LOST IN THE WOODS

India Today - - LEISURE - —Ak­shai Jain

De­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, be­ing lost in the woods can be a bor­ing, thrilling, ed­i­fy­ing, be­wil­der­ing or fright­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. This ex­pe­ri­ence, if dis­tilled and edited, can be trans­formed into an en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive, but chron­i­cled unedited can leave the reader stum­bling and grasp­ing for co­her­ence. De­spite the oc­ca­sional flashes of bril­liance, this is un­for­tu­nately the fate of The Wild Heart of In­dia by T.R. Shankar Ra­man.

An ac­com­plished ecol­o­gist with de­grees from the Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia and the In­dian In­sti­tute of Sci­ence, Shankar Ra­man has spent over 20 years study­ing wildlife and hu­man-wildlife in­ter­ac­tions in vir­tu­ally ev­ery part of the coun­try—from Guindy Na­tional Park in Chennai to the Nam­dapha Na­tional Park in the North­east. He has stud­ied song­birds, ele­phants and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. In the tus­sle be­tween man and an­i­mal, he’s a prag­ma­tist who be­lieves that, with some ef­fort, an in­te­gra­tive so­lu­tion that takes care of both is pos­si­ble.

This book is an in­dis­crim­i­nate pas­tiche of his ex­pe­ri­ences and opin­ions. The ini­tial es­says about his child­hood fas­ci­na­tion with bird­ing in Guindy, his later in­volve­ment with

nat­u­ral­ist ‘Cut­let’ R.K.G. Menon are del­i­cately de­scrip­tive, per­sonal and en­gag­ing. His ex­pe­ri­ences study­ing jhum, or slash and burn cul­ti­va­tion, in Mi­zo­ram show that the prac­tice is far less eco­log­i­cally dam­ag­ing than the mono­cul­ture plan­ta­tions the govern­ment has been en­cour­ag­ing.

How­ever, these chap­ters are in­ter­spersed with ones that are cur­sory, like the one on a tra­verse through Nam­dapha. Of­ten, Shankar Ra­man’s de­tailed de­scrip­tions of wildlife get over­whelm­ing. Since the chap­ters are a poorly re­vised col­lec­tion of his writ­ings from dif­fer­ent publi­ca­tions, a repet­i­tive­ness creeps in. There’s also a stylis­tic in­con­gruity—some chap­ters, like the one on the cut­ting of fig trees grow­ing along road­sides and swimming with dol­phins, are deeply per­sonal. How­ever, oth­ers, like the ones on in­te­grat­ing eco­nom­ics with ecol­ogy or air pol­lu­tion, are broad, de­tached and sta­tis­ti­cal.

At nearly 60 chap­ters and over 400 pages, it is a head-spin­ning read. This is a real tragedy (of poor edit­ing) that con­veys lit­tle of Shankar Ra­man’s con­tri­bu­tions to the field.

THE WILD HEART OF IN­DIA T. R. Shankar Ra­man OX­FORD UNIVER­SITY PRESS `795; 508 pages

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