Interview in the Hindu India's National Newspaper Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Aline Dobbie's anxiety about the disappearing big cat comes through vehemently in every printed word, says ROHINI MOHAN
It's a good one hour, and I still haven't spoken a word after "Hello". The lady sitting in front of me incessantly flings anecdotes, opinions, jokes, complaints and comments at me, one after another, bullet after whizzing bullet. An account of a peacock dance bizarrely gives way to an enraged criticism about Tony Blair. A story about a drowned hotel in the Maldives is suddenly abandoned to mention what a localite said about tigers in Madhya Pradesh, on TV. All the while, I scribble my notes furiously, trying to record every emphatic word Aline Dobbie, environmentalist writer, utters. I don't need to ask her much. The images she conjures up for me speak volumes.
Very often called "India's child of Independence", Aline is a Scottish writer of Indian birth. In India: The Peacock's Call, and India: The Tiger's Roar, Aline laces details she gathers from her travels through Indian jungles with nostalgic tales from her childhood in Bareilly. When she says: "I have a sense of belonging to India," I expect to hear what every appreciate-and-leave foreign tourist would say of this country. But she continues in an unexpected vein: "But I'll tell you something I think of Indians - there is a lot of talk, wonderful words, but actual doing? Very little. Everyone very proudly announces that they're Indians. Well then, be Indian and pick up after you."
For her book on tigers, Aline went on a mammoth journey of India's wildlife parks and tiger sanctuaries, spending days in Ranthambore, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, and Corbett Tiger Reserves, Nagarahole, Kaziranga, Bharatpur, etc. Her anxiety about the disappearing big cat is evident in every printed word.
Still, it's all wonderful to write a book, I say, but what about conservation work on the ground? "Writing is hardly actual doing," she admits, "But someone has to write about people working on the ground. It behoves a writer to use her words responsibly to show what needs to be done." Then, sitting forward: "The average Indian naturalist and localite is very enthusiastic. It is the middle tier bureaucracy's lethargy and inertia that suffocates the eager efforts. It would be heartbreaking if something as magnificent as a tiger disappeared," she says, justifiably anxious. (Tigers have been listed as endangered since 1972 in India, but their numbers have fallen from 40,000 to 3,000 in a century, primarily due to poaching even in wildlife reserves.)
Aline's books informatively meander through history, legends, encounters, preservation attempts, and battles fought for Nature. But don't expect "where to go, and how to get there" sort of information. Aline takes you on an adventure of images, merely presenting a concept of modern India as she knows it. It is at once a well-researched factfile and a riveting storybook, not your regular Lonely Planet.
"I get very irritated when Westerners say `Oh, India? Isn't it very dirty and full of poor people?'! Hello?! No! It is dirty, but if Western villages and cities had the population that India has, things would've crumbled long ago," she says, "And as for poverty, I tell them that there are more millionaires in Mumbai than all of the USA." She squeals with laughter as she mentions how some of her friends ask her if India has hotels. "Hotels are palaces with marble floors, for god's sake!" she tells them. Not that she thinks that's the best way to save a heritage palace, but "it does ensure that the monument lives".
Preserve for posterity
In all her banishing of stereotypes about India, Aline doesn't ignore the areas that cry out for help. "The earlier generation did all the exploration and pioneering; our job is to preserve, and conserve. To help hand beauty over to the next generation." If India makes an effort even now, she says, it can preserve its heritage and forests. "Help will come from around the world."
She says that after 9/11, Iraq war, and the tsunami, people in the "once safer" West are feeling vulnerable. "The global disaster has made them empathise with these countries, at least because of the selfish reason that many people of their own nationality died too. No one dares to say `Oh Bangladesh had just another cyclone'."
Aline Dobbie is now touring South India for her third book that'll complete the trilogy on the iconic symbols of India. This one is about the elephants and temples of the Deccan area. "My grandson told me to get him a hathi," laughs Aline, still fluent in Hindi. "Let's hope they'll still be around in the jungles by the time he grows up."