Be a Shameless Idealist

Be a Shameless Idealist

As I stand here at the tail end of 2018, just a few days before the new year is due to come in, I ask myself how I would like to be remembered. And the answer, hands down is, as a Shameless Idealist.

In your life, if you want to achieve anything worthwhile you must do two things. Firstly, surround yourself with positive people or walk alone. Definitely don’t be around negative people, no matter what you do. The reason for that is because negative people drag you down. I am sure you have had this experience in your life where you are all charged up about doing something positive, about bringing about positive change, about changing yourself, your habits, your goals or initiating change in society and in your enthusiasm, you mention this to your good friend.

His/her immediate reaction is, ‘You can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impractical. There is no way that you can succeed.’

Your heart stops, starts again, you won’t give up, so you must say something, and you do. ‘Why do you say that? I think it is such a good idea. Why won’t it work?’

‘Believe me, take my word for it. I tried this ten years ago and failed. It can’t be done. Try it and learn the hard way if you want. But I am advising you, forget all this. You can’t succeed.’

Does this sound familiar? If you have ever tried to do something worthwhile in your life, I am sure you came across someone like this. If you still succeeded, it was because you did what I am going to tell you to do now. Delete that ‘friend’ from your list. And do it fast. Never, ever tell them any of your plans. As I said, walk alone or find someone who will encourage you.

In 1999, at the turn of the century, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) did a survey to see what percentage of training sticks. They went to participants of a wide variety of training courses, three weeks after they had taken that course and asked only one question. ‘What do you recall about what you learnt in that training?’ Now, remember, they didn’t ask about application of the training. They only asked what people remembered. The assumption being that if you don’t even remember what you learnt, what hope of application? The result of the survey showed that only 15% of the people even recalled what they had learnt. That was not because the training was bad, or that people had memory problems. That was because there had been no attempt at putting the learning into practice. What we practice, stays with us. What we simply read or listen to, no matter how enthused we may be with it, is forgotten after a while. One of the major reasons people don’t practice is because their desire is killed in the cradle, by their cynical ‘friends’ who convince them that it is not even worth trying.

The reality of life is that everyone is born with the desire to do something worthwhile in life. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to himself, ‘Today I am going to be the world’s greatest loser.’ Even if he did that, it would be remarkable because he would not be any ordinary loser; he would be the world’s greatest loser. Everyone wants to make a mark in life, to contribute, to change things for the better. If you don’t believe me, go to a primary school and ask those children what they want to become in life. You will find the greatest collection of pilots, firemen, kings and queens you have ever seen. My most inspiring moments are times that I spend with small children in primary schools. People think the kids gain something. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that I gain more than all of them put together.

If you don’t have the time to do this, then just recall your first day, first job. What was in your heart? What did you want to do? Did you wake up that morning and say, ‘Ugh! Another Monday! Just let me get through the day.’ Or did you think to yourself, ‘Today I am going to do something that will be exemplary, something that will make a difference in life for me and others.’ I am not saying that you actually said this to yourself in so many words. Not many have that clarity of intention. But it was certainly in your heart, even if not verbalized or even felt clearly. So, I say to you that everyone is born an Idealist.

Then what happens? Life happens. You go to work and your boss tells you, ‘Welcome to this company. We are one big family here. If you need anything, my door is always open. Since you are new here and have a fresh perspective, I am going to ask you for a favor. Please shadow me for a week and give me your feedback about my management style. You are free to interview my direct reports also if you like. But I want you to be totally frank and open.’

You are thrilled. You came to the right place. Your boss is a man after your heart, so open, honest, humble. He is asking you, wet-behind-the-ears-first-jobber for your opinion about his management style. WOW! That is something to write home about. You are on to a great start in this company. You follow the man around. You shadow him. You take notes. You see things and hear things, many of which you wish you didn’t. But you persevere. You talk to others. You listen. Eventually the week is over, and you write your report which in one line reads, ‘Dear Boss, your management style stinks.’ Granted you didn’t actually write that. You are not that stupid. But in effect, that is what you said, because that was the truth and your boss had told you to be truthful, frank and open. You are an Idealist, remember?

Your boss takes one look at the report and while throwing it into the waste paper bin, says, ‘Thanks for the report. You have a lot to learn. I can see that. You can go.’

You are shocked, horrified. Your idol has feet of clay and they stink. But then as you walk down the passage, trying to ignore the glances of those ‘in the know’, you tell yourself, ‘Well, the report probably slipped out of his hand and fell into the bin. He didn’t mean to throw it in. After all, there is gravity. Maybe the poor guy had a bad night. We all do.’ You take a few deep breaths, grab a mug of coffee and carry on. But to your great surprise it doesn’t end there. There are other such incidents. Not only with your boss, but with others. Your Idealism is taking some hard knocks. ‘What on earth is going on?’ You ask yourself. Life is going on. That is what is going on. Your Idealism is strong, but the problem seems to be that the stronger it is, the more you get knocked. But you are still an Optimist and continue to look at the positive side of everything and refuse to believe the evidence of your experience.

But life is relentless. Things keep happening. People dump on you, they don’t keep their word, they make promises and break them, they claim to espouse certain values but do the opposite. They insist on being what they are, i.e. people. It is at about this time that you start becoming what we call a Realist. You are still enthusiastic but now more cautious. Nothing wrong with being cautious, you tell yourself. Especially on cold nights when the bruises hurt. But life is relentless. Things keep happening.

It is at about this time that you acquire a ‘wise’ friend. Someone who has seen life, has grey hair, maybe even a beard and wears glasses. He takes you to the cafeteria, gets you a mug of coffee and asks you, ‘Tell me, what are you trying to do?’

You look at him and don’t know how to say, ‘I am trying to change the world, because it needs changing.’

He says, ‘Look, we were all Idealistic when we were wet-behind-the-ears. But then we grew up. So, don’t feel bad, but you need to grow up. You need to get real. All this ‘always speak the truth; always stand up for the weak; integrity is the foundation’ stuff, sounds nice. But this is India, see?’

You don’t see. You don’t see what difference that makes to anything. How is integrity, truthfulness, compassion, fairness and moral courage any different in India or the US or Australia? These are universal values and good for all people, everywhere.

‘No, they’re not’, says your friend, the Cynic. ‘But Yawar says it differently’, you insist.

‘He has to. He can’t help it. What do you expect him to say? Will he tell you to lie and cheat? But let me tell you, he knows the reality just like I do. He says all this because that is his job as a leadership trainer. They all talk like this. Forget him. It is not his life. It is yours. Wake up or you will get knocked down again.’

Cynics are popular because they make sarcastic, cynical comments. But have you ever seen a monument to a cynic? Plenty to Idealists. But not one to a cynic. Ask why?

Now is your decision point. If you stay long enough in his company, you will become a Pessimist and then a Cynic and eventually both of you will come to the bottom of the pile and become Indifferent. You will stop caring. You will stop getting angry, passionate. You will stop shedding tears. You will pass by as if nothing happened.

But remember one thing and remember it well. The flame of Idealism in your heart which was alive and bright, will still be there. It will keep pricking you from time to time and will tell you that the stories you are telling yourself are the lie. Idealism is the flame that our hearts come with when we are born. All of us. And no matter what we do to try to extinguish it, it will continue to burn as long as we live. We can dampen it, but we can’t put it out. The flame will finally die when we die. Not before.

So, why do people fight you when you are Idealistic? Why do they try to tell you that you are wrong and try to take you off your Idealistic stand?

It is because when they look into your eyes, they see themselves as they were, one day, a long time ago. That frightens them, because in the reflection they see what they did to themselves along the way. Now when you come into their lives and they see you taking an Idealistic stance, they have two choices. Either they kill your Idealism and drag you down to their own level. Then they will be able to live comfortably with themselves for a few days longer. Or they must face what they did to themselves and undo it. The second choice is very difficult and painful, and most won’t choose that, at least initially. But if you remain Idealistic, if you don’t allow your flame to be dampened, then you will find that you will start to light their flames again. And gradually you will find people standing with you, following you, and if you are lucky, going ahead of you. The only condition is that you don’t give up.

I am a shameless Idealist. Have been all my life. And I will die a shameless Idealist. That is because in my mind, if I am not going to do what needs to be done to bring relief, hope, joy and courage to people who need it, then what is the point of living?

It doesn’t matter what others do. They are not my teachers. What matters to me is what I do. For it is not about them. It is about me.

If you think that you are too small to make a difference, too weak to stand up for what is right, too isolated, have no friends and supporters and so are sure to fail, then look at the life of Muhammadﷺ.

About him and his life, the French philosopher, poet and historian, Alphonse de Lamartine said, “If the grandeur of the aim, the smallness of the means, the immensity of the results are the three measures of a man’s genius, who would dare humanly compare a great man of modern history with Muhammad?”

(Extract from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire de la Turquie Paris, 1854, vol. II, pp. 276-277)

When Muhammadﷺ first stood on the hill of Safa and called out to his people with his message of justice, compassion, equality and human dignity, the instant reaction was opposition, anger, hatred and aggression. In one instant he lost all his friends and supporters. He went from being the most beloved to the most hated. If an analyst were to be asked, looking at him standing alone on the hill, what odds he would give to this message being accepted not only by his people present there at the time, but by people still to come in lands yet untouched by it; I am sure the analyst would say that zero was a big number. His chances would be maybe minus ten thousand. But as they say, the rest is history. Fourteen centuries later, today one and a half billion people respond to his message and believe in him.

That will give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in, ignore all analysts and predictions and do what needs to be done, to make this world a better place.

 

The Reality

The Reality

Over the past more than ten years I have wandered around almost every tiger sanctuary in India from Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Idukki in Kerala. I lived in the middle of the Anamallais for seven years. In my childhood and youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent every summer and winter holiday with my dear friend and mentor Uncle Rama (Venkatrama Reddy) in his house on the bank of the Kadam River in the middle of what is today called, Kaval Tiger Reserve. I would spend every single day and many nights in the forest, walking or in a bullock cart. No tiger. I spent ten days in Badhavgarh living in the house of a good friend, alone, in Tala village which is in the buffer zone. I went on safari drives every morning and evening. No tiger. I spent days in Pench, even slept in a dry nala on the boundary of the forest, one hot afternoon. No tiger. I have spent days being jolted around in Gypsy vehicles in sanctuary after sanctuary, my backbone witness to the wear and tear on the suspension of the vehicle and still live to tell the tale. Yet all I saw of the elusive tiger was one glimpse as it leapt across a road in Corbett and a decent sighting in Tadoba. At the end of all this wandering, I concluded that I was jinxed as far as tigers are concerned. But since I love the forest and all those who live in it, I continued to escape to the nearest forest that I could find at every opportunity; tiger or no tiger.

Then I went to Ranthambore. My very first visit. My most gracious host, Sonu Khan and his driver Sajid, ‘promised’ me that I would see a tiger. Having heard such promises from many others over the years, I hardly paid attention to it. I wanted to be in a forest and Ranthambore was not only a forest but one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever been in. Massive banyan trees, flowing streams, lakes, high rocky hills, mysterious pavilions, Muslim graves and even an abandoned masjid near one of the streams. The main river that flows through the forest especially the part that comes down from the Ranthambore fort has ‘inexplicable’ date palms all along it. Inexplicable because though Rajasthan has date palms, this is a different variety, not indigenous to Rajasthan. Excellent perches for kingfishers, owls, parrots and parakeets, as I discovered.

Ranthambore fort is very impressive to say the least. We were sitting in our Gypsy waiting for the driver to submit the entry pass at the gate house and I looked up at the battlements of the fort in awe at the amazing architectural challenge they would have posed to build. With my interest in military history, my first thought when I saw the battlements rising high into the heavens was, if I were to besiege this fort, how would I do it? I concluded that this fort is impregnable and can’t be conquered keeping in mind the armies and armaments of the time i.e. the 16th century.

Later, my dear friend who shares my interest in history and wildlife, Jehangir Ghadiali solved the mystery of the date palms for me. He told me that apparently Ranthambore was besieged for a month by the Moghul Emperor Akbar and then submitted to the Mughals in 1568. Moghul soldiers ate dates and the seeds they discarded sprouted all along the streams that they would have camped on. ‘Mughal soldiers’, is a general term referring the army they fought in. As it was, most of Akbar’s army consisted of Rajputs. It is easy to condemn them as being anti-national but one must realize that the concept of India as one nation is only from 1947. For all our history, we were individual countries that existed in the landmass of the subcontinent, much like European countries exist to this day in the landmass called Europe. Rajput kings fought other Rajput kings and were being patriotic to their tribe and country and not anti-national. The Moghuls capitalized on this and with their superior technology and generalship, they commanded Rajput armies that won the day. Rajputs rose to become generals in Moghul armies and fought loyally for the Moghul Emperor who they considered their liege lord. One of the most famous of Akbar’s generals was Raja Mansingh who was one of this Navratans (9 Jewels – Nobles held in the highest esteem). Today all this sounds strange and that is why history has many lessons to teach us.

Rai Surjan Hada was apparently demoralized by Akbar’s victories in Chittorgarh and Thanesar and when the Moghul cannons were brought to bear and bombardment started, he decided to capitulate. It was cannons that gave Mughals the edge over their opponents. Babur had cannons when he fought Ibrahim Lodhi thanks to which war elephants which were the ultimate weapon of Indian armies were rendered a liability. War elephants would run amok with terror at the sound of cannon and turn and charge through their own troops, creating havoc. Another thing that gave the Mughal armies the edge was light cavalry using the famous double curved Mongol bow. That gave them mobility and range which effectively nullified the advantage of massive infantry which was the hallmark of Indian armies. European armies of the time had infantry in thousands, but Indian kings could field hundreds of thousands. All this force came to naught when faced with highly mobile cavalry shooting from powerful bows and cannons which though not too accurate at long range, could create total mayhem in massed troops, especially when loaded with scatter shot.

Indian wisdom decided that losing lives unnecessarily would serve no purpose and so Rai Surjan Hada opened the gates to the Moghuls. In my view, Ranthambore fort can withstand a far longer siege and even Akbar would have been hard pressed to keep the siege going for a long period given the issues of supply lines and the semi-arid country that Ranthambore is in. Though the area has forest, which in those days it would have been more, but there is not much in it for an army to eat. That they were eating dates is a sign because dates are dry rations. They would have hunted in the forest but to feed an army needs a lot of meat and animals move away when they are hunted. Not easy, laying siege. This also explains the masjid and pavilions in the middle of the forest.

It is with these thoughts that we entered the forest. We drove through semi-deciduous forest with a variety of bird life. We entered the forest through a beautiful gateway that is today framed by the aerial roots of a banyan tree. In the days of Ranthambore’s glory it would have had soldiers posted on top of it and the gate itself shut, except to those who were authorized to enter. We drove through it and along the track that borders Padam Talao on one end of which is the beautiful Jogi Mahal. That makes Jogi Mahal a part of the Ranthambore fort complex because to get to it you must pass through gates on either end. Imagine that you are a guest of Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore in happier times before Akbar came on the scene and are sitting on the deck of Jogi Mahal watching the sunset (I hope I have my directions correct), drinking sherbet and eating savory snacks followed by Rajasthani sweets. The survival of Jogi Mahal through the siege of Ranthambore is evidence that beauty is protection in itself.

There were several waders and other birds in the shallows of Padam Talao. A pair of Indian Thick-knees, simply standing in one place. The Stone Curlew or Thick-knee is active in the dark and feeds at dawn or dusk. During the day it stands still in shade. In this case they were standing at the edge of the lake, in the hope perhaps of getting the odd worm. They had for company a pair of Black-winged Stilts, a most attractive wader whose delicate long legs give it their name; a pair of Brahminy ducks (Ruddy Shelduck) and a solitary Darter drying its wings. A more peaceful scene can’t be imagined.

As I contemplated all this, it occurred to me that all is right with the world. Until I woke up and reminded myself that the reality is far from this. We are at a stage where we humans have wiped out 85% of wildlife and are facing the specter of extinction. It is true that my tiger jinx was broken in Ranthambore and in three days I saw twelve tigers. It is true that when I watch Blue Planet or Planet Earth, with Sir David Attenborough commenting on the glory of nature and the profusion of wildlife, I am carried away with the sheer beauty of what I see. But it is good to remember that the reality is far from this. Very far. Yes, I saw twelve tigers in Ranthambore, but tigers are so seriously endangered as to be close to becoming extinct in the wild in India. Our population pressure, total ignorance and apathy towards forests and wildlife, greed to make money at any costs and a political class that is innocent of any ethics, responsibility or knowledge, means that forests and wildlife continue to get short shrift. Every mining concession, highway or railway line tends to get precedence over the forest that it will either seriously endanger or completely destroy. It is no secret that tiger reserves which get a higher level of protection from reserve forests, were systematically de-tigered so that the status of the forest could be officially downgraded to reserve forest, in order to start mining for marble.

The solution is to educate people. Ordinary people like you and me, about the importance of forests and wildlife and how our own survival is intrinsically linked with it. Self-interest may not be the most noble emotion, but I believe that unless people understand the importance of forests and wildlife, they will not do anything to protect it. As it is, people at best consider forests to be a source of entertainment and tigers and other wildlife to be performing artists which must put in an appearance for people to get value for money. Forest Department officials succumb to this pressure and I know of instances where, using tame elephants, tigers are driven to the road from where they are resting in the heat of the day, so that tourists can take photos.

The challenge is to educate those who will be affected by global changes. What is their level of awareness? Simply ask anyone the meaning of “Big Data”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Peak Oil”, “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and you have the answer. Most people simply don’t even know what these things are, much less how they will be personally affected by them. The powers that be, the billionaires who rule the world, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and sell them to those willing to use them on their own populations, while stridently calling for peace; benefit from wars, forest depletion, polluting industries, global poverty and oppression. Looking to them to bring about change is like asking the tiger to eat grass. That is the challenge.

How do we show the oligarchs that eliminating poverty is not for the benefit of the poor but so that a bigger market can be created for what the oligarchs sell? How do you convince those who work in weapons factories that living off the blood of others is immoral? Educating the public seems to be the obvious answer but the challenge is to find a way to do it fast enough to energize people to stand up and make a difference.

The Twins

The Twins

They are perhaps eighteen months old, bigger than the biggest leopard, yet vulnerable and in danger, when apart from their mother. Their mother, Ranthambore’s T-19 Krishna, like all tiger mothers, knows that raising young is a full-time job and Alexa can’t do it. Tiger cubs are born blind, the size of a house cat, totally helpless in every way. Krishna had three in this litter, two males and one female. The tigress nurses them and guards them with her life, if necessary. At birth they are prey to every carnivore in the forest, from eagles, barn owls and jackals to hyenas and leopards. But even when they have grown from their infancy they are still prey to leopards and to their own father and any tigers in the area. Tigers kill cubs so that the mother comes into oestrus (gets ready to breed) which she won’t do if she has cubs to rear. Cubs take up to two years to reach maturity and be able to hunt and survive on their own.

Leopards actively hunt tiger cubs, because one less in the world is one extra guarantee of survival for the leopard. Competition between the two apex predators is literally a matter of life and death. Full grown tigers are of course way beyond a leopard’s ability to delete but not cubs, even what we call sub-adults. The reason is not size but strength and fighting ability. Tiger cubs are no match for a leopard which is, pound for pound, the strongest cat in the world.

Tigers learn to hunt from their mothers. The mother nurses them until they can eat meat. This means that she must hunt almost daily to maintain her own strength and ability to lactate. Three cubs means greater chances of survival of the species but also much more work for the mother. All the while she must make sure that they are safe, when she leaves them to hunt. To this end, she moves them from one location to another as soon as she senses any danger to them. When they are weaned, she must hunt even more to feed herself and them. Depending on what animal she kills and where the kill is, she may either bring the kill to them or lead them to the kill. Once they have eaten, she leads them to water because now that they are not nursing, they need to drink often.

Then comes the most critical part, to teach them to hunt. Tigers (all carnivores actually) are not born hunters. Cubs learn to hunt from their mothers. Since tigers are solitary creatures, the mother, unlike a lioness in a pride, has no help. She must do everything. She starts by tackling smaller game and disabling it, so that the cubs can get the experience of bringing it down. They need to know which end is dangerous because their real prey is potentially lethal if not handled properly. One kick or butt from a Gaur or Sambhar can cause injuries which can disable or kill a tiger. The tiger needs to kill effectively and fast if it is to survive.

Even more important is the stalking. All tiger prey is faster than the tiger and with a head start it can easily escape. After all its motivation is greater than that of the tiger. That is why a tiger’s kill-rate is one in six or seven. If the hunt is to be successful from the point of view of the tiger, then it must get as close to the prey as possible undetected, so that the final burst of speed and power that its hind-legs can unleash is enough to reach the prey before it gets out of reach. But between sighting its prey and the final charge is every dry leaf, every stick, every stone, every errant eddy of breeze that can alert the prey to the mortal danger that it is in. Then the tiger must know where to bite to disable if not outright, kill the animal. All this takes time and lots of practice and lots of potential danger.  That is when we met the Twins.

Our track took us to the foot of Ranthambore fort at the top of which is a temple which is very popular with the locals. Droves of them come in all kinds of vehicles, packed to overflowing with some people sticking on purely by defying centrifugal forces. Music blares, people scream to be heard over the sound of music, boisterous, joyful and hugely disturbing to the wild environment into which they bash on without a care in the world. The fact that they are ‘pilgrims’ means that they are beyond reproach, and nobody says a word to them, even about appropriate behavior in the wild. To add to this is the trash they bring and spread about generously. Plastic packets of potato chips with lots of salt still in them after the chips have gone. Tetra packs of fruit juice with traces of sweetness in the pack after it is thrown away. Cigarette packs, plastic bottles and other unspeakable things which I was not willing to go close enough to identify. Everything strewn along the track to the temple and then thanks to wind, water and curious animals, finds its way into places you wouldn’t imagine. Awaiting the pilgrims are troops of Langurs, far better behaved than the humans, expecting to be fed. And sure enough they are. In addition, they pick up and carry the garbage that people have thrown away and carry it into the forest. Both feeding wild animals and throwing garbage is illegal, but who cares!

We entered the forest through the ancient gate to the fort and drove down a track which took us to another gateway which has now been framed by the aerial roots of one of the ever-present banyans of Ranthambore. The track goes along the side of Padam Talao on which is Jogi Mahal. More about that later. The track then traverses deciduous forest with a lot of Keekar and Babul (Acacia) trees with very convenient hollows in their trunks for Spotted Owlets. There were two, bobbing their heads, looking at us. Then when they decided that we meant no harm, they continued with their courtship activity of bill clasping and scratching each other’s necks and sitting with their heads together in a most endearing posture. I love watching them and given that they are quite common, I am never disappointed.

As my friend Sony Khan and I were photographing the owlets, a Rufous Treepie decided to investigate. First, he perched on a convenient branch and then decided he needed to take a closer look at Sonu and landed on his head. Treepies are precocious and highly inquisitive and are a delight to watch. One landed on my hand to try to eat some roti that I was eating. Mind you, these are wild birds. It is just their nature.

We continued up the track which took us to a highland. It seems to be really sheet-rock covered with a thin layer of soil on which is a mini grassland. The grass has already dried as the soil has little capacity to hold water and is a uniform yellow-brown, ideally suited to hide a tiger or leopard. On the fringe of this mini grassland is a thick stand of evergreens with heavy undergrowth. As we topped a slight rise, we saw them. Not the tigers but a long line of Gypsy and Mitsubishi Canter safari vehicles, parked bumper to bumper, engines idling, spewing diesel fumes; filled to capacity with tourists, all standing up, craning their necks, shouting advice to each other and pointing frantically at something in the undergrowth. This description, nasty as it is, is not unique to any of our national parks but common to all of them. What it does to wildlife is not difficult to imagine. Especially to a solitary animal like the tiger.

We parked behind the last vehicle and with careful observation, I suddenly saw the head of one of the twins. He was sitting in the grass at the edge of the trees, about ten meters from the road, completely ignoring the din created by the monkeys; sorry, people. It is amazing how beautifully the tiger’s coat camouflages him in his environment of grass, trees, dappled sunlight and shade. It makes him totally invisible as long as he remains still. When he is stalking it is as if he is carved from rock. As it was in this case, this cub was simply waiting to be allowed to cross the road to go to the river which is at the bottom of the hill. But that was impossible with the entire road blocked with vehicles filled with screaming monkeys; sorry, people. To top it all, when the cub stood up and walked a little way to try to get around the obstacle, the obstacle moved with him to block him again. I realize that people were not trying to block him from the water, but in their enthusiasm to take photos with cell phone cameras combined with their ignorance about the wild in general and tigers in particular as well a total disregard and disrespect for both, they didn’t care what happened to the tiger. As it was, his mother, Krishna had made a kill that morning and the cubs had eaten. Now they needed to get to the river to drink. It was about 9.00 am at this time. They would have been very thirsty but there was nothing they could do. What amazed me is that every single vehicle had a Forest Guard in it. Yet not one of them attempted to at least give a gap in the barricade for the tiger cub to pass. All that we could do was to sit and watch and curse in frustration. Eventually at about 9.30 am the vehicles started to move as they had to leave the park at that time after the morning drive. Since we were last in, we had a few minutes and so I was able to get this wonderful photo of the twins.

Tiger tourism is a mixed blessing in India. I say mixed, but it is greatly abused. Parks need tourists and the income they represent. Shutting them out is not the answer. However, there will be nothing to see if the forest and its wildlife is not respected and gets destroyed thanks to people’s abuse and uncaring attitudes. Most tourists think of wildlife sanctuaries as a place of entertainment. They go there to have fun. Not to see anything, except the tiger. Vehicle drivers and guides respond to this pressure and drive at breakneck speed from one ‘Tiger Show’ to another. Believe me, that is what it is actually called. The drive is a test of the Maruti Gypsy and your backbone. Mine has survived to date but after every foray into a national park, I take a week to recover. You may ask why I allow my vehicle to drive fast? The answer is because I am not alone in it. When I have people, who share my love for the forest with me, as was the case on this trip to Ranthambore, we do try to stop for birds and other creatures or even simply to look at the magnificent views from different vantage points. But otherwise, it is one mad race. It is a mark of the skill of the drivers that there are no instances of a Gypsy wrapped around a tree or two smashed together. But that is only a matter of time.

So, what needs to be done?

Education and Law Enforcement.  Tourists must be educated about the etiquette they must observe in the forest which starts with silence. They must be taught to appreciate the whole forest and all its inhabitants. They must understand the relationship between the grass and shrubs, trees and herbivores, carnivores and apex predators. They must realize that the health of the tiger represents the health of the entire ecosystem. They must understand how they come into the picture to add to it or to destroy it. No tourist must enter the forest until they have attended a talk on all these aspects. After this, rules must be strictly enforced. The key people on whom the rules must be enforced are vehicle drivers and guides who must stand to lose their license to operate their vehicles in addition to heavy fines. That will motivate them to ensure that their passengers maintain decorum and don’t give in to their demands and drive fast and behave in other destructive ways.

On our return we had breakfast in Jogi Mahal. The Field Director had kindly granted us permission for this without which it is not possible to go there. This is because the beautiful building is in a state of grave disrepair. It has structural damage due to soil shifting its foundation and is likely to collapse if it is not attended to urgently. If that happens it will be a great loss of a beautiful heritage building and a piece of history of Rajasthan. To sit on the deck and watch the activity on the lake is an incredible experience. I can only imagine the experience of watching a sunrise and sunset from this place but that will mean staying here overnight. While I am willing to camp out in the veranda of the pavilion, I am not sure whether I will be permitted to do so. If that happens, then the photos we can take will be mind-blowing.

You enter Jogi Mahal from the back past an ancient banyan tree with its multiple trunks. An amazing sight in itself. You walk through a short passage to the front which is literally on the lake, Padam Talao. The lake has crocodiles and large turtles, whose ripples you can see as they sense your presence. The edges of the lake are great potential sighting points for herbivores and carnivores who come to drink and hunt. All you need to do is to sit on the deck with a pair of binoculars and enjoy the sights. A Greater Cormorant was hard at work trying to catch fish but with little success. Since there are a lot of fish in the lake, easily visible in the clear waters, I wonder why he couldn’t catch any while we were there. There is the ever-present Rufous Treepie, a youngster, curious and bold, making a racket that is hard to believe, as he tries very hard to get us to feed him. Sadly, for him, he is not successful.

Back to the gate where the Langur troop has now dispersed since the pilgrims have also left. We count our blessings, beautiful forest, amazing tigers, fabulous scenery, bold Treepies, breakfast in a piece of history and weigh them against the irritants, screaming tourists and feel that we still came out on top. Until next time then. Cheers!

Kumbha

Kumbha

He had killed a sambhar stag the previous night. Sambhar are plagued by horseflies and their defence against them is to roll in the mud which when it dries off, makes a very effective shield against the biting insects. This part of the forest, in Ranthambore, has a river flowing over a very rocky bed. Flowing is what it does in the monsoon but for most of the year, it trickles and eventually all that are left are isolated pools, in particularly shady spots.

Ranthambore topography strikes you for three reasons; and high rocky hills, large number of Banyan trees (Ficus Bengalensis), and a sprinkling of temples, and domed pavilions just sitting in the middle of nowhere. This creates a unique ecosystem unlike in any other national park that I have seen, where thanks to the high rocky hills, animals can simply go away from vehicle tracks if they want to get away from people. People, the less said about whom, the better. More on this later.

To return to our story, the stag came to the depression in the riverbed which was on its way to drying out totally but was still wet enough to have enough mud to make a very nice mud bath. The pool had not dried out as it was shaded by two massive banyan trees whose aerial roots had descended to the earth and created their own columns until it was almost impossible to decide which the original trunk of the tree was. The result was thick shade in which you were a few degrees cooler even in the hottest part of the day. Sunlight never struck the water directly and though the overall dryness of the atmosphere would eventually evaporate the water and dry out the pool, that was still some months away.

The stag walked down the hillside very carefully, all senses alert. His excellent eyesight was somewhat impaired as darkness had fallen and though starlight was enough for him to see clearly in the open, when he entered the shade of the banyans, he was seriously handicapped. What kept him going was habit. He had done this all his life and grown from a small fawn to the size of a horse with a massive neck that supported a rack of horns. He was confident. Tonight, was just another night. The horseflies had been particularly irritating all day. To roll in the mud in daylight was simply too dangerous. So, he had waited until it was dark and then cautiously, very cautiously, he came down the hillside. One step at a time, all senses alert, listening, interpreting the sounds and then deciding to take another step. Sometimes he would freeze with one forefoot in the air, totally still like a statue carved in rock, while he listened and smelt the breeze rising up to him from the river at the foot of the hill. Only when he was sure that there was no danger, would he take another step down the hillside.

He knew Kumbha. They were the same age, 8 years old. As he had grown, many a time, he had seen Kumbha’s mother and her two cubs, lying in the water of the river in the summer. Tigers are the only cats that love water and spend a lot of time in it especially during the heat of the day in Rajasthan’s very hot summers. At that time, he was himself a fawn, skittish and given to dashing off at the smallest sound. That is what kept him alive and he grew big and strong. Sambhar live in family groups and fawns learn to survive from their mothers. His mother had been a good teacher. He remembered that where he was headed was Kumbha’s territory which he regularly marked by spraying urine on trees as well as rubbing his face on low hanging branches so that the facial glands left their excretion as a mark of his territorial boundary. This was for the benefit of other tigers, to attract breeding tigresses and to keep other males away. But these chemical messages were smelt and respected by everyone in the forest. Some his prey, some passersby, some competitors. Deer, leopards, tigers, hyenas and humans who could recognize the signs. The stag reached the bottom and entered the shade of the banyans, headed to the mud bath beneath them.

The shade hid from him his greatest fear, Kumbha. Kumbha was not close to him at the time. He knew that it would be far easier to kill the stag when it was down and rolling in the mud than when it was still on high alert, approaching the mud bath. He was lying some distance away in the riverbed, completely hidden by the rocks, his own dappled, striped camouflage making him invisible. His stillness was such that even if the stag looked at him directly, he would not see him unless the wind changed direction and he smelt the tiger scent. Tigers have a kill rate of about one in seven and so Kumbha was no stranger to things going wrong at the last minute thanks to an errant eddy of air, leading to the deer scenting him and escaping in an explosive burst of speed, adrenalin coursing through his veins. Live deer, hungry tiger.

Kumbha hadn’t eaten for four days. He was keen, light on his feet and very hungry. Spells of starvation followed by gorging on meat until he can eat no more, is the routine of the tiger and all carnivores. Kumbha was in his element, his cat eyes enabling him to see clearly in the dark. He watched intently, but occasionally he would look away for a second or two. It is my guess that this is because the intense look can be sensed by the one, we are looking at. We can see this even with people, who will turn around and look at you if you stare at them. Animals with senses that are far keener than ours can sense anyone looking at them much more easily. So Kumbha looked away from time to time, to allow the sambhar to approach within striking distance.

All this took far longer than it will take you to read this, but for the players, the stakes are the highest; life and death. Eventually the sambar reached the mud, looked around for a final time and stepped in, knelt and rolled over once. Kumbha took that opportunity to race ahead a few steps, moving over dry leaves and twigs without cracking a single one and then went to earth again. The sambar scrambled up, looked around again to ensure that he was safe and then went down again to roll on the other side. Kumbha was within range and charged with an earth-shattering roar that is designed to paralyze prey for the instant that the tiger needs to seize it. The sambar struggled up, but Kumbha’s shoulder hit him and then the tiger closed his jaws on his throat, at a bite force of 1000 psi, keeping well clear of his lashing hoofs and the horn rack on his head. One strike by either can disembowel the tiger or injure him permanently so that he eventually dies of starvation.

Once that sambhar was still, Kumbha started eating, starting from the rear soft underbelly of the animal, going for the stomach contents. This is where carnivores get their quota of trace elements and other things that their own pure protein and fat, keto, diet can’t give them. While he ate, he would insert his head inside the thorax of the carcass to reach the heart and lungs and emerge completely covered in blood. Not nice to watch but if you are a tiger, you don’t give a hoot for public opinion. Tigers can eat as much as one hundred pounds of meat at one sitting, and then starve for days after. Kumbha ate his fill. The sambhar was big and there was plenty more to eat. Daylight was approaching, and he had to hide his kill from scavengers, so he dragged it out of the river and across the road that ran alongside, up a slight slope on the other side deep into a thicket where it was completely hidden. Then he returned to the river to drink. Having drank his fill, he returned to lie by the kill to sleep off his dinner and guard the kill simply by his presence. As the sun climbed in the sky and the heat intensified, Kumbha arose and walked to a damp spot on the side of the road and lay down in it, the cool mud feeling good on his belly. Later he would go further to the river to drink some more and lie in the water until the evening. For the present, he was asleep by the road, shaded by the banyans, and that is where we met him.

We were in Ranthambore almost at the end of our morning drive when we saw nine men, young and middle aged, standing on a culvert in various stages of undress. This was in the middle of the forest and I was astonished to say the least. I asked our guide and he said that there was a Solesar Mahdev mandir (temple) in the forest and these people had probably spent the night there and were returning to their village outside the national park. On the way they had decided to bathe in the river, evidence of which in the form of soap suds, soap packets strewn carelessly and their own state, bore witness. As we passed them, the Forest Guard who was our guide called out to them to get out of the forest immediately.

We drove perhaps less than a kilometer from there, on our way out of the forest, when we saw Kumbha lying by the roadside. We stopped in awe because a tiger in the forest is an awe-inspiring sight. It seems to light up the darkness and has a majesty that I find impossible to describe. An animal that can be five hundred pounds in weight with a head that seems to fill your vision to the exclusion of everything else, looking at you directly and unflinchingly with the yellowest eyes that you can imagine. His striped coat dappled in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, stained dark with blood around his face from the kill that he had been eating. Lying with the relaxed grace that only a cat can muster. Yet I know that to go from there to 60 mph in a flash if he decides to charge, is something that he can do without raising a sweat. We stopped a respectful distance from him and took our photographs. He raised an eyebrow to keep us in sight but didn’t move from his totally supine position. He knew that we didn’t represent danger, but he kept an eye on us.

As we were photographing him suddenly it was as if he had stepped on an electric wire. He suddenly sat up and looked intently beyond us. I knew what he was sensing, though the temple devotees were not visible yet. Then he got up and walked up the slope to his kill and we lost sight of him. We remained where we were because we were concerned about the men. They came along, talking loudly among themselves, totally unaware that they were under surveillance. I have heard many people who know the jungle say that a tiger could be six feet away, but you wouldn’t know it. That day I saw how true this is. As the men came up to us, we told them about Kumbha. Their fright was amusing to put it politely. We then told them to walk on the other side of our vehicle so that the vehicle would be between them and the tiger until we were sure that any potential danger was past.

Human intervention in our national parks is a very serious problem in all parks. In some of them we have highways and train tracks running through the park paid for with the lives of animals crossing them. In others there are villages or temples which result in both pollution with paper and plastic as well as human-animal conflict which always has the same result. The animal is declared the villain and the punishment is death. In other cases, villages along national park boundaries constantly encroach on forest land by ring-barking trees so that in a few months they dry and fall and the area they covered becomes a part of the village fields. These fields are also protected by illegal electric fencing which electrocutes any animal trying to cross it. Many villagers lay out sticks of dynamite encased in rotting meat to attract wild boar which explode as soon as the boar bites into the meat. If the boar is lucky, his head is blown off and the people who set out the bomb, feast. If not, his jaw is blown away and he runs off into the forest to die an agonizing death, many hours or even days later. Sometimes, it is not a boar but a tiger, leopard or hyena that takes this bait with the same results. As I said earlier, human-animal conflict always has the same result.

The solution is a combination of relocation of human activity from inside the park to an alternate location, education of the public about the need for conservation of forests and wildlife, not merely for their entertainment but as a critical need for our own survival and law enforcement to ensure that forests and wildlife remain protected. In India we have reached a highly critical stage already and it is debatable if we have already gone over the edge as far as wildlife, especially tigers, are concerned. Be that as it may, what we must do is to focus on inculcating a sense of shared responsibility in all those who benefit from the forests, so that they learn to respect this great asset we have before it is gone forever.

To close with Kumbha’s story, what could have happened? Kumbha had eaten and in any case, humans are not tiger prey. So most probably nothing would have happened, and nobody would have been the wiser. But what is equally likely is that one of these people could have thrown a stone into the bushes and then who knows what would have happened?

Because there is a limit, even to the patience of a tiger.

Literacy is to language what driving is to cars

Literacy is to language what driving is to cars

In my view the single most significant event in human development is the evolution of languages. It was this process that enabled human beings to preserve their thoughts, teach others, learn from history and talk to generations yet unborn. Language is the elixir of eternal life. Or as close to it as we are likely to come. Literacy or to be able to use language, reading and writing, is the key to this world which essentially distinguishes and differentiates us from animals. Literacy is therefore as fundamental to the human condition and as essential as food, clothing and shelter. And in a manner of speaking, even more essential than that.

When adults teach children to read and write, they are transferring their very humanity and empowering their students to access the collective wisdom and learning of the human race. There is no greater service that one human being can do for another than to teach him to read and write. Societies which are unable or unwilling to teach their children to read and write are impoverished and bankrupt in the most essential element of wealth, knowledge. Without literacy the only door that opens into the world of the future remains locked. The child stands before it in mute testimony to the fact that those whose responsibility it was to hand over the keys, had failed to do so. There is nothing more tragic than that.

In India today, illiteracy is almost bequeathed to the child, thanks to poverty of the parents and an almost non-existent primary & secondary school system in the country. Primary & Secondary government schools which do exist are extremely poorly staffed and resourced and the quality of education provided is abysmal. For illiterate adults there is no place where they can go even to simply learn to read and write. A cursory journey through the villages of India will show that there is a very large pool of very bright children available. The tragedy however is that thanks to a complete lack of support, they are simply allowed to go to waste and instead of legitimately aiming for the stars they spend their youth trying to earn a living doing menial unskilled jobs for a pittance. From there, when they realize the dead-end of life they have entered, they graduate to crime or become the fodder for political skullduggery. We will never know how many potential scientists, philosophers and intellectuals we have already lost only because the rest of us don’t care. If there is something worse than not to care what happens to the minds of our fellow citizens, I must claim ignorance of it. Of this we are all guilty to some extent.

So, what is the challenge before us? To ensure that every child is given the key to his or her future that is his/her birthright and our duty. For this I would suggest five measures:

  1. Schools must be sponsored by corporate companies and the government must encourage this by giving tax rebates on the money spent on primary education. All this should (probably can already) be included in their CRS spending. These schools should be taken out of the Education Department’s control so that the evils of corruption and dysfunctionality don’t infect them. Chambers of Commerce and Industry can set up an Inspectorate to monitor the quality of service.
  1. Skill training institutes must be set up in partnership with Schools to teach children useful and saleable skills which will not only inculcate respect for dignity of labor but also enable them to become entrepreneurs. At any rate, whether they set up shop or not, learning a useful skill that requires you to work with your hands adds value to everyone. Entrepreneurship is the only reliable solution for unemployment.
  1. Every School must have a library and a structured reading program. Books from the library can be sourced from society at large and can be of any nature and on any subject. Not only must the library be a place to borrow books from but the system of maintaining the library must also be taught. We were taught the Dewey Decimal System of Classification in our school, Hyderabad Public School (Class of 72). The library must be run by the children.

https://mypages.iit.edu/~smart/halsey/lesson1.htm

Along with this there must be classes on social skills, manners, consideration for others, caring for the commons, environmental protection and wildlife and forest conservation. These can be taught by field trips, growing gardens, keeping pets and other practical activities to ensure high involvement.

  1. Adult literacy programs must be started in every gram panchayat, municipality and sub-division taught by educated citizens of the locality. This is a social responsibility that all of us should be willing to fulfill free of cost. The purpose of this course is only to teach people to read. Writing and speaking can also be included in the curriculum but are not essential. ‘Text books’ could be any book at all in the language being taught. If books that promote the right attitudes and values through their storyline, are used, it would be a huge value addition. Care must be taken to keep religious and political ideology out of the curriculum due to its divisive nature.
  1. Talent searches must be done annually and students who are identified must be sponsored for higher education. Corporate heads must volunteer to sponsor a certain number of students each. Government must also offer tax rebates for any amounts spent on the education of these children. After qualifying they can be offered employment in the sponsoring companies.

I have no doubt that if these steps are taken we will see their positive results in less than one plan period – 5 years. How I wish we had been doing this since we became independent instead of spending our energies in politicking for reservations. People who have been deprived of education need active support with high quality education. Not reservations in worthless schools and colleges.

Will someone see the light before it is too late?