T.R.Shankar Raman’s The Wild Heart of India
— By Manoj V. Nair, IFS
‘The Wild Heart of India’ is a compilation of essays by conservation biologist T.R.Shankar Raman aka Sridhar written over a period spanning a quarter-century. As the sub-title indicates, the pieces are centered around the cross-cutting theme of nature and conservation in the city, the country and the wild. Aimed at dispelling the notion that ‘Nature’ is something out there far removed from our daily lives, the author gently hand-holds the reader into realizing that it is in fact, all-pervasive, shrouding us all in her embrace and beckoning us – to see, understand, celebrate and conserve. He weaves a fascinating tapestry of wild India and her landscapes, both rural and urban, etching scientifically accurate yet immensely readable natural history vignettes on a number of India’s wildlife ranging from hoolocks to hornbills, eking out a perilous living in fast-disappearing wild landscapes and seascapes across India, from the evergreen forests of Namdapha to the tropical islands of the Nicobar.
Right from the prologue, where he recounts stumbling upon and being understandably embarrassed by the juvenilia of his school-days essay, to the epilogue in which he outlines the contours of his life till date, it is an intensely personal journey that the chapters portray, some of which are co-authored by his spouse and partner, Divya Mudappa. The narrative organized into three sections – Field Days, Conservation and Reflections – mirror the stages of the author’s evolution across years. From being an young naturalist marveling at the myriad manifestations of Nature to a passionate wildlife biologist grappling with the mindless destruction that he witnesses to the reflective conservationist who realizes the deep interconnectedness of the web of life and who strives to pass on some of his insights to a wider constituency, Sridhar traces out the trajectory of his Weltanschauung with refreshing candour. His formal training as a wildlife biologist brings a rare scientific exactitude and clarity which shines through in several of the essays where he attempts, and succeeds, in demystifying abstruse ecological concepts to the layman. The constant attention to detail is also evident in the meticulous notes, detailed referencing and comprehensive cross-indexing of scientific and common names.
To find faults in such a book, either in facts, treatment or language would be an exercise in pedantic nit-picking, not that there was any; the writing was lyrical and imbued with sensitivity and compassion which to some (specially to those used to ‘dry as dust’ writing), may seem to border on maudlin sentimentality. To me, a naturalist since a young boy, it was just wonderfully luminous prose which resonated deeply within. If I were to cherry-pick one essay from each section, it would have to be ‘Bird by Bird in the Rainforest’, a wickedly funny account of the travails of rain-forest birding, ‘Bamboozled by Land-use Policy’, a nuanced critique of land-use in Mizoram and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, a totally out-of-the-box take on his close run-ins with a mammal, reptile and bird, in that order, while being out in the field. I must make a special mention of the piece ‘Musician of the Monsoon’ where he rhapsodizes on the dulcet song of the Malabar whistling-thrush. ‘Mystical whistles float out of the depths of the dark rainforest, through mercurial mist and morning air’ and prompts the author to etch a character sketch of the bird, a piece which would have done an M.Krishnan proud, any day.
The delicate illustrations by Sartaj Ghuman adorning the pages are aesthetic to a fault and the overall production quality of the book deserves special mention. In these days when Kindle and kindred gadgets rule the roost, the textured feel of the hard-bound copy I reviewed was an absolute delight to hold and behold, something which readers of the e-book version are sure to miss.
Nature writing, in India, has always remained a sadly depleted genre, much like a stunted treeling muted in the murky gloom of the rainforest floor. Unlike the West, where a long series of stalwart naturalist-writers had inspired several more of their ilk in course of time, in our motherland, the seed-shadow cast by giant mother-trees such as EHA and M.Krishnan, have failed to sprout a similar lot, and the wait, I confess, has been long. However, once in a long while, out of that dreary interlude bursts out a tree, steering clear of the dank undergrowth, and stands high, dwarfing others around it. This carefully written, many-layered and beautiful book which deserves thoughtful and involved reading, is like that solitary tree – much like a towering dipterocarp emerging through the canopy, this work stands tall against the firmament of recent Indian nature writing. It is an absolutely delectable read for anyone with even a passing interest in nature and her conservation, not to mention a taste for good literature and the world of ideas. Do read it – to rediscover the wild heart of India, pulsating steadily and empathetically, right within each one of you.
‘The Wild Heart of India’, is a delectable collection of essays by wildlife biologist T.R.Shankar Raman. In it, he weaves a wonderful tapestry of wild India and her landscapes, both rural and urban, etching scientifically accurate yet immensely readable natural history vignettes on a number of India’s wildlife ranging from hoolocks to hornbills. He muses pensively about the changes wreaking destruction on their habitats and reflects deeply about our place and role in Nature and signs off with a thought-provoking piece titled ‘Sentience for Conservation’ where he builds a strong case arguing that the foundations of a conservation ethic must be built on human sentience, tempered by empathy. A must-read, for anyone, with even a passing interest in nature, wildlife, philosophy and good literature.
Manoj Nair in his own words —