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.