In a natural light

A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present M.K. Ranjitsinh HarperCollins ₹799  

“In 1488 CE, whilst out hunting, Jhala ruler Rajodharji’s horse flushed a desert hare. Instead of fleeing, the hare stood its ground. Attributing the hare’s plucky behaviour to the quality of the soil and water of the place, Rajodharji built his capital there. Halvad remained the political capital of the Jhalas for three centuries and remains their spiritual capital till this day.”

From this little passage, you may wonder whether this is a tale of a princely India; an account of an India struggling to hold onto clean air and soil; a story on decision-making; or is this the tale, simply, of a plucky hare? The answers, like this remarkable and often overwhelmingly detailed book, are enmeshed. Mr. Ranjitsinh talks at once as an authoritative male figure from a royal family, an Indian Administrative Service officer who served with political leaders like Indira Gandhi and others, a link between princely and modern India, and a wildlife enthusiast who continues to be an active conservationist to the day.

What makes this book unique is the author’s matter-of-fact tone: he speaks of natural history and wild animals in the same manner that he speaks of heads of state. That could be construed as a lightness of touch, or the narrator’s deep affinity to nature. Early on in the book, he cites former prime minister Indira Gandhi as determined in nature protection efforts, but he also showcases similar admiration for a leopardess. A particularly trenchant passage describes his childhood at a hide visited by leopards: “...A leopardess would make a kill and vanish if she had cubs. The next sight would be of her marching into that bright circle of light, her cubs in tow. She would gently pick up each cub and effortlessly jump to the top of the platform, deposit the cub near the kill and repeat the process. After the meal, the cubs would either jump down if they were large enough, or be brought down by the mother, and proceed to the water trough. The sound of multiple tongues lapping up the water was unforgettable, all the animals crouched low and facing us, as they sensed humans were inside that hide...”

Linking past and present

In a sense then, the narrative provides a link between pre and post independent India. There was the India of the past where epicureans baited leopards with gramophones just to see them. And then there is the present—which is girded by modern, protectionist, and more uniform ideas of conservation. Ranjitsinh helped draft laws for wildlife and forest protection, which veritably halted all hunting; this was markedly different from the shikar culture he grew up seeing.

Perhaps even more than perspective on the difference between both eras, what could be of interest to readers is whether history repeats itself. The idea of culling wildlife, like royal shikar, is one rooted in the act of a hunt—a hunt with ‘purpose’ and power. In many States, demands have come forward for culling ‘nuisance animals’ like monkeys and antelope; culling even threatened species like Gaur has been considered. As India roils under the idea of hunting again, Ranjitsinh’s perspective is pertinent. He identifies that conservation needs a motivating factor; but is not an apologist for shikar. As per his account, royal shikar was a motivating factor to preserve forests, and royalty that wasn’t interested in shikar ended up with denuded forests. Culling and hunting in the present situation is not tenable, he says, as we do not have large enough species numbers or natural habitat to go shooting and trapping.

Ranjitsinh doesn’t mince words, though they are distinctly silver-tongued. He points out that the present Recognition of Forest Rights Act (2006) “is the most harmful Act in relation to the forests in the history of India” and made patently for political gains. This is unlikely to please tribal rights or community conservation activists. But the author is not out to please. He recounts ruffling feathers often, like advising then Congress minister Bhajan Lal against India exporting frog legs; telling Sonia Gandhi, head of the United Progressive Alliance, in 2005 that the Forests Rights Act was full of harmful and ‘utopian’ concepts. He calls for the ‘Ghar-wapsi’ of the cheetah, now extinct in India, though this plea was turned down in the Supreme Court and has been criticised by conservationists.

The topics are wide-ranging and this also creates a meandering narrative. Portions travel between different topics and different years, making it difficult at times to pull out threads on administration, wildlife, and raconteur. This is the privilege that memoirs have, but the book could have been sharpened by a more extensive referencing section, tighter editing and chapters with more specific topics.

Esoteric love

Undoubtedly, however, the book is at its best when describing a deeply felt and esoteric love for wildlife. The author describes unfamiliar landscapes and species—birds like the Tibetan sandgrouse, the Jerson’s Courser, the Andaman Teal; mammals like caracals, Tibetan kiang, takin and goral.

This is not entirely a natural history account, but many passages are fine, lyrical natural history, laced with acute observation. They will remind you of authors like M.K. Krishnan and Salim Ali.

This is a book that can help you understand how power and wildlife conservation in India have interacted. But most importantly, it presents a particular voice which grants a loping antelope the same authority—or at least the same consideration—given to a senior officer. One gets the sense Ranjitsinh is aching to privilege wildlife much more than the limited due it gets. Despite some of its inconsistencies, the book presents a life well-lived, giving voice to an often fierce ecological patriotism that is rapidly falling out of fashion.

A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present; M.K. Ranjitsinh, HarperCollins, ₹799.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 5:31:49 PM |

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