Thursday, August 29, 2013


Another fifteen minutes and the sun would set. Did I travel all these hundred miles and more for this; did I drag myself through mud and thorn bush for this; did I crawl on my hands my knees and stay stock still for the better part of 90 minutes for this… for nothing? I would know soon enough, but my mind was racing to gather the lessons if there were any… there always are is what I had come to believe, deep down in the depths of every failure.. and reached down and scoured the depths of this day to salvage what I could even as I waited in hope…

The day had begun early enough in Delhi and as I drove along the seductive grey expanse of the Yamuna expressway that ran from Greater Noida to Agra, images of the imperious Sarus Crane, the greatest of all birds that take wing, danced in my head.

A few weeks ago, I had called upon an old friend, Prakash who was a naturalist at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park and a keen birder. I had asked him if he could help me photograph a pair of Sarus cranes in the area. Incidentally, the Sarus is a beautiful bird, nearly six feet tall, and graceful as a ballerina. Known to mate for life, these romantic cranes are known for their version of avian salsa. Prakash assured me that he would let me know as soon as he had located a breeding pair within camera range.

Two days, Prakash called, his voice shrill with restrained excitement. He had located a breeding pair and a nest in a marsh near a farmland in Mathura and wanted me to drive up as soon as I could. My biggest lens was a 500 mm zoomer. Yes, yes, I know static lenses are far better and 500 mm is not nearly enough for many birders, but ladies and gentlemen of the flock and the feather, not all can indulge their ideals the way well heeled folk like you can. Many of us just have to get by with what we have and a 200-500 was all I had. So I checked with Prakash if the nest was within range of my modest equipment and the birder assured me that it was so.

So with one bag stuffed with equipment and another with lunch for may day out in the field, I set out for the marsh where the great birds cried…

‘Kurr’ is what the local village lads in the area call the sarus, for that is the call of the crane. Kurr-kurr, the crane would call, shredding the quiet of the open fields when seized by the mood for love or when intruded upon, and then all would be quiet once again as they fed on till again the pair was infatuated or alarmed by shadow, light or sight.

I met up with Prakash and one of his associates by the park gate and then we drove back to this ‘secret’ location where the birds had chosen to rear their brood. It was almost afternoon and we were chasing the light and so made as quickly as I could for the marshes. By the time we got there the sun had only begun its slow slide off the sky and there was enough light yet for me to catch the birds as they danced in the golden light of an autumnal dusk. Or at least so I thought.

Off the highway and on to a broken trail, through a narrow rut and a ploughed field, by the tracks of trains that screamed through hell, we finally reached the marsh where the cranes had built nest, in the middle of a lake, hidden from view by reeds for a shield.

But what was this! The ‘secret’ location had been revealed. The nest had flocks in neither feather nor fur but wrapped in Cannons and Nikons and some other sorts, prying like a gaggle of voyeurs I thought. The cranes had been driven off their nest and the eggs lay bare to the sun and rain and beyond the reeds roamed the frightened birds, craning their necks to steal a glance to see if the intruders had left them their peace.

I didn’t like those photographers for being there. They had taken away my ‘secret’, and from the birds their lair. But then an upstart thought raised its head. Was I any better, were my rights any greater, than those who were here, those who had come ahead? Nay, not for the cranes at least, nay they couldn’t care less.

As for me, I joined the jostling and found a spot that I thought was best. I inched a little closer from the rest. Meanwhile the cranes would return every now and then to check on their eggs and to see if we’d left . But every return would be met by the whirring of cameras, the excited gaggle of voices and push the poor birds back behind the grassy crest.

By now, the sun was sliding down a slippery slope. From above my head it had now come to rest over my left shoulder and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it there for long. One by one, the others left . I was determined to wait, to become a ghost that the birds wouldn’t see, and so I crept through the reeds and mud, and right to the edge of the lake brush. From there I had the clearest shot, of egg and nest, and hopefully the birds too soon as they’d return. But the sun didn’t want to wait for the birds any longer. I pleaded with the orb to wait some more but it had had enough, it had other skies to brighten, through other worlds to wander. And so I turned to the birds and pleaded stronger, for them to return before the sky grew any darker. They seemed to yield and began to wade, through the water for their roost, I had frozen in wait but must have moved, for the birds sensed that there was one waiting still, adamant and unmoved.

The birds hesitated and then turned away again, from me and the nest and my hopes of a frame of the pair, in love and at rest. The light was fading fast. And hope had receded with the light. A day spent in the heat and dust and mud and muck, but not a photo to show for all that was spent, it wasn’t fair, it didn’t feel right.  In that moment I felt the earth shake and behind me screeched an iron demon, hurtling along the rails, screaming to all to keep their distance. As train hollered by, I saw the cranes raise their heads and see it go by, just as the last light dropped out of the sky.

So I had failed for the first in my short photographic career, to take the frame I had planned, and I wondered why the birds turned me away. In the fading light as I trudged back to my car, I scoured the bottom of the day for something to hold in my hand or heart and say, that the day taught me even if it didn’t bless me. Prakash’s tale while on a bicycle ride through the Bharatpur wetlands came back to haunt me. He had told me of a time from a few years ago when a pair of cranes built a nest pretty close to a trail and photographers would line up all day to take pictures of the birds and the nest.

Usually the eggs hatch within 30 days but so disturbed was the pair by photographers that they couldn’t even after 40 days. The pair might have persisted and tried even longer but it was already late in the season and the waters from a nearby canal couldn’t wait any longer as they fl owed into the park washed the nest away. He told me other tales of how the presence of people would disturb these birds from their nest and while the parents were away, crows and kites would sneak up to the nest and peck at the eggs. Th us would those that love the bird contribute to its destruction. And I wondered, ‘had I yet again contributed my bit to the destruction of a species that I love and respect, both for its magnificence as much for its courage and character?

In 20 days or so, if we allow nature to take its wise course, the eggs should have hatched and yet another little sarus or two would have emerged to bolster the dwindling numbers of this crane which almost became our national bird. But what about us photographers, both hobbyists and professionals? Of course, we love nature and our subjects who we obsessively chase with our lenses. But while we mean no harm do we end up causing more harm than we realize? As nature lovers, all of us who swear by our cameras would want to believe that we are custodians and guardians of our natural wonders as much as any NGO or conservationist. But do we at times become the problem instead of the solution we like to believe we are? These are questions I will try and answer for my own conscience as much as my tribe of the tripod and until then tread in the wilds with scruples as sharp as your images.


Thursday, August 22, 2013


Hypocrite! What’s wrong with you? Someday it is aikido and some day it is krav maga! Your are confused and you are confusing your readers too… That’s what you are doing”, said Joy, as tossed an old issue of TSI on the table and flung his head with such vehemence that it was a wonder that it hadn’t wrenched itself off his neck and tumbled onto the table. I recoiled at his feedback and at that point, I would have confessed to a certain degree of involuntary amusement at the thought, assuming of course I could screw that bowling ball of a head back on… at an appropriate hour in the for now distant future. And anyway, it was I who brought this spit spattered deluge of criticism upon my evening by badgering him for feedback in the middle of a party.

Joy was pattering on about one of my recent columns about an encounter with my Aikido teacher. And I guess i must have been showing off a few moves for effect in rather pleasant company and that must have pushed sweet old Joy over the edge a little... And of course we single kids have these attention seeking kinks which tend to get on people’s nerves. I’ll give Joy that...

So once the air, thick with my ‘pet me, I’m cool’ purring and punctuated with Joy’s ‘I’m sick of you’ outburst, had settled, I thought it was time for an honest assessment of these two formidable martial systems which while so different on the surface, are close kin under the skin.

Unlike other martial arts from around the world, like karate, Judo, muay thai, boxing, wrestling, taekwondo and most others that you can think of, Aikido and Krav Maga are both what the great O Sensei, martial artist extraordinaire, perhaps the greatest in the last 100 years and the creator of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, would have called ‘true Budo!’ Unlike the above mentioned arts, Aikido and Krav Maga practitioners do not seek to score points or win tournaments. In fact within the original template of these dissimilar twins, there is no winning and losing in aikido or Krav maga. On the contrary, kravists and aikidokas train for the real battles of life where opponents do not follow a code of conduct, morals or rules; where opponents might seek to maim, hurt or kill, with or without weapons, and the mission of training in either system is the same, and ironically, perhaps aikido, more than any other art mirrors the philosophy that drove one of the bravest civilian warriors of the second world war, Imi Lichtenfeld to acts of true heroism that helped him save both lives and honour of his fellow Jews in the face of barbaric anti-Semitic persecution. All that Imi fought and trained others to fight for was so that ‘one may walk in peace’... While WWII pushed Morihei to create an art that sought peace even in the midst of violence, the same war pushed Imi to create a system that oft en was brutally violent, in its quest for peace.

While Japan was an aggressor in the war, and after bloodying her hands in the Pacific War theatre, and aft er experiencing retributive carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Morihei and perhaps even the rest of Japan realized the futility of war. Morihei’s art evolved out of that urgent need for pacifism, that realization that violence shall beget violence, and so you have Aikidoan art that stresses the need to avoid confrontation, to be gentle albeit with control.

On the other hand, Imi Lichtenfeld and his people were persecuted and stripped, of dignity, opportunity, independence and even the right to live. And when cornered thus, when flight is not an option, fight is what one does, and Imi and his students did that really well. Krav Maga’s attitude towards a situation is like that of a cornered tiger, brutally violent until left in peace - incredibly effective, though susceptible to possible overreactions.

And here’s where the arts (incidentally KM masters refer to it as a system of self defense, not an art, but more on that later) diverge. Imi and his people were a minority, persecuted and insecure, and pushed into corners where the threat was always greater and far more formidable than their meager and rather unprepared means of defending themselves. The situation demanded a degree of viciousness to compensate for both the greater odds as well as their own inadequacies in terms of preparedness and strength. Imi had to train virtual novices in the art of unarmed combat - bakers, bankers, housewives and children to defend themselves against divisions and minions of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel or defence corps). Even today, Israel bristles at the slightest provocation. Needle them and they strike back doubly hard. Scars of the Holocaust don’t heal easy, and so there’s this constant looking over one’s shoulder, this unbridled aggression, this innate understanding of one’s strengths and the opponent’s corresponding weaknesses and commitment to at least partial destruction and complete immobilisation of the source of the threat. This is also an attempt to erase the nightmares of a trauma that is barely a generation old and even today Israel’s geography does not let her forget her history.

Ueshiba on the other hand was part of a society that had deified martial culture and woven it into the fabric of their lives. The Samurai code, the Samurai spirit drove the growth of Japan as a nation, its spirit of subjugating self for the greater good of the community or nation like the samurai did for his shogun, the spirit of death before dishonour that still drives Japanese corporations into creating quality that every employee and citizen can hold up and say ‘I’m proud of this... This is Japanese!’, just the way the Samurai would give his all for honour or commit harakiri if he failed. And it is the same battlefield forged samurai spirit that made Japan into a military powerhouse that shook up the world during two world wars. The same martial wisdom and vigour enabled a tiny nation to stare down mighty Russia and dominate a gigantic neighbour like China. From kamikaze to kaizen, it is the same samurai inspired martial spirit that guides Japan’s rise as a nation and as a people.

And when ‘Budo’ (the martial path) defines a society, it begins to learn the pitfalls as much as the bonuses of living on the edge of a katana.

So when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed the Nanking Massacre and Pearl Harbour, Ueshiba, with his samurai heritage, could understand that it is not budo itself that is at fault but the purpose and manner in which it is conducted that opposes the laws of the universe, causing disharmony and destruction. Thus aikido emerged as a combat system that honoured the opponent, no matter how violent the threat, and sought to remove and immobilise the thought of violence rather than the perpetrator of violence. I know this needs explaining so in the next issue I will take your thoughts and mine to two masters of these apparently different but surprisingly similar systems/art forms and try and explain to you and good old Joy why I’ve been crusading for both.

For now, let’s just understand that krav maga and aikido are both similar in their philosophy of seeking peace and not points or trophies. Both understand the reality of death and pain far more than arts preoccupied with the idea of ‘victory’ and both are mirrors of the society and heritage that created them. Where they differ is that while krav maga seeks to hurt an opponent WHERE he is weak, aikido aims to challenge an opponent WHEN he is weak. Now take these two radically different approaches to the same problem and extrapolate that into a verbal argument. That will tell you how an opponent would respond to you, when at the end of either counter. Which method works better? Well, that’s a debate for next week, but until then, what you should mull over is, who are you? And, what do you want?


Thursday, August 15, 2013


IRC’s an atheist. Not an easy nut to crack and he refuses to let God exit a conversation or enter his heart. He is a good guy… about as good as an atheist can possibly get!

When I told him that, I had in fact meant that as half a compliment, but IRC didn’t like the sound of it. He let it pass that afternoon but later in the evening, he sent me a text, “…..and by the way, I think atheists have stronger morals than those who are religious.”

At the time, I was knee deep in work and should have either ignored the message and waited to send in a response later or I could have just sent in an appropriate emoticon to let him know what I thought of his valued opinion. But I did neither…. Instead, I shook a hornet’s nest loose, stuck my face right in it and got into the debate… Blackberry messages went screaming through the airwaves, collided, crashed, picked themselves up and then squirmed their way into our respective phones in an effort to buy up acres of mindscape before the opposing thought process could intervene…

By the end of our conversation, I had, what we both thought was a rather interesting debate. I have reproduced it here for your perusal… hope you find it worth its space on this page. Be kind… do keep in mind we were debating and we are both bound to have our biases and so would manipulate facts a wee bit to make a stronger case…

Disclaimer: We are both rather young(really!) and within the context of the discussion, you might even consider us immature. But what the heck, gotta start someday…

IRC: …..and by the way…. I think atheists have stronger morals….!

PB: Of course you would. Every gambler says he is braver than those who don’t gamble. I’m a believer and I wouldn’t mind standing up to a moral inquisition so how do we settle that, good sir? In fact, on the contrary, non-believers have no foundation for moral behaviour. All they have is ‘accepted social behaviour’. In the absence of God, or goodness, every act is merely ‘as per fashion of the times’, since there can’t be a universal sense of right or wrong. Morality, therefore, isn’t a factor in the world of non believers. It’s pure fiction good sir. Lucky you!

IRC: Non believers have no foundation but in fiction. True (moral) foundation lies in humanity and human values. Thus, it is not an imposed sense of morality but one which helps to uplift humanity as a whole. It is unselfish as well as grand. And religious texts or God present a sense of morality where one has to pick and choose the good bits and leave out ‘stoning’ and other such barbaric acts which are supposedly “moral”.

PB: But who is to say what is humane and what uplift s humanity without a sense of divine purpose to give it a context. There is nothing humane about humanity without recognizing this divinity in man.. Going by ‘human values’ as dictated by evolution alone, Adolf Hitler, Attila, Timur Lang, Nadir Shah and all the other despots who follow their lead, believed in survival of the fittest, subjugation of the weakest and annihilation of every dissenting voice were the alpha males we should have been praying to, for both mercy and inspiration.

Religion, an institution that we both love to despise, is what we owe the seeds of ‘humanity’ as we know it to -’…for it is wrong to kill a fellow Christian for God hath made him by his hand just as he hath carved me and so he is a brother to me just like the one by my own mother’.

Otherwise the driving human values, before religion, before learning to recognise the “divinity” in each other, were about getting as many wives one could; beat up as many as needed so I could lead my tribe, by show of force and wit; attack other tribes, take their wealth, rape their women by right and decree, kill their sons, enslave their daughters and consume their flesh... something lions and chimps and many other species practice to this day – unaffected by ‘morality’, yet perfectly in tune with nature’s values. And unencumbered by a sense of mutual and universal divinity, we too are but mere animals, unhindered by moral compunctions and your version of ‘human values’..

What you call ‘the greater good of humanity’ is a philosophy steeped in morality whose foundation is the assumption that even without might, you have a right, because you are my equal ‘for the Lord God created us all’. We are slowly extending this right to animals and one day it will be illegal to kill them too. Seriously! But our laws, our civilization and our society of agnostics, atheists and fanatics, all build on that basic assumption. Our morality, your sense of human values, and our sense of honesty, integrity etc. are all built on that premise..

Nature on the other hand, rewards deception, rape and war. That is why there are fewer bonobos in this world than there are chimpanzees... So believe it or not, if you believe in human values, equal rights, human rights, animal rights, non violence, non cruelty, honesty and integrity, then you are a believer too. I didn’t add commitment to that list because nature rewards commitment, whether to a tribe or to a partner.

IRC: Seriously?! Are you saying that before we had religion and (a sense of) God, we didn’t have laws? Of course we did. And those laws came from understanding, science and learning - something which religion has always eschewed at least from the times of Galileo. Just because we can judge right or wrong for ourselves is the very reason we don’t need a foundation for morality.

People like Hitler have always been there even after religion spread and we treated them like gods. It’s only with education and ‘humanity’ that we finally know that selfish behaviour is wrong. That came with the advent of science and understanding our place in the universe.

PB: No, we never knew right from wrong before organized religion because religion is merely organized spirituality.. It went wrong because it became dogmatic. But science never gave us a sense of right and wrong. Science merely recognizes cause and effect. The position of the sun or the shape of the earth does not decide whether it is right or wrong to kill, pillage or rape. According to science our place is merely at the top of the food chain and Idi Amin’s at the top our own little food and mating rights chain. Why are they wrong in the eyes of science? Marshalling forces, mobilising resources, reserving first right of use to all property and people and ruthlessly quelling opposition - every species practices that to this day. Why would science say that’s wrong? So irrespective of whether God exists or not, his idea has given us both humanity and civilization. There’s no morality or a sense of right or wrong in nature. It is purely a function of acknowledged mutual and universal divinity.

IRC: Morality in fact is steeped in science. For one, evolution makes it mandatory for humans to live in harmony. Secondly experiments have shown that there are certain hard wired moral values in us. Killing each other is bad. Having sex with one’s mother is wrong. People like Hitler and Amin are the exception. It is human to be good. We are animals yes, but a different kind of animal. The reason our brain grew to this humongous size was because of living in a community and sharing. So the side effect of our increased intelligence is this moral sense, an emotional connection with life and the universe.

PB: Evolution makes it mandatory for us to live in harmony? You can’t possibly be serious. Harmony has always been limited at best to a tribal concept before religion... And even after that, it struggles to stay in place. We are the most violent species on the planet.. We fight everywhere and kill far more often despite being governed by laws unlike other creatures. Animals don’t fight all the time either and they definitely don’t fight to the death over issues as petty as crossing the road first. And not having sex with one’s mother is true in all of nature. And while animals don’t fantasize about incest, our ‘hard’ wiring doesn’t stop us from committing incest more often per capita than any other species.

Our tribal peace isn’t a patch on wolf, elephant or even rather violent lion and chimp societies.. Chimps and lions aren’t hanged for killing and yet they don’t kill if another lion or even a jackal steals a morsel, crosses their path, roars a little too loudly or stares at their female... Nor do they accept rape as normal interaction between the sexes. Yet humans had collectively sanctioned rape of ‘other women’ before religion and God made an appearance. Even today, war zones, zones without fear of God or law due to hate and differences in faith or ethnicity (like in the Balkans, Sudan and even pockets right here at home) still see rape being exchanged more often than currency.. And don’t even get me started on murder and genocide…”

And so we rolled with the tide as it would ebb and flow... Matters remain unresolved for now but what it has done is gotten us thinking. Hope it sets a little lump of snow rolling in your head too. And now that we’re done, let’s say ‘Thank God!’ to that... Yeah IRC, you too!


Thursday, August 8, 2013


Picking up from last week it’s a pity most of us in the tropics have neither encountered a wolverine nor its innumerable legends. To see this superhero of the animal kingdom in the flesh, carrying its diminutive size with a gigantic attitude, like a viking warrior walking fearlessly amongst giants, is a sight to embolden quaking hearts and fortify flagging spirits. The beast and its mythical aura is a sight both sublime and surreal, and our forests and vales are poorer for the fact that in spite of our great faunal riches, the wolverine doesn’t call our country its home.

But wait! So what if we have no wolverine... We have a creature even braver, and perhaps some would say, way smarter... In fact, most wildlife experts would call this animal the bravest and most fearless of all the creatures that walk the earth. The massive wild water buffalo, built like a muscular tank and huge sweeping horns, the giant with the impassive eyes that could stare down a tiger with a mere shake of the head, is a contender. Others say the wild boar, with its slashing dagger like tusks and barrel like body and beady eyes that burn with rage and dauntless courage when cornered is the stuff of legends that tigers tell their cubs about at bed-time and ask them to be wary of.

But the animal that breasts the tape in the courage race ahead of these two or any other amongst creatures great and small is an animal as unassuming in stature as its distant northern cousin, the wolverine. Another of the Mustelidae (that’s the cool and officious sounding Latin name for the weasel family) family, the ratel or honey badger, though a giant amongst weasels at about 10-20kgs is still a rather small animal that usually lives its life in the shadow of the bigger, more glamorous carnivores. No tourists to Ranthambore or Bandhavgarh would ask their guides for tracks of the honey badger and nor would they come away disappointed at not having seen one. But had they insisted they might have seen one of the most amazing sights in all of jungledom…

It is said, admittedly far more often of the ratel in Africa than the Indian subspecies, that a unique and special bird called the honeyguide would often lead the ratel to a honey-comb. Now you don’t need a genius to tell you that honey has got to be a honey badger’s favourite food. And so the badger doesn’t need to be told twice. Off it goes after the bird in search of wild honey and when it finds the comb, without a moment’s hesitation, up he goes the chosen tree and to the branch from which hangs the comb. With powerful claws it rips the hive open and digs into both honey and the larvae in the comb. The bees could buzz and sting all they like but the ratel’s tough hide is almost impervious to most bee stings. The honey badger has its fill of honey and the rest and then leaves the scraps for the honeyguide bird. Some say this tale of teamwork is but a mere myth while others claim to have seen it with their very eyes.

While the jury is out on the authenticity of this legend about this super cousin to that super hero called the wolverine, what is beyond doubt is the toughness and pound for pound super strength of the ratel. Like its cousin, the wolverine, there is nothing the ratel cannot climb, there is nothing the ratel wouldn’t eat and there is no animal that walks alive that can ever have claimed to have scared off a ratel. It might defer to common sense and make way for a boar or a buffalo. It might even grudgingly return a leopard its kill when the two face off over what might rightfully be the leopard’s but when cornered, a ratel would lunge and fight even a lion and more often than not emerge unscathed with a moral victory and a prized cut from the kill to show for it.

I have often asked around for the ratel in national parks across the country and while most guides would tell you that its around somewhere but it sure isn’t easy to spot from a safari vehicle. One reason for that is that especially in India, the ratel is primarily a nocturnal animal. Th ough few have seen it, all who have, have a huge amount of respect for the feisty little badger.

About a decade and a half ago, BBC and Valmik Thapar created a stunningly gorgeous nature documentary series called Land of the Tiger. I had just graduated and joined work at the time, and one of the first things I spent my first salary on, besides the customary gift s for family and family-to-be, was on a video collection of the Land of the Tiger. Many subsequent Sunday afternoons were spent listening to Thapar’s mellifluous and intense entreaties for conserving what remains of our magnificent natural heritage and watching one of the most visually enchanting documentaries of its time. And if you ask me today as to what are the most enduring memories from those Sundays, I would tell you about three such – one would have to be the sight of a snow leopard patting down a stone to keep things quiet as it stealthily slithered down a rocky slope against the inky blue skies and the blue hued snow on the mountain crag. Then there was the battle at dawn between two of the handsomest creatures of the jungle – a pair of massively muscled gaur bulls fighting for the right to a harem of females.. their great forms tearing up the grassy meadows and their bellows rending the misty clouds of the Western ghats to ribboned shred – primal and sublime. But the cutest and most interesting scene of all the six episodes was the montage that showed a ratel on a hunt…

It has been a while since I last saw it so forgive me if I make a mistake but I hope to keep the moment’s essence intact… Drawn by the distress calls of a bird a badger had located a kingfisher’s burrow on a sand bank or cave of sorts that had collapsed in the heat. The fledgling was caught in an overhanging network of roots that were sticking out of the sandbank/cave. The badger tried to reach the fledgling and it stood up on its hind legs and waved its paws but the chick hung on for dear life. Undeterred, the badger looked around and found a dry log lying a few yards away. It threw the chick an “I’ll be back” look, shuffled off towards the log, rolled and nudged it to a spot right under the roots, climbed up on the log, made adjustments, got another log, and then stood up on its hind legs and with a little stretch reached the kingfisher, grabbed it in its mouth, dropped to the floor and sauntered away to enjoy a well earned meal.

There you have it now – tough as nails, super strong for its size, courage to match a pride of lions with a more than a little left to spare and smarts that rival the creature’s great strength. How many animals other than the apes or dolphins are as good at solving problems and using tools? I say the ratel deserves a superhero character to call his own just like his cuz, the wolverine.

If you remember the wolverine, and here I mean the comicbook and silver screen hero, you would remember that one of his greatest powers was his ability to heal his own body. Now forest guides in honey badger territory would tell you that the honey badger, due to its loose skin and tough hide, is almost immune to attacks from most predator for it can turn around on its attacker and inflict a nasty bite with its powerful jaws but what is most stunning is the way it reacts to cobras and other venomous snakes. The badger seeks out cobras for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And none of the nift y fencing footwork of the mongoose while snake fighting for our badger. Th is guy just barrels in and bites the snake’s head off. And what happens if it is fanged in the process? When the venom makes its way into its system, the animal collapses and rolls over, like as if it’s dead. For a few minutes its out cold, and then within minutes, it recovers, comes to, gives his body a shake and then calmly goes back to munching chunks off the half eaten snake. That’s a feat even Marvel’s Wolverine will find tough to beat.

Next time you go tiger watching, remember that there’s more to machismo than stripes and a roar, and there are greater heroes out here in the wild than on screen. The honey badger is one of the few mammals who by dint of their courage, charisma and wits has managed to stay out of the endangered species list… let it not stay out of your ‘must catch on camera’ list next time you hit the trail, for there are few to hold a candle to the ratel.. for beware, it might bite off more than you think it could chew!


Thursday, August 1, 2013


During my early years in school, Superman and Batman and DC’s Justice League America were the heroes that flew around the mindscape. I remember tying my mother’s red shawl around my neck and jumping off walls and ledges. Then the Christopher Reeve movies drove the madness deeper into our young hearts.

Marvel’s Spiderman was a bit of a late-bloomer in those days. Then of course the Daredevil popped up and The Hulk crashed through. The Marvel heroes, unlike DC’s clean cut all-American heroes, have a dark side to them that makes Batman look like a choirboy. But of all the freaky mutants in the Marvel stables, the Wolverine has got to be the coolest of them all.

Short, just a few inches above five feet, hairy, with angry whiskers framing his strong chiseled head, a bull-neck exploding out of ropey muscles and massive shoulders, and a dense stocky torso bouncing about on powerful springy legs powered by indefatigable stamina and an indestructible skeletal structure… Hmmm, does that description remind you of another character from popular fiction? No not a comic book character but a super villain from the classics – Robert Louis Stevenson’s inner demon incarnate, the respectable Mr. Jekyll’s despicable Mr. Hyde.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that when Marvel writer Len Wein and art director John Romita Sr. came up with the character of the Wolverine, a misunderstood mutant battling inner demons of his own, they were more than merely inspired by Hyde’s savage primal vigour. But let this be known to all and sundry, and to all who have held a comic book in their hands, and dreamt dreams 40 pages long of saving the world with their super-human strength, that if ever there was a creature that was truly as heroic as it’s comic-book namesake, it is the wolverine.

Bats have an eerie reputation and the vampire bats can draw blood or even leave behind a few nasty bugs in our bloodstream but there is nothing conventionally heroic about these shy creatures of the night. Spiders, from black widows to tarantulas have painful and some even venomous bites if you fit in between their pincers, and they can weave delicate webs and while they may be phenomenally strong for their size, their miniature world is too far removed from our own for their heroics to resonate with our psyches. And so on and so forth for Hawkgirl, the Falcon, and the Ninja Turtles…

But The Wolverine is another matter altogether. This superhero takes his name from a relatively small little dynamo found in the taiga forests of the North. Weighing in between 10-30 kgs, the shaggy wolverine is the king of the weasels and the largest of the mustelids. Like its fictional namesake, the wolverine too has long strong bear like claws, immensely powerful jaws and a tough hide that most animals would find nearly impossible to bite through. Like the superhero, the wolverine is immensely strong and brave, taking on the might of animals many times its size, and more oft en than not emerging a winner.

In the arctic and alpine wildernesses, this small but mighty predator roams the snowy wastes and oft en hunts animals as large as the elk and mule-deer. The wolverine has even been known to take down adult moose in the winter, an animal that is ten times its size. The sure audaciousness and self belief of the animal is legendary for moose are formidable opponents and even bears and wolves would find the task of bringing down an animal as large as the moose a daunting challenge.

So brave is the beast that the wolverine wouldn’t think twice before challenging much larger predators like wolves or bears for the right to a carcass. I have seen videos of this animal hustling a large bear off a kill. And it has even been known to hunt and kill other formidable carnivores like the Eurasian lynx and the coyote.

And yet these highly intelligent little bear like animals can make very affectionate and playful pets. Jasper, one of a pair of orphaned wolverines raised by Steve Kroschel, an Alaska based wildlife film-maker has become a tv star and has demonstrated search & rescue abilities that would rival those of highly trained and decorated S&R dogs.

And wolverines make wonderful parents. Males maintain territories that range between six and seven hundred square kilometers and might have up to three females at different ends of the territory. When kits are born in spring, the father divides his time and helps all three mothers bring up the young with devotion that is as intense as the mother’s. Now, how demonic is that? Mysterious beast of the northern wilderness with a fierce diabolical reputation, and known for his immense strength, dauntless courage, terrible fury and an incredible survival instinct, both fictional mutant and real mustelid are heroic creatures.

What does the wolverine teach us, in both fact and fiction? At the very least, they teach us that size doesn’t matter… It is attitude that does. The spoils of victory can be yours even though you may not be the strongest or the biggest or the prettiest.

As long as you have an honest, unpretentious attitude, refuse to back down in the face of seemingly impossible odds, recognize and then stay true to your strengths and believe in them, you will see the biggest bullies and obstacles, be they in the shape of man, beast or fate, fade away and leave the path to survival and success open in their wake. 

So here’s to a super hero that matters, and a superhero that is as real as it is grand. May you find strength and courage in the call of The Wolverine, in theatres near you, in forests far away, and in the wild expanses that remain even today, in corners of our anxious and crowded hearts.

Next week, I will take you to meet a cousin of the great wolverine, who wanders unnoticed in wild places closer home. And for this week, I leave you with the words of Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way who says “(the wolverines strategy, if it has one, is to)…go hard and high and steep, and never back down… not even from a grizzly and least of all from a mountain… I will never really know what it is to be a wolverine, but I’ve learnt a little more about courage and a lot more about what being wild means, just from being on the wolverine’s trail…”

Here’s to the wolverine that roams in all of us…