Thursday, December 27, 2012

Guarding the streets of an Uncivil Society

The streets are burning with indignation and hurt. Yet another brutal rape screams through the night and you would have thought, so what? We will carry on with our lives, too blasé to care, too busy to dare… You would have thought a silent prayer for the poor victim and an even more earnest prayer to keep us and ours safe is all it would end with.

But we seem to have a conscience after all. We could manage to let go of our mall-walks and movie halls to gather and make some noise, to fight for the right to have a voice. But will that be enough to make our streets safe and every woman secure? Stricter laws, quicker justice, and political and executive will to implement both will surely help but would that really happen? Cynicism is not only fashionable but a survival mechanism in this country. Faith in the government, irrespective of the party in power, has only led to disappointment, frustration and a repeated sense of betrayal over the years. The politics of this country hasn’t gotten any cleaner or more committed over the years, but the electorate has… We are angrier, abler and louder, and we have greater belief in our potential to effect a change.. so let’s keep the faith in our strengths and keep pushing for a better, safer tomorrow the only way we can- by communicating, connecting and building up sustained pressure to secure a commitment from an evasive and toothless center which had supported a president who, during her years at the helm, had commuted the sentences of mass murderers and brutal rapists.

So what should we do until the government pulls up its dirty smelly socks? A lot of noise is being made about self defense programs for women and I agree… I have, on this very platform, urged women to pick up a practical and intelligent martial art like Krav Maga to defend themselves against attackers.

And I maintain that every girl, no  matter what her limitations, should spend a few hours a week practicing a martial ar. It will do her mind and her body a world of good. But when I read that the fact that the girl fought  back and bit her attacker drove him berserk which lead to the girl getting bludgeoned to the brink of death before being raped made me wonder if there were other options. Martial arts tactics are extremely effective measures against a single attacker but against multiple assailants, defiance can set egos ablaze, leading to near fatal consequences.

Call me a fool, but more than the presence of a man, it is the presence of his best friend, a dog, that can protect a woman from even a gang of potential rapists. Allow me explain my point by examining three aspects of the problem…

The Rapist(s)
Most amount of research and ‘experts’ are of the opinion that the rapist is a bully looking to dominate and subjugate a victim. His assumption, at the point of attack is that his quarry is far weaker and he is merely putting her in her place. Therefore, unlike a motivated criminal like a murderer, robber or other similar assailants, a rapist hasn’t considered the possibility of bodily harm to his own self. A man bent on murder or even a hold up is a far more desperate criminal and assumes a degree of personal risk in his endeavour. The rapist on the other hand is seeking pleasure and immediate gratification. He does not consider pain. He simply does not expect it and therefore, like a predator, picks what he assumes is weak prey. Which is why defiance triggers a fight or flight response.

A predator, be it a lion on the savannahs or a rapist in a city bus, is a bully and (under the circumstances, even a lion is) a coward. He attacks what he considers would be easiest to prey on, and when he meets resistance, he will run if there’s even the slightest risk of injury, unless bolstered by the strength of numbers that ensure that the victim would be overpowered, this time with a vengeance.

The victim
Usually a single woman, in a car, a night-club, on the street, on public transport or even at home. She is vulnerable because she is a woman. She is vulnerable because she is alone or cornered, and she is vulnerable because she is perceived to be weak. She might be a black belt and pretty nifty with her kicks and punches but the assailant does not know that. When the moment just isn’t right, she will have to defend herself against the assault. Depending on the number of assailants, the sharpness of her skills, the possibility of rescue and the nerve of the assailant, she might have to submit or survive. But how many women do we know who might have the courage, skills and determination to stand up and fight and emerge unscathed from these circumstances? In a few months, hopefully quite a few, but while you read this page right now, perhaps hardly any..
This is where the dog walks in…

The Dog
Dogs have protected man from wild animals on his hunts, his flocks and herds from thieves and predators, his home and factories and high security zones from break ins, and in South America, his children from kidnappers.
Now it is time women figured out why a dog is a better friend than a diamond.

There are as many kinds of dogs as there are people and like not every man can be an ideal protector, nor can every dog be an effective canine body guard. But some can be a better deterrent than a loaded gun. A bunch of three hoodlums might think they could take on a regular boy who might be walking the girl home after a late night at the movies but they will think twice before taking on a dog that gnashes its teeth the moment these men venture too close.

And that is so not only because a dog of the right size and temperament has obvious weapons that it displays as a threat but also because an animal with its teeth bared invokes our primal fear of being hunted by wild beasts… That fear is universal, and even an expert dog handler’s blood will run cold run cold every now and then when he confronts such a beast.

‘Manstoppers’ – dogs that are large, skilled and brave enough to take down a man with a gun would usually be too large and powerful for most women to handle with confidence. These dogs are usually above 35 kgs and have the strength to knock down a grown man. German shepherds and Rottweilers are popular ‘man-stoppers’.
But we don’t need such a powerful dog. Remember, we are not dealing with a motivated criminal but an opportunist. Even the threat of slight physical harm or a complicated exit should be enough to keep such a man at bay.

Therefore we need a dog which will be between 27 and 32 kgs, large enough to prove a challenge for an average sized man and yet not too difficult for most adult women to handle. Boxers, Airedale terriers, Chow Chows, Dalmatians and Shar Pei are all ideal breeds for this purpose. They are just about medium-sized, and yet have a lot of muscle and courage and a long history as guardians of people and property. They are intelligent and trainable and bond really well with their handlers and would happily give up their lives to protect them.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In Brazil where carjackings and kidnappings spiraled out of control and the government could do little to stem the growing rate of urban crime, a new breed called the Dogue Brasiliero emerged. It was small enough to fit into most cars and yet had the game courage and strength to fight off car-jackers in those confined spaces.

Similarly, breeds could specifically be bred to meet the demands of women who would want a canine protector to keep them and their sense of independence safe. Until then, if you are a woman and you like this idea, go pick up one of the above mentioned breeds. Look for a puppy that is bold and playful and then invest a little time and energy on training the dog into becoming an obedient friend instead of an unruly embarrassment. You don’t have to necessarily buy a pedigreed dog. Even a puppy from the streets could prove to be an able protector. Just that you cannot predict the eventual size and characteristics of a dog from the streets. Also, usually a bold defiant dog will get stoned to death on the streets and therefore most street survivors are meek and submissive by nature – not the qualities you are looking at in your protector.

Invest in a training regimen. You don’t need to hire a trainer. Just check out obedience training on the internet. Ceaser Milan’s videos are a  great starting point.

A word of warning: If you are looking to try any of the above, please take note that you need a dog that is calm and confident to protect you. If you encourage your dog to snarl and lash out at all strangers you are only making it into a nervous and fearful time bomb that is waiting to explode on an unsuspecting stranger. All you need is a dog that is well trained, looks upon you as its family/pack and is loved and well cared for. The rest will be taken care of by its protective instincts when and if the time comes.

And lastly, if the government cannot provide laws that deter, justice that isn’t delayed or bought, or enough policemen to man our streets, the least it can do is allow trained and certified protection dogs on public transport and in malls and markets after 10 pm. It will at least help those who are left helpless, help protect themselves in the darkness alleys of uncivil society.


Thursday, December 20, 2012


Anne Hathaway, you’re not alone. Let the tabloids shout and pout about a woman let down by her evening gown; it is us men who run the gauntlet of the dreaded malfunctioning wardrobe at every dead end and crossroad in our lives. So here’s one from the vault for the forgotten (until reminded) woes of being a man… feeling better already, Anne?

Brothers, this one’s for us. Our very own rant against sniggering women, thoughtless Mother Nature and the unimaginative tailor. You see, irrespective of whether you happen to be a Brad Pit or some dim loony wit, or anything in between, there are just three truths that rule your, and every other man’s life – death, taxes and the undone fly. That’s correct– the undone fly, because it doesn’t matter how cool you are and how dazzling your sartorial tastes might be, beware, for the undone fly is not a possibility but an inevitability… happens to the best of us. Like it did to Brad Pit at the ‘Benjamin (un)Button’ premiere. So if, or rather when, there’s that moment when you walked out of the office washroom and everybody looked at you as if you just stepped on a land-mine, and following their gaze all the way down you remember wishing you much rather had stepped on a land mine instead, take heart, for you’re in good company.

Why, not too long ago, I too had the unenviable opportunity of stepping on a bit of a private land mine myself. I’d walked in to office in a slick new suit and all along the corridor and past that aisle, I felt row upon row of eyes following me to my corner. That’s when you usually know a suit’s really worth what you paid for it. I stopped to chat with the two ladies who shared a cubicle round the corner, a rather elegant pair that didn’t waste their smiles on much, and yet here they were smiling and blushing in that giggly-giddy weak-kneed manner that one thought only a movie star could inspire… and so I lingered a little longer. Somehow, everything I happened to say seemed remarkably amusing to them. To be fair, encouraged by their giggles, I did make some lame jokes but when they erupted in a frenzied fit of snorting and laughter well before the punch-line, I knew something wasn’t quite right. When I mumbled if “ everything’s ok?”, the two women didn’t quite know how to bring up the delicate matter which had hitherto, obviously, escaped my attention.

After a bit of humming and hawing and a few more bashful sniggers, one of them managed to draw my attention to the off ending article. And here’s the other end of the problem… what, and how, do you do, when someone helpfully points out what shouldn’t be? Do you nonchalantly, while in mid sentence, pull up what had remained undone, and go back to whatever you were saying without breaking a sweat or worse, or do you instead apologize, turn appropriately red, look for a corner to dig a hole in and die a short death before zipping up and returning as if you just turned up for the day without any memory of all that just happened. I guess I ended up doing a bit of both, but later research suggested that I could’ve taken a leaf out of a certain Mr. Winston Churchill’s book, a man who has apparently had considerable experience in such matters.

Churchill, legends would have us believe, was prone to leaving matters ‘open-ended’, shall we say. And yet, when associates would point out his malfunctioning wardrobe to the British political icon, he always responded with a ready repartee. On one occasion amongst many, the venerable Brit was attending a party meeting when one of his MPs handed him a note that said ‘your fly is unbuttoned’, and without moving a muscle on that famous pout, Churchill scribbled back saying it didn’t matter for ‘after all, dead birds don’t fall out from their nests’. Dead birds might not fly but it takes a lot of wit and those things they play football and cricket with to do it, or rather, just say it, the way Churchill did. As for the rest of us, maybe we’re better off hoping and waiting for someone to attach one of those buzzers, the kind that goes off in modern cars if you aren’t wearing a seat belt, to the impertinent fly; or perhaps something like the auto popup mechanism from our ubiquitous toasters. The latter, I realize could have painful ramifications though, if matters aren’t timed to perfection. But add a sensor like the one on an elevator door, and voila, your wardrobe’s become embarrassment-proof.

But until then, all you can do is check for land mines whenever you see people looking at you as if you’re wearing the emperor’s new clothes. As for those of you who’ve helplessly sniggered but never figured what exactly to say when you spy a naughty fly, I did some online snooping for your sake… Take your pick and button up if…
  • Someone says ‘You’ve got windows in your laptop’
  • In Poland, someone insists that ‘the elevator’s gone down’.
  • In Spain someone says ‘Little Plane! Little Plane!’
  • In Denmark, someone says ‘Watch out for the birds (they might get the worms)
  • The Swedes inquire if you’ve been ‘partying with the girls’
  • In Australia they accuse you of ‘flying too low’
  • In The United States they ask you ‘Are you afraid of heights? (cause your fly apparently is)
But if all else fails, you could still save yourself the blushes by chucking the trousers and drawing on the strings of the ever faithful pajamas. Cheerio


Thursday, December 13, 2012


So where are you off to this winter? Is it going to be a sunny beach resort or a chalet on the lip of snow-white mountain? Or are you going to a national park to look up Mr. Stripes and check on his health? In case you’re still wondering, here, let me help…

Some Christmases ago, I was in Kumbhalgarh, a fortress town in Rajasthan. Not too many tourists, just a never ending fort wall that reminds one of pictures of the Great wall of China, and a wildlife sanctuary with wild wolf packs running through it. I was there, chasing the wolves for pictures and sightings but wasn’t having very good luck with it.

So there I stood leaning on the hood of the Mahindra 550DP GPV after a ride through the rugged bone jarring trails of the sanctuary, moping while sifting through the handful of pictures I had managed to take that morning, when another Mahindra 550 - the rover of choice on these car killer trails- drove out of the sanctuary and parked next to the tea stall where I had parked. A tallish white man, his copper blonde hair, receding ever so slightly at the temples and tied tight into a thinning ponytail hailed out to me and waved his massive Nikon… “got any good ones??”

I tried to shrug off my disappointment with a shake of the head and asked him if he had had any luck. The stranger took off his photographer’s jacket to reveal an ochre floral shirt straight out of a Goan flea market as he sat down next to me on a log bench. He asked for “ek garam chai” with a rather fluid accent and then started flipping through the pictures in his DSLR. He stopped at one, pondered for a while and said “yeah, this one…”. It was a lone wolf drinking from a waterhole in the soft warm light of dawn, it’s reflection rippling along the surface of the water. Not a masterpiece but not bad either if you ask me, especially considering all I had seen all morning was a hare frozen still by the vehicle’s headlamps.

“It’s tough to catch sight of much in some of these lesser known parks, you know..”, he said, as much to himself as he did to me. It’s not that the animals aren’t there… Just that the roads don’t go beyond the periphery of the forest and the animals are even more shy and wary because they don’t see as many tourists…” I nodded, and added… “yeah but all the big popular parks are packed to the gills with tourists. Collared tigers, gypsy jam in the middle of a forest and snack food packets blowing in the wind… nah, I’ll pass… I’d much rather wait out the holiday season in a park like this one, looking for sunrise and sunset pictures.. at least the wilderness is real”. Juha, for that was this Finnish-American’s name, smiled and said “….yeah you could take sunset pictures here or you could go to Point Calimere”. Point Calimere? No, the name didn’t quite ring a bell. Was it someplace around here? Could I drive there? As it turns out, I could drive down to Point Calimere but it would take me half a week to get there. Point Calimere is a little island, less than 50 kms away from the shores of Srilanka, cleaved from the Coromandel Coast by a swamp on two sides, and the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal on the other two.

And why is this island so special? With your permission, I will let Juha take over, and since you don’t have to deal with that unhappy marriage between his Finnish consonants and that shiny new American drawl, you shouldn’t be complaining…

“It is your country’s sweet little secret. I discovered it almost by accident. My friends and I rode out of Pondicherry on our Enfields, just chasing the coast and the salty sea winds. Without a plan or a map, we chanced upon the ancient port town of Tranquebar with its wild waves and a Danish fort and when we pressed on further, there it was, this little Eden on the very edge of India… Point Calimere.

There are a number of shrines and an aboriginal village on the island, but don’t let them distract you, for the real jewel in this crown is the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary.

Rise with the sun and head off to the grasslands where roam the pampered princes of this park… the proud and graceful blackbucks. When startled, these beautiful animals run like the wind, their shapes a blur of black, white and gold, galloping through a tunnel of dust and grass kicked up by their scampering hooves.

And just when you thought you had lost them in the distance, suddenly you see a blackbuck leap above the dust cloud, and for a moment it hangs in mid-air, like a moment in time frozen against the sky, and then just as suddenly it gives in to gravity and falls back into that dust tunnel and disappears. But soon others appear, flying above the dust and the grass, hanging in midair and then diving back into the haze.. it is a spectacular sight and you are bound to get some great pictures. But don’t exhaust all your frames just yet, for in the marsh waits this great congregation of water birds. Pelicans, ibises, storks, darters and the comic stars of the wader’s world – flamingoes, they all patrol the waters looking for food and fun. Few places in this country will have the volume and variety of water birds, both migratory and resident, that Point Calimere enjoys…”

I was impressed. This place truly did sound like a veritable Eden and from what Juha told me, this didn’t look like a place that will have tourists tumbling out of its ears. I must have been nodding vigorously at the prospect of spending a few days in Point Calimere when Juha smiled and said “Don’t break your neck over it just yet…I haven’t told you about the best part…” No? Really? What else did they have? Tigers? Leopards? Elephants? Liontailed macaques?

“No… no… no…” Juha shook his head, and continued, “ …this animal’s a lot rarer. In fact there are very few places in the world where you will find this animal. Let me tell you how I chanced upon them… On our second evening on the island, I was waiting at the shore for, believe it or not, a sunset picture when I saw this shape emerge from the surf. For a moment I couldn’t gather what this rather large animal could be but then as the silhouette charged towards me and I felt the earth rumble under my feet, I saw more such shapes emerge out of the water run towards me. As I clicked away furiously with my camera, I realized that these were the famous wild horses of Point Calimere”.

(Well, technically speaking, there’s only one species of truly wild horse left in the world and that’s the Przewalski’s horse found in the Mongolian steppes. Th ose in Point Calimere, I later discovered, are feral horses. Just so you know, feral horses are now-wild, free ranging descendents of once domestic ancestors. There are similar herds of wild horses in Australia, Europe and the Americas)

I was sold. I did some follow up research and realized that Point Calimere, at least in my part of the world, remains an undiscovered treasure. The only decent place to stay anywhere within range of the sanctuary is the Forest Guest-house, which could be a bummer if you’re already done packing in your swimming trunks for Point Calimere and are used to five star comforts. But hey, you can always go to the beach and swim the old-fashioned way.

Fate prevented me from pointing my nose in the direction of Point Calimere and setting off in search of Juha’s promised adventure. But I hope to be there before I run out of a few more Christmases. And if you’ve changed your mind and are not so kicked about this island adventure, I’m not complaining, for some secrets are enjoyed best when they are not shared…


Thursday, December 6, 2012


My father grew up by the Ganges, in the streets of Varanasi. Summer dawns were spent in the lap of the river, diving off rooft ops, crossing the currents and racing with friends between the banks. The days and years rolled by and fate and fortune brought him to Delhi where my mother, a career and I happened to him.

But every blue moon and green, the old days and the river call out to him and so we pack our bags for the holy city by the holy Ganges. Varanasi is not what it used to be when he was a young boy. There are more people, fewer cows, more cars and not as many rickshaws but the banks… the banks, he says, have remained the same through the years.

Young boys still jump off the roof tops my father used to jump off, into a river that is a lot browner than in his time, but on the ghats, life is still the same... Bearded sadhus stare at the rising sun as they chant, bathers stand in waist deep water, eyes closed, lips quivering in quiet prayer, seeking to either leave their sins behind or carry the river’s blessings with them. And high on the ghats, away from all the other river worshippers, I saw those men who triggered this tale..

Bronzed bodies, bare and oiled, glistening in the soft light of the early morn, a tiny cloth wrapped around their loins, legs muscled thick as if growing from the stone beneath their feet, broad backs straining hard, cords of muscle, rippling, climbing and descending along the length of the spine as the hands heave a massive jori – a heavy wooden club in concerted rhythm. These men, seemed to be praying too, but instead of words and chants, they were offering their blood, breath and sweat to the sun and the river, seeking eternal life, light and vigour like these two gods of the city.

I was fascinated by the aura of strength and devotion that these men exuded… you would not find that sense of surrender in a gymnasium. You would not find that almost warrior-like near-selfless struggle with one’s own weaknesses in most yoga studios.

But back home in Delhi, that memory faded with time. In South Delhi’s urbane alcoves, loin cloths and joris were a little difficult to fit in.

Then, about a couple of years ago, I met a learned man – a student of the yogic arts, and an accomplished master of some of its branches. It was he who introduced me to the gada – the ceremonial mace and battle club of yore, and a close cousin of the jori.

By now, you would have realised that what I am swinging your way is a short history of the club, an instrument of war and mayhem that once shaped the fate of epics (Lord Hanuman, Bheem, Duryodhana – they all wielded the mace to mark the pages of time) and of nations at war (from Paleolithic ages when the mace was first developed, the first weapon designed to kill another human being, to Sardinian mercenaries to Persian knights and the all conquering Russians from the middle ages, they all swung the club to shape history). But the club, unlike other weapons, could not be wielded by all. Due to its weight and design, it demanded exceptional strength from those that chose to tame it. And so it came to be a strength building tool as much as a weapon of destruction.

So, under the tutelage of the afore-mentioned yogi, I joined that long list of warriors who had swung with the club. The mace was not a mere weapon or training tool for this man but an agent of growth that was as spiritual as it was muscular. He offered to teach me how to train with the mace once I got one made for myself. He gave me very specific instructions about the design of the mace I was getting made at the local blacksmith’s. It included a sharp point at either end of the implement.

That mace is staring at me from across the room even as I type these words, as it leans against the wall and seems to taunt me. “Come, don’t be shy… lift me up if you dare. You lift weights, don’t you, bragging about all the tons you can pull in the deadlift ? Then why are you running away from me.. I wouldn’t be 25 kgs from head to toe?”

Indeed the mace or club is a treacherous lover. The odd weight distribution makes even lift ing it up a fair challenge. The yogi and I could not meet too often after I got my mace and so my lessons with it remained unlearnt. And there it stays against the wall taunting me still as I walk past, and giving it as wide a berth as the furniture in the living room would allow.

Stung by the mace’s silent insults, and frustrated by the wedge of time and space that separated me from my teacher-of-the-mace-to-be, I stalked the ancient art on the internet. And I thought, whoa! The world had passed us by… The humble mace, forgotten in the land that it shaped in war and peace, had now become the training tool of choice in the hands of martial artists, fitness experts and SWAT teams.

But all was not lost. Like on the banks of the Ganges, there are other corners where time has stood still. In remote akhadas (wrestling mud pits) across the country, there are men of steel still clubbing away in search of pride, piety and power and to them I will go in search of answers for you and for me… To know what makes the club/mace/gada/jori such a powerful workout tool? To know what it does to the body and mind and how it touches us differently from all the other weights and tools in our gymnasiums? And I will swallow my pride and seek out my teacher again to know why more than my physical self, it is the spiritual self that the mace sculpts and empowers… The mysterious powers of the unassuming club shall yet be unraveled …

So hang in there for a while, and I shall return to reveal if the club is indeed the missing link in the ‘get-fit’ plan you’ve been toying with for the New Year… But while I go looking, why don’t you get yourself a mace, brace that back and start swinging…


Thursday, November 29, 2012


Land of the tiger? Yeah ok… Land of the tiger too, but is the Royal Bengal Tiger our largest, most imposing predator? Well, not really… That crown sits not on the head of the tiger. Nay, it isn’t even the regal and mighty Asiatic lion but the massive head of a giant that lumbers his way across the mountain slopes of the high Himalayas, way above the tree line that wears this crown. More than seven feet tall and weighing in at close to 300 kgs, the Himalayan brown bear towers over its other more media friendly predatory rivals. But of all the thousands who flock to the tiger reserves with their shiny new SLRs, and XL camouflage jackets, trussed up in their luxury resort jeeps and SUVs, how many have ever trekked up to the mountains to catch a glimpse of this magnificent monster? In my defence, I must insist that I did go up to Gushaini, the gateway to the Great Himalayan National Park where walks this great beast, but circumstances stopped me from pursuing the tracks of this giant then… But I will go back!

And I have seen a few specimens of the brown bear in a zoo in Kufri… The concrete floor and the confined space did little justice to the magnificence of the bear, and yet the intelligent eyes, the hulking form and that stoic faraway expression spoke of a dignity that only the mountains can bestow on those that have learnt to live in its shadow. Little is known about this mysterious animal for few have seen it in the wild and fewer still have had the courage and the commitment to follow the animal’s trail over the rugged landscape that is its home.

As a child growing up, the word bhaloo meant just one bear species – the dancing bear. Kalandars would walk our streets on weekends and behind them would trudge large shaggy black beast, with a ring running through its muzzle. This ring was tied to a rope that the kalandar would tug at, and driven by pain the beast would dance to its mater’s tune.

I was too young to understand that. The distant barking of street dogs moving closer and closer usually told me that the bhaloowallah was here. I would never let them go past my house without cajoling my parents into paying for a show. It was fascinating to see a once wild animal that shared its home with tigers and leopards right here in front of my gate, behaving like a large well trained dog.

As I grew older, I began to recognise the pain my childhood clamouring would have caused the beasts I had grown to love, and so I stopped asking the kalandars to stop by. Gradually, the kalandars and their bears stopped coming. Then I met Kartick Satyanarayan, who runs a crusade called Wildlife SOS, and learnt about how they had gotten the kalandars and dancing bears off the streets of India and rehabilitated both man and beast.

With bear-dancing banned and kalandars employed in alternate professions, the future of the bear was surely secure, or so one thought. But bears are still poached for their bile (which has medicinal properties that can easily be replicated by herbs), paws and meat (which are a traditional delicacy in the Far East). But far more than poachers, bears are increasingly threatened by habitat destruction which is bringing them into conflict with humans. And above all there is apathy.

For an animal that is present across 26 states, far more than the tiger or the elephant, there are just two sanctuaries that are dedicated to bear conservation. For tourists, a bear sighting is a mere sideshow, and I’ve often wondered why… Even the bhaloo of my childhood, the humble sloth bear, is a large powerful animal that can hold its own against a tiger, that is perhaps as intelligent as an elephant and even if not as regal or as elegant as a big cat, is so much more animated and curious. So why doesn’t anyone care about the bear, in officialdom or otherwise?

The legends of Hanuman made the macaques and langurs into living deities. Then why didn’t the legendary exploits of the immortal Jambavan, the king of bears who inspired Hanuman to jump across the ocean, thrashed Ravana and knocked him out cold during battle and then battled Krishna for eighteen days before recognising and bowing to the Lord’s divinity, make his subjects, the bears, even half as popular as the other stalwarts of our forests? Apparently, even wild animals aren’t immune to poor image management.

A few years ago, I picked up a book by Dr MK Ranjitsinh titled Beyond the tiger – portraits of Asian Wildlife. This book was an attempt by the author to go beyond the dazzling aura of the tiger and reveal the glory and beauty of a gamut of other species that call this region home. And in his rather comprehensive attempt, the author covered species as varied as the regal Asiatic lion, the unassuming water buffalo and the ubiquitous chital. And yet, the great bears escaped even his notice. Not a word, from preface to index was wasted on them.

Before we go any further on the subject, now is a good time to embarrass you a little as I introduce our bears to you. We don’t just have a brown bear and a black bear. Incidentally, the black bear that we used to see dancing in our streets is called the sloth bear and is found throughout peninsular India. About six feet tall when standing on their hindlegs, this shaggy coated bear weighs about 120-200kgs. The Himalayan Black bear, found all the way from the Himalayan foothills and right up to the tree-line, looks like a sloth bear that uses a nice expensive conditioner and has had a trim. They are about six to six and a half feet tall and weigh about 150-200 kgs. In the Eastern Himalayas, in the shadows of the thick mountain forests walks a little bear, about five feet tall and weighing just 50-70kgs – the Malayan sun bear, the smallest of all bears. I have never heard of a tourist, travel writer or a wildlife photographer talk about an encounter with this bear in India. And then of course there is the Himalayan brown bear. Four species spread across nearly every state in the country, and yet no funding, no research, no Project Bear and just two sanctuaries. That’s enough injustice for the bears to start protesting for complete autonomy, a country of their own or reservations in conservation projects.

But all that promises to change with the launch of the National Bear Conservation and Welfare Action Plan at the International Conference on Bear Research and Management currently (26-30 November) in progress in the capital. And it’s about time too. Bear numbers across the country are largely a matter of conjecture and unless funds, time and personnel are dedicated to research and conservation at the earliest, we might end up doing too little, too late.

India doesn’t have a record to be proud of as far as ‘plans’ are concerned. Nevertheless, here’s wishing the ‘action plan’ better luck than most of our other planned endeavours and projects.

And in case some cell phone firms and news channels are listening in, how about a ‘hug for the bear’ campaign? It might be more fun than a ‘roar for the tiger’ or a ‘hog for the elephant’ drive...


Thursday, November 22, 2012


While the country celebrated the hanging of a villain who murdered innocents, I had mixed feelings about the news of Kasab’s execution. It seemed like it was the right path, the only path in fact, and yet one wondered if there could have been a path more right than this. I don’t have the answer yet and so I leave you with my thoughts from the day when Ajmal Amir Kasab was still a gun-toting specter haunting the streets of Mumbai... a story from four years ago that celebrates and remembers those who stared down death so that many could hang on to life through those four fateful days... Until i find my feelings and the answers.

Looking back on the years spent wondering ‘what would I be when I grow up?’, I don’t have regrets about the various windows of opportunity that I might have stared through for a while but then left them behind, unopened… none save one… And that regret was acting up like a dull ache from an old war wound when I saw those images of commandos being air dropped onto Nariman House…

When I was about 13, I moved from my catholic missionary ‘boys-only’ concentration camp to what I hoped was liberation and freedom in the co-educational world of Central Schools (an anglicised moniker for the staid old Kendriya Vidyalaya). While my mates at the ‘missionary’ drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial spirit that had driven their families from post partition penury, to way up the socio-economic ladder towards plenty and prosperity, the boys in KV cared for one thing, and one thing only – life in the ‘Academy’ (the National Defence Academy). That, I suspect, had to do with two things. One, most of them had been brought up on tales of valour in the family and joys of life in the ‘mess.’ And two, you didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance with the girls unless you happened to be preparing for the NDA… because for them, cricketers weren’t man enough and movie stars were mostly pansy dandies… so unless you were training to be an army officer like her daddy, you could forget about asking any of them even the time, least of all for a date.

So after watching “Top Gun” Cruise taking their breath away, I declared that I too would become an air force pilot or, after some heavy duty persuasion from the Gubernator, maybe a commando. I dropped my cricket kit and went running with the boys, cranked out push ups and pull ups, watched “Platoon” and debated about the comparative virtues of the three forces…

That was a wonderful time and we spoke of how wonderful it’d be if we all made it to the ‘Academy’ together until… until one of the NDA hopefuls did not turn up for school. The year was 1989 and news came in that his father had come back wrapped in a tricolour from Sri Lanka. Soon there were others who did not turn up for school. It was a gloomy winter, and when our friends returned, they seemed unrecognisable – gone was that enthusiasm which had fired our dreams. In its stead raged bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal. We heard about how intelligence failures and political ineptitude had left our troops vulnerable and how some of our best soldiers had to pay with their lives because some one else sitting at a desk just wasn’t smart enough to back him up. Later, one of the boy’s uncles was heard complaining about how political indecisiveness and foreign policy misadventures by our political leaders result in the needless destruction of this country’s ‘only heroes’. It was a feeling echoed by others.

The ‘Academy’ never happened. Some of us studied engineering, others management, and all those women who couldn’t see beyond men in uniform settled down happily with power dressing executives and one of them even a psychiatrist. After that winter, none of us spoke of the ‘Academy’ ever again and I have a feeling it wasn’t just us. The IPKF mission did nothing to diminish the valour of our forces, and some like the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) returned as veritable super heroes. But the Lanka operations made it apparent to many Indians, including naïve romantics like us, that irresponsible and unintelligent governance can reduce the best fighting units to mere pawns in a bout of political eyeballing.

Some of my closest friends are serving in the ‘forces’ and they are amongst the people I admire and respect the most. In fact, in the presence of a battle-scarred soldier, irrespective of nationality, I always have this debilitating sense of awe and humility – I almost don’t feel man enough in their presence (and I’m pretty sure it’s because those snooty army daughters had scarred my teenaged psyche in school). And yet, since that winter, I’ve remained disillusioned with the idea of a career in the forces. All that awe and humility was always tinged with liberal doses of pity. For who knows how they’ll meet their end… would it be on a garden chasing their dog and the grand kids, or would they instead get blown up by an IED that had been planted by the very terrorist who they had apprehended and handed over to the cops only for the local politician to have him released in no time.

But all that changed on 27th November, 2008, when I saw these modern day ninjas storming Nariman House in a bid to not take lives but save them. And don’t let the Israeli Defence Minister and Curry King Ghulam Noon’s criticism of our commandos mislead you. Indian special forces like the NSG, MARCOS and the Para Commandos are amongst the absolute best in the world, and I’m not the only one saying this. John Geddes, ex British SAS (Special Air Service – the mother of all Special Forces units) and now a celebrated and battle hardened PMC (Private Military Contractor) wrote pretty much the same thing in one of his books. And thus the regret…

There were brave people amongst the hostages, some of the hotel staff, but while these were heroes by chance, these soldiers are heroes by choice and design; heroes of not just this moment but of this nation. And while I wouldn’t agree with what my classmates had said about our sportsmen and actors, who happen to be this nation’s ambassadors and cultural flag-bearers, there’s no denying that these masked crusaders, much like comic book super heroes who save the day and then disappear without a trace, are the only real action heroes of our times. Looking back, I feel it’s a shame we gave up on the Academy, for lousy bosses notwithstanding, there’s nothing like saving lives for a living, especially if you have the skills to put your own on the line and get out alive. Nevertheless, the SF are better off without us, and here’s to our gallant men in black. May they continue to save our face and lives, and may they live long and prosper… God bless them, and a billion more…


Thursday, November 15, 2012


Sometimes we need a jolt to wake up, to stay good and to be strong. And then we need people to hold us tight through these tests, to remind us of our goodness when the mirror fails to point out any... Here’s a jolt from the vault that helped one find one’s inherent goodness. May both the lessons and the people who hold us tight through these jolts live long and live strong...

Buddha was finding it difficult to sit on the cold steel chair. His head hurt, his back was sore, his eyes were dry and his heart, cold. Sitting in that tiny blue room, Buddha waited. On the table in front of him sat three empty cups, chipped and stained, just like the walls around him. In the cup closest to him, he could see a fly struggling to escape the sugary bog at the bottom of the cup. Buddha tore a strip of paper from his notebook and fished the fly out… and then he waited some more.

Just hours ago, Buddha had been walking towards his tutor’s house, when he heard a familiar voice… “ Buddha, wait… !” Looking up, he saw a head dart in from a first floor window. It was Babu, his friend, a fellow ‘gang member’. Babu could not contain his excitement. “Come, I have a plan!” What happened next was still a bit of a blur for Buddha. The tuitions forgotten, the two reached the parking lot of a theatre and ‘got to work’, stashing their newly acquired ‘loot’ in the satchel that contained Buddha’s unused notebook.

With the satchel bursting at the seams, the two friends started off on their last ‘job’. Just then, footsteps… The two friends turned and saw a bunch of parking attendants running towards them… “Woh dekho chor, saale... Pakdo saalon ko, maaro!” Buddha and Babu ran hard and Babu made it past the gate first, followed by Buddha. “Phew! Made it” thought Buddha, and just then he heard a crash and felt a tug. Entangled between his shoulder and a prone bicycle, its wheels still spinning, was his satchel. Metres away, sprawled out on his stomach, muttering curses lay the rider. With his pursuers closing in, Buddha tried to disentangle himself and run, but before he could, the mob caught him. Babu, meanwhile, had disappeared.

At this point, his memory becomes a patchwork of curses, cuffs and the warm salty taste of his own blood; he remembers a thick fleshy fist catching him by the scruff of his neck and pushing him onto a yellow motorcycle, crushed between two coarse, rather odorous, khaki shirts, to the local police station, and a rather thick stick. “Kaun tha therey saath, naam bata? Nahin batayega?!” Thwack, went the stick on Buddha’s bare legs.

“@#%*! Chori kabse kar raha hai?” thwack. Somehow, all through, he does not remember feeling any pain. “Kahan rehta hai?” Buddha was quiet again. “Murga banao c#*$*#$ ko!” Thwack, thwack went the stick again. Buddha could feel an excruciating throbbing pain in his legs and his back. Buddha lied about his address. “Jhoot bolta hai saala!” thwack, thwack thwack… Buddha gave in…

At this very minute, while Buddha waited on that cold steel chair, a policeman was knocking on a door. But while he waited, Buddha was surprised he hadn’t cried. He was after all a child, barely nine years old. Until now Buddha hadn’t felt either guilt or shame, just a stubborn resolve to be as difficult as possible, like a primal animal that thought nothing of the future, only living and fighting for its present. But now, as he saw his mother walk into the police station, Buddha looked away, afraid to make eye contact. One of the constables, in one smooth motion turned the satchel upside down, and like a hail storm beating against a window pane, car logos… three-pointed Mercedes stars, Toyotas and dozens of Maruti Suzukis tumbled and clattered onto the floor and the table… Buddha saw the expression of mild indignation on his mother’s face turn into disbelief and shock. “It’s just a game Ma… just a game,” Buddha pleaded, as his mask melted away. He was nine years old again, scared and embarrassed. He expected her to scream at her, to tell him what a ‘good-for-nothing’ he happened to be, but she became very quiet... She apologised to the policemen, and assured them that she’ll ensure better conduct from her only son and to their credit, the cops did not drag the issue and let Buddha and his empty satchel go…

That evening, many many years ago, as my mother and I walked back from the station, I remember wishing I could somehow make her understand that the only reason I did what I did was because I believed that was all I was good at… this is all that my peers noticed about me. I knew everything I was bad at and no one told me what I might’ve been good at till I found this game. I was braver and quicker than them and had the logos to prove it.

For a change, those who sniggered when my math teacher announced my scores were looking upto me… wanting to be with me… and that’s what I wanted, not the logos. But I couldn’t say all that, didn’t need to I guess. Though I’ve never asked her, I’m sure she’d known, or at least felt all that I wanted to say. So, in front of our house, she looked into my eyes for the first time and said “ You’re not a bad boy. You’re a good boy. I know it, I believe it… now you have to know it; you have to believe it. Do you?” The dam broke and I wept like the child I was. Through the tears, I nodded, and promised to be as good as she thought me to be.

It’s been 23 years, and every day, I still try and keep that promise. And I’ll tell you this, if anybody ever disappoints you, don’t tell them how bad they are; tell them how good you know they can be, and more often than not, they’ll become that ‘good’ and better… it works, just ask my mother…


Thursday, November 8, 2012


The dragonfly flapped its transparent iridescent wings with a slow deliberate jerk, like the early swivel of a chopper’s rotator blades before taking off while I zoomed in carefully. Its dark head and bulbous eyes grew bigger and closer in the view finder. As the focus rim turned, the image grew clearer… There she was, holding onto a tall stalk by the bank, basking in the soft warm light of a November morn and then I clicked, and she was gone, buzzing her way along the bank in search of a corner where a man with a camera would not pry into her morning duties.

I followed her for as long as the eye could follow, out of the canopy of the trees by the bank and then lost her as the expanse of the lake, Sultanpur jheel, stretched out in front of me. It is early November, and many winter visitors are yet to arrive. It does not have the fairground look, with constant quacking and kroo-krooing of all the waders and new arrivals jostling for prime space on the lake, just yet. It is more like a sleepy Eden-like resort town, going about its easy business as it prepares for the tourist season.

Sultanpur National Park is not for you if a trip to Ranthambore is a waste of time if you do not get to see a tiger. The only large animal I have seen in all my visits over all these years is the ubiquitous nilgai. But the place has plenty of large birds. Flocks and flocks of painted stork dot the skies as they fly to and from their roosts, while the black necked stork is hard to spot because there is only a pair in the park. Egyptian ibis and spoon bills share space with egrets in the shallows while the meditative grey heron stands aloof, all by itself near a little grassy island.

Up on a dead tree sits a cormorant, its wet feathers glistening in the sun that has now gained strength. As it stretches out its wings for them to dry in the sun, the vignette of the bird, with wings out stretched on the naked tree against a still blue sky, acquired a stunning silhouette. I hurriedly changed lenses and trained the camera on the image and clicked and clicked till I felt I had gotten it right. I need not have rushed though, for long after I was done, bird, tree and sky remained like that, as if fused into one another.

Sultanpur’s joys however lie not in the sighting of a bird or tree, although that nutty species called birders might disagree (I once ran into an old birder friend of mine at Sultanpur who was hopping up and down with his digi-scope and joy for he had finally spotted a wood sand-piper. Infected by his enthusiasm, I asked him to point that rare jewel out to me. And so he lined up his digi-scope for me and with baited breath I panned the scope, and there it was – a rather unremarkable mid-sized brown bird with a slim and elegant bill scampering along the sand. I tried but failed to match his enthusiasm with my reaction. He packed up his scope and walked away with a “you’re not a birder, you wont get it” look. And I had to agree, I did not. But where was I, yes, Sultanpur’s joys… and yes they stretch far beyond the sighting of a particular species of bird or beast. The joy of wetland lies in the way along the path oothes all the senses. The water, the trees and the birds have a therapeutic effect on the body and the mind. If you are having a low day, go to Sultanpur (avoid the crowded weekends though) and I dare your spirits to not lift themselves up once you are there by the lake.

I will be lying however, if I did not admit to having a special agenda every time I go there. Actually every time, I am there, I hope to catch either the glorious and utterly beautiful sight of a pair of sarus cranes dancing.

Once long ago, while on a 2nd class train ride back from Kolkata, I was sitting near the window and watching the darkening clouds gather over the horizon. There were no farms nearby and the ground was a bare sandy brown and right next to the train, these two large birds were dancing, literally stepping in synchronised and apparently well choreographed steps, to the beat of their own calls that rent through the silent sky and the chugging train. I was a mere boy then and yet I remember the majesty of the moment in all its delicate detail. And hopes of seeing the resident pair at Sultanpur dance draw me to the park over and over again. Incidentally, saruses mate for life and are even said to die of pining and self-imposed starvation when its mate is killed or has died.

The other dark desire I harbour is a little more primal. I hope to catch two blue-bulls (male nilgai) lock horns in a battle for the right to love. I have heard a lot about the spectacle where rival males go down on their front knees as they wrestle for supremacy. And do not blanche, it is usually a bloodless affair which involves a lot of parrying and thrusting but little blood-letting.

But though I have never seen what I set out to see at Sultanpur, walking all alone into a tongue of land that juts into the marsh, away from all the visitors, and watching the sun set over the red and gold waters makes up for it all. The stillness and the magnificence of the moment is a precious gift that needs to be preserved. But Sultanpur is not free from woe. Poaching and drying up of the lake waters have been intermittent problems that have found a bit of space in the press but one consistent trouble that I have seen plaguing the park over the last decade and a half has been cattle grazing in the park. Catttle, unlike wild ungulates, uproot the vegetation that they feed on, and this, especially in the soft soil environment of the marsh can really change the character and composition of the park’s botanical values. This could be for both better or worse, but when uncontrolled it would always be rather damaging and could increase run-off and siltation of the lake.

Delhites, mired as we are in our smoggy concrete jungle, are fortunate to have access to this little eden in our backyard. Let our apathy not see it go the way of other wetlands in the region which have been neglected and drained, and once the birds have gone or driven off, ‘reclaimed’ for callous industrial or housing projects.

And while you mull over the pros and cons of the above comparison, I suggest you do that while admiring the sunset in Sultanpur. You will know which way your weight should go...


Thursday, November 1, 2012


What price will you pay for a sliver of hope when in the throes of despair? When you are all alone on an island of doom, separated from the life you lived and loved, by an ocean of anguish and disease, what would you give for a community that embraces you and voices that say “you’re not alone, we understand”? What would you call a Prometheus who steals hope, faith and inspiration from fate and by his very example, gives it all to you, when doctors, friends and family tell you with a shake of the head or an unwept tear that they believe you have none? Why is such a man any less than an angel, complete with a halo and a pair of wings?

So what if the wings were powered by EPO (erythropoietin – a performance enhancing drug) and USADA (US Anti-Ddoping Agency) just clipped them. So what if the once-superman responds to the name Lance Armstrong and is right this moment trying to explain to his kids why they are burning his effigy in England… Isn’t a fallen angel an angel no more?

What’s all the hullabaloo about anyway? Count out Western Europe and the United States and then show me a soul from anywhere else in the world who gives a four letter word about the Tour de France… You’ll be hard pressed to find one.

Ever heard of Miguel Indurain? Do the names of Greg Lemond or Floyd Landis, Jan Ulrich or Marco Pantani ring any bells? My guess is you haven’t got the faintest idea. But, what of a certain Lance Armstrong? Heard of him? Sure you have… you’re probably wearing a yellow LIVESTRONG band on your wrist right now, or perhaps tut-tuting with friends about how Lance let you down. But aren’t we all missing the woods for the trees here. To most of us, the fact that Lance Armstrong has been a seven-time Tour champion is only the sub-text. To us, he had been a greater hero for trouncing cancer and coming back from the dead (he was given only a 40% chance of surviving his race against cancer) and then emerging a champion. And yet, we didn’t wear the LIVESTRONG band and celebrate the Livestrong movement (the Lance Armstrong Foundation or Livestrong Foundation has been support on all fronts to cancer patients and research organizations for the last 15 years. The world can’t have enough of such foundations) because we wished him greater victories in the races around the world. After all how many of us can name a cycling race other than the Tour de France? No, we wore the band because we identified with his cause… Because he was fighting a disease we dread; because the millions and millions of dollars he was raising for cancer research could one day help us, or someone we love, wrestle this nemesis of mankind into submission and remission; because there are people all over the world who have found comfort and support through his organization during their lonely and often expensive battle with their own bodies, and yes, admittedly also because Lance Armstrong didn’t just survive, he won, and don’t we all love a winner.

But he is no winner at all! He is a ‘cheat’, you’d say… and I say you’re wrong. Doping - the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs - has been a part of the Tour’s underground culture ever since the first edition in 1903 when many riders admitted to using ether and alcohol to dull the pain through the grueling ride up the mountains. Why, even the legendary Eddy Merckx faced a ban for doping. And all through the Armstrong years, his strongest rivals, Marco Pantani, Ivan Basso and Jan Ulrich, have all been convicted of doping offences and have faced bans or suspensions. No wonder Armstrong’s titles haven’t been awarded to anybody else. In fact, apart from Spanish rider Fernando Escartin in 1999, who finished third behind Lance and tainted Swiss rider Alex Zulle, almost every cyclist who finished on the podium behind Armstrong is a proven or accused drug-cheat. No wonder, the UCI (International Cycling Union) hasn’t awarded the vacant titles to another rider yet. In fact, it is hard to find even one rider in the top 10 at the Tour de France during the decade of 2000, who hasn’t been accused of doping.

And what about those who followed in his wake? Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour champion was stripped of his title when found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs and even Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion has faced suspensions for doping.

It really isn’t a question of who is clean and who is tainted on the Tour but more a case of who gets caught and who doesn’t. I’m not defending Armstrong for having used drugs to gain an unfair advantage. I’m just saying that it was his way of leveling the playing field, and even his worst critics would agree that during that decade, it was impossible for a rider to win if he wasn’t on a sophisticated doping programme.

If Lance indeed did take drugs, then sure take away his halo and strip him of his titles if you must, but you can’t just dismiss his sporting credentials. If he was a champion cheat, it only proves that he beat the cheats at their own game. But beyond all that, we cannot destroy the legacy of Lance Armstrong the humanitarian just becomes his achievements are in a sport that is still confused about how to keep the system clean and whose method of doling out punishment is so arbitrary that some tainted riders still have their titles, a few suspensions and bans notwithstanding, while others are shamed and stripped with a vengeance.

Today, Armstrong the cyclist, even with his seven titles intact can’t hold a candle to Lance the humanitarian and cancer fighter. The former just doesn’t matter and nor is he half as relevant as the latter. To shun and shame and attempt to destroy the Livestrong movement just because cycling’s governing body suddenly suffered a bout of wakeful action is worse than throwing the baby out with the bath water. The Livestrong band is a symbol of solidarity in our fight against cancer, and it’s a symbol that has been instrumental in raising millions for a cause. There was no cheating there. There was no lie there. So stop tearing that down and if you took it off in shame, put it back on… the world still needs Livestrong.

As for Lance, is it right to punish a man for buying an unlicensed gun to protect himself in a lawless and violent society? Maybe it is, if you say so, but I can’t seem to share your conviction.

I say we forgive the cyclist his sins, but let us still continue to celebrate the man and support the movement. We owe him that. We owe every cancer patient that...


Thursday, October 25, 2012


Much water has flowed past the banks of the Yamuna since I last wrote this, and yet not a lot over here... no, that would be unfair, but yes, definitely not enough has changed since.

Undoubtedly, there are more who care and more who know and understand about all that I have to say, and yet there would be places that you and I would know of, where we still partake of sins in the name of God. So here’s a reminder for us to do all we can, where we can, to ensure that the spirit of faith and the joy of celebration are not marred with the stain of death and the guilt of decimation... Shubho Pujo!

Perhaps it is too late. By the time you read this page, all those who sin on our behalf would have already sinned in the name of God. But as they say, better late than never…

It is that time of the year again when the Kash flowers sway in the autumn light and the Probashi (non-resident) Bengali spirit gets a second wind. It is that time of the year when the Mother Goddess returns to Pandals and homes across the country for a four-day-long celebration of divinity and cultural character – it is the time for Durga Puja. Every year, there is a child in me who waits for these days of the Puja like a farmer waiting for the rain, and yet for the last two years though, I must confess that my celebrations have always been tempered with a tinge of guilt.

Two years ago, I came across an article in an environmental magazine about the terrible damage that the Durga idols cause to our river systems when they are immersed into the rivers after Dussehra. Both these years, I thought I should do something about the issue and yet every year I would go no further than discussing the issue with a couple of DPCs (Durga Puja Committees) and sharing my concerns while the venerable old men heading these committees would nod sagely and say “Shoththi kotha khoka… what you say is true son, but what to do…? Such are the times we live in,” and with that, we both would wash our hands off the matter and carry on with our respective Puja preparations.

But this year I wanted to do more…

Durga idols are legitimate works of art. Tuft s of straw, a pile of bamboo and dollops of clay (thankfully still a far more popular medium than plaster of Paris which though easier to work with, pollutes the river systems unlike clay) blend under the artisan’s masterful touch and lo and behold, there stands in front of you an image that reflects both beauty and beatitude. Now somewhere in the middle of this artistic process, the artisan, who in all probability descends from a family of idol-makers, dips his paintbrush into a jar of chemical laden paint to add colour to his creation and it is this paint that happens to be the villain of the piece. These paints carry toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium and tonnes and tonnes of these pollutants enter our river systems during every Durga Puja and Ganesh Utsav. But so what, you say? Well, whatever we put in our rivers, lakes and oceans flows right back to us through our taps. And if not the taps, you’ll find traces of these very toxins in the fish you might buy from the market in your neighbourhood, because in all probability, the fish must have been half-dead with all the poisons we poured into its habitat before the fisherman caught it and sold it back to you. And what do these noxious elements do to our bodies, you ask? If you must know, they usually come up with various ingenious ways in which they could cause organ damage and failure in our bodies. Convincing logic, I would’ve thought but I knew not much would come of my attempts to talk to some of the DPC members I was familiar with. Neither was there any point in speaking to the civic authorities. Traditionally, they have been far too timid to confront communities on anything which might sniff of anything remotely religious and expecting them to implement whatever rules there might be was asking for too much off even one as naïve as yours truly.

So the only red hands left to hold were those of the artisans themselves, so off I went to ask them what they felt about the issue. When I entered the thatch and tarpaulin structure that was both studio and home for these industrious folk it was late evening. I could see a handful of artists working on more than thirty idols of various dimensions by the light of a single naked bulb. Seeing these simple folk work so hard and with such apparent devotion, I felt a tad guilty about accusing them of all the horrible things their actions were undoubtedly setting in motion. But when I did talk to them, instead of getting defensive, the boss-man on the floor, a lean and grey old man with a single betel-stained tooth in his mouth ‘smiled’ and assured me that they only used natural and vegetable dyes to paint these idols and were totally aware of the environmental hazards associated with lead laden paints. What could I say…? I felt relieved… and happy. At least in one locality, there was a conscientious environmental movement afoot, and at the very least, this was a start. I walked around the ‘workshop’, admired the idols in various stages of completion and was about to leave when tucked away under a stack of straw I spied three cans of a popular brand of chemical paint. I realized that the only simpleton under this roof was me and when I asked single-tooth gran’pa about the paint cans, he just put on his ‘I’m just a poor ignorant fool’ mask and said “Oh… but I was told this is natural paint… isn’t it? Who to trust in the city, babu…” Well, the wily old man was not going to be the ally I was looking for either. Looks like I started my crusade a little too late this year, so yet again the Yamuna will cough and choke and leak lead right back into our homes, but I have an action plan ready for next year. Here’s how this works… I happened to meet two of my friends, one in south Delhi and the other in east Delhi, both influential members of their local DPCs, and they have promised to take up the cause in their respective committees next year. Additionally, they have promised to allow me into their review meetings and all meetings for next year, where I could try and convince the committee to insist on an eco-friendly idol like some of the Ganesh Utsav committees in Mumbai this year. Dear reader, you too ought to try and do your bit to sensitise and convince your local DPC because the river we eventually pollute with our callousness is actually the one that runs in our veins.

And while we are at it, maybe we should also insist and ensure that the dhakis, traditional professional drummers who play at Durga Puja pandals, only decorate their drums with artificial feathers. Until I read an article in the Hindustan Times, I had always assumed that these tall and beautiful plumes gracing the drums were artificial. But the article revealed that thousands of egrets and storks are trapped and killed to provide plumes for the drums (about four birds are killed for each drum). Such brutality for the sake of vanity will surely not find divine sanction and if our celebrations cause such misery and pain, surely such joys would be short-lived. And if some of you are wondering, then what of animal sacrifices at festivals, I would only repeat that if there is a God, then our act of destroying what He created can cause Him no joy. But that is a debate for another occasion… for now, let us just ensure that our celebrations remain events that spread happiness and good cheer and not pollutants and fear…


Thursday, October 18, 2012


“Cricket needs the West Indies to do well!”, screamed the papers at the start of the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. It was as if the fortunes of the game were tied to the success of the cricketers from the Caribbean. And toddlers and teen agers playing cricket in the maidans of the sub-continent would wonder why those men in maroon might matter any more than cricketers from New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or any of these other often honest but hardly ever spectacular cricketing teams. Yes, the West indies have Chris Gayle, but take away the last two IPLs and what exactly do you remember of his greatness?

Almost on cue, arrived Stevan Riley’s ode to West Indian cricket, Fire in Babylon. This award winning documentary film lasted no longer than a week in theatres in Delhi, but the few who did catch this film would have come to know why West Indian cricket is so valuable for world cricket.

Every sport needs champions, to inspire the fans; to create history, glorious history; to draw the spirit of young heroes to be; to sell cars, clubs, TV rights; but most of all, a sport needs heroes to define itself, to survive, to capture the imagination of generations, so it continues to be played, for years, decades and centuries. And cricket has not had taller heroes than those that walked the green ovals of the game in the 70s and 80s, than those men from the happy islands in the West Indies.

When I was just beginning to play and read about the game, in the early and mid 80s, cricket was a battle for second place. The crown rested well beyond reach, on a beautiful black head that turned only if you called out “ Hey Viv! Is that a bat or a battle axe yer holdin’, maan….?!”

Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards had just taken over the captaincy and inherited this legacy of invincibility from Clive Lloyd. Sachin Tendulkar is respected for his class and sublime mastery and Jacques Kallis for his guts; Inzamam-ul-Haque for his power and Brian Lara for his silken grace, and Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar may have attained greatness through their sheer prolificacy, but never has a man walked on to a cricket pitch and combined the brutal and raw savagery of a vengeful Samson with the imperious swagger and elegance of a man born to rule. No batsman before or since has inspired such knee-quaking fear in captains and bowlers around the game.

Richards was a great batsman not just because of his power and balance, his innovative strokeplay or even the sheer courage and skill that made him hook a superfast bouncer from Jeff Thompson or Andy Roberts from front of his nose and deposit it in a gutter outside the stadium while wearing just his maroon cap and crest for protection. No sir, for what made those eyes burn with passion was that furnace of black pride that burnt in his heart.

But though King Viv was the master of all he surveyed, West Indian supremacy wasn’t built on just his massive shoulders and the flair and brilliance of his fellow hardhitting willow wielders alone. Four tall, strong men, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft , menacing hunters who hunted in a pack, scalped batsmen with the hard red cherry hurled at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. They were called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, and wherever they went, destruction followed. Wherever they stood, batsmen fell, to the ground, clutching a head or a limb, spitting teeth and blood, writhing in agony. And these four men walked on, leaving splintered willow, wood and bones in their wake.

I remember my friends and their brothers and uncles speaking in hushed tones about the West Indian pace battery, the kind of tone they use in fairy tales to speak of dragons and ogres and other supernatural agents of fear and mayhem. Cricket had been elevated to another level. Hitherto, it had been a game for gentlemen - aristocratic batsmen, working class bowlers and reluctant fielders - who went along with the English garden tea script, and except for the odd Bodyline series or a mercurial Compton, Miller, Trueman or Sobers, had remained an expression of class, race and existing post-colonial socio-cultural values instead of a truly athletic sporting endeavour.

Clive Lioyd’s boys changed all that. The natural athleticism that their fathers brought with them from the shores of Africa was honed into sublime skill on the sun-kissed beaches of the Caribbean and was then forged into winning steel during the Packer-series (where they became the first real team to have a fitness coach) that eventually cut through all opposition for nearly two decades. For 20 years, this team dominated the game through pace and power. But suddenly, it all changed. The first brigade had retired by the mid 80s. Roberts, Lloyd, Holding and Garner… But there were eager titans waiting to take wing. Desmond Haynes and later Richie Richardson joined Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge to keep the batting as formidable as ever while the pace juggernaut now looked even more formidable with the fearsome Malcolm Marshall who delivered hissing mambas and cobras that spit, swore and bit the batsman hard, sharing demolition duty with two lethal assassins, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.

In the 90s, all seemed well on the surface, but as these warriors aged, so did that aura of invincibility that had cocooned West Indian pride for so long. Black power, the pride of a once-slave fighting for dignity and then for vengeance, redemption and then glory, for himself, his race, his team, and for the right to look his white master in the eye after whipping him blue and telling him, “I am black, and I am better than you!”, had been the flame that had set the game ablaze in the islands. For a people torn away from their history and culture, cricket was war that gave them their history and their pride. It gave them the right to say, “we are children of men who ruled the world”. But in the 21st century, that legacy was lost on a generation born free that sought not equality but opportunity. Economics and a culture that drew its influences from its closest neighbor, the United States, far more than from its old colonial past led to an exodus of talent into other richer sports. Athletics (Usain Bolt, need I say more) and basketball (Patrick Ewing, Al Horford) became the sport of choice for the next generation of Holdings and Garners.

Without their pace battery, the attack lost its teeth. The West Indian pacers, now a motley bunch of fast-medium men like Merv Dillon and Cameron Cuffy, had become human again. With the bat, they still had a cricketing giant amongst them in Brian Lara but that old fire was just a pile of smoking ashes now. A loss to those babes-in-the-game, Kenya in the ‘96 World Cup was followed by a series of losses at home. Pride was dead and had been put to rest in the islands. An decade and a half of excruciating ordinariness followed until last week, when almost like a prophecy that needed to fulfill itself, The West indies touched glory and a World Cup again.

But will this glorious new chapter in their once rich history of triumphs set the tone for the near future. Will the West indies win back their legacy of global dominance in World Cricket? Well, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, because West Indian cricket has found a new hunger and new pride and no, because it will perhaps never be the same again. And that is so, because the last dawn of West Indian cricket happened during an era when Africa and the black African man outside his continent were both looking to be free from prejudice, were rediscovering pride and were fighting for dignity, for rights, for equality. There was fierceness in those times that these times can’t match. And secondly, though champions, this team has a very different colour and character from that team of yore, and that colour is more brown than black, and the character more Indian than African.

Indo-Carbbeans had always been a part of the West Indian teams of the past. Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharan were preceded by the diminutive Sonny Ramadhin. The Indo-Guyanese pair of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan were the only glimmer of hope for West Indian fans during the dark decade of 2000. But you know that the world is changing when not only is their most consistent batsman (Sarwan/ Chanderpaul), wicketkeeper (Denesh Ramdin) and of course the traditional mystery spinner (Sunil Narine) from Indian stock, but even the leader of the West Indian pace attack happens to be of Indian origin. Take a bow Ravi Rampaul…

So what if India could not make it to the semi-finals, there would have been celebrations yet, from Delhi to Darbhanga. And so they will win more games and pride in the hereafter, but not with African rhythm and power but with sub continental grace and craft . Here’s to a new tomorrow, for the West Indies, and for world cricket…!


Thursday, October 11, 2012


My friend, the struggling illusionist, has this story he bandies around to impress the ladies, and as a prelude to his tricks – magic tricks, as he likes to call them. The story is about Khoko, or some such gent, from the land and days of the pharaohs. Bored with climbing pyramids and swimming the crocodile infested waters of the Nile, Khoko came up with an idea to entertain his fellow villagers. So, on a pleasant winter noon, Khokho trudged up to the village square with a chicken trussed under his arm. The square was bustling with activity… hawkers selling their wares, the elders trading smokes and tales and children playing tag.

Nobody paid Khoko and his chicken much attention until he stood at the centre of the square and declared “I will break this chicken’s neck and wrench its head off before your very eyes and then you’ll see this magical chicken grow a new head, like the celestial Hydra”. Khoko paused for effect and as the crowd looked on, with a great flourish, he took both his hands to the bird’s head and neck and while the right hand yanked and pulled, the left held on to the neck. Suddenly the right hand pulled free… and a jet of crimson shot out of the neck and streaked the earth red as the right hand flailed the bleeding head around and then flung it on to the square… While the audience gasped in shock and gawked at the bloodied lifeless head and the half closed eyes, Khoko’s left hand kept the chicken’s real head tucked in carefully and once the audience had recovered enough to look at Khoko again, the illusionist baited the audience with a few magic words and then removed his hand and let the chicken’s head bob about freely…

The village square erupted with spontaneous cheering and invocations to the gods that be, for this ‘resurrection’ seemed nothing short of a miracle. Khoko, my friend tells me, went down in history as one of the first practitioners of that spectacular principle of magic called ‘misdirection’ – where the magician deceives the audience by making them focus on one thing while distracting them from another, potentially a more significant aspect of the act.

Over the last couple of decades, environmental agencies, the ministry and even the media have been both perpetrators and victims of one such misdirection. After our independence, when realisation dawned that the country was rapidly losing its natural heritage and wildlife to the social anarchy that followed the exodus of the British and the local potentates, laws were passed to protect and preserve all that remained of our forests and its denizens – laws that were comprehensive but were executed by a weak willed and toothless administration. A few decades later, the country’s minders realised that they had been far too apathetic a little too long. Now one of the most visible symbols of this country, its spirit and its wild places – the Royal Bengal Tiger, was standing at the very edge of that chasm called extinction and something would have to be done about it and soon…

Here’s where the first misdirection was set up. Project Tiger, a programme committed to protecting the tiger and its habitat was designed and executed and it even encountered a fair degree of success, or so we were told. Then in 2004, Sariska Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers to poachers, and in 2009, Panna National Park followed suit.

The environmental machinery responded with another misdirection – it narrowed its focus and resources even further by setting up a Tiger Task Force that attempted to outdo Project Tiger and plug the conceptual gaps in the latter. And while wildlife activists, corporate do-gooders, media houses and protection agencies and officials busied themselves with plans of protecting the tiger, and as an after thought, the rhino and the elephant, poachers busied themselves with hunting musk deer for its pod, black and sloth bears for their bile, claws and cubs, otters and snow leopards for their pelt, Tibetan antelope for their fur, parakeets and mynahs for the pet trade, bustards for the pot and their feathers, and most of all, leopards for their organs, bones and pelts, as a substitute for the relatively better protected tiger.

Recently released reports by TRAFFIC suggest that a leopard a day was killed or poached over all of this year. There have been counter suggestions of setting up a Leopard Task Force to monitor and stem this carnage. But that’s a case of missing the woods for the trees. Task forces might sound like fun, but evidently, they don’t seem to be working.

Tigers and rhinos continue to be poached with impunity and the task force has come a cropper. As for the lesser denizens of our forests, whole populations have been decimated and we will never know how many we have lost already. This is so because except for the three flagship species, no one’s ever bothered with a census for any other species.

So fixated has the conservation mechanism been on the tiger, the rhino and the elephant, that even in protected reserves hunting of other species has gone on unchecked.

A winter or so ago, I was in Ranthambore and while out driving with one of the field guides, I started talking to him about the possibility of finding bush meat (wild game hunted for the pot) in the area. He was cagey about it initially and said he did not think it was a very good idea, but there were people around who could procure it. There was nothing very romantic or sportsman-like about the methods either. Tribal hunters in the region would lay wire nooses or steel jawed traps along well-worn jungle paths and return every three days to check the snares for catch. Others would stuff little bombs in balls of jaggery and corn. Animals like deer, antelopes and wild boars would try and gobble these balls, thus triggering an explosion that would result in internal hemorrhaging or the lower jaw being blown off. The hunter would just follow the blood trail to the carcass and carry it home.

Tomorrow that same route that is used to transfer bush meat could be used to transfer bones and skins .

If caught by forest guards, sharing a little of the profit or the meat is all it takes to get the officials to look the other way, said the guide, as long tigers, elephants and rhinos were not involved. This practiced apathy and selective focus is at the root of India’s wildlife woes.

More task forces and such ‘misdirections’ will serve no real purpose. All that state and non state conservation agencies need to do is ensure that the reserve or national park – not just one animal but the whole biosphere – is protected, and the letter of the law is respected. Independent species within the park will be a lot safer when park rangers are not using their individual discretion with respect to poaching and are equally committed to saving both the tiger and the honey badger.

It is frustrating and even hypocritical to just sit on the sidelines and merely preach about what ‘should have been’. Therefore, next week, I will ask around and return with the path that you and I could take, within our own limited means, to try and make a difference to these bleak lives in the wild… until then we all remain very concerned, for these wild lives that have been getting by, on a broken wing and a quiet prayer…


Thursday, September 27, 2012


Ox-strong, with an uneasy machismo that sits on the shoulders like a tenacious bull-rider that buck as he might, he can’t shrug off, and bristling with an insecure aggression that drags our hero to his tragi-comic fate – now that’s a Hemmingway hero, if ever there was one. But the Hemmingway hero is not a man who lives in the pages of a book alone, but walks the dark recesses of every man’s mind. But in some men, this part heroic, part demonic beast refuses to dwell only in the unlit alleys of the soul and breaks into the light, wresting control of our lives, our thoughts and are actions… that’s when you get to be Charlie Bronson – a man deemed so dangerous that he has been confined to a solitary cell for most part of the last three decades. Poor Charlie, within the crowded confines of modern civil society, is like the proverbial bull in a china store, who can’t walk two steps without breaking something – a rule here, a safe there, and a face every now and then.

But to prison with the bruisin’ Bronson, for that’s where half of him believes he belongs, and since it’s evidently his stronger half, who are you and I to argue with that. But prison is the subject of all I have to say this week, for while it was born as a system designed to break the spirit of the hardest nuts society could cough up, it seems to have the exact opposite effect on a chosen few.

As my study of the subject begins to gather momentum, I realise that like those two other great cradles of super human strength – the legendary Naval base at Coronado, play ground for the elite special operations unit of the world’s greatest army - the Navy Seals, and then there’s that temple in the forest on Mount Shao, where fly super monks in saffron robes – prisons too, across time have inspired men to acquire the strength of gods.

Long long ago, in that great tale spun by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, the protagonist, Jean Valjean is recognised for his great strength that the hard prison life bestowed on his limbs. In fact strength, of both body and spirit, runs like a river, all along the length of that great story.

Two hundred years later, during World War I, a Russian soldier is captured by the Austrians while trying to escape. His progress through the snow was slowed down by the weight of his injured horse on his back… he didn’t want to leave the bleeding beast behind. But what good is astrong will against stronger chains and so he remained shackled to the wall of an Austrian prison for days weeks and months.

Zass had been a circus strongman and so, was no weakling when captured but in prison his strength exploded beyond the imagination of his captors. He built his strength while in chains in his cell, by pitting his muscles and his mind against all that bound him. His solitude gave him the kind of focus that hermits perhaps sought on mountain tops and forests, and like the holy sutras say, wherever the mind goes, and truly goes, the body surely follows. Egged on by his will, Zass’ by-now-mighty arms snapped their shackles, bent the bars of his cell and helped climb over what the Austrians thought was an unscalable wall, to freedom and a future as an invincible strongman.

Body weight strength and conditioning guru Paul ‘Coach’ Wade found his way into prison for possessing drugs. There, he met a 70 year old inmate who possessed astonishing strength for a man of any age who took him under his wing and taught him all he knew. In his book, Convict Conditioning, Paul mentions that fear and physical insecurity pushed him to train hard with this septuagenarian master. Prisons all over the world are hard cold places where the days are long and lonely and the nights intimidating and endless. Inmates usually crumble and breakdown because of the constant exploitative bullying by prison gangs and the guards or they descend into a cesspool of violence and depravity in their efforts to belong and be accepted.

But a few treat their years of forced incarceration as monks in a monastery might treat their time in solitude – as a time to reflect and focus…

Amongst those few are Alexander Zass and Paul Wade who meditated on their physical self with the laser sharp focus that solitude confers on those that embrace it. And those who reflected on their thoughts during their internment found that their imagination had grown new wings, that helped them fly further than the distractions of freedom had ever let them.

Marco Polo’s traveller’s tales, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament and Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World were all penned in the monastic environs of a prison chamber.

And how dare I forget, the Marquis de Sade, Charlie Bronson’s on the edge, literary spirit brother, who wrote his most notorious works while shuttling for 30 years (much like Charlie) between prisons and lunatic asylums in the 18th century.

Speaking of Charlie Bronson, it is not enough to know that he is an intensely violent man who has little control over his impulses. His friends insist that he is a delightful chap who has the deepest sense of integrity who would never let his buddies down. And yet Charlie would be the first to confess that he is ashamed of himself for having let his family, especially his mother, down and for having broken the hearts all who wished good things for him on the outside. He always wanted to be good and walk the straight and narrow, but his demons were always too strong for him.

But let that not take away from the fact that Charlie did not let his incarceration drive him even further over the edge. All through his solitary confinement, Charlie found sanity in his workouts –workouts that have made him arguably one of the strongest and fittest people in Britain, while pushing sixty. He holds multiple nationally recognised push-up records and is strong enough to hurl washing machines and knock half a dozen baton wielding guards out before being overpowered.

The point of all my rambling is that sustained solitude, voluntary or not, just like what our parents insisted on while we were studying for exams in school, coupled with, and this is the more important bit, complete mind body focus, is a great recipe for achieving the greatest possible greatness that lies dormant in our cells. But beware, extreme solitude could make one socially dysfunctional, and what good is a gift that can’t be shared.

Secondly, people like Zass, Wade and Charlie Bronson prove that modern gymnasiums and supplements are a rip-off. Not one of you reading this would have ever met a man half as strong as these titans and they built their Herculean strength without machines or free-weights, special diets and programmes or supplements. All you need to be fit and strong is the will to fight your weakness, a dash of creativity and common sense and the fortitude to stick with a plan, come rain or shine or the blues… so get on with it.

But before I go, I hear the sneaky question in your head. Prisons and monasteries have another thing in common, beside solitude – inmates in both institutions have to forego the pleasures of the second most important three letter word in the language. And haven’t we all heard of the accepted notions about the relationship between celibacy and athletic performance, intellectual expression and spiritual evolution?

How does that fit into the mix? Is that the secret missing ingredient or just an incidental accidental fact? Well, that’s a story for another week…