Review of Stephen Alter’s The Cobra’s Gaze: Locking eyes with a ‘goral’

The author pays homage to India’s wildlife splendour by uncovering overlooked locations and underrated species

March 22, 2024 09:01 am | Updated 09:01 am IST

Our ancestors wiggled through narrow spaces to enter subterranean chambers where they painted by firelight. What did they depict on the rough walls in such secrecy? Sure, there were the latest gizmos of centuries past, barbed spears and sharp arrows. They also illustrated animals and lots of them. No doubt they ate them, but they held them in spiritual honour and captured their essential likenesses.

Stephen Alter, who writes fiction and non-fiction with equal facility, sets the stage for the travelogue-adventure in his new book, The Cobra’s Gaze, at Bhimbetka, where prehistoric Indians painted fauna such as barasingha, elephants, and sloth bears. He explores his own early influences, of growing up in the plains of North India, and his interest in snakes and leggy wildlife.

‘Shared consciousness’

While out searching for a species of an insectivorous plant near his home in Landour, Uttarakhand, he chances upon a young goral. For a fleeting moment, they lock eyes, “arousing in me a startling sense of shared consciousness.” How did the antelope-like animal perceive him? Alter’s description of that instant calls to mind artist and critic John Berger’s influential essay Why Look at Animals? in which he talks of the element of surprise when humans and animals consider each other across the “abyss of non-comprehension.” After tracing the historical relationship between humans and animals, Berger bemoans the physical and cultural marginalisation of animals in the modern era. Although he doesn’t specifically say so, Alter offers a way of looking at animals in the Anthropocene. In his encounters with a spectacled cobra and a dancing frog, he ruminates on how they sense him and perceive the world.

Using that springboard, he uncovers overlooked locations and underrated species, little known cultural and historical sites while also travelling to popular places in his quest to see charismatic animals. His vivid descriptions take readers to the cold heights of Ladakh, the arid plains of Tal Chhapar, and the murky swamps of Sunderbans, while exploring the broad theme of the book: what is our relationship with wild fauna and how do we engage with them.

Bookended by the king cobra

The first and last chapters on Agumbe in Karnataka and the area’s most celebrated denizen, the king cobra, form bookends. (I had a small influence in nudging Alter to visit the place.) In the second chapter on Vrindavan, he explores the myth of Kaliya Mardan. The reviewer could be forgiven for thinking that this book was all about snakes. But then the author veers sharply to Dudhwa and its most famous resident, Billy Arjan Singh and his controversial rehabilitation of a hand-reared tiger.

The reintroduction of the cheetah in Kuno has been reported at length in the news. Transported by Alter, we get a sense of what the cheetahs and the people displaced to create the habitat are up against. When he cannot spot a large predator, he’s disappointed but self-aware enough to realise he’s falling into the same pitfall as the majority of tourists.

In another chapter, he analyses Jim Corbett’s story of the Mukteshwar tigress and wonders why the area produced so many maneaters. He suggested the combination of felling the lowland Terai forests and unregulated hunting sent the predators scrambling up into the hills, setting off a spree of tragedies for humans and tigers. He explores how the human imagination explains our encounters with wildlife by dipping into Radhika Govindarajan’s book Animal Intimacies. The essay on sacred groves illustrates a different aspect of the human interaction with nature. Restoration of degraded habitats, ecotourism, and nature writing are among the diverse other topics the author investigates.

Protecting wildlife

Although Alter does not preach conservation, the urgency to protect wildlife is an undercurrent of his book. He upholds Emperor Ashoka’s policies as “examples of benign authority, wisdom, and tolerance.” While it is true that the monarch bucked the trend of killing animals as a pleasurable pursuit, which was often wasteful, his ban on hunting and fishing left many forest dwelling and fishing communities without a livelihood. Those who disobeyed were expelled.

Two thousand years later, our current wildlife laws are hardly different. But the edification of Ashoka is a small quibble in an otherwise glorious tour de force which not only explores India’s natural heritage but also investigates uncomfortable practices, such as the use of lorises for black magic.

Besides the graphic portrayal, Alter’s delightful deployment of metaphor makes reading his book a pleasure. Sample this: ‘palm trees sway like drunk toddy drinkers,’ describing pit vipers as ‘a quiver of poisoned arrows’ and a snake ‘studies us with her tongue.’

Readers don’t have to shimmy down narrow tunnels to pay homage to India’s wildlife splendour. They just have to crack open Alter’s book to range widely across this land.

The Cobra’s Gaze; Stephen Alter, Aleph, ₹999.

(All pictures taken from the book.)

The reviewer is a co-author of ‘Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’, the first volume of Romulus Whitaker’s autobiography.

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