Nawab Saab

Nawab Saab

It was 1968 and I was 13 years old, in Grade (we called it Class) 8 in the Hyderabad Public School. If you left the school from its main gate and walked over the bridge across the stream which flowed full and freely in those days (not the trickle of sewage and toxic chemicals today) and on which we used to sometimes canoe, you came to the Begumpet Railway Station. This was at the bottom of the garden of a very graceful British Country Mansion, except that it was in Begumpet and not in England. Be that as it may, it would have been totally at home in the Shires of England. It was called Vilayat Manzil. It had a huge wooden gate about 8 feet tall and wide enough to take a Four-in-hand or perhaps an elephant or two. Not surprising as this was the house of Nawab Wali ud Dowla, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad State. The son of the man who built Falaknuma Palace, Nawab Vicar ul Mulk, who was also a Prime Minister of Hyderabad State in his time. That is where Nawab Nazir Yar Jung Bahadur , son of Nawab Wali ud Dowla, lived . By the time I met him, his father had passed away (he died in Madina in 1935) but his mother (Ameerunnisa Begum) and younger brother, Nawab Bashir Yar Jung lived in Vilayat Manzil. His older brother, Nawab Habib Jung, also a good friend, lived nearby in his own house, built in another part of the garden that surrounded Vilayat Manzil. A beautiful Spanish style Hacienda with an open central courtyard. Nawab Habib Jung Bahadur wrote the very first reference letter for me when I had applied to Harrisons & Crossfield Limited (Harrisons Malayalam) in 1979. I recall two things in it. He wrote, “He is excellent in saddle seat equitation and always shows respect where respect is due.” Habib Jung had horses and I used to ride them with his son Mohammed and he fine-tuned both our riding style.

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung , Ghulam Hyder and Nawab Habib Jung

As you came through the gate, you were on a circular driveway which curved past two large water tanks with marble fountains with carved lions. Even then water was getting scarce and so I never saw those fountains functioning, but the sculptures were striking. This is where I met Nawab Nazir Yar Jung first. I had heard of him as a dog breeder, trainer and judge. He was a prominent member of the Kennel Club of India (KCI) and a highly respected judge in dogs shows all over the world. I had the privilege of accompanying him to several dog shows and can still see him racing around the ring with his German Shepherds or in the field trails of his Labradors. I was very keen on owning one of the dogs from his kennel, the famous Paigah Kennels but to my great surprise and disappointment the price was Rs. 500 for a puppy. In 1968 that was more money that I could have dreamt of. So, I never bought a puppy. Nawab Saab however, took a liking to me and allowed me to spend time with him in caring for his dogs. This rather unlikely friendship grew, and in time he treated me like his own son. At that time, he used to have more than one hundred dogs in his kennels. It was a sight to see. I didn’t get a puppy at that time (later I got several) but I got the friendship of Nawab Saab, which was a priceless gift. He became my mentor, teacher and father figure.

My keenness for tea planting also came from listening to stories of plantations – the Anamallais in particular from Nawab Nazir Yar Jung. Nawab Saab had been a planter with Brooke Bond Tea Company (Tea Estates India) and was on Monica Estate (SenguthaparaiDivision).

Another very dear friend and mentor, Mr. K. Ahmedullah wrote this piece about Nawab Nazir Yar Jung which gives an insight into his planting life, which he never mentioned in the more than 50 years of our friendship. He talked about his hunting in Grass Hills and Highwavys, the exploits of his dogs and about his tracker friend called Kali, who he mentioned with great affection. But he never mentioned anything about his planting career. Being a planter myself, I can appreciate what Mr. Ahmedullah writes. Here it is:

NYJ was an authority on dog breeding, training, and was often a judge of international dog shows. It is a pity that this was not mentioned in the item that carried the news of his passing away. The news only harped on his Paigah connection, Jung title and so on. NYJ was on Monica Estate, Anamallais, reporting to Raghava Menon, just before he quit planting. As you know, Monica was a prestige posting, being the flag ship Estate of M/s Tea Estates of India, of Brooke Bond. 

It so happened that I was moved to Monica as assistant manager, immediately after NYJ resigned. Soon thereafter Raghava Menon was promoted as Group Manager in addition to his holding charge of Monica. He continued to reside in Monica Estate. I was asked to look after the operations of the entire estate to allow Raghava Menon to look after his additional duty, but I remained an assistant manager! That is when I took charge of Senguthaparai, which was looked after by NYJ.

And that is when I discovered that NYJ had planted the most advanced 100 hectares of coffee selections from Kenya. Not only that but he had created a most advanced system of curing and pulping the coffee harvest, using gravity as the driving force, from a stream which flowed on Senguthaparai. That coffee commanded a premium at the Auctions. 

I thought I should put this on record as not many are aware of the talents this man had.  NYJ was a decent, pious man, who never harmed anyone. IN FACT HIS GENEROSITY IS A LEGEND ON THE PLANTATIONS WHERE HE WORKED. He died with the KALEMA on his lips, which is the best possible reward The Almighty bestows on those who walk in HIS WAY . 

Some asides:

NYJ never entered the Anamallais Club! Siasp Kothavala, Doon School contact, was his close friend and just a few others, whom he entertained lavishly. He had about 20 dogs and a donkey, which was used to carry meat daily from Valparai town for his dogs! 

The famous donkey

I got all this information from Raghava Menon, who had a high opinion of NYJ and from Siasp and his wife Zarine , who were good friends of ours.

Like most of my friends at that time, Nawab Saab was about twenty years my senior. I think I benefited a great deal from being friends with older people as I learnt from their experience and my equation was always as a learner and they had something to teach. Nawab Saab was an exception in that he had a variety of life experience that I have seldom found anywhere. He would not only tell stories but would draw lessons from them which I found very useful and applied in my life many years later. He was a Judo Brown belt, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, polo player and dressage expert, a crack shot with a rifle and shotgun, a woodsman who taught me to love the forest and how to take care of myself in it. He was a swimmer trained as a lifeguard. He was a planter, manager and a role model par excellence.

Nawab Saab and I

The thing I remember about Nawab Nazir Yar Jung above all else is his storytelling. Storytelling is an art. Not everyone can tell a good story. Nawab Saab was a master of this art. Listening to him I remember being transported to the misty slopes of Grass Hills, waiting in the cold of the dawn for the Nilgiri Thar to present the opportunity for a good shot as they came out on the crags to take the sun. I recalled these descriptions when I went to Grass Hills more than 25 years after him and felt that I had been there before. So vivid and detailed were his descriptions.

I remember feeling a hollow dropping sensation in the pit of my stomach as I listened to him tell the story about how he was charged by a wounded Bison (Gaur) and how his Airedale Terrier saved the day by drawing the animal away towards it, allowing Nawab Saab to get the killing shot. But the dog, whose name was Khan, went over the cliff with the bison and died. Nawab Saab would have tears in his eyes when he told this story. I remember all the tips he gave me about survival in the jungles and about woodcraft, all of which I have tried and found to be superb. Every tip he gave me, be it about planting, or hunting, or safety or human psychology, was true.

The key to a good story is detail. Detail is what fills color into the outline. Detail is what helps you to see what the storyteller has seen. I can vouch for the fact that I could see the mist rise from the forest in the dawn as the sun rose. I could smell the rank smell of elephant urine which announces their presence in the forest. I could hear the rumblings of their stomachs and the low deep hum by which they communicate. And many years later when I had the privilege to walk in the same path that Nawab Nazir Yar Jung walked, I knew that I had been there before. I had walked those paths in spirit, listening to the narrative of a master storyteller and today I walked them myself and found the story to be true in every respect. I knew the smells, the sights and the feelings. Nawab Saab walked in spirit beside me and it felt good to know that.

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung with one of his dogs at a dog show –
photo courtesy Munir Salahuddin (his son)

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung was an international expert on dogs and was invited to judge dog shows around the world. With him, I learned to train dogs for various activities, from tracking to retrieving to guarding. Dogs are amazing creatures. One must live with them and train them to know this. I spent many years right through school and college doing this. Nawab Saab was at that time training a dog squad for Thengakal Estate in Vandiperiyar, Kerala, which had perennial problems with theft. More about that later. I worked with him training Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Labradors for tracking and guard/attack work. Nawab Saab was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t allow even his own cousin who was on our team to call him anything other than Sir or Nawab Saab. He disliked people calling him ‘Uncle’. He used to say, ‘I have nephews and don’t need any more. You can call me Nawab Saab or Sir.’ This, however, didn’t reduce the warmth and friendship with which he treated us. We would start very early in the morning and work right through the day till it got very hot. Then we would stand down and give the dogs a bath and feed them and we would all rest. Then in the night, once it got dark, we would start the training once again.

From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, I learnt the importance of commitment to quality. He never once used the word, but he never accepted anything but the best. Be it in breeding dogs or in their training, or in training horses. Attention to detail and insisting on the best. He was an expert in Judo and that also added to the quality of what he taught us. He taught us many self-defense techniques using our bare hands or ordinary objects of everyday use that are always at hand and can be converted into weapons to defend yourself and make the attacker think twice about attacking you. Martial arts training is more about training the mind than about the body. Martial arts is about living with awareness, studying your opponent, discovering his weakness, and exploiting it to your advantage. It is also about building your opponent a bridge of gold to retreat over – as Sun-Tzu calls it. But to do that you have to conquer your ego before conquering your enemy. The worst enemy is an overindulged ego.

In the years that I spent with Nawab Saab I learnt that when you work with animals your own sensitivity and communication improves. Your language is useless as the animal is only responding to sound, facial expression and signal. So the importance of being absolutely precise not only in what you say, but in how you say it and being aware of your body language when you are giving that command are essential to get the instant obedience that only a dog can give you. Dogs are so incredibly sensitive that they will pick up your facial expression or the way you hold your hand when you give a command. And the next time you don’t give it in that exact way, the animal gets confused. It is always essential to be extremely self-aware to be a good trainer. I realized that training dogs was equally if not more about training myself in how to communicate effectively. It was hands-on experiential learning in being intensely aware of myself, my posture, facial expression, tone of voice, mood, and overall disposition. I learnt all this training dogs, but over the decades since then this helped me in communication, public speaking, negotiating, and coaching people across three continents. I thank Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me these lessons and I know that he was pleased with me.

Dogs anticipate you to such an extent that to see a highly trained dog and his handler at work is to witness magic. That is what we saw when we saw Nawab Saab working with his dogs. The dog seemed to be doing everything on its own whereas he was doing nothing without his handler’s command. But the commands are so subtle that they are invisible to all but the trained eye that knows what to look for. There is a wonderful program on British Television which shows sheepdog trials. You see this handler standing a long way off in the field directing his Border Collie (the favorite breed for these trails) entirely by hand signals. The dog goes to the flock, cuts out precisely the number of sheep that he is ordered to cut out, and drives them into the pen all on its own by responding to signals that are invisible to us.

We had for our own trainer, the best in the world. A man who had trained everything from sheep dogs to tracking dogs, gun dogs, hunting dogs, and guard dogs. And we learnt from him. I hope we learnt well. To test how well we had trained the dogs to track, we would stand on one side of a wall that bordered a large area of scrub vegetation. Then we would give our dog a ball which he would hold in his mouth and smell. Then we would command him to sit and stay and throw the ball as far as we could over the wall into the forest. The dog would vibrate with excitement, yearning to go for the ball. We would count to ten and then say, “Get!” And off he would go. A big Doberman would clear a six-foot wall without so much as touching it. A Labrador would scramble over it. And then a few minutes later, back it would come over the wall with the ball in its mouth, circle the handler, and sit on his right. Then on command it would drop the ball and take the piece of dry meat that the handler would give him as his reward. How can I describe the excitement of testing your skill in the performance of your animal? The lesson learnt – you stand or fall by how your trainee performs – as important a lesson in corporate leadership as in training animals. A good coach after all is not the one who has the greatest knowledge, but the one whose team wins.

The biggest learning for me in these early years was the realization that no matter what you do, it is only worth doing if you aim at being the best in the world at it. And to be the best, it is essential to be passionate about what you do. I sincerely believe that it is impossible to excel in something that you do only halfheartedly or because you are forced to. It is impossible to be the best in the world in anything that you are not passionate about because you will never put in the heroic effort that is needed for you to succeed. Another realization was that when you are doing something that you are passionate about, you never get tired or stressed out. You are always fresh and full of energy and those around you also feel this. Passion is essential because it is the only thing which makes the heroic effort seem worthy of the goal. Only the passionate never compromise because compromise is the cancer which kills from within. Passion is infectious; so is compromise.  Stress occurs when we do things we don’t really enjoy.

My learning is that if you are in a situation where you find yourself doing something that you have no passion for, then it is essential to do one of two things: Either kindle a passion for this activity by learning more about it and seeing how it is valuable, or leave and find something that you do feel passionate about. It makes no sense to do something that you have no love for. Happiness is the result of doing something that is worthwhile, and which adds value and not of how much money you make or what rank you have. Interestingly, it is when the work feels worthless that people get overly concerned about titles, money, and perquisites. That is why I tell my clients who talk about compensation as an issue in people retention, “Money problems are not money problems, even when they are money problems.”  Most people complain about the compensation when they are uninspired about their work. The biggest proof of this are the many people in missionary and charitable activities who work all hours for next to nothing and are very happy doing their jobs. Happiness is therefore more about intangible rewards than about the tangible ones. That’s why I say, ‘If it can’t make you cry, it can’t make you work.’

Training dogs was a huge learning in human psychology. I learnt the importance of taking a stand and then remaining firmly on it without giving in to the pressure to change. I learnt that dogs and people will test your limits to see how firm you are. Once they test the boundaries and find that they can’t be pushed away, they accept them. Firmness and consistency are critical. There is nothing more debilitating than a leader who is ambivalent. I learnt the value of physical courage and how, if you stand with courage, you lend courage to those around you. I learnt the value of leading from the front and that there is only one leadership position – in the front – which is why those who follow are called ‘followers.’ What kind of a leader is it who has no followers? I learnt the value of quiet companionship – there is nothing more relaxing than sitting on a hillside with your dog beside you, watching the world go by. With Nawab Saab, you didn’t chatter. If you had something useful to say, you said it; if you had a question, you asked; otherwise you kept your mouth shut. The value of silence was appreciated. Without silence inside your head and heart and outside in terms of speaking, you can’t introspect or reflect. Silence has great value. We didn’t have intrusive gadgets to disturb our peace and so we valued silence. In the forest, silence also helps you to know who else is around. Knowledge that can be critical to survival and enjoyment of your experience.

Nawab Saab taught us to pay attention to the dogs and their highly developed faculties which warn of danger long before you would have been aware of it. This is where his storytelling really came into his own. Every lesson had a set of circumstances that it had been drawn from and that added value and meaning to it. This was not merely theory but hard-earned life experience that we were learning from. From my dogs, I learnt the value of unconditional love and complete trust in someone. When my dog got injured during training, I would order him to lie down and would then clean his wounds with hydrogen peroxide and stitch him up without anesthesia. The dog would lie there, sometimes whimpering in pain but never moving and never protesting or trying to harm me in any way. He trusted me completely and knew that what I was doing was for his good. There is nobody happier than a dog at seeing his master – no matter how ugly or dirty, poor or hungry, unfashionable or square his master may be. To the dog, his master is the best, most lovable, reliable, remarkable, and trustworthy human being in the world. And that has nothing to do with whether in fact this is true or not. The dog doesn’t care. Whatever the master may be to the rest of the world, to his dog he is the best in the world. And that is the secret of a great friendship and a great marriage. What you believe about someone and demonstrate in your dealing with them, is what they rise to embody. That is why they say, ‘Treat a man as if he is the best that he can be, and he becomes that.’ Many years later I dealt with some of the most intractable and obnoxious union leaders with great politeness, treating them as if they were heads of state and all their nastiness went away and I didn’t have to suffer any of it. People used to be surprised and asked me how I did it. I never let on the secret – that my dogs taught me this lesson. Some readers may not take kindly to being compared to dogs – but believe me, there is nothing more honorable in terms of friendship and loyalty. This is what Nawab Saab taught us and we learned these lessons well, very enjoyably and lived to realize their value throughout our lives.

As I mentioned earlier, Nawab Saab was requested to train a dog squad for Thengakal Estate in Vandiperiyar, Kerala. I don’t know if you have been inside a cardamom estate. Almost 30 years after this story, I raised and planted cardamom in the Anamallais and recalled those days when we were in that estate in Vandiperiyar. We trained the dogs in Vilayat Manzil and in the lands behind Yusuf Tekri in Towli Chowki. Today there isn’t an inch of vacant land in that place. In the early 70’s it was miles of barren land with scrub bushes, some Sitaphal (Custard Apple – Annona squamosa), some Lantana (Lantana camara), a sprinkling of Neem (Azadirachta indica), one or two Peepul (Ficus Religiosa) and an occasional Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis). We would load up the dogs in Khaja Nawab’s jeep and drive to Yusuf Tekri and then spend the day training the dogs. Since these dogs were being trained as trackers and guard dogs, the training was very intense. For tracking, we used Labradors whose sense of smell is more developed and keener than the other breeds we had. For guard/attack work, we used Dobermans and German Shepherds. But all dogs were taught everything as well, as a backup even though we used them, whenever possible, separately for these jobs.

It was fascinating to see how these different breeds worked. For a Doberman everything was a competition. The dog would get stressed out, angry and would bust his gut to do his best. A Labrador on the other hand took it all as a game and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was playing and having fun, whether he was following a scent track or attacking an intruder and dragging him to the ground. Temperament has a big effect on the trainability and steadiness of dogs and humans under stressful conditions. Nawab Saab’s training technique was based on gaining the trust of the animal and persuading him to work. Nawab Saab never used force or punishment which was very commonly used by other trainers. The result was that Nawab Saab’s dogs worked much better than anyone else’s. The only catch was that training took longer than it would have taken if you simply beat the dog to a pulp and then forced him to obey. Our dogs were our friends and beating one was unthinkable. The other thing was the knowledge that success and failure was really ours, the trainer’s. Not the dog’s. If the dog didn’t perform, it was I who needed to look at my training technique, treatment of the dog, consistency of command and it was I who needed to work harder. ‘Failing’ the dog or punishing it was meaningless because the dog’s performance was a non-negotiable goal. Every dog was trainable and if it didn’t get trained, it was I who was at fault. Nobody needed to point that out to me. I knew it. I held myself accountable for it and I succeeded or failed by this standard.

Cut to our schooling technique today. Who passes or fails? Teacher or child? Who must really pass or fail? What would happen if we changed that to what really should happen and if teacher’s salaries were docked if children failed and they got a bonus if they excelled? Same thing for the corporate world. Companies succeed or fail because of what decision makers do. Not workers. But who gets laid off? Responsibility must lie where it belongs and those responsible must get the credit or pay the price. Not someone else, whose only fault was that they obeyed orders. Once again, sorry about the comparison, but it is precisely this ability to take learnings from one situation and apply them to a totally unrelated situation that distinguishes human learning from animal learning. That is what I learnt and that is how I learnt it. And that is why I say that I owe so much of my learning to the very unusual childhood and youth that I had and to mentors like Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, Uncle Rama and Aunty Mohini.

To return to our story, we finished our training and took the train with our dogs, to Cochin. The dogs were in the Brake Van at the end of the train. Every few stations, we would run to the back, unleash the dogs and take them out on the platform to stretch their legs and greet telephone poles. Then give them some water and back inside the Brake Van and we would run back to our compartment. Eventually we reached Cochin where the estate transport met us and we drove for another six hours to get to the estate to meet the Manager, Mr. Rudy Bosen.

Mr. Bosen very kindly invited Nawab Saab, me and Khaja Nawab to stay with him, and his wife, Dorothy made some wonderful chocolate ice cream for us for dessert after a lovely dinner. The estate had a big problem with theft as cardamom is a very valuable spice and easy to steal. A cardamom plantation is extremely dense and very easy to hide in. Thieves would come into the estate across the boundary at night, with sickles and jute bags and simply cut the ripe bunches of cardamom and take them away. To catch them in the dark was completely impossible. That is why Rudy Bosen thought of using dogs and contacted Nawab Saab for help. The dilemma was, how do you publicize the fact that now there are guard dogs which can catch thieves. The challenge was to have the dogs merely as an effective deterrent. Rudy Bosen didn’t really want anyone getting chewed up by a dog because in Kerala that would likely cause a bigger problem than the theft.

Nawab Saab had a unique idea. He asked Mr. Bosen to invite all union leaders and whoever wanted to come from the village to the estate to a dog show and competition at the end of which they would be given a sumptuous meal and could win cash prizes. People came in large numbers with great enthusiasm because there is nothing much to do in the plantations and any kind of entertainment draws big crowds. When everyone had settled down on the Muster ground under the marquee Nawab Saab, through an interpreter asked for volunteers to take part in the competition. He then picked six of the likeliest looking men. He told them to go and hide anywhere they wanted to, in the plantation. But before they went off, he took some item of clothing from each of them. He told them that he would give them half an hour to go and hide and then the dogs would find them. Meanwhile we put on a show of attack training which looks very ferocious indeed. For that also we took volunteers, dressed them up in protective clothing and then the dogs took them down. For a grown man, who thinks that he is strong, armed with a knife or stick, to have a dog taking him down in one smooth lethal attack, is very unnerving. That is what our objective was; to put the fear of the dogs in the minds of the people and any potential thieves.

Once this demo was over, we got the tracking dogs out and gave them the clothing to get a good sniff of and sent them into the plantation. The dogs disappeared in a jiffy. There was initially some rustling of leaves. Then total silence. We waited with bated breath as this was the final test of the pudding. If the dogs missed even one man, our reputation would be shot. We were literally putting our honor on the line. Then suddenly there was a scream. We ran into the plantation following the calling of the dog. The tracking dogs had been trained to ‘speak’. They would bark at regular intervals of a couple of seconds and would continue for as long as it took for the handler to get to it. Bow-wow-wow-wow and on, it would go. That told us that the dog had ‘treed’ the quarry or had pinned him down and the sound would guide us to the animal. The long and short of it was that we caught every single one of the men. Then we all came out of the jungle to where everyone was waiting to see what had happened. The men looked very sheepish and down in the mouth that they had not won the Rs. 1000 reward for the one who could escape the dog. In the 1970’s Rs. 1000 was big money. Mr. Bosen was a smart man. He still gave them consolation prizes for participating and then we all had lunch with the union leaders and all competitors. The result of this was that theft stopped on this estate as if someone had shut off a switch. The dogs had such an effect on the psyche of the people that nobody wanted to take a chance of meeting a dog in the dark of the night. As Sun Tzu says, ‘The wise general never fights a battle. He wins without fighting.’ I have yet to see a ‘general’ as wise as Nawab Nazir Yar Jung.

Living thoughtfully – #1

As I grow older I am aware of an ever increasing sense of urgency; a feeling that I have progressively less time left to leave behind a legacy that can be a credit to me. This sense of urgency has nothing to do with the fact that the reality of time running out is one that we all face. It has more to do with the desire to do something to maximize the benefit of the time that I have left. Naturally like all of us, I have no idea how much exactly is left, so all the more reason to act fast.
Mentoring is a contact sport

Mentoring is a contact sport

Mentoring is the in-thing today. There seems to be a profusion of those who want to or believe they can mentor others. The interesting thing is the name for the one who wants to be mentored. It is ‘mentee’. I tell anyone who wants to be mentored by me, ‘If you are demented enough to want me as your mentor, you will thenceforth be known as ‘mental’. I say this only partly in jest. Partly because most of the people that I have met in this context live under all sorts of romantic notions about what mentoring is and what the ‘ideal’ mentor should be like. Then, when they encounter someone like me, who may not fit their imaginary model, they are dissatisfied and try to change me to fit their fantasy. Needless to say, that never happens, and we part company.

The best thing in life is to start your career under a hard taskmaster. Anyone can teach you what to do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that anyone can do for you. Mentoring is perhaps the single most powerful evidence of love that one can wish for. The mentor is sharing his hard-earned life experience to teach you lessons that will help you all your life. And you get to learn those lessons relatively free of cost. I say ‘relatively’ because there is always a token cost to pay, but that goes with the territory and adds value because you can appreciate that you got something worthwhile. I don’t mean the fee you may pay a mentor but the pain of learning.

Uncle Rama & I (with a pillow over my head) taking our siesta

It was 1972 and I was 17 years old. As usual, I was in Sethpally with Uncle Rama on his farmhouse on the bank of the Kadam River. Farmhouse is a fancy word to describe one of the simplest homes that I have ever seen or lived in. In which lived a man who could afford something a thousand times better but didn’t because he didn’t care about material things and loved to live a simple life. The house was rectangular in shape with a central room which was also a passage to go from the veranda in front to the kitchen at the back. This central room had a square table with four chairs around it. It was supposed to be the dining room, but we never ate in it. The table was used as a surface to put anything we wanted handy. To one side in this room was a Westinghouse kerosene refrigerator in which we sometimes made ice cream. On either side of this central room were two equally sized rooms with windows in the outer walls. One looking out to the veranda in front and the other to the side of the house. In the front was a wide veranda that ran the whole length of the house. There was a two feet wide and three feet high parapet wall that enclosed the veranda. It acted as additional seating and a place to rest your feet and lean back in your chair, balancing it on its hind legs. On one side of the dining room door opening into the veranda was a long table with a bench on one side and the parapet wall as the seating, on the other. There were some rope cots on the other side of the veranda. All our meals, and most of our conversation was around this table on the veranda.  

A rare picture of the Sethpally farmhouse

If you walked through the front door, across the dining room you would emerge on the back veranda on one side of which was the kitchen and on the other the bath-room. I am writing that deliberately as two words to emphasize that it was a room in which you bathed only. There was no toilet in it. You bathed in it if you didn’t want to bathe at the well in the fields a good bit away from the house. That was more fun, especially in the summer as you could look across the river to the jungle on the other side or at the low hills of the Sahyadri in the distance. The well had a low parapet wall all around and a paved apron.

I would stand on that apron in my lungi and Shivaiyya or whoever happened to be handy, would draw water out of the well in a bucket and pour it over my head. I would then soap myself thoroughly and my friend (these were Uncle Rama’s servants but were my friends with whom I used to wander around the jungles) would pour another bucket or two of water and my bath was done. The indoor bathroom was for the winter when it tended to get too cold to bathe outdoors. In winter Kishta would heat water and put half a bucket each of cold and hot water in the bath-room and I would mix the two to my liking and bathe indoors.

What about the toilet, you ask? Well, you took water in a lota (a pot-shaped utensil) and headed for wherever you liked where you could commune with nature, undisturbed. Then you dug a small hole in the earth, put two rocks or bricks on either side of it and squatted. After you had made your deposit, all the while enjoying the view, you washed yourself and filled in the hole. Organic manure and urea, great source of nitrogen for whatever was growing there. Hygienic, no smell and nothing you could step in.

Uncle Rama

It was summer and I had been out the whole day. My routine was usually that I would leave the house at first light, having eaten a hearty breakfast of chapatties, eggs and a large mug of tea laced with plenty of sugar (I used to take sugar in my tea in those days) and go across the Kadam River into the forest. I would usually walk but on occasion Shivaiyya would take me in his bullock cart. The bullock cart is the most versatile vehicle known to man and can do everything except climb trees. Of course, it doesn’t have springs or shock absorbers and that is hard on your back and bones, but not when you are 17. On that day, Shivaiyya and I set off in the morning and took a long route that was a huge circle which would bring us back to the river in the evening. Summer days are long and so we had plenty of time. I was carrying a 7.62 Mauser bolt action carbine rifle with a 5-shot magazine and Shivaiyya was carrying a .22 BRNO rifle. Here is some history of these very versatile weapon. Shivaiyya was my gunbearer, guide and pal, all in one. I usually took two weapons, alternating between the 7.62 (which we called ‘8mm’ for short) and a 12-gauge shotgun, depending on what I planned to look for that day. Hunting was never my priority. My abiding love was and is to simply be in the forest and watch wildlife in action in their natural habitat.

Blue bull (Nilgai) male

As it was, we were running out of meat and Uncle Rama told me to get a young Chital (Axis or Spotted deer – Axis axis) or Blue bull (Nilgai – Boselaphus tragocamelus) if I could, so I took the carbine. The .22 BRNO was for any small game like hare, duck or jungle fowl which if shot with the carbine would simply disintegrate and be worthless for the table. I carried the carbine as our first priority was the bigger animal, which if we shot anything else, would be disturbed with the sound and run away. The .22 was for the way back or at least for after I had shot the main quarry for the day.

It was a very hot day in the summer. Summer in the Sahyadri can be extremely hot with temperatures in excess of 45 Celsius. The deciduous forest in the foothills leading to the Kadam River is mostly teak, with a sprinkling of other species. In some places there were large clumps of bamboo. All these shed their leaves in summer and so the forest floor is carpeted with dry leaves. That makes moving noiselessly impossible. As you walk the leaves crumble loudly and make a racket loud enough to wake the dead. I walked ahead of Shivaiyya who sometimes guided me from behind. Either he would speak in a very low voice, just a word or two to ask me to either be careful or to turn one way or another. Or he would click his tongue or whistle if there was some animal or bird that he had seen but which I had missed. That didn’t happen very often, as I was very alert and trained in woodcraft by the greatest experts that I have ever known; Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and Uncle Rama (Mr. Venkat Rama Reddy).

From them I learned above all, respect for the forest and all those who live in it. Respect is the most important thing to learn, because it enables you to appreciate your surroundings. That means that you are not careless but take care to ensure that you don’t cause any damage to anything animate or inanimate. When you act like that, you automatically keep yourself safe. The second thing I learned was about the animals and plants of the place. I learned the names of plants and trees, what they are used for, where they grow, the seasons in which they change, what that indicates for us. I learned about their flowers and fruit and what they can be used for. For example, I learned about the Mahua flower, which is used to distill alcohol, and which is fleshy and sweet, and so when the Mahua is flowering, it attracts every bird and monkey in the vicinity. As they feed on the flower, they drop as much or more than they eat. That attracts bears, deer, Gaur and where they exist, elephants. In the Sahyadri there are no elephants but everything else is there.

Leopard hunting Langur in the trees

There are Banyan trees and other fig species which are a magnet for birds of all feather. There is the Beedi leaf tree, the Katha tree (Katha is made from its bark – that’s the brown stuff in Paan). There’s Strangler Fig, Lantana with its thick intertwined branches with small vicious thorns that are impenetrable. But beneath them, they form the ideal habitat for small animals and birds; mainly Grey Jungle Fowl and Wild boar. It is a funny sight to see Grey Jungle Fowl jumping up to reach the Lantana berries. When there are a few of them doing that, it is almost like a ballet with one going up and another down. Under the Lantana is a nice dry, secure world for Jungle Fowl to live and nest in. Wild boars are the only danger there, as they also lie up during the day under Lantana bushes. Leopards and Jackals go in after them sometimes but for the most part, the Lantana is a good guard of those who seek its shelter. There are clumps of Bamboo which attracts browsers like Sambar, Nilgai, Chital and Bison (Gaur). They love young shoots of Bamboo.

Teetar (Partridge)

That day, I was walking ahead with the 8mm carbine and Shivaiyya was behind me with the .22 BRNO. We were going through some thick bush and I could see the open light of a clearing ahead. Forest clearings are usually productive as animals and birds feed in them, so I crept up very slowly towards it. As I came near, I could see that the land sloped away from me down into a dry naala (stream bed) with a large tree, felled in a storm, resting on the side of its crown. And on the top end of it was perched a large male peacock. It was not my plan to shoot anything before I could bag a Chital or Nilgai but the peacock was too much of a temptation. However, I was carrying the wrong weapon for it, so I signaled to Shivaiyya to come forward and give me the .22 BRNO. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the peacock and I couldn’t warn him to stay silent, so as I took the .22 rifle from him, he stepped on a dry stick which snapped like a pistol shot. The peacock took off in a loud beating of wings and sailed off down the slope, long gone before I could bring the rifle up to take him down. A flying peacock is a beautiful sight and so I contented myself with enjoying that. And then to my frustration, a sounder of wild boar broke cover from one end of the clearing and trotted off, across it into the bush on the other side. I could only watch them go as I once again had the wrong weapon. Such is life sometimes. Teaches you the importance of preparation. Even where I had a legitimate excuse for not being prepared, it was a lesson to learn that excuses don’t change reality. A loss doesn’t turn to gain because you have a legitimate excuse.

By then it was almost midday and extremely hot. It was also a time when nothing moved as all animals would be lying up in shade, wherever they could find it. Shivaiyya and I also decided to rest for a couple of hours. We found a clump of bamboo halfway up the slope from a tributary of the Kadam River and sat in the patchy shade it provided. I had discovered that if you consciously decide to be one with your surroundings, you stop feeling hot. Don’t ask me for the physics of it. Maybe it is just in the mind, but who cares as long as it happens, right? When you simply sit and breathe deeply and relax you go into a sort of meditative, somnolent state which is very tranquil and peaceful. When you emerge from it, you are rejuvenated. As I sat there (I didn’t lie down as bamboo clumps are famous for snakes and ants), I did what I always do in such situations; listen to all the sounds around me and try to identify them. There are two benefits of this. For one, it is very interesting and adds to your knowledge about the forest and its denizens. And secondly it gives you information about who is about. That can be very important, especially if it is something you are looking for or something you want to avoid.

That day, the loudest sound I could hear, coming at me from all around, nature’s surround sound experience, was the Cicadas. They make a sound which is so loud that it can deafen you. This is what says about how Cicadas ‘sing’. “The apparatus used by cicadas for singing is complex. The organs that produce sound are called tymbals. Tymbals are a pair of ribbed membranes at the base of the abdomen. The cicada sings by contracting the internal tymbal muscles. This causes the membranes to buckle inward, producing a distinct sound. When these muscles relax, the tymbals pop back to their original position. Scientists still don’t fully understand how this apparatus produces such extreme volume.”

Common Hawk Cuckoo

If I tuned out the Cicadas, which was not as simple as it sounds but can be done, I could hear the Brain-fever bird (Common Hawk Cuckoo – (Hierococcyx varius) whose call sounds like someone saying, ‘Brain fever’ in an ever-increasing pitch.

Shivaiyya and I ate our lunch. Chapattis and flat omelets with lots of onions and mango pickle. Washed down with lukewarm, sweet tea. Then both of us went into suspended animation, waiting for the sun to go down and the day to cool. About two hours later, when the sun was way past its zenith and on the way down to America, we gathered up our stuff and started our long way back home. I love walking at this time, as the long dusk comes on. It is much cooler than the day and animals start moving to go to water and then to graze or hunt as the case may be. If you walk in the forest at this time, as also at dawn, the chances of seeing game are very good. I walked ahead with the 8mm carbine and Shivaiyya came behind me with the .22 rifle and our tiffin carrier and water bottle slung on his shoulder.

We walked for perhaps three miles on a narrow winding footpath, made primarily by wildlife going down to the Kadam River to drink. Even in the hottest weather, the river had some pools in shady loops of its course which were visited by animals from all over the forest. There was no other water anywhere close, except the backwater of the Kadam Dam which was miles away. So, these pools were a very good place to see wildlife. The path took a dip and then went up a slight incline and over the top, down to the riverside. I was in the bottom of the dip walking up the incline when in the gathering dusk, I suddenly saw a Chital stag come up the path from the other side and crest the rise. The wind was blowing in my face, so he had no idea that I was on the same path as he was. I can’t say who was more surprised, but I snapped the carbine to my shoulder and fired. The shot hit him in the center of his chest. I saw the dust fly out of his hide. He snorted loudly and spun around and disappeared.

I was thrilled that my day was going to be successful after all and I would come home with some meat. Shivaiyya and I ran up the incline, expecting to see the Chital stag lying on the ground. I was in a hurry also because according to Islamic food laws, I had to slaughter the stag in the ritual way before it died, if I was to be able to eat the meat. But to my utter surprise and intense disappointment, there was no sign of the animal. It had simply vanished. Shivaiyya and I searched high and low in the rapidly falling dark to no avail. I knew I had hit him. There was some blood on the path, but it was light pink and frothy meaning that it had been hit through the lungs. His heart was intact and obviously no major bone was broken and his spine was also undamaged. The problem is that when an animal is shot with a high velocity rifle firing a solid bullet straight through the chest, it is entirely likely that the bullet goes through the animal, damages internal organs but does not break any bones. That means that often, given the massive flush of adrenaline in the animal, it could run for several hundred meters before it falls due to blood loss. There have been cases of large animals running for a couple of miles and some that perhaps lived for more than two days, before they eventually succumbed to the wound. A very painful way to die. Placing the shot is therefore very critical to successful hunting. In my surprise and hurry, that was the mistake I made.

By then it was completely dark and there was no chance of our finding the stag. Shivaiyya and I wound our way home, sad that we were returning empty handed. Uncle Rama would understand what had happened, I was sure. I was not thrilled about returning with a story instead of a quarry, but that was how life was sometimes. Or so I thought. I had no idea of the turn events would take to make that night one of the most memorable of my life.

We crossed the Kadam River, which was almost totally dry near the house, with a small trickle against the far bank which we could easily jump across without even wetting our feet. A far cry from the raging torrent filling the entire bed from bank to bank that it would become in the monsoon. As I climbed up the slope leading to the house, Uncle Rama was on the veranda and he called out in greeting to me, “Yawar baba, welcome back. Kya maray (what did you shoot)? I heard the shot.”

“I shot a Chital stag.”

“Shabaash (congratulations). Kaan hai (where is it)?”

“I lost it,” I said. And told him the whole story.

He listened in silence and said, “You are telling me that you wounded an animal and left it to die and you came home?”

“It got dark Uncle Rama. I couldn’t see anything. What could I do?”

“I am sorry, that doesn’t work. You never leave a wounded animal. You shoot straight and kill the animal outright or you follow up and finish it off. You never, ever leave an animal to die in pain because you couldn’t shoot straight.”

Well, I thought that was a bit hard, but he was the Boss, so I didn’t say anything. He said, “Right, now wash up and have your dinner and then go and get that Chital back.”

I was not sure that I had heard him right. It was almost 9 pm. By the time I’d had my dinner it would be 10 pm. He was telling me to go out into a forest with dangerous wild animals in the middle of the night to find and bring back an animal that I had wounded. Was I going to obey?

I don’t think the alternative even occurred to me. He was my mentor, I loved him very much and he loved me like his son. So, if he told me to do something, I did it, no question about it. I washed up. Kishta put the food on the table. Shivaiyya went to the back of the house to eat in the kitchen. When we had both eaten, I picked up the 8mm carbine. Uncle Rama said to me, “Don’t take that. Take the 12-bore shotgun. And take these (he gave me 4 buckshot cartridges). In the night you will only get to shoot at close range. No time to fool around with a rifle. Use this. At close range it will stop an elephant.” There was so much love (tough love alright) but love in this action of making me go into a dangerous environment but ensuring that I had everything I needed to be safe and survive. The fact that he even ordered me to go was a credit to me, that he trusted in my ability to take care of myself and treated me like a responsible adult and not just an irresponsible teenager.

Talk about mentoring? Here is mentoring for you. Teach, equip and trust. To trust means to give responsibility. Which was more ‘dangerous’? Me, taking care of myself or Uncle Rama having to explain to my parents that he had sent me out in the forest in the night and that is why I had been eaten by a tiger or bitten by a cobra? He knew that, yet he took a risk because he trusted me and needed to teach me a lesson that a gun was not a toy. Hunting was not about having fun killing animals. It was about behaving responsibly, taking ownership for your actions and accepting accountability, which means that if you make a mistake, you pay for it.

Indian Nightjar

Shivaiyya and I left. There was a full moon, so the forest was a landscape of light and shadows. As we crossed the Kadam River bed I could hear the call of the Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) You can hear the call on this link. It sounds almost mechanical, as if made by a machine. A churrring that ends in clicks. Nightjars are nocturnal birds that get active when night falls and feed on beetles and other insects. They sit motionless on the ground on pathways or clearings and fly up in complete silence to catch the unwary insect which flies past. In the day, they roost in trees or rocky outcrops trusting to their beautiful camouflage to keep them safe. We came out of the riverbed and climbed the far bank and took the path leading to Shivaiyya’s village.

Shivaiyya was a realist (or was he acting on Uncle Rama’s secret orders – to this day I have no idea). He said to me, “Dora let us sleep in my village and go out with the dogs in the morning before the sun rises. We will get the stag then. Trying to find him in the night without dogs to follow the scent is impossible. Getting the dogs to go into the forest in the night is impossible. What do you say?” I learnt early in life, never to argue with elders who have more experience. So, I agreed. We walked the half mile to his village. His village was a haphazard collection of mud huts with untidy grass thatch roofs. The hut had one door and no windows, and the women usually cooked inside the hut. The fuel was dried cow-dung cakes. The Gonds, Shivaiyya’s tribe, had a large herd of scrub cattle whose main produce, believe it or not, was dung. Not milk. The cattle would be taken out to graze in the forest daily by little boys who would walk behind them and collect the dung they dropped. This would be mixed with grass, dry leaves and other debris and shaped into flat, round cakes which were sun dried on any handy surface in the village. When dry, they would be stacked indoors to keep them out of the rain and used as fuel. If dried properly, they made an almost smokeless fire. But that is only if they were totally dry. Otherwise the hut was full of smoke. In the night, the hut was not only home to the family but to two dogs, one goat and a young calf that was too young to be left outside with the other cattle.

It was into this hut that Shivaiyya, very kindly, invited me to sleep. I politely declined and asked him to put the rope cot that he offered me, outside the hut and said that I preferred to sleep in the open. He was not happy with that, as the forest was home to tigers, leopards and bears. But I was happier taking my chances with them than with sleeping inside the hut with its smoke and multiple smells. The smoke inside the hut was protection against mosquitos but my view was ditto about that as about tigers, leopards and bears. I lay on the rope net, covered myself with the goat-hair blanket that Shivaiyya used for himself, kept my shotgun handy and lay on my back looking at the sky. By this time, the moon had set, and the stars were out in their splendor. You must lie on your back in a forest without any ambient light and look up at the sky to understand the true magnificence of the night sky. As I lay there, I thought to myself that I was probably seeing things that didn’t exist. I mean, that the star that I may be looking at, could have ‘died’ millions of years ago, but I was ‘seeing’ it because its light reached me only now. Quite a sobering thought, if you ask me.

One of my great delights when spending a night in the jungle is to listen to the sounds as the time changes from morning to night and back from night to morning. During the day, especially during the hot months, the jungle is mostly a silent place, except for the cicadas and the Brain-fever bird; between the two of them it is actually possible to go crazy. But as the sun goes down and the day cools, the jungle comes alive and starts preparing for the night. Peacocks announce that it is time to start heading for the roosting places. The very loud mewing scream of the peacock has to be the most irritating sound in the world, but in the jungle, it seems completely in sync and not irritating at all. Jungle cocks – Gray Jungle Fowl in the Sahyadris and South India and Red Jungle Fowl in the North – then add their voices with their characteristic calls that end in a question – Cuk-coooo-ko-kuk? When one calls, another answers him. The hens are silent and leave it to the men to announce to the world that the day is coming to an end. Teetar (Partridge) then start to call and answer one another as they head towards their roosting places. Duck and (in season) geese flights start landing on the lake as they seek safety in the water. They stay on the water all night where nothing from the land can get at them. Geese are great talkers and you hear them before you see them as they come in their classic arrowhead formations and land on the lake, feet first, setting up little ski tracks on the surface before they settle their keels into the water.

Tigress relaxing – her 3 cubs were in the grass and hesitant to come into the road

As the darkness sets in, the first animal calls come in. The Chital stag barks to let the world know that he has seen a leopard or a tiger. However, some young Chital are easily spooked and also tend to give the alarm call if they see a dog or a man. Chital usually follow Langur who have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Langur feed on top of trees and Chital eat what they drop from the top of leaves and fruit. I am not sure if there are any formal studies to support my observation of the relationship between Chital and Langur, but I have almost always seen them together, especially in the semi deciduous forests of the Sahyadris. More importantly, Langur always have a lookout whose only job is to sit in the topmost branches and watch for predators and give the alarm if he sees one. They take turns in doing this so that everyone in the troop gets to feed. Langur calls – Ghoonk, Ghoonk – are more reliable and Chital take them very seriously as the Langur lends perspective to the Chital’s pedestrian life. The most reliable of all alarm calls, though, is the deep belling of the Sambar. When the Sambar tells you that he has seen a tiger, you can take his word for it. What’s more, the Sambar will keep belling – Dhank, Dhank, Dhank – as long as the tiger is in view. If you have some experience, you can locate the tiger and tell which direction he is moving in, simply by listening to the Sambar calling. As the night passed, I dozed, being far more interested in listening to the sounds of the jungle than in sleeping. Sambar belled on the hill; a sure sign that a tiger was about. But that was a long way off from where I was, so nothing for me to be concerned about. In the forest sound carries a long way, especially if it is from a higher elevation. The night fell silent. I dozed and then it was daybreak.

Grey Jungle Fowl

Mornings are equally magical in the jungle. The first calls are usually the Gray Jungle Fowl roosters, checking to see if it is really dawn. They do their more serious calling later when they come down from the trees, find a tree stump or rock and stand on it and call out a challenge to any other roosters in the vicinity. But the first calls are while it is still dark. The Langur wakes up and adds a hoot or two. The next are the Peacocks greeting the strengthening light. The Nightjars make the last of their –chukoorrrrr – calls as they settle in for their ‘night’. You may hear an owl or two. By now the light is better and Partridge start calling and Peacocks and Jungle Fowl add their calls to them. Chital and Sambar are generally silent now as most predators have settled in for their rest. If the occasional tiger is still getting to his layby, you may hear the Sambar who sees him, announcing his progress. Morning comes quickly in these parts and by about 5.30 am it is clear light. The duck and geese flights start as soon as the light starts to get stronger, headed for the fields of cultivated land where they feed all day with one goose always as a lookout. They take turns so that everyone in the flock gets to eat but when on sentry duty, they don’t slack in the slightest. A threat to life is a great motivator.

Shivaiyya came out of his hut by the time I’d completed my ablutions with sweet, milky tea, which we both drank in silent companionship. When we had finished and the light was stronger, he whistled to his dogs and we set off to find the Chital. These are the famous Indian ‘pie’ dogs. Small curs, with a very highly developed sense of smell, and a lot of wisdom living in the jungle where they are the favorite food of leopards. So only the clever ones live. We took the dogs to where I’d first shot at the Chital and they tracked it into a ravine where he had fallen and died the previous night. Not too far from where we had been looking for him but not having the dog’s sense of smell, we had no chance of finding him in the dark. As I had thought, my shot went straight through his lungs and out of the back. As it did not break any major bone, the animal ran away and there was also not much of a blood trail. It died eventually, but after running almost 200 yards and falling into the small ravine.

Such were my lessons in responsibility learned. Lessons about being responsible for my actions; for the consequences of my actions and of being ready to pay the price thereof. Much that I am grateful to Uncle Rama for. What remains most vivid in my memory is the way in which he taught me, even the painful lessons. Firm, but full of love and with a lot of respect.

Change the script

We have reached a stage in our development (if I dare to call it that) as human beings where our world seems to run on hatred, not love. I think we all know the many reasons for this and how the flames are fanned. I remind myself and you that all fire burns and the result is always ash. It doesn’t matter why the fire was set. If it was set, it will burn everything that lies in its path and turn it to ash. Is this what we want with our lives? Ashes? If not, I have a solution and here it is. …