Firstpost reviews Steed of the Jungle God

Steed of the Jungle God: Raza Tehsin presents exciting tales from south Rajasthan’s wilderness

Steed of the Jungle God – Thrilling Experiences in the Wild contains stories of the forests written by someone who has spent a lot of time in and around them. The author Raza Tehsin is well versed in natural history, loves jungles and like many before him who have done so, retains his humility.

These stories, spanning more than half a century, tell us how the natural world around us has changed during this period. The author points out how the scenario prior to Independence was very different; most of the lakes in Mewar were almost full throughout the year, many rivers and nullahs of the region were perennial. The worst time for our jungles, he states, came after Independence and before the Wildlife Protection Act – 1972. The author is also well acquainted with villagers and their lifestyles. These stories offer a glimpse of life in south Rajasthan then — of guinea worms, mining, poverty and of course, people. He praises their simplicity and spirits but laments the manner in which they were being exploited.

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Each of these stories is based on the author’s or his family members’ experiences. Two family members also contribute to the book – one chapter each. This is a family which was into guns, mines, hunting, picnics and they frequented the jungles. Some of these stories also bring out how our lives too have undergone a major shift during this period. They talk of a time when “a torch was a rare commodity to be used in emergencies” and when the gates of the walled city of Udaipur used to close at midnight! These stories make us wonder about what we have lost.

My introduction to the author was his many notes in technical journals. His love for jungles is brought out with a finesse and panache which show that he is at home with this style of writing as well. Lines which underscore this aspect are: “As much as trust is fragile, faith is resilient” and “Darkness itself is invisible and so is light, we can’t see light but the things it illuminates and we can’t see darkness but can sense the things it hides.”

The author’s grasp on the natural history of the region is exemplary, and he makes connections. The stories teach us about the south Rajasthan jungles in a pleasant and easy fashion. They tell us how the Great Indian Horned Owl is a good mimic like the Hill Myna, how a pair of Murral fish when moving with brood seldom take bait and how langurs urinate or excrete out of fear. They also convey that like elsewhere on the planet, rules in jungles too, have exceptions. Raza Tehsin talks of a place where hares exhibited gregarious behaviour and of a carcass which a leopard and a hyena fed on side by side. His approach is different from today’s science, which tends to encourage study designs that enable one to put in less time in jungles and thus reduces complex ecosystems to isolated data sets.

This book talks addresses many beliefs people have about the wild and strange phenomena which are said to occur in the forests. It tells us that people are superstitious – urban, rural and even shikaris. Tehsin was taught to “not be afraid of such things in life if he wanted to enjoy the solitude of forests”. He is keen to comprehend these difficult-to-explain situations, and every time he came across a strange phenomenon, he tried to analyse it rationally. It is this lack of fear and application of rationality that made him realise that the ‘demon’ was in fact a langur or the ‘gliding spirit’ a giant flying squirrel. This line from one of the stories captures his spirit aptly: “…Believed to be haunted, this guest house delights my heart and soothes my nerves.” One or two of these stories could also be part of school textbooks. They will enable the students to look at wilderness and beliefs with a different lens and help remove the fear which the lack of familiarity with forests brings in. The last word on the topic though is that some mysteries will remain unsolved forever.

Sketches in place of photographs work for the book and add to the feel, as does the first-person, personal narrative. It makes the reader keen to spend time with the author in the jungles. The book could have done with tighter editing – especially to avoid a repeat in content. A sketch map depicting the places mentioned across the stories would also have been of help.

On the whole, the book warrants a read for all those interested in jungles. One can draw parallels with Corbett’s and Anderson’s tales; while they espoused Western sensibilities, the author presents a very Indian context. For me, it brought together fun and sensibility of two magazines I enjoyed reading and re-reading — one during school days and one much later — Chandamama and Sanctuary Asia.

Steed of the Jungle God – Thrilling Experiences in the Wild is written by Raza Tehsin (with Arefa Tehsin) and published by National Book Trust

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