29th June 2023
About 6 years into a major career switch, my journey can be summarized as below.
Writing and a wish to take it up on a professional basis did not happen on a whim. To me, making this transition was a logical next step. I am a writer. In retrospect, I have always been.
I must stress that I did not move out of engineering because I hated it. It is just that I liked writing more. I continue to be fond of engineering, the many talented colleagues, and amazing friends that it brought my way. I am also immensely grateful for the cross-cultural professional experiences, on-the-spot problem solving opportunities and the financial stability that it offered me in the midst of my daydreams of pursuing “something else”. All my travel around India, the USA, Canada, and Cambodia, not to mention the complete transformation and deep-seated confidence that (often solo) travel brings, I owe completely to my 11-year engineering stint (2006-2017).
Along the way, my national writing competition wins with the Indian Express (2008), Outlook Traveller (2017), and the Wildlife Institute of India (2017) gave me a little self-belief that I might be able to make a fist of it if I were to try to write for a living. Turns out that I was able to talk myself into taking that leap of faith.
I began with an editorial internship in May 2018 at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun where I was tasked to co-edit (with Dr. Sonali Ghosh and Ms. Prerna Bindra) an anthology of nature writing “Wild Treasures”. By the time it saw publication in April 2019, it had given me opportunities to read through the best of naturalists and wordsmiths on nature spanning 200 years. Their words on wild places in the Asia Pacific were a fair reminder of how much work remained if I were to REALLY call myself a writer. Coming across my “Wild Treasures” parked next to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” at a local bookstore assured me that I had at least taken that tiniest of first steps.
From August to December 2018, I was privileged to work as Program Manager, Outreach, for the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, a pioneering conservation organization undergoing a rebuilding phase at that point of time. With their legacy of historic conservation initiatives and a small driven team projecting a start-up vibe, those few months were packed with intense activity with my role spanning press releases for scientific papers; building up social media presence and their website from scratch; book launches; donation drives all the way to managing the nuts and bolts of office infrastructure as needed by our beautiful bungalow turned office.
In January 2019, I was back at the foothills of the Himalayas as the 30-km motorcycle ride that separated the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun from the greatest mountain range in the world drew me back. As I found myself in the role of World Heritage Assistant (March 2019 – Present) at the UNESCO Category 2 Centre for World Natural Heritage Management, it was time for a deeper immersion into the world of heritage which while editing “Wild Treasures” I had already dipped my toes into.
In the process of shaping, promoting, and implementing the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as the Centre is required to do, I found myself at the wonderful intersection of history, conservation, politics, psychology, and communication that the field of heritage conservation represents. “What is heritage?” (valuable enough passed down to the next generation) is not a simple question as follow-up subjective questions of who defines value and how many others agree follow. Why indeed must anything be saved at all? Everything from a school assembly song to millennia old ruins spread across hundreds of square kilometres can fall under the ambit of heritage, as can snowy mountains distantly seen and the deepest seas never swum alongside their denizens – all valuable in their own manner and subject to the same grindstone of change that bears down on us all.
In pursuit of answers, I have had the chance to co-parent an inaugural MSc in Heritage Conservation & Management as Assistant Course Director, walk the forests of Mt. Fuji learning of the nature-culture continuum as it exists in Japan, cruise the narrower channels of the Sundarbans in search of the creature that Bon Bibi protects us from in that transient world of sea and land, work with forest department staff of some of the most stunning wildscapes training and learning from them. From wildlife biologists and community researchers with whom I share a wild and wonderful campus with, I now know of cicadas that sound like gunning Yamaha engines and elephants that may (or may not) be secretly using a beach island in the depths of the blue Andaman Sea.
Not to sugarcoat the challenges, conservation (or heritage conservation) seems to be an incessantly uphill and lonely struggle for those who are in it for the long run. Years of dedicated record keeping and meticulous science often lead to blunt bureaucratic denials and political exclusion. Forests long loved and taboo mountains worshipped can still vanish in a snap. That makes passion for the objects of study an almost non-negotiable necessity. In the face of shrinking funds, unstable career tracks and casually thrown accusations of “impracticality”, it is only the truly dedicated that can soldier on, side-stepping cynicism, and frequently embracing compromise as conservation makes you do.
That said, the ceaseless energy that permeates life infects many that walk this road. The chance to wander least trodden trails swapping stories, as the gears of the brain whir merging all manner of skills – technical, soft, and expedient – to craft a solution that works in these most challenging of circumstances is the incentive that keeps on giving. Still rather new to this world, the possibility of answer(s) being out there waiting to be found is what drives me on. As a person with a deep interest in communication, I find it irresistible that every artifact in this wonderfully under-explored field, from a map of the world to the structure of a fig flower, has a story to tell.