In around 2017 I happened one sultry day to be under a mango tree with a friend and project colleague, Manya. We were waiting for something or the other off a highway overlooking trucks driving into the distance. We had time to kill and, while casually conversing, Manya suggested we draft a proposal for a new conservation project. “Which animal has the least conflict with us and is bothered the most by us?”, she wondered.
I began drawing small triangles on my notepad. Sketching symmetrical shapes is to my mind a bit like encountering stray dogs and cats and birds and reptiles, it accelerates activity in my normally dormant brain cells.
“Well, elephants raid farms...so do many others...wild boar, monkeys, deer...basically all herbivores. Tigers and leopards attack cattle, sometimes even people. Only the smaller mammals are not in regular conflict with us...even though we’re harassing the life out of all of them, like the Indian state with us...or like some Indian men with most Indian women maybe...?” I could have been looking to her like a randomly ruminating ruminant.
She glanced at my notepad and suddenly snatched it off me, exclaiming, “This is it, this is the animal in least conflict with humans, in fact it helps farmers by eating pests but it’s the one we harass the most.”
“You mean a pangolin?...Is that what you think I drew?”
“Those are its triangular scales, narrowing down to form its tail...”
“Why yes, a pangolin it is!”
If anyone could interpret my unintended art, it was Manya. I took my notepad back from her and completed my geometrical triangles into a mother pangolin with her baby on her tail.
Out of my doodling and conversations with Manya, and later with my editor, has emerged the title and subtitle of this book. It isn’t all about pangolins, nor is it all about Indian men and patriarchal attitudes, but my effort has been to make those work throughout what follows as symbols and threading leitmotifs.
We all endanger pangolins. And all of Indian society, not just women, is oppressed by patriarchy.
In a less overarching sense, I’ve tried to write this book as an entertaining account of two female researchers who set off to interview farmers who grow trees alongside their crops. Their stray encounters with these farmers involve them in related fields where they, alongside a male colleague and car driver, in urban and agrarian landscapes, run into bureaucrats, forest guards, men with expansive moustaches, and other living species that are never as aggressive or threatening.
I think this is what happens to a lot of people in India. They’re paid to do a piece of work, and while doing it they run into life. They discover that life is a lot more interesting and has a lot more to offer us and tell us than dry research.
In that sense, this is I think a book about what it means to be alive in India. And to be alive to India. One gorgeous day, during our Discovery of India days doing fieldwork, Manya and I decided to study the explosion of mad babul trees in the area and ended up walking to a nearby lake.
Although not very clean, owing to a lot of human activities around it, the lake was thronging with black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus). Now, stilts are funny little birds, always in a rush going somewhere, getting somewhere else, they don’t know where, and they don’t seem to care. Much like the human race.
After twenty minutes of rushing, fluffing, and scurrying, they’re back again at the same spot, right from where they’d started rushing around. Their bodies looked like they’d been pinned atop long delicate twigs and when they stood bunched in a group they created a beautiful image of egg whites stuck on toothpicks flushed a nail-paint pink.
Suddenly, Manya discovered a movement in the bushes near the lake. “It seemed like a stone moving,” she said. Was she maybe hallucinating from the extra cigarettes she’d been smoking all morning, I suggested. She slapped me and made me look down towards where she’d seen a stone move.
Manya hails from Bihar and the race of people originating there is reputed for its streak of social violence. However, unending training for competitive exams to join India’s civil service has also instilled in this race a lucky streak which allows it to make it good in the end. Indeed, there was a stone-like thing moving down there. A turtle!
We’d graduated from poor birders to poor amphibian spotters.
Sometimes, though I don’t smoke, I hallucinate, and at this moment I saw Manya and myself clipped next to each other on a thin clothes line stretching from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In my epiphany I saw this as a line strung with women who were somewhat privileged by birth but not well-to-do. Every once in a long while these Indian women, who had been hung up there by Indian men, dried out and fell off and managed to do something worthwhile.
When Manya and I saw that turtle in that unclean lake, it was our moment of unclipping ourselves off that line, we were descending, we just knew there was a creature below that had to be rescued. This fouled-up water-body could not be its home. It would have felt nicer plucking all of wildlife out from the disfigured pond that humans had made of the planet, but for the time being there was a solitary turtle.
We were basing our desire to rehabilitate it on our observations – we’d always seen turtles near beaches or rivers, which are relatively clean. We could have been wrong, because human beings manage to survive in dingy slums, in pitiable conditions, without the basic necessities. The turtle here might be in the same boat, making the most of whatever little habitat was left for it, and maybe, having adapted, it was happy.
We were pondering these difficult issues, which seem to afflict women with a hundred indecisions on the cosmic clothes line, when we saw a dog sprinting in the area. And then, slowly, there appeared many tiny paws from a bush to welcome back their mother. Seven little puppies, hidden in bushes near the dirtied side of a lake, flocked by stilts in a rush to get somewhere, and a turtle trying hard to go nowhere.
Nothing makes me happier than watching species coexist. But which turtle was this? It had vanished under the bushes and we couldn’t see it long enough to identify it.
Manya decided to investigate; if it was the soft-shelled turtle it could belong to an endangered species.
She started a conversation with a fruit vendor standing nearby: “Sir, do you stand here often? Did you know there’s a turtle in the lake near those bushes?”
He looked at us with a judgemental gaze and dismissed us as non-customers.
In India, or in any developing country for that matter, not everyone can afford – quite literally – to know there are endangered species round the corner from where they’re having to stay busy the whole day, arranging food to make it through to the next day. The only way to make the fruit vendor talk was to buy some fruit off him.
So I bought some and attempted general small talk about the weather, rising temperatures, rising prices, the kind of thing that unclams the clammed up. He gradually came around to saying he had seen the turtle once in a way, but no one from the Forest Department had ever been in his vicinity for him to tell them about it.
Other men idling around decided they needed to be heard by us. Some of them came up and told us made-up stories about the dog’s family. But no one knew the history of the turtle. Could it be the narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle (Chitra indica)? The species was reputed to have intelligence and something of a personality but these had not helped it evade human exploitation.
I did not want this specimen to end up as soup in China. I looked up the Kheda forest circle’s number on my mobile and reached out to their rescue team. No one responded.
Excerpted with permission from Patriarchy and the Pangolin, Aditi Patil, Black Kite/Hachette.