How ‘Papa’ Wakefield brought Darwin to Kabini

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: Just like the wavy flocks of painted storks that lift off softly into the bamboo-dotted horizon along the shimmering blueness of the Kabini backwaters around the tiny hamlet of Karapura, a gentle soul left on a journey of its own.

Col. John Wakefield, aged 95, bid his last goodbye to the one place he loved to live in and single handedly place on the world tourism map: Kabini.

A Briton born in the India of the days of the Raj; a boy who grew up in the royals environs of  a principality in Bihar, and eased into a privileged lifestyle punctuated by the shouts of nannies rising over gun fire while being out on a shikar; a boy who shot his first panther while he was all of eleven years old; a man who had the opportunity to see our country in all its ancientness; one who was witness to a completely bygone era where Studebakers and Morris Minors, Austins and Aston Martins; and elephants and palanquins were part of the traffic on some remote tree lined avenue somewhere in the north of India; perhaps Bihar, perhaps Delhi.

Where life was lived in an unhurried repose amidst the grandiosity of palaces, the splendour of horsemen with their colourful head gear, the richness of caparisoned elephants and the general conviviality of an altogether different India.

An India that was royal in demeanour and culture, a country that was a source of amazing enchantment for the rest of the world.

This is the India that John Wakefield fell in love with; this is the land that never left him ever. “My father sent me to England for my schooling,” he once told me. “But I ran back in less than two years. I simply could not get to like that country.”

That’s how John Wakefield was made.

And that’s how he lived till the end.

An Englishman who was more Indian than English in his heart, a young boy who loved to be identified with the dust bowls of Bihar that the lushness of Brighton; a man who was mesmerized more by the Kabini than the charm of all of the British isles.

A man who chose to make it his home for the last three decades of his life.

John Wakefield came to Kabini in the late 1970s to set up a wildlife resort for the Karnataka government. A government that had a man called R. Gundu Rao as one of the ministers.

Gundu Rao, a man of infinite dynamism, saw in Wakefield a sure investment for the future as far as showcasing the fantastic wildlife of the Kakanakote jungles went. He invited him to remote Heggada Devana Kote near Mysore.

And it was at Karapura, a small village bordering the jungles, where the Maharaja of Mysore had a hunting lodge that a jungle retreat began to take shape under the guidance of John Wakefield.

And eventually one that came to be regarded as one of the best in the world.

Aided as much by the presence of a mind boggling array of wild life, from the gorgeous herds of elephants on the shores of the Kabini back waters to the magical glimpse of the tiger, as by the very presence of Wakefield who brought into the process of running a wild life resort a sense of punctual promptness.

Not seen until then in any government involved tourism venture.

Safaris on the dot, both morning and evening; staff that had to report to him the sighting of anything and everything, be it a black naped hare or a leopard on a tree after each trip; the casual charm of the dining area by the back waters; the warm cleanliness of the rooms with their squeaky clean white bed sheets on cots that seemed to be made of ancient rosewood placed on a terracotta tiled floor; the cosy attractiveness of the bar with its high framed drinks cabinet and its tall stools where many a tale of adventure and excitement in the magnificent Kabini jungles were shared among wildlife aficionados who gathered around towards nightfall with their gins and whiskeys.

Somewhere in the background of it all, there was John Wakefield.

I first caught glimpse of John Wakefield sometime in the mid 1980s, at a place called Balle in the heart of the Kakanakote jungles, driving an open top jeep with a jerry can attached to the side.

Wearing a typical British hat, he was on his way to the town of Manandavadi across the border in Kerala. He was 70—and an energetically adventurous 70 at that, driving a jeep in the searing heat through the jungle all by himself.

And to think in those days the Kabini jungles were more remote and cut off that they are today, a place where only the really genuinely interested wild lifers made their way to, either on a scooter like I used to, or in a rickety old Ambassador car.

Wakefield, perhaps in keeping with the old, genteel traditions that harked back to the days of royalty in an era which seems like it belonged to another planet really, was all courtesy.

At all times.

A gentle knock on the door which had a small legend that said, ‘Private’ to the right portion of the impressive main building on the Gulmohar filled campus of the lodge in Karapur, almost always elicited a crisp, ‘come in’, unless he was taking a siesta, from the man who was always in jungle fatigues with two if not three pens pinned to the insides of his humongous pocket.

There was to the man a sense of calm dignity; a feeling of satiety at having lived life to the full; an air of warmth in his manners and a friendly twinkle in his eyes which were all immensely complemented by the portliness of his frame.

Wakefield spoke in an accent that was not completely British, clipped or anything. His sentences were more rounded with an exuberant expansiveness, the same qualities that came into effect when he reminisced his life under the Indian sun!

Of how one of his forefathers had been smitten by the loveliness of a Rajput princess, a ‘nubile girl of singular beauty’; of how the young man had clambered the high walls of the palace somewhere in Rajasthan just to fetch a glimpse of the lady and how he had hid in a camel caravan in order to spend moments of intimacy with her and how he finally married her, the same lady who bore him four children thereafter!

Of how members of his clan had colonized Australia on behalf of the Queen of England and about the fact that he belonged to the same lineage as Charles Darwin!

All this and more issued forth from the alertness of his mind even at age 90, accompanied by the mandatory glasses of scotch whiskey he consumed with such unbridled joyousness after sun down sitting in the porch of his small room that he occupied to the edge of the main building. He would never let you go without a drink and as for dinner, while it would be a lengthy repast for you if you minded, he would finish with a piece of chicken or a small helping of salad or a cutlet.

He always said that his favourite scotch was Famous Grouse but then he offered you that and many other varieties and even rum if you so wished to sip. John Wakefield spoke Hindi with a great degree of proficiency; a testimony to his life lived entirely in India.

On one occasion, when I visited him one evening, he greeted me with his customary warmth and even as I was settling down in the sofa under the porch, he asked what I would like to drink. In one of those moments of extravagant fun, I replied in Hindi saying, ‘Kuch Nai’! A hint of a smile began to play on his gentle face as he immediately got up from his seat and began to shuffle his way into his room.

As I sat perplexed, he returned with a bottle in his hands. Placing it on the table to the side, alongside which was the framed photograph of a handsome tusker reaching out to a succulent shoot of bamboo somewhere along the backwaters of the Kabini, he said, ‘this is for you’.

My eyes popped out in sheer disbelief when I picked up the bottle of whiskey which had a smart label on it which said, ‘Kuch Nai’!

Wakefield sat chuckling as I tried to come to terms with a brand of scotch that I had never heard of before and one that he told me was owned by a Canadian Sikh who had come up with such an improbably brilliant name for his product!

I once took two friends along to meet Wakefield. As the evening meandered along in the gentle swing of the beautiful conversations we were having, my friends, impressed by the magnitude of the grand old man and fuelled by the warmth of the whiskey inside them, promptly touched his feet in a show of complete reverence!

Even to this day, I don’t know how Wakefield felt at this rather unexpected form of respect that had been bestowed upon him in the most Indian fashion possible!

I always reminded myself that John Wakefield was in his 90s, an age which only few men live to see. Somewhere deep down I always told myself that he should go on for a few more years, in the salubriousness of Kabini. But then, age and its attendant problems caught up soon enough.

John Wakefield is no more with us. For me, my trips to Kabini will leave a certain hollow ache deep inside me.

For surely, my mind will always go back to the times when I spent many an evening with a remarkable man called John Wakefield, well into his 90’s and yet with a joie de vivre, rarely seen in men half his age; with the myriad stars shining in the summer sky over Kabini with a herd of elephants trumpeting in shrill joy in the far distance with a baby in tow!

Photograph: courtesy M.A. Sriram/ The Hindu

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