Meet Suraj Bai Meena, who fought several odds and a deep bias against women to become Ranthambore National Park’s first woman naturalist.
Among all the male naturalists at Ranthambore’s National Park, 33-year-old Suraj Bai Meena stands tall. She is the first woman naturalist to work here, and so far, has conducted over 7,000 guided tours.
Suraj began her journey in 2007, when she was all of 16 years old. This, she notes, was an extremely difficult phase.
“I grew up on the periphery of the Ranthambore National Park in a village called Bhuri Pahadi. Here, girls were not allowed to go to school or study. Their only role was to cook, clean, and reproduce. In fact, if a girl was educated, the dowry her parents had to give would be doubled,” she tells The Better India.
For young Suraj, her brother Hemraj, who worked as a naturalist in the national park, was an inspiration. “I would sneak out and go with him to the national park. Memories of those trips spurred my own interest in becoming one.” It was because of Hemraj’s insistence that Suraj was allowed to move to Sawai Madhopur, where she was enrolled in a school. “Those were the best days of my life,” she smiles.
A Tigress Among Men
When Suraj completed her training and joined the park as a naturalist, she was subjected to many taunts. “My family said that being around foreign tourists would ‘corrupt’ me. The men I worked with would pass lewd comments and mock me. I did not let any of it get to me,” she says.
It took Suraj a very long time to change her family’s mindset. They belonged to the school of thought that only wanted to keep girls at home, she says. “The entire village took it upon themselves to try and get me to leave my job and sit at home. It was all of them against me,” she says. Through all these ups and downs, Hemraj stood by her side and supported her.
Suraj’s desire to learn and become a naturalist trumped all the challenges that came her way.
“I learnt the English alphabet only when I was in Class 10. Until then, I was in a Hindi-medium school,” she says.
As someone who had grown up coexisting with wildlife and nature, Suraj’s grasp over the animals and birds in the area was unparalleled. However, what she had to learn was communication skills.
Recalling an early experience, she says, “In one of my first few guided tours, I was with a foreigner couple. We had sighted a bird, and while I knew the local name for it, I was unable to explain what it was called to them. That was when the need to learn more dawned upon me.”
Suraj has never shied away from learning, and that has been her biggest USP.
The need to constantly stay updated has made her one of the most sought-after naturalists in the region.
During her early learning days, she also maintained a small notebook in which she would make note of all the new words she came across in conversation. Once back home, she would find the meaning of each word in the dictionary and make a note. “This is how I learnt conversational English,” she says.
A 15-year Long Ph.D. On Tigers
Suraj’s first professional sighting was on 16 October 2007. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Each tiger in the Ranthambore National Park is numbered, so I can say with certainty that I saw T24 in zone 5, and then a tigress, T13, in the same zone. These two animals were on either side of the jeep. Imagine being in such a situation, that too, during my first solo ride.”
Suraj has received awards like ‘Best Lady Guide’ by the Maharaja of Jaipur, amongst other accolades. “The work I have put in as a naturalist is akin to a PhD. I have learnt how to identify calls, track footprints, and study the behaviour of other animals,” she says. With unflinching support from her husband and in-laws, she continues to strive for better.
In leaving her village and making a mark for herself, Suraj has not only made her own life better, but also inspired many others to follow suit. Today, girls from her village are studying, applying for jobs, and exploring opportunities outside their hometown. “I am thankful that this change has happened. There are so many things that us girls can achieve if they are supported,” she says.
Suraj is so popular today that schools in and around Ranthambore often call her as their chief guest.
“Nothing makes me happier than to motivate younger girls,” she says.
The flip-side to knowing the national park so well is the unfair expectation people place on her, she says. “Many tourists often say we paid to see tigers, so don’t show us birds and deer. They forget that I am only a guide and I cannot make the tigers show themselves.”
However, Suraj adds that with each group she takes into the national park, she has learnt a little.
From earning her first tip of Rs 500 on 5 October 2007 to now being called on by all photographers and wildlife enthusiasts who visit Ranthambore, she has come a long way.
Keeping the desire to learn alive, she has also completed her BA, MA, and B Ed over the years, all while working and managing her home and two children. While she has been working for 15 years as a naturalist and guide, Suraj says that even now, each trip feels like it’s her first. “The excitement of spotting an animal, whether it is a tiger, sloth bear, deer, or even a bird, is just as exhilarating as the first time.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)