May 23, 2020
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Wild Fictions

How literature, legends and folklore have influenced our responses to nature and wildlife -- sometimes with happy results, as in the Sunderbans, and at other times with disastrous consequences, as with Project Tiger

Wild Fictions
Wild Fictions
If there is anything distinctive about human beings, as a species, it consists, I believe, in our ability to experience the world through stories. What then are the tales that animate the struggle over Nature that is now being waged all around the world? Here is one such: it is called The Indian Hut and is said to have been a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi’s[1]. This is how it begins: ‘Some thirty years ago, a group of English scholars formed a society in London with the purpose of advancing the sciences and furthering the happiness of mankind by seeking knowledge in different parts of the world[2].’ There were twenty such scholars, and in order to better direct their inquiries, the Royal Society gave each of them a book containing 3,500 urgent and important queries. The most learned of these savants knew Hindi as well as Hebrew and Arabic and he set off in the direction of India, ‘the cradle of all the arts and all the sciences’.[3] After three years of travel, he came finally to Banaras, ‘the Athens of India’[4], where he spoke with many a learned Brahmin and amassed an immense collection of manuscripts. He was about to head back with this rich cargo of knowledge, when it occurred to him that despite having spoken with Jewish rabbis, Protestant ministers, French Academicians, Turkish mullahs, Parsee elders, Hindu pandits and so on, he had not succeeded in clarifying even one of the 3,500 questions he had set out with. On the contrary he had succeeded only in multiplying the doubts that surrounded each of them. It came to his notice then that the most learned of the pandits of India was to be found not in Banaras but in the temple of Jagannath in Orissa. The eager scholar set off at once for Calcutta, where the directors of the East India Company provided a palanquin and bearers to escort him to the great temple. Travelling southwards, the scholar decided that he would not trouble the learned pandit with trivial matters and would limit his inquiries to three questions of the most pressing significance. By the time he was shown into the temple’s inner sanctum, he had settled upon the three queries that seemed to him to outweigh all others in significance: By what means was truth to be known? Where was the truth to be sought? And was it necessary always to reveal the truth to mankind? 

The pandit had ready answers for all three queries. All truth was in the Vedas, he said, and could only be sought by means of the Brahmins, who alone possessed the secret of the language of truth. As for revealing truth to mankind, why, said the pandit, prudence called for it to be hidden from most, while duty dicated that it be always made known to Brahmins. 

These answers so dismayed the Englishman that he cried out in outrage: ‘So the truth must always be made known to the Brahmins, who won’t communicate it to anyone! The truth then, is that that the brahmins are unjust…’ 

There resulted a great uproar, at the end of which the scholar was evicted from the temple and found himself heading back to Calcutta in an even greater state of dejection than before. On the way, while passing through a forest, he and his party were overtaken by a cyclone, blowing in from the sea. They pressed ahead, with the wind and rain raging around them, until at last they caught sight of a small hut that was protected from the elements by hills, rocks, and trees. The relieved scholar was of a mind to head towards the hut, but he could not persuade his entourage to accompany him. The hut belonged to Parayas, they said, members of one of the lowest castes of India, and they would not set foot in it. 

‘Then go where you want,’ retorted the scholar. ‘To me all the castes of India are the same.’ So saying he went into the hut and was warmly welcomed by the occupants, a man of gentle countenance and his wife. As the thunder raged outside, the scholar spoke at length with his host and soon discovered him to be a man of far greater intelligence and good sense than any of the savants and pandits he had met on his travels. How had this simple man acquired such wisdom? At length, unable to contain himself, he inquired of his host where his temple lay. 

‘Everywhere,’ responded the Paraya, ‘nature is my temple.’[5] 

‘And from what book,’ the scholar persisted, ‘have you learnt your principles?’ 

‘None but nature,’ answered the Paraya, ‘I don’t know of any other.’

‘Ah! That is indeed a great book,’ said the Englishman, ‘but who taught you to read it?’ 

‘Misfortune,’ answered the Paraya, ‘being from a caste that has an infamous reputation in this country, I was not able to be an Indian. Thus I made myself a man; rejected by society, I took refuge in nature.’

And as for the issue of whether the truth should at all be revealed to a world which so often rewarded honesty with persecution, the answer was: ‘The truth should be told only to those with a simple heart.’ 

This, in short, is the narrative of The Indian Hut, a story published in 1791, by a Frenchman who had never set foot in India. The writer was Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814), a novelist, naturalist and philosopher who was both a friend and disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau[6]. 

In the course of a varied and interesting life, Saint-Pierre accumulated many disappointments until the publication of his massive, multi-volume work, Studies of Nature, which achieved an immediate and resounding success. Saint-Beuve was to say of him later that he had done for tropical nature what Rousseau had done for the Alps. Saint-Pierre’s unabashedly romantic and immensely popular novel, Paul et Virginie, was to earn the admiration of Alexander von Humboldt as well as Napoleon Bonaparte, who is said to have read it over and again in St. Helena. No doubt the novel’s themes of rejection, retreat and withdrawal held as much resonance for Napoleon as the novel’s island setting, which was Mauritius, where Saint-Pierre had resided in 1768. Saint-Pierre’s stay there was to produce what may well be his most lasting work, the Dutch-published travelogue, Voyage à l’Isle de France.[7] While living on that island, Saint-Pierre joined the circle that surrounded Pierre Poivre, a French naturalist and administrator who had travelled extensively in Asia.[8] As is well known, the unique ecosystem of Mauritius had been seriously depleted by the first Dutch settlers.[9] By the early-18th century the dodo had already been exterminated and the forests denuded. Recognizing the fragility of the island’s natural environment, Pierre Poivre enacted a series of environmental measures, based upon his knowledge of the traditional forestry practices in China, India, Indonesia, and the Dutch settlement on the Cape. Although short-lived, these measures have been adjudged to be some of the earliest state interventions motivated by ecological concerns.[10] Thus it could be said of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre that he assisted at the birth of ecology and environmental activism as we know it today: it is in this sense too that he shared in the authorship of a vision of Nature whose influence was to be felt far beyond his time. Along with his much-admired mentor, Rousseau, Saint-Pierre was both a creator and a disseminator of the romantic vision that was to so powerfully influence perceptions of nature not just in Europe, but around the world: in time Kings, Presidents and citizens were to fall equally under its sway. That Romanticism played an important part in the creation of the first national parks in the United States has been well documented; no less well documented is the fact that American parks like Yosemite served as models for the colonial administrators who created the earliest parks in Africa and Asia. Saint-Pierre’s Indian Hut is therefore no ordinary story: it has played a part in shaping and forming real ecosystems, including those of the country in which it is nominally set. 


To offset Saint-Pierre’s imagined encounter here is a story about a real English scholar and one of his brushes with Nature in India.[11] The date of the event is July 1850, a mere six decades after the publication of The Indian Hut, and its setting is Kolkata – or Calcutta as the city was then known. Calcutta’s river, the Hooghly, is subject to the pressures of the tides, and in the past it often happened that a high tide in the Bay of Bengal would cause it to flood the surrounding countryside. Thus it happened that on a hot July day in 1852, the Hooghly flowed over its embankments, swamping the lowlying wetlands that surrounded the city. When the waters receded it came to be seen that a school of gigantic creatures had been deposited in a shallow wetland pond. Word of this event spread rapidly, and in a few hours reached the ears of an Englishman by the name of Edward Blyth who was the then Curator of Natural History at the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. Blyth was a naturalist of distinction and is credited with having anticipated some aspects of the theory of evolution.[12] He corresponded regularly with Darwin who once described him as: ‘a clever, odd, wild fellow who will never do what he could do, from not sticking to one subject.’[13] Now, hearing of the gigantic sea-creatures deposited by the tide, Blyth set off immediately for the Salt Lakes. He arrived to find some twenty whales floundering in a shallow pond. Their heads were rounded and their bodies were black, with white undersides. The adult males were over fourteen feet in length. The water was too low to keep them fully submerged and their short, sharply-raked dorsal fins were exposed to the sun. The animals were in great distress and their moans could be clearly heard. 

A large crowd had gathered, but somewhat to Mr. Blyth’s surprise they had not killed the whales. He had imagined that the animals would be set upon by the villagers, for their meat and oil. He found instead that many of the villagers had laboured through the night to rescue the creatures, towing them through a channel into the river. Many whales had been saved,. Blyth learned, and those that remained were the last of a school of several dozen.[14] Blyth chose four of the best specimens, two males and two females, and had them secured to the bank with poles and stout ropes: his intention was to return the next day with the implements necessary for a proper dissection. Before departing, he did everything in his power to make sure that his chosen creatures would not be freed by the local populace. 

But a shock awaited him: on returning the next morning, he found that his chosen animals had been cut loose during the night. Now only a few inferior creatures remained in the pond. Not to be thwarted of these, Mr Blyth set upon them at once and quickly reduced them to ‘perfect skeletons’. On examining the bones, he decided that he had discovered a yet-unknown creature, Globicephalus indicus. But a few years later this identification was disproved, so it turned out in the event, that Mr Blyth had spent two days and much effort to no avail. 


The text of Blyth’s article makes no mention of the human interactions that resulted in the retrieval of the skeletons. The references from which I have reconstructed the event are consigned to a footnote, but scant as these are, they leave no doubt that the villagers went to some lengths to free the whales. What was it then that prompted these people to exert themselves on behalf of the animals, at the cost of incurring the wrath of an English sahib? The one thing we can be sure of is that their concerns were not the same as those that might have inspired a Saint-Pierre or a whale watcher of today. Possibly the lake in question was a public fishing ground, owned by a family or the whole village. Perhaps the villagers were dismayed at the thought of their common property being colonized by a school of whales; perhaps they imagined that their carefully tended stocks of fish would be rapidly depleted by the gigantic creatures. These reasons would surely have been enough to lend some urgency to their efforts. Yet compelling as these pragmatic reasons might be, I find it hard to believe that they were not allied also to a certain sense of awe, wonder and even compassion at the sight of the distress of these majestic creatures. Is it possible that there was no talk among the villagers of divine visitations, no stories told of signs from the heavens? I cannot believe that there was not. Such emotions might appear to have little in common with an ecological awareness, but if indeed there is, in cultures at large, as well as in works of literature, such a thing as an environmental unconscious, then surely it would consist in an overlapping of the pragmatic and the poetic, a broad acknowledgement of mutual dependance, in which rights, mutual obligations and a sense of wonder are seamlessly merged?

As in Saint-Pierre’s story, Blyth’s encounter too was probably with Dalits, or with members of other disadvantaged caste groups. In both instances the people are unnamed, but there the similarities end: Saint-Pierre’s imaginary scholar converses with an individual whereas Blyth finds himself dealing with a collectivity; where Saint-Pierre’s Indian is a meditative recluse, worshipping in the temple of nature, the people that Blyth meets are of an eminently workmanlike frame of mind: far from sitting back to ponder the wonder that Nature has delivered at their doorstep, they have set immediately to work. What is more, the real English scholar, unlike Saint-Pierre’s imaginary hero, has no interest at all in the natives and their ideas of Nature: to him they are just a nuisance, an impediment in the production of perfect – if misidentified – skeletons. As for the animals, Blyth seems to have had neither the talent nor the inclination for forging any kind of relationship with them. In this he would have been no different from other eminent naturalists of his period. His famous contemporary, Alfred Russell Wallace, once acquired a siamang in Sumatra, and found that the ape would spend hours playing with his Malay helpers while ignoring him. "It took a dislike to me…," Wallace tells us, in his disarming way, "which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever."[15] 

Despite the differences between Blyth’s narrative and Saint-Pierre’s there are also many parallels and intersections. Where Saint-Pierre imagines nature as a sacred space and a temple, for Blyth it is a ‘field’ in all the varied senses of the word: in other words, it is an area that lies beyond the hearth and is uninhabited by design, so that it may be subjected to cultivation – in this instance as an object of study. Where the visions coincide is that in both, Nature is uncontaminated by people: it is a domain defined by the exclusion of human beings. Thus did Nature come to be imagined as an Eden too perfect for the fallen progeny of Adam and Eve. 


Let us return for a moment to Blyth. What if, on discovering his school of stranded whales, he had indeed paused to ask the villagers for an account of their actions, as Saint-Pierre’s scholar might have done?[16] The answer I suspect, would not have been recorded – by either Blyth or Saint-Pierre himself - for it would probably have taken a very different form from the pithy aphorisms that Saint-Pierre accorded to his reclusive sage. Most likely the villagers would have responded by telling a story – a fabulous tale that both Saint-Pierre and Blyth would have dismissed as a characteristically extravagant native fantasy, having nothing whatever to do with Nature. 

Here is a story of the kind they might have heard. It comes from the Sundarbans – the mangrove forests which, in Blyth’s day, as in Saint-Pierre’s, extended to the very threshold of the city. Of the four million people who live in the Indian part of the Sundarbans today, the majority are Dalit and many are Muslim. Everywhere in this region a figure known as Bon Bibi – ‘the Lady of the Forest’ - is held in veneration, and as with many deities in India, her worship centres around the recitation of a verse narrative. But the first of the many surprises of the legend of Bon Bibi is that it begins neither in the Himalayas nor on the banks of the Ganges, but in the Arabian city of Medina, one of the holiest places in Islam. 

In this city, the legend goes, there lived a pious Muslim, a childless Sufi faqir called Ibrahim. Through the intercession of the Archangel Gabriel, Ibrahim came finally to be blessed with twin children, Bon Bibi and her brother, Shah Jongoli. On coming of age, the twins were told by the Archangel Gabriel that they had been chosen for a divine mission: they were to travel from Arabia to ‘the country of eighteen tides’ – athhero bhatir desh - in order to make it fit for human habitation. Thus charged, Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli journeyed to the mangrove forest dressed in the simple robes of Sufi mendicants. 

The jungles of ‘the country of eighteen tides’ were then the realm of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king, who held sway over every being that lived in the forest – every animal as well as every ghoul, ghost and malevolent spirit. Towards mankind he harboured a hatred that was coupled with insatiable desires; he had a limitless craving for the pleasures of human flesh, and when overcome by desire he would take the form of a tiger in order to hunt human beings. 

Powerful as he was, Dokkhin Rai proved to be no match for Bon Bibi and her brother, who quickly defeated the demonic hordes. Merciful in victory, Bon Bibi spared the demon’s life but forbade him ever again to indulge his taste for human flesh. Following on her triumph, Bon Bibi surveyed the Sundarbans and declared a certain number of them to be open for human settlement. The rest she allotted to Dokkhin Rai, ordaining that these remain wilderness to be ruled over by the demon king. Thus was order brought to the land of eighteen tides: by the creation of a balance between the wilderness ruled by the tiger demon, and the areas of human settlement, which were Bon Bibi’s own domain. 

But this equitable dispensation was soon to be disturbed by human greed. On the edges of the tide country there lived a man called Dhona who had put together a fleet of seven ships in the hope of making a fortune in the mangrove forest. Just before setting sail, Dhona discovered that his crew was short of a man, and finding no one else at hand, he inveigled a boy into joining the fleet. This lad was known as Dukhey – ‘sorrowful’ – a name that was nothing if not apt, for he had long been cursed with misfortune: he had lost his father as a child and now lived in great poverty with his old and ailing mother. In parting from her only son, the old woman gave him a word of advice: were he ever to find himself in trouble, he should remember to take the name of Bon Bibi; she was sure to come to his aid. 

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