Sunday, September 30, 2007

A river runs through us

Western UP’s dry brown countryside had turned a vivid green with the rains. The lonely road, a long leafy boulevard, was a car killer. Broken and jagged, it rattled bones and churned the marrow. But the sight of sugar cane fields beside an open road; women in ghungats suppressing a shy giggle as I ask for directions; the dappled light of a mango orchard and the whiff of dung cakes baking in the sun… aah.. my city sore senses couldn’t care less.

And then, as the poets might’ve, or at the very least, should’ve said, ‘the lover can walk over broken glass as if he was walking over petals when he knows his beloved awaits him at his journey’s end’. The beloved I sought was a dolphin. Now, don’t raise that eyebrow and wonder what might a dolphin be doing so far from the sea, for I speak of the other dolphin – the river dolphin. Once found through the length and breadth of most of India’s and China’s rivers, pollution, hunting and fishing nets had greatly reduced their numbers. A few can still be seen along stretches of the Ganges. News recently came in from China though that they had lost the Yangtze river dolphin-the baiji- to its polluted waterways, though some reports speak of a lone dolphin having been spotted. Never having seen one, and having heard of the near extinction of its Chinese cousin, I couldn’t resist the thought of paying them a visit when I heard from friends at WWF that one could see them, if lucky, a mere 200 kms from Delhi, at the Ganga Barrage in Narora.

Enroute, I passed a bunch of schoolboys piled atop a mule cart returning from school. “Susu (go ahead! Open any book or website worth opening and you’ll find that that is what the dolphins are called in hindi) kahan milega?” I asked them. They looked at me as one might at a circus elephant- a mixture of awe and mirth, and then started repeating my question, individually, then in chorus, and broke up into peals of laughter. The wagon rolled off, the driver shaking his head, his passengers rolling, laughing, pointing fingers at me as the sky filled up with the cry of ‘susu kahan milega?’. As I drove off, I saw a group of elderly ladies sitting on a string cot next to their buffaloes. They’ll know for sure, I thought. But even as I got down from the car, I realised that while the school kids had spared me the misunderstanding, these grand dames, with dung cakes within easy reach, were less likely to. I stopped myself and drove on, in search of susu, wondering all the while why it couldn’t have had a more innocuous name. Next, I saw a policeman. Couldn’t risk the law misunderstanding yours truly, so I threw in the towel and tried the tamer ‘dolphin kahan..?’ ‘Oh sus!’ he exclaimed, and pointed me straight toward the barrage. Damn the extra ‘u’, I thought.

At the Barrage, the river stretched out into a narrow channel. I scanned the waters for a while and then drifted toward some villagers who had gathered by the banks. I meant to ask them about the sus and where and when they might surface. What surfaced instead was years of collective anger and frustration. The village, Jairampur, is a fishing village, and like every civilisation in history, their lives and fortunes are inextricably intertwined with that of the river that runs through their lands and lives. That river was dying. Totaram, a village elder, railed against the sugar mills of Simbhaoli, which, come winter, released untreated effluents, ‘kala paani’ in the river every year. It killed everything in the river - the fish they caught, the sus they revered, the lives they lived. Faces, voices - Charan Singh the Panch, Puran, the drunkard, Manzoor, the fish contractor, they all begged me to try and do all I could, otherwise the ‘kala paani’ they said, would kill off not just the sus, but all of Jairampur.

Jairampur isn’t alone. The once holy Ganges is a toxic river today. It poisons those who live off it and those who live in it. I didn’t see the dolphins – indicators of the river’s health – this time, but I did see a whole lot more. The waters of life now stink of the dead, and unless we act soon, the stink will spread. So lets fight and write and lobby and labour, to save the river, because the destiny of Jairampur is as indicative of our own destiny, as the dolphin’s destiny is indicative of Jairampur’s.

The slip stream

Toxic tide

The Ganga is a river in deep crisis. This revered water source is slowly being choked by overwhelming population pressure which is threatening to make it a ‘dead river’. Take Kanpur for example, this city of three million depends on Ganga for most of its water needs. However without proper waste disposal and management facilities it ultimately pollutes the same source which nourishes it. Industrial effluents, pesticides, human waste and toxic chemicals all mix to make these holy waters a deadly and often fatal cocktail. As a result most of the aquatic life in the river has either died or is desperately sick.

Things are equally bad in the countryside too. Here again, over-exploitation of the river water has led to loss of biodiversity which in turn leads to falling soil organic content, blamed for poorer crops, which in turn leads to increased chemicals, pesticides and fertilizer usage. All this is definitely not a good trend. Moreover inadequate water recharging also hampers natural arsenic clearing leading to arsenic poisoning of the immediate population, as well as death.

Poetic Justice it may well be, but surely, as a civilisation, we could do much better - for our own sakes.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

A bird’s eye view

The two tall wiry men spied our car and fled. My friend Rahul and I were on one of Delhi’s busiest roads while the two men were tearing along the footpath, hoping to escape through one of the narrow lanes that run perpendicular to the main road. The mini-truck I was driving wasn’t really built for high speed chases and it was slow-going. The fugitives were gaining ground, and I was beginning to lose hope when Rahul, ever the impetuous adventurer, opened the door, jumped out of the slow moving vehicle and gave chase. I was concerned. Granted, he was built like a bull with the heart of a lion, but the odds were against him. I honked and hustled. The road opened up. I put pedal to metal, overtook Rahul as he caught up with the straggler, passed the front runner and swivelled to a stop. I jumped out of the car and ran toward fugitive 1 through the dust clouds and latched on to his booty bag. Fugitive 1 dropped his bag and escaped into the lanes, and when fugitive 2 dropped his bag, Rahul didn’t chase after him either. It was the bags we were after.

Pleased as punch, we took out the contraband – bags full of ‘parrots’ (parakeets actually - India doesn’t have any indigenous parrot species - the green, long-tailed birds that squawk and talk and are often kept as pets in homes). About a dozen of them trussed six cages. We checked to see if their wings were clipped and then released them. I wouldn’t want to bore you with the poetic clich├ęs that one can’t help but utter when one sees a bird that has known what it is to be free, struggle with a wire cage, stare at you with a mixture of mistrust and disbelief as you open the trap door, and then with a sudden flurry, fly away – a green blur on a blue canvas. This was our third ‘heist’ of the day. Release score: 25 parrots... at least.

Now if you’re wondering what’s the big deal about bullying two street-side bird sellers, here’s are some details to help with the perspective. India is home to a number of indigenous birds that make popular pets. Parakeets, munias and mynas are perhaps the most popular. My relatives had them, I’m sure many of yours did too. As a kid, I begged and pleaded with my parents to buy a caged pair but they refused. I thought they were being incredibly stingy but once I was old enough to care and understand, they explained how unfair it was to confine a creature that was born to soar in a tiny cage where it couldn’t even spread its wings. A little research will also tell you that the trade in live birds is worth millions, fuelled by breeders and fanciers who are genuine bird lovers and enthusiasts. The sad irony is that approximately 70%-80% of all birds trapped die before reaching a buyer. Trapping, trading and keeping wild-caught birds has been banned in most parts of the world and is illegal in India. The trauma of being trapped and breaking a leg or a wing in the process is the least a trapped bird has to suffer. Once trapped, a bird the size of a parakeet would be stuffed with 40-50 other parakeets, in cages or containers no bigger than a shoe box. Most would not survive this journey as they’ll die of asphyxiation, or would be crushed to death. Of those that do, many will starve and the few that remain will be sold on the streets. Not only is the process cruel and exploitative but the trade encourages the spread of avian flu and worse, has cost the world nearly two-thirds of its wild parrot population.

The buck stops with us. The people who create the demand and thus the market for this trade are people like you and me. Our friends, relatives, perhaps even you, dear reader. And it is up to you and me to convince such people that it is the bird lover who is driving the object of his affection to extinction. Recently a friend of mine from Mumbai, sweet thing, moved by the sight of these caged birds, bought a few and set them free. Unfortunately, by buying the birds, she only added to the cruel trade (see slip stream). So if you really love your feathered friend, set it free (without paying for it). If it never comes back, it really is free, it will love you more for it and you’ll know that it never was yours... nothing ever is...


Sunday, September 16, 2007

My, am I store

Drat! I was late again. I had woken up at an ungodly hour, endured an animated soliloquy in Kannada by a cabbie who didn’t believe in brushing or rushing and begged and pleaded with a middle aged morning walker who ran screaming the moment I jumped down from the car to ask her for directions, all to no avail. I had missed my 5am class with the legendary Yogi, Sri Pattabhi Jois.

While I waited in the courtyard for the 6am class, my thoughts went back to Ms. Morning Walker. She was wearing a monkey cap and an overcoat on top of what must’ve been at least a couple of sarees. I broke into a sweat just thinking about her. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that this was June and the thought of all those layers of clothing on a fairly warm day just seemed unbearable. Soon enough though, other equally well wrapped morning walkers passed by. That’s when the Mysorean’s weather view dawned on me. In a part of the world where the weather didn’t seem to change much, the Mysorean apparently dressed for winter early in the morning, breakfasted in spring, lunched in summer and so on I guess. Charming folk, I say!

My thoughts returned to the bolted doors of the yoga studio beyond which the man I had come to meet, the nonagenarian Jois, Guruji to his students, held court. At an age where it is usually difficult to blow out candles on a birthday cake, here he was leading students younger than his grandson through reportedly one of the toughest workouts on the planet. Very impressive! By 0530hrs, students for the 6am class started trooping in - a bunch of beach-burnt Brazilian girls, a Korean, a Judi Dench type Brit stiff, upper lip and all, and a host of others. Some looked like hippies, others like geeky violin players. There where a couple of tattooed ex-convict types too. I struck up a fairly lively conversation with the Brazilians but the Dench dame raised a plucked-bare eyebrow and wagged a disapproving finger. Made to feel like naughty five year olds, we shut up and endured the awkward silence till Sharath, Guruji’s grandson opened the doors to let us in.

As the students took their place on the mats, the hall filled up with about 50 of them. In a white tee and black shorts, Guruji chanted. His face glowed, his eyes sparkled and Sharat, who assists the legend, set the class rolling. This was a ballet. Beautifully toned bodies moving in sync with Sharat’s instructions, standing, stretching, bending, balancing and breathing, most with the serene expression of a mother looking at a new-born child, while some looking a bit like the mother’s husband who just discovered that the child wasn’t his. But it was their breath that blew me away, almost literally. The breathing was in concert and the sound was such that if I had been blind-folded and brought here I would’ve thought that I’d stumbled upon Godzilla as he slept. Suddenly Sharat urged, “spread your legs!”, and even as I wondered what was to come next, 50 odd pairs of legs were unfurled, balanced on, if such a part were there in the yogi’s anatomy, “the tip of the butt” for a perfect Upavishta Konasana. Incidentally, the “yoga-butt” (said to be one of most admired examples of the human posterior), claimed a student, is one of the main attractions of yoga (and you thought it was only good for enlightenment).

Class over, I asked the students why they had traversed continents for a morning’s workout. Nakamura, Japanese, said “Yoga is a complete psycho-spiritual workout... the root of all martial arts”. Andrew, 50, a gigantic Australian vegan, who often benched 400lbs, claimed “Yoga’s my best bet for living a longer and healthier life.” Guruji’s other famous students are Sting and Madonna. “Ashtanga Yoga is real yoga, the only yoga! Essential for every Indian, every country!” said Guruji, and went back to playing with his great grand daughter. Someday, I too would want to be able to play with my great grand daughter after a sweaty workout with Madonna and Sting, or if I’m asking for too much I’d be happy with just the great grand daughter bit. Wouldn’t you?

The slip stream

AshtangA - the root

For long yoga has been associated with ageing men and women, who want take it easy and still get a workout in the autumn of their lives. In the hope of easing blood pressure and curing hypertension, geriatrics have usually been the most enthusiastic yoga practitioners. But an ancient practice rediscovered by the West threatens to give yoga’s middle-aged image a makeover. It’s called Ashtanga Yoga and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, his grandson Sharat and celebrity students like Madonna have made it one of the most popular workouts in the world. But this new rage traces it’s roots to an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta and a Yogi called Ramamohan Brahmachari who lived in the mountains near Tibet. When he was more than a 100 years old, he taught Ashtanga Yoga to a young man called Sri T. Krishnamacharya who in turn taught a young Pattabhi Jois the nuances of the art.

Jois remained unknown in India but when his students took Ashtanga yoga West, it exploded. So if you think you are too good for ‘middle aged yoga’, flex those spiritual muscles and try out an Ashtanga yoga class if you dare.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

A nose for trouble

“The Filipino girls might seem a comely lot. They’ll seem to like you easily, and without discrimination. But don’t get too excited. Remember, any girl who approaches you is either blind or a street-walking transvestite looking for a ‘job’. And since your wife is going to help me cook dinner and you’ll be on your own, don’t get into any trouble you can’t get out of. Ok?” Sisters!! You see, my sister had just moved to Manila and my wife and I had gone visiting. She was barely a week old in the city at the time but she has this irritating habit of talking about everything under the sun as if she’d just written a ‘Best Seller’ on the subject. The girls wanted to play ‘catch up’, while I went exploring, so I left the girls to their giggles and took to the streets, ‘armed’ with ‘words of wisdom’ from a week old expat.

Following a gaggle of Vanessa Mae look-alikes into the crowded precincts of the imaginatively titled Mall of Asia, I was reminded of her advice when I felt a gentle prod where the family jewels rested. Stuck in a serpentine queue that was slithering it’s way into the mall’s portals, I was right behind the girls, followed by two tiny old women with walkers. They looked like they were hundreds of years old. Neither of the two groups looked like transvestites looking for a ‘job’, but there it was, that awkward prod again. I looked down and there was the culprit, mouth agape, lolling tongue and a wagging tail. It was a sniffer dog, “trained to detect bombs”, his handler told me. There were half a dozen of them patrolling the mall and its exit and entry points. Some shoppers seemed scared, some positively disgusted but most seemed happy to see the dogs there. As for me, I was relieved. Relieved to know that the threat from both bombs and transvestites, at least for now, had passed.

The Philippines is battling Moro rebels who aren’t too shy about popping a few well timed RDX cans in crowded places. As a counter measure, security agencies have dispatched bomb detection dog teams to places like malls, busy markets, airports and even hotels. And during a bomb threat, these dogs are your safest bet. Not convinced? Let me tell you a story.

The year: 1985. Dog handler Gary Carlsson and his bomb detection dog, Thor, are usually responsible for screening passengers and luggage at Pearson Airport, Toronto. In the third week of June, Carlsson and Thor are sent to Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s bomb detection k-9 teams for a week long training session. 1985 is a world away from the fear that stalks the planet today. The Canadians are more bothered about communist comrades than jilted jehadis. Therefore, they aren’t too perturbed by the fact that with all their bomb detection dogs in training camp for a week, baggage at various airports might go without the usual sharp nosed security checks. June 22, 1985; Pearson Airport, Toronto, Canada: Air India Flight 182 stands on the Toronto Runway. In its baggage hold lie bags and suitcases which have been given a rudimentary check by an electronic sniffer. The sniffer however cannot compare with a well trained canine nose. But Thor and his handler are miles away and Flight 182 can’t wait. It takes off, touches down at Montreal and then takes off for Heathrow enroute to India. Off the coast of Ireland, undetected explosives in it’s baggage hold, presumably planted by Sikh terrorists, explode. The plane blows up and crashes, killing all passengers on board.

Dogs are perhaps the quickest, the most reliable (with a 90% accuracy rate), and perhaps the cheapest ‘technology’ available for detecting explosives. In a country as vulnerable to ‘terror’ as India, these dogs on patrol could perhaps have prevented the carnage that visited Delhi in 2005, Mumbai in 2006 or Hyderabad in 2007. But while the rest of the world has ‘gone to the dogs’, all you’ll ever see in India is the perfunctory presence of a worthless metal detector and a disinterested security guard. K-9 teams are only brought out in response to threats or for sanitising VIP areas.

So as long as the government is busy barking up the wrong tree, their really isn’t much that man’s best friend can do. Maybe I should make them talk to my sister.

The slip stream

K-9 Brass tacks

Dogs were first used by the police in the 19th century by the Belgians in the city of Ghent. Soon Germany, Switzerland and other European nations followed suit. By the 1970s police forces all over the world had started using dogs for detecting drugs and explosives. Dogs even went to war and the army called them K-9s and since then the name has stuck for most service dogs. Detection dogs stationed at airports and on patrol have saved innumerable lives and millions of dollars. Indian railway stations and airports too could become far safer through the deployment of a larger contingent of sniffer dogs. Trains after all have been some of the most popular terror targets in India.

Besides detecting explosives, dogs have been used to detect narcotics and recently many have been used in Afghanistan to clear its fields of land-mines. These dogs are cheaper and more portable than high –tech robots and far more reliable than even the most sophisticated electronic sniffers in the world. Some of the most popular breeds used for explosive detection are German, Dutch and Belgian Shepherds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers and American Pitbull Terriers.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

So that I too may rest in peace. . .

I don’t remember how I felt at my grand father’s funeral. I remember the day well enough, it’s just that I do not remember how I felt… Perhaps I did not feel much that day, other than a numbness - an empty lack of feeling. Maybe I loved him without needing him, and so I just felt empty. It wasn’t a feeling I understood much even a year later when my grand mother followed him to the other side. I know now that they loved me more than I loved them and had I been older, maybe I would’ve learnt to love them better.

I was 18. it was a wonderful time. I had hopes, I had dreams and I had friendship. A friendship that made me complete in a way nothing else could. At a time when I should’ve had pimples, insecurities and complexes, this friendship protected me, cocooned me and nourished me without complaint or restraint. I fed off it and grew, without realising for a minute how much I had taken this person, this relationship for granted. We were inseparable. But now I know we were so because he held me tight, so firm that I couldn’t stray, but gentle enough not to smother me. I loved him more than I knew. Never told him so, but when I look back, I know he knew…. At 19, he was a year older than me. I still remember him standing, one leg across the other, in front of the gate waiting for me, playing his harmonica as he waited. I kept him waiting, because I knew, that no matter how long I took, he would be waiting…But one day he kept me waiting. I didn’t have his patience, so when I thought I heard him at the gate, I rushed out in anger. But it wasn’t him… after that day, it wasn’t ever him.

I would still hear the harmonica at times, but he was gone, seemingly for ever. His passing changed me. I was still a boy, but he had taken my boyhood with him. It was something we shared which we couldn’t have shared with anybody else but I don’t regret it. He took with him what was ‘ours’ and left me in return what was his. I learnt to love for the sake of love and not because I was loved back in return, just like he used to. And he taught me a word that I never thought I’d understand – empathy.

That was long ago though, and sometimes these days, when I can’t see beyond a story or a scoop, his spirit tires of me and leaves me and I regress into a lesser man –like the kinds who are staring so hard at tomorrow that they don’t even notice as today drifts by; until every tomorrow has become yesterday, a lifetime lost without a ‘today’.

Funerals have a way of putting our lives in perspective - like an epiphany that for a fleeting moment, or longer, cuts through the charade of our lives and gives us a glimpse of what it ought to be - what we ought to be. A lit pyre, a handful of dirt on a coffin, they remind us of our own mortality and how we take our own lives and health for granted. They make us more human, more compassionate. They make us want to reach out, to comfort each other. But above all, they remind us that targets, deadlines, promotions and incentives aren’t half as important as the love and faith of the relationships that keep us rooted. We see them every day, and yet we push them back into recesses of our minds and lives. Like leaving parents, who’re hoping to catch up with a busy child, waiting up at dinner every night, because there are friends to meet, presentations to finish, a movie to catch. But then there’s always tomorrow. They’ve always been there, they’ll always be there, you tell yourself, until you’ve waited one tomorrow too long.

So let it not take obsequies to remind us not to wait for tomorrows. Let’s celebrate the most important relationships in our lives every day, every ‘today’. And let us not ever have to stand at a funeral, hearts heavy with guilt, wishing we had one more day.

Pitchin’ for Mitch

Iwrote the words on your left after spending time with a dear friend who had lost a parent. He is a son who had not waited for ‘tomorrow’ and it showed in the way he dealt with his grief. A few days later, I thought of picking up a book for him - a book by a man who understands loss, and so I picked up Mitch Albom’s ‘For One More Day’. Serendipity?! Who knows...

After I read the book, I wondered whether Mitch Albom’s critics were right. They said he was hawking syrupy sentimentality. I liked the sentimentality though. And honestly, I think the guy had a point. I don’t think you and I are alone in taking those we love for granted. Albom’s books can move a man and point him in the right direction and heal and soothe a grieving soul. There aren’t many books one can say that about and for this I wouldn’t grudge him his ‘syrupy prose’ or his profits. It is surprising that a man who made a name for himself as a decorated sports columnist with Detroit Free Press and Playgirl should come up with such delightful little books that satiate the spirit.

Irrespective of his motives, his books have touched chords and changed lives. Should a writer, his readers or his critics ask for more.