The very real danger of extinction faced by the species panthera pardus, tigers in common parlance, is something that we are generally aware of. The threat from poachers is not on account of the demand for tiger skins, as in the past, but because there is an almost insatiable demand for tiger bones, blood, every organ in China. The traditional Chinese belief that virility is enhanced by consuming tiger parts has emerged as the single threat to the survival of the tiger species globally as the belief is now backed by the enhanced purchasing power of the Chinese. A large transnational network has emerged out of China with tentacles in India, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries that obtains tiger parts and supplies them to the ultimate consumer. There is one considerable thought given to idea of breeding tigers in farms like chicken and cattle to meet the demand, and to ensure that the species does not die out totally.
In such a scenario, which is not fiction, the disappearance of Burree Maadah, a fictional famous tigress from the Kanha National Park becomes the fulcrum of a riveting story Scent of a Game by first-time novelist Raghav Chandra. It involves a high flying NRI executive from Silicon Valley, his retired teacher father in Amarkantak, a ‘white’ female reporter in Jabalpur, a tribal descendant of the Sleeman Thugee who is an expert animal trapper, a dynamic no-nonsense forester, a local maharaja turned environmental film maker and a go-gooder businessman who can turn the screws of government to help out those who appeal to him. The locale shifts from Jabalpur and its environs to Myanmar, Kalimantan, Sumatra and China with bits of Mumbai and the US thrown in.
The story is fast-paced, sometimes almost breathless, with considerable twists and turns that ultimately leave the protagonists almost where they started from, but not before considerable adventure, amazing depths and occasional thermal up-drifts that eagles use to glide. Ram, the NRI comes to visit his dying father and to collect his father’s tiger skin, gifted to him years ago and now coveted by Jaya, Ram’s wife. Ram’s father had a premonition about his son, of being in a cage with a tiger, and the series of misfortunes Ram goes through has all the makings of a Greek tragedy. He loses his purse at London airport which contained not just money but his credit cards, he cannot meet his father before he dies, the tiger skin lands him in jail and then gets substituted so that he cannot get bail. One by one, other characters enter his life, some coincidentally, but each contributing to both his unravelling and his ultimate recovery. Jugnu Pardhi the trapper, the Maharaja turned environmentalist Abhimanyu Singh, the Maharaja of Baikunthpur, the unlikely ‘white’ reporter in Jabalpur Sherry Pinto, the forester Ganga Bishnoi and the ubiquitous Goa sahib or Feroze Goenka, who bails out Ram from the jail but at a price. The important role played by corporate money and transnational networks in this whole scheme of things is an eye-opener and while the names and details are fictionalised, their important role is not fiction.
The author has an eye for detail and has done considerable research on not just the international debate on wildlife conservation centering around the UN-initiated CITES, but also amazingly on science of genetics and other scientific phenomena. The realistic description of life in the Manipur border town of Moreh, zoo layout and management in Sumatra, the flora and fauna of Kalimantan and city life in Yangon, for example, allows the reader to travel voyeuristically, a commendable achievement. I would particularly commend the description of the history and the life style of the Pardhis, a de-notified ‘criminal’ tribe whose ancestors were the notorious Thugee, who were brutally stamped out by Col Sleeman. the portrayal is extremely sensitive, and comes from empathy, not misguided sympathy. In light of this, the whole developmental approach adopted by the paternalist state can be questioned. The book is a veritable paradise for those interested in general knowledge and old-fashioned quizzes, with every page revealing a new nugget or factoid.
The book could have done with far better editing. Indian terms like Sangam are unnecessarily explained. It would have been better to italicise these 14-15 words and put their meaning in a glossary, rather than interrupt the flow of the narrative. And some of the language, e.g., ‘I will revert to you’, ‘under the aegis of’, etc sounds a little old fashioned and could have been avoided.
Overall, the book makes for a very good read, for large parts it is unputdownable because it sustains the pace, and makes for a good mix of policy issues and an interesting story line. Now that the sea cucumber, whose habitat is the Andaman sea, is under threat from Myanmarese fishermen due to the Chinese demand for aphrodisiac, could we see a sequel in the near future?