The most striking aspect of Wilderness Tales from Similipal is a vivid picture of the forests that Satyesh Naik weaves through his words, so charming that you’re left wanting to visit a forest right away.
Raza Kazmi, a Jharkhand based conservationist, is interested in India’s wildlife history, the intersection of tribal rights and conservation needs, and conservation issues in India’s conflict-ridden ‘Red Corridor’ landscape.
Satyesh Naik’s debut book, Wilderness Tales From Similipal (2016), is one of the most heart-warming reads in recent memory in the ever-expanding genre of Indian wildlife writing. The Odisha-based naturalist’s book is perhaps the first work ever to be solely dedicated to the state’s jungles, of which he is arguably the finest contemporary chronicler. His blog, ‘Wilderness Tales from Odisha’, is the only source of authentic and meticulously researched written record, usually in the form of travelogues, of the mammalian and avian fauna of nearly every protected area (PA) and other obscure forests of the state. I first stumbled upon the blog in 2011, and had found his writing style to be extremely engaging and lively. Back then, I hoped that he would soon bring forth a book on his travels across the length and breadth of his state. While that wish still remains, he has come up with a wonderful ode to the forests he has been closely involved with for nearly half a decade – those of the 2,750 sq. km Similipal tiger reserve in the state’s Mayurbhanj district.
What makes Naik’s effort all the more commendable is the fact that his book isn’t about your usual safari jaunts to a ‘star tiger reserve’ or an eloquent narration of a casual two-day day visit to a PA, which is what most of wildlife travelogue writing has been whittled down to today. Instead, it takes you on an intimate journey through the nooks and corners of a little-known tiger territory that has been given short shrift by wildlife enthusiasts over the years and has been all but forgotten by the mainstream conservation community of India.
The book, published by Cinnamon Teal publishers, is neatly divided into 26 chapters, each providing peeks into Similipal’s ‘jungle life’ and its characters, both animal and human.
The most striking aspect of the book – standing out as prominently across the pages as the peaks of Meghasani hills of Similipal – is the vivid picture of the forests of Similipal that Naik weaves through his words. It is so charming that you can’t help but feel a very strong urge to visit a forest right away, and Similipal specifically. The other quality that shines through the pages of the book is the author’s love for the wild (note that I don’t use the term ‘wildlife’ but wild) for he seems to be as much in love with the bees and butterflies and the habitat they live in as he is with the elusive tigers of this reserve. He finds the same pleasure in observing the numerous birds here as he does in observing the beauty of many gurgling brooks and rivers that crisscross the park. He finds the same happiness beside the quiet jungle pool as he does in “embracing” the cool, refreshing jungle breeze that, as he says, “would have kissed the peaks of Meghasani, blown over the river Khairi at Jenabil, manoeuvred through the gorges of Joranda and Barheipani, blown past the Sal trees of Dhudruchampa and hugged the meadows of Nawana…” And so his writing style has a distinctly quaint, old-shikar-literature-like vibe to it.
He speaks of the flora in the same way, with deep knowledge, be it the gigantic ‘maha brukhya sal’ of Gurguria forest or the endemic orchid (Eria meghasaniensis) of the Megahasani hills. He even goes on to list the varied non-timber forest products that are often used by the local villagers, along with their local Oriya names. And so by time the reader is done with the book, she has a small-checklist of names such as siali (creepers), jhoona (Sal resin), paluo (arrowroot), chatu (mushrooms), jadi (fig fruits), etc. at her disposal. What makes this all the more remarkable is that I have rarely come across a modern day wildlife writer focusing on these aspects of the jungle, they being usually content with writing page after page on the charismatic fauna of their chosen forest.
While there cannot ever be a final word, so to speak, in natural history writing, for Similipal however Naik’s book sets the bar extraordinarily high. He knows every hill, every river, every kuccha forest road, every beat and every range of the tiger reserve as if it were his own backyard. It would take a herculean effort on the part of any future chronicler of these forests to better Naik in this department, and yet, if this feat is ever achieved, probably nobody would be as happy as Naik himself.
The book is peppered with snippets of interesting historical literature related to Similipal, ranging from the writings of the legendary administrator-scholar Sir William Wilson Hunter to the colonial-era district gazetteers and even tidbits from Salim Ali’s pioneering field work here in the 1970s. However, what sets his historical notes on Similipal apart from the usual is that in addition to English writing he draws also from Oriya literature – thus explaining how noted Oriya poet Radhanath Ray has described the hills of Similipal as “salmali saila”, meaning moss-covered hills, in his poem Usha.
And then he finally, painstakingly, gathers historical anecdotes on these forests from elderly forest staff and locals – which teleport the reader back to the colonial era, when these wilds were the private hunting grounds of the Mayurbhanj Raj.
Amidst all these tales of the past, however, two names and one story loom large: the endearing tale of S.R. Choudhury, Similipal’s first field director and one of independent India’s greatest forest officers, and his ‘foster daughter’ Khairi, the tigress captured as a cub by a few Khadia adivasis who found the seemingly abandoned cub near the river Khairi that flows through the reserve, an incredible story of human-animal bond that first put Similipal on the map. And even though this tale unfortunately didn’t have a happy ending, their legend lives on in the Similipal landscape nearly 40 years after their passing away, one after the another.
Naik’s masterful narration often provides an enchanting window to the past as he paints the picture of life at the range offices inside the tiger reserve as they used to be half a century ago, the hunting days and the isolated village life of yore. He informs how some of the peripheral forests of Similipal were once the site of ‘secret rendezvous’ of Indian soldiers during World War II – something not recorded in the state’s archives but has been passed on to him by the elderly villagers of the area. He describes his brief stop with a forester at a place called ‘Hathitrap’, which he explains mean “the ghats where elephants [were] trapped” and goes on to elucidate how, according to local folklore, this particular spot inside the reserve earned its name by being a favourite site of the royalty of Mayurbhanj for carrying out kheddah (a traditional elephant catching exercise).
This brings me to another aspect of the book that I really liked: Naik’s propensity to explain the various local names, be it for a hill, a river, a grassland and so on. So I now know that the Machakandana waterfall on the Palpala river means “the falls where fish start crying while going upstream”. That the Bhanjabasa forests was “where Bhanjas, the Kings of Baripada [Mayurbhanj state’s capital] used to stay.” Further, while providing detailed notes on the avian fauna of Similipal, the author informs us that the oriental pied hornbill is locally known as kochilakhai because “they love eating a fruit called kochila (Strychnos nuxvomica)”. That the rare hill myna is called sara and even has a beat in the tiger reserve named after them – Sarua – because these rare birds are sighted regularly there.
And so the Odia ballads sing, writes Naik, “Ei bana jharana / Nachi nachi jaona / Ei mora maina / Dhara diana” (Naik: “Oh hills and waterfalls, don’t go away dancing from us and my Mynas, you also don’t get trapped and be a free-spirit”.)
Maybe the finest thing in the book is Naik’s evocative and deeply sympathetic depiction of the typical idiosyncrasies of forest-life – the lonely beat houses, the isolated forest rest-house bungalows that hark back to a lost age, the lovely food prepared using the kitchen gardens that all rest houses, range offices and beat houses have, the spartan living conditions of the staff and yet the warmth and camaraderie they share. A particularly lovely snippet of jungle life is the short prose on an impromptu cricket match among the staff at the Bhanjabasa office deep inside the tiger reserve on a rainy day, which brought usual work to a halt.
With a “group of ravens that normally would keep hovering near the bungalow kitchen” being the only spectators, “the rubber ball was flying all around the tiger reserve as ‘twos’ and ‘singles’ were banned in the match”, writes Naik. The “match turned out to be a stormy affair with teams getting into conflict on more than one occasion”, but all arguments would be soon forgotten over “the plates of hot steamy pakodas that Ranjan served with chai to players.” The book is full of such amusing interactions with the department staff posted at remote outposts, cut off from the outside world. Tales that, just like life, are sometimes funny, at other times poignant and some even sad.
The tiger stories narrated to Naik by Somnath, an experienced forester and an old Similipal hand lovingly addressed as ‘mausa’ (uncle) around the kitchen chullah, the recounting of Naik’s friendship with the cooks of each range and beat (who I suspect made extra-delicious dishes for him in return), all make for enjoyable reads. Perhaps no other author I have read in recent years has painted a portrait of the daily ‘ordinary’ life and work of the field staff as vividly as him. Having been lucky to enough to have witnessed the life of the staffers closely in Palamu and Hazaribagh in Jharkhand over the years, I could appreciate how accurately Naik had recreated these scenes on paper.
While the author pays rich tributes to the forest staff in almost every chapter of the book, he also has some remarkable tales of interactions between the protectors and their wards. Take for example the tale of a tusker who one night turned up at the remote Baunsakhal beat, constantly trumpeting. The sleepy staff woke up to find the giant in great pain, his entire hind-side riddled with numerous gunshot wounds.
“The elephant made a noise as if trying to tell the horrifying story to its protectors”. The staff, initially scared and confused over approaching an injured elephant, were finally overcome with emotion when “the elephant trumpeted a couple of times” and moved back to stare at the staff, stationed at a slight elevation, eye to eye. Naik narrates the ordeal: “[he] was in dire pain… the guards out of despair shouted ‘Hey ganesha thakura ruha, kuade jaoni, ame tumaku bancheibu’ [Oh Ganesha, don’t run away. We will save you]”. Unfortunately, the guards couldn’t save the poor animal. He eventually succumbed to his injuries, but not before alerting the staff to the presence of poachers in the vicinity.
The photos included in the book are also a treat, not because they are the work of a top-notch professional wildlife photographer but because they are honest and rooted, and they go beyond the pretty animal or bird portrait that usually adorn the pages of magazines. Apart from the usual images of the fauna, Naik’s photos include lovely frames of various quaint forest bungalows and remote guard outposts, and of staff quarters with smoke billowing from their kitchens against a green canopied backdrop. Much to my happiness, he includes dozens of images of the forest staff, sometimes huddled around the fire on a chilly morning preparing tea, at other times having a humble meal while others have them on their usual foot patrols, with the author tagging along. There are also some wonderful images of the vibrant weekly haats (village markets) at remote forest villages.
Such images are far more interesting than the usual dozens of tiger portraits taken from a canter or gypsy at some ‘star reserve’ that fill up the spaces in various publications today. Satyesh Naik’s book as a whole in fact makes the reader travel to much simpler, and daresay better, days, when there were no safari jeeps jostling across the forest for a ‘tiger sighting’, no noisy rowdy tourists armed with bazooka-sized lenses, no ‘luxury’ resorts mushrooming all over the place. The book harks back to that old world charm of jungle travel – what naturalist and writer Prosenjit Das Gupta calls the ‘hard way’ of travelling, and the various idiosyncrasies associated with it, all of which blended to make a ‘jungle experience’ what it was.
Nonetheless, while there are so many good things to be said about the book, it does falter in some areas. What strikes the reader immediately is that the book’s publishers have done a very poor job at copy-editing the text and have let the author down. There are many rough-edges in the writing that should have been polished – if only the publisher’s in-house editor had given it some effort. And even as the editing leaves much to be desired, the formatting suffers from the same defects, with too many needless capitalisations (especially of species names) that are jarring and break the reader’s flow.
The chapters are not numbered and an index should have been included. The photos have all been provided (chapter-wise) at the end of the book, which is again a disappointment. The publishers should have placed the images alongside the relevant chapters. The current arrangement gives the book a very amateur feel. Moreover, since the mammalian wildlife of Similipal is very shy and not easily sighted, the author should have considered providing a few camera trap photos of Similipal’s faunal diversity. The chapters are also somewhat haphazardly arranged. They should ideally have been arranged in the order in which the author explored Similipal, or in a way he wished the readers to get acquainted with the park. Consequently, the entire text becomes a little clumsy. In sum, I wish the book was published by a mainstream publishing house with a deft yet firm editor’s hand and a qualified designer.
The other major defect the book suffers from is that not a single map of Similipal has been provided, which is quite perplexing. While the author has diligently and painstakingly listed down the names and direction-of-approach to hundreds of places within the tiger reserve, they mean little to a reader unfamiliar with the landscape, who will find these both confusing and of little use in the absence of a map. The author in fact even mentions having composed his own hand-drawn maps for the reserve, and yet curiously didn’t include them in the book.
Moreover, the book also falters in analysing a few issues that have put Similipal in the news over the years. One of the most notable events in Similipal’s recent history were the debilitating coordinated attacks across various ranges of the park in the spring of 2009 by locals, allegedly led by Maoists. While the park has bounced back since then, the event opened a lot of questions regarding the complex dynamics of department/local-populace relationship. Unfortunately, the author has written little about this event and this critical episode is dispatched in a single paragraph in the first chapter, with a few stray references to the attack throughout the remainder of the text. It makes for a looming black cloud of sorts that crops up every now and then in the background of a chapter’s narrative but is never adequately explained.
Naik also could have added some more details on the tradition of Akhand Shikar that Similipal is infamous for. This is an annual mass-hunting ritual carried out by the adivasis of Mayurbhanj over a period of a week to a fortnight in April. There are similar ceremonial hunts that occur across the adivasi homelands of east-central India that are known by different names. But Akhand Shikar is the most well-known because it is only in Mayurbhanj that the adivasis initiate hunts inside a tiger reserve, so the confrontation between the department and adivasis is much more severe. Even though the historical context to this tradition has been addressed in brief in two separate chapters, we do not get any information on the cultural reasons behind the persistence of such traditions and how they can be reformed from within by the communities.
Finally, despite being so thoroughly packed with information related to Similipal, all of it is diffused throughout the text. There is no single cohesive introduction to the tiger reserve with all the facts and data (such as total number of ranges in the tiger reserve, staff strength, core and buffer areas, etc) in one place, or a glossary explaining various administrative terms such as range, beat, section, etc. for the lay reader. Similarly, an appendix on the current status of various species in the tiger reserve and their usual haunts would have been beneficial.
Just as well, the book’s engaging content more than makes up for these few flaws. I especially enjoyed the chapter of the Olta Bagha of Nawana, a supernatural half-tiger-half man that the locals believe inhabits the forests of Nawana, a story that could have only been penned by someone who knows his forest and its people like the back of his hand. His beautiful prose describing the journey of Deo and Salandi rivers that water the reserve is extremely moving. His eerie supernatural experience at the century old Chahala bungalow, the tales of the mysterious apparitions seen at Devasthali meadow and the unexplained lights often witnessed by both staff and locals over the Ganpat hills, all induce goosebumps.
Being a rail enthusiast, a particular chapter of interest for me was ‘Tigers, Timber and Train’ that dealt with the now-decommissioned, and more than a century old, narrow gauge lines of the Mayurbhanj State Railways that once skirted the tiger reserve’s forests. The chapter narrating the precarious drive down to Bhatunia, one of the remotest beats of Similipal, allows the reader to truly feel the terror that Naik must have experienced when on that treacherous kuccha ghat road. The reader is also sure to enjoy Naik’s description of the peculiar beliefs of the local Khadia honey collectors and the story of the Ganesha of Dudhurchampa. One can’t help but smile reading about Dayanidhi babu, the poet-cum-range officer of Pithabata who writes paeans in praise of Similipal’s forests and its denizens
However, the oddest chapter in the book is one on the preparations to be made for camping in the hills of Similipal, which draws parallels from the shikar-camp preparation instructions provided in Colonel A.E. Stewart’s classic, Tiger and Other Game (1928). This detailed writeup on the supplies one should carry for long jungle stays, especially in a cerebral-malaria-prone area like Similipal, is something which I have never seen in modern-day wildlife writing. Naik’s captivating descriptions of various village haats that punctuate the book are also impressive.
Naik’s description of the womenfolk of our forest communities is also refreshing and accurate. However, one of the most fascinating stories narrated by the author is an elephant story from the 1960s, when, one faintly moonlit night, a wild elephant herd literally handed over their calf to Harmohan babu, the forester at Barhakamuda, to secure the young from an impending threat, and then took the calf back the next morning from the forester’s safe custody! What was that threat you ask? Read the book.
The final chapter gives tantalising glimpses of Similipal-eque forest tales and legends from the Satkosia, Odisha’s other tiger reserve, where the author had now moved on to to widen his horizons on conservation in the state. One truly hopes that Naik comes out soon with a similar book on this little-known wilderness. Meanwhile, Similipal, one of India’s original nine tiger reserves, the world’s only known habitat of the melanistic and one of the few formidable tiger strongholds of the east-central Indian landscape, finally has a book befitting its stature.