I was tempted to read the two books simultaneously. Both deal with wildlife, conservation and conservationists. Both are written by authors in awe of and in love with their subjects. Yet, I finished reading one long before I was done with the other.
Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals is a collection of her short pieces written for a newspaper. Soonoo Taraporewala’s Tiger Warrior is a biography based on her interactions with the tiger conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore, his family and friends. The first is infectious in its playfulness; the second is a catalogue of the spoils of a remarkable life.
Lenin is a wildlife documentary filmmaker turned natural history writer who is serious about not appearing to be taking herself or her husband, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, too seriously. Taraporewala retired as a librarian and brings the formal rigour of the profession to her book even at the cost of being rather mechanical.
Both serve their own purpose. Popular green writing in India ceased to be popular with the passing away of M Krishnan. Unlike most of her contemporaries in the media, Lenin is not easily sentimental and deals more in humour than sermons. The readability of her book has the potential to revive a stagnating genre.
If My Husband and Other Animals can excite readers not deeply into wild things, Tiger Warrior satisfies curiosities about Fateh’s life among his admirers. While his was not a particularly secretive life, Fateh was to tiger conservation what Elvis was to rock ‘n’ roll, and many familiar with only a facet or two of Mr Ranthambhore will thank Taraporewala for chronicling his life in meticulous detail.
Tiger Warrior gives an account of almost everything about Fateh. His ancestry, family, childhood, education, early love and marital discords, how the aspiring actor developed a passion for the tiger and conservation, how he single handedly transformed a messy scrub forest into a tiger haven called Ranthambhore, the many sacrifices he made, the iconic status he achieved, the numerous controversies that followed him and his eventual vindication, his zest for life and defiance before a death foreordained by cancer.
Yet, to me, the real Fateh — in flesh, blood and warts — does not really come through in Tiger Warrior. Taraporewala touches upon every aspect of his life but stops shy of the sensitive. She does talk about the generous tippler who gave up drinking once his liver was damaged. But the unabashed charmer of women remains absent. Fateh’s penchant for acquiring land, not only for his forests but also for himself, what he once described to me as “quintessentially Rajput”, does not find a mention.
Taraporewala notes in passing that Fateh had differences with his long-time friend Valmik Thapar and how fellow conservationists tried to dissuade patrons from funding Fateh’s NGO TigerWatch. But why Fateh fell out with his close friends and compatriots, and how the isolation dismayed and angered him in turn, remain unchartered territories. Nor does the book throw any light on how Fateh, who as an officer dealt with poachers with a degree of ruthlessness, became a believer in the rehabilitation of hunting tribes in his final years.
That said, Taraporewala offers a treasure of unknown nuggets: why Queen Elizabeth credited her treasurer for the tiger she shot herself, how Rajiv Gandhi turned down a state proposal to install a power generator at Jogi Mahal during his stay inside the park, what made Bill Clinton stretch his evening safari much beyond the security schedule, or how many bottles of Coke a young Valmik downed in a single sitting.
But one gets a feeling that Taraporewala relied too much on Fateh’s casual reminiscences even for verifiable facts. For example, top Ranthambhore officials were not removed the very day — as she claims in the book — the Rajasthan police arrested a few poachers following Fateh’s leads. They could not have been, because it was a secret raid, details of which were shared within the government only after days of interrogation and followup investigation. There are a few such tall claims in Tiger Warrior.
Elsewhere, the author gushes about how “every book written by Valmik on Ranthambhore… helped enormously in the writing of this biography”. The downside of this influence is the repetition of a few of Thapar’s errors in her book: Taraporewala writes that “In November 2004, the Wildlife Institute of India issued a report saying there were no tigers left in Sariska.” Such a report would’ve made quite a few errant IFS officers guilty of perjury, if only it was ever issued.
Coming soon after Fateh’s death, Tiger Warrior is a must-have on any green bookshelf and will serve as the prime reference for all future biographies of Mr Ranthambhore. My only complaint is that Taraporewala leaves it to adjectives to give the reader a sense of the “gregarious person with a wicked sense of fun, like a naughty but very lovable child” who was “exuberant, large-hearted and generous to a fault”. It’s a true description of Fateh that she does not care to illustrate with too many anecdotes.
But whenever she recounts one, the narrative lights up instantly: Fateh’s elder daughter Padmini once overheard a fellow passenger in a train brag about knowing “the great Tiger Man, six feet two inches tall (about half a foot more than Fateh’s height), who strode effortlessly through the most rugged landscapes, drank a bucketful of rich creamy milk and ate a whole goat every single day. Just as Padmini was trying to envisage the effect that such a rich diet would have on her father’s weak digestive system, a ticket checker came along, and spoilt the fun by recognising her and asking after her father.”
Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals, on the other hand, is conversational, personal and intimate — almost to a fault. Unlike Taraporewala — who, for all her devotion to Ranthambhore and Fateh, always remained a regular tourist visiting from Mumbai — Lenin moved in with an assortment of wildlife, including frogs, ants, snakes, monkeys and a husband, at a wild farm. This ‘naturalisation’ of a city woman entails a series of petty but unusual challenges. Naturally, Lenin is not short of stories.
Being part of the ‘Page 3 crowd’ of the conservation circuit, she enjoys access to a range of experts and taps that knowledge base well. Most of her quests are esoteric and yet intriguing enough to keep the reader hooked. Her interest ranges from ‘immaculate animal conception’ to body odour. She explores the connection between sambhar, the south Indian dish, and sambar, the Asian deer; examines how different animal potty habits reflect on Indians who relieve themselves outdoors; and learns to flog trees that do not flower easily.
Of course, My Husband and Other Animals is a lot about the husband. We learn a lot about Rom’s early life, adventures, quirks, mischievousness, determination and achievements. Lenin seldom uses qualifiers to describe her man but the numerous stories she narrates portray “the dude” as “the king of cool” whose voice often “trails” and who is possibly vulnerable to bullying at home.
Lenin’s breezy style stumbles on occasion, when she attempts to address less esoteric issues such as relocation of villages or releasing hand-raised animals in the wild. Even otherwise, not all essays conform to the general flair that marks My Husband and Other Animals. Also, like the Gerald Durrell-inspired title, some ideas explored in the book are not particularly original.
She is at her best when not encumbered by a brief or purpose. “Why do they (animals) play?” wonders Lenin in an essay, “To me, that’s a silly question. Why do we play? It relieves stress, builds camaraderie… and mostly, it is just sheer good fun.” She could well be explaining why she writes, or why one must read her book.