There’s something inexplicable about being in the wilds, watching the predators and their prey. On our short jungle safaris, we rarely get time to understand the natural phenomena and the ways of its inhabitants. So reading a book on a family who have spent their lives, first hunting the animals, and then taking efforts to conserve their population, learning about the myths associated with the wildlife, understanding the bond that the tribals share with their natural habitat, is actually goosebump inducing.
Steed of the Jungle God — Thrilling Experiences in the Wild by Raza Tehsin with Arefa Tehsin is a book that you should curl up with on a moonless night sky, or early winter evening. Or it should be packed first thing in your bag when you set off on a jungle safari. It will set up the atmospherics correctly. Published by National Book Trust, Steed of the Jungle God, will make you fall in love with the wild. It may turn out to be your lifelong passion, as it did for the Tehsin family settled in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
Arefa, who was appointed as the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Udaipur, shares with us what it means to be born in a family of conservationists. “They say the greatest conservationists of all time, like Jim Corbett, have been hunters. My grandfather (T H Tehsin) and father (Raza) were amongst the earliest hunters-turned-conservationists of India. It pains the heart of those who have been closest to forests to see the destruction of wilds around them. I have seen my father fight for wildlife conservation like I wouldn’t fight for my own family. Jungles and wild animals were as much a part of growing up for me, as it was going to school. I have a strong bond with my father as I have with the wild. He taught me not to fear the wild or the animals or the dark or the unknown; and he always gave me in abundance the greatest gift a child can get — time,” says Arefa.
The author also recalls spending a few years of her childhood with her grandfather, fondly known as Bapu. “His progressiveness in those regressive pre and post Independence times, his marrying my grandmother who was physically challenged and supporting her to initiate women’s education movement in Southern Rajasthan and his honour to not leave his motherland despite being offered a partnership in a fleet of merchant ships in Pakistan, remain a beacon to me,” she reminisces.
When her father started his work in the conservation of jungles and the wildlife, he had an uphill task. When asked if the situation is any different now, Arefa replies, “What an uphill and challenging task it is, is evident from us having less and less things left to conserve. When I was appointed as Honorary Wildlife Warden, my father and I would often visit the sanctuaries and national park of the district to see the problems on the ground level. We gave numerous proposals to the forest department on tackling those and improving the state of the forests and wildlife. For instance, one of our proposals was to breed and periodically release hares in the wildlife sanctuaries to maintain a healthy population of small carnivores by providing them abundant food.”
The book has a few stories, anecdotes written by Arefa’s aunt. And, there are a few pieces on her uncles and their tryst with jungle and hunting. How did she select the stories that made up the book? “Though we were tempted to write much more, we couldn’t make the book too cumbersome, so we restricted ourselves to the more interesting stories. My father didn’t maintain a diary but many of his observations on animal behaviour are chronicled through his hundred plus research notes in numerous national and international wildlife journals. Those notes helped,” she adds.
From the jungles of India, we move to Arctic ocean and Sahara Desert. Arefa’s published another book, The Globetrotters, with Puffin. A mischievous kid, Aditya, notoriously known as Hudhud, is punished by his History teacher. He has to roam the world and try and find an answer to the question she has asked. So Hudhud becomes a whale and swims in the icy cold waters; then he becomes a caribou who has to deal with a competitive female reindeer in his herd and so on...
We ask Arefa to tell us about this bird Hudhud and how did she think of naming Aditya as Hudhud! Says she, “Hoopoe, that I always knew as Hudhud, was a regular visitor in our garden when I grew up. Now this bird is a rare sight in urban gardens. I think I just dug Hudhud out of my mind subconsciously to hear the music of the word again.”
And has she been to Arctic ocean and Sahara Desert? How was it to explore these regions through Hudhud and writing about them?
“I have been to the Sahara Desert but not to the Arctic ocean. There is always a lot of reading involved when you are going to write about an animal in its true living space, which can be the deep ocean or the freezing tundra, the wild spaces that you have never seen before. One has to read about their behaviour, habits, likes, dislikes, neighbours, homes and the threats they face. Once that is done, I find it as easy as falling off a log to slip into the mind of a hungry leatherback turtle swimming the deep ocean trying to find a delicious jelly of a fish to eat or a young porcupine reindeer travelling across the Arctic, having a rollicking good time.”
The Steed of the Jungle God doesn’t overtly have any message for the readers, nor does The Globetrotters, but if you read in between the lines, it’s evident that the author would want the kids to take away certain lessons. However, Arefa doesn’t believe in weaving a message for the stories or novels meant for children.
“Children are much smarter and receptive than we give them the credit for. Preaching, more often than not, does not work. Sensitising them is what we should aim at,” she feels.