Unforgettable Stories from the Indian Monsoons

In the cities, we wait eagerly for monsoon rains.

It’s a break away from the sultry, claustrophobic humidity that precedes the rain. We want the skies to change colour, we want a breeze to blow, umbrellas and waterproof footwear to be whipped out, we have a need to experience a different, more exciting season.

Yet as soon as the skies open up and the rains come crashing down, cities throw up litanies of dramas. Red lights stop working, and serpentine, honking queues of cars fish the romance out of any rainy commute.

Somewhere, there is awful water-logging, while in another part of the city, water turns mysteriously grey in taps, making one wonder if the stuff coming out of one’s backside got mixed with the stuff we splash our faces with.

Unless you are very young or very bohemian, the charm of monsoons is often belied by the peculiarities of cities.

Also read – Eight lions on the prowl on Gujarat’s streets. Why is the wild going viral?

But hold that thought. Before you think cities are whimsical in the rain, wait till you hear of some unforgettable (good or bad) monsoon tales from the Indian wilds.

The year was 2011. We were in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, as a group of researchers. We were hoping to spot some tigers, but all we had got was rainwashed forests, and no sightings of animals, who were either hiding under foliage or getting drenched, away from the gypsy trails.

There were flies buzzing everywhere, and after an exhausting ride through the forest and a 4.30am start, we were fatigued to our souls. The sky had just cleared, bringing with it the typically blinding, eye-watering sunshine that follows rainfall.

Slowly but surely, the temperature had spiked up, taking us from squelchy to hot uncomfortably quickly. We were turning our gypsy around to go back, and the words of senior forest staff, who had said “you won’t see anything during rainfall” were ringing in our ears. Our gypsy got stuck.

A particular patch in the forest trail had collapsed inwards, softened by the rain. This is a rite of passage in the forest- your car will get stuck just as you make up your mind to go somewhere. We were stuck at an awkward angle, diagonal to the trail, impossible to turn this way or that, without embarrassingly loud attempts to get out.

And then, the forest seemed to hold its breath. Appearing almost out of thin air, there appeared a full-grown tigress.

tigerbd_072016091851.jpgPicture of T-17 tigress in lush monsoon foliage.

She catwalked towards us, with the ease and insouciance of a dancer loping on rose petals.

We were right in her path, awkward, clumsy, the very opposite of all that she stood for. She seemed used to this sort of human folly, and there was no annoyance on her face.

With the same elegant calm that brought her to us, she softly got off the trail, bypassed our vehicle, and climbed back on the trail again.

Then, she turned. Her face drew itself into a distinctly feline snarl, whiskers bunching together. The look said, “Don’t follow me”.

If our car hadn’t gotten stuck, we would have missed a sighting of one of Ranthambhore’s most well-known tigresses, T-17, also called Sundari, who met an untimely end a few years later.

Also read – [Photo essay] Ranthambore’s wildlife left me mesmerised

More importantly, if our car hadn’t gotten stuck thanks to the rains, we would have missed the chance of closely seeing a tigresses’ attitude-sure, fierce, and tinged with the haughtiness of self- preservation.

If tigresses are haughty (and rightly so), leeches are always hungry (especially in the rainy season).

In the month of September, I was in the forests of Biligiriranga Tiger Reserve, known as much for its fabulous beasts as for its amazing Soliga people, who live in the forest, with a felt understanding of its plants, leaf litter, its rhythm, its darknesses, and its lifecycles.

I was being led through the forest by a Soliga friend, and he was taking me to his temple. His temple was a large tree, with milky, fragrant flowers.

This tree is called the Dodda Sampige Mara, also known as the Big Champaka tree. Said to be more than 1,000-years-old, this tree is a silent, flowering testimonial to the forest, having survived generations of storms, monsoon rains and human death and decay.

sinhabd_072016092023.jpgThe barefoot author at the Dodda Sampige Mara tree.

Standing in a particularly lush and damp portion of the forest with the Big Champaka tree, small creatures looked out from the undergrowth.

Leeches. Near the temple, flushed by monsoon rain, were dozens… and dozens… and dozens of leeches.

All of them were making hungering movements, heads pushing forward. Leeches are not my favourite thing.

Blood makes me queasy. I dug my toes into my floaters, not wanting any part of my skin to touch the forest floor.

We reached the tree temple, and I stood at a distance, awed by its splendour and presence. Come closer, the tree will bless you, my friend said.

And you have to take your shoes off, he added, straight-faced.

Also read – Where birders like me from Delhi can go and see rare cranes and more

There was no question about it. I couldn’t be in that tree’s awesome presence with things like sandals sticking to my feet.

Steeling my mind, I took off my footwear. The leeches moved in, like they’d been waiting for me their whole life.

The monsoons remind me of The Planet of the Apes, that didactic morality tale of what would happen if animals (in the movie’s case, apes) ran our planet.

In the monsoons, my thoughts turn to cousins of leeches – all manner of insects.

Winged, not-winged, with pincers or without, awkward and clumsy or long and many-legged, the monsoons are a time that truly belongs to insects.

They come out of every crack and crevasse, outnumbering us by millions, seeing a short spurt in their lives before getting crushed, sprayed out or eaten.

At one time, insects similar to dragonflies lived alongside dinosaurs. They were huge, the size of chairs. The time of the monsoon is a time when one wonders: what if the world was run by insects?

centi_072016092316.jpgA many-legged, centipede. (All pictures: Neha Sinha)

I was thinking similar thoughts in a forest rest house in Haryana a few monsoons ago. The thing about government buildings like forest rest houses is that they are often well-made, and have gorgeous locations. The problem comes with the maintenance.

No one seems to be interested in maintaining these buildings – not the crusty guards who seem to have better things to do, and not the officers, who have immaculate offices but bypass run-down corridors and guest rooms in the same complex.

I was to spend a night in a nameless government building, with the only thing between me and the thundering sky being a leaking roof. The little citizens of the world were busy. Insects were everywhere. There were little bugs on my bed, and moths on the one light I had on in the room.

Insects with pincers behind them walked on the lime-washed walls.

Winged termites flew here and there. I should have turned off the light to stop attracting more insects, but ironically, I wanted to be able to see what was walking on the bed.

Before turning in after some time spent on the bed trying to avoid the insects, I went to the washroom to brush my teeth. Like innumerable forest rest houses I have stayed in, the bathroom door didn’t shut properly.

Somehow, no one seems to care about bathroom doors not shutting, and bathrooms not having curtains in these places, leading me to believe not a lot of women are on these trails; but it didn’t matter that evening as there was barely anyone around.

I was brushing my teeth when I felt a sensation on my foot. The back of my mind already knew what it was.

I looked down. A long, many-legged centipede, known to bite when threatened, had crawled out of a crack in the floor, and was now proceeding to crawl up my leg. That was it.

I unceremoniously spat out my toothpaste and strode out of the door.

I found the building guard, who was asleep under a thick blanket. I can’t stay here, there are 200 insects in my room, I told him.

Also read – How I was shamed for being a woman in the forest

He looked at me like I was a raving lunatic. Just wait, I’ll come, he said.

Wait on the lawn, he said. He came out, blanket around his shoulders.

We stepped into my room. With our re-emergence and movements, many of the insects had vanished.

Kahan hain kahan hain, (where are the insects?)” the man asked me.

Har jagah hain,” I said, “neem ke patte nahi hain aapke paas? (they are everywhere, don’t you have neem leaves, known to repell insects, I asked)”.

I have this, he said. And he brandished an All-out mosquito repellent. My heart sank. Of all the insects in the animal kingdom, the only one missing from my room were mosquitoes.

Ah, well.

Being close to nature is a certain brand of tough, biting love.

I woke up having survived various insect bites the next day, but the stories I had were even better.

This was first published in my DailyO column, here

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On Being a Woman in Wildlife Conservation in India

“So, what do you do?”

The guy leans forward, all city slickness, adding, “You look like a designer.”

“Actually, I am a wildlife conservationist,” I meekly say, keeping up with the ping-pong game of what-do-you-do conviviality.

“A what conservationist?” incredulousness is writ large on the questioner’s face.

“Wildlife.”

“Oh, dogs and cats.”

“No, tigers and falcons. In the forest.”

“But you don’t look like a wildlife conservationist,” he expertly avers.

“How does a conservationist look?”

“Like… more wild… more tough.”

woman-embed_030816064348.jpgLeeches bite, a lot, in the forest. But nothing that a woman can’t take.

At which point I put down my rum and coke with a lemon twist and move away from the man, because what he means – and what many other men and women mean – is that a wildlife conservationist should look more like a man.

When I was thinking of what I wanted to do, wildlife conservation was not some expertly gendered feminist choice. I love wild animals, I love the forest, I love wild spaces, and I decided to study a science degree in the field and work in wildlife conservation.

It was a personal calling, rather than a statement. But conversations around a woman taking on an “unconventional choice” because she is a “free spirit” and doesn’t care about “triple bottomlines” are invariably comical, and perpetually stereotyped.

Cut to the road leading to the Sariska tiger reserve, circa 2008. Me and a photographer friend, both of us female journalists at that time (also seen as an “intrepid field” for women, sigh), were headed to Sariska to cover a story.

The road stretched between fields on both sides, with towering and impenetrable trees, grasses and crops skirting us. We were admiring the birds in the skyline, who were settling down to roost at dusk. When suddenly, a knocking sound in the engine brought us to a juddering halt.

woman-embed-2_030816064403.jpgThe leech in question, after biting the author.

The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” was probably written for the rare occasion when you are stranded in the middle of fields leading to a forest. Our car was completely out of commission, and we got out to make some calls. As we were standing with the tough task of making sense over call drops, a group of bikers came down the road, jeering.

It’s when they came back a second time that we decided we needed shelter, and we moved down the road. Many calls to Jaipur later, a car came to pick us up. The driver had golden-dyed long hair, glass earrings, and had music playing, and blindingly-flashing blue LED lights in the interior of his car.

We got in, ruing the garishness which was completely out of sync with the surroundings. We told him our destination, and he started the car, wordlessly. His stack of CDs rocked from side to side as he took us, not too gently, down the bumpy road. At the first petrol pump he saw, he stopped his car, filled up the tank and then spoke his first words to us, asking us for a couple of thousands. “You can’t fill your tank without asking us,” I protested. “We are not that far from Sariska, there was no need for a full tank!”

My colleague added darkly that this was not professional, and it would just not do.

The man just heard us out, some incomprehensible emotion passing through his face. Finally he spat out, “I am a Rajput. I don’t talk to women.”

It was the beginning of the end. Throughout the drive, he would sigh audibly, appalled that his customers were two sharp-tongued women. Under many threats (which were grimly unanswered by the gent in question) we were taken to Sariska, but he left his car and escaped with the keys the next day. We called his boss, who called his mother, who called the driver, interestingly threatening to slap him and deny him her homemade rotis. He finally came back. But he would not speak to us for the next three days.

Not speaking may perhaps be better than blurting out prejudice. In my years in the forest, in villages, and in the middle of nowhere, I have heard the oddest of things, many of which would make Fair and Lovely proud. “Aap jaisi ladki jungle me kya kar rahi hai?” (what is a girl like you doing in the forest?) a divisional forest officer will ask.

What do you mean sir, a girl like me, I politely ask, my hackles raised. “Mera matlab aapko toh shehar me hona chahiye, jungle me aap kaali ho jayengi” (You should be in the city, you will become dark in the forest). Sometimes the firebrand in me wants to say I am more than a skin colour, but I usually end up laughing and talking about tigresses who don’t give a shit.

Another friend of mine, also a young wildlife conservationist, is often asked, “What do you eat in the forest?” followed by the priceless “How come the tiger hasn’t eaten you yet?”

I remember the time I was camping at the edge of a tiger reserve and a fellow female researcher asked me to quietly ask a field assistant to burn my used sanitary pads. Why? Because none of the male researchers should know that such a thing as menstruation happens each month.

And secondly, hyenas would come to scrunch up my pads. I wasn’t in favour of burning anything, but ultimately had to. The secrecy bothered me though. My concern was about hygiene and pollution, not shame and guilt. A couple of years down the line, I am happy to report that we now have the she-cup, which is not polluting and will have no hyenas (or city dogs) coming for it.

langur_030816064419.jpgA langur sits in Pench tiger reserve. These are naughty monkeys, carrying away lingerie and rotis with equal relish.

There was another time when a langur ran away with my bra. My field assistants were not sure if they could laugh audibly or feel deeply embarrassed. They ended up making strange sounds. But I thought it was just as funny as a monkey running away with a pair of boxers.

Because ultimately, forests and animals do not discriminate between men and women. Though natural history has been penned by men, and the forest has traditionally been seen as a masculine space, forged, hunted in, and conquered by valiant men, or pious male missionaries, reality in the forest is far from being so gendered.

One of the best things about being in the forest is the lack of discrimination, and the lack of sexism. The trees arch above our heads, and nature is the most ruthless leveller. Animals regard us all as irritants, or as another species, not as men or women. Tribal societies in many forests are egalitarian, and in the mountains, many women work harder (and are stronger) than men.

So while history says wildlife conservationists should be like men, or more offensively, always look like men, there is a veritable army of women proving this wrong. Each time I hear I don’t look like a conservationist, I say, that’s because I look like me.

Many of us don’t want to look either like a man, or like a supermodel on a forest shoot. We don’t want the men in our lives to draw hearts around us and fill us in with hot pink, drawing us into glass cages of butch or model. If I look delicate, it doesn’t mean I can’t live in the forest. And vice versa for women who don’t give a fig about looking delicate.

Many of us didn’t get into natural history or sciences to make statements or become superheroes. The forest doesn’t see us as breasts and wombs; it doesn’t see us as intrepid and amazing, or masculine and crazy. It sees us as neither the exception nor the rule. It looks at us with its green eye, judging us only by our actions, not by our looks, or body, or hue of cheek. Time men followed suit.

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This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

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