Thursday, December 23, 2010


In these pages, I have written to you of lands far and near and of lives forgotten and dear; of food we eat and people we meet; of those we love to love and those we love to be, but amongst it all, every now and then, I’ve written about the time I spent staring into the abyss, into worlds beyond ours. And aft er each trip to these dark corners, this question would linger– “Is there life beyond death? And does this ‘life’ at times wander with questions of its own, looking for answers it hasn’t found, stumbling into realms that intersect our own?”

Let me take you through these journeys, some of which you might have encountered in previous issues, and let’s together brush away the dust that had settled on these experiences…

According to lores and legends that speak of the world of spirits, there are places all around us which, because of the way the earth rises and folds (fault lines, river banks, formation of hills etc.) or due to the history and nature of the energy trapped in certain areas, have become receptacles for supernatural experiences. In other words, those places are haunted. And even those who walk in flesh and blood aren’t immune to the seductions of these corners. Perhaps that is why I oft en find myself wandering about these places, not with a preconceived notion seeking to either refute, or reaffirm, but with an honest curiosity, seeking to know and understand…


Begunkodor is a tiny station on the Purulia-Jharkhand border. Here the earth is dry and red and the black hills cast long shadows on the tiny village of Bamniya that lies to the south of the station. The station lies deserted today, with tuft s of grass peeping through the red brick walls. No passenger walks this platform and no train would stop here today and none have for decades now. The air is still and heavy and for some reason, even the birds seem to avoid the station and the lone dead tree that stands next to it.

It is said that the last station-master was a kind man who helped the village boys with their studies and games. Then one day, the children ran crying to him and told him of their playmate who’d died aft er being bitten by a snake. The station-master was saddened by the news and retired early that night. In the middle of the night he heard a voice that seemed to be calling out to him. It was a child’s voice and he wondered why one of them was calling at this hour. In his sleep he walked up to the door and even as he opened it, he recognized the voice – it was the voice of the boy that had died. The next day the villagers found a delirious station-master lying in a dry well.

The boy’s mother heard rumours that the station master had seen her son and went looking for him the next night. She must’ve found something because the station-master said the next day that he heard her banging on his door but he was too scared to open. He heard a train thundering past that very moment and heard a terrible scream. He dragged himself to the door and with quivering hands, opened the door. What he saw left him rooted to the spot and the next morning villagers found him lying in a heap by the doorway. On the tracks below lay the mangled remains of the mother. They found an arm and the head some metres away.

Two nights later, the station master disappeared. No one knows where he went and none of his successors lasted longer than a week. Some of them said they saw a woman running along the platform at night screaming out a name, while others said they saw a child sitting on a branch on the tree in the dead of the night. I later learnt that if a child died in the village, it was buried under that tree. Since then, no station master has ever agreed to man Begunkodor station and no train has ever stopped here since…

As night fell and I walked away from the station, I felt a strange gloom that had descended on the place. Twice, I felt I was being followed and while a part of me knew it was the sound of my cargo-pants brushing against the grass, another part of me made me stop and turn…but when I did, all I could see was the silhouette of the station and the dead tree framed against the inky-blue sky and a lone light from the village flickering against the shadow from the hills. I wished the village well as I drove away…


This one happened by chance. I was travelling through the forests around the Seoni hills in search of the potter’s village that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book when my car’s radiator broke down on a rocky forest track. There was a stream running through a shallow valley not too far away and as I walked down to the water I saw a red flag fluttering in the cool breeze. Now this forest was in the heart of a great wilderness where wild beasts stalked the night and even in the day, we hadn’t seen a soul for miles and miles. So what was a flag doing over here? I looked around and found a cave and a cow tied to a stake. The cave seemed empty so I waited for a while and then I saw this hulking figure draped in black walking towards me.

The man was a tantric, and once an engineer from the city of Nagpur. But he had given up his job with a public sector power company because this place called out to him in his dreams when he was a child. He had sleep walked his way to this valley when still a child but then he had been found by his family and had to return. The dreams followed him though and then when he was old enough and had fulfilled his obligations, he returned to this valley. He had no guru in the flesh but there were evolved spirits in this valley and this river, he said who were his teachers… They had taught him all he knew about tantra. He told me that the hills around the valley formed a yantra which attracted spiritual energy and spirit guides and to meditate here brought the sadhaka closer to siddhis and salvation.

I didn’t know what to believe and so the man said “wait till the moon comes out… you will see the spirits frolicking in the river with your own eyes. You’ll hear their songs and power of their spells. ” This is the closest I had ever come to a ‘promised spiritual experience’ but I had a plane to catch. I thanked the man for his time, filled up the jerry-can with water from the river and hurried back to the car, but I vowed to return.

It has been many moons since I went to these places and some others like them and it is time I returned. Death is our final frontier and one day we’ll all know, through objective experiences what it means to die and do we really live on aft er the body gives up the ghost. But until we do, perhaps it is these in-between places straddling the realms of the flesh and the spirit which might hide the mysteries of a world beyond death. This new year, I’ll try and go look for some answers, and will keep you posted.


Thursday, December 16, 2010


There’s a man I want you to meet. He’s old, about 80 and not quite himself these days with a bad case of Parkinson’s... But he’s a remarkable gentleman nevertheless.

To see him, we’ll have to go all the way to a nursing home in England, where he sits propped up on his bed this afternoon. Dark for an Englishman, he looks more Indian than English. You see him staring vacantly at the wall and you know he isn’t quite there. His mind deserts him. But there are times when his soul shines through his eyes, like a joyful dolphin breaching through the ocean’s darkest depths, dancing on the surface, briefly but beautifully. Remember the fire of his soul that flickers in his eyes, for it’s a fire that singed an empire.

Those eyes, they’ll tell you all they saw…

For what they saw when they were young was a world full of hate and fear. Do you see that world now, a world far removed from here and now, many miles and many years away, in Cape Town, South Africa. You see a road and some kids playing cricket in the heat and dust of the afternoon. They’re playing hard, with enthusiasm but you doubt they have the skills… except for the tall lad with a bat in the middle, whacking the ball to all corners with ease. Suddenly, you hear angry sirens… the game stops. The kids freeze, and once they know the direction of the approaching police car, the kids run…in the opposite direction. The white policemen run aft er the dark-skinned little urchins but they escape. It’s apartheid-time in South Africa. “Coloured” kids go to jail for playing on the streets.

Anyway, you follow the kids on their run, especially the tall one with the eyes you know, as they run through streets and lanes, past hovels and slums, until one of the younger ones calls out to the tall one “Basil! Basil!!... I think we’re safe now…” The tall one slows down, looks back at him, runs to him and puts an arm around him…the two friends are tired, but they’re happy…to be free, free to run and play…They look at each other and laugh, and laugh till they cry…

Basil grew to become quite the star in the local matches amongst non-whites (once hitting 46 in an 8-ball over) but he couldn’t ever hope to play for South-Africa. Born into an Indian-Portuguese family in South Africa, he wasn’t allowed to play with white South-Africans because the minority white government felt that it was beneath “white dignity” to mix with people of Indian or African origin. But as little Bas’s talents blossomed, so did his dreams. He was loved by his people for his brave and explosive batting, his tall hits and taller scores, and he’d like me to add, his steady, oft en inspired medium-fast bowling. But he’d grown too big for his ‘coloured’ boots. He wanted to play ‘Test’ cricket. He’d watch the great white South-African cricketers playing in the big stadium, and from his little segregated corner in the stands, wish he was there on the field, playing with them. He made up his mind to try the impossible. If his homeland wouldn’t have him then he’d try and play for the game’s homeland – England.

Basil had a friend he trusted. A man he believed had a heart as bright and bold as that golden voice of his – BBC commentator John Arlott, a household name in every commonwealth home with a radio. It was the 1950s and Basil was already on the wrong side of 25. Time was running out and he knew he was reaching for the moon, but he had to try. Arlott didn’t know of Basil when he received a letter from him that spoke of his dreams. But the story of a gift ed boy trapped by the colour of his skin touched a chord in his heart. Arlott wrote back, and thus the two exchanged letters and hope until two years passed. Then it began to wane. Basil was grateful for Arlott’s support but he knew it was too late. He was too old now… Then out of the blue came a letter from Arlott. He’d persuaded an English club to hire Basil as a professional. The pay was meager, but at last Basil would play as a professional.

Basil was delirious and his family and friends were so happy for him. In his dreams they saw their hopes of dignity and acceptance and taking flight. But those dreams had come with clipped wings, only to flutter and shatter on the hard cold floor. Basil didn’t have the money to pay his way to England.

But help walked in, in different hues. Friends, both brown and black, wroteletters and raised funds, and then Gerald Innes, a white South African cricketer heard Basil’s story and put together a team of ‘whites’. They played a match, defying apartheid-laws and its brutal police-action, to raise funds for Basil’s journey. Years later, whenever Basil would be asked to add his voice to the crescendo against ‘the white man’s tyranny’, his memory of Innes walking amongst the spectators with a pail in his hands, raising funds for his cause, would always soft en his stance.

In England, it was a quiet start for the boy from streets, walking behind his mates, looking for ‘coloured-only entrances and toilets’, but soon his great talent and greater hunger saw him take the leagues by storm. In five years, he’d become a British citizen, and perhaps because he’d lied about his age on arrival, was selected to play for England in 1966. He was 34. The old fire in his eyes must’ve glistened, for he must’ve shed a silent tear in prayer and joy that day… And then runs, dozens, scores and hundreds more flowed from his blade, and Basil scanned the horizon. England was due to tour South Africa and he was in form. This was the day he was waiting for, when he’d return to the land of his birth with so much to prove. It was a moment that he and his people had been waiting for.

But then the unthinkable happened. Basil lost his touch. It was 1968 and the Australians were touring. Basil was dropped aft er the first match. Four Tests later, they’d announce the team for South Africa. ‘Basil was worried. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Prime Minister, one-time Nazi sympathiser BJ Vorster was also worried. Not co-incidentally, Basil had been approached by a South African tobacco magnate to coach ‘non-white’ South Africans for more money that he’d ever seen. The ‘catch’- he’d have to make himself ‘unavailable’ for the tour. Basil was tempted. He could secure his family’s future if he accepted… But what of his dreams? And all those people waiting back home to see ‘Bas’, the ‘coloured’ Test cricketer? Though not on the team, Basil refused and hoped for a miracle.

It was the final ‘Test’ at the Oval and batter Roger Pirdeaux fell ill. Meanwhile, Basil had turned out brilliantly in a county game and was picked for the final match. When Basil walked out to bat, he knew he was battling not just Aussie bowlers and the pressure of a comeback but also battling the South African government that wanted him to fail as well as the weight of the expectations of every man of colour around the world. Basil scratched the pitch with the toe of his bat and took guard for far more than his team that day and slammed158 iron-willed runs that took England to victory, like in a fairy-tale. What could stop his inclusion for the tour now? But alas, something did. The selectors were informed that South Africa won’t allow a player of ‘colour’. However, the English selectors maintained that “Bas had been dropped on ‘cricketing grounds only’”. The nation erupted in support for Basil. But Basil felt betrayed by his adopted nation and maintained a stoic dignified silence even as the storm blew and grew. Then, as luck would have it, Cartwright, a bowler, was injured and Basil was recalled to the tour-team. But before a bemused Basil could join the team, Vorster exploded in Bloemfontein, calling the English team a team of “the antiapartheid movement.

”Now the English couldn’t drop him and Vorster wouldn’t have him, and so the tour was cancelled. Bas felt sorry, for his English team mates, and for himself, but most of all for his people back home. His integrity and proud dignity in the face of such rejection and betrayal stood out in stark contrast to the terrible racial bigotry in South Africa and the English sporting establishment’s tacit support. The West having hitherto turned a blind eye to South Africa’s excesses was now disgusted and embarrassed; it began to sever ties with South Africa. Within a year of refusing Basil, South Africa had become the pariah of the world, shunned and abhorred for its inhuman policies. If not for Basil D’Oliviera, the shy Indian boy from the Cape, who knows when, if ever, the world would’ve noticed, and who knows how much longer South-Africa would’ve taken to become the great rainbow nation it is today.

So when you watch India take on South Africa this week, remember to say a prayer for that old man in the nursing home for making it all happen. He might not remember everything from that summer of ‘69, but we still owe old Bas for pushing the world in the right direction all those years ago. Nothing quite as dramatic as the story of the other Indian in South Africa who got thrown out of a train, but significant nevertheless… wouldn’t you agree?


Thursday, December 9, 2010


The road blurred into a haze… buildings and buses melted and melded into the road, like paints in a picture swirling in water. All I could hear was a voice in my head that said “go left !!” and I did, but he was still coming at me. He didn’t look like he’d be able to stop himself. I wrenched the steering hard to the left and the car ran off the shoulder into a cloud of grit and dust. And yet he kept coming at me and crashed right next to me by the driver’s side-view mirror. The mirror broke on impact and I braked hard.

Everything around us had come to a sudden stop. The swirling roads, buildings and buses had become straight and dead again. The buses, people in the buses, in the streets and in the shops, they were all frozen and rooted to the ground. I was in shock. Though uninjured, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. Slowly, I turned and looked at the broken pieces of glass shimmering in the winter sun and the crumpled bundle of sheets and woolens as it slowly stood up and dusted itself. It was a young boy. I didn’t know what to feel. Should I be concerned and worried for his well being? Or should I be angry with him for running into my car in his mad rush and breaking a mirror? After what seemed an eternity, but what must’ve only been a couple of moments, I did feel something. It was relief. I was relieved that the boy was fine; relieved that I wasn’t an unwitting instrument of someone else’s misfortune or death. And relieved that that there would be no hospitals, police stations or courtrooms to visit. I opened the door and was about to step out and dispense some well-meaning advice to the kid when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was AB, my colleague, friend and fellow traveller. He had his hand on my shoulder but he wasn’t looking at me. No, he was looking out at the back and as I followed his gaze, I saw through the rear wind-shield a sight that curdled my blood.

Men, scores of men, bristling with sticks and sickles, in turbans, blankets and shawls, were running towards the car with a sense of purpose. In the blink of an eye, I had to decide whether to stay and negotiate or flee (I hate using that word but…). I’d done nothing wrong. I knew the boy was fine. Logically speaking, it was I who deserved compensation for the mirror or at least an apology. But I also knew that the crowd bearing down on us wasn’t in the mood for logic. AB made up my mind for me. He whacked me hard on the back and screamed “Go… go… go…!!!” I put the car in gear, the engine responded and even as the boy stood up and peered inside the car, we sped away. The horde followed us for as long as it could, brandishing their sticks and sickles at us. As the distance between us grew, some even pelted a few wayward stones at us, but we were too far ahead.

We knew what had happened could’ve been far worse. The kid could’ve been hurt. We could’ve been hurt. The car could have been damaged. We were very lucky. And yet I was feeling sick in the stomach. We had just fled the scene of an accident, howsoever minor – I wasn’t proud of myself. “But we didn’t have a choice…” AB retorted. And yes, looked like we didn’t.

I replayed the sequence of events in my head. We were driving on this broken back country road that led to Alwar. A Rajasthan Roadways bus heading in the opposite direction had stopped further up the road. People were getting down from the bus and most of them were crossing the road from in front of the bus where they were visible to oncoming traffic. But this kid and two of his friends just popped out from behind the bus just as we were about to cross it and were tearing down to the other side without stopping to look right or left . I veered off the road to avoid them and yet one of them couldn’t stop himself as he ran right into the side of the car. So, you see I didn’t run into him, he ran into me, and though I would’ve felt far better if I could’ve stayed to help, the aggressive crowd scared us away. Nothing much I could do, I guess.

Now here’s what happened next. Further up the road, at a police barricade, we were stopped and questioned. Someone had called up the check post and given our number and told them of the incident. Miraculously, some relatives of the boy had appeared who wanted ‘compensation’. I was all for sticking to our guns and not giving an inch since we’d done no wrong. AB wasn’t so sure. In the beginning we were threatened with cases and worse, but we’d seen that the kid was fine and so were ready to fight it out. It was a question of who blinked first. Eventually the cops lost interest and the relatives softened their stance. They just needed some money to tend to the child’s wounds. Apparently, it was our moral obligation. We too had tired of arguing and thought it would be pointless wasting anymore time. So, we offered a few hundreds as a ‘goodwill gesture’ and said it was all we were willing to ‘help’ the boy and his family with. The cops and the ‘relatives’ mulled over the ‘off er’ and then with some healthy persuasion from the cops, agreed to settle the issue. They even wrote a letter to the cops that said they were grateful for our help and had no complaints. And with that we wrapped up a rather unpleasant episode in my life.

That was more than a decade ago. Yesterday, while reading the papers, I was reminded of the same incident when I came across the story of a popular pop idol and his friends being roughed up and assaulted in Mumbai after their car hit a two-wheeler and injured the two riders. Now, this isn’t a pedestrian/two-wheeler versus car driver debate for we are all one or the other at various points of time. And either party could make a mistake for whatever reason. An accident is usually just that – an accident. The point I want to make stems from the advice those cops gave me when I asked what one should do when a mob gathers and turns hostile. Now do keep this in mind if you happen to be involved in an unfortunate incident like the above. He said, If the crowd turns hostile, not only would you be unable to help the injured but you risk getting thrashed, even lynched. And your car could be battered, even gutted. So, the best thing to do would be to leave the place immediately and then inform the police as soon as you are out of range. That’s the best you could do”.

Sage but sad advice. On two occasions in Delhi, I’ve had the opportunity to help accident victims. And I know from experience that there can’t be a better closure to something as terrible as a road accident than to take those affected to hospital and see them recover… where gratitude replaces a grudge, even if that grudge is misplaced. It would be sad if an aggressive crowd bent on meting out its own version of vigilante justice, mixed with manifestations of socio-economic repression and ethnic or even religious prejudices, prevents people involved in an accident from helping those who are hurt. Time is precious in such situations and if a party has been guilty of rash, negligent, dangerous or drunken driving, of course the driver should be brought to book, but only after the injured have been attended to.

So you might have to run away from the scene and a mob today if involved in an accident but you better report to the cops and call an ambulance as soon as you’ve got some breathing space. And for those who run our schools, I think you owe it to society to teach our children how to behave at the scene of an accident, as those involved or as onlookers.

And lastly, a lot of aggression at accident sites perhaps also stems from a lack of faith in the judiciary; from a belief reinforced over generations that the drunken truck-drivers and spoilt rich kids in fancy cars will always buy their way out of trouble so they are made to pay here and now. And I fear that no matter how much we try in our schools, as long as justice is delayed and denied in our courts, we’ll have to keep running away from an accident instead of running out to help.

I leave you with the hope that both you and I will have the courage to do ‘the right thing’ if the moment comes… and above all, walk and drive safe.


Thursday, December 2, 2010


No, its not that pigs are an endangered species. Not most kinds anyway. On the contrary, they are prolific breeders and no matter how many get poached, porked, baconed and sausaged, there always seem to be enough around. So, why on earth would I be wasting a whole page and all the time it would take you to get through it on these poor porkers? Well, because it’s the holiday season. And what better way to start one than to atone and repent. More pigs are slaughtered at this time of the year for your epicurean pleasures than any other, and while there was a time I loved pepperoni pizzas and cold ham, I stopped. In fact, I gave up eating pork long before I gave up other forms of meat. And I did that because of an incident that happened many years ago.

I was driving through one of Delhi’s easternmost corners. It must’ve been the height of summer and I remember driving past a slum cluster on one side and a busy market on the other with the windows rolled down. The air-conditioner had gasped its last and I was in a hurry to get out of the oppressive heat when I heard a scream emanating from the very depths of hell. It sounded like a bunch of school kids screaming their heads off in a great fear and even greater pain…a sound so human and yet unearthly. I just had to stop. I parked and half walked-half jogged past the stores and sheds into a clearing… a crowd had gathered. It was a butcher slaughtering piglets in his backyard…

The pig’s squealing was the butcher’s way of announcing to the area that fresh meat would soon be available. The butcher’s knife was working its way down the pig’s belly, cutting it open as the intestines spilled out. One of the pig’s legs was still kicking. I don’t know if it was still breathing…but I looked away. The sun was bearing down. And in the heat, the swirling dust was just beginning to settle, like a frenzied dancer, having twirled round and round in circles finally tiring and slumping on the floor. There were flies everywhere, on hands and faces, on flesh and faeces, on blood and butcher. My eyes wandered to the slaughtered animal’s now lifeless form. Surprisingly, the animal’s throat was intact. So, I asked a bystander how did the animal die when it wasn’t even bleeding from the throat? Was it beaten to death?

No, no, it was nothing half as humane – pigs apparently are a little tough to kill and so they truss it up, and then heat up an iron stake till it’s smoking red and then take it right through the pig’s rear end. Impaled on the stake the poor animal wriggles and writhes and suffers unimaginable agony till it dies a horrible death. I was told this method made the meat tender. Death must have been liberation indeed for the animal that had by now reduced to chunks of flesh, fat and organs. The butcher now rose and walked towards his left . The crowd followed him and as I followed the motley bunch, I realised they were walking toward this little pink piglet that had been lying in the dirt. It must have sensed why the butcher was walking towards him and struggled to escape, but it had been tied up and though it squealed and struggled all it could, the ropes held fast.

The butcher put down his carving knife and picked up the stake as his assistant bent down to hold the pig. At that moment the pig stopped squealing and looked up. For a brief moment, our eyes met. Then it looked at the other men briefly, with eyes that begged and accused in the same glance. Then with a near audible sigh, dropped its head with what I could have sworn was a sense of resignation. It wasn’t squealing anymore and its body seemed limp even as the butcher’s assistant tried to truss up the animal for the coup de grace, as if the animal was willing itself to death before the pain rammed home. I don’t know what it was – the reproachful look in the pig’s eyes, the horrible death that awaited this sweet little creature, or the horde surrounding it, baying for its blood, but I just couldn’t stand there and watch it happen. So, I turned and walked away…

Almost that very minute, I heard the pig let out a terrible scream. It was almost as if it was calling out for help. I clenched my jaws and tried to pull away but my feet were frozen. The squeals were more earnest now. I had to do something, but what? I couldn’t possibly convince them into not killing the animal. I was a pork eater myself, and God knows how many piglets would’ve suffered such a death before ending up on my plate. But I knew I had to do something. I turned and ran, muttering a prayer and hoping it wasn’t too late. To my relief, the piglet had not been ‘skewered’ yet and so I hurried to the butcher and said, “Maro mat! Don’t kill it, sell it to me.” The butcher, a small swarthy man, seemed a little startled and could quite believe his ears. So, I repeated the offer, all the while hoping I would have enough in my wallet. The crowd seemed disappointed, but the butcher was happy enough and we spat and shook hands on rupees 500 for the marked animal.

I cradled the creature as it shivered in the heat and gently nuzzled the crook of my arm. As it nestled close to my rapidly beating heart, I began to wonder, what next? It couldn’t of course stay in the house. These pigs grow too big to be urban pets. And so an animal shelter it would have to be. I drove it to Frendicoes, a well known NGO that does all it can for animals that suffer on our streets. The little porker clung on and just wouldn’t let go. It broke my heart to leave it just when it had begun to trust me, but I didn’t have options.

I went back home and read up all I could about pigs and was stunned. Pigs aren’t just the dirty, fat slobs they are made out to be. They’re in fact quite bright. They can be trained to play videogames and have oft en beaten humans, at their own game, so to speak. They are almost as quick at learning commands and tasks as apes and monkeys and a lot smarter than dogs. I read about pigs that had saved people and children from drowning during floods, and I read about pigs that protected their owners from dog attacks and burglars. We, humans and pigs, are similar enough on the inside for there to be talk of organ transplants during medical emergencies. And interestingly, cannibal cultures had oft en noted that pigs taste the most like humans.

I started thinking of the piglet as a pet and indulged in a fantasy or two about the things we’d do in the days to come. Next morning, I planned to visit the piglet before going to work and thought of a name for the little one. Just as I was about to leave I got a call. It was from the shelter. “Your pig died last night. I’m sorry we couldn’t save it. It must’ve overheated in the sun, or in your car, before you brought it to us.” It was a strange empty feeling. Somehow, I felt I had let the poor creature down – I felt responsible. I had to make up. I couldn’t think of ever being responsible for the cruel death of a creature as capable of love and pain. I swore never to touch pork ever again.

Since then, I’ve given up meat altogether. But I haven’t atoned enough. This story is another apology to that little piglet and those that have gone before him. If you, dear reader, are a pork-eater and this story makes you reconsider, it would be a small step for both of us towards making up for our many murders.


Thursday, November 18, 2010


It’s that time of the year when the soft golden light of a winter sun puts its shimmering arms around your neck, pulls you closer and whispers softly in your ears of secret adventures that hide behind the silver mist that floats along the horizon. You know you can’t go to work for another day and sit behind that desk under the fluorescence and see another glorious day fade away behind the blinds. You know you just have to see the sun rise over a clear horizon again. And you’ve got to sit under the sky and watch it go dark, like a river of ink flooding the sky…and then to see the stars come out and dot the blue dome… to see it glitter and sparkle like a million diamonds on an endless blue velvet spread…

So, you stop the car on your way to work, turn it around and rush back home. You stop at a traffic junction, curse the lights, point a finger at it and say “stay red all you want…won’t be seeing you in a while.” As you wait for it to turn green, you call up a soul mate, a fellow traveller, and ask for bags and person to be ready. You take out the SLR you haven’t used since summer, blow gently at the thin film of dust and unwrap the bubble wrap. You turn off the gas and the lights, throw in the rucksack and put your car in gear…gosh, it’s time to live again!

It’s the open road and the distant rumble of the engine merges with the gentle rumble of Don Williams’ voice as it floats away from the speakers and resonates in the cabin. Ah, a heady mix…the road hits a fork, and then the question hits you – Where am I going? And where can I go, chasing this light, away from the big smoke and the unrelenting buzzing cell-phones and droning TV sets? Where could I go for a window; into a world unaffected by the hand of a man? And whenever this question pops up, the answer flashes like a meteor across my mindscape, for there it is, hidden away in the shadow of the rocky brown hills of the Satpuras…a wild region, still untamed where roam great wild cats like shadows through the trees and where the earth still shakes under the thundering hooves of gigantic oxen as they battle for love and lordship. This is the land of Kipling’s Jungle Book – the enchanted forest on the banks of the river Pench.

Madhya Pradesh is tiger country all right. The state tourism board has done a good job of marketing it as such and almost every documentary on the tiger shot in India begins and ends in either Bandhavgarh or Kanha, the brightest jewels in the tiger treasury. Arguably, the best places in the world to see a wild tiger. But somehow, everybody seems to have forgotten about Pench, a forgotten albeit bounteous Heathcliff , blessed as much as the other two and yet, no one ever shows up here. Let me tell you about my tryst with the wonders of Pench, and maybe you’ll want to follow the light to this out-of-the-way corner in the woods, for here you’ll find all you seek on a holiday away from the world. The truth is, even I didn’t go to Pench because I wanted a holiday. I went there chasing a 150-year-old story – the story of Mowgli, the boy who ran with wolves. But the Mowgli I was chasing wasn’t the fictional hero of Kipling’s tale but a real wolf-boy, whose life inspired the legend. And what a life it must’ve been. Lost in a forest and adopted by a pack of wolves, this boy learnt to stalk and kill. Like Mowgli, this boy too returned to his village but unlike Mowgli, he didn’t return for love, nay, he returned in hunger…on moonless nights when hunting was bad, this boy and his wolf-brothers would emerge from the forest and enter the village where they’d kill and eat anything they could find – lambs, chickens, goats and even children. It’s his sinister story that gave birth to Kipling’s Mowgli.

Though that’s a story already told (see issue dated 11 May, 2008) and though it’s been centuries since, Pench still retains her mystique. Even today, you could walk by a forest stream and see a wolf pack frolicking in the shallows. If you look carefully, you might even see a shaggy naked creature amongst them whose eyes, when they look into yours, peer deep inside and shake up the wild wolves sleeping within.

But let me tell you of the Pench of today. No alarm-clocks here that just won’t ‘snooze’. Instead, here one wakes to the orchestrated harmonies of the peacock, the cuckoo and the turtle-dove. You open your windows to tree-tops glistening in the morning light and to bugle calls of rutting stags. Life goes on as it has for eons in these forests.

Near a grove by a hill stand a herd of gaur. Seven feet at the shoulder with massively muscled bodies and a great rack of horns, the gaur is an imposing sight. These oxen fear nothing, not even the tiger. Here, to walk in the woods is to walk in tune with the rhythms of nature – the world as it was meant to be.

Primal energies rule this place. The Gond, an ancient tribe that lives in and on the edge of the forest reveres the tiger as a God. They’ve built a temple to Bagh Baba. After all, who wouldn’t want to stay in the good books of this great force of nature, especially if it walks by your flimsy doors at night and whose jaws could be your last nightmare if this ‘God’ so desired it. Magnificent and brave, Pench’s tigers walk without fear. Unhurried and undeterred in the presence of a man, I’ve seen one walk right up to a jeep and stare right into the eyes of a tourist. Entranced, the man looked on, unable to tear his eyes away even as his wife mumbled a prayer and closed her eyes as the jeep backed away.

Don’t worry, if you hang around long enough, you’ll surely see tigers here. And when you do, don’t worry about having to give way to other tourist jeeps that crowd around you. You probably won’t come across two other vehicles on a busy day.

Hitherto unencumbered by popularity, Pench still retains its wild essence. As evening falls, you’ll hear the humming of the cicadas along the boulevards and if you pass the hamlets of the Gonds, you might hear the earthy notes of a song by the hearth. I know not of many such Edens still, for Pench as I remember it, still is a canvas that retains the brushstrokes of God, and for now you can take your time, there’s no rush… no, thank God not yet.


Thursday, November 11, 2010


It’s a bit like walking a high tight-rope. In the beginning, you fear you might fall. You take shaky first steps…your whole being taut like the rope, trembling with excitement and fear…fear of failing and falling… of hurting. But you want to get to the other end so much that you keep taking the next step. It’s scary, but such a thrill. Then somewhere between now and the end of the rope you realise that the path is too difficult, too long.

You want to go back…you stop, and as you do, the rope quakes and rebels under your feet…you look back and realise you’ve come too far…there would be no looking back now. So, you take the next step forward. It is then that the body and the rope begin to find a rhythm on their own. You relax, trusting your feet and the rope, a little more and before you know it, you are walking without fear…your eyes leave your feet, secure in the knowledge that the rope would be there and your feet will find it. For the first time, you take a full breath and realise that the air is sweeter up here, the view prettier…prettier than you’d ever imagined it’d be when you first started walking…that’s what it’s like to find love and keep it. Like walking a tight rope…

You keep walking. It’s so easy now…you could do it with your eyes closed, on one leg or hand, but what you always need to remember is that it isn’t the path that became easier…it was you who got better and better and better. The day you stop getting better, the tightrope will get shorter. And the day you become careless, or put too much dead weight on that rope, or worse, try to cling and clench in fear, you could still fall…the rope could break yet, and you’d fall hard… and you could get very hurt. Now isn’t that what love is like…

I found that out in the very nick of time….

Many years ago, I used to know this girl. She would catch the sunbeams in her hair and the starlight in her eyes – a bubbling fountain of happiness that I knew just had to be mine. But she was such a goddess, and I a mere slave to her charms that I saw no reason why she would deign to be with me. And yet, time and fate played hands so kind that there she was, sitting next to me, to my sins and station, she was in love and blind. The stars, yes the ones in her eyes, they were kind, and I for a while couldn’t believe that the love of my life was indeed a part of my life. Life was a rainbow until I walked into a cloud of green.

I knew myself not to be worthy of her goodness and so was afraid that she’d see through me one day, and know that I wasn’t good enough for her, that there were many far more worthy of her love. So what did I do? I began to fear the truth and tried to hide it from her. But how could I hide it from myself? Every time she spoke to some one, I feared that she’d find him better, more fun, more interesting, more capable. I couldn’t keep others from meeting her, so, I tried to keep her from meeting them. In the beginning I tried subtle manipulations, but when that didn’t work, my frustrations would go off like a spark and light up my fears… I’d explode in anger, with accusations, and lament my unfulfilled expectations. I criticised her laughter and told her the ‘truths’ about men. But if she were to laugh again, it would scald my soul, making me spew smoke and venom. I’m ashamed of the man I had become…

Shocked to see that gentle creature she’d learnt to love transform into an ogre of jealous rage, she’d go quiet. I knew she was confused and dismayed by what she’d seen and heard. And with each passing occasion, her confusion would grow, sad and then bitter…

I loved her, and yet for that love I’d make her cry, until one day I stopped myself in the middle of another diatribe, and asked myself, what was I doing? More importantly, what was she doing with a selfish fool like me? She ought to walk out on me and my insecurities right now. And if she hasn’t, she soon will…hell, I’ll make her if she doesn’t. Darn, what could I do?

Well, I can’t build Rapunzel an ivory tower and keep her away from all who seek her, but I could be her prince, the one she chose above all others. Why, I was that prince until I got too jealous to notice. And if I think she’s too good for me…that there were others who were smarter, wittier and ‘better’, the only way for me was to better myself. To try and be smarter, wittier, more poetic, more romantic than any man, or woman, she could ever hope to meet. And from that day to this, I’ve been trying, (and trust me, that’s all it takes: just try). Ever since, this tight-rope walk has been the most beautiful walk of my life.

We’ve been married for twelve years now, and fifteen since that day, but there hasn’t been a moment again that I ever stumbled into that green cloud again. I’ve become a better man than I ever hoped to be.

“To better oneself for the sake of the other…that’s what love is all about,” I told Samaira. She’d been married to Rohit for a year now, but when I met the couple last week at a friend’s house-warming, something had gone out of their magical chemistry. Samaira spoke to me (and don’t ask me why the girls talk to me, for that’s another humble story). She didn’t understand why Rohit suddenly seemed too busy. “He just comes home and watches TV. Earlier, he’d surprise me with dinner or a movie; we’d hold hands and talk, but now, he’s happier holding a ‘remote’. Before the wedding, he’d walk till the ends of the earth to catch a glimpse of my little finger and now he’s too lazy to walk from the bedroom to the kitchen even if I call him…”

“That’s the problem,” I told her. “The fact that you are in the kitchen (and here’s a little secret about your men, ladies), the fact that you are available. That makes a man lazy and relaxed. Easy to be around, but easy and boring… It’s insecurity that brings out the best, and the worst, in a good man. He needs to worship you, admire you. Sure, you’re his best-friend, but unlike his other friends, you’re also his goddess. If you get down from that pedestal you lose your halo. If he can’t look up to you, he won’t look at you, Samaira.”

It’s this dance, where the man strives to be his best, better than all other suitors, be it the fifth week or decade of love, that keeps him interested in the chase, and in love. “And in this dance, Samaira, for him to keep wanting to be worthy of your love, you’ll have to be worthy of that pedestal. Familiarity ruins romance. You’ve got to keep growing a soul more beautiful than yesterday’s, each passing day. And a new haircut, dress or botox-jab just won’t do it.”

I guess it is this shared evolution and exploration that keeps couples interested, together and in love with each other. It is this dance that makes us and the world better. Maybe old Freud did have a point aft er all. I’m too young, and know too little to preach about love, but if you’ve ever been in my shoes or Samaira’s, perhaps these thoughts would help. So long and keep dancing the good dance…


Thursday, November 4, 2010


Forgive me for interrupting the ‘Trilogy of Love’ (the epilogue to No Love Lost – episodes I & II) this week but this was urgent. I have been driving around with a lot of guilt these days. And the only way I could possibly forgive myself, perhaps even absolve myself of my recent crimes, is by sharing them with you. So, here I lay my sins bare, for you to join me in my penance, if it matters, and if you care…

Forgive me if I seem to preen and puff up my chest a bit, but in recent years I’ve grown rather proud of this habit of always stopping and snatching plastic bags out of a hungry cow’s mouth whenever I happened to spy one while driving past a dust bin or a garbage dump. I know I look like a crazed wannabe matador as I dance and bounce by the side of the road while trying to pull a polythene bag from a reluctant and often ill-tempered bovine behemoth but I just can’t drive away knowing that bag, if ingested, could kill the poor cow. In a way, I’m atoning for my own sins because until the day I found out that a simple plastic-bag could lead to unwitting murder, I too, had been blithely tossing vegetable and other biowaste tied neatly in polythene. Who knows how many cows would have met an agonising end because of my stupidity.

But then I got tired of doing it. There should’ve been fewer polythene bags around since the ban, but cows in garbage dumps seemed to be munching on them as if grass had gone out of fashion. Then one day, I was in a hurry and even though I happened to see a cow with a plastic bag rolled around its tongue, I just grit my teeth and drove past. There were just too many of them, I told myself. But of course I was wrong. This ‘typo’ is a penitent’s prayer.

The ubiquitous plastic bag went into hiding when the government in Delhi made some laws and a lot of noise about banning them. But apparently there are enough loopholes in the system that has allowed the humble yet lethal plastic back into our shops and our lives. Well, Ma isn’t complaining. And the truth is, nor are most of you. Until the plastic bag became as common as it did, none of you, Ma included, had any problems with carrying a jute shopping bag to the market. But now you’ve all been spoilt by the shopkeeper’s habit of handing out stuff in polythene and you just don’t want to change. When they brought in the law, Ma would crib about it. “What is the problem with a harmless little bag? It makes our lives easier, that’s the problem isn’t it? And who wants to see the middle class happy… not the government! And we reuse these bags… we don’t just throw it away…”, she would lament after making a trip to the market and forgetting to carry the jute bag my father had bought for the purpose. So, I would sit her down and explain, “Ma, these bags kill. And no, I’m not talking about the Mumbai floods that were caused by drains clogged with plastic. I’m talking about cows and people right here around us”. Now, cows, I hoped would really work with Ma because she’s a devout, and though she might not like the description much, a rather orthodox Brahmin girl. She wouldn’t ever want to be responsible for any hathya, least of all gau-hathya. And even if one were not to be orthodox, Brahmin or even Hindu, would we really want a harmless creature to suffer an excruciatingly painful death just because we happened to be careless, nay callous, with our shopping and our garbage?

Now that I had Ma’s attention, I continued… “When you bring that plastic bag home I know you want to reuse it. And whether it is about throwing the garbage or whether it is about feeding a cow portions of the puja offerings, I know you and most others seek out the services of that silent killer bag. And you should know what happens next when a cow or a bull happens to come across this bag full of peels, left -overs or prasad. First, the animal tries to get to the contents and avoid the bag. But its mouth is hardly as dexterous as our hands and soon enough, the plastic bag finds its way into the cow’s stomach with the rest of the stuff . Now, plastic, you must remember, isn’t biodegradable, and so there it sits in one of the animal’s four stomachs, clogging it. And with every meal, more and more plastic finds its way into the cow. Now, it can’t digest the plastic and nor can it pass it out. The stomach is swollen and distended but the animal is starving and scrawny. Lying on its side, the poor creature groans in terrible pain until it wastes away and dies a horrible death. Cut open any cow on our streets, and nine times out of ten, you’ll see a handful of bags in its stomach. The poor creature’s next meal could be its last, depending on where the bag ends up inside.” Ma was looking away. She seemed ready to concede a point. It was time to twist the knife.


Thursday, October 28, 2010


The rain was drumming up a happy rhythm on the café window, but the mood inside was rather gloomy… and awkward. Chhaya had her head in her hands. Kohl-lined tears ran down her face and her whole body shook as if a deep emotion from the very core of her being wanted to tear itself away from her and let itself out. I thought it best not to interrupt the catharsis and waited for her to calm down.

And while I waited, a montage of moments danced in front of my eyes. Th is inconsolable woman sitting and sobbing in front of me was so different from the radiant little pixie I had met more than a year ago. Those days, her smile could light up your day. I vividly remember the day Chhaya had first met my good friend Rehan at his cousin’s wedding. You could tell from that very first moment that they had a connection. What began with stolen glances, shy half-smiles, and awkward introductions soon blossomed into goodnatured ribbing, some intense ‘oh you like this…? Me too, I just love it!’ type conversations. Then came the dancing, and just by looking at them glide along the dance floor, you knew that the music could stop but they would go right on dancing to the music playing in their heads, followed by the customary long walks into the sunsets, head on shoulder and hand in hand. We would watch their silhouettes disappear into the lengthening shadows of dusk and whisper to each other and say that this was a match made in heaven.

And yet, here I was, not long after, trying to think of the right thing to say to Chhaya as she sat in front of me, hurting and bleeding from that ugly hole in her heart. Rehan had closed the door on her. They had broken up!

“I don’t know what happened…it was so beautiful,” Chhaya was looking into the distance as she spoke, and in her eyes you could see confusion and despair mingling with anger and hurt pride. Th rough Rehan, I had gotten to know Chhaya a lot better and had been a witness to the highs and lows of their whirlwind romance. “I know…” she continued, “it’s not like I think… I actually know that what we had was something special. Tell me, where did we go wrong? Why did he do this…? You know him so well…you know both of us…all of you said this was so beautiful…so this and so that…couldn’t…couldn’t you do something about it? Can’t you see he is making a mistake? Say something… do something… please…” It broke my heart to see her like that. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to say something… something sensitive and something to help ease her pain, so I said “Chhaya… er...I think, it’s too late…because you, and I’m sorry I have to say this, but it is you who pushed Rehan away. It just isn’t going to work anymore.” Yes, yes, I can hear you wince and say that it was heartless, tactless, and downright cruel for me to say that, but ladies and gentlemen, it was time for some tough love and honest truths, and if no one else was going to say this to her, I felt at least I owed it to her. After all, what are friends for?

What I’m going to say shocked Chhaya and it just might shock you too but really, nine times out of ten, if you, for the lack of a more emphatic word, were to get dumped, or even cheated on, it is going to be your fault. I’ve said this earlier on this page and I’ll say it again that most relationships, especially those we choose, are not bonds bound by contracts, obligations, and balance sheets, but organic creatures that live, grow, mutate, and die, and usually, if the relationship dies before one of the people in it, it is because the relationship was murdered. And the murderer isn’t usually the one who makes the break and walks away but the one we mistake for the victim…yes, the one who’s left standing, clutching the heart and hurting – the Chhayas of this world.

And it doesn’t just happen to women. If you had the time I’d tell you about every story I’ve heard from a heart-hobbled horse’s mouth, but for now, suffice it to say that almost every relationship I’ve seen go bust, went bust because of three classic poison darts – one, insecurity; two, ironically enough, complacency, and finally, the fatal assumption that once a relationship has begun, those in it are morally and emotionally bound, and committed to taking it to its logical conclusion and beyond.

Let’s begin with complacency. You see, partners in a relationship rarely grow at the same pace. So in every relationship, there are phases when a Chhaya worships a Rehan and puts him on a pedestal, and then comes a phase when a Rehan looks up to and is grateful that he is sharing his life with a Chhaya. These cycles can of course last for weeks, months or years, and sometimes, even decades. Th e longer these cycles last, the more the couple pushes the relationship towards its grave, because unequal partners rarely run a happy, fulfilling business. Such partnerships are reduced to mere leadership and followership. Chhaya, for instance, was so taken by Rehan’s charms that she submitted totally to his will. Everytime Rehan wanted to feel the rush he had felt when he had looked up to Chhaya, he found her at his feet instead. After a while, it was bound to get so boring that he felt compelled to look up to someone else. Love, especially romantic love, can only last between equals. Th e day you let that equation change and stop playing catch-up with your partner’s personal growth, love disappears and soon, so would the partner.

Insecurity, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. Ideally, when complacency knocks you off your pedestal while your partner is evolving every day, it should drive you to rediscover, reinvent and recreate a better, more layered, and more interesting you, who surprises your partner and pushes him/her to play catch-up, and it is this dance of growth that makes life and love interesting. But that’s the tougher path. Instead we tend to deal with our insecurities by trying to control and micromanage our partners. When Chhaya got insecure, she tried to push Rehan into tying the knot sooner than planned and became suspicious. Others become jealous and possessive, and see infidelity in every word or gesture. This only makes the relationship bitter and claustrophobic…it dies of asphyxiation.

Lastly, the unspoken contracts - these darts are the most venomous of all, for they create expectations and a false moral high ground where none should exist. Th e only universal law in a relationship is that we, and the nature of our mutual needs, evolve constantly, and the only secret to a happy, loving relationship lies in our commitment to constantly try to understand our partners as they evolve and trying our best to keep pace with, and even outstrip their growth. It is this false sense of expectation that pushed Chhaya into asking questions of destiny and me instead of her own self.

Chhaya hates me for saying those things to her that day but I know that one day, she’ll understand, and in case you are wondering what gives me the right to get so preachy, my apologies, but I happened to make those classic mistakes…and survive, as did Samara and Rohit (see issue October 31, 2010). But more of that next week…


Thursday, October 14, 2010


This one’s difficult… I’m going to be telling on my friends. But don’t worry; they’re ok with sharing a bit of their lives if those bits could help you out with yours.

It’s the story of two brothers, both good friends of mine, who met two exceptionally attractive ladies, and fell in love with them at a wedding. Today, all four are good friends of mine, but while one couple is happy, together and totally in love, the other couple has fallen out… of love, and with each other. So what went wrong? And what went right? Are there lessons to be learnt, or are all tales of togetherness mere puppets in the hands of fate and chance? Well, here’s a ringside peep into four lives, with insights that could help your loves and mine. And it’ll help if we approach their lives seeking not to judge but to understand.

Rehan and Rohit Gadgil played cricket with me in college. Their father was working with a merchant ship and spent a lot of time sailing. But their mother, a homemaker, has done a very good job of bringing up the boys. Blessed with sharp wits and kind hearts, Rehan and Rohit never lacked for company and yet, as far as we know, have always respected every relationship. Rehan is 29 years old today and works in Glasgow. Rohit is a 27 year old banker, currently living in Delhi but will move to Michigan any of these days. About three years ago, their cousin sister who’d studied with us was getting married to this boy from Kolkata, and celebrations were planned over ten days; wedding in Delhi and reception in Kolkata with parties and ceremonies sprinkled between the two big days.

The Gadgils are a popular family and had a long list of invitees. Since I also happened to be on that list, I took time off and hopped on to the wedding wagon. And there we encountered the other two protagonists of this story – Chhaya and Samaira, the groom’s colleagues and good friends. Rehan and Chhaya got along like a house on fire. They talked, they laughed, they danced and the evenings oft en found them taking long walks in the lawns. Rehan was mature, worldly-wise and elegant. Successful and suave, he had the bearing of a prince. Chhaya on the other hand had the irresistible charm of a child who knows she’s cute. When she smiles, her eyes would sparkle like diamonds under soft white light. Her bubbly effervescence was contagious. They were opposites that attracted each other with a strange playful intensity.

It was like a story unfolding out of a movie script. All of us friends would see them as they walked away, their heads tilted gently towards each other as they spoke, saw and felt what they thought to be the very essence of the other. Chhaya had a half smile that never seemed to leave her mouth. And her eyes… they danced and laughed and revealed a thousand secrets whenever Rehan was around. And Rehan, the quiet and reserved gentleman who was brilliant at his job, played golf to ‘contemplate’ and went camping on the weekends, had evolved into this live-wire who couldn’t stop talking animatedly. It was as if he’d suddenly found wings. He floated around all day, laughing and talking. And in the evening, when Chhaya was around, he was sweet and charming, and opened up to her like a tulip to the sun. That day on the terrace, those of us who saw their silhouettes disappear against the moonlit night on the eve of the wedding knew that this was a match that was made in heaven. In fact, we still talk about that magical moment… all of us but for two others…

Samaira and Rohit were there all right but they were usually just too busy in the kitchen to notice. No, no it isn’t what you are thinking… that came much later. For what was brewing between them in the beginning was not romance but intense competition. Samaira in her younger days, was, to put it plainly, rather obese. Looking at her statuesque proportions today, you’d never guess that she was once the rather grotesque, hulking figure in the photograph she carries in the flap of her phone (a reminder in case she drift s too close to the desserts). Since she couldn’t run around much with that weight in school, she picked up the shot put during her “games period (!)”. Eventually she got to be good at it. As her confidence soared, she started training for her sport. She’d always been good with books but the shot-put gave her physicality a new-found confidence. She could now hurl the put further than most of the guys in her class could and all that training in the weight room had sculpted a whole new person out of her.

Samaira now worked in publishing and was a supremely confident individual. Rohit was perhaps a little intimidated by her in the beginning. She was elder to him by a couple of years and though attractive and sweet natured, the two of them got off on the wrong foot. Actually what took off when they met was this little debate. You see, Rohit was once an aspiring fashion model. He’d sculpted his physique to a fair degree of perfection and done a few shows. He wanted to be the next Milind Soman, a male super-model, but alas it wasn’t to be; he wasn’t willing to make “the required compromises” he said. But he’s still passionate about the industry and his workouts. So when Samaira and Rohit got talking about their fitness regimens and Rohit tried to exchange notes, Samaira ribbed him a bit and said that male models were ‘pansies’ with ‘worthless bodies that looked too fluffy to be any good’. Sensitive and mild-mannered, Rohit was shocked and confused. He didn’t know how to respond without being rude to someone he’d just met. They were at a wedding after all. He avoided conversations with Samaira from then on…

But Samaira had meant no harm. So she apologized and invited him to join her for an early morning run through the city-forest. Things got a little better from there. They jogged and trained together in the mornings and played squash in the evenings. And they spent the rest of the day in the kitchen ‘experimenting’ with that rare and elusive (and some might say mythical) food-group called the ‘lick-a-licious health foods’. You could tell though that even when they’d run and made up, there was always this undercurrent of intense but cordial competition between the two.

All through the ceremonies, the families were happily speculating about a good time for a Chhaya-Rehan wedding, and at the same time bracing themselves for a moment when the veneer of cordial competition between Samaira and Rohit might collapse and they might have to intervene before things got a little unpleasant which might embarrass the families. However, the wedding week ended without incident and we went back to our old lives, richer and rounder for the experience.

Chhaya and Rehan however picked up from where they had left off in Kolkata. And while we were waiting for them to announce their ‘next step’, like a bolt from the blue, Rohit and Samaira announced their engagement…

But all that happened three years ago. Today, one couple is still inseparable while for the other, love disappeared like dew in the desert.

What is the glue that holds one together, and which is the river that divides the other? The answers…? Next week….!


Thursday, October 7, 2010


I wrote bits of this article a few years ago, but here’s a post script that completes it.

“Shona! Otho shona Buduuu…!!” I was hoping she’d stop, but you know how mothers are. It must not have been a minute after four in the morning, and she kept at it till I woke up, all bleary eyed, to the strains of a mesmeric voice chanting on the radio. That happened when I was four, and it happened again today morning, 27-years later, just as it has, on this very day of the Bengali calendar for all the intervening years (and mom, you better keep at it for decades to come).

This invocation to Goddess Durga – Mahalaya, was my introduction to that grand Bong affair called ‘Durga Pujo’. And since that day to this, autumn leaves, the voice of Bhadra and the beats of the dhak, herald the coming of the Goddess, and while I’m not much of a Bengali, nor an idolater, there is a certain magic in the air that touches the core of my being when I see the ‘pandals’ go up. It is impossible to remain untouched by the festive fervour, especially if one has been brought up in that infamous Bengali ghetto in North India called Chittaranjan Park, and I, for one, rejoice in it. It is the only time of the year when I feel connected with the Bong bit in my roots, and wallow in the nostalgia of Puja shopping, pandal hopping, and seasonal community dating.

Let me explain the last bit (these are rare insights into the psyche of the ‘Probasi Bangali’, so both non Bengalis and non Probasis pay heed). You see, my parents and many of my friends’, victims of a strange Anglo-Banglo colonial hangover, insisted on sending us to these terrible institutions called ‘Boys only convents’. Now in an environment where for most of the year, the only unrelated, teenaged, female you can sit next to happens to be your principal’s matronly Labrador, things do get a little desperate. So, come puja time, my friends and I would try and join one of the ‘jatra’ (theatre) or ‘orchestra’ (music bands) groups that would hold auditions and rehearsals in preparation for the stage shows during Durga Puja, in the hope of discovering the joys of conversing with at least one female teenager who wasn’t a relative or a dog. Such voyages of discovery oft en lasted till dashami (Dussehra) and then, thanks to a misplaced sense of propriety, hit the sand bank… till it was time for ‘rehearsals’ again.

With these and other such happy associations to celebrate, there isn’t an event in the year that I look forward to more than Durga Puja, and for the same reasons, I hate dashami and it’s sense of closure. On dashami, the idol is removed from the pandal for bhashaan (immersion) and taken in an open vehicle in a long procession, like a carnival parade, where the celebrations are perhaps wildest, and then immersed in a local waterbody, a symbolic return of shakti to nature. But I find the sudden calm of an empty pandal absolutely heartbreaking. A Durga Puja pandal is that rare platform where long lost friends meet once a year, where families distributed over colonies and continents reunite, and for a brief period of four days, are a family again, and where socially starved boys and girls get a crash course in the lessons of life. But every dashami, the fairy tale comes to an abrupt end, and no, not everybody in this happy multitude gets to live happily ever after. I’ve seen young couples celebrate a puja together and then separate, as the romance refuses to sink deeper, and seen couples much older, wrenched apart by the Grim Reaper. And yet, after every bhashaan, the revellers return to the now barren pandal, and stand, heads bowed, as if mourning the dead, waiting for the priest to bless all with ‘Shantir jal’ (waters of peace), and hope that they could live in peace and prosperity until it is time for the Goddess to return.

But you don’t have to be Bengali to be touched by the magic and romance of Durga Puja. Ask my friend, a Columban, a Christian, who met the first non canine teenaged female of his life at one of these pandals, fell in love, and after consistently meeting the same girl for four days every year for about 15 long years, got sick of waiting the whole year and married her instead...and his is not the only story. Durga Puja, like most great celebrations of the world, is about celebrating life and love, and neither your language, nor your god, ought to stop you from joining us in this celebration… so hope to see you at a pandal this puja…

Post Script : But there is a reason why I still have that sinking feeling every dashami…No, it’s not as much because I would miss the high and euphoria of living and breathing in the intoxicating presence of the goddess and other divine beings, but because I’ve grown to know that this celebration is not about bonding over prayers alone but over murder… Every year our sins start long before the pujas, when brushes dipped in toxic death anoint the goddess once she’s taken shape in straw and clay. The paints, heavy with lead and mercury, replace natural dyes and when on dashami the goddess is immersed, with it flow our callous sins, and the paint…

There the lead and mercury in the paint kills the fish. Yes the very fish that finds its way on to your plate and poisons you, bit by little bit, with cancer, liver damage and worse. The environment our celebration pollutes isn’t a river far away, but is in our bodies and our lives.

This year, a heartening change is sweeping through a fair section of Puja committees. Toxic paints are being dumped for eco-friendly dyes. And even if some are only paying lipservice, the winds of change are surely blowing this autumn. The onus is on you and me to insist and ensure that our local Puja isn’t poisoning the very waters that sustain us.


Thursday, September 30, 2010


Mohandas Gandhi might well have been the father of the nation, but to many of his children in the east, especially in Bengal, he was a father who had betrayed one of their own – Subhas Chandra Bose. While growing up in a family displaced by the partition of Bengal and the terrible riots that followed in its wake, I was conditioned a fair bit by the anti-Gandhi sentiments that I overheard whenever family and neighbours gathered around food or festivities. Incidentally, my family had moved to Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi, a residential colony that was built to house refugees from East Pakistan. Next door were the ‘Punjabi colonies’ of Kalkaji and around, home to refugees from a Punjab torn apart by partition on the Western Frontier.

For these victims of partition, Gandhi was oft en the one to blame for their woes. I grew up listening to statements like “Gandhi betrayed Subhash, he betrayed Bhagat…Gandhi favoured Nehru over Patel and Jinnah and it was Nehru’s obstinacy and Gandhi’s weakness for him that caused the partition…that’s why we lost our homes, our limbs, our loves; He sold us out to the Muslims…maybe a good man but he was a lousy leader…” and so on. Then, when I went to school, I was oft en mired in confusion and conflict. My school books spoke of how Gandhi’s ahimsa, more than anybody else, had found us our freedom, while friends and relatives in the refugee ghettoes back home told us tales of how selfless revolutionaries like Subhash, Khudiram, Bhagat, Azad, Udham Singh and Bagha Jatin had booted the British spirit out of this country long before Nehru’s tryst with destiny. The opportunistic Indian National Congress, I was told, was in fact promoted by the British, and came into prominence only because the Raj administration found Gandhi and the INC easier to negotiate with…apparently, he demanded far less, of himself, his followers, and most significantly, of the Empire.

A lot of sludge has flown under the Yamuna bridges since then. But Gandhian ideals had remained uncool for most people from my generation. In high school I was introduced to the romantic image of Che Guevara. An image that was further fortified during my studies at IIPM and the tales I heard from my teachers who are men of great learning, integrity and conviction. By now, Che and his writings had pushed me into asking questions of some other truths that I had hitherto deemed infallible. If Che was to be admired for saying ‘I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for people who are fighting for freedom, and I act according to this belief ’, then why were those picking up arms in Kashmir any different? Eventually, I started teaching a subject called appreciation of literature and history, and there while discussing Che’s principles, we ended up discussing Kashmir. The class was shocked when I said I thought Kashmir deserved to be free because a people have the right to chose to be free, especially if neither history nor culture tied them to their current national identity. After all India would never have been one country if not for the British. So is it really wrong if a people want to be free, especially if they have the historical baggage that a Kashmir comes with?

But the more I read about Che, the more I wondered if his actions were as good as his intentions. Fox History’s series on terrorism tries to project Che as a global terrorist spreading death and destruction in countries as far apart as Bolivia and the Congo but that’s just propaganda. Che never intentionally had civilians in his crosshairs and had restricted almost all of his operations against armed soldiers of the establishment. But my doubts arose from the fact that his revolutions did not have the results he sought. In fact, armed revolutions rarely do. Lives were wasted for an ideal but ideals I have come to believe, are achieved, and more importantly sustained, through evolution, and not through a revolution. And that’s when Gandhi’s ideology became one that got me interested all over again. So was that man really relevant… even today?

Yes, that frail old man in his loin cloth looked neither as brave, nor as inspiring a figure as the ruggedly handsome and macho figure of Che Guevara, but as I grew I got to learn that not only did Gandhi unarguably contribute at least an even share towards India’s freedom but also inspired a Martin Luther King Jr to have a dream and helped a Mandela, through his example, to guide a volatile new democracy to peaceful reconciliation. Gandhi’s Satyagraha inspired the Civil Rights movement, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The point is, a Gandhi gently, but firmly, asks for a change of heart, while a Che pushes, oft en violently, for a change of heads. The former, if achieved, will almost always bring about peace, perhaps even prosperity, but the latter oft en only ends up replacing one tyrant with another. Look at the Congo, Afghanistan or even Pakistan.

So, the question is, now that we stand in a world fragmented by faith and festering political wounds, where separatist movements and power struggles simmer all over the world, from Chechneya to Kashmir and from Spain to Sri Lanka, can the Gandhian path of Satyagraha and peaceful non-violent protests achieve what many a blazing gun and bleeding heart has failed to find – freedom, peace and prosperity? Or are these battles about something else altogether? Power, for instance, or wealth. Can Gandhian values overcome greed and lust someday? In the following pages, TSI goes into the tents of battle-scarred rebel leaders who share their angst and seem so human from up close, that it is difficult not to empathise…We talk to journalists who have reported from the faultlines of history seeking rationale and perspective to all this madness and finally we talk to those who still walk the path of Gandhian ideals. Their words will soothe and give hope...

As for me, I wonder, if to be able to love and reconcile with the enemy is the essence of Gandhian values, then does freedom or ethnic identity really matter? Couldn’t we have accepted and learnt to love the English then as much as we want the Kashmiris to accept us today? And centuries later, there would have been a whole new race of Indians of mixed Indo-British ancestry, just like when the Aryans mixed things up with the Dravidians, thus giving us our sense of India today.

My final lesson in Gandhian values came during a martial arts class. My Aikido (a Japanese combat art that emphasises the idea of strength in harmony) instructor told me after a particularly hard session, that “if you refuse to be the aggressor, and seek not to win over your enemies but instead to win them over, the energies of the universe will never let you lose… if you (or your causes) are right, you’ll find the might. Right, is might, and not the other way round.”

Amen to that, and whenever you clench your fist in anger against a fellow man, may the futility of violence scream out to you from the words of those who have caused it and suffered it, and may the kind compassion of a Thich Naht Hanh and the gentle yet iron will of an Irom Sharmila calm your soul and give you strength.


Thursday, September 23, 2010


Two days ago, on September 19, I drove under the rainbow bridge that fell. Gleaming in the last rays of the evening sun, it looked shiny and new. A little further, the stunning contours of the spanking new Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium shimmered in the silken hue of light beams dancing along its walls, and I remember thinking, ‘no matter how big the mess we get ourselves into, we somehow always manage to come out looking good’. Perhaps the Games would turn out fine. Yes, the guilty will end up saving face and more in the bargain but that’s a battle we can save for later. For now, I wanted to get into the spirit of the Games. I even thought of picking up tickets for a few of the disciplines. And then, today morning, the bridge fell.

Today, I entreat you, not to go for the Games.

Enough has been said about the filth in the rooms, the crores plundered in the tenders, the potholes on the roads and the terrible shards of mangled infrastructure that’ll keep pricking no matter how much you sweep it under the carpet. Let the Games not happen, some said. Let the country lose face. Only then would the guilty be lynched. But that wasn’t reason enough to stop me from going to the Games. My Bolshevik buddies said we shouldn’t be celebrating our colonial enslavement in the guise of the Games, but then we can’t change history, I said, so why spoil the party now. My relatives said we should avoid the Games. There might be terror attacks, and yet I wanted to go. Chetan Bhagat wrote that we shouldn’t go for the Games in protest against the rampant corruption that has embarrassed the country. And I still wanted to go and support Vijender, Sushil and Suranjoy as they hopefully romped to victory. I wanted to feel the rush of adrenalin as my voice became one with the crowd as we cheered our heroes on, and for a rare moment, with the tri-colour fluttering overhead and the national anthem beating in my heart and resounding in the auditorium, I wanted to feel like an Indian again, proud and one with my fellow countrymen, together in that moment of pride and glory. But today, I insist, don’t go to the Games! Don’t go if you are a fan who wants to enjoy the spectacle or the spirit of the Games. And though I know what I ask of you is a near impossibility, don’t go if you are an athlete seeking glory at these Games, because these Games are not about you and me at all but about betrayal, a rape of faith, and shame, for no matter how many medals we win, we already have lost honour and pride (and I pray we lose no lives).

Don’t go, because these Games could kill you. It’ll indeed be a miracle if some more bridges, roofs and stadium wings don’t come crashing down before the Games are over. It’ll be divine intervention indeed if there are no major accidents or if nothing catches fire during these Games. And it’ll be a miracle we’ll all be grateful for if no one dies at the Games, for chances are that some one will, either when a roof caves in or when a bomb sneaks in. Why, with the look of things, even the food could kill you if you aren’t careful, because someone somewhere was too greedy and too lazy to do his job.

At times like these, I wonder if it makes sense to want to live in this country. Don’t get me wrong. I love this land and its enchanting beauty in diversity. And without penning odes to all that is good about our country, let me assure you that I’m as much in love with and proud of our heritage, our humaneness, our potential, and our iconic stature as you are, but sometimes this sense of betrayal is so strong that I wonder… ‘why bother?’ It isn’t just the Commonwealth Games. The mess the Games are in just reinforce the feeling that we Indians are always taken for granted by those who we elect to run this country.

Take the case of honey. Last week, Centre for Science and Environment came up with the shocking revelation that honey sold by most brands, Indian and foreign, contain unhealthy levels of antibiotics that are deemed unfi t for human consumption in most countries. Apparently, there are no rules or directives laid down by the government to control levels of toxins in honey meant for human consumption in India. Now, that hurt, but one could forgive that as oversight in a developing economy. But what really cuts deep is the realisation that it isn’t oversight but apathy. You see, the government doesn’t care about the harm the honey we buy might do to our bodies. But the same government ensures that when these very same honey brands are exporting their wares, strict quality standards are adhered to and the honey is free of drugs and pesticide contamination. It’s not they don’t know. It’s just that they don’t care. You and I don’t matter.

Then there’s asbestos, a known carcinogen which is banned in most countries. But government after government has been bought out by the asbestos lobby and ships carrying asbestos that would be turned away from most international ports are welcomed in India without a thought spared for the lethal ailments that proximity to asbestos can engender. Once again, you and I don’t matter.

And then, of course, is the issue of national security. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and even Denmark and Philippines have been in the crosshairs of various militant groups with far greater intensity than perhaps India. And yet, while every attempt to cause death and destruction has been foiled in these countries by their conscientious security and intelligence agencies, in India, bombs have been exploding with the sort of consistent impunity that convinces you that you are on your own. The only ones whose security matters are those with Z + security. So while our taxes pay for their protection, you and I will have to wing it with our blood group in our pockets and a prayer on our lips.

India, despite, and not because of its leadership, stands yet again on the cusp of greatness, and as part of the generation that is hopefully going to realise the India of our dreams, and of our songs, I know it is a betrayal no less to say I want to leave this country and go live elsewhere, and for that I apologise… didn’t really mean it. But it’s an idea born of hurt and neglect and one that you too are just as familiar with. Perhaps it is the same feeling, which, when cooked with an incident of outrage, leads to young people picking up a gun, seeking vindication and retribution.

And I don’t think corruption alone is the problem. It is a malaise that I naively believe runs deeper… will elaborate next week if you have the time. Meanwhile, you stay away from the Games… and those bridges…


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Remember Emilio, the Venetian gondolier? He has a strange problem. Emilio loves his wife and now that he’s been blessed with a little daughter he wants to be a good father and a good husband. Not that he didn’t want to be a good husband in all the years he spent with his wife before little Maria was born, but it always has been so darn difficult. It isn’t really his fault that he lives in one of the world’s most beautiful and romantic cities. And is he to blame if he happens to be in one of the most glamourous blue-collared jobs in the world as a handsome gondolier in the canals of Venice? What is poor Emilio to do if a pretty young tourist looking for an authentic Venetian experience just flings herself into Emilio’s arms and begs him for a souvenir to remember? “I can’t help it, but it happens all the time,” he says, sounding like he’s almost duty-bound to comply.

“It must be such a torture, no?” I wondered aloud. Emilio smiled and said, “You have no idea,” and he was right, I didn’t. For a brief while, as we drift ed along the green waters of the grand canal, I entertained a vision or two of what it might be like to be a gondolier in Venice but just as the vision was about to approach the bit where the pretty tourist in a dress and a sun-hat is about to hurl herself at the gondolier and I’m wondering how to get the oar out of the way without knocking out a few of her teeth or dropping it into the canal when Emilio interrupted the reverie with a rather distracting remark. “It’s the blood…I just can’t get rid of it!”

For a moment, I wondered if he’d been peeping into my dream and if the oar really had gotten in the way, but no, he’d meant something else. The boat slid up next to a great white villa which must have looked rather grand once, but today with the iron bars on the windows red with rust and with the paint and plaster peeling away from the edges, it looked like a big decaying tooth…“This is my great-great-great-great grand father’s house. His name was Casanova…Giacomo Casanova. You know him?”

‘Course I do. Casanova, says the dictionary, is one who’s had many an amorous adventure, and the man whose name gave the word its meaning, Giacomo Casanova, was one of history’s most colourful luminaries – a man given to the pursuit of happiness. It was his blood that Emilio was complaining about…

Giacomo’s story, in the words of my boatman who still claims he carries his name, and the burden of his blood in his veins (amongst many others) is the story of a man who lived his 74 years (1725- 1798) in the pursuit of happiness. “Those who only know him as the man who seduced women for his pleasure and think of him as a debaucher, don’t really know Casanova and are missing the very essence of the man,” says Emilio. Casanova, he says, succeeded in his conquests simply because he was devoted to his loves. He did not have affairs because he wanted to merely douse carnal fires but because he truly was in love. It is just that when the flame flickered and the passions wore off, he did not stay to bicker and barter but instead moved on to other adventures. But never did he break a heart and dump a lover if he could help it for he always ensured that his lover’s affections had found a suitable substitute before moving on.

Casanova admired beauty but worshipped independence and intelligence in a woman. He sought the pleasure of an engaging conversation with a beautiful woman perhaps a fair bit more than the warmth of her embrace, claimed Emilio. From cloistered nuns to the neglected wives of noble men, and from famous virgins to renowned courtesans, Casanova gave all he had on the altar of their loves and was steadfast in his ardour for those he loved, for as long as he loved. A bit of research later revealed to me that this was no empty boast.

Casanova met his first love, when barely in his teens while lodging with Dr Gozzi, his tutor. Gozzi’s little sister Bettina, elder to Giacomo by a year or two, takes care of her brother’s protégé and soon their friendship leads to little games of discovery. Casanova begins to understand this strange stirring within as the force that’ll pitchfork him towards his destiny. But one day Bettina comes down with convulsions and Giacomo is told to stay away from her for she’s got the pox. Bettina’s beauty wastes away as her illness progresses. Unsightly sores and pustules cover her body and Giacomo knows that being close to her means he might catch the dreaded smallpox too. And yet he stays by her side, through her illness, hugging her, comforting her and washing her sores with love and warm water and praying for her recovery.

The joy of that first love stayed with him till his death, in a lonely corner of a castle in Bohemia. And to every lover he gave all he had, just like he had to Bettina. It’s just that he couldn’t get married, for he called marriage “the tomb of love”.

It was late now and Emilio was steering his gondola towards the gondola station near Piazza San Marco. As we glided under a covered bridge, Emilio said, “That’s Ponte dei Sospiri (the Bridge of Sighs)! When Casanova was arrested by the inquisitors for debauchery and heresy, he was taken across this bridge to the dungeons on your right. The prisons were supposed to be “unbreakable”, but Casanova , never one to give up, whether he’s chasing the chains of love or the wings of freedom, staged a famous escape and went off to Paris. This near impossible escape made him a legend in his lifetime.”

My gondola ride had come to an end and as Emilio lashed the boat to a wooden pole, for your sake, I happened to ask him, “What really was Casanova’s secret, Emilio?”

“We Casanovas, we offer ourselves in love, fully and unconditionally… seeking the lover’s happiness and pleasure before ours…and it helps if one can sing with his hands, speak with his eyes and dance with his tongue…” he laughed. So go figure…


Thursday, September 9, 2010


A red glow from the lone light struggled against the dark shadows. I tip-toed down the stairs, past the lobby where a large bemused rhino, carved out of mahogany, was staring up at three naked women hanging on the wall – a distractingly beautiful renaissance-like print called ‘The Bath’. Unlike the rhino, I managed to tear myself away from the fetching trio, past the sleepy head on the reception desk and there I was, under the inky blue pre-dawn sky, in search of a city that I couldn’t find yesterday...

Yesterday, Venice was a city lost in the arms of its many suitors…like the belle of the ball, twirled around and passed on, from one greedy hand to another…hands that touch, hands that caress, hands that grope, until the moment becomes a whirl of colours and passions that leave her with her head spinning, gasping as she holds on to the closest pair of arms, so that she may stop and catch her breath. To a bystander, she, in such a moment is stripped of both her beauty and her virtue… and that was how first I saw Venice last afternoon, gasping in the arms of strangers.

Tourists had invaded every shy corner; trinket toting hustlers from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh lined the walkways along the lagoon and fossil-fuel belching motoscafi (motorised taxi-boats) terrorised the gentle quiet of the narrow canals…I had come to Venice seeking a city famed for her limpid beauty and instead I found a city writhing, ripped and ravished.

So this morning, I wanted Venice all to myself. As I walked by the water, along empty walkways, over little bridges that arched over the languorous canals, I saw a demure Venice, still nuzzling into the sheets of a gently fading night. Street lamps blinked uncertainly. Their reflection illuminated the waters near the bank while the heart of the lagoon, hitherto dark and murky like the night sky above, lightened up, like a heavenly hand had just dipped a brush with a dash of colour into the waters…dawn was breaking.

Before I knew it, I had reached Venice’s most popular tourist shrine – the traghetto or gondola station. At this early hour, these sleek black flat-bottomed beauties were tethered to poles, gently bobbing in the water. If only they could talk, what tales they would have told of the magic and romance that this historic city has inspired over generations. I sat down carefully on the slippery steps of the jetty and took out my camera in the hope of catching the first rays of the sun shimmering on the waters of the lagoon. I was about to take the first test shot when I heard a voice “Gondola ride, sir?” I turned and saw a young man, mid 30s, wearing the traditional gondolier’s red striped shirt and straw hat. Of course, I wanted a ride. A trip to Venice without a gondola ride is a bit like a trip to Disneyland without a roller coaster ride. But isn’t it too early? “No, no…in Venice, there’s always time for a gondola ride. Hop in…”

We started on open water but soon we were navigating along one of the narrow canals. Emilio, the gondolier, asked me which country I was from and then broke into an aria which I guess was supposed to remind me of Asha Bhosle singing “do lafzon ki…” (remember that gondola song from The Great Gambler?), but the song came with the sad, and rather painful realisation that not all gondoliers can sing like Pavarotti. So after gnashing my teeth through another Emilio special, I asked him if he knew of a nice story instead. Now that he did…

“This story is from long ago but every Venetian will tell you that every word is true. The year was 1340, and it was the night after St. Valentine’s day. A great storm arose. It threatened to sweep everything away. People cowered behind closed doors and shuttered windows. The waters of the lagoon pounded the walls and dark clouds of doom enveloped the city. While the people prayed for deliverance indoors, moored under a bridge, sleeping in his gondola that night was an old gondolier. Tired and drunk, he kept sleeping while his boat was torn and tossed into the stormy sea. The salt water woke him up but he was sure he’d surely die. But somehow, as if guided by a divine hand, he and his boat managed to scramble to the shore.

There on the bank, apparently waiting for them stood a man in the holy robes of a priest. Calm and serene even in the face of that great storm, the man asked the gondolier to take him towards the mouth of the sea. The gondolier was aghast. ‘Impossible! We’ll die…’ said the gondolier. Don’t be afraid, said the holy man. ‘You’ll be safe and you’ll be rewarded.’

Reluctantly he headed seaward. He needed the money. The holy man began his prayers. As he neared the sea, the clouds got darker. Demonic warriors surfaced and assaulted the little boat but the holy man kept chanting until the clouds and the villains disappeared. All was quiet. The holy man asked him to row them back to shore.

Once ashore, the gondolier went down on his knees and asked, ‘Who are you master?’

‘I’m Saint Mark (One of the apostles of Christ and the patron saint of Venice),’ replied the man. ‘Those evil beings were the emissaries of the devil. They would’ve descended on Venice and taken away her souls but I’ll always protect this city’. The saint blessed him, but the gondolier needed more. What of the riches he was promised, he inquired respectfully. The saint asked him to go the Doge (Duke Bartholomew Gardenigo) who would fill his cap with gold. But why would the Duke believe this story? ‘…for you’ll have my ring,’ said the saint and so he gave him his jewelled ring, one that ought to have been safe behind three locks in the Duke’s treasury.

“The next day, the gondolier presented the ring to the duke who was stunned by the miracle and thus was the gondolier rewarded for his service to the city, and since then us gondoliers have remained special ambassadors of Venice.”

Not a bad story, but as it came to an end I realised that we’d stopped in front of a large white weather-beaten villa. “Whose house is this…?” I asked Emilio. “It is my great-great-great-great grand uncle’s house… his name was Casanova… know him?” …but that’s another story….


Thursday, September 2, 2010


This morning, as the rains in the northern plains were pitter-pattering out the last notes of the season, I headed west to see, if I could, the tigers of Sariska, the king’s uneasy bastion in eastern Rajasthan. I reached around mid day. Since it was the worst possible hour for wildlife-viewing, I drove straight to the first check point inside the park to ask the forest guards about the last sighting. The guards at the check point weren’t in the mood for a conversation and instead pointed at a portly figure hunched over a large log, staring intently into the bushes. I started walking towards the man when without even looking at me, he held out his arm and motioned for me to stop, then he turned towards me. And then his eyes, that’s what I noticed first about Raghav Meena... bloodshot and baggy on the left and an opaque, cold glass eye on the right. He was a short squat figure, dressed in olive green, his silver grey hair brushed back, and when he spoke, his tongue darted in and out of that gap where his lower incisors had gone missing…

Anyway, he looked at me with his one good eye and put a finger to his lips and slowly tip-toed towards me. His manner suggested that there was an animal in the bushes that he didn’t want to disturb. As soon he was within earshot, I whispered “Tiger?” The question seemed to disgust the man. He shook his head. “No tiger… Babbler! Jungle Babbler… jungle mein aur bhi jaanwar hain…” Those were Raghav Meena’s first words and as he eased his considerable girth into a steel chair, I could make out from his demeanor that he was sick of pesky tourists and journalists coming and asking him about tigers. “Sab yehi poochchte hain… where is tiger? Where is tiger? Kal dekha tiger… gate ke pass… had to drive it back into the forest… like a cow. Earlier nothing was important. When we lost our tigers, the tigers became all important, but the forest needs every animal… tiger bhi… babbler bhi…” and his lone eye burned with a strange indignation, an intensity that seemed to transcend his dowdy appearance and apparently insignificant station in life. Intrigued by Raghav Meena’s eyes and his angst, I became, at least for the moment, more curious about him than the tiger. So once he’d cooled down a bit, I asked him, “What’s a babbler?” He frowned, and stared at me for a while, weighing my question to see if I meant it in earnest and then he half smiled and his one eye lit up. He motioned me forward and quietly inched closer to the bushes where a handful of dull brown birds, almost the size of a common myna, with a yellow beak and yellow eyes, were hopping about in the outer branches. Raghav raised a finger and pointed at a fork in the branches and whispered “ghosla… the babbler’s nest” And then he confided, “There are eggs… four blue eggs!” Raghav’s eyes, yes… yes… even the glass one, were shimmering with joy and emotion. And it was infectious… Unable to contain my excitement, I tried to look around for the nest, and forgot that I had to be quiet and careful. My clumsiness attracted the attention of the babblers and all five-six of them turned towards us and started chirping and chattering. Since I’d heard that birds oft en abandon their nest if they fi nd out that a predator has discovered it, I was worried that my clumsiness might scare these birds away from their eggs and the nest. But I needn’t have worried for instead of flying away, these birds, all six of them, flew towards us. They landed on branches closest to us, above our heads and just an arm’s length away from our faces and started screeching and squawking furiously till I thought they would spill their guts. “Darte nahin hain…” said Raghav. “These tiny birds never back down. Though tiny, they’re a united lot and whether it’s people or a mongoose, or even a snake or a hawk, they fearlessly defend their nest and their turf. The jungle babbler, turdoides striata, isn’t much to look at but it has the heart of a tiger; it lives its life with the enthusiasm of a child who’s known neither death nor defeat.”

Wow, now how did this forest guard know so much and learn how to talk like that?

“Long story…” he warned, but continued nevertheless… “I’m from Bharatpur, home to the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, one of the world’s richest wetlands and avifauna populations. I spent my early years hunting ducks and teals for the pot and trapping owls and parakeets for the pet trade with my cousins and friends. Then, when I was in my teens (I don’t remember the year, some winter in the 1960s), I met Dr Salim Ali, the legendary birdman. He was there in Bharatpur and he needed some boys who could help him with ringing birds that had migrated here so that we could find out more about them. My friends and I found the thought fascinating and we followed the man around all day. From him I learnt to look at birds as not just food to eat and feathers to sell but nature’s living canvases. We were transformed. Beyond their ecological roles it’s their beauty and great spirit that touches my heart. I could sit and watch them all day…”

I remembered I had to return before the park gates closed so I thanked him and was about to leave when he said “Sir, take my number. I wanted to be birder like Dr Ali, but couldn’t… at least, this job kept me close to the forests. But I retire in two months. My sons have jobs and I have my pension. So now I’ll return to Bharatpur, learn to read and speak better, read all of Dr Ali’s books and then finally become a birding guide. I’m just starting out… do call if you need a guide, sir.” Those eyes… they were glistening again.

We shook hands and as I headed towards the gates I thought that it isn’t just the babbler ‘that isn’t much to look at but lives its life with the enthusiasm of a child who knows neither death nor defeat…’ God bless Raghav Meena…