Meet Sunjoy Monga
April 2006: He was born in Masjid Bunder, one of Mumbai’s most congested localities adjacent to the docks and his earliest involvement with birds was to imitate the gutur... goo calls of pigeons, much to the delight of his family. A myriad rodents that thrived in the grain godowns of the area fascinated him just as much… ‘wildlife’ came to him very early in life! Today, he is joined at the hip with his cameras that he has fashioned into conservation tools. Here, he speaks with Bittu Sahgal of his passion for nature, his mission to protect it and his unbridled love for the distant wildernesses he frequents.
Let’s start with a predictable question Sunjoy, how did it all begin?
May I give you an equally predictable answer? My parents, especially my father, an Economics Professor, helped usher me into the world of nature. When I was just five, my father moved the family to a larger house, far from the maddening crowd, in the-then far flung northwestern suburb of Kandivli. Our home is probably the oldest apartment there today and I recall living right next to dense groves and paddy fields... complete with the exquisite little Poinsur river barely 250 m. away. It was a picture-postcard setting that was the foundation of my love affair with nature.
And when were you really baptised into wildlife as we know it?
I can actually remember the year. It was the monsoon of 1968. My father and an uncle took me to the forest in Borivli, beyond the hills I could see from home. In this dense, wet and wild forest, with gushing streams everywhere, I saw my first wild peafowl dancing.... and a snake that had me scampering frantically away from the stream. I was hooked! That forest became my life, my university of nature, my soul. It is now called the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).
And who was your natural history guru?
An old man with a long nose who I stumbled on to some years after my first trip to the National Park. He looked for all the world like Albert Einstein. His name was Humayun Abdulali. He was not your average, do-gooding naturalist. He was incredibly sharp-eyed and even more-sharp tongued. I was instantly mesmerised by him and would seek him out to ‘nature watch’ in the Park and around Mumbai. My purest love for nature came from this dare devil of a man who thought nothing of entering the Park at any time, day or night. Some of him has rubbed indelibly on to me and how lucky I am for that. To the day he died, my most satisfying moments were spent with him on scores of field visits... drinking his endless supply of tea from that bottomless thermos. I wonder who has that thermos? I wish it were mine. They just don’t make people like Humayun anymore...
They don’t. Though I guess the ultimate credit for the motivation of any naturalist would go to the wild species we live to be with and defend.
That too is true. I remember one particular incident around 1971 at Baroda, where I was visiting an aunt during summer vacations. I was wandering the semi-wild outskirts of her home when I heard a loud shrieking, followed by a gentle peck on my (then flowing with hair) head. “Tituri,” a Gujju boy with me exclaimed and I wondered why the bird had attacked me. I got my answer moments later when I discovered my first ever wild ground-nesting bird’s nest... it was a Red-wattled Lapwing with two eggs and one tiny, just-hatched chick, lying flat and motionless on the ground, probably in response to its parent’s alarm calls.
I recall other unforgettable moments with you too Sunjoy, up in the Himalaya on a trek in upper Dachigam, where we watched a wild black bear with her cubs.
And the skink we brought down from Sangargulu that delivered its young in a film container. And the tadpoles we brought back for J.C. Daniel to identify, which we collected at Marsar at a height of 3,650 m. What carefree days those were, when we were able to enjoy nature without being burdened with the responsibility of protecting it round the clock.
We were kids then Sunjoy and the big boys were in charge.
That’s right. Though he is no more, I remember Humayun inviting me to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to meet him and Dr. Sálim Ali and can still see his wry, indulgent smile when I announced confidently to him and J.S. Serrao that I was going to write a book on birds. He sat me down in his office and spoke to me for a long time, then asked where I lived and dropped me off near Bandra, driving his dark grey jeep himself. Patience and persistence were the building blocks of their natural history knowledge. Humayun was a loner and he and I would spend hours watching larks in the grasslands around Charkop near Kandivli. On one such trip when Dr. Sálim Ali accompanied us, they said they had never before seen so many lark nests together. Little moments like that shaped who I am today.
Have you ever felt threatened in the wilds?
Never. Not once from any wild animal, even when confronted by elephants while filming for Sanctuary in Bandipur, or a tigress on my jeep bonnet in Ranthambhore. People place themselves at risk when they try to show off their snake-catching skills, or when young people try to impress each other. They actually endanger themselves and others and present a totally warped image of nature to the world at large.
Let’s change tracks a bit. The BNHS means a lot to you, doesn’t it?
How could it not? It was a breeding ground for naturalists like me and others like Rishad Naoroji, who I began to work with in the late 1970s when he took me to meet K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji. Rishad invited me to go birding with Dharma Bappa at Vikhroli and for the first time I learned about the different sub-adult phases in raptors. Dharmakumarsinhji’s Birds of Saurashtra, is still one of my most prized possessions. I hope that budding naturalists appreciate their good fortune to have an institution such as this in their lives.
How come your parents never pressured you to become an engineer, or a doctor…?
My dad bought me an expensive pair of binoculars though I knew he could hardly afford it on his teacher’s salary. He then went on to gift me a Rolliflex box camera. What can I say? I was very, very lucky to have the parents I did and today my life is dedicated to the idea of introducing as many kids as possible to nature, as my own parents did.
You are one of India‘s finest nature photographers now, Sunjoy. Who taught you?
No one. I never bought a book either. I learned the hard way by wasting film and studying the results of my failures. In the late-1970s, my Dad, bless him, bought me a brand new Olympus camera that I took on a trip to Simla. One image of mine of snow-clad Himachal made it to the cover of a 5-Star hotel magazine. They spelled my name wrong – Mongia – and I had to open a bank account to deposit the cheque they gave me, but that was my trigger. And my good friend Rishad Naoroji was quite an inspiration for me. I once actually asked Rishad, which flash should I use to photograph the moon? He laughed out loud, and corrected my naive misconceptions. He was totally fixated on nesting raptors and I accompanied him for years without taking pictures myself. Eventually, habitats, landscapes, insects and even the people drew me into the serious world of photo-documentation.
And then there were wildlife films.
Yes. Life has been in waves... and one big wave came in when I met you in the early 1980s. You had written to Rishad when I was with him in Rajpipla, Gujarat and my name actually appeared in the inaugural issue of Sanctuary. We made a good team, you and I, and my joining Sanctuary was an automatic life choice. Sanctuary’s two television serials, ‘Project Tiger’ and ‘Rakshak’ were my stepping stones to cinematography. I cannot understand how you trusted us youngsters with those fantastically expensive 16 mm. Arriflex cameras. All of us were experimenting, including you, but I think we did well by ourselves and by nature conservation.
Good lord, yes! We did well, particularly since Doordarshan was our only (dictatorial) channel. But you went on to greater heights.
Sir David Attenborough came into my life with the BBC’s ‘Trials of Life’. I loved their approach and have made their strategy a part of my own life. They would work scripts down to the last detail. They chose not to wag fingers or sermonise. They focussed on pure nature, the joy of unprejudiced nature. The visuals, the content, the secrets of nature they brought alive were the finest education for ordinary viewers and hard core environmentalists.
I saw you belly-down in the effluents and muck of Sewri the other day, film camera in hand.
Aah! Those flamingos. My eyes were only on the birds. The chemical smell of Sewri escaped me completely. Quite honestly, I feel the flamingos have come to teach us self-absorbed Mumbai citizens a lesson. Those sexy, long-legged beauties are here to open our eyes to the grace and power of nature. How can they survive the pollution we throw at them, I wonder! Along with a colleague, I am trying to document this incredible avian phenomenon in an attempt to merge environmental concerns and corporate and developmental demands to the advantage of everyone who lives in Mumbai.
But these birds are to be stamped on by a bridge to connect the mainland with Nhava Sheva.
Bittu, this is what they want to do. Let’s see whether the citizens of Mumbai and the rest of India and the world for that matter will let them. I think some people will be going to court to stop them. But in the meanwhile, I am going to use the power of positive persuasion to win influential friends for these beautiful birds. Most of us are quite shell shocked with the sheer rapidity of the developmental demands and destruction planned for India. But we will fight back, each in our own different way.
How do you cope with this myopic destruction of what you love?
It hurts. But each time I drink a cuppa cha, I know that I too am part of the destructive force. So I do not judge others. Instead, I hope to play my role in convincing others of the value of that which I love. A serious problem does confront us. Despite the increased research, the greater awareness, the many articles and films in the media, the scenario gets more and more bleak. The other way I cope is by escaping into our city forest. The SGNP literally saved me from a fate worse than death. Had this Park not taken over my life, I might have been sitting in some office, or driving a cab or something. In here, I am able to experience nature in an unhurried, leisurely manner through solo walks or perhaps a friend or two. Just working to convey its worth to the city of Mumbai keeps cynicism and depression at bay.
Are we losing the battle?
It is not lost, but we are losing it. And that is because the conservation movement remains, as always, scattered in the way we think, in the way we work and in the way we attack each other rather than the people who are doing the greatest damage. Unless we can find a way to unite and fight those who refuse to share our world view, we will be letting down the turtles, the wild ass, the lion and the tiger. The ones seeking to profit from mines and dams and commercial projects are not fools. They can see us bickering and they are taking advantage.
So how do we move forward? What do we tell the children who look at us for solutions and guidance?
I think Sanctuary and Cub magazines have got it right as has your tiger programme, Kids for Tigers. Let’s just tell children the truth, without depressing them, or burdening them with too much responsibility. I work with children and know them to be far more exposed to nature and environmental issues than adults can imagine. I do not consider it my task to ‘teach’ them. Instead, I merely share nature’s hidden secrets with them and often wind up learning more from such interactions. I have a four-year-old daughter, Yuhina – she is my instructor on how to handle kids. I just let her be. If she wants to dig into the muck and the earth, so be it... I suggest she not keep the tap running, not litter... and she listens. She even cajoles others to do the same.
I wish our generation had such inputs when we were young.
Bittu, we had nothing. Not one suggestion to save a single species or habitat, though the destruction was in full progress with Nehru’s industrial revolution. But why dwell on that? We should be grateful that young people are responding to us now. They could be the cement to unite the conservation movement. And if you stop to think of how lucky we are in Mumbai to be blessed with such a rich natural diversity in the heart of an urban setting, you will see that all the tools we need to win public support are with us. Humans can be inspired to work to protect flamingos, leopards, birds... Helping this process along are the kites and the occasional falcon that swoop between the skyscrapers of Nariman Point even as boardroom battles unfold. If we can get enough people interested in the scores of butterfly species that rub shoulders with socialites and slumdwellers in our city, we may still find a way to unite our splintered conservation movement.
Unite the conservation movement? That sounds like trying to herd cats on a pavement.
We have no choice. The problem is that tiny issues, much smaller than the serious battles we are dealing with, cause us to fight against each other. Each of us believes that what we are doing is more important than the other and we therefore stop working as a team.
Will we learn any lessons from the Mithi river disaster of July 26, 2005?
A generation of insensitivity, official apathy and political shenanigans, plus an intelligentsia that believes that going to see a movie is more important than standing in a queue to vote, does leaves one cynical. Yet, some lessons might be learned, because ordinary citizens have seen the consequence of leaving life-and-death decisions to uncaring people. If this happens, we will probably also see citizen’s actions working to solve threats to the flamingos and ushering in solutions to the escalating human-leopard problem in our National Park and the silent crow deaths that have hardly been noticed.
Is corporate India helping or harming?
Corporates are vital to tomorrow’s solutions. Those who love to bash corporates would themselves not survive a single day without using their products, or being financed by them. Take Sanctuary magazine itself. Without advertising support would the magazine be able to survive? Yet, you would surely not certify the ‘greenness’ of your advertisers in totality. That points to how we should deal with corporates who take a toll of our environment, just like each one of us does. Working with them, changing them, even fighting them when they refuse to listen is the way forward. Each of us must follow our own inner voice, while respecting the right of others to follow theirs.
You have just been elected to the BNHS Executive Committee. Will you be supporting conservation issues, for instance the recent battle to protect the Jerdon’s Courser?
In the BNHS, one of India’s most august institutions, we have a sleeping giant. Its potential to protect wild India is greater than any other institution I can think of and that includes Sanctuary, you yourself, the Wildlife Institute of India, WWF-India and a host of newer organisations. The BNHS is destined to spearhead a new ecological chapter in India’s history. I call it a chapter, not a battle. The Society’s research foundation, its past track record, the goodwill and sheer respect it commands and its enormous member base will need to be welded into one strand to combine science, foresight and popular appeal. If we fail, the developmental juggernaut will consume us all.
Is all this god’s will?
Are you asking me whether I believe in a supernatural power? Yes, I do. The sun, the woods, the sea... the crow and the lizard are part of the power in which I believe that some call the force of Lord Shiva. You can call nature, god; call it what you may... but without this higher power of nature, we are meaningless and will cease to exist. This is the power I worship. Protecting nature is the only worship I know.
If you had a magic wand to usher in conservation change, what three heads would be highest on your agenda?
1. The Green Lobby: I would bring it together on one pragmatic platform.
2. Children: I would change adult attitudes to children and ensure that real environmental and nature education is imparted.
3. Misplaced Activism: I would replace sentimental knee-jerk reactions to problems with rationality-based conservation action.