August 2010: When city claustrophobia closes in, and an escape to one or another natural wonderlands is not written into my fate, I turn to my friends, the thinkers and poets who give voice to my deepest contemplations. Tennyson’s Brook: “For men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.”
Or Longfellow’s: “A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books,” are not scrapings of poetry… they are companions, advisors… life savers in tempestuous times. Such minds have influenced me no less than those I was blessed to meet and whose absorption with nature impacted my life.
As I write, the rain pours down dark and hard outside my study. But not as dark as my thoughts. Somewhere, someone in India will die today because a foolish planner insisted on doing Indians a favour by destroying his or her natural protection against floods – grasslands, wetlands and forests.
Just listen to me! Have I already reached that age when yesterday’s conversations have more meaning than the hollowness that is human ambition today? Probably. Is this why I search for less tired minds, faster legs and stronger shoulders to carry the green baton forward?
This used to be Dr. Sálim Ali’s constant refrain during conversation after conversation I had with him at the Bombay Natural History Society. “Write. Write. The more you write, the more you will read,” he once whispered to me in the BNHS library where I had gone in search of nuggets of information on the lions of Gir. “But really your best bet is to sit with K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji.” I did as he advised and for years, my horizons were widened by conversations with Dharma Bappa (Sixty Indian Birds), who probably did more to shepherd the return of the Gir lion between 1960 and 1980 than anyone alive.
Conversations! In my dream world I continue to converse with Kailash Sankhala. When he was alive and my home was his, his real-life forest tales were more exciting than the wildest of Jim Corbett’s. And then there was S.P. Shahi. What can I possibly say about S.P. Shahi? I bought his book Backs to the Wall before I met him and in the course of hours of conversation in my Mumbai home his most angst-filled questions would be: “Why are humans so heartless? Why are they so determined to kill wolves that would do us no harm if only we left them a little space to live?”
Humayun Abdulali, M. Krishnan, S. Deb Roy, Nora Kreher, Edward Goldsmith, Qasim Wani, ‘Papa’ John Wakefield. All gone. But all their conversations dangle alive and well in my head. How I wish I could say the same for the wild animals they lived to protect, such as this lion, photographed by Dr. Anish Andheria in Gir, where Panthera leo persica has run out of both time and space and where Longfellow’s words continue to hit the right chord.
Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia Vol XXX No. 4, August 2010