I belong to the second generation of my family born in the post-independence era. Most of the people in my family did not get the chance to complete their education due to lack of exposure and financial crisis. But, I came to the city from my ancestral village for my studies. I got admission in a convent school where I was fortunate enough to gain a bag full of experiences among people who followed different customs and rituals as natives to city life, which was way different from my village culture.
During my initial schooldays, I used to visit the library only during the library period to read folklore which was mainly woven around characters which were animals, like lions, cranes, jackals, swans, etc. It was fun reading and imagining these characters in the real world. A magazine that was popular among my classmates was Champak. It contained interesting stories, puzzles, jokes, science, and craft activities, etc. At home I used to read Hindi comic books centred on titular characters like “Chacha Chaudhary” and “Pinky”. The shopkeeper of the neighbourhood grocery store used to rent it out for a rupee for two days. I remember that the character of ‘Khargosh’ (rabbit) in the Pinky comic books fascinated me a lot and I started observing such creatures around me including spiders, ants, snails, birds, wall lizards, and even the mosquitoes.
But I was deeply influenced by one story that I read in my third standard. The story entitled “Adventure in Dhudhwa” was based on the Dhudwa National Park. The character of a boy, same as my age, and his adventures in Dhudhwa fascinated me a lot. It propelled me to visit the national park.
Along with this, watching the television show based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, also remains a fond memory, where I identified with the character of Mowgli. It made me want to be a caretaker in a zoo, a wish which I expressed to my father. I loved being amidst nature, caring for animals, learning about trees and birds. My father saw my interest and took me one day to meet Miss Eva Sharma, who was Director of the Lucknow Zoo at that time. I shared my interests with her and she told me about her profession and work which got me more interested and gave me a vision and dream to live up to. She told me to read more about animals.
So, I started reading more about nature, birds and animals, whatever was published in the newspaper in those days. I vividly remember how I read the articles on birds written by Ranjit Lal for Times of India, where I came to know the different kinds of the species among birds, their names, and a lot about their habitat. These articles pushed me to learn the names of a lot of new birds like the Purple Sunbird, the Treepie, the Grey Francolin, which were neither mentioned in my school textbooks nor in my surroundings. From these articles, I also learnt about the calls of different birds, like “may-yew-may-yew” for the peacock, “tu-tu-main-main” for the Myna bird, among others. Sometimes, I didn’t even understand the full context of these articles but I read them despite that. Searching for wildlife photographs in the newspaper became a daily habit, which I would then cut and paste in my diary to make my own jungle world.
As I grew up, my father took subscriptions of Down to Earth, Frontline, and the weekly newspaper “Sahara Samay” for me. I continued to read these magazines and newspapers for many years. Couple of years later, at a bookfair in Lucknow, I got the opportunity to meet a scientist from the Bombay Natural History Society. He introduced me to the Hornbill Magazine which was a quarterly magazine at that time, mainly focused on birds. I also explored the Saevus Magazine which featured and covered news on wildlife. It also remains one of the costliest magazines I have ever come across.
Reading all these magazines and especially the articles published in newspapers over the years changed my destiny and made me passionate about nature and pushed me to work for the environment. Due to this, I even chose my field of study as forestry and wildlife. This is how I started my career and work path. It also marked the beginning of my own travels, where I got the opportunity of dreaming of different landscapes and visiting and exploring them in reality. As the articles and stories of wildlife kept me alive all these years, I also visited the Dhudhwa National Park for my first research on birds and enjoyed the landscape through the memory of the story I read in my childhood. Working in the field of environment and ecology since the past few years, I continue visiting and travelling so many regions and landscapes for work and research. They not only enrich me with new experiences, but also give me the scope to locate these characters that were mentioned in my stories I read as a child.
Astha Chaudhary is a trained ecologist. Her work lies in documenting the local biodiversity, making conservation plans and understanding human-non-human interaction through community lenses. She also loves to write stories for children. You can read her recent Betwa walk series in Chakmak. You can reach her Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.