I desperately wanted a place of my own that opens out to the outdoors. I lived most of my life as a “concrete jungli”, a phrase coined by my armyman brother after witnessing a command mother-daughter performance, when my one-year-old and I visited him in small town Assam. For the better part of the trip, every night my daughter would look at the sky and say “ite”, and we had no clue what it meant. Until it hit me one day that she was saying “light” whenever she looked at the moon, because the Mumbai child had not seen the moon thus far, and worse, her parents had not realised it either. It wasn’t visible from our window (only other buildings were), the car park was indoors, and exhausted Mumbaikar working parents never took the one-year-old for a stroll at night. When she was a few years older, she used to say, “cow ke paas jaake watermelon leke aate hain”, because the chap who sold them came in a bullock cart (and milk came in plastic packets). I never bothered to explain otherwise. It was too much effort. We were a true-blue concrete jungli family.
Two decades later, I yearned for quiet. And space. And green. So despite sniggers from the rest of the family, I hunted for something that could salve my deprivation but fit my budget. I actually found it, thanks to a wonderful friend T, who located it and agreed to build it for me. The first bit of concrete jungli behaviour showed itself when I kept asking for larger and larger windows so that I could have a better view. Puzzled, T pointed out that the whole property was mine, so why didn’t I just step out of the house whenever I wanted to take in the view? And then a terrifying reality sank in. I had signed up for the exquisite mountain view in front of one length of the rectangular property but had not noticed that there was a jungle bordering the other length. I asked T whether any animals would come into my property. Being a seasoned jungle man, he was cool as a cucumber. Elephants, bears, maybe bison, he said. “Can’t we fence the back?” I asked, quaking with terror. He replied, “Then where’s the fun?” My normally unhelpful spouse asked me helpfully, if I thought barbed wire would be strong enough to stop elephants. I said I would add tube lights on top of them (and then, of course, it would be as bright as my bedroom in Mumbai at night with the neon lights streaming in).
I tried explaining to T that I had paid up for the view in front, not for the animal “fun” that lay at the back. “We will see,” was his laconic reply, and we continued the business of building the house. He told me that the jackfruit tree in the middle of the property would be a big draw for the animals. “What do we do then?” I asked anxiously. He looked puzzled. “Nothing,” he said. “When you see an elephant, don’t let it feel threatened by you.” “How do I do that?” I asked. He said, “If you see it in front of you, just retreat and don’t move forward in its direction.” “And if it comes from behind me?” I asked. He said patiently and matter-of-factly, “Elephants are big animals, you will hear them coming, don’t worry.” I asked if any of the workers had actually seen an elephant or a bear. “No,” he said, “but there’s plenty of dung to prove they come visiting often.”
Since then, I have had several discussions with T on fencing the property. Somewhere along the way, he agreed to it and we worked out the kind of fence and what it would cost. When it was all done, I went to see it — and found that he had built a fence in the front, which overlooked other tea gardens, but not at the back, which adjoined the jungle. Looking mildly surprised at my outrage, he said, “But I think the two-legged animals are more dangerous and now we need to protect the building material and the glass windows. The four-legged ones are harmless, I thought I told you that.” Clearly, I am the concrete jungli who doesn’t “get” the jungle. But I need to give it a try, if for nothing else, to stop my family sniggering at more of mama’s madness.
Rama Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only and A Never-Before World: Tracking the evolution of Consumer India.