Wonders of the Indian Wilderness
by Erach Bharucha
Abbeville Press, 2012
This staggeringly beautiful book started out as three books: a three-volume set published in India in 2006. Then it became two books: a two-volume set published by Abbeville Press in 2008, consisting of the first part, The Nature of Biodiversity in India and the second part, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries of India. And now it’s presented – again by Abbeville – as an enormous, oversized ten-pound single volume in a slipcase, hence the ‘staggering’ part: this isn’t just a book designed for display on coffee tables … it’s a book designed for display on only the strongest coffee tables in the world (my own coffee table is a World War II footlocker, and it hasn’t seen strain like this since the baggage train at Caumont-l’Evente. You won’t be able to take this book with you on your morning commute, unless you own your own cargo train.
Then again, you’ll want to concentrate on it. Bharucha – a naturalist of near-legendary status in his native India – has put together an almost endless wonderland of a book, a transformative creation fit for nothing more than awestruck wandering at leisure. This thing will stay on the coffee table, yes, but it won’t go unvisited there. It’s a gigantically mesmerizing volume, as much a destination as a book.
India is home to an elaborate array of flora and fauna – over 10 percent of the world’s birds live there, with similarly high percentages of the world’s mammals, flowering plants, reptiles, and God knows how many insects. The country is so big and so located that it contains examples of virtually every biosphere on Earth, from deserts to marshlands to tropical rainforests – and all of it teems with life.
Bharucha has walked and hiked and jeeped and boated over every inch of those
terrains, camera in hand, and the record he puts here before the reader is both an awe-inspiring compendium of a country and, a little unexpectedly but very charmingly, a laid-open personal diary, brimming with affection for the land, its animals, and its people. Often in books of this type the accompanying prose is worse than perfunctory; in this case, it’s indispensable – Bharucha’s voice adds a warm note of excitement to even something as simple as a forest rainstorm:
Thousands of leaves floated into the sky. A few glorious moments passed before the dark grey cloud burst and rain began to descend in torrents. It was one of the first rains of the season and the parched earth and the forest road sent puffs of water vapour wafting through the trees. The rain came pouring through the canopy and down the sal trunks, disappearing into the thirsty ground. As the roar grew in intensity and darkness brought on thunder and sharp lightning, I began to feel as if I could not only see and hear the storm, but sense it in my innermost being.
India’s entire natural world is encompassed in these 800 pages and 2000 photos, from the tidal marshes to the gorgeous sunset beauties of Eravikulum National Park in Kerala to the more austere splendors of the Kishnapur Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh, a part of the Dudhwa Tiger Preserve that’s filled with a profusion of prettily spotted swamp deer and graceful water birds in dozens of varieties. From the grim holdout of the Gir Sanctuary (the last place to find lions in India) to the hustle and bustle of Western Ghats, where a traveller from decades past might have encountered tigers, flattening monsoon rains, and delightful wild dogs who yip when they’re happy – and such a traveller might have wished for great photos to commemorate it all (that so many of the photos in this book are slightly blurred snapshots of wildlife in motion only adds to their charm – it really is like looking through the world’s biggest personal album).
Liberally sprinkled throughout the volume are Bharucha’s always-entertaining stories of the adventures that must always accompany such treks, as when he and a young guide encountered an unusually assertive Himalyan black bear in Kashmir’s Dachigham Valley:
From the corner of my eye I could see that the boy was about to make a dash for it. I am sure he would have been able to rapidly climb a tree. And I could envision the bear pulling me down even before I could start climbing! To my relief, it suddenly seemed to change its mind, went down on all fours, and scampered away into a nearby bush. Once it had disappeared, the boy’s bravado promptly returned, and he said that had it come any closer, he would have swatted it over the nose!
A unwanted refrain running through the book is how utterly saturated India is with
dangerous, vicious, extremely poisonous animals; in this as in all things, Bharucha is a kind guide – he mentions spiders without mentioning their disheartening ubiquity, mentions snakes with barely a word about how aggressive and virulently venomous almost all of them are (the satanic Russell’s viper is pictured, for instance, but no calls for its extinction-by-stomping are raised, and cobras are practically sent fan mail); shows dozens of photos of India’s native gaur – van-sized sharp-horned bison who can move silently and accelerate to roughly 300 m.p.h. in four seconds (or so it will seem to anybody being chased by one) – with hardly a hint of how homicidally unpredictable they can be. Bears, tigers, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, crocodiles, bulldog-sized hawks, innumerable spiders, hand-sized scorpions, man-smart vipers – these things are the fauna of India, only sketchingly compensated by a wild panoply of bats, 63 species of owl, and all those adorable wild dogs. Backpacking along roads and stream-beds in back-of-beyond India can be a life-changingly beautiful experience – but healthy amounts of caution are required.
All the more reason to cherish this gigantic book, which has all the visual amazements of India without the ever-present danger of being bitten, mauled, raked, gored, stalked, poisoned, or eaten alive. Extra incentive to the armchair trekker comes in the form of yet more illustrations: the book’s designers have had the grand inspiration to include hundreds of full-color reproductions from some of the greatest natural history works of the Victorian heyday of Indian naturalism. Artwork from A. O. Humes and C.H.T. Marshall’s Game Birds of India, Bhurma and Ceylon is here, and from J. D. Hooker’s epic seven-volume The Flora of British India, and J. E. Gray’s Illustrations of Indian Zoology, and most welcome of all, John Gould’s fantastic Birds of Asia, which he labored over from 1850 to 1877. Seeing all these illustrations side-by-side with the volume’s stunning full-color photography really underscores the perennial allure of Inida’s wild places; Bharucha would have felt right at home sharing notes with any of those long-bearded predecessors of his.
His book is no less impressive than theirs, and at $100 it’s a far, far better bargain than any of those earlier collectors-only tomes. Abbeville Press has attended to even the smallest production details (the page numbers are adorned with India’s marquee animal, the tiger), and the result is a must-have for any fan of the natural world at its most profuse – and a must-give for any such fan on your list this holiday season. Utterly glorious.