Shyam Sunder’s education, in Mangalore and later in Madras, followed a course predestined for entry in to the forest service. In the Madras Presidency of the early 1950s, selection to a Class I government post was highly coveted, as well as restricted by numerous fences of exclusion. However, he succeeded due to several unusual events he narrates vividly in this memoir.
One of his early forestry mentors cautioned, “Shyam Sunder, you’ll either go very far or will lose your way. I advise you to be careful.” As a researcher, forest administrator, and later as head of the forest department, he always chose to do what felt right. Inexplicably, that hastened success throughout his career. Except for a short period of two years, when he lost most of his hair thanks to a despondent boss, Shyam Sunder’s career was a ‘dream come true.’ With the affection of 10,000 staff, full support of the chief ministers he served under, and ample confidence of the government, Shyam Sunder made Karnataka a model state for forestry in India. He retired in 1989 as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.
Shyam Sunder loved Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog), due to the similarity between the trip depicted in the book, up and down the Thames, and his own career. In both cases, life was interesting while not always smooth whether it was protecting forests in the Western Ghats from insatiable societal demands, working with ministers intent on getting their way, or striving to achieve conservation goals while being part of a labyrinthine bureaucracy. Under his leadership, partnering with a staff of ten thousand officials, the forest department of Karnataka became the envy of departments across the country.
Shyam Sunder’s memoir is a series of vignettes, from numerous comedic to a tragic few. The life narrated is varied and never short of excitement – being ten yards from a charging tusker or a foot away from a King Cobra; defying orders of the chief minister; being hauled up for contempt of the high court, and discussing with Indira Gandhi the best way to eat avocados. Possessed of wit and passion, the narration lays bare the hubris of popular discourse on noble forest livelihoods, and unflinchingly narrates neglect of rural communities, as well as of forests, at times by the callous imposition of rules and regulations.