Book review: The King and I – Travels in Tigerland, by Prerna Singh Bindra
Rupa & Co, 2006
For some strange reason, half a dozen chapters into the book, I was distinctly unimpressed. Maybe I was coming at it from the perspective of A.J.T. Johnsingh’s masterpieces (Field Days and Walking the Western Ghats) – books that drip heavy with information and insights from a naturalist’s perspective. That was probably unwarranted. Prerna Singh Bindra is no naturalist. But she is a conservation journalist and a skillful wordsmith. She therefore approaches her topic from the perspective of the conservation journalist – with a fine blend of impassioned eco-zeal, and sensitivity to the beauty around her. And she certainly writes well. I warmed to the book eventually, and had concluded by the end of it that it was indeed a very good read.
The King and I profiles some twenty prominent PAs – mostly tiger reserves with a couple of exceptions in Hemis and Gir. Bindra’s personal impressions of each wildscape provide some very readable context to the larger discussion around conservation and anthropological issues specific to the PA. And she blends a fine mix of the two, which is a good thing – tales of her personal experiences and her evocative sense of wonder enliven what would otherwise be a starkly depressing account of almost-lost causes.
Notwithstanding the title, the book does not confine itself to the tiger alone. There is a chapter on Gir, a discussion on conservation issues specific to the leopard, a lament on what we did to the cheetah in India, an essay centered around Billy Arjan Singh and Tiger Haven, and another around Tusker Trails in Bandipur.
Five of the chapters are especially outstanding. Bindra’s account of hunting for the snow leopard amidst the barren slopes of Hemis makes for a fine read. The chapter on Bandavgarh paints a very effective picture of the ugly commercialization of tiger tourism. Her account of visiting locations immortalized in Corbett’s books makes for some engaging reading – interestingly, Johnsingh has authored a book on this very topic, not that this detracts in any way from the effectiveness of Bindra’s story. The book closes with a powerful and wide-ranging discussion of conservation issues specific to the tiger – one of the hardest-hitting pieces I’ve read on the topic.
My personal favorite by far however, is the little account of Bindra’s brief visit to Cheetal Walk/Jungle Trails. Like many admirers of the eponymous book by E.R.C. Davidar, I have itched to visit this now-inaccessible house. Bindra was fortunate enough to sit on the verandah we have all read about, and to watch an assortment of hyenas, sloth bears and other creatures, all door-delivered. I read the chapter with a mixture of envy and fascination in equal measure.
The book is peppered with multiple photographs in every page. The credits for these are atypically not footnoted with the photographs themselves, but massed at the end of the book. Which is not a bad thing from the reader’s perspective, considering the reduced clutter. I should also mention that there is a fantastic bibliography at the end of the book. If Ms. Bindra has all the 120-odd books listed here on her shelf, she’s one very lucky person.