Jim Corbett's books left a lasting impression on wildlife people. Occasionally, I hear Kenneth Anderson mentioned as an influence as well. But neither of these two writers inspired my fixation on wildlife. It was Enid Blyton! Her non-fiction books on the English countryside were my unlikely source of inspiration.
Following her example, I remember as a 10-year-old setting out a large plate of water for a birdbath on the terrace of our home in Madras, and being distinctly disappointed when ordinary old house crows arrived. What did I expect? Pipits and robins? Yes!
Then, I set up a feeding station hoping for a range of exotic seed-eating birds. But palm squirrels, those pesky ‘tree rats', demolished it all. The impoverished landscape of the city didn't offer much scope for wildlife exploration, especially British birds!
From Blyton, I learnt the differences between hares and rabbits, toads and frogs, about bees and seeds, and flowers and weeds. I was enthralled. Her instructions on how to approach wildlife: slowly, without a noise, barely even breathing, still stand me in good stead.
In the absence of wild animals, I honed these skills on the neighbours' cats. If I saw one in the backyard, I would stalk it, crouching low as I approached, never made eye contact, and woo the feral creature while it grew more and more suspicious.
After all these years, it embarrasses me that I spent so much time cultivating these domesticated predators. Now, living on our farm surrounded by ‘real' birds and animals, I truly feel sorry for city kids who do not have that contact with Nature. Perhaps, I'm really only feeling sad for my own childhood self.
In my teens, I became besotted with Gerald Durrell. I read and re-read his books, savoured his wit and concern for animals large and small, and my world-view was solidly cemented.
I was in my twenties, when I finally ventured into Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson territory. Their fixation on the hunting of large charismatic mammals left me completely indifferent, maybe even repulsed. Perhaps reacting subconsciously to the projection of their macho personas, I turned my back on large cats, becoming more enamoured of snakes, frogs, millipedes, laughing thrushes, and dung beetles. You could argue that they were at least talking about Indian wildlife. But to a Madras-grown girl, the Deccan and Kumaon were as foreign as Africa!
Years later, Rom and I set up Draco Films to make documentaries about some of these little known creatures, mainly reptiles. In an ironic twist, within a couple of years, snakes became the next sexy, macho animal on television!
The new rage produced a glut of films that idolised men jumping on venomous snakes around the world. From decades of investment in ‘blue chip' animal behaviour, the focus of television channels moved to celebrity wildlife ‘wranglers'. Where we had spent 10 to 12 months following and filming animals during the ‘90s, entire films were now made in little more than 10 weeks.
True, the audience was able to connect with animals more viscerally when there was a personality on screen. We proposed a compromise: some human interest mixed with animal behaviour. After a couple of such films, the executives gave the thumbs down. They wanted more presenter time on screen and little of animals behaving naturally. “Churn ‘em out” was the new motto at most of the big animal channels.
Following much distress at my growing aversion to this new genre of wildlife documentaries, I quit film-making. My preference for Enid Blyton and Gerald Durrell over Jim Corbett clearly offered parallels to the way I saw the new, exaggerated style of presenting wildlife. In an effort to figure out what I could do next, I reached back to the roots of my own interest in animals… and that was how this column was born.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)