The Hyderabad Public School where I studied. A symbol of the Nizam of Hyderabad
This is not a history but an attempt to understand what probably happened in those last years that led to the demise of Hyderabad as an independent country and its annexation by the newly independent India. It is speculation; perhaps informed speculation; I hope, intelligent speculation, but speculation nevertheless.
I am not speaking chronologically or relating incidents but attempting to understand why the Nizam of Hyderabad took the decisions he did, which led to the calamity called Police Action (Operation Polo of the Indian Army). Calamity not because it was the end of the Asif Jahi Dynasty because all dynasties end. But calamity because, as is reported, thousands of innocent people died as a result of Police Action. They died in what we would today call, Collateral Damage; killed not by the Indian Army but by their opportunistic neighbors who used the period of transition to grab their land, by making them vanish. Entire families were murdered, entire villages were depopulated in a massive ethnic cleansing before the term was invented. I know that the figures range from 15,000 to ten times that and more. The reality is that exact figures are impossible to get. And the death of even one innocent person is highly deplorable and tragic, so numbers mean nothing. Whether it was 15,000 or 150,000 is immaterial when the truth is that not a single one deserved to die.
I am saying this because I don’t want you to get mired in discussing incidents, numbers of dead, who killed whom but try to look at why all this happened and what if anything can be learnt from this to be applied today. What is clear is that we are a nation which seems to be cursed with internecine conflict, brother killing brother, with or without pretext. I am saying to you that it is time this stopped. Stopped totally and completely. It is not difficult to find examples of how such things were stopped. Until 100 years ago, there was blood in the streets in Europe. Both World War I and II were essentially European wars, with Europeans killing each other. Yet out of that emerged a universal, silent, shared and solid pact, that European blood will not be shed by Europeans ever again. One wishes that this could have been extended to non-Europeans also but be that as it may, the fact remains that today in Europe, even the thought of a mob lynching an individual or attacking a neighborhood in which a certain religious or ethnic group lives, is simply unthinkable. It is high time we in India changed our direction 180 degrees and walked the same path before we reach a point of no return on our present path. We like to talk about India’s potential.
The reality is that if we want that potential to be translated into actual development and economic growth, we must deal with social strife and lay it to rest. If we use religious and ethnic difference to constantly fan the flames of communalism and xenophobia and have our nation embark on periodic bloodletting sprees, then the result can only be one thing; civil war and total collapse. It is amazing how otherwise intelligent people seem to fail to read the writing on the wall.
1. My assessment of the situation at that time leading to the demise of Hyderabad as an independent country was that India had just become independent paying a huge price in human life in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. That resulted in India having a hostile neighbor on two sides, East and West Pakistan and Kashmir, still in a state of limbo in the North. It simply couldn’t afford another independent state in its center, ruled by a Muslim king, even though he was not hostile and even though the majority population of the state was Hindu. Hyderabad had to become a part of the Indian Union, come what may. Also since Hyderabad was the biggest, wealthiest and most influential of the Princely States, what happened to it would be salutary for the others. If Hyderabad retained independence and sovereignty, then it would open the doors for similar aspirations of many other ruling princes. If Hyderabad joined the Indian Union, then others would also fall in line.
2. So, if Hyderabad didn’t join the Indian Union willingly, it would have to be made to do so, unwillingly. Attempts were made to persuade the Nizam to accede to the Indian Union but when these failed, covert attempts to subvert his government were undoubtedly made by encouraging communal elements to create unrest. Religion is a very easy way to gain mass support and in an atmosphere where the Hindu-Muslim equation was badly vitiated after the formation of Pakistan, this was easy to do. Flames were fanned and new fires were set and in time, they did what all fires do – burn everything they came into contact with. Three hundred years of common Hindu-Muslim history was reduced to ashes. No doubt it helped some people to come to power, but at the cost of a great many. But history is written by victors, while those who die, tell no tales and the world goes on.
The tendency when speaking about any monarchy is to speak in terms of its king alone. Usually this is a mistake because whatever the king may think of himself, he is a man and is influenced by his times and the people around him. Some of this influence is overt but a lot of it is hidden and covert. Included in this are his own feelings, aspirations, anxieties, insecurities. At a time of transition which may result in a fall of the monarchy all these fears are hugely enhanced, because in most cases, a fall of the monarchy usually means death for the king or at least life in enormously reduced circumstances. To be able to still think with a cool head and take decisions that are morally and ethically right while being strategically wise, is no mean task. For this it is not only essential for the king to have the guidance of wise people around him, but even more importantly, for him to listen to them.
In the case of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, I believe we have a case where, to put it mildly, things went awry.
My understanding of the factors at the time, from my reasonably extensive reading of different books on this subject as well as having known some of those who were present at the time of Police Action, and were close to the Nizam, is as follows:
1. The Nizam of Hyderabad was an absolute monarch. A very good one, who never took a single day’s vacation in his life and not given to the playboy lifestyle of his other counterparts in the Princely States of India, but still an absolute monarch. The hierarchy was feudal, which meant that, as in any other feudal system, the only way anyone aspiring to high position could get it was by birth into the right family or by special Royal Dispensation. This in turn would necessitate the attention of and promotion by one of the high Nobles so that one would get noticed. Needless to say, the number of positions at the top are very limited and usually taken.
2. The ‘evils’ of a feudal system, even a very benign and benevolent one like the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad was, can’t be overemphasized. Its biggest evil being the death of aspiration of youth. This was one of the major reasons for the migration of the youth of Europe to America and the eventual break with Europe altogether. A new nation was born, not because people in the old country were being physically tortured or murdered, but because their hopes and dreams were still born in a system that didn’t permit them to live and grow by their ability. That is the problem with all feudal systems and the reason why democracy, with all its faults, is the best form of government that human kind has created for itself, to date.
3. Any ordinary young person not born into a noble family but aspiring for high office in Hyderabad (the country), especially political power, had little chance of attaining it, except through exceptional circumstances and luck, irrespective of his qualifications. For such people, a time of turmoil and turbulence is a godsend. It shakes the foundations of the structures of society and briefly opens a window of opportunity to change the rules of the game. What added to this was the fact that the State was the biggest employer. Though there were businesses and industry, rather more than in other Princely States or British India, their influence and the opportunities they presented were still very limited, especially at the managerial level. Opportunities of realizing one’s aspirations outside the State’s influence were therefore very limited. This always leads to frustration for which a situation of turmoil which shakes the foundations of the State and official hierarchy is a great opportunity.
4. To give the time its due, this was not due to any backwardness of Hyderabad but because that was the nature of the world at the time. The industrial boom of manufacture and later of IT was still about a century away. Opportunities for careers in the corporate world were limited because the corporate world as we know it, didn’t exist. There were traders, small manufacturers, almost all of them family owned, who followed in effect the same feudal rules of employment and career development. If you were born into the family or related to it in some way, you could never get into top management.
5. With Indian Independence looming on the horizon and in effect inevitable, there was an atmosphere of change in the air. An atmosphere of high political aspirations, of ambitions of power and influence. Feudalism in India was dying, in its formal sense of hereditary rulers and nobles and leadership positions would fall vacant, ready to be occupied with those who had the vision to see the writing on the wall and the grit to work for it. Sad to see that seventy years after this time, feudalism in terms of attitudes, which really deserved to die, remains alive and well, with the new elected leaders having taken the place of hereditary rulers on the throne. But that is an aside. For our story, the world was changing and fast in which like in all times of change, you either change or die. Incumbency is the single biggest crime in a revolution as you become the logical target of attack. If you change your stripes and start running with the hounds, like the British monarchy did very successfully by converting the ruling family into Hollywood stars, then you survive and prosper. If you remain static, like the Nizam did, you become a statistic.
6. The other factor that was in play in these times was the anxiety of the Nizam and his nobility about their own fate in the new world order which was dawning. In this context they had Jinnah’s divisive rhetoric on one hand and the assurance of the British Empire on the other guaranteeing the Nizam that the territorial integrity of his kingdom as well as his sovereignty as a monarch would be defended and maintained. In my opinion, the Nizam and his nobility’s biggest mistake was to believe both these narratives. It raised their anxiety to a level where their minds stopped working and had them grabbing at straws (promises of the British Empire) to save themselves from drowning. Ask anyone if a straw can save a drowning man and you know what happened to the Nizam and Hyderabad State was inevitable.
7. The third factor was Qasim Rizvi and his Razakars. Qasim Rizvi was an opportunist who took advantage of a nebulous situation and tried to play ‘King Maker’. The fact that he ran away when things didn’t go as planned and left those who allowed him his time in the sun to face the music, is proof that he had no commitment either to Hyderabad or the Nizam. He was in it for himself and escaped when things fell apart. What he had going for him was demagoguery that capitalized on the anxieties of the ruling class as well as the Muslims in Hyderabad who were already affected by the demagoguery of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Add in a heady mixture of fantasy, distorted historical references and people’s own ignorance of history as well as their inability to critically analyze what was being presented to them by QR and you can see how and why his rhetoric was remarkably rabble rousing. Religion as they say is the last resort of the scoundrel, an analogy that fits QR like a glove.
8. Finally, the demise of Hyderabad was also the most colossal collective failure of leadership that one can imagine. If you look at the nobles and notables around the Nizam, you have a list of luminaries that can hardly be bettered. Yet they failed as a group to guide their king and country in a direction leading to safety and progress. Instead they all seem to have collectively become victims of Qasim Rizvi’s crazy rhetoric either actively or passively to a point of no return. The fact that the Nizam was himself in QR’s thrall, would have, I suppose, stopped many from openly disagreeing. All these are the price of a feudal, autocratic system wherein dissent is dangerous and severely restricted. All autocratic systems fall prey to this and so did Hyderabad State.
What should the Nizam have done?
I think that is fairly clear and I don’t really need to write this but am doing so in the interest of closing the loop as it were. Here is what should have happened:
1. The Nizam and his advisors should have realized the reality of Hyderabad and its future in the context of the Indian Union. For details please refer to Point No. 1 above i.e. my assessment of the situation at the time. They should have seen that remaining independent was out of the question and so should have bargained for the best deal and joined the Indian Union. That single action would have avoided all the bloodshed and turmoil.
2. They should have realized that the British have a very famous history of telling lies to those they rule and work only with one interest in mind; their own. The history of the British in India was no secret to anyone with eyes to see. As it was, the British were leaving India in a great hurry and really didn’t care a hoot about what happened to India or Indians. What value can the assurance of such an ally have? Once again, that meant, the joining the Indian Union was the not just the best option but the only one.
3. Qasim Rizvi should have been shown the door. His kind of rhetoric was so alien to the history of the Nizams of Hyderabad and their treatment of their subjects irrespective of religion that it is almost impossible to believe that not only did QR get a foothold but that to all intents and purposes, he became the defacto ruler. Furthermore, especially given the recent formation of Pakistan and the massacres that happened as a result, it was suicidal to allow the very same rhetoric to become dominant in Hyderabad. To allow Hyderabad’s long history of harmonious relationships between the two major communities of Hindus and Muslims to be destroyed was totally tragic and inexplicable. It was like an onset of momentary insanity from which a man awakens to witness the destruction that he had wrought while insane.
4. Hyderabad (Nizam and nobility and the State) should have invested heavily in industry and invited the Tatas and Birlas to set up manufacturing plants. Both were in operation having started in the 1800’s. This would have had three beneficial effects.
a. It would have created massive employment opportunities for youth, the best way to deal with all kinds of social unrest, give them something to lose.
b. It would have increased the personal wealth of the Nizam and his nobility and made them free from dependence on Privy Purses and State charity.
c. It would have acted as a shield against any political adventurism, just as the presence of Trump business interest in Middle Eastern countries has kept them safe from his travel ban on Muslims. The travel ban as you know, applies only to countries where Trump has no business interests.
The purpose of this article is to encourage us to discuss this matter with the sole purpose of looking for lessons about living and working harmoniously together. With that end in mind, all comments are invited and most welcome.
Uncle Rama at his desk – River Kadam in full flow
Time, late 60’s to middle 70’s. I used to spend all my school vacations and later, whatever time I had free from college with Uncle Rama in Sethpalli. Sethpalli is a small village about two kilometers from the bank of the Kadam River, with agricultural fields between the village and the river. Uncle Rama’s farmhouse was on the bank of the river itself, with his farmland behind and to the sides of it. The farmhouse consisted of a long veranda with a waist high wall, that ran the length of the front of the house, facing the river. The veranda had one door leading into the house, which opened into the central of three rooms. The middle room which you entered from the veranda was a passage cum dining room with one bedroom on either side. Both bedrooms had windows opening into the veranda as well as to the side of the house. The dining room had no windows, just the door leading into it from the veranda and another leading out into a veranda at the back of the house. As you entered this back veranda from the dining room, to your left was the kitchen, the domain of Kishtaiah the cook and opposite it, on the other end of the veranda, the bathroom. That literally meant what it was called, a room to have a bath in. It had a stone floor sloping gently to a drain in one corner. Water came in two buckets, one cold and one hot and you mixed it to the temperature you wanted.
If you sat on the veranda, which was the living room of the house, you looked out over a waist high wall which was also a seating arrangement, out to the river. Between you and the river were three massive tamarind trees, easily over fifty years old, perhaps more. They grew within touching distance of each other so that their branches held hands high in the air. The result was the densest shade you could imagine. There is something about the shade of tamarind trees that is cooler than the shade of any other tree. Maybe it is my imagination but I recall the countless afternoons that I spent lying on a charpoy in that shade, gazing up at the canopy of tiny compound leaves, marveling at the multiple shapes and shades of green. A few yards beyond the trees, the land sloped steeply into the bed of the Kadam River. The channel itself meandered from one bank of the river bed to the other depending on where it had been flowing most vigorously in the monsoon. In the summer, the channel was a trickle which you could cross literally by jumping over its narrowest part. But in the monsoon the Kadam flowed strong and deep from one bank to the other. I never measured the actual width of the river at the farm but I think it was probably about half a kilometer in width.
My almost invariable daily routine was to take off into the forest after breakfast, with Shivaiyya as my companion and return only after dark. Shivaiyya was one of the people who worked on Uncle Rama’s farm and like most of them had no fixed duties. He was there to do whatever needed to be done which during my visits was simply to be with me. He was older and far wiser and his job was to see that I didn’t do anything stupid while we were in the forest. He was a great friend and we shared our food and an occasional beedi, especially on a very cold night when we would sit up at a Sambar rolling spot, waiting for Sambar to come down from the hills. Naturally this would be only towards early morning after any Sambar had been and gone, because a beedi is the surest way to warn off any animal.
I would either not eat lunch at all or take a roti or two in a small metal tiffin box with some mango or lime pickle to eat for lunch, which Shivaiyya and I would share. But most often we just drank water from the deep pools in the river, left over from the flow that dries up in the summer. If you spread your handkerchief on the surface of the water and suck through the cloth, you manage to get some clean water to drink. This method will not save you from chemical pollution, but mercifully those were the days before we destroyed our rivers. Then we would sleep in the heaviest shade that we could find, which was not easy in the summer because the forest (and teak plantations) are deciduous and have hardly any leaves. But if you went to a bend in the river which still retained some moisture, you would get some trees with leaves and welcome shade. Sleeping in a forest with tigers and leopards was not without its hazards, but the tiger is not as opportunistic as the African Lion and so you are quite safe in these forests. I am living proof that tigers don’t eat junk food and recall with great pleasure the many times that I have slept the deepest, most peaceful and comfortable sleep of my life in a sandy stream bed or in the shade of a forest giant.
Shivaiyya and Kishtaiah (40 years after this story in 2010)
One morning we took off on our walk, Shivaiyya and I, with me carrying a 7.62 rifle and Shivaiyya carrying the .22. The forest in this area – around the Kadam River – is semi deciduous with teak, katha, mahua, ber, and some bamboo. The teak, katha and mahua shed their leaves in summer so the forest floor is carpeted with dry leaves, which makes for some noisy walking; not the best thing if you want to shoot any game. The ber and bamboo thickets retain their leaves, but are too thorny and thick to walk in. So, we stick to the pathways. The forest is interspersed with open glades carpeted with grass. These are the potential places to see something to shoot, especially small game.
As we walked, I spotted a large male peacock with a magnificent tail, sitting on a dead tree stump and yelling his guts out as they are wont to do. I exchanged my rifle with the .22 as shooting a peacock with a 7.62 would mean getting two stumps of legs as the residue. I crept up very slowly while Shivaiyya simply sat down on his haunches in the pathway and disappeared, waiting for me to complete my stalk. This is where the dry leaf fall comes to the aid of the quarry and is a bane in the life of the hunter. As I was almost in range, I stepped on a dead branch hiding under the leaves and it broke with the sound of a pistol shot. The peacock took off like a rocket into the air and was gone. I cursed my own clumsiness and stood up from my crouch only to see a small sounder of wild boar run across the clearing. Unfortunately, though they were in range, I had the wrong weapon in my hand; I simply stood by and watched them run. Some days are just not yours.
We proceeded on our way, this time with me carrying the heavier rifle until we came to a place where the path passed around the foot of a small and very rocky hillock. I wanted to tarry a bit and maybe climb it to look around, but Shivaiyya, very uncharacteristically, hurried me along. After we were well clear of the hillock, more than 2 kilometers away, he said to me, ‘Dora, you didn’t see it but there was a tigress on the hillock sitting before a cave. She has three cubs there and I saw the kill she brought for them last night. She was looking at us and I didn’t want to precipitate anything so I hurried you along.’ Much as I would have liked to see the tigress myself, I realized that effectively, he had saved our lives as well as the life of the tigress. Had I tried to climb that hill, she would have attacked and one of us would have died. Tragic, if it had been the tigress.
We stopped to rest on the bank of the Dotti Vaagu, a tributary of the Kadam, at a place where there was a good deal of shade. Below where we sat was a water hole in a bend in the river, always a very productive place to watch wildlife in the summer. Companionship is a wonderful thing and in my view the sign of a good companion is the quality of the silence when you are together. Shivaiyya was a very good companion. A man of few words except in the nights when he’d had his spiritual experience for the day. Then he would make up for all the silences of the day and would talk non-stop. But during the day we would walk and rest in silence, speaking only when it was necessary. This gave me a lot of time with my thoughts. We sat high up on the bank with our body outline broken by the bamboo clump behind us and dozed. I can’t describe the sense of peace and calmness that permeates you as you sit in a forest without any deadlines, phones, or email; simply being. Mobile phones and email didn’t even exist in those days and what are the deadlines for a schoolboy in his summer holiday? The heat or cold ceases to have any meaning after a while as your body gets accustomed to the outside atmosphere. Then sleep descends on you and you doze. This is not the sleep of those who are dead to the world. It is the sleep of those whose eyes may be shut but their ears are listening and their mind senses what is going on. You are still aware of what is going on around you even though you are apparently asleep. This ability is very useful because it enables you to rest in short breaks and keeps your energy high for the ongoing journey.
As I sit there, I can distinguish the regular sounds from those which are new and announce that we have company. This time it is a Chital hind, the scout who signals to her herd that all is clear. Not a very good scout if you ask me, because she didn’t see us. And had our intentions been less noble, she wouldn’t be signaling anyone else thereafter. As it was, I had no desire to shoot anything and was content to watch the Chital come to drink. There is perhaps nothing more cute and lovable than a Chital fawn. And there were several in this small herd. A good sign that the prey population was healthy, which meant that the predators would do well. A good prey population is a sign both that the predators have enough to eat and that they are therefore unlikely to stray into the villages to take the unwary goat or cow and thereby fall into conflict with their human neighbors from which there is only one exit – death for the animal. Whenever there is conflict between humans and animals, the animals always pay the price. That is what has gone very wrong with the whole issue of tiger conservation in India. It is habitat destruction which is the number one killer of tigers. It leads to human – tiger conflict and a lot of dead tigers. I believe we have reached a point of no return in this case and advise people to go and view as many tigers as they can while they are still there. I don’t think it will take all that long for us to reach a stage where to see a tiger you will need to go to an animal prison, aka, zoo, because none will be left alive in the wild. There is nothing more invigorating than a forest full of animals and nothing more dead and tragic than one which has been sanitized and is free from all animals. Our forests in India are fast reaching the latter situation. I am glad I was there to witness when this was not the case and hopefully I will not be there to witness forests devoid of their lawful inhabitants.
On another occasion, it was the height of summer with temperatures in the high 40’s and the deciduous teak forests almost totally bare. There was almost no shade and the forest floor was littered with dry leaves, which made an infernal crackling when we walked on them. Uncle Rama took me to see another part of the forest and he decided that we would walk. He would always wear leather slippers with the sole made of a car tire. They were specially made for him and he found them very comfortable. I personally wouldn’t wear them for love or money because they were so hard and unyielding that walking in them for a few hundred meters was enough to take the skin off the foot. He would wear a pair of army issue camouflage trousers and a shirt with large patch pockets in which he would have spare shells for his weapon. He would carry his shotgun, I would carry the .22 rifle and Shivaiyya or some other gun bearer would carry a heavier rifle, either a 9mm Mauser or a 7.62.
Neelgai (Blue bull male)
That day the trek was to be fairly long – walking at approximately 3 miles per hour, we walked a total of 8 hours that day – so Uncle Rama had asked Kishtaiah the cook to pack something to eat. As we left, I saw Shivaiyya carrying a tiffin carrier – three steel compartments in a metal frame, which made me very happy imagining what Kishtaiah would have packed into it. He was a fantastic cook, trained by Uncle Rama and his masala fried meat was simply superb. Strangely, nobody remembered to carry any water. We walked for about 4 hours, but didn’t see a single animal. It was our aim to shoot either a young Blue Bull (Nilgai), India’s largest antelope and one of only two species which exist in the Sahyadris, the other being the endangered Four-horned antelope, a small goat sized creature, very fast on its legs. Nilgai typically lie down in any shade they can find in the hot hours and so if you walk softly you can come up to one and get within range before the animal gets spooked.
The day got hotter and hotter as we walked. One principle of walking in the heat is not to keep drinking water as it only makes you thirstier, so none of us asked for water. The forest itself was very dry with no sign of any water anywhere. Eventually, we found a small bamboo thicket, which retains its green leaves throughout summer and provides shade. We were all very tired and hot and dusty. Not sweaty, because the sweat dried on you instantly due to the dry heat. Both Uncle Rama and I sank thankfully onto the ground in the dappled shade of the bamboo. Uncle Rama called for the tiffin carrier and Shivaiyya brought it to us. When we opened the cover, to our great surprise and considerable consternation, we found that Kishtaiah had filled all three compartments with a most delicious and rich dessert made of fried bread, khova (made from boiling milk until it almost becomes solid), ghee (clarified butter), and of course lots of sugar. We call it Dabal ka Meetha (bread is called Dabal-roti; which literally means double-roti) in Hyderabad. All three of us were very hungry and the dessert was delicious and so we ate it all up. After we ate, we realized that it was a mixed blessing indeed. I said surprise and consternation earlier because while the idea of eating just dessert may seem like having heaven on earth, one of the outcomes of eating a lot of sugar and fat is that you get intensely thirsty. And now we discovered that we had no water.
The forest was a uniform grey with the trunks of the teak trees standing tall in a desolate landscape. The breeze when it blew was straight from the furnace and started up little dust devils that swirled away into nothing. The stronger ones picked up a dry leaf or two, waltzing it up and then leaving it in midair, to float gently down among others of its tribe away from its earlier company. The cicadas ensured that everyone was aware of their presence. Cicadas make their distinctive sound using sound makers called ‘Tymbals’ on the sides of their abdomen. The sound is loud up to 120 decibels and the volume of thousands singing together in chorus can be imagined. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Cicada. There are also recordings of the sound on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicada
Having finished our high energy lunch, we decided to head for home so that the walk would distract us from the thirst. Although the walk was as interesting as these walks always are, especially in anticipation of seeing some animal or the other as we went along, the thirst built up steadily, reinforced by the intense heat. In the summer in India it is only when the sun sets that the heat lessens, even to the extent that nights in summer in the forest can be cold. But in the day the heat increases especially in the afternoon when the sun is past its zenith. The fact that the forest was devoid of shade was not helpful either in alleviating the hardship. Eventually, almost after an hour of walking we came upon a Gond villager heading home in his bullock cart. He had with him his supply of water which he carried in a dried gourd, the mouth of which was plugged with some grass. Like all Indian villagers, he was more than happy to oblige us when we requested him for a mouthful of water. The water was tepid, smelt of the earth and grass but tasted sweeter than nectar. Taste is proportionate to need. Truly nothing quenches thirst like water. Now refreshed thanks to the man’s generosity, we walked on.
As we approached the village, I witnessed one of the strangest incidents of my life. We were almost in sight of the Gond village from where we would cross the Kadam River to get to Uncle Rama’s farmhouse. We could hear the sounds of the village getting ready for the night – dogs barking as the cattle returned to their pen, some cows bellowing their irritation at being hurried by the herd boys, others calling to their calves which tend to get lost in the melee. A lady calling her missing youngsters who had obviously gone off to something more interesting than the errands assigned to them. The ‘whap’ of a stick hitting the reluctant behind of an ox that refuses to do the bidding of its master. As we walked I said to Uncle Rama, ’It’s strange we didn’t see anything today after all that walking. Just two days ago, right here I saw an antelope watching me as I was returning home.’ I gestured over my left shoulder and pointed – and behold, an antelope was standing watching us go by. In less time than it takes to say this, Uncle Rama brought the .22 rifle up to his shoulder in one fluid movement and pulled the trigger. So, we did have something to show as a result of our very long and hard walk. I felt a little sorry for the antelope of course but it is strange how curiosity kills deer and antelope more than anything else. They will stand and watch instead of running away and so hunters eat.
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
For we are one people, whether you like it or not
You are a Semite, A son of Israeel (Isaac)
I am a Semite, A son of Ismaeel (Ishmael)
Our father, the father of both you and I
Is Ibrahim (Abraham)
Or are you one who will even deny his own father?
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
We will die on our feet
But we will not live on our knees.
You know how to kill, But we know how to die
Hitler gassed 6 million of you, But he could not kill your spirit
Those who died only made stronger, those who remained alive
Why then do you imagine; that if you become Hitlers
The results of your ‘gassing’
Would be any different?
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
Just as others silently watched you going into the gas chambers
Others silently watch us burying our children, the children that you continue to kill
But we remind ourselves
That the blow that does not break the back, only strengthens you.
O! You who used to be the People of Musa (Moses),
But today you have become people of the Firawn (Pharaoh)
Remember we are the real people of Moses, for we believe in his message; not you
Remember that when the fight is between Moses and Pharaoh
Moses always wins.
We say to the silent watchers, the cowards,
We say to those who sit securely in their homes
We are the frontline who are holding back the enemy
When we fall, it will be your turn.
Remember O! Arabs
The story of the White Bull (Al Thawr il Abyadh)
Who said to the world when the tiger finally came for him
Listen O! People, I do not die today,
I died when the Black Bull died.
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
We did not come into this world to live here forever
Neither did you
One day we will all go from here
Whether we like it or not
What is important my brother, son of Israeel
Sons of a Prophet, O! What have you become today?
What have you allowed them to make you?
Kill us, if that is what you want to do
At least we die at the hands of our own brothers
And not at the hands of strangers
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
We laugh as we see your Apache helicopters and F-16 jets fly overhead
We laugh because we can smell your fear
Why else do you need Apaches and F-16s to fight children with rocks?
A battle of honor is between equals
We challenge you, you who have sold your honor
Come to us as equals; so that we can show you how to die with honor
We laugh at you because we know, that not in a million years
Will one of you ever have the guts to stand up to one of our children
Without hiding behind an array of weapons that the American tax payer gives you
We laugh at you, because that is what every warrior does
When he faces an army of cowards.
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
It is not whether we live or die that is important
It is how we live and how we die
Ask yourself: How would you like to be remembered?
Without respect, despised and accursed through the centuries,
Or blessed, honored, your passing mourned.
Allah is our witness: We lived with honor; begging for no favors
And He is our witness: That today we die with honor; on our feet
Fighting until the last breath leaves our body; even if all we have in our hands are stones
He is the witness over us both
As you kill us and as we die
And to Him is our return
Listen and listen well
O! One who could have been our brother
On that Day, my little baby who you killed last night
Will ask Him for what crime she was murdered
Prepare your answer, O! One who could have been our brother
For you will answer to Him
I swear by His Power: You will answer to Him.
My deepest fear is that I will simply die one day
Crying for what might have been
The earth will be free of carrying my burden
And there will be no trace of my passing
What use such a life?
That one lives and one dies
Yet there is nothing to show that either happened!
Nothing was changed
No oppression relieved
No ideas ignited
No lives touched
Just that I had lived
And now I am dead
Chase your dream and know
Dreams want to be caught
To live, the dream must come true
Until then it is only a dream
I walked alone through the desert
I walked alone by the ocean
I walked alone through the forest
I walked alone on the mountain
For I was born to die
But I was not born to die without meaning
I was given the chance to make what meaning I desired
For that is what would define me when I was gone
I ask myself, ‘What did I do?’
What more could I have done?
For in the end it was not about others
It was about me.
He was the king of the forest (or so he thought about himself). He stood over five feet tall at the shoulder, weighed over one thousand pounds, with a massive neck supporting a rack of magnificent antlers rising high above that. The antlers were very impressive to look at and very useful in battle when he had to defend his harem against uppity youngsters, trying their strength against him. They could however be a fatal liability in thick bush as they could get caught in it and become the cause of his demise, if had to make a quick dash to save himself from his only predator, the tiger. So, he had learnt to stay in relatively open areas of rocky slopes, dotted with trees and some bush. He knew how to stand or sit with his outline broken so that to the casual observer he became a part of the landscape, his body color merging with the earth and his antlers simply dead branches. Especially when he was aware of being watched but not yet alarmed to make a dash for it, he knew how to be so still that even a second look wouldn’t reveal him to the observer. What he had no control over was his ears. They had to keep moving to scan for sounds, which may spell danger from a direction he was not looking at. And they were what gave away his location to the observer who had patience. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambar_deer
On this day, he had had good browsing all night and then just before dawn he had gone to his favorite rolling spot; a wide pool full of slush. His kind rolled in it until they were covered in liquid mud which later dried to form a coat impermeable to flies and biting insects which were the bane of his life. A good roll ensured that he would be able to rest up during the day peacefully. Sambar are active at and after dusk into the night and so spend most of the day, resting in shady spots. The only danger with rolling was that tigers also knew about this luxury of Sambars. So, rolling spots were a favorite ambush spot for the tiger. For the tiger, a Sambar rolling in the mud is almost a sure meal because it is impossible for the Sambar to rise from a prone position on his back and side and run before the tiger closes on him. So, Sambar are extremely cautious when they go to roll and spend far more time casing the joint, than in actually rolling. The roll is really a quick one, very like a horse rolling in the dust (for the same reason) and then he is up, all senses in high alert, trying to see if he can do another roll or must run for it.
For an animal this big, Sambar are extremely agile and gallop up and down steep rocky slopes as if they were flying. Having ridden horses, cross country I can vouch for it that there is no horse or horseman in the world which can chase a Sambar either up or down a slope without breaking a leg of the horse and killing himself. But Sambar do it all the time. As a matter of fact, their favorite escape tactic is to race downhill at full gallop, which even tigers can’t match them at. All this of course if they are alert to danger and get as much of a head start as possible. Awareness is their best defence and their best guarantee of survival. This stag had reached his prime because he had mastered the art of being alert. There were deep claw marks on his withers to show the only encounter with a tiger; a young male whose ambition exceeded his ability. But still his claws drew lines in the Sambar stag’s hide that healed but remained as a reminder to him of the importance of being on his guard all the time.
Today he had been sitting in the shade of a large, gnarled Babool tree halfway up the slope of the range of hills that rise from the waters of the Kadam Dam. After his browsing in the night, he had had a long and cool drink from the waters of the lake and climbed up the slope to his favorite spot under this tree. It was high enough to give him a vantage point. Before him was open land, very rocky and interspersed with stunted Seetaphal (Custard Apple), Lantana, Ber and young Babool. Behind him the hillside rose steeply and was covered with scree which meant that anyone coming down that slope would almost certainly send a few small stones rolling down, enough to alert him to possible danger. It was still fairly early in the day but it promised to be another hot one. Summers here tended to be extremely hot with temperatures in the forties. The sky was clear and blue which would take a steely hue as the sun racked up the temperature but for now, the breeze blowing his way over the water of the dam was still cool. All seemed right with the world but he was not happy. Something within him told him that today was not a day like all others. There was an ominous feeling inside him which he couldn’t describe but which his kind had learnt to trust. A feeling of impending danger which he couldn’t find evidence for but which he knew could save his life. He was uneasy but not yet alarmed enough to leave his cool spot in the shade and make a break for it.
I was nineteen years old and spending my summer vacation with Uncle Rama in Sethpally, a little village in Adilabad District of Telangana. Sethpally is close to the bank of the Kadam River which flows into the lake created by the Kadam Dam, from which rise the mountains of the Sahyadri Range. Rocky and sparsely covered with semideciduous forest and thorn bush but famous for Sambar. As it is open forest, the stags tend to grow a large head of antlers, a prime consideration for trophy hunters. The biggest stags are to be found further north in Madhya Pradesh, but the Sambar of this part of the world were nothing to be sneezed at either.
I used to spend all my vacations with Uncle Rama on his farmhouse which was on the bank of the Kadam wandering in the forest all day or if I was home, sleeping off the hottest part of the day in the thick shade of the three huge tamarind trees that grew between the farmhouse and the river. There is no air-conditioning to beat the coolness of the shade of a tamarind tree and no soothing sleep inducing music to beat the sound of the breeze rustling its leaves. The forest is never totally silent, though between midday and late afternoon, which is the hottest part of the day, is perhaps the quietest. Still you would hear the occasional barking of a dog from the Gond village on the other side of the river, or the cooing of Ring Necked doves roosting in the thick foliage of the tamarind trees I was sleeping under. Occasionally the alarm call of the Red Wattled Lapwing would sound its question, ‘Did-you-do-it?’ over and over until presumably it discovered who had done it. All this over the background of the ceaseless buzz of the Cicadas and the call of the Common Hawk Cuckoo (Brain Fever Bird), starting low and rising to a crescendo and ending only to rise again. Here is a recording of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPqi5BcfETMBut all these sounds are part of the atmosphere of the forest and not only don’t disturb your sleep but soothe you into it. Today, over forty years later, I still remember the peace and tranquility of that sleep.
Last evening Uncle Rama decided that we should go on a game drive. Now these are things that I’d only known to have happened in British India with the Maharajas and their cronies the White Sahibs. To actually be one of the guns in a game drive is something that I had never imagined in my wildest dream. My excitement knew no bounds. I could hardly sleep that night. The next day there was a council of war, as it were. The head of the Lambada Tanda (Tanda is what a Lambada village is called) came to see Uncle Rama to decide on the number of men we would need for the drive. Plans were made for camping as we would be away for three days in all. These were the days when hunting was permitted and so all permissions were obtained and the local DFO (District Forest Officer) was one of the invitees. My single thought, however, was to get a big Sambar stag to my credit.
The place we planned to go to was some miles away from the farm, a part of the Sahyadri Mountain Range (Western Ghats) that bordered the Kadam River dam. These hills are thickly forested and very steep, coming down to the water’s edge on one side and rolling away, one into another on the other; ideal Sambar country. Also, ideal tiger and leopard country. The Sambar in this area is a large animal with the stags sporting a very respectable set of antlers, but not the gigantic racks of the Sambar of Madhya Pradesh. These are forest Sambar and an overly large head of horns would be a distinct disadvantage. Having said that, it is only in comparison that their antlers are smaller. By themselves they are very impressive indeed.
In addition to the species I mentioned, in these hills that we were going to beat, are wild boar, sloth bears, bison, and peacocks. No Chital or Nilgai as they prefer more open area. Also, many Grey Jungle Fowl with their familiar crowing in the mornings and at dusk. So, there was much expectation about all the different animals that we were likely to see. We had emphatic instructions from Uncle Rama that we were not to shoot a tiger, bear, bison, or leopard under any circumstances. Everything else was fair game. And the main quarry of course was a good Sambar stag. Shoot or not, the very thought that we would possibly see a tiger or leopard at close quarters was something to make the heart race in anticipation and not a little fear. As it happened, we did not see any of the ‘prohibited’ species.
But let me tell the tale in sequence for it is one in which I discovered something about myself. Something that I remember with happiness and pride to this day.
We started just before day break the next morning, having spent the greater part of the night in preparation. Guns to be cleaned, ammo to be sorted out and kept in order so that it was easily accessible. Food for the day plus cooking pots, condiments, some vegetables, rice, dal, sugar, tea, and milk powder for the next three days. Camping stuff; sleeping bags, small tents, and all the rest. And of course, knives. However, one major caveat – the word ‘knife’ was not to be spoken aloud in any language. Uncle Rama believed that if one said the word ‘knife’ (in any language – as we all habitually spoke at least 3 languages) it would bring us bad luck and we would not see any game. So, we made very sure never to say ‘knife’. Uncle Rama had a beauty, a medium sized switch blade knife with a tungsten steel blade, sharp as a razor. I was its keeper as I was also the official ‘Halaal’ guy, whose job it was to make sure that at least one of the animals shot was killed in the Muslim, zabiha way, so that I and Uncle Rama’s other Muslim friends would not go hungry.
By the time we reached Kadam River Dam, it was getting light. We parked the jeeps by the canal and started off in a single file up the forest track. The Lambadas were already at the site and we had many willing hands for the stuff we were carrying. Each of us only carried his personal weapon. Uncle Rama was a great stickler for safety and made sure that there was no cartridge up the spout of any gun and that all safety catches were on. Silence was essential as we didn’t want to disturb the game and it was prohibited to shoot anything on the way to the camp. We walked on as daylight grew stronger, harbinger of the heat of the day that was to come.
As we climbed the hills, I looked all around me hoping to see signs of the game that we had come to hunt. But apart from occasional droppings, there was not a sign that anything lived in these hills. The path wound serpentiously along through dry teak plantation forests, with the huge dry teak leaves crackling loudly if you stepped on them. This was almost impossible to avoid and it made me even more anxious that we were scaring all the animals away by our loud approach. Finally, at about 8:30 am we came to a clearing, a large expanse of open ground, very rocky and sloping down to the river on one side. All the trees in sight were dry and leafless so there was almost no shade and the sheet of rocks promised a very hot stay. However, we were not planning to stay in the tents that were pitched immediately and in any case, I was too excited to worry about anything other than the coming hunt.
After a hurried breakfast, and fortified by extremely sweet, milky tea, we set off to establish the shooting line.
In any game drive, the positioning of the guns is critical to success. It is essential to do the positioning as unobtrusively as possible so as not to alarm any game that may be in the area and which would clear off if alarmed. Uncle Rama did it himself, making sure not only that each person was positioned strategically to cover a given expanse of ground, but that each person’s ‘territory’ overlapped the boundary of his neighbor but was still at a safe distance from him. This way, the two guns would have a fair chance of spotting an animal between them, but would not accidentally shoot each other.
As I mentioned earlier, this is hilly country with steep climbs and deep valleys and ravines. Positioning all the guns means to walk the entire line and in the growing heat of the day, it’s no picnic. The ‘Brain-fever’ bird and the always present cicadas were the only accompaniment as we were all sworn to silence on the pain of death. Once all were in place, and Uncle Rama was also back in his own station at the end of the line, he gave the signal and the beat started.
It is almost impossible to describe the excitement of waiting. First there is silence. There is no sign that anything is happening at all. Then slowly as some time passes, you start hearing the beaters. These are men who walk along towards you in a widely spaced line, simply talking to each other loudly, throwing stones into any likely looking thicket to raise any animal which may be hiding in it and occasionally shouting, especially if they wanted to alert the guns to anything special. The idea is to get the animals to move but not to scare them too much, otherwise they would come to the guns too fast leading to missed shots of worse still, wounded animals. The excitement is palpable and is the essence of the experience of being a ‘gun’ in a beat.
My own station was in the middle of a thick Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana) bush, very thorny and very uncomfortable even though some space had been cleared for me to stand in the center. Directly in front, facing a slope going down into the valley before me, a small section of the bush had been cut out so that I would have a clear field of fire. Yet to anyone looking at the bush from outside, I would be invisible. In this position, I stood, silently ignoring the flies and the dribbling rivulets of sweat going down my neck. It is important to remember that it is movement that attracts attention and makes one visible. If you are still and your body outline is broken up by the surroundings then you can be almost invisible even to anyone looking directly at you. But the moment you even blink an eye, you will become visible. I knew this very well and so stood very still listening to the sounds of the beaters.
His instincts were right. His uneasiness justified. He stood up and scented the air and could faintly smell man. The breeze was blowing to him from the lake below so he could scent them. He could also hear them talking to one another. He remembered an earlier instance a few years ago when he was not yet in his prime, when he was in such a situation. As he tried to flee from the men on that occasion, he almost came in the way of a tiger but strangely the tiger was more alarmed than he was and didn’t show the slightest interest in him. Then he heard loud bangs behind him and to one side, and he ran for his life. He had no idea what was happening but he was glad that he came out of that unscathed. Today once again, it seemed that it was something similar. Something that didn’t bode well for him if he didn’t get away. He was still not in a panic. But he was definitely fearful and extremely cautious. His senses were all at peak alert, trying to sense the slightest movement before him or scent on the breeze as he purposefully climbed up the hillside to get to the path he knew would take him down the other side to safety.
And then it happened! I saw some movement directly opposite me, coming up the slope. First, I saw the tips of his antlers, then the head and neck and then the full deep chested body of a full-grown Sambar stag, alarmed but not scared, looking over his shoulder occasionally as he climbed the hill, coming directly at me. I can never describe the majesty of his progress. He looked like the king he was, fearing nothing except the tiger and of course man. He knew that danger was behind him and knew how to get away. The wind was blowing up from the lake from him in my direction, so he had no idea how close he was to me. He was huge and as he came up the hill, he grew bigger in my eyes. In such a situation when you are either facing grave danger or high excitement, you live in the moment. Adrenalin is coursing through your veins and heightens all sensation. You see in vivid color, you smell all the variety of smells coming your way on the breeze and you feel the heart pounding in your breast and hear your blood racing in your ears.
I could smell him, the rank smell of cattle. He had been rolling in mud and his coat was caked in it. But what I noticed was the deep raking marks of tiger claws on his withers. This was a stag who’d had a close brush with death. I wondered how he got away. But he had and here he was, facing death again but without the slightest idea about it. He had a big head of antlers, the ideal trophy for me right in the beginning of the drive. What phenomenal good fortune for me, I thought.
My gun was already at port and to gently bring it to my shoulder and my cheek to the stock was a matter of an instant and I was looking at the throat of the Sambar through the open sights. I took in the slack of the trigger and knew that if I just squeezed my grip one degree, this stag would become a trophy in my house. And that is when I discovered something about my own nature. I discovered that it was impossible for me to kill something as beautiful and majestic as this. I just stood there and looked, drinking in the sight of this fabulous animal coming up the slope, carrying his antlers as proudly as any king with his crown. When he came right to the top, I whistled. The change in his stance was magical. One instant he was looking backward concerned about the sounds of the beaters. Next instant, electrified, all his adrenaline pumping into his bloodstream, he honked in alarm and was gone in a flash.
That was effectively the end of the drive for me as I was no longer in a mood to hunt. I just sat and enjoyed the scenery and re-lived the experience of my Sambar again and again. To this day, I can see him walking up that slope, coming to the gun held by a boy who would not shoot. When we all collected after the drive to look at what the bag was, the beaters asked me about the Sambar which they had seen. Nobody was amused or impressed with my story of why I could not bring myself to shoot the animal. Uncle Rama kept silent in all the ribbing that I was getting. When the others had gone off, he came to me and said, “Yawar-baba, I am proud of you. What you did is true sportsmanship.” Such were my teachers. The lesson to follow my heart, notwithstanding unpopularity, is something that I have never forgotten all my life.