Thursday, January 31, 2013


I was walking behind my father on a narrow ledge when a movement behind my right shoulder caught my eye. I turned sharply and regretted it as my eyes met a pair of predatory pupils. I froze. Sudden or nervous jerky movement, I remembered reading, often triggers the ‘if it twitches like a hot prairie-dog, it must be one’ response in bears in Yellowstone.

But I wasn’t in Yellowstone. No not even in the same continent. I was many latitudes away in Northern Thailand, and the eyes staring into mine were of a large male Indochinese tiger, less than 10 feet away. But I must have only been a temporary distraction and I couldn’t hold its interest for long. The tiger slowly turned away from me and focused straight ahead. I followed gaze and saw it focus on my father as he, oblivious to the silent drama behind his back, walked on ahead. The tiger must have been following my father for a while for its whole body was poised in a straight line pointing straight at my father. And the tiger wasn’t approaching casually, but with purpose, its body streamlined and taut, as it slowly, with measured muscle, brought down a large front paw, heavy with intent, as it reduced the distance between itself and my father. As it crouched into a low pre-leap stance, my mind raced through a blur of questions. Was this a part of the intended script? Is the tiger just looking for a game of tag? Or has something in that moment triggered a deep primal urge in a once wild beast to express its fierce forest spirit? Should I do something to stop the tiger? And how…?

My questions did not get the time to bake their answers. In a flash, Lek, one of the trainers stepped between the tiger and my father and waved a baton in front of the great beast’s nose and broke the spell… for both of us.

This was Tiger Kingdom. A fantasy tourist outpost that had sprouted on the rim of the city of Chiang Mai. For a sizeable sum, visitors could cuddle cubs, run around with slightly older adolescent felines or if one dared, enter the cage of a full grown adult and go cheek to cheek for a photo op.

After chasing some of the cubs around their enclosure, my father and I decided to brave the perils of entering a tiger’s lair. My mother, and my wife who was carrying our son in her womb at the time, chose to watch from the sidelines. This wasn’t the untamed wilderness of Thap Lan National Park. This was a controlled environment where tigers had been hand-reared and tamed. They had names and thousands of visitors had touched and played with them. There were pictures all around us, testifying that it was all safe and easy, like a thrilling fairground if you will. So what could possibly go wrong?

Nothing at all, insisted the lady at the reception, and then with an air of practiced nonchalance, pushed a legal document for us to sign, releasing the management from any liability in case one got mauled, was dismembered or worse… ‘just a minor formality’, she assured us.

Then along came a tiger trainer and a staff photographer, followed by the rules. Don’t approach the tigers from the front. Don’t touch the front paws. Don’t put your fingers in the animal’s mouth. Don’t touch the tiger’s head. And don’t pull a stupid stunt that irritates the tiger. When you touch the tiger’s back, and mind you, only the back, be firm and steady with your touch. As long as we followed these rules, we should be fine. As we signed our lives away, I wondered if anything had ever gone wrong with the tigers…

The trainer and the photographer exchanged a few words in Thai, and chuckled, like they were ruminating over an old private joke. Leaving my question unanswered, the pair pried a wire mesh door open and then ushered us into the kingdom of the tiger. Trepidation was swept away by a wave of excitement as a large drowsy tiger rolled on its side, mere inches away from our feet. The trainer went around and sat near the tiger’s head and motioned for us to take our positions next to its rump. My father loves animals, and he was like a kid on an Avengers movie set, running from one striped superstar to another. And it was while traversing the length of the enclosure from one tiger to another lounging on a wooden platform that he caught the attention of a third tiger that started mock-stalking him.

It is difficult to say what would have happened if the trainer hadn’t intervened. However, once he did, the tiger snarled, recoiled, and then its demeanour changed abruptly, and like a purring hose cat, it rubbed itself against a tree and then loped away without throwing a second glance our way.

A quick search on the phone while returning from the centre threw up a few unnerving horror stories. Ruth Corlett for instance, wasn’t so lucky. Ruth and her husband Stuart, aid workers from New Zealand had been posing for pictures with a tiger at the center when the trainer asked her to get up. As soon as she did, the tiger spun back and buried its fangs in her thigh. More than 50 stitches later, Ruth knows she is incredibly lucky to be alive. Reports say that at the time of the accident, there were no first aid facilities available at the centre and nor did the trainers and management seem equipped to handle or even prevent such an attack. Apparently, the trainer’s only solution in this situation was to strike the tiger on the muzzle in the hope that it would release its victim and then escape.

After getting out of the cage, I had asked the trainer why the tiger had begun its stalk and if such behaviour was normal. The trainer said that usually they don’t allow children (or even small adults) into the cage with large tigers because their size and especially an unsteady gait might suggest weakness. And in the wild, tigers are programmed to look for weakness in their prey because that is their evolutionary role – to weed out the sick and the weak from its prey base. This makes the hunt easy for the hunter and keeps the prey population healthy. Perhaps my father, who is pushing 80 now, has a gait which though normal to the human eye, has a subtle unsteadiness that the tiger instincts picked up and flicked its prey-drive switch. And what would the trainer have done if the batonwaving wouldn’t have deterred the beast? Lek claimed that they have been trained in a form of ‘tiger-jiujitsu’, and those joint-locking techniques apparently are really effective against stubborn tigers. I nodded skeptically or though I’m a great believer in the power of the martial, I just can’t imagine the 50 something kilogram Lek going toe-to-toe with a 200 kg tiger with fangs as thick as his wrist.

Attacks by tame and trained lions and tigers in safari parks are not uncommon. From South Africa to Australia and the Far East, these show windows of lethal exotica are strewn with tales of holidays gone terribly wrong. Bruises, wounds, lost digits, limbs and even lives are very real, though rare possibilities at such facilities where powerful beasts with irrepressible primal instincts interact with people unused to the ways of the wild.

The question is, would my father and I have entered the tiger’s cage if we’d known what had happened to Ruth in just such a cage? Would we, and should we, forego the privileged opportunity of interacting with a lion or a tiger or a grizzly bear or a bull elephant just because once in a rare while, some of these animals might break rank and take a chunk out of a visitor or even a trainer?

Well, statistically speaking, the chances of you or me getting attacked by a safari animal are fewer than having an accident on a fairground ride or even while crossing the road. So, no I don’t think I would have changed my mind about entering the tiger’s cage, but knowing what I know now, I would try and discourage my father from undertaking more such adventures, unless of course he starts working on his walk.

Tiger safaris of the sort in Thailand and lion safaris like the ones in Zimbabwe and South Africa claim that they provide a safe haven for endangered animals that are fighting a losing battle against poachers and habitat loss. They also claim that such tourist interactions generate awareness for the plight of the big cats and aid conservation goals. Some safari parks even claim that they intend to reintroduce these big cats back in the wild.

On the other hand, their detractors, besides clamouring about the obvious dangers of handling dangerous animals, accuse these parks of being nothing more than tourist honey-pots that make money while they keep the animals drugged, damaged and confined. Such accusations have also been leveled against zoos by animal rights organizations like PETA.

So what is a conscientious wildlife enthusiast to do? By running the gauntlet of fangs and claws in his or her desire to get up close and personal with a magnificent tiger or lion, is one harming or helping the cause of the individual animal and species at large?

The answer is a lot more complicated than a simple act of jumping over to either side of a fence. It will take me another week to tell you what I and the world make of it. Until then, steady those steps for you never know who’s watching...


Thursday, January 24, 2013


Bloodshot eyes peering past swirling clouds of potent smoke and matted dread locks, a flash of vermilion streaking through ash smeared limbs, scraggy beards and sinewy limbs crashing into the cold currents at the break of dawn – these are the vignettes that mark the Maha Kumbh Mela, one of the greatest shows on earth.

But the stars of the show, the sadhus, as naked as the day, and yet as mysterious as the night, are still as enigmatic today, as they were centuries ago. To the throngs of believers, these holy renunciates are living gods whose ‘darshan’ alone can do everything short of bringing back the dead. But to others, especially from the cities, singed by tales of con artistes masquerading as sadhus, these naked or saffron clad ascetics are just looking for a holy fig leaf to cover their addictions and sloth.

So who are these men who live on the fringes of society, appearing like apparitions on our streets and temples during festivals, and then disappearing, perhaps in a monastery or a cave on a faraway mountain or a dark forbidding forest? Under the glare of camera flashbulbs and television cameras and the pressure of rival clans and adoring devotees, it is difficult to separate the mask from the man, whether holy or not. So let me take you away from the spiritual cornucopia of the Kumbh for a little walk along the banks of the Ganges…

There you see them now, sadhus, young and old, outside their little thatched huts and tents, practicing austerities. Smoke from the cannabis laced chillums dances with the bold blaze of the sacrificial fires. With wiry vigour, the sadhus coax their bodies, forged by heat and hunger, into demanding hatha yoga postures that they hold for twenty minutes or more, as against the few seconds that you hold your headstands for on your mats. Others are doing tapasya that they need to undertake for twelve years – keeping an arm stretched overhead or standing on one leg, the unused limb withers into a useless stick while the leg on which they stand develops sores and wounds. Still others sit in a ring of fire with a flaming earthen pot balanced on their heads while they meditate. These austerities are all methods to purify and sublimate the spirit often at the cost of the body. But these river banks don’t have all the answers. Where do these sadhus go after the two month long festival? And even more significantly, where do they come from? What do they do through the rest of the year?

Well, I can’t speak for all of them but I could tell you about the ones I have met. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, the ones I met weren’t rustic simpletons, social outcasts, debt burdened runaways or religious fanatics but urbane, educated professionals who just gave it all up and set off in pursuit of the spirit, within and without…

Baba Budhnath was a small man. Bronzed skin stretched thin over high cheek bones and a broad forehead gave way to bushy eyebrows that tried but couldn’t hide the fire in those flinty gray eyes and a thick white beard. But he moved like a man far taller, with a grace and presence that would have done a taller man proud.

Baba Budhnath had been in the naval officer in his younger days. He claimed he spoke seven languages fluently, including English, Bengali, Russian and Japanese. I didn’t believe him and so I asked him questions in all I knew of those languages. Baba Budhnath’s replies weren’t short on grammar or colour.

But Baba Budhnath had left his sea faring days long behind. He had earned his spiritual spurs while meditating in the ghost town of Bhangarh (legend has it that all the citizens of Bhangarh were killed in a great war with a neighbouring kingdom and the deserted ruins are haunted to this day by the ghosts of those who died) in Rajasthan. The locals say that the Archaeological Survey of India tried to evict him from the ruins, but they failed because, in his own words “…how can the government succeed in removing me from Bhangarh when those who live in it want me to stay?” Baba Budhnath claimed that he controlled the spirits that lived in the haunted city of Bhangarh.

Baba Budhnath `isn’t easy to find but if the night is right and you happen wander around the forests of Kalighati near Sariska, and run into a small man with gray eyes, greet him with a cheery ‘Preevyet!’ or ‘Konnichiwa!’, and if he replies in kind, you’ve found your man.

The other sadhu I met was in the forests of Rukhad, in the wild heart of Madhya Pradesh, quite by chance. While tumbling along the rocky, dusty forest trail, the car’s radiator gave up the last of its smoky overheated ghost and I had to get down and look for water. Just so you know, these are forbidding forests that are home to leopards, tigers, bears and wolves. And so it was with a lot of trepidation and caution that I set out for the lazy river deep in the valley as it wound its way along the boulders.

This is a thick forest teeming with wild beasts, far away from all signs of human habitation, hardly the kind of place you’d expect to find a solar panel. But here I was by the river where deer come to drink and tigers come to hunt, and what do stumble on… no, not an old carcass or a new born fawn but a solar panel, right next to the mouth of a cave. On the river bank fluttered a little red flag on a tall pole. I hung around, looked around and soon enough, from a beyond the slope of the bank rose a lumbering figure swathed in black…

Tall and heavy set, with curly hair worn long, a black cloth mask covering his nose and mouth and a rather incongruous pair of sunglasses, this sadhu was a tantric. He had studied engineering and was working with the government when a Gond princess from long ago showed up in his dream and called him to this forest. Without a thought or a backward glance, he gave up his job and his family and found his way to this cave by the river.

This tantric baba claimed he could interact with and had the blessings of the ‘devas’ of the river and the forest, which gave him the power to keep me rooted to the ground for as long as he chose, and he controlled the animals of the forest with the same powers. And then he added, in these very words “…these powers are not mine to keep. There are a few places in this country where geographic forces, mountains, rivers, underground streams etc. all come together to create a vortex of tantric energy. If you meditate here, even you could find yourself blessed. If you don’t believe me, stay with me for a while and you’ll see for youself…” I was tempted, but I had to pass. So with a promise that I would return, I left the valley and the ascetic who kept his face and eyes covered because “…you’ll go blind in 15 minutes if you were to look at my face and eyes”, he’d said.

I have encountered more of these holy men, in spiritual hotspots like Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi, during festivals and melas, and at times I have bumped into them in forested valleys and quaint desert towns. Somehow I have always come back feeling more fulfilled from these chance encounters than at these great confluences.

Perhaps sadhus, like the rivers of this great land, spring unheralded from the mountains, forests, valleys and plains, and as they flow, so they grow. And both rivers and sadhus are perhaps closest to their true, even pristine self, when far away from the temples and dykes that dam(n) their course and leave them open to pollution. So go to the Kumbh for a human experience if you will, but for a spiritual one, you’ll be better off swimming upstream, and against the current… Go where you will, and may you find what you seek…


Thursday, January 17, 2013


After his sensational T20 debut against Pakistan, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar set tongues wagging in the commentary box. Sanjay Manjrekar was gushing about the prodigious movement that Kumar impressed on the ball and all the other commentators chimed in… “What shape on the ball!”, “the way he set the batsman up, moving the ball one way and then the other… stunning”… But they are commentators who had played the game. They knew that one swallow does not a summer make. Was this performance enough to prove that Kumar was here to stay? Is his ability to swing the ball enough to help him leave a mark on less helpful (the Bangalore T20 game was played in conditions tailor-made for a swing bowler) pitches? Rameez Raja, though highly appreciative of the young bowler’s performance, raised a pertinent point. Pakistan’s new ball bowlers, he said, wouldn’t even be considered for the national team if they can’t deliver the ball consistently at least 140 kmph.

True enough, the other debutant in the game, Pakistan’s gigantic fast bowler, the 7’1” Mohammed Irfan, dropped the ball down from the greatest height ever in a cricket game, and consistently at speeds approaching 90 mph. Umar Gul, the spearhead, and new find Junaid Khan too would consistently bowl at that pace. On the other hand, India’s new ball attack struggled to get the ball to climb beyond 135 kmph on the speed gun.

And did the extra yards in pace make a difference? Well, Pakistan’s attack blitzed through the Indian line up while the Indians struggled to get past the broad blade of Nasir Jamshed on most occasions. But having said that, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar gave a pretty decent account of himself in most of the games. Nothing as sensational as his debut performance but he usually managed a breakthrough in almost every game. So does that imply that Kumar was here to stay? Would his talent for swinging the ball both ways allow him wickets and longevity in the game? Or would his sub 135 kmph pace relegate him to the level of a fair weather bowler who could only find success in conditions that suited his bowling style.

Before we gaze into the crystal ball and see if it would swing Kumar’s way, let’s go back to what Manjrekar had to say about Bhuvaneshwar’s lack of pace. He seemed apologetic, praising Kumar for his swing and his sharp use of his talents, while acknowledging that Kumar might not be able to do much in unhelpful conditions without working on his pace. But he also cautioned that by pushing Kumar to bowl quicker, one might render him virtually toothless. He would lose his swing without ever acquiring the pace that could make him lethal. “Remember Irfan Pathan,” he cautioned. Maybe it was better to keep him like a secret weapon who would be unleashed on the opposition in helpful conditions only where his romantic old world swing would prove lethal.

Now you must remember that Sanjay Manjrekar was India’s greatest batting hope in the late 1980s. He had scored hundreds against the express pace battery from the West Indies and the swing sultans Imran Khan, Waseem Akram and the super quick Waqar Younis. It is time to remind him of his own words, words he had spoken long ago while he was still playing the game he loves so much and understands so well. Sportstar, a sports magazine I grew up with, had published an interview with Manjrekar where he had been asked who was the best bowler he had ever faced? In the same interview he had mentioned that Ian Bishop and Waseem Akram were the two quickest bowlers he had ever faced. But when it came to picking the best, he went for a man in his 40s, who had been nippy once but in the days when Manjrekar played against him and went into the record books as his 400th victim, was merely medium pace, but with excellent control over line, length, seam and swing – the redoubtable Sir Richard Hadlee. Manjrekar had said that it was almost impossible to face Hadlee, with his excellent line and length in that corridor of uncertainty with each delivery moving a little this way or that, without making an error of judgment.

And Manjrekar wasn’t alone. In an earlier issue of the same magazine, Desmond Haynes, the premier opening batsman of his time who held the record for the most number of ODI centuries for a while, and had learnt his trade in Barbados playing against the viciously quick Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner, also mentioned Hadlee as his greatest nemesis, echoing the same qualities that Manjrekar had spoken about.

So though Manjrekar might not have remembered it at the time, he had already given the answer to Ramiz Raja’s question… pace is welcome but isn’t all there is to bowling with a new ball. Those who have heard me rant about the joy of watching the ball spit fire and venom at speeds that could kill will know that I am all for red hot pace. But to think that with every team having a pair or more of new ball bowlers who can bowl at 90 miles an hour, and hitting the deck hard, the old world art of swinging the ball should have gone out of fashion is a little unfair and premature.

Yes the swing bowler needs to understand the elements better than the guy who hits the pitch to extract movement. Yes he has to have greater faith in his skills than the bowler who hurls the ball with all his might. Yes, he needs to worry more than any other bowler, whether fast or slow, about the angle of his shoulder, the snap of his wrist and the steadiness of his head. Yes, where the fast bowler is a force of unbridled nature who demolishes, the spinner a magician who lures and deceives, the swing bowler is an artiste who is primarily concerned with the art of moving the ball in the air. The batsmen, the wickets, even the fielders are mere spectators when a ball, following a perfect release, lands in line with the leg stump and then, as if carried on the back of a breeze, moves away to hit the top of off stump.

When the ball is dancing like that, swing bowling becomes a spectacular and unplayable phenomenon. But can swing bowling survive in an era where pitches are prepared with little grass and no time? Does the accurate medium pacer who relies on subtlety more than brute force still have a role to play in an era when bats are bludgeons and bowlers mere cannon fodder? Ramiz Raja and his fellow commentators might say, “umm… without the extra pace, maybe not…..”

But Bhuvaneshwar Kumar shouldn’t listen to them. Instead he should listen to the crowd that roars every time another young man touches the ball. This young man is an oddity just like Bhuvaneshwar. For a long time he couldn’t break into the team because he just doesn’t have the pace. The other new ball bowlers in his team bowl at speeds approaching 150-160 kmph and yet, once he broke through, his performances have put his quicker, more experienced team mates in the shade. This young man’s name is South African Vernon Philander and he just raced to 50 Test wickets in record time. Like Kumar, Philander lacks pace but makes up for that with his ability to swing the ball both ways with tremendous control and a probing consistent line in that ‘corridor of uncertainty’, just like Sir Richard Hadlee.

Swing bowlers are a rare breed, indeed an endangered species, for the craft demands skill and fortitude that stretches far beyond the capacity of most cricketers. Unlike other bowlers who seek to control the fate of every ball they bowl, swing bowlers need to release the ball a little sooner, sacrificing an element of control, in body and mind, so that the ball gets the opportunity to dance to a rhythm of its own choosing. And the ball will dance only if the rhythm of the bowler as he ran up was in tune with the rhythm of the winds that carried the ball through to the other end. On some days or at least some spells, the two rhythms just don’t match. On such days the swing bowler needs to persist with finding his rhythm or the wind’s. If he gets frustrated and tries to exert greater control, he will only end up losing his ability to swing the ball, like what happened to Irfan Pathan. Swing bowling, in that sense is a bit like falling in love with a beautiful and independent woman. You need to have faith in your own self and let go, without any desire to keep complete control. Things won’t always be the way you want them to be, but it would always be wonderfully exciting, and in the long run, rather rewarding.

So keep the faith and keep swinging it, Bhuvaneshwar, and help us fall in love with the moving art of swing bowling all over again…