Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not Nearly a Tribute

The world of conservation, in all its essence, is defined by the choices people make- whether those people are the citizens who vote, or policy makers, workers, biologists, journalists, lawyers, or the forest department staff. Fortunately for conservation, it has seen some great thinkers, dedicated workers, and remarkably talented people with a distinct charm about them and their ways.

Among the several such people I have been lucky enough to meet and share some time with, is Fateh Singh Rathore.

This is not a library collection on him and who he was with all the technical bits of information about his work for tigers and Ranthambhore, and his constant, cheerful encouragement of youngsters to contribute to the field.

This, is an account of my memories of him. My memories of "Fuddgy", of the man who had a charisma like no other, the man who was, is and for me - will always be - the real 'Tiger Man of India'.

Fat[e]hji would wake up earlier than most animals in Ranthambhore do. He would go for a walk in the morning, and on returning, would drink this ridiculous beetroot-carrot-and something else juice and I have still not figured out HOW he drank it everyday. Maybe his taste buds were still asleep then. One morning he decided to come shake our tent vigorously to scare the crap out of us. Problem was - the other two people with me in that tent would sleep through a protest rally if it passed an inch from them. I however, was up in a second. Not because I'm a light sleeper, but because when I'm in a tent/on field, I tend to be a very light sleeper because I expect every noise to come from a majestic animal that might be close by.

I poked my head of the tent and there he was- all dressed for his walk. I mumbled a "good morning" and, with his trademark style, said - "jao tayyar hokar aao. main 5min. rukunga. walk pe jana hai." [Translated, that means- "go get ready and hurry back. I will wait 5min. for you to show up. We're going for a walk."] I stared at him and was convinced he was kidding. But his next words were "4min." and I hopped out the tent, ran up, straightened myself out and marched back down, shoes and everything set to go. He liked giving me a hard time and I always played along because he was so cute. So he grilled the life out of me during that walk and when we were back at the front door, he said, without turning to look at me,"finish your college and come work here. you're no good in the city." I'm smiling even as I type this because it brings that moment back to life for me and I even remember the tone.

Story' goes on. I was on my way back to the tent when he told me to come in. I did. Maybe I shouldn't have. He made me drink that horrible vegetable juice thing and I swear to God, I have tasted pharmaceuticals that have tasted better. I shot him a look and he laughed. "It's good for you. Stop complaining. I have to drink the thing by myself everyday. Tricked you into it, didn't I?" he said, with his child-like mischievous grin. The man's energy was literally contagious.

Then one day, he returned in his Toyota Qualis looking all upset and annoyed. I was walking to the office and he spotted me just at the right time. "AJ- kya kar rahi hai? kahan bhatak rahi hai dhoop mein?" ["AJ- what are you doing? where are you wandering off to in this heat?"] I said I was headed down to the office and then I asked - "Kya hua? Ro kyun rahe ho?" ["What happened? Why are you all sad/crying?"] He pointed to the car and said the stereo stopped working.

I laughed out so loud, I think a Peacock fell out of a tree somewhere around us [by the way, we've all actually seen Peacocks literally fall out of trees while they're asleep. It is incredibly hillarious]. Anyway, he stared at me till I stopped laughing and then said, go fix the stereo! I don't know why, but I did. And it worked. And from then on, I was "radio-wali" [until he forgot about the new name and went back to calling me AJ again].

On one of my other visits, I took a crate full of 'Jamun' fruits for him. I found him sitting on his terrace and crept up behind him and placed the box next to him. Too late. He had seen me. So instead of him jumping,  he shouted out "AJ aayi!!!" while I tried to softly place the box down - and I jumped. His excitement and enthusiasm make it seem like he's no older than a 6 year old child. He opened the box, saw what was inside, turned back to look at me and said - What is this? I though you would bring me Mangoes!" I smiled at him and calmly said, "they're in the kitchen. but you cannot eat more than 1 every 2 days."
"Why?" he asked, feigning disbelief. "Because you've probably forgotten it but you're diabetic. No sweets." He put his hand to his head and went, "Oh god... She's back," he said and rolled his eyes.
Tiger Watch's Conservation Leadership Course- first batch of participants with volunteers and Fateh ji
"Yes, I am. And I will be watching how fast those Mangoes are disappearing. So don't think you can talk your way out of this one."

We have called each other so many things over those years, I've lost track. But at one point we were both trying to see who gets impatient first. He would call me 'dadi ji' and I would call him 'dada ji' and sure enough, 4 days into it and I had had enough. He, however, was cool as a cucumber - which is something considering Ranthambhore recorded a sweltering 46°C that summer.

Every time someone mentions his name, or I read it somewhere, I can only see that big broad smile on his face and those sparkling eyes. And it is only fitting that a man of so much dedication, intelligence, and charm, be remembered with fondness in our hearts and a "big, broad smile" on our faces. :)

It's still hard to believe that today is a year since he passed away but I think he always intended to hand around till all the causes he stood for were fought for in the right spirit so even though he's invisible, I believe he's still very much around. Ranthambhore's tigers have an uncanny connection with him. Even today. And I think, forever more. No one can explain this connection they share. Some things are best left unsaid, and unexplained. That's their beauty.

So here's to 'Fuddgy' - the man who put Ranthambhore on the map. The man who meant SO many different things to an array of people from all over the world, and from all age-groups. With good reason.

Cheers Fuddgy.

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