Thursday, January 28, 2010


The shadows were getting longer. The sky, like a lake of clear water which time had dabbed with a brush of blue, was darkening… Suddenly all that was beautiful and serene in the sun-drenched afternoon seemed sinister and dangerous. As I walked along the trail that wound its way around the densely forested hills, the trees seemed to come alive. Their gnarled branches that sheltered those that walked beneath from an angry sun, now seemed possessed by dark spirits as dusk set in. The forest, once alive with the twitter of parakeets and the chatter of langurs, was now quiet. A heavy ominous silence hung over the forest like rain clouds. I was walking alone in the realm of a killer… A langur called out a warning from its perch for the night. I quickened my pace, but stopped oft en to look over my shoulder… God, how far is the car?

Sometime ago, Kuldeep Singh Gurbaksh, a 55-year-old man, was jogging along this forest path in the early hours of the morning. The view must have been spectacular at that hour. The sea of green rising and falling on the wave of hills, the songs of the songbirds, the heady feeling of fresh oxygen and the exhilaration of the climb would’ve made Kuldeep a little light-headed. He may not have noticed the rustle of leaves behind him or the pungent smell of a death until it was too late; until he heard the deep ‘woof ’, saw that flash of mottled gold and black glistening in the morning sun and felt the cold sharp claws tearing in as the jaws of death snuff ed the last breath of life out of him. It was a tragedy that some say was waiting to happen… Singh was killed by a large leopard that still roams this forest.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is one of Mumbai’s secrets. Popular with Mumbaikars of all sorts, from joggers to desperate loggers and on the ‘wrong day’, hordes of devotees that worm their way towards what is locally known as the “kewas” (The Kanheri Caves, an ancient Buddhist relic that sits on top of a hill inside the forest, adorned with gorgeous carvings). Most days of the year though, the caves are empty and are the haunt of leopards. Whenever in Mumbai with a few hours to spare, visit Borivali to partake of this rare jewel in Mumbai’s crown and then you’ll know why Mumbai wants to keep it a secret all to itself. It is incredible that a megapolis like Mumbai is home to this beautiful verdant expanse that is home to more than 35 big cats (including an elusive tiger that had once found its way into the park from the Tungabhadra forests that borders the edge of the park), and a rich variety of flora and fauna. Borivali, more than Bollywood, Tendulkar or Chowpatti, is the reason why the rest of India should envy Mumbai, for it has the most beautiful and exciting lungs of any city in the country.

But I still hadn’t reached my car that was parked at the foot of the caves, in the heart of the park. The park’s beauty and significance notwithstanding, I knew that the park’s leopards had a surly reputation. Kuldeep wasn’t the first, or the last of the killings in and around the park and I knew if I didn’t hurry, I risked being reduced to a similar statistic. After driving to the caves, I parked and followed an evening jogger, Dr Vashisht, a regular for 15 years with a handful of leopard sightings in the period. He believed that in the daylight hours, as long as one stuck to the trail and didn’t intrude into the animal’s territory, one was safe. But now Dr Vashisht had jogged off and I was retracing my steps in the darkening gloom. I saw a hut painted with artistic patterns in white on the walls. I called out and a young man, short and wiry, and reeking of country liquor emerged. A Warli tribal! “Safe to walk?” I asked. He nodded. “Leopards?” “We worship it,” he replied. “Wouldn’t harm us!” But the man-eating? He waved his hand, “not local leopards. Forestwallahs released hungry leopards from outside and the problem started.” He had a point. A problem leopard had once strayed into the Pune area and mauled nine people. Weak and starving, it had strayed into the city in search of food. It died during capture. It only had grass in its stomach. I turned to ask for directions but the man had swayed away…

Ah, head-lights! My concerned driver had come Looking

Back in the backseat, the forest was beautiful again. The lights and shadows danced and I hoped to catch glowing embers of a leopard’s eyes again. SGNP was an indeed a rare oasis, with enough for all who share it… and “all we need is mutual respect and space”, as Dr Vashisht put it, to make the relationship work.


Thursday, January 21, 2010


“Sar, Mumbai phust time?” I turned from the trio of squatting bare bottoms lining the road outside the window and looked at my taxi driver. Catching my eye in the rear-view mirror, he turned back, swung his pudgy right hand across his ample girth and thrust it in my face. “I’m Pandey, sar…” I hurriedly took it, shook it and pushed it back, just to get him looking back at the road again. “You good gentleman, saar. Bhery smart… you look like bhery gud man”. Must’ve been the hand-me-down Trussardi I was wearing, I thought. I smiled to myself as much as I smiled at him. I was making a good impression… should hold me in good stead in the meetings to come. I adjusted the knot of the tie in the mirror, nodded, and settled down into a contemplative reverie as the city stretched into a busy blur outside.

“Sar… sar…” I turned again. Pandey was pushing 60. A thick-set man, his grey sideburns peeped from under his hair, dyed a thick matte black, just like his bristlebrush moustache, wearing a crisp white shirt and a gold watch. “Aap uncha aadmi hai saar… I know what you peepul like… Renu Maurya, only 19, from Dehradun sar, English speaking bhery good girl sar” Trussed in the Trussardi, I coughed involuntarily and caught myself in the mirror looking like I’d just been kneed in the groin. The look of alarm didn’t escape Pandey’s notice. “Mai aisa waisa aadmi nahin hoon sar. I was king of Mumbai. I importing electronic goods from Dubai… earned crores… bahut maja kiya. But my partner, I tell you sar… gamble kiya… all lost sar. I sit-eat with hi-fi peepul sar… chhota kaam nahin karthey… what you want sar? Model? Engineer? Doctor? Air-hoshtesh? Phirangi? What you want, you tell… Pandey, get sar.”

Having recovered a bit, I tried to change the topic. “How much from the airport to Khar?” “350 rupees sar, metre chalu saaar…”, replied Pandey. “350 rupees? I was told it wouldn’t cross 200!” Pandey shook his head, “Nahin sar, AC taxi hai …” I called a colleague from Mumbai to confi rm. I hadn’t even fi nished talking when Pandey said “ Price no problem sar. You happy, Pandey happy. You not happy, Pandey unhappy. You go to Versova sar… ” I tried to correct him “No, to Khar, and only 200…” But Pandey wasn’t listening… “You go to Versova saar, I have fl at… outside, bhery ordinary, but inside phive star is phailing sar… bedroom, bathroom bhery nice… House wives come, give bhery good service. Only ten thousand for two, even three hours sar.” At this stage I was intrigued, from an entirely academic point of view, mind you. Somehow, I have this unhappy knack of bringing out the pimp in every taxi driver I meet. Wonder why? (check Typos February 10, 2008). Anyway, I asked why the housewives were getting involved. “At home getting bored sar, or needing money… all wanting good life na, sar. All different purpose…”

I was quiet. “You want less aged? Price more sar… 20,000 for medical students, model, air-hoshtesh 50,000… There’s bhery good girl, Renu Maurya sar…” I shook my head and looked away. “You pheeling shy sar. Don’t worry, I have sarkari clients. I’m total conphidential sar. Big names, but not telling, see… I started this business because big afsar give me idea sar. Nahin toh taxi driving, what getting sar… I having good phamily. Son studying hotel management. I’m driving taxi today but what to say sar, once a king, always a king sar… everybody knowing Pandey, see…” and as he turned the car into a lane, a traffic cop waved reverentially and smiled and Pandey waved back. “Nothing to worry sar.”

I had heard and read about this clandestine world of carnality with pretended class. But really, who was I to judge? I didn’t live their lives, nor did I have to contend with their aspirations and limitations. From the earliest of times, the most liberal of states to the most oppressive, in every land, in every time, this primal urge, like a river finding its course, always found takers, and givers. All civil society can do is offer options and ensure that this space is free from coercion and disease.

Pandey must’ve read my mind… “Bimari ke liye not to worry sar… apna Dr. Rajesh Rane hain na sar. … giving certiphicate sar…aur waise bhi, safety to using na sar…” Pandey stopped the car.

“Hum aagaye sar… please taking card. I’m useful man.” At the office gate I saw my colleague walking up with a welcoming smile. As I stepped out to pay the fare, Pandey asked with a questioning look in his eyes “Sar, if you wanting boys….?” I clenched my teeth and muttered a firm “No!” Pandey realised he had gone way off course, smiled sheepishly and said “Ok, ok sar… please call sar… Renu Maurya bhery good girl sar…” his voice trailed off behind the taxi. I turned to greet my colleague. There was only half a smile left of that once hearty welcome…


Thursday, January 14, 2010


“Inventing the wheel ruined us as a civilisation. Instead of looking within for the way to our dreams, we started exploiting our environment for quick fix solutions.” The class of under graduate students looked at me with skepticism in their eyes and chewed up pencil bottoms in their mouths…

The topic for the day was ‘Did we take the wrong turn?’ and the training tool was a book by Michael Blake, also made into a sensitive and beautiful film by Kevin Costner, called “Dances With Wolves”, an all-time favourite and one that I find deeply moving. It is the story of Lieutenant John Dunbar, who comes close to losing his leg, and is sent off to a frontier outpost on the prairies. Here the earth shakes like a drum skin as great herds of ‘buffalo’ charge from horizon to horizon and the sky is rent by the shrill whoops and cries of (American) Indian hunting parties. When Dunbar reaches the post, it is empty.

Dunbar begins a lonely vigil but eventually befriends a wolf and a neighbouring tribe of Sioux Indians. The war hero learns to appreciate their culture and their empathetic bond with the wilderness. Dunbar gradually realises that his own people are just acquisitive invaders who’re callously destroying the people whose understanding of their world goes much beyond that of his own kind. Dunbar goes over to the other side. He hunts and fights alongside the Sioux, in a battle to save not just a tribe, or its culture but their whole world and its ways, against an enemy that is stronger and cannot love or understand, but only wishes to possess all that is precious and beautiful.

It is an old battle between the lover and the ravisher, replayed in “The Last Samurai” and now again in James Cameron’s “Avatar”. It was while watching “Avatar” that I was reminded of that old hypothesis that we perhaps ended up down the wrong road, far away from where we were meant to be…

Movies like “Dances With Wolves” and “Avatar” pit the old ways against the new; where the second born, emboldened and hardened by technology and driven by a constant Oedipal lust, threatens to ravage and raze Mother Nature, and cannibalise her first born. But the pertinent question over here is, that if the natives or the Na’vi are such wise and wonderful people, then why are they weaker than their modern mechanised counterparts? Why is their saviour not one of their own?

The answer – stagnation! And whatever becomes stagnant must die. The world of the Na’vi and Indians is a world that was stuck in time and forgot to grow. But our world, the world of technology, is constantly growing, experimenting and pushing its limits, and becoming more powerful by the hour. The old worlds that crumble were as much on the wrong path as we are today. Both our world and that of the Na’vi’s is a world built on exploitation. The only difference is that while the Na’vi and the native Americans stop at horses and dragons, we’ve moved on to other more lethal resources like uranium and ‘unobtainium’.

I believe man is supposed to become a god or at least like what Sri Aurobindo said ‘…man arose out of animal, so out of man superman shall come’ but the day man thought that the only way he could go faster than his legs could carry him was by riding a horse or a wheel, he chose to become a demon instead of a deva. From that day to this, our growth has been sublime yet exploitative, enslaved to the very sources of energy that we pretend to subdue. The day they disappear, so would our growth. Stripped of technology and our tools, we still remain the naked ape we’d always been. What is worse is that our dependence on external resources has made us selfish and insecure.

And the solution? Well, one day I was browsing in a bookstore after spending some time talking to students about the goodness of Gandhi and wondering why goodness cannot protect us from a bullet fired in hate. Then, I found a book called “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”.

Born in 300 BC, Patanjali wrote his treatise “to eradicate ignorance and show mankind ‘the way’”. You can find versions of it in any bookstore. The first few chapters focus on ‘the path’ and third on the fruits of the path. In a nutshell, the book says that if we devote our lives to ‘doing good and being good’, and most importantly, we focus on the world within us through focused meditation, we’ll find all the power we need, even at the physical level, right here within us.

Do I believe it? Oh, I so want to, and it seems logical too, doesn’t it? But the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, so while I go look for someone who’s tried walking along ‘the path’, you go and pick up that book… at the very least it’ll make us nicer people.


Thursday, January 7, 2010


There’s a forest that grows by the banks of the Suheli that is weeping today. If you walk along the river, into the dappled shadows and wait for the wind to settle, for the brown leaves at your feet to stop their noisy rustle, you will hear the trees sigh and see their wooden hearts heave with grief, for the forest is an orphan today… The silence of the forest, punctuated by the moans of a lonely tiger will tell you why this shroud of grief cloaks the forest, for the forest and its denizens are mourning the passing of one of their own, that great tiger amongst men, the brave and beautiful ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh.

On the first day of 2010, I was far from the Suheli, spying on a pair of amorous tigers in Ranthambhore when a friend, a fellow admirer of the man his biographer called – The Honorary Tiger, called to say that ‘Billy’ was no more. I was saddened in an intimate sort of way. Surprising, for I’d only met him once…

Nearly a year ago, I met the 91 year old Billy in his lair. I’d met him earlier though, through his books, and then there were legends I encountered when I reached Palia, the town bordering his forest home in Lakhimpur Kheri. A friend’s uncle, my host in Palia, told me “He is old but his arms are still as strong as steel… in his youth he could heave a tractor’s axle around…” At the bazaar, the doodhwala spoke reverentially, as if talking about a local deity. “Billy sahib toh sher hain… Uu hain toh jungle hain, nahin toh je log kabka katke chulha mein phoonk dethe…” Our driver spoke of the man’s indomitable courage and determination. Apparently, not long ago, Billy was driving into the forest when he came across a truck laden with timber. There were five loggers, armed with axes at the very least, but Billy just strode up, snatched the keys away from the driver and handed them over to the cops. Though Billy was outnumbered, the miscreants were in awe of the man. Billy was fearless in his defense of the forest.

Billy wasn’t always this benign though. Born into the Kapurthala royal family with an Anglo-Bengali twist, he was a hell raiser, a soldier in the great war and by his own admission, a “callous and brutal” hunter. One evening, young Billy saw a gorgeous leopard in the forest, its eyes shining in the fading light, took aim and fired. The bullet hit home. As Billy walked up to his fallen prize, he
saw the animal gasping as it lay dying. The great beauty and strength of the creature now lay rolling in the dust. Life seemed to ebb and fade from its eyes like the setting sun… Soon it was dark and dead.

Something died with it that day. Billy never touched a rifle again, unless he was called upon to remove a man-eater, and even that he did with great reluctance.

Instead, the warrior prince of the forest devoted himself to protecting this great wilderness on the Indo-Nepal border that had given him meaning, and that battle gave him purpose. He fought off poachers and loggers, hand raised tigers and leopards and successfully reintroduced them in the wild and pursued political will until it relented and gave that tract of forest land government sanction. Thus was born the Dudhwa National Park.

Waiting for him in the courtyard of his house at the edge of the forest, I was expecting to meet a proud and battle-weary monarch. But the little bald man with the iron grip who met me was like an endearing grandfather, whose opaque blue eyes lit up like a child’s when he spoke of Tara the tigress, the days of his youth and the works of Wodehouse. Then he spoke of a dysfunctional democracy killing the tiger for it didn’t have a vote; how he was too old to keep fighting… Suddenly, he looked old, vulnerable. I wanted to hold him, comfort him and lend him some of my strength and time, for he seemed to want it so, not for himself but for the forest he loved, but was too proud to ask…

I shook hands and promised to return with a Wodehouse, but alas I took too long… Billy now roams the woods in the heavens. He’d written in one of his books, “As I gaze into the crystal ball, I see green mountainsides… river valleys and limpid waters… but no dolphins frolic in the waterways, no swampdeer churn the shallows into a rainbow mist… I do not hear the ethereal resonance of the tiger’s call… or the metallic trumpet of the sambhar…, for the King is dead.”

Indeed, the King is dead, but in his wake, is it too much to hope that at least what he lived for, and with it all who live in it, around it, off it, will live on, in peace, and one day, in harmony too?