Grass Hills

Grass Hills

The Anamallai Hills are a ridge that is between three thousand five hundred to six thousand feet high and goes like the backbone of an elephant right down the Western side of India to the tip of the subcontinent. Even though it is not called by this name all along this journey and the name changes to High Range in Munnar and then other names, but it is the same range of mountains…all a part of the Western Ghats.

From Valparai Taluk, where the tea plantations of the Anamallais are and where I lived for seven years, there is a clear section of the ridge that goes all the way to Munnar in Kerala. These are the famous Grass Hills.

They are called Grass Hills because the hilltops are covered with tough tussocky grass which looks like a beautiful lawn from a distance but is very tough to walk through. The closest that I have seen to these are the Moors of Northumberland in England and Scottish Highlands. The land is very acidic and unable to grow anything else. The local Forest Department in its usual ham-handed way decided in the early 80’s to plant Eucalyptus trees and convert the Grass Hills into money making machines. Nobody of course thought to ask the most logical question, “Why is it that if this land could grow trees, there is not a single tree to be seen?” But many millions of rupees and many thousands of man-hours later they learnt the lesson the hard way that these hills will grow nothing but the grass that’s on them. In the grass are also some other small shrubs that are resistant to the wind and cold of the hilltops, which once in a year put forth the most beautiful flowers. I am not enough of a botanist to know all the names, but one of these flowers is famous and gives its name to the hills, Nilgiri – Blue Mountains.

I quote from a website dedicated to the flower:
Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. The Nilgiris, which literally means the blue mountains, got its name from the purplish-blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms gregariously once in 12 years. Once they used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Neelakurinji is the best known of a genus whose members have flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years. It belongs to the family of Acanthaceae. The genus has more than 500 species, of which at least 56 occur in India. Besides the Western Ghats, Neelakurinji is seen in the Shevroys in the Eastern Ghats. It occurs at an altitude of 1300 to 2400 metres. The plant is usually 30 to 60 centimeters high on the hills. They can, however, grow well beyond 180 cm under congenial conditions at lower elevations. Plants that bloom at long intervals like Kurinji are called Plietesials.

The valleys are thickly forested often with little streams and waterfalls in them. These are called ‘Shola’ forests in Tamil. The Shola vegetation is peculiar to this habitat and is not found lower down. The trees have thick gnarled trunks, leathery leaves and grow densely together. This means that below them there is no undergrowth and creates a microclimate that is very cool, even cold. The streams flowing in the Sholas add moisture and this encourages the growth of moss, lichens and orchids and in the higher reaches, Rhododendrons. Philodendrons of many kinds are found in plenty, using the tree trunks to pull themselves upwards in the never-ending struggle for light.

Walking under the trees in the Shola forests is an experience that is impossible to describe but which once lived is never forgotten. Your footing is very uneven and slippery and so you must walk carefully. The ground is soft and damp and usually inclined, so you have one foot higher than the other as you walk. Not very conducive to long walks. But as you walk, suddenly you hear a rustle and a loud cackle and you see the fast disappearing tail feathers of a Jungle Cock and his harem, who were busily feeding on seeds and insects until you disturbed their breakfast. At this altitude in South India, it is the Grey Jungle Fowl that you will see. The females, as in the case of many birds, are a plain brown, their beauty lying only in the eyes of the beholding roosters. However, the males are flamboyant (takes more to attract a woman, I guess) with literally fluorescent, scintillating colored feathers, especially on the neck, which we call the hackle. These feathers shine and change color depending on the angle of the sunlight. The head is topped by a blood-red comb and the tail is a flowing graceful postscript to the whole story of the Grey Jungle Fowl. Just to see them move is a joy. Having extolled their virtues, let me add that they are very good eating, though a lot more gamey than the farmed free range chickens. The hackle makes extremely good flies for fly fishing and a couple of hackle feathers in a hat look very attractive indeed. However, farm chickens are easier to get and the hackle looks far nicer on the neck of the rooster, so leave them alone and shoot only with your camera.

Another delightful inhabitant of the Shola forests is the Malabar Whistling Thrush – also called the Whistling Schoolboy bird. It is a gorgeous blue-black bird, slightly larger than a Myna (the size of a Starling) and whistles just like we do. It is most vocal in the early mornings and late evenings and is an absolute delight to listen to. There was a pair that used to nest in a thick vine of Golden Showers which overhung the veranda roof of my bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, and it was wonderful to open your eyes every morning to the whistling of the beautiful bird. Grass Hill Shola forests have more than their fair share of these birds and you can hear them as you walk along the side of the Sholas, picking your way through the tussocks of grass.

Snakes are around, especially at lower elevations, so keeping an eye open and wearing leather walking shoes is a good idea. In the stream of light that is let in because of the death of one of the trees in the Shola, you will find lush growth of grass, other vegetation, and sometimes an explosion of flowers. These sunny patches are also ideal places to look for the Muntjac antelope, also called Barking Deer. Its alarm call sounds like the bark of a dog, thus the name. When a Barking Deer is calling, almost always it means that he is looking at a leopard or tiger on the prowl and is warning all those who can understand the call to be on their guard. The Sambar is a more reliable sentinel for this warning, but the Muntjac is not too bad either. It’s only that the Muntjac is skittish and sometimes calls even when he is imagining one of the major predators.

The Shola forests of Grass Hills are ideal habitat for both predator and prey species. The forests impartially shelter leopards, tigers, wild boar, Muntjac, and Sambar. The thick shade hides the hunters and helps the hunted to escape. Depending of course on who sees whom first. Grass Hills and that entire ridge is also home to the Nilgiri Tahr (mistakenly called Ibex). These mountain goats live on the rocks walking up and jumping down from one invisible fold in the rock to another sometimes to get away from predators but often just for the fun of it. Their main predator is the leopard and they retreat to the inaccessible vertical ridges in the night to rest in relative safety.

The Grass Hills are also home to elephants and it is amazing to see how these huge animals negotiate steep ridges. First of all, they follow the easiest gradients as they go to the top. Many a savvy road engineer in these parts has simply widened an old elephant track to convert it into a motorable road, saving himself some arduous surveying. Then when they reach the top and have to actually negotiate the ridge, they walk in single file, each holding the tail of the one before it. And as they climb over the ridge, the one behind gives the one ahead a push as he needs it. On the way down they do it more simply – they sit down, keep their forelegs extended before them to act as speed breakers, and toboggan down the slope on their behinds.

As you climb up from Akkamalai Estate in the Anamallais after walking about 14 kilometers you eventually come upon a substantial stream. In the 70’s and 80’s it used to be stocked with Brown Trout. Check dams were built to make shallow pools and maintained by enthusiastic planters from nearby estates (Mr. Basith Khan of Tea Estates India was one) so that the level of water in the pools did not fall too low. These pools are important for the trout to feed and make good places to fish for them.

The check dams and the little pools they created became good drinking places for Gaur, Sambar, and elephant. While Sambar do not do any damage to the dam, Gaur and elephant sometimes inadvertently broke the dam and the water would drain away. This was disastrous for the fish, which would either be stranded or in the case of the young fry, would become easy prey for the many Kingfishers in the area. So, these dams had to be regularly maintained. Given that maintenance, the Grass Hills stream provided some excellent fly fishing in an ambience that simply can’t be equaled. Where else in the world could you imagine being able to watch a herd of elephants or a lone Sambar while you were standing on the bank of the stream casting your fly? I won’t talk about what the sight does to your casting because that is something that you have to experience.

The APA (Anamallai Planter’s Association) had built a cottage at one point, called the Grass Hills Hut. It was a substantial two-bedroom cottage with a small veranda and an elephant trench all around. There was a flimsy bridge made of planks that you had to walk across to get inside. This was essential because without it elephants would try to re-engineer the hut; something which they did manage to do on a couple of occasions. It then fell into disuse and later the Forest Department took it over and has now constructed a big concrete structure in its place at a huge cost, totally incongruous and sticking out like a sore thumb. But then how else can you spend public money if not in such obvious ways?

I used to go to Grass Hills as often as I could with my two companions, the Raman brothers. They were cousins and had the same name. We would leave my motorcycle in the garage of the Assistant Manager of Akkamalai Estate – it didn’t matter if you knew the person or not. It was our code of hospitality that at such places your house was open to anyone who needed help. If someone wanted to park a car or motorcycle or needed some petrol or a cup of tea, he only had to ask and it was all provided with a smile. As I mentioned the distance to the APA Hut is about fourteen kilometers. If you don’t take the road and instead walk up the hillside it is a couple of kilometers shorter, but you need a lot of stamina for the climb. The climb is steep, the elevation (six thousand feet) takes its toll especially if you are not used to it – as I discovered when I went to the Grass Hills in 2007 after a gap of twenty years. The footing is very rough and uncertain as the tough tussocky grass grows in clumps and you have to find your way between clumps. If it has been raining, then almost every single blade of grass will have a leech or two on it and you are more than likely to be viewed as manna from heaven by them. But if you can overcome the effort and the bloodshed then you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular views that you could ever imagine. The road is simpler and easier but like all simpler and easier tasks, less rewarding.

On one occasion the Raman brothers and I decided to walk up to a high ridge, which has some caves. When we eventually reached there, we discovered that there was a whole field of marijuana being cultivated in the valley behind the ridge and the cave was the living quarters of the farmers. In the middle was the cooking fire with their bedding stacked neatly in the corners. In one corner, there were wires to make snares for small game. Come to think of it, it was a very nice place to live with spectacular views, a stream of clear, cold water to drink from, a waterfall of ice cold water to shower under if you like that kind of thing, dry and warm accommodation, fresh meat, and safety from the long arm of the law. And if the arm did get extended this far, it was sent away with a handful of money. The occupants of the cave were not present when we reached there, which was probably a good thing for us.  
We descended the ridge and made our way to the APA Hut. There the Raman brothers got busy with the cooking of our evening meal, the makings of which we had carried with us while I went downstream with my rod to catch a fish or two for the pot. To my disappointment, the check-dams had been broken by elephants and the pools had been drained and so there were no fish to catch except some very small fingerlings which were not worth the effort. But that didn’t detract from the wonderful view of the sun going down behind the high ridge leaving behind an orange glow long after it had disappeared. I sat there until Raman the Elder came to call me. We ate our meal together and I got into my sleeping bag while the Ramans had their last smoke for the day before turning in. There was no need for a watch as we were surrounded by a trench around the hut. There is no danger in sleeping in the wild except from men with evil intentions.

Grass Hills is very cold at night so a good sleeping bag is essential. It is a very rare pleasure to be able to lie in your sleeping bag and listen to the sound of silence, broken occasionally by the call of the hunter or the unlucky hunted as it ends its life. Then there is the hooting of the owl and the occasional moan of the tiger. But for the most part the night at that elevation is silent. As the sky lightens, the precursor of dawn, I hear stirring in the kitchen where the Ramans made their bed. Social barriers (I was the manager) remain despite my every attempt at destroying them. But the fact that I don’t practice them gets me loyalty that transcends time.

When I visited the Anamallais in 2007, one of the things I did was to revisit Grass Hills with my friends, the Ramans. They were as eager to go there again as I was. This time we didn’t spend a night in the hut, but we did the walk up the hill, a source of great satisfaction and achievement for us all as we were still able to do it, despite being twenty years older. Almost nothing has changed in Grass Hills, mainly because the road is unmotorable and people are too lazy to do the climb. So it remains relatively untouched. We did see a dozen forest guards with backpacks walking back from the Forest Department Cottage, which is what the APA Hut has been transformed into. What they are doing there in those numbers, I have no clue. But I hope it is something for the preservation of that wonderful habitat.

The Anamallais in general and the Grass Hills in particular are surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was privileged to live there and visit the Grass Hills on many occasions. I hope those who live there today feel equally privileged to do so and make the effort to leave these places alone and undisturbed. Going by what I saw when I was there last, I must say that I was not reassured.

Respect earns respect

Respect earns respect

There are ocean people and others who are mountain people; and yet others who are city people. I, am of the forest people. Wildlife, open spaces, mountains and forests have always been a very significant influence in my life. There is an instant connection that I find with forests. And every once in a while I rejuvenate myself by spending time in forests, listening to them, watching animals, and simply being.

The sounds of the forest herald the passing of time and the arrival of the night and day. And they vary from place to place. In the Anamallais, the rain forests of the Western Ghats, there are no peacocks, who are usually the first heralds of the coming night in the forests of central India. In the Anamallais, the first heralds are Jungle Fowl roosters. They start calling (as they do at the approach of the morning) as they go to roost. They make sure that they are perched high up out of harm’s way well before it becomes fully dark. I must add this piece here. I was in the Anamallais in April, 2013 and to my intense surprise found peacocks thriving. This is a clear indicator that the amount of rainfall has decreased, for peacocks don’t survive in high rainfall areas like the rain forests of the Western Ghats. I asked around and everyone agreed that this was the first time in living memory that anyone had seen peacocks in the Anamallais. Alarming news.

To go back to our story, after the Jungle Fowl roosters come the calls of the Lion Tailed Macaques and the Langur sentinels who boom out their announcement to the world. These calls are not alarm calls. They are just to let their troops know that it is time to settle down for the night. Closer at hand you can hear the ‘Brrrrr!!’ of the Night Jar as it settles in the middle of a path or in a clearing and suddenly darts up to catch the unwary moth. As the sky darkens, you hear the hoot of the newly awake owl (many different species) as it ruffles its feathers and gets ready to take off on its nocturnal hunt. Then there is silence for a while. As the night progresses and if you are lucky, you can suddenly hear the ‘Dhank! Dhank!’ alarm call of the Sambhar as it sights a Tiger or Leopard out on the prowl. Sometimes you will hear the sawing growl of the leopard.  The sawing call of the leopard is for courtship. Usually the cats go on silently so as not to alarm their prey unduly. 

In the winters late in the night you will hear the moaning roar of the tigress, during which she literally bends down and booms off the earth and the sound of which travels for many miles. Sometimes the tigress calls continuously for hours. At other times you will hear her on and off. At all times it is a thrilling sound guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck. Tigers don’t have a breeding season as such but I seem to recall hearing them mostly in the winter in the Aravallies. The primordial memories of the hunter and the hunted travel through the genes. As do their responses.

In the Anamallais, which is prime elephant country you can also hear the king of the forest as the whole clan moves along, grazing. Branches breaking, sometimes a tree pushed over so that the hungry pachyderm can get at the succulent leaves at the top, which he loves. The rumbling of their bellies and the snorting of mothers and aunts as they try to keep the calves in line. Calves squealing and the sounds of playful trumpeting as they sometimes engage in mock battles. Sometimes you can hear the long moaning rumble of the matriarch as she calls to others who only she knows about. This low frequency sound carries for many miles and is answered by other family groups in the vicinity. As they are all happily going about their business of feeding and playing, the wind changes and they get a scent of you sitting in the tree. And there is change as if by magic. The noisy group of huge animals instantly falls silent and moves through the forest like shadows. It seems amazing to those who have not had the good fortune of encountering elephants in the wild and have not seen how silently and quickly they can move in the thick forest. Not a leaf crackles. Not a branch snaps underfoot. When the elephant wants to move silently he becomes a ghost. And he is gone.

On one occasion I was walking along a forest path in Manamboli in the Anamallais when I smelt elephants. So, I simply got off the path and into the forest, not more than a few meters away, hidden in the foliage. As I stood there, waiting for them, the whole herd emerged around the corner, all headed to the river from which I had just come. Believe me, they knew I was there and knew I was coming down that path far better than I could ever sense their movement. There was the matriarch who led the herd, some other females, young calves and a couple of bulls. But all of them simply walked past me without any comment. The one thing you learn in the forest is that respect gets respect. You respect the animals and they respect you and leave you alone. You are not in the slightest danger unless you do something silly like trying to scare them, or run away in fright or in some cases if you are completely unaware of their presence and blunder into them. Otherwise a normal wild animal will never attack you unprovoked. Animals are far better mannered than humans.

On another occasion, I was on my Royal Enfield motorcycle with a bag of cash on the petrol tank. The tradition in the tea gardens where I was the Manager is that workers are paid in cash directly by the Manager. This is considered the respectful way to do it. Workers would all line up outside the Muster on payday and come in when their name was called and greet you and take the money and thank you. For each one you returned the greeting, paid the money, waited for them to count it, returned their thanks and then called out the next name. Sounds tedious but it is a brilliant way to learn people’s names and to build relationships. To do this, we used to take the cash out of the safe in the Estate Office, count it – amounting sometimes to half a million rupees – and take it to the Divisional Muster for the payment. It is a mark of the safety of the times that we could do all this without any ‘security’. I can’t recall a single instant when anyone was ever held up and the cash stolen.

To return to my story of respecting animals, on this day I was going to the Candura Division in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and decided to take a shortcut through our coffee plantation which bordered the forest. This was one of my favorite routes as in the short drive of perhaps five kilometers I could be sure to see several species of animals or birds. There were Grey Hornbills, Malabar Squirrels, Lion Tailed Macaques (which the locals called Yel-Tee-Yam). In season, Green Imperial Pigeons beautifully camouflaged and usually on the topmost branches of the figs that attract them when they start fruiting. The fig is the best tree to attract birds. So there I was, gently riding my bike, looking around to see what I could spot; the finely tuned engine just turning over almost silent when I turned a corner and right in the middle of the road was a very large Gaur bull. Lone bulls usually mean trouble. And when that is a Gaur, standing six feet plus at the shoulder and weighing half a ton or more, it is generally not good news. But what could I do? I was on my bike on a narrow forest road with a steep bank on one side and a drop on the other. The only way I could even turn the bike would have been to get off and do many back and forth pushing and pulling. Anyone who has ridden a Royal Enfield can understand what I was facing. Trying all these gymnastics on a jungle track, balancing half a million rupees in a duffel bag on the tank with a bull Gaur as your audience is not my idea of fun.

So, I did what any sensible person who knows animals would do. Nothing. I did nothing. I just stopped, kept the engine idling and looked at him. He looked at me for what felt like a couple of hours but was perhaps ten seconds, snorted and with great dignity, moved aside to let me pass. He didn’t run away. He didn’t even go far from the road. He just moved aside. I knew what he was telling me and so I put the bike in gear and also with dignity, unhurried, rode past him. He could have ambushed me or attacked me as I passed him or after, but I knew he wouldn’t do it. He knew he didn’t need to. And here I am remembering him and our meeting.

The final story of this dispatch is to do with Wild Dogs, the dreaded Dhole. Anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling will remember the Dhole. Romantic notions apart, they are a top predator and hunt in packs. The Dhole is a very handsome animal with a reddish-brown coat and a black-tipped tail. They can’t bark and communicate in whistles. Their favorite prey in the Anamallais is Sambhar. The individual dog can’t possibly kill the Sambhar which is far bigger and heavier but the pack working together is an unbeatable team. They literally run the animal to the ground and when you are talking about thick forests on steep mountains, that doesn’t take too long. Then they hamstring it and when it drops, start eating it alive. Nature is sometimes very ugly. But there it is. An ecologist friend said to me that the Sambhar at the end is probably so pumped full of adrenalin that it doesn’t feel a thing, but I am not so sure because sometimes they take a very long time to die, mostly due to loss of blood. Meanwhile they have the Dhole tearing into them and eating their living flesh. Definitely not a sight for anyone.

My story has to do with one day when one of my workers came racing to me and between panting breaths told me that a pack of Dhole had taken down a pregnant Sambhar doe and were eating her, very close to the worker’s quarters which we called Labour Lines. There is a lot of military terminology in the tea gardens, a memory of the first British planters who were military officers who came to India after being de-mobbed. I followed the man to the site. The doe was lying on her side in the middle of a clearing, almost all of it covered by sheet rock, in the middle of a valley surrounded on two sides by tea and on one side by the forest. She had been chased out of the forest and seemed to have come there to take refuge with people who Dhole avoid but before she could reach the quarters, she had collapsed. The pack was in a feeding frenzy, making excited yelping sounds. There were fifteen animals in the pack which is quite large for a single pack but when food is plentiful they tend to have large litters.

I watched from the edge of the valley for a bit and thought I could see the doe still kicking. I decided to put the poor animal out of its misery and drew my knife and walked down into the valley. The Dhole saw me coming, whistled to each other and moved off a few meters away and sat down in a semi-circle watching me. I walked up the doe and realized that she was dead. The kicking I had seen, was the result of the Dhole pulling at her carcass. They had ripped open her belly and eaten her unborn fetus, udders and were feeding on the stomach contents from which they get minerals. Definitely not a pretty sight. I made sure the Sambhar doe was dead and turned around and retraced my steps. The Dhole watched me go and returned to their kill. They never threatened me or made any attempt to attack. They knew I was not going to steal their prize. I don’t know what else they thought. But I do know that when you respect animals, they respect you. 
Forest days and nights

Forest days and nights

One of the greatest needs today is for us, human beings, to get back in touch with nature. It is not our evil intent but our indifference, ignorance and disconnect that is the root cause behind global warming, environmental destruction, wildlife extinction, pollution of rivers and oceans and the consequent backlash to our own existence. If not altruism, then at least selfishness and the instinct for self-preservation should galvanize us to stop doing the things which will invariably and inexorably result in our own extinction. If we were to ask the animals, birds and insects; if we were to ask the fish in the ocean; they would all unanimously say that they are waiting for that day of extinction of the one species which had the greatest knowledge, gifts, material wealth and power, but which it used not to help others or even itself but to commit suicide while destroying the only home it will ever have. I sometimes imagine archeologists digging up the mounds of earth covering our cities with their great libraries, universities and laboratories and wonder how people who knew so much ignored that knowledge and did their best to destroy themselves, successfully.

That is why I believe that it is essential for us to get back in touch with nature, with the wild places on the earth; precious few that we have left; and with nature in every little way that is still with us in our own dwelling places. We need to learn the value of silence, of listening, of breathing fresh air and savoring the aromas it wafts to us and recognize them as the signatures of those who share this planet with us. I use the word, ‘Share’, very consciously because it is that attitude which must result from our encounter with nature. Sharing is the understanding that the other is co-owner with me. That I don’t own it and the other doesn’t enjoy it at my pleasure. Sharing is the true essence of citizenship; not of some nation state created by drawing lines on a map but of the earth, which we share with everyone else on it. To experience sharing is to experience respect for our fellow beings, human or otherwise. 

Sadly, we have learnt to live as conquerors, despoilers, looters and exploiters of the earth. That is why we call climbing to the top of a great mountain, ‘conquering’ that mountain. If you could hear, you’d hear the mountain laugh its guts out at the audacity of mankind which pretends to conquer something that existed aeons before humans came into being and will continue aeons after the last of them has walked the plank. We carry this same attitude with respect to the rest of our fellow citizens, who we kill for commercial gain, for sport, or simply to sight our weapons; who we hook on a line and call their desperate death struggles – a good fight.

[email protected]! Enough of that. Enough of lamenting. Let us see what we can do about it. How can we inculcate a love for nature, respect for it, appreciation of it, awareness of our own role; not as some conqueror; but as a small but important cog in the wheel of life. It is this love which leads me to the forest. It is this love that I want to transfer from my heart into yours.

To love the forest, you must learn to become a part of it. To feel, sense, listen, see and breathe like the wild things do. Buzzing around in 4X4 vehicles chasing animals, disturbing their peace, talking loudly, throwing out plastic litter, hanging out of the widows or over the sides taking pictures; all this despicable behavior must stop. To love the forest, you must walk in it. You must sit by a stream or waterhole, your outline broken by a bush and sit so still that even your breathing becomes invisible. Then the magic happens.

It was 1970. I was 15 years old, sitting in a blind that had been cut into the middle of a wild Ber thorn bush on the bank of a nameless tributary of Dotti Vaagu which in its turn is a tributary of River Kadam. Very cramped space, a log to sit on and a small space opened in the front of the bush to stick the barrel of the gun through to give me a clear shot, if some animal came to drink water. The bush itself was about 50 yards up the slope that borders the water hole. On this very hot summer day, this is the only source of water for miles around, left over dregs from the monsoon when this little trickle flowed bank to bank. It is summer, temperatures in the high 40’s Celsius. In this part of the Sahyadri Range, it is so dry that you don’t sweat. Or rather, the sweat dries so fast that you only see its white encrusted salt deposits in the armpits of your shirt when you take it off. 

The breeze, when it blows, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the stillness is stifling, but on the other, when the breeze blows, it is like the blowback from a furnace. Well, not quite that bad but almost. However, what is wonderful and the reason I am waiting for it, is the smells it brings. If you spend enough time in the forest and have a good teacher to teach you to recognize sights, smells and sounds, it is like reading a book. You sniff the air and it tells you its own story.

There are many smells in the forest and they vary depending on the time of day and the time of year, the season. In the early morning in summer, it smells like first rain; the smell of dew from the previous night. Despite the heat of the day, night temperature drops 10 degrees or more and so there is often heavy dew fall. That nourishes whatever vegetation escaped being dried off by the sun and is the source of water for the hundreds even thousands of insect, reptile and even some mammal species in the forest. This moisture in the summer smells like first rain. Incidentally, in Hyderabad, our perfumers (Attar) had developed an Atar (perfume) called Gil, which means moist earth, based on the smell of first rain. 

Depending on where you are, the breeze can bring to you the smell of the territory markings of a tiger, which urinates on specific trees, rocks and outcrops to warn off potential competitors. The strong smell of bovine urine can mean that there is or has been a Gaur (bison) herd in the vicinity. And depending on the forest, there is the smell of elephant. That is one smell you learn to recognize very early or you reach the point of no return. It is important to remember that animals can smell much more keenly than we can and so wearing after shave, perfume or even bathing with a perfumed soap can ensure that you never see a butterfly all day because animals smelt you a mile away and took another route. Same goes for tobacco, cigarettes, bidis and whatnot. I would bathe after my return from the forest in the night and go back the next morning without bathing. Sweat is natural and doesn’t drive animals away.

When you sit silently, you become a part of the surroundings. Your ears initially buzz with the residual sound of the bustle you have left behind. But after a while, they fall silent and then you begin to hear the sounds of the forest. The buzzing of cicadas, the incessant call of the Brain-fever bird, the distant barking of dogs from the village.

Then as your ears get more attuned to the sounds, you start hearing the subtler ones; the rustle of leaves as a rat snake makes his way from one shaded spot to another, the cooing of turtle doves, bark of the Chital sentry when she sees something alarming. You hear the breeze in the dry leaves on the forest floor as they play chase with each other.

Teak trees having shed most of their leaves, the dominant color is brown. There is very little shade, except under the Ber and Acacia thorn bushes like the one I am sitting in. There is some bamboo, but most of it is young and does not provide shade. There are no elephants in this forest, but Gaur (bison) browse on what they can reach of the bamboo and so do Chital, Sambar, and Nilgai.

As I sit very still, even controlling my breathing, knowing that above all else it is movement that attracts attention and becomes visible, I suddenly see a pair of jackals materialize in front of me. The bitch is more cautious and is lagging behind. The dog is ahead. Both sense that something is perhaps not as it should be. However, the wind is blowing steadily in my face and so I know they can’t smell me. The bitch even looks directly at me; perhaps she knows, maybe she can sense the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe or maybe it is an old memory she is trying to place. The moment passes and she follows her mate into the open. First, they drink, then they sit in the water on the edge and cool off in the intense heat of the day, then they start playing, chasing each other around like little puppies, secure in the knowledge that they are alone. It is a very rare moment for me, to be observing animals doing what they do when they are not afraid.

Even if I had a video camera, it could never capture the entire atmosphere; the excitement, the challenge of sitting silent and still like a tree stump, my outline broken by the bush I am sitting inside. The memory of those jackals is still so vivid in my mind that even today, more than 40 years later, I can see them playing in and around the water. Nothing lives that long in the wild. That pair of jackals is long gone. But I will remember them and that day, all my life.

After a while I realize that the jackals are a mixed blessing. Their presence will allay the fears of other animals heading to the water, as it is an indication that all is well. But at the same time their presence will keep the smaller game, Chinkara, Chowsinga, and Black-naped Hare away from the water hole. I want to make them leave but without alarming them so much that they warn everyone else of my presence. I gently clear my throat.
It is as if an electric shock goes through their bodies. One minute they are carefree playmates. The next instant they go rigid for a split second and then like a flash, they are gone, each in a different direction to confuse the pursuer. I settle once again into the ritual of watching life happen.
This enforced immobility and silence, the attendant boredom, initially; then the flow of thoughts in the mind, while trying to keep aware of the surroundings, is an incredibly powerful exercise for introspection. And waiting for and watching animals on a watering hole is the best way to do it.
Muhammadﷺ, example for all times

Muhammadﷺ, example for all times

They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammad  is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history.

Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all? I am not speaking from the perspective of a Muslim for whom to study the life of Muhammad and to live his life in accordance with it, is a religious requirement. I am asking this from the perspective of a neutral reader, Muslim or not, who is looking for biographies to read.
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammad.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ 
I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. This is no longer an academic issue for people to write scholarly papers about. It is something that we, the people of the world, need to address recognizing it as the dire emergency that it is. If we don’t, the clock is ticking backwards for us and fast. And the time is very close where we will make our own position as the inhabitants of this earth; not its owners as we like to believe; completely untenable. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5thCentury Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. Let me describe the Makkah that Muhammad  was born, grew up and lived in, until the age of 50. That is a long time for someone to spend in one town but that is what Muhammad  did.
Makkah was a town with one single claim to fame – the Ka’aba. This is the House of Allah  built by Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) and was a place of pilgrimage from times immemorial. Access to the Ka’aba was open to anyone who wanted to come. The environs of the Ka’aba were declared a sanctuary with all killing, hunting and fighting banned within that sanctuary. This was the main reason why Makkah developed as a town, because it was a safe haven for everyone from any of the many frequently warring tribes.
Another similarity that 5th century Makkah had with our modern society is that it was a world of business. Businessmen were its leaders and they ran the town. Acquisition of wealth was the primary concern. Makkan society was materialistic based on a free market economy. Markets were not regulated by any central authority. Traders charged the best price they could get, hoarded in times of scarcity and sold at great profit and bought goods from as far afield as Syria and Yemen to sell in Makkah.  Makkah being as sort of aggregator of people from all of Arabia, was a great seller’s market where high prices could be commanded as goods sold in Makkah were simply not available in any other part of Arabia. That is how Makkan traders became its nobility and created a sort of oligarchy. You can draw similarities with our capitalist society today and see how close 5th century Arabia was to most of our 21st century world.
Makkah was also a multicultural and pluralistic place as all centers of trade tend to be. That is because if you want to promote trade you must make it easy and safe for people from multiple origins, belief systems and cultures to coexist peacefully. All that is good for business. And so it was. In Makkah, the local people mostly worshipped idols. But Jews, Christians, Magians all came and went from Makkah, each practicing his religion without any interference from anyone else. Very much like what happens in most Western countries today. And for the same reason; it is good for business.
The reason I’ve spent so much time on drawing a picture of Makkan society of the 5th century showing its similarities to our 21st century society is because I want to hypothesize that because Muhammad despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammad  didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammad  brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’, and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
I mention this here because in our race today, to garner all resources for oneself without a thought about others, we have created a society that is crying out in pain and grief. It is inconceivable to imagine that the resources of the world can possibly be concentrated in the hands of so few, but as they say, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. I can imagine the derision if any author dared to suggest that 62 people would own 50% of global assets and the rest of the world would watch silently. But that is not fiction. That is fact. For perspective, let me state that a bus has 65 seats excluding the driver’s seat.
What was the change that Muhammad wrought in his society?
In my view, there are three major principles that he promoted:

1.      Accountability to Allah from whom nothing is hidden
2.     Truthfulness  
3.     Spreading goodness all around

This is the essence of the religion he brought, Islam. That is why he said, ‘The best of you is the one who is the most beneficial to all people.’

Let us look at each of these principles in the life of Muhammadbriefly.

1.     Accountability to Allah from whom nothing is hidden

What makes a mistake a crime is that the criminal knows that what he is doing is illegal, immoral and wrong. People don’t commit sins, oppress others, commit violence or evil because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They do it because they think they can get away with it. Muhammad taught that this belief is a fallacy because no matter what we think, speak or do is known and seen by our Creator to whom we will return and to whom we must give an account of what we did.

Muhammad taught that good and evil are absolute values. They don’t depend on who does them or who these are done to. He taught that human values apply to all humans, not only to Muslims. On the contrary Muslims have an additional responsibility to act according to the values of their religion because they believe in Muhammad and in Islam.

He said to his daughter Fatima, ‘O! Fatima, don’t think that you will be favored by Allah because you are the daughter of His Messenger. You will stand before your Creator on the basis of your own deeds.’

2.    Truthfulness 

Muhammad was known among his people even before he started preaching Islam as As-Sadiq ul Ameen – The Truthful and Trustworthy. And that is what he taught his followers; to be truthful in every aspect of life. Someone asked him, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may be a coward?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may commit adultery?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked him, ‘What is it that a Muslim cannot possibly do?’ He replied, ‘A Muslim cannot tell a lie.’

He taught that virtue and vice are absolute values. They are not relative to your personal worth, religion, race or anything else. Right and wrong don’t depend on who does them. That is why truthfulness is the basis of all goodness. He held himself to this value of truthfulness to such an extent that when he was migrating to Madina from Makkah and his life was threatened, he still had valuables that his enemies had entrusted him with. Before he left, he gave them to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and instructed to return them to their owners. What can you say about the truthfulness of someone who was trusted by his own enemies?

3.    Spreading goodness all around
Muhammad said to his people, ‘The best of you is the one who is best to his neighbor.’ He didn’t say, ‘Muslim neighbor’. He said, ‘Neighbor.’ In Islam, there is no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims in respect of the rights of citizenship.
He said, ‘A Muslim is responsible for the welfare of his neighbors, up to seventy houses on either side of his house.’ Imagine a society that is based on this value of responsibility to one’s neighbors.
On another occasion, someone asked him how he could determine if he was a good man. Muhammad said to him, ‘If you neighbor says that you are good, then you are good. If your wife says that you are good, then you are good.’
Finally, on the issue of women’s rights which everyone today accuses Islam of denying. Women in Muhammad’s time were treated as property owned and inherited by men, to be used and abused at will. Women had no rights at all. Many Makkan people buried their newborn daughters to escape the cost of raising a girl child. Sounds familiar in today’s context? Let us see what Muhammadgave women in the 5th century.
1.  Right to own property and income and to keep whatever she earns without sharing anything of it.
2.     Right to be paid to bring up her own children including nursing them.
3.     Right to marry anyone of their choice.
4.  Right to divorce the husband even without his consent and to have this written in the marriage contract.
5.     Wife need not serve his parents or family at all.
6.     Right to receive the Mehr (bridal gift) and not to pay any dowry at all.
7.    Right to retain the Meher if she gets divorced. It remains her property to do with as she likes.
8.     Right to inherit from her parents, children and husband.
9.   Wife has a right in the husband’s property and income. It is the duty of the husband to support the wife unconditionally. He has no right in her income or property, even if it was purchased with his money.
The reality is that to this day many of these rights are denied to women in so-called advanced countries which don’t operate under Islamic law.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Muhammad left for us all, Muslim or not alike, a way of life, a code of conduct and behavior that is as applicable today as it was in his time. It is my contention that if people followed his way, then we would be able to cure the sickness of selfishness, cruelty and indifference that we are plagued with and create a society based on compassion, mutual responsibility and accountability to Allah from whom nothing is hidden.
Now, how’s that for a new world order?

This article was published in the Daily Mirror, Colombo on December 12, 2016. 

Meet real people – not labels

Meet real people – not labels

Someone sent me the Amazon Prime Ad about the meeting between the priest and Imam which is here..

A dear friend asked me, ‘How did we become like this?’ …meaning, ‘How did we become so mechanical, bigoted, hatred driven?’

I answered, ‘That is because we have given up the world for others to run for us. We don’t meet neighbors any more. We watch TV instead.’ That may sound simplistic but the reality is that we don’t know people as ‘people’ any more. Our relationships are purely transactional. We don’t share our thoughts, fears, hopes, aspirations with others. We don’t laugh together. We laugh at each other. We don’t share in each other’s joy and sadness.

How then can we understand and appreciate one another. We need to change the way we live. In most cases, go back to how we used to live. In other cases, invent a new way to live where we relate to people as people. Not as labels.

We need to remember that we are human first. Everything else afterwards.

A simple question: In homes which have grandparents ask how many grand children spend time listening to them? Terrible waste of life experience and loneliness for the elderly.

We’ve lost the art of conversation and need to get it back urgently. We have no space in our lives for real people and meeting and talking to them without any material need. Just to meet and greet and talk. Our gadgets meant to make communication easy and free and social media which is meant to connect us to the rest of the world has actually enclosed us in sound proof capsules, isolated, lonely, desperate for contact; getting stressed if a reply doesn’t come in two seconds; forgetting that all we have to do is to go out and meet another person face to face to get full multimedia, instant response. 

 That’s why there’s stereotyping, prejudice and hatred. All breed like lice in the darkness of ignorance. We are a generation which has lots of information but very little if any, wisdom. We need to cure this sickness.

So now that you have reached this place – stop reading and go out and meet someone.  Don’t call, don’t WhatsApp, don’t email, don’t do any of that. Go out and meet. Meet your family. Meet your friends. Meet even strangers. Greet. Smile and speak to them.

Will you do it?

If tomorrow comes!

If tomorrow comes!

Tomorrow will be October 20, 2016. By the look of things today, I can say with reasonable certainty that it will come. Then why this title for this article? That is to remind myself that whether tomorrow comes or not matters only if I am still here. Only then can I say that
tomorrow came but it is called today. If that happens, it will be my 61st birthday according to the Gregorian calendar. In the Hijri calendar my birthday will be on Rabi Al-Awwal 4, 1438 (December 3, 2016) and I will be 63, not 61.
Our usual custom is to congratulate each other. No problem with that but given the kind of mind I have, I ask myself, ‘What is this congratulation for?’
For having lived this long?
Then I don’t deserve it because I had nothing to do with that. Like tomorrow, it happened because the Creator of the world decided it.
For how I lived?
Ah! Now that is a thought. But is that why I was congratulated? Is that in our mind when we congratulate people? If that is so, then some very famous and prominent people in this world would receive condolence messages, instead of congratulations. Messages to share with them the grief of others that they managed to stay alive an additional year. “If only you had died! So many others would have lived.” Sounds nasty. But that is a reality.
So it is useful for us to reflect on how we lived, rather than for how long. If we lived well, spreading some level of goodness around us, then living long was good. If not? It’s like a race. Everyone gets to the finishing line. But winning depends not on crossing the finishing line but on running the race. It is how you run the race that decides if you are among the winners. Not merely crossing the finishing line.
What tomorrow will also herald is the hour. The hour that tells me that I have one year less before it is time for me to meet my Rabb. So it is a time for some serious reflection and self-correction. Not that I must or do wait until tomorrow to do it.
Every second comes with this message. Every breath I take tells me not to be sure that there will be another to follow it. Every grey (now more white than grey) hair in my beard and head tells me that the day for that meeting is coming. And asking me what I have prepared for it. Every challenge I face in life, every decision, dilemma, cross-road, they all ask the same question, “What will you do and how will that effect you?”
Accounting and Retirement Planning are the two most critical subjects for one to learn. Both must be taught in primary school. But both are almost never taught. I say that because these two subjects teach two very important lessons:
1.      That every action counts and adds to our Balance Sheet either on the Debit side or the Credit side.
2.     And that it will show up in our Retirement Plan – not at 60 or 65 or whatever the statutory retirement age is, but at our real retirement from this life. It will all be there. Either a well-balanced, healthy Balance Sheet. Or a skewed one. If it is skewed on the side of credits with a huge Accounts Receivable, then rejoice for the One who has to pay you, has no resource crunch and will pay you more than you can imagine. But if is skewed negative, then there is a problem because once you and I go over the Great Divide, it’s over. No more entries permitted. No liquidation of liabilities. No reconciliation of accounts. It’s all done, signed, sealed and dusted. Now we only await payment.
That’s why I say that we must teach accounting and retirement planning in primary school. The sooner we learn to think in this way, the better.

So the birthday is a time for reflection, introspection and a time to balance our accounts. I ask for your dua and good wishes. That is all I need.

For myself, I remember the incident of the Beduin and make the same dua for myself;

“O The One Whom eyes cannot see, Who cannot be imagined, Who is beyond description, Who is unaffected by happenings, Who cannot be overwhelmed by the twists and turns of time, Who knows the weight of the mountains, the volume of the oceans, the number of falling raindrops, the number of leaves on the trees and everything upon which the night darkens and upon which the day brightens. No sky can hide another from Him, no surface of the earth can hide another from Him, no ocean can hide anything within its depths from Him and no mountain can conceal from Him anything within its rocks. 

Make the last part of my life the best, make the best of my deeds the last and make my best day be the one in which I meet You.”