LOST IN THE WOODS
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