About a couple of months ago, one of my friends lent me this book called Whispers from the Wild which I had been immersed in for a couple of weeks. A beautiful read, just the perfect one to satisfy my newfound interest in memoir-style non-fiction. Written by an expert and activist, it’s a love letter to the vibrant wildlife of the Nilgiri forests in Southern India.
E.R.C. Davidar was a lawyer by profession. An avid hunter himself, Davidar was in charge of the Nilgiri Game Association in his early career. In a personal journey that resonates with that of many shikaris from the British Raj, Davidar realized the natural costs of hunting – the loss of habitat for animals, the endangerment of many species. He gave up game hunting and turned into an ardent campaigner for wildlife conservation in India. Through his effort and struggle, the Nilgiri Game Association morphed into the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association. Some of his major undertakings include the work he put into preserving the elephant migration corridors in Southern India and the extensive census of the Nilgiri tahr.
What is an elephant corridor? It’s a narrow strip of land, a route that elephants take when migrating from one place to another, unnoticed by humans. With the habitat of elephants dwindling due to human encroachment, Davidar had the idea of connecting lone nature reserves in Kerala and Tamil Nadu with linkages that the elephants could use, and then preserving these elephant corridors. The Sigur plateau in the Nilgiri Hills was one such corridor identified by Davidar, who decided to make it his home.
Possessing what can only be described as the eccentricity of a genius, Davidar, wife and children tagging along, had built himself a house in the forest at the foot of the Nilgiri hills. A private elephant corridor! They christened this place Cheetal Walk – “cheetal” being the local name for the spotter deer found in these parts, the Indian Bambis if you will. The stories in this book are primarily from his time at Cheetal Walk.
Throughout the book, Davidar is a combination of naturalist and nature-lover. The scientific aspect of his writing is most evident in the precision of his observations, especially of the elephants, their most frequent guest at Cheetal Walk. Every visit of an elephant is described in detail, every move, each contour on the creature’s face, its colour, its gait, how it fed – Davidar lists everything like a dispassionate observer. Then he tells you the name they have given the elephant, how they have grown to like his frequent visits, how they all stare out the window when he comes plodding along – and the warmth rushes back into his writing.
This impersonal interest in his subjects which complements Davidar’s deep love for them makes the book most fascinating to read – it provides you information, while still hooking you into his life and stories on a sentimental level. You begin to care about that great brute of an elephant called Bumpty, just as you learn more about the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris and how they have been threatened through encroachment and poaching. Brain and heart, always, both brain and heart.
“Nature is evocative, provided it finds a response. Responsiveness is born out of love. Once you find the right chord, you are never lonely in nature’s company. Sitting in a jungle environment, you begin to realize you are privileged. The realization rouses your awareness and sharpens your power of observation. You begin to notice little details you had not registered before, and delight in them. And there are a hundred and one simple but evocative things to observe – leaf patterns, the play of light at different angles, the changing facets of nature with the change in seasons, reflections in the pool below and smaller and less glamorous fauna – small animals, birds and reptiles that appear larger than life when you observe them closely. The visuals are accompanied by sound effects – wind playing among the leaves, the stream chattering among the rocks before entering the pool, birdsong (identifying the owners, especially the rarer ones becomes a game) and animal sounds. Your other senses also participate in the experience – especially your sense of smell. Some aromas are subtle and tease you to explore them, and others are raw. Altogether, sitting in nature is a rewarding experience, and soon becomes an addiction.”
Just last month, I taught a poem to my Grade 8 class – The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling. It’s the haunting story of a man who lives on the edge of a forest and has grown old there. There used to be a way through the forest, he says, which is gone now. But he can’t help but still hear the swish of a skirt and the trot of a horse’s feet as though there is someone moving along that long-gone road. And that keeps him company, though there is no road through the forest.
The children all declared that they would love to live in a forest, away from the city and did so with such confidence that I asked them to reconsider. Imagine there being no sound of whirring fans and fridges, even the lights make soft sounds; imagine not hearing the constant drumming of cars, and trucks, and bikes on the road, the honking. And not a single whisper of a person. That kind of silence will take some getting used to. It could really show you your place in the world.
We have adapted ourselves to the city so well, that being in a forest and being safe in one requires a drastic unlearning and reeducation. Davidar talks about the very same thing. When he describes any romp in the forest, he uses all his senses to produce such evocative descriptions. The taste, smell, the sound of the forest, his descriptions put you right in his worn-down shoes, and make you feel his world a million times more acutely. That charge on your senses is perhaps the best part of reading this book.
“Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty, clear, musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune his imagination to the read the music. When in full flow after a series of downpours, the stream roared like an angry tiger and could indeed kill the unwary. When the level fell somewhat, it growled. As the flow fell further, it would moan like a bear, coo like a turtle dove, whistle like a green pigeon, sing like a shama, hiss like a python, gurgle like a happy child of the wilderness. Sometimes, it was like a whole orchestra playing, if you had the imagination of a composer to supply the stops and pauses. We would never have believed that a that would come and that too so soon, when the Sigurhalla would be singing mournful dirges when it sang at all.”