Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Legacies cut both ways

Ghiyasuddin was an odd sort. Over 6 feet tall, and wiry, his hazel-green eyes bore into me as he approached. His sun-burnt, pock- marked face, the luxuriant henna-dyed whiskers and that aquiline nose were not rare amongst the tribes in the Alwar region. But those smouldering eyes burning with defiant pride would’ve done justice to a king clapped in irons.

I had returned to Sariska because a contact had promised a rendezvous with an ex-poacher. So there I was, sitting on a cold stone seat next to a shack on one of the arterial routes connecting Alwar and Jaipur, sipping a hot-cuppa in the early morning nip, when the towering turbaned figure of Ghiyasuddin, draped in white, blocked out the sun as he stood before me.

However, as far as poachers go, Ghiyasuddin turned out to be a disappointment. The big man, in his 50s, claimed to have only hunted deer and birds for the pot, and no, he hadn’t ever poached a tiger or a leopard. Perhaps he was afraid to divulge more. I assured him that he wouldn’t get into trouble because I wasn’t interested as much in the poacher as I was in the circumstances that fashioned one. Ghiyasuddin shook his head and right hand in rhythm rather impatiently. “Nahin huzur, I wouldn’t do it. Nor would I let anyone, if I could help it. We’re traditional shikaris, huzur… our community would disown us for hunting the cats… they’re hunters like us. Hamari purkhein yuz aur baaz se shikar karte the… unhe kaise maar sakte hain?” Yuz? Baaz? By baaz, he must’ve meant hawks. I gestured as a falconer would and he nodded… but what’s a yuz? Sher jaisa, kutte jaisa, chitkabra sa, huzur… woh hai yuz!” What was he talking about? A hyena? ‘Lakkadbagha?’, I asked. He shook his head, with that typical Ghiyasuddin impatience “Lakkadbagha nahin huzur, it can’t even run, while the yuz would fly.” Fly? Was it a bird? Didn’t he say it was like a tiger and a dog… and then it dawned on me… Could he possibly be talking about.. oh he must be.. what else could it be…? I asked if it was still found in these parts. “Ab kahan… sab khatam ho gaye… the forest’s big… hone ko ek aad ho sakta hain; umr beet gaye, na dekha na suna… they’re gone for good.” Ghiyasuddin could’ve only been talking about one animal – the Cheetah.

In the 1950s, somewhere in the great plains of India, the last wild Cheetah had sprinted his last. Since then, the word cheetah had come to mean that other great spotted cat, the leopard. Therefore Ghyas’ people used the Persian word yuz to describe the animal. I’d been digging for coal but had found a diamond instead. Ghiyasuddin was from a long line of shikaris skilled in the most aristocratic of kingly pursuits – the sport of coursing game with falcons, an animal Ghyas called the siyagoosh (which I later came to know is Persian for the desert lynx), and of course the cheetah.

Ghyasuddin was still a young man when government legislation put an end to the wanton decimation of wild game in the name of sport. Ghyas lamented that it was this legislation that destroyed the great sport of coursing and also caused the extinction of the big cat because until then, as far as he could remember, there were always about a dozen cheetahs on the princely estates in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan where his fathers and uncles worked as cheetah trainers. But Ghyas was wrong. In all probability, it was this very sport that caused the extinction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India.

The cheetah isn’t as feisty as the other big cats and therefore was easy to tame. Record of the first cheetah being tamed in India goes back more than 2,000 years. With the advent of the Mughals the sport reached its zenith. Thousands of these graceful animals were trapped in the wild, tamed and trained by highly skilled hereditary trainers like Ghyas’ forefathers (see slip stream). Once trained, these cheetahs would be taken to the grasslands on bullock carts (and eventually, jeeps), and once in sight of their quarry (blackbucks and chinkara) would be let lose for a spectacular chase that often resulted in a kill. The trainers and owners took good care of their prized coursers but there was one problem; these shy animals just wouldn’t breed in captivity. Slowly their numbers declined.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, India’s population exploded manifold and the great wild plains got cut up into farms and towns. Turned out of home and hearth, the last few cheetahs were either shot and speared by British trophy hunters or farmers who had lost livestock to the hungry cats, or just starved to death. “Then where did those cheetahs come from?” Ghyasuddin retorted, “Aapki baat bahut pehle ki hai... My people had been working with Nawabs and Rajahs and their cheetahs till about 30 years ago?” ‘African Cheetahs, Ghyasbhai!’ These princely estates used to import African cheetahs for you to train and for your masters to course with… when the government banned coursing, they stopped importing… Ghyas was stunned. He shook his head and hand impatiently, but this time he had closed his eyes. Those embers had lost their fierce glow. That look on his face reminded me of Othello - a man who had killed that which he loved most, and did not even realise it until it was too late. Ghyas got up, still shaking his head. Whether it was disbelief or defiance, I’ll never know. I called out to him, but he kept walking… the sun was stronger now, but the tall figure walking away from me had wrapped his head and shoulders in a blanket, perhaps to muffle the sound of my voice as I called out to him; or perhaps he was trying to muffle the sounds in his own head… They always hurt the most, the sounds in our own head.

Not fast enough?

Watching a cheetah chase its game is one of the most awe-inducing sights in nature. Those stretching-out-of-frame strides, that vital tail seemingly with a mind of its own and the sheer acceleration that can turn the red Ferrari green… Now imagine this fastest animal on land tethered to a leash, or with a hood on it. That’s right. Cheetahs are known to have been tamed and trained for hunting purposes, more specifically known as coursing, from Africa to Asia. The earliest records mention the pharaohs who kept these cats for pets in symbolic deference to their cheetah-goddess Mafdet.

In India, the Mughals had a particular penchant for game hunting with cheetahs. Emperor Akbar is believed to have housed upto a thousand of these cats at one time. However, using cheetahs as an aid to hunting finds mention as early back as in Manasollasa, an ancient Sanskrit text. Trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature (India) and author Divyabhanusinh Chavda, in his book The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, mentions a treatise called Saidnaniah-i-Nigarin put together by the master of the stable (risaldar) in the administration of Sawai Maharaja Ranjore Singh, that chronicles the details of the royal activity, including catching the cats to training and treating their ailments.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Hitch before ‘the Hitch’ – story I

Chee (definitely not short for Cheesy) is 27, and one of the sweetest and prettiest people I know. Pea (short for who knows what) is 26; tall and well built with a smelly-as-old-socks kinda locker room humour. And both their lives are as barren as a grain of sand. There’s a difference though… Choosy Chee’s life is like a grain of sand from the parched Sahara, where no one goes and er… no one comes. Most of the men in her universe might be grovelling at her feet but she usually looks at them the way you might at dead flies caught in a restaurant’s bug zapper… with a mixture of pity and disgust. Chee just isn’t happy with what she has and doesn’t know how to get what she wants… her problem? She’s the right course in the wrong restaurant …

On the other hand, Pea has the opposite problem. His life is like a grain of sand from a beach, often flooded and at times crowded, but barren nevertheless, because neither the waters, nor the people ever stay back… and yeah, he does get trod upon a fair bit too. His problem? He is looking at the wrong course in the right restaurant… Allow me to explain. I believe that as far as compatibility in relationships is concerned, people are like meal-courses, and if you get greedy or cheap and don’t order the right course, you’ll either throw up (fall out) or have to live with chronic dysentery (a bad painful marriage) all your life.

Here’s how this works… Chee’s always been a ‘good girl’. She knew the rules, studied hard, did the ‘right’ things, returned home before dark and didn’t get stoned. People liked her and she stayed out of trouble; she was giving and caring and found a similar guy who’s reliable at home and work. Nothing could go wrong with her life. Now that’s a simple, uncomplicated one-course person – not too many layers, nothing unpredictable and her whole life smells of wholesome goodness. So, what went wrong? Well, it’s that monster that waylays every relationship – evolution. Of course, its old hat that partners in a relationship evolve, at different paces, in different directions. If partners remain sensitive to each other, they feel the tug as they pull in different directions and get back to some amorous CPR to fortify the bond. But usually, the bonds break even before we realise that we’ve drifted away.

Chee and her ex suffered the same fate. She met some people at work who she had nothing in common with. She was thrown together in a team with these seven-course, multi layered, super complicated people who she’d perhaps have never said more than a ‘hello’ to if they didn’t have to work together. Given time and human nature, they became good friends. One of her colleagues, let’s call him ‘The Rajput’, is a real dasher. He loves trekking, riding and women, and if nothing else, is brilliant at talking about them, with a smile that could charm Medusa. And so what if he can’t sing; he sure can cook. Now I’ve got to admit, while single-course guys, like Chee’s ex, lets call him pizza’, are reliable and caring individuals, they just can’t match these multi course exotic platters like our ‘Rajput’ in terms of charisma and persona.

Chee too was swept off her feet by the man’s wit and charm. Her good old Pizza now seemed bland and boring. Soon enough, they broke up. Nothing happened between her and The Rajput though. He was happily married to another multi-course platter. Chee came across other seven-course dazzlers though, but couldn’t hang on to these broncos. They were too wild, too complicated, too unpredictable. Little Chee can’t figure out where she went wrong. While Chee is a real person, I’m sure we all know someone like her, maybe in the next cubicle, maybe across the dining table, maybe you see her in the mirror everyday. Here’s what you can do if you’re like…

Chee: Ma’am, you might read up books which promise to help you ‘find the one you want’, but that isn’t your problem. Your problem is hanging on to that one and that, if he is a multi-course charmer, while you remain a single course, uncomplicated angel, is virtually impossible. Multi-coursers like complications. They need to pray at the altar of a demanding goddess in order to feel fulfilled every day. But you, if you don’t mind my saying so, are a tad too simple. He’ll get bored and you’ll tire of keeping up with him. Your options? You’ve got two. A) You’re a wonderful as you are. Around you, there are great single-course guys, both sincere and giving (virtues you embody) and all you have to do is open your eyes to them and you’ll see them… waiting. B) If you’re smitten by the multi-course bug and can’t resist the magnetic charms of their undeniably exciting world view, you’ll have to change, and that’ll take work. You need to change your value system and really ‘step out’. Make it a point to constantly challenge yourself with new experiences. It could take years and as you gain new attributes, you might lose all that you hold dear today. Reinvention demands both surrender and sacrifice – it wouldn’t be easy; it mightn’t even be right, but hey, follow your heart, and I’ll wish you luck. Chee’s Pizza: Feel sorry for you, buddy. You’ve did nothing wrong but yes, you should’ve felt the tug when she started drifting away. You have the same options too – remain true to who you are and give up on love, for now, but do make a conscious effort to keep evolving (as against drifting) along the planes of your uncomplicated single-course psyche. Or, you too could follow Chee and hopefully find your feet in multi-course country.

The Rajput and his ilk: Tread carefully! Don’t promise more than you can deliver in such a relationship. Once sure of your mutual incompatibility, warn her off and be honest. She’ll thank you for saving her a heartbreak and you would’ve won a friend for life.

Next week, our friend Pea will have his moment in the sun...

The slip stream

Relationship Rescue

To maintain and nurture a relationship is hard work, and sometimes it’s made harder by the fact that men and women communicate in different ways. For example during a crisis in their lives men withdraw into their shell and try to think of a way out - the classic case of ‘retreating to their cave’. As for women when they face a crisis, their response is to talk it out with their friends; they find comfort when someone acknowledges their problems. These words are John Gray’s, author of the best selling Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Written in 1992, this book has been the grand daddy of all relationship counseling books which view men and women from different prisms. A tidal wave of follow up books from different authors have followed, most notably, Why Men Lie and Women Cry from Allan and Barbara Pease and relatively recently, Love Smart from Dr. Phil McGraw. Their advice may vary but one thing remains the same, most relationships can be saved if both of partners are willing to work hard on it, with honesty and passion


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Making sense of sensibilities

Driving out of the city today, past little post-monsoonal streams that run along our highways, you’ll see bouquets of silver tufts of Kash, erupting from the moist earth, heralding that glorious half-week of Durga Pujo that keeps the withering Bengali in the Probashi alive. The other day, while driving back from the mountains, these flowers, swaying to a silent music, like an orchestra conducted by the ministrations of the wind, drew me back to last year’s ‘pujo’ where I met old friends in New Delhi’s Bengali ghetto of CR Park.

It was a Saptami afternoon and the ‘pandal’ was quiet. The ‘bhog’ over, the hitherto bustling pandal wore a look of contented slumber… My friends, the characters of this account, are all living separate lives now. But whenever the Kash flower blossoms, we become children again... Aar, a Jaat who’s participated in Durga Pujas all his life, is a Major now, who until recently was ducking bullets along the LOC (Can’t imagine that lamb in wolf’s clothing firing any). Aay’s a journalist with a Bengali weekly, and an intellectual snob (Yes, a pseudo intellectual snob, but let only that bong who claims not to be one cast the first stone); Bee’s a writer (Calls himself a poet, which explains why he lives off the pocket money he gets from his wife); Tee is a professor of something complicated and self important in a southern university (He actually wanted to bowl fast for India. Of how he ended up hurling theorems at unsuspecting students instead of bouncers at hapless batsmen, he has no idea). Then there’s me - your Greek Chorus, if you will…

Aay: See that Durga idol... that’s ekchala (single frame). Just got back from Kumhartuli, the Grand Vatican for idol makers. Those fellas have strong opinions. To make ends meet, they’ve often deviated from tradition and made idols where the asura has Osama’s face, but they hate it. They prefer the traditional ekchala idols. And one of them, Nimai, just railed off against our Fida sahab (he means MF Hussain; told you... he’s a snob)… said his paintings insulted Maa Durga. The idols in his workshop were semi-finished, without a stitch on them. So I asked …‘you’ll clothe them now and he didn’t, but there are ancient temples around the country with our gods in the nude. So what?’. Nimai was unmoved. ‘This is an art I’ve learnt from my forefathers, with bhakti. But that man has no right… let him paint his own gods if he wants to…’ baap rey baap…

Aar: He’s right! I don’t care if every temple in this country has nude idols. Let Hussain attempt painting his own God and his Prophet in the same manner before attempting to paint our deities… But he knows he can’t. I’ve seen his paintings on the net. He’s painted the Prophet’s daughter and there is such a stark difference between the conservative dignity of her image and the naked abandon of ones like Maa Durga’s (hmm… our lamb had grown teeth). You know how Muslims around the world reacted to Hazrat Muhammad’s cartoons… But we... we just get taken for granted…

Tee: Hang on, there’s a difference… (Did I forget to mention, Tee’s a real intellectual and a Muslim, a Bengali Muslim). There’s a difference in objectives to begin with. The cartoons were insensitive and designed to incite the community. There’s a historical precedent to the portrayal of Hindu deities in various styles but Islam forbids any images of the Prophet, and these cartoons weren’t even in good taste…

Aar: Tee, you can’t possibly be defending all that violence that followed. Why should a man in Nigeria have to die for a cartoon drawn in Scandinavia? You don’t need a sense of humour to see this… just be logical…

Tee: I’m not defending those who indulged in arson and violence in different parts of the world. They perhaps hadn’t even seen the offending cartoons. It was done to bait Muslims, and many naïve and ignorant individuals fell in the trap. They obviously weren’t being rational. But Hussain’s paintings are different… it is artistic expression and you can’t straitjacket that within narrow religio-political interpretations…

Bee: Fine, but then what about the Satanic Verses? Wasn’t that an example of artistic expression too?

Tee: I haven’t read the book... but it was the work of an eccentric who ridicules everything! To take him that seriously was a mistake. Hussain though must’ve made his paintings out of reverence rather than to ridicule....

Aay: How can…

Bee (He raises his voice to speak and we become quiet. Except for his wife, everybody listens when Bee speaks): Tee’s got a point! It doesn’t make sense to react to artistic expression of any sort, irrespective of intent, with any sort of vandalism. Sexual symbology, from the Shiva lingas in our temples to Krishna’s love play in the “Gita Govindam” and Vidyapati’s “Padavali”, has been characteristic of Hindu mythology.

That’s our heritage. Whoever argues otherwise is actually confusing borrowed Victorian prudery with the real essence of Hindutva. And does it matter if a Christian’s depiction of Islam or a Muslim’s depiction of Hinduism, or a Hindu’s depiction of Christianity (like in Chandramohan’s paintings) goes against the grain of the faith? Even if artistic expression does go wrong, it can’t affect faiths that have survived centuries. It is we who need God to protect us, and not vice versa. In civil society, art should only be condemned and criticised through art. But to vandalise is to confess to one’s insecurities and lack of intellectual ability…

(Dan-da-dadan-dan… the ‘dhakis’, traditional ‘puja’ drummers, were back. It was time for the evening ‘arati’. Tee jumped forward in his dhoti and took up two heavy earthen lamps and danced to the beat of the drum with Aar taking the other two… they had both been exceptional ‘arati’ dancers and as the rest of us watched along with the appreciative audience, here surely was an artistic expression that no one could complain about)

The slip stream

God knows?!

‘Religious controversy’ has come to be yawn-inducing as much as it proves to be sentiment-stoking, given the alarming regularity of the phrase in the media. Even areas one would imagine to be shielded from radical musings of the fundamentalists are gatecrashed into. Consider these:

Da Vinci Code (2003) : Dan Brown’s fiction novel, essentially a murder mystery with a Harvard symbologist and a cryptographer on the detective trail, finds itself in religious territory with references to Opus Dei as an organization with secret rituals and albino henchmen. Its fact-o-fiction allusions to Jesus Christ’s marital status and his alliance with Mary Magdalene created much furore in the Catholic world apart from great publicity for the book as well as the Tom Hanks-starring movie.

The Bamiyan Buddhas: After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2001, the World Heritage Site of the Bamiyan Buddhas fell to concerted vandalism unleashed by the new rulers of the state, declaring the idols and its worship ‘un-Islamic’. Dynamite and artillery fire destroyed the archeological treasures in Bamiyan Valley, ones that had even survived the onslaught of Taimur and Ghazni.

Madonna: Earlier this month, the queen of pop made enough news for her Sweet & Sticky Tour, when she dedicated her ‘Like A Virgin’ song to the Pope. Déjà vu 2006 – the Confessions Tour – when the lady staged a mock crucifixion atop a 20 feet cross wearing a crown of thorns, inviting outrage from church groups across the world. God bless them all…