Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pedaling phallacies

A trip to a Swiss ski resort in the summer can be an unnerving experience for most men. Zermatt is a quaint little town at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn made famous by skiers, snowboarders and other winter lunatics of a third kind. But even in summer, there is little respite for fragile male egos on this mountain paradise.

Sputtering and wheezing like spasming asthmatics, my wife and I climbed (hauled her and clambered up might actually describe it better) a tiny grassy hillock. But before I could bask in the glorious light of athletic prowess and my wife’s admiring glances, we were passed by a bevy of obscenely well-muscled mountain bikers in neon pink and green tights (looked like absolute pansies if you ask me, but my wife was so busy looking, she didn’t bother asking) as they rode up an impossibly steep slope, and with such ease that they even turned to wish us a cheery ‘bonjour!’ without even breathing hard. As I watched my wife watch those pansies in pink ride off, I ran after a straggler, kicked his dainty lycra clad behind off his fancy bike, shook him hard and screamed into his ear “You know what?! There are only two kinds of cyclists; those who are impotent and those who will be. So which one are you?” Actually I didn’t really do that but if they weren’t so darn big, I just might’ve. As we left the bouncing behinds behind and trudged our way along the trail, I repeated those famous words to my wife, and just to confirm that I wasn’t just being jealous, I confessed that the smart quip wasn’t mine but a respected urologist’s named Dr Irwin Goldstein who wrote these words for the ‘Bicycling Magazine’. And fellow husbands, if you’ve ever had a sinking feeling tinged with a dash of livid green while you watched the lady of your life oohing and aahing at dashing polo players as they rode past, tell them I told you about Hippocrates who described the Scythians thus, ‘They are the most impotent of men, (for perhaps) the constant jolting of their horses unfits them for intercourse.’

So all that that saddle-bound machismo is good for is a shriveled manhood. Thank god for small mercies and smaller saddles. Anyway back to the good doctors Hippocrates and Goldstein. You see, I wasn’t too bad on a cycle not too long ago. In fact I planned to ride all the way to Ladakh and show up my neighbour who believed he was an adventurer just because he happened to have been to that moonscape in the mountains on a motorcycle. So I started training and researching for my epic journey and possible career as a cycling professional. Initially, all I would read about was how many millions these riders would earn, how the Tour de France was the third largest sporting event in the world and how Lance Armstrong became a legend and…

Hang on Lance Armstrong, did you say?! The guy who got testicular cancer? Yikes! Was there a connection? And then came an article that quoted the venerable Goldstein claiming that there was possibly a link between the pressure exerted on a male cyclist’s perineum (that’s the name for the place you couldn’t imagine there might’ve been a name for between the well… er… and the umm.. unh…; well we’re talking about a saddle, so you know where’s what) and impotence. Yes you read it right. Cycle too many miles and you might end up shall we say a little ‘soggy’ down there. The theory is that tiny flint like saddles, whether on a horse or a bicycle, ‘traumatise’ the perineum and might damage the supply lines of the male reproductive organ, resulting in temporary or even permanent impotence. (However, the concern over cycling causing testicular cancer is as yet unfounded.) Millions of hours and dollars of research later, softer saddles with more accommodating designs seem to be a solution according to one group while others – including Dr Goldstein at a relatively recent conference – insist, that Dr Goldstein was wrong in his hypothesis the first time round and cycling perhaps always was as healthful as it was initially trumped up to be.

Incase you are waiting for the last word from yours truly before resuming your morning rides around the children’s park, here’s the consensus – Cycle less than three hours a week and you get to enjoy all the benefits without having to worry about ‘going soft’. Europe loves cycling and is (coincidentally?) creaking under the weight of an ageing population with low birth rates. The Chinese cycle everywhere possible and yet one in four earthlings is Chinese and as for the Swiss, can’t really blame them for cycling everywhere. I mean when their buses have routes called ‘Extra fahrt ’*and insist on having ‘fahrt plans’ for their passengers, I can understand why they eschew public transport and risk the dreaded ‘I’ everyday. The jury’s out on this one so stick to the <3hrs/week fahrtplan gentlemen, and as for the ladies, don’t you get too smug now. You never know what I’ll dig up next.

Recycled Locomotion

“In these globally warm times, it is more important to be environmentally correct than it is to be politically correct. So ladies, and even gentlemen, please take note that there is no better way of traveling from point A to point B than on two human powered wheels. It is the most energy efficient vehicle in the world that expends a mere 35 calories (energy used per passenger-mile) as compared to cars (1,860) and trains (halfway through). Even better, it puts the least amount of strain on the environment and isn’t as ethically complicated as riding a horse or a yak!

As for the ‘saddle babble’, invest in one of these new design gel saddles and follow the three hour rule and things should be fine. Even better, there are some new cycle designs that might take some getting used to but are even more powerful and efficient. So ride away into the sunset… You’ll make an increasingly better silhouette…


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Almost a lemming

Sometimes, someone else’s pain is a columnist’s gain. The phone was ringing. It was an old student and she was very upset. Let’s call her Suicidal Susan (take an Indian name and there’s a student I once taught). Reproduced with her kind permission, are the contents of our conversation ….

Suicidal Susan (SS): Hi, Sir, how’ve you been (in a voice that couldn’t wait to be asked how she was doing)?

Yours Truly (YT): Fine Susan, how’ve you been? And how is USS aka Usually Sober Sam (let’s just call him that, shall we?) doing?

SS: (breaking into a sob) Sir, I don’t know what’s come over him. We’ve recently gotten married and he has become a complete stranger. He has been cribbing about his failing business. His clients are rude, and his landlord gives him hell. He said that he would sell-off what remains of his business and look for a job. He’s been looking for one, but he can’t seem to find one that’ll make him happy. I’ve been very supportive, Sir, and I try my best to cheer him up, but these days, we seem to fight all the time.

YT: What about Susan?

SS: Sir, though Now Not So Sober Sam was really keen to move overseas, we had agreed that due to my work and parents, we would stay in the same city where my parents reside. But now, he has applied for positions in Singapore and Hong Kong (incidentally, his parents live in Hong Kong and he spent his early years there) without telling me. It’s a question of commitment. He knew what was important to me and yet he didn’t think twice (before applying). When I found out, he says he would go-off on his own and call me in after he settles down. It would take some years, he says… I don’t want a long distance relationship. I married him to share my life with him, not 20 minutes over the phone every other day, but he doesn’t seem to care or understand. My parents told me that I should give myself more time before committing to a new relationship but I didn’t listen. I don’t think he likes me anymore, always talking about his friend from college, an attractive corporate type who is in the same organization and is also moving to Hong Kong… she and I are so different and he talks of her with such awe and admiration… maybe I’m not what he wants. He’ll have to choose between me and the job, but if he leaves me, I’ll stop living… I’ll kill myself!

(At this point, I was stunned. Both SS and USS were mature, bright students, amongst my dearest friends, and head over heels in love with each other)

YT: I don’t know which would be the most spectacular way out… I mean you could try slashing your wrists, but you’re likely to be rescued, before it’s late enough to be too late, and it hurts. Forget cyanide, it’s hard to find and burning oneself attracts too much attention. One is more likely to be rescued with 85% burns, the body a charred, unrecognisable lump of living, rotting flesh, spending hours, days, maybe weeks in unbearable physical agony and mental anguish that comes from the realization that with a cooler head, at a different hour, you mightn’t have committed this act of irredeemable stupidity. You could try jumping off some place really high, it’s definitely the most spectacular… makes the biggest splash! SS: What does, Sir?

YT: Your body does, when it hits the floor; but with your vertigo, I doubt if you’ll manage. So that leaves us with the old rat poison trick… I’ve heard it burns your insides and there’s a bit of frothing at the mouth… might be worth considering…

SS: Sir!! You’re making fun of me…?!

YT: What else is there to do, child! You’re being so ridiculous that it’s almost funny, as is every such situation where a person gives in to this stupid, momentary desperation, which with hindsight, would always seem laughable, if it weren’t so tragic.

SS: You don’t understand, Sir. The wounds from an earlier relationship could heal only because of Oh So Sober Sam... and now, if he also were to leave me… I can’t face it again, Sir.. I can’t live through it all again…

YT: Firstly, you are shunning all the love your parents and friends have for you. Secondly, after you’re gone, the terrible pain of carrying their dead child’s body will break their body and kill them long before their time is due. After your dramatic exit, USS will have no choice but to move on in life and in a year or two, he would’ve forgotten about you, married someone else and would be living happily ever after. Even if he were to realise his mistake, who does he come back to? Your ashes? Between a grieving widow and a jilted lover, ever wondered why it is always the jilted lover who is more likely to commit suicide?

SS: Because…. It isn’t about the one I love… but.. perhaps about… hmm... perhaps it’s about the way I feel about myself…

YT: Exactly! Your happiness should be a function of your life, not Sober Sam’s. Life is either a happy evolutionary accident or a grand design for ‘spiritual evolution’. If it’s the former, you would’ve judged the show way before its climax. If the latter, you’ll reach the same crossroad in every life, till you bite the bullet and face your fears.

SS: I see what you mean, Sir, but I love USS, and...

YT: He loves you too, and God forbid, if he did walk out… so what? Love comes calling all the time. You know that! It’s just that as long as there is someone around, we fail to, or maybe we don’t want to notice. Whether it is a failed marriage or an exam, lost honour or your last penny, live and you can redeem it all. History has witnessed people emerging from jails, holocausts and genocides with nothing but their selves, yet ending up living happy and useful lives. There are people in the world who’ve never known what it is to be loved, see the sun rise, and to them, your life, with all it’s troubles, is their idea of paradise. There is always something to live for. …

P.S Madly in Love Sam and Once Suicidal Susan are together again, happy and exactly where they want to be – in each other’s arms…

To do or not to do

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. Phil Donahue’s quote accurately sums up what majority of us feel about suicide.

All over the world, almost a million people commit suicide each year. Some of the most famous people to have committed suicide are Ernest Hemingway, Adolf Hitler, Vincent van Gogh. Depression is the cause of about 90% of them. Admittedly, a vast majority display suicidal tendencies before committing the act, for example: deliberately harming oneself or a suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide and formulating a plan). Normally, a successful suicide attempt is preceded by a number of unsuccessful ones. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, however, more men suceed in committing suicide than women. The reason for this contradiction is not too clear. Maybe because men choose more lethal forms of suicide (firearms, jumping from a building) than women (pills, poison).

One out of every three suicides is performed after writing a suicide note. This practice is widely seen as a way for the person committing the act to explain his/her actions, absolve some people of the blame or the contrary, but even this does not lessen the devastation and disbelief that family and friends go through, often they are left with guilt, anger, remorse and complete confusion, trying to figure out the ‘why’ of the act.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Humane, not Human

Pedro isn’t easy to forget, but that’s not why I remember him now, many years later, while reading a newspaper. The beaches of Goa play host to all sorts of odd creatures, but little Pedro, as wide as he was tall, remains a particular favourite, because out in the Arabian Sea, it was in his boat that I saw a fairy tale come to life.

‘Keiko’ was sitting on the ‘starboard’ side of Pedro’s ‘Dolphin watching’ dory. While the rest of us were scanning the watery horizon for tell-tale signs of a dorsal fin that would reveal the cetaceans, Keiko was sitting quietly, holding her little boy’s hand, who looked like he had just buried a dear pet. With the dolphins proving elusive, my eyes and mind wandered to meet Keiko’s, who smiled a slow smile. The little boy continued to stare at his feet. “I’m Japanese, Japanese–American now I guess, and this is my son Kenny.” Kenny looked up and smiled the same slow smile, and then the talk moved on to more comfortable topics like the weather in Goa before lingering for a while on the subject of dolphins. “Kenny needs to see a dolphin. We’ve been everywhere, from British Columbia to Australia, where every other tourist I know has seen and even played with one, but somehow Kenny seems destined not to. His father’s gone now and nothing seems to lift his spirit. He knows he won’t see one…. (I felt sad for poor Pedro now, because no dolphins meant he’d have to give our money back, but little Kenny looked so much sadder, that it was tough to blame him for our collective frustration)… maybe it’s my fault.” “Why are you blaming yourself?” I asked, “It’s thousands of miles of open water, not an aquarium… it’s a matter of chance…” “My family is from a fishing village in Futo, in Japan, and every year in Futo, there are days when hundreds, maybe thousands of dolphins are corralled and then butchered alive. On such days, the sea is red with blood, and that blood is in my veins, and now in Kenny’s. Maybe the dolphins sense it.” It was February, bright and sunny, and we were in a boat full of holiday revellers and yet, I felt a slight shiver run down my spine, as this graceful middle aged woman scanned the bluish-green (aquamarine, the ladies call it) waters for what she believed she wouldn’t find. “Recently we had been to Jerusalem... his father was a Jew and I thought Kenny should know…” she continued, still gazing at the horizon, “and there I heard an incredible story about a dolphin called Olin. A wild dolphin had shown up in a little natural harbour near the Sinai Desert and would tail the fishing boat of a deaf and mute man called Abidallah. He was from a small fishing village of a Bedouin people called Muzeini.

One in seven Muzeini are born deaf because, as Bedouins who’ve given up their nomadic way of life and taken to the sea, they were excommunicated by other Bedouin tribes and forced to marry within their community, thus resulting in a congenital hearing defect across the tribe. Abidallah and the dolphin became friends and soon they would swim and dive together and had become inseparable. In time, the moody, morose Abidallah became happy and cheerful and before long, Abidallah could hear and began to speak. The whole village marvelled at the miracle and adopted the dolphin they called Olin. One day, Olin was thrashing her tail in distress as if calling out for help and Abidallah rushed into the waters where he saw her calf drowning in a rogue drift net (drift nets are used to catch fish but end up snagging thousands of dolphins all over the world – innocent victims of the commercial fishing industry). Abidallah cut the struggling calf free and the bond between dolphin and man grew even stronger. Someday, I’ll take Kenny to that fishing village and maybe seeing Olin and Abidallah would heal his soul.”

An article in The Times of India talks about how research scientists have recently discovered the hitherto considered human trait of altruism in chimpanzees, but all they had to do was listen to Olin’s story, which I recently discovered has been the inspiration for a book by Pascale Noa Bercovitch. Or they could’ve asked after the legend of Donald, a bottle nosed dolphin, who, in 1972, rescued lost sailors along the British coast. As early as 62 AD, Plutarch, the Greek moralist had said ‘to the dolphin alone, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage’. Accounts abound of how dolphins have approached and rescued people who were drowning, protected them from sharks and guided boats lost at sea, or in a storm, back to shore. And they are therapeutic too, as Abidallah and many other physically handicapped or mentally disturbed or challenged individuals would testify. And yet, these great and good Samaritans are killed by fishermen in some parts of the world for meat, while many thousands are killed by Tuna fishing drift nets. We ‘altruistic’ humans sure know how to repay the kindness of others!

Anyway, going back to our story, no dolphins had surfaced and a dejected Pedro was heading back. Keiko and the other tourists had dozed off and I too was slowly drifting away, when Kenny jumped and screamed and pointed at something behind my shoulder. “There it is mom, there it is…” he screamed. I turned to catch a pair of brown flukes (tail) as they waved almost to say goodbye, and while almost the whole boat had missed the show, the once sad little boy had been transformed into a bundle of disbelief and joy. His mother’s eyes were moist. Whether it was the sea or something else, I cannot tell, but if you want to see the dolphins in Goa, just ask for Pedro… he is hard to miss.


Dolphin dilemma

There are about 40 species of dolphin in the world. While the common and Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphin are the ones, one is most likely to encounter along the Goan coast, the only one which is endemic to India is the Ganges River Dolphin. Known locally as Susu, it looks like a torpedo with a beak. Almost completely blind, it has a highly developed ‘sonar sense’ to compensate for its visual shortcomings, to such an extent that it can navigate and even catch its prey through echolocation.

Dolphin sonar is said to have therapeutic effects. It is said that as humans come close to a dolphin, the sonar waves pass through them, triggering healing. There have been reports of children suffering from a mental trauma or a mental illness getting better in presence of dolphins. Such ‘dolphin therapy’ often minimises symptoms and induces normalcy. But pollution of our waterways, hunting for meat and blubber and commercial drift net fishing (huge floating nets designed to trap fish by their gills that invariably catch an indiscriminate amount of dolphins) are decimating dolphin numbers in rivers and oceans. Surely these gentle creatures deserve better.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Maasai and I

I remember the first time that I saw him, out on the grassland, standing on an ant-hill all alone, gazing into the horizon. His lean, nearly 7’ tall frame, dwarfed by the mighty Mt. Kenya – a strikingly lonely, yet powerful figure on this vast plain, like a tragic-hero, defiant and at odds with his gods and destiny. They called him William.

Our Kikuyu safari-driver drove up to him and spoke to him in Swahili. William kept nodding and then pointed at an acacia tree to the west. As we drove off with a wave and an asante (thank you), our driver said, “He Maasai! Maasai say, lion near tree. Lion attack his herd this morning, but he chase it away.” Incredulous, a fellow traveller asked, “Chased the lion away? Isn’t he afraid of lions?” “He Maasai!” our driver replied. “Lion afraid of him!” There was a mystifying mix of reverence and condescension in his tone. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group and dominated public life, while the Maasai where perhaps little more than a curiosity in present day Kenya, which explained the condescension. But what of the reverence. That evening, I saw William at the safari camp with about 20 of his tribesmen. They looked formidable and proud as they circled around a fire and performed a traditional war dance. Though hired by the camp manager to entertain guests, there was none of the servitude that one has come to expect from such performers in our part of the world.

The next day, after breakfast, my wife was alternately taking pictures of her husband polishing off an avocado and an Olive Baboon that had wandered into camp, undoubtedly trying to make up her mind about which of the two was more photogenic, when I saw William walk into camp. Feeling a bit like Naomi Watts in King Kong, I walked up to him and asked him if I could take his picture. William looked down from stratosphere and smiled an awkward quarter smile and nodded. I took the camera from my wife, while her aunt stood next to him, when I took a few shots. The results on the screen suggested that it might be quite a challenge to try and fit an average sized ‘Mashi’ with an average sized Maasai in the same frame, but even before we could ask him for a an encore, William, with his long, loping gait, had drifted out of ear shot. Later, I asked two Kikuyu trackers about big William, who told me that William is a moran - a warrior. His tribe owned great herds of cattle and when he was in his teens, like other Maasais of his age, he had to kill a lion with just a spear, as a rite of passage. William had killed four (not because he wanted to), for the Maasai respect all animals and have a unique bond with nature, but because they had attacked his cows and family. At present, the government has banned lion hunts, but amongst Maasais, William is a hero. His village is just a few miles south and he used to walk into camp, while still a young boy. He was a good tracker, so the camp owners hired him to track wildlife. But William is not just an employee. He has his own herd and his village, like other Maasai villages, attracts tourists and their dollars as much as the wildlife of the Mara. Above all, William and his kind were a mascot for Kenya and ‘wild nature’.

Life on the Mara had come to a standstill that evening, as I went through my yoga routine, while the zebras and ostriches choked on my performance. As I tumbled out of an awkward headstand, I realised that my relieved audience and I weren’t alone. William had been watching for a while and he seemed impressed. He pointed at my arm and smiled. “Drink blood!”, he said, and flexed his mighty biceps. I maintained that I was strong enough and since boys would be boys, we repaired to the reception desk for an old fashioned arm-wrestling match. There, as the gigantic ‘blood-thirsty’ Maasai squared up against yours truly worried, Mr. William proved his point, while taking care not to damage my arm as much as my ego. Then he shared a Maasai secret. “My friend, We drink cow blood. It make you big and strong!”. I learnt later that the blood they drank was drawn fresh by pricking a live cow’s vein and the wound closed right after, the animal feeling no worse than you or I might after donating a bit of blood. Though great trackers, the Maasai have never been farmers and only hunted notorious cattle-lifting lions. Like other tribes around the world, the Maasai had come under pressure from the government to leave their traditional way of life and enter the mainstream, but the Maasai have kept their old ways alive, even as they make the most of the tourism industry. There is a lesson in it for other ‘backward’ cultures and governments (like India and the US) that pretend to patronize them, that ‘reservations’ of one sort or the other do nothing more than ruin the pride and dignity of a race.

On our last day at camp, William walked up to me and handed me a hand carved wooden club called a runku. “You can kill a lion with it!” he said. I asked him if he’d actually killed any. William removed his robe from his broad shoulders and turned around to reveal long and deep scars that ran down the length of his muscled back and said “it’s not the wives you know (he had three)!” We smiled, and I handed him the bandana I was wearing and he took it with a little bow, and then an Indian and a Maasai shook hands in the same Great Rift Valley that had given birth to both of us, many million years ago, and parted ways again.

The Maasai Method

The Maasai are a proud race who chose to evolve at their own pace, with their pride and principles intact. Unlike the tribes of the Americas, the Maoris of New Zealand, or the Aboriginals of Australia, the Maasai have persevered their pastoral way of life, in the face of pressures from colonial powers that took away most of their land rights and from the governments that replaced them. This steadfast commitment to their traditional values has been instrumental in ensuring the survival of the identity of the Maasai tribe.

Most other traditional cultures are dying out. Most Indian tribes for instance, are either struggling to shed their tribal identity, even as they suffer the indignity of a caste-based reservation, or hold firm to a primitive way of life that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and extermination. The quest for an equal opportunity society should have begun with at best reservations for those who are economically disadvantaged, instead of proffering it on the basis of castes, but then that would not have accounted for easy vote bracketing. Another form of reservations are killing off the great American Indians, who too have lost their identity and are living their lives on the fringes, on reservation grounds, which have effectively snatched away their last vestige of dignity and pride.

The Maasai approach of evolving at their chosen pace, i.e. maintaining a balance between the benefits of globalization, while holding on to one’s tradition is exemplary. No wonder Richard Branson is a proud honorary Maasai.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

I Loved it to death

Sariska was disappointing. The tigers had long gone and seemed to have taken the magic away with them. It was mid-May and the white heat of summer had choked us dry. We were looking forward to the setting sun and the cool confines of the hotel. I had never felt so depressed in these gorges before. The forest seemed to be in mourning. The plaintive call of the peafowl filled the desolate valley with a strange melancholy as we exited. It was dusk and indeed, the sun seemed to have gone down on Sariska.

The Sariska Palace, once the hunting lodge of Maharaja Jai Singh, and now an upscale resort, that was once popular with foreign tourists and the well heeled from Delhi, now wore a deserted look. After an early supper, under a sky that had come alive with stars, I walked toward the park gates. Under the cover of darkness, Sariska pretended to recapture some of its old mystery. Two forest guards were sitting on a string cot, doubtless talking of better days when I approached them. “Nahar(Tiger) dhoond rahe ho babu? Nahar nahi raha!”. They seemed to be talking of not just an animal, but an era that passed, and left them behind to lament. But I was not there to talk about the tiger. I was there because it is said that while in the forests where the tiger rules, the leopard is quiet, secretive, almost invisible. But in a forest without tigers, the leopard stalks without fear, and it was the leopard that I was after.

“Tendua (Leopard) yahan nahin hain,” he said but if I went east for a few kilometers to a place called Taal Vriksh, I could perhaps see leopards there. I rushed back to the palace, woke up my friends and drove as fast as I could toward Taal Vriksh. Taal vriksh was a tiny hamlet outside the precincts of the park, surrounded by scrub forests. In the dead of night, the village looked deserted. Not a soul stirred. Some distance away, a lone fire was burning inside a small temple. We asked the priest if leopards really came calling. The priest came out and told us that without the fire, the leopard would take both him and the temple cow away. He took us to the courtyard and showed us the pug marks of a large female leopard imprinted on the thin layer of dust that had gathered on the cemented yard. He said that if we wanted to see leopards we should go to Singhji’s farm, a kilometre toward the forest. At the gates of Singhji’s farm, large dogs rushed at us, as we waited inside the car for someone to come to our rescue. A burly individual with a handlebar moustache and an uncharacteristically squeaky voice asked of us what we wanted. He told us that for the price of a chicken, he could show us a leopard and for the price of a goat he had shown film crews sightings long enough to film a sequence. Sariska seemed to hold promise yet.

But there was a glitch. Singhji was going to bait the leopard with a live chicken or goat and being a near vegetarian by choice, the idea of sacrificing a life for momentary joy seemed unfair. More significantly, the idea of baiting wild animals, even for tourists, has been condemned by experts because it modifies wild behaviour and threatens the animal in the long run. But the thought of seeing as magnificent and elusive an animal like the leopard mere metres from us was too tempting to pass up. So Singhji brought a doomed broiler out from its coop and with his dogs and a guard walked toward a clearing at the edge of the forest and tied it with a string to a bush. Then he walked back and turned on a powerful hand held search-light. The forest was quite and in the glare of the light, the chicken fluttered and clucked. Suddenly, a Sambhar barked a warning and then as we held our breath, a soundless spotted blur streaked into the field of light, plucked the poor bird, and in a whirl of feathers and muffled cries, disappeared. In that breathless moment was encapsulated one of my greatest wildlife experiences. The debate over ethics and morality was forgotten and after paying our dues, we headed back, flushed with a memory and a story to last a lifetime.

Months later, I was returning from Jaipur with a guest and thought that an evening with Singhji and the leopard would be a nice way to round off my guest’s Rajasthan experience. So we took the diversion from the highway to Delhi and set off for Taal Vriksh. The little village was as quiet as before. We passed the temple, but curiously, the fire seemed to have died out. At Singhji’s farm, there were no dogs, and the gate was open. We walked in, calling out for Singhji but there was no response. The farm was deserted. Disappointed we headed back, but stopped at the temple to ask the priest. “After you left, not many came Babu, and the leopard was going hungry. It had come to expect food every week and when it did not find any, it entered the village and carried the luhar’s (blacksmith) daughter away. The whole village woke up to the child’s cries, and gave chase but to no avail. Two nights later, the animal was baited and poisoned by the villagers. It was a female with cubs. The villagers drove Singhji away. You and your likes came here for an hour’s pleasure and left behind a house empty of the pitter -patter of a child’s feet, a dead leopard that didn’t know any better and two cubs that starved and died a horrible, painful death”

Baiting Nature

Baiting leopards and tigers is an old tradition in Sariska. In the days of Raja Jai Singh, goats were tied on various walls of the Sariska Palace in order to entice unsuspecting felines within range of the Maharaja’s guns. Even today, baits are a legitimate tool for not only trophy hunters, but also tourists, nature photographers and researchers. But invariably, baits, if used consistently, modify animal behaviour, and someone always pays for it. In my naiveté, I, and wildlife enthusiasts like me who visited Singhji’s farm contributed to the terrible tragedy at Taal Vriksh. And yet we are not alone in our sins. Even Jane Goodall, one of the patron saints of all things wild and wonderful and one of the nicest human beings on the planet, unwittingly modified chimpanzee behaviour by setting up feeding stations for the apes in order to study them. But these feeding stations intensified the aggression within chimp troops and might’ve led to wars between troops and cases of cannibalism and infanticide. Birdwatchers and photographers often set up feeding stations for birds, where birds collect in extraordinary numbers and then these feeding stations become the breeding grounds for diseases that infect and kill hundreds of birds.

Baiting wildlife is nothing short of corrupting nature, and nature once corrupted, demands an unfair sacrifice. The irony is that it is love that begets such terrible death.