“My family has been living in this huge old house in the same village for a couple of hundred years. The tradition is for kids to go off to boarding school generation after generation. So that’s what happened to me, I was off to boarding school in kindergarten.Our village was surrounded by wilderness, and wild animals were rather common. So, for me even as a very young child- home was the wilderness…the feeling has sort of stayed.I went to boarding school- which was rather regimental. I was a good student – but loved being outdoors. I played a lot of sport. Basket ball, judo, athletics. Basically, I loved anything that kept me away from the desk and the confines of a classroom. I studied arts through school and college and continued with the sports. My family never really told me what I should or should not do.My mother,Meera Singh is a fine arts graduate from Benaras Hindu university. She is a home maker and very comfortable in her skin. Whatever I wanted to do she stood by me.My mother has always been her own person. Despite the fact that ours was a rather traditional family and she was married very young, she’s out spoken and fearless. The one thing that has always amazed me, that she is always up for a laugh, no matter how dire the circumstances. She’s always been ahead of her time and generous to a fault. She is also an animal lover and has raised numerous animals along with her kids. She loved community work and our car was used as an ambulance not only for our village but neighbouring villages as well. This was back in the day when health facilities were abysmal in rural areas.
I am more comfortable in a natural environment than a big city. Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks were places I visited as a youngster and was aware of the role of a naturalist. I thought it a very cool job. Except that there weren’t any women in the role. There were women doing research work but there weren’t any professionally qualified naturalists.
And then I happened to hear about Tajsafaris providing equal opportunities to men and women to try for the selection process, and made it. I was with them for nearly 9 years. I went from being a rookie naturalist to trainer. It was a most tremendous learning, not only about wildlife, but also meeting people from around the world and growing as a person.
I find the cities more challenging than navigating the jungles. When I reflect on all my years in the jungle, I can’t really think of anything that terrified the life out of me. But there have been many exciting and adrenaline shot encounters though. I’ve had tiger pug marks outside the cottage I lived in, at Bandhavgarh. In South Africa, I once spent a night alone in a tent with a pride of lions about 15 metres away at a little waterhole. I could hear them for the better part of the night.
Out on a day long trek in Nepal once, we had to wade across a shallow part of the river. The river has both crocodiles and gharial, and we had seen them basking further up the bank. It gives me goose bumps to think about that every now and then. I’ve sat quietly and mostly still in my vehicle dozens of times as tigers have passed by, many times less than two feet away.
I have lived in the midst of wilderness when I was in my earlier job. Then I quit in order to give get more family time For the past couple of years or so, I have tried to break it up, so at least am home at least 10 to 15 days or so in a month. If am out on a project or expedition, this may vary a bit. My husband and I both love the wilderness and understand what such field of work demands so it’s ok. Besides, we both find it difficult to spend too much time in the city at a stretch!
The biggest learning from nature is balance along with no wastage. Nothing, just about nothing, is a waste in the wilderness. Every little creature or plant is a vital link in the eco system. Besides, the animal kingdom is so ahead of the human one- philosophically speaking. It actually is live and let live. Even predators hunt when hungry, almost never for the fun of it.”
On women going in for the role of a naturalist in recent times, Ratna says, “There were very few women just about a decade ago. More and more girls are taking to this field now, but numbers are still small. Well, a lot of people are even now surprised to see me in the wilderness. When I started out as a naturalist in central India- I was definitely a rarity. People didn’t really know what to make of me. In fact the forest guards and locals had never seen a woman in a position of authority so to speak. For the longest time I got addressed as ‘sir’, or ‘madam sir’.
Also, people are incredulous, as this profession is not thought of as one that can afford you a comfortable enough livelihood, so also a touch of eccentricity is attributed to you. In rural areas, I’ve had numerous people tell me they didn’t think educating their daughters beyond a point was very useful, but seeing me made them feel that there was an opportunity of some sort, even in the wilderness/rural areas.”
On mums or parents if they should consider this career as an option for their daughters if they are interested too, Ratna explains, “A lot of mums are worried- the jungle sounds like an unforgiving place. To them, I can only say, that once trained properly they will be much safer in nature than any city in the country. Wild animals typically avoid all contact from humans, and they usually are aware of our presence well before we are aware of theirs. Besides, it’s a clean healthy environment – our cities are choking and pollution is a silent killer. Wilderness tourism has come a long way from what it was two decades ago. It is now possible for youngsters to actually have a fairly comfortable income working in a field that makes them happy.
On my own journey I can say, that some people were patronizing, some thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of tiger tracking or rough track jungle driving. I had to earn my stripes. It worked both ways. I had to work very hard, sometimes harder than the men to prove worthy of the job. However, once I made my bones and gained acceptance, I do believe I received more adulation than the men. I’m not complaining! .”