Of hope and despair: 40 years with tigers (Book Review)

Title: Living with Tigers; Author: Valmik Thapar; Publisher: Aleph; Pages: 206; Price: 599

When one talks of wildlife experts and conservationists in India, Valmik Thapar is among the first to come to mind – 40 memorable years with tigers in Ranthambore – a feat achieved by just a handful in the field.

Intrguing indeed is the conviction with which Thapar has shared his experiences with people across the world and even as the offering at hand is his 3oth publication, the wildlife expert, in his own words, has “loved every minute of his time”.

It is easy to be in awe of his works but difficult indeed to even fathom that a journey as magnificent as his actually began with a sense of despair. In early 1976, the author “needed a break.”

Then a city boy and unsure of what lay ahead, all that Thapar wanted was to get out of Delhi.

As he writes in his latest book: “All I knew at that time, at the age of 23, was that something was missing in my life. There was a sense of emptiness and despair and a lack of excitement.”

So one late afternoon in the same year, he boarded a train for the small town of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. Thapar admits in “Living with Tigers” that he could not have imagined that he would find the lure of the jungle irresistible. As destiny would have it — here we are — 40 years down the line with 30 books in print and numerous tales of tigers like Padmini that would have otherwise remained unknown.

This is the story of the tigers that Thapar befriended and became close to. Ranthambore Tiger Reserve has been the root of all his learning. It is within the folds of this forest that Thapar discoverd the secrets of his tigers. Many such lessons of his life find mention in this book.

We also come across Fateh Singh, Thapar’s guru and friend. The then (1976) wildlife warden of the park, Fateh Singh, according to Thapar, looked like someone straight out of the American Wild West with his luxuriant moustache and stetson. The two shared a common and intense interest in wildlife — tigers particularly.

More than anything else, this book is about Thapar’s personal experiences, observations and the lessons that he learnt from the forest. Immediately after his first visit to Ranthambore, he began to read and learn more about the “majestic striped big cat.” Some of those lessons that find mention in the book are a treat for both laymen and experts.

Vividly recalling the picturesque setting of Ranthambore in his early days there, Thapar writes: “The forest was extraordinary and utterly striking as it changed colour from season to season. Lush and green after the monsoon with gushing waterfalls and gurgling streams, changing to a Golden Russet in the winter as the nutritious leaves of the dhok trees fall and the forest looks totally bare, then turning from yellow to green in the spring. By the early summer a variety of vegetation covers the forest floor and the flame of the forest begins to boom, turning large patches of forest a vivid red.”

Thapar has spent every waking moment in close proximity to tigers ever since and has studied nearly 200 of them. Of the various tigers he observed, a handful became extra special and it is these which come to glorious life in this book. They include Padmini, the Queen Mother, the first tiger the author got to know well; Genghis, the master predator, who invented a way of killing prey in water, the first time this had been observed anywhere in the world; Noon, one of his all-time favourites, who received her name because she was most active in the middle of the day; Broken Tooth, an exceptionally gentle male; Laxmi, a devoted mother, whose methods of raising her cubs revolutionised tiger studies; and Machli, the most famous tigress in Ranthambhore, among others.

For a reader though, the tigers take the backseat and Thapar occupies a larger-than-life image in the book. This he does not by blowing his own trumpet but rather by simply sharing his experiences.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)