In Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Aranyak, the author writes about his time living in the jungles of Bhagalpur. The jungle is alive, beautiful and forbidding in equal proportions. He writes too of the people who live in the forest (crucially not ‘around’, but ‘in’) but he is always separated from them by titles such as ‘huzoor’, which are bequeathed to him.
In Nitin Sekar’s What’s Left of the Jungle, you find the distinction between urbane author and villager-as-subject collapsed. A family whose journey he tracks through the book — the human element making the book read almost like a novel — is referred to as the ‘Atris’. Most other observers or even authors would call them ‘villagers’, a reference that is conscious of class and geographical barriers. Sekar’s book is unique for the unaffected yet self-aware way he refers to a totally new world — both of the poor villager, characterised as an individual, and the inscrutable forest. In talking about the role of a central character, Akshu Atri, Sekar refers to him as a co-writer: “Akshu didn’t see himself as the co-author of this book, but his voice and his storytelling style are what make his narrative so engaging.”
Marked by empathy
The second aspect that distinguishes this fine book from many others is that Sekar cares both for the individual animal and the individual person. The strapline of the book says that this is a conservation story, but it is equally a human story. In recognising his own biases of expecting people to conserve, the author reveals the complexity of the issue at hand. The story is set in Buxa, which is a tiger reserve in West Bengal with barely any tigers. Beautiful passages recount coming upon scores of butterflies — but not tigers. People who live in the forest face the brunt of elephants who damage their crops, and occasionally face death because of human-elephant conflict. Should people leave the forest, or should they make further sacrifices for wild animals? Sekar’s gaze also sees that all people, and all communities, are not the same — rather, people’s responses to challenges like elephants can be a spectrum.
The answer, the book suggests, can only begin to be reached by involving local people, and by creating sensible links between the gram sabha and the forest department. The people in this book are invisible to many of us — some of them make parts of a desperate living by selling seeds found in animal dung to the forest department.
It is also telling that Akshu lived many years of his young life as a sickly boy far from organised medical care, eventually vomiting up an insect from his body. The forest provides a backdrop to all this — rebounding in some places with chalta trees and big and small mammals, and hollowed out in other places by timber poachers making a quick buck for a new mobile phone. This is a unique book, for its unabashed warmth towards its animals and human subjects, and for its rich reflection of a life that is really wild.
Read it for both. At the end, what’s really left of the jungle is a constructive set of learnings, and that is an achievement.
What’s Left of the Jungle; Nitin Sekar, Bloomsbury India, ₹799.
The reviewer is a conservation biologist and author of Wild and Wilful — Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species.