Most of those comprising the environmentalist/ecologist/nature-loving tribe usually gush and go gaga over all things natural, no matter how obnoxious and monstrous they really might be. And, if you’ve invested years of your life studying a particular life-form, you’re hardly likely to diss it in your dissertation or paper, or, for that matter, on Twitter!
Wildlife biologist Rauf Ali, who unfortunately died in 2016 at the age of 62, was thankfully not one of those — he chose to study the bonnet macaque (monkey), for example, and didn’t hesitate to describe them as “that nasty one you get in towns all over southern India”. As for romanticising field work, he writes that field work “in reality is… being cold, wet, hungry, tired or more usually all four at the same time, most of the time. It’s the small proportion of time when something spectacular happens that makes all the sweat worth it.”
In this straightforward, no-holds-barred memoir of his life and work (in which, tongue-in-cheek, I presume, is the rider that ‘this is a work of fiction’, etc) he takes on animals, bureaucrats, politicians, policemen, villagers, students, forest officers — and everyone he encounters during the course of his work and research, with point-blank frankness. There’s no hedging or sliding around issues, or trying to avoid rubbing people the wrong way — if he thinks they are wrong.
Rauf Ali was the grand-nephew of the legendary Salim Ali and grew up in the same house where his illustrious grand-uncle lived in Pali Hill, Bombay. Obviously, anyone in his position, if interested in anything remotely nature-based, had very big boots to fill indeed. Yes, there are delicious nuggets about the old man’s eccentricities too (idlis, fried eggs and jam for breakfast), and about how short-tempered he was. Ali also goes on to describe academic life at BITS Pilani (at a time when ragging was not nearly as brutally sadistic as it is now) and then abroad, in the UK and America.
There were major accomplishments too: he was one of the first Indians to complete a PhD in wildlife biology (on the aforesaid bonnet macaques) and helped set up one of India’s first Masters programmes in ecology. He helped delineate protected areas in the Palani Hills of the Western Ghats and was amongst the first to do environmental research in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He was also the founder of the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL) and was named as a finalist for the St Andrews Prize for the Environment in 2011.
Peppered with hilarious anecdotes (many of the ‘it can only happen in India’ variety) often cheerfully laced with liberal tots of whisky, he describes his experiences in short, staccato, often acerbic sentences, with none of the pompous, endless flatulence many academicians find so compellingly stylish. The prose is crisp, sardonic — and acidic where it needs to be. Bureaucrats would not have been able to stomach such directness easily and he rubbed academicians and administrators the wrong way on a regular basis — as his run-ins with the authorities at Auroville indicated. The book also gives an eye-opening account of how environmental and ecological issues are handled in our country; often their success or failure is entirely dependent on the man in charge in the field at the time.
What also comes out in the writing is the soft spot Rauf Ali probably had for students researching under his supervision and tutelage. He took care to visit them in their field stations, often remote, cheered them up with his own brand of humor, and egged them on. This is one aspect which we often overlook — the importance of teachers and mentors who can inspire future generations to forge ahead. Especially someone like Ali, who would have no doubt needled, teased and exhorted them when they were “cold, wet, hungry and tired and more likely all four at the same time”.