He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feed mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.
When we think of trekking we think of walking long miles, climbing hills and watching nature in all its splendor. For me, trekking is all that. But even more important is the time alone which enables me to look within myself, gather my thoughts, re-visit my dreams and discover myself.
Most recently I went on a trek in the foothills of the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand. I want to share that with you. I had just recovered from a series of three operations for hernia. Three because the first two failed, thanks to some incredibly incompetent surgery. However Indian culture being what it is I am none the richer for it. However, I was very keen to start walking again and to prove to myself that I had indeed recovered fully. As it happened I had an assignment with the SSB Academy, Gwaldam. The SSB – Sashastra Seema Bal is one of our border guarding forces that guards the Indo-Nepal border. I took that opportunity to go for a small trek after completing my assignment.
To get there, you take the train – Ranikhet Express – from Old Delhi station and get off early next morning at Katgodam. I was met by the SSB driver and gunner who had been detailed to receive me. The driver is an old friend from Manipur, all of 4 ½ feet tall, who gives the most brilliant salute accompanied by, “Jai Hind Shaaar!!”. It makes you feel 10 feet tall to be greeted like that. I did the best salute that I could manage and returned the greeting, “Jai Hind”, standing to attention. Mercifully I have had a lot of practice in these things and managed to do a reasonable job.
From Gwaldam we drove to Ranikhet. This takes about 3 ½ hours and can be done by bus or car. The road is very good and goes along a river for the most part. All along the riverside there are tall Thorny Dadap (Macaranga Indica) trees in bloom. The flower is blood red and the tree completely devoid of leaves. The flower has nectar in its center and attracts a lot of birds. Truly a beautiful sight.
Almost midway we come to Bhimtaal which is a lovely lake bordered by lots of trees. The road runs along the edge of the lake and if you have the time you could stop at one of the tea shops for a break. If you leave Katgodam as soon as you arrive then by the time you reach Bhimtaal, the sun would be at an angle where the little wavelets turn to silver. What strikes me the most, every time I have done this drive, is the silence. Coming from the noise of big cities, this is a most welcome change. That and the clean pure air.
Having had your tea, you start again up the road and about 2 hours later you enter the town of Ranikhet. This is a district headquarters and the seat of local government. It is also the Regimental HQ of the Kumaon Regiment. The Regimental Museum is well worth a visit and is open to the public. The Kumaon Regiment has an interesting history. The Kumaon Regiment was raised in Hyderabad on March 1st 1922 by Nawab Salabat Jah Bahadur who was a brother of the Nizam of Hyderabad. It was called the 19th Hyderabad Rifles. Later it was named The Kumaon Regiment and is headquartered in Ranikhet in Uttarakhand.
Some comments about this regiment which will interest Hyderabadi readers:
Comments: The Kumaonis had been in British military service since the early 19th Century. As part of the North Indian class, who had joined the military of the East India Company’s forces, the Kumaonis had moved to other states in search of military service. Thus they formed part of the Hyderabad Contingent, which was raised, trained and led by British officers under Henry Russel, but paid by the Nizam of Hyderabad. In 1857, in keeping with the class based composition of the infantry, the Regiment comprised Rajputs, Jats and Muslims. After the Great War, some Kumaoni battalions were raised separately, but the Hyderabadis continued and fought with distinction in the World War. In 1945, the Hyderabadis became the Kumaon Regiment. When the Naga Regiment and the Kumaon Scouts were raised, they came under the aegis of the Kumaon Regiment.
Ranikhet is an Army town and large parts of it are Cantonment and belong to the Army. Consequently it has not gone the route of most Indian towns and cities and still has open areas, parks, a golf course and old bungalows. Some of these are now being taken over by the new Uttarakhand State Government and being converted into hotels presumably one step before being knocked down to build apartment blocks in our standard architectural style called Modern Indian Horrible. But if you go quickly you will still see this beautiful town before it goes the way of others.
Having had a good breakfast in Ranikhet you proceed further up the road and about an hour or so later you come to Kasauli. This is the first clear sight of the Himalayan snow peaks that you should be able to see. You can see the peaks from Ranikhet as well on a clear day but the Kasauli sighting is much better. Certainly, a good bit of luck is needed in this matter as the Himalayas are both shy and hospitable. Shy to show themselves and hospitable to any passing cloud that wants a shoulder to cry on. So, for a great deal of the time they are hidden by cloud masses. It is only when it gets cold that the clouds do what clouds do and you can see the snow peaks. Kasauli also has a tea shop that belongs to the Uttarakhand Tea Corporation which serves some excellent high grown teas. You can also buy some to take back, but let me warn you that the price is not cheap. Having had our fill of the Himalayan views and tea we then proceeded further up the road to our final destination, Gwaldam.
Gwaldam is at an elevation of about 7000 feet above MSL (mean sea level) and can be very cold. Especially when it rains. The Himalayan peaks that you can see from there are Trishul and Nanda Ghutti (not to be confused with Nanda Devi though it is the same range). And they seem to be in your front yard. If you were a crow and flew towards them, they are not more than 9 – 10 km from the Deodar tree in Gwaldam from which you would take flight. But since you are not a crow you will have to be content with taking photographs. Gwaldam has lots of Deodars and Pines. The sound of the wind in them is like the sound of the waves of the ocean. Interspersed among them are the signature plants of this elevation, Rhododendrons (Buraans as the Kumaonis call them). These are short trees, maybe 10-12 feet tall and when in bloom, entirely covered with flowers.
The flower looks like a large rose and has fleshy petals that are edible. They make a juice from them which they claim is beneficial for people with hypertension. I have seen Rhododendrons in four colors, rose pink, blood red, powder pink and white. It is an amazing sight in March – April to see entire forests of these trees, as if splashed with multi-colored paint. A total abundance of color. You can’t be blamed if you wake up one morning and look out of your tent and start to imagine that you had died the previous night and have now woken up in heaven. Misty valleys, grassy meadows mowed smooth by herds of sheep, forests of Rhododendrons, sunlit glades in which you can see Muntjac and Monal Pheasent.
Amazing bird, the Monal. The colors of the Monal can’t be described. The closest I can come is to say that it appears that there is an electric light inside the bird because it seems to glow from within. The colors are fluorescent and kaleidoscopic. It shimmers in the early morning light and watches you warily over the shoulder as it moves away. And then with its typical whistle it flies heavily off. I always thought the Peacock as the ultimate in beauty until I saw the Monal. A pity that thanks to indiscriminate hunting their numbers are sadly reduced.
In March you will also see some compacted, snow in the shadows where the light of the sun does not reach it. Little streams flow from unexpected places and meander through the meadows and make little waterfalls off the rocks here and there. The water is ice cold and good to drink. Not too many places left in this country where you can drink the water straight from a stream and live to tell the tale. But I am living proof that provided the stream was in the hills of Uttarakhand you will be none the worse for your drink.
From Gwaldam we took the road to Karanprayag. The road winds along the Pinder river which is on your right at the bottom of the ravine. The Pinder is ice cold and fast flowing, sometimes loaded with mud if there has been any rain in the upper reaches. It has very inviting sand banks on most bends but it is dangerous to camp on them on account of the danger of flash floods. The Pinder also has some excellent trout fishing. And if you are among those who either don’t or can’t fish, you can buy the trout from the several little road-side shops if you reach them early enough in the morning. The shops also sell rice and curry. The curry will take the top of your head off to let out the steam, if you, the unwary fall upon it with open mouth. The anti-dote is not water but plain rice or curds (yogurt) which the shop will also sell you.
Having got some 2 kilos of freshly caught trout, we proceeded on our way to Karanprayag. This is where the Pinder meets the Alaknanda. Together the two flow as one until they come to Rudraprayag where they are joined by the Mandakini. The three then flow along together until Devprayag where they meet the Gangotri which comes from Gangotri glacier and together they flow down to the Bay of Bengal. Only, now the river is called the Ganga. From Karanprayag we drove along the road climbing and winding along the Alaknanda until we came to the village called Sari.
These roads with the mountain on one side and a sheer drop on the other are maintained by the Border Roads Organization, a wing of the Indian Army and known for their expertise in maintaining mountain roads. They do such an excellent job that they are justly famous all over this region. Were it not for them, the 6-hour journey from Gwaldam to Sari would have been many hours longer.
Sari is the end of the road. At Sari you leave your transport and first sit in one of the tea shops to drink some tea. You would have noticed that tea and sitting in the tea shop are important rituals of this trail. Indeed, they are. For they have less to do with the business of drinking tea than with meeting local people, getting news and negotiating for porters and mules. All done in mountain time. So, don’t allow your city urgency to get the better of you. Drink the tea, watch the view and let the villagers make the beginning.
“Would you like to go up to Devariya Taal?” one will ask.
Resist the urge to reply, “No. I have come to live with you in Sari for the rest of my life.” And say, “Yes. Is it possible?”
“Yes of course it is.” And then the negotiation for rates of porters and mules begins. You can carry your own packs of course, but since we hadn’t had time to acclimatize we decided to play it safe and carry only ourselves and leave the rest to the mules. Now, don’t get me wrong. The idea of negotiation is to keep up the tradition and so that everyone has fun all around. The hill people don’t cheat you. What they ask is nothing more than what they deserve. And seeing that for you this is entertainment while for them it is a living, I would never dream of giving them a pie less than what they ask for and then give them a big tip. Yet we have to negotiate. For negotiation is a tradition that must not be treated lightly.
So little Prakash says, when asked for the rate for his mule, “Aat saw rupya sahib (800 rupees Sir).” And I say, “Yaar tere khachchar ka kiraya poocha. Usko khareedna nahin hai. (My friend, I asked to hire your mule, not to buy it.).” And we all have a good laugh and the negotiation is on its way. Eventually we agree to a rate that is a few rupees less so that his face is saved by showing how magnanimous he was to reduce his price but not too much. And my face is saved to show how magnanimous I am that I gave him almost what he asked for. And of course, you would never just give the asked for price. That way you would show what a fool you were and nobody would have any fun negotiating. When we returned the next day, Prakash got a thousand rupees from me, being his original price and my tip. But that is also understood and expected.
Once you have finished negotiating, then you simply leave all your bags with the mule keeper and start the climb. The hill people ate scrupulously honest and you need have no fear of losing anything from your pack. So, you start off.
Much to your disgust, as you are about midway up the hill, panting for breath and asking yourself why on earth you had been so foolish as to imagine that you could do this trek, along would come Prakash and his mules, almost running up the steep climb and pass by you with a smile on their collective faces. No, you can’t kill Prakash. It is illegal. But then, as you take the next turn in the path, there he is, standing by with a brass lota (urn) filled with ice cold stream water, offering it to you, “Paani piyenge sahib?” What lovely people!!
From Sari village to the top of the hill is 2000 feet straight up. If it was any steeper it would be a wall and not a hill. The path winds along like a demented snake and so you end up walking a little over 2 kilometers. The Forest Department in its kindness has paved the path with stones. This makes it uneven and a very hard surface underfoot. And so it is now harder to climb than it would have been on the soft soil forest pathway that it has replaced. But that is entirely in keeping with all government projects. Tell me one, which actually makes life easier. On you climb.
Every time you believe you are dying, just stop and look back. Stone shingle roofs of the village houses, terraced fields growing wheat. You always thought that green was one color. Look at the terraces below you and you will realize that green is a thousand colors. You always thought that the wind was invisible. Look at the crop growing in the terraces and you will see the wind as it brushes the ears of wheat and bends them symmetrically in its passing. Think you are fit until you see an elderly grandmother with her goats, going up an almost vertical mountainside without a care in the world. Gives you a whole new perspective on life.
Reflect that every terrace has been built by hand, each stone bordering it, collected individually and placed skillfully so that it remains in place through the heavy monsoon and snowfall. Reflect that the soil in the terrace field has been carried there and added to every year. Each field represents the work of many generations, handed down from one to the other. Think about the hydraulic engineers who have managed to direct the flow of a small stream so cleverly that it irrigates many terraces and not a single drop of water is allowed to go waste. And then remind yourself that none of these engineers ever went to school. They learnt engineering in the school of life where the prize is survival and failure is starvation.
As you look and think and breathe the clean, cold air, your tiredness falls away and you get invigorated with new energy and once again you turn around and begin climbing. Now as you climb, look about yourself. Try to count the thousands of Rhododendron blooms. My friend Mr. G. C. Sah, Head of Outdoor Education at the SSB Academy, Gwaldam who was with us, calls them, ‘Ro Dho climb on’ – Cry, wash your tears, but climb on. Truly beauty can wash away exhaustion. As you climb, do pick a few petals of the Rhododendron flower and chew on them. They have a slightly sour tangy taste and are very pleasant to eat. Since you are not in any hurry and walk at a normal pace that is not too taxing you can do the whole climb in about 2 hours.
When you reach the final lip be prepared to have your breath taken away. For as you climb over the top, you suddenly see Devariya Taal spread before you. Set like a jewel in the middle of what you may take to be a golf course. So closely has the grass been cropped by the sheep which graze there. The lake is green with algae as the water is still and has no flow. It is really a collection of rainwater and snow-melt and perhaps has a spring or two at the bottom. So in the summer when the sun is bright, algae has a field day and the whole lake becomes a dark green in color. Devariya Taal has a lot of fish, mainly carp, as far as I could make out. Some fairly large.
Fishing is permitted from the bank and there is no boat, so you can only catch some very small fry which are really not worth catching. So after catching two, to prove that we could catch them, we threw them back in the water. You can pitch your camp on the high bank at the back of Devariya Taal from where you get a good view of the Himalayan peak called ChowKhamba. On a clear day when the sun is just right, Chowkhamba gets reflected in the waters of Devariya Taal, truly a magnificent sight.
When we reached the top, our support staff has already pitched camp and had a hot cup of tea ready for us. Most welcome indeed and heavily laced with sugar, gave us a much-needed energy boost. The sun was already starting its journey to the bottom of the mountain. In the mountain the light goes very rapidly, so it is a good idea to ensure that all you need to do is done before it gets dark. Wandering around on steep mountainsides in the dark is a good way to meet a quick end. Since we did not need to actually do anything ourselves, we just sat and watched the sun go down.
Watching the mountain as the sun sets is an experience in itself. The snow changes color with the light. First it is white as it reflects rays that are stronger and more direct. It shines and shimmers and you have to shut your eyes in tribute to its brilliance. Then as the angle of the sun changes and it starts going down the snow changes color to pink, to orange to the beginning of a grey that eventually turns dark. All in a matter of minutes. But interestingly it never completely turns dark. There is always some ambient light from the stars or moon that keeps the snow lighted just a little. Such are the delights of the mountains.
I can write a great deal more about the whole businesses of trekking but this will do for now. All that remains is to light the camp fire, tell stories while you cook your food. And then eat and sleep. Night comes early in the mountains, as does day. So, eat well and sleep well. For tomorrow is another day.
Kabini River Resort on the bank of the Kabini Reservior, bordering Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. I am in the Gol Ghar (which is actually rectangular) at tea and snack time after the afternoon safari.
“What did you see?” asked an American who had come to Kabini for the first time.
“Nothing. Totally dry. Five safaris and we saw nothing,” said an extremely bossy Indian woman whose rude behavior was on display wherever she went with the saving grace that nobody was exempt from it. One must be grateful when people with bad manners display them equally for everyone.
Ajeeb! I say to myself. Then I check to see if the people talking were blind or blindfolded. But no. They weren’t. Bright eyes and each had a camera and lens worth at least 3 – 4 laks each. One a Nikon and the other a Sony. But we shall not hold that against them. What was more, this conversation or different versions of it, were happening all around me. So, it wasn’t only this one woman who saw nothing.
How could this be? How can people go for a three-hour drive in one of the most beautiful forests in India and say that they saw nothing? Unless of course one were to ask, “What does seeing mean?”
Well, what did I see?
I saw a silent life and death struggle between a strangler fig and its saprophytic host, a nameless giant of the forest, whose fate was sealed when the first tender filament of the fig started its climb upwards towards the sun. After that it would only be a matter of time, measured in decades perhaps, but the ending, inevitable. The fig strangles the host. As I saw this struggle without motion, I thought how closely it resembles what is happening in our national politics. Politicians of all hues have taken hold of the nation like strangler figs and are busy throttling its life out. There is one exception to this however in our case. Unlike the forest giant, we the people of India, are not helpless. Unless we choose to be. We are not helpless unless we choose to vote for the one who gives us Rs. 200 instead of voting for the one who is most likely to serve our best interests. Rs. 200 doesn’t even buy a chicken. Is this what we have priced our futures and the futures of our generations yet unborn, at? Less than the price of a chicken?
I saw Chital (Axis deer) or Spotted deer in their hundreds. Chital is one of the most beautiful of the deer species. In Nagerhole, they abound. Grass and shrubs are aplenty. The terrain suits them very well. There are predators; Wild dogs (Dhole), leopards (black and regular) and tigers but the Chital simply outbreed them all, so they thrive. Predators also ensure that all the weak die early and only the strong are left to breed so predation helps and promotes survival of prey species. I saw their fawns ranging from some which must have been literally days old to older ones. Chital fawns simply must be the most beautiful creatures on earth. All Chital have liquid black eyes with eyelashes that will give every Bollywood actress a complex. Their coats, golden brown with white spots showing shadowy in the morning mist are a sight to behold.
Then their behavior; the way the dominant alpha males strut. The stags with a full rack of horns, which they shed every year to grow a new pair; clothed first in skin called ‘velvet’ which they then rub off on trees until it is at first hanging in rags and then is totally cast away to show the shiny bone beneath. It is rutting season and you can hear the territorial braying call of the alpha males, challenging all takers. The stags eat very little during this time, being focused almost entirely on protecting their harem of hinds from other roving males, ready to give battle at the slightest provocation. When there is none they sometimes take out their testosterone on innocent bushes, bashing then to smithereens with their impressive horns.
But if you are a Chital, no matter how impressive, you are at the bottom of the food chain. Everyone eats you and you eat grass. So, if you want to survive and live to tell tales of your life to your grandchildren you need to be extremely alert. Chital learn this lesson early in life. Those that don’t, never grow old. The result is that Chital will sound their typical alarm that sounds like a very high-pitched bark, at practically every suspicious movement. I have seen Chital calling when they see a Sloth bear, Dhole, Wild boar, eddies of wind rustling the bushes and simply because they imagined that they saw a tiger or leopard. But you can hardly blame them for this because they are No.1 on the menu of any predator on a keto diet. One of them calls while striking the earth with one forefoot with every call. The rest, run. Chital learn two CTS (Critical to Survival) lessons in life which are good lessons for us to learn also.
Lesson No. 1: Complacency is death.
Lesson No. 2: It is better to run twice than to be caught once.
A much more reliable alarm giver is the Grey Langur. These have a symbiotic relationship with Chital. Langur feed in tree tops and drop more than they eat, of leaves and fruit which the Chital eat off the ground. And all bands of Langur have a sentinel, who doesn’t feed but sits on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the area and scans the forest for threats. When he sees anything suspicious, he calls the alarm and the Chital take off. Since this sentinel is watching from a vantage point, he is much more accurate in his risk assessment. When his shift is over, another of the tribe takes over and he goes to feed. It is amazing to see how this entire system works to the advantage of two different species who are united in threat. How much can we learn, I muse, about being united despite our differences because we face the same threats in our societies. Threats of moral degradation, drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, rape, murder, crime of different kinds; all of which don’t differentiate between us because criminals view all victims equally. Makes the forest with its lurking leopards and tigers seem positively safe.
Langur are playful in the extreme. Most amusing are the young. They fight, chase each other up and down trees, making some leaps which almost amount to flight. I saw one young chap simply hanging from a vine and swinging back and forth. Just like a child on a swing. He was simply having fun. Another one climbed up behind his older sibling and used his tail for a swing. That didn’t last too long because the owner of the tail had a different opinion about this liberty. Some older individuals simply sit on a branch with their hind legs stretched out before them. Occasionally those lower in the pecking order come up behind them and start grooming them. I saw one Langur sitting on one branch and leaning out holding another with his hands while resting his chin on his hands, fast asleep. His instinct ensures that he doesn’t let go of the other branch even in his sleep. Our driver stopped the jeep under a tree, but noticed some Langur sitting directly above and very wisely and hurriedly moved us out from beneath them. I could almost hear one of them look down at us and say to the other, ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’ I didn’t fancy being the recipient of their donations.
Nagarhole seems to have the highest population of Hoopoes and Flame-backed Woodpeckers that I have ever seen anywhere. Both are beautiful birds with the FBW males shining like jewels in the forest. They fly in their characteristic wavy flight and land on a tree trunk (unlike all other birds that land on branches) and immediately switch to the back of the trunk. Very infuriating because my camera can’t see through the tree. The females are not as colorful as the males, as is the case in most species of birds but have the same flight pattern and irritating habit of hiding from you.
Trying to match the FBW is the Indian Roller. A brilliant blue bird whose brilliant lilac breast and fluorescent blue wing colors are spectacular in flight. What is best about the Indian Roller is his desire to be photographed. He is totally unfazed by the jeep or the chattering monkeys in it. He perches on a solitary branch of whichever short tree or bush that happens to be present and watches intently for his prey; worms, insects and whatever is small enough to appeal to his palate. Then he flies down, picks it up and flies back up to the same perch to eat it. This is an absolute boon for the photographer who can literally set his camera and wait to get the in-flight photos which are the best for this bird.
Another extremely photogenic bird is the Green Bee Eater and its various cousins. They are best seen in the early morning and sometimes in the late evening. They perch on any raised object, a dry branch, a rock or even a blade of tough high grass and watch for flying insects. As soon as they spot one, they swoop up, pluck it out of the air and return to their perch to eat it. Once again, this predictability of returning to the same perch and the fact that they are not spooked and liable to fly away at the slightest movement, makes them such favorites of photographers. Their brilliant green plumage, with some blue in some of the sub-species, their feathers which closeup look very fine hair, black beaks and shiny black eyes are a study in art. Birds in general afford one a look into their lives and behavior much more closely and readily than mammals and so are wonderful to photograph. Naturally, given their size (small birds) and that they fly about means that you need a camera and lens that can get you close to them. But if you have that, then there is endless joy in photographing birds.
As I was trying to find a better perch for myself in the jeep that had (believe it or not, eleven adults in it) the driver whispered to me and I looked up to where he was pointing and loed and beheld a pair of Imperial Pigeons. They were in a fig tree, engrossed in gorging themselves on the fruit. While I took pictures of them, there was a shadow and the pigeons exploded out of the tree and headed for the Lantana bushes. I looked up to see a Brown Serpent Eagle. Pigeons are not his normal diet, but I am sure it wouldn’t object to a change of menu; something the pigeons understood very well. The eagle settled on the fig tree and so there was no chance of the pigeons returning, but I noticed a Monarch butterfly alight on a blade of tall grass. One single butterfly on a single blade of grass in just the right light. As I was clicking away, I saw a flash of yellow and there were a dozen Clouded Yellow (I think!!) butterflies on a damp patch in the road. Butterflies of all kinds settle on patches of moisture in the road and make wonderful objects of photographs with their brilliant colors, set off against the brown or black background of the road.
The driver moved along as our companions were getting bored with not seeing anything. We drove around a corner and came to a pack of Dhole (Indian Wild dogs), resting in the grass under some trees. The Dhole is a rich brown in color all over with a pointed face and a black tail. It is barkless and whistles. The dominant female and alpha male were sleeping. A couple of uncles were also resting, but one of them was sitting up, alert and watchful. In the jungle you have two choices; be alert or be eaten. There were four puppies who were being the pesky nuisance that all young are when adults are resting. Whistling and nuzzling and trying to crawl under their elders, failing which climbing all over them. What was amazing was the patience of the elders, who couldn’t have been enjoying this ‘affection’ but showed no irritation. The sentinel suddenly tensed but didn’t sound an alarm. I looked in the direction that he was pointing to and saw the most enormous Gaur bull that I have ever seen. Huge and black with his signature white socks, walking slowly and majestically, fearing nobody and nothing. He was followed by three cows, one of which was a subadult and so much more skittish. But the bull was a sight to behold.
Just then a peacock screamed. What else can you call that sound? It is a communication call, ‘See what I am doing!’ What was he doing? Dancing to try to please a bevy of totally disinterested peahens. But he was spectacular to say the least.
Still not having seen anything, the driver decided to go and investigate why two other jeeps that had passed us, hadn’t returned. We drove to a place where the road takes a steep dip between two low hillocks and there in the depression, we finally saw that after which we couldn’t say, ‘I saw nothing.’ A tigress sleeping. Or more accurately, trying in to sleep. No sentinels here. Just a cat trying to get some sleep in a patch of sunlight while batting flies and mosquitoes which had other ideas. No sentinels because when you are the apex predator, you fear nobody and everyone else fears you. Our camera shutters sounded like machinegun fire as we took amazing action photos of a sleeping cat. Every time she flicked her tail, the cameras would go trrrrrrrrrrrr. Every time she rolled over they would go trrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. We watched her in action for over an hour, hunched up with our eyes glued to the viewfinders, our backs screaming in agony but who cares? A tiger is a tiger.
We returned with the light started failing and we had to get out before the designated time. “Did you see anything?” they asked.
“Yes,” we replied. “We saw a tiger.”
Nothing else, only a tiger. So, did we see anything or didn’t we?
What do you say?
I was in the Anamallais, just married a few months and a lowly Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. My wife and I lived in the ‘haunted’ bungalow near the tennis court and I was busy trying to make a career and stand out in a fiercely competitive environment. I loved my life as a planter, which had all the requirements for heaven on earth as I conceptualized it. It was almost entirely outdoors. Walking up and down hills along forest boundaries with the certainty of seeing at least three or four species of mammals and countless birds, was not just possible but it was what I was being paid for. I can still hear the joyful cacophony of the birds, which I would hear every morning as I rode my bike or walked along the fire line that was the boundary between the tea and the forest. I know how to make sense of the sounds, to identify the sounds and distinguish the alarm call from the political argument. The political argument was of little interest to me, but the alarm call could mean the difference between being a spectator and a meal.
The Anamallais rain forest are home to tiger, leopard, bear, elephant, gaur, sambhar, barking deer, mouse deer, king cobra and many other snakes and langur and lion-tailed macaque. This is by no means an exhaustive list but one of some of the species that one could expect to encounter on a walk on any given day and all Sundays. The rain forest is too thick to walk through. Also, it is home to poisonous nettles called Anaimarti which if you rub against it in your foolish attempt to walk through the forest, creates an extremely painful reaction with swollen lymph nodes, high fever, violent rash and if you are very allergic to it and don’t get treatment, even death. Add to this the incidence of leeches in uncounted numbers whose presence on your body you only discover when you have emerged from the forest and step into the shower and wonder why the water is so red. That is the color of your blood as it flows freely from the number of leech bites you returned with. Leeches are hematologists and inject heparin into the small wound they make as they bite you. That ensures that your blood doesn’t clog and stop flowing. Then the leech attaches itself to the wound and simply fills up like a balloon with your blood. Once it is filled, it simply drops off. It you try to pull it out, it rips out and leaves its mouth parts in the wound to fester and give you grief for weeks after. When you live in these parts, you learn to share yourself with your neighbors. That is why it is said that tea is grown with sweat and blood.
In all this bounty, the thought that stayed with me was, ‘What will I do when I retire? Or even before that, if I should need to leave planting for any reason?’ This was because like any highly specialized career option, planting was only good for planting. Meaning that the direct skills are not transferable to other industries. To make matters worse, recruiters in other industries have no experience of planting and have no idea about the daily challenges that a planter faces. Recruiters of non-planting industries have a Tolly+Bollywood impression of the life of a planter. According to them, planters spend most of their time being waited upon hand and foot by an army of servants presided over by a butler and their main focus is a round of golf at 4.00 pm every afternoon followed by propping up the bar in the local plantation club. That is why there are very few success stories of planters making it big in other industries.
A planter, if he utilizes his time properly, is training to be a polymath. I don’t know of any other career which provides this opportunity. Except that even most planters are not aware of what the career has the potential to provide. The challenges a planter faces, unremarked and unknown to outsiders, range from handling labor conflicts which can sometimes escalate to life threatening levels, negotiating settlements, building bridges, both real and metaphoric, surveying and laying roads, taking care of the welfare of workers and their families, running schools, creches, hospitals, temples and stores; and in my case building a tea factory. Dealing with government officials, contractors, labor union leaders, politicians, teachers, doctors, tractors, machinery, trucks and elephants who decide that walking on top of your aluminum water pipeline and making it crack, is such an entertaining activity. All this ends up making a highly competent and versatile personality but sadly the ‘outside world’ has no clue. So, planters plant until they can plant no more and then retire to two-bedroom apartments in a city and live out the rest of their days dreaming of days gone by. I was very sure that I was not going to be a part of that.
I loved every minute of my life as a planter. I became very good at what I did. I acquired a reputation for being effective especially in high tension situations with troublesome labor. This was thanks to my conditioning by fire in Guyana, which is another story. But that came in very handy in the Anamallais. But I knew that this couldn’t last and that if I didn’t prepare myself, I would have no alternatives to fall back on. The big question was, what could I do while remaining in planting, both because I loved the job and because I needed it. I had to train myself for another career while doing a full-time job in this one, with no money to pay for the training. Quite an interesting problem, if you ask me.
It was then that I attended a training session in the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur. It was a two-week experiential learning session conducted by ISABS (Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science) where you sat on the floor and learned to get in touch with your feelings, observe your own and others’ behavior, give and receive feedback. Why sit on the floor? Well, we are Indian, you see; so, we sit on the floor, even when we never do that in ‘real life’. That was an expression I learnt there and so deduct two weeks from my age as that was not ‘real life’. However, what opened my eyes was the value of leadership development and how this could become a very satisfying career. The challenge for me was two-fold. There were (and are) no formal courses which one can take to qualify as a leadership trainer. And location wise, I was sitting in the hills while all the action in this line was happening in the cities. What I did and how I did it is another story. But for now, I want to talk about a very important lesson that I learnt; the real meaning of opportunity.
Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.
The reason why many people don’t seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:
- Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
2. Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of immediate results
Clarity about the end
It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the final result, the more people will be willing to take the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.
I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You have to lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm.
Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a hand gun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides.
What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be; the drive for freedom.
Freedom is a very powerful goal. A very basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; the fact that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal for twenty years. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end, it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.
Giving up midway
Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.
First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to put rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has put nineteen kilos in it, what change do you see? Nothing.
There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the counter top and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop putting the rice into the pan. He continues to do that until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the counter top and the pan with the weight rises in the air.
When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:
Lesson # 1: Up to nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.
Lesson # 2: At 20 kilos, the pan will tip.
Believing in the ‘impossible’
Finally, if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do. This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, and the final results. This is where the gap is created and enthusiasm fizzles out. However, if you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, then it helps to keep the passion alive. More importantly it helps to keep the passion kindled in the hearts of your followers.
Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary, and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be reasonably feasible. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.
A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thought-share has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.
Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box in terms of what you do. Of using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not imagine, existed. Taking advantage of opportunities is therefore more about commitment than about some unique, inspirational idea.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. ~ George Orwell
India has changed. I hate to say it, but that is the truth. It is no longer the nation I grew up in. The question is, ‘Do we want to continue to remain silent and allow this to happen? Or are we going to do something about it?’ The greatest strength of the corrupting forces is the silence of the good people.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; But one must take it because it is right.”
That time has come. It has come for each one of us in India and for each one of us who calls himself or herself, ‘Indian’. We are not at a crossroad. We are at the brink of the precipice. If we go over, there will be no return. I am not sure that we are, even now as I speak, able to reverse what we allowed to be started. But I don’t want to die without having tried. I debated long and hard with myself about writing this article. ‘What is the use? Who cares about what I say? Let people choose whatever they want? Who will change because of one more article? After all there are several people today who are writing more or less the same things.’ I said all these things to myself and then concluded that it is not about them. It is about me. In that place, my heart is at rest.
Today the plight of the Muslims, Dalits and Christians is that they seem to have been all but abandoned by the three pillars of democracy, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. And this, for no fault of their own, except that they happen to believe in a religion different from the dominant one, i.e. Hindutva Hinduism. The final nail in the coffin is the Press and Media, which is supposed to be the conscience of the nation. It is the single most powerful force of civil society which can raise a voice against government action or apathy and ask questions to the highest offices of power. In India today, both (with honorable exceptions) have reduced themselves to the role of being ad agencies for the corporation-bureaucracy-politician nexus. They sing their tune. They don’t report news. They state opinions as fact. Their entire effort seems to be to support the divisive, hate filled mindset, that is being propagated and is being used to win elections. Hate sells. And is being bought by our society in general. The general profusion of hatred and its open expression with impunity is to be placed squarely at the door of our so-called national media.
Finally, we have an opposition which busy in fighting among themselves. An opposition which is tainted by corruption, nepotism and partisanship like everyone else. Yes, there are minor exceptions. But they are minor. They show what can be done, if there is a will. But is there a will? In the last four years we have not seen any evidence of the opposition parties coming together on matters of principle to push strongly for change. Much more energy and heat seems to be expended in fighting for seats and shooting themselves in the foot in the process. Their chief claim seems to be, ‘At least we are not as bad as them!’ That is not a particularly inspiring slogan if you ask me. I know someone needs to be voted in. I know I must say, ‘VOTE FOR………………Because they are so inspiring.’ But sorry, I can’t. No wonder I am not a politician. I am a simple fellow trying to make sense of a world that seems to have gone insane. My point is, if you want to lead, you must differentiate. You must be able to say, ‘We are different for this wonderful reason.’ Is that the case here? Sorry to be undiplomatic.
Another very disturbing issue is that this is eroding our co-existential culture. This is as true in our cities as it is in rural India. Segregation in South Africa was an officially endorsed policy under Apartheid. So, it could be fought and was eventually abolished. In India our Apartheid is not officially endorsed but unofficially supported by what is in our hearts and it is equally effective. With one big benefit; that because it is not ‘official’ it can be conveniently denied when challenged. You can’t fight against something that doesn’t exist, can you? But proof is easy to find. Go to almost any Indian city and try to rent an apartment, pretending to be Muslim or Dalit. Just call yourself by a Muslim or Christian name and see what happens. We no longer live in mixed communities and therefore do not understand, appreciate or value each other. Unlike in my childhood. Therefore, it’s easier to be prejudiced and to stereotype, to demonize and hate. It is a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle that can have only one end.
In one line, what is happening is the ‘ghettoization of India’. Hate speech is the means by which this is being achieved. What is happening today in India is not about Muslims or Dalits. It is about India. My motherland. Your motherland. It is not enough to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai, if we fail to stand up to defend our Mata. It is India crying out in pain and begging for help. It is time to stand up, stand shoulder to shoulder for the integrity of our nation. If we don’t recognize the nature of the beast and terminate it, it will devour us all. Not a single person in this country will be left untouched.
Kathua didn’t happen in isolation or overnight. It is the culmination of innumerable hate speeches, made and tacitly supported that created a mindset where a nephew and uncle invited each other to satisfy their lust on a poor 8-year-old girl. Is this our society today? Are you happy to be called a member of such a society? If your son starts a conversation planning to rape a girl and invites you to join him, are you ready for it? Sorry to be blunt but this conversation actually happened in the Kathua case, between and uncle and his nephew and they jointly violated an 8-year-old and that too inside a temple. So, is this about Hindus and Muslims? Or is this about our humanity itself?
In the Unnao and Kathua cases, the Government and the Prime Minister made a statement only after countrywide protests. The incident happened in January. The Government’s statement came in April. That statement too was not specifically directed against the perpetrators of the rape and murder of Asifa but was a general statement about the protection of women. Statistics of hate speech after the NDA has come to power show that hate speech has gone up 500%.
The reason is not hard to find. In behavioral science and training, whether it be of animals or humans, we call it ‘positive reinforcement’. This means that the person who adopts the ‘approved’ new behavior is allowed to taste its sweetness, so that in encourages him to do it again. In training hunting dogs, trainers allow them to eat from the kill, so that the dog is encouraged to kill again. Same is the case in training falcons. Same is the case in training humans, you reinforce the new behavior by allowing them to enjoy it or by giving them prizes for it. This is what has been happening in India.
You may challenge me and point to all the marches and demonstrations, all the status pictures changed in WhatsApp, FB and so on, that are now happening all over the world, demanding #JusticeforAsifa. All the clever Tweets and Snapchat and Instagram messages. All the screaming for the death penalty for the rapists, some frankly very creative ways suggested to inflict maximum pain and suffering. But hold on a minute. After all, didn’t we see all this outrage in the case of Nirbhaya? And then? Did attacks on women end with that or with the law that was enacted? You know the answer. Not only did attacks not end, they increased. So, what’s the reason to believe that this will be any different? After all, Asifa’s parents are poor people, nomads to boot, who probably never vote. The rapists belong to the Ruling Class and have powerful supporters, including law makers, law enforcers and lawyers. Asifa’s parents have one gutsy woman lawyer. I hope she proves to be someone who can change the path of destiny; not of Asifa’s family, but of my nation.
To prove my point above about how after all the shouting has died down, we continue in our ways, here are some incidents of violence against women that have happened recently and continue to happen because we don’t care.
Hate speech happens because it can happen. Because it is allowed, encouraged actively or tacitly. Because those who do it, know that they can get away with it and despite the stringent laws against it, they know that those laws are for the books but will never be applied to them. The enforcers of the law, the police, seem to have accepted the role of ‘lackey to the politician’ and are happy with it and IPC (Indian Penal Code) and CrPC (The Code of Criminal Procedure) be damned. Once again there are notable and honorable exceptions that prove the rule. You would have to be blindfolded, not to see this. As for our Constitution and what it guarantees, well, I don’t think you need me to explain that.
Here is an example of what I mean by creating a mindset of hatred.
Both Yogi Adityanath and Maharani Vijaya Raje Scindia can be seen sitting on the stage, while this man is calling upon Hindus to exhume dead Muslim women and rape them. Both remain silent. Silence is support. Silence in assent. Silence is culpable.
Question: Does this constitute hate speech? If so, what action was taken? We know that Yogiji was made the CM of UP. But was any action taken against the speaker?
Sadly, this is not the only such speech. There are dozens of such speeches, each more outrageous than the other by luminaries and leaders who are center stage. I am not talking here about some small-time village leader. I am talking about people who are seen and called ‘national leaders’. This has created a situation where hatred and its expression have become mainstream and are done without shame, because they are applauded. Here is one example:
As always, the comments are even more ‘interesting’. We have reached a stage today where someone not only openly says something like this, but it is condoned and supported also openly by others, some of whom are very prominent people in the leadership of the nation. I know some of you are going to say, ‘If D. Trump can do it, why not others?’ My answer is, ‘D. Trump is not my Gold Standard. Is he yours?’ We need to decide what kind of nation we want ours to be. We are not a part of any other nation, be it Pakistan or America or anything else. We are a sovereign nation and we must take our own decisions. In this case, ‘we’ means, ‘Hindu’. India is a Hindu majority nation. It could have been a theocracy on Day-1 if the Hindus wanted it to be. Instead it chose to be secular with equal respect for everyone. Something has changed since then. We know what that is. The question is, ‘Do we want this change?’ If the answer is, ‘Yes’, then I have nothing more to say. If the answer is, ‘No!’, then I submit to you, my Hindu brothers and sisters, it is in your hands. Because you are the majority. Majoritarianism is a non-inclusive ideology. While a majority that cares for, respects, appreciates and protects minorities is the surest sign of civilization. We need to make that choice.
We are progressively seeing a situation where those who raise a voice and have the courage to stand up to the divisive forces of extremism are targeted, harassed and silenced. Currently, the brave lawyer (Hindu) who is defending the victim of the Kathua case, is a case in point.
And she is not the only one. We all know about the Gauri Lankesh murder. But she was not the only one either.
Is this the nation we want to create? Is this the nation we want ours to become?
To give the devil his due, this is not new. And it is not something that the BJP or RSS invented. True, they are in the driving seat now and so must answer for what happens during their watch. But just to make a list of this litany of shame, we have the Gujarat Riots of 1969, followed by the Sikh Riots of 1984, then the Bhagalpur Riots in Bihar of 1989, then the Bombay Riots of 1992/93, then once again Gujarat Riots of 2002. One common factor in all of them and the numerous incidents of violence against minorities; the perpetrators always walk away, scot free. Positive reinforcement works.
In Kathua, the Bakarwala tribe has moved from the region out of fear. Which is exactly what the perpetrators wanted and that should concern the law as much as the act of rape itself. It was a premeditated act of aggression with the aim of creating terror. So, it was a terrorist act. Let us see what action is taken. The underlying narrative we need to look at is something that is happening in many places in the country, more so in Assam. A demographic purge is happening with the idea to move minorities out, so that the vote swing factor is canceled out. The fall out is that these people move to areas where ‘their own people are’. You would think this strengthens the community there who can now pick their MLA. This in practice creates one minority MLA in an assembly of opposition, rendering him ineffective and a target of government apathy.
Here is another case, which happened as we speak:
Interestingly, you will notice, and this is the case in almost every such incident, all this violence, looting and killing is done in the presence of the police. Nobody can accuse the police of not coming in time. They always seem to be present when minorities are subjected to violence. They bear witness while those who indulged in the looting and terrorizing, walk away with their loot, free. Is this the role of the police? Or is their role to stop the violence and bring the perpetrators to justice? Well, you should ask your friendly, neighborhood policeman or woman. I am not one of them. Just for the record, the police and the bureaucracy are empowered by the Constitution of India, no less, to stand up against any illegal instructions of politicians and implement the Rule of Law by the book. They don’t need to wait for directions. And they don’t need to succumb to illegal instructions. But they do. Why?
As for the courts, let me just mention three prominent and most recent cases and leave you to figure out what is happening.
Good to know that the one hundred Muslims died of natural causes and nobody killed them. Or maybe they didn’t die at all.
Great relief to know that there was no blast in Makkah Masjid. Or maybe it was an act of God, because it appears that no human being did it. But why did the judge resign immediately after giving this judgment? Ask Pontius Pilate why he washed his hands after giving his judgment.
Finally, let me share with you this totally amazing case of how saving lives and taking them seems to be the same. Be careful when you next have a pressing urge to save any lives. Who knows what kind of soup that may land you in.
https://youtu.be/dBL5pVYSmsY Interestingly, even the parents of the children whose lives he saved are silent, when the savior is paying the price of his soft heart and devotion to duty.
And of course, we expect that little Asifa will get justice because we run a hashtag campaign #JusticeforAsifa. Where is the boundary between hope and delusion? Between optimism and fantasy?
Just a moment. Who is this mob? Are these trained mercenaries brought in from somewhere? Are they thugs from Chambal? Are they professional killers and highway robbers? No, they are not. Go look in the mirror to meet one of them. They are you. They are me. Look at those around your dining table in your home. Look at those worshiping with you in your place of worship. Look at those who work with you in your office. Look at those you deal with in the market. You are looking at mob members, who at the drop of a hat, have no compunctions about breaking and entering the homes of their neighbors, raping their daughters, looting their hard-earned savings, destroying their lives and laughing all the way home, laden with the loot they accumulated. They do this because they can. They do this because there are no comebacks, no accountability, no punishment. As long as the victims are Muslim, Christian or Dalit. How does this happen? Remember this question every time you hear a derogatory comment, a curse word, a snide remark, a nasty joke, with a Muslim or a Dalit as its butt.
That is how it happens. Hatred is nurtured in our homes, in our hearts and is ingested with mother’s milk in our cradles. That is where it must be fought and stopped and replaced with love, with acceptance, with appreciation of difference. It must be fought because all hatred is fire. Fire burns everything and everyone. And the result is always ash. Remember that the religion of a murderer is cancelled when he/she commits or instigates murder. Remember that the religion of the victim doesn’t make them ‘guilty’ and ‘deserving’ of being murdered. Remember that when we support a murderer or a rapist, we are supporting our own murderers and rapists in the future. Because injustice to one is injustice to all. All murder, rape, plunder, all acts of aggression are wrong, no matter who does them or to whom they are done. That is the only principle which can keep us from going over the brink, into the void from which there is no return. Your silence makes you culpable. By remaining silent you are supporting the crime. So, why are you silent? Don’t tell me. Stand in front of a mirror and tell him/her.
Many people tell me, ‘The vast majority of Hindus are not like this. They don’t want extremism to succeed. They don’t hate Muslims and don’t support Hindutva ideology.’ My answer is, ‘Really?’ The fact is that all those we see protesting against the extremist agenda are the ‘usual suspects’; Hindu socialites, intellectuals, artists, Dalit activits, Christian priests, leftists, liberals and the odd white-capped or burkha-clad Muslim. I sound dismissive, but I am not. I bow to them in reverence and love and undying gratitude for having the courage to stand up when nobody else is doing. I am mentioning this only to show that they are not the so-called vast majority. So where is this vast majority of Hindus who allegedly believe in human rights, equality, freedom of religion, gulab jamoons and rasagollas? I don’t see them. Do you?
Extremist orators seem to be fond of drawing parallels between Indian Muslims and Jews in Hitler’s Germany, casting themselves proudly in the role of Hitler and his Nazis. The question we (normal, garden variety, peaceful, moral, kind, compassionate, cosmopolitan, educated, suave, fashionable and erudite Hindus) need to ask is, ‘By inference does that not put us in the role of the silent German majority which allowed concentration camps to be established, gas chambers to be built and six million, innocent Jewish men, women and children, old and young, even babies, to be exterminated? It was this majority that would never have dreamt of defining itself as ‘murderous, genocide supporters’. But they were. Hitler, after all, didn’t kill a single Jew, at least to my knowledge. Yet six million died for no fault other than that they believed in another religion than that of the Germans. And remember that they were also German citizens. Yet it was their own government, sworn to protect all citizens equally, which put them in concentration camps and then in gas chambers. Why? Because their friends, compatriots, fellow citizens chose to remain silent. Silence is culpable.
In the words of Castillo, the Guatemalan poet and activist:
One day the apolitical intellectuals of my country
will be interrogated by the simplest of our people.
They will be asked what they did when their nation died out
slowly, like a sweet fire, small and alone.
No one will ask them about their dress, their long siestas after lunch,
no one will want to know about their sterile combats with “the idea of the nothing”
no one will care about their higher financial learning.
They won’t be questioned on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust when someone within them begins to die the coward’s death.
They’ll be asked nothing about their absurd justifications,
born in the shadow of the total life.
On that day the simple men will come.
Those who had no place in the books and poems of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered their bread and milk, their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars, who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them, and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”
Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence will eat your gut.
Your own misery will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.
(Otto rene Castillo,
Guatemalan Poet and activist)
Once again, Hitler’s gas chambers didn’t happen in isolation. They were the ultimate culmination of centuries of oppression of Jews all over Europe and Russia. They were the ultimate expression of centuries of silence of ‘good’ Russian people, French people, German people, English people, Austrian people and many such people all over Europe; all good, religious, moral (or so they would have defined themselves) and kind people, for whom, killing a Jew or remaining silent when someone did it in their name, didn’t cast any aspersions on their own morality, kindness or religion. They would have gladly risked their lives to save a puppy caught in a house on fire but would also stand silently and watch while a Jewish man or child was set on fire. That is exactly where we, the vast and silent majority of Hindus, stand in India today. If India is to change, we Hindus must take the lead and change it. The minorities can’t do it alone without our support. We Hindus must stand with them, around them and ahead of them. My question is, do we want to continue to stand and watch until we are ourselves engulfed? Or do we want to drive the change we want to see, by being it ourselves?
It will be salutary for those who draw parallels between Jews in Hitler’s Germany and Indian Muslims to consider two facts: Even Hitler and all his silent accomplices, couldn’t exterminate all the Jews in Germany and those who remained, came out of the trial by fire, tempered as hard as steel. And those who remained silent, perished with Hitler and his active companions, when Germany fell to Allied Forces in World War II. Being silent didn’t save them from the consequences of the actions of their compatriots.
I am clueless about how as an ordinary citizen of this country, I can raise a voice and be heard, so that action can be taken to save our society from going over the brink. Where do I raise a voice? Who is there to listen? Who has the authority and the will to bring about change? It seems today that we, as a people, have no self-respect, no principles, no values and no shame. You don’t like what I’ve said? So, prove me wrong.
The biggest lie that is peddled to us and which we swallow without examining it, is that our leaders are ‘our’ leaders. The reality is that our leaders are a different species, who manipulate and rule us, because we are easy to manipulate, and we collude in this manipulation. They are our leaders. That is how they become our leaders in this poor, blessed democracy of ours. By manipulation. We know this. We have suffered this, election after election. But we still fall for the same stories, the same lies, the same betrayal. The truth is that today everyone has failed us. Who’s us? You. Me. Your neighbor, your parents, my parents, your wife, my wife, your husband, my husband, your children, my children, one of whom called Asifa, died in unspeakable terror and agony. Why did she die? Because she was ours. If she’d been theirs’, she’d have had Z-class security.
But hold on a minute, just in case you forgot. Who pays for their security? Who gave them their status? Who pays their salaries? Who pays for them to live in the style they live in? Who pays for them to travel all over the world in the name of service to the nation?
Big question to you, “How much longer do you want to continue to do this?
What can you do?
- What’s the action being taken in the Asifa case? Are the culprits going to be hanged?
- What’s the action taken in the Unao case?
- Why is Dr. Kafeel, who saved the lives of 200 children, imprisoned?
- Why are the parents of those children silent?
- Why are all these great leaders of ours, silent in all these cases?
- What action has been taken in the Gauri Lankesh murder?
- And the many other murders of anyone who raised the voice of dissent?
- What action has been taken in the more than hundred cases of lynching by Gaurakshaks?
- What action has been taken for the numerous encounter killings by police? Extrajudicial killings. In one simple word, murder.
I can go on but won’t.
Meet each other as people, as human beings, not with your religious and caste labels. Meet in your localities, villages, buildings, offices. Tell each other your stories. And discover that it’s really the same story. We are one. We all want safety for our children, education, good affordable health care, food on the table, decent jobs, to be treated with dignity, to be respected for what we are. Same story whether we are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Dalit, Christian, God fearing or Godless. Same story. So, what’s the fighting about?
Truly we’re not that stupid, right? Wrong. We are, that stupid. That’s why we are where we are, and they are where they are. We elect them, keep them, support them, pay for them and then they treat us like dirt. So, who is at fault?
Meet each other and ask these questions.
Believe me, it doesn’t matter a damn to you what my religion is or if I have any religion at all. And vice versa. What matters to both you and I, is whether we and our children have a future in this land? Our motherland.
Guess who decides that?
Wake up, take charge, enforce justice. Or keep moaning and groaning until the next Asifa or Nirbhaya or Kafeel. Except, then, the name might be your own or your daughter’s.
In the famous words of Pastor Neimoller who wrote about Hitler’s Germany”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)