A poignant perspective - Sakshi Aravind
Perhaps it is difficult to imagine being introduced to conservation and environmental studies through tales of hunting. The apparent paradox is undeniable and stark. Now, think of a four-year-old being told to read narratives of a brave hunter, who battled nasty tigers and leopards preying on vulnerable people. Shouldn’t she be better off reading fairy tales from English countryside where Beanstalks grew heavenwards, and Goldilocks had tea with bears? Well, one would be clearly mistaken if they were to jump at conclusions about what writing about hunting meant and what wealth of material that genre produced, which finally resulted in most of us turning towards loving nature and ecology. While India saw a host of Shikars and Shikaris before wildlife protection became legal and policy concern, much of it was lionized and glamorized as an exclusive indulgence of the rich. The earnestness of belonging to nature, looking at ‘hunting’ as an exception to deal with social crises emerging from human-animal conflicts, and writing about it as a form of art were instances that were few and far between. Much to my good fortune, Kenneth Anderson was one of them, making a worthy next generation to Jim Corbett, and living as a contemporary to lesser-known but equally fascinating hunters like Kedambadi Jattappa Rai.
My fondest memories of childhood are that of reading while sitting down in the verandah of my grandmother’s little house lodged in the heart of Western Ghats. I read anything and everything as there were barely any friends or perhaps, for the lack of willingness to hang out with peers of my own age. I must have just turned four when I first came across Kenneth Anderson’s writings. Unfortunately, they were not his writings in English but translations in Kannada, my native language. But fortunately, in retrospect I have always felt the translations did justice to the original text (the translator, K.P.Poornachandra Tejaswi is one of the foremost writers of Kannada literature) and the narrative of voice in a familiar tongue brought the material closer to heart. After all, I was only a little girl. My first tale, which I later found was selected from The Tiger Roars, was ‘The Lame Horror of Peddacheruvu’. It was followed by the ‘The Demb Man-Eater of Talavadi’ and so on. It did not horrify me at all. There is a decided advantage in growing up amidst nature, away from the cities, even if that meant being denied a competitive edge and mainstream education. I lived in close proximity to wildlife and my parents encouraged me to explore, be in awe, and learn at my own pace. So, the idea of a tiger suddenly emerging in the middle of a jungle track did not scare me. Anderson’s familiar and intimate vocabulary and style of narration encouraged our abilities to perceive life forms around us. Even better, it taught us to understand our surroundings, places, and people.
Strange as it may seem, it took a Scottish hunter to prod us to be perceptive of our highlands, the wilderness, and an innate human sensibility to connect with our environments. A number of his friends, accomplices, and family who make appearance in his tales become part of readers’ world. I curiously followed his friendships with the tribes, the indigenous communities, most obscure and absurd of the village characters. They unpacked a mesmerising world of human relationships and knowledge formation. It would be unfortunate if his work be confined to categories of ‘adventure’ or ‘hunting’, for writing about hunting was never the sole objective of Anderson’s works.
Well, time went by. I grew up reading translations of Anderson and grew to be in absolute awe of him. Eventually, transitioned into reading him in English. To be able to stand face-to-face with the author, hear his words in his own voice was a remarkable experience in itself. In the years that had passed, probably, I imagined him and all the constant characters in his work as ‘too good to be real’. He and his words were close to my heart. But at the same time, I did not ever think of seeing them in actual, non-fictional world, leave alone sitting down and chatting with them. So, it became rather perplexing and strange to realise that Donald lived in the same town as I did and had suddenly surfaced. I had the monumental task of reconciling many things – one of which involved thinking of Anderson’s world as world of literary characters, and hence belonged to readers, and loving them because they belonged to him, and him alone.
Donald makes his appearances in good number of Anderson’s writings. The characterisation is that of a son – young, energetic, reckless, impatient. Quite unlike the father, whose methodical, meditative patience the reader gets used to after few of the initial stories. For me, it was a little more than that. The fork in the narrative seemed one of Anderson’s deliberate strategies – of pitching himself as a normal father while taking a break from storylines that gave us adrenaline rush. The quirks of a child and father keeps us grounded and look for something beyond two hunters. In these stories, I saw two conservationists and nature-lovers growing together. He also had a beautiful tactic of letting the son take over the story and absent himself, because well, it was Donald’s game. The father and the reader were confident that Donald would succeed. He may have missed his target many times, but he never missed to leave an impression on me. What was it to see him now? Should I see him at all? Would that change what I think and perceive of him? What would this son of the father, whom I have admired so much in these years, look like?
Well, I do not think I had much doubt about meeting Donald. He was unwell (and that is how few of us came to know of his presence in Bangalore) and it was certainly not the best of circumstances to inflict myself on him. I was, of course, another reader. A visitor. I would have hated to be a curious invader in what seemed like a fragile life. Every writer or a character, there comes a point in time in all their lives, where they are reduced to subjects of gaze. The gaze of a nonchalant world, not necessarily of their readers. There was always a danger of being fascinated by tales of machismo (well, sure, hunting and jungle adventures had to be a man’s thing! Certainly, one of the tragic conclusions!), seeing a celebrity and little else. I do not quite recall how I managed to get past these hurdles. Finally, I met him. And interviewed him. Those details seem banal to me at this moment. The interview, as well as the photographs, are in the public domain. So many of the preliminary details remain a haze in my mind. I only remember standing before a gentle, portly man who spoke softly and had a hearty laughter. It was indeed the Donald of my realities and not of imagination.
He was sweet to all, even absolute strangers. From our first meeting, it seemed like he loved good company and after a brief while, entertained every one with stories and his mischievous smile. For those of us who have poured over photographs from his youth, we know he was an incredibly handsome man. That charm never left him, frankly! But not for once, could I think of him as a hunter, with guns and instinct that equipped him to negotiate the forest floor. It was an image I seemed to have left behind in the books. I saw an old man, a story teller and writer. A kindling of a new friendship. The poverty of his home and the stark absence of a natural, kind world that was with him for the longest time, was disheartening. But then, he was resilient! Just like the environment he grew up in. The smallest of hopes and joys seem to sustain his life. His present existence nearly seemed like an after-life to an outsider. There were unseen fragments connecting him to his former self. It must have been tiring for him. In the period that followed, I called him. We spoke over the phone a couple of times. Every time, it would be a ‘chat’, the one I would have with any other newly made friend. There was no time to reflect on the past, when he was a character that I approached between the pages of a book and nothing more. He was now a friend, an extension of the family. It was the way I would have wished it to be. Time went by, we kept in touch. He left us in 2014.
Even now, it grieves me to think that I had known him only for such a brief while. When I read of others writing about him, travelling with him, and having known him for so long, I do envy them. An older me would have seen him differently. Perhaps, growing up in his presence would have meant much more. But whatever has passed, and whatever I earned in his presence, it is mine. Indeed, it is precious. I have become a writer of some sort in these years. Most surprisingly, I ended up translating some of Kenneth Anderson’s stories that no one else had attempted to. They still lay on my desk for I do not know what to do with them. They are as good as my time spent with Donald – having cherished them in the process of living through them, I do not know how to formulate them. Now, as I sit in another continent, a quiet Sunday brings me back memories of my childhood. Of sitting down in a run-down armchair and gazing at the green tapestry of mountains that rose beyond. Whenever I had an Anderson tale, and came across Donald’s name, I would look up. I was curious who he was, what did he look like, how did he speak. I never found an answer for a I had met an old man, a friend, who lived and passed like a dream. Like a valley beyond the hills that holds mysteries but never tempts to you with them.