THE FIRST MEETING
The monsoon had begun; it had rained incessantly since morning.
I saw him standing there, on top of a boulder surrounded by sheep, grazing in agricultural fallow, off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway.
He was tall and lean, his well-built frame swathed in kurta and dhoti, the plain white of his attire offset by a dark brown shawl on his shoulder and a bright yellow turban—a long cotton cloth wrapped so many times around his head that it looked like a bird’s nest.
What caught my attention was his stance: one leg planted firmly on the boulder; the other bent with the sole planted just below his knee to form a triangle. For balance, he leaned on a stout staff.
Birdwatchers are familiar with that one-legged pose, particularly among resting water-birds who use it to relax the muscles of the folded leg and also to minimize loss of body heat and moisture.
It is equally characteristic of the Masai of Africa—in fact, the pose is so typical of the tribe that it features prominently in visuals advertising African safari holidays.
The similarity intrigued me. What did this man, in the middle of open fields in western Maharashtra, have in common with the Masai? Did he share just the pose, or were there other similarities in lifestyle, in his relationship with wildlife and with the grasslands that nurtured it?
Mahendra Kathal is a Dhangar—a community of pastoralists, among the last of the clan to cling to a centuries-old nomadic lifestyle. Nitya Ghotge, a friend of mine, who has been working with Dhangars, introduced me to him.
He was warm and welcoming; he took me to his makeshift shelter and offered tea. He was, he said, about to head out, to graze his sheep in the open grasslands.
The shelter was little more than a blue tarpaulin stretched taut on a central pole, with the four ends pegged to the ground. The floor was packed mud, smoothened; within, a few household items were stacked in one corner. A fire burned in a temporary hearth; Mahendra’s wife cooked while their children lounged around.
We sipped hot tea from battered aluminium tumblers. “Aap landga dekne aye ho? (Have you come to see the wolves?). Join us in three weeks and I will show you as many wolves as you want.”
As a wildlife photographer, I get that a lot—people telling me I can see something if I come to a particular place at a particular time, only for me to find when I get there after expending considerable time and money that the promise was far in excess of the reality.
Something about Kathal, however, made me believe in what he told me. I spent some hours with him that day, sloshing around in the rain and the mud as he walked around the pen, checking each sheep for injury or ailment before setting off for the day’s grazing.
Before he left, he told me that he would be heading east with his family and his sheep. They would cross the Western Ghats, then move on along a 300 km route towards central Maharashtra where they had their monsoon home.
MYSTERIES OF THE NIGHT
Mahendra called me three weeks later. He was nearing Dhawalpuri, he said. If I wanted to see wolves, I should join him as soon as I could; he had already lost a few sheep to the predators.
At the time, I was working on a BBC series on the monsoons, and Mahendra was part of the storyline. I hooked up with him on the road, my kit this time included a thermal camera. Wolves appear mostly at night; the heat-sensing thermal camera was my best chance to film them.
I stayed with the Kathals for three weeks, sleeping most of the day and staying up all night monitoring the repeated attempts of the carnivores to sneak in and grab their prey.
On one occasion, a pack of wolves managed to sneak in and make away with a lamb. I was focussed on filming the whole thing; the next day, I got cursed by the womenfolk for not warning them about the attack.
I’ll compensate you, pay you the price of the lamb, I assured them with the unthinking arrogance of the professional photographer that I was. Mahendra’s wife, who by then I was calling Babhi, gave me a look.
“Not everything can be measured in money,” she said. “You will never understand.”
I didn’t know what to make of that. A lamb, I thought, is a lamb.
“Not everything can be measured in money, you will never understand.”
It was the last day of my shoot. I was packing up my gear when Mahendra invited me for a walk into the grasslands.
He herded his sheep along as we trekked up a ridge and then onto an open patch of grassland. “Do you understand what we go through everyday?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” I assured him. “Very sorry to hear about your losses because of the wolves.”
“Wolves? They are least of our worries. In fact, we worship them; I know they are good for me. I might lose a few lambs to them, but they are the reason I have thousands of healthy sheep”.
His attitude was baffling. Here was a man whose main source of livelihood was under constant threat from wolves, and he was talking of worshipping them.
“Don’t you believe me?”
I assured him I did. My time with him on the road had shown me that he was simple, straightforward, and essentially honest in all that he said and did.
“I want you to see this, to understand this, as something much more than me and my sheep and these wolves,” he said. “I want you to understand what the wolves mean to us, and what we mean to them. Why don’t you join me on my return migration?”
My “professional” mind was surprised, and suspicious. Why is he asking me to join him? What does he want from me? What is there in it for me?
I kept my doubts to myself. Let me get my work done and my life in some order and I’ll join you, I told him.
“Good. You have to live like me to really understand the grasslands. You need to look after the sheep, like I do, to know what it means to lose one. You need to walk with me to understand the real issues I face.”
It was fourteen months before I could finally join him, once again in Dhawalpuri.
“I want you to see this as something beyond my sheep and wolves. I want you to understand what the wolves mean to us and what we mean to them. How about you join me back on my return migration?”.
Read the second part of this series