Sunday, February 24, 2008

Catching a tiger by its tale

Vroom! Vroom!! Vroom!!! Dimples (That’s my little truck, called so because, ravaged by Delhi traffic, she now stands dimpled all over – from doors and fenders, to hood and boot) couldn’t budge. Thick red dust clouds and the acrid smell of burning rubber invaded my nostrils. As the dust settled, I stepped out. The sky was a clear blue. Dimples was stuck at a curve on a narrow winding trail, layers of sand on top of loose rock, less than a foot wider than the width of the truck. This trail was my only way out of a red rock quarry, hundreds of feet deep. On my right rose an impassable sheer rock face; to my left was a drop, just as sheer and deep, and in front was my little truck, one front wheel in the air, the other on top of a boulder, and from where I stood, I could see her upturned underside, exposed by the angle. Dimples turned crimson with embarrassment. Some might’ve attributed it to all that red dust, but if you know Dimples, you’ll know better. How did I get here? Well, I was lured in by news of a mysterious creature that had taken to stalking some villages bordering Gurgaon, near Delhi. And this creature killed to live. First goat carcasses, then dead cows and now pug marks of a wild animal had emerged near the crop fields of Teekli village. The villagers thought it was a tiger that had strayed in from Sariska and a villager, Lakhi Ram, a portly farmer, claimed to have seen the tiger’s pug marks. So off we went, Dimples and I, in search of Lakhi Ram’s tiger.

Stand in front of any of the Gurgaon highrises, call one of the burlier locals, give him a stone and ask him to throw it long and hard. More than likely, that stone will fall in one of the many puddles that mark the paths and pajamas of Teekli. It’s a world far removed from bustling Gurgaon. One minute I was on a busy smoky, highway, and the next I’m passing mustard fields of verdant green and yellow, and the proud Aravalis beyond, to reach Lakhi Ram’s doorstep. Lakhi took me to the hills and pointed at the dreaded footprints on the dry mud. I took photos but was sceptical - looked more lupine than feline. I said so. Lakhi then pointed at something white in the bushes. Bleached and brittle, it was the skeleton of a long dead cow. It didn’t talk much, so it wasn’t what you would call ‘conclusive evidence’.

I set off to look for more witnesses and almost got run over by a herd of goats followed by a one-eyed goatherd. Daya Ram. “(whispers)Janawar tho hai but few’ll says so. There’s illegal mining going on and no one wants the media here... but I’ve lost two goats already.” Really? Where? He pointed at a nearby hill. “Iss pahad pe... jheel mein uttar jao. janawar wahin hai.” I met some more villagers. “janawar? ‘Janawar hai!’ Kahan? ‘Jheel mein!’ Jheel mein? What animal were they talking about? The Loch Ness monster? I comb the hill, every bush, and tiny corner, and find no jheel, not even a tiny puddle. What I do find is a grand canyonesque stone quarry and drawn by a stupid urge, I point poor Dimples’ nose south and descend into the pit. Nothing there… and I’m still there… stuck on my way back up.

Scanning the blue sky, as I lay on Dimples’ dimpled hood, I half hoped to see vultures riding the thermals, circling overhead like they did in spaghetti westerns whenever Clint Eastwood was stranded in the desert. But of course there were no vultures – the poor birds having nearly gone extinct themselves (too much diclofenac and not enough bumbling columnists). No tigers either. There couldn’t have been… the tigers of Sariska are long dead, just like the vultures. All I saw was the crumbling shell of a once rich landscape. The goatherds spoke of a time when deer roamed and the nights were alive with the roar of a tiger. But now only scavengers – hyenas, jackals – remain. And there is one more thing that still lives in these forests – a possibility – the romantic notion that in this wilderness, there might yet be a big cat lurking in the shadows in these hills. For that alone, this trip, Dimples’ woes notwithstanding, was worth it.

But soon these forests will be hacked, hauled and emptied and here would stand lawns and buildings in its stead. The tigers, the trees and the magic would’ve disappeared, but for a while might still remain the story about the day a tiger called on Teekli. P.S. Pray, where is the jheel....

Lost tracks

Since eyewitness accounts at Teekli, and even recent newspaper reports about the mystery cat remain inconclusive, we sent the photographs of the pug marks from the location to an expert. Kartick Satyanaraynan, co-founder of Wildlife SoS. Though handicapped by the quality and proximity of the photographs, Kartick was convinced that the pug marks had been made by either a wild canid or a hyena, not a leopard or tiger.

While wildlife enthusiasts would’ve hoped for the return of the beleaguered big cat to this neighbourhood but for now, it seems unlikely. It was in the year 2004 that a tiger had last been spotted in Teekli’s neighbouring wildlife sanctuary, Sariska and the animal straying so far undetected seems unlikely. And even if a tiger or leopard were to be there, population explosion, scarcity of space, environment destruction and human encroachments would’ve driven the animal back, perhaps to its death. In Mumbai in 2004, residents came into conflict with a lost leopard. In 2007, a jackal wandered into the heart of Delhi. Elephants, monkeys and snakes have been the other usual suspects. The serene wilderness of Teekli too might soon witness another such story.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Beautiful Blue eyes

Baba has a small greying briefcase tucked away somewhere. It is old now, very old, and yet, Baba is so fond of it. And we understand why. I must not have been 10 years old that afternoon. Baba was sitting in the winter sun in our courtyard, mixing colours on his palette, when I spied that briefcase. He used it to keep his oil paints. I sat next to him, picked up a brush, dipped it in paint and began to lavish attention on a discarded scrap of paper. Now children would be children and fathers don’t understand that, so inevitably, I dropped a few sticky drops of Prussian Blue on the briefcase. Baba seemed irritated. He pushed the briefcase aside. That bothered me. Why did he lug that crappy thing around. It was old and ugly, and unlike his scooter, we could surely afford to change it. I asked him why he wouldn’t. Baba smiled, picked up the case and placed it between us on its head. He motioned for me to come closer and pointed at three parallel scratch marks at the bottom, near the spine and said, “Jyoti did this!” I looked at the scratch marks in wide eyed wonder, looked up at him and smiled.

New Delhi, 1968: Baba was a struggling artist and musician in the 60s. He spent his time teaching music and painting animals in the zoo. But when he got a job at ‘Kala Kendra’, he stopped visiting the zoo. That day, he was entertaining old friends, and for some reason, the old longing came back. So off he went, dragging his guests to the zoo. Water birds here, monkeys there and soon it was afternoon- feeding time for the big cats. In the distance, a gentle aaoom-aaoom trickled into their ears, grew in intensity, until the roars, like thunderclap, boomed across enclosures and into the very hearts that were beating, albeit irregularly, in the vicinity. By the time Baba and his guests reached the enclosure, a crowd had gathered, like a flock of flies, gathering around an open wound, in the heat of summer. They couldn’t get a clear view past the huddle of greasy heads so they moved to the far left corner where iron bars separated visitors from the moated enclosure. Inside, to the far right, a white tiger, was pawing the grille that led to the feeding quarters. A few visitors were throwing sticks and stones at the beast, trying to aggravate it. The snarly 200-kg cat looked hungry, angry and distressed. A wave of memories flooded Baba’s mind. Something about the tiger seemed familiar. Is it possible? It was so long ago…Baba wondered. “Too far away… can’t see”. His friends were walking away when Baba screamed “Jyoti!”. The crowd turned. “Jyoti! Jyoti!”, Baba screamed again. The tigress looked at Baba, froze, and then, like a huge rolling snowball, bounded across the enclosure straight at Baba, crashed against the bars, stood up on her hind legs, and towering over Baba, she pushed out her muzzle through the bars. Baba stretched his arm, and to every one’s disbelief, rubbed the big cat’s nose as she aaomed…. And aaomed… the keepers opened the gate to the food quarters… but Jyoti stayed… aaom… Years ago, Baba would go to the zoo and sketch for hours, briefcase in tow. Sometimes, he would make portraits of the keepers. The vet at the time, would let Baba play with all the cubs and calves in his care. When a tiny white tiger cub was brought to the vet because the tigress wasn’t nursing, Baba happened to be there. The struggling artist and the tiny tigress hit it off straight away. They called her Jyoti. As a cub, she would jump into Baba’s arms, run off with his drawing sheets and once, as I later found out, used his briefcase to test her tiny little claws.

“That day, when she looked into my eyes, I saw this emptiness. While leaving, she looked at me, her sad blue eyes seemed to plead for me to stay, and as we walked away, she let out a long mournful sound, more of a bay than a roar… maybe she was lonely”. Baba went back after a few months with his sketch book. The enclosure was empty. ‘Is she pregnant?’ Baba thought. He went to the zoo hospital and asked the vet about Jyoti’. “Jyoti is dead… she just died…”

Jyoti’s story used to be my favourite bed time story. Recently, while flipping through an old album, I came across her photograph. I asked Baba, why did she die. “She had a far-away look in her eyes that day,” Baba said, “eyes that said that all she cared about was release… from this cage… from this existence. I wished I could’ve taken her away with me. A part of me wasn’t surprised.” I looked at the grainy black-and-white photograph of a younger version of the man sitting before me and the naughty eyes of an adorable tiger cub peering from behind his shoulder … This isn’t what a zoo was supposed to do to those eyes.

The zoo story

Zoos have a more significant reason for being than just a desirable option for kids’ outing or a rendezvous with wildlife. Conservation of animals endangered, owing to our apathetic rush towards development, is the reason why these animals have to be caged in the first place. Various species are protected in zoos for captive breeding and also to facilitate studies and research.

Indian zoos, unfortunately, are not entirely serving the purpose they are meant to. In the 258 zoos in India, about 10-15% of the confined animals die every year. Away from their natural surroundings, the animals are further subject to trauma by visitors tempted feed, irritate and even tease the animals. An unconcerned administration and the absence of a full-time vet – a legal mandate – has only compounded their woes. Besides, hygiene remains disconcertingly inadequate. Now, however, with increased diligence of the Central Zoo Authority of India, steps are hopefully being taken to make the imprisoned wild denizens feel more at home.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Taxi Driver

Dark wet streets reflecting flashes of neon; a naked toddler in a monkey cap running after the wagging tail of a well fed stray; ding, ding... a ghost tram, dragging its tired empty coaches along the Maidan. The rains seemed to have washed the city clean and in the dark Kolkata looked almost beautiful.

“Moja mangta, dada?” The taxi driver, a wild eyed Sikh, given to obsessive bouts of peek spitting, was scanning the rear view mirror for a reaction. Confused yet curious, I gave him what I hoped was a ‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about but I hope you know who you’re talking to’ look. That ‘look’ though has often been translated as the ‘I know you’ve caught me with my hand in the cookie jar but you won’t tell on me, would you?’ look. This time it was no different… “koi pata cholbena dada. I know secret place”. Driver sahab was grinning. “Maney?”, I was hoping my voice would find that fine edge that conveys interest without betraying a nervous tripping-over-my-toes kinda excitement. “Tangri dada, tangri chayi?”. Tangri?! What exactly was he trying to offer? Contraband chicken? Mildly disappointed, I asked ,“Tangri maney?”. “Ladki dada, vilayti ladki! Chayi?” Ah! A hurriedly raised eyebrow and a brusque shake of the head, hopefully conveyed disinterest. An impasse. Driver sahab returned to his mission of painting the town red. I rolled up the window as another volley of driver sahab’s viscous red oral expressions streaked past… Kolkata gazing through stained glass…. a bit like the end credits of a blood soaked Almodovar classic. I wondered if driver sahab was a communist…

A mosque, the Statesman building... seemed familiar. Must be the correct route. “Kothokhone… how much longer”, I asked. “Fusht time, dada?” he asked. “Na, na! Onekbar eshchi…I know the roads”, I fibbed. One can never be too careful with taxi drivers. “No, no… your fusht time?”, he gestured. Gosh! How na├»ve do I look? I didn’t really know how to, or even if I wanted to answer that question. “Arre chai na… told you I’m not interested”, I shot back. The irritation was genuine. I was beginning to dislike the man. He apologised. “Sorry dada, gussa mat karo…” I nodded. I felt more at ease. He slowed down and stopped in front of a high wall. “Eta college… college girls you want? Hostel nearby… five minutes. No problem. School girls also.” The moment had lost its intrigue. I was tiring of this game. “ Nahin yaar, not interested”. Driver sahab looked disappointed.

I tried to change the topic. “ Kolkata mein kabse?” “Many years dada.” I asked about his village. He was from Gurdaspur. Family? Married - happily, he claimed. Kids? Three. “Do ladki, ekta ladka”. I was more than surprised. I had never thought of a pimp as a family man. I asked if they went to school, but he wasn’t listening. “Sastao ache dada. I won’t charge commission. I have room... I have girl there. Very cheap… we share and you pay for me. We’ll get very cheap, please dada”. Confronted by sickening images of a seedy room, a faceless woman and driver sahab at the ready, I guess my incredulity masked my disgust, because the man just kept insisting, almost pleading. But for what? Money? Cheap sex? Or was this a set-up?

I was guarded. Driver sahab was quiet, almost morose. “AIDS maloom hai?” Still quiet. Finally, Linton street. He slowed down and turned back “agar ladka mang…” “Arre nahin mangta… don’t you get it?” I had had enough. He obviously hadn’t… “Main bhi karta hai dada. Kisiko darkar ho…if anyone wants…” This man made me sick and he just wouldn’t stop. Fortunately, we were minutes away from my destination. What made him so desperate? Didn’t he make enough driving passengers that he had to work the streets as a pimp and a gigolo? He was quiet. We reached Shakti mama’s house. He stopped the car. I got down and walked up to the old Ambassador’s front door. “You should know about AIDS… poochhna”. “Maloom dada. I know. I’ve been doing this for some years now… pass se jaani.” He spat on the pavement, took the fare and then slammed the door shut. “But it doesn’t matter… not to me. Amaar bachha choto dada… kids are small. They are growing… and I don’t have time. I’m all they have… I need the money. I don’t have time.. ekdum nei.” He turned away, pushed the car in gear and sped away. I turned to leave and was almost about to step on the dark spittle on the pavement. Barely avoiding it, I suddenly realised that the man did not have any paan in his mouth. I looked up, but the tail lights had long disappeared. I wish I had given the man some more money.

Carnal Capital

It’s just not the Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge that give the City of Joy its colour. Sonagachi, once the home of the mistresses of the Bengali babus, today is notorious as the largest red-light area of the city. With over 2.3 million prostitutes in India, about 10,000 of them thrive in the several multi-storied brothels of Sonagachi. Most of them were brought in from Nepal and Bangladesh and shockingly, about 15% of them happen to be minors. Illegal immigrants in India, there is no way of stopping these hapless children from being pushed into this abyss.

In countries where prostitution is legal, there is no coercion and the use of condoms is mandatory. As a result, less than 10% prostitutes are victims of HIV/AIDS and have access to legal protection in the face of exploitation by pimps and clients. But in India, where the practice is deemed illegal, without protection from the law, these purveyors of the oldest profession in the world are exposed to brutal exploitation, violent coercion and a virulent virus. Nearly half of India’s prostitutes are HIV positive, and without legal legitimacy, both their numbers and the numbers of those infected will continue to grow.