They are perhaps eighteen months old, bigger than the biggest leopard, yet vulnerable and in danger, when apart from their mother. Their mother, Ranthambore’s T-19 Krishna, like all tiger mothers, knows that raising young is a full-time job and Alexa can’t do it. Tiger cubs are born blind, the size of a house cat, totally helpless in every way. Krishna had three in this litter, two males and one female. The tigress nurses them and guards them with her life, if necessary. At birth they are prey to every carnivore in the forest, from eagles, barn owls and jackals to hyenas and leopards. But even when they have grown from their infancy they are still prey to leopards and to their own father and any tigers in the area. Tigers kill cubs so that the mother comes into oestrus (gets ready to breed) which she won’t do if she has cubs to rear. Cubs take up to two years to reach maturity and be able to hunt and survive on their own.
Leopards actively hunt tiger cubs, because one less in the world is one extra guarantee of survival for the leopard. Competition between the two apex predators is literally a matter of life and death. Full grown tigers are of course way beyond a leopard’s ability to delete but not cubs, even what we call sub-adults. The reason is not size but strength and fighting ability. Tiger cubs are no match for a leopard which is, pound for pound, the strongest cat in the world.
Tigers learn to hunt from their mothers. The mother nurses them until they can eat meat. This means that she must hunt almost daily to maintain her own strength and ability to lactate. Three cubs means greater chances of survival of the species but also much more work for the mother. All the while she must make sure that they are safe, when she leaves them to hunt. To this end, she moves them from one location to another as soon as she senses any danger to them. When they are weaned, she must hunt even more to feed herself and them. Depending on what animal she kills and where the kill is, she may either bring the kill to them or lead them to the kill. Once they have eaten, she leads them to water because now that they are not nursing, they need to drink often.
Then comes the most critical part, to teach them to hunt. Tigers (all carnivores actually) are not born hunters. Cubs learn to hunt from their mothers. Since tigers are solitary creatures, the mother, unlike a lioness in a pride, has no help. She must do everything. She starts by tackling smaller game and disabling it, so that the cubs can get the experience of bringing it down. They need to know which end is dangerous because their real prey is potentially lethal if not handled properly. One kick or butt from a Gaur or Sambhar can cause injuries which can disable or kill a tiger. The tiger needs to kill effectively and fast if it is to survive.
Even more important is the stalking. All tiger prey is faster than the tiger and with a head start it can easily escape. After all its motivation is greater than that of the tiger. That is why a tiger’s kill-rate is one in six or seven. If the hunt is to be successful from the point of view of the tiger, then it must get as close to the prey as possible undetected, so that the final burst of speed and power that its hind-legs can unleash is enough to reach the prey before it gets out of reach. But between sighting its prey and the final charge is every dry leaf, every stick, every stone, every errant eddy of breeze that can alert the prey to the mortal danger that it is in. Then the tiger must know where to bite to disable if not outright, kill the animal. All this takes time and lots of practice and lots of potential danger. That is when we met the Twins.
Our track took us to the foot of Ranthambore fort at the top of which is a temple which is very popular with the locals. Droves of them come in all kinds of vehicles, packed to overflowing with some people sticking on purely by defying centrifugal forces. Music blares, people scream to be heard over the sound of music, boisterous, joyful and hugely disturbing to the wild environment into which they bash on without a care in the world. The fact that they are ‘pilgrims’ means that they are beyond reproach, and nobody says a word to them, even about appropriate behavior in the wild. To add to this is the trash they bring and spread about generously. Plastic packets of potato chips with lots of salt still in them after the chips have gone. Tetra packs of fruit juice with traces of sweetness in the pack after it is thrown away. Cigarette packs, plastic bottles and other unspeakable things which I was not willing to go close enough to identify. Everything strewn along the track to the temple and then thanks to wind, water and curious animals, finds its way into places you wouldn’t imagine. Awaiting the pilgrims are troops of Langurs, far better behaved than the humans, expecting to be fed. And sure enough they are. In addition, they pick up and carry the garbage that people have thrown away and carry it into the forest. Both feeding wild animals and throwing garbage is illegal, but who cares!
We entered the forest through the ancient gate to the fort and drove down a track which took us to another gateway which has now been framed by the aerial roots of one of the ever-present banyans of Ranthambore. The track goes along the side of Padam Talao on which is Jogi Mahal. More about that later. The track then traverses deciduous forest with a lot of Keekar and Babul (Acacia) trees with very convenient hollows in their trunks for Spotted Owlets. There were two, bobbing their heads, looking at us. Then when they decided that we meant no harm, they continued with their courtship activity of bill clasping and scratching each other’s necks and sitting with their heads together in a most endearing posture. I love watching them and given that they are quite common, I am never disappointed.
As my friend Sony Khan and I were photographing the owlets, a Rufous Treepie decided to investigate. First, he perched on a convenient branch and then decided he needed to take a closer look at Sonu and landed on his head. Treepies are precocious and highly inquisitive and are a delight to watch. One landed on my hand to try to eat some roti that I was eating. Mind you, these are wild birds. It is just their nature.
We continued up the track which took us to a highland. It seems to be really sheet-rock covered with a thin layer of soil on which is a mini grassland. The grass has already dried as the soil has little capacity to hold water and is a uniform yellow-brown, ideally suited to hide a tiger or leopard. On the fringe of this mini grassland is a thick stand of evergreens with heavy undergrowth. As we topped a slight rise, we saw them. Not the tigers but a long line of Gypsy and Mitsubishi Canter safari vehicles, parked bumper to bumper, engines idling, spewing diesel fumes; filled to capacity with tourists, all standing up, craning their necks, shouting advice to each other and pointing frantically at something in the undergrowth. This description, nasty as it is, is not unique to any of our national parks but common to all of them. What it does to wildlife is not difficult to imagine. Especially to a solitary animal like the tiger.
We parked behind the last vehicle and with careful observation, I suddenly saw the head of one of the twins. He was sitting in the grass at the edge of the trees, about ten meters from the road, completely ignoring the din created by the monkeys; sorry, people. It is amazing how beautifully the tiger’s coat camouflages him in his environment of grass, trees, dappled sunlight and shade. It makes him totally invisible as long as he remains still. When he is stalking it is as if he is carved from rock. As it was in this case, this cub was simply waiting to be allowed to cross the road to go to the river which is at the bottom of the hill. But that was impossible with the entire road blocked with vehicles filled with screaming monkeys; sorry, people. To top it all, when the cub stood up and walked a little way to try to get around the obstacle, the obstacle moved with him to block him again. I realize that people were not trying to block him from the water, but in their enthusiasm to take photos with cell phone cameras combined with their ignorance about the wild in general and tigers in particular as well a total disregard and disrespect for both, they didn’t care what happened to the tiger. As it was, his mother, Krishna had made a kill that morning and the cubs had eaten. Now they needed to get to the river to drink. It was about 9.00 am at this time. They would have been very thirsty but there was nothing they could do. What amazed me is that every single vehicle had a Forest Guard in it. Yet not one of them attempted to at least give a gap in the barricade for the tiger cub to pass. All that we could do was to sit and watch and curse in frustration. Eventually at about 9.30 am the vehicles started to move as they had to leave the park at that time after the morning drive. Since we were last in, we had a few minutes and so I was able to get this wonderful photo of the twins.
Tiger tourism is a mixed blessing in India. I say mixed, but it is greatly abused. Parks need tourists and the income they represent. Shutting them out is not the answer. However, there will be nothing to see if the forest and its wildlife is not respected and gets destroyed thanks to people’s abuse and uncaring attitudes. Most tourists think of wildlife sanctuaries as a place of entertainment. They go there to have fun. Not to see anything, except the tiger. Vehicle drivers and guides respond to this pressure and drive at breakneck speed from one ‘Tiger Show’ to another. Believe me, that is what it is actually called. The drive is a test of the Maruti Gypsy and your backbone. Mine has survived to date but after every foray into a national park, I take a week to recover. You may ask why I allow my vehicle to drive fast? The answer is because I am not alone in it. When I have people, who share my love for the forest with me, as was the case on this trip to Ranthambore, we do try to stop for birds and other creatures or even simply to look at the magnificent views from different vantage points. But otherwise, it is one mad race. It is a mark of the skill of the drivers that there are no instances of a Gypsy wrapped around a tree or two smashed together. But that is only a matter of time.
So, what needs to be done?
Education and Law Enforcement. Tourists must be educated about the etiquette they must observe in the forest which starts with silence. They must be taught to appreciate the whole forest and all its inhabitants. They must understand the relationship between the grass and shrubs, trees and herbivores, carnivores and apex predators. They must realize that the health of the tiger represents the health of the entire ecosystem. They must understand how they come into the picture to add to it or to destroy it. No tourist must enter the forest until they have attended a talk on all these aspects. After this, rules must be strictly enforced. The key people on whom the rules must be enforced are vehicle drivers and guides who must stand to lose their license to operate their vehicles in addition to heavy fines. That will motivate them to ensure that their passengers maintain decorum and don’t give in to their demands and drive fast and behave in other destructive ways.
On our return we had breakfast in Jogi Mahal. The Field Director had kindly granted us permission for this without which it is not possible to go there. This is because the beautiful building is in a state of grave disrepair. It has structural damage due to soil shifting its foundation and is likely to collapse if it is not attended to urgently. If that happens it will be a great loss of a beautiful heritage building and a piece of history of Rajasthan. To sit on the deck and watch the activity on the lake is an incredible experience. I can only imagine the experience of watching a sunrise and sunset from this place but that will mean staying here overnight. While I am willing to camp out in the veranda of the pavilion, I am not sure whether I will be permitted to do so. If that happens, then the photos we can take will be mind-blowing.
You enter Jogi Mahal from the back past an ancient banyan tree with its multiple trunks. An amazing sight in itself. You walk through a short passage to the front which is literally on the lake, Padam Talao. The lake has crocodiles and large turtles, whose ripples you can see as they sense your presence. The edges of the lake are great potential sighting points for herbivores and carnivores who come to drink and hunt. All you need to do is to sit on the deck with a pair of binoculars and enjoy the sights. A Greater Cormorant was hard at work trying to catch fish but with little success. Since there are a lot of fish in the lake, easily visible in the clear waters, I wonder why he couldn’t catch any while we were there. There is the ever-present Rufous Treepie, a youngster, curious and bold, making a racket that is hard to believe, as he tries very hard to get us to feed him. Sadly, for him, he is not successful.
Back to the gate where the Langur troop has now dispersed since the pilgrims have also left. We count our blessings, beautiful forest, amazing tigers, fabulous scenery, bold Treepies, breakfast in a piece of history and weigh them against the irritants, screaming tourists and feel that we still came out on top. Until next time then. Cheers!
He had killed a sambhar stag the previous night. Sambhar are plagued by horseflies and their defence against them is to roll in the mud which when it dries off, makes a very effective shield against the biting insects. This part of the forest, in Ranthambore, has a river flowing over a very rocky bed. Flowing is what it does in the monsoon but for most of the year, it trickles and eventually all that are left are isolated pools, in particularly shady spots.
Ranthambore topography strikes you for three reasons; and high rocky hills, large number of Banyan trees (Ficus Bengalensis), and a sprinkling of temples, and domed pavilions just sitting in the middle of nowhere. This creates a unique ecosystem unlike in any other national park that I have seen, where thanks to the high rocky hills, animals can simply go away from vehicle tracks if they want to get away from people. People, the less said about whom, the better. More on this later.
To return to our story, the stag came to the depression in the riverbed which was on its way to drying out totally but was still wet enough to have enough mud to make a very nice mud bath. The pool had not dried out as it was shaded by two massive banyan trees whose aerial roots had descended to the earth and created their own columns until it was almost impossible to decide which the original trunk of the tree was. The result was thick shade in which you were a few degrees cooler even in the hottest part of the day. Sunlight never struck the water directly and though the overall dryness of the atmosphere would eventually evaporate the water and dry out the pool, that was still some months away.
The stag walked down the hillside very carefully, all senses alert. His excellent eyesight was somewhat impaired as darkness had fallen and though starlight was enough for him to see clearly in the open, when he entered the shade of the banyans, he was seriously handicapped. What kept him going was habit. He had done this all his life and grown from a small fawn to the size of a horse with a massive neck that supported a rack of horns. He was confident. Tonight, was just another night. The horseflies had been particularly irritating all day. To roll in the mud in daylight was simply too dangerous. So, he had waited until it was dark and then cautiously, very cautiously, he came down the hillside. One step at a time, all senses alert, listening, interpreting the sounds and then deciding to take another step. Sometimes he would freeze with one forefoot in the air, totally still like a statue carved in rock, while he listened and smelt the breeze rising up to him from the river at the foot of the hill. Only when he was sure that there was no danger, would he take another step down the hillside.
He knew Kumbha. They were the same age, 8 years old. As he had grown, many a time, he had seen Kumbha’s mother and her two cubs, lying in the water of the river in the summer. Tigers are the only cats that love water and spend a lot of time in it especially during the heat of the day in Rajasthan’s very hot summers. At that time, he was himself a fawn, skittish and given to dashing off at the smallest sound. That is what kept him alive and he grew big and strong. Sambhar live in family groups and fawns learn to survive from their mothers. His mother had been a good teacher. He remembered that where he was headed was Kumbha’s territory which he regularly marked by spraying urine on trees as well as rubbing his face on low hanging branches so that the facial glands left their excretion as a mark of his territorial boundary. This was for the benefit of other tigers, to attract breeding tigresses and to keep other males away. But these chemical messages were smelt and respected by everyone in the forest. Some his prey, some passersby, some competitors. Deer, leopards, tigers, hyenas and humans who could recognize the signs. The stag reached the bottom and entered the shade of the banyans, headed to the mud bath beneath them.
The shade hid from him his greatest fear, Kumbha. Kumbha was not close to him at the time. He knew that it would be far easier to kill the stag when it was down and rolling in the mud than when it was still on high alert, approaching the mud bath. He was lying some distance away in the riverbed, completely hidden by the rocks, his own dappled, striped camouflage making him invisible. His stillness was such that even if the stag looked at him directly, he would not see him unless the wind changed direction and he smelt the tiger scent. Tigers have a kill rate of about one in seven and so Kumbha was no stranger to things going wrong at the last minute thanks to an errant eddy of air, leading to the deer scenting him and escaping in an explosive burst of speed, adrenalin coursing through his veins. Live deer, hungry tiger.
Kumbha hadn’t eaten for four days. He was keen, light on his feet and very hungry. Spells of starvation followed by gorging on meat until he can eat no more, is the routine of the tiger and all carnivores. Kumbha was in his element, his cat eyes enabling him to see clearly in the dark. He watched intently, but occasionally he would look away for a second or two. It is my guess that this is because the intense look can be sensed by the one, we are looking at. We can see this even with people, who will turn around and look at you if you stare at them. Animals with senses that are far keener than ours can sense anyone looking at them much more easily. So Kumbha looked away from time to time, to allow the sambhar to approach within striking distance.
All this took far longer than it will take you to read this, but for the players, the stakes are the highest; life and death. Eventually the sambar reached the mud, looked around for a final time and stepped in, knelt and rolled over once. Kumbha took that opportunity to race ahead a few steps, moving over dry leaves and twigs without cracking a single one and then went to earth again. The sambar scrambled up, looked around again to ensure that he was safe and then went down again to roll on the other side. Kumbha was within range and charged with an earth-shattering roar that is designed to paralyze prey for the instant that the tiger needs to seize it. The sambar struggled up, but Kumbha’s shoulder hit him and then the tiger closed his jaws on his throat, at a bite force of 1000 psi, keeping well clear of his lashing hoofs and the horn rack on his head. One strike by either can disembowel the tiger or injure him permanently so that he eventually dies of starvation.
Once that sambhar was still, Kumbha started eating, starting from the rear soft underbelly of the animal, going for the stomach contents. This is where carnivores get their quota of trace elements and other things that their own pure protein and fat, keto, diet can’t give them. While he ate, he would insert his head inside the thorax of the carcass to reach the heart and lungs and emerge completely covered in blood. Not nice to watch but if you are a tiger, you don’t give a hoot for public opinion. Tigers can eat as much as one hundred pounds of meat at one sitting, and then starve for days after. Kumbha ate his fill. The sambhar was big and there was plenty more to eat. Daylight was approaching, and he had to hide his kill from scavengers, so he dragged it out of the river and across the road that ran alongside, up a slight slope on the other side deep into a thicket where it was completely hidden. Then he returned to the river to drink. Having drank his fill, he returned to lie by the kill to sleep off his dinner and guard the kill simply by his presence. As the sun climbed in the sky and the heat intensified, Kumbha arose and walked to a damp spot on the side of the road and lay down in it, the cool mud feeling good on his belly. Later he would go further to the river to drink some more and lie in the water until the evening. For the present, he was asleep by the road, shaded by the banyans, and that is where we met him.
We were in Ranthambore almost at the end of our morning drive when we saw nine men, young and middle aged, standing on a culvert in various stages of undress. This was in the middle of the forest and I was astonished to say the least. I asked our guide and he said that there was a Solesar Mahdev mandir (temple) in the forest and these people had probably spent the night there and were returning to their village outside the national park. On the way they had decided to bathe in the river, evidence of which in the form of soap suds, soap packets strewn carelessly and their own state, bore witness. As we passed them, the Forest Guard who was our guide called out to them to get out of the forest immediately.
We drove perhaps less than a kilometer from there, on our way out of the forest, when we saw Kumbha lying by the roadside. We stopped in awe because a tiger in the forest is an awe-inspiring sight. It seems to light up the darkness and has a majesty that I find impossible to describe. An animal that can be five hundred pounds in weight with a head that seems to fill your vision to the exclusion of everything else, looking at you directly and unflinchingly with the yellowest eyes that you can imagine. His striped coat dappled in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, stained dark with blood around his face from the kill that he had been eating. Lying with the relaxed grace that only a cat can muster. Yet I know that to go from there to 60 mph in a flash if he decides to charge, is something that he can do without raising a sweat. We stopped a respectful distance from him and took our photographs. He raised an eyebrow to keep us in sight but didn’t move from his totally supine position. He knew that we didn’t represent danger, but he kept an eye on us.
As we were photographing him suddenly it was as if he had stepped on an electric wire. He suddenly sat up and looked intently beyond us. I knew what he was sensing, though the temple devotees were not visible yet. Then he got up and walked up the slope to his kill and we lost sight of him. We remained where we were because we were concerned about the men. They came along, talking loudly among themselves, totally unaware that they were under surveillance. I have heard many people who know the jungle say that a tiger could be six feet away, but you wouldn’t know it. That day I saw how true this is. As the men came up to us, we told them about Kumbha. Their fright was amusing to put it politely. We then told them to walk on the other side of our vehicle so that the vehicle would be between them and the tiger until we were sure that any potential danger was past.
Human intervention in our national parks is a very serious problem in all parks. In some of them we have highways and train tracks running through the park paid for with the lives of animals crossing them. In others there are villages or temples which result in both pollution with paper and plastic as well as human-animal conflict which always has the same result. The animal is declared the villain and the punishment is death. In other cases, villages along national park boundaries constantly encroach on forest land by ring-barking trees so that in a few months they dry and fall and the area they covered becomes a part of the village fields. These fields are also protected by illegal electric fencing which electrocutes any animal trying to cross it. Many villagers lay out sticks of dynamite encased in rotting meat to attract wild boar which explode as soon as the boar bites into the meat. If the boar is lucky, his head is blown off and the people who set out the bomb, feast. If not, his jaw is blown away and he runs off into the forest to die an agonizing death, many hours or even days later. Sometimes, it is not a boar but a tiger, leopard or hyena that takes this bait with the same results. As I said earlier, human-animal conflict always has the same result.
The solution is a combination of relocation of human activity from inside the park to an alternate location, education of the public about the need for conservation of forests and wildlife, not merely for their entertainment but as a critical need for our own survival and law enforcement to ensure that forests and wildlife remain protected. In India we have reached a highly critical stage already and it is debatable if we have already gone over the edge as far as wildlife, especially tigers, are concerned. Be that as it may, what we must do is to focus on inculcating a sense of shared responsibility in all those who benefit from the forests, so that they learn to respect this great asset we have before it is gone forever.
To close with Kumbha’s story, what could have happened? Kumbha had eaten and in any case, humans are not tiger prey. So most probably nothing would have happened, and nobody would have been the wiser. But what is equally likely is that one of these people could have thrown a stone into the bushes and then who knows what would have happened?
Because there is a limit, even to the patience of a tiger.
First, we must define the meaning of ‘The West’. The term, ‘The West’ (Urdu: Maghrib) is used both to pinpoint a location as well as to define a state of mind, an ideology, a philosophy and a way of life (Urdu: Maghribiyat). The former is incidental. The latter is powerful, potentially all pervasive, social engineering, statement of values and a definer of mankind’s actions leading to a new purpose for his life and existence. One is outside you and you live in it. The other is inside you and directs your decisions, desires and actions. It is essential to keep these two definitions in mind when we talk about ‘The West and Islam’. In order to avoid confusion in this article, I am going to call the ideology, ‘Westernism’. Like Islam, ‘Westernism’ is an ideology which is not location specific but is global. As evidence I ask you, what do you call Australia and New Zealand; Western or Eastern? Ask yourself why? So ‘Westernism’ is not only about culture but also about race and racial supremacy.
The secret is the globalization of thought. Technology has facilitated the global spread of this dominant culture and the internalizing of its values where people far removed physically from the West, see themselves in terms that are Western. They appreciate, like, look up to and down on each other on the basis of their adherence to Western values and norms, even though these may be far removed from their own cultures. You can see the effect of this on people’s clothing, the spread of English as the lingua franca of the world, hair styles, foods, drinks (sodas), smileys, emojis, abbreviations (lol, rofl). I can go on but won’t. The same holds for all the symbols of culture. There are still countries where local cultures enforce some level of decorum and bar promiscuity, but all barriers fall in the face of technology. Thanks to the internet, smart phones, Instagram, Netflix, Facebook, and WhatsApp there is no image, no news which can be hidden from the eyes of children if they want to see it. The only guard is the conscience. Nothing else will work. Least of all, force.
Today ‘Westernism’ is the most common, pervasive and widespread ideology in the whole world. ‘Westernism’ is as much a ‘religion’ as is Islam, Christianity or any other traditional religion. It has rules of engagement, conditions of entry and exit, reward and punishment, high priests, temples and evangelists. The fact that these titles are not used to name them is a part of the ideology of ‘Westernism’. But that doesn’t change either the nature or the effect of these symbols and pillars of this new religion. They are powerful, and they are effective. ‘Westernism’ is effective because it panders to every base desire under the illusion of anonymity to make money for the suppliers.
‘Westernism’ is a philosophy which is based on the supremacy of the self (desire) over everything else, including family, friends, society and God. Its symbol is the raising of self-indulgence to the level of not only a virtue but of the very purpose of life, definition of happiness and fulfilment i.e. for one to be able to do whatever one likes, irrespective of its consequences to anyone else. Freedom is sought to be interpreted as freedom from responsibility, accountability and consequences of one’s actions. Just take a look at the many conflicts that have taken place on one such ‘freedom’ alone, ‘Freedom of Expression’, and you know what I mean. The best answer to that was given by Pope Francis who, mentioning the freedom to say whatever one wants in the guise of Freedom of Expression said, “If my secretary were to curse my mother, I would punch him in the face.” What he meant was that there is no freedom without responsibility for what happens when you exercise that freedom. Please note that the Pope is a Westerner, living in the West. Yet his thinking is not ‘Western’ in terms of what I described as ‘Westernism’.
Islam on the other hand is also not ‘Eastern’ but universal. It is like the principles of flight which don’t change whether you are flying a plane in the US or Australia or India. Islam doesn’t change for the West or East or anyone or any place. It is universal, applicable in exactly the same way everywhere and holds its adherents to the same rules no matter where they live, in whichever century and in whichever circumstances. Islam is Islam and it is based on the principle of the supremacy of Allahﷻ over the self or anyone or anything else, accountability to Him from Whom nothing is hidden and the subjugation of the self (desire) to the rules of Islam. Its symbol is the Sajda which is to recognize that obedience to Allahﷻ takes precedence over self-indulgence and the purpose of life and fulfilment is to live and work only for the Pleasure of Allahﷻ.
There is no compromise in Islam about this fundamental philosophy of the Supremacy of Allahﷻ over the Nafs (self, desire) and everything and everyone else. For those who choose to follow their desires against the orders of Allahﷻ, He said:
أَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَهَهُ هَوَاهُ أَفَأَنتَ تَكُونُ عَلَيْهِ وَكِيلًا
Furqan 25: 43. Have you (O Muhammadﷺ) seen him who has taken as his Elah (god) his own desire? Would you then be a Wakil (a disposer of his affairs or a watcher) over him?
Allahﷻ called following your own desires against the orders of Allahﷻ, Shirk and tantamount to worshiping desires instead of worshiping Allahﷻ and even prohibited Rasoolullahﷺ from interceding for the forgiveness of such people. What can be clearer or more serious than that, to understand the fundamental difference between Islam and ‘Westernism’?
Let me quote just one example to show how Supremacy of God was replaced by Supremacy of Man in Christianity. https://biblehub.com/deuteronomy/14-8.htm
In Deuteronomy 14:8 eating pork is clearly prohibited. Yet Christians have ignored this prohibition and pork is the most widely eaten meat in all Christian and Western countries and has been for centuries. The Bible clearly prohibits it, to no avail. The same with prohibition of usury and many other prohibitions of the Bible which are simply ignored. Islam clearly disallows this and nothing which is ordered in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah can be nullified by any Islamic scholar. That is one benefit of not having a priestly class which tends to be susceptible to changing the religion at will.
As you can see, these are two opposing philosophies which are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable. There can never be a compromise between them. One must necessarily submit to the other. That is the distinguishing factor, the signature of the Muslim, that he/she subjugates desire to the Will and Pleasure of Allahﷻ. A Muslim recognizes and joyfully accepts that it is the purpose of his creation to please Allahﷻ and does that in the way taught by Muhammadﷺ the Messenger of Allahﷻ. That is the essence of the Kalima: La ilaha illAllahu Muhammadur Rasoolullahi: There is nobody worthy of worship except Allahﷻ (so I worship him) and Muhammadﷺ is the Messengerﷺ (last and final) of Allahﷻ (so I obey and follow him). There are no qualifiers to this statement of faith, this declaration and oath, thanks to which a person enters Islam. It is a statement that is applicable to every person who wishes to enter Islam and remain in it, whether it is in the East or West or anywhere else. Obedience to Allahﷻ in the way of Rasoolullahﷺ is its essence. And that doesn’t change for anyone or any place.
Is Islam compatible with ‘Westernism’, the philosophy? No, it isn’t. But is it possible for people living in the West; the location, to live by Islam? Yes, without a doubt. That is why I began with the definition because when we ask about raising Muslim children in the West, we are not speaking about what we need to do in the location but what we must do with combating those parts of ‘Westernism’ as an ideology that are antithetical to Islam.
Combat it is. Make no mistake. Like combat, it requires, courage, has risk, is painful; potentially fatal if you fail and joyful and rewarding if you succeed. It is a serious business, not an intellectual exercise. The cost and benefit are both very real. The first thing to teach therefore is to draw attention to the definition above so that people realize that there is nothing ‘special’ about the ‘West’ as a location which requires Islam to be reengineered, interpreted or changed to suit people living in the so-called ‘West’.
What are the challenges of raising a child in the West?
The challenges have nothing to do with the location but with ‘Westernism’, which is global and inside us. What we teach our children and indeed before that, what we need to come to terms with ourselves is the following:
- Teach them respect for boundaries by respecting them yourself. Boundaries are the essence of parenting. Teach them that being Muslim means to recognize and accept the Supremacy of Allahﷻ and obedience and allegiance only to Him. This is the most fundamental principle which must be taught, practiced and demonstrated. This must be the differentiator of the Muslim, no matter where he/she lives. This is what drives every decision and action. This is the safety belt. Put it on or die.
- It is necessary to define boundaries without fearing unpopularity. Whether it is in parenting or in religion or in politics. All corruption begins when people who should know better, remain silent when they should speak. Christianity is losing people in Europe despite the fact that the church, in order to be popular, has legalized almost everything the Bible prohibits. But it is gaining converts in Asia and Africa where it is not so flexible and where local cultures also support boundaries. People need definitive rules. A free for all may sound nice but in reality, it is free for some, at the expense of others. Boundaries, like seat belts, restrict some freedom but save lives. Security is inversely proportional to convenience.
- Teach them to love Allahﷻ which is an outcome of Shukr (Thankfulness). An attitude of gratitude, where we are thankful to Allahﷻ for His mercy and blessings. Allahﷻ said about the Believers, that they love Him more than anything else.
وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَتَّخِذُ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ أَندَاداً يُحِبُّونَهُمْ كَحُبِّ اللّهِ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ أَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِّلّهِ
Baqara 2: 165. And of mankind are some who take (for worship) others besides Allah as rivals (to Allah). They love them as they love Allah. But those who believe, love Allah more (than anything else).
- Remember that without the Love, Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ in the heart, obedience becomes a burden. Force or so-called logic are not substitutes, because they can both be countered to one’s own detriment. In Islam, the fundamental rule is that we obey Allahﷻ because He is Allahﷻ. We pray because Allahﷻ told us that it is the way to get close to Him and we want to be close to Him. We don’t pray to ‘discharge static electricity from our heads in Sujood’ (sic). Or because the bending and standing is good for the joints or digestion. We don’t fast because it is good for health. We don’t give Zakat to ensure distribution of wealth in society. We don’t do Hajj to reinforce or show solidarity to the global Muslim Ummah. We do all these because we love Allahﷻ. That is not only sufficient reason, it is the very best of reasons. After all, love begins where reason ends. Allahﷻ ordered us to establish Salah as the way to remember Him and our relationship to Him. He said:
إِنَّنِي أَنَا اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا أَنَا فَاعْبُدْنِي وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ لِذِكْرِي
Ta-Ha 20: 14. “Verily! I am Allah! La ilaha illa Ana (none has the right to be worshipped but I), so worship Me, and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat) for My Remembrance.
- Teach them the importance and value of the Sunnah by following it yourself. For this it is necessary for us to know who Rasoolullahﷺ is and what the significance of our relationship with him as the one whose way we emulate and follow, is. This must be the very first thing we teach our children by word and deed. Allahﷻ and Rasoolullahﷺ must be the most commonly mentioned names in our homes. They must be the reference points for all our actions, culture, celebrations, events and decisions. ‘Does this please Allahﷻ?’ ‘Is this in keeping with the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ?’ These must be the operative questions for all our decisions. Our children must become used to them from birth. Their absence in any situation must be the point of dissonance for them and give them pause to think.
- Allahﷻ told us about the importance of the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ and recommended it as the best example to follow for the one who loves Allahﷻ and looks forward to meeting Him and who remembers Allahﷻ a great deal.
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا
Ahzab 33: 21. Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammadﷺ ) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.
- Allahﷻ told us that the reward of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ is that Allahﷻ will love the one who does that. Make that an aspirational goal for yourself and your children; that you try to earn the love of Allahﷻ. Allahﷻ said:
قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَاللّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
A’al Imraan 3: 31. Say (O Muhammadﷺ to mankind): “If you (really) love Allah then follow me (emulate me), Allah will love you and forgive your sins. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
Teach them (and remind yourself) that the reward of following and emulating Muhammadﷺ is the love of Allahﷻ. No less. Reflect on what that means for you. What does it mean for your dua? What does it mean for when you need Allahﷻ the most, at the time of your death and when we meet Him on the Day of Judgment?
- Draw attention to the fact that following the Sunnah is good for us in this life as well, because all that Rasoolullahﷺ taught and did are the secrets to popularity and influence. But when a Muslim follows this with the intention of pleasing Allahﷻ and as a sign of his love for Muhammadﷺ, he earns the love of Allahﷻ. This once again is the relevance of Islam in modern times. The same rules apply today.
- Teach them about accountability to Allahﷻ to Whom is our return. Every speech and action of ours must be done with this consciousness. This is the essence of Dhikrullah (Remembering Allahﷻ). Whatever act of worship we do, repeating Allahﷻ’s names and attributes, Salah, Tilawatil Qur’an, fasting, charity and so on are all means to achieve this end i.e. a consciousness of the meeting with Allahﷻ. None of them is an end in itself, but a means to achieve the end which is to gain closeness to Allahﷻ by obeying Him. So, every time there is temptation to disobey, they must learn to ask, ‘Who am I disobeying?’ And not, ‘How big is this act of disobedience?’ They must understand that selective obedience in disobedience and that the essence of Uboodiyat (Submission to Allahﷻ = Islam), is to obey every command joyfully out of love.
- Teach them service as the means whereby a Muslim defines himself/herself as being a person who is most useful to society. Teach them the value of service in Islam as the means to earn the pleasure of Allahﷻ and His Forgiveness. Teach them service as being the signature of Islam. Service as the value that differentiates a Muslim from everyone else. Through this we will be able to answer the most common charge that Islam is no longer relevant to modern times. When Muslims are seen as beneficial for everyone in society and that being because of Islam, then the relevance of Islam to all times will be proven beyond anything that anyone can say against it. Allahﷻ said about Muslims being beneficial (service) to others:
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللّهِ
A’al Imran 3: 110. You [Muslims] are the best of peoples ever raised up for [the benefit of] mankind; you enjoin Al-Ma’ruf (all that is good and permissible in Islam) and forbid Al-Munkar (all that is harmful and prohibited in Islam), and you believe in Allah.
Rasoolullahﷺ said, “The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of mankind.” (Daraqutni, Hasan)
- Teach them to be thankful to all those through whom we receive Allahﷻ’s blessings, and that it is the best way to win Allahﷻ’s pleasure and the goodwill of the people. Imagine a society where Muslims are known for their attitude of gratitude seeking to help others, solve their problems, stand up for their rights and help those in need. Abu Huraira (RA) reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, “He has not thanked Allah who has not thanked the people.” Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4811 (Sahih)
- Teach them to proudly and confidently (not arrogantly) display our differentiators in appearance, worship, dealings, speech and action. We must not blend in as some more numbers in an undifferentiated mass but stand out as notable and valuable individuals. That is the secret of brand. Differentiation. Brand inspires loyalty. Loyalty empowers influence. Without brand you are a grain of rice in a sack.
- Teach them the four noble values of Integrity (Truthfulness), Courage, Compassion and Excellence. These are the four core values of Islam. Anyone who lives by them can only be loved, respected and as a result, become influential. Teach them to always speak the truth and be fair and just in all dealings. Teach them to have the courage to stand up for those in need, those being oppressed, and to stand by their principles, no matter who is displeased. Teach them to have compassion and to show compassion and to behave with compassion by helping all those who can’t help themselves. Teach them to put their money and action where their mouth is and act instead of simply talking about values. Teach them to do everything they do and treat everyone they meet in the best possible way, no matter how small or trivial the action may be or who the person they meet, may be. Excellence is to speak and act as if you see Allahﷻ and though you don’t see Him, know that He sees you. This is the definition of Al Ihsaan (Excellence) that Rasoolullahﷺ gave to Jibreelu (AS) in the famous Hadith and it applies to everything we do in life.
Finally, we must remember that children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do. So, raising children has less to do with children and more to do with parents. As you are, so will they be. That is why they are your Sadaqatul Jaariya and not vice versa.
Our servants in the plantations were wonderful people. Many were old hand downs from the British planters who had trained them in their ways. Some had special attitudes inherited from the British, who they imitated faithfully.
The pecking order of servants was very strict. At the top was the Butler. He was cook, waiter, and until you got married, the valet; all rolled into one. He would cook your meal – usually to his own satisfaction. He would serve you at table; supervise those who took care of your clothes, house, car, and garden. He would more often than not iron your clothes himself and would cook some of the special things, especially the puddings. He would ensure that there was always soap in the dish and that the towels in the bathroom were always freshly laundered.
The Butler was 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.
The Butler made sure that there were always flowers arranged in every room. Some Butlers were excellent artists at arranging flowers, having learned these and other skills including cooking European meals from the wives of British planters. Most useful for us of course.
This experience also gave them a sense of standards that is almost impossible to find today. For example, my Butler Bastian would always be dressed in clean white shirt and dark trousers with a belt. He would always be clean shaven, would always have used something to hide the smell of the cigarettes he used to smoke, which I would never have imagined if I hadn’t actually seen him once without his knowledge. As a courtesy, I never walked into his pantry without making some noise on the rare occasion that I did go. It was always more polite and convenient to ring the bell, conveniently located in every room in the house. He would not wear shoes inside the house no matter how much I tried to force him to do, especially in the cold winters. When we had guests and he could not serve from the correct side, he would say, “Sorry, wrong side Sir.” Nothing was taken for granted, including the fact that most of those who heard this statement had no idea what he meant. They hid their confusion by laughing. He would always greet me at the door when I came home, push my chair in when I sat at table, and then serve me with a towel on his arm. And at the end of the day when I had eaten dinner and he knew I was not going to need anything else, he would come and say, “Good night, Master.” This would be followed by the other servants in strict order of precedence.
When you decided to have a party and invite some people, a very essential part of plantation life, your Butler would advise you about who you should invite and even more importantly, who you should not invite; either because of the wrong image that would give you or because that person did not get along with the other more important guests. He would advise you about what each one liked to drink and what anyone was allergic to. Bastian was horrified when I told him that we would not serve any alcohol. For a long time, he was convinced that he was working for the wrong person because the Butler’s prestige would go up if I was promoted quickly and we moved into the Manager’s bungalow. He held the popular opinion that without serving Scotch whisky at parties to the bosses, I would get nowhere. I suppose he also did not like the thought that he would not be getting his quota free of cost either. I, on the other hand, was of the opinion that promotion must come as a result of performance, not on account of the amount or cost of whisky served. Mercifully, my career progression bore me out and proved him wrong. What, if anything, he did about his quota I never discovered and neither did he ever appear to be under the influence, as it were. So that part of Bastian’s life remains a secret.
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). Many British managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their Indian subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.
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 seen as 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.
I had two Butlers during my stay in the Plantations. Bastian was with me when I joined in Sheikalmudi as Assistant Manager and remained with me for two years. Then he left and Mahmood (more about him later) joined my service. Mahmood was with me when I got married and stayed with me for a total of about three years. When I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, Mahmood left and settled down in Ooty, his hometown. Bastian then returned to my service and remained with me until I moved to Ambadi Estate in Kanyakumari. He then left and settled in Kotagiri.
A few months later we learnt through the grapevine that Bastian had passed away. I was very sad indeed to hear about his passing. Bastian had been a friend and a very good guide for me to ease into plantation life. A few months later I was in Kotagiri visiting my dear friend Berty, when driving down the road, who do I see walking up the hill, but Bastian. I was so delighted that I yelled out his name and swerved the car to park it, almost making the rumor about Bastian’s ending true in the process. Passersby must have thought it very strange indeed to see this Peria Dorai (Big Boss) jump out of his car and hug an old Butler. But that was my Bastian. A man who served faithfully and who was a friend more than a servant. He was completely loyal to me, preserved confidentiality in all matters, and treated me with utmost respect.
Bastian is serving our friend Gomes. I am standing on the right
Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. I sometimes say this to my wife about myself, when I am feeling a bit under the weather, “Chokra dull Madam,” and we both have a good laugh remembering Bastian.
Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.’ And life would go on.
To understand the snobbery of this breed of Butler, let me tell you about something that happened one day. I was informed at about 10 am that the Tahsildar (a District Administration officer) was going to come to the estate to check on some land matters. I was to give him lunch at my bungalow (most estates had no guest houses or hotels and so all official guests had to be entertained at home for which managers were paid some token amount). So, I drove my old Royal Enfield Bullet, kept running mainly due to the daily attention of Thangavelu the mechanic, up to the bungalow and said to Bastian, “Bastian, the Tahsildar is coming for lunch so please make some extra lunch.”
“O God, Master!” said Bastian.
“What happened? Why are you O Godding, Bastian?”
“Master, I had planned to make fish in white sauce for Master,” said Bastian.
“So just make some more, Bastian!” I said with some impatience.
“Unh! What that man know about white sauce!” snorted Bastian.
So duly, rice and Sambar with two other curries was made. At the end of the meal, Bastian in his usual style, produced crystal finger bowls with warm water and a small slice of lemon on the edge. The Tahsildar, who naturally knew nothing about finger bowls and who came from a place (Pollachi) where people drink warm water, squeezed the lemon into the water and drank it up. As soon as he left there was Bastian with a big grin on his face telling me, “See Master! What I told Master about that man?”
The interesting thing in this story is that the standards that Bastian exemplified were the standards of the British, taken from their culture. The Tahsildar was actually a man who came from the same culture as Bastian himself, yet Bastian identified with and got his own sense of significance from the standards of the British rather than from his own people. The power of indoctrination and identification with the ‘ruling class’ was very visible in plantation society where the culture of the White Sahibs was very much alive and followed to the T by their successors, the Brown Sahibs. Not to say that all these standards were bad. Not at all. Many of them referred to manners, ways of dealing with subordinates with fairness and dignity, the importance of appearance and presentation and the power of the ‘Covenant’ that made the managers ‘Covenanted Staff’ as against all the other staff who were called Non-covenanted. But there was also the element of superiority of race, caste, and more importantly, class. Social class.
For more, please read my book, “It’s my Life”
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 Muhammadﷺ 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?
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 Muhammadﷺ.’
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. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5th Century Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ 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?”
Muhammadﷺ 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. Muhammadﷺ 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.
There are two critical requirements that distinguish all real human development. These are the reasons we remember all great leaders who changed the world. They are concern and compassion. Muhammadﷺ exemplified these in his life and message. Any development that is not based on compassion is not development but regression to a time when the one who had the sword chopped a man in half to test its sharpness, legally. What’s legal is not necessarily right. Example: Apartheid is official and legal in Israel today.
But is it right?
For more please read:
Leadership Lessons from the Life of Rasoolullahﷺ
Kindle link to Free e-book – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-ebook/dp/B00ED0JC70/
Amazon link – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-techniques/dp/1479284033/
Link to free e-book which can be read on any device: http://bit.ly/1zzEC8t
He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.