My book review in Biblio (Apr – Jun 2021) of Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species by Neha Sinha (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2021, 232 pp., Rs 599, ISBN 978-93-5357-829-9).
Engaged, urgent and political writing rarely achieves the cadence, structure and pace one expects from literary works of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. The immediate tends to trump the timeless, the critique of outside power overcomes any reflection of inner self, and the plot is forced along by an agenda rather than the wilfulness of its characters. It is a challenge for a writer to resist the opposing pulls and find equipoise apt for the work. Neha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful, a welcome addition to literature on the natural world, walks that tightrope with grace. Her writing balances the urgency of conservation in a battered world against life in the slow lane. It tempers criticism of the powers-that-be and how humans affect nature with reflections on her own vulnerability and how nature affects each one of us. It calls for a renewal of a more humane and sensitive relationship with nature while foregrounding the characters – 15 species from elephants and starlings to butterflies and crocodiles – each portrayed in all their wildness and wilfulness.
The Introductory chapter outlines how the book is organised in four parts – Earth, Sky, Water and Heart – each holding its own cast of characters of “the wild that walks alongside us and through the pages of our neat, daily lives”. As the author explains,
Under Land, we have political capitals, the deserts, woodlands and forest. Under Sky, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under Water, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in, and the places where we lose and find ourselves in repeatedly.
The first two chapters focus on Leopards and Rhesus Macaques, two familiar species found even in urban areas, highlighting the challenges of coexistence with people. From there, the author segues into the Thar desert, the last stronghold of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, threatened now by solar farms and powerlines, and then across the country into Arunachal Pradesh where the White-bellied Heron and Black-necked Crane face equally serious threats from hydroelectric projects. More well known are the species she profiles in the next three chapters: the King Cobra and Cobra, the Asian Elephant, and the Tiger. The ‘Sky’ chapters focus on migratory Tiger Butterflies and Amur Falcons, while the ‘Water’ chapters dive into the lives of the Gangetic Dolphins and Mugger Crocodiles. The final ‘Heart’ chapter, set amidst the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, flutters alive with Rosy Starlings on silk cotton trees abloom.
Each chapter braids evocative descriptions of species and landscapes with accounts of the many thoughtless or deliberately destructive human actions warping the relationships between humans and wild species. The caged leopard has “a liquid effortlessness that could only come from true strength…poised even in its panic” writes Sinha in an opening passage that appears to take you into the mind of the terrified leopard and the anguish of the author bearing witness. Describing the leopards that appeared in Delhi and the ones that live in Mumbai, those that saunter through the campus of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, and those roaming across wildlife reserves, farms and towns, Sinha paints a grim portrait. The leopard is beautiful yet inconvenient, a pest “like a cockroach” to be eliminated rather than appreciated and accommodated.
The author’s descriptions of the species she writes about bring them alive as beings with character and agency. The butterfly seems “made of sunrays carrying dust, coming into existence simply because we wished for colour to float around our faces”. The elephant “…is large, it is nearly soundless. Its huge feet are whispers in the wind, like songs people don’t sing as they work hard raising paddy”. The statuesque White-bellied Heron “is the very image of montane wilderness — a secretive bird with all the coiled energy of something that is living but appears like it is made of stone, almost like the mountain itself ”. The eye of the crocodile “is an ancient eye, a jewel eye, a dinosaur eye”. As Sinha informs us, “There is a whole bouquet of characters in the forest; you just have to learn to know them.”
The personhood of animals evident from their intimate portrayals is not difficult to appreciate. In the chapter on elephants, the author notes how people of the Toda community perceive animals “like people…they are a who, not a what”. For the villagers living alongside mugger crocodiles in village ponds of Kotmi Sonar in Chhattisgarh, the reptiles are their crocodiles that they lived alongside with an “easy, deeply felt understanding”. The touching story of the 75-year-old Bababji, who lost his hand to a crocodile, yet treats them as his wards and protects them is testimony to this felt affinity and appreciation for other living beings. Writing of Gond tribals in the central Indian forests and their remarkable knowledge of the native trees, Sinha notes, “Where we see trees, the Gonds see characters and old friends.…trees like people…” Later, in writing about dolphins and the proposal for their capture for use in entertainment in dolphinariums, Sinha notes how even the authorities are beginning to find this morally unacceptable and consider dolphins as sentient, non-human persons. And yet, if there was one thing that was disappointing in getting to know the book’s wild and wilful beings, it was that the author, with few exceptions, uses the impersonal pronoun it to refer to them, in language suggestive of a what, not a who.
This is not a trivial concern in writing about the natural world. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her fine essay “Speaking of Nature” in Orion magazine (March/April 2017)1:
…I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings.Robin Wall Kimmerer, Orion, “Speaking of Nature”
Kimmerer goes on to call for restoring the grammar of animacy that is often part of indigenous traditions to the English we use in writing and speaking about the natural world, even suggesting inventing new pronouns for the purpose. Wild and Wilful certainly does not render land as lifeless object or forests as purely utilitarian. Yet, if there ever was a book of nature writing in India that could have adopted a grammar of animacy and been even better for it, it is Wild and Wilful.
Besides giving voice to the plight of animals, the book also features other voices. Like the voices of conservationists trying to save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction or opposing the ill-planned removal of leopards and macaques to foster informed coexistence instead. There are voices of tribals and villagers who retain deeper connections with land and other living creatures. And, perhaps uniquely among popular books on Indian wildlife, the voices of women living in forests alongside tigers. Readers of the book are drawn into the world and worldviews encapsulated by these voices. Often, the author also directly addresses the reader, ‘you’, stepping in with an inclusive ‘we’ or ‘us’ as if for a collective arm-around-the-shoulders conversation:
If you encounter a wild animal, you are not in its company. Rather, you survive by the grace of the animal. Most wildlife is swifter, toothier and stronger than us. …We survive because the animal decides to let us be.
The prose is fluid and well-paced, engaging, even revelatory at times, making you want to stay to be part of this conversation. Sinha’s writing is unlike that of the “lone, enraptured male” of the genre2, and is more akin to the thoughtful and evocative work of writers like Terry Tempest Williams or Rebecca Solnit. As a regular columnist and a conservationist herself, Neha Sinha has directly engaged in most of the conservation issues she writes about, making for a more authentic and compelling narrative.
Beautiful profile photographs of the main animal protagonists accompany each chapter, not to mention the wonderful cover photograph of elephants. The book has few errors or typos and only the rare misstep in prose. The host plant of the tiger butterfly is Calotropis not ‘Caloptris’ (p 154, 156); Chhattisgarh hardly connects the Eastern and Western Ghats, or the Chota Nagpur Plateau to the Himalaya (p 149), and the White-bellied Heron does not sit on boulders (p 58) as much as stand on them. These hardly take away from the pleasure of reading: some chapters alone make the book worth buying. This fine book deserves to be read by everyone interested in nature or conservation or good writing on the natural world.
In the end, Wild and Wilful evokes a better understanding of the vulnerability of these animals to the many forces impinging on their lives and survival: trees and tigers and elephants at the mercy of roads and speeding vehicles and railway lines; bustards and flamingos killed by powerlines mushrooming across Western India from so-called green energy projects; attitudes that treat wildlife as the other, the nuisance; the deadening of rivers behind dams and dredged waterways and the deafening of dolphins by underwater noise from boat traffic, and more. But that is not all. Wild and Wilful brings home a more salient message: that the loss of the wild will be a great loss to our own lives and spirits too.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer: “Speaking of Nature: Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world”, Orion, March/April 2017, pp 14-27. https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/.
- Kathleen Jamie: “A Lone Enraptured Male”, London Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 5, 6 March 2008. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male.