Category Archives: Asian elephant

Blowin’ in the wind — II

From a boat on Assam’s Deepor Beel—the freshwater lake lying south-west of Guwahati, the largest city in India’s northeast—you can look east past thousands of waterbirds and a carpet of floating leaves to see the city’s seething, smoking garbage dump. Under spotless blue skies, a thin brown haze blankets the lake from fringing forest to quarried hillock, from skirting township to the Boragaon dumpyard. As another dump truck lurches to a halt and tips its load of filth over, an unruly mob of Black Kites and a cloud of dark mynas explode from the murky earth flapping like pieces of tattered cloth caught in a gust. The truck deposits another mound of unsegregated waste—a fraction of the more than 600 tons generated daily from the city of nearly a million people—all plastic and putrefaction, chicken heads and pigs entrails, street dirt and kitchen waste, broken glass and soiled cloth, bulbs and batteries and wires and electronics and metal and paper and more. Beside the truck waits a line of people: women, adolescents, and children. And behind them, a phalanx of Greater Adjutant storks—tall, ungainly birds with dagger-like beaks and naked yellow and pink necks—awaits its turn.

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

In company with cattle and dogs, the people will scavenge first. Driven by poverty, with little or no land or possessions of their own, the women and children from poor families living around the lake have turned to the dumpyard, despite its appalling prospects for their health, to scour a livelihood from the residues of urbanisation. In the waste thrown out of home and market, hospital and motel, collected and dumped again by the trucks, in that twice-discarded garbage, they will rummage to gather things to sell, to use, to survive. Without even a cloth draped over their noses against smoke and stench, they will sift valuable scraps from the offal with metal hooks and bare hands.

Then, it will be the turn of the Greater Adjutants. The birds will parade over the dump, pick up and swallow rotting meat, skins, and bones, fish tails and goat’s ears, eyeballs and hooves, and some will carry it back to their nests on tall trees in villages kilometres away, to regurgitate and feed their hungry chicks. The stork, whose world population is estimated at around 1200 – 1800 mature individuals, about 650 – 800 of which lives in Assam, is considered endangered, its population trending downhill. Yet, there are days when nearly half the world population may be seen in the city of Guwahati, congregating at the garbage dump. In its decline, the stork has learned to survive off the thrice-discarded filth of humanity.

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

With the reek of burning, decaying garbage, the air carries the keening of flies and mosquitoes, the chatter of women and children, the clatter of stork beaks. The air lies thick, in humid vapours that burn the nostrils, clog the windpipe, catch at the throat as if to stifle the breath of life. And above it all, a twister of storks turns slowly, as the lanky birds rise and rise, in a thermal spiral, wings held wide, yellow pouches hanging at their throats, like penitent beings weighed by remorse heading to the heavens.

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydevn Mandal)

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Seated on low thwarts, the three of us are rowed out by the boatman into Deepor Beel. The floodplain lake, a now-festering fragment of the great River Brahmaputra that has swung its course to the north, is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. Every year, thousands of waterbirds gather at the lake, from resident swamphens, lapwings, and herons, to wintering migrant shorebirds, ducks, and geese. Rowing in deeper water or punting through shallows with his oar, the boatman guides the flat-bottomed boat, freshly waterproofed with sticky black tar, over water clouded with sediment and plankton, towards the distant flocks of waterbirds. The boat skims the canopy of a swaying forest of soft underwater plants, topped by floating waterlily leaves that look like plates, like expanded hearts.

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Fed by river and rain, the lake receives water and storm runoff along feeder streams and drains. It mixes city wastewater with the purer flows from the hills of the Rani and Garbhanga Reserved Forests to the south. Polluted by pesticide and fertilizer runoff, contaminated with fecal bacteria, muddied by erosion and sewage, Deepor Beel is slowly turning into ditchwater. Hemmed in between stolid hills and restive city, pincered by highways to the east and west, cleaved from the southern forests by road and railway line, the lake is shrinking, too. Over two decades beginning in 1991, Deepor beel lost 41 per cent of its open water, the area shrank from 712 hectares to 421 hectares and became more fragmented. With the loss of wetland area, the birds, too, appear to be in decline. Only the city and its impressive garbage dump are growing and growing.

On the lake, the water parts for our boat, closes in our wake, the parted plants mark our passage on the surface. In distant boats, fishermen fling their cast nets onto open water, or pull at their nets, stooping to pick their day’s catch from the tangle. Our boat slips over a long, taut fishing net stretched wide across the lake; the water is calm, now it is the horizon that is swaying. To the west vehicles ply on the busy highway, to the north the city burgeons, to the east the unsavoury Boragaon dumpyard moulders, and to the south a train thunders along the railway.

The tracks shrill and clatter under metal wheels, as they will almost every hour: the trains will not stop. There is blood on these tracks, the blood of elephants—herds, calves, tuskers—who tried to cross the tracks from the forest seeking water and forage in the lake. The elephants were slammed, were dragged, were extinguished: a slaughter wrought in passivity, for who, in their right mind, will attribute active intent to trains? Only the journeys of the elephants, the lives of the elephants, shall come to a stop.

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

The clamour of hundreds of whistling-ducks accompanies our passage, their pulsed whistles and squeals lance over the water. Suddenly, the air reverberates with wings. The resounding beat and rush of wings roils the air overhead, as hundreds of pintail ducks and greylag geese take wing from rippling lake to splayed-out sky.

Deepor_Beel_low_DivyaMudappa

Ducks and geese in flight over Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The storks still soar in the distance. From high, they must see the vast braid of the Brahmaputra winding through the landscape. They must see, far, far to the north, the grandeur of Himalayan peaks, dusted with snow and weighed by glacier. They must see that the lake below is but a drop of water on land. The ducks and geese wheel and quarter, they sweep and swerve in the air. They begin to descend, as the storks do, too, out of seamless, unmarked skies.

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

As dusk settles over the landscape and the milling flocks of birds settle for their roost, the fishermen return to their villages in their boats. The trucks and trains have passed, and perhaps the elephants have, too.

Dusk at Deeporbeel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Dusk at Deepor beel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

By night, as the city flickers to life before us, the garbage dump, its people, its birds, all become invisible. Tomorrow, the fishers will return to the lake, and the women and children to the dump. And, from the skies above Guwahati, it is again to the lake and garbage dump that the birds, too, must drop.

…Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
~Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

This piece follows an earlier post, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, at EcoLogic.

How green is your tea?

(With Divya Mudappa in Business Line, BLink magazine special issue on animals, 27 Sep 2014)

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

You could have imagined you were on a forest trail. Fifty metres away, the dark hulk of a solitary bull gaur, over five feet tall at the shoulder with taut muscles and thick, curving horns, looks up from the swampy valley where he stands in his white-stockinged legs. Eyes locked with gaur, your ears pick up the harsh bark of a great hornbill resounding through the cool mountain air from a patch of tall trees on the hill slope beyond. As you skirt the gaur and walk quietly down the trail, stepping past fresh scat of a sloth bear and dropped quills of a porcupine, a stripe-necked mongoose darts across, a flash of crimson bright against background green. The green is not the multi-hued mosaic of a real forest, but a more uniform smear of a monoculture. Row upon row of neatly pruned metre-high bushes range away in tight lines, punctuated by well-spaced and heavily-lopped silver oak trees. In the mountains of the Western Ghats, at the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, you are walking through a large tea plantation.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

Tea plantations often get bad press from environmentalists as ‘green deserts‘. As a form of intensive production based on keeping large estates under a single crop, tea plantations tend to support far fewer wild species than comparable areas under native forests. Still, when one takes a broader perspective, tea estates, too, can play a role in wildlife conservation. Recent field studies show that by modifying conventional land-use practices and protecting some neglected parts of the tea estate landscape these plantations can help conserve wild species. They also illustrate how important it has become to widen the scope of conservation into the countryside outside wildlife protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries.

Read on here… or from magazine pages below.

BLink_Issue-35_September_27-2014_Page_10

BLink_Issue-35_September_27-2014_Page_11

 

 

The journeys of the elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
~ Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge”. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of  Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtest: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy British Museum)

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant 'Soliman' (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

The elephant ‘Soliman’  in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., 
Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, 
D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and 
Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, 
Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of 
the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by
Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.

14 to 41: where I had always wanted to be

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.

fragment

Rainforest fragment in the Valparai plateau (Photo courtesy: Ganesh Raghunathan)

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)

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.

THE END.

* * *

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.

GH in flight

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.

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.