Nayanika Mahtani, after being an investment banker, has been following the right side of her brain and is a copywriter by day and a storyteller by night.
She has just penned Ambushed , published by Puffin. An adventure story set in tiger territory in the Himalayan foothills, it is meant for the 9+ reader. The foreword is written by Valmik Thapar, who suggests this book should be part of school reading.
All royalties go to Tiger Watch, an NGO in Rajasthan, for a school set up for the children of tribal (ex) poachers, to give them a window to alternate livelihood.
Let us begin with the title of the book- 'Ambushed'- a great pun given the spotlight on tigers and the storyline of the book. Tell us more!
This wasn’t actually the original title of the book, but we needed to change the earlier one as it was similar to a title that had just been launched. The credit for choosing this out of all the options I gave, goes to the Puffin team! The title ‘Ambushed’ held the thrill of not knowing what’s lurking around the corner. City-bred gadget geek Tara is ambushed when her Dad springs the surprise of going on a tiger tracking vacation in the Himalayan forests, and maybe even moving there for good! Tara’s socialite mother orchestrates her own ambush when she springs her surprise(s), sometimes unknowingly! A group of tigers is also called an ‘ambush’; and it also of course refers to the technique used by the tiger to catch its prey. Satya, the 13 year old son of a poacher, who has tracked tigers all his life, is a master at this craft. And without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that there are several ambushes quietly waiting to happen as we go!
The mother is a bit too flaky/pretentious to begin with. Is she based on someone you know? (No names needed of course!!)
Hmmm…maybe not one person in particular, but I have definitely encountered the likes of Sushma “Call me Sue” Tripathi! In fact, though she may be an over-the-top specimen, I think she reflects so many of us who choose our experiences based on how impressive they will appear, on say Facebook, to our peer group. And this holds true even in the context of some of the bigger life choices we make. Which is why Sushma is aghast when her banker husband wants to quit the City to go and live in a forest. For Sue Tripathi, life is a race -with no forests near the finish line!
You have drawn from conservationists for the book but did you meet any ex-poachers as part of the research for the book? How was the experience?
In all the school sessions that Puffin arranged, I told the kids that it was a poacher (and a tiger) who compelled me to write this book. And it was true! The seed for this story came from an article in the National Geographic that had the photograph of a jailed tribal (Moghiya) poacher and a tiger – and that image just wouldn’t leave my head. To me, they both – the tiger and the tribal poacher- were hopelessly trapped. I started researching Moghiya poachers. To start with, most of my research happened online. I spent days reading about the history of the Moghiyas – and how they retreated into the forests when Emperor Akbar besieged Ranthambhore. Today, they are the world’s best tiger trackers – employed (for a pittance) to kill tigers by an international illegal wildlife trade mafia. They remain a marginalised tribe with no other means of livelihood.
Last April, I met with ex-poachers’ families at Dhonk, a craft collective run by Divya Khandal, to offer alternate employment opportunities to Moghiyas. It was an incredibly moving experience, to say the least– and the hope in those eyes will stay with me forever.
The unlikely friendship and collaboration between kids from completely different backgrounds- do we as parents let it happen in real life?
Not easily, in most cases! In today’s world, I find that not only our kids, but even we as adults, end up interacting with those who have such similar backgrounds, education and outlooks, that, in my view, it saps creativity, originality and makes for very dull conversation!
As a family, we have lived in India, Africa and now in the UK and our daughters have interacted with children from completely diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and been the richer for it, I think.
The tribal boy in the book (Satya), is based on a little boy called Satto-who is the son of the lady who used to come to clean our house. Despite our best efforts, he refused to go to school. So I started seating him along my (then pre-school) children and keeping them occupied, while his mother did her work.
Satto never ceased to amaze me! He had spent his early years in the village where his grandfather was a carpenter – and could whittle a block of wood into almost any shape you named, whistling nonchalantly. He found the lot of us pretty unimpressive I’m sure, but the one thing that earned his unadulterated awe was the computer. He would watch it entranced by the unlimited possibilities it held!
How did the association with Tiger Watch come about?
The person who heads up Tiger Watch is a reluctant tiger hero, a conservation biologist called Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, who has dedicated his life to the cause of the tiger. (His equally committed wife Divya runs Dhonk – as I mentioned earlier). It was his interview in the National Geographic -that I mentioned earlier -that set me off on this journey.
After I finished writing the first draft of the book, I felt I just had to visit a tiger reserve to experience first-hand what Tara feels on seeing a wild tiger. I had been to several tiger reserves over the years, but had only seen tiger tracks and tails, never a tiger.
Over the Easter holidays last year, our family headed to Ranthambhore.
We saw not one but 8 wild tigers in 3 days – including a tigress who had very recently given birth to 3 cubs (who have found their way into the book too!) It was as if the tigers had allowed me into their world. And I felt I had to honour that. And the only (small) way I knew was by donating my book’s royalties to the school Tiger Watch had set up for ex-poachers’ kids, to give them a window to alternate livelihoods.
What next from your pen/ keyboard?
Am currently finishing work on a film script in a completely different genre. And on the book front, there are a dozen different crazy ideas jostling for space in my head. I’ll wait for one of them to nudge out the rest and refuse to budge and then take it from there, hopefully!
What are your favourite books on the theme of conservation/ animal rights for kids?
Some that have touched my heart include Born to Run, Running Wild (in fact so many others as well by Morpurgo), Watership Down, Black Beauty and Charlotte’s Web.
As Strawberry, the rabbit in Watership Down, says:
“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
That, for me, says it all.