Note: this is Part 2 of what will hopefully be a series of posts on the guides of the Tiger Trail, who are former poachers. Part 1 can be found here, context here. Beware: this post is sorta self-serious.
One of the most familiar, persistent, and pervasive myths in the collective-(un)conscious of the ‘West’ is the myth of the ‘noble savage.’ Writers who perpetuate this myth typically structure it along the lines drawn in Genesis: a formerly Edenic, perfectly-ordered society meets a corrupting influence that sullies irrevocably this society’s purity and harmony to the detriment of our current situation. Whatever the devil, be it private property, human temptation, television, the Federal Reserve, etc., the story has one function: it causes us to pine for the good old days—the beginning—before the advent of all this nastiness, which just stinks in comparison.
But if there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that origins are rarely pretty. Progressions, regressions, and transgressions can happen all at once, and often they coincide in the same event. After all, we can’t get back to how it was then, not because we don’t have a suitably equipped Delorean, but because there was no then. Pardon the Liberal Arts 101, but I think some of us are more duped by this myth than we know. It is more difficult than is fair to exorcise ‘Eden.’
But when one spends significant time on the edge of protected land, set aside for the flourishing of an ecosystem, one inevitably thinks about these sorts of things: harmony and balance and the cross-section of the past and future. And the Periyar is alive with its history. The Mullaperiyar dam, built at the onset of active British involvement in its colonial crown jewel’s governance, created Periyar Lake, out of which flooded trees still eerily jut, and at the banks of which boar, bison, deer, elephants, tigers, etc., today convene to snatch, lap, and quench*. British hunters exploited this inducement for their recreation until 1947, when poachers took the reins. They took Sandalwood, and stripped Vayana trees of their bark and bison of their haunches. They were paid mercenaries on the edge of the law, thrown there by those who wanted to extract the forest’s wealth.
Last night, I had dinner with two guides, Thomas and Noushad, who led us on the Tiger Trail two weeks ago. They are both former poachers. They brought photographs from 1997, the year after their sentences for poaching were commuted, taken on the first days of their new lives. Two photos in particular stuck out to me. Both are simple. They are of the original Tiger Trail guides, several of whom I don’t recognize, but some of whom led us on our trip. They are younger, thinner, facing the camera, their caps tilted casually over their eyes, their mouths stern (in my experience, it’s uncommon for an Indian man to smile for a photograph). And most meaningfully, they are without visitors. They are without others.
When we were wrapping up our trip two weeks ago, we asked our guides to pose with us for a picture. In fact, we took several. We wanted to remember them, and to memorialize our experience with them. I imagine this is a common desire. But these two photos that Thomas had handed me from across the table were taken only of them, only for them, to serve as a remembrance of these early times. What was it about these days that they wanted to remember?
There’s no doubt that the inauguration of a new Forest Department program at that time raised some excitement, and might’ve prompted some photo-taking. And like parents who take their child’s photo on the first day of school, I guess we also celebrate the first day of a new career.
But there’s something about their composition that suggests to me a more monumental event, and there’s no question that there was something personal about the way Thomas showed me them. They were carefully wrapped in plastic, and he was concerned that I saw some of them multiple times. And I thought again, what does he want me to see? What does he want to remember?
The complement and inversion of the ‘noble savage’ myth is the idea of conversion, the idea that from a fallen and ignorant state one can be lifted to the light; one can see the truth, which rejects the life that precedes it. It teaches us to turn away—to disbelieve—in the past, and to think only of a future state in which life is blissful and easy—paradise on earth. But just as we can’t return to a perfect former world, we also can’t live in a magically isolated world. The world—the past—seeps, leaks, and bleeds in, and we can only survive the trickling deluge by keeping our feet on the ground.
These pictures are, quite literally, of a conversion event. They are of changed men. I can’t know what they were thinking then, or what was motivating them to change. But I long to ask this man who is so proudly showing me his past, what have you thought since then? What have you learned? And what have you left behind? This is a man who has spent almost every day of his adult life inside a forest–first illegally, in make-shift camps for weeks while police staked out his home, now with international guests in dependable and sanctioned campsites. This is a man who has learned to follow animals by the insignificant signs they leave behind, originally in order to hunt them, but now to so he can teach others about them, to provide context and wonder. This is a man who can cook a gourmet meal on a couple of campfires, and, in an otherwise indifferent environment, can host with charm and ease. Has he seen the light? Are you uncorrupted?
But you can’t ask someone these questions, nor can anyone realistically answer them. In the end, he’s just trying to get his job done. Thomas wants to give his children a future, and also wants to show off the Periyar, this Eden-with-baggage. It just so happens that he, and the rest of his crew, are at the frontlines of a march towards an historically new relationship between humans and the greenery from which they stumbled—a relationship that lets us dream our elysian dreams while keeping our feet on the ground.
*For more on the currently controversial contract that motivated this dam’s creation, check out my post here.