The Joy Of Nature
Underscoring the truth that nature will only be nurtured if ordinary people love, understand and respect it, Bittu Sahgal drums up a smattering of memories of days spent in kinship with wild nature. It is such experiences he believes that we need to expose young India to if we wish them to grow up with a sense of appreciation for the exquisite natural heritage with which the Indian subcontinent is blessed. This vital national objective can be achieved by tourism, provided policymakers enable young Indians to experience nature as they deserve to… the way he did when he fell in love and dedicated his life to nature decades ago.
KANYAKUMARI, TAMIL NADU, NOVEMBER 5, 1999
I peeled away from my friends to stand at the very tip of the Indian peninsula. At my feet were golden sands and ahead of me for as far as the eye could see was a blue, blue sea. There were gulls flying all over, and sandpipers jabbing for crabs on the beach, but for all practical purposes I was the only human on Earth.
What a place! What a feeling! I shut my eyes and imagined diving deep into the ocean to gaze at the wonderland that few humans even know existed below those pure waters. Whale sharks migrating between Kutchh and Australia. Sharks doing what sharks do… swim constantly to pump oxygen through their cartilaginous bodies. Dolphins, sending out whistles that no human can hear, through waters that held fish so plentiful that they have fed and sustained human civilisations for tens of thousands of years.
The sun fell below the horizon much faster than I expected and I found myself taking in lungsful of air, reminding myself to savour every breath in celebration of a life I sometimes pinch myself to believe is more than a fairy tale.
My solo reverie was broken by a hearty laugh from Dr. V.S. Vijayan, standing just 20 paces behind me with Dr. Robert Grubh and the late S.A. Hussain, all three naturalists extraordinaire. The subject of their conversation, not surprisingly, was Dr. Sálim Ali and the twinkle in his eye when he saw a pretty woman! They laughed even louder when I recalled my very first interview, for Indian Express, with ‘The Old Man’, back in his quaint bungalow on Pali Hill, Bombay. “Sir, when did you first get interested in birds,” I nervously asked. And promptly came his reply: “Around the age of puberty, I think!” Seeing the start of consternation on my face, he quickly added, with that characteristic twinkle in his eye: “But I rather think you were asking about the feathered bipeds!”
Such were the people who helped instil and reinforce my joy of nature.
SUNDARBAN TIGER RESERVE, WEST BENGAL, NOVEMBER 22, 1999
A small glass of black tea in hand, Gopal Chandra Tanti and I sat out on the deck of the Project Tiger Patrol Boat at 5 a.m. in the dark of a Sundarban Tiger Reserve pre-dawn morning. Above us Venus and a million stars still shone bright. The sound of a shifting tide slapped gentle waves against our wooden hull, almost commanding me to crawl back into the warmth of the bunk bed below deck. Instead, I pulled a blanket tightly around me and drank in the glisten of the silvery creek waters, seemingly studio-lit by starlight.
Day breaks fast over the wilds. Soon Ring Doves began to announce that it was time for the nocturnally inclined to give way to a different set of tenants. A Black-capped Kingfisher flying overhead chipped in its agreement. Soon a veritable orchestra of birds began to laud the arrival of a brand-new day.
“We are in Gajikhali and we will now leave for Haldi Bari,” muttered Gopal, half to himself. An Assistant Research Officer, he probably knew more about the tiger-swamps than the retinue of officers under whom he had served down the years. But the greatest joy in his life, he casually said to me, was to share his love of the Sundarban with others… exactly the way he did over the three magical days we spent together when we saw saltwater crocs, green pit-vipers, traced tiger pugmarks in slick-chocolate mudbanks and generally did as locals do… allow the tides to guide our life.
I remember the date well. November 22, 1999. Over our third glass of tea, I mentioned to him that 36 years ago, in my final year at Bishop Cotton School, Simla, in 1963, all of us students huddled around a radio in the common room, listening not to the ‘Saturday Date’, but to the sombre voice of the newsreader announcing that John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, had been assassinated. No idea why that popped into my head then. I don’t think Gopal had an idea either! It’s strange how some things stick in your head.
This is the kind of place where life began. This is where my heart beats best.
THE TADOBA TIGER RESERVE, MAHARASHTRA, DECEMBER 27, 2001
It’s just as strange why some seemingly inconsequential wilderness memories never leave you either.
There was nothing dramatic about watching the 19 langurs (I counted them) sitting peaceably by the edge of the blue Tadoba lake. A large dominant male was being groomed by not one, not two, but three fawning females, plus an infant who would occasionally be swatted away by the ‘Pasha of Tadoba’. The sun felt good and there was no sound but that of birds busying themselves turning over dry leaves. Every 30 minutes or so a distant chital alarm call floated over the lake. There was never any rush back then. No timings. No crowds. Nothing but peace, and the gentle swish of breeze through the foliage of the trees under which I sat. The Tadoba Tiger Reserve had not yet been discovered. I think I might have dozed off, with Dr. George Schaller’s The Deer and the Tiger folded over my forehead, because I woke with a start when a little tyke of a langur fell with a soft thud on the forest floor not five metres from me, after plummeting inexpertly down a series of branches that broke his fall. He instantly jumped into his mother’s welcoming arms and began to suckle, more for security than to satiate hunger I remember thinking.
For me, it is such moments that dispense the joy of nature, more than the dramatic stalk, charge and kill that the whole world seems to identify with wildlife experiences. Put another way, when I go to a forest it is not to see a tiger, but to breathe the air that tigers and their co-inhabitants breathe. To sit in silence and watch day break.
I will find a way to help villagers protect this natural heritage without destroying it.
Photo: Aditya Padhye
NAMERI TIGER RESERVE, BALIPARA, ASSAM, DECEMBER 22, 1999
Rafting down the Jiyabharoli river with Ranjit Barthakur, I watch as Whistling Teals and Ruddy Shelducks scour the banks for food. In the distance, a merganser pops out of the water, fish in its serrated beak. Stopping at a Forest Guard hut, we roasted sweet potatoes in the embers of a fire they used to cook their food and drank pure unfiltered glacier water directly from the river. Though I walked for five kilometres by crystal forest pools, open grasslands and canopied forests, I was unable to spot the White-winged Ducks I had my heart set on, but every darter, Grey Heron, snipe, sandpiper, stint and wagtail I saw delivered that soul-satisfying feeling that I was passing by parts of India that represented the best that planet Earth had to offer.
At one point during the walk I kneeled to examine rhino, elephant and tiger spoor all mixed up with who knows which birds’ footprints. Tarrying a while to allow the others in our group to vanish from sight, I shut my eyes and then opened them to vistas where no trace of humans was visible. I do that where I can. It’s one of those idiosyncratic pleasures of my life… to place myself in pristine spaces where I pretend I have slipped through a time warp to a period when Homo sapiens had not yet made their appearance on Earth.
I felt so very lucky to be alive.
SILENT VALLEY, KERALA, DECEMBER 26, 2008
I always wake early in forests. It’s the birds. This time it was a Malabar Whistling Thrush, that I could hear but not see, right outside the window of the wooden hut in which my wife Madhu, Royina and Ayesha Grewal and I spent a very comfortable night. I love to see night turn to day in wild places.
Later in the day, as the rest of the family ate breakfast, I climbed up to the very top of the very tall Sairandhri watchtower to gaze in wonder at the forest that the likes of Dr. Sálim Ali had saved. In the distance, the snapping sound I heard was elephants tearing off branches and bamboo. Try as I might, I could not see hair nor hide of the huge animals, dwarfed as they were by the virgin Silent Valley forests. I was on a pilgrimage in this forest, where every imaginable creature was fascinating. As the day progressed, we trekked down to the dam construction site that had to be abandoned. Watching the forest unload its precious bounty of water into the river I wondered what might have gone through the hearts of those mandated to destroy such utter, utter beauty. Every leaf-littered trail was crawling with life. At a point where a stream entered the river, I waded through its crystal waters, sat and watched butterflies, bees, and hornbills fly over their green canopies. High above me, a Nilgiri langur dropped a blessing of leaves and eaten fruit. A tiny frog would have remained hidden had it not jumped allowing me to catch sight of it from the corner of my eye. The ants were everywhere, so were the leeches. The forest floor is a food factory. Not only does it feed the animals, it also feeds the trees in an ever-lasting cycle of life. For two days I forgot that battles were fought to save this green temple. Instead I chose to celebrate the living Silent Valley.
Silent Valley had been saved.
KAZIRANGA, KOHORA RANGE, ASSAM, FEBRUARY 29, 2011
The early morning drive was cold and I welcomed the stop as I watched a hoary-bellied squirrel sip nectar from the silk cotton blooms that turned Kaziranga flame red in flashes. I was with Dr. Anish Andheria and we had no agenda, no game plan. All we wanted was the serenity and silence that urban life so effectively denies us. We stopped at a large beel (lake) and climbed a watchtower where we stood in silence. I drank-in Kaziranga… inhaled Kaziranga! I was refuelling my purpose in a forest I had come to love dearly over the decades. Through my binoculars I saw a rhino stand stock still, ears swivelling like two antennae. Somewhere a lark called and as if in response, two Rose-breasted Parakeets flew overhead in close formation, screeching their authority over the airwaves. A sounder of wild pigs came to drink. And an elephant emerged from the tall grass. Then another. And another. I watched life play itself out before me, mesmerised by the sight of a calf, not more than six months old, positioned protectively between two cows. A group of tourists now entered the machaan and almost instantly one of the drivers walked straight into the tall grass to relieve himself. I yelled at him from above: “The tiger will bite it off and feed it to her cubs!”
The man hurried back to his car and, literally three minutes later, I looked down to see a tiger sitting not 10 m. from the man who I had warned away. Thinking quick, Anish ran down the steps to get a shot of the tiger from a lower level, as the cat nonchalantly walked 30 m., crossed the mud track and headed for where the elephants were feeding. The huge beasts had no clue the tiger was there. No trumpeting, no tension. The cat, rhino and elephants must have learned to deal with each other in such proximity down the centuries. The sighting lasted 15 minutes.
I will remember it to the day I die.
Photo: Anish Andheria
RANTHAMBHORE, JANUARY 1992
Bakola. Sunset. The sky darkens and partridges begin calling. Louder than one might expect, a Redwattled Lapwing breaks into a flurry of shrill right next to the tyre of our vehicle! Startled, Fateh Singh Rathore mutters unprintable abuse under his breath. That was when we heard the calls that defined the forest. It started as a low moan, rose in volume and timber and then the was filled with full-throated resonance of a tiger on patrol. Aaaaoon!
We waited in silence for the forest to tell us more. Minutes passed. Darkness seemed to descend in slow motion as we waited, cold, but very still, for the next call, or a response from another tiger. Nothing. Just that one, powerful sign of pure dominance. We sat there for another 45 minutes listening to a veritable orchestra of calls floating across the forest that I had come to know and love as home. Night jars, an Indian Eagle Owl, more partridges, more lapwings and uncounted whistles and clicks that I could not for the life of me identify.
As we drove off, a blacknaped hare jump-danced its way ahead of my vehicle and the dark shape of a civet slunk away as it claimed the forest from the creatures of the day. As the engine of our vehicle, that should have been retired years ago, strained to negotiate the steep climb out of Bakola, we heard a sambar’s belling call.
I hope the tigers feed well tonight, I said to myself.
DACHIGAM, KASHMIR, MAY 1985
I lay on my belly on a potholed tar road at 5.45 in the morning. Qasim Wani sat in a huddle next to me. Silence but for early bird songs. Happy. After having spent the night on farmlands outside the park, the Himalayan black bear mother came down to the potholed tar road leading to Drapahama, from a verge on the left. I shot off two or three fuzzy frames. The black bear seemed unconcerned. The two cubs followed a couple of minutes later, nuzzled their mother and promptly began playing bear-cub games. Their mother meanwhile climbed back up the verge, only to return moments later with a mouthful of mulberries that the cubs jostled to grab. She made close to six to seven trips before the family ambled away to vanish into the gloom of the oak and walnut forest thriving on both sides of the icy cold Dagwan river.
I will protect their forest when you are gone, I said in silence to the mother bear.
Photo: Sheikh Raja Aamir/SWPA 2016
Author: Bittu Sahgal First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 10, October 2018.