Walking is a Way of Knowing

I review two new books, Walking is a Way of Knowing and Speaking to an Elephant, which tell stories of tribal legend.

In India, forest-dwellers are seen in binaries, sidelining a more quotidian understanding of their lives. ‘Walking is a Way of Knowing’ and ‘Speaking to an Elephant’ present the beautiful stories we’re missing out on as a result.

 

Green is not just a colour but a spectrum, suggests Walking is a Way of Knowing. Because “it is always dark inside the forest, and the sky is green”. When the sun filters through leaves, they become “parakeet green, fern green, viper green and dark spinach green”. Colour, then, becomes a simple way to understand the biological complexity of the forest.

In literature, the forest is a space that has been unpacked through the non-native. Tales of the ‘jungle’ were first told through white explorers, who exoticised the forest and were positioned as outsiders. This was a space to be forged and interpreted by the ‘civilised’ scholar, scientist or adventurer. National Geographic magazine, with its expansive, fine-grained coverage on peoples and places readers had “never even imagined”, recently admitted that its coverage of tribals or “natives” has been racist.

In India, the forest is understood largely as a management unit, and forest-dwellers are seen in binaries. They are either painted as enemies of wildlife conservation – just this month, two Baiga tribal women were arrested in Kanha tiger reserve for gathering mushrooms – or are represented as living in perfect harmony with the forest. What is missing is a quotidian understanding of the forest-dweller’s life.

Walking is a Way of Knowing Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

How, for example, do people find their way in the forest? What do they do when they encounter wildlife in the everyday – in instances when there is no obvious conflict or ‘event’? More broadly, what is their biography of forest life and the forest as a whole? Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi’s book Walking is a Way of Knowing works to fill this gap. It is a mild subversion of tropes, with the Kadar tribal who becomes the centre of the stories. The Kadars are a tribe of the biodiverse Annamalai hills of the Western Ghats. The tribal, not the scientist, is the expert, with experiential and traditional knowledge. In Speaking to An Elephant, Ramesh and Chandi are retellers of Kadar mythologies.

What you get in both books is straightforward writing rather than interpretations.

“Woods have always been a place of in-betweenness…,” Robert Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places (2007). “Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories of forests, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The sense of wonder in the everyday life of walking in the forest – and the forest itself as a story – suffuses Kadar tales. Crucially, however, this not the hobbyist wonder of the nature enthusiast or ornithologist but a more felt spectacle, existing quietly along with the menace of ticks, wildlife encounters and the difficulties of weather. The divide between the reader – the one who reads about forests in books – and the Kadar, the insider, is intimate. This adds greatly to the stories.

On the question of the Kadar finding her way through the forest, Padma, a tribal woman, explains, “If you build a map of the area in your heart this way, by constantly looking and feeling your way through the place, you will find that it reaches your feet and they will guide you back home in any season, even at night.”

And this is not for everyone. The rights of the forest must be earned, she says: “But it takes many years, a clear memory and strong legs!”

The Kadar have strong legs and they learn to walk quietly, like the elephants they meet often in the forest. On interactions with wildlife, the Kadar narrate how they have to exchange gifts with wild animals – in other words, leave food for them. They say they take only precise quantities of forest goods.

Speaking to An Elephant Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

The forest is a provider and teacher both, gifting the Kadar with just enough, with this becoming a central idea both in their knowledge and mythologies of kadavul(Tamil for the almighty). This would also be what researchers or the forest department would later call “sustainable harvest”.

The landscape in the books will be new for most readers, particular to the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. You have mossy trees, Kurinji shrubs, four kinds of beehives, red and pink elaeocarpus leaves. Speaking to an Elephantwill specially appeal to children, in its very Indian characters spoken of in a voice not heard before. There are stories on why tortoises have stitch-like marks on their shells, why white kumin mushrooms appear only on one day of the year and why grasshoppers hop.

What greatly helps both books are sumptuous, florid illustrations by Matthew Frame. His artwork may remind you of Chris Riddell’s work for Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (2013).

Walking is a Way of Knowing, however, needed more careful copy-editing and a much more extensive index for local names and words. The book would have also benefitted greatly from short, contextual explanations of genus and biological names and functions.

But these are stories that become important not only because they have not been heard but because they provide alternative explanations of the machinations of the forest – at a time when it is being seen as a commodity to be raised and sold. One hopes the Kadar’s traditional knowledge of the rhythm of the forest, along with that of hundreds of other forest-dwelling tribes and peoples, will find its way into mandatory People’s Biodiversity Registers and, ultimately, in conservation and species recovery plans.

As the Kadar forge and walk their paths, they have to use all their senses to feel their way through the forest because it demands this submission, and also deserves it. The difficulty of the task is buoyed by its beauty. As Madiyappan, an elderly Kadar, sums up succinctly, “We return to the forest again and again: as much to fill our stomachs as our hearts.”

 

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

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Why Indian Forest Rest Houses need Preservation

We were walking in the forest, steadily, over fallen bamboo leaves. Ahead of us were more clumps of bamboo, standing out from passages of resplendent, luminous Sal forests. All of a sudden, there was a cry from one of the group members. We ground to a halt. The bamboo clump right ahead looked scattered, like the nucleus of a flower turned inside out, a painting made by a crazed artist.

Unmistakably, these were signs of presence of elephant — elephants had foraged through the bamboo, leaving it in chaotic bits and pieces. The air was cold, like cut diamond, pure and clear. But the tension in our group was thick, settling heavily around us. The guards with me were grasping their lathis a little tighter, eyes shining bright, mouths set in hard lines. I knew though that it was not elephants they feared. It was perhaps the hint of Naxals, who had burnt parts of the Maromar rest house buildings in their rebellion against the state.

karmajhiri-day_070918125249.jpgKamajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench Tiger Reserve. 

As we approached the rest house, with its scorched tree house and singed trees, the sight of the main building took away my breath. This rest house in Jharkhand’s Palamau tiger reserve, built before Independence, had survived the human hand. It was quaint, impeccable and the sort of colonial design one doesn’t get to see much anymore. High ceilings, white walls, funny handles.

Somehow this place had survived efforts at plywood-and-glass modernisation. It had also survived the approaching forest. It had endured and it deserved honour.

***

Karmajhiri Night

Karmajhiri Forest Rest House by night.

While forest rest houses (FRHs) across the country are stunningly beautiful — relicts of a forgotten, and climate friendly architecture — they have also been at the centre of struggle. Meant primarily for the forest department to survey or inspect forest, these grand old buildings have been eyed by other departments, who have often assumed control.

There have been proposals to commercialise these places through public-private partnerships. And many buildings have been modified in ways that do no justice to their heritage. Old, heavy furniture has disappeared or is kept without care, replaced by cheap, shiny new things. A rash of modern tiles cover old surfaces, and mirrors with glittering panels and golden-brown polyester curtains hang like invasive aliens in these solemn old spaces.

The climate-friendly lessons the buildings hold, almost a century before the advent of air-conditioning, have dissipated. Ventilating windows have been boarded, the lessons of high ceilings forgotten.

A new judgment by the Supreme Court, announced last week, comes as a breath of restorative air. The apex court has said that forest rest houses need to be under operational control of the forest department, and none other.

The judgment also says:

“The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IBs [inspection bungalows] many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement/addition to these buildings. We expect these guidelines to prevent the misuse of Forest Rest Houses/Inspection Bungalows…”

This summer, I was in Karmajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench tiger reserve, Madhya Pradesh. We had just come back from the forest. The air was golden, sizzling at 44 degrees Celsius. The only respite from the overpowering heat was a shower of cicada rain. Cicadas give out a liquid that will fall on your face as you pass by. In the central Indian heat, when things take on a mirage-like quality, you’d even take what comes out of an insect, if it helps cool you down. In the deciduous forest, largely leafless in the beginning of summer, I saw langur monkeys hugging trees, gathered tightly in the little strip of shade afforded by the trunk.

The whole forest was holding its breath and waiting for the monsoon.

fireplace-rukkhad_070918125327.jpgThe fireplace in Rukkhad forest rest house. The thick-walled building is cool in summers while the dining room is warm in winters. 

As I reached the Karmajhiri FRH, the verandah’s shade felt like a soothing balm to my inflamed, sunburnt limbs. Old FRHs are often built to have deep verandahs that encircle the entire building, offering relief from both scorching heat and slashing monsoon rain. And as I entered the room, the heat seemed to dissolve away. The high ceiling of the building and its little, unreachable ventilating windows were custom-made for the unforgiving summer. As the hot air rose, it dissipated through the windows just below the ceilings.

At the very centre of the building was the dining room, equipped with a fireplace. The thick-walled building is cool in summers, the dining room warm in winters. In sharp contrast was a new dining space next to the old forest rest house — a modern construction with low ceilings, flimsy doorways, as hot as any other building in the fury of central Indian heat.

A step in to these old FRH or inspection bungalows — be it Rukkhad in Madhya Pradesh, Pench in Maharashtra, Corbett in Uttarakhand, Northern West Bengal, or IBs in the Himalayas — feels like a step back in time. These are preserved parcels of history, gift-wrapped in memories a natural historian or an aesthete would love. And I am not suggesting these need to remain part of an anachronistic or disused past.

dining-room-rukkhad_070918125845.jpgThe dining space in Rukkhad forest rest house. 

There should be an exciting future for these buildings — a centre for meetings on conservation science, inspections and monitoring, and an abode for modern conservation researchers. Restoration has to be careful and meaningful, and the buildings should be used for what they are meant — a study of the forest.

The melding together of conservation science, architectural history and a dynamic forest is precious. When I think of — and go through — heat and pollution islands in cities, my mind goes back to the thick walls, mosquito-netted four-poster beds, and high ceilings of Karmajhiri.

From the past is a lesson for a climate-adapted future, which no number of modern steel and glass buildings can erase.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here.

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.

IMG-20180528-WA0008_2

This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

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