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Vol. XXXIV No. 4, June 1-15, 2024

Viji, the Turtle Girl from Chennai and other Women in the Wild

-- by Ambika Chandrasekar, ambikachandrasekar@me.com

I discovered the pleasures of birdwatching quite late in life, and through birds I experienced trees, flowers, nature and the outdoors in a rather different way – I learnt to observe, I marvelled at all that I had missed and have new respect for all those who work so hard to protect, preserve and document all that binds us in this completely interconnected web of life on earth.

It was but natural, therefore, that I picked up Womenin the Wild to read. Edited by Anita Mani, this book is compelling both for the astonishing work done by the profiled scientists and the delightfully smooth and empathetic storytelling of the various essayists. In her introduction, Anita says of the women portrayed: “they are here because they have either had substantial impact on species/landscape conservation or because their work has contributed to the resolution of environmental challenges confronting wildlife in India.” In the same vein she mentions that, as an editor, she aimed to find authors who knew their subjects personally.

Editor Anita Mani with the Indian Pitta collection.

The Madras/Chennai connections to many of the women field biologists featured in the book made my reading experience more personal.

Anita herself grew up in Chennai. Schooled at Rosary and a graduate of Stella Maris, she trained and worked as a journalist, moved into the corporate sector and tech writing for a while, before going back to writing and publishing. She worked with a children’s newspaper before launching Indian Pitta, India’s first bird book imprint under Juggernaut. Anita says that learning about Vijaya’s remarkable journey and experiences seeded the inspiration for the book and the rediscovery of the sadly long forgotten birdwoman, Jamal Ara.

There are a trio of women from Chennai featured in the book: Vijaya, in The Turtle Girl, Divya Mudappa in the Canopy Crusader and Divya Karnad in Like a Fish to Water. India’s Wildlife Detective Uma Ramakrishnan’s family hails from TN and Vidya Athreya and Ghazala Shahabuddin studied at Salim Ali School of Ecology (SAS) in Pondy. Anita Mani observes in her Introduction that SAS and the Bangalore based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) created a channel for women field biologists in a big way and helped them build a mutual network and support system.

The Turtle Girl J. Vijaya, Viji as she was called, is part of the history of herpetology in India, and one only has to search “cane turtle” to learn about the impact of Viji on the species, their study and conservation. She cut her teeth at the Crocodile Bank with the legendary Rom Whitaker, and who better to write her profile than Zai Whitaker? Viji “discovered” the Crocodile Bank via the Snake Park one summer as a student at Ethiraj College, writes Zai, who was her senior by a few years, and came to know her closely as a colleague and friend. Escapades while trying to discover the mouth of the Cooum with her sister Prabha, collecting crocodile dung, dealing with men acting “fresh” on the Chennai buses, and the onset of the schizophrenia that brought a cruel end to a much too short life: Zai describes all this and more in a personal and poignant recollection of Viji’s life and work. Zai recounts in an interview that Viji was different, the key word was her passion. She loved the animals around her – the cats, dogs, monkeys and squirrels and also had a balanced scientific approach to her field work.

Divya radio tracks a brown palm civet in Sengaltheri, KMTR (1999). Photo by Dr. AJT Johnsingh.

Divya Mudappa’s journey towards understanding the historical and cultural context of landscapes in order to better and more effectively conserve them effectively is well told by Shweta Taneja, who was fascinated by her deep commitment to the terrain of Valparai. Divya spent her childhood in Madikeri and came to Chennai for her Bachelor’s in Zoology at Stella Maris. It was her volunteering with the Chennai Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSCTCN), that probably set her on a path to wildlife research that included moving on to a master’s degree from SAS Pondicherry, interning with Raghupathy Kannan and going through the heartbreak of experiencing degraded rainforests in the Western Ghats. Setting up Nature Conservation Foundation NCF with her life partner, working on the Stanmore patch first and then tying up with Parry Agro to restore the rainforest at Lower Paralai – every step brought learnings about the complexities of rainforests and their interdependencies. Shweta does full justice to the tribulations faced in this journey and the frustrations that almost drove Divya to give up.

Anita Mani herself chose to profile Divya Karnad, the Zoology graduate from WCC, who spent her childhood dreaming of a career in wildlife in 1990s Chennai, when STEM was the only respectable thing to do. She also volunteered with SSTCN, and then went on to National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore for her Masters, stayed with the turtles, working in the now famous Rushikulya beaches of Odisha, where her experiences with the fishermen brought home the truth that successful conservation has to include and involve the local communities. Anita evocatively describes the coastal ecosystems and fishing communities of Chennai, the social habits of seafood consumption and the genesis of Divya’s website-based intervention “In Season Fish”. Divya’s focus on sustainability in seafood is unique and remarkable and also very relevant to our city.

The Oaks Call her Home is one of my personal favourite essays. Neha Sinha writes about Ghazala Shahabuddin and the oak trees of Uttarakhand. Neha’s descriptions of Ghazala’s work with the oak forests and the diversity they carry in terms of bird life is a story of love, of a woman finding her voice in a patriarchal society even as she discovered her passion and stuck with it.

Much has been written and said about Raza Kazmi’s sensitive and detailed portrait of Jamal Ara, the forgotten birdwoman of India. Raza writes about his chance rediscovery of Jamal Ara via Jamal’s daughter Madhuca. Madhuca movingly recounts her mother’s struggles in marriage, her joys while in the forests and doing her wildlife research and her final battles with mental illness towards the end of her life. “A strict mother, a very private person, who loved to be in the forest. She wore green trousers and a green shirt in the forest, and at that time for a married lady and a mother to wear that was out of the question!” How a person with so much impact on government policy, protection and documentation of the biodiversity of the Chota Nagpur area besides being a gifted translator and short story writer, could have been so utterly and completely forgotten is disappointing and sad to say the least. As I discussed this with Anita, she wondered whether Jamal Ara’s gender and accompanying lack of self-promotion had led to her erasure from memory. Was it that she hailed from and worked in small town India? This anthology should be the start of the re-discovery and celebration of Jamal Ara.

The compiled portraits and profiles are a tribute to the successes of these women, a description of their journeys including some of their gender-based struggles. I also found appealing the generous sprinkling of tips for young women who may wish to follow their paths in wildlife biology. Divya Mudappa speaks of resilience in the face of challenges, Ghazala of the importance of sisterhood, Usha Ganguli of learning to be bold and Uma of believing in one’s self without guilt.

A common thread that will strike the reader is that women field biologists seem to bring empathy and emotion to their work. This helps them engage positively with communities which, in turn, positively impacts conservation and sustainability at the ground level. This is a book I will dip into time and again.

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