming susurrus pierced only by the occasional screech of parakeets. And when dusk descends, the tamarind trees darken to the chuckle of mynas, the chatter of shy owlets, and the hoots of somnolent owls, rising with the stars. The trees are silent but full of sounds, and one who hears them may find things worth listening to.
Reading the landscape
Naturalists and ecologists, who spend a fair bit of their time watching the earth and its creatures, sometimes say that you can read a landscape, you can see its wounds and sense a need for healing. On the Mettupalayam road and onto the hills beyond, sure, you cannot miss reading the landscape: somebody has spelt it out in big letters for you. “Vote for ——— Party”, says one sign, painted with a crudely-daubed logo, rather unwittingly symbolic in its background of whitewash. “Faith in God”, says another, pointing to a higher authority. “Enjoy the Serene Villas”, declares a sign for a resort promising a better place, not above, but ahead. A painted board of the Forest Department, placed in front of a patch of forest that has existed for millennia, asserts: “Preservation Plot: This Forest has been Protected as it was for Decades”. And a wit, who has perhaps had a bumpy ride, has painted on: “And so has this road.”
The wounds are there, too. There are the cuts and gouges in the land, festering moistly with garbage and hyacinth. One wishes the waters would not find their way into these old tanks and streams to turn dry dumps of civilisation’s discards into suppurating sores. There are the stumps of surgery: trunks and branches neatly sliced to make way for better things like wires and cables. The rot sets in, hollowing into the stumps, but only to make homes for families of owls or mynas. There are the thorns in the side of the stumps and trees that remain: nails hammered in the hundreds, carrying rusty boards and advertisements and nameplates, or garlands of wilted and dried flowers placed for adornment—of what? Then come the nooses and garrottes—wires and ropes—some hanging loose, some stretched taut, decorated with ribbons or hooks and loops to hang the street-trader’s merchandise, or merely forgotten and cutting into the bark. And there is the wounded heart, cut with deep, desperate strokes, on the blazed bark of one of the trees still standing; a heart pierced by an arrow saying, “Sundari, I love U”.
Fall from grace
Then the old roads were labelled tracks, the tracks became streets, the streets became roads, and the roads became highways. And yet, we are not satisfied, we need super-highways. This idea brooks no questioning, no obstruction. The trees must make way for tarmac. The people who stood in the shade must make way for the cars that proliferate. The vitality of a living countryside must make way for the deathly artificiality of the city, spreading like a virus down the arteries. The living countryside and its other users don’t really matter: they mostly don’t have cars, anyway.
The tamarind trees are now painted with broad waist-bands in white and black, so that they are more visible to the highway motorist who can then avoid them. How effectively we mark something to be more visible and to be more ignored at once!
So, the tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. The road surface is studded with hard, shining seeds driven into hot tar, staring like eyes without eyelids at the sun and sky. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The screech of parakeets and chuckle of mynas is replaced by the endless screech of tyres and squeal of brakes. The hoot of owls is deafened by the toot of horns and the soughing of wind by the howling of sirens: the ambulances are now busy day and night. Places where a person could live a full, good life become sites, where one cannot even die a good death.
Now, the tamarind trees are but old fixtures in the landscape, like old people, grandparents and elders, suddenly out of place in a redefined world, suddenly unwanted. And when the old trees fall, the countryside is bereft, like families broken.
Better road sense
It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countryside. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?
Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
Yet, it is not merely that one misses seeing the trees for the road.The tamarind trees—those still alive on the roads around Coimbatore amidst the stumps of those that are gone—seem to stand for something deeper. An awareness that beauty is forever pitted against the peril of loss and tolerance against the spectre of alienation. Only when we cannot bear alienation, will we usher in tolerance. Only when we cannot countenance loss, will we embrace beauty.
I had seen a tiger in the wild only once. Deep inside the rainforests of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in the southern Western Ghats. It was a memorable sighting that I always treasure and proudly tell others about.
Before KMTR, the only memorable tiger sighting I had was at the rescue and rehabilitation center in Vandalur Zoo, Chennai. It was sometime in 1997, and I was there as a part of a study tour during my post-graduate course. The veterinarian at Vandalur said that the tiger had been captured from Valparai, as it was apparently involved in a conflict incident. Never in my dreams in those days had I thought that I would one day be working here in Valparai.
It is the 28th April 2012, and I am at Valparai. Ganesh called in the morning and said that there is a report of a tiger near human habitation and asked me to go and see it. A tiger?! We see leopards here in the Valparai plateau, but tigers are shy of humans and are usually seen only in the surrounding Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Nisarg had seen it there recently, much to our envy. From Ganesh’s description that the tiger was near some houses at Periyar Nagar and unable to move, I figured that it was not going to be a very pleasant sighting.
The story of the tiger went like this. The people of Periyar Nagar had been seeing the tiger near there for about two weeks. The local people said that it had preyed on a calf a couple of days before when I went there to see that tiger. The owner of that calf buried the carcass the next day. The hungry tiger obviously had to go for another one. People said that the next day while it was trying to capture another calf the cow attacked the tiger. The tiger was badly injured and unable to move, and so lay down in a kitchen garden in one of the houses in Periyar Nagar, and it was still lying there.
I went inside the small gate that leads to the kitchen garden. Some ten metres from where I was standing, I saw black stripes in a fading orange pelage. I never thought I would see a tiger that close. I stood there only for two minutes. Unable to bear the sight of the tiger in such a sad state in such a place, I came away immediately. Yet in abrief moment, I saw the tiger slowly raising its head. And I saw its eyes.
Sometimes you can figure out what people think and feel from their eyes, right? I still remember the way the tiger at Vandalur Zoo looked at the person standing outside the cage. It was full of anger.
I could not see the eyes of the tiger in the KMTR rainforest: it was just going away from us. But in the tiger lying in the kitchen garden of Periyar Nagar, I could see its eyes. I didn’t not see any anger, but there was something—something intangible that I was unable to fathom.
It was lying there throughout the day waiting for the veterinarian to come here all the way from Mudumalai to tranquilize it. The plan was to treat the wounds so that the Forest Department officials can translocate it away from the human habitation. The action started as soon as he got reached. After an attempt to catch it with nets that failed because of the obstruction and vegetation, it was decided to tranquilise the animal. The veterinarian darted the tiger on its thigh but the tiger leaned back, bit the syringe and pulled it off from its body. The second dart went in and it worked: the tiger went down. In the meantime, it continued to rain heavily. Despite the rain, local people stayed to see the tiger. The local Forest Department officials and policemen did a commendable job in controlling the crowd. By not letting people near the tiger, the veterinarian and other Forest Department staff could carry out their work without any hassle. The veterinarian disclosed that it was a male tiger and estimated that it was around ten years old. It was around 7:45 p.m., when the tiger was caged and taken to the Manamboly Forest Camp, inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. The tiger survived overnight and was given medical attention by the veterinarian who stayed with the animal. Still, the next morning we came to know that he had passed away.
When we reached Manamboly at around 11 a.m., the Nadu Forest Department staff had already laid him on the ground. He was massive. His rasping tongue was out, eyes gone inside the socket. He had pus-covered injuries around the sharp claws, and his huge canines were worn out. He was dead, yet he looked so majestic. The veterinarian, Dr. Kalaivanan, the Manamboly Range Officer Mr. Arokiaraj Xavier and several of his staff were ready to start the post-mortem. We were waiting for the local press reporters to arrive. Once they reached, the photographic session started. The tiger was surrounded by several people who were posing for the photograph.
Just before that photographic session Mr. Bhuto (a famous anti-poaching watcher of Manamboly Range, although sometimes people call him Bhutan as well, and we do not know how he get his name(s)), and Mr. Murali (another anti-poaching watcher) were sitting next to him and touching the tiger. Mr. Bhuto starting counting how many stripes are there in the tigers body, including the tail to tell others triumphantly that he had counted all the stripes. Mr. Murali touched the tiger’s canine and the sharp claws, his eyes wide open in amazement. It was fascinating to watch how they clearly admired the tiger.
Then came the time for the knives and scalpels. First, they rolled the tiger sideways so that the head was up. Two anti-poaching watchers were doing the job, one of whom was Murali. The veterinarian gave instructions on how and where to cut. First the rib cage was cut open and split apart, and the veterinarian examined the internal organs.
There was a surprise in store when the pericardium was opened to examine the heart of the tiger. Pierced into the heart, like little daggers, were two porcupine quills.
The veterinarian said the tiger had preyed on a porcupine and accidentally ingested the quills that had found its way inside the body to pierce into its heart. In the tiger’s stomach there was nothing except a half foot long thin quill. He said the tiger might have preyed on this porcupine a month ago. The lungs had worms. The kidneys were pale and also seemed to be not functioning properly.
I remembered again the look in the eyes of this tiger when I first saw it in Periyar Nagar. It could have been pain. Sheer pain.
The poor old tiger had been suffering from multiple-organ dysfunction. It was the prey that had killed the predator; in fact, they had killed each other. But this was not how the newspapers told the story. The headlines said, ‘Tiger loses fight to cow in Valparai‘ and ‘Tiger attacked by cow dies’. What a disgrace for a tiger! A Tamil newspaper Dinamalar said that this tiger had killed more than ten cattle. With the quills pierced in his heart, how could he hunt? The cattle may have possibly hurt the tiger but definitely were not responsible for killing the tiger. I wish reporters verified the facts before they publish the news. It may be catchy to give such titles but wasn’t that a humiliation for the tiger? Besides the misinformation conveyed by the headline, there is the issue of insensitivity. Do we disgrace people after they die? That tiger must have been a dignified living being when it was alive. I do not think that it deserved such statements after its demise.
Those were the thoughts when I saw the newspapers the next day. But during the post-mortem there were some touching and humane moments. When the veterinarian was instructing the forest watchers about the post-mortem, one of the wildlife experts quipped, “if you learn these techniques it will be useful later. In case if there is another tiger death, you won’t need a Veterinarian”. Murali who was helping in collecting samples said promptly, “We do not want to see another tiger dead in this place. Already, they are dwindling in numbers”.
The post-mortem has been carried out as per the National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines. The tiger was also required to be burned as per the guidelines. A pile of wood had been stacked, the tiger lifted and placed on the stack. It was overcast and Mr. Xavier was hurrying everyone to finish before the rain. More logs and billets were placed on top. Kerosene was sprinkled. The fire was about to be lit. Then, Bhuto came rushing and removed the logs covering the face of the tiger: there were some rituals to perform he said. He brought salt, a cup of milk, and a pack of turmeric powder. He asked three people to pour milk in the tiger’s mouth. He threw rock salt over the logs and sprinkled turmeric powder. Then he asked Mr. Xavier to light the match. Mr. Xavier said, “We should have got a garland, I forgot to do that, it never struck me”.
I am not a great fan of rituals but I returned home and took bath. Isn’t it a custom to take bath after attending any funeral?