A Childhood of Forested Memories - Naren Damodaran
Ever since I can remember, I've been drawn to the forests surrounding my home in Bangalore. Looking back, I think the grandeur of this escape from a confused childhood came from the tales my grandfather, who was a doctor, reeled off of the forests and his friends' skirmishes with a variety of wildlife, including a romantic memory of my grandparents spending a night on the road under a tree and waking up to finding a cobra's shed skin covering their feet. Being a doctor in Bangalore in the 1960's through the 1990's meant you had your fair share of wildlife case calls. For a young child, a drive to the outskirts almost always resulted in sighting some wildlife and the fact that we often traveled long distances in battered old cars meant frequent stops in thickly forested areas. Not only that, but a good number of my relatives hunted in the forests around Shivasamudram (Shimsha) and to date, our ancestral abode is decorated with many a trophy. Circumstances of how the animals were shot remain dubious but the dark, brooding heads of deer and bison staring down at a young boy in a tube lit wood panelled room were all it took to instil in me a need to walk with these fascinating creatures.
Little did I know that a few years down the line, my grandparents would take me on a trip to Delhi and on our return, we stopped off at the very centre of India, Nagpur, where we would purchase a book, that changed my life forever. That book is James Corbett's legendary 'Man-Eaters of Kumaon'. When we got home, I raided our rather extensive library, and lo and behold, a time ravaged gem lay in a grave of cobwebs, none other than James Patterson's 'The Man Eaters of Tsavo'. I still have that book, although holding it in any form is a feat best performed by an acrobat.
Closer home, in the late 1990's, in one of my English text books, nestled a story of Bruno, Kenneth Anderson's black pet bear. One particular line about the grass in and around the Mysore area caught my attention as I had seen this on one of our numerous journeys and the vision was very real to my excited mind. When I had read it, and re-read it, and re-read it again, making it seem like English was my only exam, I decided to find out more about this gentleman. And then, came the flood.
My initial research didn't yield too many results other than the already known - that KA used to work at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited factory and lived on a prominent road in central Bangalore. In fact, my paternal grand-uncle was rumoured to have known him but due to the passing of this eccentric individual before I could make coherent sense of what I was looking for, this fact remains a mystery. A little more excited now that a possible family connection existed, I started to look at the forests we often drove through with a conviction that might have turned even the most skeptical of conservationists. Added to this was a very vivid description of a leopard jumping across the car my uncle and father were in, laying their wits to waste. They showed me this very spot many a time, it's on the road from Bangalore to Chittoor, the event having taken place in the late 1970's.
In high school, another treasure was in store, my final year's English text had an excerpt from Jim Corbett's story, 'The Thak Man-Eater', and I made my sole contribution in a decade of school life - informing the class that it was Corbett's habit or superstition to kill a king cobra before he followed up any man-eater. The class might have thought I was mad.
Armed with all of this rather impressive information, I fancied myself an Indian Jones, pardon the pun. I embarked on a series of treks, rather boldly to places in and around the city of Bangalore, and was once rewarded with the sight of a bear and cub, although a fellow trekker destroyed any sanctity the scene had by answering the call of nature right then and there. One more point made, if I had to trek, it had to be alone. Or with like minds.
Just out of high school, I was presented with a distressed looking yellowed copy of the Black Panther of Sivanapalli, by a college friend, whose father had some distant connection with the forests. Once again owing the passing of that individual, nothing further came of the connection. And there was born, my love for KA. Not because his stories needed to be real, but because they embodied the songs of the forests, bleeding the pain of destroyed habitats and most importantly, they taught me about the forest and it's nuances. Pretty soon I was traveling a fair bit across the forests that surrounded Bangalore reliving what it must've been like for the Anderson's and others of their ilk, to live a life of relative recluse in the joy of the wilderness. Many visits to the deeper jungles in the Nilgiris yielded a clearer understanding of what being truly in the wild meant, both spiritually and physically. A tiger's roar in a valley is deafening if not blood stilling, yet the most serene sound you can hope to hear.
Once I was armed with KA's treasure trove of books, I explored almost every region that he referred to, with the exception of the Hyderabad / Andhra Pradesh area. It's hard coming to terms with the roar of bulldozers and not big cats in most of these locations but at least there was a tangible thread to the fantasy in my head. Trip after trip, relishing the bravery (or foolishness!) of the white hunter in the dense black tropical night, on what can only be described as a suicidal mission, played itself out a hundred times over and often I could recite portions from KA's books verbatim.
Many a time I'd visit people in the far corners of the jungles who would have some mighty adventurous tale of the forests and its animals and sobering stories from men who worked in the forest departments. It became clear that the glory days were over. The fight of the forests is moving from the mind to the hand, and India, is quickly losing her most cherished treasure.
Man eaters or not, the denizens of the forests described in KA's books, each were of a character and disposition that could be felt in the veins. Strange meetings with strangely behaved animals only reinforced my thought that each was his or her own being. An elephant on one such jaunt into a forest made my life rather dangerously comical and while I was busy trying to extract my hand from the gear shift, my companion offered the opinion that she honestly did not know if she had the right insurance for her car. On another such drive, an elephant launched itself into a run just outside my range of vision but straight onto the path of my car, but so startled were the both of us that we both turned tail and fled, thankfully in opposite directions. Smaller animals such as a wild boar were best avoided while some heralded good beginnings, such as the chance sighting of a jackal leading to a particularly remarkable day of wildlife watching, with a wild dog pack hunting down a deer right in front of my eyes.
Each story demanded complete attention to detail and over time, a stiffer variety of drink. What I have learnt from his books about the jungle cannot be replaced by any documentary or training sessions. Life is out there.
If one looked, and read carefully, there were a few lessons in life and spirituality as well, to piggy back on folklore and legends. Tales woven beautifully around the local culture at the time perhaps, or more, rather well written snippets to make you huddle closer to the fire as the pages turned.
The beauty of a country that has been ravaged by the need to self destruct is forever etched in those wonderful books, almost like a memory stamp on a dying mind.
There was magic in the world of the Anderson's, even if figuratively and through the touch of a book. When you feel those pages under your fingertips, you reach out into a Lost World. For a few hours, you are the last white hunter, you are the predator's prey, you are the flame of the forest while your mind wanders endlessly, as it always should, playing hide and seek in the tapestry of the forests. If not for these books, I would've been one more kid drowned in television's never ending web of deceit.