The Honorary Tiger is a biography of the Indian conservationist, Billy Arjan Singh. The book is a gateway to his home, Tiger Haven, a magical place on the edge of a jungle in India’s Uttar Pradesh. Three orphaned leopards and a tiger cub named Tara that Singh imported from a zoo in England were raised here. It’s a beautiful story of how Singh brings up Tara and returns her to the wild. At first, he was sceptical if her instincts will help her survive in the forest. They did, and Tara also gave birth to a litter of four cubs. Singh’s experiment was under massive controversy when it was discovered that Tara had Siberian genes in her ancestry. He was accused of having introduced a ‘genetic cocktail’ into the jungle. Dauntless, Singh remained a champion of the wild and its dwellers.
Govind Gorur told me that he considers Billy Arjan Singh his role model. I was hardly surprised but thoroughly convinced that the life of a corporate stooge wasn’t meant for him. Govind spends his time taking care of three elephants who have had lives of immense hardship and pain. The animals were raised in confinement. “When they got freedom, they didn’t know how to use it. For hours they stood in the same spot even though they had acres of land in front of them. What could they do? They didn’t know any better,” said Govind.
A life of few desires and big dreams
Most of us have a picture of our dream life embedded in our minds. A good job, a decent home, a loving family, and financial stability to travel and live comfortably.
But unlike most couples, Govind and his wife had no job, but only each other and their passion by their side on the day of their wedding.
“I worked in the IT sector for almost eight years. During that time, I met my wife. We belong to a trekking group and about four to five years ago we had gone on one of its trips. Coincidentally, we kept meeting in other expeditions. Shweta herself was a conservation enthusiast. She was involved in some voluntary work for special children and was working for a Cauvery cleaning project. But she hadn’t found the one thing that she would want to work for, for the rest of her life. When we met, it was sort of a bonding of thoughts. I used to read to her books on Billy Arjan Singh during our trekking trips. Our conversations were typically about life, the environment and philosophy. Two months before our marriage, during one of the usual conversations she asked me, ‘Bas baat hi karna hai ya kuch karna bhi chahte ho?’ (Do you only want to talk, or do you want to do something?),” narrated Govind.
“I don’t know what happened but the very next minute I drafted a mail and BBCed it to her. It was my resignation. She was quite taken aback at my spontaneity but I said to her that in order to do something, you first have to come to a point of letting go of your prior commitments and free yourself. Fifteen minutes later, I got a message from her – it was her resignation,” he continued.
Two months before their marriage, Govind and Shweta had quit their jobs, and on the day of their wedding, their combined salary was zero.
“There are only two reasons why we could do this. One, the support of our parents, and this meant everything. When parents tell their kids ‘jo karna chahte ho karo’ (do whatever it is that you want to do), children are unburdened of a huge invisible responsibility. Furthermore, if your parents are financially independent and do not have any debts, taking the decision becomes easier. But one thing that remains is – ‘Toh log kya kahenge’ (what will the society say). Your parents should never be bound by this mentality. This is the first support that you need. And lucky for both of us, our parents were more than supportive. When my father-in-law found out that I had quit my job, he didn’t lecture me, instead, he took me to a beer bar and spoke to me about what I wanted to do with my life,” said Govind.
“But to take such a decision, you yourself should not be burdened with debts. This requires your desires to be less. When my wife and I worked at the IT job, we made substantial income combined. On the day of our marriage, we came down to zero. When we found a job, we were earning at least five times less that what we used to make. The financial gap was humongous. But the key is to have less materialistic desires. While people think that we did this great thing, for us it was nothing different from how we previously lived. My friends who have been working five years in IT have already bought cars and flats. People in their 20s already have debts of Rs 30-40 lakhs. After this, what is really left for anyone to do? Your whole life goes in repaying those debts. You are tied to a chair. So the second reason why we could leave our jobs was the fact that we didn’t let debts accumulate,” he continued.
When in their previous job, the couple used to travel a lot. “We would spend days in the Himalayas,” said Govind. But they do that even now. While I wonder how they sustain a comfortable life with the little that they make, Govind humbly says, “It’s possible.”
“Even when we were earning well, we didn’t used to stay in 5-star hotels or travel in luxury. A minimalistic lifestyle doesn’t happen suddenly. You have to build it. The amount of money you make shouldn’t matter. You can only live a certain way if you practise it daily, otherwise, it’s very difficult. So when you ask how we made the change – there was no change for us. Our lifestyle was always minimalistic. We met amidst nature and when we started dating, we used to go birding, trekking but never travelled in cars. We took the public transport. So now when we earn much less, we don’t face problems. Even today we do the same things we previously used to do. For us, the transition wasn’t a big deal,” he explains.
“The first step is to make yourself clear of what you want. Once you set your goal, the direction is set. But as long as your needs are multiple, you will never be satisfied,” he added.
Into the wild
Govind and Shweta take care of three elephants. Every day, the couple spends nearly 10 hours tending them.
“The elephants are here for treatment. Every morning we take them for a 3-4 km walk, then their treatments begin. Around 8.30 am we come back and their feeding time starts. We feed about 180-200 kg of food every day to each elephant. A lot of time goes in preparing the food, cleaning up their excrement – which is about 200 kgs. A lot of time is also spent in cleaning the enclosures. Then again around 10 am, they are given vegetables and fruits. From 3 pm, the next feeding cycle starts, after which they are taken for their evening walk. By 6.30 pm they have their dinner. Apart from this, there are other works like taking care of the facility, administrative work, managing the other employees, among others,” said Govind.
The couple lives in a small town, which has only about 200-300 houses. The facility where they tend to the elephants is situated about 30 km from Pondicherry. They live with the animals.
Living amidst nature gives Govind and Shweta a sense of belonging like no other job ever can and they won’t have it any other way.
Frugal – A misunderstood word
The couple had spent a substantial amount of time in Dudhwa, Uttar Pradesh, teaching about 100 tribal children about environment and conservation. They were also involved in rehabilitation initiatives. “When we were doing this, we were living in a jungle. So our needs were minimal since a very long time,” said Govind.
“We have never stopped enjoying life or exploring new things. We somehow manage to do the same things we used to do when we worked in the IT sector. It’s when you don’t change your lifestyle, you have no regrets. Start living the way you dream of living from now itself. I want to tell people that a frugal lifestyle is possible. Living well while having minimum needs, is possible,” he continued.
“The word ‘frugal’ in English is one of the most misunderstood words in the 21st century. Living frugally means living with what is necessary. But nowadays, we use it for describing people who have to beg for a living because they don’t have the necessities for survival. We have to learn to live frugally. Spend how much is necessary, buy only what is needed. Don’t waste, don’t overburden your pockets,” explained Govind.
Parents role in the lives of their children
“Nothing would have been possible without the support of my parents,” reiterated Govind.
“Parenta these days want to send their children to the best of schools, and by ‘best’ I do not mean the one that provides the best education. It means the most expensive one because we relate cost with quality. I have studied in Kendra Vidyalaya – a centralised school. My fees 20 years from now was Rs 5. Even now, the fees of KV schools across the country is Rs 350. And I can vouch that my hold of the English language, my vision or my goals for life – they would’ve been the same even if I had joined an expensive private school. Because schools can only make you literate. Education – you receive at home. A school has nothing to do with how a child turns out to be, but parents play a major role in this. My father never told me that I had to score 100 in a test. He never pressurised me. He taught me to be an individualist. He taught me how to fend for myself and take care of my own needs. He used to encourage me to step out in the world and learn what it offers you. Anyone can teach you what 2+2 is, but only life teaches you how to use this knowledge in the practical world,” he continued.
Govind said that his parents never expected anything out of him, they just expected him to be happy. “If I had to go back in time, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
It is reassuring to know that people like Govind and Shweta exist in the world. Their hope for a better future and the will to help the ones who cannot speak for themselves is inspiring. Our best wishes are with them and we hope that many others are motivated by their story and take similar steps in their lives.