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.


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