Sunday, February 25, 2007

Quixotic exotica

Driving past the ever expanding expanse of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, I could hear voices . . . echoes of the ghosts of men who had explored the continent in search of beast and bone, from a time when East Africa was the gateway to the Dark Continent. I had done the usual touristy jig; caught the Big Five on camera in the Mara, bartered greetings and traded souvenirs in a Masai village and gushed at the pink resplendence of the flamingoes in Lake Nakuru, but my real adventure was about to start when I least suspected it.

I was staying in a eco-resort by Lake Naivasha. On one end of the grassy lawns, there were the cottages, looking on to the lawns and a swimming pool, beyond which lay a beautiful lake. As night fell, diners gathered around the pool for a pool-side dinner – geriatric relics of the once great white hunter lounged around in khaki shorts, while tooling around with their Nikons and Canons. As I was taking it all in, there was a sudden commotion outside. The chef, who was handling the barbecue station at the far-side of the pool, ran past the guests screaming in Swahili – “Kiboko! Kiboko!!” A couple of Japanese tourists ran toward the barbecue station, camera in hand but were stopped by the hotel security staff who had rushed in – it was the same refrain – “Kiboko! Kiboko! Very dangerous! Can’t go!!”

This I had to see. What is it that had grown men shrieking like banshees. Unsure about what it might be, but convinced that whatever was out there would make for a great photo-op as well as an excellent fireside story, camera in hand, I sneaked out of the pool area that had been cordoned off by the security staff and walked across the lawns, away from the pool and the lake toward the café. I could see people chatting and cheering inside, unaware of the commotion outside. The lawns wore a chequered look – islands of lamp light, in an ocean of darkness. Scanning the ground ahead of me, as I was moving toward the café, I was suddenly stunned and blinded by a flashlight. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could make out that the owner of the flashlight, accompanied by a tall shadow, walkie-talkie in hand, was gesticulating wildly. They kept pointing at something behind me in the darkness. I turned and peered through the shadows in vain and was about to turn away, when something moved . . . I kept straining and staring even as my heart began to beat faster and my mouth went dry . . . and then I saw it. Standing less than 10 yards away was a huge hippopotamus, its dull colouration rendered near invisible in the inky blackness of the night. It had apparently emerged from the lake to feed. Massive, hungry lips tore out clumps of grass and kept eating ravenously. The fact that it was hungry wasn’t really a concern – hippos are strict vegetarians – but the fact that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal surely was. The Hippo, or Kiboko, as I later learnt it is called in Swahili, is the third largest land mammal in the world. Both males and females have tusks the size of Excalibur and when startled or angry their charge is almost unstoppable. Hippos have been known to saw right through the dreaded Nile crocodile, an animal feared by lions and revered by man; unsuspecting boats have often been attacked by protective bull hippos, its terrified occupants maimed or killed, but it is said that the hippo is most dangerous when it is on land, feeding and is startled by man who unwittingly comes between the animal and the water.

I tried to banish these thoughts and control my quivering breath. Kiboko was aware of my presence, but apart from the odd twitch of his ear every time I exhaled, thankfully he ignored me. Gently the breeze picked up and I realised that I was drenched in cold sweat. I gently backed away from the gigantic head with the beady eyes, ever so gently. The Hippo stopped eating, my heart stopped beating, and then it started eating again . . . my heart started beating again. Ten treacherous yards later, away, I moved behind a garden wall, took my camera and my life in my hands and clicked. A crowd had gathered by now, some running away and some toward the animal but I was in a zone of my own. Like a zombie I drifted toward the safety of my room both shaken and stirred. The photograph remains – a poor copy of the memory of a day when I was both incredibly stupid and incredibly lucky. Don Quixote would’ve been proud, I was embarrassed . . .


Sunday, February 18, 2007

The fountain of youth bubbles...

The fountain of youth bubbles...

The Hunza Valley on the Pakistan-China border is supposed to have inspired James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon which speaks of the beautiful, hidden land of Shangri-la where the people are eternally youthful, happy and healthy. The novel in turn inspired a quest for this lost paradise. Adventurers, explorers and even modern day television crews have gone in search of this earthly paradise with varying degrees of limited success. But does such a place really exist? If one is to believe a book that was first published six years after Hilton’s novel in 1939, titled The Eye of Revelation, authored by a man called Peter Kelder, perhaps it does. Peter Kelder’s book begins with an interesting account of how he first met an old British armyman in a park in California who told him about the ‘fountain of youth’ – a forgotten Tibetan monastery in a remote district of northern India. Kelder claimed in his book that this man, a certain Colonel Bradford, a wheezing, balding geriatric had set off in search of this ‘fountain of youth’ and then after many years returned as a robust young man, with a ruddy complexion and a head full of thick, dark hair. The Colonel spoke of the monastery, hidden in a remote corner of the Himalayas where the lamas lived a life of seclusion. All the lamas were youthful and seemed to radiate energy. Gradually, he was inducted into the monastery and trained by the lamas. He was initiated into what has come to be known as the ‘Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation’. Colonel Bradford apparently began to lose years and wrinkles and emerged, apparently awash in the fountain of youth.

This account of Colonel Bradford’s and the five exercises that he claimed were the mainstay of his practice formed the foundation of Kelder’s book. Not much is known about Kelder today and even less is known of the Colonel and many have dismissed the account, as well as the practice as a well constructed hoax. However, every time I’ve mentioned the story during a yoga workshop, participants seem to get really excited about the story. Christopher S. Kilham, an American yoga teacher read the book and experimented with the idea. Eventually, he authored a book of his own in which he claimed that ‘The Five Tibetans’ as he called them, were at the very least ‘extraordinary’. The practice, Kilham insisted, greatly increased strength, mental and physical agility and was a definite shot in the arm for a flagging life-force. Whether it could restore youth to the aged remained to be seen though.

The world is desperate in its desire to believe that there is a way out of the inevitable cycle that turns a firm and beautiful 25-year-old body into a sad, wrinkled lump, propped up by thin, brittle bones by the time it is 70. There are countless pills, creams, contraptions and surgical options that’ve become popular replacements for the elusive fountain of youth. In fact, the idea of a Shangri-la-like romantic hideaway with its ‘fountain of youth’ captures popular imagination with such ease that ‘inspired’ (albeit inspiring in equal measure) fables like The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari became instant successes. Well, the more there is to inspire the world into becoming a better place, the better it is for the planet. As for the fountain of youth, there are countless examples of great masters, both past and present who practice and preach mind-body healing routines that enable them to look as young and radiant as those legendary lamas and I’m sure even Colonel Bradford would agree. (See Slip stream)

But if you really want to believe that there is more to the legend then let me introduce you to the tales of Babaji. He is the spiritual master and yogi who, names like Annie Besant and Paramahamsa Yogananda believe, appeared to them in divine visions. It is said that Babaji attained ‘souruba samadhi’ (a state where divine light entered his body and has kept it ever youthful) at Badrinath, 10,000 feet above sea level on the Indian Himalayas, just a few miles south of Tibet. Disciples from the lineage of Babaji believe that Babaji’s Ashram beyond Badrinath is almost inaccessible, but has quite a few monks who’ve attained an ever youthful, deathless state. The similarities are uncanny and it is unlikely that one legend might’ve inspired the other. Someday, I’ll get there and when I do, I’ll share the experience with you. Until then, we might as well keep practicing the five rites…


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Of cain, abel and eden...

Rocham H’pnhieng was eight years old and her younger sister six when they lost their way in the thick forests on the Cambodia-Vietnam border. That was 18 years ago. In the second week of January 2007, a little Cambodian village on the edge of the forest heard of a naked ‘jungle woman’ who had been caught trying to steal food from a villager’s lunch-pack. Rocham’s father, Sal Lau, a local policeman, ‘identified’ the ‘jungle woman’ as his own long-lost daughter from a scar on her right arm. The woman can’t speak or understand a word of any known language, apparently walks like an ape, tries to remove the clothes she is made to wear by her ‘family’ and makes it clear that she intends to go back to the jungle at the first given opportunity. She is a stark reminder of the worlds that exist on the fringes of human civilisation.

And sometimes, these primal worlds exist not deep in the heart of a forest but in a town square. Ivan Mishukov, an abandoned six-year-old from Reutova, near Moscow, was found living with a pack of stray dogs in 1988. Mishukov would respond with snarling savagery whenever attempts were made to rescue him from the streets. And each time, ‘his’ pack too would come to his defence. Eventually, Mishukov was trapped by local authorities and rehabilitated successfully.

John Ssebunya, another six-year-old was found near Kabonge, Uganda in 1991, hiding in a tree. When villagers tried to capture the boy, not only did he resist capture like Mishukov, but like the stray dogs, the vervet monkeys that had adopted Ssebunya rose to his defence and pelted rescuers with sticks and the like. Ssebunya too was successfully rehabilitated and became famous as a choirboy and his story was told by BBC in a documentary titled Living Proof. Fortunately for Mishukov and Ssebunya, they were rescued within a few years of ‘turning wild’ and thus their rehabilitation was complete and successful. But for most ‘feral children’ (children who escaped into the wilderness and started living wild or with other wild/feral animals), it becomes impossible to fully integrate oneself back into society. They find it difficult to pick up a language or wear clothes and they constantly want to go back to their wild ways even years after being rescued.

As a child, like perhaps many other children, I too at times, and especially after being disciplined at home for matters that I then deemed unfair, had often pondered over the possibility of running off into a jungle and living the idyllic life of a Mowgli or Tarzan. But there are many whose circumstances are far more compelling. Without having read a page of Edgar Rice Burrough or Kipling, children, usually from broken or violent homes head out into the unknown far more often than we might realise. Only a handful of tales are told when a survivor surfaces but most are lost and forgotten, like Rocham’s younger sister.

Instead of the romantic ideal of a ‘Return to Eden’, most feral children suffer from malnutrition and many die young even after being rescued. They suffer Psychosocial Dwarfism characterised by repressed physical growth, speech and learning disabilities, and near imperviousness to physical pain and discomfort. Feral children are an unfortunate reality that proves how much human beings depend on each other to remain human. Unlike most animals, who are creatures of instinct, human beings depend as much, if not more on culture and learned behaviour. Therefore, a wild wolf pup could be tamed to a certain extent but it will always retain its wild instincts and would always remain a wolf, but children brought up wild with wolves (see Slip Stream) rarely exhibit human(e) behaviour and almost never become completely normal. Rehabilitation in the wild for captive-bred or hand reared wild animals has always been easier than the rehabilitation of feral children back into civilisation.

Hopefully, Rocham will be able to return to a human existence soon enough but her story and the story of other such unfortunate children only underlines the importance and impact of upbringing for the child, the family and society at large. Perhaps the hand that rocks the cradle of every genius who can create a plane out of a dream or death and destruction out of a plane was far more responsible for the ingenious time-marks that dot our civilisation and it’s history than we might care to accept or imagine. It is a thought that for better or worse, both overwhelms and empowers….