Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunderban diaries iii: the faithless faithful

Keshab Giri is a pious man. Every evening, the bearded priest of Kultuli village would go to a banyan tree by the river and pray at its feet, light a clay lamp, then walk back to his hut by the paddy fields. This evening wasn’t supposed to be any different.

But as Giri walked, the village seemed unusually quiet. Even the village curs had fallen silent. All Giri could hear tonight was the sound of his bare feet rustling the dry grass. At the foot of the great banyan, Giri began his prayers. The air around the tree was heavy with a pungent, unfamiliar odour. Maybe it’s from the bank, he thought. Dead cattle, rotting flowers and once even a dead man, swollen and yellow had drifted past these shores. But this smell was different – overpowering, but alive.

Giri tried to return to his prayers. He couldn’t. He opened his eyes to light the lamp… there, inches away from his forehead, hanging from the branches was a striped tail, its tip flicking. “I fell over backward, chanting Maa’s name. My eyes met the tiger’s. It glowered and snarled, but didn’t attack,” Giri said. “Quivering with fear, I screamed ‘bagh ayese... tiger’s here!’ Within minutes, the whole village had gathered, flaming torches in hand. We surrounded the tree and started chanting Maa’s name… the tiger seeing the crowd, climbed higher up, and then jumped off the tree, past the crowd and into the village.” Giri pointed at a hut behind a duck pond, “…ran straight into it, past an old woman lying by the courtyard, tore through the wall and into the paddy fields. Astonishingly, no one was hurt. Maayer kripa… grace of the Mother.”

As we spoke, a sea eagle called and a streak of bright orange lit up the horizon. Dawn was breaking over the Sunderbans. Word had spread that a tiger had swum across the river from an island forest and entered the village, and we’d given chase. But we’d reached a little too late. The tiger had been captured by the forest officials and taken away before we could reach. But the journey hadn’t been in vain, because I got to meet ‘Maa’.

In most parts of the country, ‘Maa’ would mean any of the many forms of Durga, but in the Sunderbans, it does not refer to a Hindu deity but a Muslim one – and one both pious Hindus and devoted Muslims pray to together – ‘Maa Bonbibi’. Legend has it that Bonbibi, born to poor Muslim parents, was abandoned, and then brought up by a deer in these forests. Blessed by Nature, she became the protector of these forests and all who enter it in good faith. Bonobibi shrines, with the idol of a goddess sitting on a tiger, dot the Sunderbans (see Slipstream). And today Kultuli was going to thank Maa for keeping them safe.

The villagers had organised a jatra – a musical play celebrating Bonbibi. As the gaudily painted actors got into the act, on a makeshift stage, Giri Baba’s friend, a dark eyed man with a shock of white hair and a wispy beard, Muttalib Mollah, whispered, “Sunderban’s villages have both Hindus and Muslims, but in truth they are just children of the forest. The Musholmans pray five times in a mosque and the Hindus do their temple aarothi, but when it is time to go to the forest, we are together in our prayers to Maa Bonbibi. The Muslims tuck their beards and sit arm in arm in front of an idol with the Hindus who have no qualms about praying to a Muslim deity. Even when riots have spread across the Bengals, the Hindus and Muslims of the Sunderbans have lived as brothers… because the forest forces us to remain human, remain humane and stay in touch with what religion was meant to be… a source of strength, a divine bond, with our Khuda, our soul and our neighbour. A night in the forest is enough to teach you that. Theek bolchhi dada?” Muttalib turned to Giri. Though engrossed in the jatra, Giri turned, put an arm around Muttalib, nodded and smiled “theek… aekdom theek”. The play was long, the actors terrible and the music off-key, but the Kultuli crowd cheered, enraptured and entranced. The stage was empty now. The crowd was dispersing. Giri asked Muttalib to sing. “Aekhon kayno… why now?”. He was reluctant. “Gao na, aamra nachbo…sing, we’ll dance” Some people around him also insisted and a reluctant Muttalib went up on stage. Giri told me that Muttalib sang Hari kirtans really well.

Muttalib started, tentatively first, and then with gusto…The musicians returned, the dhols erupted, and the crowd stopped and turned. Muttalib was singing and ‘shaking’, and Kultuli, Hindus, Muslims alike, were ‘shaking with him…

This was my last day in these magical forests. It was a good day…

Lady of the legend

In the marshy swamps of the Sunderbans, faith has rock-solid underpinnings. Around the largest delta of the world, forest communities hail Bonbibi to protect them against the weather, and of course, the cat. Legends of the goddess, and more elaborately her nemesis, Dokkhin Rai, were first mentioned by Krishnaram Das in the 17th century. Later, the tales were retold in late 19th century in the Bonbibi Johurnamah by Abdur Rahim, who wrote them in Bangla, but in the way of the Arabic script – right to left.

This jungle goddess was born to a Muslim, Ibrahim, and his first wife, who was abandoned in the forest by the former when she was pregnant, at the behest of the second wife. The first wife gave birth to twins and left the girl child to the elements. Raised by a deer, Bonbibi, was chosen by Providence to fight the menace of the wicked Brahmin-turned-tiger, Dokkhin Rai.

Upon her divine mission, Bonbibi set out with her estranged brother Shah Jungoli for Mecca Medina to seek the blessings of Fatima and brought back some holy earth to mix in the Sunderbans’ soil. Her return and activities agitated Rai who challenged her to a duel. Dokkhin was vanquished and he pleaded forgiveness, addressing Bonbibi as ‘Mother’. Bonbibi, in her parting enjoinders, wished the forests be accessed only by the pobitro mone (pure hearted) and khali hatey (empty handed). To date, the Sunderban communities pay their obeisance to the goddess on Bonbibi Utsav, irrespective of caste, clan or religion…


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunderban diaries II: Witch doctor

Dark waist-high waters and unseen dangers lay between the anchored boat and the mud banks of Pather Para. I looked at the opposite bank where loomed the treacherous Sunderbans - here many might enter, but few return. I turned to the mud bank in front, and with a sense of resignation, rolled up my trouser legs high, said a silent prayer and jumped into the warm waters of the Matla river, home to some of the most poisonous water snakes in the world, but they were the least of my worries. My legs disappeared into the blue black waters, followed by my torso till I felt the soft sticky river bed suck me in. Little boys often disappear in the river while bathing, only to resurface days later – a head, some limbs, and some skin and bone. The flesh apparently hacked away – hangor! Sharks! Strictly statistically speaking though, sharks aren’t half as likely to take a bite out of you as is the salt water crocodile. And since, crocs had claimed a victim here just days ago, statistically speaking, I could be tickling them with my toes this very moment but was unlikely to get bitten until about next week. Now ‘statistics’ plays an important role in my life. It was while a classmate of mine was teaching me statistics (Psst.. Business Statistics) that she realised I was so pathologically inept at most things, including statistics, that it would be cruel and dangerous to leave me to my own devices and decided to marry me and save the world, for which I’m eternally grateful to her and the subject. But at that moment, as I squelched my way to the bank, I couldn’t care less for statistics even if I tried.

Squelch! Squelch! Squelch! Finally Pather Para. “Only two things can save you in the Sunderbans. Maaer mantro aar guniner jantro (yantra).You’ll find one of them in Pather Para”, Satyo, a tiger attack survivor had said. This’d better be worth it. I saw a man hooking crabs on the bank. I asked for directions. On learning about my destination, he reverentially volunteered to guide me there. It was the third hut, as small as the others, if a little neater. Some hens cackled, alarmed at our approach and a duck waddled past in a hurry. “Jagatbandhu! O Jagatbandhu! Ke ayese daykho!”

Jagatbandhu must’ve been awake, for almost immediately, a large hand parted the coarse cloth at the entrance, followed by the rest of him. Not a large man; about 5’9”, calm eyes, slim, but sinewy with unusually broad shoulders. Perhaps they’re broad for a reason, for no one from this village enters the forest without Jagatbandhu’s protection – the protection of a gunin. A gunin is perhaps the most powerful human figure here – for it is believed he can tie a tiger in knots by the power of his charms.

Forest officials scoff at gunins. One senior officer at Sajnekhali said that usually, it is the gunin who gets eaten first. Jagatbandhu smiled when I voiced their doubts. “I can only tell you what I know. Come with me.” Some huts away, on a string cot lay a man. Jagatbandhu called softly. The man rose, yawned, stretched and started “Jagat was no gunin those days. Jagat, I and 11 others had gone crab hunting in the forest. I was hooking a crab when a large male tiger attacked. I fell face down in the mud, the tiger on my back, clawing, biting, eating… Suddenly the tiger stopped. I saw a foot – Jagat’s. I couldn’t feel the tiger on my back but I could hear it roar. I turned… Jagat was standing over me, holding the tiger by its armpits as it towered over him. It was roaring and swiping but nothing touched Jagat. Weighed down by the tiger, Jagat had sunk to his knees in the ooze but he held on, eyes closed, chanting. Thick flecks of saliva from the tiger’s jaws ran down Jagat’s face and neck but he held on. I watched in horror and awe until the frustrated tiger turned and disappeared into a thicket. Jagat collapsed, yet it was he who carried me back. We don’t know how he did it. No one knew he was a gunin. But today he protects us all. The man turned, and I saw the back of his head, a hairless lump, while terrible scars ran the length of his back.

“My uncle was a gunin. He taught me a bit but I never thought it to be more than a game. That day, it all came back to me… don’t know if I could do it again,” said Jagatbandhu almost bashfully. “Maybe won’t need to. I’m learning how to tie a tiger with blades of grass from a new teacher. I can sense when the tiger’s coming.” He paused. “You’ve been looking for the tiger. I know the tiger’s looking for you.” Was Jagatbandhu trying to intimidate me? “Dada! Dada!!” It was Nikhilda, our portly boatman. Huffing, puffing, he rolled into view. “Tadatadi aysho...baagh ayese…hurry, the tiger’s here”. While being dragged away, I turned toward Jagatbandhu. He was smiling “Shamle babu, take care…”

An Enigmatic Eden

Almost every house in the villages surrounding the Sunderbans has lost at least a relative and a limb to the forest and the river. When I asked Jagatbandhu if he would be happier if the tigers and crocodiles were to be trapped and translocated, he bit his tongue and shook his head. “The forests stand because the tigers roam in it. And we exist because the forest protects us. Without the tiger, the forest wouldn’t exist and neither would we.” And Jagatbandhu is not alone. Most people I met in these villages realised, on an everyday basis that not only do they draw sustenance from the river and forest, but without the great mangrove forests acting as a buffer, stormy winds and tidal waters from the Bay of Bengal could wipe out crops, homes and lives on any given day. And they also know that if not for the tiger, timber smugglers would have stripped the swamps bare. The people of the Sunderbans fear the tiger, but they also revere it. Away from the forests, in the comfort of our cubicles, such truths seem mere clich├ęs, but people who live close to nature, live closer to the truth, a truth, which no matter how distant, is bound to influence our sheltered lives too.

Together, the tiger and the Sundari trees (and more than 20 other types) that share their name with this largest of mangrove forests, have ensured the survival of man, beast (perhaps the single highest population of wild tigers in the world) and forest. Long may this trinity prosper!


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Haunted Junction

“Baidyanath led a lonely life as station-master at Begunkodor station on the Purulia-Jharkhand border. For miles on every side, hemmed in by the black hills of Chhotanagpur, all he could see was red earth, cracked and dry, with the odd tree for relief. Usually, he sat on the platform, staring at the railway track as it sprang from one horizon and disappeared into the other. Once in a rare while, a train would crash through his reverie and Baidyanath would rush to see the blur off. Occasionally, when a train would actually stop, a passenger or two would appear from the haze and disappear into the train. Baidyanath would wave and smile, until the whistle blew and the smoke flew; he was alone again.

The village stood a few miles to the south. Baidyanath would see villagers at the station on some days, though they generally seemed to avoid him and his station. Except little Manabanando Mahato. Manab would stop at the station on his way from school and Baidyanath would often tell him stories or teach him math. Usually, Manab was accompanied by his friend Utpal – a quiet boy who’d sit in the corner while Manab and Baidyanath talked. One day, bad news! Utpal had stepped on a snake – dead before he knew it. Manab was inconsolable. Baidyanath walked the child home, past Utpal’s house where people had gathered. Women were wailing while the men spoke in hushed tones. Baidyanath saw the mother – a sorry sight. Baidyanath left. Days passed. One night, while retiring, Baidyanath heard a sound. He’d heard it before – the sound of children playing. But whenever he’d gone to investigate, he saw nothing. He’d seen a lapwing though, and once a pack of dogs digging and pulling near the dead Mohul tree. Perhaps that’s what he’d heard. Away from human voices, perhaps his ears played tricks. But this night, there was something about the noise that seemed familiar… he’d heard it before… what was it? Was it…? Impossible! It was Utpal’s voice!

‘Baidyanath Kaku (uncle)! Kaku!’ Manabanando was looking for the station-master next morning. After searching for a while, he found Baidyanath lying in a shallow well, unconscious. The villagers helped him to a cot on the platform. When Baidyanath awoke, it was dusk. He got up, locked all doors and windows and returned to his bed but kept a lamp burning. He couldn’t sleep. So he waited. As the hour approached, Baidyanath’s eyes closed tight. His heart leapt and flickered like the flame of the lamp. He heard a voice again. Not a child’s but a woman’s. ‘Utpal? Kothhai… where are you? Aay… come to me my child’. Utpal’s mother?! The voice again, closer this time, now further away… near the tracks now, just outside the door… she screamed “Utpal!!” Right next to the door now “Kholo.. open the door, Station Babu.. open the door!” She was screaming. Baidyanath’s eyes closed tighter as he huddled inside the quilt. “Kholo! Kholo!!” The screaming whistle of the night train merged with the woman’s screams as they rose to a crescendo. The iron wheels charged along the rails, like rolling thunder; doors rattled, boards clattered and Baidyanath’s resolve shattered. He ran to the door, opened it, and stared at the tracks. His knees buckled. He fell, his body inert.

Ratan Gope was the first to find her next morning. Utpal’s mother, at least most of her, was lying on the tracks. The head, alongwith an arm was found further ahead. The station master was sitting on the floor, as if in a stupor. After that day, save little Manabanando, he spoke to no one. One day, he disappeared, and wasn’t seen again.” Why? What had he seen? “The Mohul tree next to the station was where the villagers buried their dead children. Baidyanath didn’t know. That night sitting on a branch of the tree, he said Utpal had called out to him. Utpal too had been buried there. Utpal’s mother came looking. Something went wrong. No station master came to take his place and no train has ever stopped at Begunkodor since that day, 30 years ago. Some years later, a villager was walking past the station. It started raining. He took shelter in the deserted station for the night. We found him next morning, delirious. He kept asking about ‘the crazy woman who was running along the tracks’. A week later, he died.” Night! The dark ominous silhouette of the hills merged into the inky blue sky. Standing by the village, I saw the tracks glinting in the moonlight.

Beyond the tracks, almost lost in the descending gloom rose the walls of Begunkodor station. The red brick structure, neglected and forlorn, had saplings on the roof, like wisps of hair on a bald head. Inside, the shadows seemed to hold many secrets. The toothless little man seemed tired. He’d been talking for long. I asked him his name. “Manabanando Mahato! School teacher!…Aashi!” The man turned for the village. In the dark, it was going to be a very long walk through the fields, across the tracks, past the station to the highway faraway. My flesh crawled and so did I.


While Manabanando had his own take on the history of the haunted station, local politicians are apparently trying their hardest to revive the station’s prior status. A local political leader insisted that he’s found audience with the Railway Minister whose office has promised to “look into the matter”.

On the other hand, Railway authorities say that although it is possible that the station masters in the past might have deserted their posts in Begunkodor for various reasons, it might be difficult to make the station operational now. This is because the narrow gauge line has been converted to a high-speed broad gauge line which makes it difficult for the train to stop at Begunkodor.

Most young people in the villages today insist that an operational station at Begunkodor would make life a lot easier for the locals. However, when pressed, many acknowledge that there have been a few inexplicable deaths in the distant past. “It was all so long ago,” they say. The elders in the village seem to remember the stories though, which have perhaps tempered their enthusiasm. A local MLA has a solution – to bring in exorcists to drive the dreaded spirits away. Today Begunkodor is being propped up by the politicians, pulled down by the railways, held against by the villagers and perhaps stands deserted by the spirits.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Forest Fables 1: Primal Fear

“Death has many shapes here”, Satyo had said. “You must reach Pather Para before dark.” I looked up at the sun, blazing down on the brown-grey Matla river. There’s time, I thought. Sitting at the back of the tiny boat, I peered into the turbid waters, looking for a shape… nah, nothing there. The right bank, a clayey slope, rose, mere metres away and disappeared into the forbidding shadows of a mangrove forest – the savage Sunderbans. ‘Sunderbans has risen from the bowels of hell, and yet is more beautiful than heaven’. If no one said it, someone should have.

Ah bubbles! I could touch them if I wanted. I reached out. “Dada! Don’t! Niye jabe… they’ll take you,” screamed Nikhilda, our boatman. Perhaps dulled by the heat, I had forgotten that the waters of the murky Matla often ran red with blood, human blood. Nikhilda would know. He passes Manorama’s hut everyday.

That afternoon, Manorama and her younger brother Sukumar were trawling the shallows with nets, for shrimp. The tide moved in. The waters had risen to their waist. Manoroma knew it was dangerous to wade in these waters now. She asked Sukumar to get out. He turned back and Manorama saw a row of bubbles following Sukumar. She asked him to hurry. Holding his hand, she pulled him on to the bank but the nets were too heavy. She got back in the water to haul up the nets, heavy with catch. The bubbles again… Manoroma screamed. ‘Maa go!’ and she was gone. The river turned red. Sukumar stood still. The waters broke and Manoroma’s head emerged. Her mouth opened, soundless. She was looking at Sukumar, eyes imploring as they submerged again, her arms flailing on the bank, clawing the mud in vain. The hands… the hands, Sukumar lunged, missed the hands but in his fist was a lock of Manorama’s long matted hair. Sukumar pulled, Manorama’s hands found Sukumar’s. The Matla had been denied, this once. The salt-water crocodile, the largest in the world, about 20ft long, weighs nearly 1500 kgs, rarely misses. Manorama was incredibly lucky.

It’s late afternoon. As the boat glided into a channel, the swamp forests rose on both sides. In the dappled light, the shadows seemed to whisper and conspire. At the forest’s edge, a fence, more than 10ft high. What for? “Tigers! To keep them away from the river. They could easily swim to the village (at high tide they often do),” Nikhilda pointed. Not far into the horizon rose the thatched roofs of Jamespur – Satyo’s village. “Usually they don’t need to, though. At night, fishing boats drop anchor midstream. How the tiger jumps onto a boat in high water and carries off a victim without even rocking the vessel is a mystery, but it has happened often, on every boat… this one too.” The sun had softened to a warm pink. “Satyo was working the fence when it happened…” Satyo, 30, about 5’7”, gaunt and stoic. When he and his friends left to work in the forest, his wife, and the wife of every man who enters the forest, had to remove her bangles and sindoor and don the white rags of a widow. The forest exacts its price and one of these women will have to pay. Only those whose husbands return get to wear their bangles again. Many don’t.

Satyo Sardar was digging up the bank with his pick-axe, his back to the forest. Bent double, he caught a glint of yellow behind him. Instinctively, he turned. The smell – pungent and putrid hit him first, and then a striped wall slammed into him. He could feel the muscles, like steel cables against his skin; the teeth digging into his skull, like his pick-axe tearing into the earth; claws ripping through skin and flesh. Like a man possessed he swung his pick-axe, again and again. His friends didn’t move. “The tiger’s roar freezes the spirit. Can’t move even if you want to.” The tiger’s canines sank into the back of his neck. Satyo knew he would die. He summoned all his strength, and swung one last time… then darkness. After an eternity, he felt a touch on his toe. His eyes opened. The tiger had gone. His friends were standing around him. One of them was weeping. “We failed you. Zomey gesilaam… we were frozen. What’ll we tell your wife.” “I’ll live. Take me to a hospital.” After 11 months, countless stitches and seven surgeries, Satyo lived.

A full moon lights up the inky blackness of the water. We’re late. Long ago, on such nights, in such forests, our forefathers would’ve lived in fear, the fear of being eaten. The wilds might’ve been hacked and hunted into submission and extinction elsewhere, but Sunderbans is too proud. Here the tiger and the forest stand, resolute and wild. Far from the chaos of Kolkata, on such boats, on such nights, man is just meat, often, dead meat. “Only two things can save you in Sunderbans. You’ll find one of them in Pather Para”, Satyo had said. The waters had receded. We’ll have to wade through waist-high water to reach the banks of Pather Para. I was hoping to find ‘one of them’... soon.

Who is on the Menu?

Apart from being home to the largest population of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world, Sunderbans also witnesses the maximum number of man-tiger encounters, with about 100 officially reported deaths every year!

Since tigers attack the back of the neck, fibre glass protectors which could be tied around the neck were provided to all whose livelihoods depend on daily visits to the forest by the forest department. But this didn’t continue for long as it did not protect victims from other horrific attacks and injuries. For a while fishermen were asked to wear masks behind their heads to dissuade a tiger from attacking from behind. Later, mannequins shaped like wood cutters, charged with 220 volts of electricity, were placed at different locations. These electrified dummies were meant to shock the tigers and condition them into avoiding human shapes. Both masks and dummies ended up in shreds.

The fencing of forest islands near villages has had some success but tigers still stray into villages like they did on the 17th and 22nd of February 2008. Fishermen and honey collectors are killed far more often than we’ll know because most enter these forests illegally. The only way to end this conflict is to provide alternate means of livelihood to the villagers around Sunderbans so that they are not forced by the pangs of hunger to enter the tiger’s domain. Both villagers and the tigers would end up happier with the bargain.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

He whispers, I wonder

Night falls quickly in the woods, like a curtain dropping suddenly over a window. The ashram had grown quiet. Mere minutes ago, this place was full of monkeys. Little brown ones, squabbling, stealing, grooming, hustling and indulging in a variety of other rather unmentionable verbs. But as the sun slipped off the horizon, the simian hordes disappeared… into the shadows, up the trees. Except for the rustling leaves and the chirping crickets, the night was still. I sat down next to a well, leaning against the wall around it and waited...

In this little ashram, in the middle of the forest near Agra, I was told that there lived a miraculous creature – a man who could talk to the birds and listen to the beasts – a veritable Dr Dolittle. As a child, inspired by the adventures of Hugh Lofting’s hero, I had taught myself to bark and howl and crow and bray. Although my parents tell me that I was particularly gifted with the last one, it didn’t go down too well with the donkey I was practising with, because on my third attempt she had spun around and lashed out with her hind legs, missing my nose by a whisker (!). That brought an end to my early attempts at ‘animal speak’. But somewhere deep down I must’ve been nurturing a child’s belief that I would yet be the one to finally say hello by leaning over the species barrier. So when I heard about this man who spoke to animals, and not mere domesticated farm animals but proud and man-shy denizens of the wild, I was sceptical but fascinated, and just a wee bit envious.

It grew cold, very cold, and I was numb. Someone could’ve taken a saw and run it through skin, tissue and bone and chopped my hands off and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. And I was tired… very tired. In spite of the cold, I was beginning to nod off. I must not have been sleeping for long when I heard a voice – “utho, utho!” It was still very dark…someone was shaking me by the shoulder… “They’re here…” I opened my eyes. A squat little man was grinning from ear to ear, his hand on my shoulder. Groggy and sleepy,

it took me a while to gather my bearings. “Aap Mahantji hain?” I asked, wondering if he was the man I had come to meet. The man nodded. “Get up. They’re here,” he said. Short, portly and with a blissful smile, Mahant Jairam Das, but for the layers of a dhoti, blanket and a shawl wrapped around him, was rather like the Dr Dolittle of my childhood. “They’re here, you can hear them.” I strained hard… I couldn’t. Jairam Das flicked a flashlight and trained its beam on the tin shed that stood mere metres from us. The yellow beam danced on the shed, nothing there, and then two glowing embers...then two more…and then I saw the cat- like silhouettes...the palm civets were here.

Mahant Jairam Das walked up to the rare animals and the palm civets, instead of scampering away into the night, crept along the shed’s edge toward Jairam. These animals are really shy and rarely seen... nocturnal and suspicious of humans, rarely photographed. And here they were following our little man around like a pair of kittens. Jairam Das’ magic didn’t stop there. Palm civets are carnivores. And yet the strange holy man had them eating rotis dipped in milk out of his hand… It was almost surreal.

Jairam’s magic spell had enchanted other forest denizens too. As he walked past the clearing towards the forest’s edge, from the darkness emerged whole herds of animals… spotted deer, nilgai and even a pair of skittish porcupines were drawn to the Mahant’s voice, eating potatoes and Parle G (yes, you read that right) straight from his hand. And in his kitchen sleep a pair of nilgai calves, Ramu and Shyamu, who spent most of their afternoons curled up next to a wild jackal who often drops by for his siesta. This place had the innocence of Eden and they called this man a siddha purusha – a man touched by divinity. That night, I left the forest in a trance… magic exists…

P.S. Thanks to an intolerant monkey and a compassionate mahant, I finally gave up on my dream of becoming a real day Dr Dolittle. But I still have this other boyhood hero of mine that I want to become… Now what was it that he used to say ‘Me Tarzan, you game?’

Kindred soul

If animals could talk, they would rather not with humans. For, we have given them enough reasons to believe “four legs good, two legs bad!” as says the graffiti inscribed on the barn wall in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And yet, there mercifully still exist some modern-day Dr Dolittles, whose bonding with the denizens of the wild is enviable, to say the least.

Steve Irwin: Whatever his critics may have had to say of the Crocodile Hunter’s crazy antics in and around the wild, yet there is no denying the contribution of the “Crikey!” exclaiming manager of the Australia Zoo in educating and endearing millions to formidable animals as crocs and snakes. In his tragic death in 2006, he left behind a unique legacy of his entertaining style of conservation, now shouldered by wife Terri and kids Bindi and Robert.

Jeff Corwin: He’s good-looking and he’s hilarious. But Emmy-winning host Jeff Corwin’s greatest ace is his complete ease around everything from wild elephants to poisonous snakes. When off-screen, Corwin’s Quest continues with his lectures intending to spread awareness about ecology and animal behaviour. Besides, he has also set up a unique environment education centre called EcoZone in Massachusetts.

Tippi: Dressed in shorts and shoes, open hair flowing, little Tippi Degre spent the first nine years of her life in the Namibian hills and desert lands playing with leopards and tuskers, hugging bullfrogs and racing with meerkats. Now 18 and in Paris, the bush baby longs to be back home in Africa.