Lone palm tree, Sir!

It is a year, today, since he passed on from this world, almost unnoticed, unappreciated even. Not that he looked for appreciation. For as long and as far as I knew him, he looked for other things in his long and self-made life. Till the end, there were things that could light up his eye—a reminiscence of hours spent in the wilderness in years past, his younger biking days and his Calcutta, tinkering with binoculars and radio equipment, a good book or a new stock of interesting tobacco for his pipe, getting together with friends for a chat, and, of course, a good joke, the dirtier the better.

The name given him was R. K. G. Menon, but that was not how he was known. He had a nickname of long standing—60 years, no less—emerging from the hallowed corridors of the Madras Christian College: Cutlet. He was always, to all of us who knew him, just Cutlet.

R. K. G. Menon (Cutlet)
R. K. G. Menon (Cutlet)

Imagine a rugged man turning into his fifties carrying out, during 1977-79, a full-fledged field study of the behaviour of blackbuck at Guindy National Park and Point Calimere, initiating systematic waterbird counts in Vedanthangal, carrying out and publishing in 1982 what were perhaps the first population estimates for an ungulate in India using line transect techniques, and all of this years ahead of any similar effort by other Indian, university-trained and funded researchers and field biologists. Imagine a man without a formal college degree or training or affiliation, who yet kept pace with the advances in scientific thinking in animal behaviour and ethology and could not only discuss this with clarity but also apply it in his own work. Cutlet was this and more.

Cutlet's blackbuck. Till his last days, watching blackbuck and interpreting their behaviour would excite him no end.
Till his last days, watching blackbuck and interpreting their behaviour would delight him no end.

I used to meet Cutlet during meetings or field trips of the Madras Naturalists’ Society (MNS), an organisation he helped to found. There was little close interaction of the sort that came later, because in the initial days I was merely learning the ropes of basic birdwatching, interested in just getting outdoors, all excited with every new species I saw, and little else. Even then, at the Adyar estuary and other places, I remember him, spouting clouds of smoke from his pipe, teaching me to use my binoculars properly, and telling me to take detailed field notes, to count the number of birds and not stop with just identification, and to observe their behaviour. “Write it down. If you think its all in your memory, it is not worth it. It’s just kaka-pee [crow-shit]”, he would say, or something similar and with more choice adjectives that I, unfortunately, cannot repeat here.

Cutlet (in centre) at the Adyar estuary with friends.
Cutlet (in centre) at the Adyar estuary with friends (Photo courtesy: V. Santharam).

It was almost exactly twenty years ago, when he had crossed 60 years of age and I was dawdling through my late teens, that I got to watch him in the field. We were both part of a small group of nature enthusiasts from MNS trekking to Konalar in the Anamalai hills. Although he kept company with us on the trek and in the evenings, he would take off on his own through the grassland during the day to sit quietly somewhere observing tahr or langur or whatever else caught his attention that day. He would not brook crowds, noisy or otherwise, even of nature enthusiasts, that came to see wildlife but did not observe. And he would make no bones of telling this to his companions or to comment on this in his writings as well. One day, we found a dead sambar nearby and Cutlet observed the broken neck and patiently tracked the signs around, showing us signs and scats and interpreting based on what he knew of the carnivores, that this was a tiger kill. On that trip, I learnt from him some of the hallmarks of fieldwork, about good backpacks and footwear, usage of binoculars and deprecation of cameras, about silence and observation, field clothing and sleeping bags, not to mention a number of hilarious jokes, songs, and limericks in the evenings.

Cutlet was a well-read man with a scientific temper, a character that distinguished him from many other naturalists around him. I do not know of him missing a chance to immediately borrow and eagerly read any interesting book, whether it was field research or a serious scientific text or monograph on animal behaviour, ethology, and evolution. The list of books and authors that I was introduced to and read thanks to him is a large list, indeed. The Mountain Gorilla by George Schaller was a defining book that turned me towards field research in wildlife. Cutlet did not just tell me to read it, but helped locate what was perhaps the only accessible copy in Chennai: from the shelves of the library of IIT Madras, where the book had lain almost unnoticed. Not having the means himself to purchase many books or build a private collection, Cutlet was heavily dependent on libraries and friends for access to books or journals. He pointed me to the Connemara library to find Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, or old volumes of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Off to R. Selvakumar’s house to request copies of other books by Schaller to read. Head to the British Council Library for Niko Tinbergen’s The Study of Instinct. And so on.

The authors and books I got to read and discuss threadbare with him in his one-room rented house in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, are a revealing list, when I think of them now. He’d read all of them, and if I managed to get a copy, he often read them a second time. In ethology, books by Niko Tinbergen (The Study of Instinct, extracts from The Herring Gull’s World) and Konrad Lorenz (King Solomon’s Ring, On Aggression) topped the list. From these, we would chat about Tinbergen’s four questions, about interpreting super-normal stimuli and intention movements, about displacement activities and imprinting. More textbook-like among the books were McFarland’s Animal Behaviour and Dimond’s The Social Behaviour of Animals. Among field studies, we would discuss classics like Fraser Darling’s A Herd of Red Deer and David Lack’s The Life of the Robin and a whole host of more recent books from field research. George Schaller on lions, gorillas, deer and tiger would recur. Hans Kruuk on hyenas, Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss, and Joyce Poole on African elephants, Clutton-Brock on red deer and primates, David Mech on wolves, and, of course, out of his special interest in blackbuck, Fritz Walther and Elizabeth Cary Mungall on gazelles and antelopes. I got to read many of these thanks to the libraries at CES and the Indian Institute of Science and through the help of Raman Sukumar.

Cutlet was also up-to-scratch on the rapidly growing field of evolution and sociobiology. He’d read and could hold forth on E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and a slew of other books and ideas that were among the most interesting developments from the 1970s through the 1990s. I remember wading through arguments over The Blind Watchmaker and The Extended Phenotype. I remember Cutlet’s appreciation for and critical thoughts on ideas considered rather divergent at the time, such as Zahavi’s concept of signal selection and the handicap principle and Wynne-Edwards’s theory of group selection. In all of this, he would try and link the concepts to his own observations of blackbuck and other animals. How the blackbuck pelage and behaviour linked to signal selection. How its territoriality can be understood in relation to ideas spanning Fraser Darling and Lack and Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative) to Walther and Mungall.

Books like Sinclair’s The African Buffalo and Schaller’s The Deer and the Tiger linked behavior and ecology. Cutlet was not too hot on the field of ecology per se and somewhat de-emphasised looking at plants. Still, the field of behavioural ecology interested him. When I got a copy of a new edition of the classic Krebs and Davies textbook on behavioural ecology, he read it and tried to see links to blackbuck behavioural ecology. One of the topics we would repeatedly discuss is the decline of blackbuck population in Guindy National Park. Cutlet saw how reduced numbers had profoundly changed the social behaviour and reduced interactions among males. He saw territorial and social interactions as key in stimulating reproduction and believed that the population decline was an example of an Allee effect at work. Trying to bring to the attention of the Wildlife Warden various pertinent aspects related to conservation of this blackbuck population, Cutlet explained the possibility of such an effect in simple terms in a letter written in January 1993. Once again, this was perhaps an idea that was ahead of its time or our own data, which I encountered being discussed in leading journals only years later.

In retrospect, what made these bouts of reading and discussions a great learning experience for me and fascinating for Cutlet, was perhaps the fact that neither of us had anything to lose or anything material to gain from it. It was pure curiosity and personal interest. Cutlet was far removed from any academic or peer pressures to perform cutting-edge research, publish papers, or proclaim his scientific interest or ability. The bureaucracy and corridors of academia, that can stultify as often as it can stimulate, were not for him. He had no job on the line, no tenure to uphold, no defining seminar or workshop to commit to, no funding priority to meet, no deadline-driven reports to prepare (barring a few that he wrote for the Forest Department on management issues). My college coursework (BSc Zoology) was as archaic and lifeless as a beat-up tin can and the dead specimens being dissected in our labs. What I dabbled with in ecology or ethology and the books I read were de-linked from exams and grades and performance in courses. And so, the reading and the discussions seemed to work, and they seemed worth it.

Although he had no formal training in quantitative aspects of the science, Cutlet still believed in repeated observation and quantification using proper sampling techniques. Years before I was formally (and in a more text-book fashion) introduced to behavioural sampling techniques, I got a thorough grounding in the basic methods from Cutlet. Out of his sundry collection of reprints, he yanked out a well-used photocopy of a paper that still remains a classic in the field: Jeanne Altmann’s 1974 paper on sampling methods for the observational study of behaviour, a paper that has seen upwards of 6000 citations till date, some of them Cutlet’s. Cutlet spoke of the benefits of different kinds of sampling for different aspects of his study of blackbuck behaviour, and the terms and ideas slowly sinked in: ad libitum sampling, focal animal sampling (his favoured method, especially on identified individuals), scans and other methods. He exhorted me to make a copy of the paper and read it; we would march off to observe the behaviour of chital and blackbuck at Guindy National Park. Cutlet described how to make an ethogram, identify and name individuals, code behavioural data, and how to watch animals unobtrusively. When I thought I would start a study on chital behaviour in Guindy National Park to complement his work on blackbuck, he gave me a copy of a 1981 paper by Shingo Miura on social behaviour by chital in Guindy that helped me get started. Cutlet would similarly exhort other MNS members and students to add value to their field trips by doing systematic counts and observations. The number of younger people he helped in the field of wildlife studies is not a small one. In many ways, he was one of the best teachers I had.

With backpack strapped on perfectly and a cigar in his mouth, Cutlet poses with a bunch of younger nature enthusiasts during a field trip (Photo courtesy: V. Santharam)
With backpack strapped on perfectly and a cigar in his mouth, Cutlet poses with a bunch of younger nature enthusiasts during a field trip (Photo courtesy: M. Raghunathan).

Cutlet also taught me the basics of field work, by example and demonstration rather than lecture. Besides behavioural observations, he trained me in the basic line transect method, that involved walking along straight lines through the forest and counting animals and measuring distances to animals on either side. Cutlet was perhaps the first person to apply line transect techniques to estimate population density for ungulates in India, publishing a paper in 1982 in the Indian journal Cheetal with estimates of chital populations. His work was based on one of the early publications that developed this survey method, the paper by Anderson and Pospahala (1970). Cutlet had also approached a statistics professor at the Madras University to understand the method and then applied it in his work. By the time I began my work, the methods had developed further and a computer software called TRANSECT was available and I could easily learn how to use it with from Sukumar and others at CES. Still, I had to learn the ropes in the field. Cutlet had an excellent liquid-filled magnetic compass (he always appreciated good equipment, particularly binoculars and telescopes, and would repair and maintain them in good condition himself) and he taught me to use it to walk the transect and maintain the course through the forest. Find and hold to the bearing, use the mirror, and sight along the viewing slit at a distant tree or landmark and then march towards that. “When an army marches through the desert, the guy holding the compass would have to direct the others. He needs to find a lone palm tree that can be a reference to navigate.  And as he marches, he’d have to call out periodically: Lone palm tree, Sir!”, Cutlet said, half in jest. As the compass-bearer while walking transects with Cutlet in Guindy and the nearby IIT campus, I would then often choose a palmyrah tree as marker and say: “Lone palm tree, Sir!”.

Still, Cutlet was highly self-deprecating. He would reiterate his lack of formal qualifications and scientific training and tell me that he was no good and that if I wanted to really learn the ropes or make a mark in this field I should go see others, the real scientists, the professors. As I made a faltering start at my own field project on chital and blackbuck in Guindy National Park with his help, Cutlet repeatedly urged me to go to Sukumar at IISc for guidance (“he is the elephant man who knows stuff about populations and ecology”). He also pointed me to Ajith Kumar, another person he held in great  professional regard and personal affection (“Ajith is a Cambridge man who’s worked with David Chivers”, “go talk to him”).

Cutlet, and what he was as an ethologist and curious naturalist, was largely overlooked by most people who knew him. Cutlet was a no-nonsense man and would get rather irritated by others who chose to remain ignorant of science and ideas, who merely went for nature trips to picnic outdoors but nevertheless would loudly spout an entrenched opinion about why animals did this or that. He would not mince words when speaking to such people and, in his earlier years, would not baulk at using the most colourful language either. This, as expected, put some people off. This, coupled with his lack of formal qualifications, his self-deprecating comments, and his solitary existence in a dingy one-room house, appeared to provide adequate reason to those who wished to turn their face away from him. And there were those who perhaps thought he was a mere curiosity, a loner better left to his pipe and his eccentric predispositions. Although Cutlet was somewhat chauvinistic at times and could come out as strongly opinionated in his own way, he could and would be swayed by a well-substantiated and logical argument. Kavita Isvaran, now a leading scientist who has herself carried out detailed studies of blackbuck behaviour, speaks about how when she first met Cutlet to discuss the phenomenon of lekking in blackbuck he was very skeptical, almost dismissive. Through the course of a thorough discussion he, however, eventually came round to recognise that his understanding, restricted as it was largely to one population, needed to be expanded to accommodate the findings of newer research.

Yet, it was his own fieldwork that really defined Cutlet. Cutlet made over a thousand hours of focal animal observations on blackbuck (often working from dawn to dusk in the field) and analysed and worked on several drafts and manuscripts on blackbuck behaviour. He carried out fortnightly water bird counts at Vedanthangal in 1981–82 using a block count technique from standard locations, a method that others from MNS were able to replicate in 1991 to compare with his data. When a collaborative opportunity arose (with very meagre but vital funds) to monitor chital antler cycles, Cutlet would pedal off in his cycle to in GNP and IIT and walk all over to survey chital for up to 15 days every month for two years, meticulously classifying individuals by antler size, stage, and condition.

The times and circumstances were not very kind to Cutlet. Coming from a well-off family and once the proud owner of a 1000cc V-twin Vincent HRD Black Shadow (one of the fastest motorcycles of that period) among other bikes, he lived his final years in his one-room house, getting around on a moped or a bicycle, but still remarkably content with himself. He worked without funds and in his spare time during various jobs that he took on to make ends meet. He had no formal support for statistical analysis or preparation of results and graphics. He extracted numbers from his notes and punched them into a trusty calculator to calculate quantitative measures describing blackbuck behaviour: rates of aggression, time spent in various activities and so on. He made charts and territory maps, drawing them with ruler and pencil on graph paper. He wrote drafts of manuscripts in a flowing long hand on foolscap sheets, usually with an excellent fountain pen (Parker, was a favourite brand, with Chelpark ink, as were Sheaffer’s). His English was old-style and excellent, but he would re-read and edit, and if major reorganisation was required he would rewrite by hand. To make copies to send to someone for comments he often copied by hand as well. When it was in a shape that he deemed worthy of submitting for publication or soliciting comments from a scientific colleague, he would march off to a nearby commercial typist and get it typed, proofed (especially to correct the glaring errors of the typist of all biological and scientific terms, not to mention having a good laugh every time ‘agonistic behaviour’ was typed as ‘agnostic behaviour’), and then typed again. He took pains to do this for many articles he wrote and the few errors that crept in in the published versions should perhaps not be laid at his doorstep.

Only a small part of these studies has ever been published. Not only his research on blackbuck, but his work on antler cycles that was meant as a collaborative study. While Cutlet wrote drafts on various aspects of blackbuck behaviour based on his field study, he’d laid much effort into analysing and writing about agonistic and territorial behaviour. He worked on detailed manuscripts on these aspects (the originals of which are unfortunately not available) and sent them to Dr. Elizabeth Cary Mungall, the leading blackbuck researcher at the time, for comments and feedback. She responded with detailed comments on the text, tables, and figures exhorting him to publish it as it “… will be an interesting contribution to the literature”. In a letter dated 4 May 1983, she writes:

You are doing good work and all of us who share your interest in blackbuck and their relatives thank you for your efforts in bringing your results to publication so that the rest of us can learn about your results also.

Some of the drafts that do exist of his writings are put up in a separate website for reference by biologists, naturalists, those interested in animal behaviour, and anyone else who would like to see and understand the fascinating world of blackbuck and other species through the eyes of Cutlet. These and his published writings provide an indication of the earnestness and range of interests of the man writing under his real name of R. K. G. Menon, who, behind the scenes, was still just Cutlet to everyone. Besides his own work on blackbuck and chital, he worked on scientific papers with G. U. Kurup (on the behaviour of blackbuck during a solar eclipse), with A. Rajaram on the microscopic study of hairs of Indian mammals, with V. Santharam on waterbird populations at Vedanthangal, and he guided and co-authored work with me and R. Sukumar on the decline of blackbuck and ecology of chital and blackbuck in Guindy National Park. In more general articles, he wrote about crows and dogs, sambar and tiger, and of course, blackbuck. There are brief articles about crop-raiding elephants and man-eating leopard (he visited Suligiri, where a man-eating leopard was shot by government diktat). He wrote of rollers and lapwings, of cannibalism and protean behaviour, and of days spent in the jungles of his memories.

Cutlet had a number of other friends who he was fond of and had often had a rollicking good time with. My association with Cutlet being largely related to our shared interest in animal behaviour and Guindy, I know little about his other friends, his family, or his life beyond the blackbuck or prior to the 1990s. Still among those naturalists and nature enthusiasts I knew, Cutlet stood apart for his efforts and his enthusiasm concerning animal behaviour. As Mungall wrote in her letter of 1983:

You mention that you have no support from any group and yet you list yourself as a naturalist of the Range Rover Foundation, Adyar, Madras. Is this a volunteer group? Is it very active in wildlife conservation? If all its members are like you, it certainly is a wonderful organization for India.

A couple of days before he died, he called his close friends, went out with them, had a meal at their home. He was happy, but in his talk his friends detected a poignant tone. On the morning of 26 December 2008, while walking back home after a regular meal at his regular hotel, he collapsed and passed away on the streets of Madras. He was 80 years old.

I have pondered over what can be a fitting memory of this remarkable man who sought no recognition or acclaim and always stayed off the limelight. Perhaps a permanent record of his contributions, as we have tried to do in this website. Perhaps, if there is someone watching (and watching over) the blackbuck of Guindy that he loved so much, that would be apt. Perhaps, if someone carried on the bird counts that he initiated at Vedanthangal, the water bird populations would mark his memory in the trends of their numbers. Perhaps some effort at sustaining this locally through the MNS, an organisation that he helped found. Or perhaps, in a much broader sense, the very continuation of a free spirit of enquiry and passion for ethology that marked his life would be sufficient. In the final reckoning, Cutlet lived alone and cut his own swathe through this life. He was, in a very real way, like the lone palm tree he spoke of. A lone palm tree, serving as a benchmark in the wilderness, that we can keep referring to as we find direction in our own lives. “Lone palm tree, Sir!

9 thoughts on “Lone palm tree, Sir!

  1. Lovely piece Sridhar, I did hear of Cutlet from you and a few of his other friends i knew- never met him though. The threads from such stories and enthusiasm point in one direction- dedication and conscious endeavor to pull his interest through without the need for limelight. A reminder to us!

  2. Thanks Manish for pointing me to this. And thank you, Sridhar, for writing this. Kutlet (he signed his name with a K, from what I remember) was on my mind a lot yesterday and this is a very apt tribute to him. “Kaka-pee” 🙂 … that really brought him right back in front of me! I miss him and the grin, and the pipe, and the awful toe-nails that he refused to cut, and the concern he had for my work.

  3. Yet another form of “to sir with love”!! Lovely tribute. He was always proud of you and he will have a good laugh if he got to read this I am sure!! or maybe he will be moved to tears….who knows?

  4. I really enjoyed reading this tribute of a man I unfortunately never knew. As a relatively new MNS member, it was wonderful to read about these earlier founding personalities, their dedication and spirit.

    One thing bothers me though, why was he called Cutlet?!

  5. A question.
    Is this the same person who at one point in his life – circa late sixties – live on Wheatcroft Road in Nungambakkam and who rode a Vincent Black Shadow?

  6. I think so. His father used to have a house on the road parallel to the
    Sterling road and I remember him telling me that the front part of the
    verandah had a shape of a boat. I had taken a look at the House in the mid
    1980’s and it was still as he described. I am not sure if the House is
    still there or given way to an apartment block.
    V. Santharam

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