How to behave around snakes

How to behave around snakes

Snakes have always had a fascination for us. We fear them, some people worship them, we hate them, and we kill them. Those who don’t do any of this and instead, appreciate them for what they are; rodent controllers, snake population controllers and just plain law-abiding citizens with as much, if not more, right to be left alone in peace, than we do, are a rare breed. The reason is the prevailing ignorance about snakes and the proliferation of myths. Ignorance breeds myths and that leads to hatred. This is the basis of all stereotyping, demonization and violence; ignorance about the subject. Applies to all subjects, be they snakes or people.  

Snakes are among the most beneficial of creatures. They are not slimy, cunning, or treacherous. They don’t bear grudges. They don’t photograph your face in their minds and come into your bedroom in the night to bite you. People do all those things. Not snakes. Snakes, like all animals, are concerned only about two things; food and safety for themselves and their young. You, human being, are not their food. And if you don’t threaten them, you can literally sleep with a snake in your bed and remain perfectly unharmed. Not that I am advocating that. But there have been cases of campers finding a snake in their sleeping bag, because it was a cold night and the sleeping bag, warmed by a warm body was a very nice place to be for a cold-blooded reptile like the snake. The camper was sensible, didn’t thrash around, moved very slowly, unzipped his bag and rolled out and then shook the snake out of his tent. It can be as simple as that. It can of course be much more complicated and dangerous. The choice is ours. Not the snake’s.

Baby python

I’ve lived a lot of my life in forests and was introduced to snakes by people who didn’t fear them. I learnt how to catch them, I had some as pets (also don’t advocate that) and I rescued several from death at the hands of my fellowmen. This fear and hatred of snakes is not instinctive as some would have us believe. It is a conditioned response thanks to the way we raise children. You may have seen some videos of small children playing with huge Burmese pythons. They are totally unafraid and treat the snake like they would, any toy. Having said that, it is highly inadvisable and very stupid to leave a small child with a huge snake. The reality is that love, loyalty, tenderness, and compassion are all human emotions, even if we don’t seem to see them too much nowadays. Snakes are eating machines. If they are hungry then whatever is edible is food. Your little kid is very edible. As long as a python is full, it won’t bother the child, but if it gets hungry, it will treat prey as any predator. I was in Kwantu Private Game Reserve in Port Elizabeth one winter. Kwantu is a wonderful place well worth many visits, with all the Big Five of Africa on the reserve and fabulous food in a very luxurious hotel when you get back from your game drive.

In the evening, a local Afrikaner farmer came to the reserve to do a little talk-show with his pet African Rock Python (Python sebae), and an African Rock Monitor (Varanus albigularus). I was struck by how he explained the danger of treating wild animals like we treat humans or domesticated animals like dogs. He said, ‘Imagine that I am working with a lathe machine for thirty years. I take care of that machine; I oil it and polish it and clean it and use it with great love. But one day I am careless, and it takes my thumb off. That is how it is with these animals,’ he said, pointing to the snake and lizard. ‘They are eating machines. If they are hungry, you are food. If they are not hungry, you are a prop like a tree branch or a rock. When the snake is draped round my neck, I am a tree for him. But when he is hungry, he can tighten his coils and if he is large enough and I am small enough, the result is predestined.’ So, while an irrational fear of snakes is, well, irrational, overconfidence about them and becoming careless can result in very painful and even fatal outcomes. Knowledge is the key.

I had a pet Boa Constrictor when I lived in Kwakwani, on the Rio Berbice in Guyana. Once when driving through the rain-forest, back from one of the mines I saw it very lethargically crossing the road and I picked it up. It was about 8 feet long. I built a large wooden box fronted with a mesh, as its home and put a thick tree branch for it to climb on. It would spend most of its time draped over the log, basking in the sun. The cage was under a tree and so if it got hot, the snake would glide over into the shade. Sometimes after it had recently eaten, I would take it out in the morning, and it would coil itself around my arm or leg for warmth. All quite friendly.

I used to feed it live chickens, which it would catch and eat. It wouldn’t eat dead meat. The interesting thing was that it never caught the chicken while I was watching. It would simply lie there, totally still, draped on the branch. The chicken would settle down after being put into the cage, totally unaware that there was a snake in the cage with it. After all these were battery reared broiler birds which had never seen anything other than other chickens. Then when I returned after a couple of hours, I would find the chicken gone and a lump inside the snake. One day the snake escaped. It wedged itself in a corner and pushed the two-inch planks, nailed together, apart and left for the forest. Mercifully all this happened in its natural environment and the snake went back to where it came from. If not, this would have been a potential hazard.

Keeping wild animals as pets is not a good idea at all. Whether that is snakes or anything else. Wild animals must be left in their natural habitat and enjoyed there, watching and photographing them. Taking them out of their environment is cruel on them and if they escape or are released in an alien environment, they can become a major problem, like all the Burmese pythons in Florida. They have no natural predators in the new place, breed unchallenged and prey on local species which have no defence against them and become a major hazard. All because someone thought the little snake was cute and wanted it as a pet and then when it grew to its normal size, they couldn’t cope with it and released it in the nearest piece of bush they could find, imagining that they were doing a good deed. The rest is painfully clear. Please don’t keep any wild animal as a pet.

I lived and worked in tea and rubber plantations in the Anamallais and Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu for ten years. The plantations were an interesting place where strange things happened as a matter of course. Over the years, I learned never to be surprised at anything. In the Iyerpadi Hospital where Dr. John Philip was the RMO, a man was brought in after having been bitten by a cobra on his face. How this happened is a story in itself. This man had the reputation of knowing some sort of magic spell that he claimed neutralized the effect of snake venom. He would catch snakes and get them to bite him on his hand and then show people that nothing happened to him. This naturally gave him a lot of ‘brand’ in a place as superstitious as Anamallais was. The reality is that most snakes are non-venomous to begin with and those that are venomous usually don’t inject a full dose, either because they had hunted recently and had used up their poison on their natural prey – rats and other rodents – and have not regenerated a new supply. The long and short of it is that many people who die of snake bite die more out of fear or because they didn’t get medical aid in time.

In this case, however, our friend chased a cobra, which tried to escape down a hole in the embankment by the side of the road, but he caught it by the tail and hauled it out and then caught it behind its head and kissed it. He was himself sloshed out of his mind at the time and his bravado far exceeded his intelligence. The result was that the snake reciprocated the affection and he was bitten twice or thrice on the face. Given that this snake did have some venom to donate and that he was bitten on the face, the man collapsed. Mercifully, some people saw him and brought him to the hospital. At the hospital, there was no antivenin and so Dr. John gave him some antihistamine and put him on the ventilator, while they sent for antivenin. Now, the interesting thing was that the hospital didn’t have an electrical ventilator. What they had was a mechanical device which was like a bellows and needed someone to sit there and pump it constantly to ensure that the air supply continued uninterrupted. It was amazing how everyone in the hospital, nurses, doctors, other patients, their visitors, passersby who heard the tale, including my wife and I, all came to the aid of the man and took turns to keep the air flowing into the lungs of the man who was completely comatose. This continued day and night, hour on hour for 48 hours, and then we beheld that the man’s eyes opened, and he sat up and a couple of hours later he was as good as new. His love of kissing snakes though, had dampened a bit. I asked Dr. John about this ‘miraculous’ event. He told me, ‘No miracle at all. The poison is neurotoxic, but protein based. It affects the nerves and stops the breathing. But being protein based, if you can keep the patient breathing mechanically by forcing air into his lungs, when the poison naturally degenerates within 48 hours the patient can breathe again’. However, miracles are far more fun to believe in than science and so our friend’s stock went up even higher after it was ‘proved’ that snake venom had no effect on him. The fact that he was in a coma and had been kept alive mechanically for 48 hours was soon forgotten because it came in the way of the belief in the nice miracle. Shows how such beliefs thrive in all parts of the world, whereas the truth lies either in some straightforward physical reason or in less straightforward skulduggery and playacting.

Most recently, I had the opportunity to rescue two snakes, both pythons, one in Sri Lanka and one in India. In Sri Lanka my friends and I were camped in the Yala National Park, which is a real heaven on earth, rivaled only by Wilpattu. I can’t decide which is more beautiful. We were all relaxing or more accurately, recuperating from the morning drive, waiting for lunch to be served. Suddenly, the bearer came rushing in and said, ‘There is a Thith Polanga (Russel’s Viper’).’ He had good reason to be afraid as the Russel’s Viper has the record for highest number of fatalities in Sri Lanka. It’s poison is particularly venomous exceeded only by that of the Saw-scaled Viper.

More about this snake here http://itsmejumbo.blogspot.com/2013/08/russells-viper-ultimate-viper-in-sri.html

All of us leapt out of our beds and ran outside to see what the bearer had discovered. Think of ten reasons why your sink may be blocked. I bet one of them is not, “6-foot young python lost his way.” That’s what had happened. The cook and his helper first thought it was a Russell’s Viper and wanted to kill it. But I identified it as a young python who got there chasing the little frogs of which there are a profusion. He slid up the drainpipe and got stuck. The standard solution was once again proposed but I vetoed it. I then caught it and released it in the forest. Did wonders for my mystique. I wisely remained silent about the fact that what I did was easier than taking off my hat. Sometimes silence does more for you than all the talk in the world. It is not surprising that the bearer thought it was a Russel’s Viper because there is some similarity in markings. But that is where it ends. The young python was totally harmless and would have been in danger of meeting a nasty end thanks to people’s fear of snakes. Snakes are highly beneficial in that they keep rodents under control. Had it not been for snakes we would be run over with mice and rats. My friend Ifham took a video of the event. So much for a lazy afternoon in the bush.

In early July, I was returning from Madurai on a late flight and driving home. The flight was more than six hours late and it was past 1 am when nearing my house, I saw a crowd of people gathered around a traffic island. I stopped the car and got out to see what the excitement was all about and discovered that a large Rock Python had been trying to cross the road from the forest on one side and had got stumped by the traffic island. People who saw it, mercifully didn’t try to kill it, but surrounded it, trying to protect it from traffic. That resulted in the snake being blocked from all sides and not knowing what to do. There was no time to call anyone, it was close to 2 am and I needed to do something to save the snake. I asked the people to stand back and went in to catch the snake. Free advice and warnings were fast flowing. “Uncle don’t touch it. You will die.” “Uncle, this and that and whatnot.” I asked them, “If I don’t touch it, it will remain here and so will you, all night. So, what shall I do?” That made them think and as they fell silent. I went in, picked up the snake, holding it behind its head, supported his body with my other hand and carried it across the road, back to the forest he had come out of and released it in the forest. Thankfully a happy ending for the snake’s adventure. The snake was about 9 feet long and weighed over 10 kilograms.

YouTube – How to Handle Snakes? – Mirza Yawar Baig

Which brings me to the question, “What must you do if you see a snake?” The answer must begin with another question, “Where did you see the snake?” The reason is that what you do, depends on where you see the snake. Let me explain.

  1. If you see the snake in its natural habitat, do nothing. Just walk away. Don’t disturb it. Leave it alone. It is meant to be there. You are not. So, leave quietly.
  2. Handling snakes is not recommended. It is not a hobby. It is not fun, for you or the snake. And ideally you should never do it. You handle a snake only when you have no tools, no professional available and you need to make sure that the snake and people are both safe. It is a last resort thing and not something you rush to do.
  3. Sometimes snakes will come into your house. Not to visit. Not because it is pursuing a vendetta or because it wants to take over your house. Snakes are likely to enter your house especially if you live near fields, on a farm, near a forest or have a large garden. The snake is likely to enter your home, because it is looking for rodents or frogs which it may have seen entering your home. Or it may come in out of the heat or cold. In very hot summers, sometimes you find snakes in the bathroom, because it is cooler near water. If you see the snake in a place where it is likely to cause harm to itself or someone else, then you need to remove it to a place where it can do neither. The options in order of priority are as follows:
    1. Call ‘Friends of Snakes Society’ or the Forest Ranger or whatever is the equivalent in your place. Let experts take the snake away. That is best. They have the equipment and know what to do and you will be safe.
    2. If there is no such facility, then first determine if the snake is venomous or not. Most snakes are non-venomous, but it is essential that you are sure about the snake in question. It is a good idea therefore to learn the differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Here is a very good article to read. https://www.wikihow.com/Differentiate-Between-Venomous-and-Non%E2%80%90Venomous-Snakes
    3. It is a good idea to read up about the venomous snakes in the place you live. There is a huge variety of snakes and the ones in your part of the world may be very different from others.
    4. Try to get the snake to leave and return to where it came from without touching it at all. Use a long stick and tap it on the ground near the snake to encourage it to move in the direction you want it to. Leave a door open and ensure that people are far away from the path you want the snake to take. You don’t want the snake to feel threatened.
    5. If you need to catch the snake, then try to find a Y-shaped forked stick with a long tail and holding it by its tail, pin the head of the snake to the ground, gently but firmly. Don’t press too hard because you don’t want to cause the snake injury or pain. Then hold it just behind the head, once again, firmly but gently. It must not escape but it must also be able to breathe, and you must not injure its spine. The only dangerous part of the snake is its mouth. So, as long as you are holding it just behind its head, it can’t do you any harm. Don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. The snake will sense that and respond.
    6. Then with your other hand, support the body of the snake as you lift it, especially if it is long. Letting the body hang or drag on the ground is harmful to the snake and will get it agitated as it will struggle to try to escape. Support the body and carry it comfortably.

Here is a very good article with diagrams about how to catch a snake. https://m.wikihow.com/Catch-a-Snake Please DON’T try any of the snake traps that are mentioned in the article. Never catch a snake unless it is an emergency.

  • If the place where you can safely release it is nearby, you can simply walk there and release it. If it is far away and you need to go there in a vehicle, then put the snake into a bag. Use a canvas or jute bag and not a plastic one. The bag must be of something that doesn’t cut off the air for the snake to breathe. Then tie the neck of the bag tightly with rope and place the bag safely on the floor of the vehicle, ensuring that the floor is not hot. If it is, then put the bag on an empty seat.
    • Ensure that you stay away from the bag, especially if the snake is venomous. People have been bitten through a bag because they were holding the bag in their lap or had their feet touching it.
    • Finally, when you reach your destination, untie the rope securing the neck of the bag and leave the bag on the ground facing away from you and quietly move away. The snake will emerge on his own and go away.
    • Don’t do any heroics. Don’t try to take selfies with the snake. Don’t try to kiss the snake. Don’t try any tricks. It is amazing the number of totally insane things that people do with snakes. Especially if the snake is venomous, that trick may be your last. Safety comes first and last. Both for you and for the snake.
  • If you or someone else gets bitten by a snake, what must you do?
    • First, identify the snake if you can find it. If not, look at the wound. If it has one or two fang marks, the snake was probably poisonous. Especially if you find skin discoloring near the wound then it is likely that is due to the venom injected into the wound.
    • If the wound has the mark of multiple teeth, or if it appears lacerated, which happens when a non-venomous snake bites you and you jerk your hand or foot away. Wash it with plenty of water, put some antiseptic on it and get the person to a hospital urgently.
    • If the bite is from a non-venomous snake, get them to a hospital as soon as you can anyway.
    • Don’t panic and don’t allow the person who was bitten, to panic. Panic is more deadly than the venom. Do your best to comfort them and keep calm.

Finally, to address some questions that a dear friend asked. Please ask your own.

Question:  When picking up the snake, it tends to instinctively coil around the hand or leg. Should I be trying to uncoil it, while picking it up and attempting to release it? As I’m among those who are the conditioned to be scared of snakes, cooling/uncoiling looks and feels creepy.

Answer: No, you should not uncoil them. If you hold them properly, they won’t be able to coil at all. If they do, leave that alone until you get to the release point. Then gently uncoil and release. The coiling gives it comfort. So, leave it alone. As for feeling creepy, that is a conditioned response. The only way to get over it is to handle snakes.

Question: How much of a “choke hold” is acceptable versus necessary?

Answer: First of all, you are not choking the snake at all. You are only securing his head so that he doesn’t bite. Even non-venomous snakes can bite extremely painfully and will do so because they don’t know your good intentions. To them, you are a major threat and they are trying to get away from you while you are bent on catching them. Hold firmly. I use the thumb and two fingers with the other fingers supporting from below. Hold firmly but not too tightly. The more painful the hold is for the snake, the more it will struggle to get out. If you hold it evenly and firmly, it will relax.

Last of the ‘Innocents’

Last of the ‘Innocents’

“First To Log In, First To Log Out

People born in the mid-to-late 1970s are the last generation of humans on the planet to have grown up without the internet. Social scientists call them the Last of the Innocents. In his book The End of Absence, Vancouver writer Michael Harris calls people who grew up prior to the popularisation of digital culture “digital immigrants” — they have lived both “with and without the crowded connectivity of online life.”

Soon no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet. There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone.

The demise of the Last of the Innocents will mean the loss of an entire plane of human experience — the time when, faced with long hours of nothing to do, our attention was allowed to wander; when there was time for reflection and introspection and devoting attention to people we were actually with; when idle summer nights could be spent in the yard catching fireflies and days would be spent lying in the grass looking for faces in clouds. – The Guardian”

You can read the whole article here: http://bit.ly/2TRpCAz

Not the river I mentioned but another like it, in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Dear God! How true that is!!! I am so grateful that I am one of the ‘Innocents’. And I can still recall what it was like to lie in the sand of a riverbed on a dark night, looking up at the stars and wondering if what I was seeing was still there. I didn’t even have a wristwatch because those were rare and, in any case, I was too poor to afford one. Such beautiful days. I recollect this when today, thanks to big data my words are transmitted all over the world to places that I have never been to and probably never will. I have seen both worlds.

Countries where my podcasts are downloaded….what’s with Greenland, eh!!

First a disclaimer: Nostalgia alert: Not everything old is or was good. Not everything new is or was bad. But nostalgia feels so good. Enjoy and keep the salt handy.

In the world before plastics, glasses were made of glass, or copper or silver and water tasted better in them. Bottles were transparent glass or opaque ceramic. But both were breakable and did. Plates were ceramic beautifully painted. Also, breakable and did. We also had steel plates which didn’t break but were less classy. Buckets and tubs were unbreakable, made of copper or galvanized iron and made a loud clang when you put them down and dropped the handle. So, you were careful to put the handle down gently. 

Shopping bags were cloth, washed and reused until they wore out and then served as dish and polishing cloths until they vanished. Chairs were wooden or metal – some foldable, some not. All heavy and unstackable. So, when plastic bottles, plates, cups, buckets and tubs and above all plastic bags came to be, we were thrilled out of our minds. Transparent like glass but doesn’t break? Buckets and tubs lifting which didn’t break your back? Chairs that could be stacked and put away when you didn’t need them? Shopping bags that you could print your label on and which the customer could use for other things or simply throw away? No need to wash and dry and reuse. Truly a vision of convenience heaven.

 Beds were wooden cots without springs with cotton mattresses on them. Every year a man would come with an instrument that resembled a great bow and would be shut into a room with all mattresses. He would unstitch one side, pull out the cotton, prong it with his bow until it was fluffy once again and then stuff it back into the mattress. When you entered the room to give the man a cup of tea, you had to look for him in the white cloud of cotton fluff and dust that he generated. The drumming sound of him working was like an out of tune sitar. What it did to his lungs breathing in the cotton fluff, is not something that either he or we were conscious of but thanks to spring-less beds and firm mattresses we didn’t have backaches. PUF was unheard of. Foam was on soaps, not mattresses. And soaps were in the bathroom, not on TV. There was no TV.

Hmm!! Not bad!! How do I look? Sparrow, a bird with an attitude

Our home had resident wildlife – sparrows in the rafters making an infernal din every morning belligerently defending their nesting sites from intruders. In Urdu they are very aptly called Khana Chidiya (Khanchudi in Deccani) – house bird. Their feathers and at nesting time, all the grass and other tidbits they brought and then allowed to fall – they are incredibly messy nest builders – meant that the house had to be swept twice or three times a day. Occasionally a sparrow would get brained by a lazily rotating fan because they never seemed to realize that trying to perch on a moving fan was a bad idea. We would pick up the dazed bird and revive it and put it on a windowsill so that it could fly away when it wished. It never occurred to us to de-sparrow the house. Sweeping was preferable to an aseptic house devoid of the chirping of the sparrow. Today with all the concrete and glass and pesticide sprays in the fields, sparrows are gone.

Municipal water came when it came so everyone had storage tanks in bathrooms. If those ran out there was the Bi-hish-ti (literally: man from heaven) who came with a leather sack slung over his shoulder and topped up the tank. More usually he would water the garden and simply sprinkle water in the yard after sunset to cool the place down before our cots would be set out for us to sleep under the stars all through summer. Those who didn’t have gardens had terraces or flat roofs used for the same purpose. How did it feel to lie in bed and look at the moon and stars through your mosquito net, secure in the thought that your house was not being burgled while you slept? I don’t think I can even tell you to try it out today. The world before plastics was different.

 In that world we had no computers, but we had time. We had no TV, but we had friends. We had no cell phones, but we spoke to people face to face. Conversation was an art, taught and learnt and grunts didn’t substitute for words. Language had value and was acquired and husbanded – new words tried out to see how they worked – phrases repeated, shared and appreciated. Poetry was an actual form of self-expression that underlined the thought and the ability to quote the right couplet at the right time was a mark of a person’s education. Conversation didn’t simply revolve around politics or controversial matters, but we talked about thought leaders, exemplars from our past and shared their thoughts and writings, often verbatim – memorizing and quoting them being a sign of our own worth. An hour or two passed in this way, drinking tea and reciting poetry and marveling at the turn of phrase, expressing thoughts that touched the heart was something to be looked forward to and back on with great pleasure.

We worked in the home or for our families for love or duty but never for money. We were never offered money and would have considered it an insult to be offered payment for doing something for our family members, no matter how distant. The concept of paying children to work in the home was unheard of and considered deplorable. Money was called ‘dirt on the hands’ – we dirtied our hands for the experience. The dirt came as a result – we didn’t work for it. Mentioning what anything cost, what anybody earned or what anyone had spent on a gift, meal or any other form of hospitality was considered insulting and crass. Hospitality was a value, not an industry. The guest was someone you invited home to a meal. To take him to a restaurant was considered a lapse in the standard of hospitality. Even if you did it, it was done under duress. Never as a choice. If some family member informed us that he or she was arriving from another city, it was the standard for us to meet them at the station and bring them home.

I will never forget the sight of my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed standing on the platform on Chennai station with garlands when I arrived there in 1985 with my newly wedded wife Samina. He was staying with his daughter, Aunty Jahanara, who we would be transiting with on our way to the tea gardens where I worked. Even though it was not his home that we were going to, Mamujaan honored us by personally receiving us at the station. But then what am I saying? How can the daughter’s home not be his home? Just as my aunt’s home was my home. We learnt from the actions of our elders. Tradition was to keep those memories alive – not only by talking about them, but by emulating the actions. For a family member to stay in a hotel instead of at home with us, was an insult to our honor. The thought that elderly parents could be sent away to a ‘home’ was unimaginable. Home was where we lived – not some place to shunt old inconvenient elders to, to be taken care of by strangers. They were our elders. We remembered what they had done for us when we were little. To do the same for them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.

In that world we played real games on real earth not virtual games on a gadget. We ran, sweated, yelled ourselves hoarse, tore our shirts, fell down, skinned our knees, got covered with dust and when it was raining with mud and considered all this as having had a whale of a time. In these games we learned leadership, sharing, standing up for our friends, being done in by those we trusted and learnt lessons from all of them. We learned to work as a team, strategize and see the result of that strategy. We stood up for each other, never reneged on our friends, even when we sometimes had to pay the price for that loyalty. We settled with our friend in private but stood by his side in public. You didn’t turn your back on your friends. It was as simple as that. It didn’t matter to us what the color, religion or social status of the friend was. It didn’t matter what car he had because we all rode bicycles. It didn’t matter what brand of clothing he wore because we all had clothes custom tailored by the Darzee (tailor) in our Muhalla (neighborhood). Bell bottoms were in fashion and we wore them. So were pointed shoes, and Brylcream in the hair. It didn’t matter whether the friend was rich or poor because at the end of a good football game, we all looked the same – the color of mud. It didn’t matter if he was tall or short, handsome or ugly. What mattered was that he was my friend. That was all.

In that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect for elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elderly person had to carry a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you and your parents, if you only stood by and watched. Manners meant that you spoke politely after asking permission and listened more than you spoke. ‘That is why you have been given two ears and one mouth’ – we were told. Manners meant that when guests came home you served them, not servants. That you were in the middle of studying for your exam meant nothing. Guests were more important than exams. When the guests left you went back to studying and still got straight A’s. No compromising on results.

Books and more books…. you’re never lonely if you have books

In that world, we read books. Not occasionally but every single day. We had our favorite authors, but we still had to read the classics mandatorily. Books were (and still are) our best friends, opening doors into worlds unexplored. We saw the scenes as we read about them, laughed with the actors in those stories, shared their joys and sorrows. 

Books opened for us doors into the hearts and lives of the writers and their times walking through which we discovered ourselves. We read everything. J.R.R Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Alvin Toffler, Iqbal, Ghalib, Ibn Al Qayyim, Louis L’amour, George Orwell, Romila Thapar, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, John Steinbeck, Munshi Premchand, P. G. Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, Arthur Hailey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Agatha Christie and many others, all spoke to us. They influenced us and shaped our thoughts and values and taught us to question, critically analyze and choose intelligently. Above all they taught us that we are not unique or more special than anyone else. That others also cry tears and laugh their way through difficulties and that in many cases our worst complaints can be the dreams of others. We read and we learnt to write. We saw and we learnt to show by drawing vividly colored pictures with words. We dreamt and learnt to deal with the reality that some dreams are simply that – dreams. But that even the most unrealizable of them, opens vistas to that which might have been and leads to that which can become a reality. We learnt the value of philosophy and the solace it gives to a sore heart. We learnt to choose – sometimes painfully – but learnt the lesson that we could and must make choices. Sitting on the fence invariably gives you a sore crotch.

We had never heard of recycling, but we always wore clothes that had graced our elder siblings. We used and reused them until the thing simply fell apart. Only then did we get anything new. Clothes covered our bodies, not our egos. Manners, not possessions were our statement. Not to say that we were always good mannered – one of the things we prided ourselves on was the ability to describe another’s ancestry in colorful terms for ten minutes without repeating ourselves. A skill that comes in handy when one needs to de-stress. The secret is to do it alone facing a wall. Otherwise it increases stress levels instead of de-stressing.

Since we didn’t have copy paste or auto correct, we learned spelling and wrote clearly in longhand. Ah! The joy of the feel of a fountain pen gliding smoothly across the page – those were the days before ball pens came into being. You chose your pen depending on the width of the nib. Sat with an inkpot and medicine dropper, filling the pen. Then screwed the top back on and carefully wiped the residual ink on your head and you were good to go. We wrote letters not only to give news but to pour out our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you would get a letter with a circle around a suspicious stain labelled ‘tear’. Then we waited days and sometimes weeks before we got a reply.

We couldn’t see the face, didn’t get instant responses and had to struggle with translating emotion into words – so we learned to write properly. Our vocabulary was a lot more than, ‘Ugh!, gr8, Like, youknowwhaimean? LOL. We didn’t explore – we checked. We didn’t reach out – we contacted. We didn’t try to reach – we reached. We used shorthand to take notes and short forms only for telegrams. We learnt to imagine, anticipate and adjust. We learned patience and we learned to write legibly because the addressee had to read what we wrote. We learned to write concisely because we didn’t want the reader to get bored and throw the letter away. We learned to write correctly and grammatically because not to do so was a sign of ignorance and a poor education. It still is.

In this world without instant coffee or tea bags we learnt the value of process – warm the tea pot before you pour in the hot water – and the reward of a properly done job – drink a cup of freshly ground coffee and you’ll see what I mean. And the lesson that everything had a use – used tea leaves are excellent mulch for roses. Drinking tea was also about demonstrating upbringing – hold the cup by its handle between three fingers and thumb with the little finger (pinky) sticking out and you don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. And god forbid, never slurp it out of the saucer. Not to say that doesn’t have its own pleasure but you didn’t do it.

Not that everything in the plastic-less world was hunky dory – we had power cuts or to put it more correctly, we were delightfully surprised when we had power. But we had candles and lamps. We had no cooking gas and so our rotis came with a wood smoke flavor. Corn was always on the cob, roasted on live coals, rubbed with half a lemon dipped in salt and eaten hot. What all this cooking on wood did to the forests is another story. We had no refrigerators, so we gave away all leftovers and always ate fresh. Milk would be stored overnight in what was called a Hawadaan (literally: air container) – a cupboard with a wooden frame and mesh sides. If it still turned, we converted it either into a sweet or into ghee. As I said, we recycled out of necessity and it was very enjoyable.

My generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.

A friend said to me, “I am with you. But how do we get this back?”

Get out into the open. Go sit on the grass. Don’t worry about your clothes. Get them dirty. Sit under a tree, in silence and listen to the tree. I mean that seriously. Listen to the tree. Trees talk to those who listen to them. Sometimes it sounds like the rustling of leaves in the breeze. Sometimes, it sounds like birds talking to each other. Sometimes, when the breeze turns into a wind, it sounds like a tired man straightening his back. Sometimes, you can hear what sounds like rain drops, but there is no rain. That is the water that the tree sends back to earth from transpiration. If you are in a forest, you will hear it, sometimes making you wonder if it is raining. It is, and it isn’t. The key to all this is to be totally silent. Silent as in absence of sound. Silent as in absence of movement. Sit still, breathe gently and take deep breaths. Remember that you are sitting under an oxygen generation plant. Take the benefit of that. Let the buzzing in your ears, subside. That is the noise of the city that came with you into the forest. It will go if you let it go. Then you will start hearing the forest and its own sounds, which are not the discordant, disruptive, distressing noise of manmade things and lifestyles. These are the sounds of nature, before man came on the scene and which will remain after the earth has rid itself of yet another pestilence. These sounds are soothing, calm, peaceful, relaxing and eternal. Be prepared to feel like a chain-smoker on a sixteen-hour long haul, non-smoking flight. That will give you an indication of what you have done to yourself. Essentially, it will tell you how sick you are. I mean, the stress you will feel by your self-imposed ban on using your mobile phone. The best thing is to leave it in your car or home. Don’t bring it with you. Feel the lack of it. You need to know what you have done to yourself, so that hopefully, you will be inspired to free yourself from your voluntary enslavement.

Walk in the rain. Don’t carry an umbrella or even a hat. Feel the water on your face and head, trickling down your back (it tickles). If the rain is light, it will be very pleasant. If it is heavy, you will get soaked and it will feel even nicer. Don’t worry, you are not made of salt. You won’t dissolve and flow away. I am saying this to people living in the tropics. Those living in Europe and North America must not do this because thanks to colder climates, you may catch a cold or worse. But even there, in summer? All power to you. I hope you don’t live in a place where the rain is acid. How tragic that we have polluted our world so badly that we must fear even the rain!

Once you are wet enough, find a nice tree with thick foliage and shelter under it. Just sit quietly and listen. There is nothing more relaxing than the sound of rain on the leaves overhead and in the surrounding forest. Some rain will drip on you but that doesn’t matter because you are wet already. That is why I told you to walk in the rain first. Then go under a tree. Otherwise you will spend your energy trying to stay dry instead of enjoying the rain.

Finally, I can tell you a lot more but let us leave it at this. When you have done this and start enjoying it, then tell me and I will tell you what the next step of the detox process is. And remember, it all starts with your phone. Or more correctly, without it.

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

And the solution is – Kill loneliness before it kills you. Let me tell you how! 

But first an alert: This is going to sound a bit preachy. Please bear with me. I am talking to myself.

First, when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick a number.

Remember, work doesn’t kill you; retirement does. If you love what you do, you never need to retire. Read on. I am going to tell you what I did. You can do that or pick your own. So, here is my 9 – point program. 9 things you can do to kill loneliness.

1. Accept it: The first thing to do is to mentally prepare yourself that the day will come, sooner than later when you are going to be alone. Deaths of loved ones may hasten it but one day it will be upon us. All you need to do to accomplish it, is to remain alive. So, the first thing to do is to get used to the idea and accept that one day you will be alone. It is important to think about this, talk about it and reflect on it, because it is inevitable. The sooner you start thinking and talking about this, the easier it will be when it happens. I have seen both, those who do and those who don’t. The difference is stark and the pain entirely avoidable. But remember that this is a problem only if you hate solitude. Learn to love solitude. Seek it actively. Keep a time in your daily life when you are alone with yourself, thinking, reflecting, meditating, praying, reading, writing, looking at the world go by, watching birds fly and grass grow, listening to the wind in the trees, listening to the brook talking to itself as it flows past you, and lying on your back and looking up at the dark star-filled sky (that position doesn’t give you a crick in the neck). If you are lucky and have some energy to go where you need to go to see them, you can also watch flocks of geese crossing the rising sun, talking to each other. You can watch Baya Weavers, weaving their complex nests, as they prepare to commit matrimony. You can…okay, I will leave you to fill in the blanks. In short there is a huge number of things that you can do for which you don’t need anyone else. Being alone is not so bad after all. It can be very enjoyable indeed.

2.  Get a hobby: It can be anything, but it must interest you. The sooner you begin, the better. Pick one that needs you to do something, some research, some reading. Something that needs effort. Connect with others who have the same hobby so that you have companionship and can compare yourself and what you have with others. Not to create unnecessary stress in meaningless competition but just to initiate new friendships. It can be great fun and it opens doors to aspects of yourself that you never imagined.

When I started to learn Hindustani classical singing, the most amazing discovery I made was that there is no actual record of what I sang (unless I recorded it). Unlike writing which by default is a record, a note or a line of song you sing, is a one-time thing. Whether you did it right or wrong, it remains a memory in your mind or in the mind of others. But there is no physical record of it. That was such a liberating feeling that I was doing something which would not return to haunt me. It opened my eyes (and ears and heart) to a whole new way of expressing myself. I recall one time, when I was standing in neck deep water of a river in a forest in Tamilnadu, singing Raag Asaawari and watching how the water that touched my throat seemed to ripple in harmony to the sound. Was I imagining it? I don’t know. But I still remember it very clearly. I must have looked rather peculiar to those who were watching me. In India there is always someone watching you. But who cares?

I also realized that singing has more to do with listening than to do with making a sound. You can’t sing if your ears are not attuned to the difference in tone from one scale to another. When you learn to sing, you learn to listen. The better you can listen, the better you can sing. My teacher told me this and I experienced it. I trained for three years, from 1994-97. Then I gave up formal training because I went off to the US and got busy with building my consulting business there. But there I got interested in the recitation of the Qur’an. Guess what turned out to be a big help in that!! I would drive endlessly from one appointment to another, reciting Qur’an in my car, conscious and thankful that what was helping me then was the voice training that classical singing compels you to do. Another place where this voice training helped me tremendously is in public speaking which is a major part of my work as a trainer and keynote speaker. I speak about leadership, teaching, raising children, the Glory of the Creator and all the while, in the background what helps me to project my voice, to express passion and emotion, to show feeling and to connect with people, is my voice training as a singer. I teach conflict management and negotiation. This is another area where listening for tone, helps me very much. There is much that people give away in the way they say something. If you are listening to the tone, not only to the words, it tells you a lot more than the words do, and usually more than the speaker may want you to know. Learning to listen is a hugely important and valuable skill and learning to sing is a very enjoyable way to learn it.

My lens and I, in Yala National Park

The same thing happened to me when I started photography seriously. I was on a trip with a dear friend of mine, Aditya Mishra who is an avid and excellent photographer and showed him some of my photos taken with a point and click camera. He looked at them and said, “I think it is time for you to get a decent camera and lens.”  It took me a while to get what I now use, a Nikon D-500 with a Nikon-Nikkor 200-500 lens but all through that journey which continues, it opened my eyes to the world. Nobody sees the world like a photographer, framing an object to photograph it. I photograph birds and animals and sometimes landscapes. I learnt to pay attention to detail. I learnt to enjoy color and texture and shade of light. I learnt to admire camouflage; to look at a patch of scrub in dappled light, not high enough to hide a jackrabbit and then to suddenly realize that I am looking into the eyes of a tiger. I would never have seen that if I wasn’t looking at it through my lens. I learnt to admire the flight of a falcon and then to watch it drop out of the sky to take a pigeon on the wing, the force of her strike sounding flat like a gunshot in the still of the early morning, with a puff of pigeon feathers to bear witness to the play of life and death being enacted before my eyes. I learnt also to simply put down my camera and look at the world outside the viewfinder. Thanks to the camera I learnt to see. Not simply to look.

Photography taught me major life lessons. Courage and resilience, for example. Not from tigers or lions but from small birds which are defenseless. They can’t fight anyone, they are on everyone’s menu, yet they survive, never give up, sing with joy every morning, build nests, raise young, sometimes only for them to become monitor lizard food. But they don’t despair, don’t go into depression, don’t commit suicide. They build another nest, lay some more eggs and raise some more young. In the end, the little bird wins every time its youngster takes to the air.

3. Become friends with yourself: Learn to like your own company because you are going to get a lot of it. Develop an interest that doesn’t need your immediate family to share it with. In today’s world of social networking that is not difficult to do. Technology can be your friend or a stranger, even an enemy. That depends on you. You don’t need to become a rocket scientist, though there is no law against that. But you can certainly learn to become techno friendly. My Hindustani classical music teacher who was 75, had a 486 PC with a camera. Behind the computer on the wall, she got someone to print out the whole sequence of things she needed to do to start the machine and logon to Skype – days of DOS-OS remember? –and off she would be talking to various friends and family across the globe. By today’s standards, the connectivity, speed, picture and audio quality were enough for one to pull out all his hair in frustration but in 1994, a 486 was state-of-the-art and lightning fast and a huge improvement over the 386. Life is relative.

Get a routine. A routine is your best friend. With a routine you are never at a loss for something useful to do. That keeps you and your mind active and out of brooding and depression. Develop an interest or a hobby. Where possible, keep a pet. Not a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank. But a real pet like a cat, or a goat or a horse. Or a chicken. Country chickens have great personality and attitude and make lovely pets. Depends on where you live, of course. But if you want to know what it feels like to be looked down upon and be valued purely as a meal ticket, keep a cat. Those who have millennial children, need not keep cats because they know what that feels like very well. Gardening, and that can be one pot, is another wonderfully therapeutic hobby. Keep a bird feeder in your yard, balcony, on your terrace. Keep water out for birds in the summer. Grow your own veggies in pots in your balcony or on your terrace. The idea is to do something that requires your contribution and where you can see it making a difference. That responsibility, even if sometimes it seems arduous, is what keeps you alive and the Big A at bay.

4. Don’t lose the ability to make friends: One of the first things that older people lose is the ability to make new friends. And when they lose their old friends, as we all do, they are left all alone. The big reason we lose that ability is because we refuse to relate to people different from ourselves. As we grow older, we become judgmental and demand (albeit perhaps unconsciously) that others must conform to our standards, before we allow them into our lives. Instead we must become more open to new ideas, new ways, new standards. I am not talking about what is clearly good and evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, respectful and insulting. I am talking about, for example, hairstyles, way of speaking (not ill manners, just a different way of talking), cell phone use. If he looks like he stuck his finger in the power socket and has all his hair standing on end, it is okay. His head is his piece of real estate. Not yours. He is still a nice kid with a brain and your eyes and ears into his world. But only if you can get past the porcupine look.

As for cell phones, I have never heard anyone complain if a youngster has his head buried in a book. But if that same head is buried in a phone, we have major issues. Why? Maybe he is reading a book on his phone. Maybe he is browsing the net and accessing information that he wouldn’t have found in a hundred books. We oldies must become more tolerant, while maintaining our boundaries of what is fundamentally good and evil. When we are with youngsters, we feel younger, more energetic, we learn new things, we see the world in a different light. And we are challenged to add value to them, so that they don’t get bored with us.

What doesn’t work is when you start your stories with, “In my days, you could get one dozen eggs for one rupee and one goat for three rupees and one cow for ten rupees.” Someone went on like this for a while until one of the youngsters said, “Uncle that is great. So, in your father’s time, everything must have been free.” Live in the present with them. When I was 15, almost all my friends were 30 years older. I learnt from them. Today I am 63 and most of my friends are 30 years younger. I learn from them. We have a great relationship, and both enjoy it. Ask them, if you like.

5. Prepare your body: It is critical to ensure that you are physically fit. The vast majority of geriatric ailments are lifestyle related, not illnesses. Watch what you eat. Eat natural, not processed foods. Sleep early and wake early. Exercise moderately. Don’t do any heroics, thinking about what you used to do at age 20. Today you are three times that age. Don’t try it or you will suffer the consequences until you die. Get out of your house and hit the gym and the park. Walk a few kilometers every day and do some strength exercises. Don’t get over ambitious, don’t try to impress anyone, don’t try to break any records but also don’t let a day pass that you have not exercised. The main thing is to get out of your house into the open and connect with nature. Eat sensibly. Don’t dig your grave with your teeth. Let them use an excavator. The biggest curse is excess weight. It drags you down, makes you lethargic, makes everything a burden and gradually kills you very painfully. A pot belly is not a death warrant, it is a lifelong pain warrant. Death is inevitable. Pain is not. So, get rid of it. Think about that with every morsel of carbs you eat. Make sugar Haraam on yourself. Avoid all fizzy sugar drinks. Stop eating sugar. Sugar kills. And (sugar free) Aspartame gives you cancer. Take your pick.

I won’t even talk about cigarettes. If someone wants to pay for cancer, who am I to object? Makes no sense to pay for cancer, because cancer is free. Do you get my point? If your body is healthy, half the battle is won. So, pay close attention to that. The slide is insidious, seductive and lethal. Stay away from it.

6. Prepare your mind: Keep your mind healthy. Read. Read. Read. Pray. Pray. Pray. Focus on your mental and spiritual self. If you are like most normal people, both would have been hugely neglected. Repair your connection with Allahﷻ. You will need it soon enough. Learn a new language. It doesn’t matter if you never master it. The act itself is important because it will challenge your brain and keep it active. Play games that require cerebration. It means use your brain. Consciously look for the positive things in life and shut out all negativity – especially what you can’t control. I love watching wildlife and nature movies and I love wildlife and bird photography. Again, it is good to want to be the best at whatever you do, but don’t worry if it takes you a long time to get there. Keep at it. Don’t watch the news, talk shows, TV debates and all the totally negative, toxic media that we have allowed to take over our lives. Focus on the positive. There is plenty of it, and if you can’t find it, create your own. Nobody can stop you from doing that. Go help people. Visit hospitals and talk to strangers. Pay their bills if they can’t afford to pay them. Visit schools, especially in poor neighborhoods. Offer to teach for free. Connect with children, listen to them, talk to them, sit with them, laugh with them. This is therapy and it is free. I do this 80% of my time, every year. People think I am doing great public service. But I know why I am doing it. Believe me, it works. Also, since 2000, I have written 35 books, done over 2500 short lectures and over 650 longer ones, all free. Question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I prepared to pay for my mental health?’

7. Stop living in the past: Yes, our good old days were good, but not as good as we like to recall now after fifty years They were as good and bad as today, with the only difference that what was good and what was bad, differed. Prices were cheaper but we had very little spending money. Competition for jobs was less but there were all of four career choices. Schools were less crowded, but we did rote learning and had corporal punishment. We didn’t have high medical treatment costs because we had almost none of the medical facilities that we have today. Life is relative. Live in the present because that is the only thing we really have. The past, both the good and bad of it is gone. The future is only a thought. We may never see it. And the older we get, the truer that is.

8. Appreciate what we have today: An attitude of gratitude is the cure for all ills. We have air travel that is cheaper than it has ever been. We have Wi-Fi and smart phones which help us to connect to the world. We have Google which the opens doors of almost every kind of knowledge that we choose to learn, sitting in our homes and free of cost. We have far superior medical aid than we ever had. We have appliances at home and apps on our phones. We have all sorts of conveniences that our parents didn’t even imagine. And what’s more, far many more of us have these than was the case in our parent’s time. My driver has a fridge and my cook has a microwave oven and both have air coolers in their homes. During my childhood, microwave ovens didn’t exist, neither did air cooling or air conditioning and fridges were as rare as polar bears in the Antarctic. Yes, Hyderabad was cooler than it is today, but believe me, all those sweaters in March are only in your imagination.

9. Stay away from doctors and hospitals: That may sound strange to you, but I have seen so many elderly people who seem to be obsessed with health checkups and medicines. Let’s face it. You are not getting younger, stronger, faster, healthier or sexier. I am willing to contest that last one but not the others. What are the tests going to show you? What will that do to your morale? What is the good of that? We all die. Some die before they stop breathing. Those are the ones who are obsessed with medical tests. Remember that health care has become an industry. It is no longer about curing the sick or even better, keeping people healthy. How does an undertaker make money? By people dying. How does a doctor make money? By people being or believing or imagining and trying to find out if they are sick. ‘Health care’ is a misnomer. Today’s health care has a stake in sickness, not in health. That is the problem with becoming an industry. The only focus then is on profit and return on investment. There are too many glaring examples in our society. I don’t need to give you any examples. I am sure you have your own. Sorry doctors. My father was a doctor, but he died penniless because he didn’t treat people who were not sick. He had a stake in people’s health, not in their sickness.

You don’t need a doctor to tell you if you are sick. If you wake up in the morning with your usual aches and pains, you are as healthy as an old horse. Do what the old horse does. He does his business and goes about his business, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, go visit a farm where old horses are out at pasture and you will see what I mean. Then one day, when his time is up, he lies down in a nice patch of grass in the sun and stops breathing. What do we, who are obsessed with health checkups, do? We spend our last days hooked up to various machines, in an ICU, with tubes coming out of our orifices until we stop breathing, but all the while making doctors rich. If that is how you want to go, please do. I don’t. So, I made a ‘No Hospitalization Will’. And I pray that I will never need hospitalization. Read, ‘Being Mortal’, by Dr. Atul Gawande. Amazing book that talks about this. He is a consultant in Harvard Medical School, so he should know, right? As I told you, if it is your idea to spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary hospital bills, please do. That’s your choice.

Believe me, if you do all this, it will keep you so busy that you will have no time to feel lonely. You won’t sit there yearning for people who passed away to walk in through the door. If they did, you would walk out of your skin. Instead, your new friends will walk in through the door and take you for a walk. That is why you have friends.

And yes, I forgot to mention, stop saving money. Spend it. You can’t take it with you. And your children can look after themselves. Enjoy yourself, go on a cruise, tick all the boxes on your bucket list. Help others. That gives more satisfaction than the cruise and the bucket list. But do both. And then lo and behold, it will be time to go. May that time and that day be the best day of your life because on that day you will meet the One who made it all possible.

Loneliness Kills

Loneliness Kills

They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation.

There was a time when joint families were the norm in India, where the whole family lived together in one big house. In many or most cases there was only one kitchen, and everyone ate together. The head of the family was the oldest male. In matrilineal systems (mostly in Kerala and coastal Karnataka) it was the oldest woman. He/she controlled all the money, and everyone gave their earnings to her. She/he ran the house and with great parsimony and responsibility and ensured that everyone was taken care of. There was no question of one sibling who earned well, flaunting his or her wealth over the others. Everyone had a place, and everyone was useful until their dying day. The elders, as they got older and no longer took an active part in running the household, became highly respected and valued repositories of customs and traditions, storytellers, the passers-on of family history and the arbiters in any disputes among the younger generations. Nobody was useless or irrelevant or put out to grass. Everyone had a place and an important role and felt wanted and needed.

However, as time passed and times changed, so did this structure. Families broke up as children left the family home, city and country in search of jobs and in pursuit of their careers. Many migrated to other countries, America being one of the most preferred destinations. Even those who remained at ‘home’, usually moved away from the family home, ostensibly to be closer to the workplace or children’s school but really to get away from the control of elders. Cultural values changed, tolerance levels changed, selfishness increased, putting self before others took the place of putting the family ahead of the self. We in India, tend to blame all this on the influence of the West in our society and culture, forgetting of course that the West didn’t enforce their influence. We chose to be influenced. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the first people to feel this change were the elders. They lost significance. They suddenly became powerless, almost an unwanted nuisance that others were putting up with. And then as the younger generations moved away, they were left alone. What added to this was that many of the younger generation migrated to the West and their children were born and brought up there, often with little or no contact with the ‘home country’. ‘Home country’ for them was America or Australia or Canada; not India, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt or Bangladesh. Most children didn’t even speak their ‘mother tongue’, since their parents spoke English even at home and didn’t teach their children the language of their ‘home country’ and people. Language is the substrate of the culture, so when the language was lost, so was the culture, manners, poetry, history and connection with the elders.

The ‘solution’ that many well-meaning children have found is to set their parents up in their home country/city/town/village, often in the old family home, with servants and a regular income. There they stay, with their memories, each corner and wall with a tale to tell but with nobody to listen to those tales. They are repositories of the history of the family, traditions of the community and culture, teachers of customs and manners but with nobody to learn from them. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation. And what’s more, knowing that the next generation doesn’t even care about this. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that they have become irrelevant. They don’t need material wealth. They want for nothing materially. What they need is warmth, respect and the company of those they love. What they need is to feel useful, needed and appreciated. What they need is to feel that they still have a place and a reason to stay alive. What they need can’t be bought with money, nor ordered on Amazon. I am not blaming the youth. This is perhaps the price we pay for the material wealth and wherewithal that we chased. A price that neither our parents, who encouraged us to sail to foreign shores calculated, nor did we realize that we would have to pay it one day. But life is relentless and extracts its pound of flesh.

With my friend John Iskandar in Aziz Bagh

I was born into a joint family in a house, Aziz Bagh, which my great-grandfather, Nawab Aziz Jung Bahadur built in 1899. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all lived in their own apartments, but all lived together in every sense of the term. I recall my early childhood vividly today, more than 55 years later. The house is on three acres of land and during my childhood, had a formal rose garden, lawns, a tennis court, pigeon cotes, a terrace where family functions would take place, a dhobi ghat (where our resident washerman and his wife would wash clothes of our family and were paid for the service) and lots of huge mango trees. Out of all these what I recall most warmly is the love that I received. It was not only me but all of us children growing up, it was as if we belonged to every adult in the house. There was no feeling of strangeness. Any adult took care of you, corrected you, even gave you a smack on your bottom if you needed it. We ate with the family of whichever cousin we were playing with. Nobody told us to go ‘home’ to our parents to eat and believe it or not, the food was always enough for the unexpected guests that we were in that house.

Our elders taught us manners. Not in formal classes but through their own behavior. They knew that children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say until they see what you do. One of the informal rituals was that daily we, especially the little ones went to the main house where the head of our family, Nawab Deen Yar Jung lived, to greet him and his wife. One day when I must have been about five-years old, I went there to greet my grandmother, Begum Deen Yar Jung, with a rose which I had plucked from the garden. Normally this was frowned upon. Flowers were to be enjoyed on the bushes, not to be plucked. But I was five. As I went up to her, she said to me something which was so full of love (even if it was a reminder not to pluck flowers) that I recall her memory to this day.

Phool lay kar phool aya,

Phool kar main nay kaha,

Phool kyon laye ho sahab,

Tum khud hi tho phool ho

I don’t claim to have remembered the exact words, but my mother was with me and I recall hearing this story from her many times until I memorized these words. My grandmother and her sisters, brothers and their children; my mother and her siblings and cousins were all, each in themselves, examples of grace and dignity. We loved them, respected them and tried to emulate them. Our current success or failure in this respect is entirely our responsibility and not their failing.

It is not just sad but tragic to see the ‘interaction’ that happens sometimes between grandparents and their grandchildren who were born and grew up in the West. You can see both making a great effort but in vain. The older ones usually make much more effort than the youngsters who like most of their generation are short on patience, especially towards the elderly who they were never taught to respect and don’t really have any bonds with. Distance and cost of travel had a big part to play. Travel to America or Australia is neither quick nor inexpensive and not what children or their parents could afford at the time when the grandchildren were young and impressionable. By the time they have the money to afford to travel with the family either way the children are already grown and the only impact that the ‘home country’ has on them is, “O My God! Look at the dirt, traffic, mosquitos, cows on the street, smoke, power outage, Wi-Fi is so slow or God Forbid, No Wi-Fi.” Meeting grandparents, talking to them (about what? Old stories about people they didn’t know, long dead, whose names even they can’t pronounce?), eating food (It is so hot!) and then getting sick. Well, all that means is that one visit is about all that those children will do willingly. Then they are off to college and that is that. Believe me, I have seen this story so many times, that it is not funny. Parents going to live in the West is equally tragic. They don’t fit in; they have no friends and how much TV can you watch especially when it doesn’t have your favorite programs? For many it is almost like being in prison, albeit a gilded one. And for the children who went to the trouble of bringing them to live with them in America or Australia or Canada, it is a huge let down. Relationships sour and get strained. Misery all around.

What adds to the difficulty is that the grandchildren and grandparents don’t have a common language (especially the grandmothers) and where the elders speak English it is naturally with an accent, which for most Western youth is a matter of either amusement or irritation. Since the youngsters grew up in the Western culture, they are clueless about social taboos. Parents are either too busy to teach or don’t see the point as they have broken off from their ‘home country and culture’ permanently and have little respect for it. The youngsters are therefore ignorant about things that their grandparents may well expect them to know about. For example, I have seen innumerable times, grandchildren sprawled on a couch with their sneakered feet on a table on which there are also books and pointing towards the grandfather who is sitting across them. Even worse, I have seen children putting their schoolbags on the floor of the car or bus they are travelling in and sitting with their shod feet on them. I won’t go into the details of how many social taboos are crossed and how this behavior in our Eastern cultures amounts to gross disrespect. Those who understand what I am saying, will see my point. Those who don’t, underline and illustrate it. Gradually the gap between the older and younger generations grows into a gaping gulf, too wide to bridge. Too many compromises are called for; too much of new learning which there is neither the time for nor patience and people related by blood and genes become strangers to one another. Each is helpless in his own way. Each is lonely surrounded by his own family.

Life has now come full circle for our generation. Those who left their homes, cultures, countries and families and lived and worked in alien environments. It is now time to consider our own relevance to the next generation. Do they need us? Can we communicate with them? Do they understand us, and do we understand them? Are there any real connections between us apart from the fact that we share genes? Genes have no feelings; we do. What will happen to us when we sit in the chairs that our parents spent their last hours of life in, staring at blank walls? I realize that perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but better to be prepared than to be sorry.

There is a solution and I am going to tell you about it in my next post.

The meaning of ‘Covenant’

The meaning of ‘Covenant’

In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the Army and Police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.

The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more servants and bigger bungalows.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss).  

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.

Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible.

Traditionally, like in the army, there has always been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the ‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at temple festivals. I flagged off such carts on many occasions, then stayed for a cup of tea and left, so that the workers could carry on their celebrations unhindered by my presence. When to arrive and when to leave are very important things to know.

This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste, they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple and were treated respectfully by the priest. That is why the religion of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of untouchables, everyone was touchable.

The Managers were initially all British, Christian, and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than ‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the ‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility (which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered it necessary to behave by a higher moral code. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to command.  

These people and their families automatically got membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words, “Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself to be superior and different because of his pretensions.

I remember with amusement my first job interview in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend, my senior in school (Hyderabad Public School, Class of 1972, when Satya Nadela was 3 years old) Shahzad Abbas, who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over, we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the interview the next day.

Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions; the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.

As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old) wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So, you don’t drink, eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.

“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you play cricket?”

I said that I did, but others who played with me wished that I didn’t.

Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time, not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a sad expression on his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”

As it turned out, that did not make any difference to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the ‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”

Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population (you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane yet interesting, dancing decorously with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.

The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he was not on the panel.

I was determined to join planting and had applied also to the other big company in South India, Harrisons & Crossfield (later Harrisons Malayalam and then Malayalam Plantations). A few days after I returned home to Hyderabad, I got an interview call from Harrisons. The letter read, ‘You are invited to attend an interview at The Westend Hotel in Bangalore. You will be paid second class train fare and Rs. 50 out of pocket expenses. It was clear that Harrisons didn’t want their assistants to put on weight. I was delighted to get the letter. The problem was that I had never been to Bangalore and didn’t know the first thing about the place. So, I booked myself on Indian Airlines (no other domestic airlines then) and booked myself into The Westend Hotel, the only place in Bangalore that I even knew the name of. I arrived in Bangalore the evening before the interview. The hotel picked me up from the airport and the next morning, I presented myself for the interview. The Westend was a Spencer’s hotel at that time, if I recall correctly and Taj had not taken it over. It was and is still one of my favorite hotels for the magnificent old trees in its grounds, it lovely old rooms (don’t like the new ones) and its excellent service. I stayed there many times since then, but 1978 was the first time I stayed at the Westend Hotel in Bangalore.

The interview was in the suite of the Visiting Agent of Harrisons, Mr. Mccririck (I learnt his name only later), one of the many Scotsmen who were in tea. Wonderful people who left behind great memories of hard work, hilarious eccentricity and great friendships. I waited my turn in the lounge. Precisely on the dot a tall white man in a suit walked in with his hand extended, saying, “Good morning Mr. Baig. How are you? Please come.” We went inside his suite into the internal lounge where he invited me to take a chair facing the window which put me with the light in my eyes while he was in the shade.

“So, how was your journey Mr. Baig?”

“Very comfortable, Sir.”

“How long does it take to get from Hyderabad to Bangalore?”

‘One-hour Sir.”

His eyebrows shot up. “How did you come?”

“I flew, Sir.” Technically that was not true because I only sat while the pilot flew the plane, but there I was.

“Hmm! Where are you staying in Bangalore?”

“Here Sir.”

I think he heard a question in my tone and not a statement, so he said, a bit testily, “Of course, in Bangalore, where are you staying?”

“That is what I mean Sir. I am staying here, in this hotel.”

“Are you staying here at the Westend?” Now the eyebrows pretended to be the hairline. “You read the interview letter, didn’t you?”

“Yes Sir, I did. I am staying here. But I am not asking you to pay for it, Sir.” I thought that I had committed suicide and that the interview was over.

Mr. Mccririck asked me a couple of other questions, which looked to me to be more time fillers than anything else. I steeled myself for another kiss of death but then he said, “Well Mr. Baig, I am happy to have met you. You will get a letter informing you about the estate you need to go to for the extended interview. And please give us the bills for your travel and hotel. We will be happy to reimburse you these expenses. Thank you for coming.”

I was selected and posted to Ambanad Estate, under Mr. Ansari, who had a fearsome reputation for being a very hard taskmaster. However, before I could join, I had an offer to go to Guyana and leapt at the opportunity to go abroad. I spent five years there and returned to India, to join tea in the Anamallais in CWS (India) Limited, under a harder taskmaster, Mr. K. Ahmedullah. The best thing in life is to start your career under a hard taskmaster. For me, I had already been working for several years, but in planting, which was my first love, as evidenced by my persistence in trying to become a planter, I started under Mr. AVG Menon as my Manager and Mr. K. Ahmedullah as the General Manager, Plantations. Anyone can teach you what to do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that anyone can do for you. That is what I owe to AVG and Ahmed. Both were the kindest of people off the job, but on the job, it was a different matter. If you did well, not only did they appreciate it, but they made sure that your work was highlighted as yours and they didn’t take credit for it. But if you were careless, or brainless, then you were in for a chewing. Mind you, if you made a well-intentioned mistake in trying to achieve something new or introduce an innovation, your ‘mistake’ was praised. But if the mistake was because you had not applied your mind, were just being plain lazy or stupid, then you learned about that pretty graphically.

Planting was more about life than about tea. I had many teachers, all of whom I honor in my memory. Mr. AVG Menon, Mr. K. Ahmedullah, Mr. N. K. Rawlley, Mr. Saleem Sharif, taught me Estate Management. Mr. O. T. Varughese, Mr. Poovaiah, Mr. K. V. Choodamani, taught me about field operations. Mr. Madhavan and Mr. Hamza taught me Orthodox manufacture. Mr. T. V. Varughese (ex-GM, Tata Tea), taught me CTC manufacture. And all of them taught me about life, culture, decision making, conflict resolution, standing up for yourself and those under you, and more than anything else, taking pride in your work. AVG, Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley would take the Assistant with them when they visited the estate or division. Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley both had a very disconcerting habit of turning up at the crack of dawn, when I would still be in my muster. One of our Field Watchers would come racing, out of breath, gasping, “Company Dorai wandirkiraar.” (General Manager has come).

“Yengay irkiraar?” (Where is he?) I would ask, with visions of Mr. Ahmedullah walking into the Muster behind the man.

“Padanetta numberil boundary ley irukkiraar.” (He is on the boundary of Field No. 18). Grab your hat, leap on the bike and race down the rough, narrow field roads to the boundary where your fate awaits you.

“Good morning Sir.”

“Good morning. When was this field last plucked? How is your manuring going?” If these were the kind of questions, you could start breathing.

Otherwise it could be, “All these blue flowers look lovely on the tea.” Then you knew that your end was near. The blue flowers were the flowers of Morning Glory (Ipomoea), a beautiful garden creeper for everyone in the world and a noxious weed for tea planters. If allowed to grow it would cover the tea and result in serious drop in crop. The reason Mr. Ahmedullah and his generation started inspection from the boundaries was because those were usually the most neglected parts of the estate. In planting there is an old saying, which says it all. “The dust from the Manager’s boots is the best manure for the tea bush.” Estate management is not rocket science. It is a lot of walking and climbing hills. You need to love doing it or you won’t, and it will show. The field boundary in South India, meant either the bottom of the slope ending in a swamp or the top of the hill, sometimes 2-3000 feet above ending in the forest. Not the most inviting places for most managers and assistants, except wildlife crazy cracks like me. The reward was some of the most magnificent views that you can ever hope to see. That is why in planting they looked for temperament and extracurricular interests so rigorously.

Parambikulam Dam, backwaters, seen from Murugalli Estate, Anamallais

I loved and love trekking up and down slopes. I would go down almost daily as I normally didn’t take my bike to the Muster. I would start off earlier than anyone and walk down to the bottom of the slope from my bungalow. In the swamp, I would be greeted by a pair of Barking Deer that lived in that patch of tea. Then I would walk along the bottom of the tea, cross the swamp, noting where Wild Boar had been digging for wild yams, up the other side and walk along the road, leading past the coffee area of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. That was where many a day, I would see the last of the bison herd (Indian Gaur) or Sambar, before they went off into the forest for the day. Once in a while I would hear elephants as they moved through the coffee area on the way to Candura where they rested in the thick forest between the two parts of the estate. Then I would walk up that road to UD Muster by the time the workers started to gather. Of course, my progress would be monitored by the workers and their families who could see from their ‘lines’ (housing) any movement on the roads. Nothing is hidden in the hills. I could imagine the grapevine, “Dorai warraar.” All good for the tea, for discipline and to gain respect. All lessons learnt from my wonderful teachers, who practiced the same things.

Tea planting was a way of life. It was not a job. You loved it and thrived. Or you didn’t and left. I loved every moment of it and still do. You can’t be a good planter if planting is merely a job for you. Planting is a lifestyle, which even to this day, I will be very happy to return to, if someone is ready to give me a job, mentoring youngsters who join planting. For me, just to live in the Anamallais is a privilege. Any takers?

For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’, available on Amazon worldwide.

You can never relive the past

You can never relive the past

 “Dorai, we are all your children. May God bless you and keep you well, Dorai. Tomorrow I will show you the tea that you planted. Hundreds of people have a livelihood because of that tea. It is the rule in the estate that the pluckers take your name first before they start plucking that tea. It is called Baig Dorai Thotam (garden). Your name will never be forgotten as long as that tea remains, Dorai.”

I was in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, in 2007, twenty years since I had been there last, as the Manager. Now I was visiting my old haunts, living my dream of enjoying the Anamallais without worrying about YPH (Yield per hectare) or tea prices. We arrived one evening and stayed in the Manager’s bungalow where we had lived, and which was now a guest house; of sorts. It still had the same curtains that we had installed twenty years ago, and you could tell. But nostalgia is a cure for many things and so we loved spending a couple of nights in our old home without worrying about how run down it looked.

View while climbing Manjaparai

The next day we took a picnic lunch (flat masala omlettes, rolled in rotis with some pickle on the side) and walked up the hill to Manjaparai. Once we climbed down the hill from the bungalow, the climb is about four to five kilometers; never very steep but always rising. As you continue upwards, it can get quite taxing on a body used to sitting in chairs more than anything else. As you climb up out of the tea, you enter first the scrub jungle, very thick with all kinds of shrubbery including some very potent stinging nettles called Anaimarti. All my old memories came flooding back. My two friends, Raman & Raman, who worked on the estate and were my companions on my hikes and built hides for me to watch wildlife, were thrilled that I could still recognize the plants. Raman the younger cut a stout stick for me which is something that I used to like to keep as a climbing aid. Today I needed it more than simply wanting it. We walked through a path that Raman cut in the undergrowth with his pruning knife. As I walked, I remembered that this was the habitat of the Hamadryad or King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) which is an endangered species. Interestingly though it has ‘cobra’ in its name, it is not a cobra and is the only member of its genus. It is the longest poisonous snake in the world and can grow to as long as 18-19 feet. This snake preys on other snakes, is extremely fast but shy and so you are unlikely to see it unless you stumble on its nest. King cobras are the only species of snake to build nests for their young, which they guard ferociously. Nesting females may attack without provocation. When it is angry it rears up one third of its body which makes it as tall as a man and so the snake can actually look you in the eye. That can be terrifying to say the least. The Hamadryad has an enormous amount of venom, enough to kill twenty people or one elephant. But as I said, it is shy and so you hardly ever have any instances of people being bitten by them. The venom is neurotoxic and depending on the quantity injected into you, can kill in minutes.

Raman & Raman and I

We came out of the brush eventually, having been bitten liberally by elephant ticks (the price to pay for climbing to Manjaparai) on to the base of the rock called Manjaparai (Yellow Rock) because of the color of a lichen that grows on this rock. There is a small stream that flows through a slight depression in it and at one point forms a shallow pool. This is the drinking pool that Sambhar and Gaur come to drink in. When we reached there that afternoon, we also found some old elephant dung strewn around the pool, but no fresh sign of any elephant. Walking up the hill, we surprised a basking cobra (Naga Naga) and then startled a Sambar doe that was resting in a thicket. She exploded out of the bush and galloped down a slope that was so steep that I would have hesitated to walk down it too fast. It was in the tree that grew out of the rock near the pool, that I’d had a platform (machan) constructed to watch animals from. I would pick a full-moon night with clear skies to sit in my machan. A clear night is much colder, but the full moon gives enough light to see without a torch. Nights on this platform were very cold but the sight of the sunset and its rising next morning was well worth the discomfort of the cold.

I would get up into the tree early so as not to disturb any game. One of the Ramans would sit up with me. The other one would see us to the place and leave and return early the following morning to collect us. It was not safe to stay on the ground during the night unless you had a fire. But the fire would drive all the game away and so we had this arrangement. Let me tell you about the sounds of the forest you would hear if you were to sit with me on the machan. The first call as the sun went down was always the jungle fowl going up to roost. First the cocks would crow – kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. Then the hens would sometimes cackle as they flew up to their roosts. There were no peacocks in the Anamallais in the 1980’s as it was too wet for them. But when I returned there in 2007, I saw peacocks. This shows that in the twenty years that I had been away, rainfall had reduced enough for peacocks to migrate up the mountain range from the plains and start living there. Not a good sign at all, the decline in rainfall. It will be interesting to check the meteorological data.

Once they settled in, the nightjars would start flitting on silent wings, catching nocturnal insects in flight as they came out of their hiding places. It is a fascinating sight to watch the nightjars as they took their interceptor flights. The nightjars sit in an open place (on a small rock or in the middle of the path) and make their characteristic call chut-chut-chut-churrrrrrrrrrrr. They repeat this call endlessly, sitting absolutely still but watching the world very closely. As soon as the nightjar sees a poor unsuspecting insect going about its business, it simply erupts into the air and the world insect population is reduced by one. 100% kill rate. Amazing birds.

Spotted Owlets

Then there would be silence for a while as the jungle settled for the night. As the first light of the moon started to strengthen, a pair of Spotted Owlets would come out of their roosting places, where they had been hiding both from the sun as well as from the crows who harass them mercilessly if they see them in the open. They hunt in pairs. They fly out onto the flat branch that was their take off perch, one followed by the other. They would sit there for a while and talk to each other, perhaps discussing strategy. They are the most demonstrative birds that I have seen and to see them cuddling up to and nuzzling each other is extremely endearing. Then he would glide away in one direction and she in another. You must see an owl in flight to understand the meaning of grace. Suddenly you hear the dhank-dhank of the Sambar. This is the alarm call telling the other tenants of the jungle that one of the two big cats that live in this forest, the tiger and the leopard, is around. The Sambar is the most reliable of the sentinels and call only when they see these predators. Chital (none in these forests) also call and so do Barking Deer (plenty in the Anamallais). But both tend to be very skittish and will call on seeing many other things including shadows. Being on everyone’s dinner menu, does something to your perspective.

Another one whose alarm call must be taken seriously is the Langur; in this case the Nilgiri Langur and not the Grey Langur of the plains. They always have a sentinel watching from the highest perch that he can find, always on the lookout for big cats. But at night, the Langur are among the first to go to the treetops where they spend the night, safely out of harm’s way. Langur are at the top of the leopard’s dietary preference and so no wonder they prefer to be where the leopard is not subjected to any temptation. The Sambhar has fallen silent. This means that he can no longer see the tiger or leopard.

Indian Gaur, Munnar in winter. See the frost on the grass.

Then as you look at the deep shadows, one of the shadows moves and comes out into the open which is illuminated brightly by the moon. You can see the shine of the black coat and the white socks. You hear the snort as the bull clears his nose. The Gaur are here. As he gives the all-clear the cows and calves come out and all of them move to the shallow pool to drink. There is not enough water for all of them to drink together so they will remain there for as long as it takes for the pool to keep filling as they keep emptying it.

The presence of one herbivore is a sign to the others that the situation is safe. It is essential of course for us to keep silent, breathing softly and staying completely still. It is amazing how highly developed the senses of animals are, whose life literally depends on this. Make the slightest movement or sound and they vanish as if they had never been there. Raman seems carved in stone. I recall all my early childhood training in jungle craft and silently thank Uncle Rama and Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me to take care of myself and to reconstruct the story of the forest from the signs. Nobody could have had or wished for better teachers. Nawabsab spent many years in the Anamallais as a tea planter and he was my inspiration to join planting. A decision that I have always been very pleased about. Thanks to my decade long career as a planter, I learnt many valuable skills and life lessons and had the privilege of collecting some of the most beautiful memories and friends of my life. Raman and I sit in complete silence and watch the animals which are less than twenty meters away.

I had put out blocks of rock salt (salt licks) and some of the animals move away towards the salt lick and eventually even sit down to chew the cud around the salt lick. I have seen Sambar pick their way between resting gaur to get to the salt, all in perfect harmony with each other. As the night passes, we can hear elephants feeding in the forest bordering Manjaparai but that night they decide not to come out into the open. The night is now almost completely silent. All the grazing and hunting has been done. Now the whole world is resting. The time is 3 am according to the glow of my watch dial. The night is very, very cold. A breeze has started which blows unhindered up the slope of Manjaparai. The bison (gaur) herd has moved off back into the forest. There is nothing in sight. Raman and I are both shivering with our teeth chattering. We silently decide to descend onto the rock and light a fire. The firewood has already been collected the previous evening and is at the foot of the tree. We get down to the rock and Raman sets about creating a very nice and bright bonfire. To enjoy a fire truly one must first be at freezing point. Then you light the fire and sit in front of it and toast yourself. That is bliss.

Of course it destroys your night vision and if you have to suddenly turn and look into the darkness you are completely blind, but then in our case there is nothing to see in the darkness and so we both sit before the fire, wrapped in our blankets and talk of various matters grave enough to be spoken of at 3 am. It is amazing how people who we may dismiss as illiterate and uneducated (not that I ever did that), make observations, reflect upon them, and form educated opinions. A favorite topic with most Indians is politics and the antics of politicians. We are a very politically savvy people. We understand our politicians like nobody else. But what beats me is how we always manage to elect such puerile ones. Like the joke goes, ‘What happens when a politician drowns in the river?’ ‘It is called pollution.’ ‘What happens when they all drown?’ ‘It is called a solution.’

Raman and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn. Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.

Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.

The final payoff of our trip is at hand. The sun is starting to rise. The sky catches fire. The flames rise higher. And then the top curve of the ball of fire appears on the horizon and rises rapidly upwards. The light is now strong. A new day has been born and I am fortunate enough to witness it. What price can I place on this privilege? All it took is a little discomfort of sitting half the night on the top of a tree. I thank Allahﷻ for showing me His creation.

Lion-tailed Macaque – pronounced locally Yal-Tee-Yum

The new day starts with the Nilgiri Whistling Thrush (Whistling Schoolboy bird) and his liquid melody which he changes at will. We had a nesting pair in the Golden Showers creeper in our veranda. I used to whistle back, and he would respond. If I stopped, he would whistle and wait for me to reply. I have no idea what I was saying in his language, but whatever it was, he seemed to like it. I can’t describe the joy of beginning every day with that to start me off. On Manjaparai, I can hear the Yal-Tee-Yams (LTM – Lion-tailed Macaque – Macaca silenus) announcing that the new day is here. Then as the light strengthens, Jungle Fowl descend from the trees and the cocks call out their challenge; kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. You don’t normally hear the alarm calls of Sambar or Barking Deer at this time because the hunters have already hunted and are now resting after their meal. Langur call, just the communication calls.

You may hear the elephant herd, if you are downwind of them. First you will smell them. Then the squeal of the youngsters, feeling their oats early in the morning, usually butting each other and testing their strength while the matriarch leads them to the river to drink and bathe. As they walk, you can hear branches breaking as they feed, stomach rumbles, the low frequency call of the matriarch (you feel the vibration more than hear it) as she gives some instruction to her family. Even a trumpet occasionally. Just a honk of the horn. Not the scream of rage as an elephant thunders down on you at fifty miles an hour with the intention of wiping you off the face of the earth. That happenedto me once, a week after I joined as a brand-new Assistant Manager, but I managed to escape.  The memory however is still fresh and lives with me. You can’t hear the hyper-low frequency calls which travel over a hundred miles, by which herds widely apart, communicate with one another. What do they say?

Then the wind shifts and their super sensitive sense, gets a whiff of you. Suddenly there is total silence. You hear nothing. No branches snapping, no squealing, no rumbles, no trumpeting. Not a dry twig will snap under a foot which has a sole like a truck tyre bearing a weight of four tons, but which can tread as softly as a feather when it wants to. If you could see them, you would see ears fanning for sounds, trunks raised, taking in sniffs of air and blowing them into the mouth to taste it. Their eyesight is not great but their hearing and smell more than makes up for that. Add to that a memory that is legendary and the fact that they are in familiar surroundings and know every patch of forest. Who knows what other senses they bring to bear to decide whether you present a threat or not? Before you realize it, the herd has gone, like the mist in the early morning. One minute they were there, and the next, there is only your memory of an encounter that will stay with you all your life.

Grey Hornbill feeding his mate who is sealed inside the nest in the tree hollow
Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka

As the daylight strengthens, birds come alive. They gather at their favorite trees to feed on berries, and on insects which get flushed by the berry eaters or to scratch in the dirt at the bottom of the tree for worms, beetles and caterpillars. Insects have a hard time in life, though they are so critical to everyone else’s survival. If you stand quietly and watch, you can see the tree divided into zones in which different species of birds operate. The most popular trees for birds, in this forest on the Western Ghats is the Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis), especially when it is in fruit. The tree itself is excellent nesting habitat for birds. Owls and Parakeets live in its hollows. Hornbills use those hollows to make their nests. Black Eagles, Changeable Hawk-eagles and other raptors make nests in the topmost branches. Imperial Pigeons, Green Pigeons, Ring-necked and other doves, crows, and many others, nest in the Banyan. This is a very productive tree to watch if you want to photograph birds. All this activity is accompanied by an absolute cacophony of sound with all the birds talking to one another at the top of their voices. No birdsong as such. This is feeding time and they are in a frenzy.

Changeable Hawk-eagle juvenile
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

We often like to talk about the peace of the forest. That is a myth. The forest is a place of intense activity where to survive you need senses honed to perfection, total physical fitness, lightning reflexes and total awareness. The price of carelessness is hunger or death. And all this, every waking, living day and night of your life. No overweight animals in the forest and no pot bellies. The only exception are elephants, who thanks to their size and lifestyle of living together in family groups taking care of one another, can afford to relax. Life in the forest is all about survival. Whether you are a bird, reptile, mammal, amphibian or fish, it is all about survival. You must do one of two things and for some, you must do both; find food and prevent yourself from becoming food. Add to that finding mates, building nests, raising young and all the while protecting them and yourself from others who need to kill you to raise their own young and you have a very lethal and non-peaceful environment. But one in which you feel alive constantly. No time for depression, boredom or anxiety – all very human ailments.

To survive in the forest, you must be able to read it like you read a book. Observe signs, know what they mean and know what to do when you see them. Some you will see, some you hear, some you smell and to all you pay attention very carefully. You must know that you are also generating signs, most of the time unconsciously. And while you are not the natural food for anyone, you can get yourself into trouble if by your behavior you are seen as a threat, especially to the young of someone else. This is almost the only reason that people get injured, bitten or even killed in the forest. The solution is to learn woodcraft. If you know how to behave in a forest, you can be safe and enjoy yourself in one that is inhabited by all the potentially dangerous species you can think of. I am speaking of Indian and Sri Lankan forests. African forests are somewhat different in this respect. I have walked, camped, even slept in riverbeds in forests in India, inhabited by tigers, leopards, gaur, wild dogs, elephants and of course snakes and here I am writing about it all. That is because I learnt what to do and have a lot of respect for those whose territory, I am in.

African forests are different primarily because of lions. African lions are very different from Indian tigers and leopards and are addicted to junk food. I believe, so also are African leopards and Spotted Hyenas. So, sleeping in riverbeds in Africa is not what I would advise. I wouldn’t advise that in India or Sri Lanka either as a matter of course, but as I said, if you needed to, you could do that here. But in Africa, if you find yourself in such a situation, where there is a possibility of lions in the vicinity, find yourself a tall tree and climb it as far up as you can get. Think of yourself as a bag of potato chips or a bar of chocolate if you like. You get the message? Having said that, there are unfenced resorts in wildlife parks where you can camp and as long as you are inside your tent or in your car, you are safe. But if you need to go in the night, because when you gotta go you gotta go, it presents interesting possibilities. Not my idea of a holiday for sure.

To return to our story, it was as if I was watching a flashback movie. As I sat on the rock, eating my egg roll I remembered all these things as vividly as if I were watching it happen all over again. Twenty years had passed. The gaur I saw are all gone. So are the Langur. Their offspring have taken their place. Raman is there with me, but his hair is now jet black with hair dye. My beard is a salt-pepper shade with far more salt than pepper. There is change, but the rock is timeless. So is the forest. Ever changing of course, but strangely, still the same. Not often is one privileged to go back in time. I finished my meal and lay down on the rock close to the stream to sleep for a while. Raman & Raman moved away to either ends of the open space to take up watch positions. We are old friends and companions. Nothing needs to be said. Each knows what he should do. I can hear the small stream gurgling as I drift off into the best sleep that I have had in a very long time.

Sunset in the Anamallais, Lower Sheikalmudi Estate

I woke up as the sun started its final journey to America. Only if it set here could the Americans have another day. So, we can’t delay it, can we? We gathered our things and started off back home, this time on a new track past the tea that I had planted 20 years ago. Today I was very eager to see what had become of it. Once again, we descended into the dark thickness of the undergrowth at the bottom of Manjaparai, now a little apprehensive as we can see fresh sign of elephant. We walk in single file with Raman in the lead and me at the rear with our friends who are new to this environment in the middle. We walk silently. Everyone has been given instructions about what to do if we come across elephants. But nothing as exciting as that happens and we emerge into what has become known as Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden – the name that the pluckers gave it). I looked at it with tears in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sight that I had seen in a long time.

Baig Dorai Thotam – the tea I planted in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 1987, as seen in 2007

The tea has been extremely well looked after. They had done a height reduction prune to it and it is now back in plucking. Flat as a table, deep green maintenance foliage with light green plucking shoots standing proud and tall. Someone obviously has done an extremely fine job here. I was delighted that I had decided to come here and visit after so long.

We climbed up on another rock on the border of the tea overlooking the thick evergreen rain forest that the Anamallais are famous for. There is a single Spathodia in full bloom in the middle of the sea of green, the flame red color of the flowers standing out like a bonfire. I can see why it is called the Flame of the Forest. We sit in silence and watch the sun rise somewhere else. As the night descends, I thank Allahﷻ once again for giving me this opportunity to come back and see the result of my work and meet my old friends. I feel privileged and honored.