Nature photography is one of my serious hobbies. Outdoor photography is a powerful stress-buster, a good way to get myself some cardiovascular exercise, and it keeps me off my butt and off the streets.
For the serious hobbyist, modern digital photography is an expensive avocation. Thankfully I’m single. Even better, I don’t need to pay alimony, to either of my ex-wives. Neither of them would let me buy expensive lenses, speedlights, filters and other costly accessories that I keep buying to pursue my passion.
Notwithstanding the absence of a sullen wife, there are several major irritants that frequently keep me from enjoying photography as much as I would like to. Too many inquisitive on-lookers who keep poking around my equipment. Too many drunken sots who keep asking me if I am from a TV channel (as if!). Too many stray dogs. Too many moronic security guys who keep blowing their whistles in my face. As if taking a photo of a flower will kill it.
The worst irritants however, are those half-assed nitwits who insist on calling me ‘Uncle’. Last evening, as I was taking some particularly difficult shots of a Saraca tree in bloom, a boorish photographer taking photos of his clients told me to ‘Move aside, Uncle’.
I let him have it. That a*hole of a photographer got the shock of his life when he discovered that ‘Uncle’ knows several foul words in several languages. Apart from questioning his legitimacy and his father’s mating habits, I informed him in the worst possible language that I am not his mother’s brother, and therefore not his effing ‘Uncle’.
Don’t call anybody ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’, unless you know them really well. Hailing a random stranger as Uncle is insulting, abusive, arrogant, condescending and downright rude.
And equally abusive and condescending are phrases like “even at this age”, “he’s an inspiration to other people of his age” or worse, telling a 70-year old grandfather of six grandchildren that “you just don’t look your age”.
We elders have mirrors in our homes and we know exactly what we look like, thank you very much.
In civilised society, the correct form of address for a person of mature age is Sir or Madam, or the equivalent in whichever language you use. Samskrit being an especially refined form of communication, specifies the use of ‘Mahoday’ or ‘Mahodaya’. Since all other Indian languages are derived from or influenced by Samskrit, they each have honorifics to be used for elders. Learn them and use them.
Don’t go ’round town creating brothers for your mother. Unless you want an ‘Uncle’ like me to ask you why your mother has multiple brothers from multiple fathers.
Bangalore is finished. For years, the demise of this fair city was foretold by heads much wiser than mine. I have been a prophet of doom as well, to the amusement of anyone who took the trouble to listen to me.
What I did not expect was that demise to occur so soon. Cheerful optimist that I am, I always hoped that my grim predictions and the ecologists’ dire warnings would be proven wrong.
But no. Doom is here. It is today. It is now.
I finally had to accept this reality during the annual Bird Race on Sunday last.
Since a decade, the third Sunday of January has been the day of the Bird Race. Sponsored by HSBC, the Race was one event that birders would look forward to. Although no prize money was involved, winning the Bird Race was a matter of prestige in the birding community. Competition was fierce albeit cordial, bird tallies and sightings were taken seriously, often resulting in furious arguments. There were bad eggs who would cheat, but the majority of us birders were scrupulously honest in our reporting. Invariably someone would sight a rare species and win the Bird of the Day prize – as my team did with our sighting of the Grey-necked bunting. Well, my friend Sumesh and his team saw it too and shared the prize with us, but I’d like to think we saw it first!
Until one fine day, the organisers decided abruptly to remove the competitive aspect of the Race. If a race is not competitive, then how is it a race? Whatever be the reasons, the Race stopped being a race. That resulted in the best birders in the city dropping out of the event, and the overall quality of birding going downhill.
Even so, some of us would participate in the event for the sheer love of the sport and for the sake of our feathered friends. The problem with our feathered friends, unfortunately, is that very few of them are left in Bangalore.
Birds are primary indicators of impending disaster. Bird populations in Bangalore have drastically declined, many native species like the sparrow are gone, and most of the migrant species that would visit us every winter have stopped.
What else do you expect? Trees butchered, lakes filled with human waste, or better yet, choked with chemical foam. Where there were parks there are over-crowded malls. Where there were grasslands there are enormous condos. Where there were farms there are huge IT corporates. Where there was a century-old well there is an open-air toilet. Where there was a 400-year old banyan tree there is a parking lot. Where there was a pond, there’s a slum.
Corporate greed and political gluttony are not new to Bangalore. But now there is savage glee, brutal rapacity, blatant disregard for the law, a terrifying recklessness, a complete lack of discrimination.
We started the Bird Race long before sunrise, so that we could be at our first location, Rishi Valley school, at the crack of dawn. Only to find that all our favorite birding hotspots have been replaced by rubble and garbage heaps. Apartments and an effing industrial estate right in the middle of what is supposed to be a forest reserve.
Kanakapura road, our favorite birding route, has been destroyed in less than a year. Every last banyan tree, each of which was a century old, butchered. Every quiet little waterbody, that existed since the times of Kempe Gowda, buried under debris and shit. Ancestral homes raped out of shape to make way for Namma Metro. Cement dust, construction debris, migrant laborers crapping in the open, deafening noise, a million honking vehicles, chaos.
Every place we went, it was the same hellishness. Not one village, not one hamlet, not one lake, not one tree has been spared.
Birds? What birds? We were grateful for the few that we could sight. Since the Bird race is not a race anymore, we were not too worried that our tally was “just” 110. During the dinner meet at the end of the day, I found out informally that this was the highest tally for one single team, but that doesn’t matter. Three years ago, we would rack up a tally of 130 species without breaking a sweat.
What matters is that just three years ago, the evening meet was held in a large hall, with 300 birders and enthusiasts in attendance. Exhausted with an entire day’s birding, they were still excited to be there and the atmosphere was electric.
This time, the meet was in a hall so small that the ceiling could scrape your head. And this time, I counted hardly 70 of us. The mood was gloomy, the birders dejected. Even the normally cheerful compere of the event wondered if there would a Race at all next year. Notwithstanding the excellent movie on the Amur falcon that we were shown, there was an air of despondence and resignation. The food was bad. The gulab jamoons were nice though.
Bangalore is done. For years, the scientists warned the government that the city was reaching the point of no return. That point has been crossed.
Nothing can save the city. Worried citizens have done what they could. Several have taken to the streets in protest. Some have taken the government to court. Some have tried to rejuvenate local waterbodies, and have faced criminal intimidation and outright violence. I applaud them all. And I feel for them all.
Too little. Too late. Bangalore is done.
Nothing can reverse the horrific damage. Nothing will bring back our lakes and our trees. Nothing will bring back our birds.
I cannot leave the city. I have no options. If you can relocate, do. If you can’t relocate, then no matter how rich you are, brace yourself. Learn to live without water. Learn to sleep in the midst of constant honking and drunken brawls. Learn to inhale the stink of human waste instead of real air. Get yourself vaccinated against rabies. In Bangalore, rabid stray dogs have the sole right to life – unlike you.
Dog activists don’t care if your child is eaten alive by street dogs. When a city tells you that the life of a mad dog is more important than a four-year human infant know that you are living in a doomed city.
I no longer need be a prophet of doom. Doom is already here.
If you die within the next decade, consider yourself blessed. You will wind up in Hell, but you are going to a better place, believe me.
And as for the birds? They are the lucky ones. Birds have wings. You don’t.
The Spot-billed pelican is a large, graceful bird. The species gets its name from the spots on its upper bill. There are eight species in the Pelecanus genus, of which the Spot-billed species is found only in the Indian sub-continent.
Pelicans feed almost exclusively on fish and an adult bird can eat as much as 5kg per day. They nest on low hanging trees close to waterbodies. Pelicans have a characteristic fishing style. Usually, two or three of them get together, gradually push fish into a corner and scoop them up in their bills. They store fish in a large pouch under the lower bill, to feed their young. Like all other birds, pelicans do not have teeth, and gulp the fish down whole.
The bird’s Latin name Pelecanus phillipensis, is derived from the Phillipines, where the Spot-billed pelican was commonly seen once upon a time. Ironically, it is now extinct in that country.
In India too, the Spot-billed pelican is an endangered species, thanks entirely to human greed. Many lakes in Bangalore and Mysore have either been encroached by developers or are heavily polluted. Of the few remaining lakes with fish in them, a lot of illegal fishing goes on. Not many pelicanries are left in India. Madivala Lake in Bangalore once had a thriving pelicanry, but it is now gone. If you’re lucky, you might spot a pelican or two at Madivala lake. If you’re lucky.
Other lakes in Bangalore in which you might spot the odd pelican include Hebbal, Jakkur, Begur and perhaps Gulakmale. All the other waterbodies in and around Bangalore are finished. Bellandur and Varthur lakes are filled with foul, evil-smelling chemical foam, and the rest are filled with sewage, weeds, rubble and human waste.
Kukkarahalli Lake in Mysore has a well populated pelicanry with over a hundred nesting birds. Given all the ‘development’ going on in that part of Mysore, I’m not hopeful that it will remain undisturbed for long, but as of now, it’s doing well.
Appreciation of fine poetry was never one of my virtues. With the exception of nursery rhymes and naughty limericks, I have always kept myself at arm’s length from the world of poetry. Quatrains and verses stirred nothing in me, rhyme and meter meant little, prosody a waste of my time.
When my friend Usha Rajagopalan prevailed upon me to purchase her book on the poetry of Subramania Bharati, I did so with some reluctance. The book remained safely unread on my shelf for a long time, until I finally took it up one idle winter’s evening.
And then something very strange happened. For the first time in many years, I read a book from cover to cover in one single sitting, without so much as rising from my chair for a break.
All I knew of Subramania Bharati was what I had learnt about him in school and what I had heard from my mother. That he was a renowned Tamil poet and a nationalist was not unknown to me, but other than that I knew little of him.
Thanks to Usha, I am now significantly enlightened – and quite furious with myself for not learning Tamil formally, when I had the opportunity.
Translating the work of a poet of Subramania Bharati’s stature is no mean feat, but then Usha Rajagopalan is no mean author herself. Most people have the very wrong idea that translation is a simple matter. Far from it. Almost anybody can transliterate. Few people can translate. And fewer still understand the fundamental difference between the two.
Usha demonstrates an insight that is not often seen among translators, as she accurately translates selected poems from the Mahakavi’s vast repertoire. In doing so, she gives the ignorant reader, i.e. myself, a look into the man’s mind and heart.
“The darkness of ignorance fades into the air, the radiant sun of knowledge rises steadily, casting its luminous golden rays everywhere…”.
My general impression of Subramania Bharati was that he was a fierce nationalist and that his poetry was largely anti-British in character.
“To take the name of Bharat, our country,
is to kill the fear of poverty and grievous enmity”.
“The mighty Himalayas belong to us!
The copious sweet Ganga is ours too”.
What I never knew that he was also a social reformist:
“The four castes are one.
If any of them were missing,
All occupation would be shattered,
And mankind would perish”.
And a feminist:
“Foster women’s wisdom and see,
The world shed its ignorance”.
And a passionate lover:
“I have fallen in love with you, Valli, with you!
Sweeter than life, you have no equal”.
And a philosopher:
“Show mercy to the enemy, kindly heart.
Show mercy to the enemy”.
One now realises that Subramania Bharati was a multi-faceted genius with a towering intellect and strength of character. What an enormous pity that he died so young, killed by serious injuries caused by a temple elephant.
Riveted to one’s chair, fascinated by what Usha Rajagopalan tells us about Subramania Bharati, one finally emerges with
“knowledge with clarity … and .. warm feelings that well up and flood the body”.
Of special mention is The Stream, this being the painting that makes the cover of Usha’s book, rendered by Achuthan Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan awardee and one of India’s finest mural painters.
Usha tells me that her next book on the Mahakavi is in the offing. This time, I will not hesitate to read it!
History belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present. So Dr Shashi Tharoor proves in his latest book, An Era of Darkness, The British Empire in India.
Tharoor takes up the task of dispelling any illusions one might have had about the British Raj in India. In this he succeeds very well. Unlike many of my fellow Macaulayputras, as Tharoor refers to us (and himself), and in spite of my Catholic schooling, I always knew the British were not the ‘enlightened despots’ that our textbooks would have us believe.
Over the years, my own informal research into the subject made me realise how brutal and exploitative the Raj actually was.
Even so, An Era of Darkness is an eye-opener. Tharoor brings to light several nasty facts about the Raj that I never knew, and by his own admission, he did not know himself. Consider India’s caste system. Like many other Indians, Tharoor included, I too thought that the rigidity of our caste system and its consequent evils, predated the British.
However, “the idea of the four-fold caste order stretching across all of India…was only developed…under the peculiar circumstances of British colonial rule“.
As also the Hindu-Muslim divide, which haunts India till this day. “Religion“, states Tharoor, “became a useful means of divide and rule“. The Hindu-Muslim divide, we now learn, was a deliberate British strategy.
It comes as an unpleasant surprise that much of what we were taught about India’s pre-Raj history, and still are being taught, is essentially of British construction.
As exemplified by India’s most notorious Anglophile, the “cringe-worthy” Nirad Chaudhuri, as Tharoor aptly describes him, “colonialism misappropriated and reshaped” how we saw our own history and cultural self-definition.
Thus, page by page, Tharoor’s book unapologetically and systematically lays bare the reality of the Raj. The scientist in me demands hard evidence, and Tharoor does not disappoint. The book is thoroughly researched, with an exhaustive list of references at the end. One expects nothing less from a scholar who holds multiple doctoral degrees.
What I admire about the man is his lack of hesitation in pointing out the wrong-doings and mistakes committed by Indian leaders of the day, that served the British cause well.
Take for example his explanation of why Nehru’s decision to order his colleagues to resign from all provincial ministries in 1939, was “a monumental blunder“. As also Tharoor’s unflattering and accurate analysis of the Quit India movement of 1942.
Notwithstanding their errors of judgement, he does acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as the great leaders and statesmen they really were.
Tharoor is especially harsh though, and very deservedly so, on Winston Churchill. The truth about this alleged “apostle of freedom” is described in considerable detail in the book.
Thankfully, Tharoor firmly dispels any apprehensions about my favorite English author, PG Wodehouse. There were times when I would feel a bit guilty about enjoying Wodehouse so much, on the belief that he was a colonialist. Tharoor assures me that I am wrong, to my considerable relief.
Frightening, enlightening, educational, spine-chilling, profound and made immensely readable by the author’s characteristic style of writing, An Era of Darkness is a volume that one would recommend to serious students of Indian history and to connoisseurs of the English language alike. Tharoor is the only English author for whom I need a dictionary (or Google) by my side.
One reading of the book will not suffice, I must tell you. You will need to read the volume two or three times to understand its import, that “sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror“…
… and that one does not need to espouse right-wing values in order to be a true nationalist.