Category Archives: Western Ghats

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.

 

How green is your tea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read on here… or from magazine pages below.

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Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.

Behind the onstreaming

Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.
~ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.

River in Narasipura

A view of the river (Photo by Romana Klee, Wikimedia Commons)

Standing in the shade of a sprawling banyan tree beside a small riverside shrine near Mavinahalli village—located in Karnataka State about a third of way down the river’s 800 km length from nascent spring in the Western Ghats mountains to yawning mouth in the Bay of Bengal—they look across the river. They look past waters gushing through the innards of a centuries-old check dam, spewing white from between stones dislodged by the last monsoon flood, past calmer waters slipping smooth around boulders in the river bed, through little tuft-like islets with sedges and grasses and leafy Polygonum tangles waving their heads with wind and water. They look across water looping around elliptical islands and ephemeral sandbars, past a dry stretch lying in the lee of a small hydroelectric dam conterminous with the check-dam, towards the opposite bank over three hundred metres away. From the reservoir brimming behind the dams, a canal draws water through the countryside draped with fields of paddy and sugarcane, onion and tomatoes, pastures and stands of coconut trees. Downstream the river slides, roils, slips, glides, waves, shimmers, effervesces, and chatters—down a long, gently-curving stretch, with little channels curling and purling between islets, before it swings out of view. An hour ago, a lone otter, swimming, head held above the water, had suddenly turned, dived, and vanished under the marmoreal surface. There is so much the river shows, so much it hides.

He tries hard to imagine the river as a line, but fails. In the sparkling sweep of water, fish wink in little splashes at the surface, radiating ripples subsumed by the silent current. Then a cluster of ebony rocks, marked with white acid splashes of bird droppings, rises a couple of feet above the water—enough, it seems, for the darter standing motionless and coloured like the stone itself, wings held open to dry in sun and wind. Water again, a tar-black cormorant skimming ahead of a leafy twig bobbing and turning slowly as it drifts—to what unknown destination? And land, again, an islet edged by a strip of fine, dark sand carrying the calligraphy of wader feet, and crested with sedges and shrubs into which a little black-headed munia flies carrying a long blade of dry grass to tailor its nest among reeds. Then, water again, with Asian openbill storks walking on stilt-legs, like old men, heads bent, looking—wading in inches-deep water in the company of stately grey herons, frozen in ambush, fierce eyes behind dagger beaks. Land again, a sand-bar, tossed like a throw-cushion on the satin sheet of the river, attended by a line of snow-white egrets, onto which a common sandpiper sweeps in on stiff, twitching wings, even as a cloud of three hundred pratincoles flares into the skies, wheeling, quartering, rising, twisting, dipping, flashing now white, now brown, in a stupendous, heart-stopping, aerial symphony of movement, like one giant bird exploded into hundreds, yet alive. Then water, then land, water, marsh, and land again.

The river is a braid of land and water, he concludes. A braid, like the braids that village women washing clothes at the riverside make with their hair—parted neatly or drawn back from their foreheads, pulled into long bunches, woven over and into each other but for a tassel at the end, the braids coming tight together neat and gleaming down their backs, just as land and water and marsh and rock come together in the river shimmering its way ultimately south. Now, the egrets and otters and storks and plovers are but jasmine and kanakambara flowers decorating the braid.

Still, he is not satisfied, although the idea of a river as a braid seems better than calling it a water-body, or by that ambiguous, ambivalent, amphibious word: wetland. In the river, the waders, the storks, the otters: do they not belong to water and land? And do we not have to see the great wheeling flock of pratincoles but once to know that they belong to land and water and air? And if they are not part of the life and energy of the river—then what is the river?

No, his vision is too constrained by what he sees before him now: an all-too-human constraint. He needs to look further. He thinks of what the man said of the river’s origin in the mountains: the tiny spring of sweet water that somehow became this great, wide river. The origin, in a sacred pool, springing out of the belly of the mountains in Kodagu.

* * * * *

He knows the sacred place, the hillside temple at Talacavery in Kodagu. In the austere heights of the Western Ghats mountains, at an elevation of nearly 1,300 metres in Kodagu district in Karnataka, a tank and shrine of the eponymous river goddess mark the origin. He has been there with her, a girl of Kodagu, her middle name Cauvery, too. Soon after their wedding, they had made the traditional visit with her parents, like so many others from Kodagu to worship and be blessed by the river. Modest offerings at the shrine, mediated by a priest, a few sips of sacred waters, a purifying walk through the pool a few yards below. Now, as then, they both think that wherever crystal springs of sweet water emerge, as if from the earth’s navel, no one, religious believer or scientific atheist, can be faulted for heaping such places with spiritual value.

View of Talacauvery temple from Talacauvery mountain

Temple at Talacauvery (Photo: Vinayaraj, Wikimedia Commons)

From source to sea, the Cauvery basin occupies more than 81,000 square kilometres and sustains nearly 33 million people: an area about the size of Austria with four times its population. The basin—about 245 kilometres at its widest and 560 kilometres at its longest—spans the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with small portions in Kerala and Puducherry. At 400 people to the square kilometre, it is among the most densely populated river basins in India. Around 70% of the population is rural, two-thirds of the basin is agricultural land. A land with a rich history going back thousands of years, a crucible of the cultures that make South India what it is today. The river is the circulatory network of water-filled arteries and veins of the land. As the river’s watery tendrils weave through the land, its vitality weaves the tapestry of landscapes and peoples.

Yet, the river is more than a closed circulatory network, it is more open and dynamic. Downslope from Talacauvery, the water joins a first-order stream emerging from the dense forests and swaying grasslands on the mountains, becomes a clear stream chittering over smooth pebbles and rocks, along banks shaded by evergreen trees. Here, they had bathed in the waters, in public with other visitors and pilgrims, the women entering water almost fully clothed—a dip, some splashing, water cupped lovingly in one’s hands and poured over one’s own head, a ritual cleansing of body and soul. He had felt how strongly the community identified itself with the river, and the river’s significance for their land: as birthplace, as mother, as source of pride, as progenitor of water and life. Like the two of them had done, all Kodagu couples would visit these waters, he thinks, if it was within their means. They would bring their children, their children’s children. At the end of their lives, many would, like her father, have their ashes consigned nowhere but in the river.

Perhaps, like a bloodline, the river is a community of waters. A coming together of freshets, a commingling of streams traversing earthly life and landscape, surmounting boulders, cascading down cataracts, sweeping through calm interludes, receiving, sharing, giving, branching out into little distributaries that join the vast oceans of life. Through Karnataka, then Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery gathers the waters of the Hemavathi, Kabini, Shimsha, Arkavathi, Bhavani, Moyar, Noyyal, Amaravathi, and more, before splaying out into the great delta of over 14,000 square kilometres across Thanjavur and its neighbouring districts. At every confluence of rivers, one is likely to find shrines, or ghats, or great trees, silent markers of religion, culture, and ecology.

He ponders, now, over the two streams joining near the origin, the water lapping against as-yet unsullied banks. Something that the hydrologist said at the conference comes to him: the daily flux of water with the breathing of the trees. He imagines now the water level dropping subtly by day as the trees in the watershed draw water up through their roots, breathe them out through their leaves, the level slowly rising again as the trees close their stomata in the quietude of night. He imagines the tree as a river itself, waters drawn from the earth, coursing through the trunk, branching out, breathed out into the atmospheric ocean, the air then burdened with moisture, condensing as mist and cloud, rushing back into the mountains, then falling as rain, the water drenching the trees and the earth, shimmering down the tree trunks, sponged by the leaves on the soil, percolating through soil pores and root tubes, then drawn out again, into the tree, into the river. Now, the river is a dendritic network of water melding with the trees.

* * * * *

A yell snaps him out of his reverie back to Mavinahalli. Standing on a bamboo coracle, wooden paddle in hand, a fisher shouts across to another in a coracle downstream asking, perhaps, about the day’s catch. On the banks, the conference group splits and climbs onto half a dozen coracles and two inflatable rafts to experience the river, discuss field survey methods—their task for the day—and look for otters. The coracles and rafts are full and he waits on the banks with her, for another coracle from the village. A boy is dispatched running to the village for the purpose and returns soon with the coracle. The boy carries the coracle inverted over his head, only his legs are visible, feet slapping bare earth: he looks like a walking mushroom. Behind him, a fisherman follows, holding a paddle.

The sun blazes furiously over their heads and there is no breeze. The shimmering surface of the river reflects the light, the water is barely cool to the touch. Sweating, squinting against the light, squatting at the three points of a triangle in the coracle for balance, the two of them and the fisher make their way slowly downriver, the coracle swinging now this way, now that, to the rhythm of the rowing.

Fishing in a coracle (Photo: Nisarg Prakash)

Fishing in a coracle (Photo: Nisarg Prakash)

Out in the river, the fishing is on. A pair of smooth-coated otters gambolling in the current, heads up skimming the surface, plunging suddenly as if diving for a fish, reappearing somewhere else. A fisher on a coracle, swinging his net, heaving it out, the net fanning out in a circle, dropping, the net hauled up and checked for unsuspecting fish caught. Another setting out a net line from the edge of an islet out into the river, waving their coracle around the unseen net in the water.

He sees the river as an ecosystem, one that sustains life and livelihoods; he wonders what the fishers see the river as.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To this, keeping rivers in mind, one could add:

There are two spiritual dangers in not knowing a river. One is the danger of supposing that fish come from the market, and the other that water comes from the tap.

The history of use and abuse of rivers in India is a sorry one. Few rivers have been left undammed, their dynamic flow, their open throbbing engines of life, left untrammelled. After 1947, independent India embarked on a phase of dam building, reaching a crescendo in the 1960s onwards—a period when around the world there was one dam being built every day on average. The archaic and obsolete ideas of development based on large-scale impoundment of water for agriculture and electricity generation has spared few of India’s rivers. The Cauvery and its tributaries already has a series of major dams at Harangi, Hemavathi, Krishnaraja Sagar, Kabini, Mettur, Lower and Upper Bhavani, Avalanche, Emerald, Kundha Palam, Pegumbahallah Forebay, Pillur, Porithimond, Parson’s Valley, Nirallapallam, and Amaravathi, and smaller impoundments, 65 dams already, plus a series of irrigation canals drawing water out—Devaraj Urs, Mettur, Kodivery, the Grand Anicut of the Cauvery Delta, Lower Coleroon, and more—all of which feed the prosperity and eternal discontent of human needs in the basin. Over a hundred dams, beguilingly named mini-hydels, built or being built, generating power and profits for privateers, are set to scupper what is left of the river. The 2012 River Basin Atlas of India proclaims that about 90% of the Cauvery basin’s average water resource potential of 21,358 million cubic metres is “Utilizable Surface Water Resource”. The live storage capacity of completed reservoirs has already usurped half that pot of water—a disputed and contentious pot, the sharing of which the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have fought over for more than 150 years. Another large hydroelectric dam, recently proposed at Mekedatu, already has the political powers-that-be jousting, indicating the bitter fight is not over.

CauveryBasin

Cauvery basin (Courtesy: River Basin Atlas of India)

And there is drinking water, too, he remembers. He travels often between the cities of Coimbatore, Bangalore, and Mysore, where nearly 11 million people depend substantially on the Cauvery or waters from its basin for their drinking water supply. How much of all that water has he imbibed over the years? If over half his body is water by composition, is the Cauvery now a part of him, too? Is he then not part of the river of life that is the Cauvery? And then, if the river declines, will it only presage his own?

Meanwhile, as the river silently gives, it silently receives: the wastes of cities, the washing and leavings of humanity, agricultural chemicals and poisons, fertilizer runoffs and residues. Invasive alien plants like water hyacinth and Salvinia choke its flow, as native riparian vegetation along the banks is stripped off to be replaced by unsparing farms and alien Eucalyptus. Alien fish fed into the waters proliferate, as native fish beat their retreat under the hooks and looks of Fisheries Department officers and anglers. The fishers still eke out their living, on a fluctuating catch from a changing river, taking recourse to poison and dynamite to fill their nets with stunned and shattered fish. All along the river, lorries queue up in the hundreds, gouging sand from the bed, destroying the fabric of the river from the bottom up, even as the sand will help erect the concrete framework of houses and buildings in the growing cities and towns. And further down, at the end of the river—if any river can really be said to have an end—down in the Cauvery Delta, every drop of water that enters the sea is considered wasted. Not as waters that forever build and sustain fertile plains, not as waters that sustain flourishing ecosystems well past the Coromandel coastline—no, any water entering the sea, so the blinkered view goes, is water wasted. And so it goes.

To utilitarian human eyes, the river is no line, or braid, or network, or tree of life. The river is only a pipe from tap to flush-pot, with feeder pipes to drain or dump at will.

* * * * *

The next day, a hundred kilometres downstream in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, he sits quietly by the river again. A welter of broken forest-clad hills, having somehow resisted farms and dams, have left a stunning stretch of river winding past stately arjuna and mango and jamun trees towering along the banks. The others have left on their coracles, but he prefers to sit silently by himself and watch the river. Past the disembodied darter, swimming with only snake-neck and spear-beak showing above the surface, a marsh crocodile basks on rocks across the river. On a high branch in a tall tree, a lesser fish eagle waits, eagle eyes on the river, suddenly plunges into the water, then rises with the merest splash, back to its perch, a fish in its talons.

photo_Divya

A view of the river at Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

In the quietude, he wishes now for a good book about the river. Perhaps the translation of Eternal Kaveri by T. Janakiraman and Chitti, to know as the subtitle suggests, ‘the story of a river’. Or another book by the same name, documenting the historical sites along the river. Even, It Happened Along the Kaveri, a recent publication touted as a delightful travel book replete with the requisite anecdotes and trivia. Would he have understood the river a little better then? Would he have known the river in its essence as the otter and fisher on the coracle, perhaps do, everyday? Maybe he would have. But the book he carries with him, the book that he finds absorbing, now, by the river, is Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Fictions. What can one learn about a river from mere fictions?

He is dissatisfied with all his metaphors of the river, distressed even at his attempt to describe the river thus. Line, braid, network, tree, tap—really? Is that all he can come up with? He is disgusted with his ideas, his scrawls in his notebook.

The river is a great engine of life, energised by the sun’s fire, the wind’s breath, the cloud’s sweat, the pull of earth, and the touch of mountains. An elemental, spinning circle of water, air, earth, and fire, that distils the alchemy of ethereal life. His eyes on the ever-moving current—water in him, in the air, in the earth—all moving, melding, dissolving, he wonders how one can pin down in words something so fluid, so full of movement? It is like trying to hold a fistful of water; the tighter he clutches at it, the more it slips away.

Finally, it is in Borges that he finds his answer. In the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, where Borges writes about an imaginary realm of idealistic nations, Tlön, a world whose language and everything derived from language is suffused with idealism. For Tlön’s people, Borges writes:

the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts—the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial.

Consequently, in their language, the “conjectural Ursprache” of Tlön, there are no nouns. There are “only impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs.” There is no noun like moon, Borges writes, but there is a verb that in English would be “to moonate” or “enmoon”. In Tlön, one does not say “The moon rose above the river.” One would avoid nouns altogether, and say: “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.” Imagine that, he thinks, a river not as a noun, or an object of human consumption, but as a verb, a ceaseless flowing part of a community of ever-flowing life.

Ah, yes! That is it: exactly, perfectly, it!

It is so the onstreaming engines on, sunblazing, windbreathing, condensing, earthpulled, and hillblocked. It is so in circlespinning, watered and aired and fired and earthed. It is so the onstreaming ethereally alchemises into lifesparking.

As it sundowned, watching: downward, behind the onstreaming, it flamed.

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.