Thursday, June 27, 2013


“You are very new to this… I don’t know if you can do justice to this subject”, said Mr. Ghosh. He was right about my lack of experience but I thought I had done enough to bury my naivete under mounds of hurried but what I hoped was adequate research.

I really wanted to help, as too would perhaps you and many others who you and I might know. But like you, I didn’t know what I should do. Yes I could send money to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund but what if I wanted to do more? Could I send food, clothes? Could I go over to the ravaged valleys and help in some way, or would I get in the way?

I had these questions and many more and I thought it best that I find out from the man who might know such things better than most.

Dr. Chandan Ghosh, professor and Head of the Geo-Hazard Risk Management Division with the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) is a man who has been as vocal as a man in his capacity can be about pinning the rights and responsibilities of the calamitous tragedy on the high slopes in Uttarakhand. I thought he might be the one I could take my questions to but I wondered if he would have the time. Fortunately enough, Dr. Ghosh came on the line soon as I asked for him and I was asked to come in that afternoon if I could. These days he is usually in office all morning, noon and night, till about 10 pm, I was told. Rather heartening, I he thought, given the circumstances.

I spent a few hours trying to understand the scale of disaster that had struck the sacred mountains. But through the montage of crashing rocks and wrathful rivers, the carnage and corpses, the inconsolable agony of the bereaved and relieved survivors, the selfless Samaritans and those ubiquitous heroes in olive-greens, I still found it difficult to fathom the scale of the loss. I recently lost one of the most important people in my life, someone without whom I wouldn’t be, and yet I found my loss, howsoever great and insurmountable in this lifetime, pale in front of the burning tears of an old man who went to bed with a happy family, wife, daughter and grand-child, and woke up to a deafening roar to find himself all alone, his every reason to live swept away in the deluge. I prayed for the man to find strength, and for his family to find peace.

I went through articles that decried the near-illegal and unsanctioned hydel projects that were killing the rivers and ravaging the mountains. There were those that said that unplanned construction had destroyed the fragile mountains and this was a disaster that was waiting to happen. I wanted to know why no one could say ‘fix it now!’, instead of waiting to say, ‘See, I told you so…’

And so I went over to Dr. Ghosh’s office and entered a room where one could tell that the files don’t just sit around. He looked like a man who took his work seriously. And that was fine, for these were serious times. Matters began smoothly enough and he started off with orienting me about the NIDM and its inception. The whole story is a microcosm of our collective attitude towards disaster management. Mind you, I’m not blaming ‘our government’s attitude’ alone here, because though succeeding governments should bear the weight of yet another unfulfilled promise, we are the ones who have peopled these governments and also failed to demand this of the powers that be often o enough and consistently enough to effect a change.

Anyway, I could tell you more about it but you can read it all on the NIDM website. We moved on to the issue at hand. Dr. Ghosh wasn’t pulling punches. He laid out the predicament of an academic institution ‘entrusted with the responsibility for human resource development, capacity building, training, research, documentation and policy advocacy in the field of disaster management.’

NIDM’s role, he railed, had practically been reduced to filing reports. Building bylaws all across the country, be they government buildings or private, whether up in Kedarnath, or here in Central Delhi, are flouted with impunity, he said. Dr. Ghosh should know. He is a civil engineer and he specializes in earthquake geo-technology, having cut his teeth on doctorate programs in India as well as in that land that has forged and honed its disaster management skills on the anvil of recurring earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear holocausts – Japan.

“Deforestation (on the mountain slopes) isn’t really the problem (for landslides). It is the manner in which a mountain is cut to build roads… and there’s a simple solution if you want to stop the landslides. All you have to do is grow vetiver on the slopes.”

I must’ve seemed a little muddled and so Dr. Ghosh explained “….you know this grass called khus?” I nodded. “This grass can bind the soil and prevent soil erosion.” A little post interview research revealed that the Vetiver System is used around the world to prevent erosion and soil degradation on mountain slopes etc. I wondered aloud as to why then aren’t we using this grass to safeguard our roads, mountain villages and above all, our people who travel through or call this region their home...?

Dr. Ghosh just smiled a wry smile and shook his head. “No one likes this solution. It is too cheap and inexpensive.” I was shocked beyond words. Like the rest of my generation, I have come to expect corruption across the socio-political system, but to see such blatant callousness and disregard for life and property driven by greed still seemed difficult to digest. Yet again, it is our fault as a community that we choose to put up with this.

Here I must interrupt my account of our conversation and leave you with a simple list of things you could do if you want to help those whose lives have been scarred forever in this valley of the gods… •

You could donate money to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Management Relief Fund. (SBI a/c no. – 10587398235 FC code SBI N 0010164)•

If the above doesn’t make a lot of sense you could reach a very helpful volunteer – Mr. Sushil Nautiyal at 9410198367. He or his colleagues will guide you through all you could do to help.

Besides money, you could also send clothes, blankets, umbrellas, stoves, dry foods and masala.

Dr. Chandan Ghosh also mentioned religious organizations like Shanti Kunj, based in Haridwar, helping out relatives of those who are stranded or have died on the mountains. These organizations need volunteers to help with communicating with concerned friends and relatives.

You could also reach the Garhwal Mandal and volunteer your services.

Please Note That The Roads Beyond Haridwar Have Been Closed Due To Incessant Rain And All Who Want To Volunteer Their Services Must Wait Till The 29th-30th Of June, Register And Check With Local Authorities And Agencies And Only Then Head Out To Help.

I will be back next week with the rest of our conversation. Until then, let’s do our bit for those who are suffering untold agonies on the slopes. Wishing them and those heroes who are risking their lives to save them an abundance of peace and strength…


Thursday, June 20, 2013


By all accounts, Dilip was a man of skill and patience. That afternoon must have been an afternoon like every other. The slanting rays of a benign sun had lit up the shimmering leaves and warmed the wild waters just right for their daily dip. Dilip must have been looking forward to spending the afternoon with Shankar who had been his constant companion for nearly a year now.

Dilip must have playfully goaded Shankar a little on their walk to the water that day. Who knows what dark thoughts were triggered in that moment. Shankar’s crazed mind had been smouldering all day. All it needed was a little prodding from Dilip for all that passionate fury to explode. Shankar pulled Dilip from his shoulder and flung him to the ground. Shocked and startled, Dilip must have screamed out Shankar’s name in fear and hope. But Shankar was too far gone. All he knew was his bloodlust. His aching head and throbbing loins had driven him to the edge. He needed to bury his frustrations, either in an act of passionate love or reckless, mindless violence.

Dilip’s cries fell on ears deafened by the madness. His life-breath burst out of him as his organs collapsed and his once robust form was crushed as Shankar trampled the man who had cared for his every need during his time in Chandaka. Dilip’s heart rending scream pierced the darkening sky, setting the stage for a haunting silence that followed. But the dull thunk-thunk-thunk of a relentless Shankar flailing away at Dilip’s crumpled body went on for a while. Once he realized that the man was no more, Shankar stopped and stared balefully at the mangled corpse. One couldn’t tell if it was remorse or unquenched anger that still clouded Shankar’s beady eyes. As horrified onlookers who were too scared to intervene finally mustered enough courage to try and take Dilip away, Shankar threatened to dismember anybody who dared to come close.

The gigantic tusker stood over the mahout’s body, guarding it for hours, until forest officials managed to tranquilize the elephant and retrieve what remained of Dilip.

Shankar had a reputation as a mahout killer. `Dilip was his third victim. Training and riding elephants is a one of the world’s most hazardous professions. The very scale of the dynamics between puny human beings and the world’s largest land mammal, even with the elephants being as gentle as they can be makes fatal accidents nearly inevitable. Matters are compounded further when male captive elephants become ‘musth’, a seasonal state of extreme sexual arousal which when unrequited finds expression in testosterone charged violence and aggression. Usually male elephants secrete an oily liquid from their temporal glands and dribble urine constantly – signs that the mahouts should be wary and take extreme precautions…

Mahouts can go wrong with reading the signs. Dilip did, and paid for the oversight with his life last November.

I was worried about that while I drove towards the banks of the Yamuna. That’s where you would find Delhi’s haathiwallahs and I was due for a refresher course in elephant riding. I had had a few sessions in the art from a tiny master mahout with a big thick moustache. They called him Phool Singh. But Phool Singh and his elephant were out on ‘government duty’ I was told and so I had arranged for a few lessons with a neighbouring elephant camp.

To get to the camp, one had to drive off the road that bridged the banks of the once mighty Yamuna and onto a dirt track that led down a steep incline. The camp was basically a ramshackle shed with a pair of cots and dirty mouldy mattresses. Howdahs, elephant saddles, were stacked on top of each other. Charkatiyas, fodder cutters, and mahouts sat around a game of cards and the elephants, two tall females and one rather rotund juvenile swayed about like they were plugged into invisible ipods while in the distance, a massively muscled male with a domed head, chewed impassively on a stack of sugarcane. His creamy tusks were long and thick, sticking out like sabers from a phalanx. The tips had been sawed off and capped with rings. I wondered if it had been done because the behemoth had a penchant for sticking them into ‘soft targets’.

“kya chahiye babuji!’ Startled, I turned. I was so intent on taking in the sight of his immense magnificence that I didn’t notice the tall gaunt figure that had crept up behind me. Old worn leather sandals tied around veined feet and thick yellow toenails, a lungi draped around a pair of stork like legs, and a long loose kurta folded at the sleeves covered a lean but broad frame. A long henna dyed beard framed a wide mouth scattered with pop-corn like wobbly teeth, kohl lined eyes and a head shaved bald completed the picture of the man standing in front of me. I explained that I had called the previous day, given Phool Singh’s reference and mentioned that I wanted to learn how to ride and elephant. A slow realization dawned on the man. He nodded and he turned to his right to call out to one of the boys. But as he turned, I saw the left side of his head and I kid you not, a lesser man would have evacuated the contents of the day’s breakfast on the spot. It took a whole lot of choking back to hold things in. From a couple of inches behind his left temple, spanning the length of his skull ran an ugly gash. The skin had split open and I could see his skull, peeping out from behind. The wound had a yellowish hue, perhaps because of some turmeric based ointment or anti-biotic cream. He saw the involuntary grimace that try as I might, I couldn’t rub away and said “hathi ne mar diya… I was cleaning the area where the elephants are chained, sweeping with a broom while I had bent over, when the elephant just playfully knocked me over with its foot. The animal’s toe nail caught my head and ripped it open. There was so much blood and my head hurt so bad… didn’t think I would make it. Been two weeks now… It is ok now”

It’s an uneasy truce between man and elephant. Though revered by us for its association with the elephant headed god, Lord Ganesha, domestic elephants lead a rather wretched existence. Most might have enough to eat, but their feet catch infections in their confined quarters. The burning roads in summer, the noise and the pollution in our cities, the cramped living conditions and the cruel methods of catching and training these gentle giants drives these animals to the very edge of their sanity. The cruelest cut of all the isolation that these highly social and intelligent animals have to endure. Not only are they separated from their herd and family in captivity but even the primal instinct to roam is crushed under the weight of the heavy chains that constrict their freedom. Male elephants suffer even more when they are almost spread eagled with chains for days and weeks while they are in ‘musth’. Given the circumstances it is almost a miracle that many more mahouts don’t end up like Dilip.

One of the charkatiyas came up to me to lead me to the tusker, Bhola, who stood like a granite statue, with flapping ears. His mahout, Saif, a young lad barely out of his teens, was tying the howdah on his broad back. While the boy struggled with the ropes, the elephant ruffled his hair affectionately with his trunk. The boy pushed the trunk away, scolded the animal that towered over his frail frame and moved towards the tail. For a while the elephant played with a stick of cane and then as soon as the boy walked back towards the elephant’s flank, I could swear I saw an impish glint sparkle in the elephant’s eye as he dropped the cane and ruffled the boy’s hair again. The boy rebuked the elephant and pushed the trunk away but then softened, laughed and rubbed the big belly. The bull elephant let out a deep contented growl and curled his trunk around the boy’s wrist and got a few more pats for his effort.

I couldn’t imagine this pair ending up like Dilip and Shankar, and yet… and yet…

There were so many questions swirling in my head. How would I fit in with these two? What will happen to this boy when this elephant’s gone? It is illegal to buy and sell elephants now, so are these the last of their kind? The ancient art of training elephants is all but dead. Is that a good thing? So what happens to the mahouts? What happens to the domestic elephants? Where and how would Saif and Bhola, and why, even I, end up? As I clambered up the ropes on Bhola’s raised leg, I knew I was about to find more answers and a whole new point of view… Hut, hut… I felt slabs of muscle under Bhola’s pumice stone like skin move… The ground beneath starts flowing like a slow easy river... Hut! Hut! Will keep you posted… gotta go!


Thursday, June 13, 2013


I’m a sucker for quick fixes! I’m on that tightrope called the thirties and I know that my choices today will go a long way towards ruining or empowering the decades hopefully to come. Of course I want to drag and stretch what remains of my youth as far into my middle age as possible. My wife says my teens have so far bypassed my twenties and thirties as far as maturity and a sense of responsibility is concerned but what of the body?

Is there a way to stay fit and strong and youthful? I’m not happy with washboard abs and bulging biceps alone. I mean, sure I want them too, but I don’t want to end up like Don Youngblood, you know…

Don was an inspirational figure on the bodybuilding circuit in the early 2000s. having spent his youth setting up a successful trucking business, Don took up bodybuilding when he was 34. Don took to the gym like a fish takes to water and soon grew bigger than some of the trucks his company owned.

In 2002, Don won the Mr. Olympia in the masters category. He was huge, about 111 kgs at 5’9”. Though he looked the very picture of health, strength and youthful vigour on the surface, inside his body was crumbling. His muscles and bones were like those of an immortal titan but inside, his organs were ageing, burning out before their time. At 51, three years after winning the Mr. Olympia title, Youngblood died of a heart attack, leaving a shocked family and incredulous fans searching for answers to questions they had never imagined they would ask. Don after all was the super strong, super fit hero who was supposed to stick around long after everybody else had gone.

Evidently, building strong muscles alone wasn’t what it took to live a long and youthful life. And when I say youthful, I don’t mean a lithe gym-toned body topped off with a wrinkled face fighting a losing battle with gum disease, cataracts, male pattern baldness and goodness knows what else, either.

Health ought to flow from inside out. So, where are we to find the guide-map to the fountain of youth that keeps the organs healthy and the skin glowing?

A few weeks ago, I had mentioned the Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation that promise health and youthful vigour. Not only is this system of balancing our chakras effective and potent but is also extremely efficient. In fifteen minutes a day, the body, promise the rites, turns back the clock bit by bit, and restores balance within the body.

But what about people whose physical limitations wouldn’t allow them to perform the five rites? Or what about people who need a little more variety in their workout? Is there a system that is as powerful and as efficient that can rival the Tibetan system? Hatha Yoga and even Tai Chi Chuan are amongst the most complete systems of health and longevity but the practice is elaborate, complicated and needs the guidance of a qualified teacher.

But there is one set of rather accommodating exercises within the greater system of qigong that is pretty much the king of health quickfixes.

They (in this case, the Chinese) call it Ba Duan Jin. Ba means eight, for the number of exercises in the set. Duan denotes continuous practice (or that’s what I understood of it) and Jin stands for silk brocade for the system envelops the body like exquisite silk.

I chanced upon this qigong practice many years ago while doing some research about longevity practices.

Though not certified by Guinness officials, if one were to accept the records of the longest surviving civilization in the history of man, the oldest man to have ever lived would have to be Li-Chung Yun, a tall Chinese Taoist who was born in Kuei-chou, in the mountains of southwestern China, in 1678 and whose death was reported by an envoy sent to look for him by Chiang kai-shek in 1930. His legend is rather popular with venerable martial artistes and healers all across China.

Stuart Olson, a westerner who studied tai Chi with the great T. T. Liang, who himself lived to be 104, wrote a book about Li-chung Yun’s incredible longevity practices. And the cornerstone of Olson’s book and his recommendations was Ba Duan Jin.

Olson said that in all his interviews, Master Li had always maintained that he practiced Ba Duan jin every day. Eight exercises, practiced seated or standing for just about 20-25 minutes a day, promise to heal illnesses and ailments triggered by energy blockages and rejuvenate the whole body.

Need one ask for more…

I learnt these exercises from Sifu Kanishka Sharma, India’s very own (secular) Shaolin monk and have been practicing them ever since. If I could, I would just lay out all the eight exercises right here but there are enough detailed descriptions, videos and pictures all over the internet. Browse about and find one of these windows, practice a little and then integrate these exercises into your daily regimen. I have been practicing them for a while and I’m pretty sure if I wasn’t up at two in the morning writing these words just for you, dear reader, all my grays would have gone black by now.

Generations over a thousand years and more have vouched for the near miraculous powers of Ba duan Jin. And unlike most other forms of exercise, Ba Duan Jin is rather forgiving if one goes wrong with sequence, pace or breath. Learning it is easy and it really takes less time than it would take you to drive to a gym.

Enough said! Get started.... and if we meet in another two hundred years or so, let’s promise to exchange hugs and allow me to declare through my own teeth,’see, i told you so...’ Until then, keep the faith and keep training...


Thursday, June 6, 2013


I was driving slowly. The twin beams of light scanned the horizon for signs of life. But it was well past 11 in the night and I was driving through fields and forests. Few people lived here and if there were animals about, my headlights and the noisy diesel motor had kept them away.

The zone I was driving through, the eastern buffer forest of the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary, was particularly well known for a pair of leopards that often hunted in this area and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to walk all alone in the dark but to comb the trail that connected the surrounding villages to the state highway seemed like a good idea.

I must have turned away for just a moment to admire the smudges on a waning moon. It reminded me of celluloid images of a bride waking from her bridal bed. And then a large shadow from the bushes fringing the road dashed into the beam of light and darted away again. Jolted back to the present, I tried to make sense of what I had seen. I stopped the car and turned out the lights. I sat in the car and counted down from ten to one and then as quickly as I could, flicked the lights on.

Like a chameleon’s tongue darting back into the wilderness, the shadow streaked past the lights and disappeared in the shadows again, but this time I had caught a glimpse of the beast. Black stripes on tawny fur would suggest a tiger but this animal was too square. Tigers are more long than tall and this animal seemed too short-backed to be anything feline. This animal must have about as big as a large German Shepherd Dog. Sariska’s largest canid is the golden jackal and this animal was far bigger. It had to be the shy and misunderstood striped hyena.

This was some years ago. But last week, while hiking up the steep incline that leads to Bala Quila, the virgin fort of Alwar, I was reminded of that night yet again, for here I was looking for hyenas. I had my 5D swinging on a strap around my neck but realistically speaking it was too dark for pictures.

I was walking around the forests that surround the fort with two local wildlife activists, Mithun Sharma (see issue dated 02/06/2013) and Anurag Kaushik. These two eco warriors had roamed these forests ever since high school and were familiar with the lay of the land. They knew just the place to find leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and snakes.

A rustling in the bushes… We stopped and waited. The sound hurried towards us, unmindful of our presence. Such carelessness is usually more typical of bears and wild boars, but this animal seemed smaller. Before we could make up our minds, a porcupine barreled out of the bushes, followed closely by another… a pair! It was only after they had come on to the trail that they noticed us. Alarmed, their quills bristled and rattled in warning. It was a display of formidable weaponry.

Many a leopard and even a few tigers have succumbed to the devastating backward charge of an irate porcupine. Jim Corbett’s tales of hunting maneaters have often revealed that a fair number of these man eating marauders took to killing easier prey like domestic cattle and civilization softened humans after injuring themselves while trying to kill porcupines.

Though startled, the pair didn’t turn and run. They just kept bristling and scooted along the trail and disappeared in another section of the forest. We kept climbing till we reached the gate of the fort and from there we turned and skirted the walls of the fort, and walked in the direction of the forested valley that was bathed in the light of yet another full moon, that stretched beyond the fort and along the armpits of the city of Alwar.

And here we sat down and waited for a chance encounter with the clean-up artist of these forests, the elusive and nocturnal striped hyenas.

Hyenas have had a bad reputation. Their shyness is considered cowardice and since they are scavengers, to us anthropomorphic humans, they seem to be the pariahs of the animal kingdom. Ungainly and awkward, with powerful jaws and a weak voice, the striped hyena with its nocturnal habits operates in the fringes of our wilderness legends. Carrion eater it may be, but it is loathed by people living near the forests for its habit of gorging on un-burnt corpses and bodies entered into the earth. But what has made the hyena really unpopular is its reputation of picking off children sleeping in their cots when food is scarce.

While we waited, Anurag and Mithun busted two myths about the hyena. I had thought that a carrion eater like the hyena would obviously be a carnivore but the hyena apparently likes certain fruits and is actually a no-fuss omnivore.

Around then we heard a heavy animal in the bush at a slight distance. It wasn’t alone either. “That couldn’t be a hyena”, I said. “They are solitary animals, right?” Mithun shook his head. “No, no, they move around in large family groups… four, six and even eight to ten individuals in a clan. I have seen them.” Anurag nodded “ a few months ago, I was walking through this area with a friend after releasing a rescued snake. The sun had set and while we threaded our way through the brambles by the beam of a flashlight when in the gathering gloom, we spotted four pairs of eyes glowering at us. We froze. It could be cheetal, axis deer, we reasoned, but cheetal wouldn’t walk towards us like these eyes were doing… could it be wild boar, we wondered?” Wild boar, just so you know, are formidable animals. Tigers love pork, and yet even they would be wary of taking on an adult boar that could weigh as much as 80 kgs and rip the tiger’s chest open with its razor sharp tusks. If we had stumbled upon a sounder with young piglets, the adults could attack at the slightest provocation. Our mouths were dry and our palms sweaty.

The biggest of the eyes walked into the beam of light and we saw a large female hyena staring at us. During the day she would have slunk away but the darkness had given the usually timid animal a dose of courage. Usually, when confronted, the hyena turns and runs. Even when harried by village dogs, an animal it can easily dispatch with a single bone-crunching bite, the hyena, it is said, plays dead in the hope the dogs would leave it alone.

“This one was an alpha female (hyena females are the leaders of the clan and are usually larger than males) and she wanted to investigate these strange humans. The other pairs of eyes surrounded us and disappeared. Though rare, hyenas have attacked and even killed adult human beings on occasions. My friend and I raised our arms, hollered and screamed. This should have worked but the female inched closer and couple of the others closed in on us. My friend who was a more experienced outdoorsman turned and with his back touching mine as he faced the hyenas that had surrounded us, asked me to maintain contact with his back while I faced the female and asked me to shuffle backwards with great care (stumbling and falling would usually trigger the predatory instinct in an animal that was merely curious at this point).

Slowly, inch by inch, we gradually made our way out of the converging circle and when the hyenas stopped and their shapes faded into those glowing irises, we finally began to breathe again.”

Sitting there with two kindred spirits whispering their adventures amidst the sights, sounds and smells of a truly wild forest, waiting for the moment when one of her denizens would trust us enough to reveal their presence, I was filled with a sense of awe for the treasures a forest hides in its folds.

When we pack our bags and head off for a safari in a sanctuary, we often find it difficult to look beyond the quest for a tiger. And we often do little more than jump into a jeep and see the wilderness through the viewfinder of a camera. But there is more to these forests than the tiger, and there is more to a safari than the designated safari routes on a jeep with a guide chattering away in the background.

The heavy bodied rustling moved in closer and we braced ourselves for the animal to burst out before us. We were sitting on the ground without even a stick between the three of us. Having surrendered to the forest, we felt more vulnerable than we would have in a jeep and yet we felt like we belonged, far more than I ever had in a forest before.

“Ssshhh!” said Mithun as the rustling grew closer. The clatter of heavy hooves revealed the nature of the beast before we laid eyes on it. Must be a nilgai or a sambar we presumed, and indeed it was the latter, a whole herd of them. Though cautious in the beginning, the sambar soon realized we meant no harm and then they relaxed and started grazing peacefully.

On safari, from the safety of a vehicle, a sambar sighting would have been rather ho-hum after a while, but here staring into the night, scanning for predators, we shared the thrill of surviving a night with the sambar. And as our vigil for the beasts of the night continues, let me urge you to look beyond the tiger and more importantly, step beyond the jeep if you want to be know what it’s like to be welcomed back into the arms of nature again. So stay safe and let the adventure begin…