Category Archives: memoir

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Why quit Twitter

If you google it you will find all the right reasons and then some. It is distraction. It is a waste of time. It is the trumpet of demagogues, and there’s a pun in there somewhere. It is a space where you radiate cheap chatter and narcissistic signals of your own virtue, in 140 characters, emojis, smileys, GIFs. It makes you more social and more anti-social #online, more asocial #offline. It is a feed, only it feeds on you.

It shelters trolls and slaughters nuance. It eschews depth and embraces facade. It is where the new Nazis, the white supremacists, the racists, the misogynists, the fascists, the journalist-haters, the others-haters, all hang out and send their bluster and bile, their innuendo and threats, send it all your way, under the willful, watchful, closed eyes of the doubtless wonderful folks at Twitter, or with the blessings of political puppet masters twiddling their thumbs behind the blue screen. It is company you would rather not keep.

Yet, trolled or not, threatened or not, isn’t Twitter still worth it? If you google this, you will find the best reasons, the best, really, and then some. It is free. It is your voice, the voice of democracy, the microblog as the great leveler. It is outreach, it is #scicomm, it is one-on-one and one-to-all. It builds your readership, pushes up your #altmetric, it fosters connections you never would have imagined.

There’s all of that. And, as I said, then some.

Still, I have seen, read, and had enough. I am pulling out of Twitter—with a h/t and a thank you and farewell to all those folks who chose to or suffered to read me on their timeline (‘followed’ seems too grand a word for a relationship channeled via Twitter). Two and half years and 6610 tweets is a reasonable time to realise that this social media whatsit ain’t for me. Yes, I’ve been on Facebook, too, and left after a spell, with great relief, no sense of having lost anything of value whatsoever, and never a regret or a look back. Now, too, I leave with a feeling that I can do better. Maybe, just maybe, I will.

What will I fill the absence of Twitter with—an absence that I already scarcely feel now that I know I am calling it quits? At this point, almost anything else I care to do seems more interesting, meaningful, restful, fun. After all, what have I spent most time on Twitter doing but reading? And there remains plenty to read out there, and better ways to read it. I have taken a subscription to a good newspaper, in hard copy; I will read others online, perhaps taking new subscriptions to those that have not faltered into the post-truth world of unworthy demagogues. I will shore up my list of blogs to read, pull in their feeds regularly, comfortably, on a reader, and read authors in the original in the places they publish. I will continue to seek out books and magazines, particularly ad-free magazines and websites carrying the finest writing on the natural world like Orion and Terrain.org, to name a couple. Maybe I will spend more time with family and friends, or listen to sparrow chirp and whistlingthrush song in my backyard. Maybe I will treat myself to some good music and programs that my short-wave radio pulls from the skies, or hook up my speakers and computer to the best music and podcasts on the internet. Maybe I will write, or go for more long walks. Or perhaps, maybe best of all, in the time gained off Twitter, I will do nothing. Nothing.

And there’s no harm in that, is there? If you Google that… but wait…

Fieldwork: In clouded leopard country with Peter Matthiessen

Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.

Peter Matthiessen is no more.

It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.

Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.

Matthiessen_books_low

Bookshelf (Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan)

How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.

Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.

Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.

And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.

I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?

But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?

And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.

Dampatlang watchtower, 2014

Dampatlang watchtower (2013)

Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014

At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.

ChawrpialtlangForests

At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.

It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.

Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.

Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?

Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.

I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.

Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?

Bamboo watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014

Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.

The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.

Pathlawi_forest

Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.

Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.

Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?

The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.

Tuichar cave (2014)

Tuichar cave (Photo: Bhagyashree Ingle)

Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014

After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?

The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.

Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.

At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.

Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.

I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.

Kalakad: three years in rainforest

(With Divya Mudappa, for a volume commemorating 25 years of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve)

A place that is marked by the presence of people is not unusual, but a place whose presence itself leaves an indelible mark on people is something extraordinary. In the ancient mountains at the southern tip of the great Western Ghats ranges, sheltering among rocky peaks and rugged slopes draped with tall evergreen forest, lies one such place. A place of beauty and challenge and diversity, which if you have really experienced, you will declare has no real equivalent. And if you have lived and worked there, wherever you go, the place will go with you. It will remain a benchmark, a touchstone, a reference point in felt memory and field experience, against which you will forever measure other places, newer knowledge. A place that does all this, slowly, gently, but inevitably, is Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve.

Rainforest panorama

Near the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve sprawls over an expansive forest landscape within the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu state. Occupying 895 square kilometres, it adjoins other wildlife sanctuaries (Neyyar, Peppara, and Shendurney) and reserved forests lying across the administrative boundary in Kerala state, forming a forest tract nearly twice as large over the Agastyamalai – Ashambu hill ranges. Biologists consider this landscape one of the most significant areas for conservation of biological diversity in the Western Ghats. It retains one of the largest and last remaining unbroken tracts of over 400 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, much of which has not been logged or converted to plantations, ripped by roads or ravaged by mining like many other parts of the Western Ghats have been. Partly for these reasons, Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand the ecology of rainforest plants and animals in a relatively undisturbed setting: an understanding that is a vital step to help conserve such a place for posterity.

* * *

From the wide sweep of the Tirunelveli plains, the Kalakad mountains rise abruptly in looming grandeur. South of Tirunelveli, on the national highway that runs down to Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the road turns sharply west towards the mountains. It passes through a rich countryside where paddy, banana, and other crops are grown in flatlands amidst scattered lakes, old village ponds, and rocky outcrops. Past villages at the foothills, the road ascends the mountains to a Forest Department camp.

A mile further, up a steep foot trail along a torrent passing through dense forest, on which everything from rice and gas cylinders and pipes and field supplies had to be carried, in the middle of the rainforest in the shadow of Kulirattimottai mountain, we established a base camp that became our home for three years.

Field station

It was an abandoned house with a cardamom drying room, the remnant of an earlier plantation lease that had expired. It was a house with no electricity or modern embellishments, but as a camp from where we just had to step out to enter the rainforests for our field research, it was perfect. People said we were cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, there in the rainforest, we felt more immersed in the world than ever before.

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

We had come there to study small mammals and birds, posing fundamental questions of ecology: on the distribution and abundance of species in relation to their environment. What were the small mammal and carnivore species, from rodents and shrews to civet and marten, that lived in the rainforest? And what was the community of birds? How did the distribution and abundance of all these species change from lower to higher elevations or from abandoned plantation and previously logged forest to undisturbed mature tropical rainforest? How did endemic species such as the nocturnal brown palm civet thrive in the rainforest: how much area did the civets need, what did they feed on, where did they roost by day before they set out to feed by night?

BPC_trsr_low

With a bunch of such questions tucked into our belts, we set out to answer them through field research and observations. We laid quadrats to measure vegetation and grids and catch-and-release traps for studying rodent populations. We surveyed transects and point counts for birds and walked trails with tagged trees to document monthly patterns of leaf-flush, flowering, and fruiting of rainforest trees and lianas. We radio-collared brown palm civets to track and study this elusive and enigmatic species by night. With eyes and ears on the mountains and feet on the earth, we tried to discern the pulse and flow of the rainforest.

* * *

radio tracking lowImmersed in the rainforest, day in and year out, our work slowly brought us to appreciate the enduring rhythms of nature and cycles of renewal. From early morning counts of birds, daytime surveys of plots and trails and transects, through nocturnal tracking of civets onto the next day: this was our daily round of activities. Around us, the daily rhythms of the rainforest played on. Every morning, the eagle owls tucked into their tree hollows and as the sun crested the mountains, the black eagles came skimming over the treetops. At the end of the day, as the giant squirrels went to roost in their tree nests, the flying squirrels and civets emerged to roam by night.

Then came the pulse of seasons. The year opened cool and dry, or laced with the moist departure of the north-east monsoon, and Canarium trees flared red amidst a sea of rainforest green. After the elephants passed by in March, peeling tree bark and snacking on Ochlandra reed bamboos, came two hot and tempestuous months with pre-monsoon thunderstorms that revived the wilting shrubs and replenished rainforest streams. Then, from June to September, the southwest monsoon reigned, with short sunny mornings and rain-lashed afternoons under dark, gloomy skies. The forest turned damp, as did our clothes and books and everything in the camp, and fruits of Palaquium trees littered the forest floor and little seedlings sprung up on the moist leaf litter.

Misty rainforest

Then, as one monsoon withdrew, depressions in the Bay of Bengal brewed another. The north-east monsoon brought persistent, torrential rains and thick mists that swallowed the rainforests hardly twenty metres away from our doorstep and poured in through the windows into our home. The swelling rivers, which sometimes flowed over the trail cutting off our base camp, thundered down the valley, carrying revivifying waters to the people in the plains. Even during a deluge it was remarkable how, as the slopes were swathed in dense forests, there was so little erosion and the waters remained clear and pure to drink. Finally, as the year wound down, the winds and clouds and rains withdrew, cool, clear skies would open over the forests again, and the crimson flush of Canarium would flag the beginning of another year.

canarium flush low_Arati_Rao

Photo: Arati Rao

* * *

The rainforests were a place of eternal surprise. Even as we went exploring our study questions, looking for our study species, other creatures, puzzles, and wonders confronted us. We could take nothing for granted: all our senses had to be on alert all the time.

The trail cameras had been set, the civets collared, but dense vegetation kept much hidden. In the darkness of night, our spotlight would reveal little more than shining eyes of flying squirrel or civet in the canopy, or a shy mouse deer nibbling on fruits fallen on forest floor. Even by day, birds were noted more by their songs and voice than by sight, although a glimpse of an elusive Malabar trogon or the sweet songster, the endemic white-bellied blue flycatcher, was an almost daily joy.

Malabar Trogon - Male_KalyanVarma_D08_0133

Malabar Trogon male (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

The sights and sounds of the forest hinted at what was there, and yet constantly surprised us. That loud honk was not the alarm bell of a distant sambar, but the courtship call of a nearby frog; that black blur on the branches was not a scampering giant squirrel, but a Nilgiri marten on his hunt; that repetitive pulse was not the beep of a receiver left on by mistake, but a tiny cricket peeping in the undergrowth; that flash of yellow streaking from tree trunk to trunk was no darting woodpecker or butterfly, but a Draco, the gliding lizard; that whistle emerging from the dark rainforest by night was no forlorn cry of mystery mammal, but the haunting call of the rare Oriental bay owl. In the rainforest, even a sudden silence or a carpet of fallen Mesua leaves revealed something: of the hushing of an unseen cicada on tree bark under the scanning eye of a treepie, or the passing of a sated troop of langur in the trees.

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Watching animals, we learned more about plants. The civets, although carnivores, ate more fruits than animal prey, and so we tried to document and identify the fruits and the plants they came from. And fruits were always there: every month, through the year, some species provided sustenance to civets and macaques and birds such as hornbills and mountain imperial pigeons. Seeing seedlings sprouting from civet scat or trail side, we grasped how many native rainforest plants could be regenerated from seed, into seedlings that could be planted to bring back rainforest in abandoned plantations and other degraded sites.

* * *

We had come to the rainforests for our research, but when we left three years later, we went with so much more. Working by day and night, more than what we came to study, we learned about natural history and ecology of the rainforest. And what we gathered informs and guides us to this day. As we completed our doctoral research, wrote our theses and papers and reports, we began a project to ecologically restore degraded rainforest fragments in the Anamalai hills.

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Our restoration work was inspired by field experiences in the Kalakad rainforest. It was this place that taught us to not just take away new knowledge, but try to return something to the forest through informed conservation actions. It taught us how we could assist the civets in their task of forest regeneration, how we, too, could contribute to renewal as farmers of the forest.

four years laterFourteen years later, in the hills hundreds of kilometres away, the planted saplings now reach towards the sky having become young trees over twenty feet tall. In the restoration site, the young Canarium flames upward year after year, alongside quick Elaeocarpus and slow Palaquium and many other species, and on the leaf litter below, a passing civet has deposited a fresh batch of seeds.

The plants evoke a recollection of a distant rainforest, a home by the river running below the rocky dome of Kulirattimottai, a place where we would like to be again—to be reinvigorated, to learn, to be surprised anew.

Yet, in this moment, the forest does not seem to be outside of us at all: seeing seed and scat and surging sapling before our eyes, we perceive the rainforests of Kalakad.

 

Bird by bird in the rainforest

Stop bouncing around like a ping-pong ball you tailless piece of shit!’ I said.

And it worked! The tiny, truncated bird, smaller than a sparrow, hopped onto a thin twig, and paused. Paused for just a couple of seconds, but after fifteen futile and frustrating minutes trying to glimpse the bird in the dense rainforest undergrowth on a misty morning, this was enough to get one clear view. If you can call staring through a pair of Swarovski 8.5 × 42 binoculars—my breath held to avoid fogging the eyepiece, my cold fingers clenched around both barrels, my shoulders and elbows locked, my torso twisted like a snake curling up an imaginary tree, my knees bent so that I could look lower in the undergrowth, past ferns and herbs and leafy tangles and fallen branches, through a tiny gap—at the briefly motionless bird twenty feet away, one clear view. A lot of effort, for one little bird.

I had not said the words out loud, of course, but this was no time to wonder at the power of silent abuse to pinion birds to their perch. I had details to note. A sprightly, dumpy bird, smaller than a sparrow. Underparts ashy grey; a rather big head coloured a dull olive green that continued onto his wings and back. A dark-tipped, pointed beak, like an elongated and sharpened pencil lead. Black eyestripe stretching through the eye, topped by a lighter yellowish supercilium to the side of his almost non-existent neck. Long legs, for a tiny bird, gripping the twig firmly, as he perched and gave me a slightly indignant eye over his shoulder. No tail. At least none that I could see. I would have been grateful for a few more seconds, but he had had enough. ‘Chirririt!’ he exclaimed, loud for such a little bird. ‘Chirririp!’, he let rip, again, before he bounced onto another twig, and plunged into the undergrowth. But I had seen enough. With a smug smile, I wrote his name down in my notebook: Grey-bellied Tesia. A touch darker grey below, a flash brighter yellow on crown and supercilium, and I would have had to put him down as a different species, Slaty-bellied Tesia. Satisfied, I pocketed my notebook, left him to sulk and skulk in peace.

Tesia_Ramki

Grey-bellied Tesia (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The morning had not begun this way, with me casting silent abuse and expletives at unsuspecting birds. I had started on a far more polite note. I had walked into the regenerating rainforest with spindly bamboos and tall trees, at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve near Teirei in Mizoram. On a sober, serious note, I began birding, conscious that I was here to carry out a comprehensive survey of birds at the behest of the enthusiastic Field Director of the Reserve, Mr Lalthanhlua Zathang, on behalf of the Mizoram Forest Department. The December dawn had just broken beyond the hills and the sun was yet to crest the ridge.

DampaDawn

In the chill morning, the dark forest stood cloaked in a grey mist. From the canopy, dew fell like rain on the shrubs and onto the leaf litter covering the earth. Through the soft patter of falling dew, all around, I heard the calls of waking birds. The excited tweets of a canary-flycatcher perched on some distant branch, the chatter of bulbuls flitting around some unseen tree, the piercing screech of hill mynas flying across invisible sky, and soft churrs, and metallic clicks, and nasal notes, all punctuated the quiet morning air even as I struggled to pin-point their locations. And not a single bird showed.

Still, I was hopeful. And polite.

‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘I dropped by last evening, but it was all very quiet out here. I figured you were busy or tired and I shouldn’t disturb you. Well, it is morning now, and here I am! Please come out. Say hello!’

Nyeaahh,‘ said the White-throated Bulbul, in a nasty, nasal drawl. Like all the others, he refused to show. The coward.

I tried again. ‘Where are you guys?’

More patter of falling dew.

Minutes passed. I heard soft rasping notes alternating with a loud, continuous chaunk chaunk chaunk as a pin-striped tit babbler called from low branches. Elusive and ventriloquial, she frustrated my efforts to spot her, the soft notes seeming to come from nearer and the loud notes from farther away than where she really was. Further ahead, I stopped near a Bischofia javanica tree fruiting copiously: there were birds busy feasting on the high branches. It was perhaps just a tad hasty, a little too jerky, the way I raised my binoculars to my eyes; before I could focus, a large flock flared off the canopy in a great flurry of wings. Green pigeons, but which species? Pin-tailed, or Thick-billed, or Ashy-headed? No telling now, however crisply I focused on the still-quivering twigs. Later still, a little spiderhunter went, ‘Which? Which?‘, flying at top speed through the understorey. My eyes alighted only at the empty spots, in mid-air, from where each call was emitted, by which time the bird had already zipped past to the next, eluding me. From the skies high above, an unseen Crested Serpent Eagle laughed loud and shrilly: ‘Heeeee heee hee‘.

I began to get worried, impatient. I had limited time on this trip, less than two weeks in the field, and only one morning to explore this trail, which snaked along the forested slope above Teirei river. For the bird survey to be comprehensive, I needed to explore different trails and habitats and identify accurately all species seen. By preparing a complete checklist, documenting changes in bird communities across habitats, the survey could add to the knowledge on biological diversity in Dampa and potentially contribute to the conservation plans for birds in the Reserve. I knew that cold, misty mornings were not ideal for birding, as bird activity tended to be low. Notorious skulkers like the tesias and wren-babblers were hard enough to see on brighter days, leave alone the prospect of finding, identifying, and counting them on murky mornings. Such times are best avoided if one was out for a systematic census of birds, on point counts or transects. But now, I was not constrained by rigid survey methods, I was willing to wait for the bird activity to pick up as the sun rose higher, and watch quietly till the bird showed itself. For this to work well, the birds needed to cooperate, too; it was not just a matter of my skill. Or was it?

Qu-ick,’ said a bird from the shrubs. ‘Qu-ick!’

An unknown call, yet strangely familiar, like the voice of a long-forgotten friend who calls you out of the blue asking, ‘Do you recognise who this is?’ I scanned the undergrowth even as I racked my brains trying to recall if this was a bird I once knew. I had studied birds for many months in Dampa Tiger Reserve earlier, but all that was nearly two decades ago. At that time, I had learned to identify by sight and sound over two hundred species in a matter of weeks, while strictly adhering to a policy that ‘no record at all is better than an erroneous one’. When I finished that study in the summer of 1995, my list held over 210 bird species, and I prided myself in knowing the calls of virtually all the birds I encountered on my birding walks. ‘Here sings a Black-naped Monarch,’ or ‘There calls a Red-headed Trogon!’ I would note, or merely pause to listen to the soft, subtle notes of a Snowy-browed Flycatcher in deep rainforest. But now, I felt like I was back at square one, more neophyte than past-master at birding. I felt compelled to reaffirm my acquaintance with these birds again, as if I were transforming faded friendships into comfortable familiarity or flourishing relationships once more. But perhaps, in the return, there was opportunity, too: like when rotational jhum farmers returned to cultivate a fallow, after it had regenerated a full twenty years, finding soil rested and replenished by age.

‘Come on… come on! I can see the leaves shaking there near the ground where you are flitting around. Come out where I can see you.’

A five-minute wait and he refuses to show. I imagine the bird saying, ‘Sorry! Can’t come out now.’ More likely, he didn’t care a whit for my plight. His voice had triggered a cloudy memory, and a name had been forming in my head: Buff-breasted Babbler. But before I could confirm, he just left. Vanished.

‘Bastard!’

This is when things started to get hairy. Here I was, after travelling thousands of kilometres to do this work, birding ostensibly to benefit the birds of Dampa, and they were simply failing me. Or, and the thought came close on its heels, I was here on my own work and failing, myself. In two decades, I wondered, had my field skills declined with age? Did I need to struggle that much more, strain my ears a little harder, to do the same things that I had managed to do earlier, apparently with élan? Had I forgotten the habits of the birds, their individual quirks and mannerisms, which had earlier guided my eyes and ears? Was I a fool to walk into a rainforest again, without the tape recorders and playback equipment that others use to lure birds out, without the mist-nets to snare the birds and securely identify them in-hand, without cameras and long lenses that snapped photographs in a trice to comfortably identify the bird on a computer screen, later? Was I just being a stubborn, old-fashioned geezer, a snob who believed, as I still did, that all one needed to do for a good bout of birding was arm oneself with a choice pair of binoculars, field notebook, and pen? I had no time to reflect on the answers—it was easier to deflect self-doubt and self-loathing onto the birds. Instead of naming the birds I found, I began calling them names.

* * * * *

After failing to find birds on the trail the previous evening, I had returned to my room at the Teirei Forest rest house to find solace, as I often do, in reading. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped below 10°C, I tucked into my sleeping bag and opened the book I had carried along—a book on writing by Anne Lamott which, oddly enough, was titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

In the book’s second chapter titled ‘Short Assignments’, Lamott explains the book’s title. She recalls a story of how her elder brother, when he was ten years old, was struggling to finish a report on birds, which he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. Close to tears, he sat at the table, ringed by binder paper and pencils and bird books that lay unopened, frustrated by the huge task ahead of him. Then, his father sat beside him, placed a reassuring arm on his shoulder, and said:

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Well, there I was the next morning, on my own short assignment, ready to put aside my failures and take it bird by bird. But the damn birds refused to show. I don’t know what you would have done in this situation. I screamed, mutely, at every mysterious bird call. I let fly, motionless, at every fleeting glimpse. In complete silence, I cursed.

With that, my luck turned. The tesia was just an early victim. My patience exhausted in fifteen minutes, I pinned him to the twig with one cutting comment.

A little later, briskly turning a bend, I spooked a bird that exploded from virtually at my feet.

Freeze! Asshole!‘ I said, behind gritted teeth, which applied, I guess, to both of us. I stood binoculars glued to my eyes. The bird alighted on a slanting bamboo culm thirty metres away and glared back. Feather for feather, he was one of the most beautiful Emerald Dove males I had ever seen: coral-red beak and silver-capped head on wine-lilac neck, zebra-patterned rump immodestly flaunted under emerald wings. I could have stood rooted there for ever. Only, the feeling was clearly not mutual and the bird hustled away in a clapping flutter.

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

‘And what are you fussing and churring and whistling about? Yes, you with the nervous tic, with your bunch of buddies on the branches. Show yourself clearly or shut your frigging mouth!’

It seemed rather extreme, even to me, to thus lambast what turned out to be a coterie of shy Brown-cheeked Fulvettas winding its way away through the bamboo. They were nondescript and dull birds, brown with a touch of grey on their heads, foraging in the shadow of bigger and more colourful peers.

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The fulvettas made a dignified exit after their brief showing at my unuttered words. Only, after they left, other words—far greater than mine—came to mind and refused to leave.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

~from ‘A Minor Bird‘, by Robert Frost

The fault was partly in me. A many-layered fault, of finding excuses when I failed at finding birds, of being stubborn, snobbish, or merely impatient. It was like blaming friends—who I had forgotten for years, not seeing them, not casting a thought in their direction—for failing to show up when I wanted them to. Like them, the birds lived neither for my convenience nor my disposal: they had lives of their own, free to roam and do unexpected things. It was I who needed to make more effort to see them to understand, once again if need be, who they were or weren’t. They were like characters in a book, and as Anne Lamott writes:

…if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck… you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.

And what if, like the birds, the knowledge that I sought was not something to be chased after or coerced into revealing itself? If the best I could hope for was to remain receptive and observant, and let the story show, gradually, as a reward for attentive and repeated effort?

Finding the bird, identifying the species, knowing their calls and habits: these were just the first but crucial steps of a long chain of things I needed to do to translate a confirmed sighting to something of larger substance. I still needed to systematically cover various habitats from streams and rivers to fallows and forests, resurvey transects I had walked two decades ago, measure vegetation attributes such as tree density and canopy cover to quantify habitat change, then enter, verify, and analyse the collected data, then interpret and write my findings, all in the hope that it would lead to greater scientific understanding and better conservation and management efforts on the ground. Years ago, this had formed the bedrock of my work on the effects of shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Dampa. Now, while surveying the same areas again after two decades, I had the opportunity to take my earlier work ahead, deepen my understanding of recovery of rainforest vegetation and bird communities. After this short trip in December, I would come again in February for several weeks of work, but I was beginning to wonder if even that much time was enough.

Even during this short visit, I was already becoming concerned about the changes in land-use around Dampa. Monoculture teak and rubber and oil-palm plantations were replacing diverse secondary forests and traditional livelihoods based on shifting cultivation on community lands were being beaten back by government and corporate interests to bring in economies based on cash and private ownership. In such a backdrop, the birds of Dampa seemed inconsequential and irrelevant, but they, too, had a role to play in helping understand the changes. The presence and kinds of birds in various sites serve as revealing titres of transformation in land-use, when habitat alteration reaches its threshold and that little extra drop of disturbance irretrievably changes the colour of the landscape. But, I realised, the birds were not the primary instrument of the assay, they were living measures of change in landscape. I was the blunt instrument making the measurements, scrawling notes and observations into my fraying field notebook. What if I was not up to the task? If all I could achieve was a mismeasure of a pertinent conservation issue, a partial diagnosis stemming from my own limited capacity, my shortcomings? Would I be able to describe my results clearly: after I record the right birds, find the right words, too? Again, I took encouragement from Anne Lamott:

If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. … However, if you do care deeply about something—if, for instance, you are conservative in the great sense of the word, if you are someone who is trying to conserve the landscape and the natural world—then this belief will keep you going as you struggle to get your work done.

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.

The trail that led to the river was overgrown. I could hear the rush of the river over rocks a hundred feet away, but could not see it through the tangle of vegetation. The plants were wet with morning dew sparkling in the sun that now rose over the trees. As mist steamed off the plants, I waded through grass and fern and sedge, wet to my thighs, and squelched along. I dodged swinging banana leaves and shoved bamboo culms and branches out of my way. With all the noise and disturbance of my passage, there was no question of finding birds. The trail almost petered out and so did the morning. I decided to turn back before I started cursing the plants. I would come back, later, begin afresh.

Through a small break in the vegetation, I saw a small segment of Teirei river. On a rock near the middle of the river, a small brown bird sat, flicked out into the air, and returned to its perch: a female Plumbeous Redstart. She kept sallying out, to catch flying insects perhaps, returning each time to the same spot. Out and back, out and back, to me, she looked loopy with life.

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

* * * * *

Trophies 101: a year of books and bookstores

I went trophy hunting—in the year just past—roughly twice a week, every week, without fail. It was difficult, it was wonderful, it needed the patience of a stalker, the resistance of a gone junkie. On my hunts, I roamed the alleys and mazes of concrete jungles, scoured dark recesses and dusty nooks, scanned thousands before selecting the few, the chosen, the one. I have them all now with me, waiting to be proudly displayed on my shelves. My trophies of 2013, harvested from five countries across three continents, from over two dozen places: books.

It was an unusually good year for book hunting. I had had to travel on work or for taking a break from work to places far from the small hill town of Valparai where I live. The icy grachten of Amsterdam in January, sun-drenched northern California in April and May, verdant Vermont in July, quiet Uppsala in August, the dour streets of London in October, the dense forests of Mizoram in December, passing through Bangalore or New Delhi or Mysore or Coimbatore or Chennai, Indian cities that I visited on other trips on work or to see friends and family, always coming back home to the Anamalai hills, to Valparai. A little too much travel, if you ask me, and with too much time in workshops and meetings, places where there is always too much talk and too little done, so many moments when you itch to leave the room, go home, take a cleansing bath. On the work front, it was a year of moderate and quiet progress in Valparai itself, although the world around appeared to careen towards catastrophe and conflict, whether from extreme climate events around the world, or, closer to home, over disputes on how to conserve the Western Ghats or coexist with wild species like elephants. On the personal front, too, it was not an easy year, with deaths in the family, illness and stress among people close to us, worry and guilt about personal time infringing the ineluctable backlog of work. But wherever I was, there were always books at hand, or else I went looking.

The books were an attempt not so much to escape from it all, but to find solace and space, as they say, in the scheme of things. To make sense of the world around us, to see the world through other eyes, to feel transported, thrilled, or transformed by great art: what does that better, if one pays attention, than books, than literature? So, at the least opportunity, I hauled myself out of whatever I was doing or wherever I was, on quests for books. Books in public libraries, once-used books in curbside shops and on pavements, books in small, independent bookstores and larger, lavish bookshops, books in digital formats online for my Kindle, books borrowed from or gifted by friends (what are friends for, anyway?), books rediscovered in the shelves that Divya and I have lovingly filled and tended over the years, here in Valparai. As Emily Dickinson wrote of these “kinsmen of the shelf”:

Unto my Books—so good to turn—
Far ends of tired Days—
It half endears the Abstinence—
And Pain—is missed—in Praise—

And so, with the books in hand, I read. I read for the sheer joy of reading, for meeting my self-imposed challenge of reading one hundred books in 2013, for filling every empty space in everyday life. I read with a vengeance, read with heart. I read with attention, and read myself to distraction. I read on buses, on trains, on flights, in bus stations and train stations and airports. I read while waiting, secretly exultant at the delayed flight, the slow unpunctual train, the taxi stuck in traffic. I read while the morning coffee brewed in the filter, while the computer booted up, while being driven from somewhere to anywhere, while listening to music, while watching but not really watching the rubbish on television, while the rotis baked and the dal cooked in the kitchen, while waiting for meetings to begin, while waiting for them to end. I read on the couch, in the bed, sitting on chairs, on rocks, on river banks, in cafés, in bookstores, in a watchtower overlooking ranges of hills, in a cave in deep rainforest. I read sitting, standing, reclining, or lying down, in places a few feet below sea level (in The Netherlands) to over thirty thousand feet (on transcontinental flights). I read in sun and shade, under streetlamps and fluorescent tubes, using a LED headlamp or by candlelight. I read under the sharp buzz of caffeine from one-coffee-too-many, with that lightheaded feeling that one gets in the other ‘coffee shops’ of Amsterdam, with a mind mildly muddled by beer or vodka or wine. I read with both eyes flitting left to right and left again, or sometimes, just with one eye, the other drooping closed, moments before melting slowly, deliciously into sleep at night. I read on the shores of Lake Tahoe, on the banks of the Singelgracht, in my cousin’s swanky apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, on BART and Caltrain in California, in the homes of friends and family wherever I went, and most of all in the hills of the elephants here at home in Valparai. I just read and read and read.

The year that began with reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, filled up quickly with many books whose authors and voices I will remember and continue to hear, speaking to me as to a confidant or companion, for long. Still, eight books stood out as my best reads of 2013, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I read on my Kindle, and others that I read as paperbacks. Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a powerful novel on hunger and the depravity of totalitarian regimes set in the Russian Gulag during World War II, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a stark novella set in the American west of the 1920s, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, stories remarkable for their imaginative detailing as for narrative technique, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, describing three journeys of a lost young man, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a classic, more like a non-fiction novella than an essay, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a hard-hitting early book about homelessness, poverty, and living on the street, and finally, William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic for all writers, The Elements of Style, a book I re-read for perhaps the third or fourth time.

Best books of 2013

Best books of 2013

On 29 December 2013, as I clicked past the last page on my Kindle of the hundredth book, I found myself dissatisfied with ending a year of reading with Thoreau’s Walking, more a long essay than a book. So I picked up a paperback from a friend’s bookshelf and ended the year reading this fine classic: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Through the year, I had kept track, on my online Goodreads account, of what I read and what Divya and my friends were reading. Among ourselves, we sent and received book recommendations that led to more reading, or helped find new authors to read. It was also interesting to compare impressions about books and authors with Divya and friends who had read the same books, to see what we agreed on and what we felt differently about them.

Still, not everyone takes kindly to such reading. On 2 January, when I wished my mother-in-law for the new year and invited her over to our home in Valparai, she replied: “Yes, I will come, but you must not be reading.”

So at this point, 101 books, 18816 pages, and more than five million words later, a statutory warning: Relentless reading can cause injury to friends and family.

* * *

What is good etiquette for a person who is reading a book? I am not talking about posture or mothers’ reading instructions (“Sit up straight, hold your book at least twelve inches away from your face, read in good light.”) This is about when and where it is appropriate to be reading a book, especially in company. Occasions when one is at a dining table or hosting guests are certainly out there in the forbidden list. I never read at a dining table, unless I was alone or waiting for people to show up. Still, I watched with envy as people at dinner tables, at home or while eating out, whipped out their so-smart phones, caressing their email and twitter feeds on touch screens, or their hands under the table, fingers flitting at the virtual keys, sending that all-important text message. And if the phone rang, of course, it must be picked up, the clangorous urgency of its shrill metallic cries immediately mollified with soft words and conversation. Even guests are forgiving, if you say, “I have to take this call” and step out with your phone for a quick chat, an extended ten minutes, or even longer. Imagine their chagrin if you say, “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I was just in the middle of this wonderful passage in The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.” Or, their horror at: “Wait! I’m pages away from finishing Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and I cannot rest until I know how it ends.” The tyranny of the mobile phone, I tell you, trumps books any day.

Yet, there are grey areas. Can you read during working hours, for instance? And is it okay if you are reading non-fiction, connected with your work, but not so if you are reading fiction or poetry? As a nature conservationist, would reading Richard Mabey’s The Ash and the Beech or Edward Abbey’s polemical Desert Solitaire be forgiven, but not Patrick White’s extraordinary The Tree of Man or Rabindranath Tagore’s ecstatic poetry in The Gardener? If you have a social conscience, then should you read Michael Sandel’s Justice or Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, say, but not Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, or Mahasweta Devi’s Bitter Soil? And does that mean, by extension, that for working hours, stuff like Anaïs Nin‘s erotica or Ursula K. Le Guin‘s science fiction are a strict no-no?

How much time can one spend reading in a day? I calculate that, from the books I read last year, I read about 50 pages a day, on average. At my reading pace (moderate, not fast), that is about an hour and fifteen minutes of reading time, ranging from a low of a few minutes on some busy days to around five hours on days when I had more time or was travelling by train. This did not include time spent reading newspapers, magazines, stand-alone essays, the occasional scientific paper that I was reading or reviewing, in print or online. All told, it would still be about two hours a day, on average, of reading time. Is that a lot? Compare that with television viewership in Indian metros, which apparently exceeds two hours a day, while it averages around five hours per day in the US. Still, I can’t use these numbers to my advantage, as the hours add up for me because I watch TV, too. But: I sometimes watch TV while reading a book! (Is it really so odd, that while reading about the almost unendurable depravity and deprivation in the concentration camps of The Hunger Angel, one finds a kind of release watching the slaughter of Nazis on TV as portrayed by Quentin ‘The-rant-ino‘ in Inglourious Basterds?)

Excuses, excuses!

* * *

Still, if you find yourself seized this year by the idea of making it your year of books, and you happen to be in or near any of the places I was lucky to visit, here are some pointers to places where you may find something of interest, too.

Public libraries: Check out the great Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, although it is a library with no members and books can be read sitting there, but not borrowed. The small public library in Valparai itself is a good place to find local and regional newspapers and magazines, and titles in Tamil (a bunch of books on nature and wildlife that we donated last year is yet to pass through the bureaucratic channels and appear on its shelves). Still, I wish we had better and bigger public libraries, like the one I enjoyed visiting in San Mateo, California, for instance, or the wonderful Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam. With excellent collections, comfortable and inviting reading spaces, and ancillary facilities including internet, audio-visual materials and public documents, these are truly fantastic public spaces for local people and casual visitors.

CraftsburyLibrary

The public library at Craftsbury Common (Courtesy: Craftsbury Public Library)

Another quiet and enchanting library is the public library at Craftsbury Common in Vermont. In this rustic Vermont community (less than 200 households), the library was housed in a clapboard building along the road on one side of the meadow-like common until about a decade ago. As recalled by David Brown, a long-time resident and Director of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop that is annually held here, when a new building was ready on the west side of the common, members and volunteers from the Craftsbury Common community formed a long human chain to pass the books hand-to-hand to move the entire collection to the new building. I thought almost everyone from Craftsbury Common would have had to gather to make the chain. Imagine that: almost all the books of a public library passing through the hands of almost everyone in the community!

Institutional libraries: If, on reading the above, you are tempted to visit Craftsbury Common in Vermont someday, don’t miss the other library, a short distance down the road, the Brown Library of Sterling College, which is open 24 hours a day. One of the smallest colleges in the US, Sterling College lays strong emphasis on nature, conservation, farming, forestry, and sustainability, and it certainly shows in their library. It has one of the widest collections of environmental periodicals I have seen and an excellent collection of book titles, too. In California, I spent a lot of time in two of the libraries at Stanford, where I was enrolled in a creative non-fiction course (a Stanford Continuing Studies course taught by a superb instructor, a poet and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Peter Kline). The Green Library was my refuge for many happy hours of reading just about anything from the New Yorker to Earth Island Journal, fiction and reference. Down the road, past the grand main quad and the green oval, is the Falconer biology library, where I spent many hours reading, even sleeping, on their comfortable plush chairs, and writing at the large tables with views of trees through the windows. In India, I did not much enjoy the institutional libraries, perhaps because I felt a bit lost when I was there. The library in the new building of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was a bit of a disappointment, given that it did not have much on nature and conservation, or literature, that I could find. The Centre for Ecological Sciences library, an old, cozy haunt, in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is also displaced now to a monstrous new building with an elevator and imposing corridors confusingly flaring away in all directions. I confess: during a short visit there, I could not even find the library. The tiny library of our own institution, the Nature Conservation Foundation, is just a few shelves and stacks in the garage of our Mysore office. Still, I found a book or two to pick up there.

Smaller, independent bookstores: Of all the places where I loitered and lingered looking for books, some of the best were the smaller independent bookstores. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam is a fantastic place located near the heart of the world heritage canal district with an eclectic but tasteful choice of books for the book aficionado. Its proprietor, Liesl Olivier, knows her books and gives you superb recommendations. Thanks, Liesl, for James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In nearby Leliegracht, walk into Architectura & Natura for a selection of titles on architecture, landscapes, gardens, and nature.

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

In California, around San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Rockridge near Oakland, there are so many bookstores, and although I tried to visit as many as possible, I managed only a handful. The absolute best and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever visited is Mrs Dalloway’s at Rockridge. Named after a famous book by Virginia Woolf, whose book A Room of One’s Own was one of my 2013 top reads, this store also keeps a selection of Woolf titles, on a shelf rather quaintly named ‘A Shelf of Her Own’. As a double bonus, you can walk down the road to Pegasus Books, to whet your appetite even further. In San Francisco, you shouldn’t miss City Lights Bookstore, a large store where the hours spin away so fast that you end up missing your trains, or Green Apple Books, which is just packed with more books than I, unfortunately, had time to see.

Daunt Books's famous gallery

Beautiful interior of Daunt Books (Photo: RachelH, Wikimedia Commons)

If you are in London, I highly recommend a visit to Daunt Books, a short walk down the road from Baker Street or Bond Street tube stations. This store focuses on travel literature and is charmingly organised: the shelves for each region or country contain not just travelogues and guides, but fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles written by authors from that country or region. On the Argentina shelf, I found Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, which I had searched for in vain in many other places, and from the Canada shelf, I picked up Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s Runaway. While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we stopped by the Kew Bookshop, a good place for books on all things green.

Larger bookshops and chains: The smaller bookstores are a greater pleasure to visit, but one is sometimes tempted to go book hunting in the labyrinths of larger stores. Crossword and Landmark in India have stores worth visiting, although their collections are not exceptional and I watch with trepidation as their space gets taken up more and more by ‘lifestyle’ products and toys and gaming consoles and CDs and DVDs. In Bangalore, Gangarams shut shop on M. G. Road and has moved to Church Street. Although the store looks like they have not really settled in, it is worth a visit. In London, there are monster stores, which you would need weeks to see in their entirety: particularly Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, Waterstones, and Hatchards, the last priding itself as the oldest bookstore in London founded in 1797. Blackwell’s, also on Charing Cross Road, has an impressive array of academic titles. In Amsterdam, the Athenaeum is great for titles in all world languages, while the American Book Center across the road is the place to go for English titles. Another huge place to get lost in among books is the Polare store near the flower market, Bloemenmarkt.

Used Books: Roughly half the books we bought last year were from stores that sold used or second-hand (shouldn’t it be third-hand, assuming the first person may have held the book in both hands?) books. Top of the list is certainly BookBuyers at Mountain View, California, followed by Books Inc, just down Castro Street, and Bell’s Book Store in Palo Alto near Stanford.

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

Although these stores don’t have that new and spacious look that some of the larger bookstores have, they are absolute treasure chests. You can find an incredible diversity of books here, including old Penguin paperback editions, out-of-print titles, almost good-as-new books at less than half the price, or often available for as little as a dollar per book. I had to borrow an extra suitcase from my brother and sister-in-law in California to carry the books I picked up there back to India, leaving yet others behind in another bag for my cousin’s husband (bless his soul) to carry to India a few weeks later. I struck it rich again in Vermont, as the public library was having a dollar sale of old books, finding hardbacks in impeccable condition of Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In London, I had little time to visit used book stores, but for a single Oxfam store. In Amsterdam, the Saturday street markets at Noordermarkt and the nearby Lindengracht has stalls with used books that are worth checking out, if you can overcome the temptations of the wonderful selection of local foods and other things also available in the dozens of other stalls down the street. Back in Bangalore, I never got a chance to beat time and traffic to revisit Blossom Book House in Church Street. Fortunately, one of our friends, who practically lives in this massive bookstore when he is not out in the field looking for otters and such, has been mining it for all kinds of interesting books and sharing some of those with us.

Online: Then, of course, were the books downloaded online: e-books from the invaluable Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or purchased from Amazon for Kindle. From Valparai, we also ordered many printed books online, from Amazon or its Indian wannabe equivalent, Flipkart. Last year will perhaps be the last year of reading books on e-readers for me. In October, while reading Richard Jefferies’ post-apocalyptic novel After London, my e-reader, a Kindle 3 keyboard model, suddenly turned hot in my hands, almost burning my fingertips, forcing me to shut it down. After it cooled, I booted back up to find that images were no longer displayed, but I could still read texts. But not for long. After three years of regular use, on 29 December 2013, minutes after I clicked past the last page of the hundredth book of the year, my Kindle froze, gave up its ghost, and died. Amazon, of course, refused any replacement as it was past warranty, and offered at reduced price newer machines with back-lit or paper-white touch screens and other completely unnecessary embellishments that somehow were not as attractive as the older reader. Besides, they should make things that last, shouldn’t they? Like books.

* * *

So what were these 101 books that I read: the trophies? Why do I call them trophies? Only because I am displaying them here, like the books in our wooden, glass-fronted shelves at home are displayed. In Mizoram, I remember visiting two decades ago, the home of a Mizo tribal, Liando, whose walls were adorned with hundreds of skulls of animals that he had hunted in the past. It was a display that signified prowess, that symbolised his prestige within the community. My trophies signify neither prowess nor prestige, they are merely the documentation of an accomplishment of reading about fifty pages a day, for a year—of these 101 books.

My 2013 bookshelf:
Sridhar's books 2013

Books2013

I could go on about these books, but I am no critic, only a reader, so it is difficult to give you further insight into these books or the kind of incisive comments about them that you might want. All I can tell you is that I wish you a good year of reading ahead and hope you find the time to visit those independent bookstores and libraries and bookshops of your choice. You will find that, if you can put aside those two hours every day for reading, it will be two hours well spent. You will find that something miraculous happens, as if the author who is not there physically is speaking to you, the reader, or through you, by your presence and your reading, to the world, like a bubble that expands from your hand to enfold the universe. In 2013, a hundred years after Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I read his rhapsodic poetry in The Gardener. How strange, then, to discover that the poem ends with this final stanza!

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

It is time I wound up this essay. And besides: the new year is already here, the hours rush on, and in the bedroom, J. M. Coetzee is waiting.

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.