She was very good-looking, still is,” K. Ullas Karanth smiles. “Likewise,” says his wife, Prathibha, when asked what first drew them to each other. “We were two people full of zest for life,” she says. He is a well-known conservation scientist and tiger biologist and she is a speech language pathologist who has designed intervention programmes for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Their marriage of 39 years began three years after they first met through his sister in 1971. Born to Kannada writer Kota Shivaram Karanth, an iconoclast who married out of his clan in 1936, Ullas met with no objections from his family. Prathibha had to convince her mother for a marriage outside the Bunt community (from the Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka).
In 1976, Ullas, who had trained to be an engineer, decided he wanted to be a farmer. The couple moved from Bangalore to near Mysore, where he had a patch of land. She took study leave from Nimhans (the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences), Bangalore, to work on her PhD on language disorders of patients with strokes and brain trauma. “No other wife would’ve said ‘yes’ to ‘I am going to quit today to do some farming or I am going to become a biologist,’” says Ullas. But the battles they faced weren’t from within. “Many thought a trained engineer doing these things was an irresponsible indulgence,” he says, referring to his decision to get a master’s degree in biology, more than 10 years into his marriage. “You must do what you really care about. I had that and I couldn’t argue with his choice,” she says. She began to teach at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing (Aiish), Mysore, after completing her PhD.
By the time their financial situation stabilized in 1988, when he got a job with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Ullas started travelling to the forest. “From 1988-96, I was a weekend husband,” he recalls. “It was tough on them (Prathibha and daughter Krithi, who was born in 1979). I am obsessive when it comes to work,” says Ullas. For Prathibha it was more lonely than difficult.
“I was the first person to put radio collars on tigers to track their numbers. Radio-collared tigers die, they cannot be eternal,” says a pained Ullas. There was a time when every collared-tiger death was attributed to his method. “When you are being harassed, your family takes part of the hit,” he says. Around the same time, Prathibha was facing bureaucracy at her workplace. “I had a thicker skin,” he says. “(But) there were times when things were so bleak that, but for her, I just wouldn’t have made it,” he says.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Prathibha: It’s never what one of us wants. We talk and resolve everything. Ullas: The biggest decisions are made in less than half an hour. "
Prathibha had by then created tools to study the speech difficulties autistic children have, in Indian languages—her findings have helped speech-language therapists for around 20 years now. In Mysore, where she began her work, she mentored Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, a gifted autistic child who went on to write his autobiography in 2011. Word of Mukhopadhyay’s progress spread, and by November 2000—they had moved to Bangalore by then—she began work with a group of 12 children. Her method was being recognized and she published in peer-reviewed journals. “I was mostly alone and so had time to study,” she says, explaining that she depended largely on good house help. “I provided entertainment on the weekends,” Ullas adds.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Prathibha: It’s a sore point. I do all of the work at home. He’s theoretically open and genuinely so, but never manages to implement it. Ullas: I am trying to mend my ways at 64."
Krithi is now executive director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore. “She chose to work with people and how they affect conservation, so she is the best of the two of us,” he says proudly.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Prathibha: He is reactive and I take a while to build anger up. It works, else we’d both be fighting all the time."
Ullas is irked by the holiday career people make wildlife to be. “One needs to study these fields. You can’t just turn up in a forest on a weekend or gather a few kids and be cute,” says Ullas.
Barring their common basis in science, the couple have few common interests. Prathibha loves music, Ullas has no time for it. “I resented that. I like a social life and he had no time for any of that,” she says. Every morning they start their day with a cup of tea in their terrace garden, carefully planted by Prathibha.
"DO NOT OPEN: They talk about everything."
Prathibha travels with friends in the travel group Women on Wanderlust (WOW). “I have gone to the forest as a tourist and admire it like any intelligent person who understands conservation does, but that’s it. I know what I vibe with,” she says. “I am just happy the pressure is off me,” he says, relieved he doesn’t have to take time off for the annual holiday.
“We are strong personalities. If I was in wildlife, I would have been very competitive there,” she says.