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Updated: September 17, 2013 00:45 IST

A slave of its heritage

Baljit Singh
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JUNGLE ODYSSEY: A Soldier’s Memoirs
Ashok Kalyan Verma
JUNGLE ODYSSEY: A Soldier’s Memoirs Ashok Kalyan Verma

The Indian Army is unable to shed tradition-driven outdoors pursuits

The Indian Army has been a slave of its heritage of some 250 years, and at the same time, a creature of habit. While its heritage, pegged chiefly and implicitly around valour, governs its conduct on the battle field, during non-combat periods its officer cadre have been driven by the strongly embedded habit of relaxation and leisure through tradition-driven out-doors pursuits, prominent being hunting which we understand better as “shikar”.

The periods on combat duty were infrequent but the pull of shikar was omnipresent, and became almost an obsession with many officers. It is therefore not surprising that once when the Indian Army had suffered debilitating casualties during WW I, War Office in London chose to play the “shikar” card, to attract volunteers from among the pick of its own serving officers, through a circular emphasising that “Apart from soldiering, India offers attractions in the way of games and sport which cannot be beaten anywhere. Big and small game shooting such as in Europe, is open only to the very rich, in India is within the reach of all … even the most impecunious subaltern can join in ...”. Now, that was in 1918 but post August 1947 when India chose to move from Raj to Swaraj, we Indians wisely decided to adapt to the more liberal aspirations of the post-WW II comity of Nation States, among whose goals one was the stated vision of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to “create a just world that values and conserves nature ... to assist people and nations to better preserve their flora and fauna ... (October, 1948)”. India not simply joined the IUCN but became a trend-setter in Asia, by unanimously enacting The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1962. That Act permitted licensed shikar, within limits but when people abused that liberty, shikar was banned totally, in the 1980s. Surprisingly, there was little out-cry against the ban and it appeared that three decades post-1947, shikar as a favour-ite “field sport” (a fancy euphemism for “blood sport”), was buried for good!

So both in the historical context and that of the times we live in, the reader would expect that “Jungle Odyssey” will take him on a mind-journey through India’s abundant floral and faunal riches. And indeed in the first few pages, the book does provide an engaging description of one of the dominant forest-types which used to cover much of central India. “In mid-March the Sal forest was at its resplendent best ... changing hues from brownish red to pale green ... The small off-white flowers impart a unique look to the forest and their mild scent fills up the morning and evening air … the propeller-like winged seeds littering the road with the softer velvet green hue ... an occasional Tree Pie flitted across … and then a Racket Tailed Drongo flew across with its two distinct black blobs, trailing its flight”. Another few miles onwards, “the car took the gentle curve to almost run slap into a large tiger sitting in the middle of the road, in a patch of afternoon sunlight ... Barely ten to fifteen paces away from me ... his facial expression, … was more of curiosity ... his magnificent face and head visible … then very slowly began to move away into the jungle unhurriedly … My whole family had shared the breathtaking encounter with me.”

Urge to kill

Sadly and disappointingly, the 200 pages which follow are utterly the antithesis of the charms and mystique of the living jungle. Tigers, leopards and elephants are shot dead with nauseating rapidity. Admittedly, there was no infringement of the then legal statuettes but the narratives loaded with the primordial urge to kill, cease to be experiences worth remembering, to say the least. The question that begs an answer is that how and why do human beings nonchalantly extinguish another life, particularly after professing that that living form sends them into ecstasies of joy? Man cherishes the beauty and the grace of a leopard, yet when he learns “one evening of a leopard having killed a cow in a nearby village”, he next states gleefully that “the leopard turned up as expected after our waiting barely for an hour. I think he never even heard the shot that killed him”. Not just that but “had a great camp fire and celebrations that night”. The narrative moves next to a magnificent but unfortunate male tiger in his prime (9 feet 8 inches between pegs) who “stood looking down at the kill. My shot caught him in the neck. He rose up on his hind legs and fell full length backwards. His tail thrashed a couple of time in the death throes and he thereafter lay still”. Thirty pages later three more are similarly annihilated, as “my shot knocked him down … snarling with pain made a dash to get further … flinched again at my second shot but staggered … two were young males with beautiful winter coats …”. Matter of factly, the shooter states that the dead were two sub-adult cubs and their mother.

The ultimate in the perverse pleasure of shikar unveils in the last few pages where first, a tusker and a cow elephant are shot and wounded but are not followed-up. Two days later, the gung-ho shikaris close with, per chance the same herd and another cow, after taking a bullet “collapses suddenly and she fell forward in a heap”. The reader must suffer the ultimate pain because the previously wounded tusker and cow, bleeding profusely, return to their fallen member, and ultimately all three make for the Elephant Valhalla.

The shikari had no regrets even though a Bison humbled him when it “had us completely at his mercy, but chose to let things pass”. The sub-title of the book “A Soldier’s Memoir” is totally subsumed by shikar and more shikar. Votaries of shikar have argued, often volubly but not quite convincingly, that killing and conservation of wild creatures are two faces of the same coin.

Those who lobby for conservation of the living jungle plead that the fundamental psyche of shikar contradicts the very ethos of “Right to Life”. Altogether, for our times the book is an outright anachronism.

(Baljit Singh retired as Lieutenant General from the Indian Army)

Jungle Odyssey

A Soldier’s Memoirs: Major General Ashok Kalyan Verma;

KW Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 4676/21, I Floor, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002.

Rs. 495.

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