Thursday, July 27, 2017

Whispers From The Wild by E.R.C. Davidar (edited by Priya Davidar)

About a couple of months ago, one of my friends lent me this book called Whispers from the Wild which I had been immersed in for a couple of weeks. A beautiful read, just the perfect one to satisfy my newfound interest in memoir-style non-fiction. Written by an expert and activist, it's a love letter to the vibrant wildlife of the Nilgiri forests in Southern India.

E.R.C. Davidar was by profession a lawyer. An avid hunter himself, Davidar was in charge of the Nilgiri Game Association in his early career. In a personal journey, that resonates with that of many shikaris from the British Raj, Davidar realized the natural costs of hunting - the loss of habitat for animals, the endangerment of many species. He gave up game hunting and turned into an ardent campaigner for wildlife conservation in India. Through his effort and struggle, the Nilgiri Game Association morphed into the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association. Some of his major undertakings include the work he put into preserving the elephant migration corridors in Southern India and the extensive census of the Nilgiri tahr. 

This book is set in a forest, quite a beautiful one at that. Possessing what can only be described as the eccentricity of a genius, Davidar, wife and children tagging along, had built himself a house in the forest at the foot of the Nilgiri hills. They christened this place Cheetal Walk, cheetal being the local name for the spotter deer found in these parts, the Indian Bambis if you will. The stories in this book are primarily from his time at Cheetal Walk. 

Throughout the book, Davidar is a combination of naturalist and nature-lover. The scientific aspect of his writing is most evident in the precision of his observations, especially of the elephants, their most frequent guest at Cheetal Walk. Every visit of an elephant is described in detail, every move, each contour on the creature's face, its colour, its gait, how it fed - Davidar lists everything like a dispassionate observer. Then he tells you the name they have given the elephant, how they have grown to like his frequent visits, how they all stare out the window when he comes plodding along - and the warmth rushes back into his writing. 

This impersonal interest in his subjects which complements Davidar's deep love for them makes the book most fascinating to read - it provides you information, while still hooking you into his life and stories on a sentimental level. You begin to care about that great brute of an elephant called Bumpty, just as you learn more about the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris and how they have been threatened through encroachment and poaching. Brain and heart, always, both brain and heart. 

"Nature is evocative, provided it finds a response. Responsiveness is born out of love. Once you find the right chord, you are never lonely in nature's company. Sitting in a jungle environment, you begin to realize you are privileged. The realization rouses your awareness and sharpens your power of observation. You begin to notice little details you had not registered before, and delight in them. And there are a hundred and one simple but evocative things to observe - leaf patterns, the play of light at different angles, the changing facets of nature with the change in seasons, reflections in the pool below and smaller and less glamorous fauna - small animals, birds and reptiles that appear larger than life when you observe them closely. The visuals are accompanied by sound effects - wind playing among the leaves, the stream chattering among the rocks before entering the pool, birdsong (identifying the owners, especially the rarer ones becomes a game) and animal sounds. Your other senses also participate in the experience - especially your sense of smell. Some aromas are subtle and tease you to explore them, and others are raw. Altogether, sitting in nature is a rewarding experience, and soon becomes an addiction."

Just last month, I taught a poem to my Grade 8 class - The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling. It's the haunting story of a man who lives on the edge of a forest and has grown old there. There used to be a way through the forest, he says, which is gone now. But he can't help but still hear the swish of a skirt and the trot of a horse's feet as though there is someone moving along that long-gone road. And that keeps him company, though there is no road through the forest.

The children all declared that they would love to live in a forest, away from the city and did so with such confidence that I asked them to reconsider. Imagine there being no sound of whirring fans and fridges, even the lights make soft sounds; imagine not hearing the constant drumming of cars, and trucks, and bikes on the road, the honking. And not a single whisper of a person. That kind of silence will take some getting used to. It could really show you your place in the world.

We have adapted ourselves to the city so well, that being in a forest and being safe in one requires a drastic unlearning and reeducation. Davidar talks about the very same thing. When he describes any romp in the forest, he uses all his senses to produce such evocative descriptions. The taste, smell, the sound of the forest, his descriptions put you right in his worn-down shoes, and make you feel his world a million times more acutely. That perhaps is the best part of reading this book.

"Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty, clear, musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune his imagination to the read the music. When in full flow after a series of downpours, the stream roared like an angry tiger and could indeed kill the unwary. When the level fell somewhat, it growled. As the flow fell further, it would moan like a bear, coo like a turtle dove, whistle like a green pigeon, sing like a shama, hiss like a python, gurgle like a happy child of the wilderness. Sometimes, it was like a whole orchestra playing, if you had the imagination of a composer to supply the stops and pauses. We would never have believed that a that would come and that too so soon, when the Sigurhalla would be singing mournful dirges when it sang at all."

Friday, July 7, 2017

On comfort needs, comfort reads and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

For an entire month, I've found myself writing posts and deleting them, because they did not sound right enough or because they revealed too much or too little. I have never suffered this kind of writer's block in all these years, something that led me to avoid the blog not for lack of things to write, but just because of this nagging feeling that I wasn't being honest to myself. Things are going all kinds of crazy this year, but that has never affected my blog before. The blog has always been a comfort zone; a safe place to turn to; somewhere I can be me. Maybe I've just lost my sense of me-ness.

It's kind of weird that I should feel this way; much more so because I clearly seem unable to explain it. But I have been reading quite a bit. And I do have things to rant about. I went on an amazing trip to England in the beginning of May. And the month ended with me starting a book club here in Bangalore, which has been going adorably well also. So loaded with things to say and lacking the right way; here I am trying something out. I feel sort of like a little lamb lost in my own pen, but nevertheless, write I must. And I will write about comfort reads, in the effort to rekindle my blog love. 

Over the years I have noticed, whenever I have a bad spell for whatever reason, there are certain books I keep going back to. Comfort reads, fiction and non-fiction, and even short stories. The one to start this post-writing-spree with is (various translations of and the original) Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

A quick background. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who in a very intense, very mystical style. He was perhaps best known for his Book of Hours (Studenbuch) which was three volumes worth of religious poetry. After the publication of the Book of Hours, Rilke began to earn popularity as a poet, quite early on in his career. 

So there we have him: Rilke, a renowned poet who, once upon a time, received a request from an amateur poet to read and critique his writing. Rilke denied, replying in a letter that a real poet should not care for another's opinion on his works and asked his amateur fan to be true to himself. Frank Kappus, the young poet who sent a letter to Rilke, received a lot more than literary critique, and ended up exchanging a number of letters with Rilke. Rilke wrote back giving Kappus advice on everything from love, sex, loss, art and beauty. These replies Kappus published under the title Letters to a Young Poet. 

There is nothing so beautiful and revealing as a well-written letter. It's like a slice of someone's soul. With every read, I'm stunned by how honest the letters are. The very idea that Rilke took out the time to write these is something to appreciate, but the sincerity of his writing is astonishing. Rilke and Kappus never met, their only correspondence was through these ten letters; and that further lends them this aura of historical fascination. To think that these words might never have been published, were never meant to be published, really makes me thank the stars that they were. What a loss it might have been. See for yourself -

If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. 
.
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
.
If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Remember, it's German. It is German that has been translated into English here. So it has long winding sentences, endless blocks of writing and a very strange formal Queen-sey tone. But if you let that slide, and turn down the scoff, there is a lot to learn from this man. Some of it will be things you already know; but at least for me, having someone tell me things I thought I knew but never could put into words is one of the great magics of reading. Letters to a Young Poet, the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely considered the best, is available to read online for free (not sure how trusted this site is.) Click away, you can read any or all of the letters on the site; though I have to say, the physical book is worth the buy.