Friday, November 30, 2012

Magnificent Makhna: Meet the Author and Illustrator

A majestic elephant protects the forests from timber traders, tree-cutters and poachers. The animal becomes such a legend, that his photograph is a regular display piece on the walls of their homes. But one day, the Forest Department receives strict orders to hunt the elephant down… 

After the gripping Black Panther, Aravind Krish Bala returns to the Western Ghats with a riveting story inspired by true events highlighting the complex cause of conservation, drawing the reader’s attention to realities that need to be faced without taking sides. Illustrator Sandip K. Luis has created brilliant pictures that capture the drama in the story and heighten the suspense. 

The Author

Aravind used to be a teacher, and is now a journalist writing on environment, wildlife and conservation. We asked him to tell us the story behind Magnificent Makhna and how he fell in love with forests and wildlife. 

When and how did your love for the environment, forests and wildlife begin?

When I was working as Chief Reporter, The New Indian Express, in Coimbatore, between 2002 and 2006, I learnt conservation journalism. Every month, I used to trek or travel to some part of the Western Ghats. These trips gave me stories for the paper and made me realise the need for habitat protection, clean water bodies, tribal culture and the necessity for reforestation.

People do not realise that their rivers are there only because of forests. We need to stop felling forests and actually recreate forests. When you trek, you are fascinated by the landscapes and wildlife. They spur you on.

Kalidoss and Ganesh of OSAI, an NGO, Dr Tolstoy, a wildlife photographer, and I, were part of some memorable treks.

 Have you met Moorthy the makhna? What is he like?

Castro Selvaraj, an activist based in Gudalur, told me about Moorthy, the makhna. The first few pages of the book are based on his narration. Then I learnt more from Dr Kalaivanan, a veterinarian at the camp, when he told me how a vet student, a girl from the US, got very close to the elephant. The few times I was at the camp, I was not lucky. I haven't met Moorthy yet.

Does Thangam regret having captured the makhna?

The Thangam character is based on Thangaraj Paneerselvam, a forest ranger and the most-preferred sharp shooter of the State Forest Department. He did not capture the makhna. I don't know how they captured it. Based on his stories of tranquillizing and rescuing panthers and elephants, I have woven the two stories together. It is part-real, part-fiction.

What do you think would have happened if Moorthy was not captured?

I guess he would still be roaming the wild in Mudumalai, Wayanad and Bandipur forests, terrorizing the timber mafia.

You have been to the forests many times. What do you love and hate the most about forests?

Forests make you feel that you are levitating. You forget and lose yourself. You are so light, you won't carry your ego, pride and beauty. You are a speck. But you come back pure and with wisdom - not worldly, but spiritual. It is an inward journey as well, filled with beautiful moments. My one wish is that there should be no more buildings or construction in any of the mountains. We need a law that ensures that. As for the forests, no more roads, rails, bridges and strictly no vehicles. We have encroached on more than what is necessary. If you want to know the wild, walk.

 Is there any one animal (that you have seen) that has impressed you the most? Why?

Every animal is special. There are birds, insects, flowers, fish. Each one is important and an essential part of the ecosystem. There are Nilgiri Tahrs that live in the highest peaks, mostly in herds. One evening, we spent two hours with a herd of hundred in the second-highest peak in South India. At a distance of some thousand feet! They are so sensitive. They seemed to say, "We don't like you humans." There are Olive Ridley Turtles that swim in the Indian Ocean. And I have always been fascinated by Great Pied Hornbills. I don't know why. Maybe because of their colours or their preference for tall trees. I feel that they fly on top of this world as if they know everything that's happening down here. My choices are more philosophical, I guess.

What is the best way to introduce children to environmental issues? Is it through books, visits to sanctuaries/zoos, interactions with animals or watching Nature shows on TV?

Maybe books, because I write them! But books tend to be a bit unreal. In a zoo, the animals are caged. The wilderness is all about freedom, mobility and an inner peace, despite its dangers to life. It's about living. If we take a child on the lion safari at Vandalur zoo, the image of a lion he/she will carry back will be that of a sleeping, ugly creature. Nature shows are fascinating. They wake up the slumbering adventure spirit in kids. It will be tough to get the gadget-generation that is glued to the virtual world, to take an interest in ornithology, wildlife biology or even to trek. Initially, parents have to introduce children to Nature. Children should be taught that this planet is our home. As far as we know, the only home. Not one with walls but a home with a sky, seas, a sun, clouds, rain...

The Artist 

After completing his Masters from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, Sandip K. Luis is now a researcher at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. This is his first book for Tulika.

Sandip says he was fascinated by the story, especially the confrontation between Moorthy the makhna, and Thangam, the man chosen by the Forest Department to hunt down the elephant. 

What were your first thoughts when you read the story?

First of all, I was really taken in by the characters of makhna and Thangam, who appeared to me as inseparable for some mysterious reason. For me, the most striking scene in the story was the exchange of gaze between the makhna and Thangam, which was unlike what a reader might typically expect from a violent confrontation between the hunter and the hunted. It was, to me, the real mystery of the story despite its much-anticipated conclusion of the makhna being captured. My illustrations are inspired by this 'mysteriously disappointing confrontation' between the makhna and Thangam. I think the writer's actual literary contribution was bringing out a complex mystery like this, from a real-life incident and I felt I had to stay true to it. As an artist, I also wanted to translate this mystery from its apparent religious tones (as Thangam sees Lord Ganesha in the makhna) to a more humane (or even 'animal') level. But this is the most difficult task, and I think my success is only partial.

Have you been to the forests and seen wild elephants up close?

Though I was brought up in the city, I have been to the forest many times because my mother's house is in Kolayad, on the fringes of the Nilambur forest in Kerala. Once, my friends and I were on our way to Sabarimala. We were walking towards a distant forest shelter on a dark evening, and came across numerous recently-upturned little trees, and fresh elephant dung. We were far behind our senior fellow-travellers, and were not even sure if we were on the right track. For me and my artist friends, with our wild and crazy imagination, this experience itself was enough to visualise the most ferocious elephants on the planet, though the real elephant (or elephants, we are still not sure) might have been gentle and kind.

What medium did you use to create the pictures?

Water colour. I generally work with it because it is more light and fluent, compared to other mediums. But the images are slightly reworked on Photoshop software to give additional effects on the painted surface. 

Have you met Moorthy? If not, would you like to meet him?

No, I haven't. But sure, meeting him will be a great moment, like when Thangam meets his makhna!


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