You can never relive the past

You can never relive the past

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

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

View while climbing Manjaparai

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

Raman & Raman and I

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

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

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

Spotted Owlets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changeable Hawk-eagle juvenile
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

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

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

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

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

Sunset in the Anamallais, Lower Sheikalmudi Estate

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

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

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

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

Of Butler English etc.

Of Butler English etc.

You all know my butler Bastian who I have written about earlier. 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.

“Why not telling you don’t have cream Bastian? I would have got it yesterday when Master went to the Club.”

“Not wanting trouble Madam. Going with Madam today to get it.”

The real reason being of course that he would be able to get together and chat with his cronies in Valparai during the day, because in the evenings, they would all be busy in their own jobs.  

Bastian had a habit of translating Tamil names into English and announcing anyone who came with his translation of the person’s name. He didn’t do that with the Doraimaar (Manager class) but did it with anyone else. Workers or union leaders didn’t come to the bungalow to meet the Manager. We met all workers, supervisors, staff and union leaders only at the morning Muster or in the Estate Office. This was a universal rule in all estates which was strictly adhered to. This has nothing to do with being snobbish or class conscious but with maintaining boundaries of work and personal time and space. We lived on the job, as it were and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t have had a single day’s peace. Having said that, there were some special people who had special privileges. In my case these were my tracker, who told me about the movement of wildlife in the forests adjoining our estates in the Anamallais, the supervisor who built the hides in trees or rocks for me to watch wildlife and the two Ramans who accompanied me on my hikes on Grass Hills. All of them came to the bungalow if they needed to meet me.

The norm was that they would first go to the back, to the kitchen and Bastian’s pantry and he would give them a cup of tea and they would chat. Then he would see what I was doing and if I was free, he would announce that so-and-so had come to see me. But the way he did it was to say the least, very funny. He would say, “Master, Seven Hills is here to meet Master.” Seven Hills being the literal translation of Yedumalai. Or he would say, “Master, Golden Mountain is here and wants to meet Master.” Golden Mountain being, yes you guessed it, Thangamalai.

When I was in Paralai Estate, my bungalow was just off the main Valparai road, opposite the Iyerpadi Estate Hospital, the domain of Dr. John Phillip and his charming wife, Dr. Maya. John and Maya were very good friends. John was one of the finest diagnosticians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, who could tell you what was wrong with your soul by looking at your toenails. Maya, in addition to being a physician, was a very creative artist and painted and made all kinds of beautiful things. One day, I had almost finished my morning rounds and had a nasty headache. So, on the way home for lunch, I dropped in at the hospital to meet Dr. John and get something for my headache.

As I drove into the hospital compound, I saw a lot of urgent activity with nurses and attenders running here and there. I asked Mr. Karunakaran, the Pharmacist, who held fort when Dr. John was away, what was going on. He said that there was a woman in labor who was terribly anemic and needed a blood transfusion. They were trying to find her family to donate blood. I said to him, “Take mine. I am O + and a universal donor.” Karunakaran looked surprised. A nurse standing by him, looked shocked. “You will donate blood for a worker woman?” she asked. “We are trying to find her people (Dalits) to donate blood.” I said to her, “Look, I have no time for this. Take my blood and give it to her. You don’t want her dying with her baby while you hunt for her relatives.” While all this was going on, Dr. John came on the scene and on being informed that I was offering to donate blood and the reluctance of the staff to accept it, he said, “He wants to donate his blood. What is your problem? Just take it.”

I was duly laid down and bled to the extent of two bottles of blood. It was thick and almost black with hemoglobin and had my friend John smiling in satisfaction. They disappeared with the blood into the operation theatre. I was kept under observation for a while and given some tea, just to ensure that I didn’t croak. I realized that in all this, my headache had disappeared. Clearly donating blood cures headaches. I then went home and had lunch and went off for my siesta. A most civilized practice that I learned to do in the plantations and have adhered to ever since. I am told it is also very good for the heart. It is certainly very good to rejuvenate you for the rest of the day. After my siesta of about forty-five minutes, I got up for my cup of tea, when Bastian announced, “Master, Golden Mountain and the entire Works Committee are here to meet Master.” I was surprised because it was my rule that I never met any union leaders at home, and everyone knew and respected it. What was so urgent today that they couldn’t meet me in the office?

I walked out on to the veranda to see Thangamalai, who was the head of the union, Madasamy who was his Deputy and entire Works Committee with them. I was a little apprehensive also, because usually it is not good news when the whole committee wants to meet you urgently. We made our greetings. Then I asked them why they had come. They didn’t say a word. Thangamalai stepped forward and bent down to touch my feet. I stepped back in amazement and irritation because I never encouraged the touching of my feet. They knew this. I told them, “Why are you touching my feet? You know I don’t like this and don’t allow anyone to do it.” Thangamalai said in a grave tone, “Yes Dorai, we know. But today you will have to allow us to touch your feet. So, please don’t stop us.” He then bent down and touched my feet. And all the others followed suit. I stood there, totally amazed at all this. When they had all finished, I asked them, “So, tell me, what is all this for? What did I do?”

Thangamalai said, “Dorai, today you did something that has never happened in the more than one hundred years since this tea was planted. You gave your blood for one of us. No manager ever did this. So, we must thank you.”

I said, “What is so special about that? Wouldn’t you have done the same for me?”

“Yes Dorai, we would. But Doraimaar (Manager class) don’t do it for us. You are the first one and the only one who ever did it.” Then he said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Dorai, this is our land. It is our land not because we were born here but because we will be buried here, if we die. It can never be the land of the Managers, because if you die, they will take you away to your hometown to bury you. They will not bury you here. The land you are born in is not your motherland. It is the land you die in and are buried in that belongs to you. But from today, this is also your land because your blood is now our blood.” I had tears in my eyes and to this day when I think of this whole event, it fills my heart with warmth and love for these simple, lovely people. I have never believed in caste and class divisions and never practiced them and that day, they accepted me as their own. I was a Dalit for them and for me that was the greatest honor.

Lower Sheikalmudi Manager’s bungalow where we used to live

There is a very happy ending to this story. Almost twenty-five years later, in 2010, I returned to the Anamallais with my wife Samina and some friends of ours from South Africa and my nephew Aly, to show them one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed for two nights in the bungalow we used to live in, the Manager’s bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. We walked the trails that I used to walk and met all those workers and staff who were still there. Many had retired. Some had passed away. But those who were there, remembered me and left their work and came to meet me. I was taken in an informal procession and ‘installed’ in my old Muster. Someone put a shawl on the chair for me to sit upon. Others brought tea and vadas from the teashop which every estate has. Many of my old workers brought their children to meet me and told them, “This is the Dorai we have told you about.”

One young fellow came up to me, greeted me with, “Vanakkam Dorai.” I returned his greeting. He asked me, “Do you recognize me?” I always find this question very disconcerting. If you don’t remember them, it puts you in an embarrassing position. You can try to wing it by saying, “Of course I remember you. How can I ever forget you?” But some horrible fellows won’t let you get away with that. They will persist, “Then tell me who I am!” Then you must say, “You are the one for whom I pray every day that your socks should shrink in the wash and that you should discover after having showered that you forgot your towel in another room and that when you are in a rush to urgently go to the toilet in the airport, after you have done the deed, you should discover that you were in the toilet meant for the opposite gender.”

Manjaparai view – Sholayar Dam in the distance

No, I didn’t say all that. I said to him, “I am sorry I don’t recognize you.” He said, “Not surprising Dorai. The last time you saw me was twenty-five years ago. I am the little boy who you would always give a ride to school on your bike. I would be walking down the road to the school and you would come down from the office and you would always stop and ask me to hop on behind you and you would take me to school. I can never forget you.” Then I remembered him of course. For me it was such an unremarkable thing to do. I like children and this little fellow was so happy to ride behind me and it made him such a big shot before all his friends that I always gave him a ride. Of such simple, unthinking, spontaneous actions are enduring memories made.

The two Ramans, my partners in all my jungle hikes, which we did regularly, came to meet me. One of them is the son of Kullan, who had passed away, about whom I have written in my book, ‘It’s my Life’. Kullan who would visit me in the evenings, and we would sit on my veranda and Kullan would tell me stories of the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). Wonderful stories of struggle, pain, joy, success and the inevitability of life, which tells you that after all is said and done, you must get up tomorrow morning and go to the field. Raman the Elder said to me, “Dorai, you have not forgotten your old ways. You came walking up the path from the old coffee area, where there is a lone elephant. But then you know the signs and you are not afraid. Do you want to go up to Manjaparai? Let us plan for that tomorrow.” Manjaparai is the highest point, a rock rising out of the forest that was the top boundary of the estate. Raman had built me a hide, a machan in a tree, above a waterhole from where he and I would go on full moon nights to watch elephants come, to drink. He recalled that and said, “Our machan is gone but we can still go up and sit and watch the sunset.” And that is what we did.

My machan tree and the stream – now almost dry – 2010

After two days, we went to Paralai to the new Anamallai Club and stayed in the chambers for another two days. The new club is a concrete building without the charm of the old one. It is just a building sitting in the middle of nothing. The old club in Valparai had tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a very charming colonial bungalow style building which we all loved. Sadly, that became the victim of Indian politics and our elected representative from the district, a servant of the people, no less; came one day with a huge mob and ransacked the club and demolished most of it and tried to illegally occupy the land. The police came as usual conveniently after all the damage had been done to the relic of capitalist India and locked up the ruins. And that is how that has stayed and remains to this day, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile planters needed a club and so the company I worked for, donated the land and all the other companies contributed the money to build the new club.

The day after we arrived, word got around to the workers of Paralai that Baig Dorai had come after twenty-five years and many people came to meet me. In the course of that, came two women and a man. The man was an old servant of ours who had worked as Bastian’s assistant, Asaithambi. He greeted me, “Vanakkam Dorai.” Then he gestured to the two women to come forward and asked me, “Do you know who they are Dorai?” I had no clue. He said, “This one is the one you gave your blood to. And this is her daughter. Without that blood they would both have died that day. It is with your blood in their veins that they are living. And Dorai, this girl is studying medicine in Coimbatore.” I wept with joy and gratitude. That is all that I could do.

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. This was so funny that when my wife said something to me and I didn’t get it immediately she would say to me, “Chokra dull Madam.”

If only Bastian’s tribe had taught others what they knew they could have created very competent successors. But Bastian’s kind were very jealous, even insecure, about their positions and knew that it was their cooking skills which were their biggest asset. They guarded them jealously, never trained anyone else and took their skills to their graves. Very sad but very similar to what a lot of talented and skilled people in the corporate world do.

I always praised Bastian for his cooking, which was a delight to come home to. My wife is also a very good cook but doesn’t do it regularly. But once in a while when she felt like it, she would make something. When it came to the table, I, not knowing who had cooked that dish would automatically say to Bastian, “Bastian this bake is lovely.” Bastian would promptly say, “Thank you Master.” Taking all the credit for it and not telling me that he had not cooked it. But on the occasion when my wife made something and there was something the matter with it, and I said to Bastian, “Bastian, there is too much salt in this.” His immediate response would be, “Madam fault Sir.”

 Butlers were an institution and we planters exchanged many ‘Butler stories’. One dear friend told us this story about his butler. The worthy would give him brown soup every single day. After some time, my friend got tired of eating the same soup and asked him if he didn’t know how to make some other kind of soup. “I giving Master two different soups,” says the butler. “Which two different soups?” “Thin brown soup and thick brown soup, Sir.” Another time, the Field Officer said to my friend, ‘Sir I am sorry to report but the quality of bread from your bungalow has gone down.’ When my friend asked him how he knew anything about the quality of the bread in his bungalow, the man replied, ‘But we are buying bread from you Sir.’

When I joined CWS (India) Limited, I heard a story about one of the GMs, Mr. Douglas Cook. Mr. Cook had a butler called Xavier. Mr. Cook lived in India alone but loved to entertain his friends. One day he invited some of his British friends and after dinner, he asked them if they would like some Cognac. Then he went to his bar to pour the drinks, only to discover that his Remy Martin was missing. Clearly very embarrassing. He apologized to his guests and they made do with something else. After everyone left, Mr. Cook was alone in his drawing room, when Xavier came in to bid goodnight to the Master as all the servants did each night. This was a standard ritual with the butler, being the highest-ranking individual in the household saying with a bow, “Anything else Master? Good night Master.” When Xavier said, “Anything else Master?” Mr. Cook asked, “Where is my Cognac Xavier?” Xavier mumbled something, reversed out of the drawing room and disappeared into the pantry. Next morning Xavier took the tray with Mr. Cook’s bed tea, into his bedroom and greeted him as usual, “Good morning Master.” Mr. Cook replied, “Where is my Cognac?” Later at breakfast, at lunch, at tea, when serving dinner and when he came to say, ‘Goodnight’, the same ritual; “Where is my Cognac?” To give him his due, Xavier took this for three days. Then on the fourth day, Xavier disappeared for good. Mr. Cook’s Cognac and his butler were never seen again.

Butler English was not restricted to butlers. I once had one of my Field Officers come to me, very happy one morning, saying, “Congratulations Sir. My wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Not having had anything to do with that development, I was in a quandary whether to accept the congratulations or not. Accepting seemed very much like admitting to the crime. Not accepting would have seemed rude. I am still thinking about that. Another Field Officer came one morning to the Muster, wanting his backyard to be fenced. To emphasize the point, he said very passionately, “I need this badly Sir. My backside is completely open.” I had no desire to verify this and so quickly agreed to allot the labor and barbed wire for his ‘backside’.

Life was simpler in those days. We had less technology and more time. People were more open, warm, and less complicated. People looked at commonalities and bonded on that basis. If I think about how many differences there were between me and some of my dearest friends, I can tell you that we differed on many things. But what we had in common was enough to keep our hearts together for now over forty years. That is the real meaning of respect. Not to demand that everyone becomes vanilla flavor; one ‘official, approved version’. Real respect is to respect difference and the right of everyone to live that difference without demanding that they change or even explain why they are the way they are. Real respect for each other is to accept our differences like the giraffe accepts the elephant’s trunk while the elephant accepts the giraffe’s long neck. That’s it for now. Vanakkam!

Those were the days

Those were the days

I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.

The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.

However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.

Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually.

Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.

Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.

Candlelight dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.

1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.

Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Sholayar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers.  While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.

Prambikulam view from Murugalli

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heels, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.

The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.

Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………

The Reality

Over the past more than ten years I have wandered around almost every tiger sanctuary in India from Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Idukki in Kerala. I lived in the middle of the Anamallais for seven years. In my childhood and youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent every summer and winter holiday with my dear friend and mentor Uncle Rama (Venkatrama Reddy) in his house on the bank of the Kadam River in the middle of what is today called, Kaval Tiger Reserve. I would spend every single day and many nights in the forest, walking or in a bullock cart. No tiger. I spent ten days in Badhavgarh living in the house of a good friend, alone, in Tala village which is in the buffer zone. I went on safari drives every morning and evening. No tiger. I spent days in Pench, even slept in a dry nala on the boundary of the forest, one hot afternoon. No tiger. I have spent days being jolted around in Gypsy vehicles in sanctuary after sanctuary, my backbone witness to the wear and tear on the suspension of the vehicle and still live to tell the tale. Yet all I saw of the elusive tiger was one glimpse as it leapt across a road in Corbett and a decent sighting in Tadoba. At the end of all this wandering, I concluded that I was jinxed as far as tigers are concerned. But since I love the forest and all those who live in it, I continued to escape to the nearest forest that I could find at every opportunity; tiger or no tiger.

Then I went to Ranthambore. My very first visit. My most gracious host, Sonu Khan and his driver Sajid, ‘promised’ me that I would see a tiger. Having heard such promises from many others over the years, I hardly paid attention to it. I wanted to be in a forest and Ranthambore was not only a forest but one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever been in. Massive banyan trees, flowing streams, lakes, high rocky hills, mysterious pavilions, Muslim graves and even an abandoned masjid near one of the streams. The main river that flows through the forest especially the part that comes down from the Ranthambore fort has ‘inexplicable’ date palms all along it. Inexplicable because though Rajasthan has date palms, this is a different variety, not indigenous to Rajasthan. Excellent perches for kingfishers, owls, parrots and parakeets, as I discovered.

Ranthambore fort is very impressive to say the least. We were sitting in our Gypsy waiting for the driver to submit the entry pass at the gate house and I looked up at the battlements of the fort in awe at the amazing architectural challenge they would have posed to build. With my interest in military history, my first thought when I saw the battlements rising high into the heavens was, if I were to besiege this fort, how would I do it? I concluded that this fort is impregnable and can’t be conquered keeping in mind the armies and armaments of the time i.e. the 16th century.

Later, my dear friend who shares my interest in history and wildlife, Jehangir Ghadiali solved the mystery of the date palms for me. He told me that apparently Ranthambore was besieged for a month by the Moghul Emperor Akbar and then submitted to the Mughals in 1568. Moghul soldiers ate dates and the seeds they discarded sprouted all along the streams that they would have camped on. ‘Mughal soldiers’, is a general term referring the army they fought in. As it was, most of Akbar’s army consisted of Rajputs. It is easy to condemn them as being anti-national but one must realize that the concept of India as one nation is only from 1947. For all our history, we were individual countries that existed in the landmass of the subcontinent, much like European countries exist to this day in the landmass called Europe. Rajput kings fought other Rajput kings and were being patriotic to their tribe and country and not anti-national. The Moghuls capitalized on this and with their superior technology and generalship, they commanded Rajput armies that won the day. Rajputs rose to become generals in Moghul armies and fought loyally for the Moghul Emperor who they considered their liege lord. One of the most famous of Akbar’s generals was Raja Mansingh who was one of this Navratans (9 Jewels – Nobles held in the highest esteem). Today all this sounds strange and that is why history has many lessons to teach us.

Rai Surjan Hada was apparently demoralized by Akbar’s victories in Chittorgarh and Thanesar and when the Moghul cannons were brought to bear and bombardment started, he decided to capitulate. It was cannons that gave Mughals the edge over their opponents. Babur had cannons when he fought Ibrahim Lodhi thanks to which war elephants which were the ultimate weapon of Indian armies were rendered a liability. War elephants would run amok with terror at the sound of cannon and turn and charge through their own troops, creating havoc. Another thing that gave the Mughal armies the edge was light cavalry using the famous double curved Mongol bow. That gave them mobility and range which effectively nullified the advantage of massive infantry which was the hallmark of Indian armies. European armies of the time had infantry in thousands, but Indian kings could field hundreds of thousands. All this force came to naught when faced with highly mobile cavalry shooting from powerful bows and cannons which though not too accurate at long range, could create total mayhem in massed troops, especially when loaded with scatter shot.

Indian wisdom decided that losing lives unnecessarily would serve no purpose and so Rai Surjan Hada opened the gates to the Moghuls. In my view, Ranthambore fort can withstand a far longer siege and even Akbar would have been hard pressed to keep the siege going for a long period given the issues of supply lines and the semi-arid country that Ranthambore is in. Though the area has forest, which in those days it would have been more, but there is not much in it for an army to eat. That they were eating dates is a sign because dates are dry rations. They would have hunted in the forest but to feed an army needs a lot of meat and animals move away when they are hunted. Not easy, laying siege. This also explains the masjid and pavilions in the middle of the forest.

It is with these thoughts that we entered the forest. We drove through semi-deciduous forest with a variety of bird life. We entered the forest through a beautiful gateway that is today framed by the aerial roots of a banyan tree. In the days of Ranthambore’s glory it would have had soldiers posted on top of it and the gate itself shut, except to those who were authorized to enter. We drove through it and along the track that borders Padam Talao on one end of which is the beautiful Jogi Mahal. That makes Jogi Mahal a part of the Ranthambore fort complex because to get to it you must pass through gates on either end. Imagine that you are a guest of Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore in happier times before Akbar came on the scene and are sitting on the deck of Jogi Mahal watching the sunset (I hope I have my directions correct), drinking sherbet and eating savory snacks followed by Rajasthani sweets. The survival of Jogi Mahal through the siege of Ranthambore is evidence that beauty is protection in itself.

There were several waders and other birds in the shallows of Padam Talao. A pair of Indian Thick-knees, simply standing in one place. The Stone Curlew or Thick-knee is active in the dark and feeds at dawn or dusk. During the day it stands still in shade. In this case they were standing at the edge of the lake, in the hope perhaps of getting the odd worm. They had for company a pair of Black-winged Stilts, a most attractive wader whose delicate long legs give it their name; a pair of Brahminy ducks (Ruddy Shelduck) and a solitary Darter drying its wings. A more peaceful scene can’t be imagined.

As I contemplated all this, it occurred to me that all is right with the world. Until I woke up and reminded myself that the reality is far from this. We are at a stage where we humans have wiped out 85% of wildlife and are facing the specter of extinction. It is true that my tiger jinx was broken in Ranthambore and in three days I saw twelve tigers. It is true that when I watch Blue Planet or Planet Earth, with Sir David Attenborough commenting on the glory of nature and the profusion of wildlife, I am carried away with the sheer beauty of what I see. But it is good to remember that the reality is far from this. Very far. Yes, I saw twelve tigers in Ranthambore, but tigers are so seriously endangered as to be close to becoming extinct in the wild in India. Our population pressure, total ignorance and apathy towards forests and wildlife, greed to make money at any costs and a political class that is innocent of any ethics, responsibility or knowledge, means that forests and wildlife continue to get short shrift. Every mining concession, highway or railway line tends to get precedence over the forest that it will either seriously endanger or completely destroy. It is no secret that tiger reserves which get a higher level of protection from reserve forests, were systematically de-tigered so that the status of the forest could be officially downgraded to reserve forest, in order to start mining for marble.

The solution is to educate people. Ordinary people like you and me, about the importance of forests and wildlife and how our own survival is intrinsically linked with it. Self-interest may not be the most noble emotion, but I believe that unless people understand the importance of forests and wildlife, they will not do anything to protect it. As it is, people at best consider forests to be a source of entertainment and tigers and other wildlife to be performing artists which must put in an appearance for people to get value for money. Forest Department officials succumb to this pressure and I know of instances where, using tame elephants, tigers are driven to the road from where they are resting in the heat of the day, so that tourists can take photos.

The challenge is to educate those who will be affected by global changes. What is their level of awareness? Simply ask anyone the meaning of “Big Data”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Peak Oil”, “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and you have the answer. Most people simply don’t even know what these things are, much less how they will be personally affected by them. The powers that be, the billionaires who rule the world, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and sell them to those willing to use them on their own populations, while stridently calling for peace; benefit from wars, forest depletion, polluting industries, global poverty and oppression. Looking to them to bring about change is like asking the tiger to eat grass. That is the challenge.

How do we show the oligarchs that eliminating poverty is not for the benefit of the poor but so that a bigger market can be created for what the oligarchs sell? How do you convince those who work in weapons factories that living off the blood of others is immoral? Educating the public seems to be the obvious answer but the challenge is to find a way to do it fast enough to energize people to stand up and make a difference.

Caring means to work

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.