How do we unravel the complexities and contradictions of tiger conservation? People tolerate a Tiger killing cattle, but the attitudes of villages are different from each other. Some people want to leave a forest which does not see new roads, schools and hospitals, and others would rather be shot than leave.
The history of conservation and decision-making, though, has been a lot about men. I had a hypothesis that the women would have a view different from the one held by men. When I interacted with the ladies, it was clear that their answers revolved around their children.
Though they were treated in a regressive way, the women lived in a different time period, the time of the future. They fretted about the future, and what their children would make of their future. Men tended to live in the now, with a focus on the immediate present. They wanted to know which would be the best day to carry a headload to the nearest market to bring back rice, dal and oil.
The women wanted to know what their child would do when he is ten, or where she would marry when she is sixteen. Would she make it until then?
As women spoke about their children, their faces were consumed with a deep, corrosive worry. Some of them complained that the only school their children could access was a primary school. Others had to send their children to the nearest kasba, Thanagazi, a tiny place which could hardly even count as a town. Yet, Thanagazi had a name on the district map, and a school. Sariska didn’t even have that; it wasn’t a place for people.
On another hot morning in Deori, I was questioning a woman. As always, the rest of the women crowded around her. I was on question No. 7, on what she desired in her life. I had asked the question, but the woman had not spoken yet. I knew that while she answered me, there would be a flood of nods, interjections and arguments from the others, drowning out the original respondent and filling the hut with a river of words that would spill in every direction.
I was waiting. She spoke with some effort, her mouth twisting. “I am telling you this, though it didn’t happen to me,” she said with finality. Her voice was oddly quiet. “One woman from this village died in childbirth,” she said.
“She cried for a long time.”
It was like the stopper had been removed from a gas cylinder, and the fuel was filling the room, waiting to burn. Everyone had turned completely, and uncharacteristically, silent.
“It was evening by the time she died,” she finally said.
There was no usual flood of words from the others, and no noisy interjections. I could feel the group stiffen, a resolve hardening. The fuel had caught fire. “Take us out of this forest,” the woman said, with more force than she had spoken with before. The others nodded in agreement, their voices rising. They seemed forged in a fraternity, one voice for once. This would be a Mahila Mandal out of a development NGO’s dreams. “Take us out of here,” said a second woman. “Or build a school and hospital here.”
Several answers were identical. Many women wanted to leave, to brave the outside world for their children.
They were an untapped force that had been neglected for too long. They were not part of meetings with the authorities, nor consulted within their families over important matters. They were the engine behind the home, but an engine that could not set any directions. During one of the interviews – days after I had become friendly with the women and everyone knew I would eventually go to each one to ask questions – the woman I was questioning was silent. We had had a rare moment of calm; the rest of the women were elsewhere.
I repeated my question.
She hesitated, before saying: “You’re asking me a question. No one has asked me a question before.”
In many ways, the attitudes towards women were reflected in the attitudes towards tigresses. The moniker “gaanv ki bahu” for the women who settled as brides in the forest villages could have been another word for the tigresses that had been brought into Sariska to fill the area with tiger cubs.
The tigresses hadn’t been brought there for their intrinsic worth. It was not about a Tigress’s precise paws falling on the earth with the fury of the monsoon, carving rivers out of the earth. Nor about fear that shimmered like smoke between her and her prey animals, or the choices she made as she negotiated with this new land and its new sounds. The tigresses were brought there to procreate.
The first move happened in 2008. There were two tigresses in Sariska, but until 2010, no cubs had been born.
Despite the pedestals the tigresses were put on, even they could not escape the abuse of sexism.
A grizzled old forest guard, sitting in the passenger seat of a Gypsy, nodded to me.
“Ye banjar hai (the Tigress is infertile),” he said, with all the entitled authority of an old male talking about feminine virtue.
“Out of all the tigresses in the world, they had to pick this infertile one and bring her to our Sariska,” he continued. “They are wasting our time.”
A second Tigress had been brought in 2009. The driver pitched in: “Both are infertile.”
It was like hearing every misogynist argument around “It is her fault” distilled ridiculously into the prism of a Tigress.
“Well, it could also be the male who is infertile,” I said in a small voice, brimming with a frustration I could not freely express. The patrolling forces were fatigued. They needed something to “show” for all the hard routines and round-the- clock tiger monitoring they were part of.
Their infertility theories were misogynistic, but they were also trying to make sense out of meaninglessness and the prospect of wild animals just walking around the forest, with all the time in the world. The staff hungered for results, chiefly a cute cub that would be a celebrity even before it was born.
The two Tigresses and the male Tiger were the most intensely studied tigers in India. Their love stories – if they could be called that – were strenuously scrutinised. Tiger movement was mapped, not just through the signals from their satellite collars which were intercepted and put on maps, but also by task forces physically following the tigers. It was almost like the pairs were being chaperoned. When the Tigress’s stomach looked bulky, her watchers thought she was pregnant. Cheers and bets went around the fatigued forces.
Meanwhile, the Tiger explored. The young male visited both tigresses. His territory overlapped in part with theirs. But then, these were tigers, not leashed dogs. Tigers revel in privacy, and they also go where they like. If you see a Tiger in the forest, it is only because the animal chooses to be seen. And if it doesn’t even look at you, it is because its feline disdain for you is as natural as being a haughty president of the forest.
Apart from the tracking forces dedicated to each Tiger, forest guards and home guards were also posted all over the park. The otherwise quiet reserve now itched with action, and the anticipation of tiger cubs.
Excerpted with permission from Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species, Neha Sinha, HarperCollins India.