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I knew Fateh Singh Rathore intimately, and yet, when I read through Soonoo Taraporewalas Tiger Warrior, I found the book filled dozens of blanks about his life, things that he did, people he met, feelings he felt. With every page I turned, I found myself placing mental images like pieces on the complex jigsaw puzzle that was Fatehs life. Much of what Soonoo penned was familiar to me, but, as anyone who knew Fateh will readily confirm, he had so many facets that it was virtually impossible for anyone to fully comprehend the man, his mission or his multifarious relationships.
That Soonoo was so persistent and was able to piece together with such determination the chronology of his life, from his birth in Chordiya, in Rajasthans Jodhpur district, to his untimely death at Maa Farms, Ranthambore, is a service not merely for his friends and family, but for all who might tomorrow be forced to fight against the odds for Indias wildlife.
We all know that Fateh was the product of a feudal background, but the trials, tribulations and exultations of his familial interactions that the author has meticulously listed complete the picture of a man who put tigers on the global map. This includes his early life, dominated by a grandfather (Laxman Singh Rathore) and uncles (who commanded both obedience and loyalty to the family name in a manner that city-bred people may not comprehend).
This is a book written from a position of quiet love. Love for the forest that Fateh protected with his life and that Soonoo herself so obviously loves, and love for the man. I was, of course, not one bit surprised to read that Soonoo also caught the rough (actually not that rough) side of Fatehs tongue, for he reserved his anger and irritation only for those he hated or loved, preferring to ignore the in-betweens to the extent he could.
I can rememberhow can I ever forgetirritating him by asking time and again to identify a particular loud, fluty bird call which rang out at frequent intervals, until he snapped: How many time do I have to tell youits a GREY PARTRIDGE! The call of the grey partridge, or francolin, is still very dear to me, and I now have it on my mobile phone.
Fateh was like that. He said what he felt without malice and hesitation. Despite the fact that Fateh and I had shared a thousand confidences over almost four decades, I had no inkling that he had asked Soonoo to pen his biography. Soonoo was never one to speak about herself and Fateh lived in these water-tight compartments where he seldom spoke about ones association or relationship with others unless there was a reason to do so. But, as with many decisions he made in his life, his choice of a biographer was very well thought out.
Soonoos training as a librarian shows through in the quiet, organised, almost mechanical way in which the life of this larger-than-life man has been presented. The chronology, particularly his childhood and family life, was an eye-opener. I knew Fatehs wife too, but always referred to her as bhabhiji (sister-in-law) and never even knew her full name was Kehm Kanwar Bhayal, or that she came from Garh Sawana. I knew about the incompatibilities that Soonoo has sensitively described, but had no idea about the lead-up to the marriage, the honour-based opposition from the family to his earlier relationship with a girl belonging to a different caste.
Of course, there is more. Much more. We are informed that Fateh might have become a stage performer instead of the world-famous tigerman of Ranthambore. How he helped organise a tiger shoot for Queen Elizabeth, established wildlife protection protocols for Mount Abu, Sariska and Bharatpur. How he was handpicked to bring the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to life by one of the greatest influences in his life, Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger. Plus, the inside story of how Bill Clinton saw his tiger in Ranthambore with Fateh.
From the foreword to the end of the book, Fatehs relationship with Valmik Thapar, too, comes across very lucidly. From writing books together to crafting and fronting tiger films in Ranthambore for BBC and other television channels, this partnership clearly defined both lives. The association resulted in the creation of the Ranthambhore Foundation, the Ranthambore School of Art and, when Fatehs son Govardhan came into his own, the hospital and school, and, of course, Tiger Watch, the tough organisation that Fateh gave birth to and which he was so justifiably proud of in the evening of his life.
While Fatehs life was as much a celebration for tigers as it was a battle to give them an edge on life, Soonoo records how the last few years were spent painfully, watching as years of effort to secure the future of Panthera tigris were eroded by a combination of ineptitude and politics on the part of particularly small-minded bureaucrats and officials who neither had the vision nor the courage that defined Fateh.
Thus is was that Fateh was actually forbidden to enter the forest he created because he spoke out against the errors of omission and commission that had led to scores of tiger deaths in Ranthambore. Those bureaucrats have retired. And Fatehs reputation and his mission have outlasted their feeble attempts to belittle his lifetimes work.
Scores of people, if they ever got together, could probably regale us with facets of the rich life of Fateh Singh Rathore of Ranthambore, but it took a young librarian-turned-wildlife enthusiast Soonoo Taraporewala to sit the legendary tigerman down and record his life, loves and agonieswhile he lived. And for this, I, for one, am indebted to her.
Bittu Sahgal is editor, Sanctuary Asia