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Bharati Jagannathan

JUNGLE FOLK: INDIAN NATURAL HISTORY SKETCHES
By Douglas Dewar
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 216, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

Jungle Folk is a compilation of delightful sketches penned at different times, and in the different places where the author was presumably stationed during his career as a British civil servant in India. Douglas Dewar joined the Indian Civil Service in 1898, and was posted as Accountant General of Punjab between 1921 and 1924. The book under review was published first in 1912, and reading the following description of Pariah kites, ‘India teems with kites; we may therefore infer that sanitation there is primitive. Kites are the assistant sweepers to the Government ... they receive no money wages, nothing that comes under the Accountant General’s audit, but they are paid in truck. They are allowed to keep the refuse they clear away.’ I wondered if Dewar introduced any other innovative budgetary practices during his own term as AG! In the introductory essay—evidently addressed to the ‘home audience’ in Britain despite the fact that most of the essays which follow were originally published in various India-based newspapers and periodicals— the author says that literary critics note that all writing about Indian animals seems to belong to a ‘school’ founded by an earlier naturalist-writer so that one expects ‘funny books’ about Indian fauna, and argues that it is so not because all (British) naturalists in India follow a set template but that the creatures themselves are responsible for it. His detailing of characteristics in favour of the assertion that Indian birds are in no way inferior to those of the British Isles is patently born of love for the subcontinent’s avifauna that he spent so many years observing. No wonder that the sketches that follow brim with life and verve and are a joy to read even after an entire century (and then some)! It is, in fact, the early twentieth century context that made this fascinating collection of essays a doubly rewarding read. Commenting on the feeding habits of the kite, he says, ‘I would not advise anyone, not even a German, to learn table manners from the kite.’ Who else but an Englishman could say this, and when else but at a time Europe was teetering on the brink of war, helped along by the bellicosity of the uncivilized Kaiser Wilhelm II? Indeed, when, except during the heyday of Imperialism, would a naturalist explain the extension of the ranges of the Brahminymyna and the red turtle dove with this remarkable statement: ‘There ...


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