Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: SGNP's Mr and Mrs Mowgli have a memoir
Two hours before Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, his wildlife photographer-son Uddhav and state forest department officials were to inaugurate the Tiger Safari at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) on a bright morning, the tigers could not be loca
Two hours before Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, his wildlife photographer-son Uddhav and state forest department officials were to inaugurate the Tiger Safari at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) on a bright morning, the tigers could not be located. They had been released from their cages early that December '98 morning, but a few hours later, they were nowhere to be seen. Chief Conservator of Forests, SGNP, Anand Bharati was in his office sorting out last-minute protocol details while fighting anxiety. He set out in a jeep to see how the big cats had camouflaged themselves. After a bit of driving through the reserved area, he stepped out of the vehicle and started walking, having lost patience. Suddenly, he spotted a regal pair enjoying an early morning wade in the reservoir. Standing barely 20 feet away from them, a relieved Bharati knew the event was on. It was just that the hosts had needed some undisturbed me-time before the photo-op.
Former Chief Conservator of Forests, SGNP, Anand Bharati with wife Jyoti. Pics /Datta Kumbhar
The safari opened on time (it continues till date) and offered exciting moments in the 35-year-long career of the celebrated forest officer. Bharati's wife Jyoti has shared this experience in a book titled Janglat Nandtana (Living Happily in the Jungle; Suryamudra Prakashan, Rs 200) which was recently released by Prakash and Mandakini Amte, celebrated social workers who have devoted their lives to the welfare of Madia Gond tribals of Gadhchiroli.
The book celebrates a man's courage and willingness to risk life and limb while serving in faraway locations. Jyoti married him at 15 and became mother to two sons before she turned 20. The memoir makes no bones about her being the supportive spouse to the winner of the 2002 Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award, who kept odd hours, doused forest fires to rescue wildlife, dealt with night-time animal poaching and evicted encroachers from protected green zones.
The book runs from 1970 until 2005, beginning at Bharati's first posting in the Umarzari forest of Bhandara and ending with his last 12-year assignment at Borivli's SGNP. The intervening postings -- Chandrapur, Gondia, Dhule and Thane social forestry -- are rooted in the innards of Maharashtra where the Bharatis thrived despite the absence of urban conveniences. Janglat Nandtana demonstrates how lush biodiversity compensates for every lack. The author has lived without electricity, tap water, cooking gas and tar roads. "I delivered my second child in a makeshift maternity ward where the doctor was a rarity. My elder son received his primary lessons in a single-teacher classroom where the chalk and blackboard were enough to bring a bunch of toddlers up to speed," she recounts. Jyoti says she has felt looked-after and safe even when the family had received death threats after Bharati took action against illegal tree felling and forest grazing during his time as Vigilance DFO in Dhule. "There was something in the fruits we ate and the water we drank that made us look forward to life without dread."
The book recalls a joyful sharing with their tribal neighbours -- the Gonds, Bhills and Pawras of Dhule-Nandurbar region; the Warlis and the Katkaris in SGNP -- who offered life skills to deal with realities ranging from childbirth to monsoon flooding and animal bites. The Bharatis gained abundantly from the adivasis' judgment and exposure to unknown fruits, herbs and vegetables, just as they benefited from the warmth showered by animals. The story of their association with a leopard cub after it was rescued by a monkey in a forest fire is endearing, as is the recreation of the insides of the Koyel bungalow in SGNP which was home to a range of exotic birds whose chirping served as a wake-up call; not to forget the caged monkey in the park's neighbourhood who made funny sounds to indicate the arrival of guests, and a giant squirrel they fed bananas for breakfast.
Janglat Nandtana is special because it records a forest department officer's preparedness to take on a system that aids and abets the plundering of natural and protected reserves. As the officer himself admits, the book deserves a sequel that focuses on the litigation and other rows surrounding the park. His twin battles -- one against a religious Hindu head who had set up his palatial math near the Kanheri caves inside the park, and the second against shanty contractors who had offered parkland to slum dwellers at a price --are waiting to be told. Also his ongoing tussle with the monopoly of the fastfood stall owners in SGNP draws attention to a corruption racket which remains unaddressed. "Daily visits to the Bombay High Court and Mantralaya affected me personally, and my family's peace. If not for the judiciary which stood by me, I couldn't have possibly flagged the public interest in every violation of the forest I took on," says Bharati.
The book can also be interpreted as a plea to Mumbaikars to treasure the precious green lung, which continues to amaze outsiders due to its location at the center of this megalopolis. The park is not a one-day picnic spot to be littered with plastic bottles. It is a rare green cover that receives 2,000 mm of annual rainfall supporting diverse vegetation and a varied habitat. Even if the predatory forces that rob the park from within and without are strong, officers like Bharati continue to stand as guardians, prodding each of us to take sides.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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