Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Screw the rules, We are Indians!

Case 1: I drive everyday over the Eastern Express Highway in Mumbai. There is a flyover along the route near Sion. The mouth of the flyover is very small, tucked away to the right corner of the large expressway. Anyone wanting to travel towards South Bombay will need to take this. Cars wanting to take the flyover are expected to stay to the right most lane. There are cops stationed at the mouth of the flyover, to ensure that drivers maintain a single file and people don't jump the line or cut it from the left. Now people in the single lane, find it hard to digest the fast that motorists heading below the flyover, are zipping past them on the left side on the wide expressway. Its almost criminal! And thus starts the story of queue cutting, where vehicles move close to the mouth of the flyover, from the left and then butt in, cutting the cars waiting in queue. Now this is manageable if the cop is in place and if he is not, God save Mumbai. The traffic gets totally choked up, all the way back to Suman Nagar junction, close to a kilometer behind. And it doesn't matter which vehicle is breaking the line. From BMWs and Audis to rickety old cabs, every one is a culprit. 

Case 2: The air hostess first announces, then she requests, then she pleads and finally she yells. Only then the people standing in the aisle, get back to their seats. Then she again explains that it not safe to stand in the aisle of a plane taxiing in the runway. Its not safe to open the latch of the luggage compartment. But who cares. The moment the plane lands on the runway, you can simultaneously hear all the seat belts click, like a machine gun gone mad. The air hostess covers her face with her hands in exasperation. 

Case 3: The speaker in the event,before starting off, requests all participants to first put their mobiles on silent mode and then specifically, not to pick calls in the middle of the session. Please give respect to others sitting in the hall, if not me, he graciously point out. Three minutes more are all that are needed. 'Har taraf tera jalwa' starts blurting out from some one's pocket. He doesn't even cut it quickly for courtesy sake. The speaker waits for the idiot to cut the call, while giving him a dirty look. The second time the speaker is not so lucky. The lady who gets the call starts talking loudly about how to reach the venue to one of her colleagues. Sorry! Respecting others time and presence, is not in our ' Bharatiya Sabhyata'.

Case 4: Everyone wants to see the Taj Mahal. Some dream of seeing it all their lives, some see it only in pictures and movies, some are fortunate enough to see it in person. To enter the premise though, one has to stand in a long queue and go through a rigorous security check. Once you buy tickets, a horde of middlemen approach you openly. 'Sir, lamba line mai khada rehna padega. Teen Sau dedo, peeche se entry kara denge.' The fat kid standing next to me with a bag of chips in his hand, yanks his father's hand and says, 'Lelo no Papa. Dhoop mai khada nahi honeka!'. Its the middle of fricking December in Agra and the father relents to his son's 'dhoop' story. Cutting lines is a business in our country. I don't even want to speculate this at the Tirupatis, Shirdis and the Vaishno Devis of the world.

Case 5: My parents went on a long trip to Europe. They were driven though six to seven countries in a luxury bus, which made the journey very easy and comfortable. The memory they carried back though, was not so positive. Everyone was clearly informed at the time of buying the deal and the start of the journey, that tips would have to be pooled and given to the driver, as a rule. That is the culture in that place. There were some families which shopped like crazy at every location for thousands of Euros, but at the end of the day just refused to comply to paying the tip. Reasons included, "We haven't budgeted that into our expenses, No one told us we have to pay the tip and finally we have no more money!". All this, while carrying large shopping bags!!

Case 6: We are nature lovers and have made several trips to National Parks in India. And when I was of slightly lesser volume, in the not so recent past, I used to go on lots of treks. Just get out of the cities and there are umpteen number of places where one can lose himself in the lap of nature. That is only if you don't get irritated by all the debris left behind by insouciant travelers. Mesmerizing horizons, dotted with non degradable plastic covers, is not exactly, what you can call a photographers utopia. On our recent trip to a National Park, we were joined by a large family of holidaying people. Of course, requests to maintain silence so as not to disturb the wild life and by that our chances to spot it, were brushed off with louder peels of laughter. And what better way of telling that world that 'I was here' than dropping large empty packets of bright orange Lays chips over patches of pristine green grass. The rate at which tigers are disappearing in our wild, these might well be the only orange things left in the jungle anyway.

I can go on and on. Every time one such incident occurs, I am forced to ask myself "How! or Why are we so hell bent on not following rules?". Are we such a superior breed of people that we find it insulting to be directed? Are we people with absolutely no pride about our country? Or are we the most lawless country in the world, where no one needs to be afraid of the consequences of one's actions. We keep blowing our own trumpets about the great Indian culture aka 'Sabhyata'! Is this the culture we should be proud of? Are touching the feet of elders and equating teachers and parents to God, candidates enough to brand ourselves holy. If we at our levels of existence, so brazenly break rules and have a 'Don't give a shit' attitude, why do we get livid when politicians play their dirty games on a bigger canvas. Somehow, Suresh Kalmadi is a bigger villain than us for breaking the rules. It is so easy for us to sit on ivory towers, blame it on the corrupt babus and throw garbage into the neighbor's yard.

I try to figure out the reasons (RCA in the corporate parlance) for such audacious behavior. Agreed, that we are in a country of over a billion and half people. Resources are always limited and there is gross mismatch between supply and demand, be it food, water, IIT admissions, movie tickets, place in the Ranji teams etc. We have always been taught that if we don't fight for things and beat your neighbors to it, at what ever the cost, we can't reach Eldorado.  But somewhere the combination of this 'Kuch bhi karke' and 'chalta hai yaar' attitudes has painted us as the worst citizens in the world. We are no longer cocooned in our own little corner. We live in a globally integrated, highly aware and unforgiving world with zetabytes of memory. Ask anyone from outside and you will get a very quick and dirty reaction to the Indian 'Way of Life'. And every time this happens, my pride and respect for this great country, its people and culture, goes down that much more exponentially.

I got a SMS forward the other day. A beggar found a Rs 100 note, picked it up and went to a 5 star hotel. He ate for Rs 5000 worth of food and then declared he didn't have any money. The hotel was livid and sent him to the cops. The beggar bribed the cop Rs 100 and walked home free.

At first I thought it was damn funny, but in hind sight realized that the joke is on us!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Forts, Forests and Ferocious Felines: Ranthambhore

Being a faceless part of the concrete jungle called Mumbai, my wife and I yearn to travel out all the time. Over three years now, we have become Big Cat enthusiasts, traveling to different parts of the country in search of the elusive striped cat of India, the tiger!

Ranthambhore: The only place to find tigers lazing on a King's Courtyard

My love for tigers started when I happened to visit the Jim Corbett National Park 5 years ago. Traveling though the dense foliage of Uttrakhand's jungles, I was enchanted by the sights, sounds and stories of India's national animal. I read and re-read the enchanting stories of Jim Corbett in his numerous books and was transported to the lands and times of tiger abundance. Since then, I have been to Jim Corbett park again, Pench National Park, Kanha and now Ranthambhore.

One such recent trip took us to the epicenter of tiger renaissance in India: Ranthambhore. Wedged between the Aravalli hills and the Vindhya range, it is a rare stretch of plenty in the middle of a barren Rajasthan. Vast stretches of scrubby foliage are dotted frequently by beautiful lily filled lakes. Ranthambhore (Sawai Madhopur) used to be the capital city of several Rajput dynasties and the majestic fort in the middle of the national park stands testimony to those romantic periods. Today, nature and history have mingled to result in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places to spot tigers in the world.

Ranthambhore Fort: Ranked 2nd most difficult fort to capture after Chittor

Ranathambhore comes from the combination of the words, 'Rann' (battlefield), Stambh (pillar) and Bhanwar (gorge). The fort is built on a single piece of a pillar like mountain and is separated from the battle filed by a deep gorge. This princely hunting ground was the first area to have been earmarked as a Tiger reserve by Indira Gandhi at the start of the highly successful Project Tiger in the early 70s. Under the aegis of the supremely capable Fateh Singh Rathore, the then park ranger, Ranthambhore transformed into the poster boy of tiger conservation and renaissance in India. The first thing that Fateh Singh did was to relocate the villages that were in the middle of the park. Sans any human intervention, the tigers of Sawai Madhopur started venturing out more into the open and returning to their natural glory. The reserve is dotted with large lotus filled lakes which add a charm of their own to the dry landscapes around. Tigers hunting prey in water, was filmed for the first time ever, in these lakes of Ranthambhore.

 T16, the female Tigress who owns the lake territory now

Our main quest of going there was to spot Machali. No not the aquatic one, but the most famous tigress of Ranthambhore who had ruled the lake area for over an astonishing 10 years. Fateh Singh gave her the name as the markings on top of her eyes resembles a fish. Tonnes of documentaries have been made by Nat Geo, Animal Planet and Discovery on the grace and power of this acclaimed tigress. Her life and exploits have been followed and well documented by renowned Tiger activist Valmik Thapar. Her fights with the 12 ft crocodiles to protect her cubs have become legendary and the reason she lost 3 out of 4 canines. A ‘lifetime achievement award’ has been bestowed upon her by Travel Operators for Tigers, a UK-based travel industry lobby that estimates that she alone has added $10 million over the past decade to Ranthambore’s local economy because of the popular draw she is. But the course of nature is just and inevitable. The brave tigress who fought larger intruding males and marauding crocs was eventually booted out of her prime lake territory by her own daughter and relegated to a bald patch of land close by. Tigers which usually live for 14 to 15 years, have a miracle in Machli who is still roaming the jungles at 17. It is another thing that forest guards now regularly tie up prey for her to keep her going, but who is complaining.

Machli's famous croc fight

India has the largest population of wild tigers in the world, around 1500. Apart from the Royal Bengal Tiger found in India, the larger Siberian Tigers are found in the colder areas of Russia and the much smaller Sumatran Tigers in Indonesia. Tigers are solitary like most big cats. They stay in dense or semi dense jungle habitats covering large territories. Females usually have smaller territories around water bodies, while a male tiger's territory can span across two to three female territories. The male and female come together only for mating and bringing up the litter is entirely the responsibility of the female. Cubs usually stay with the mothers till they are two years old and then move away to claim their own territories, with females settling close to their mothers and males traveling large distances to find their own place. Ranthambore came in the news again recently for the most unusual story of a male tiger adopting two orphaned cubs, which has been documented for the first time ever in the wild. (http://tinyurl.com/3mrkter). Tigers are one of the big cats which love the water and spend the hotter times of the day in the cool of small lakes and streams. The tiger's favorite prey, the large Sambar deer, loves to feed on the algae and lilies that grow in the lake and often find themselves unsafe even in the middle of the water bodies. They are at the top of the food chain in almost all habitats and prefer hunting Wild boars or any of the deer/antelope families like Spotted deer (chital), Sambar, NeelGai, Barasingha etc. They could only be disturbed by the occasional elephant herds or large wild dog (Dhols) packs. They can get into occasional conflicts with the Indian Sloth bears and one such incident was captured by the famous photographer Aditya 'Dicky' Singh at Ranthamore last year, where a female bear carrying cubs, warded off, not one but two fully grown tigers. (http://tinyurl.com/ctsagsb)

 Machli fighting a big male to save her kill

My mother, Dr. P.S. Geetha is Professor of Kannada and has several books to her credit. She had the opportunity to work with one India's earlier wildlife photographers, M.Y Ghorpade. Mr. Ghorpade belonged to the royal family of Sandur in Karnataka and was the Finance Minister of Karnataka. My mother, with her friend, translated two of his books on wildlife photography to Kannada, Winged Friends (ರೆಕ್ಕೆಯ ಮಿತ್ರರು) and Sunlight & Shadows ( ನೆರಳು ಬೆಳಕು). It was a great honor when her books were released by award winning wild life documentary makers, Kripakar and Senani, who won critical acclaim for following a pack of wild dogs for 14 years in Bandipur and made a path breaking documentary for Nat Geo. I was not really very keen on observing birds till this trip, but started appreciating them, after my mother started giving more information about them. We had the good fortune of sighting very rare and beautiful birds like the Paradise FlyCatcher and the Red Necked Vulture. Next trip onwards, I will be armed with a good pair of binoculars to ensure I don't miss out on all the flying beauties.

We had the good fortune of spotting tigers twice at Ranthambore, once very well and the other fleetingly. We were lucky. Coming generations might not be. Tigers may end up only in photography books or posters of Goddesses. We all know the heart breaking stories of Panna and Sariska reserves, where the Government refused to believe that no tigers there. They not only rubbished the reports but also went on to make tall claims about flourishing tiger populations based on archaic methods of tiger counting like pug mark tracking. This government apathy combined with the rampant poaching to cater to the massive black market for tiger parts in Chinese medicine, doesn't bode well to the remaining few wild tigers in India. The ever expanding population of the country is always fighting to claim the last stretches of forest cover. Its left to few champions like Valmik Thapar, the media and the concerned citizens of the country to find a middle path between the human tiger conflict. The world successfully managed to save elephants from extinction in the mid 80s, by putting an international ban on ivory trade. Its time to save the tigers this time.Otherwise, it might be just too late!

Before it is too late

P.S: None of the above photos are mine. I wish they were! But not everyone is as fortunate and talented to take such pictures. :) To see what we managed to capture, see my Facebook album!