Whenever I speak of customer service I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’. Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).
Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.
In my view great customer service is a combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do (tools). Let us look at each of them.
Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the back to where I was, opened the passenger door at the back and ushered me into the cab with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and silently got in.
The interior was spotlessly clean and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully, trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being in your car.’
I still remember this incident 16 years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s destination. And typically he would probably never see that customer again. Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give them an experience to remember. Why?
The only answer I have is, because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was. Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (sealed bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not horribly dirty we don’t give it a second thought.
He did what he did because he saw his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it or wanted it or demanded it. It was his own pride in his work and his desire to serve.
Let me give you another example. In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases. A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:
‘Good morning, this is Citibank Car Finance. How can I help you?’
‘Good morning. I am looking to buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’
‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute I will get you the number of the company which does Maruti.’
Once again, I knew I was in the presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I waited. She came back on line in less than one minute.
‘Here’s the number Sir. And if you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a call.’
She knew perfectly well that I was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.
Once again the power of attitude.
The first thing I would ask anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want to do it?’
- Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind of thing?
- Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here I may as well get it over with.’
- Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’
Which one applies to you?
It’s really as simple as this.
Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?
Well, you have two choices; change your job or change yourself.
Changing your job may neither be feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people. There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So, what should you do?
Here is what you should do:
- Stand before a mirror and tell yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile than that? I was in the airport in Hyderabad and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give me a minute Sir.’
Then he not only cleaned the toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service Training class. So, stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’
- LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
- Listen: Listen to the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it. Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but his tone of voice or his body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message.
- Empathize: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is immaterial. That he had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of. Let me give you an example. I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late night flight at midnight. I had asked for a non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the room almost at 1.00 am I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my luggage moved there. I agreed. Then (only then) did she say to me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My apologies once again.’ The beauty of this response was that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation for what happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem. They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.
- Accept responsibility: Accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else. This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from person to person and having to repeat their story over and over.
- Do something: Take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let him know what you are doing and how it is going to solve his problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
- Pre-empt problems: It is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure. Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.
- Moments of Truth: Identify and monitor your moments of truth. A ‘Moment of Truth’ is defined by Jan Carlson, ex-CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used this phrase in the context of customer service as that moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a winning operation. If you either don’t know what your moments of truth are or where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing moments of truth and controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which most organizations are unwilling or unable to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and in some cases go under.
Great customer service is about concern; being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving. It is about being a shrewd business person; recognizing who pays you and ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.
Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how they felt. That is the key.
Before I begin on the three fundamental principles that make winners, let me state one thing: In life, only winners are rewarded. So the first requirement of winning is to be passionate about winning. To realize that a real win is one that is gained fairly, with integrity and without harming anyone. Only that is a win.
There are three fundamental drivers of all winners:
- Drive for excellence
- Desire to leave a legacy
Drive for excellence emerges from the winner’s self-concept. A winner defines himself by his output. Her contribution is her signature. Winners are contribution oriented, not entitlement oriented. They constantly seek to give and to give more and better each time. Naturally this gives them profit, fame, honor and popularity but that is not why they do it. They do it because of who they are. Not because of what others say about them. I recall a carpenter who was making a table for me and asked for 7 grades of sandpaper. When I complained about the time it would take, he said to me, ‘It is your choice. This is how I work. I want whoever sees your table to ask you, ‘Wow! Who made this?’ Not, ‘Who the hell made this?’ He was working for his own satisfaction. That this would result in a satisfied customer was incidental. He would have worked that way even if he had no customer to sell to. The table he made for me was of teak wood, polished to a mirror finish. A delight to see.
Compassion comes from a sense of connectedness that winners have. They realize that they are not alone in the world and that they became what they became because of what others did for them, without thinking of a return. Compassion is not merely to be concerned about the difficulties of others but to be concerned enough to put our money and effort where our mouth is. Compassion is what defines us as human beings. Animals don’t have compassion. A wildebeest herd stands and watches one of its members being eaten by lions and do nothing to help the one that was taken. It is peculiarly and essentially human to be concerned for the welfare of others. Winners are concerned and they act. Today our major problems that threaten the world are because of a lack of concern, a lack of compassion for others. We are singularly focused on growth at any cost. Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. Predatory growth results in environmental destruction, impoverishment of people for the enrichment of a few and increase in unrest and insecurity.
Legacy: Finally winners who have lived all their lives trying to create an impact on their environment don’t want to disappear beneath the waves without a trace. They like to leave a legacy of goodness that continues after they are gone. So they build organizations, systems and processes so that their work will continue. They spend time, energy and resources to train others, to teach them what they know, to share their life’s hard earned experience so that others don’t have to go through the same hardships to learn. Winners leave their mark on the hearts and in the lives of all those they touch. They don’t do this to be remembered but they are remembered because of what they did. For the world remembers us not for what we had but for what we did and how that helped them. The legacy of the winner is in the smiles of those who they helped.
They called it freedom. And freedom is a good word, so we thought nothing of it. Freedom to do whatever they want, to be themselves, to express themselves, to have space; they called it. It sounded like a good thing. After all don’t we all believe that the fight for freedom is the good fight and don’t we support all those who are fighting to gain freedom?
We should have asked, ‘Freedom from what? To do what? What does ‘express yourself’ mean? What is the meaning of ‘space?’
Then we would have learnt that freedom meant, freedom from all restraint, all rules of decency, all that holds the fabric of moral, socially responsible society together. But then, isn’t that what we used to call anarchy?
Yes it is, they said. But then you see, those are the quaint and frankly embarrassingly idiotic and backward, middle class values that we used to live by. High time we jettisoned them and joined the mainstream of modern society in the global village.
They forgot to tell us that in the global village the dominant culture is the culture of consumerism. The culture of consumption. The culture of self-indulgence with the only limit being the spending power of your credit card. They forgot to tell us that in the process of creating this society it was necessary to create a high degree of irresponsibility, a sense that only ‘I’ matter and the rest can go to hell. ‘Each man for himself and the Devil take the last.’ ‘Family’ in this society is a 6 – letter word; a bad word because families epitomize responsibility. And responsibility is another 14 – letter bad word. Responsible people save. They don’t spend. They conserve. They don’t waste. They become sedate. They don’t follow fads and trends. Responsible people don’t support consumerism. They are bad news.
So, the family must be destroyed.
To do that promiscuity and immorality must first be encouraged. But you can’t call it that, can you? That will draw too much flak. So, they invented another phrase – adult consent.
Now being adult is all about taking decisions about your own life without anyone else having the right to ‘interfere’, right? If two adults want to do something who is anyone else, be it society, be it the law or be it religion, to dictate what they can and can’t do? That is the opposite of freedom, right? And the opposite of freedom is oppression, right? And oppression is a bad thing, right?
So adult consent came into being. And we supported it.
Now to take the ‘fight for freedom’ to its next stage and that is, to define who is an adult. Age of consent. 21 years? Too old. People mature long before that. So, 18? Why not 16? Ah!! The joy of a 16-year-old!! But we can’t talk like that. 16 is the ideal age of consent because a person is mature at 16, so why should they be prevented from exercising their right to freedom any longer? That sounds much better.
How do you make promiscuity acceptable in a society that insists on decency and morality? Well the best way is through advertisements, serials and movies. Bollywood, Hollywood and all the commercial product and service advertisements do a cardinal job of chipping away at the bastions of social morals until what was unmentionable a decade ago becomes fashionable in this decade. We call it entertainment. We call it being progressive. We call it being chic and those who don’t subscribe are the squares. That’s the thin edge of the wedge. Once it gets into the doorway, the rest is inevitable, only a matter of time. We thought nothing of a biscuit advertisement that showed a scantily dressed woman lounging languidly on a couch. We thought nothing of an ice cream stick ad which showed a woman holding the stick almost touching parted lips, in a gesture that clearly reminded you of something else. We thought nothing of a pocket PC ad that focused more on the curve of the buttock supporting the pocket than the PC which protruded therefrom. And all the while we comforted ourselves with the thought that after all these were only bill boards featuring some women we did not know personally. So, they can’t hurt us, can they?
We did not see or chose not to see the real agenda – social engineering. Changing the standards of society. Changing what is acceptable and what is not. Changing what is considered taboo and what is not. Moving something from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘aspirational’. You did not think it could be done, did you? Well, just look at the way advertising and films have changed over the last 3 decades and you will see how things that our parent’s generation would have had a heart attack to see don’t even attract a comment from us.
But why do you need a woman’s naked body to sell ice cream? Isn’t that oppression of women? No, it isn’t. You see, she is doing it of her own free will. Just like playing tennis in micro-skirts. Wearing a burqa is oppression. But what if the one wearing the burqa is doing it of her own free will? Not possible. The burqa is not religion. It is subservience. Ask Sarkozy. So, it must be banned. But forcing people to take clothes off is as much oppression as forcing them to put them on, isn’t it? Ah!! You will never understand. But it doesn’t matter, because you don’t matter. You are too old fashioned and out of date.
We watched pre-marital and extra-marital relationship scenes in movies in the name of story line and plot and marveled at the acting skill (after all it is all acting and not real, we comforted ourselves) until suddenly one day our children started to have similar relationships.
When we watched the movie we never thought it would happen in our own home, did we? But then weren’t we accepting the new world order when we paid to watch the movie?
Was it not we who told our children that pre-marital or extra-marital sex were okay, when we watched the movie together as a family? Was it not we who gave our children the message that our morals had changed and that it was no longer necessary for them to take us as role models but instead to take the actors and actresses as worthy of emulation?
Then came television and the lovely serials, ending each day on a note of suspense that ensured that we watched what happened the next day. Bold & Beautiful, which may have been bold but was certainly not beautiful. Relationships of men and women that eventually got so confused that the woman who was once the wife of the father is now the wife of the brother while simultaneously being the paramour of someone else. What freedom!! And where was all this happening and being watched? In our own living rooms. In homes where women were in purdah, extra-marital relationships were displayed in full detail and watched by the whole family completely without shame. Why? Because of course we believed it couldn’t happen to us and what we were seeing was ‘only acting’.
And for those of us who were among the watchers exclusively of National Geographic, talk shows, news and Animal Planet – well you see, it is the commercials that ensure that you can see these shows and what is in the commercials? Pushing the boundaries of desire, daring, challenging norms and making the impossible, possible. Not one of those words that I have used, will you challenge. Not one of them in themselves is objectionable. But look at a commercial – almost anyone of them and you will see each of these concepts in a totally different light. But we didn’t think about that, did we? Because we don’t think, period. And for those who don’t watch any TV at all there are newspapers, magazines and the ever present, ever more daring bill boards.
The thin edge of the wedge that was inserted in the doorway had very effectively worked its way in, and the door was now wide open.
They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺ is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history. Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all?
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5th Century Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammadﷺ didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺ brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’ and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
There are two critical requirements that distinguish all real human development. These are the reasons we remember all great leaders who changed the world. They are concern and compassion. Muhammadﷺ exemplified these in his life and message. Any development that is not based on compassion is not development but regression to a time when the one who had the sword chopped a man in half to test its sharpness, legally. What’s legal is not necessarily right. Example: Apartheid is official and legal in Israel today.
But is it right?
For more please read:
Leadership Lessons from the Life of Rasoolullahﷺ
Kindle link to Free e-book – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-ebook/dp/B00ED0JC70/
Amazon link – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-techniques/dp/1479284033/
Link to free e-book which can be read on any device: http://bit.ly/1zzEC8t
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 feeds 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.