Biodiversity Reviews

‘The Wild Heart of India’ review: Listening to the call of the wild

The uproar against the felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony or the sense of doom over raging fires in Brazil’s Amazon forest are all pointers to a general awareness about nature’s intrinsic merits and the way it shapes our lives. Yet, jungles vanish, roads broaden, factories sneak in, most species lapse into a death-rattle and rivers get stained while the human race marches ahead in its quest for a tenuous prosperity while ravaging an environment meant to sustain future generations.

In India, we tend to split nature into the boxed ones seen in zoos or the sprawling acres found in various sanctuaries and it is presumed that as citizens, our duty is done. But there is more to the nation’s throbbing ecological core and it starts with awareness, empathy and a fierce will to protect what remains of our fragile green cover.

Owls at Anna Salai

All these aspects are evident in T.R. Shankar Raman’s The Wild Heart of India, a lovely book with its gentle nod to the myriad hues of nature. If there is a grouse against the tome, it is that Raman’s wife and fellow-scientist Divya Mudappa, who has contributed eight essays among the 65 in this bulky volume, doesn’t get due credit on the cover.

Raman, who works with the Nature Conservation Foundation, holds our hands and gently guides us towards the world around us. First up, he writes: “Nature, some people believe, is something out there, in forests or far wildernesses, separate from the dwelling or presence of humans.” And he then proceeds to show how nature is all pervading and very much around us like an owl flying across Chennai’s bustling Anna Salai at night.

Roots at Valparai

It is also about living a dream he nursed as a school kid. Back then, in one of his essays, he wrote: “But now I was in the Western Ghats — at the Anamalai jungles at the foot of the awesome Nilgiris. I was where I had always wanted to be.” And he does strike roots in Valparai, a tea town in the Anamalai range, studying rain-forests, building bridges between the local population and the flora and fauna around including lumbering elephants.

He and to some extent Divya highlight various factors that affect India’s synergy with its environment. Raman offers a fresh perspective and surely his heart is in the right place. In the pantheon of nature writers embellished with the likes of M. Krishnan, Bittu Sahgal, S. Theodore Baskaran, Salim Ali, Jim Corbett, Stephen Alter, Kenneth Anderson, E.R.C. Davidar, Janaki Lenin and Bahar Dutt to name a few, Raman has carved his own space.

Be it the Guindy National Park in Chennai or the verdant sights in the Northeast, Raman oscillates from the wide gaze to a microscopic scrutiny. He also gives alternative viewpoints like open pastures being essential for deer within forests or for that matter how a slash-and-burn shifting agriculture practice in the Northeast known as jhum or lo, is much better than mono-culture traits that eventually strip the soil of all its nutrients.

Dragon flies and trees

There is a simmering anger too as he watches governments whittling down forest protection Acts to facilitate highways and mining. Conservation is often pigeon-holed to the tiger but Raman shows that there is more to care about and when he dwells upon road-kills, he even writes about dragon flies that die on your windscreens while you drive through forests. While roads widen, Raman writes an elegy: “Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torchbearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance.”

This is a book that will help you appreciate nature and he winds up with this hope: “A land ethic and place in a community, open to all who care to participate, who will feel moved to act and make space for other species in their lives and in their hearts.”

The Wild Heart of India; T.R. Shankar Raman, Oxford University Press, ₹795.

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