A day in the life of an SBA student

A day in the life of an SBA student

The Adhaan for Tahajjud was just called. I know Tahajjud is very important but sometimes I’m lazy. Nothing will happen if I don’t go. No punishment. There’s no punishment here for anything. Except if you tell lies or do anything dishonest or immoral. Then the punishment is expulsion. And that is something that none of us want. We love being here too much.

I get out of bed and make the bed. That’s one of the non-negotiable rules here. We always make our beds and line up our shoes beside them. On that subject, we clean our own dorms and toilets and bathrooms and our own classrooms. We do that because this is our home and you keep your home clean. Nothing remarkable about that, though visitors usually look very surprised. One asked me if I didn’t feel bad to be made to do this. I replied, “Nobody makes me bathe but I do. It’s just like that.” Keeping yourself clean includes keeping your environment clean. It’s as simple as that.

Our four huts, the Dorm Parents hut and the common room are all built around a central courtyard with grass and a shady ornamental or fruit tree. Bird feeders and nesting boxes are attached to building gables or placed safely in the tree. Each hut has a veranda on the courtyard side. The whole complex is surrounded by an 8-foot-high Bougainvillea hedge with a chain link center; very secure and impenetrable. There is a gate near the Dorm Parents hut. The whole complex is called a ‘Kraal’ and the fence is the ‘Boma’. There is a gravel pathway around the whole complex inside the hedge to give access to all the huts. It is wide enough to take a vehicle in case of any emergency.

Our dorm common rooms have a Musalla, a large hall very comfortably furnished with bean bags and arm chairs, books lining the walls, low tables, game boards, a pool table and a fridge stocked with fruit juice, flavored milk, yogurt, fruit and nuts. No sugared fizzy drinks and definitely no Coke or Pepsi. In one section there are a couple of terminals and highspeed internet to allow us to do any research that we may need to do. There is also a widescreen TV for us to watch news, sports and any useful programs. Our school has its own TV and Radio station and so we watch our own programs also.

We spend time in our common rooms, either reading by ourselves, discussing our projects, playing one of the indoor games or reading Qur’an in the Musalla. The noise sometimes gets too loud, but we regulate ourselves as much as we can to ensure that we’re not disturbing those who’re trying to read on their own. If it gets too boisterous we go out into the open courtyard and sit on the grass. Except when it’s raining this is the best place to be, you lie on the grass and look up at the stars. When it’s raining, one of the nicest things in to sit inside our classrooms or common rooms and watch the rain falling in the courtyard and dripping off the roof. The grass ensures that the rain doesn’t splash into the room, as does the wide verandah that circles the courtyard into which you walk out from the class or common room before you step on the grass. These verandahs also have chairs and hammocks in them and on a lazy afternoon, there’s nothing more pleasant than to lie in a hammock and let the breeze gently rock you to sleep. The walls of all our Kraal buildings are decorated with African designs, murals and are strikingly colorful. This is the case with all the buildings in the campus, which gives it all a very cheerful atmosphere. This is Africa and that is reflected in every building on the campus. SBA Africa is African.

I head out for the masjid. This a very beautiful part of the day. I love the quiet. The peacocks on campus have not woken up yet and I can see the big male on his habitual perch on the topmost branch of the tall Ficus. The tree is like a magnet for birds when it is in fruit and attracts Green pigeons, Blossom headed parakeets, Mynahs, Hoopoes, King Fishers, Egrets, Pond Herons, several types of doves and of late, Blue rock pigeons. Our resident Pea fowl and Guinea fowl compete furiously and noisily with these birds who I’m sure they see as intruders into their property but the Ficus is generous and there are enough berries for everyone.

On the ground the several species of deer, sheep, goats and hares that are all over our grounds gather under the Ficus to eat what the birds drop. Symbiosis in action. How do we learn about symbiosis? By watching these relationships between animals. We also learn politics this way. How do I know about the birds and what they eat and their lives? We learn about them in our natural history and photography classes under this tree.

All these thoughts are going through my head as I walk to the masjid. I’m in my kurta as I will change into my riding kit after Fajr. Most boys wear our sports uniform, track suit and running shoes. They wear that to the masjid for Tahajjud and Fajr as they go straight to the sports field after Fajr. We all jog around the athletic track for three miles and do various aerobic exercises before we go off to practice the different sports we play. I ride horses and so I don’t go jogging. Those who play cricket and tennis change into their kit after Fajr. The athletics and track event guys have it easier as they are already in their kit. The others must race back to the dorm and from there to the field to get there in time.

Kits are very important as they are an indicator of attention to detail which is a key factor of quality. I remember the dialogue we had with our teacher, sitting under this very tree, when I asked him why we needed to go and change into different clothes for different activities. He takes all questions very seriously and listens carefully and doesn’t try to impose his view on us. In this school if you have a reasonable argument about any policy, the management is willing to listen to you and even change that policy. He told us that when we change into the right clothes, not only are we wearing the clothing that is most suited and evolved and designed to suit the activity but we are also giving ourselves a message about the seriousness of what we are doing.

Here’s the masjid, bright and welcoming. As I enter I leave my shoes in the rack and wonder why we are the only masjid in the world where people don’t throw their shoes in the passage. Everyone puts their shoes in the racks and if the racks are full, usually on Friday because local people also come for Juma, they’re lined up neatly along the racks with a clear pathway down the center for people to walk to the door.

As I enter the masjid I breathe in deeply the beautiful aroma of cleanliness. On Fridays we burn incense, the aroma of which remains for a few days after. Each of us students have masjid duty which includes everything to ensure that anyone who comes to pray, has the best experience of his life. We know that by doing this Allahﷻ‎ will give us a reward for their prayers, so we look forward to our turn which comes once per term. Masjid duty includes calling Adhaan, sometimes leading Salah and even conducting the Juma on occasion. The boys are all taught all these things as these are basic requirements of being a Muslim man. We take all these things very seriously and practice our Qiraat, Adhaan and spend a lot of time over our Juma Khutba when it is our turn to do it. The masjid is a place of much activity which I love to visit often.

It is very quiet and peaceful. In the back there’s a very quiet hum of some of the boys reciting Qur’an, taking care to keep their voice low, so as not to disturb those who are standing in Salah. Consideration for others is a very important value we learn here, not by lectures but by watching our teachers and seniors. We enjoy it when others are considerate of us and, so we know that we must do the same to create a culture of mutual care and concern.

As I stand getting ready to start my Salah, I can’t help but be impressed by the rapt concentration on the faces of some of my friends. It’s as if they’re in a different world which I suppose they really are as they’re connected to their Rabb and are standing in His presence, oblivious to the world around them. I envy them and ask Allahﷻ‎ to bless them and make me like they are. It’s my dream that one day I reach a state of perfection in my Salah where I can concentrate like some of my friends. In the masjid I can see most of our teachers also in Salah or reading Qur’an. This is one of the best things about our school, that our teachers are our role models. There’s a huge emphasis here on practicing our core values and everyone does it without compulsion. We see how this helps us all to create a wonderful, caring environment which we all appreciate and enjoy. And we know that this can’t happen if even one of us doesn’t pull his weight. It’s peer pressure which is the most powerful force to encourage us to do our bit. And we all do it. Can’t let the side down, you see!

Fajr Adhaan is called and after praying Sunnah we line up for Fardh. The Imam says, “Allahu Akbar.” My heart misses a beat because I recognize the voice of Shaikh Saad Al Ghamdi, whose style of recitation I’m trying to learn. And here he is in person and I’m praying behind him. What good fortune for me! I bet there’s not another school in the world which can boast of this. But our school regularly has scholars, religious and otherwise, who come to spend time in our Retreat Village and share their experience, knowledge and time with us. Imagine the thrill of being taught a subject by the author of the books on that subject which we’ve been reading!! Or like today, to listen to Qur’an being recited by a Qari whose recitation we follow and learn from. Or to be coached in sports by those stars who others only see on the TV screen.

After the Salah and Fajr Reminder, we leave the masjid for the sports field. I head off to my Kraal to get into my riding kit. Two of my friends join me to change into their cricket whites. The chatter of the boys running off to their dorms or sports field is matched by the rising cacophony of the birds in the Ficus and many other fruit trees on our campus. Loudest among them is the mournful, scream of the male peacock as he announces to the world that he’s finally awake.

My ride was lovely as always. My mount, Fascination is a Thoroughbred mare and my dearest friend. She is the most intelligent thing on four legs and many times more intelligent than those on two legs. I love and trust her with my life and I know she feels the same. I talk to her and she understands me.

My riding class begins with mucking out her stable, grooming and saddling her and leading her out into the schooling area. Then we do our morning routine of exercising to warm us both up first. Then schooling for dressage, alternating with going over the course in the show jumping arena every other day. Fascination is a natural jumper and loves to go over the obstacles. The dressage movements come to her naturally and she is so experienced in them now that even if I fall asleep on her back she’d do them all perfectly on her own.

After I finish my hour of riding, I take her back to her stable, rub her down to dry the sweat, then take her to have a drink at the trough, taking care to see that she doesn’t drink too much water. Then I give her grain feed and throw fresh hay in her stable for her to lie on and fresh hay in her feeding trough. Finally, I give her, her daily treat of green Lucerne and a couple of carrots or an apple which she loves. She shows her appreciation by pushing her nose into my chest and making her soft neighing sounds.

Horse riding builds balance, boosts your courage, builds the muscles of your core, back and thighs. It corrects and gives you a great posture, heightened sensitivity and makes you a considerate and compassionate person. It teaches you how to communicate and that communication is different from speaking. Communicating is about understanding the other first and then about helping them to understand you.

A horse is the best judge of character that I know and senses fear, lack of compassion and hesitancy and reacts accordingly. Treat a horse with respect and love and it will take care of you, fight for you and give his life for you. Treat him or her badly and it will throw you at the first opportunity. Good horse riding is not about forcing the horse to do something it doesn’t want to do by applying the whip. It’s about helping the horse to see why doing what you want it to do is the most pleasurable thing for it to do. Once the relationship is built and mutual trust is established, the horse will do whatever you want without any hesitation. But building relationships is about spending time, communicating and taking care of the horse. This is where the daily grooming comes in. It’s not about cleaning the stable but about paying your dues to build the relationship with your mount. If you haven’t got it already, all this is part of our leadership education.

Riding is not only for fun, but our second class for the day. The first is always connecting to Allahﷻ‎ in the masjid.

Back to the dorm after riding, quick shower, change into our school uniform and off to the dining hall for breakfast. Choice of oatmeal or mixed grains porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, tea, fruit. We can all eat as much as we like but no wastage. So, we learn to take small portions and go back if we’re still hungry. Our dorm parents eat with us and are there to see that everyone eats well. We have various versions of this menu, but the basic principle, that it should be wholesome, filling and nutritious, remains the same.

We all eat together. That’s one of our school’s policies. School staff eat with everyone. This includes maids, guards, gardeners, drivers, everyone. Naturally this depends on their work schedule but whoever is free to eat at regular meal times eats with us. And everyone eats the same food. No differentiation between staff, management, teachers or us. We know many of the staff personally. We address them as aunty or uncle, not by first name and they treat us like their own children. Many staff children stay and study with us. Some are on concessional fee; others on scholarship. But as far as we are concerned there’s no difference between us and them in anything.

How do I know all this? Because my Dad is a driver and my Mom is a housekeeper and I’m on a full scholarship. But I’m my House Prefect and Head of the Dressage team.
Everyone is treated with equal dignity and respect in this school. The only way you get extra respect is by your behavior, your sports wins and your academics. That also is different here. In sports, while we compete with each other, we get points for showing consideration to others, politeness, helping one another and good citizenship (sportsmanship). Dog-eat-dog, is not in our school because we’re not dogs. In academics we routinely help one another, study together, share knowledge and teach one another. We don’t get comparative class ranks i.e. there’s no First in Class academically, but there is in terms of demonstrating Good Citizenship, Integrity, Truthfulness (not carrying tales), Loyalty, Friendship and Trusteeship. We take our values very seriously in this school. Lying is considered the root of all evil and that’s one thing that you can get expelled for. Sounds strange today because lying is almost a part of our popular culture, but not here.

Here lying is treated as a crime and is publishable by expulsion. So, no matter what you did, it’s safer to own up than to lie about it or try to hide it. If you own up, you are asked what you learnt from what you did. Then depending on what it was, you may be put on a watch list, be assigned to speak to a counselor, be helped to get over your issue, be gated for some time, given extra PT or something like that. No corporal punishment whatsoever in our school. As I said earlier peer pressure is the biggest motivator. Our fellow students don’t let us do wrong things.

There’s enormous focus and emphasis on student safety above anything else. We all have 24 x 7 access to a Help Line where you can ask for any help of any kind, physical, emotional, spiritual, material and report any misbehavior, harassment or offence committed by anyone against anyone else. Complete confidentiality, immunity and protection for the one reporting is guaranteed. We need to give our name and ID number and narrate what happened. No anonymous complaints are entertained, so that nobody can falsely accuse anyone. We can ask to meet the Ombudsperson and report face to face or do it on the phone. Action is guaranteed before the end of the day. For emergencies, it is instantaneous. We’ve never had an emergency, but I know this from the drills we do, every term.

Breakfast done we head for class – the academic classes, that is. This period lasts until lunch which means from 0930 am to 1230 pm. While we’re in class we’re free to go and pick up a snack from the snack station; there’s one in every common area; or to go to the loo any time we want. Nobody comes looking for you unless you disappear for a long time and when they do, only to make sure you’re alright. But nobody has ever disappeared like that, as long as I can remember because nobody wants to miss class. Our learning is highly interactive, we’re moving around all the time. Our classrooms are designed to bring the outside, inside. So, they all open into courtyards with grass and shade trees. We can go out and sit on the grass to do our projects and work together in small groups. There’s no formal break time because there’s no need for it. We also don’t have bells or buzzers to announce the end of a class. Time keeping is our responsibility and we do it. After all, how hard is it? Bells are so undignified and prison-like. We are a school, not a jail

Our classes are multi-age group. In my class I have children between 8-12 years old. That’s because our school doesn’t segregate us by date of manufacture and believes that humans learn best in multi-age groups, like we do in our families. As they say in Africa, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” That’s what we practice in our school. We take care of each other in class and teach each other. That’s the best way to learn they say, and I agree. We have at least two teachers in every class of about 20 students. No class is ever more than 25 students. In many classes we have 3 or sometimes 4 teachers, depending on what we’re studying. Two are our class teachers. A third may be the subject teacher who has come to talk to us about whatever we’re studying. We also have external experts who come to our school to talk to us, take classes, help with projects and take us on excursions and study trips.

We don’t study discrete subjects. We do projects. Let me tell you how it is done. In my class, this term we’re doing Mountains. We begin by brainstorming on the question, “What would you like to know about mountains?” There’s no rule about what you can ask. I said that I wanted to know the weight of Kilimanjaro. Nobody looked at me like I was crazy. We truly believe and practice the adage, “The only stupid question is the one that wasn’t asked.”

We all ask our questions. The teachers add their own. Then these are all organized into buckets of subjects e.g. History, Geography, Economics, Biology, Islamic sciences etc. Then we all work in smaller groups and try to answer our own questions. To do that we read, research the net and libraries (our own and open source), meet experts and seek their opinion, conduct experiments and constantly share our learning with the whole class. We publish a daily bulletin of our ongoing project. For each bucket subject we seek a time and go to the room which houses the teacher and resources for that role topic. To understand the effect that mountains and mountain ranges have had on history we go to the history classroom. To understand the effect of mountain ranges on rainfall and regional climate we go to the geography room. Each of these rooms is a treasure house of information about that subject. There we listen to lectures, watch films, look at working models and permanent exhibits of whatever we’re studying. Then we compile our learning and build our project. Most of that work we do in the evenings when we study or have discussions on our own. Usually in our dorm common rooms.

At the end of each day we write our Learning Journal in which we write what we learned that day. In that journal there is a full page for the questions you asked that day. Every week prizes are given for the best question asked that week. What’s the criterion? A question that nobody could answer immediately. I got that for my Kilimanjaro question. But then with that prize comes a challenge; find the answer. You are allowed to collaborate, use any resource you like and when you find out the answer, there’s a prize for you and all those who helped you. That’s what gets us really engaged in our learning. We do our own research in the evening in the student led session and present it in our class the next day. More about that later.

There is a huge focus on the spirit of enquiry, creativity, seeking knowledge and trying to truly understand it. Just quoting someone else’s answer is not acceptable. You’re asked for your opinion and the reasons for that opinion. And most importantly, you’re listened to with respect and seriousness, even when what you’re saying may sound crazy. We are never asked to memorize anything. We can refer to notes, books or other resources. We’re not allowed personal screens in class or on campus, so no smart phones or tablets. But we have high speed internet and terminals in class which we can use for research. Shaikh Google is at our service. At first, I found this ban on social media screens, irritating but now I have become so fond of reading, even addicted to it, that I love books. We’re allowed Kindle if we prefer to use that, but I like to hold a paper book and turn pages as I read. Sorry trees!! I hope all the books I read are made of recycled paper. Should be. Why not?

We’re supposed to read at least three books per term. These can be on any subject, related or not to our course. Every week on Thursday evening we have a Learning Sharing session where we present the lessons learned from our extracurricular reading. This is also good public speaking and presentation skills practice, which is one of the objectives for doing it. These sessions are very well attended and we get a lot of support from our school mates and staff. My own average is at least six books a term. And I’m far from alone in this. Children here love to read and discuss what they read.

Our discussions, I dare say, would do credit to much older gatherings. We discuss ideas, not people. We discuss strategies for change. We don’t complain. We look for ways to influence. We get frustrated sometimes. We go to our Dorm Parents or teachers to talk about anything we don’t understand fully. They listen, smile and point us to sources for research. Or ask us questions to nudge us to think in ways and about matters we may not have thought of. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I wish they’d simply give us the answer, but I know the enquiry method is far more interesting and beneficial. And of course, many times they don’t know the answer, but that’s fine. That’s why we always share whatever we learn.

And, I must tell you, this summer vacation, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro.

Our midday break is from 12.30 pm until 2.30 pm for Dhuhr and lunch. Lunch today was as good as it always is. Fresh vegetables in a Caesar salad, freshly baked bread, hot from the oven, jacket potatoes with a dollop of sour cream, a thick slice of juicy roast mutton haunch with boiled carrots and beans. And of course, you can go for seconds. Fruit for dessert. We stay far away from sugar which is addictive and harmful. We have ice cream freshly made with the fruit of the season with natural fruit sugar being the sweetener.

Then we begin our afternoon session. Some of us have swimming coaching, others go to their hobby clubs, Moot Court, Shadow Parliament, special project work, hospital duty, kitchen duty, vocational skill class or the farm.

Two days a week we work in the school farm. We grow all our food on-site. Our poultry farm gives us eggs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. The sheep, rabbit and goat farm gives us mutton and goat milk. The greenhouses give us most of our vegetables, mushrooms and some fruits. Other vegetables and fruit are grown in the open. Our bees give us honey. We plant flowers close to them and don’t use any pesticide anywhere on the property and so the bees are safe. Our dairy and processing plant produces milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk and cheese and loads of dung which we use to produce biogas with which we cook our food.

The waste from the biogas plant along with all the organic kitchen waste, leaf litter from the gardens, grass cuttings from lawn mowers, litter from the stables and so on, goes to our organic manure plant to produce, you guessed it, organic manure and vermicompost. So also, the poultry litter from the poultry sheds which is changed annually. We harvest fish from our fish farm tanks which are connected to the lake around which are the villas of the Retreat Village. Our fields produce wheat, barley and maize and the fruit and spice orchard gives us oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, lime, pepper, cardamom and other spices. What we don’t use in the school kitchens is sold in our Department Store at a concessional price to cover costs and generate a modest profit. We harvest rain water and recycle waste water which we then use to irrigate our orchard, farm and all the greenery in SBA Africa by drip irrigation. Our electricity comes from the solar panels on all our roofs which is sufficient for all our lighting and heating needs.

The farm makes a small profit annually but that’s not why we have it. We have it for three reasons:

  1. So that all of us can eat pure, pesticide free, organically produced, fresh food
  2. So that we can train local people in better farming techniques
  3. ‎So that we, students and teachers, reestablish our connection with the earth.

That’s why everyone participates in the farm in one way or another, as they say, from the Chairman to the Coachman and woman. We each of us know how to grow things, take care of animals, milk cows, tend to sheep, goats and poultry, catch and clean fish, slaughter and dress a chicken, rabbit or sheep and then convert it into a mouthwatering curry or roast. Sometimes people wonder why we need so much land for a school. I say to them, it’s to teach is leadership, stewardship, connect us to the land and show is the signs of Allahﷻ‎, daily. Give us enough land and we’ll feed the world.

Our motto is:

If it can be done, learn how to do it. If it can’t be done, discover a way to do it.

It’s ploughing time and we use two very large and strong bulls to pull the plough. A tractor can do this job faster, but you can’t contemplate life, tell your story or ask really intelligent questions to a tractor, can you? You say, “But can you do that to a bull?” I say to you, “Try it and see.” Do the bulls answer you? No, they don’t. But understanding begins with framing good questions in a way that the answer appears from within them. That happens when you’re riding a horse, walking a dog or walking behind a plough; not when you are driving a machine. Moreover, we want the children to learn farming and for that tractors are not safe. And bulls? They love the children and take care of them. While indulging in this philosophic mood, you must remain aware enough to ensure that your furrow is straight. And most importantly, tie the tails of the bulls to the plough or to each other if you don’t wish to have a face full of usually urine soaked bull tail tassel, when he swings it to drive away the flies.

Do you know the smell of freshly ploughed earth? Do you know the feel of fertile loamy soil in your hand? Can you tell, by crumbling a lump of compost in your hand, if it’s ready to be applied in the field? Do you know the companionship of Pond Herons and Egrets, Mynahs, Bee Eaters, Crows and in our case, free range chickens which follow your plough and pick up insects which get exposed?

A Rat Snake just showed up and is now moving rapidly across the field to get into the grass on the edge before he’s spotted. Do you know what to do when a Rat Snake comes out of a hole and moves away from you towards the edge of the field? You do nothing except wishing it well while hoping that the Brown Snake Eagle doesn’t see him while he’s still in the open. That’s not the only enemy he has. There is a family of Mongoose which would happily make his acquaintance as would the big Barn Owl, at this moment, dozing in his favorite hollow in the Ficus. I wish him health and safety because Rat Snakes eat rats which are the bane of our lives, on the farm. We don’t use poison because it doesn’t stop with the rat but goes up the food chain and kills anything that eats the rat and onwards. Rat Snakes are our friends and family and we protect them. All snakes and all life. We don’t kill anything because everything has value and a place in the overall scheme of things. We are only one cog in the wheel of life. Not its owner or the reason for its existence.

Farming teaches us Tawakkul (reliance on Allahﷻ). It trains us to be patient. It shows us that if we want a certain result we must make the necessary effort. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing and that to do so, it is not only important to feed, manure and water but also to train, prune and stop. All lessons in leadership of people. It teaches us that despite all the effort we still need the Fadhl (blessing) of Allahﷻ‎ to get the result. Because after all a farmer can prepare the field, dig canals, take steps to harvest rain water, but he can’t make it rain. Or rain just enough. Or rain at the right time. So, he learns to do all that he needs to do and then to stand in the night and beg Allahﷻ‎ for His favor. Farming opens our eyes both to our strengths as well as to our weaknesses. And it inculcates humility.
Farming teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of those that cannot speak and so it’s up to us to be ever watchful, recognize the signs and respond without being told to do so. Farming teaches us that the needs of those in our charge always precede our own. So, it’s not remarkable, in the lambing season, to find some of us sitting in the sheep pen waiting for an ewe to give birth, rather than cheering our favorite team playing in the World Cup. To give us company is always ones of our sheep dogs, Border Collies, which we helped to train. They are the best companions that you could wish for and our role models for being sensitive to the needs of others. You may be surprised that I’ve said that a dog is my role model. That’s because the fundamental lesson that we’re taught here is that there are opportunities to learn, all around us, all the time and that we can learn from anything and anyone. Especially from animals. It’s become second nature to all of us to constantly ask in every situation and many times a day, “So what did I learn from this?”

Farming teaches us the importance of preparing the soil before planting. Without proper preparation the best seed won’t germinate. It shows us the value of digging a straight furrow, of preparing irrigation channels and water harvesting, without which the best rain will simply flow away and give no benefit. So, success is not an inevitable result of resources but of preparation. Without preparation the best resources will simply be squandered.

Farming teaches us that what we have in our hand is the seed. If we hang onto it, that’s all we’ll have. But when we plant it properly and nurture it, it yields a harvest. And that the smallest harvest is more than the amount of seed that was planted. Only empty hands can hold. Something must leave your hand before you can receive anything. So also in life, to receive rewards, we must invest. The investment in life which has the highest rate of return, ROI, is the investment we make in others. To help others, to alleviate suffering, eliminate poverty, enable learning and open doors for others that they couldn’t open for themselves. It is to understand that possessions add cost, not value. That true happiness lies in the hearts of others, in their smiles. That there’s more pleasure in giving than in acquiring. In helping someone else than in indulging yourself. No investment, no return. It’s only when we strive to please Allahﷻ‎ that He sends His blessings on us. Our actions must rise towards the heavens for the blessings of Allahﷻ‎ to descend.

That’s why we have our farm.

We break off at 4.30 pm, pray Asr and head off to the dining hall where we have high tea. We have high tea every day. Scones, sandwiches, croissants with fillings, curry puffs; our bakery is excellent. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee. They feed us well in this school.

From 4.30 pm – 6.30 pm we’re free. Most of us head off to the sports fields. But this is not compulsory. If you don’t feel like playing, you needn’t. This is just free time to do whatever you want, including nothing. At 6.30 pm Maghrib Adhaan is called and we head for the masjid. After Maghrib is our second academic class. But this is different from the morning. This session is student led with we Prefects being principally responsible. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the boys in my house are accounted for and get to whichever class they’re supposed to be in. How do I know which classes they need to be in? I ask them. They plan what they need to learn depending on what project they’re doing. They’re supposed to inform me and the teachers they need so that everything is in readiness for them. That’s the meaning of student centered learning.

Some people are surprised and ask how children can be left to decide what they want to learn. I say to them that in any case, it is children (all learners) who decide what they want to learn. When adults try to force them, not only do they not learn but they get turned off from learning. Adults may have the illusion that they’re achieving something but that’s an illusion.

You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned Islamic studies as a special subject. It isn’t. We learn and live Islam. Our ethos is Islam. We are taught about the importance of remembering Allahﷻ all the time and of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Every project we do has a significant amount of Islam in it; laws and rulings applicable to what we are studying, history that relates to it, mentions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, incidents and lessons from the Seerah and stories of the Sahaba and later generations. Our philosophy is that Islam is a practice, not a theory and so it must be practiced, lived and benefited from. It is not something to be studied like a philosophy or theory.

At 9.00 pm we go to the masjid for Isha followed by dinner and bed. It’s lights out at 10.30 pm. We need the sleep because tomorrow is another day, as full as today.

Some final comments before I end; this school is all about inculcating leadership qualities in us. The stress is on service, integrity, honesty, quality, industry and compassion. Concern for others precedes concern for ourselves. A thirst for knowledge is kindled and I hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Our teachers are our role models and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Ours is a fully boarding school because you need to be here full time to understand the meaning of inculcating values. Happens unconsciously and quietly but very powerfully.

I am nearing the completion of my time here and know that the saddest day will be my graduation day when I will have to leave school. However, I take heart from the number of old students who visit us regularly and hope to join that brotherhood and contribute to the school that gave me so much. I ask Allahﷻ for His help.

Yala, Leopard Paradise

Yala, Leopard Paradise

He had killed the buffalo late the previous night. The dark was his friend. Thanks to the reflectors in his eyes, he could see as clearly in starlight as we can see in bright daylight. If he could have read a book, he would have, reclining on a massive tree branch overhanging a pathway. As the light faded and night set in, he was on his favorite perch, only his tail hanging over the side, announcing his location. He had climbed the tree earlier in the evening to give the Langur sentinels and their friends, the Axis (Cheetal) deer to sound their alarm calls and eventually tire of it when they couldn’t see him any longer in the gathering darkness. The sun goes down rapidly in the tropics and Yala National Park, where he lives is in the far south of Sri Lanka. He is a leopard (Panthera Pardus kotiya). A big male, full grown and at the peak of his powers. The Sri Lankan Leopard is a subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Deraniyagala. In 2008, the Sri Lankan Leopard was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

But he didn’t know all this. All he knew is that he was the top predator in the forest and, so he could roam where he wished and take whatever suited his fancy, at will. There are no larger predators in Sri Lanka unlike India and Africa where leopards live in fear of tigers and lions. In Yala and other national parks of Sri Lanka, the leopard is king, and this shows in their behavior. Yala is the only place where I have seen leopards stalking along a road in broad daylight. And wonder of wonders, I saw a full grown young male lying under a bush, with several jeeps full of tourists ogling at him from just a few feet away. He made no sign of leaving nor did he show even the slightest nervousness. The only cat which does that in India is the tiger and in Africa, the lion. Though the African leopard (Panthera Pardus Pardus) is a larger animal, it is very secretive and almost totally nocturnal. He is far too fearful of lions and rightly so. So also, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), is wary of the tiger which would kill it if it could.

Sri Lankan leopards grow bigger than their Indian cousins because of their top predator status and because there is abundant game in Yala. Not only are there huge herds of Axis deer (Cheetal) but feral water buffalo and wild boar. In addition, it appears that villagers are permitted to graze their buffalos in Yala and I saw a great many of them as well, quite at peace with those that appeared to be wild. I think this is a very bad idea as invariably this invites man-animal conflict and the loser is always the animal. In this case, the already endangered leopard.

To return to our story he made his kill as the buffalo, a fully grown but young female was returning to her herd. As she passed under his tree, he landed on her back and bit into the back of her neck, severing her spine. The buffalo bellowed in pain and fear, took a few lurching steps forward trying to dislodge him from her back but in vain. By then the massive jaws with their powerful bite did their work and the canines sank through skin and gristle and severed the spine. The buffalo collapsed in its tracks and the leopard, lithely leaped off and immediately grabbed her throat in the classic killing stance of the leopard, cutting off air and possibly severing the carotids. In this case, this was not necessary as the buffalo’s spine had been severed and so it was going nowhere. It is interesting to speculate on the killing technique which is like that of the tiger when it tackles Gaur; the massive wild ox of India. Tigers also leap on to the backs of Gaur, preferring younger bulls or cows and bite into the back of the neck to sever the spine. That way they incapacitate an animal that is otherwise more than able to kill the tiger, being far heavier and having a pair of lethal horns.

After killing his prey, the leopard fed on it until he was full and then dragged it behind a large Lantana bush to hide it from Jackals. There are no vultures in Sri Lanka. Neither are there any Hyena or Wolves. So, Jackals are the only ones likely to try to steal a bit of meat from the kills. Other leopards are a threat but in this case, he was so massive and powerful that he didn’t really expect another of his species to take any chances with him. Leaving the kill behind the bush, he climbed an old Banyan (Ficus Religiosa) nearby and stretched out on his favorite branch to sleep off his meal. Early the next morning, just as the sun was starting to show on the horizon and the Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl with its splash of bright yellow on its comb, started calling, to be answered by the Peafowl roosting on the topmost branch of a dead tree with its feet in the flood waters of the river, he walked down the trunk and leaped down the last few feet to return to his kill to take some more mouthfuls of the, by now, reeking meat.

As he was tugging at an especially tasty bit, we drove up on the jungle road going past his cache. I saw the leg of the buffalo move which meant that the killer was on his kill. We stopped and waited but there was no sign of him. Then my friend Ifham Raji, a wonderful professional photographer from Colombo, who very kindly accompanied us and gave me lessons in the field, decided to call. He can imitate the call of a female leopard calling its young. Until that moment, we didn’t know what would come out. All we knew was that there was a leopard kill and we had come to see if we could get a look at the one who made the kill, if possible.

As soon as Ifham called, a guttural, woof; he came out from behind the bush in one short rush. He stood there looking for his mother whose voice he had heard. Then he walked towards our jeep and about twenty meters from us, he turned to his right and walked a few steps and lay down. Then he rolled over, as if he was playing, his tail high in the air. He sat up and looked at us directly. Then he decided he didn’t like being fooled and walked away. That was the last we saw of him and though he must have returned to the kill later, we never saw him again. The sight of his massive head and shoulders, his fluid majestic walk, his stand looking at us in total confidence and then his playful rolls on the ground as he would have done as a cub, playing with his mother and siblings, etched into my memory. Was he remembering his own childhood? Did the call remind him of his childhood? Who knows?

All I know is that I got some amazing photos and lived through an experience that can have no parallel. This is the gift of the wild places, which one can only experience. Indeed, I can write about them and you can read what I write and see the pictures. But I can’t for the life of me, express the excitement of the moment when for me time stood still; I stopped breathing until I had to gasp for breath as if rising out of the depth of the sea to the surface and forgot all about Aperture and ISO while taking my photos. But as a person learning photography, I can tell you that I would rather spoil a thousand photographs, than lose the excitement of the moment when you first see a big cat. The leopard is my favorite but don’t tell the tigers that. They are elusive enough when I try to find them.

Simple pleasures – Lifelong memories

Simple pleasures – Lifelong memories

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.
To an Israeli soldier

To an Israeli soldier


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 Thoughts

My Thoughts


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
Nothing!!
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.


Of game drives and choices

Of game drives and choices

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.