(English translation of the opening chapter of my Marathi book, Eka Ranvedyachi Shodhayatra, published in 2002 by Rajhans Prakashan, Pune, India)


Are you crazy enough to kick all your modern comforts aside, leave behind your best friends, turn your back on the rest of the beautiful civilized world and what it has to offer, and go to people whose language you cannot speak, to be parasitized by leeches, stung by bees, beaten by torrential rains, chased by elephants? Yes, that is really the question: Are you crazy enough about life?

Living in a forest is a very remarkable experience. However, there is a vast distance between going to a forest for a week or a month and making a home there, inviting the wilderness to crawl on your floor, up your walls. Spend a few days in a forest and you would probably see tigers, elephants, rare birds and beautiful butterflies, I do not deny that at all. There is, irrefutably, immense pleasure in observing fascinating creatures.

AA496MudumalaiForestThe saying popular among nature-freaks, 'the place ain't fun unless there is something out there that can eat'cha', certainly has charm and truth in it. However, to equate tropical forests with large ferocious mammals or poisonous snakes, perhaps birds or trees and other creatures such as lizards and insects would be an injustice. Mudumalai offered me much more than glimpses into the world of animals. It gave me glimpses of the depths of my own soul and insanity. A naturalist takes one dip into the forest and then the torrential rain cannot stop him; the stinging cold does not bother him. On the contrary, he starts enjoying the scorching heat, and the jungle teeming with leeches may even seem welcoming. Thrill, peace, excitement, tranquility, adventure, all is sought and somehow, mysteriously, the forest offers it all at the same time without spoiling any of its moods. True, you might get run over by a rogue young elephant or mauled by a startled bear, but that is beside the point.

I think I knew all this by the time I had twenty monsoons behind me, but I had no opportunity to live this philosophy. All I had were sneak peeks of a few hours-days-weeks-fortnights stolen from city life and crowded classrooms. The distance was still there, and I had to cross it. It was by a stroke of unusual luck that an opportunity to live in a forest nudged at my elbow. I did not even go – I was taken! I was dispatched to live in a forest for a year, one whole seasonal cycle. More about that later, of course.

MudumalaiRainbowIt is now hard to grasp the when-why-how's of my transformation from being a shy, quiet child to a man who loves to share his stories and experiences. Maybe my stint as a volunteer and then a nature education expert with the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India, Pune Division) before I left for Mudumalai had something to do with it. The role of a nature educator, by default, makes you a story-teller, a communicator, a vocal champion. At Mudumalai there was no one around who understood my language, and my English was terrible. So I started writing long letters to my friends back home, and an occasional short article. I did not write very much, though. About four years before I landed there, my mentor, Milind Watve, had already spent two years in Mudumalai studying the ecology of intestinal parasites of wild mammals. When he returned to Pune to his job as a professor in the Microbiology, he published several articles on his life in Mudumalai in the local daily "Sakal". Soon afterward he also published in Marathi (our native language) a compilation of those articles, called "Aranyak", which is a wildlife classic.

So. I kept away from my writing pad and pen with the thought, 'Why write any more about Mudumalai when there is already such a great book about it?'

AA265MeOnDoddakkalGuddaA few months after I returned from Mudumalai to Pune in 1995, I made two trips to various parts of the Sahyadris, a chain of mountains that runs parallel to the western coast of India. Popularly known as the Western Ghats, this beautiful mountain chain is one of the global biodiversity hotspots. I was 21 then, on the verge of turning 22, and my Bachelor's Degree was still nowhere in sight, but I was dispatched once again – this time to survey butterflies in the Sahyadris. During these surveys I had to spend many long hours waiting for ancient rusty buses in old, weather-beaten villages across the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala. It was these long waits that left me drowning in the unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking memories of my not-so-long-past Mudumalai days. Then, out of nostalgia, out of passion, out of joy of memories and pain of loss, words started pouring out and my pen danced its wild dance on the paper – any paper that I could get hold of: a page from my diary, a crumpled ball of paper lying on the bus station, even small bits of discarded paper lying in corners somewhere; it just had to be written down right then and there, before the ephemeral memories escaped...

I wrote "The Loser" and part of "Virappan" while waiting for the bus to Biligirirangaswami Hills at the Mysore bus station. Here, close to the end of my essay, I ran out of paper. I looked around, picked up a piece of scrap paper I found under the bench, flapped it around to free it from all the dirt and filth and the unknown history it carried, and started writing my own story on it. I finished "The Three Seasons" to the rhythm of falling rain drops and fading daylight when I was forced to spend two days in a remote village without electricity due to an injured leg. Writing of "Kudkomban" has a similarly charming story. I was again in a lightless forest village in Kerala, I had trekked to get to this tribal village. My local contacts had dropped me there and gone back to their comfortable homes, leaving this stranger among people with whom he could not communicate except with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was close to sundown, too late to go outside to look for butterflies, and the terrain was too unfamiliar and infested with wild elephants to go outside alone, anyway. But it was a beautiful evening, full of longing, so I took to writing. By the time I was about to finish, the daylight had died, barred jungle owlets had started calling, cicadas had stopped their deafening songs, and the pet flying squirrel of my local host (who was the tribal chief) had uncurled itself from the earthen pot it treated as home, sought a nearby tree and licked itself, and was presently on the lookout for fruits in the surrounding forest. Before dawn it would glide and hop back to its little earthen pot, curl up again and sleep for the day, but there was an entire moonless night between now and then. As for me, I had to take note of these happenings around only at the back of my mind for the light had faded and I could not see my pen but I had to continue writing to the end. So I went on – eyes closed, hand on paper – writing in large font, unintentionally entangling letters from neighboring words and lines with each other because I could not see in the dark. But in the end it was ready before the feeling escaped me, although later that writing took substantial deciphering and paraphrasing. Eventually, by the end of my butterfly survey in the Sahyadris, a series of articles was at hand.

At about the same time Shekhar Nanajkar, editor of a local wildlife magazine, "Vasundharecha Shraavan", wanted something unique for the magazine. So I gave him my pile. The articles were published in 1997-98 while I was studying for my Masters degree at Dehra Dun at the foothills of the Western Himalayas. After that, the memory of those articles faded with my new adventures in northern India and generally in life. Even the Mudumalai experiences seemed remote; they achieved a dreamy quality. It had been many years since I left Mudumalai so I thought, "Why should I think of this all over again? That was my past."

AA206GaurElephantsFlumeChanIn one of my articles on Mudumalai I had written, "Very few of life's innumerable moments are truly pivotal. Those moments leave an indelible mark on our being, our philosophy, how we live the rest of our lives. And it is these very moments that we can truly call our own. The rest is a consequence, an unwanted burden, perhaps even a drag." Then late one night in May 2001, at the end of a terrible Indian summer, I found myself digging out old forgotten letters, fuzzy memories that seemed unreal. Among these letters the Mudumalai articles came out of the closet into the still of the night. I had not even looked at them after I finished writing them five years beforehand. But that night I turned the pages and with every page I turned, the memories – the forest, the elephants, the valleys, every path I had trodden, my tribal tracker Keta, my house, the wild dogs, the water of the Moyar River turned murky after elephants had bathed and splashed and drank from it, the trail of a monitor lizard dragging its tail lazily behind it in the sand, the black tadpoles at C-3 Dam, the baby crocodiles in Moyar Gorge, flowering flame-of-the-forest, golden-yellow bamboo leaves in spring, jamun trees heavily laden with fruits – came flooding and completely overwhelmed me. My friend Rahul Rao answered my summons at that unusual hour. We spent the rest of the night chatting away about Mudumalai days, talking over my slides. That night was the inspiration behind my completing this book. I have not altered the reference to time in my old articles, although my memories of Mudumalai have no doubt ripened in the ten years since I left the place. In a way, this is an old book that I should have written and you should have read ten years ago.

Now further back in time. The beginnings of the beginning. Once we were all young boys, pals from different colleges but we were drawn together by our common passion. A few of us were amateur environmentalists, some were butterfly-freaks, snake enthusiasts, frog-lovers, mould-seekers, and a whole lot of seemingly unusual naturalists. None of us fit into our social context. Most of us were failures in academics, failures in colleges, and social failures, too – girls would not fancy us! We were a bunch of nerds. Our parents had given up on us. Our teachers had given up on us. Our other friends had given up on us. Perhaps, even we had given up on ourselves. We did not have jobs, stable or otherwise, and were not hoping for one. We had a small exclusive get-together in June 1994, a couple of months before I left for Mudumalai. During the course of this meeting it was resolved that whatever we were doing was unique, essential, and most importantly, it was close to our hearts. We loved what we were doing and could not imagine ourselves without it. We could not define ourselves without our insane love for nature. We would not submit to the mundane. We would never turn our backs on this work, betray the dreams, desert our philosophy, would never allow anything to extinguish the spark of uniqueness in each one of us. We would not trade our future, no matter how treacherous the path, for the banality of the ordinary. Only then would we be able in the autumn of our lives to look back at the bygone years with pride and reverence. We owed our youth the most promising of futures and lives. We sought role models, and if we did not find any, each one of us would become one.

Of course, in our social setting we were academic renegades and we refused to fit the academic procrustean bed. So the academic Procrustes kept chopping off our limbs. In college I had barely scraped through some of my exams with grace points. Just before our meeting I had appeared for my Supplementary Exam after having failed my chemistry exams already. Only a few days after this morale-boosting meeting I heard the result of my Supplementary Exam – I had flunked the exam, the fourth time around! I could not persist any longer (I was actually booted! Nothing graceful there), I said my goodbyes to Procrustes and packed my bags to go to Mudumalai.

What was in store for me in Mudumalai is what this book is all about. Every individual who treads an unbeaten path comes to a turning point in his life; or rather, a fork. You turn right. Or you turn left. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later. My life changed after that one year in Mudumalai. What had been an apparently aimless youth magically turned into a directed trajectory. If only I could focus my rebellion, my anger, my ambition... and I would. I would. Also the acknowledgment of the two alternate futures: youth- of rebellion, radical thoughts, of dreams, inspirations and ideals. Of love, of passion. Or, betrayal- the eternal enemy. Betrayal of youth's dreams, of souls; of lost dedication. I could not wait to choose, it had to be done right away and it was going to be irreversible. I quote Ayn Rand,

"It is not in the nature of man.... to start out by giving up. Some give up at the first touch of pressure, some sell out, some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it.... Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man's nature and of life's potential."

The true nature of my capabilities, the extent of my reach, dawned on me in Mudumalai and among elephants. Gautam Buddha had but a single bodhi tree for his enlightenment, I had an entire enchanted forest!

What do I remember of Mudumalai and my time there ten years after I left it? I think of elephants and my tracker Keta. Keta was truly my first guru, who taught me jungle-craft and love of the forest. Game-Hut Lake with a frill of green forest; the creek beside Sand Road; bhokar (Cordia mixa) and dhawda (Anogeissus latifolia) trees on Cross-Cut Road; the solid pillars of teak trees on Circular Road and the view of Moyar River churning into the gorge in front of it. The cool shade where wild dogs rested in Imbaralla Stream; the four sambar deer in the thicket at Kallalla – two females and their two ever-curious but alert calves; the tusker dozing in the shade at Kakkanalalla with his trunk curled up like an infant's fist; the black bittern at Game Hut. The leeches at Thorapalli bloated with human blood; and the tall, tall trees and the creaking, slippery black logs that served as bridges across small rivers. The giant female python coiled over her eggs in a small gulley; the turtles in Ombetta Lake; the cobra that slithered down the hill on Doddakkal Gudda and its loud hissing; Sidhha's young son claimed by a snakebite. The towering jamun (Sizygium cumini) tree in Wayanad and the entangled ber (Ziziphus jujuba) thickets that tore many a shirt near Flume Channel. The kusum (Schleichera trijuga) tree from which I shot my first pictures of Kudkomban and Dada, two of the wild elephant tuskers that I was most fond of. The enormous rock facing Mudumalai with its back towards Ooty. The maddening, golden-yellow evening sunlight in my yard and the twin rainbows behind it in the cloud-covered dark sky! The loud thunderclap on the banks of C-3 bund followed by the torrent of rain that drenched me to the bone; Kudkomban swaying in the rain at Mandradiar; and the silent evening forest pierced by the earth-shattering trumpeting of elephants!

What more can I say .....