Thursday, May 31, 2012


Hey there! How’ve you been all week? Bet time took its own sweet while whiling itself away while you waited for rules two to last, for a love that will last, to show up… Yeah, yeah, the puns are terrible, but the rules still work, so step over them please and meet the rules that will make you look at love, yes even your love, in a whole bright new light. Last week we bumped into rule one like an old friend in a strange city. This week, meet rule two…Get yourselves a shared past… that has shaped you!

Folks, whoever told you that there was something called love at first sight doesn’t know a thing about love. It’s the mother of all myths, and she is unhappy and single. There’s no such thing as love at first sight. Lust, yes, curiosity sure and maybe even intrigue… I will give you that too, but you can’t love what you don’t know, and you definitely cannot love someone you don’t understand. And acquiring understanding, like most good things in life, takes time. It needs to see the seasons, live through the hail and rain and the dark, the freezing mornings and the blazing afternoons, and then if it’s still soft and fresh, full of colour and life, and not shriveled and dry and dead, then you know what you have is love and not just a dead daisy, which by the way, and at the expense of writing an irresponsibly long sentence that makes me look inarticulate and silly, I must say is what you would be left with, and I meant the daisy, not true love, if you did believe in love at first sight, and chose to act on that belief. For the record, at first sight, the woman I’m married to thought I was a painful arrogant show-off who she couldn’t bear to go beyond a ‘hi!’ with. That was 32 years ago and if you ask her, she might insist that not much has changed, but come on, look at us… Evidently, her ‘first sight’ got it all wrong. Now I’m not denying that first sight could be a springboard to a wonderful fulfilling everlasting romance. It could be that spark that sets your heart afire, that first drop of golden sunshine that lights up your skies but hold on, it’s not the whole deal… you do need more than just that. So now that I’ve wasted your breath on what love is not, it is time I told you what is… And that is ‘a shared experience’. Love, like most other memorable monuments, needs a foundation and experiences, shared experiences, are both the foundation and the floors. The first hello, the second “…er….lunch?” and the third “no, I don’t dance… but could you teach me?”, are all experiences, but those are interchangeable. They are a part of every exploration. And I’m not talking about movies or dinners either, unless you’re making them together, and I mean real movies, and real dinners. You would know you’re on to something special only when those shared experiences start shaping your life and your persona. Take the aforementioned lady I share my life with for instance. She used to hate dogs. Everybody she’s grown up with has always told her how dangerous they are and how filthy they are and so she grew up to believe that the only dog she would ever touch would be a hot-dog. Then I came along, and since in my early feral years, the local pack of strays would baby-sit me while my parents were away at work, I grew up with a lot of love for dogs. We spent a lot of time exploring each other’s interests by turns and she would see me play with strays and pets, take them to hospitals if they got hit by a car or had a bad case of mange, and soon she began to realize that dogs ‘were people too!’. Today as I sit down to write this story, just beyond the laptop is a photo frame with a picture of the two of us with Dora, our Rottweiler… their relationship is cordial and I dare say, sprinkled with liberal helpings of affection. I bet every time she is on her own and looks at a dog, she thinks of me. Not the coolest association, you might say, but 15 years into a marriage, how many of you can claim that the love of your life will think of you and smile every time she is away from you and is reminded of something you share, eh? My closest friend has a business that his family strapped him to, to run. But what he really wants to do is take pictures of the world. Until not too long ago he had given up on his dreams of becoming a photographer and would just take hobby photos every other Sunday. But about a year ago, the light of his life lit up his dreams when she told him how much she enjoyed watching him take pictures, how happy he seemed when he had had a good shoot and I imagine a few other metaphors about how delectable he looked with a camera in his hand. And thanks to the little photo expedition dates he went on with his beloved, and all that she said on their drives back from those shoots, mark my words, you will hear of him, and his photos in the months to come. Another friend of mine used to be this monstrous thing in a school-dress, like one of those gamma radiation freaks imagined by those designers at Marvel Comics. I remember this photograph of hers with her family on holiday and there she is standing behind her parents looking like a pudgy double-chinned body-guard. She had given up on herself and was happy buying ‘large’ fits from the men’s section when one fine day, this statue of David’s in basketball shorts, a friend of hers who she would help out with his relationship issues, walked up to her in the community play ground after a basketball game and said “you’re so sweet. You should workout with me. Meet me at the gym tomorrow…?”She agreed. Days, weeks and months later, her shape and her life had changed forever. Today, she and David are the happiest couple I know, their lives intertwined inextricably by those shared experiences in the gym that transformed them and helped them find love and each other. And now let me reveal a naughty little secret, the real pay-off of having shared experiences. Believe it or not, but shared experiences that have shaped our lives act as, umm… er…. Ah well, I don’t know of a better way to put it… shared experiences are the invisible chastity belts of a relationship. There, I said it!

The way this works is that our shared experiences which have shaped our partner have now become a part of them. So there’s a little bit of me in my partner and vice versa. So if I become a little careless or take the relationship for granted, and my partner begins to drift away, and towards other people, our shared experiences will remind her of what we have shared. And indeed, if our shared experiences have been truly unique, and have indeed shaped her, then those experiences will remind her that what she has with me is irreplaceable and worth working on… And it’ll buy me time to get my act together and reassure her that what we have is still as beautiful and special as it used to be…

So shared experiences help us understand each other even as we help sculpt each other, within and without, become the glue that keeps us together, stops us from going astray and of course gives us something to look for in each other’s eyes and laugh about when we’re both wrinkled and gray. So go ahead, get yourselves a few life-changing experiences that will engrave a bit of each other on your respective souls and watch the happily ever-afters unfold. I will leave you to your new adventures now and silently retrace my steps.

Meanwhile, rule three shall wait for you, same place, same time, next week…


Thursday, May 24, 2012


IRC is an atheist! He is an Eklavyan disciple of the formidable DD (Richard Dawkins to the uninitiated, author of the seminal best seller, The God Delusion). Now I haven’t read DD’s books and though ‘I believe’, and it would take more than a mere book to shake my faith, I fear I might like him. But that’s not the point of this story. The point is DD, I’m told, is a much married man and any man who finds it difficult to stay in love would also find it difficult to believe in love. And only a man who does not believe in love would, therefore, refuse to believe in God. This argument has been my fig leaf whenever IRC has me cornered with loaded logic and I feel the weight of cold unfeeling science on the delicate fabric of my faith.

Love and God are similar concepts, not in the Bollywoodian sense of one leading the seeker to the other but because both are a consequence of personal experience; impossible to prove to others through the pseudo scientific process of experimentation, extrapolation and observation and yet either is as clear as Diane Kruger’s complexion under the soft light of a setting South African sun to the believer and the beloved. It’s a bit like the way Cartier-Bresson saw poetry etched in his maid’s wrinkled hands, or the way Patty Jenkins had the temerity to find an Oscar winning monster in the angelic eyes of Charlize Theron. If you don’t have the eye, or the heart for it, you just wont see it.

DD might say that like God, love too is a mere delusion. But someone would only say that if they haven’t really been in love. And love is not just lust. It isn’t a crush. It isn’t a habit. And it isn’t that rush you get every time you see him/her walk past and flash a smile, or whatever else, that makes your heart skip a beat and makes you wonder, ‘what’s he/she like in…?’

So what really is love, you ask? And how might I know, you wonder? So here are my answers. To begin with, like God, love too is different things to different people. So I can only tell you about love as I see it. DD would tell you why he does not believe in ou his God and I can only tell you why I believe in my love.

If you are happy and fulfilled, you already know what I have to say. You needn’t read a word more. But just in case you are wondering if the person you’re with is right for you, or not; is someone you never really loved, or maybe you did; is someone you cant live with because you married someone else; is because you are head over heels in love, or are matters a litter more basic; is someone who gives you that same tingling feeling that someone else did long ago but doesn’t anymore, so what does that mean, then read on, for I might have answers to questions you are too scared to ask.

There are six rules, or conditions that need to be fulfilled before you can truly claim to be in love. And all these conditions need to be fulfilled simultaneously and the absence of even one would suggest that what you share/ or hope to share could be a lot of wonderful things, but it sure ain’t love. So brace yourselves folks, for here comes the truth, as I know it… Rule 1: Am I inspired enough to want to become a better man (or woman)?

Robbie Williams was a little vague about this but I’m going to spell this out for you… If a relationship doesn’t make you want to be a better person, then it really isn’t meant to be. And it should consistently remain so all through your life together, for love to last. Otherwise, you are just together because it has become a habit too tough to kick, or because of the kids, or because you don’t have a better alternative. Whatever it is, it isn’t love.

Allow me to explain this… I’m not just talking about the day when you struggled to hold back a burp on your first dinner date. No, no this is about things far deeper. I’m talking about waiting for someone you think you love for half an hour during the hour long lunchbreak in college… Waiting till you wonder where she might be and so you walk into her class room. You see her playing HOLLYWOOD (you remember that silly game about guessing movie names..) on the black board with the coolest guy on campus. Standing there watching her laugh and play, you realize you have choices to make… you know that she loves being with you but today she forgot about meeting you. She didn’t mean to, but this guy was making her laugh and he seemed to have so many interesting things to say. She’s obviously having a great time. She only has to look at her watch and realised how late it is and she would run outside to meet you. And then she would see you there… And that’s when the multiple choice question pops up in your head. Do you get angry and blame her for keeping you waiting? In a fi t of jealous rage, do you suggest that she was perhaps being unfaithful? Or do you sulk and act hurt and mope about like a wet puppy, hoping that her guilt will keep her away from that Don Juan and that dumb game? Or do you just smile and hug her and tell her how happy you are to see her (which of course you are), and then make a mental note that says “I’ve got to be the wittiest, most interesting guy she has ever met so that when I’m not around, and DJ wants to play Hollywood, she could play to humour him a little but all she wants to do is go back to her book so she could day dream about me, waiting to run into my arms when I show up!”

If she really is someone you love, someone who makes you feel good about yourself the way no one else can, someone you respect and look up to then you’ve got to put a tick on option four.

Personally, I can only love those who inspire me. Whether the relationship is of a romantic nature or otherwise, an emotionally intimate bond between two adults is impossible without respect. It isn’t physical attraction or chance and circumstance or convenience that should’ve ideally brought you and your partner together. It should ideally have been respect and admiration.

That ensures that you are together for the right reasons. Approval from the object of our admiration is one of our greatest motivators that can inspire an individual to evolve and grow into a better person.

So if your partner inspires you to become better you have chosen to love well. But how do you know you are growing in the right direction?

Well, here’s the important aspect of rule 1. If you are always the one getting inspired and failing to inspire in turn, then you really aren’t growing much. Your relationship in that case has regressed into a master slave relationship. Instead of growing you are actually appeasing the one you think you love. You’ve been lazy about working on yourself and have only made changes on the surface. Deep down, you’re still the same and so you depend on pretence. It is unfair to you and even more so to your partner.

I’ve said this earlier and I’ll say it again. An ideal relationship is like a dance where one partner leads and the other follows, and then grows to lead while it is the other’s turn to follow and so they keep evolving, inspiring each other to become better partners, lovers, friends and human beings.

If that isn’t happening, you both have questions to ask of yourself. I would love to tell you more, but space, unlike in our hearts is a constraint. So work on rule 1 while I road test rules 2-6 before delivering them to you next week…


Thursday, May 17, 2012


Oops…! As soon as last week’s promise laden love lore hit the stands, my friends, the few I badger to read no matter what tosh I write, rubbished the effort. Apparently I had narrated a similar tale of unrequited passion some time ago and promised to reveal the lessons of love, and then conveniently forgotten all about it. And so I rummaged through the bin of time and found the off ending article. Here it is to refresh your memories and mine, for the issue to come will hold the answers to both the pieces as promised… Answers I sought for your sake and mine. Not much left to bake; the truths of love follow in this story’s wake…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All through the ceremonies, the families were happily speculating about a good time for a Chhaya-Rehan wedding, and at the same time bracing themselves for a moment when the veneer of cordial competition between Samaira and Rohit might collapse and they might have to intervene before things got a little unpleasant which might embarrass the families. However, the wedding week ended without incident and we went back to our old lives, richer and rounder for the experience. Chhaya and Rehan however picked up from where they had left off in Kolkata. And while we were waiting for them to announce their ‘next step’, like a bolt from the blue, Rohit and Samaira announced their engagement…

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

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


Thursday, May 10, 2012


Zahira was leaving. For good, as far as I could tell. But she wouldn’t talk. Not to me, anyway. In fact, I felt she blamed me, or at least, blamed me too, for all the demons in her head that had ravished her peace of mind and joy for life. She was “sick of this place!,” and us. Most of all, she was sick of CB. She didn’t hate him, but she still couldn’t stand the sight of him. She did say that she would come back someday, “after sorting things out” in her head. But we all knew that she was lying, even to herself. All, except for CB. Poor guy… he still lives in hope…

This morning Zahira Estevez Fuegno flew back to Mexico City, with bags half empty, a heart full of hurt, a head hurting with memories and a ring finger, bandless, with just tan-lines to show for the last seven years. It wasn’t a nice feeling to see her leave…

Two years ago, Zahira and Eduardo had flown in to New Delhi to start a new life. Eduardo Fuegno had a grown up job with a European watch manufacturer and the couple had moved to India to explore new opportunities with another firm. His job paid well and left him with enough time to explore the city, play golf and entertain Zahira. Eduardo and Zahira were high school sweethearts and they perhaps felt married long before they climbed the altar to say ‘I do!’. In Delhi, they became a part of the party circuit that Eduardo’s colleagues introduced them to, and life was good. Zahira began taking yoga classes at one of the city’s well known studios and as the months flew by, became pretty good at it. The studio offered her a ‘teacher’s training programme’ following which she could start training at the studio. Eduardo was all for it. He was really enjoying the pace of the city, his work and his golf. He loved her but he didn’t mind having a little more time for golf, or whatever else it was that kept him busy in the evenings.

Zahira and CB met at the studio during their teacher’s training and the 33-year-old Mexican school teacher and corporate wife and the 28-year-old Bengali commercial artist became good friends. They were both keen students of yoga and CB’s knowledge of the subject got them talking. Zahira was also fascinated by the connections between the yogic postures or asanas and Indian mythology. CB’s thakur-ma had told him enough for him to hold Zahira to half a dozen tall glasses of iced tea after class every day. And so the story grew…

CB was single. He wrote poems in English and Bangla, sang ballads and painted with an abandon – strange forms, vaguely human, but alive, writhing on that canvas that gave them life yet kept them trapped, framed. Zahira was intrigued. Eduardo was a friend, a lover, a partner, and yet there were recess in Zahira’s heart that had remained untouched, unloved. Th at beating beast was alive now in a way she had never known it to be. Or maybe didn’t remember it to be… Was this love, too? Or was this that love? Real love? The one she had been waiting for? The one we all wait for, till we know we’ve found it.

But do we ever really know? How can we be sure that the one we believe we love is the one for us and not the one we will meet tomorrow, or day after? What about Eduardo? Wasn’t that love? Let’s leave Zahira, Eduardo and my good friend CB to dwell on these questions and go meet Mandavi.

I first met her about two years ago. She was interning with us and had a special interest in the evolution of cinema as an agent of social change. Th at lasted for about eight weeks and though she moved to Mumbai after that, we stayed in touch and have remained friends ever since. One of these days, while she was in Delhi, she dropped by for a chat and conversation veered toward her plans of getting married. I had thought that the wedding bells were getting polished and were to ring soon, but Mandavi dismissed the thought.

I was surprised. She had been holding steady for half a decade now with this colleague of hers and he really wanted to get married to her. So, what happened? Mandavi wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know… I just know I didn’t want to settle down with him. I really like him. He would pamper me and take care of me and I would be happy to be there for him as a friend. I really liked him and thought it would grow to be love, but if this is what love is then why don’t I feel like I was swept away off my feet by him? Where’s the music in my ears and that heady feeling I was promised? Where’s that undying river of passion that was supposed to keep us flowing through life, together forever? Why did this river dry up even before I could begin to understand it? To tell you the truth, I’ve lost faith in the idea of love, or at least in my ability to recognise it. I don’t have the courage to go through another relationship, take responsibility for it and take a decision. I have asked my parents to start looking around for me and let them decide for me. If things go wrong, I would at least have someone else to blame for it.” Th at last line was spoken only half in jest.

If you thought Mandavi’s logic was an isolated illogical exception, I’ve got news for you. Talk to ten single women who have been in a relationship worth mentioning and half of them would turn around and tell you that they couldn’t help but agree with Mandavi.

These words have eaten up more space than they ought to have and so I will let the third anecdote, this time from a man’s perspective, go. Just as well too, for this one wouldn’t have been easy to disguise. And since the relationship is still alive, though I have his permission to share it, it’s a risk best avoided. For now, all you need to know, dear reader, is that these doubts, both Zahira’s and Mandavi’s, are not gender specific.

That day, while I watched Zahira walk through the doors of Terminal 3, a sad slim figure, dragging her luggage and her worries away with her, until I lost her amongst the scores of other shuffling and shuttling figures, I wondered if there really was a way to know if one really was in love. How could one sift between mere friendship and habit or even lust and identify the intense friendship and passion that ignites true love (yes, that’s the order of such matters and not the other way around)? And am I really in love? Of course I am, but how do I know? How can I be so sure?

I thought, and I thought, and I asked questions, of myself, and of love, and I believe I have an answer. But hold your horses and rein them in, for the answer will take a week to bake; so until then, you can’t go wrong if you start playing from ‘love all’!


Thursday, May 3, 2012


I have to confess, last week’s column was not what you would call a ‘planned’ effort. Instead, it was a love-child born off a happy union between my memories and my musings. But before I meandered into that much ado about apparently nothing piece, I had tales of trysts in the dark to share… So before this introduction assumes life and makes this week’s word count all its own, let me cut to the chase and spill the beans before they climb into stalks like Jack’s.

This week’s tale spans three enigmatic encounters, two continents and one decade.

The time: August, 2004. The place: Masai Mara, Kenya

It had been a long day of stunning adventures. The open topped Toyota tourist van had taken us at the break of a nippy dawn, all stiff and bleary eyed from The Fig Tree Camp resort, or some such name, and within minutes of driving through the dewy golden savannah, we were in the midst of a lion hunt. Three lionesses had just felled a zebra. The victim’s left hind leg was still drawing circles that grew smaller and smaller until it ended in a long slow twitch when we pulled up right next to the lionesses. Their flanks were still heaving from the exertions of the chase. Then they tore into the zebra’s stomach and blood, warm and wet, trickled onto the grassland and stained it red. Cameras clicked and whirred. One of the lionesses looked up at us and glowered. The driver thought it prudent not to test her patience and though we hadn’t had our fill yet, the van rolled along towards the horizon.

We had barely caught our breath and turned a curve when the trail ran straight into the midst of an ocean of black, white and mahogany. For as far as the eye could see, there were zebras and wildebeest, thousands and thousands of them stretching from one horizon to the other. Cameras snapped and zoomed while tails flicked and the mega herd moved. Giraffes, elephants, hippos and cheetahs, we saw them all that day. Few of us had digital cameras those days and as the horizon turned crimson and a dark shade of inky blue, most of us exposed the last few frames on the roll as we tried to confine the magnificence of the African sunset in our view finder.

Right then our driver, Thomas, an intelligent Englih-speaking Kikuyu, spied a Land Cruiser with Discovery Channel stickers on it by the river. He knew these cars are never too far from where the action is and followed.

There on the bank of the river, rose an acacia tree. And on a branch overlooking the Mara river, lay the languorous form of a leopard. The last rays of the setting sun had set the sky aflame and I just had to take that picture. I took out my little point-and-shoot and composed the frame. The moment I was about to press the shutter-trigger, my fingers froze, for emerging from the shadows on that branch was another leopard, silhouetted against the burning sky. It was a frame that would have sold a thousand copies but alas, either I was too mesmerized to press the button or I had exhausted the last frame. That picture never made it out of the camera though to this day it is etched in my mind’s eye, as vivid as if it happened today.

The time: A hot summer night in 2007; The place: an estate on the outskirts of Sariska, Rajasthan

Taal Vriksh is a tiny hamlet outside the precincts of the park, surrounded by scrub forests. In the dead of night, the village looked deserted. Not a soul stirred. Some distance away, a lone fire was burning inside a small temple. At the gates of Singhji’s farm, large dogs bayed at the gates, as we waited inside the car for someone to come to our rescue. A burly individual with a handlebar moustache, in a voice to match the squeaky bell on that handlebar asked of us what we wanted. He told us that for the price of a chicken, he could show us a leopard and for the price of a goat he had shown television crews sightings long enough to film a sequence.

But there was a glitch. Singhji was going to bait the leopard with a live animal and the idea of sacrificing a life for a moment’s pleasure didn’t seem right. More significantly, the idea of baiting wild animals, even for tourists, has been condemned by experts because it modifies wild behaviour and threatens the animal’s survival in the long run. But the thought of seeing as magnificent and elusive an animal like the leopard mere metres from us was too tempting to pass up. So Singhji brought a doomed broiler out from its coop, and with his dogs and a guard for company, walked toward a clearing at the edge of the forest and tied it with a string to a bush. Then he walked back and turned on a powerful hand held search-light. The forest was quite and in the glare of the light, the chicken fluttered and clucked. Suddenly, a Sambhar barked a warning and then as we held our breath, a soundless spotted blur streaked into the field of light, plucked the poor bird, and in a whirl of feathers and muffled cries, disappeared. The camera in my hand, the beat of my heart and the breath I had begun to take, all lay frozen. In that breathless moment was encapsulated one of my greatest wildlife experiences. (For the complete story and its tragic end, refer to TSI, issue dated 01/07/2007)

The time: 1911hrs, April 07, 2012; the place: Matiana, 50 kms from Simla

It had been the drive of a lifetime. I was heading back to Simla from Shoja via the spectacular Jalori Pass, still embroidered with snow. The day’s drive over narrow slippery trails, overlooking steep but spectacular gorges carved out by the Sutlej’s quest for the sea, encountered some of the most spectacular landscape I had ever seen. The 170 odd kilometers to Simla had taken the better part of a day and it was dusk by the time I reached the orchard town of Matiana.

NH-22 was fairly busy at this hour and I must’ve been a little tired when I first saw the creature saunter across the road . The bright beams of the car’s head-lights caught the tawny low slung shape at a fair distance, but it took me a while to realise that this obviously feline shape couldn’t belong to a large dog. As I moved in closer, the creature disappeared behind the guardrail at the edge of the highway but I could see the tip of its tail flicking.

Was it…? Could it be..? But it was impossible! Here on a busy highway, mere metres away from a bustling town, could I possibly be staring at one end of a large leopard? As if to put my doubts to rest, the tail disappeared into the ravine, and then moments later, a head emerged and stared right into my eyes. Impossible but true, in the middle of a busy highway and a short leisurely walk from the town market, here I was, staring into the eyes of a surprisingly large wild male leopard, who was standing inches away from the bonnet of my car.

I reached for my camera, and the spell broke. The leopard crossed the road onto the other side and skirted the hill even as trucks and cars drove past, oblivious to the presence of the big cat. Then the leopard crossed the road again and made for the ravine while I took a U-turn in an attempt to follow the leopard and take a picture. I knew another glimpse was too much to ask for while I waited at the edge of the ravine. My wait must not have lasted five minutes when that large spotted head appeared again, right next to my window, as if to tease and bait, and then, even before I could focus on the beast, he was gone like he had never been there.

Though at the time I was very worried about the fate of the leopard and the fate of those it might chance upon, I later learnt that leopards are fairly common in Matiana’s orchards. Humans have rarely been attacked, but leopards would visit the village in the dead of night and carry away a hapless dog or goat.

What’s the point of all this rambling? Well, the shikaris of yore would tell you that the leopard is the most elusive of all the jungle’s denizens. It is a phantom, a ghost that walks. And to be blessed with three intimate sightings has been a rare privilege indeed. Yet on each occasion, this exhilaration has been tempered with regret. For on each of these three occasions, I failed to take a picture - a photograph, to help me relive and recount the adventures of that day.

So was I better off for it? Had the absence of a camera helped me absorb and internalise the ‘cerebral snapshot’, as Paul Theroux would call it, far better than if I had concentrated on taking a good picture? Or did I lose out on the opportunity of taking the photograph of a lifetime. Can these words really cut through space and time and help you experience that moment better or would a half-decent photograph have done a far better job of telling a good story ?

Next week, I will try and put this debate, and with that, either my camera or my laptop to rest, at least for a while…