|T i m e O f f||
Sunday, August 16, 1998
The paradise is the lost one
by Manohar Malgonkar
THE world was once plentifully stocked with paradises and especially our land had come in for its fair share of them. One sure way of identifying a paradise was that the sahibs who ruled us should have declared it to be a hunting preserve.
By that definition, the village in which my family has lived since the mid-19th century and near which I still live Jagalbet, was in the midst of such a paradise. It was a prime hunting "block" in the jungles of the Presidency (as it was then designated) of Bombay, and it was to this place, Jagalbet, that the Governor of Bombay came for his annual Christmas 'shoot' to 'camp' in a neat village formed by snow-white tents. I have vivid memories of being taken to the camp as a child to see a dead tiger that His Excellency had killed. It was stretched out on the brown earth for being measured and photographed and de-skinned.
A clear and swift river, the Kali, flowed through low mountains which were covered with dark-green forest, and in the forest there were the wild animals which the sahibs came to hunt: the tiger and the leopard and the 'sloth' bear; the sambhar and a dozen other varieties of deer, bison in large herds, monkeys, both red-faced and black-faced, and tropical birds of bright plumage.
At the time when my grandfather decided to make this village his home, what humanity this hunting preserve supported was dispersed in tiny huddles of grass-roofed huts which had formed themselves over the centuries around isolated clearings in the jungle, and in these clearings they grew rice. The population was so sparse that, even in the 50s, the entire taluka of Supa held only 14,000 people. Wild animals outnumbered human beings by at least ten to one.
My grandfather came into this jungle area outside the borders of Goa for nearly the same reason that the Pilgrim Fathers had come to America: he was looking for a place to settle down. The religious intolerance of his native Goa had driven his family beyond the northern outskirts of the Portuguese colony. From there, as a young man he had decided to see if he could find a new home in the rain forest surrounding Goa and which, in those days, was regarded with awe, taking his wife and a few possessions on the backs of bullocks because there were no roads and no carts. He did not go far. Barely had he passed through the impenetrable cane jungle of the heavy-rain belt and come into the open forest, his search was over. He had found what he was looking for.
He was a true pioneer, a man trying to make a home in a wilderness; everything that he needed had to be created from scratch: Undergrowth to be cleared for making paddy-fields, a house to be built, a well to be dug. His crops were regularly eaten up by herds of deer and wild pigs and trampled by elephants, his cattle killed by tigers, his dogs by panthers. But he was a tough man, industrious and resourceful. He struck it out and survived and raised a family, and then he struck luck.
The 19th century was the heyday of steam. The British were determined to crisscross the entire subcontinent with a railway system and the Portuguese in Goa did not want to be left out. They wanted their own railway to join the network, a track of nearly 100 km plunging from 2,000 feet down to sea-level in a matter of 50 km and in the process cutting through some of the wildest mountain terrain, had to be constructed, and it was to have 13 tunnels. They needed bricks by the million to line those tunnels and other earthworks. My grandfather took the contract to supply those bricks.
He made a lot of money, and much of it he ploughed back in buying landed property. He died young, in his late forties, but by then he owned more farmland than almost anyone else in the entire district, around 1,000 acres, distributed in patches in the jungles around his base village.
More than 100 years later, about half of these ricefields still belonged to my family, and I owned some of them. In 1953, when I realised that the army was not my type of a career and left it. I returned to my ancestral village. And as soon as I made some money in my new calling writing I built myself a sprawling stone house right in the midst of a jungle area which were my share.
In the mid 50 the village and its environs could not have changed much from my grandfather's times. The British had quit India, and what they had turned into a hunting preserve was now designated a "sanctuary" for wild life: The Dandeli Wild Life Sanctuary.
Sanctuary means a place of shelter. Here it meant no more than a change of names, from a shooting block to a sanctuary a matter of notifications and signboards. Operations and mining activities which necessitated the blasting of hillsides, were pursued with vigour. And then, in a fit of barren materialism, the state of Karnataka sanctioned the setting up of a paper factory on a stretch of the river bordering the Dandeli Wild Life Sanctuary.
A paper factory has to have a copious supply of fresh water and also either bamboo or wood as its raw material. As such Dandeli, with a fast-flowing river and dense forest was a prize location for one. But no one seems to have given a thought to the havoc such a factory would cause to the wild life in the sanctuary.
After the factory has done with it, the Kali is not a river so much as a drain for chemical wastes, its flow a coffee-brown and sluggish fluid not fit for man or beast. Fish don't survive in it and the villages along its banks downriver from Dandeli have had to be provided with wells for drinking water.
And as though this were not enough, the factory emanates a foul-smelling vapour which hangs like a cloud for miles around Dandeli. Then in the 60s they decided to put a dam across the Kali at a place called Supa about 10 km upriver from Dandeli, and that changed the very geography of the region. Vast areas were denuded of forests, three major townships and scores of labour camps were put up to house armies of workers and they were all joined by roads and electric grids. Excavators and tractors churned up hillsides, stone-crushing machines whined day and night, a 10 km-long ropeway rumbled through the hills it was said to be the longest in India.
All of which rendered the sanctuary a place of torment for its wild animals.They fled in panic, seeking a new home that would be less hostile than their sanctuary, and in the process wandered all over the surrounding areas. That was how it came about that, in the 60s and early 70s we saw more wild animals from my house, 30 km from Dandeli, than before.
In October 1968,I had two English friends, Mr and Mrs Howard, staying with me. The husband, John, is a publisher, the wife, a lady of extra-ordinary charm and wit and profound scholarship, was a literary luminary of her times, Marghanita Laski. One evening she saw some wild dogs, a bison and a troop of black-faced langoors from my veranda and exclaimed: "Why this is paradise!"
That was when the thought struck me. If it indeed was a paradise, it was in the process of vanishing. And was this what Proust had meant when he declared that the only true paradises we know are those we have lost.
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