It's a Jungle Out There

Indian Express - April 01, 2012

The jungle is not a place of predator and prey, instead it's about collaborating and sharing the same waterhole.

For so long, I have heard the phrase "it's a jungle out there" mentioned in the context of the cruel world of business , and understood it to mean that only the fittest will survive and it's each man to his own, constantly watching his back, in the fight for survival. There are various other metaphors used which underline this sentiment. At a top management conference of a large, politics ridden organisation, one of them pithily said "let's face it, either you are the road roller or the road - there is no third option". Either you are the hunter or the hunted, the predator or the prey. So, when I actually went into the jungle a few months ago, I realised pleasantly that "it's a jungle out there" isn't about a lonely, constant, back-watching, fight for survival. It is about collaborating to survive, fighting only when you need to, not hunting when your stomach is full, and sharing the same waterhole. If I sound annoyingly naïve, it's because I am what my army officer brother used to call a "concrete junglee", a multi-storey living Bombayite whose views of the wild are informed by hearsay, and visuals of speedy hunts and hapless prey, on Animal Planet.

We set off in the jeep with a wonderful guide who said we would be tracking a leopard, and soon we were following the frantic calls of the deer signaling which way the leopard was going and the chattering of the langurs signaling from their vantage point, the leopard's presence. Our young guide, born in the jungle, told us that these were warning calls, telling everyone that danger was imminent, so please take care. Eventually we did see the leopard, a splendid creature, who was parading up and down a stretch, sometimes looking at us in the jeep disdainfully, and doing what I thought was a very good imitation of walking the ramp. When he disappeared for a while, the guide told us that this was not usual behaviour, but clearly he was not on the prowl to kill. He was perhaps marking territory because this stretch was usually the preserve of another leopard, recognisable from a prominent scar on his face, even if you were not a rosette identification expert.

Across the road the deer were watching, worried and alert, but were not scuttling for safety. I commented that it was unusual (for me), why they were not panicking and running away given how close the arch enemy was. Our guide patiently explained that if the big cat was not in a killing mood, then where was the need to run for cover? Interestingly, it was the jeeps that were running for cover soon, as one of them spotted and signalled that the "very strict" forest officer was on the prowl, last spotted in the watchtower near one of the watering holes; many of the jeeps had deviated from the path allotted to them as news of the leopard sighting had spread, thanks to silent cell phone signals.

I probably behaved in a way that friends of the wild would never forgive. I asked so many dumb questions, that in retrospect, I am reminded of a story that the venerable old chairman of a board told when taking a potshot at ignorant, but overly inquisitive, independent directors. A lady on a jungle tour harassed the guide with innumerable questions. Finally the poor man couldn't take it any more, and when she asked if the rhinoceros ahead was a male or female, he said "that madam, would be of interest only to another rhinoceros". As if that weren't enough, I also covered myself with embarrassment that I suspect I shall never recover from. "What a lovely bird", I said to the guide, who replied that it was a kingfisher. "Wow", I exclaimed, "a blue kingfisher"! A five-year-old traveling in the jeep with us, a formidable specimen of the age of information and of dedicated single child parenting, looked at me superciliously and said kingfishers are blue. I absent-mindedly replied, with the airport tarmac in my mind's eye, that I had always thought that they were red. No doubt, he discussed me in his school essay.

The last word, as always, on this trip went to my husband. I paid good money to stay at an eco-friendly resort - tents, dim lights, thanks to solar power, boilers outside heating water so that you could luxuriate in a tepid bath, wooden strips hammered together with protruding nails to make the stairs that went up to our "deluxe" tent, with a view of brown thatched roofs of other tents below. He looked reflectively at it all, shook his head ruefully, and said "to think that we have slogged our butts off all these years so that we wouldn't have to live like this; and now you have paid good money to experience how it could have been".