There are times in your life, when, in an unexpected moment, you come face to face with yourself. It could happen anytime, to anyone. It could happen over your breakfast as aroma and sound — hot coffee swirling in your cup and a dosa sizzling on the stove — suddenly release a sensory cascade of recollections as history intersects happenstance. It could happen in a memory or a dream, where past and present merge into a fused and frozen time indistinct, even, from the future. It could happen while you walk down a street and momentarily catch your own full-length reflection in a shining, shop-front glass. In that moment, the person who you were confronts the one who you have become. Chances are, it might catch you unawares.
It happened to me like this. One morning, I was in Chennai, the city of my childhood in southern India, staying at my parents’ home in Adyar. The house, painted green and ringed by a small garden, faces the street along a line of homes in the quiet neighbourhood of Bakthavatsalam Nagar. It had been my home, too, until I had left two decades ago, after my schooling in Chennai and a Bachelor’s degree in zoology from Loyola College, for higher studies elsewhere, in Dehradun and Bangalore, and then onto other places where my work would take me. As I was staying over during the weekend, my mother asked if I could take a look at some of the books and papers in the shelves upstairs and clear up some of my old things. With pending work and travel on my mind, with the phones ringing every now and then, and various weekend visitors coming and going, I was glad for an excuse to get away upstairs to my old room. I had a few hours to kill, so I told her I would take a look and clear up the stuff, not realizing that it is even in such things as a half-distracted search in an old bookshelf that I would find what would mark the day in my memory.
In the room upstairs, which my elder brother, Sriram, and I used to share, in the glass-fronted, wooden shelves perched on the wall, our mother had meticulously kept all our things, protected behind two sliding glass doors with a ratchet lock tacked to the glass in the middle. I used the key she had had no trouble finding for me, heard the familiar sound as the glass grated open on the aluminium channels running along the shelf. And there they all were. Rows of books and stacks of files, a welter of papers and envelopes, even more stuffed behind the rows of books, all of which I pulled out and piled on the bed.
Textbooks that I had saved from my high school days — biology, history, geography, and English — slanted across the shelf from my brother’s physics, chemistry, and mathematics textbooks from school and his engineering days at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. A row of my brother’s notebooks on various subjects filled with his emphatically neat, determined, cursive handwriting lay next to a stack of foolscap examination answer sheets: my brother’s impeccably scripted, organised under headers, keywords underlined for emphasis, and mine, hasty and scrawled, streaked with teacher’s red. And more. Anthologies, used in our English classes, containing some of our favourite essays, short stories, and poetry, along with a dog-eared Wren and Martin. Two of my scrapbooks on birds and mammals of the world. A file holding dot-matrix printouts of poems and puns and ribald jokes and cartoons. Another filled with yellowed newspaper clippings: on events once recent and now remote, feature articles on subjects from garden plants to forest gibbons, on places from Central India to Antarctica, on people from Mahatma Gandhi to Sylvester Stallone. A tight envelope bursting with old postcards and letters from cousins and friends; another, more secretly wrapped and unopened, a passionate and poignant bunch of love notes and cards from a Muslim girl to a Catholic classmate of mine, which had been too hot for him to even hide in his own home. Finally, there were rows of books: some dictionaries and reference, a trove of fiction from Charles Dickens to John le Carre, and poetry from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to Emily Dickinson. On the non-fiction shelf, Gerald Durrell and Paul Ehrlich rubbed shoulders with Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman. One full shelf carried books on birds and natural history, stacked with my books on stars, planets, and amateur astronomy.
It was an archive: snippets, fragments, ornaments of a personal history already long past. In a quarter-century, I had gone from schoolboy to scientist, become a wildlife biologist after a Masters degree from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, obtained a doctoral degree from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore for field research on rainforest birds in the Western Ghats mountains in India. It was in the Western Ghats that I now lived, in a hill range named after the wild elephants that still roam the landscape: Anamalai, the elephant hills. In 2000, Divya and I, a year after our marriage and a year before we completed our doctoral studies on wildlife in the Anamalai hills, had established a research station in the hill town of Valparai, about ten hours overland journey from Chennai. It is in this landscape that we work to conserve the dark rainforests that remain — extensive tracts in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve or patches embedded in tea and coffee plantations on the undulating Valparai plateau.
Streams and rivers veined the landscape, fringed by lofty mountains draped with forests and grasslands, rock faces and cliffs, touched by the grandeur of great hornbills and wild elephants.
Elephants on the move through tea fields with rainforests in the distance (Photo: Divya Mudappa)
Working in the hills and forests was enjoyable, of course, but trying to conserve wildlife in landscapes with people and plantations was no walk in the park. To persuade people with business interests of profit and production from land to care for nature, to learn to live with wildlife, to help stave off conservation threats and crises as they arose, to prevent or minimise the destruction of beautiful places that one knew well: this was a full-time and often frustrating job. I vented my feelings writing essays that, according to friends, ranged from the lyrical to the depressing. I was now past forty and had little time for my family in Chennai.
That morning, I stared at the items on the shelves, then at the pile I had made in front of me, rubbing my furrowed forehead, as if it would bring some memory back, explain what I saw. As I picked up each item, I kept asking myself, what is this? Why have I kept it?
Frustrated at having to deal with the pile, I even asked my mother, “Why have you kept all this?”
“Well, it was you and Sriram who kept them,” she answered, as she went about her work, “and who knows when you may want your old things, or what you may want to make of them?”
Clearly, I was on my own here. Faced by a single room and its few shelves, I felt a sort of restless anxiety. I had choices to make: what do I keep, what discard?
* * *
It was then that I found it in a pile of papers stashed in a dusty, flimsy file. I knew instantly what it was, although a full twenty-seven years had elapsed, during which it had faded to some innermost recess of my memory, so well hidden that it was effectively buried, forgotten. Until now. I took it out of the file it was in, held it in my hands. Everything else around me began fading away.
Three foolscap sheets, once white, now yellowing, held together at the top left by a rusted staple. In the unmistakable imprint of our old Remington typewriter — the one that had sat on a little desk in the dining room, wedged between the dining table, the puja room, and the path to the staircase — here was an essay from all those years ago. An essay written by me or, rather, by the boy I was, then. A schoolboy, almost a stranger, known to close friends and family by a different name: Sridhar. It is a typewritten essay carrying his name.
I see him now at his typewriter with the bustle of the house around him. I hear his mother’s energetic voice, his brother’s footsteps, the quiet serenity of his father’s unruffled presence. I see him. A gangly youth of fourteen years, his long, smooth limbs, his slim body. I see his dark eyes above darkening crescents, a knife-edge nose, a head of straight, black hair falling on a forehead as yet untempered and uncluttered by life. There is a thin, shining patina of sweat pearling over his lips— lips that are full and fresh but do not move — as he sits slightly hunched at the typewriter. I see his index fingers stabbing, the keys clacking. And then, without pause, I read what he has written.
WHERE I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO BE
By T. R. SRIDHAR
It had been a tiring day. The exams were just a month away. The teachers had not finished even half of their portions. The realization came only in the morning, when the HM announced over the intercom, the dates for the exam and reminded the boys to start studying. The boys had taken it cool. But not so the teachers. There began a mad scramble for the text-books, note-books, and guides and they came laden to the class with more books than a poor, studious, all-book-carrying boy.
One teacher rattled off three lessons in a period. Then, another finished a chapter so fast that he left the cleverest boys blinking. Fortunately, it was biology, my easiest subject, and I managed to catch on something here and there.
We all ended up feeling famished, exhausted, defeated and dehydrated. I had never heard such a heavenly sound as the bell, when it rang. While returning home, the bus I was on blew a tyre. I waited an hour and clambered or rather crawled into the next one. It crashed into a motor-bike. My money was running out. The conductors didn’t give me a full refund. So I decided to walk it.
It was a tremendously wearying walk. The buildings, trees and telephone poles that had dashed so quickly past me, when I was in the bus, seemed to now become super-phlegmatically lethargic and dragged painfully by. My shoe’s soles scraped on the dusty gravel of the road and I looked down to find my shoes brown and covered with dry dust. I was nearing my house when my knees started buckling. I bent and pulled them sluggishly and stumbled clumsily into my house. I walked directly to the bathroom and flopped into the bath-tub which I had filled with cold water. I soon fell asleep.
I was woken up by my mother’s shouts. After crying out to calm her, I donned my clothes and walked out — without even looking at her — and sat down on the seat of the chair beside the dining table.
“Whatever happened to you?” my mother asked wide-eyed.
“It was a tiring day,” I said. She didn’t ask me anything else and joined me while I had my supper.
It was three minutes more before I reached my bed. My head must have still been falling down to my pillow when I fell asleep again; for I don’t remember having laid it down on the soft cushion.
Then I had the dream. It is, usually, very diffucult [sic!] to say how a dream began, but I remember this one clearly.
At first it was dark. Very dark. The kind of darkness that seeps into you, clogging the very recesses of your being. Then, there developed a haze. A thin greyish mantle that started spreading from the rightmost corner of my right eye. The haze spread throughout and then shrunk until it was just a … sort of doorway through which bright light entered. It turned out to be a tunnel. The tunnel seemed to flicker and move. I realized that it was I who was moving out of the tunnel.
I came out. The chill morning mist hit me like a sledge-hammer. I was suddenly feeling free… there was no weight on my legs and the path before me lead into a lush, green jungle. I looked up to see the Blue Hills in the distance. I was in the Annamalai woods.
My passion for ornithology had still not left me. The rising sun was directly in front of me. I soaked up its warmth greedily and experienced a state of quixotic euphoria. A Magpie-robin sang its melodious song from somewhere deep in the forest. I heard a tittering, musical cry from my left and turned to spot a beautiful Yellow-backed sunbird in its glossy yellow, green and crimson plumage diving into the thick undergrowth. A group of Orange-headed ground-thrushes and Slaty-headed babblers landed in front of me making a cacophony of gurgling calls. The whole forest came alive. I listened to the calls of a million birds, the harsh chatter of the nocturnal owls in quest of a roosting hole in some gnarled branch, to while away the day; the raucous cries of the macaques and, the faint trumpet of a wild elephant.
It was absolute peace. I had been in the heat and dust that had made me so weary. But now I was in the Western Ghats — at the Annamalai jungles at the foot of the awesome Nilgiris. I was where I had always wanted to be.
* * *
After reading the typescript, I am elated and confused, at once. Falling asleep in a bathtub after a tiring day at school? really? Thoughts and emotions aswirl, I laugh at the dream, cringe at the use of language. Super-phlegmatically lethargic? Where did he even find such words, leave aside the horror of using such an expression? (The answer stares back at me from the bookshelf: the well-thumbed pages of How to Build a Better Vocabulary within its bright blue cover, tacked alongside its white sequel, All about Words, by wordsmiths Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum.) I note with satisfaction his attempts to proofread and correct the typescript with a pen and the single typo in spelling, but itch to confront him, to correct the errors that remain. You have identified the sunbird wrong, your punctuation is awry, and go easy on the adverbs and hyphens will you? Also, it is Anamalai, not Annamalai, I want to tell him; the Nilgiris is a different hill range over fifty kilometres to the north.
But most of all, I am incredulous. Incredulous at the boy imagining himself as an ornithologist in the Anamalai, someone he has no assurance of becoming. How could he? My first field research on wildlife was a study on deer and antelope in Guindy National Park in Chennai. My Masters fieldwork took me to tropical rainforests of remote northeastern India, studying effects of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation on birds and primates in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram. Then, I had scouted widely for topics and sites for my doctoral research, before electing to work on rainforest birds in the southern Western Ghats, in Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in the extreme south and in the Anamalai hills. Surely, the boy had no way of knowing that — after my doctoral degree in ornithology — I would remain to work in the Anamalai, would read the words he has written over a quarter of a century later.
I am confused: what is this typescript on its yellowing paper saying? Is it prescient prophecy, plain fact, or fiction?
The words seem prophetic. I do live and work in the Anamalai hills now, in a landscape where, on any day, we need to only step out of home or research station to be assured of seeing wildlife: great hornbills whooshing over the canopy, stately gaur moving through the plantations, creatures of all sorts from fireflies to frogs and earthworms to elephants, amidst great trees festooned with orchids and ferns. A landscape where I can take that walk in the woods he writes about, hear the conversation of macaques and the sounds of elephants.
Great Hornbill in flight
Yet, that is not what I do most of the time, not what I have become. Instead, we work as a team in a landscape where extensive plantations have historically replaced and now lie between forest patches, where land is managed not so much for conservation as for commodities and cash: tea and eucalyptus, coffee and cardamom. In land intensively used by people, we work to restore degraded rainforests by raising native plants in a nursery and planting them out in degraded sites and coaxing private landowners to protect the forest remnants. We work to reduce conflicts with wildlife like elephants and leopards, studying the ecology of these animals, informing local people of elephant movements to prevent unexpected encounters, helping planters and Forest Department implement appropriate measures to reduce or avoid conflict, all to build a landscape of coexistence with wildlife. To keep our research, field station, and conservation efforts going, we raise grants to support our work, write proposals and reports, meet all sorts of people from tribals to tourists, make presentations to planters and policy makers, try to start dialogues and bridge gaps: this is what takes up much of our time in the field. This is not the story of a boy who forgets his worldly cares when placed in the forest of his dream. This is about what it means to care, deeply and all the time, for the world one is in, the real world. A world where the forest is only part of a landscape that also includes the human.
A landscape of forests, wildlife, and people.
Could the child have known what he would become later in life? Clearly, when he wrote this, he already loved biology and birdwatching. He had been birdwatching since he was eleven (“My passion for ornithology had still not left me” he writes, at fourteen!) That summer, he had gone on a memorable trip with his family, I knew, to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nilgiris and to the farm at the foot of the forest-covered Anamalai hills that had belonged to his great-grandfather. The same farm that his grandfather, after laughing at the boy’s offer to study agriculture and take to farming when he grew up, decided to sell and distribute the proceeds across several dozen heirs. The farm remains, inaccessible under new owners, but the forests could still be visited. Perhaps the boy had only projected a subject he liked onto a place he loved. Perhaps the dream had gone deep and dormant, working surreptitiously, like auto-suggestion or astrology, towards an eventuality that seemed inevitable. Yet that very year, I knew, he had also taken a course in journalism… as training for a career as a writer. What of that? Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by? No, he could never have known I would end up in the Anamalai hills. And besides, these are words put down on paper and words taken literally must mean what they say. I know the place he wrote about, in the forests around Sarkarpathi, for it is a place in my memory, too, and he has been there, but I, in all the years since, have not. This was no prophecy.
Perhaps it is fact, then. A dry, reasonable, factual narrative of a day at school, followed by coming home, falling asleep, dreaming his dream. But the dream, the tunnel: is it not a classic artifice to enter another reality? Anyhow, I know what he writes cannot be true: the bathtub is a dead give-away. He has never lived in a house that had a bathtub, not to mention that, in perpetually water-starved Chennai, using so much water for a bath was unthinkable.
Unthinkable. Yet, here it is: thought, articulated, punched on paper in black on white. It is all made up. It is fiction. After all, does the boy not describe his euphoria as quixotic? A word conveying an imagined and fanciful idealism, a quest for the unattainable, made immortal by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a founding work of literary fiction? It is a concocted world in which the boy has placed himself, not me. I am not in it, I am not it. It is just a teenage boy, with his straight black hair falling over his unfurrowed brow, sitting at a typewriter, dreaming up a world out of his imagination.
It is then I recall that his first manuscript accepted for publication was a work of fiction, a short story that appeared in the Indian Express. The newspaper had paid three hundred rupees and his mother had opened a bank account to deposit his first honest earnings. Then, he published a poem, even began work on a novel. Short story, poem, novel: I have no copies of those now, no traces of their existence except in memory. And no, I am not making all this up. This is not fiction. This is true.
What then is the dream and what the fiction? And who, ultimately, is he, and who am I? Shankar, the birdwatcher-scientist walking the woods, or Sridhar, spontaneous writer of fiction? Or do the two roads that diverged in a wood now converge, or connect by myriad streets, to create a scientist who is better able to say why he cares so much for all the life in the real world, and why others should care, because he may be a writer, too? Perhaps one is mistaken in thinking of the road that one takes as leading from origin to destination, as diverging in the woods, as separating past and future from present, when all it is, is a trail that turns into itself, a closed loop walked once where each point exists and connects eventually into every other. Who, among us, has not imagined, or yearned for, alternate lives that may have been? And yet, what if those alternate lives are only distractions, suitable for fictional worlds or for the life of imagination itself, maybe, but not for a life lived truly and well in the world one is in? The subtle seduction of imagined other-lives may be subsumed in a love for the life that is palpably real.
* * *
The only thing I end up discarding, that day in Chennai, is a skeleton. Yes, really, a skeleton in the cupboard! Actually, a parcel of deer bones: lower jaws, skull, ribs, hip bones, femur, vertebrae, a couple of small antlers. These, collected during my field project on deer and antelope in Guindy National Park, were meant to be handed over to a scientist who studied animal diets through isotopic analysis of bones. Clearly, I had never got around to doing that. My parents, steadfast vegetarians who could not have liked having old bones lying around, even if they were bleached white with no trace of flesh or putrefaction and wrapped into a parcel and placed deep in my shelf, had nevertheless tolerated this for over two decades. Long enough, I thought. The bones need to go. I shall keep the typescript with me and place everything else, for now, back in the shelf. I shall tell my mother: I need more time.
Weeks later, I find myself taking courses in writing: writing creative nonfiction, writing for newspapers and magazines, writing fiction and poetry. I try my hand again at fiction and poetry, at an occasional essay. I carry the typescript around with me and I still wonder what that boy was doing. I wonder if he was making up a world not because he wanted to be in his own dream, but only because he was already there. There, in front of a blank sheet of paper open to the imprint of human imagination: where he had always wanted to be. And I wonder at how he dragged me into it.