“It is a wry reflection on human nature that while we tend to remember those who force themselves onto our consciousness, we remember the quiet ones, their auras woven tightly around their persona, only when occasions move in particular directions. And Kekoo Naoroji, keen environmentalist, lover of the outdoors, President of the Himalayan Club 1986-1992, was definitely one such individual.”
Men pass, but mountains live on, they say, in the imperceptible but ever-changing rhythm of nature. And those whose joy it is to observe this ongoing dance tend to be quieter people. It is a wry reflection on human nature that while we tend to remember those who force themselves onto our consciousness, we remember the quiet ones, their auras woven tightly around their persona, only when occasions move in particular directions. And Kekoo Naoroji, keen environmentalist, lover of the outdoors, President of the Himalayan Club 1986-1992, was definitely one such individual. Possessed of deep wellsprings of character and inner strength, he beautifully reflected the unchanging nature of the mountains that he loved. It gives me great pleasure to recall his outstanding values, with the respect they so richly deserve.
Rishad, his only son and keen environmentalist himself – who has spent much of the last 20 years closely observing the ways of raptors around the country – remembers with great pleasure how his father would read to him while he was yet a toddler, recounting Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers and leopards from the Kumaon hills . These were times that Rishad eagerly looked forward to each day, setting alight a tiny flame that was to catch fire years later!
Kekoo schooled in Karachi, where he was born on September 5, 1915, and completed his studies with a B.Sc. in Economics at University College, London. Always the quiet one, he was nevertheless a keen sportsman, being awarded full colours in swimming and badminton for his college in England. He was also a serious aficionado of Western Classical music, having played the violin himself from a young age, and organising and playing in a string quartet that played around the college at lunchtimes!
Back in India he joined ICI, in the Dyes Division, which already enjoyed its own home-grown tradition of trekking and appreciating the environment of the mountains. Kekoo began trekking the Himalaya in 1944, in Kashmir. This was the start of an association that would provide him friends, skills and pleasure for the rest of his life.
In Bombay, he met and courted Dosa, only daughter of Pirojsha Godrej and they were wed in 1947. She was a very active, high-spirited young lady who rode horses and even motorcycles! During World War II, she drove ambulances for the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, hand-cranking the vehicles herself of a cold morning. She was quite a match for the quiet Kekoo, and they were very happy together. Their only son Rishad was born in 1951.
In 1950, Kekoo trekked again, this time through Kulu to the Lahaul Valley and beyond. An amateur photographer, he was honing his skills impressively on this front also. His treks were also developing a very mature interest in conservation and forest protection and he was ahead of his time in foreseeing the damage that was to occur in the decades ahead. Kekoo realised the importance of conservation in the 1950s, a time when no one ever talked about the subject in India. His 11-week trek in 1952 to central Garhwal and a trek to Sikkim in 1958 were highlighted in his book Himalayan Vignettes, released years later at a special function in Bombay at the hands of the President of the World Mountaineering Federation. The book captures some of these understandings, besides being a very moving diary of his feelings for his wife and son.
Suman Dubey, journalist and mountaineer, pointed out that not only did Kekoo travel “only in the company of porters and sherpas”, his journeys took him “into the lap of some of the world’s greatest and most beautiful mountains, and he managed to climb quite high, reaching almost 6,000 m. just below Nepal Gap”.
On the other hand, eminent mountaineer Stephen Venables, current President of the Alpine Club, was particularly impressed by the photographs in the book, describing them as magnificent. “The mountains are the stars and they are revealed in their best light, carefully framed and composed, with a sense of shape, form and texture”. Thinking they were taken with large-format cameras, Venables was astonished to learn that Kekoo had used two 35 mm. cameras – a Kodak Retina with a F3.5 Compur-Rapid lens and a Leica.
The solo treks tested Kekoo’s inner reserves of character as he coped alone with his sherpas and staff in an area that was completely unpopulated at the time. His skill at getting along with the local people, his companions and coping with the high altitudes spoke volumes for his fortitude. These reserves were to be tested to the fullest a little later in life, when the tentacles of Alzheimer’s disease started fastening themselves around Dosa, his beloved wife. Kekoo continued to present a consistent face to the world, calm and collected, a shy smile hovering around his face.
In his gentle way, Kekoo took great efforts to instill in his young son a respect for nature, for the environment and for the complex ways in which man interacts with them. He taught him to enjoy the outdoors and especially its flora and fauna. Before Rishad was 13, the family had already spent quality time in the forests of Periyar, Gir, Mudumalai-Bandipur and Corbett. Rishad clearly dates his severe case o ‘raptor-holism’ to time spent in Ranikhet viewing nests.His coming-of-age gift from his father was a Life Membership to the Bombay Natural History Society! Rarely could a parent’s directional guidance or inspiration be clearer.
Over the years, Kekoo continued to keep abreast of the latest trends in conservation, interspersing his business trips to Africa with visits to the national parks of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. He also continued to stimulate Rishad’s reading through an eclectic range of books from Jacques Yves Cousteau and Jane Goodall to Diane Fossey and Rachel Carson. When Rishad was focusing on creating the Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary in the Rajpipla forests, it was Kekoo who supported and strengthened his resolve to persevere in what seemed the most uphill of tasks. Eventually, 175 sq. km. of forest was notifiedas a sanctuary, a salute to the efforts of all those involved.
Kekoo used his television only to watch channels like National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet, aside from the Grand Slam tennis events, when his social life would suddenly grind to a halt!
He passed away quietly on December 17, 2003, after a long period of ill-health. Suffice it to say that he never complained – except when he was finally forced to give up first his pipe and then his beloved glass of whisky in the evenings!
He was a gem of a person and we will long remember him. After his passing, Rishad and his friends placed his ashes in the Great Outdoors he so loved – at different locations along the Himalaya from Ladakh to Arunachal. And, at 11.30 a.m. on May 19, 2004, another friend from the Himalayan Club, Commander Satyabrata Dam (leader of the victorious Indian Navy Expedition) placed some of his ashes atop Mount Everest.
While in life he reached only as far as he considered correct and appropriate – in death he fittingly flutters high above us all!
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXIV. No. 4. August 2004.