Thursday, December 24, 2009


Twenty years ago, I was in ninth grade and quite a loser. I lived in a dream world that I’d doodle in my notebook while the chemistry teacher spoke of Mendeleef and his termite ridden table. It kept me happy but the teacher, who wouldn’t know the Mona Lisa from the Tower of Pisa unless they had valencies, refused to recognise the genius in the runny-nosed maestro before her and routinely banished me to the ‘wall of shame’. I must’ve been okay with a paintbrush in those days because of all the certificates at home but I never heard a word of encouragement from anybody in school, simply because the subjects I enjoyed like ‘art’ or ‘Bible history’ or ‘GK’ were given about as much respect as Jews in concentration camps. But I don’t blame the school. I guess the times were such…

So in this climate of darkness and dismay, my parents and I left for Jabalpur to visit an aunt that summer. There, I met this group of young people in the neighbourhood. There were a couple of boys, younger than me, three girls, about my age and then these two sisters, eighteen and sixteen year old angels… None of them ‘knew’ that I was a loser. Here, I could be whoever I wanted to be. Afternoons and evenings were spent playing ‘four corners’ and after dinner I’d just sit and hear the two girls talk. Until now, I had never known that the world was home to such divine creatures… I was in raptures. I had never felt this about anyone at school but here for the first time, wanted them to like me.

One day I heard one say to the other… “V didi, why do you like Sanju bhaiya so much? He’s handsome but talks a lot…”

“Renu, you should see him playing cricket. When he is batting, the crowd asks him to hit a six, and he does… just like that… I love him… Wish he was a fast bowler like Imran Khan, but as long as he’s playing cricket, I’m happy.” Then she looked at me and asked “Do you play cricket in Delhi?” Well, I was only allowed to field and bowl while the grownup kids batted, but I heard myself say, “Yes I do… I play for my school too,” I lied. “Really? What do you do?” she asked. “I’m a fast bowler, V didi,” I said, and then added “like Imran Khan…” She rolled her eyes, pulled my cheeks and laughed and said “theek hai, I’ll ask Sanju to organise a match and you could play with them.”

Matchday, and I was nervous. I liked drawing. But I did it for myself, without caring for opinions. Exams I believed I was destined to be poor at and never tried to prove otherwise, to myself or to others. Marks, passing, failing just happened. But here, for once, I wanted to be good at something because I wanted others to acknowledge that I too mattered. I ran in and bowled as fast as I could, working harder than I ever had in all my young life. And whaddya know… Sanju bhaiya wasn’t so hot after all… he tonked me around but then I surprised both of us and slipped one through which was too quick for him… it missed the stumps. I didn’t get his wicket but I did have his respect. He was quite sweet actually. Afterwards, both V and Sanju promised to come to Delhi and see me play for my school.

‘Ei moreychey’, how do I get out of this one? I really wanted to see V again but forget the school team, I wasn’t even in contention for the class team. Once in Delhi, I toiled to make it to the school team, and I did… The first time someone picked me for a team was the first time I felt wanted by people beyond family. Suddenly, I was a boy with ambitions. Finally, I understood what confidence meant, what it meant for people to have expectations and for me to live up to them. Success, howsoever minor, woke me up, to things around me, inside me.

That feeling of being wanted, wanting to be liked and being appreciated rubbed off on other aspects of life and except for Mendeleef and Pythagoras, I found most other acquaintances in school, and life, rather agreeable, eventually…

It didn’t matter that I never met V again. And it didn’t matter that I never played for India. What mattered was that long ago that summer day in Jabalpur, I had taken my first step towards self discovery.

We all have ‘gift s’, and gift s whether academic, sporting or artistic, are not necessarily meant to end up as careers. Some are just meant to help us reach out to the world and say ‘I exist’. Perhaps you and I were lucky to find ours but if you know a ‘loser’, then do pull his cheeks and make him feel special, for oft en that is all a child needs to really become special...


Thursday, December 17, 2009


I was sitting at a street-side café outside the train station in Geneva, waiting for my train to Salzburg and thumbing through a dog-eared copy of Fodor’s Europe on a Shoestring when I heard a female voice, “I don’t care if this doesn’t look like Switzerland. Austria se nikal ke any place is paradise…”. I turned around and saw a sprightly young lady with frizzy hair that looked like a bunch of spring coils. With her was a tall young man, who also seemed to be from the sub-continent. He looked at me and I smiled. He smiled back. The girl whipped around and waved. I waved and invited them to join us at our table. They were both in business suits and seemed to be heading for a meeting…

We introduced ourselves and took our seats. The two of them were colleagues on a business trip and had just reached Geneva after wrapping up a few meetings in various Austrian cities. And since I was heading that way and had never been there earlier I was naturally curious to know what they made of what I had heard was a spectacularly scenic country.

“Don’t go there!” said Anubha. She, and her colleague Ismail, work with a training and development firm in India and were traveling through Austria, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany, meeting clients. “Don’t go there because that place looks like heaven but feels like hell! I’m glad we took the first train out as soon as we could… I couldn’t wait to get out of there”. Anubha spoke with a lot of animation, her head bobbing and shaking, emphasising her intonations. The coiled spring set on her head shook in rhythm and I was surprised not to hear them jangle. She didn’t look like she needed a train to go anywhere. All one had to do was point her in the general direction of her destination, press her head to the wall, hold her there for a moment, get out of the way and then let her go…

But Anubha spoke with authority and erudition and gradually her voice drew me away from speculations about her preferred means of locomotion… “We were in Innsbruck. It is a beautiful place with sloping roads, cobbled squares and mountain vistas, but what do you do… the *@$# #@*## Austrians do all they can to make you forget all that is good and ensure that you remember only the bad and the ugly”. This girl was seething… it must be all that smoke from her ears that must’ve gotten her hair to be that way… she downed a glass of juice and asked “you have some trace of dignity in you, right?” I nodded feebly… while she rattled on “So what if you are a few shades darker than me (which I was)… does it give me the right to humiliate you and feel superior to you?” There was a pregnant pause, and for a brief flickering moment I thought I saw her toying with the prospect, before insisting “No it doesn’t! ...but who’ll explain that to the Austrians and who’ll tell them that it’s been half a century since the Third Reich fell” Ismail, who’d been quiet until now interjected, “But Anubha, it really isn’t about colour alone…” He turned to me, “I’ll tell you what happened. We were walking along some nondescript ‘strasse’ in Innsbruck and suddenly this group of teenaged boys, perhaps no older than 16 started barking at us. We dismissed it as just a disturbed bunch of youngsters with a dysfunctional sense of humour. But the next day, in a busy market square, there was this group of slightly older boys, all skinheads, screaming at us in German and then as we got closer, they shouted ‘Paki go back! Paki go back!!’ I was shocked and Anubha was scared. In fact she was shaking like a leaf for an hour after that incident. We would walk into restaurants and hotels and people would smile at us and it would all seem fine but every now and then you would feel that behind our backs they were sniggering at us. It was unreal… ”

I was shocked. Modern day Europe, as a continental community, had always struck me as the most law abiding, just, racially sensitive and egalitarian people on the face of the planet. Their history of colonialism, intense nationalism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and the centuries of violence fuelled by these deep dark emotions, culminating in the near apocalyptic World Wars had taught them vital lessons in humility and tolerance. This new found respect for peace and diversity has led to most of Europe voluntarily surrendering a fair degree of its sovereignty and congregating as one economy under the aegis of the European Union. Squabbling neighbours had turned into partners for progress. These nations are amongst the first to mediate when wars break out, the first to offer humanitarian assistance when Nature strikes. I had experienced racial discrimination in Europe earlier but it had always been subtle and an isolated incident, frowned upon by others in the community. I was surprised and I said so…

“Why should you be surprised?” chimed Anubha. “Austria is the country where Adolf Hitler was born. It is a country which has always been notoriously anti-Semitic and xenophobic, long before the Holocaust.And Hitler, the Austria born German might have walked out on the country of his birth and returned only to conquer it, but even long after his death, while every Christian in Europe looks upon the dictator’s legacy as a shameful stain on the face of Europe, Austria still holds on to those hateful ideals by backing extreme right wing parties… parties that would be banned in Germany today… parties uncannily similar to Hitler’s Nazi party in terms of original ideology. And Ismail, what is that chap’s name… The Nazi President? ” I turned to look at Ismail… “Kurt… Kurt Waldheim. This man was born in a village near Vienna and after Hitler’s army annexed Austria, he joined the Nazis and while he denied being party to any of the crimes of that time, thousands of Jews from areas in his jurisdiction were sent to the death camps of Auschwitz. And after the war, while Nazi officers and party members all over Europe were being tried for war crimes, this man became the President of Austria. His blatant anti-Semitism even stopped him from condemning the heinous murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. So in a country which has celebrated the murder of innocents, should we really be complaining about a couple of catcalls?”

What about local authorities and the police? Couldn’t you have reported these guys? “The police are Austrians too aren’t they?” said Anubha. “In fact I’m glad the police didn’t show up. Otherwise our scars might not have been emotional ones alone.” It turns out that since 2003, a couple of African men have been beaten up and killed by the police. One of them, Seibani Wague, a Mauritanian student, was pushed to the ground and crushed under police boots. We all fell silent after that…

It was late. Engrossed in the discussion, I had forgotten about my train to Salzburg. I had missed it. But at least for now, I didn’t really regret it. I exchanged e-mail addresses, paid the bill and left . Austria’s picture postcard beauty surely had more to recommend it than just xenophobic conservatism. But for now everywhere I scratched about Austria, beyond the Mozart memorabilia, all I could find were accounts of Austrian racial intolerance. It has been some years now since that day and I still haven’t been to Austria yet. And I’m yet to meet a traveller from that land of unbridled natural beauty whose tales will draw me to that land again. Wonder what it is about the past that some of us, from the barren mountains of Waziristan to the green valleys around Vienna, from the streets of Harare to the deserts of Darfur, cling to with such passion, such pride and such hate, that it holds us back from embracing the new… or the neighbours…


Thursday, December 10, 2009


Murugun P is a rather unassuming man. Neither tall nor short and of a slim sinewy build, if you saw him walk along the dusty streets of Delhi’s eastern corner, you wouldn’t think he warranted a second look. Other than the fact that his thick moustache, wavy mop and baked bronze looks make him stand out as a slice of southern exotica in this obviously northern, near rural settlement in this area straddling the Delhi-Noida border, there is nothing about the man that at first glance, you might find ‘arresting’. And yet he is a rare treasure to those who’ve known the power of this man’s touch. Murugun is a master practitioner of a dying art and its once grand traditions – the martial art of kalaripayattu.

Long ago, while in junior school, I had chanced upon my neighbour’s stack of Amar Chitra Kathas (ACK). I was so fascinated by the stories of valour and victory in those painted pages that while my friends played through that long summer evening, I sat on a bench in the park and read through that bound volume … I owe my sense of history and mythology to the ACK series and practically all I know of forgotten heroes like Surya Sen, Banda Bahadur and Chhatrasal to this evening with the comics. One of the stories, I remember most distinctly from that day was of a burly man, who fought off countless enemies beating the most impossible odds with his martial skill and by swinging a bladed belt like weapon called the URUMI. It was the tragic story of a Malayali folk hero, Thacholi Othenan, said to be one of the greatest kalaripayattu (‘kalari’ means gymnasium and ‘payattu’ means fight or exercise) practitioners of all time. That was my first introduction to kalaripayattu and its potent powers.

Many years later, I went to see a Kamal Hassan movie called Hindustani. In this film, Senapathy, the main protagonist is an ageing freedom fighter who has taken to providing summary executions to corrupt government officials. The old man uses his martial skill and knowledge of marmaati, a branch of kalaripayattu, to ‘immobilise and neutralise’ his targets. In certain scenes, Senapathy has to merely poke his opponent in the torso for the whole body to go limp… it was almost magical. I wondered, if this was mere cinematic fantasy or did kalaripayattu masters really possess such lethal skills. I was in college then and I went looking for a kalari where I could learn and explore the art but unfortunately, there were none that I could find in Delhi. However, I did find a book, ‘When The Body Is All Eyes’ written by a theatre professor, Phillip Zarilli. This book was an account of the author’s study of the kalaripayattu tradition, history and practice. And in that book, I found an interesting account that lent credence to the ‘touch of death’. Zarilli had witnessed a kalari master catch a large live rooster and gently press a vital spot. Immediately the rooster collapsed, as if dead. And yet, minutes later, the master poked at another point and the rooster jumped back to life, none the worse for wear.

So this wasn’t magic after all. My search for a kalari master continued and even on a trip to Kerala, I asked around and spoke to various organisations about the art and its branches in the north of the country… unfortunately, I couldn’t find any beyond Bangalore. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that kalaripayattu, even in its home state had been reduced to an ornament… beautiful forms practiced for demonstrations and cultural shows, with a very few masters teaching the underlying techniques that made the art such an effective form of self defense. But even the great masters, I was told, were apparently doing their best to smother the spread of the art. Secretive and conservative, these masters are “tradition bound relics of an era that’s long gone and they refuse to part with true knowledge that they’ll take to their graves with them.” Zarilli’s book told of one such who had used this very knowledge of pressure points to heal a boy, the doctors had given up on and yet had used a sari to cover the boy’s body while he worked on it so that no one could see what he was doing… “I will only reveal the secret of one of my students, and that too when I’m on my death bed,” he had told the author.

I first saw Murugun at a demonstration where lean oiled and muscled bodies jumped and battled with swords and sticks and while spectacular to watch, the elaborate movements seemed to be of little use for combat situations. Noting my skepticism, Murugun showed us a few techniques where an unarmed man took on armed assailants and this seemed far more impressive. Later, I asked him, why kalaripayattu was nowhere near as popular as other martial arts. “It is difficult… it has so many aspects. Kalaripayattu is the mother of all martial arts. Bodhidharma took this knowledge to China and from there it spread all over, but you see all the other arts have picked up different aspects of the art and made it simple… so you have Judo picking the joint lock techniques while Kung fu picked the strikes… but kalaripayattu is everything; strikes and locks, weapons and sticks, health and fitness, healing massages an above all, the healing techniques. The same knowledge of pressure points, when used with violent intent, can kill, while when used with goodness in one’s heart, can heal the deadliest of diseases. It is this knowledge that we need to preserve most.”

Murugun, though young, is an acclaimed master in his field and has students from all over the world learning at his kalari. A modest man, he admits that he had to deviate from tradition and dilute the esoteric and the mysterious elements inherent in kalaripayattu and give his students a far more practical and ‘easy to use’ art form in order to popularise it. However, he insists that the methods of the traditional masters are ideal, because the traditional method demands greater discipline and emphasises a sense of duty and discipline. This ensures that when the secrets are revealed to the students, he has the moral strength to use them responsibly. The flip side is that it makes the process too slow, ambiguous and demanding for the majority and most students shift to other, simpler martial arts.

I asked Murugun, like I have asked many other martial artists of an account when they had to use their skills for good effect. Every teacher, I’ve met from every martial art around the world has spoken of a time when the master himself or a student of his has had to use his skills to save his life. And yet Murugun said “A good martial artist, and definitely a good kalari practitioner should never have to fight… if you walk on the right path and are true to the martial way, trouble will avoid you unless you go looking for it. I’ve been living in Delhi for 13 years and never have I been tempted to fight. But I will tell you of a man called Rajkumar who had to be carried in here by two men. He couldn’t walk and he was in a critical state because his body couldn’t pass urine. His doctors were with him and they said they’ll operate on him immediately, unless I could do something about it. I got to work on him and within minutes, he had passed urine and it took me two more days to get him to walk on his own… so much more satisfying than beating up people on the streets, no?” I couldn’t agree more.

After a few demonstrations, sessions and a lot of research, I’ve begun to realise, kalaripayattu is not for everybody, who wants to wear a belt and break bricks. However, it’ll always have its faithful few who’ll keep it alive… and kicking, into eternity…


Thursday, December 3, 2009


Readers who might have stumbled on to this page in the past might have noticed that I regard canines with a certain degree of affection. While a child, I remember going for walks with my grandfather, with a book in my hand… I’d bought it at my school fete with lunch money… it had paintings of dogs of all kinds. I’d trundle behind my grandfather and watch people as they walked past, some with their dogs, and I would try to identify the breed by comparing the specimen to the picture… if confident of a positive match, I’d walk up and ask the owner… “Excuse me uncle, is that a Doberman?” Once when I got it right, the owner bit his lips, his eyes welled over and he nodded… Cinderella could not have nodded with greater emotion when approached by the prince and the glass slipper… perhaps I’d been the only one to notice...

One winter afternoon, while I stood on a string cot, reaching across the wall trying to squirt the juice from an orange peel into my neighbour’s sleeping eyes, just to see if he woke up with a start or a curse, I heard them bark… strays, good friends of mine, barking insistently and incessantly… I dropped the peel into that long gaping yawn my neighbour had embarked upon that very moment and rushed to the gate where I saw a glorious sight… tall, taller than any dog I had seen, with heads held high, walked two massive canines, both elegant and powerful, dwarfing the blonde-haired woman who held their leashes as they walked past… one of the dogs stopped its regal walk and turned its regal head and looking at me straight in the eye, for a moment seemed to ponder… ‘what is this creature, with eyes so wide and a mouth even wider?’ (it is an expression that I was to see later on that pretty little English teacher’s face when she was walking out of class the first day she taught us in that all boys school; and then on my wife-to-be’s face, everyday, as she’d walk past our gate, swinging her pigtails, on her way back from school. She still gives me that look once in a while when she catches me staring at her at some get-together… anyway, back to the dogs)

I rushed back to pick out that book… I flipped through the pages but couldn’t find one that resembled these magnificent creatures. I rushed out of the gate… I couldn’t see the dogs but I could hear the pack of strays… I followed the sound… Ah, there they were, five scruffy curs with hearts of gold but very little steel, considering that they were consistently maintaining a respectable distance from the two towering figures that loped along ahead of them, ignoring the pack’s raucous rancour. I called out “Do they bite?” The owner turned as did the dogs… smiled and shook her head. I walked up and had to almost stand on my toes to reach out and touch the great head of the dog that had looked at me… “What breed are they?” I asked… “Great Danes!” she replied. “Where are they from… they are so tall… so good looking…?” I gushed. “They are from Denmark! And I guess they are just like the Danish people… very tall and very good looking,” she remarked. “I guess dogs and people from the same land look very similar… you see I’m from England and I look like a Bulldog!” Then she scowled like one, laughed, and walked away with those gigantic Danes. “Izzat so?”, I wondered and looked at the mangy mongrels that had gathered around and were wagging their tails and licking my hand, forgetting all about the Great Danes they’d been chasing.

A decade and a half later, I was finally on a plane to the land of the tall and the beautiful – the Danish capital city of Copenhagen. Looking down at a lonely blue-black pool locked in by barren red rocks from the port window of the plane (the map said we were on the Afghan-Iran border) I wondered how it would be… I knew better than to expect to see Great Danes rummaging through the bins and running astray along the streets of Copenhagen (the dogs actually are of German origin; the name had just stuck with them). But, the people? Would they turn out to be the way that Englishwoman from so long ago, and every travel book I’ve read since, has said?

Well, here’s how it went… The immigration officer at Copenhagen airport was an improved version of Burt Reynolds, the female police officer looked like Nicole Kidman, the taxi driver no worse than Nick Nolte and all around me I could see the cast of a host of soaps from Star World. Heck, even the old-timers looked as good as Helen Mirren and Clint Eastwood. Everybody around me was tall, well groomed, stylish, only occasionally garish and impossibly healthy. Danes could have their neighbours as pin-up stars in these parts.

After settling in at the Ascot, I went out for a walk. It was a glorious day in a glorious city. The houses were large and neat, the lawns clean and green and the waterfront that ran alongside the street side cafes had tall masts and expensive sailboats hanging out in the harbour. Walking around Copenhagen was like walking around in a Richard Curtis rom-com where everything was beautiful, no one died and everybody’s rich. Forgive me for over using ‘filmy’ metaphors but there really are no worldly parallels for the perfection that is Denmark in June other than the make-believe of Hollywood or the mythological bliss of Mount Olympus.

Stroget, or ‘pedestrian street’ is a stretch in the heart of the city where cars aren’t allowed. On either side are stores that range from the ‘exclusively designer to the kitschy golden arches and discount stores. But that is not what makes that street so special. On weekends, as you start walking down Stroget, you’ll hear the lilt of a panpipe and a note from the Andean mountains. Turn to look and you’ll see a long-haired Peruvian Indian playing the pipes. Walk a little further and you’ll see a Chinese musician stringing an oriental ballad on his fiddle, then a dread-locked Jamaican drummer belting out his own rhythms while further ahead a Cameroonian dance troupe performs for a crowd. All these musicians from all over the world had descended on this little more than a kilometer long stretch to serenade success and sell a few cds. Further up, magicians and street performers… this was like a modern day European version of the bazaars from the Arabian Nights. I walked on and suddenly the urban sophistication gave way to sylvan splendour… meadows and lakes and stone and brick farmsteads. Led by the vistas, I followed the trail until I found her… There she sat, friendless and forlorn, on a solitary rock by the bay, Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’. This statue is perhaps Copenhagen’s most famous landmark and although a popular tourist haunt, the statue was all by herself this evening, as beautiful and sad as her story.

While returning, I noticed that more than half the city seemed to be commuting on cycles, in lanes meant specifically for cyclists. I had tried cycling to work in Delhi, but climbing flyovers while tailing commercial vehicles belching poison clouds dampened my enthusiasm. But here, it would’ve been such a breeze…

Visibly green by now, I got to know that the Danes only work 37 hours a week. Somebody should tell the Danes to hang a big dirty shoe at the city gates because it is impossible not to envy these ‘shiny happy people’.

It was the month of June and two days into my three-day stay. It was 2100 hours and yet the sun was still glowing in muted glory… I entered a restaurant. Strangers turned, and smiled… I felt welcome. I sat down at a table by the window and gazed at the city as it walked past… Copenhagen was the first stop on a month long tramp through Europe and already, the city had spoilt me. I couldn’t figure out how a once primitive northern corner of Europe that was home to the Vikings could become this living breathing image of picture-postcard perfection. Unable to resist the temptation, I asked this of the Hulk Hogan look-alike who was downing beer by the barrel at the next table. “A balanced perspective!” he said. “Zat perspective made our Viking fathers as good at business and exploration as they were at looting. Ze same perspective ensured that when the Nazis marched in, we surrendered without too much bloodshed and yet managed to save all our Jews, and it is zat which makes Denmark a progressive nation – economically as well as environmentally…” and he went back to his beer.

Thumbing through books about the country, I discovered another interesting balancing act that these great Danes have managed with élan - figuring right at the very top on the lists of both ‘the world’s happiest nations’ and the ‘countries with most suicides’. Now, that’s a balanced perspective if ever there was one… Here’s hoping the world too finds a balanced perspective when it meets in Copenhagen for the climate summit this week.


Thursday, November 26, 2009


‘Shame on humanity!’ read the subject. It was an e-mail from an old friend. ‘Denmark’s shame!’ read another from a colleague. ‘Help save them…’ read yet another e-mail. I opened all three in different windows... It was yet another chain of forwards... And they all had the same set of pictures and common plea that echoed through my inbox… A series of pictures… The first one from a distance showed a cold green valley which had the sea running through it… they call them fjords in Scandinavia. But a stretch of the blue grey waters was stained red… blood red! And there were a few boats drifting along on the crimson waters….

The next photograph was of a rather graphic nature. It was a closer view of the sea harbour… From this angle, the water was the shade of slushy watermelon juice. But this was not a bleeding fruit that lay in the water but a great creature, both powerful and benign, that lay bleeding and gasping in a pool of his blood – a pilot whale. Pilot whales are cetaceans, large aquatic mammals, part of the same family that comprises dolphins and large whales. These sensitive and intelligent creatures are about 20 feet long and weigh as much as an SUV. But these powerful creatures are not aggressive towards people. They are, in fact, friendly and curious… but more of that later.

Pictures number three, four and five opened to macabre scenes of blonde haired burly men, ostensibly from those in their late teens to the early 50s standing in the deep water amongst the whales that were thrashing about in the shallows. Some of them were hauling these whales in with ropes, while others were swinging mean looking metal hooks that caught the whales by their skin and blubber… Once ‘hooked’, the other pictures revealed that they were pulled onto the shore by these hooks and ropes where their dorsal fin and spine was hacked through with a whaling knife. In spite of the coup de grâce with the knife, the whales did not die immediately and oft en it would be minutes before the life ebbed away from that great, but by now chopped up body.

There were more pictures… one showed a butchered female with a calf that was bleeding but alive, its body arching in agony; another had an image of a large whale writhing and apparently screaming in agony while a couple of young men were slashing away at it with sharp hooks and the last one showed the harbour waters again… The water seemed to ripple with agitation as pilot whale tails fl ailed about in the throes of death. Each of these pictures had captions that described the moment and below that was a request by each of the senders who had sent this e-mail personally requesting me, as a conscientious reader and as someone they know to believe has a heart that oft en beats, to sign the petition that followed. The petitions on each of the mails had many hundreds of names, from nations far apart from each other and as distinct in culture as Hong Kong, South Africa and Argentina. They also added that this was an outrage that cannot be allowed to continue… Someone else wrote that these pilot whales are really very friendly and curious, and oft en come near boats to establish contact. That they emit a cry like the sound of a child’s wail when they are struck by the hooks, and that their eyes speak of betrayal.

So is it really true? Are these creatures really that intelligent? Where is this cruel and barbaric act perpetrated? And why were they sending these pictures to people around the world? Well the bit about whales and dolphins treating humans like kindred spirits is actually true. They are amongst the most intelligent of creatures, perhaps as much as the great apes, our closest cousins. There are almost no known cases of a whale or a dolphin attacking a human being without provocation (read whaling ships and harpoons). But there have been umpteen cases of whales and dolphins and porpoises that roam free and wild in our oceans swimming up to boats, canoes and even divers and interacting with them with gentle curiosity, as if aware of how fragile we are when compared to their immense and supremely powerful.
There have been instances of dolphins and small whales, like the pilot whale and the killer whale, (the one from “Free Willy”) saving a child who might have been drowning. There are legends and accounts also of dolphins defending and protecting injured divers from sharks. They just feel a sense of innate kinship which we human beings find difficult to reciprocate.

The e-mail in question, which reached Indians this winter, is actually about a phenomena that takes place every summer in the Faroe Islands (a group of islands that are a part of the kingdom of Denmark). This event is a regulated ritual, a rite of passage if you will, where these whales that are found within a certain distance from land are herded in towards the beach by a ring of boats. Their intelligence and inquisitiveness might work against them and might attract them towards the boats and thus oft en to their deaths. Once in the harbour or ‘beached’, they are then massacred like the photographs I’ve described to you.

And something about this massacre of innocents has riled people from all over the world so they put together a set of pictures, signed their names and sent it around. I too believe that such cruelty has no place or need in a world where we all have plenty to eat without us having to take lives, cruelly and unnecessarily…. And yet here’s my reply to my fellow armchair environmentalists… condemn me if you will but this is the way I felt…

“Dear fellow hypocrites and vultures... I mean we scavenge the dead so that makes us vultures... and now about the bit about being hypocrites....

Carnivores, you have no qualms about animals being reared for you under the most cruel conditions possible, where they grow in squalor and their eyes never see the sun until their chopped heads are displayed on a butcher’s stall... chickens are skinned alive while goats get their legs smashed during transit and bleat through the pain till their necks are slashed and left to bleed... you feel no pain when a lamb thrashes about in pain for your epicurean pleasures but just when it is a dog being cooked in Korea or a whale being slaughtered in Japan or the Faroe Islands, suddenly your conscience wakes up and you find yourself on high moral ground which allows you to preach to the Faroese or the Koreans...

So are some animals more equal than others...?? A little piglet, or a fluffy yellow chick or a lamb does not deserve your compassion because your conditioning makes you immune to their pain, but suddenly you feel the cry of a whale’s agony... SHAME ON YOU TOO!!

We have no right to comment on the meat eating habits of others, while we ourselves gorge on the dead... whether the creature is rare or numerous, wild or domesticated, makes no moral difference, only an academic and ecological one...

That’s why I gave up on meat.


My friends were shocked by that reply, and also I suspect a wee bit embarrassed. Of course I feel that the killing of whales should be stopped, but long ago I had faced the same dilemma. I had given up eating mammal meat after an episode I have mentioned in a previous column but one of the prime reasons was a debate I got into during a trip to Norway. Annika, a whaler’s daughter who also ran the reception at the hotel I was staying in Bergen, was defending her cultural heritage as a proud race of whale hunters. And she said that it was like us eating chicken and goats. I wriggled out of that debate by talking about extinctions etc. but her contention stayed with me. The justification of taking a life had far more to do with ethics and morality and little to do with availability. If I’m ever cornered by destiny on a desert island with a fellow sailor, with nothing to eat, I can’t justifiably kill and eat my fellow castaway, can I? We can strive to escape or die trying but not ever raise a finger on each other in hunger.

I stopped eating all meat from then on because I knew that otherwise, I was being a hypocrite.

I got a solitary reply to my e-mail that said, “let’s do what it takes”. I wrote back saying that we can earn the right to engage the Faroese and make them listen to us only if we stop eating meat ourselves. Otherwise, they’ll only say that it is a question of culture and not ethics and human values... I had no right to eat meat of one sort and condemn others for eating another sort… That just becomes a silly beef or pork debate...

The respondent agreed. Now, instead of a chain mail, we’ll start a campaign that will reach out to Faroese children and show them the joy of sharing this world with whales as well as request the International Whaling Commission for more legislation to protect the whales. Will keep you updated.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


I’m not really in on the ‘chain mail’ and ‘e-mail forwards’ scene. But this week, two friends of mine called and insisted that I must, for once, open their e-mails in my ‘inbox’. “Not the regular stuff!”, “You won’t be disappointed”, This is important”… they sent texts till I gave in, pulled out my wallet and fished for the little strip of brown paper on which I had noted down my password…

“!@#$*”… password entered in, and voila, sitting right on top of a neat pile of unread messages were the two e-mails. I clicked on the first one. It had a link… click! It was a ‘youtube’ video about fur farms in China. If you haven’t seen it, let me take you through it…

The video was apparently shot in secrecy and carries footage from a number of Chinese fur farms where visitors are usually not allowed. China is one of the world’s largest producers of cheap fur that finds itself on trimmings and coats in shopping malls around the world, including perhaps the one in your neighbourhood. The film opens with images of foxes and minks housed in wire cages so tiny that it would make even the act of turning seem like an acrobatic feat; then it zooms in into the eyes of a beautiful animal, a raccoon dog. It is a type of wild dog and looks like a cute little grey and black panda with a tail. It is found in China, and like the mink, is bred in farms for its fur. The animal looks soulfully into the camera. Just then, a hand opens the latch, catches the animal by its tail, and pulls it out. The man holds the animal by its hind legs, swings it up in a manner reminiscent of the washer men at the ‘dhobi ghat’ and brings it down on the hard earth with a sickening thud… the impact smashes the animal’s face and perhaps breaks its neck. A close-up reveals that the animal is still alive as it blinks into the camera… next to it lie other raccoon dogs that had previously received the same treatment. The odd quivering leg or flick of a tail tells you that the body may be broken but is very much alive.

A hand grabs three of these broken animals by their tails and carries them away to a pole where one of them is picked up and one of its hind legs is tied to a loop. There the animal hangs, upside down. The man takes out a big knife, and one is grateful for the fact that the animal has stopped moving… perhaps it is finally dead. The man starts cutting the skin from the leg that was tied and in pain, the poor dog, still very much alive, starts kicking and screaming… unperturbed, the man continues to cut open the skin around the tail and keeps peeling it off with his hands as if he was removing a sweater off a child. The animal continues to struggle, but its strength gives way and by the time the man is pulling the skin off the raccoon dog’s neck and face, it is almost still. The pelt comes off in one piece and the animal, a ghastly naked pink and white with blotches of deep red is pulled off the rope and thrown onto a heap of other pink bodies. Tufts of hair around the paws are all that remain of the soft fur that it once called its own. As the pain-wracked body settles on the heap, the rear leg twitches, and to one’s horror the dog lifts its pink head and looks right at you, through the camera… The eyes look abnormally big on that frightening visage… skinned alive, the head kept lolling as the animal writhed in unimaginable pain for unending minutes.

That wasn’t the end of the video though. Then there was a fox that was taken out of a cage and this time it was clubbed with an iron pipe a couple of times… the skinners didn’t bother to check if the animal was dead and started cutting it up. The fox which had perhaps only been stunned came to his senses and started struggling again. This time the man didn’t bother with the club and just kicked the animals head with his boots and then stood on the animal’s neck. Thick red blood came out in spurts from its nostrils, as others kept working on it with the knife. Another clip showed another fur farm where the animals kept in those cages were domestic dogs, cats and rabbits… the cages were being dropped from the back of a truck and the animals were howling in pain because they were breaking limbs on impact… and then more bludgeoning and ‘skinning alive’ followed. It is not easy for me to write this for the images dance in front of my eyes as I write, and the knowledge that I too might have encouraged these horrid acts through buying decisions only makes it more difficult…

Fur, after a self-conscious hiatus, has returned on garment racks around the world with China leading the way, followed by countries like Russia, France and even India. While the exclusive and expensive mink and ermine coats had always been around, they had experienced a dip in global popularity until faux fur showed up and then fur, both faux and real, showed up with a vengeance on runways and shop windows. Today, in stores, alongside a mink you could find coats and trimmings made of rabbit fur (either from India or France) and fox fur, as well as cheap fur from the raccoon dog. While some websites might say that fur from China is the one you should be wary of, the truth is that fur from anywhere can only be obtained by acts of barbaric cruelty… it is in the nature of industry.

In fur farms, from the raccoon dog farms of China to the rabbit farms in Himachal Pradesh, and in the wild, on the ice floes of Canada where every year hundreds of baby seals are beaten to death and in the north European tundra where a fur bearing animal like a sable or fox could lie trapped in snares in the snow for days till the trapper returns and puts it out of its misery (many gnaw their own paws off and escape but then die of their wounds), everywhere, the animals are killed slowly and painfully because the pelts need to be blemish-free and the relatively more humane (if there could be such a word in this context) methods you could imagine are all likely to damage the pelt and drastically reduce the price that it would fetch. Designer labels, from Armani and Gautier to Dior and Cavalli, they all use fur, some even after having sworn they ‘won’t ever again’. You and I, we walk into those stores, run our fingers along the soft warmth of the trim, admire the elegance of the apparel and if we can afford it, we pick it up and hope to bask in the green tinged light of admiration on an appropriate occasion, refusing to think of the animal that once hid its nose in that same fur to keep itself warm; refusing to think of the monstrous and unimaginably brutal process through which that hide was snatched from its rightful owner while it thrashed about in pain so that it could reach me and feed my vanity; refusing to see the blood that reddens my hand every time I run my fingers through its unbelievable softness.

And faux fur needn’t be any better. A lot of real fur emerging out of China is a lot cheaper than faux fur and is often used on trimmings mixed with faux fur. A number of stores that claimed, and apparently believed, they were selling faux fur, were in fact selling raccoon dog fur. It was so cheap that even consumers couldn’t believe they had picked up real fur. (‘Real faux fur’ will always have a fabric base, while ‘fake faux’ will have a skin base)

Karl Langerfeld, head designer for Chanel, insists that fur is fair because it is an industry that supports so many today and it is a case of a fair battle between man and beast and one’s got to win. What do I say to such naiveté? See the video about ‘fur farms’ on and you’ll know for yourself. As for this savagery supporting an industry, well so did slavery but a President and a nation went to war for it. Knowingly or unknowingly, many amongst us would have supported this cruel trade in the past but there is no excuse now. You can’t say “I don’t want to see that gruesome video” and pretend you don’t know any better and keep buying fur because the truth is, you do… but if you still think you’ll look good only if you hang a bleeding carcass around your neck, well then maybe you really need it more than the poor animal did…

This winter, what we buy, or don’t buy, will go a small way towards strengthening or weakening an industry that posterity is bound to be ashamed of… And on such a day, how would history look back at us?


Thursday, November 12, 2009


7th November 2009: 0930 hrs: a Saturday. The alarm rings…

An arm, heavy with slumber, drops on the phone and shuts out the noise. An irritating little voice in my head screams out ‘darn, I’m late…! again…!!’ I roll over, trying to block out that voice but it was too loud… I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling… ‘why, oh why, can’t I sleep some more?’ I had been keeping crazy hours, staying awake till dawn chasing deadlines and doing some research over the last three-four days and had slept at about five-thirty in the morning. My body craved for a few more hours of shuteye but duty called… I had this seminar to attend. Now, most seminars, you’ll admit, on the best of days, are rather effective tranquilisers. You could struggle like a headless chicken to stay awake, but like death creeping up on the chicken, sleep will creep up on you, and before you know it, your head would be lolling in tune with the drone from the speakers… until of course your neighbour, by now also in the arms of Morpheus, nuzzles into your shoulder, tickles you with his moustache, dribbles into your ear and lets out a loud snort while snoring… So you wake up with a start, shrug him off, open your eyes wide, pinch yourself and the battle starts all over again.

So, while driving to the venue, I kept thinking up techniques I could use to keep myself awake before the sandman struck. I could pinch my eyelids, I could bite my lips till I bled and I could dream up a few ‘attractive’ possibilities to keep myself engaged… I really didn’t want to embarrass myself at the event, so with an action plan in place, I walked into the hall.

The auditorium was packed to the brim and overflowing at the exit points. By the time I fought my way in, the first panelist was in the swing of things. As I settled in as unobtrusively as possible, I saw the big banner that said, ‘The Indomitable Spirit of Survival’ in bold and had the icon of a phoenix flying across… hmm, this smelt different… refreshingly different… This seminar was celebrating the unconquerable power of the human spirit that under extraordinary circumstances forges ordinary human beings into towers of spiritual strength. As the speakers bared their heart, I forgot to blink… for why else were my eyes moist…?

Let me introduce you to these luminous lights whose stories can light up countless lives…

There were many heroes who were honoured that day at the seminar. One was Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, a veteran mountaineer and a pioneer in the realm of adventure sports, who had defied death to court glory on the highest of peaks and inspired the audience with his joie de vivre and limitless passion for adventure. Though a smart young septuagenarian today, he spoke with the unbridled joy of a boy who had run up a high cliff and jumped off the edge and into the ocean, taking in the view as he fell, and reminding himself that next time he has to do it upside down. Appetite for a challenge and a lust for “views like no other on earth” took this man up the tallest mountains and down the angriest rivers and it is that very hunger, he said, that was responsible for every great moment of discovery and self-discovery in the history of man.

Then there was this young lady who walked up to the lectern and greeted everybody with a joyful lilt in her voice. She spoke about her work as a primary school teacher living a regular life, teaching children, singing, dancing and socialising… and then she signed off with the words, “I live a very active and busy life”. The audience rose to its feet and gave her a standing ovation. That’s strange wouldn’t you think? What’s the big deal, you’d say… but if you took a closer look you would see that she had her head to one side, she spoke well but haltingly at times, and in her eyes there was a faraway look; her eyes spoke of her heart, through an expression that seemed to combine hurt, and forgiveness for those who had hurt, a love for life, a steely determination and above all a dream that one day her body and her mind would give in to her ‘indomitable spirit’… Tamanna Chona was born with cerebral palsy, an ailment that severely compromised her physical and mental abilities.

Spasticity is difficult to live with. I had imagined that to ‘normal folk’, the struggles of an autistic person to attain normalcy might not seem significant enough or might even seem to be in vain. Most live out their lives as dependent objects of pity at best, and usually as victims of derision and exploitation and worse. But that day when a ‘once autistic’ Tamanna stood in front of hundreds and declared her will to live ‘normally’ like everybody else, she was taking a stand for her own self-belief, the faith of her mentors and the call for independence, pride and dignity for all… She truly is a ‘special’ person.

Preeti Monga was next up as speaker and she is one of the most elegant people you could hope to meet. Tall and charming, she has an aura of energy around her that is both infectious and inspiring. A grandmother in her 50s, she has been a model and an aerobics instructor. Her true calling, of course, would have to be her work as a motivational speaker for her words have inspired countless people with visual disabilities like her, to yet again aspire to, and achieve the ‘holy grail’ of independence and ‘normalcy’, a gift that I’ve now learnt to cherish and be grateful for; for I doubt I would have had their courage… Perhaps disabilities (and I will not undermine their tremendous fortitude and courage in this uphill battle with fate by calling them ‘differently abled’) are tests reserved for the strong.

Finally, a tiny figure draped in white walked up to the microphone. The emcee pulled the microphone down so that she could reach it. Time had etched her face into a picture of serene strength. She spoke in Bangla with beautiful simplicity. A translator translated her story for the audience, and on more than one occasion, his voice cracked with emotion.

Suhasini Mistry, illiterate and poor, was married to a man who was dying before her very eyes. He wasn’t dying of an incurable disease but of apathy and neglect. Too poor to afford treatment at a hospital, the man died leaving Suhasini her four children and a 75 paisa inheritance. That day, that diminutive little figure while grieving for her husband, took a gigantic oath. She swore that one day, no matter how hard the challenges, she would set up a hospital where poor patients like her husband would be treated and given medicines for free. That was more than three decades ago. Today, in the village of Hanspukur stands the 35 bed Humanity Hospital, where 25000 patients are treated every year and given medicines too, all without charging the patients a penny. The hospital has 15 visiting doctors and one permanent doctor – Suhasini’s younger son. But it wasn’t an easy journey. Suhasini had to work as a labourer, a housemaid and a vegetable vendor to make ends meet. Her young children (two sons and two daughters) wanted to work but she insisted on their education. Her children studied hard in school. But after school hours they worked harder in the fields and in shops to add to their meager income. Later, when I spoke to the doctor-son, he told of a time when they would share 500 grams of rice and a couple of green chillies, over five days, between the five of them.

But all through the hardships Suhasini ensured that her children had an education, that one of them necessarily became a doctor and that from every rupee they earned, they always saved a portion for their dream hospital (even if that meant going hungry to bed).

The courage, the resilience and the fortitude of this little woman humbled all in her presence.

When pushed by a disability or a disaster, some of us oft en dig in and discover a reservoir of strength that goads us towards greatness. Such a phenomenon is inspiring, admirable but also conceivable. But what eternal flame must guide a Suhasini for her to be able to starve herself and her children for decades, to feed a dream that today has saved countless lives. At one point in her speech, she held one end of her saree and extended her arms, speaking of a time when she had to beg to keep the dream alive, and even in that moment of utter humility, she remained determined and dignified, for she begged not for herself but for a thousand strangers who live off her alms.

That was the first seminar where I saw people moved to tears. It was the first seminar where the audience, no matter what our achievements, felt dwarfed by those giants on that stage. It was the first time I emerged from an auditorium a changed man, inspired, humbled, cleansed and awake…


Thursday, November 5, 2009


Click! Click! Click!! The Mara can make a photographer out of a blind man. My last frame of the African Savannah was taken from the back of a Safari van as it sped north. It was an image that seared itself in my mind even as a dust cloud from the tyres shrouded it from view, like a magic portal closing the gates to a secret world. I looked at the image I had captured … On the screen, hemmed in by the frame, stretched a cloudless blue sky on top and an infinite plain of golden grass at the bottom. On the left hand corner, lay a large and lonely boulder. On it stood a tall and wiry man. His long and sinewy limbs seemed to have been forged by the very earth that he now stood on. A short tunic, that seemed to have been dipped and dyed in a vat of blood struggled to cover his large ebony frame and one end of it fl uttered in the wind like a proud red flag. He was a Masai – fearless lion hunters and cattle herders who live on the Mara. I flipped through the other fragments of the Masai Mara that I had gathered in my camera over the last three days. As the van sped away towards our next destination, Lake Naivasha, the straight roads and the barren landscape dulled the senses and I drifted in and out of slumber till we reached the hills. There, round a bend on the slope, I got yet another glimpse of paradise… a blue sheet of still water stretched over a soda pan – Lake Nakuru. As the soft warm light of a setting sun melted into the waters, the whole lake seemed to go up in flames of bright burning pink… flamingoes! Hundreds and thousands of them! The shallow waters were thick with these pink birds trawling the lake bed for algae… I stayed and watched the flamingoes and other wildlife till the sun slipped off the horizon and I headed for my shelter for the night – a resort at the edge of a freshwater lake nearby, Lake Naivasha.

It was a leisurely evening at the restaurant at the resort. Here it’s pertinent to mention the layout of the property. Lake Naivasha has a surface area that extends beyond 100 sq. kms and near the bank grows a thick swamp of papyrus reeds. Beyond that lies a grass bank on which sits the resort. About 50 metres from the swamp, home to crocodiles, water buffalo, waterbuck, water-birds and hippopotami, is a wire fence that keeps out the wildlife.

We were sitting in the restaurant. Outside, through the large French windows, we could see a manicured garden with a paved path illuminated with torches running past the pool and disappearing into the darkness. Further away past the dark shadows of the swamps, we could see the waters of the lake, reflecting the last retreating rays of a set sun. It was rather quiet, but for the occasional clutter of stainless steel scraping china and the gentle jabber of tired tourists.

Then I noticed that the Spaniard sitting across my table was looking rather odd. He had his mouth open and his hand had brought a forkful of spaghetti right up to his lips but his hand and his mouth had frozen, his gaze transfixed on something behind me. I turned to follow his gaze. And I kid you not, I blinked twice before I could believe what I was seeing… In the lawn, metres away from the entrance to the restaurant, was a gigantic hippopotamus. A Japanese couple, hand in hand, had just walked out of the door for an evening stroll and right before my eyes almost bumped into the behemoth. The woman screamed and the man froze… expressions straight out of the Godzilla movies. Then the two of them stumbled and turned and ran back inside, screaming… hearing their screams, attendants ran out and even before they’d reached the door, spied the beast and stopped short. Hurriedly, they closed the door that opened onto the lawns and asked guests to leave from the other side and head for their rooms. Some of us stayed back and followed the security staff that had been called in to try and shoo the monster away.

Before I proceed with the story, here’s a perspective for those who might wonder why people were running scared of what looks like an overgrown pig and is basically a harmless vegetarian. Well, this ‘harmless vegetarian’ is in fact labeled ‘the most dangerous animal in Africa’, responsible for far more human casualties than lions, leopards or elephants. Weighing more than 4000 kgs (that’s two Hummers placed on top of each other… and with khukris for teeth), and with jaws that can snap a man in two, hippos seem to topple boats and bite off human limbs with the sort of casual disdain with which we stomp on cockroaches. And they are most aggressive when they find a man between them and the water…

There was mayhem all around. “Kiboko (hippo in swahili)! Kiboko (hippo)!!” screamed the hotel staff. Guests would run a short distance, start clicking and when the hippo trundled towards them, run and scream some more before stopping to shoot again. Meanwhile, the hotel employees didn’t know who to shoo away first – the wayward kiboko or their wayward guests. After a lot of “ha-ing” and ‘hoo-ing’, they managed to herd the hippo away from the lawns and declared the way to the cottages ‘safe’.

I was hurrying towards my cottage when a great grey shadow, like a ghost, glided past the bushes on my right and emerged on the pathway, less than two metres away and right in front. Cold sweat trickled down the nape of my neck as the hippo blocked the path to the cottage, looking at me with its tiny beady eyes and spinning its tail like a fan as it sprayed the pathway with dung. Done with dumping, it moved off the path and into the shadows again. I didn’t move. I couldn’t see in the dark and didn’t want to bump into to the beast. After a while, I heard someone drop a tray and scream, followed by loud voices. So the hippo had moved away… I jogged off towards the cottage.

Tucked in bed, I ruminated over the evening’s adventure and shuddered at the thought of what might have been. I turned off the lights and went off to sleep. Sometime later in the night, I woke up. The cottage had a frameless glass double-door that opened onto the lawn. I had left the curtains open. From my bed, in the soft white light of a full moon, I could see the lawns extending into the shadows of the swamp and a light mist gathering along the grass, like a cotton carpet. I got up to draw the curtains. As I neared the glass pane, I pressed my nose against it and stared into the night. The hippo was out there somewhere. They said it had never happened before; that it was an old male, driven out of the lake by a younger male. I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that no would run into the surly old fellow in the dark. Having drawn the curtains, as I turned towards the bed I heard something rustling outside. Instinctively, I sat down and peered through the curtains…

Whoa! Staring right in my face, mere inches away, separated by a glass door no more than an inch thick, was the enormous head of Africa’s greatest killer. I could hear those lips chomping grass and see the vapour escape from his nostrils. I exhaled with a shudder. The hippo stopped grazing from the edge of my threshold and looked into my eyes. I held my breath; his ears twitched and for an eternal moment we stared into each other’s eyes, trying to read the other’s mind. My head was racing… even if the hippo was to belch into the door, I suspected the glass door would come crashing down. For some reason, the hotel had the good sense to provide a sturdy wooden door to the bathroom and I started calculating if I would have the time to make it to the bath in time if the glass-door came down. The hippo must have been doing its own calculations. It kept staring. I stopped thinking, losing myself in this intimate moment with a wild animal. I was close enough to count its long eye lashes. I wanted to touch its muzzle and wondered how the hippo might react… I was scared, I was excited, I was enthralled! The hippo stood there, as if waiting for me to make the next move; to remove that barrier and make contact. I gently opened the latch… but I couldn’t muster the courage to open the door. The hippo kept looking, waiting… and then it blinked, wiggled its ears and slowly walked away towards a bush under my window. The spell was broken. I slowly opened the door. A cool breeze wafted in and I could smell the hippo… I sat down ever so slowly on the floor. The hippo threw a sideways glance but kept on grazing, just a few feet away… and that’s how we remained, long into the night….


Thursday, October 29, 2009


A shaft of golden light snuck through the folds of the tent and came to rest on a pillow lying next to me on the bed, lighting up a little circle, the size of a rupee coin. It was well past dawn. I could hear songbirds twittering on the trees outside. Other than a weird dream about a hyena trying to bite my hand and steal my watch, I’d slept peacefully and the night had passed without event.

Shrugging away the intense pull of the clingy arms of gravity on nippy mornings, I dragged myself off the bed when the languor of the morning was suddenly broken by an angry chatter and the rustling of a heavy bodied creature next to the tent. I was reminded of last night’s discussion about hyenas and lions and the great roar of the king of beasts that had been my lullaby for the night. Could there be lions in camp? I had seen documentaries where camp grounds and resorts in Africa had on occasions been overrun by a herd of curious elephants or a pride of lions. But all such events, as far as I could remember, had ended with the animals being driven out without anyone being scratched or gored. Emboldened by the light of day I stepped outside the tent and peeped around the corner. In a clearing between two tents sat a troop of grey and white vervet monkeys intently staring at one of the bushes. They seemed to be torn between the desire to run and the urge to fight. Whatever it was that was getting them worked up was hidden behind the bushes. I thought if the little monkeys could act all brave and bothered, so could I and so I stepped into the clearing, walked across a row of tents and went near the bushes. There, sitting proud amidst the bushes, rummaging through the contents of an upturned dust bin with a chewed up lid, sat a rather large, long-maned, male olive baboon.

Now a baboon, if you haven’t seen one, is nothing like our home grown rhesus macaques (the stocky little brown devils) or langurs (the slim, longtailed black faced ones). They are bigger and are built like night-club bouncers. Even leopards are wary of the big males. These animals were dangerous and as I stood there between the agile vervets and the hulking baboon, I realised that without the attendants to help me out of this or shoo the animals away with whatever it takes to shoo them away, I risked getting mauled. And how did I know that I was standing too close for comfort? The baboon told me… You see, when a baboon wants to send out a warning, it yawns and shows off its huge vampire-like canines in a threat display… a bit like a knife-fighter running his finger along the blade of his knife. And when I inched in a little too close, our bin raider looked at me, closed his eyes and ya-aw-wned… those dagger like canines glinted in the morning sun and I got the hint and backed away. What a wake up call on my first dawn in the Mara.

Two hours and a scrumptious avocado salad breakfast later we were finally cruising along the vast plains of the Masai Mara that straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The Mara plains, you must know is one of the greatest theatres of the natural world. Picture this: It is early September and the golden grasslands across the border in Tanzania (called the Serengeti) resonate to a strange sound. They might be hidden in the long grass or round a corner, but that drone fl oats around like a sound cloud and envelopes you long before you see them… gnu, gnu, gnu they go and then suddenly you see them… hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cow-like antelopes – wildebeest (also called ‘gnu’, because of that sound they make), dotting the landscape for a million miles. The sheer scale of the scene, the landscape, the dull hum rolling across that landscape like a tidal sound-wave, and countless animals grazing, strolling, fighting and suckling… it is an overwhelming sight. But the story’s just begun…

Around this time, on a given day, answering a primal call, these huge herds suddenly start marching, like an army responding to a distant bugle, towards the Mara plains in Kenya. But there’s a hurdle. Running between the Mara plains and the Serengeti plains is the natural border of the Mara River. This time of the year, the river isn’t at its calmest and the great herds balk at the river bank. Across lie the green grasslands of the Mara plains but the swirling waters of the river are rife with danger. Besides dangerous currents, this river is home to one of the deadliest predators on the planet, the Nile crocodile. These giant reptiles measure more than 16 feet from tip to tail, and have jaws that could snap a man in two. They lie hidden in the murky waters of the river waiting for an unsuspecting animal to draw close and then lunge at with astonishing speed and power. Once caught in those jaws, they drag their prey into the water, drowning it while other crocs also grab the poor victim and start rolling. This macabre dance is called ‘the death roll’ and the crocs do it in an attempt to tear hunks of meat off the prey.

Instinctively, the wildebeest are wary of jumping into the crocodile infested river but the numbers keep mounting on the banks and as more and more animals join the herds, the ones in front keep getting nudged forward, like a group of school-kids standing in front of the PE teacher who is looking for reluctant volunteers for a ‘clean the school ground project’. The tension builds up until the ones in front get pushed into the river. As the first few crash into the water, the dam breaks and the whole horde, driven by an irresistible instinct, follows through. The crocodiles, like submarines lying in wait, emerge; razor sharp teeth tear through skin and flesh and a feeding frenzy starts that lasts as long as the migration. By the time the last of the herd has crossed over, the crocodiles have eaten enough to last them a lifetime. On the swollen river fl oat bloated bodies of the hundreds that died during the crossing. Some fell to the crocodiles while others got crushed under the weight of others behind them or drowned under the great surge. Yet, hundreds of thousands still made it across, mostly in one piece but many with broken limbs or ugly gashes from a crocodile’s jaws. And the injured don’t last long. They get picked off by lions, leopards and hyenas. It’s a cruel yet grand spectacle; the wildebeest leaping into the rivers; the bone-crushing power of the crocodiles as the massive reptiles ambush the antelope; the raw athleticism of the lion pride as they chase and bring down the injured animals; the birth of a new calf; and a mother antelope courageously fighting off a cheetah which was about to kill her new born calf… the drama of life, and death, is played out in bold strokes of red, blue and green on the Mara, and the savage beauty of the greatest show on earth is so seductive that one stays riveted, through hope and despair, through blood and gore, through birth and death…

And yet my most enduring memory of this great stage is not of the great migration but of a quiet dawn. The plains were surprisingly empty this morning. I was disappointed. We stopped under an acacia and scanned the horizon with our binoculars. Nothing to the left, nothing to the right, all the game had taken flight, no, not a creature anywhere in sight… but what’s this… something had blocked out the view from my field-glasses. I removed them and as I kept them aside, my jaw dropped. Mere metres away from us, loping across the horizon at a gentle trot, were three magnificent giraffes. Taller than most houses, and yet with an awkward grace unlike any other, these creatures, the tallest of all terrestrial mammals (towering over the rest at about 20 feet) seemed to be a throwback to another era. I watched enthralled as the three majestic giants covered the ground with astonishing ease, almost in slow-motion. I could feel the ‘thud’, as their long and elegant strides shook the very earth beneath us. Remember the introductory dinosaur scene from “Jurassic Park” when the human protagonists see their first dinosaur – a colossal Brachiosaurus with his head lost in the clouds in the sky… It felt even more magical and sublime that day… goose bumps popped like a raging rash and my knees went weak… this wasn’t a movie screen… this was real life, as I had never known it before, as I never could, anywhere else on earth but here… raw nature, in a manifestation of unbridled power… I’ve not known that feeling, before or since.

The giraffes faded away across the horizon that day and the plains were empty again.

However, it is the third and final edition of the African saga that contains memories of a night that had some of the most breathtaking moments of my life. Until next week then…


Thursday, October 22, 2009


If you haven’t been to Africa, you haven’t been home

A degree or so south of the Equator, beside a road that wound its way around a green hill, sat a small café with a patio extending into the valley below. On the wooden floor boards of the patio was a low wood-and-wire pen, and in it roamed a flock of scraggly turkeys and guinea fowl, scratching the dry brown earth for whatever it is that these birds eat. Next to them on a wooden chair, by a wooden table, sat I, my fingers wrapped around a once cold glass of lemonade and my soul drifting away with my breath into that great brown valley below…

I had driven out of Nairobi airport a few hours ago. Sun-kissed and hot, the drive through the city reminded me of some cities back home. The ground was dry and dusty and a shade of brick red. Wide roads ran past factories and showrooms and narrowed into city streets. The guide pointed at a cluster of brown-with-rust roofs. Above the roofs, dirty plastic bags swirled in the wind. “Kibera!” said the guide. Kibera, the largest slum in Africa with more than 700,000 people sharing 10ft x10ft hovels with five others must be quite a morbid spectacle for his First world clients, but for an Indian it was just another familiar slice of Third world desperation trying to break out of its shackles. We drove out of the city, heading south towards the Mara river – our destination, the great plains that rose on its banks.

As a child, I was eternally fascinated by Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and movies like “The Ghost and The Darkness” and “Out of Africa”. I couldn’t wait to see the open savannah, the great herds of wildebeest and the great maned lions. I knew what to expect and wanted to see the Africa of my dreams. And yet even before I was halfway there, I found it difficult to tear myself away from that overhanging patio by the highway, for the valley that fell away under the floorboards under my feet and stretched away, for thousands of miles beyond the horizon was The Great Rift Valley. Bone dry and brown, this great vast valley was silent and bare, except for a lonely breeze that seemed lost and trapped in its awe-inspiring expanse.

“Looks empty today, but many years ago, in this very valley, perhaps in that small cave on your right, there lived and roamed some strange creatures. Almost human and yet not quite, these were the first hominids to walk the earth.” Thomas, my Kikuyu guide, seemed to have practiced these lines a lot. Of course when he said ‘many years ago’, he meant, many millions of years ago. Anyway, the thought that here might lie even today the bones of my ancestors, gave me goose bumps. The first humans evolved in this very land and though today we might have colonised the globe and changed shape, size and colour, one day it might be possible for us to trace our line back across time and space to our earliest ancestors. And when that day comes, it’ll bring us back to this valley in East Africa.

Thomas had to pull me way with reminders, “It’ll be dark soon. The next 100 kms aren’t really the safest you know…” That got my attention. I had heard terrible tales of carjackings in Kenya. One of them went like this – a white tourist was sitting in the rear seat of a car that was standing by the road. He was wearing an expensive watch, but aware of the reputation of these mean streets, he tucked his wrist inside and only had his left elbow poking out of the window. Two men walked past the car, stopped, turned back and in a flash one of them had grabbed his elbow and tried to pull out the watch. The tourist tried to resist and pull his hand into the car when the other brought a machete down on the poor chap’s arm a couple of times and having severed it, scampered off with the bleeding limb with the watch still around it and disappeared into the shadows. I was told by some that it’s only an urban legend while others swore that they knew it to be true. Anyway, I didn’t want to stick around and find out so Thomas and I got into the van and drove off.

The sun had drift ed westwards by now. The thick scrub and hillsides gave way to open grassland. The road was a patchwork of broken tarmac. From horizon to horizon, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The sky darkened and clouds rolled in. A bolt of lightning reached out through the heavens, singed the earth and was gone. And there I saw it, my first vignette of quintessential Africa… A lone acacia tree on the plains and under it, a zebra trying to shelter from the rain… ah, it was beautiful!

It was almost midnight when we reached the resort in the heart of the Masai Mara national park. My ‘room’ was a tent overlooking a stream and as I tucked myself in, I could hear laughter. I ignored it for a while, but soon others seemed to be joining in. I went outside. The aura of the tiny lamp by the tent couldn’t penetrate the inky blackness of the night. I strained to see or hear something… suddenly, a voice, “Jambo!” Startled, I jumped and did an about turn. It was a hotel attendant. “Jambo (hello)! Can I help, sir?” he said. “I heard laughter…” I pointed across the stream. “No one there sir, must’ve been some animal…” Almost on cue, the eerie laugh rent the stillness of the night again. I looked at the waiter. “Hyenas…!” he whispered. Just so you know, hyenas are about the size of a very large dog, and have the strongest jaws of all mammals, even stronger than those of a lion. “My village, nearby,” said the attendant. “There was a hyena pack living near the village. Many rains ago, we had a famine... when people and animals started dying, the hyenas started scavenging on the dead of humans as well as cattle and their pack grew in numbers. When the rains returned, everything was fine for a while until children started disappearing. It got really humid after the rains, so people oft en slept outside. Then, even grown-ups were being attacked in their sleep. In the quiet of the night, we would look up at the stars and talk till we fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, we would wake up to someone’s screams. By the time we’d reach that person, he’d be rolling in the dust in pain, his hands covering his face. Ohh.. such horrible wounds they had on their faces.

We are a little superstitious so we first thought it was some evil spirit. But then we saw the tracks, hyena tracks. We didn’t know if it was a real hyena or an evil spirit in a hyena’s body. We were so afraid, especially for our children. They would just disappear in the night and all we found were clothes and the tracks. We tried hunting the hyenas and chasing them away but they kept coming back. That laugh you just heard… I shiver so deep in my heart (a local expression of great fear, or perhaps it was his garbled English) whenever I hear that sound.”

Gosh, that was quite a great bedtime story. My tent was at the edge of the property where the resort met the grasslands and all that separated the hyenas and other creatures of the night was a shallow moat. For a moment, I too shivered so deep in my heart that… Never mind, I turned to the waiter and asked, “Hyenas, how far?” “Maybe 200 metres… but don’t worry... because of the light and that moat… they won’t… I mean they can’t come this way, sir. Please sleep peacefully. You are safe here. No animal can cause you any harm.” I nodded and turned towards my tent. “Good night sir!” I waved, distractedly and crawled under the covers. I couldn’t hear the hyena’s laugh now but I could hear another sound… it was a soft guttural sound at first but it grew louder and louder … the unmistakable roar of a lion proclaiming its territory. Thomas had mentioned that when the lion roars softly, it asks, nachi ya nani? (Whose is this land?) and then roars thrice, each louder than the other, declaring yangu! Yangu!! Yangu!!! (mine! Mine!! Mine!!!). I imagined what it might be like to have my face gnawed in my sleep, to wake in pain and see the powerful jaws of a predator eating me alive… no, no, no I was letting my imagination run away with me. ‘These resorts are designed to make us feel like we are in the heart of the wilderness and yet keep us safe from wild beasts, I reassured myself. ‘I’m sure the attendant was right. These properties couldn’t possibly operate if they were unsafe. I’m sure no animal could ever come over into the resort…’ and with those comforting thoughts, I rolled over and slept like a baby. But boy, was I wrong?


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


“Who wants to live forever? Who dares to love forever? When love must die…But touch my tears with your lips, Touch my world with your finger tips, And we can have forever, And we can love forever…” This Freddie Mercury song was a favourite. My friend and I would cruise the high roads in his beat-up Toyota, and with wheels screaming louder than the speakers, we’d join in with Freddie and scream our lungs out belting and bouncing on the high notes the best we could… The euphoria of the open road, the wind in our hair and that song on our lips… it was exhilarating, and yet when the song played out, I had tears in my eyes… maybe it was the wind, the lyrics or the high notes, maybe it was all of it put together… ‘Who wants to live forever?’ A beautiful song, and memories, more beautiful still…

15 years ago, my friend died in a road accident, and the man I loved more than I would have a brother was gone. More than a friend, he was a mentor and a measure. I sought his approval, his companionship, his support and the light of his goodness. And in a heartbeat, it was all gone. I remember carrying a sack of marigolds to his house the day after he left , thinking, I should’ve been doing this for his wedding day, not for today, no, not for today… and that song played on and on in my head, ‘Who wants to live forever….?’

Having met death so intimately for the first time as an adult, and having lost someone who I still feel might one day be waiting beyond, I developed a mild sense of equanimity for the grim reaper. Hitherto, death was what I thought only happened to ‘others’. I grudgingly began to accept death as a part of ‘my life’, and that others I love might also ‘leave’ before it is my time. And born of that acceptance was a fervent prayer to the powers that be that let none be taken before their time. Let death strike if it has to, but with patience and compassion…
But is it possible to have the power of our will over our own death? Like Bheeshma in the Mahabharata, is it possible to attain the boon of ‘Ichchya Mrityu’ and not necessarily by having to take a vow for celibacy? Across cultures, in Indian and Chinese mythology, as in the Bible, the ancients, Vishwamitra, Vyasa, Abraham and Noah have all been depicted as immortals or at least as people who live for hundreds and hundreds of years. The elixir of life and the fountain of youth are concepts that have fired the human imagination from the beginning of time. And history would have us believe that whatever the human mind imagines will in all probability become reality sooner or later. From the days of Icarian dreams, man has dreamed of flying and today, we fl y without giving the once apparent improbability of it a second thought; Star Trek, the TV series from the 1960s dreamed up wireless ‘flip communicators’, touch screens, video conferencing of sorts, automatic doors, laser guns and ‘the matter transporter’, which allowed people to be ‘beamed’ to various locations, were all the stuff of fantasy, and yet, today all but the last of them is a part of our everyday existence. Even beaming people around, as we do with images today, who knows, might well happen tomorrow. So you might not have nanobots coursing in your veins right now but it is only a matter of time before Ray Kurzweil’s vision of human beings living forever with the help of nanotechnology becomes a neighbourhood reality.

So what of it? Is there a problem? What’s wrong with living forever? Apparently, lots, say some …

To begin with, a group of close friends I was sitting with wondered if love would lose its meaning if we went on to live forever? Would we care as much for our parents and friends if we knew that we might not lose them as generations past had? Would we love our great great great grand parents and children as much as we do our grand parents? And to that I say, of course we will. Love is not a function of time. We love because we love to be with someone. We love because we need and want to be loved and we love because someone else completes us in a way that no one else can, and that could be a parent, a friend, a sibling, a beloved and a pet. And the good thing is that with the opportunity to live forever, we will be working harder on our relationships. We could see our ‘love’ grow to a whole new level. Parents won’t be able to hide behind old age and generation gaps to withdraw and demand love and respect ‘for whatever little time they have left ’, and we children will know that if we were spending time with our ageing parents only because they might not have many more decades left , then would realize that we both need to work on the relationship because we love not because we expect to lose what we love but because we love being with what we love.

When friends get together for a good time how oft en have we heard the lament ‘oh how we wish this could last forever’. So fear not fellow immortals-to-be, our love for each other can only grow the more we have of each other. While studying at IIPM, we were taught about the Law of Increasing Marginal Utility – the more you have of something, the more you want more of it, and love and loving relationships are such that the more you have of them, the more you’ll forever want them. And as for the great great grand kids, unlike if you were not to live forever, at the very least, you’ll get to know them. 15 years ago, I wondered if anybody ever would want to live forever but then I fell in love and realised that when in love you could live and grow and love back, forever and a day. Love in every form is all that makes you want to live forever…

But a jarring note to that thought was a question by a lady whose first reaction when she heard of what nanobots could do was ‘gosh, I’ll be with one man for all those years?’ So what of eternal love, eh? To that I’ll say, we are social creatures and it is in our nature to love and share with more than one lover, friend, parent or child. But though we share our love there is always one parent, lover, friend or child who happens to be our favourite and so shall it be in years to come. The mind might seek variety and the body varied pleasures, but in healthy and secure relationships, we’ll learn to manage negative feelings like jealousy and possessiveness. We’ll always return to the one who happens to be our ‘soulmate’. Maybe after all our dalliances over hundreds of years, we’ll evolve towards monogamy because we’ll learn to appreciate true love so much more, for only when the flesh is satiated does the spirit come to the fore.

We’ll become robots, say some. But I say, don’t worry. When a blind man gets another man’s eyes he does not become that man. Organs, whether bionic or real, are mere tools and little else. But, what of the environment, of wars, scream the ‘immortality-phobes’. Wouldn’t the earth be over-crowded? Hear ye then… Extreme longevity will push us into exploring other planets and solar systems. Reasons such as these pushed our ancestors out of their islands into discovering new lands, new countries, new continents. It were reasons such as these that brought our forefathers to India and it were reasons such as these that helped us grow, diversify, come together and grow further as civilizations, and as a race. And if we don’t discover new planets and moons, we might have to take a cue from Bheeshma and pay the price of our immortality.

And wars? Well wars today mean a soldier could lose a few decades from his life but tomorrow the loss could run into hundreds and thousands of years. Wars would be fought with far greater caution for the stakes are too high to risk. So peace should be the order of the day, till super soldiers impervious to bullets and missiles – things that could kill before you could get to a nanotech hospital – emerge. (See ‘Fie Death, Fie’ on Page 50)

Youthful longevity is a great gift but it is by no means the key to happiness. We’ll still struggle for recognition and status, with our fears and our peers. Like planes, computers and markets, sometimes, even nanobots will crash (thus the concept of God and prayer will survive). It only gives us a little more time to play, to figure out profound questions and strive to become the gods we were meant to be, without help from technology, for as long as we fly, fight and live with the help of technology, we’ll keep living in fear of that technology failing us. Our real accomplishment would be to live without fear, and for that, fellow immortals, we can’t live or wait forever…


Thursday, October 1, 2009


In the early hours of Mahashtami, I was strolling in a city park, having huffed and puff ed through my workout when that sudden ‘call’ startled me. “Kuaan! Kuaan!! Kuaaaaaan!!!” I stopped and looked around… brightly attired five-year-olds were playing tag, looking like a bunch of gay flowers swirling in the wind; in another corner, a group of 85-year-olds would go into a huddle and then erupt into fits of demonic laughter as if one of them had just shared a joke about some misadventure from a distant past; a pair of middle-aged matrons hurtled past; sweaty wheezy juggernauts struggling with the guilt of last night’s clarified butter soaked excesses… But that sound… where did that come from? I shuffled towards a tree and looked up into the leafy branches. Ah, a pair of black tails poking out of the foliage. Must’ve been them. I was about to walk away when I heard that sound again… “kuan! Kuaan….!” The sound wasn’t coming from the branches above but from the bushes below. I peered into them and there I saw it… a black beak, a bald head and intelligent little eyes… groan, a crow hatchling!

I groaned at the sight of it because two days ago, I had to put off some festival shopping and pressing errands because a pigeon with a bleeding, chewed-up wing pottered in from the verandah just when I was about to set off on the errands. The pigeon was suffering because of the broken wing and leaving it there would’ve meant a death sentence for the poor bird. So I dropped my plans and picked up the bird as it circled around and treated the wound with an antiseptic lotion. Then I retrieved an old shoe box, cut a couple of small holes in it and put the pigeon in it and drove with it to an animal shelter (every city including yours has such shelters and they’ll take in injured or young birds and mammals) about 12 kilometers away. The bird survived the trip and the kind gentleman running the shelter assured me that the bird would pull through.

While driving back, I did feel rather good about the whole affair. But when I’d first seen the pigeon, I was a trifle irritated. Every other week I’d run into a bird or a puppy or even a cow that needed help. And I would feel duty-bound to get the animal to a shelter or at least inform the concerned NGO about the poor creature and stay there till someone turned up. But while I’d feel duty bound, I’d also ask, ‘why me?’ Why, whenever I’m running late (although, those who know me will claim it isn’t whenever but forever) do I have to come across situations that I can’t avoid nor can explain it to those I’ve kept waiting? And that evening, with all those things to do, I asked yet again, why me? However, the satisfaction of having helped a fellow creature made up for all the minor delays the trip to the shelter might have caused.

So that morning, when I saw that little crow, my first reaction was ‘oh no, not again!’ The chick must have fallen from its nest up in the tree and its scaly wings still seemed too small for its relatively large body. It looked up at us and started cawing again. Call it anthropomorphism but I felt as if it was asking for help. Of course, it could just as well have been crying out of fear or calling out to its parents for help. I tried to scoop the little bird up into my hands but the little tyke scuttled around and kept calling. In response, its parents swooped down over my head in an attempt to intimidate and deter what they might have perceived to be a predatory threat to their ‘fallen angel’.

I stepped back and the devoted parents hovered close to the chick and called out to it. I did not know what to do. It was Ashtami. It was the most important and auspicious day during Durga Puja. There were prayers to offer, ceremonies to attend and pandals to visit, … just so much to do. I didn’t need this… I started rationalising… It must’ve fallen off the nest during the night. Crows usually have six to eight eggs in a nest and oft en drop a chick off, deliberately. They do this when the brood is too big for them to feed and it’s better to abandon one rather than starve the others. Cruel nature, but who’re we to judge? Also, I’ve read that the young of crows and other birds oft en jump out of the nest a few days before they can fly. Apparently they do it because a nest is usually a dangerous place attracting the attention of all sorts of predators and the sooner they get out of it, the better it is. And lastly, crows raised by humans are oft en so imprinted by the experience that they lose their fear of humans and consider every human being a friend. This leads to them trying to play with strange children or adults after their release, who might misunderstand the bird’s actions and hit and kill the bird out of fear. So I asked myself, “if a tiger is killing a deer we shouldn’t interfere and let nature take its course, right? Then if a crow hatchling is pushed out of its nest by its parents, should we intervene?” A little voice in my head said, “well, you did rescue the pigeon.” “Yeah, but that was different…” I retorted. “Whatever attacked the pigeon wasn’t around when it came up to us. Abandoning it then was as good as killing it. Here, there’s a possibility that a rescue might not be worth it and even without interference, the bird might still make it.” Also, I didn’t have the time to go to the shelter without upsetting my schedule. I decided not to ‘interfere with nature’ and walked away from the little chick by the tree.

That afternoon, through the pandal visits and celebrations my mind would go back to the scared little bird a few times and I wondered if I did the right thing but then I’d tell myself that it’s the law of nature and let nature’s will be done. Exhausted with the day’s action, when I reached home around midnight, I thought of going to check on the little bird but by then I was too tired to pursue that thought. I hit the bed and slept like a log into the wee hours of the morning when I woke up with a sudden realisation – we are off nature and our physical lives might be governed by her laws, but the whole idea of human existence is to ‘humanise’ these laws. We are a race defined as much by the survival of the weakest as we are by the success of the fittest; a race that hopes to vanquish disease and death and go beyond the circle of life; a race that believes in worships, and hopes for miracles; a race that fights with its own kind to ensure the survival of another species – we were meant to be slaves to this ‘human’ nature and by its laws, I was bound to save every life I could, for that ought to be my nature.

Mother Nature, bound by her own laws, does what she must but whenever I hide behind her laws, it is an act of denial – a denial of the power of free will and the power of service – two gifts that make us who we are, who we ought to be. I pulled the sheets away and ran towards the park. It was quiet, but for the chirping of the songbirds announcing the break of dawn. I ran towards the tree. A part of me was hoping to find the little crow scared and huddled in the bushes, while the rest of me was expecting to see a mass of feathers and a trail of blood leading to a half eaten carcass. But once there, I saw nothing… in the bushes, in the lawns, even in a heap of swept up leaves… nothing. Could the bird have flown, literally? I so hoped so… Relieved, I began walking back when I saw one of the parent crows. It was sitting on a wire outside the park and looking down at the road… ‘Darn!’ I ran onto the road and there on its back by the side of the road lay the little black bird. Its little feet pointing towards a sky it could’ve known better if only I had taken out an hour and taken it to the shelter. It had no wounds and if not for the ants around its half open eyes that seemed to both accuse and forgive, I couldn’t have been sure it was dead.

It’s only a bird you might say, but it’s still a life I could’ve saved… and didn’t (and how I treat life in one form is definitely indicative of how I might treat it in another). I’m sorry little bird, I wish for you a better life, and an after-life, and may these words serve to be both an apology and a promise…


Thursday, September 24, 2009

A ‘race’ against time

It was a lazy Saturday at the Neemrana Fort-Palace. The slanting rays of the evening sun had set the ochre walls of the terrace restaurant ablaze. Table attendants in pink livery were strutting around with laden trays, their proud bearing tempered with the humility that is the hallmark of Indian hospitality. And across the table around which I was lounging with my friends sat two adorable little girls, their braided hair adorned with beads, one of them fiddling with a straw and the other was watching a movie on a small DVD player. Facing away from the table, but sitting right next to them sat a woman. Her curly locks were tied into a tight pony-tail and with her delicately chiseled features, that complexion borrowed from well-brewed coffee and with those almond-shaped eyes imperiously scanning the menu card, she looked rather arresting. I was intrigued.

Ever since I started travelling in earnest, I have always been intrigued by accents, features and other distinguishing characteristics that define races and cultures because it is this veneer of language and features that holds the key towards understanding the civilisations and the evolutionary history that has shaped today’s world. But those are details for another day. As for today, as I looked at the three of them, presumably a mother and her two children, I couldn’t help but try and guess what their nationality might be… their African heritage was unmistakable but their slight build and strikingly delicate features distinguished them from the rugged robustness of the West and the copper tinged high cheekbones of the South. Unmistakably Ethiopian, or perhaps Eritrean, I thought. Seemed logical but now I felt I just had to be sure. So egged on by that moment of Sherlockian deduction, I walked up to the trio and choosing a moment which I felt wasn’t too intrusive, popped the question… “Hi! I hope I’m not disturbing you but I couldn’t help wondering if you were from anywhere near the Horn of Africa… Ethiopia perhaps?” The woman looked away from her menu card and turned towards me but before she could choose to respond, a rich grainy voice whispered softly into my right ear, “… Does it really matter?” The owner of the voice was a man with a graying goatee and features similar to that of the three women. Ah, the man of the house… I turned and apologised… “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offend anybody… was just curious…” At that point, the lady turned to speak… “Yes, we are from Ethiopia, but why does everybody want to know? Wherever we go, we are asked the same question ‘Where are you from? Which country?’ Really, why is that so important?” Gosh, I seemed to have stirred a hornet’s nest. “I’m sorry if I have offended you. It wasn’t my intention to disturb you… my question seems to have upset you but I was just being curious. Please excuse me…”

I turned to leave but the man pulled a chair and asked me to sit down. “No, no we are not upset. Just that this question chases us around at every step and after a point it does get to us… We’ve travelled all over Europe and Africa and nowhere else were we asked this question this often and yet random strangers who we might never meet again seem to want to know about our ethnicity…” “And you think it might have something to do with your colour… ?” I asked. Both of them nodded in a manner that said ‘we didn’t want to put it that way but since you’ve asked, yes, that’s what it is…’ For a brief moment I was mortified as I wondered if they felt the same way when I had walked up to them to ask the question but then I’ve asked the same of people of all shades and always received enthusiastic responses. Perhaps we were just a curious race and I told them so. “You know, when I go into remote villages in India I’m asked the same question at tea stalls and gas stations. We don’t mean any harm… it is just a cultural reaction to an exotic new presence.”

“That maybe so” the lady retorted “but we’ve been in India for four years, and Hindi thoda thoda nahin, bahut aata hai and when I walk down a street in Delhi, I know what people keep saying because they think I won’t understand but we do… and it hurts us because we had known a different India back home… the land of Gandhi, the land which itself struggled against colour discrimination by its colonial masters and fought against inequality with dignity and courage… and yet in this very same country the first sign that greeted us at the airport was one that said ‘Dark is beautiful’. Agreed, there is nothing wrong with that statement, but when a nation has to make such a public assertion on the issue it proves that the nation is guiltily aware of its own deep-set racial prejudices and colour complexes, for what does colour have to do with beauty anyway? But India is a great nation and in spite of certain issues we have had a great time here. We love the culture and its people and are aware of this nation’s potential and strength. If there are certain aspects of your culture that we can’t relate to, it is up to us to change because soon India is going to become so powerful that the world will have to change with India, not India with the world.”

I was shocked by the bitterness with which she spoke. She must have had some bad experiences. I tried to explain to her that there were many Indias within one India and that colour really doesn’t matter to a large section of the population but she came back at me with “Oh, you should read your matrimonial classifieds… you’ll know… and we went into a village in North India. Even today, there is a school there which has classrooms and wells by caste… even today…”

The exchange carried on in the same vein for a while but I realised that these guys were really hurting. I went back to my friends and told them about the conversation I just had. I was expecting them to get defensive and critical of the Ethiopians and their attitude but instead one of them, a professor with a university spoke of her experience with a group of exchange students from Nepal and Italy who were in Delhi recently. Everyday, the Italian girls had complained about the behaviour they had to contend with on the streets, but what was worse were the racial taunts that the Nepalese had to endure. And yet they had hoped that at least urban Delhi with all its promise would be more accommodating.

There is nothing new about this. In the wake of the attacks on Indians in Australia, various publications had carried accounts of home-grown racism. But what my recent interactions seemed to suggest was that while India has always had a lot to be proud of, today, India sits on the cusp of greatness. Her global aura in the past has been that of a spiritual leader. Her voice has been the voice of Gandhi and Vivekananda and the values that they stood for – peace, non-violence, righteousness and tolerance. But today India is finally growing into the giant she always was, but as she grows, so would her responsibilities. To the developing world she is a beacon of what is possible, spiritually and materially, and to the developed, an assurance that her greatness, because of her heritage, would not be tainted with hubris or indifference. And when we as Indians do not live up to the values that have defined us to the world for generations, we will end up disappointing all those who come to our shores. The world awaits our coronation and the onus is on us, whether we like it or not, whether rich or not, young or not, each one of us is an ambassador for our country and we are carrying the burden of global leadership on behalf of this great nation and I sincerely hope for the sake of generations to come that the world will remember us as much for our celebrated human and spiritual values as it will for our material and military might. And to that end we will need to do all we can to shed our prejudices and embrace the world, both within and without, with all its exotic differences. After all, what good is a leader who cannot accept or embrace all, no matter how diverse and dissimilar, who come seeking guidance, a helping hand or merely a warm friendly touch…? So here’s to great power, and a greater sense of responsibility. Amen!