My interest in knowing the lives of field assistants began in December when I met Karan in the Annamalai Wildlife Sanctuary which also goes by the name of Indira Gandhi Wildlife Park. Karan is a forest guard and also doubles up as a guide and a field assistant according to demand. He is adept at guiding people and helping them spot wildlife. He knows the roosting spots of birds, the time a particular bird is expected to give out it’s call and thus is of tremendous help to visitors and scientists who come to study and learn about the forest. We started conversing when I had to play translator for our group leader who would speak in English and Karan who would speak in Tamil. He was very surprised by the fact that I was born in Maharashtra and yet could speak Tamil.
Karan is as dark as the night as his teeth are yellow and betel stained. He has an air of pride about himself and a quiet confidence. Pride because his years spent in the forests has made him indispensable to the many scientists and students that come to the forest for research and wildlife trails. He could ‘hear’ sounds before any of us could even sense the presence of any movement. He could spot birds so well camouflaged with his old but sharp eyes. We got talking eventually and he told me that visitors are so impressed with his skills that they most of them have present him with bird books, binoculars and other paraphernalia when they leave. These people have respected him. He said that though he cannot read or write English he has picked up enough from the visitors and now he has even taught himself to read so that he could make use of the Bird books. Karan was born and brought up in the Annamalai Forest and he knows every inch of the forest like the back of his hand.
He has made sure that his 2 children are well educated. He takes great pride in the fact that his elder daughter has completed her B.Ed and his younger son studies ‘properly’ in school. He is also happy with his life. He doesn’t ever want to leave the forest he says but he also doesn’t want his son to end up like him. He wants a better job and future for his son and daughter.
Once he came with us into the interior of the Forest to the Elephant Camp and then back again to our camp site in the bus. Night had set in by then and the forest took on a scary and mysterious appearance. Shadows seemed longer, menacing and threatening. Annamalai was playing up to its reputation of being the dark forest that it was, abiding with hidden secrets. He then told me that now he has to again go back to the camp on foot. The distance was more than 10 kms and then night seemed deadly cold. He said that he will enjoy the walk back and all I could think was how brave he was!
Karan also made sure to train his juniors who accompanied with him. He would teach them to hear calls and would also scold them in a fatherly manner if they wouldn’t walk lightly like him. It was evident that they were not from the forest like him. He would then crack jokes with them and they all would listen when he would speak.
People like him are indispensable for researchers and people who come on nature trails. Scores of dissertations are completed because of them. Their income also depends on research projects which again are time-bound. I wondered how they supplement their meagre income when projects wind-up and finish. They deserve much more recognition than a fluctuating supply of cash and a passing reference in the acknowledgements section.
The day we left Karan wasn’t around and so I couldn’t tell him goodbye. I wanted to tell him that I was really grateful for the time he spent with us. He had given me a lot to think about and I realised that the forests speak to us through them and that is how we learn.