Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Snowbird’s last dance

Kenshin was lying on the bank, arms stretched out, his knees drawn up. The winter sun was glinting off the metal frame of his aviator glasses and he had a wan smile on his lips. His mud-stained khakis had wisps of golden brown grass sticking to them and he had tipped his khaki hat over his forehead to shield it from the sun. A few feet from his bare feet, the gentle slope of the bank met the water’s marshy edge where a couple of smooth boulders scurried away into the waters at my approach: turtles. On the opposite bank, a sleepy jackal stretched and yawned, unmindful of two tall figures lingering in the shadows, their heads thrown back as they crooned in unison – krooo –kroo- kroo-kroo: a pair of Sarus Cranes, the tallest flying birds in the world. Their song seemed to linger and grow louder as it travelled through the marsh. Kenshin’s smile grew wider.

I sat down next to him and Kenshin rose, still smiling. He was one of the few Japanese tourists I’ve met who spoke fluent English. “Guess I reached Bharatpur too late. I had heard about this wetland paradise while studying at Purdue; the great lakes and marshes, the hundreds of wading birds, storks, herons, ibises, ducks and the gorgeous cranes...all gone now.” So had the smile. He had taken off his sun glasses and hat. His long straight hair was almost uniform grey as were his arched eyebrows as they surveyed the parched landscape. Bharatpur, once one of the most breathtaking wildlife destinations in the world for both tourists and migratory birds, wore a deserted look.

“The ones I miss the most are the snowbirds...When I was in school, my grandfather told me the story of Sadako Sasaki. It’s a very famous story…heard it?” I shook my head. “Sadako Sasaki was perhaps my age. Her family lived in Hiroshima. When she was two years old, The Great War started. When the Americans bombed Hiroshima, Sadako was just about a kilometer away from the site of the bombing. She survived. However, by the time she was 12 years old she was diagnosed with leukaemia due to radiation exposure. Her distraught parents took her to hospital where the doctors gave her only a year to live. One day she received a gift of origami paper cranes.

Someone told her about the legend of the crane, its mythical powers of bestowing health, healing and longevity and that if anybody folded a thousand paper cranes, the person would find both health and happiness. Sadako was determined to fight her way back to health by folding a thousand paper cranes. Having folded her 644th, Sadako asked for some tea and rice. Surrounded by her family, she ate her last meal, lay down and died. In her memory, her friends folded the remaining paper cranes and buried them with her. Sadako’s statue stands at the Genbaku dome, and in her arms sits a golden crane. When I asked my grandfather to show me a picture of this crane which can heal people, he did not show me a picture of our Japanese Red Crowned Crane but of a snow white bird with a red beak…he called it the snow bird. It was the rare Siberian Crane. From that day, I’ve been in love with cranes, most of all with the Siberian. Hoped to see one here…”

I lay down on the grass. The Sarus Cranes, resident birds, were quiet now. I looked up at the sky. In earlier winters, these skies used to be full of flocks of circling birds. And every November, from the skies would descend a flock of white birds, radiant, beautiful, almost mystical... Kinshen’s snowbirds. “They haven’t been here since 2002”, I told him. “They used to fly into India from Siberia, had done so for centuries… but they were killed, brutally hunted every year till the last two died, perhaps killed on their way back…” Kinshen looked sad. “It is bad to kill a crane…brings ill luck, destruction and illness to people who kill cranes on their way home”, he said. “They were hunted and killed in Afghanistan…perhaps the last of them during the War on Terror”. Kinshen smiled a wry smile. He lay down on the grass as well and looked up at the skies. I was hoping that the skies would bring some rain clouds and end the drought in Bharatpur since the government had refused to release water from other sources. (Cranes don’t vote). Kinshen was looking up at the same sky, perhaps hoping that they’ll also bring back the snowbirds.

The sun had slipped into the horizon. The Saruses were calling again. The empty rookeries, the shrinking marsh, and the lonely kroo- kroo… It was time to go…

The slip stream

Feather Dust

The Keoladeo Ghana National Bird Sanctuary, once one of the richest birding destinations in the world and a World Heritage Site since 1985 owes its origins to the Maharaja of Bharatpur who created the wetland in 1890 to pursue his hobby of bird shooting. Today however, the Bharatpur Lake, once flooded with water and to which once gravitated varieties of birds like painted storks, white ibises, open bills, egrets, herons, barely offers any incentive or invitation. Once it attracted tourists and environmentalists with its rich flora and avi-fauna but now lies dry- in the very periphery of death.

Ravaged by drought, the wetland lies barren because water from the canals that could’ve fed the park was redirected to quench votebanks.

Consequently, birds are few and hard to spot. And some, like the Siberian Crane, once a celebrated winter visitor, have disappeared altogether.

Through the efforts of renowned ornithologist Dr Salim Ali, this park had become one of the most significant wetland habitats in the world. But now there are more cattle in the park than the birds that made it famous. The government needs to act fast to save this great natural heritage from becoming yet another glorious relic that lies dead and buried in the pages of history.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sage advice

A n inky blue wave had drowned out the last gleam of light from the winter sky. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped. Maybe I should’ve gone ahead as planned towards Mukundgarh. As I looked outside, between the twin beams of the car’s headlights, I could see a wicker gate and dark walls. To the right, an ancient stepwell, some ruins, and dry, barren fields. There wasn’t a soul in sight for miles. Something about this place had an air of the forbidden. Without a guide, I was lost. I thought of heading back when a movement in the shadows caught my eye. What was that? A part of me didn’t really want to know while a part of me was drawn like a moth to a flame. There... there was that shadow again. I got out of my car and walked to the gate...

The moon was full, the night was still. In the soft light, a low stone wall emerged, windowless, and a small wooden door. Was there a sliver of light flickering at the hinges? No... no I must’ve imagined it... But what was that? There... that shadow again under that tree, beyond the walls... I inched closer towards the foot of the tree. There, right next to a small mound was the figure of a man, facing away from me, sitting on his haunches.

“Bhaisahab, aap yahan rehte hain?” No response. For a moment, I thought of turning back and driving off without looking back but for some stupid impulsive reason, I tapped the figure on the shoulder, half expecting it to keel over. Instead, he turned and looked right at me. Leathery skin, sunken cheeks, and then I saw his eyes – red, bloodshot and glassy.

“Chaunka diya babu!” Whoa! This thing talked. “You startled me,” he continued, “No one comes here at this hour, and I don’t hear very well.” He looked old, perhaps older than his years. He walked away and I followed. He walked up to the tiny door, flung it open and asked me to sit. Inside, there were flames bending and leaping like pagan revellers dancing to a primal beat. Silhouetted against the fire (dhuni, he called it), there was a trident standing tall. For a fleeting moment, I was reminded of Kapala Kundala, and the scene where Nabokumar is lured by the tantric. Sitting by the fire, while we talked, Kishen Lal, for that was his name, offered a glass of milk. Nabokumar forgotten, I drank it with gusto. “Yeh tapobhoomi hai beta. Great sages have meditated here. Under the tree where you found me, lies the great Giri Baba. When he took samadhi, he was buried alive. That was hundreds of years ago but you can still feel his overpowering presence, especially under that tree.”

I asked him what he did and how he got here. “I’m from a nearby village. Used to be a truck driver on the highway, that brought you here. Years ago, I was in a financial mess. My family would’ve been on the streets in weeks. I would’ve lost face and family. I needed money desperately. One night, while driving back, I got really late, was tired and sleepy. I stopped at the stepwell. The ashram was deserted. Too tired to care, I slept under that tree.

That night I dreamt of a tall bearded man who told me to clean the ashram. At dawn, I started sweeping the floors when in one of the rooms I found silver coins, just enough to meet my needs. I had felt the power of this place. I gave up driving and started taking care of this place, serving the wandering sadhus who often stop here to rest. One such sadhu told me that this was once an akhada where great saints used to meditate. And he spoke of Giri Baba, the powerful sadhu of the tree - the one who appeared in my dreams.” And what of his daily bread? “Whenever I need something, I just sweep the floors. I always find something,” he smiled a slow smile. “If you want something beta, don’t hesitate. Ask with a pure heart and you’ll get what you seek within three months. Giri Baba never sends anyone back empty handed.”

I made my wish, and though the old man didn’t ask, left him a 100 rupee note. He’d told a good tale afterall, and he looked too tired to sweep tomorrow. While leaving, he asked me not to take the short cut through the fields. “Giri Baba asked me not to,” he said. “There are unhappy spirits there.” I reached the intersection. The trail on my left led into the barren fields, a shortcut onto the highway to Delhi. On my right, the road cut through Mandawa before heading towards the highway, a good two hours longer. I turned on the stereo and to the strains of Don Williams’ I Believe in You, turned right and headed home.

A godman’s haven

A sadhu’s akhada, a secret world, has aroused the curiosity of Indians and foreigners alike. The akhada, conceptually famous as the abode of the Naga Sadhus- ascetics who move around without a single piece of clothing and with their bodies smeared with ash. These akhadas or mathas were essentially established as centres of learning and initiation for new comers to the world of renunciates. Some of the most powerful akhadas are the Juna akhada with 50,000 sadhus, followed by avahan akhada, and panch agni akhada. Many other akhadas dot some of the remotest corners of the country and offer shelter to travelling monks and are also a platform where devotees can seek blessings from these revered ascetics.

In the early days, sadhus guarded the faith and the faithful, and gradually many of these akhadas evolved into religious power centres. It is a bizarre world, with ascetics practising various forms of austerities to reach enlightenment; some claimto have returned from the mountains after 100 years in meditation! Such is the mystical world of akhadas.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

The elf from not-quite-xanadu

“Can’t go further. I want to go home. Mamma waiting, Monsieur… Arrivederci! Adios! Adios!” My guide was adamant. He threw a fervent glance at the wicker gate, the thornbush fence, and the lengthening shadows crawling across the stepwell. He looked at me, piteously. “Arre, kya hua? Scared?” I asked. “No monsieur, no… it is late, manne jaave dejo!” and with that our guide, all of eight years and 28 inches, jumped off the car and scampered away into the dusty haze. This was a strange place. . .

I had chased the clouds across a clear blue sky, over bumpy roads, past brown fields and blue bulls; and groves of burnt trees that looked like tall, gaunt lepers to reach Shekhawati, a Marwari cultural outpost in western Rajasthan. And why here? Well, to get even. A friend of mine recently returned from Khajuraho and couldn’t stop raving about the ‘sheer’ beauty of its temples and the unashamed cultural self awareness that they exude. But with Khajuraho overbooked, I left for what a little bird insisted was the next best thing – the frescoes of Shekhawati.

If perchance, one such bird happens to whisper the same in your ears, give it a warm smile, and then wring its neck and pluck its feathers till it squeals and confesses that it hasn’t got the foggiest idea because the truth is that Shekhawati has all the beauty and erotic charm of a decomposing corpse. Yes, there are some old havelis, and some beautifully restored ones too, with frescoes on their walls that are typical of the region –warriors, camels, queens and kings – but there is nothing breathtaking or awe inspiring about them. So if you’re going there for its frescoes, don’t bother, and yet go there you must for the little wonders that roam its streets.

Driving into Mandawa, central Shekhawati, I was hailed down by a pint sized waif. “Bonjour Monsieur! You want guide. I guide. I show Shekhawati… in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English… you want?” I couldn’t believe my ears. This little urchin would’ve struggled to dunk a basketball if I had a hoop around my waist; his snotty-nose seemed to have been running for so long that there were moraines etched under his nostrils; (Why didn’t he use a handkerchief? “bizhee, no time have”) and he rattled off the same sales pitch in the remaining languages (yes, yes I do understand a fair smattering of all four). I was stunned, as were a busload of German tourists who’d reached the same spot. This was Laloo, and he was in business straightaway. With all the confidence of a school teacher herding a bunch of kids, that little mite of a boy led the bunch of awestruck Germans into the narrow lanes of Mandawa. I tagged along...

Only to be shunted out - by the scruff of the neck. I had followed the Germans into an old haveli which Laloo promised had some spectacular “golden paintings”. But the caretakers – fair imitations of Hagar and Hilda ‘Horrible!’ – refused to unlock the hidden treasures till I moved out. ‘Hilda’ pointed at me and kept on a diatribe. Laloo, sympathy writ large on his face, urged me to leave. “Only for foreign peoples... she saying...” I should’ve felt what Gandhi felt that fateful day at the train station in South Africa, but then the only ‘revolution’ I’m good at is orbiting around my wife. Miserable, I sat down on a parapet and waited for the group. After sometime, the Germans, trooped out and Laloo came up, and with a sympathetic pat, rattled off some of north India’s choicest expletives in honour of the lady of the house. “No worrying, I show you Kamasutra...” The Kamasutra? Ho-hum, not that I was particularly keen, but now that I’d come all the way...But did he know the Kamasutra? “ Eroteek! I know!!” and with that he gestured, and revealed that the world of birds and the bees held no mysteries for this little devil. Ah, the end of innocence, but whose loss is it anyway? Cutting through the musing, Laloo dragged me by the hand, and took the Germans and me to a haveli, whose walls displayed amorous couples engaged in improbable congresses. Not bad, but no match for Khajuraho. Laloo sensed my disappointment. “No like? I show more... in Mukundgarh.” Oh well, but since I’d come all the way... So leaving the Germans behind, we drove towards Mukundgarh. En route, next to the highway, I saw a stepwell, and a wicker gate. It was dusk, and in the failing light, I could make out the contours of some old ruins... I stopped the car. This place almost called out to me, but Laloo looked nervous...

“Mamma..! Mamma waiting, Monsieur. I want to go home...” But hey, that’s another story...

The slip stream

Painted History

The tradition of fresco paintings goes back a long way, the oldest known fresco has been found in the island of Crete, dated to around 1500 B.C.

The art of fresco painting involves using natural pigments to paint walls and ceilings. The trick is to make a smooth batter of limestone, prepared in such a way that it takes about three or four days to set and dry, and during this time the painting is completed. This technique ensures longevity and makes sure that the natural colours come out fully. In India the oldest fresco paintings date back to around 200 B.C., found in the caves of Ajanta, these depict the life of Lord Buddha, as told in the Jataka Tales. Another example of fresco paintings in India are the ones found in the Brihadisvara temple, in 1931. Said to be commissioned around 1100 A.D. by the Chola dynasty, they were painted over when the Nayak dynasty came to power. From Shekhawati to the Sinai, frescoes remain as beautiful, emblematic witnesses to history and by preserving them, we retain a fragment of our past.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Journeys into other worlds

Amar and I were returning from an assignment in the old corner of the city. It was a bitterly cold December night. Must’ve been about two in the morning and the narrow roads of Old Delhi wore a deserted look. A gentle mist floated in like a shy apparition. Other than blinking traffic lights and a snoring Amar in the passenger seat, the city seemed devoid of any signs of life. Lost in thought on these unfamiliar roads, soon I was lost indeed. I drove around in circles, past shanty hovels, shuttered shops, and sleeping clusters of ‘pavement people’, bundled up in rags and blankets, but not a soul stirred; no signs to follow, no passersby to ask… And then I saw the gate – black and spiked; a shadow moved. I stopped the car; ran to the gate, hoping to find someone I could ask directions of. I knocked on the iron gates. “Koi hai?... Koi Hai??” but there was no response. I stepped back from the gates and picked the details on it. An embossed cross; above it a sign in black but rust had eaten away at the paint. Brushing aside a mild uneasiness, I tried to peer inside. Squeezing an eye and half a nose into the narrow gap between the gate and the wall, I looked inside. As my eyes got used to the darkness, I saw the shape of a cross, then another, and another; they were everywhere, scores of them, maybe more in the shadows… This was a burial ground! Spooked, I felt a slight chill run down the back of my neck. I made a conscious effort not to run back to the car in order not to look foolish and was walking towards it when I spied a man sitting next to a handcart further down the lane… Recent events having exorcised my sense of adventure, I felt it was prudent to not leave poor, unsuspecting Amar dozing in the car and so I woke him up. Together, we entered the dark narrow lane and found our man – a paranthawala. Famished, we thought of sampling his wares before asking him for directions. As we started eating, our paranthawala started talking…

“This graveyard’s very old, sahab. The oldest graves are of soldiers who died during the revolt of 1857”, said the paranthawala. “People see strange things here. A woman in flowing whites carrying a child in her arms has often been seen on the rooftops of houses in this area (called the Christian Colony). Others have seen a headless horseman cradling his head in the wee hours before dawn while some have seen a little child carrying a small coffin who disappears when called.” He was old; high cheekbones, small eyes; with just a tooth to show when he grinned. “Ever seen anything?” Amar asked. “The place where we’re standing is a part of the graveyard. There are graves all around, under your very feet. Everybody here has a story,” he said, motioning us to follow him, and we did, into a maze of lanes, up a narrow staircase, so dark that we had to feel our way through. We reached a landing but ‘one tooth’ was nowhere to be seen. “Where did he go?” asked Amar. “Dunno! Just disappeared!” “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Well, in my shoes, wouldn’t you too?

Just then we heard a voice “Ooper aajao sahib!” We looked up and wondered ‘how much ooper he had in mind’. He had hauled himself up to the roof and wanted us to join him. Once there he showed us where he’d been sleeping when he heard some noise and was woken up by the sound of footsteps. He woke up to see the same woman in white walk past him and jump off the roof. I asked what happened next. He just pointed towards the ledge. We walked up to the ledge, and there below us was the old cemetery. A low, heavy mist hung over the graves and around the gnarled old, trees. “Torn between fear and curiosity, I followed the woman to the ledge. When I looked down, I saw her again… walking along the graves. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” Looking down at the graveyard that night, it did not seem all that impossible a story. We turned back from the ledge but he had disappeared. Neither of us heard him leave. Though we had our backs to him, he had just been talking to us. Where did he go? I looked back at the graveyard, half expecting to see him drift into the mist and the tombs… when he called out “Neeche hoon sahab, aap aajana…”


Final resting places of the dead are often a cause of unrest for the living. The Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois, for instance.

Abandoned now, it was put to ‘posthumous’ purpose in the 1840s and saw its last burial in 1989. In news also for large-scale vandalism, the site is believed to be one of the most haunted graveyards on the planet with reported sightings of walking houses, a two-headed man, flying lights and, of course, the staple women in white. Set to effect in the woods, the Grove is now also bedeviled by the litter left behind by visitors.

Leftovers are however welcome at a burial ground in Gaya, Bihar, where the ghost of an English soldier is reported to hold a particular fondness for tea and biscuits. The residents, claiming to have even been accosted by his apparition demanding snacks, are used to leaving cookies and cakes for the dead man at his grave.

Snacking for the living, however, is possible at a graveyard-turned-restaurant in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. At the New Lucky Cafe, tables are laid amidst painted and decorated graves, where guests make themselves comfortable over the bodies of the dead. No, there’s no flesh on the menu!