A Famous Place

This essay owes inspiration to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), a powerful commentary set in Antigua, on tourism and colonialism and the lived contradictions of travelers and citizens.

February 26, 2020. If you go to Corbett as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you arrive by airplane at New Delhi, the glossy artificiality of the Indira Gandhi International airport will assail you. (Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, four times, and you may wonder whether she would have wanted an airport named after her, rather than a National Park, say, like the one named after a white man, Jim Corbett—your destination.) If you come by train, it is the grime and the smells and the city’s exhaled air that will accost you. You will step out of airport or station into the great old city snug in its world-famous smog, made infamous now by the smoke pluming into the skies, swirling black from homes and mosques, from fires lit and riots raged in the city’s northeast.

And you will want to leave it behind, soon, taking your bus or taxi on the roads and highways leading east out of the city. Your vehicle’s tyres churn the miles and the Lutyens bungalows and gardens, the old fort and India Gate, the tree-lined avenues, the markets and condos, and the broad highways looped with flyovers fall behind, and the throng of suburbs and the sprawl of conurbations pass, with fewer trees now and more buildings and more people and vehicles and you pass them without looking back, with only a sideways glance, for you are looking ahead all the time—to the promise of Corbett, to forests and grasslands and elephants and tigers—always tigers—to places not like this city where the houses and the mosques burn not too far to the north, where the cops may beat you and force you to sing the national anthem, where a politician of the party supposed to govern the nation can incite men to mobs to violence and the honorable courts can find it in their wisdom to look away… There is no looking back at a place that is only looking back to a time and a world and a blinkered idea of that world that should have been left all the way back there in the first place.

There is only one place, just one, where your glance is directed upward—above a hill, a seething tenebrous hill over which a great swirling mass of five thousand black kites mills and turns under a dour, smoke-stained sky devoid of blue. A hill of garbage, a great mound of filth rotting, rising daily with the offal of Delhi, a hill taller than the buildings, the roads, the overhead metro lines, and the thought strikes you that the Parliament in Delhi, the President’s home in Delhi, are on hills, too.

You are glad to pass, now, through the countryside, seeing the farms and dhabas, the winter-stricken trees, the sin-burdened Ganges, the low mist forming over the fields of mustard and wheat in the distance, even the fire burning in the sugarcane fields. This fire is just a fire, the smoke just smoke, the match that lit it just the match of a solitary farmer tending his field along a road that leads away from the city you, the tourist, can afford to leave behind.

Hours pass. It is evening. The sky darkens with cloud. Your vehicle leaves the open plains and the town of Ramnagar behind and climbs into the foothills. The vehicle swerves and slews up the curves, the headlights swinging a misty beam speckled with gold glints of falling rain. The forest is dark, rendered under purpled skies in sudden chiaroscuro by a great unseen flash. You feel the crash, when it comes, in the pit of your stomach, in the percussion in your chest, in the shudder of the vehicle. The vehicle does not stop, it hardly even slows, the frantic wipers clearing just enough of a view to keep going.

You keep going, past the roadside sign that warns Elephants Crossing Zone Go Slow but the driver does not slow, past the long string of resorts and hotels in the middle of the forest, each signboard flashing past advertising luxury with adventure in Corbett—in the dark forest split by them on either side of the road.

The rain abates. A chill descends. The driver says he will not return to Delhi tonight. The mussalman log have created a mess, he says. You do not want to confront him with the news you were just reading on your phone that it is the mosques that are burning—you are here as a tourist after all, and this man will go and you will never see him again and how can you be sure and who knows what news is true and what fake and what is the point of arguing anyway. The driver will stay tonight at Ramnagar, where a man with a name like his can be safe.

As for you—you will not stay at a lodge or hotel. They are too tasteless for you, perhaps, or you want to be the conscientious traveler, you who like to think you tread light. You stay at a home-stay-like place run by a couple, friends of friends. The proprietors love wildlife, believe in a different form of tourism. Beside the glitzy lights and walled-off, power-fenced compound of a nearby resort, their place is quiet, dark, full of trees, with paths that even a wild elephant may walk on. The modest, tasteful surrounds, named for a bird of the mountain rivers, becalms you. Tucked under thick blankets, you fall asleep to the soft hoots of owls. Tomorrow you will enter Corbett.

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Dhangarhi Gate, Corbett National Park (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

If you go to Corbett as a tourist—and now you are actually there—you will enter the National Park through one of the gates, say the Dhangarhi Gate, which looks like the entrance to a fortress. You will submit the permit and the reservations you had already obtained to the forest guards and show your ID cards and those of your partner and your friend and you will wait at the gate to enter at the designated time in the morning (10 a.m.) in your designated vehicle, for you understand that the park cannot remain open to just anyone, to curious wayfarers, itinerant traders, anonymous riffraff, the Gujjar herders who used to graze their buffaloes here not too long ago, the people who used to live in one of the four villages located here not too long ago, the random photographers, the foreigners or citizens—the nation’s capital you left behind is still confused about who is who in those latter categories anyway—no, you convince yourself that it can’t be just anybody who enters this National Park that belongs to everyone and yet no one. So you wait.

Finally, the gate opens and the two waiting vehicles in front of you—one a small bus full of excited, uniformed schoolchildren in coats and ties, the other a jeep with tourists like you—rev their engines and zoom ahead. Then the guard at the fortress-gate waves you through and you are overjoyed. Your real journey begins now. Or seems to. You are so happy that the guard waved you in, you want to go beaming into his little room behind the small window by the gate and pump his hand in gratitude.

Forests, mountains, river, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

You are happy to be on your way—you are happy that you are cruising in an open-top, 4-wheel-drive Gypsy with modified seats on which the three of you can sit facing forward, you are happy to see the sal trees with corrugated bark and bright, rain-washed leaves, you are happy at the pleasant morning, cloudy with a hint of sun, you are happy to listen to the conversation in Hindi between JP, your soft-spoken naturalist guide from Ramnagar, and the driver Harinder, you are happy that the latter has been thoughtful to fill just a tad less air in the rear tyres to make a more comfortable ride in the Gypsy, you are happy at the narrow unpaved, unsealed forest road where you have to drive so slowly that the basking snakes and lizards can escape the tyres, you are happy to glimpse the sparkling river and the rounded boulders in white, grey, and pastel colours jumbled along the raus feeding into it—you are happy happy happy.

Large woodshrike (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The road swings along a rau and you see a flicker of birds in the trees and stop. Half a dozen large woodshrikes—plumaged in greys and browns, a streak as of thick mascara through their eyes—chatter and flit from branch to leaf expertly harvesting caterpillars that you didn’t even know were there. They keep company with a dark-winged and dark-hooded maroon oriole whose eyes gleam bright, whose voice screeches out to his mate across the forest. A small flock of Indian white-eyes, cheeping softly and probing the flowers, rides the bird wave as it sweeps tree to tree. And you can watch them and wonder how here in Corbett like elsewhere in India—save yesterday’s rioting city—birds of many-a-feather can flock together, too.

Mugger, by the river (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You can take your time, now that you are past the gate, watch the eagle quartering over the canopy, the woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks, the blackbird perched in the shrubs, the mugger crocodile placid by the river viewed from High Bank—one of the few spots where you can get off your vehicle, stretch your legs, put your feet on the earth, take in a view of the mountains, the forests, the unsullied river below. Take a few selfies, too, if you must.

Road through sal forest to Dhikala (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Onward again and you near your destination and the road takes an older, grander feel with sal trees rising, curving, vaulting the road, and you feel like you are entering a cathedral, a grand hall of pillars in a place of worship, sensing perhaps if you pause a bit that it is this ambience, this kinship with and among the trees in a forest that those places of worship are trying to evoke. By the side of that vaulted, famous road, a nonchalant muntjac, impervious to fame, indifferent to worship, grazes and fades into the forest as your vehicle clatters past. You click and click trying to capture the deer, the trees, the grand avenue of this grand National Park, but you’ve captured nothing. The deer and the trees are still there. They are still there as you pass, eyes on the road to Dhikala.

The forest breaks suddenly into a large expanse of grassland. This is the famous Dhikala chaur you’ve heard so much about, admired so many photos of on Facebook, surely, and seen plastered across the pages of travel magazines and tour pamphlets promising adventures, thrilling experiences, close encounters with wildlife—yes, this is that famous place, that unparalleled Indian wilderness you’ve always wanted to visit and you see the row of buildings ahead hiding in the open behind charged fences and gates and that is where your rooms are in the new Forest Rest House (FRH) not far from the old FRH and you take it all in as your jeep rattles along, the grassland, the buildings, the line of trees along a dip in the land that promises a Himalayan river but is not a river that flows and is actually a reservoir—yet it is the river, the grassland, the forest, the elephants and the tigers—always tigers—that you will choose to identify with this famous place.

A Pied Bushchat keeps watch in the grasslands near Dhikala, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You have arrived. There you are deep in the Indian wilds, in the most famous spot in this famous Park named after Jim Corbett, the famous wilderness writer—a long dead white hunter with a rare affinity to the India under the Raj, a writer whose books still fly off the shelves especially the ones he wrote about man-eating leopards and tigers—always tigers—and how he shot them and saved the lives of natives, a writer whose bust, a slightly misshapen bust under a tent-like shelter, faces every single visitor who enters through the Dhangarhi gate, a writer and sahib still remembered by some of the older mountain folk, a shikari who was a white hunter but also wasn’t really one, a man followed later by many who aspired to be white hunters of a sort, but weren’t really.

Check-in. You are happy that in this famous place, this Indian wilderness, you have clean, newly-furbished rooms with electricity and a large clean toilet and piping hot water and a room boy who promises you bed tea the next morning at 6 a.m., a porter who will haul your luggage upstairs from the jeep and not ask you for money because he knows, just looking at you, how you must be a good person, a fortunate, privileged person to have arrived in this famous place and that happy as you are to be here, you will doubtless give him a good tip. You are the guest, after all, you reserved the room with your money, and he is here only to serve. You settle down in the room, pull the curtains aside, take in a view of the trees, maybe even open the glass windows to let in some of the air and the bird calls and peer contentedly at the beautiful welcoming world through the mesh that keeps the not-so-beautiful, not-so-welcome world of flies and mosquitoes and macaques out—out where they belong. This is your room. The view framed by the window is your view. You can take photos to remember it by.

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Shoot the tigers—always tigers. There is dawn talk. A tiger, Paro, with her two grown cubs, is about, goes the buzz, spreading from jeep to idling jeep behind the closed gates, the drivers alert, their eyes on the forest officer who has brought a chair out and a mobile phone to check the time and make sure no one leaves for the safari until the exact designated moment. He checks the time. He picks his teeth. He checks again. He raises a hand. The gates swing open. The tyres spin, kicking dust. The convoy of jeeps zooms ahead, carrying their jacketed and blanketed loads of camera-burdened tourists, you among them, and before you know it, you are cruising along the river, heading into sal forests where there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of Paro.

Garland of langurs (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Alarm calls of chital. Harinder kills the engine and you wait. You are glad that there are only six other jeeps waiting here for the tiger who is somewhere in the forest, up the slope, away from the trees whose canopies are festooned with a garland of langurs but you have little time for them because you cannot miss your only glimpse of the striped cat in the bushes. But the cat does not show.

Grassland, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You are now before a grassland. A mesmeric sweep of waist-high and knee-high grass spreading away, away till where, you have no idea, it could spread all the way cleaving past the Himalaya to Tibet and Mongolia and beyond for all that you or the Siberian stonechat sitting on the bent spear of a grass blade know. The grassland is sliced by safari roads and the hunters, you among them now, sit in the jeeps, triggers cocked, to shoot the tiger if she crosses, to collect her head and her beautiful striped skin and pin them up, later, on your digital walls. But the cat does not show.

Gharial and cormorants (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You now have a view of the river. A braid of grass and smooth boulders and land, shining and sparkling in evening light, topped by the flame of a tall silk cotton tree abloom on which a Pallas’s fish-eagle sits, his eye absorbing the landscape and the waters and the life beneath the waters with a level of detail and discernment you can only aspire to. The tiger and her cubs had walked across this braid of land and water. Someone had seen them less than an hour ago. And so you scan and scan with your binoculars and telescope, past the eagle and the sambar doe with her fawn grazing by the river, past the turtle and cormorants and gharial basking on the banks, past the black-winged kite and crested kingfishers stalled as if by an invisible hand in mid-air, wings aflutter, one over the grass the other over the water seeking their suppers, past them all to where the river takes a bend and disappears, onto the Ganges, into the ocean and who knows where else. But the tiger does not show.

Turtle basking, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The tiger does show, to someone else. Someone who is ready with their cameras just at the moment when Paro is licking her paws reclining on the ground as her cubs rise on their hind legs, face each other, and swat playfully at each other in a sparring match in full view and good light, captured in a series of hundreds of photos, one of which has already been uploaded, shared, captioned, liked, commented, praised and plussed, bounced and rebounced, phone to laptop to tablet, until it pings in your own phone, in whatever you feed on, the virus arrived at your door, and you look at it, nonplussed, saying how did I miss that.

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It is time to leave. You pack your bags as the world is shutting down because someone far away shot or killed an animal they shouldn’t have, because they had caught more than just the animal, and because now a person’s cough in Wuhan, China, can reverberate around the world.

One virus put out by the man in the next room, a photograph flitting from server to server around the world before arriving in your hand, received eagerly in your phone, and another virus out there that you will have to evade all the way back home and learn to keep avoiding. You are glad to see the porter and room boy when they come to help carry your heavy luggage down the stairs to the waiting jeep. As the jeep departs, they watch you leave and you realise you do not know their names and the thought strikes you that you are leaving while they will stay on, and that all the while they have had the better reason to be there in this famous place, earning a livelihood assisting people unknown to them and it is you, ultimately, who will remain forever anonymous.

Time rolls the forests and grasslands past, under your wheels, and the grim visage of Corbett’s bust watches you exit the gates of his park. You have had your happy moment, but it seems to be already receding there behind the closing gates, and ahead is Delhi, city of strife, city of pollution, city of pain. Corbett, Delhi, home. Yet, there is something you can take with you: something that arrives as a wisp of elation. In a moment of reflection and clarity you see what you came to Corbett to see. And what you remember and what you forget do not just happen to you but are of your choice.

This essay first appeared under a different title in The Wire on 16 August 2020.

Bird Business—Foreword

My foreword to the book by cartoonist and illustrator, Rohan Chakravarthy: Bird Business: Illustrated Peeks into the Daily Lives of Indian Birds (Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, 2019, 106 pp., Rs 550, ISBN 978-93-84678-09-8).

Art and science come together rarely, and they come together with humour even more rarely. In this book, as in much of Rohan Chakravarty’s work, they all meld beautifully, with touches of allure, sensitivity, and grace. Here, he brings to life in his unique style the lifestyle quirks and natural history of a hundred species of Indian birds. Each artful page on a particular species grabs you with its visual and aesthetic appeal. It also distils information on the bird’s habits and natural history, and bustles with the vitality, peculiarity, and idiosyncracies of that bird’s behaviour. And all of this is done in a manner that no field guide, bird book, encyclopedia, or video documentary on Indian birds has ever achieved.

This is a chirpy and sprightly book, brimming with life, with scarcely a dull moment in its pages. The birds leap and glide and whistle and wag and swoop and spear and court and cavort. They dive into oceans and wing over mountains, they chisel into trees and probe into mud, they sing their hearts out and serenade their mates, they nest in trees and houses and earth-tunnels and mounds, they gobble garbage and slurp nectar, they drink and dance and do the doo-doo.

There’s so much liveliness in each page and the behaviour of each species is illustrated so well that you may be tempted to flip quickly to the next page, skipping past the words to the next eye-catching illustration. But that would be a mistake. The writing, too, is not to be missed. Rohan’s brief word-portraits of the birds and accurate and charming descriptions of their curious adaptations and behaviours will bring you many a chuckle, much jaw-dropping astonishment, and ultimately a new or renewed intimacy with these wonderful birds.

For children and adults, there is much to learn within these pages. I say this not just as an admirer of Rohan’s work, but as a hobby birdwatcher for over 35 years and a bird researcher for at least half that period. I learnt much that I never knew and felt delighted afresh in the little that I did, seeing it portrayed in this unique way. The species illustrated here also offer a glimpse of India’s remarkable diversity of 1300 bird species: from the house sparrow and barn swallow familiar to almost everyone, the black kites of our cities and the cattle egrets of our countryside, from daytime larks and eagles to nightjars and owls, and rarities like the satyr tragopan and the endangered great Indian bustards.

The book both reveals and evokes a love for birds and a concern over their plights and lives. In our rapidly changing planet, the plight of birds only reflects our own plight and, in that sense, bird business is our business, too. This, you can discover for yourself, when you turn to the delightful pages that follow.

When Nature and Culture Disconnect

My book review in Biblio (Jan -Mar 2020) of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats by Viju B (Ebury Press/Penguin Random House India, 2019, 285 pp., Rs 399, ISBN 978-0-143-44761-0)

There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.

The book unfolds with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has transformed the relationship between people and land from one of respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed introduction to the region and its ecological history and human diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an author impatient to get started on the journey.

The first six chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast, the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests, the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally, from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains and floods.

In Pathanamthitta, Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.

Moving north to Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills, and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place: tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.

One of the longest chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’ can only lead to conflict and disaffection.

The book thins out as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka, Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests (including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though, in the two short closing chapters.

There are a few other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of “ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the “most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points, Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations) providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds), it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change, geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and supported the narrative.

In writing about the destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that “Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books like Flood and Fury, too.

These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.

The Secret Lives of Trees

On the 10th of November 2019, I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in a session with Harini Nagendra and Nirupa Rao. The session, The Secret Lives of Trees, offered us an opportunity to talk on a subject dear to each of us: trees.

Harini and Seema Mundoli’s book, Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities had hit the stands last year, generating widespread interest on the trees among us. Nirupa, who’d earlier worked with Divya and me on Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, had had another book published recently, Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats illustrated with her spectacular artwork. I was roped in thanks to The Wild Heart of India which carried a few essays on forests and trees in the countryside and wilds of India.

Following Harini’s vivacious and insightful lead, our conversation swooped and veered, sallied and swung around trees. On the science of trees, on the connections between people and trees, and on the challenges of trying to portray the majesty and wonder and individuality of trees in art and in words. We spoke of the wood-wide web and the values of trees in our daily lives, of Myristica swamp forests and silk cotton trees, and even of what trees can help us discover about ourselves and our views on citizenship and belonging to place.

Listen on and leave your thoughts and comments below!

Video courtesy: Bangalore Literature Festival

Listen to her

It began as a whim, a resolution for the new year, a year now already passed. At least, it seemed like a whim, sitting there by the campfire in the Kalakad mountains, with friends, under the star-sequinned night sky quilted with cloud. The rainforests were silent but for the creak and click of insect and frog; only the cataract over the nearby cliff continued its unceasing conversation with the rocks. Among friends announcing new year resolutions—more out of amusement than determination—I outed mine, as sparks crackled in the fire. I’ll read only books written by women in 2019, I said. Fifty books written by fifty women.

It was a strange resolution, like nothing I’d made before. And on its surface it carried the obvious problem: a quest for good literature, writing, and writers made sense, but why women writers? Why reduce women to an adjective? Writers are writers, aren’t they?

I’d always read writers without bias to gender—or so I thought—on my many book-reading binges since 2011. My stats on Goodreads, where I keep track of what I read, recorded that I’d read 100 books in 2011, 57 in 2012, 101 books in 2013, 40 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 each in 2017 and 2018. I’d picked books up from independent bookstores, chain stores, used book stores, pavement sellers, online e-book retailers, public and university libraries, airport and train station bookshops, and my friends’s bookshelves, across at least half a dozen countries that I’d traveled to since 2011. I’d scanned the covers, browsed reviews online and in print, asked friends for recommendations, simply picked books out of curiosity or boredom, or on occasion found a book more or less by serendipity. And I read widely—ridiculously, distressingly widely according to some friends—more gourmand than gourmet in my reading as one put it. Excluding some technical books I read as part of my work as a wildlife scientist, I read literary fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, poetry, detective stories and murder mysteries, creative nonfiction, classics, westerns, popular science, spy thrillers, philosophy, nature writing, erotica, and comic books. From the Bhagavad Gita and the Therigatha to Anaïs Nin and Lucky Luke, from Gustave Flaubert to Shubhangi Swarup, from John Grisham to John Steinbeck, from Mahasweta Devi to Maya Angelou, from deluded Dawkins to marvellous Matthiessen. Almost anything except Chetan Bhagat.

Four hundred and forty six books over eight years: an eclectic but unblemished and unbiased record so far, I thought. Why bias my reading now towards women?

And then, one day, I decided to check. I skimmed the list of 446 books I’d read since 2011 and my apparently unbiased reading streak revealed itself to be something very different. It was obvious even at a glance. If I had only taken a few moments to reflect, which I’d not done all these years, I’d have noticed this earlier. I sat down and counted. To be sure. Of the 446 books (including 2 books that had been co-authored by a woman and a man), only 79 were written by women. Just 17.7%—or less than one in five books!

I began to look at all bookshelves with a new eye. Two wooden bookshelves at home held 333 books, of which only 68 (20%, or one in five) were by women. As did bookshelves in some of my friends’s houses—one friend’s bedside bookshelf stacked 71 books, only 8 by women. Airport bookshops, city bookstores, pavement sellers—more often than not, they all featured more male authors. Take a look at your own books—it is likely the disparity exists in your shelves, too.

It was true for Indian writing as well, and moreover, seemed unrelated to how good the writers were—at least, how much I enjoyed their writing. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik dwarfed the immeasurably better Arundhati Roy and Shobhaa De and Janaki Lenin. In one airport bookstore, atop a heap of apparently lesser volumes, Shashi Tharoor‘s books sat flamboyantly, rather like the prolific, sometimes prolix, writer-politician himself, while the equally prolific writer and novelist Shashi Deshpande‘s memoir graced a corner that only someone determined to find her would discover. I understood better now why Deshpande had titled her book Listen to Me. I resolved then to not just read women writers, but only buy books written by women this year. I bought a copy of Listen to Me before I left the store.

Clearly there was something askew here—an unconscious bias or a bias I’d refused to discern or admit to myself. A bias that may not just be mine, but one compounded by how publishing, promotions, and book reviewing works to the advantage of men. One analysis of the New York Times Best Sellers List for novels showed a bias towards male authors from the 1950s through the 1990s, reaching near parity only in the first decade of the 21st century. (This is despite gender disparities within genres: best-selling spy novels are more often written by men, best-selling romance more often by women, for instance, while literary works are more evenly matched.) The VIDA Count, by the Women in Literary Arts organisation, tracks publication bias and parity in leading literary publications and, barring a few publications, reveals widespread gender disparity. Their 2018 VIDA Count reports:

Meanwhile, at 4 years in a row, the Feckless Five are back, with fewer than 40% of women writers in their publication totals: Times Literary Supplement (38.5%), The Nation (36.9%), The Threepenny Review (36.6%), London Review of Books (33.7%), and The Atlantic (33.6%).

The New York Review of Books, once again, had the worst numbers of all 40 publications at a measly 27.1%, which is, sadly, the highest percentage of women they’ve published since the beginning of the VIDA Count [in 2010]…

VIDA COUNT, 2018

The 2018 VIDA Count also showed that less than 40% of the books reviewed (only 26% in the case of NYRB) were books written by women. The work of authors who identify as non-binary genders is barely gaining ground, too. And besides gender there is also the issue of race, which remains another factor of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the reasons that drive these trends may be many, complex, and more nuanced than a simple male bias. As Kamila Shamsie wrote in 2015, commenting on a literary ‘manel‘ discussion where four men discussed ‘The crisis of American fiction’:

I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex.

One needs to examine the proportions of books in review in relation to the corresponding proportions of books by male and female authors published. One study reports that, in Australia, two-thirds of the books were written by women, but two-thirds of the books that get reviewed were those of male authors—an entrenched bias evident over nearly three decades between 1985 and 2013. But at least one editor has argued that more books by men are reviewed because some leading publishing houses publish men more often than women. Shamsie also notes how publishers submitting books for literary prizes do so with “a strong tilt towards books by men”.

Still, it begs the question why more men are published, when there are clearly so many women writers out there. An equal or larger proportion of women graduate with Masters of Fine Arts degrees in writing in the US. Paradoxically, women dominate in senior positions in the publishing industry in India. In the US, too, book publishing is mostly white and mostly female.

Other factors, too, could be at work that relegate women writers to the background and devalue their work: how women writers are written about in the media, how books by women are priced less than similar books by male writers, how manuscripts written under a male pseudonym are more likely to be considered by a publisher, and how women are paid less than male writers. Shashi Deshpande in Listen to Me writes how she was described as a ‘grandmother’, how people often commented on her looks and the dresses she wore, how male editors who did not bother to read her work advised her to submit her work to women’s magazines, how some famous male writers denigrated and wrote and spoke dismissively of women writers.

It all adds up. A reader browsing a bookshelf or making what seems to be an informed purchasing choice has likely already been swayed towards male authors. Any personal bias, conscious or unconscious—more likely towards male authors given our social milieu—only accentuates the skew.

In May 2019, my own book was published by Oxford University Press: The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays on nature and conservation. The book slipped out into the world and I watched as it found its own place among the thousands that appeared on the shelves. I did no promotions or events, as authors apparently are expected to do these days, but for a single book reading event at the wonderful independent bookstore, children’s library, and cafe, Champaca, in Bangalore, and a joint session on trees at the Bangalore Literature Festival in November with writer and scientist, Harini Nagendra, and the artist, Nirupa Rao.

The publishers of my book had sent it out to a number of outlets for review and a couple of the reviews raised a pertinent point. Of the 60 essays in my book, I had written 10 with Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist and my partner, but nearly all the essays owed something to her as well. As I wrote in the Preface to the book:

Most of the essays emerged from journeys and field experiences with Divya… Journeying with Divya has always been an enriching experience of witnessing, photographing, and forming the impressions, images, and ideas that finally found expression in these words. I co-authored 10 essays (or their earlier versions) with her, but most of the others, too, are from our time in the field together: out of a memorable encounter, an extended conversation, a close observation, a shared silence.

Two reviewers made the point that her name deserved to have been on the cover, too. I was glad that the reviewers, both men, pointed that out—clearly, there are many people out there sensitive to this. There is sometimes a thin line between a considered decision and the perpetuation of a latent bias. Applied to my own work, it struck me that I may not even be the best person to realise or understand on which side of that line I myself stand.

As the weeks passed, I did little more than share links or send emails to friends about my book’s existence. But I could not avoid an egoistic urge to check every bookstore I visited whether they had my book on their shelves. Except at Champaca and a stall at the Lit Fest, none of the dozen or so bookstores I visited in 2019 stocked my book. Save one. And there, I was in for a surprise, a pleasant, yet short-lived surprise.

My book at the Starmark Bookstore, Royapettah, Chennai

In December 2019, there, on the top rack of the Wildlife/Gardening shelf in Starmark bookstore, Chennai, stood my book flanked by works of two authors I greatly admire. Julian Hoffman‘s Irreplaceable, one of the most beautifully-written books on nature and conservation of recent times, stood on one side. One book away on the other side was a recent anthology of essays by the late M. Krishnan, probably India’s most well-known nature writer.

Books by women writers were there, too: Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember on the Chennai floods and Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies. But then, I stepped back a bit and took in the whole shelf.

The shelf that tilts to one side.

Leaving aside the encyclopedia volumes and a couple of misplaced books, there were 43 books. Of these, an astonishing 37 books were by men, and only 6 books were by women (of these, 3 had a male coauthor). Several authors were white men, of course, including the long-dead Jim Corbett, a shikari famed for his tiger and leopard shooting exploits.

This was in a large bookstore in Chennai. The city I was born in. A city that considers itself one of the biggest in India, with a cultured citizenry and a vast population of readers.

Krupa Ge’s book on the Chennai floods was a saving grace. So was the presence of a few copies of Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s lovely Cities and Canopies and the single copy of Meera Subramanian’s excellent Elemental India. But where were the other women writers who have been writing as much if not more on wildlife, nature, and the environment than men? Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals (2 volumes), Sunita Narain’s Conflicts of Interest, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Swati Thiyagarajan’s Born Wild, Ghazala Shahabuddin’s Conservation at the Crossroads, Mridula Ramesh’s The Climate Solution, and Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing? To name just a few. Sure, there are other books by men that should have been there on that shelf as well, but some or all of these books by women should have found place, too.

There was not a single book by a woman author from outside India. Why Peter Wohlleben’s pulp nonfiction, but no Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction? I was thrilled to see Julian Hoffman’s book and bought a copy, but it would have been equally wonderful to see and buy a book like Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. And isn’t it time we grew out of Jim Corbett and read better natural history writing?

I looked again at my own book on that shelf. I turned and walked away.

I had begun 2019 with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces, Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and the Therigatha in translation. The latter, a collection of verses in Pali by ordained Buddhist women or therīs is considered among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world, some from as early as the 6th Century BCE. I tried to mix fiction and nonfiction with poetry and classics. I read books old and new. From Austen’s 1813 classic, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1949) and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954) to books published just this year: Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, and Ali Smith’s astonishing Spring. (Okay, I must admit I cheated with that last one. I began reading it on New Year’s eve and although I could hardly put it down any free moment I had, I could finish it only after 2020 had arrived.)

Through 2019, I’d tried to read whenever I could, but travel and work kept me from reading. By December 31, it was clear I was not going to meet my target of 50 books. I’d read only 42 books. Not a bad number that, in literature: 42. Still, thanks to the anthology Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, I managed to read, in total, the work of 63 women. And many extraordinary writers.

Looking back on 2019, I found no cause to regret my ‘whim’ of reading women. In fiction, I will remember it as the year I first read Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

A delightful book that had me both chuckling and reflecting seriously on how we as humans relate to animals. This book is many things: murder mystery, Cannery-Row-esque story set in rural Poland, a biting critique of hunting and Christian ideas of human dominion over nature, a commentary on the similarities between astrology and sociobiology, and a tale of one woman’s determination. How Tokarczuk manages to pull all that off, while keeping you turning the pages for more, is something of a wonder. I can see why she is considered one of Poland’s “most celebrated and beloved authors.”

Then there was Joan Didion, who wrote powerfully of life and society rendered bleak and chaotic by loss and disruption. Her graphic description of her protagonist undergoing an abortion in a shady clinic and the character’s ensuing tailspin down the freeways of America is like nothing I’ve read before.

Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

An unflinching look at social and mental breakdown in pared-down prose by a writer I’m sure I’m going to be reading more. If a book can take you down a path, or send you tearing down a freeway, into the desert, into nothingness, into nothing, into knowing how much it matters when nothing matters, then maybe this is that book.

I read the wonderful poetry of Mary Oliver and Anne Carson and Kathleen Jamie, adding them all to my list of favourite authors without a moment’s hesitation. I read nonfiction that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in today’s world: history (Time Pieces, Nayanjot Lahiri), archaeology (Devika Cariapa), memoir (Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald). On environmental science and politics and for good nature writing, here are two books well worth your time.

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement by Sunita Narain

A clear, hard-nosed, and incisive look into environmental issues and battles fought. This is a book anyone concerned with the environment in India or more broadly in relation to the developing world must read. Sunita Narain’s is one of the most informed and compelling voices in the world and the work she and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, have managed to do, against immense pressures and push-back, is remarkable. This books tells all in that same compelling voice, sharing her experiences that are eye-opening, sobering, and inspiring at once.

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee

Part memoir, part quest for self, family, and nature in Taiwan, this is a gentle book with a gentle narrative voice that carries the reader along on a very personal journey. I like it for its simplicity and clarity, and its evocation of Taiwan and her family that is both personal and yet placed neatly within the great sprawl of the island’s history and geography.

Of course there were places where the writing sagged or books in which I felt I would have liked something more, something different, a different perspective of women by women. But, then why not perspectives of men by women or of anything, for that matter, by women? Anyhow, I am no critic, and worse, I’m a published male author, and how male authors see women often just doesn’t cut it. So I won’t even try. What I can attest is how much I enjoyed reading what I read.

It was not just books on themes that one might ascribe, not without the stain of bias, to women: family, women’s lives, sexual abuse and rape, mother-child relationships, love. These themes, and they are great literary and social themes, were certainly present in powerful, compelling, provocative stories told with a rare empathy by powerful and tender narrators. But the writing often rocketed out of these pigeonholes and soared into the skies. You could place some of these books on a family-themed shelf, but to do full justice, it is the shelf that would have to expand enormously to fully capture the range in these books: the idea of home, belonging, and caring for a differently-abled sister in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, the contemporary life of women in India in Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair, the sexual abuse of a girl child in a fake godman’s ashram in Anuradha Roy’s searing book Sleeping on Jupiter, the fabric of a family shredded by the brutal rape of the mother in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, the love and lust and longing in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, and Ismat Chughtai’s The Heart Breaks Free and The Wild One.

Other books brought to the fore thought provoking and powerful stories—fiction and fact, fake news and real—of racism and white supremacy, power dynamics, gender discrimination, our current crises of climate and immigration, of democracy losing to demagoguery, of life under slavery and colonialism. The works of Mary Beard (Women and Power), Sunita Narain (Conflicts of Interest), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Ali Smith (Spring), Wilma Stockenström (The Expedition to the Baobab Tree), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and several women writers of colour in Well Read Black Girl, are just a tiny sample of that spectrum of work by some of the best writers who are both of our times and timeless.

If, having read this far has sparked your interest in reading (more) women writers in 2020, you could mosey over to Reading Women and take their 2020 reading challenge.

Take the 2020 Reading Women challenge

Or if you’d like a peek at what I read in 2019 and check out some of those books, here they are.

Books of 2019

Whether you take the challenge or pick women to read from my bookshelf or any other shelf, chances are you will have a wonderful year of reading ahead. And when a woman’s voice lingers in your mind as you turn the last page of her book, you may find that it has been worth your while to listen to her.

A new home

After a long hiatus, I’m getting back to blogging here at View from Elephant Hills. Over the next few weeks, I aim to move my posts from the presently-dysfunctional Coyotes Network blogs. Do bookmark this page or take the RSS feed from below if you’d like to follow my work.

Update (8 Jan 2019): Most of my posts till 2014 are here now. Still have a bunch to bring over from the Coyotes Network. Should be done in the next few weeks!

The Dance of the Bamboos

At first I thought it is the people of Mizoram who use bamboo to perform their celebrated dance, the Cheraw. After months of field research in remote forests of this small state in northeastern India, I know now it is the other way round. Through its intimate influence on the people, it is the bamboo that does its own dance on the mountains of Mizoram.

… This post appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 15 April 2014. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild. A slightly edited version of this article appeared in opinion/editorial page of The Telegraph on 12 April 2014 under the title Field and Fallow, Farm and Forest.

March Essays

EarthLines March 2014 cover

Two of my essays appear in print this month in two relatively new magazines that have been around for a couple of years.

One essay titled ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’, appears in the March 2014 issue of EarthLines, a magazine of nature and place-based writing published thrice a year from the UK. EarthLines is an artfully produced magazine and I was glad my piece finds place in the March 2014 issue.

The EarthLines essay is part of a longer work by the same name, which I am working on, themed on life and loss, rapture and revival in the island. It is based on a trip that Divya and I made to Madagascar in November 2012. A few of our images of lemurs and reptiles from Ranomafana accompany the EarthLines piece.

Black and white ruffed lemur in Ranomafana

The other essay appearing this month is on wildlife in the heart of India, the land of deer and tiger in the forests of Central India. This appears in the March 2014 issue of Fountain Ink, a monthly carrying long-form writing, narrative journalism, and photo essays, published from Chennai, India. Fountain Ink is an attractive small-format magazine that fits like a delectable little book in your hand. The article carries some of our photos and those of Kalyan Varma from Kanha and Bandhavgarh and you can read the full text here.

Bamboo Bonfires and Biodiversity

Can wildlife and slash-and-burn shifting agriculture coexist? This question led me into remote rainforests of northeast India in 1994 for a field research study in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. In December 2013, nearly two decades later, I went there again. From the Anamalai hills in south India, I travelled across the country to initiate a comprehensive bird survey in Dampa, including a resurvey of my old field sites. As a prelude to other writings I will post here in the days ahead, I post below an edited version of an article about my work in Dampa in the mid 1990s. This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine (a remarkable periodical published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which after a print run of over 112 years, perished with the recession in 2009). Original PDF here.

The heat from the fire is intense, even from a hundred metres away. The entire slope is ablaze. Piles of slashed vegetation and tens of thousands of bamboo culms that had sun-dried for three months burn ferociously. The bamboo hisses, crackles, and explodes, audible a mile away. Hot gusts of wind scud the fire upslope, throwing branches and small trees ten metres into the air. High above, unmindful of the billowing fumes, swallows and drongos, in a frenzy of activity, hawk insects. Ash and smoke darken the sky, reducing the sun to a dull orange ball. In twenty minutes, almost as rapidly as it started, the fiery spectacle ends. On the soil, only a blanket of smoldering ash and tree trunks remain.

… This post first appeared in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 31 January 2014. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

The Journeys of the Elephants

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

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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

African elephant

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

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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