It was the late 1990s, and computers were not common in Assam. Conservationists Nandita Hazarika and Goutam Narayan bumped into each other while visiting the Centre for Environment Education (CEE-NE) office to use the library and computer facilities. “Our paths crossed and we discovered common interests; nature and food among other things,” says Goutam.
He was at the time busy with the pygmy hog project and Nandita, who worked with The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) on rural energy, was helping establish its North-East centre. “We bonded over causes that were close to our hearts,” says Nandita.
In 1995, the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) was initiated by Goutam with the help of the Assam government, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pig, Pecary and Hippos Specialist Group chairperson William Oliver. It is the only programme standing between the pygmy hog and extinction. Goutam began his career in 1980 as a field biologist under bird man Sálim Ali at the Bombay Natural History Society.
Nandita, a postgraduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Hubert Humphrey Fellow under the Fulbright Programme at the University of Washington, Seattle, US, is a natural resources specialist and environment consultant.
Together, they founded EcoSystems—India, a trust for biodiversity conservation, in 2000. The PHCP and the Assam Haathi Project (AHP), which started in 2004 and works in human-elephant conflict (HEC) areas, are its flagship programmes.
Both Goutam and Nandita are resource persons on various governmental committees.
Back in the late 1990s, their hectic lifestyle limited keeping in touch through the telephone and common friends. “It made more economic sense to legalize the relationship than pay the skyrocketing telephone bills,” laughs Goutam. “It was a low-key wedding (January 2000), a registration at the Mehrauli court after waiting in queue with petty criminals. The menu was sweet potato chaat in the court compound,” he reminisces.
Back home, Goutam was making dosas for guests, to the consternation of Nandita’s parents. Over time, Nandita learnt to make sattu-ki-roti and ol-ka-achar nearly as well as her mother-in-law, while Goutam improved his Assamese to converse with the in-laws.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: It depends on situations; in conservation there is no one-stop solution. Various factors—social, economic, demographic—and small intricate things need to be thought of before taking a decision."
“We enjoy travelling, be it for work or pleasure. Our communication code during the pre-mobile phone days: Call only in emergency. So, if we did not hear from each other it meant all was well,” says Goutam. They still follow the code.
Conservation demands mental and physical endurance; walking for hours through forests; camping on the cold, hard earth; making do with the barest of necessities; and long, arduous treks. “It’s tough,” says Nandita, who once trekked through the Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh for five days to reach a remote village. Goutam has spent days in the wild at the Manas National Park, Assam, to capture wild hogs. But quitting was never an option, both say.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Goutam ponders over larger regional, national and global issues. Tasks such as planning meals, holiday destinations, shopping, etc., fall under Nandita’s purview. Managing the trust’s administration, accounts and report writing are done jointly."
Balancing work and home is a challenge, especially for women in conservation. “From working in an ‘unladylike’ profession, leaving home for long stretches, to sharing camp facilities with men, compromises are made at every step,” says Nandita.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Goutam: We sometimes get more passionate about food than our work and have arguments over cooking and recipes."
“When our daughter was young, we would take turns to stay at home; or we just took her along to the forest. We find cooking together therapeutic and we argue over following a recipe to the T,” says Nandita.
“We use most of our savings to travel; exploring marketplaces, talking to local people and staying at people’s homes rather than hotels. We have developed close bonds with many passing migrants; conservationists who visit our home in Guwahati. The forest, wildlife and nature are our way of staying connected,” says Goutam.
"DO NOT OPEN: Luckily they haven’t seen such a bottom line yet. Natural history binds them."
It’s a constant personal and professional negotiation. “We are often seen as a couple at various public forums, and frequently have to remind people that we also have independent opinions. We tend to be critical of each other’s work and seek each other’s advice, but not necessarily follow it. Our safety valve is to quietly leave for field stations when too much steam gets built up. Having a team of supportive colleagues helps,” says Nandita.
The world has risen to the crusaders’ cause. “We have come a long way—from being labelled as jholawalla, binocular-toting, unemployed wastrels to responsible conservationists. We have been incredibly lucky in the support of our families and friends,” says Goutam.
Even today, a few relatives think Goutam “raises pigs and watches birds while Nandita sells solar lanterns and chases elephants”, they laugh. “A sense of financial insecurity exists, but conservation has a charm of its own, and whatever little success we have had so far cannot be compensated by money or material comforts,” says Goutam.