By Nachiket Kelkar
Mr. Singh sat on his chair, his arms spread across the glass table. He pulled out a copy of the research proposal that had been sent to his office almost two months ago. He couldn’t help preening himself a little for his virtuous habit of reading up and being fully prepared for every meeting. “Foraging ecology of coastal hump-backed dolphins in a human-modified lagoon environment. Research proposal submitted to the Honourable Administrator, Union Territory of…” Mr. Singh had jumped to the objectives of the proposed study. “1. To assess how dolphins choose different feeding strategies based on ecological and anthropogenic covariates. 2. To investigate communication sounds by individual dolphins based on their location and proximity to boat traffic. 3. To estimate energetic budgets and stress-related movements of dolphins.”
Mr. Singh lowered his specs. He had not understood much of what was written. “This 25-year old boy is aiming for all this. Ridiculous!” he exclaimed. “All this within a six-month study!” He hadn’t forgotten to read the institutional affiliations of the upstart researcher before turning to the objectives. He knew the application was from the best marine research institute in the country, but he was determined to remain as critical of the research as needed. He might not have a degree in marine biology, but he knew better. He had years of experience after all.
It was already 17:40 and Nilesh had cold feet in the waiting chamber. Ten minutes late already, he thought.
“What if they make me wait for another day?” His heart sank as he saw the PA return to the waiting chamber. He knew he was going to be sent back with that wooden apology he was used to hearing by now.
“Have you brought your USB drive along? Copy the presentation onto this computer. And be in the office in five minutes,” said the PA.
Nilesh’s heart leapt at the PA’s words. “OK Sir… yes, yes, Sir. It is here, right here…” He loaded his presentation on the computer and took a deep breath. “Thank you, Sir!”
At 17:45 he was in the Administrator’s Office. He nervously greeted the stern Mr. Singh when he caught a glimpse of the white scar dripping stealthily on his forehead. His eyes lingered on it for barely a second but Mr. Singh had caught Nilesh’s fleeting glance.
“You have ten minutes. Make it quick”, he barked.
This was the moment of truth. The powerpoint came on. Nilesh cleared his throat and started “Hump-backed dolphins are endangered species and it is crucial to understand their feeding behaviour. Dolphins are social animals and hence communication is also important between individuals, for which they use echolocation clicks. Due to coastal constructions, underwater noise, and ship traffic, these dolphins are increasingly threatened and their habitats are degraded.”
Nilesh was still on the introduction slide, when a typo caught Mr. Singh’s attention. Just as Mr. Singh was to begin lecturing Nilesh on his sloppiness, the Administrator’s PA interrupted the meeting to get some papers signed.
When he left, Mr. Singh continued. “Why do you talk like you know everything, Mr. Nilesh? The dolphins are doing well here. Haven’t you seen them around every day? They are not endangered in my islands. You go straight to the objectives and to what importance your research has for my landscape. And get your spellings right!” Mr. Singh secretly smiled to himself. How dare a fumbling rookie from elsewhere teach him about dolphins – here, in his own kingdom?
Nilesh went ahead in a subdued tone. The confidence he had mustered at the start had flown out of the window. “We plan to look at foraging strategies and energetic costs faced by dolphins in response to increased vessel traffic and noise, I will use group scans and photographic identification to record behaviors of individual dolphins for…”
The Administrator stood up at this, and made a grunting sound. “I am afraid you just ran over your allotted time, Mr. Nilesh. I have given you five minutes. It is already 6 pm. I don’t have any more time to fuss over the impossible ideas you are chasing. So I am rejecting your permit request.”
“But, sir…” Nilesh couldn’t believe his ears. “But, sir, the reason…?”
“The reason is that your research is only for your degree. It has no relevance whatsoever for the ecological balance of our coastline. All my attention has been focused on the dolphins. I really don’t care what they eat or how they find their food. That is just trivial academic detail. Do you understand? So you will not be getting any permits.”
Nilesh still stood his ground. “Our research will help in…”
“Mr. Nilesh, don’t you understand what I just said? Or do you not wish to understand? Please leave…”
Mr. Singh turned to the PA and said, “Get me the helipad project clearance file with the new tenders. Make it quick.” And then in a rapid glance at the mirror, Mr. Singh gave a meticulous, neat pat to his hair and pulled a thin fringe over the white scar.
Nilesh was crestfallen. He thought he had failed everyone. The PA led Nilesh out and said, “Sorry about what happened. But Mr. Singh’s word is the last word here.” Nilesh was heartbroken. He wanted the tears to flow, but somehow they seemed unable to break through the rock that had lodged in his chest. His dream project had come to an end even before it could take off. He felt he had failed his Director, his anxious supervisor, his friends, his parents. But then he remembered and consoled himself with his mother’s words, that there is no failure until one stops trying. That night Nilesh packed up all his belongings and research equipment. He cancelled his deal with the local boat owner for hiring his boat for fieldwork, and boarded the first ship the next morning back to the mainland. As the ship sailed out of the docks, the dolphins seemed to be bidding him farewell as they bow-rode the waves.
Mr. Singh came to office on time. The chandelier, the tricolour, the shimmering paperweight and the six-foot mirror welcomed him. He had just received the morning’s mail, which brought with it a precious letter informing him that he had been declared the best Administrator of any Union Territory for that year. Mr. Singh spent the next half hour basking in the sunshine of his honour and power. He remembered his Mussoorie days and his moist eyes shone with pride, overcome by his own diligence and commitment to his country. He had always asserted his authority for a cause he believed in. He had all the answers in his island kingdom. He did not need to entertain anyone, who would question his vast knowledge or authority. He looked into the mirror again and gently tweaked the fringe of his hair giving it a light, classy touch. The white scar seemed to have stepped back a little.
About the Author:
Nachiket Kelkar is a Ph.D. student at ATREE and is keenly interested in studying freshwater and marine ecosystems. For the inspiration to this piece he is thankful to friends at the Oceans & Coasts Program, Nature Conservation Foundation. The story is based on a true incident.