Archive for February 2009

Rambling Round a Forest Fringe

21 February 2009

This blog is about nature & nature-writing, and not about me. So here is a nice piece by a guest and fellow-naturalist.

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Jamuntola is a typical one-horse, many-cattle Indian village nestling on the border of the Kanha National Park. A well-kept jungle road skirts along a sal forest, bumps across the bed of the Banjar Nadi and wends its way past the village to Thakur’s home. The river has been dry for the past few months. Its huge boulders stand naked, awaiting the gush of the monsoon waters to embrace them. It has rained, unusually, during the “nau tappas” – the nine hottest days of summer and the sun is pleasantly strong.

Birendra Singh Thakur, as his proudly displayed certificate states, is a Bachelor of Arts from Allahabad University. He is employed as a Forest Guard at Kanha. A chance meeting has resulted in our being invited as his guests. If the name brings to mind a big, gun-toting, bristly-moustached character, our real life hero is quite the opposite. He is short, wiry and fair-skinned with eyes that twinkle with animation.

As Ketan and I alight from the jeep, a welcoming smile lights up his face. His abode consists of two rooms, a kitchen, a fenced-in courtyard and a verandah. Towering over the mud-thatch roof are fourteen different species of trees. Thakur rattles off their names with practiced ease. He hustles us through a steaming mug of tea to a pond nearby, anxious to fulfil his promise of showing us wildlife.

On the far side, two Sarus cranes are visible, their grey bodies and maroon heads providing a perfect contrast. Thakur explains that not only is the Sarus India’s largest bird, it also occupies a proud place in jungle lore because of its legendary fidelity to its mate. In fact the Sarus’ attachment to its mate has been commented on even by Emperor Jahangir in his Jahangirnama .The sight of a pair of Saruses bowing and prancing, spreading and closing their wings, reminds one of a graceful polka dance.

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Our hopes of seeing like Noah, a procession of animals is belied. Only the ubiquitous cheetal – the spotted deer, it seems is thirsty that evening. Thakur offers to accompany us again after dinner. We walk back in single file with Thakur reminiscing about life in the wilderness and childhood in his beloved Allahabad. Dinner is everything one would expect a rustic meal to be. The rotis are large and thick, the dal and vegetable hot and spicy and the onions and green chillies pungent. Beyond the wooden fence the trees and bushes acquire ghostly dimensions. The moon has not yet risen and a gentle breeze has sprung. Burps done with, Thakur leads the way, torch in hand.

Far away, a sambar calls. There is no other sound except for the dry leaves crackling underfoot. Thakur cautions us to remain silent as we near the bund overlooking the pond. He trains the torchlight along the periphery of the water. Apart from the gently-swaying water-lillies, nothing disturbs the stillness. The beam moves further inland. No sign of life. Suddenly from out of the darkness, two shining eyes are reflected in the light. Except for the eyes, not even a dim form is distinguishable. My heart thumps – just a deer or could it be a tiger? The eyes are startling blue. They gaze into the light, turn away for a few seconds and then appear to move towards us. We continue to crouch behind Thakur who holds the torch unwaveringly focused on the eyes.

Suddenly, like a man possessed, Thakur screams, turns around arms flailing, and bolts. The beam weaves crazy patterns on the forest floor as Thakur’s yells shock us into action. We race after him. It is some moments before we realize that his cries are ‘ Reech! Reech ! Bhago ! Bhago !’ (Bear! Bear ! Run! Run!). This only spurs us onto greater speed and I quickly out stride Thakur as the dim glow from his hut becomes visible.

Breathless, Thakur explains, whether for dramatic effect I don’t know, that the colour of the eyes and the animal’s movement towards us, are sure signs that it was a bear. He however hastens to reassure us that bears notwithstanding, there is no danger in sleeping in the courtyard. I look up at the star-laden sky and fall asleep thinking of the animals immortalized above by the ancients – Ursa, Taurus, Leo, Pegasus, Lupus ….. Bears and Bulls, Lions, Horses, Wolves ……

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed.

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed. (Drawn by Robert Armitage Sterndale. Denizens of the Jungles, 1886.)

Morning breaks. ‘ Ku-sum-pa-kha, ku-sum-pa-kha’ – the haunting melody of the kusumpakha awakens us. It is still early by city-dweller standards but the forest has been alive for some time. Small groups of tribals are busy collecting mahua flowers, tendu leaves and other forest produce from which they eke out a living.

Mirror and shaving kit in hand, Ketan and I walk to the well a kilometre away. And while Ketan has a shave, mirror perched precariously among the branches of a tree, I pull a bucket of water from the well and dump it over my head.

We tumble into the jeep and decide to scour the countryside. A stream of villages with exotic names pass by – Khursitola, Sarekha, Chargaon, Kumadehi. The previous day’s weather is now a memory and as midday approaches, the heat builds up relentlessly.

Thakur motions us to stop as we cross a small thatch-roof hut protected from the sun by the shade of a huge mango tree. Inside is the local hooch shop. A grizzled old woman who is proprietress, barmaid and bouncer all rolled into one, welcomes us warmly.

We are given pride of place – an ancient looking ‘khatia’ that probably shares birthdays with the woman. Thakur indulges in light-hearted banter. The woman asks what we would like to drink. The choice of poisons is clear – the starchy, colourless liquid distilled from the flowers of the mahua tree or the milky trappings of the sulfi tree. The latter should be drunk early in the morning as fermentation sets in by midday. So we settle for the mahua. It is common knowledge that bears are partial to the mahua flower, seeking them out with the all the single-minded dedication of a red-nosed tipler weaving his way through the bars of London.

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Thakur recalls an old tribal belief regarding the sulfi tree – that only one person should do the tapping and if someone else does, the tree dies prematurely. Each tree is therefore zealously guarded and tapping rights strictly enforced. The woman passes round a dried peepul leaf on which rock salt and crushed green chillies are kept. Caviar may go well with champagne, but there is nothing to beat apna desi sharab and mixture.

The morning after all will, of course, look after itself. Two starchy rounds later, the world starts looking a decidedly better place. We wisely refuse a third, realizing that it is time to be moving if we want to reach Jabalpur before dark.

Thakur appears sad that we have not seen a tiger in the heart of Kipling’s India. But as with all wildlife viewing, the reward lies not so much in the quantum and variety of wildlife seen as in the totality of the experience. It can be as exciting learning about an anthill’s intricate ventilation system as in coming face to face with a tiger in the wild. And for us, the memories – of an encounter with a bear, of warmth and friendship and sharing – will remain forever fresh. But Thakur’s wistful eyes do not seem to understand as we say goodbye.

Guest post by : Sarabjit Singh (

Image Credits:

  1. ”Unison – Sarus pair” – Image by J.M. Garg from Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons Sharealike attribution 3.0.
  2. ”Waiting for father!” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons .
  3. ”Chital in a Forest Glade” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons, (cropped & reduced).

The cornucopia that is TED!

18 February 2009

One of the many wonders of the internet, my favourite one is TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design. It showcases short 15 to 20 minute talks by some of the best minds in the world. These talks, or presentations, to be exact, are shown by streaming video free to anybody who accesses their web site –


In my life, I can never hope to attend a lecture by Stephen Hawking and hear him speak of the birth of the universe, but thanks to TED, now I can.

Or I can hear Louise Leakey tell the fascinating story of ancestral humans.

And sitting in my bedroom at the computer,  I can visit the deep ocean and see its mysteries with David Gallo,

or explore Titan and Enceladus, the moons of Saturn along with Carolyn Porco.

Its not just the mysteries and wonders of nature, but also the triumph of the human spirit.

Peter Diamandis talks passionately of how the X Prize is helping liberate the common man from the tyranny of earth’s gravity.

You can watch Robert Full carefully draw out nature’s secrets such as how geckos use nanotechnology to create the stickiest living tissue of all, the paws of their feet.

Or even watch Robert Lang use math in origami to fold the most intricate objects and also to help deploy space telescopes and artery stents.

This list, though I end here, is not even complete in scope as artists, thinkers, teachers, innovators – thinking, passionate, caring people from all walks of life, walk up and deliver 20 minutes of fascination at the TED rostrum. At last count they had 383 short videos, over 120 hours of terrific viewing.

For Indians who can only dream of streaming video, each talk has a link to a zipped up MP4 file for downloading. Typically, they are about 50 MB, so there is absolutely nothing to prevent you from owning your own collection of favourite TED talks.

These talks don’t just educate, they network people and lead to synergistic collaborations.

A wish had just been made on winning the TED Prize for 2009 by Jill Tarter,  the Director of SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, a matter of immense importance to mankind (she was the role model for Jodie Foster’s character in the 1993 film Contact), when within minutes of hearing her stirring tale of man’s endeavour to search for the unknown, she was flooded by offers to help.

As the Wall Streeet Journal wrote about this…

”A computer scientist donated his patented search algorithms for better data analysis. Marketing experts offered to create Spanish-language Web sites to spread her message throughout Central and South America. A senior developer from Google Inc. volunteered to persuade his company to incorporate searchable star maps into Google Earth.”

By enthusing the world thus, TED and TEDPrize lead the way for all of us…

Personally, whenever I feel down, an hour’s watching of TED videos restores my faith in the concept of humanity and that life is worth striving for and it does make sense to do what you want, even if its just a small thing as a blog…

Note: This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and there is no relation of any kind with except as a registered user. Their logo is displayed under ‘fair use’ argument of copyright.

Yes we can, So they did!

16 February 2009

Paraphrasing poorly from Thomas Friedman and Obama, I found this looking me in the face when I looked up the Sunday e-paper from New York Times.

Thomas Friedman met two young foreign women in India during an energy conference. They came all the way from the US to India to organise a climate-change solution publicity caravan. They got some Reva electric cars, put up a solar panel roof, inspired others to join them and are safari-ing around India! They did this because they felt that India was so large, so much innovation was going on but people didnt know what was going on at other places, so they resolved to do something about it, and they did!

And you know what, they are right! I had to learn about this from a NYT E-paper op ed. My local copies of newspapers did not carry this news to me! Boy do we need networking!

Taxman’s Hedge

15 February 2009

This blog has taken a vow not to concentrate only on things that always get attention, such as tigers, rain-forests and cute pandas, but also about those things that don’t get written about much such as invertebrates, plants and such-like things.

In one of my recent posts, I had mentioned a ‘walking’ tree which someone (M) had told me about. This time it was P who left a magazine for me asking to read the interesting bit about hedges. Like all good Indians this was promptly consigned to the back of my mind till a little gentle wifely prodding made me look through it. And what I found was staggering!

In the years before the Mutiny, the British constructed a hedge, a very large and long hedge, halfway across India for the mundane reason of preventing salt smuggling. John Company, it seems, also fattened itself by making poor labourers pay two months wages for a year’s supply of salt. This hedge was manned and guarded like the Maginot line.

The search for this hedge was launched by an Englishman, Roy Moxham, who read about it and came to India and searched for it. He found it and wrote a book. And there, the matter seemed to rest till Dileep Chinchalker came to know about it. Its not my aim to steal anybody’s thunder so here is a fascinating bit of heritage, in the natural and historical sense…

‘Taxman’s Hedge’ by Dileep Chinchalker.

After you have read it, consider the chain of writing:

The Taxman’s Hedge, enthralls Sleeman who notes it in his book when he goes back to England, which is read many decades later by Roy Moxham in England who goes to India and finds its remains and writes a book in England. Lately Dileep Chinchalker goes from India to the United Kingdom and comes across a book, meets the author and writes about it in India in Down To Earth magazine (which fortunately opens its wares online to all) till I read it and mention it here on the internet, for all to see.

Its fascinating!