A meeting and words to remember

It is not often that one finds a person who is equally comfortable with his place at the head of a corporate boardroom of a leading company or being in a line of people trekking up a leech-infested rainforest or even diving into the ocean to admire the beauty of coral reefs. Someone who can meld vision with wit, lace seriousness with humour, and soar with lofty thoughts while remaining firmly rooted on the ground. A person who can step outside comfortable boundaries to engage with other worlds and world views, bringing refreshing insights while being refreshed by the experience himself. NCF is fortunate to know and have a friend in such a person in Venky Muthiah.

Venky Muthiah at the NCF Annual Academic Meeting, July 2011, Valparai

For more than two decades, Venky Muthiah (more formally, Mr. M. M. Venkatachalam) has held senior positions in the Murugappa Group of Companies, one of India’s reputed business houses. After his graduation from the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, he went on to obtain a Masters’ Degree in Business Administration from George Washington University, USA.  He is presently the Chairman of Parry Enterprises Limited and Parry Agro Industries Limited, and serves on the boards of Laser Words Limited and other companies.

Venky has been a supporter of NCF’s research and conservation work in the Anamalai hills in his avatar as Chairman of Parry Agro Industries Ltd, a company partnering with us on rainforest restoration and conservation education programme. Still, most others in NCF had never had an opportunity to meet and interact with him. This year an ideal opportunity came up. For the first time since its inception in 1996, NCF’s annual academic meeting was being held, not in Mysore, but in a field location, in Valparai in the Anamalai hills. The venue was the stunning and elegant Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow perched atop the Iyerpadi hill, surrounded by organic tea fields of Parry Agro and commanding a breathtaking view of the Valparai landscape, and the rainforests of Vellamalai and Akkamalai in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Here, from 29 to 31 July, NCF students, staff, and scientists gathered for the annual meeting, while enjoying (or, in the case of some, braving) the monsoon mists and rains.

One of the monsoon visitors at the meeting hall...an atlas moth

The schedule was tight (full programme of the meeting here). There were nearly 30 presentations, a field visit to rainforest nursery and restoration sites, a stunning visual presentation by our own world famous, felicitations for field and office staff, and a special interlude to honour and thank our close associates. And with a delightful extempore extra presentation by young Violetta and not-so-young Nachiket on the nearly 60 species of moths they catalogued and photographed over the 3 days at the venue, plus the Great Hornbills flying overhead and the friendly neighbourhood gaur around everyday, it was a heady mix of serious presentations peppered with fun and laughs, watching wildlife and monsoon mist and rain, and time to reconnect with chatter and music and dance in the evenings. Venky, brave soul that he is, sat through or stood it all, even called it ‘amazing’ and a ‘refreshing NCF weekend’.

Sitting through it all... a packed programme in a packed hall...

And, ask anyone, and they will all agree that Venky’s presence was equally refreshing, and his “special address” equally fabulous. He had the audience in splits while at the same time reining them along with thoughtful words to ponder over. Bowing to popular demand, Venky was kind enough to jot down his speech for us and here it is for you to read, ponder, enjoy!

A mutated version of the special address

NCF Annual Academic Meeting 2011, Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow, Valparai

Good Evening,

I have been badly inflicted by a rare disease caused by Raghunath tanujaensis. The manifestation of which is the loss of sleep when a presentation is due to be made in the near future. Hence, I have lost a lot of sleep over the past two days, thinking of what I am to say to you. I finally decided on a ramble, so here it is:

"...so here it is!"

I have been greatly disillusioned over this time that I have spent listening to all of you. At first it was Rohan who went on about some Wilfred Voynich and his document and I was certain that he had lost it and I was sitting in the wrong place. Then there came Narayan, who for some strange reason spoke about carpets and cutting it up into pieces. He even showed us a photograph of the knife that was used. This was followed by Johnsingh who couldn’t tell a four-horned antelope from a barking deer. This shook my confidence in the ability of you researchers.

Furthermore there was the diminutive Rucha—whom I sincerely believed was playing hookey from high school—she goes on to make an impressive presentation on coral reef structure and groupers and later deflates my almost 100-dive ego with a casual comment that she is a certified rescue diver.

Koustubh with his fancy camera that could make me look like Dan, fooled all of us about the snow leopard in his photographs. Continuing with these elusive cats, the learned Vaibhav Chaturvedi proposes to leave his place in front of the havan and move from giving discourses on the four vedas that all Chaturvedis commit to memory, to collect scat over a 4000 square kilometre area in the Pin Valley. And this after having first swept the area clean. Which is good for Rishi’s PhD because he will not have to step on any snow leopard doo when he traverses the same 4000 square kilometre range setting up camera traps to take photographs of the snow leopard. This he could have easily bought from Kalyan Varma for a fee or from Koustubh for nothing.

Finally Rohit came along with an understandable presentation on hornbills. This heartened me, which was until I saw him and the usually serene Shankar defile my conference room floor with their dancing. Mr. Kalyan Varma—another accomplished dancer who takes better photographs than I do—was the final straw.

But there were bright moments—(A) There is this engineer in our midst, who on graduating, did not go into the financial service business and drive the world deeper into debt, but instead went into conservation. (B) Karthik’s interesting work on alternate weed control, although it will spell doom to my weed control business and Amritendu’s work on pollinators, the number of variables that he is dealing with—phew—but then he is from West Bengal where nothing is simple and everything requires discussion. (C) The fact that I now have exciting places to visit during my next seven years of vacation. On the cards are travel to Central Asia, the Pin Valley, Spiti in Himachal, all of the Western Ghats, the Andamans, Lakshwadeep, Mongolia, Arunachal, and sunny Brighton. So don’t be surprised if one day I knock on your door or tent or hut.

So coming to my ‘special address’, here it is in the form of a calling card, it has all my details and please let me have yours as well and I promise you that unlike Anand, I will not send you obscene text messages in the middle of the night.

A 'disillusioned' Venky planning his next seven years' vacations

Moving on to a more serious platform—We at Parry Agro, and I personally, are committed to support your effort in any way that we can. Be it the use of our land and facilities, infrastructure, labs, housing, conference facilities, and some cash. Not anywhere near Dan’s 4.1 million GBP! But I would like to start with a modest Rs. 1 million, and being a good Chettiar I will not tell you when you will get it. Suhel keep guessing.

I understand that Koustubh requires another $200 million to fool us completely about the existence of snow leopards in Mongolia; unfortunately I am in an agri-business and I lose vast sums of money due to the animal raids on my crop. So if Atul can help me with that and Madhu can get me the compensation, all that cash is yours. I, however, will lose my job and will have to necessarily go back to my alternate job of driving for the NCF. A responsibility that I will take up with great seriousness and care so that Jegan will not have any opportunity to report on my roadkills.

Back to business—what I see around this room is an extraordinary diversity of ideas, skills, academic training, and research interests. I see a great amount of commitment to the cause, of passion, of humility, and of fun. I see a lot of mutual respect and concern for each other. Traits hard to find all bundled up in one person, when you look around the country.

I also see a growing organization and feel that managing your growth while still being integral with your philosophy, is the tough one to address—so we have this classic dilemma before us–grow and perpetuate or … Well, I believe that small is beautiful. Applying that to the growth paradigm, the solution is to grow slowly and consistently. NCF is its people—when newbies come in, let them experience and imbibe the essence of NCF. This can only happen over time, and time spent with the elder citizens of the organization. Once they integrate, then look at the next infusion or installment for growth. Please guard against whizzing around attending numerous conferences, presenting numerous papers, and churning out proposals with little consequence. Keep the visits to the state and national capital to a minimum and snare the policy makers to your turf.

It is obvious that there is a diverse portfolio of research interests within the NCF. There is research rigor and there are standards. All very well, but being in conservation, you need to balance it with development and the reality of the pressure of population on the land. Ask yourself why do we do all this? What are the consequences of what I do?

It is important to go beyond and take your work forward :- (a) to inform and educate the people at large and the next generation in particular, (b) to solicit more funding for your efforts, and (c) to influence the formulation of public policy directly and indirectly through better informed people at large and local communities in particular.

So, in addition to your scientific papers, please write popular articles on what you do or inundate Pavithra and Anush with a lot of information and pressure them to publish it in no less than National Geographic! Your presence in the field for long years has endeared you to the local communities. The likes of Manish while celebrating with the islanders and our gaon budi with the red coat can influence equivalents of the Ghora Aabhe Council and pressure change for the positive.

Take conservation to the people and take me with you!

Cheers, thank you and all the very best.


P.S. If any of you share my keen sense of observation(!), you will notice that I have not made mention of a few people, dogs, dugongs, and turtles. It is just because my battery is running low!

In front of the Sinna Dorai's Bungalow...

Photos by: Rishi Sharma, Kalyan Varma, and Divya Mudappa