Left and centre: photos from Wild and Wilful. Right: A great Indian bustard. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Prajwalkm, CC BY-SA 3.0.
“This book is dedicated to the first wild mammals I saw – a small Indian mongoose in my garden. He didn’t mind me, and it all started from there.”
A theme of peaceful acceptance echoes throughout Neha Sinha‘s new book, Wild and Wilful (2020) – even when she and her friend Babaji are only two feet away from a 10-foot-long mugger crocodile and its “perfect strength”. And this way, Sinha, a conservation biologist with the Bombay Natural History Society, reveals as much as she demonstrates, through personal experiences and the experiences of others, the reality of coexistence – that it is as possible as it is already real.
This latter reality is particularly important today because, more than a shift in perspective, it forces us to rethink our goals as ecologists, conservationists, researchers and, indeed, partakers of India’s great ecological commons. In the popular imagination, coexistence remains for the large part an ideal to work towards, a utopia of tomorrow. But Wild and Wilful is, among other things, an anthology that gently reproves such futurism with arresting tales of warmth and hope.
The book is a garland of stories about ten iconic Indian wildlife species that walk “alongside us and through the pages of our neat, daily lives”. Some of them have had no trouble capturing the popular imagination, like the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger and the king cobra. The others, however, lead barely acknowledged lives but which Sinha elevates from unlikely protagonists to secret treasures, like the tiger butterfly and the rosy starling.
There are yet others that live in parts of the country we simply don’t think of when we’re talking about protected areas and about wild species – like the great Indian bustard of the dry grasslands and the dolphins of the Ganges river. Reading of their inner lives, revealed through Sinha’s and many other people’s persistent efforts to find safer, more permanent homes for them, thus becomes an act of discovering these animals as well as India itself.
The book is also dotted with lovely photographs – although, to this reader at least, none were as evocative as the one on the cover: a black-and-white portrait of two elephants tussling with their trunks and tusks. Perhaps I am biased towards these giants; I brimmed with emotion reading the chapter on elephants, Sinha’s observations of lethal injuries and the deaths of elephant calves. Then I also read about how people had hunted down over a hundred-thousand Amur falcons in a span of a few days in Nagaland in 2012, and I couldn’t help but wonder why reading about elephant deaths had prompted a more visceral sense of distress.
Maybe it’s because I find sentience in elephants to be more pronounced than in other species. They are social beings with strong familial bonds, and this is relatable. And in their matriarchal herds, these bonds are as important as life itself. Sinha writes, “Human families swear loyalties to each other by saying they would die for each other. Elephants actually do” – followed by the story of a mother elephant who succumbed in a struggle to save her calf. Such incidents are not uncommon.
Overall, the tone of Wild and Wilful is one of honest reflection and the narrative is empathetic. Sinha writes simply and clearly, which is fascinating for two reasons. One, this is easier said than done because the book is assiduous about discussing messy political issues as well, but which it does with seamless effort. And two, it’s hard to come away from the book without at least considering that clear writing on ecological issues is as difficult, and the ability and opportunities for it hard-won, as it can be empowering. Political ecology is immutably complex, but what resolve it dulls Wild and Wilful‘s discoveries can quicken.
Wild and Wilful is also notably informative – and sometimes, like the chapter on elephants, exhaustingly so. Then again, it’s possible these pages were intended to leave the reader weary, as an honest reflection, again, of the ground reality. As a journalist, it’s important to remember that we can only tell stories of things that are happening, and if the same things are happening again and again, we are duty-bound to tell similar stories again and again.
In the course of this enterprise, we can learn important lessons about how and why some issues dominate the headlines and linger in the public discourse – like human-wildlife conflict, say – although we may yet fail to appreciate all the subtleties, like “usually, the conflict between wildlife and people involves poor people”. For another, conversations on ‘renewable energy’ in India seldom include the impact of solar power on great Indian bustards or of hydropower on white-bellied herons. We can learn of the process by which issues become more or less pressing, how public attention and weariness influence their relative importance, and how all of these forces together shape and are shaped by democratic processes.
This said, the book is anything but boring. In fact, there’s even whimsy. Sinha writes for example that butterflies seem like they are “made of sun rays carrying dust, coming into existence simply because we wished for colour to float around our faces”. In this chapter, Sinha recalls her quest for butterflies in Bastar, a district in Central India associated commonly with Naxal activity. (Just the idea of looking for butterflies in a highly militarised area invites a smile, no?) She writes similarly of the fanciful rosy starling, the glossy black-and-rose passerine bird, enlivened apparently by no greater purpose.
Such moments of joy are intercalated with unshakeable questions. For example, why, when snakebites are recognised as the result of ‘encounters’, a snake’s decision to not bite a person “doesn’t register as the snake’s wilful choice”? We can ask ourselves the same thing about tigers and leopards. In the wild, the general rule is to avoid confrontation, and animals of all hues – including trained wildlife biologists and conservationists – tend to abide. Why then do we find ourselves unable to acknowledge that even species generally considered to be fearsome are not inherently inclined to maim, kill or eat people?
The answers are often uncomfortable, revealing realities many readers may not like to admit, especially in the wider political climate of today. “Perhaps we created mythologies and tales by watching the real power of animals – speed, bite, leaps and grasps – power we can’t match and colours we can’t fully comprehend,” Sinha writes. “But in reality, we don’t want animals to be too strong, too capable, too wild. Most people would scream if they saw dragons in real life”, and reflexively vilify them? She continues in other parts of the book, at disparate points, that the activists protesting for Avni “wanted to be heroes too, as they declared her one”. And of course:
“For the great tenet of non-vegetarianism has decided that dogs are too cute and too close to humans to be eaten. This isn’t a religious diktat, the way cow-eating or pork-eating taboos tend to be. It is more cultural, a blinding virtue-signal. Those who deviate from this unspoken culture are the savages.”
But no matter which side of the truth you find yourself, it will be hard to not appreciate that someone helped you navigate to this point – a point of reckoning, as it were. At Wild and Wilful‘s slow denouement, you find yourself slowly brought to confront a variety of issues that you may no longer be able to ignore, yet still grateful for the considerable foundation from which you can begin.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.