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…