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.


We are living beings, not binary code

We are living beings, not binary code

In today’s world, one of the things that I am most conscious about is the need to connect with the land. In my case, that means forests. Urban living has ripped out the connection we all had with the earth and left us with a lifestyle which is deceptive and artificial. Millennials are addicted to tech gadgets, not to the sound of birdsong early in the morning. Many have never smelled the first rain on parched earth, a perfume which the Attars (perfume makers) of old captured in an Atar (perfume) called Atar-e-Gil or Mitti Atar. Many don’t know the feel of good loamy soil in their hands or the pleasure of planting a tree and then watching it take root, grow and flower, over the weeks. For many eggs come from the grocery store, not from chickens with a personality and clear likes and dislikes of places and people, which they don’t hesitate to make known. I can go on but this will suffice. I believe it is critically important for us to change that and get people to smell the earth, listen to the forest and feel a sense of companionship with those who inhabit the earth with us. As we are headed into global warming and environmental destruction, I can’t help but feel that this is because most of us don’t even know what we are losing or what an unspoiled environment looks and feels like. What we don’t understand, we fear and what we fear, we destroy.

All through my childhood and youth, 1960’s & 70’s, I spent as much time in the forests as I could which enabled me to indulge my deep and abiding interest in wildlife and ecology. I had three of the best teachers that one could hope for to learn jungle craft from. People who loved the forests, had a wealth of knowledge about them and had the patience and affection to convey it to a young boy. They were Capt. Nadir Tyabji, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and my dear Uncle Rama (Venkat Rama Reddy). All were more than twenty years my senior but that has always been my situation, friends who are older and wiser from whom I learn all the time. I owe them a debt of gratitude and remember them with boundless respect and love. They invested countless hours in me for no material return and taught me lessons which fall into place to this day, fifty years later. It is a very rare privilege to have mentors like them and I am forever grateful.

From Nadir uncle I learnt to observe quietly without disturbing what I was looking at. I learnt from him the amazing variety of living beings that live in harmony with one another in a small little pond. I learnt a lot about birds, their nesting habits, their camouflage techniques and that the term, ‘free as a bird’ is a figment of the imagination. Birds are often so tied down to their environment, often a single species of tree, that if that tree dies, so does the bird. Out of this, I learnt to appreciate not one or two selected creatures but the whole spectrum of trees, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that make up our environment. This was at a time when to get to the nearest pond with some undisturbed rocks and bush around it, took all of ten minutes walking.

I was able to appreciate the importance of not upsetting this balance and what happens when in our endless greed we thoughtlessly destroy our environment. I saw that pond, the rocks and scrub forest around it, listened to the cooing of doves in the trees, saw the jacana with her chicks skipping on the lily pads. I saw the mongoose come out of her den in the rocks and look at me, unafraid because she had seen me so often and knew that I posed no threat to her babies. I heard the cawing of crows and the endless chatter of sparrows. I saw the hoopoe swoop down from the sky onto a patch of grass and dig for worms with his sharp beak, raising his crown from time to time, to remind the world of who he is. Some years later when I returned to Hyderabad, I tried to visit that pond. I say tried to visit because to be able to visit, the object of your visit needs to be there. It wasn’t. The rocks had been blasted to make concrete. The pond had been filled in, the trees cut, the grass ground underfoot into dust. The mongoose, the jacana, the doves and hoopoe, even the crows and sparrows, all gone, never to return. What I saw was a tar road, a concrete high-rise building with climate control (meaning, no windows) and the whir of traffic. Was that the worst of it or was it that there was nobody to mourn their passing?

From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung (we called him Nawabsab) I learnt the basics of self defense, shooting, training dogs and horses and jungle craft. He taught me how to train dogs for tracking, retrieving and guarding. I was learning from a man who had an international standing in his art and I was very conscious of it. What I was also learning in the process of training dogs and horses, which I was not conscious of then, was about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes and emotions. Dogs react to facial expressions and unconscious movements and mannerisms and their performance depends on the clarity with which a command is given. To the man, it may appear that the command is the word alone. But to the dog it is a combination of sound, expression and the slightest movement all together as one. So, if you are not conscious of yourself, then your dog will always be confused because your command comes across to him differently each time. Today, when I teach presentation skills or facilitate meetings I recall these lessons in self-awareness and the power of synchronizing yourself in thought, word and action. Dogs taught me how to deal with people.

Uncle Rama taught me more than I can possibly list here. He taught me the meaning of responsibility and accountability. He taught me to take care of myself in a hostile environment. He taught me to be at peace with the forest, to connect with the stars and to respect the animals we occasionally shot for the table. Hunting was not a sport. It was something you did only for necessity and with a sense of deep thankfulness for the fact that the animal gave its life for you. Hunting was a contest between man with his weak senses and a good rifle and the animal with his speed of response, his highly tuned senses, his intuition and his enormous knowledge of his environment. It was not only an equal contest but was usually in favor of the animal. That is when you played fair. This means that you tracked the animal on foot, in daylight. Not when you used a high-powered searchlight to blind it in the night and then did target practice. That I was taught, is the most despicable, dishonorable and shameless thing that you could do. And so, I never did it.

All these were ostensibly lessons in anything but work. But in reality, they were lessons in character building, life skills, influencing, social dynamics, self-awareness and understanding which have stood me in very good stead all through my life and which are the backbone of my profession of leadership training.

I became very skilled in jungle craft and could stalk game in silence over long distances. I could camouflage myself and stay hidden and unobserved and walk a trail and tell the signs of creatures that had walked that path ahead of me. The more I knew about an animal the more likely I was to be able to track it down and shoot it. So, I studied, talked to people who were knowledgeable, and observed. My observation became very good and so did my ability to listen to and analyze sounds. In the Indian forests, home to large and potentially dangerous mammals, this knowledge can often mean the difference between life and death. As I learned more about forests, I enjoyed my time in the forests even more and looked forward to the holidays when I would get on a bus and travel to Nirmal, change buses for Khanapur and Pembi and then walk the last four kilometers to Sethpalli.


Uncle Rama was like a father to me and he would give me a royal welcome. He used to call me Nawab and treated me like a king. That I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy meant nothing to him. To him I was his friend, who he treated as an equal. As soon as I arrived, covered in dust, I would go off to the well at the edge of the Tamarind trees, which shaded the house on the riverbank. There I would stand in my underwear and one of the farm workers (usually Shivaiyya, my Gond tracker friend) would draw water in a bucket from the well and pour it over my head. Lots of soap, more water flooded over my head, and I would be clean as two whistles. Dressed in a lungi and banyan, I would sit on the charpoy opposite Uncle Rama under one of the Tamarind trees and he would tell me all that had happened since my last visit. While this was going on, his cook would bring a huge bowl of fried Chital meat and I would eat and listen to him. I had a vast capacity for eating meat and tender Chital was my absolute favorite. Uncle Rama knew that I was Muslim and would not eat anything not slaughtered in the Islamic way. So, he used to take one of his Muslim workers, Noorullah, with him when he went hunting. Once the animal was down, Noorullah would go and slaughter it by cutting the throat and saying: Bismillahi Allahu Akbar. Such was the consideration we were taught to observe for one another.

I loved jungles. I loved hunting and I loved Uncle Rama above all else. So, every holiday I would go off to Sethpalli. Sometimes Uncle Rama would be in town (Hyderabad) at the time my holidays were about to begin. He would call and say, “Kya Nawab, chalna hai?” And off we went. He had a BSA motorcycle (350 cc). He would ride with a .12 bore shotgun slung across his chest and a bandolier of cartridges and I would ride behind him with a .22 bore rifle slung across my back.

How can I describe the excitement as I rode behind Uncle Rama with the wind in my face? Those were the days before helmets were invented; before there were any Naxalites in those forests and before it became illegal to hunt. So off we would go from Hyderabad to Sethpalli, via Nirmal and Khanapur. All names that conjure up wonderful memories of a childhood that today no child can even dream of. This is the price we have paid for what we like to call ‘development’.

As we went along, Uncle Rama would stop by a road side water tank. These tanks were an integral part of the irrigation network of Telangana, which does not see too much rain. Every village had its tank. When maintained, they harvested rain water, enhanced the water table in the village and provided water to irrigate the fields so that in most years people were able to harvest two crops. The tanks had fish and attracted water birds, both of which added to the villager’s diet. And they were very beautiful. Today they have been allowed to silt up. The dams are ruined. The entire irrigation system has been allowed to collapse with nothing else to replace it. Some of them have been encroached upon and people have built houses and shops on the tank bed, which is illegal of course. Alas, when the grease hits the palm in India, anything is possible. The result is drought, uncultivated lands and in years when the monsoon fails, starvation, and farmer suicides.

Uncle Rama would park his motorcycle by the roadside and we would get off, un-sling the guns and sneak up the embankment of the nearby water tank. There, sure enough, we would find, Brahminy, Pollard, Comb (Nakta) ducks, or Teals. All floating in the reeds and feeding in the shallows. Uncle Rama was a master tracker and I learnt from him. We would crawl along the bank, just below the top, careful not to show a silhouette and when we were in range, I would fire first and he would take the flying shots as the ducks rose in flight. Usually, we would get our dinner before we reached home. We would arrive at the farm with the motorcycle festooned with ducks on either side.

The villagers also hunt ducks. The difference is they do it without firearms. In this part of the world, they don’t even have any bows and arrows, catapults, or any other throwing weapons. What they do is to take a round pot with a mouth big enough for the head of the hunter to go through and make two holes in it to see through. They then seal the holes and the mouth of the pot and float it among the reeds where ducks take shelter in the night. After a couple of days, the ducks get used to seeing the pot in their midst. Then on a moonless night, the hunter creeps up quietly, enters the water and inserts his head into the pot, making sure that his body is completely submerged. He looks through the holes in the pot and breathes the air trapped in the pot. To the ducks, it is still the same pot floating among the reeds. Then the hunter very quietly and gently approaches a duck and grabs its legs under the water, yanking it down below the surface. Done expertly, the duck simply disappears without trace. The man transfers the duck to his other hand and then approaches the next duck to yank it to its watery end. The only thing limiting him is the number of duck legs he can hold in one hand. On a good day, getting five or six ducks is not difficult. Some hunters wear a belt to which they attach all underwater ducks which considerably increases their game bag. These ducks were a valuable addition of protein in their diet as well as a means of earning some money. Human ingenuity is truly the best resource we have.

Khanapur was the first watering hole. The first serious one that is. We would stop for tea at one of the many road-side Dhabas and Uncle Rama would have fun talking to the owner in fluent Telugu only to see the look of total surprise on his face. Uncle Rama, due to his English mother, was himself white with blond hair. So, people naturally took him to be British. And when he spoke colloquial Telugu and Urdu fluently, they were shocked.

In Khanapur we would stop at his house which he never actually finished building. He’d started it in the hope that his family would live there with him. But his wife, a wonderful, cultured lady did not fancy the village life, so he never finished the house. It was still livable though and we would stop there for lunch. After lunch he would pull out a big bottle with a viscous liquid that looked like old engine oil. What it contained was the most delicious honey that I have ever eaten. Fifty years later that statement still holds true. It was so black and viscous because it was so old and high in sugar content that it was practically solid. This honey with butter was the dessert…blissssssssssssssssssss, which was followed by two hours of sound sleep. The idea was to wait for the heat of the afternoon to lessen before travelling. In summer the temperatures there would be in the high forties (north of 115 F), even though we were in the middle of the forest. To travel in that heat (especially on a motorcycle) was a good way to get sunstroke. All life comes to a standstill at midday and then people start to move again once the sun is on its way to rising in America.

In the evening, after a cup of tea we would leave for Sethpalli, our final destination, sometimes in the Jeep that Uncle Rama used to cache in Khanapur, or on the motorbike. This drive was the most exciting part of the whole trip as the road went through thick forests. Much of it teak plantations. Some original forest. A lot of bamboo thickets and Ber bushes; favorite haunts of wildlife ranging from Jungle Fowl who eat the berries and seed, to Gaur which graze on tender bamboo shoots to tigers who like to lie up in the shade of the bamboo which is not deciduous and remains green in the summer. A good place to look for tigers is bamboo bordering any small creek or even a dry stream bed (Nalla). Tigers love to lie in the relatively cool sand or in the water all through the heat of the day, shaded from the sun and prying eyes by the thick bamboo fronds.

The semi-deciduous forests of the Satpura Range are relatively open without much undergrowth. One of the reasons for this is also the annual burning that happens even though it is illegal. Shepherds and others set fire to the undergrowth and this burns off all the dry leaves on the forest floor causing minor damage to the large trees. That leaves the place open for the growth of new grass and shrubs. Deer and Gaur love this new growth as also the ash from the burnt logs which they come to eat. The ash is also excellent manure for the new growth and it grows lush and thick. As we drove through the evening, rapidly turning to night, we would often see herds of Chital, Nilgai, the occasional Sambar (they usually start moving much later after moonset) and Gaur lying or feeding in the open forest glades. Most were so used to the sound of traffic that as long as the vehicle was moving, they would simply look up to see what it was and then continue on with whatever they were doing. But if the vehicle stopped, they would immediately be alarmed and start to move away.

Uncle Rama used these trips to teach me from his vast knowledge of jungle lore. I learnt to distinguish between a male and female animal. To recognize one that was pregnant or nursing. To recognize their different moods and what the calls meant. Some raised in alarm, the belling of a Sambar; the barking of the Cheetal, hooting of the Langur sentinel who sees the danger before anyone else and on whose vigilance, they all depend. I learnt the meaning of a deer staring in concentration at one thicket and then stamping his fore hoof a couple of times before barking alarm. By listening to the belling of a Sambar in the night, I learnt to tell which direction he was looking in and how far he was from me. In forests that had many tigers and leopards, this was a very useful skill indeed.

So many things to learn. I learnt. I learnt. I learnt. And I loved every minute of it.

The big challenge we have today is to teach our children these lessons and help them to connect to the earth, to its inhabitants and to each other. We are living beings, not binary code. The earth is not at our mercy but waits and watches to see what we do. Then it will do what it has done in the past, to protect what is beneficial and to heal itself by ridding itself of that which is harmful. Our call to define ourselves.

Eulogy or Elegy?

First the words;

Eulogy: a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, especially a tribute to someone who has just died.

Elegy: An elegy is a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead. 

But eulogies, Wikipedia assures me, can also be delivered at retirement functions and other such events when a person is leaving you but not for the next world. I assume that it is not a crime to deliver a eulogy, so to speak, by simply expressing appreciation and thanks to someone who has been good to you in different ways, without any formal function or speechmaking.

Now, why this article.

In the last week, I received news of the deaths of three people, all very dear to me. One was my aunt, Anees Fatima, the second was my classmate all through school (Hyderabad Public School) from 1965-1972, Chandramohan Agarwal and the third was Mohammed (we called him MP), my dear friend and companion on various jaunts, whose father and uncle were mentors to both of us.

Quite spontaneously, I wrote my thoughts about them, our shared memories about the times we lived in saying how much I appreciated their being in my life. Many people read what I wrote and appreciated it. But it occurred to me (yes, I am stupid and you must have seen this coming long ago) that the only one who didn’t and couldn’t see, read or hear what I had written, was the one about whom I had written. So, was my writing worth it at all? Yes, their relatives appreciated the words in their hour of bereavement, but I didn’t write my thoughts for that. I wrote them to express my appreciation and thanks to the person who died. However, because of the timing, the eulogy became an elegy (a poem in praise of the dead).

I recall something I found very amusing at the time, my friend Siasp Kothawala telling me a funny story about his friend Mariba Shetty. Siasp and I shared a love for horses and wildlife. Mariba Shetty was the Inspector of Police in charge of the Mounted Police battalion in Mysore. We used to visit him there and ride the horses of the Mounted Police, beautifully turned out and trained. We always appreciated the immaculate condition of the stables, mounts, tack, saddlery, uniforms and manners of all the people. All the result of one man focused on quality, Mariba Shetty.

I used to visit Siasp in his forest resort/home, Bamboo Banks in Masanagudi on the edge of the Mudumalai National Park and would ride his horses in the buffer area. One day I was having tea with him when Siasp said to me, ‘I read somewhere in the papers that there was a riot in Mysore and the Mounted Police were called out to control it but in the melee, there was all kinds of violence and Mariba Shetty was killed. I was very sad to hear this and promptly wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what I thought of her husband, listing all his qualities that I appreciated all through my association with him. Two weeks later, I get a letter from Mariba Shetty which said, ‘Dear Mr. Kothawala, you will be happy to know that the news about my demise was wrong and I am alive and well. I am writing however to say that I am most grateful to you for your kind letter to my wife. I had no idea that you thought so highly of me.’

I am writing this as a reflection and a reminder to myself and to you. Express appreciation to the one who was good to you and added value to your life before they die. Don’t wait for someone to die before you tell them that you love them or are grateful to them.

For after they are dead, everyone else will read and hear what you said, except the only one whose reading and hearing it would have mattered.
Don’t wait for a eulogy to become an elegy.
My dear friend MP

My dear friend MP

Today was the first day in my life when I received the news of the passing away of two of my childhood friends. One was Chandramohan Agarwal, my classmate all through school in the Hyderabad Public School and the other was Mohammed, the son of Nawab Habib Jung. Mohammed (we called him MP) was a couple of years my junior but we were very good friends and rode his father’s horses. 

Nawab Habib Jung finetuned our riding in his old-school way, a very powerful voice with a colorful vocabulary followed by the whip on your behind if you didn’t jump to obey and get it right. It is a tribute to my quick learning that I never felt the whip.

They lived in Begumpet, where Nawab Habib Jung had built his own house on the grounds of his father Nawab Wali-ud-Dowla’s house called Vilayat Manzil (today the Country Club). Nawab Habib Jung’s house was my all-time favorite for its architecture. It had a large central courtyard open to the sky with a lawn in it, in which there was a swimming pool at one end and a low marble platform with inlay work at the other, where he used to pray. All around the courtyard were the bedrooms, the dining room, and the drawing room; all opening onto a wide veranda that ran right around the courtyard. Most of the time we would sit on the veranda and look at the swimming pool and chat because it was so airy and lovely. In the basement was a huge formal drawing room and Nawabsab’s office. Nawabsab was the one who wrote my first reference letter when I applied for a job in the tea gardens. I remember the words exactly, ‘He is keenly interested in saddle seat equitation, has an excellent seat, and shows respect where respect is due.’

Outside the house there was an old well and several huge old trees. At one corner were the stables. MP and I would usually ride near the house in an open area overlooking the Husain Sagar lake. One day I went to see the film ‘The Horseman’ with Omar Sharif as the hero. I was enthralled by the film principally because of the scenes of Buz Kashi and the many sequences of riding on Akhal-Teke horses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhal-Teke) that the film was full of.

I loved horses and riding with a passion. In one scene in the film they showed a riding competition where the riders would pick up a small piece of cloth from the ground with a dagger while riding at a full gallop. My dear friend Anoop (Vicky) Randhawa, MP and I rode our horses to the schooling area. I was thrilled with the display of horsemanship that I had seen in the movie and when we went to ride, I decided to try this maneuver. The problem with this intention, which I discovered too late, was that the Akhal-Teke is 14.3 – 15.5 hands tall, whereas the Thoroughbred that I was riding was a full 17 hands. Also, the gait of the retired racehorses that we used to ride was a hard, pounding run that was very harsh and jolting. It was many years later when I rode an Arab stallion in Saudi Arabia that I realized what comfort in riding was. The Arab is the Rolls Royce of horses and seems to simply float over the earth as it gallops. 

To return to my story, I dropped my handkerchief in the middle of the field. I then wheeled my horse, trotted to the end of the field, and the turned around and came straight down at a full gallop. As the horse neared the handkerchief, I went down over the right shoulder and reached down with my right arm for the handkerchief. I picked it up alright but realized by then that I was too far down over the side and the pounding gait of the horse was further throwing me lower and lower. And sure enough, in another two or three strides, I fell. I landed on my arm and shoulder and there was a terrible shooting pain. I tried to scramble up and found that my right arm was twisted at an unlikely angle and my shoulder had dislocated. I was in severe pain. MP and Vicky came running and helped me up. I told them to take my arm and jerk it hard so that the ball joint would go back into the socket. I have no idea why I said that or how I knew that this was the right thing to do, but it was and my arm was back in its normal position though the pain was still severe. The next item on the agenda was to catch my horse which had spooked at my fall and run away. It took us more than half an hour to calm him down and get close enough to him to catch him. Then, one armed as I was, I mounted him and we got home.

Another time MP and I decided to take our horses and go camping. I was riding a black stallion and MP was riding a chestnut gelding. My horse was rather highly strung and as is the way with many stallions, constantly testing his will against mine. We started in the afternoon after the heat of the day was past and rode from Begumpet all the way to the Green Masjid (Masjid-e-Hussaini) on Road # 3 Banjara Hills intending to go on to the gate of Chiran Palace and then ride along the wall and descend the hill to what we used to call ‘Secret lake’. Seeing it surrounded by buildings today it is clear that it is no longer a secret. This lake connects with the lake on Road # 1 near Taj Banjara hotel which used to be called the Banjara Hotel and was the first hotel on Banjara Hills and the first 5 – star hotel in Hyderabad. There was a dirt track from the Green Masjid to the gate of Chiran Palace. As MP and I rode up to the masjid a small boy threw a fire cracker under the hoofs of my horse. The fire cracker literally exploded under us and the horse bolted. I let him run because he was scared and to try to stop him would have been fruitless. He galloped full tilt all the way to the gate and then stopped, foaming and blowing. MP caught up and we continued our ride.

As we rounded the wall and were crossing a flat granite rock on which my horse’s shoes rang like bells, a brace of partridges exploded in flight right under his nose. He was already in a skittish mood with the fire cracker incident when this happened, he neighed and reared then slipped and fell on his side. I fell with him with my leg under him. By the grace of Allah, I was wearing knee high boots with a very thick and stiff sole designed just for such accidents. The sole protected my foot from being crushed and my helmet kept my head from cracking on the rock. I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and rolled clear of the horse as he scrambled up, keeping a hold on the reins because if he ran away here, catching him would have been nearly impossible.

Once the dust settled I realized that neither of us was any the worse for wear and we decided to go on. We reached the lake a few minutes later. The lake had a dam at one end with a small building at one end of it. The valley floor spread out all around the lake with some Acacia and Tamarind trees dotted on it. We unsaddled and hobbled the horses and put on their halters with long ropes so that they could roll in the grass and graze but would not be able to run away. Then we made our camp. It was a brilliant starlit night with a three-quarter moon and not a human in sight. This was pure wilderness, peaceful and quiet with the occasional ‘chirr’ of the nightjar or the flight of an owl on silent wings floating overhead in search of the unwary mouse. We ate our sandwiches and drank the water from the lake and lived to tell the tale. The water was clean enough to drink. At the time of all this, I was perhaps fifteen and MP was younger.  

Almost thirty years later, Nawab Habib Jung passed away and MP came to Hyderabad from California where he now lived. We met twice and had lunch and reminisced about old times. Memories as fresh as the day they were made. It was wonderful to meet him and we promised to meet again. Little did either of us know that it would be our last meeting. As I write this, a lot of it an extract from my book, ‘It’s my Life’, I recall the many other times and incidents that MP and I shared.

A wonderful thing is memory; without it, pain would be impossible, but so would be pleasure. If I had to choose, I would choose what I have; memories of a dear friend, even with the pain of his passing. May Allah grant him Jannatul Firdous without reckoning.