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When I drew the attention of my good friend and fellow birder Nalni Jayal to my birding post about a visit to the Keoladeo National Park made last year, all I intended was to give him what I hoped would be an interesting read that would warm his heart ((https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/of-birds-and-humans-the-keoladeo-bharatpur-national-bird-sanctuary/).

He responded promptly and enthusiastically, delighting in my visit like any true birder would, and colourfully reminiscing about his own visits to the Park as a young man in the company of his mentor Dr. Salim Ali, India’s much loved “bird man” and Father of Ornithology in the country.

He also told me important things that I did not know about the history of the Park, and about his own role in its shaping.

It was the late 1970s, and Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister had just set up the brand new Ministry of Environment (in a case of shining political initiative, a commodity, alas, that is severely lacking in India’s current political scene).  Mr. Nalni Jayal was appointed to a key position in the Ministry in charge of forests and wildlife.

As I listened with fascination, Nalni recounted his efforts to recast the former Royal hunting grounds into a protected national bird sanctuary against the backdrop of the early  days of environmental thinking in India, and his pivotal role in establishing scientific markers for this thinking.   I immediately knew that I had to get him to write all of this down.  Readers of my blog deserved to know about the Park’s history, since my blog story was frozen at one point in time.  And it was important to document the role of crucial  actors like him in this history.

If Mrs. Gandhi provided the necessary overall political voice for protecting the environment, Mr. Jayal was the essential condition for its  execution, an inspired bureaucrat and passionate nature lover who kneaded the dough that was India’s new environmental thinking.   Surely a serendipitous case of the right person being at the right spot at the right time.  He did this by drawing in a wide circle of collaborators through his personal and professional leverage – friends and mentors, Indian scientific organisations,  international sister organisations, and pressure groups under the U.N. umbrella.  And thus contributed to laying  the foundations for most of the wildlife sanctuaries that we have in India today.  Places that nature lovers like myself can visit and enjoy.

The note below that Nalni sent me offers a brief – albeit well-documented – glimpse into one such episode in this history.  Woven into it is his own personal story of how he came to be a birder, and his  friendship with Dr. Salim Ali.

 __________________________________

Radhika’s blog on birds and humans in the Keoladeo National Park

I was extremely glad, Radhika, that you drew my attention, as a fellow birding enthusiast, to your blog so beautifully describing your visit nineteen months ago to what our most eminent late Ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali, refers to “as one of the world’s most fabulous waterfowl resorts”. You have indeed brought back rich nostalgic memories of my own close association during the critical years of evolution in the second half of the ’seventies of this unique bird preserve, then known as the ‘Ghana’ Bird Sanctuary.

But let me not fail to recount my first not so edifying contact with Ghana as a nine-year old schoolboy in the winter of 1936, taken by the hunting members of our family for a shoot during the years when it was a private duck-shooting preserve of the Bharatpur rulers. Presumably I was being introduced to a sport popular in those days, but I can recall wondering why it was necessary to massacre such beautiful birds — perhaps the first experience that guided my basic instincts towards conservation! Fortunately, soon afterwards Dr. Salim Ali, a close friend of our English Headmaster, introduced us in the Doon School to the rich world of birds around us. This early contact blossomed progressively with the years into a deeper association with him as my ‘guru’, friend and indeed a ‘God’ to help me savour Nature in all its myriad glory!

I was ordained in my Civil Service career in the latter half of the ’seventies to be appointed in a Union Ministry with charge of forests and wildlife of our country. In this capacity I had the opportunity of frequent contact with Dr. Salim Ali and with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that he supervised whose advice and guidance on wildlife conservation in general and on the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in particular was invaluable. Our first combined task was to somehow persuade and morally pressurize the Maharaja into surrendering the shooting rights that he continued to enjoy since Independence. This was successfully and mercifully accomplished with the help of the government. Keoladeo Ghana was thus saved for serious scientific and ecological conservation efforts towards not only making it a unique birding haunt but also ensuring the safety of its fantastic concentration and diversity of both resident and migratory waterbirds. Another unique feature, according to Dr. Salim Ali, which made the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary world famous was its being the only wetland in the Indian subcontinent where small numbers of the rare Siberian Cranes migrated in winter from Siberia.

The BNHS, under Dr. Salim Ali’s guidance, had been already for several earlier years, with the Maharaja’s co-operation, carrying out bird migration through large scale bird ringing. Dr. Salim Ali thus coincided his annual visits to Bharatpur during the nesting season of the resident waterbirds.

Following Ghana’s formal declaration as a Bird Sanctuary, under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, its administrative control passed on to the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department, with whom I had to interact during the crucial latter half of the ’seventies in order to convert the Sanctuary not only as an ecologically sustainable reserve, but also to find solutions for the many problems its small area suffered from biotic intrusion. Do’s and Don’ts also needed to be worked out with care and enforced for the increasing numbers of visitors, and indeed also for the newly appointed officials of the Sanctuary unfamiliar and ecologically ill-equipped with managing a waterfowl reserve. I was left with the only option of requesting Dr. Salim Ali to increase, instead of seasonal, at least monthly visits to Delhi from his home in Bombay. He readily agreed and I would then drive him to Bharatpur over long weekends to share his vast knowledge and experience to ensure management decisions needed were scientifically well-founded.

Thus a protective wall all around the vulnerable areas of the Sanctuary was constructed to minimize biotic interference; traffic through the Sanctuary was strictly restricted; and a buffer zone at appropriate distance outside the Sanctuary was legally prescribed in which hunting of wildlife was strictly prohibited. Water to keep the wetland alive, during years of monsoon failure was a critical problem mitigated by diverting part of two dammed rivers some distance away, and also through tubewells dug in the Sanctuary when the river flows diminished.

Apart from generally monitoring the avifaunal health of the Sanctuary, Dr. Salim Ali’s main concerns were the declining numbers of Siberian Cranes arriving each winter to the Sanctuary, and the hydrobiological status of its wetland area on which the breeding of the large waterfowl population so critically depended:

.       In regard to the former, every effort was made to protect this highly endangered species at the governmental level by interacting with the concerned authorities in the countries between Siberia and India, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it was feared the Cranes were being hunted on their long journey stopovers. I also visited the International Crane Foundation in the USA where Siberian Cranes were being captively bred in the hope of their being released in the wild for migration or for building a resident population. There is now hope for the latter succeeding at the Keoladeo Sanctuary.

·         In respect of the hydrobiological status of the wetland with its seasonal fluctuations of water levels on which its floral and fish composition depended, as also on its feral grazing, Dr. Salim Ali sought a comprehensive study being carried out by the BNHS. Through my contacts with the US Fish and Wildlife Service I was able to secure resources for the BNHS for a five-year project. Another project for a comprehensive ecological study of the Sanctuary was also  simultaneously sanctioned to the BNHS. The results of these studies have subsequently proved invaluable assets for the scientific management of the National Park when it was so constituted in March 1982, giving rise as it did to some difficult management problems including the unfortunate extinguishing of some traditional rights of the surroundings village communities, some of which were favorable to maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

Finally, I might add that it was a proud privilege for me to be invited to Chair the meeting of the Ramsar Convention at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1981 at which, with our strong support, the Keoladeo Waterbird Sanctuary was voted for inclusion as a Ramsar site. I was very gratified to learn four years later in 1985 — the year I superannuated from the Civil Service — that the Keoladeo (Bharatpur) National Park had been inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage List,  a proud distinction indeed for the smallest 28.73 sq.km. National Park in the country!

N.D.Jayal

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No trip to California can be complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park.  My last trip had fallen short in this regard, and I was determined that this time I was going to round off the circle.  So, topping  the list of  ‘family time together things-to-do’, was a few days in Yosemite.

Yosemite is not only fabled for its beauty and accessibility, it also has the distinction of being the oldest national park in the U.S., the first to be recognized as a protected natural environment through a declaration passed by the then President of the United States Abraham Lincoln.  First discovered by the naturalist John Muir, who worked tirelessly throughout his life for its recognition and protection, Yosemite has had the support of generations of dedicated nature lovers who have followed his trail to bring the park to its present stature.

Masses of information about Yosemite already exist; and  if one is planning a visit, the Park’s official website and the dozens of blogs by enthusiastic “Friends of Yosemite” and random visitors to the Park, offer enough about what to expect and what to see and do.  But it is only natural that the real import of Yosemite begins to come alive only when one actually gets there.

Every effort has been made to educate the visitor: through exhibits in the Park’s Museum,  films about Yosemite ‘s history,  detailed legends everywhere particularly in the Sequioa forests (among the largest and oldest trees in the world) and, indeed, excellently produced and illustrated informational leaflets and maps at hand, at every turn.   Not to speak of the knowledgeable Park guides.  All of this make even a brief trip to the Park very instructive and rewarding.   We learnt a great deal about the Park’s diverse natural landscapes, its ancient geological history, the story of the Indian tribes whose home it originally was and who learnt the deep secrets of living in harmony with the unique natural events that periodically unfolded in these forests, and the re-learning of Indian lore combined with the application of modern conservation techniques, that is at the heart of the current management of the Park.

We realised with regret that a first-time trip of just a few days did not give us the luxury of being able to explore the deep wilderness, for which we needed to have planned a longer and more strenuous hiking and camping trip.  Indeed, wherever we went on the beaten track ,we were surrounded by so many people that we couldn’t get away from the feeling of being mere tourists.  We despaired that we would perhaps leave Yosemite carrying the weight of an unfinished agenda.

But, just as we were leaving, something happened that touched our hearts and fired our minds with a sense of the eternal mystery of the earth’s making.  An experience that will forever symbolize for us the ‘spirit of Yosemite’.

We had gone to Glacier Point to witness the sunset, one of those “must-do” things at Yosemite.  We had lived for decades by the seashore along Mumbai’s western seaboard where, from the balcony of our flat overlooking the sea, we would enjoy spectacular sunsets every day, feeling a little like Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, who sat in his chair on his tiny planet and continuously witnessed sunset after beautiful sunset.  We were also  veterans of quite a few locational sightings – sunrise over Kanchenjunga, sunset over the ‘golden fort’ of Jaisalmer, etc. –  and as we rushed to Glacier Point with our eyes on the time, we wondered if we were being a tad too touristy ourselves.

It was with a sense of déjà vu that we found most of the vantage points overlooking the mountains ranged in front and the Valley deep below already taken, and a steady stream of people continuing  to arrive.  By the time the appointed hour approached, there wasn’t a free spot on busy Glacier Point.  A group that was apparently camping closeby had even arrived with all their cooking stuff, and soon spaghetti and an accompanying  sauce were simmering on a flat rock close to where we stood, amidst convivial banter.

As the sky turned pink and shadows began to move across the hills, the valley far below was the first to be swallowed up by the growing darkness that soon rose like a mist to where we stood high above.  Just the hill tops were still softly lit up by the setting sun.  Thinking that this was it, we slowly began to walk away, believing  that it might be wise to get away from what might become a virtual crush of people making for the car park, if we lingered for too long.

We were making our way towards the parking lot when we heard the gentle snapping of twigs underfoot among the fir trees around us.   We didn’t have to peer into the undergrowth.  Almost like gifting us with a darshan (vision),  a herd of small deer emerged to innocently give us the lookover.  They continued standing there, faces turned towards us enquiringly,  and we tried to be very still and take photographs.  We were totally unaware that everything around us was becoming  pitch dark, and it  was only when we were back home that we realized that our final photo had only registered the shining eyes of the lone deer that still lingered after the rest of the herd had melted away.  It seemed a fulfilling enough end to the day.  Just the deer, the silence and us.

As we neared the car park, a bus drew up and disgorged a full load of tourists, all rushing  to reach Glacier Point.  Our exit seemed not a minute too early.  It was very dark but we managed to find the road that would take us back to the Park gates, and as we cautiously negotiated the initial hairpin bends we encountered a few more cars speeding past us for Glacier Point.

Ours was the lone car as we steadily drove downhill.  The silence and darkness of the forests all around us dipping  down to the valley somewhere far below crept into the car, and enveloped us comfortingly in that special way that mountains have.     It was going to be a long drive back  to our hotel near the Park gates several miles below, but we were in no hurry to turn on the music; each of us was  lost in our own thoughts.

Suddenly we became aware of something surreal going on outside.  Time, and the world itself, seemed to have come to a stop.  From end to end on our right, the sky was ablaze  –  rich blue above, flaming yellow-red-orange along the middle, and pitch black at the bottom – in a drama that was larger than anything else at that moment.  We felt compelled, like all the other life forms around us – the silent fir trees, the still wind – to stop and simply witness.  Pulling up at the nearest kerb, we stepped out and stood for what seemed like an eternity.  It was like witnessing  the beginning of life on the planet, when the fires had stopped raging and the waters had stopped cooling, and all was silence and peace and beauty.

Perhaps it would have been just as beautiful a scene had we stayed on at Glacier Point.  But what we saw before us was far more than what our eyes – or camera – could take in.  As we filled our hearts with that unforgettable moment, we were grateful for the solitude. The ‘spirit of Yosemite’ had indeed given us a precious gift.  There was no unfinished agenda anymore.  Just gratitude.

Sunset at Yosemite

Sunset at Yosemite

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Stanford University Commencement, June 2012

Condoleezza Rice in her book (Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of a
Family) quotes a line from the Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford movie
The Way We Were, where Barbara Streisand says, “Commencement. What a funny thing to call the end”. 

The quote is in the context of Rice’s experience of her own college
graduation.  Rice recalls that while she enjoyed the graduation ceremony,
what was uppermost in her mind all through it was the thought of all that now lay ahead of her.

“Commencement” – the name in the U.S. for the college/university graduation
ceremony  – is truly a well-chosen description for what is, in essence, the
beginning of life as an adult.   And what the spirit of Commencement
stresses, even while it celebrates the achievements of the present, is a
vision of  life as an endeavour  of  constant learning and passionate
engagement.  It is significant that the distinguished speaker invited to
grace a Commencement ceremony almost always dwells, not on the education he or she received, but the lessons for life that he/she learnt while putting that education into practice.

Witnessing Stanford University’s  Commencement exercises this June was a
heartwarming experience for us as parents.  As much for the fact that it
marked our son’s – and his fellow graduates’-  transition into  life as fully
grown and responsible adults, as for the stirring  address given by the
speaker of the day Cory Booker.   One of the key themes of Booker’s address was the importance of embracing discomfort, if one intended to live a meaningful  life.  And he recounted many stories from his own life to illustrate what he meant  (he also said a lot more that was interesting and thought provoking but I won’t repeat it all here).

We never expected that the echoes of boundrylessness, transition and change that we came away with at the end of that morning, would be enhanced by an apparently commonplace sight in the skies that afternoon.  Lying on the grass in our son’s garden and lazily staring  up at the clear blue California sky over the Los Altos Hills, we had  the privilege to witness what seemed like  another “commencement”.  High above the hills,  a fellow creature of the planet was conducting her own  “commencement” exercises for her child – a golden eagle teaching her chick to fly, in an exercise that went on through the afternoon.  Even as we watched, and  gasped every time the sun lit up her broad golden wings making her look even more magnificent, she rose, dropped and swooped, relentlessly putting her chick through its paces, and never letting it rest even when it seemed eager to return to nestle under her wings.  Each time, she would wait for it to catch up and then gently and lovingly demonstrate  yet another turn or manoevre.  She, too, was teaching it to embrace discomfort if it wanted to roam the high skies.  What a  wonderful opportunity for us to tune in to the rest of the universe, and to be reminded that young fellow beings everywhere were engaged in the same passionate quest for meaning to their lives, supported by those who cared for them.

The sky over Los Altos Hills

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Snakebird

Despite being currently located a mere three-and-a-half-hour drive away from India’s most famous bird sanctuary, it has taken me nearly three years to actually make the trip there.  The  Keoladeo National Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur in eastern Rajasthan is actually strategically located on the route to Agra and the Taj Mahal and can easily be combined with a touristy visit to the Taj.  The Taj – a monumental ode to maternal mortality by a king who impregnated his young wife thirteen times, resulting in her premature death during childbirth – is celebrated as the acme of perfection in human craftsmanship frozen in marble.  The bird sanctuary, virtually next door, blows your mind away for another reason altogether.  To visit there – as, indeed, to visit any park that protects diverse species of wildlife from extinction due to human greed  –  is to enter a living world of harmony, natural beauty and perfection, and hope and aspiration for a better planet.

Created 250 years ago and named after an ancient Shiva (Keoladeo)  temple within its precincts,  the Keoladeo National Park(27°10’N, 77°31’E),  began its life as a hunting ground for the maharajas of Bharatpur.   It later came to be recognised by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, an important habitat for “in-site conservation of biological diversity…  a habitat of rare and endangered species…a wetland of international importance for migratory waterfowl…  the wintering ground for the rare Siberian Crane, and habitat for large numbers of resident nesting birds ” (UNESCO).

Sadly, Siberian cranes which had been regular winter visitors for at least two centuries, have stopped coming to Bharatpur for over 10 years now due to a complex of factors, of which an important one is the bombing of Aghanistan that followed 9/11 (Afghanistan was a crucial halting spot on their route, before they took to the skies again for the final eight week stretch of the 2500 mile journey from Siberia to Bharatpur).  But one can sight hundreds of varieties of exotic and stunningly beautiful migratory birds and waterfowl, in addition to several hundred locally resident bird species, with the odd nilgai, sambhar, spotted deer, mongoose and porcupine, wandering around for added interest.

Spread over approximately 29 square kilometers, the park is the only spot with dense vegetation and trees in an area characterized by sparse vegetation.  The principal vegetation types are tropical dry deciduous forests intermixed with dry grasslands (savannas) of tall species of grass.   Part of the park is a fresh water swamp that gets flooded during the monsoon.  The wetlands constitute one third of the park habitat, with varying microhabitats consisting of trees, mounds, dykes and open water, with or without submerged or emergent plants. It is here that the most exotic birds gravitate to.  For the most part of the year effective wetland is only 10 sq. km., and the rest of the area remains dry.

You can, therefore, imagine how important good monsoons are for the park and its resident and migrant visitors, and how gravely this ecosystem can get affected in a year of weak rains.  As happened in 2010, when the rains failed and most of the park ran dry.  Very few migratory birds chose to spend their winter here that year,  and the government had to bring in water through tankers to ensure that the existing bird population survived.

We made a visit to the park early this March;  it was still the peak season (November to March) for viewing  migratory birds .  Our visit coincided with the spring festival of Holi, and all of the park’s rickshaw-pullers lined up at the gate  had painted their faces with stripes in Holi colours!  The ones we hired invited us to climb on, but not before painting our faces too (all visitors to the park whom we encountered through the day looked like funky tigers in a pantomime show!).  Then off we went into the green depths.

At seven in the morning, we were the day’s first visitors and we felt the promise of a leisurely and cool day ahead. But the occasion of Holi also meant that the fifteen-odd villages surrounding the park all had their music systems on at full blast, and the raucous notes of Bollywood numbers followed us even after we had lost sight of the park’s gates.   The bird sanctuary, sadly, has no buffer zone and, therefore, nothing to protect the birds from insensitive pollution of various kinds by humans living in the surrounding settlements.

Not that the human custodians of the park behaved very much better.  We saw a ‘senior’ park warden whizzing around on his motorbike deep within the park, where there was nothing else to break the silence of the nesting water birds.  A superior smirk came on his face when our rickshaw-pullers bowed to him – evidence that his importance was being acknowledged in the presence of outsiders.  Horrified, we asked the rickshaw pullers who he was, and how noisy mechanised vehicles were being permitted in the deep undergrowth.  They just hung their heads,  after sharing the information regarding his so-called authority.  Flaunting the power to misuse one’s office is the rule of the road in India, in both small and big places.  And small people take their cues from those above them…. a power game that goes on all the way to the ‘highest’ in the land.

Our rickshaw-pullers – at the bottom of the hierarchical heap of humans working in the park – turned out to be soft-spoken, courteous and venerable old men who were hugely knowledgeable about the birds in the park, having pedalled birdwatchers through the area for all of their adult lives.  This makes them a great resource, prompting ornithologists to dignify them with the title of ‘Barefoot Naturalists”.

White-throated kingfisher

Our ‘barefoot naturalists’ energetically proceeded to make sure that our enthusiasm  –  dampened by the dreadful noise from loudspeakers following us – stayed afloat.  They stopped our little convoy every few yards to point out birds hidden in the trees.  A number of these were common Indian birds familiar to us around the farmlands where we currently live  – green bee-eaters, red-vented bulbuls, parakeets, brahminy mynas, shrikes, bushchats and rockchats,  treepies, cougals, red collared and laughing doves, lapwings, prinias, babblers, peacocks, robins, hoopoes and kingfishers, sunbirds, egrets, etc.   Naturally, we had to travel quite a bit into the interior – and its envelope of silence –  to begin to see the really rare birds.

As we started to leave the crashing loudspeaker din behind and move forward through the tree-dense regions of the park, we began to get thrilling ring-side views of  hornbills flapping around, exquisite yellow-footed green pigeons cleaning their feathers,  glowing pheasants making low swoops in the undergrowth, unbelievably – to urban eyes accustomed to the smaller house crow – huge jungle crows with wide wing spans, blue bee-eaters (larger than the more common green bee-eaters), black shouldered kites …

Yellow-footed green pigeon

In shallow swamps, amazingly long-slender-necked purple herons stood stock-still, probably waiting for unsuspecting prey to show up, but certainly affording us plenty of time for admiration.

Purple heron

Soon we were pedaling  into more extensive wetlands.  There, on either side of the path, sitting or swimming in the water, perched on dykes or mounds, or sitting silently on low overhanging trees, a visual feast awaited us.   Colonies of teals, terns, ducks, mallards, and pintails of many kinds (many of them from China, we were told) teemed in the waters.  On distant banks, we were able to spot slow-moving ibises, including a few great big-headed ibises, scouring the shallow waters for food.  Lone darters, stunningly patterned snake birds with long coiled necks,  and little and (large) great cormorants, stood silently on rocks or short branches looking down at the water, not moving a muscle as they waited to spot prey.  On one mound we saw a whole busy colony of  demoiselle cranes in classic one-legged posture.  While on another long dyke a colony of painted storks were going about doing… well, what painted storks generally do, I guess.  Spoonbills, black necked cranes, and great egrets (large) were other birds that gifted us one of our most soul uplifting mornings of the new year.

Painted stork

We left the park by the end of the day, knowing that we would return for a longer visit later in the year when the birds visit again for the winter.  What a tragedy that such a large number and diversity of fabulous looking birds – several of them huge in size – have to crowd within such a tiny wetland space, after having flown thousands of miles to escape the winter in their northern homes.  How long before drastic climate changes (which are becoming all too frequent) in the form of periodically failed rains; and human assaults in the form of willful incursions, insensitive noise and chronic negligence, shrink this habitat even further?

If even occasional sightings of exquisitely beautiful fellow creatures such as these can act as soul-tonics for us and make us feel privileged to be sharing the planet with them,  one cannot help wondering what must be  the lives and passions of dedicated naturalists and wildlife photographers who spend most of their waking hours in the habitats and presence of these creatures?  At the very least we can salute them for doing us the service of bringing their images to us in print, celluloid and on the internet (like the few included here with gratitude; I was too busy feeling excited, binoculars glued to my eyes, to take pictures! ).  And for stirring in us a desire to make trips into nature whenever we can.

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Kesar in Rajasthan has several connotations.   It is saffron, the most delectable of spices…It is the colour of fragrant, sublime sandalwood…Kesar reflects the golden sand dunes of the region…It symbolizes the aspiration of the people for auspiciousness, plenty and prosperity…It is one of the most favourite colours of choice, singly or in combination with hot pink and bright red, for women’s veils and men’s turbans… Above all, Kesar is the colour of the native Rajasthani’s love and longing for her/his lover… embodied as the Kesariya…

In this arid desert region of vast distances, men of all communities – other than agriculturists – have traditionally, for thousands of years, been compelled to migrate far from home in search of livelihood or fortune… whether as merchants, warriors, herdsmen or artisans.  Given the tradition of early betrothal and marriage, the experience of loneliness and separation came early in the lives of men and women here (Rajasthan’s notorious institution of child marriage, and the resulting maternal and infant death statistics, continue to reflect some of the negative outcomes of this social practice).

Marriages in Rajasthan have always been based on clan exogamy.  And since clans were concentrated in specific regions, marriages generally took place between families located almost 1000 km. apart.  Teenaged daughters left home and parents after marriage,  to live in distant lands with strange families.  A young woman’s emotional sustainability thus  depended on her skill in crafting a mutually supportive relationship with the people in her new and complex social environment.

The only person in this environment with whom she could share a deep intimacy was her husband.  In such a situation, when couples were separated for extended periods due to male migration, they lived in a permanent state of longing for the beloved…a loneliness most poignantly felt by women, for obvious reasons.

All of this is embodied in the popular word-name for lover – Kesariya.  Kesar, thus, is both the colour of and metaphor for… love and longing for…separation from and union with…the beloved.  It is also a popular name in the region for both men (Kesar Singh) and women (Kesar Kanwar).   The arrival of the rains – a deliverance to all – is co-terminus with the longed-for union with the lover.  As one of Rajasthan’s best-loved folk songs goes:

Kesariya baalam, aawo ni,

Padhaaro maaro des…

Sraavan aavan kaha gayo,

Kar gayo kol anek,

Ginta ginta ghis gayee,

Maaree aangaliya ri rekh” ,

Kesariya…”

“My love, please come to me…

All those promises that you made,

That you would be back with the rains.

The days go by, and with them the promises,

Counting them… again and again…

I have worn my fingers down to the bone.

The rains have come, my love,

Come to me…”

Mark Rothko 1957

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If one goes by the book, the only time to visit Rajasthan is between October and March.  These six months span the seasons of autumn, winter and spring in Rajasthan….It is  when the weather is at its coolest, making this the peak tourist/travelling season.

Well, I too went by the book; until I found out otherwise recently, when I spent a few days this month in the Jaipur countryside, and then did a road trip from Jaipur to Mumbai.  No doubt, October to March is fabulous.  But it is not the only time to be in Rajasthan.

That August could be a great month for travel became even more apparent, after the contortions I went through trying to help plan a two-week Bharat Darshan (“See India”) trip in August for some friends visiting India for the first time.  We found place after place, and region after region fall off our map, because they were in the path of the heaviest phase of monsoon rains and, therefore, did not lend themselves to outdoor action and hassle-free travel (many of them were also potential victims of cancelled flights/train connections due to “uncertain weather”).  With even Ladakh – a normally rainless region, ideal for July/August travel  – ceasing to be a pick this year, following its August flash flood debacle, Rajasthan probably stands confirmed as the best single place in the country to be in in August.

Rajasthan lays out several offerings in this month.   If you thought that blue in its myriad shades typifies Rajasthan – in the Sanganeri block prints, the blue pottery, and handmade tiles –, think again. The July and early August showers turn the entire region into a kaleidoscope of every conceivable shade of green.  What is so special about that, you might ask?  The monsoons turn everything everywhere green, don’t they… as long as the rains last, anyway.

Well, believe me, monsoon green in Rajasthan takes on an unbelievable and incredible quality, not so easily found elsewhere.  Because the brown, sandy landscape is so starved of water through the year, even a couple of showers make it go into a tizzy.  Overnight, a tiny shower can cause yesterday’s brown to turn into a luminous green by the morning.  And when there have been a few heavy showers, nature in Rajasthan goes crazy…the sense of throbbing exhuberance and gay abandon – of dunes, hills, trees, shrubs and birds – is palpable.

In August, the skies are often overcast, and this forces down the fierce glare of the Rajasthan sun, that is otherwise so bright that even in the autumn and winter the eyes could hurt when one is outdoors and the skin gets toasted (most visiting Westerners rushing to Goa to acquire a beach tan, don’t realize that the Rajasthan sun in winter can give Goa a run for its money). With temperatures dropping just that little bit, it becomes comfortable to spend longer hours in the outdoors, whether swimming or walking/hiking, or traveling across the region.

The monsoon sky over Rajasthan is special in other ways as well.  Dramatic cloud formations turn the sky into an intricately-worked canopy,  against which the already striking silhouettes of historical monuments and traditional havelis look even more impressive.

Along with  frequent growls of thunder and jagged shafts of lightning, the teasing grey-black clouds cause local farmers to spend hours and days looking up at the sky, searching for signals messaging rain.  But only rarely does the visual wantonness of nature actually send down the waters.  As the soft cool winds blow and majestic old trees sway gently, birds –  very active over the summer and monsoons:  singing and mating, then building nests, laying eggs, and bringing up their young who then fly off after the rains end – respond by going into a frenzy of activity, whooping in response to the ‘sound-and-light’ changes in the atmosphere.  And peacocks, of which there are plenty in Rajasthan in the vicinity of human habitations, keep up a continuous dance in expectation of what the clouds might bring.  The poet Kalidas must surely have composed his epic poem Meghdoot under Rajasthan-like skies…?

It was after our heart’s fill of this August ambience in the Jaipur countryside  that we set out on our road trip from Jaipur to Mumbai.  With the wind in our faces, we drove across gently undulating eastern Rajasthan in all its green  splendour…Kishangarh with its Phool Mahal Palace and miniature paintings celebrating the Raja’s love for the beauteous Bani Thani… Nasirabad near Ajmer, known for its ancient craft of baked tiny rooftop bricks traditionally used to insulate the roofs of Rajasthan’s forts and palaces…Bhilwada, a non-descript area whose official ‘backward area’ status has brought a concentration of high-tech textile industries there…Chittorgarh with its stories of romance and valour, Rana Pratap, Chetak and Haldighati, its faintly visible fort (reputed to be the largest and most magnificent in the state) running the entire tabletop surface of the huge mountain.

As we transited into southern Rajasthan and Udaipur district, the landscape began to change markedly to one of great and distinctive beauty.  And we began to realize a little bit of what makes Udaipur one of the most beautiful parts of Rajasthan….Gentle, layered hills set closely against each other, resplendent in their rich green carpets that cascade down in rippling, wave-like formations…Small water bodies, whose sole function seem to be to reflect the painted skies and lush hills… Exquisitely-crafted boundary walls that snake away into the hills…walls made of flat brown stone pieces that have been painstakingly placed one on top of the other, to demarcate one tiny farm from another, …Our driver tells us that this is adivasi (aboriginal Bhil) country, rainfed subsistence agriculture, and long months of zero economic activity which families use to construct these labour-intensive walls.  Miles upon miles of this soothing and gentle coexistence of nature and humans, an occasional peasant hut in the distance shielded behind a cluster of trees…a quick glimpse of smooth mud-plastered walls…new roofs, we notice with interest, being constructed of corrugated iron, upon which terracotta tiles are laid!  Further down the journey,  tall cacti seem to be displacing the stone boundary walls…They look charming in their own way, their leaf-tufted silhouhettes climbing up and down the face of the hills, making one wonder about them because most of the plots that they demarcate do not seem to be under cultivation, nor occupied by houses…The road looks like it has been drawn by an artist…but human beings are rarely visible…just the mountains and little valleys uncluttered by straggling villages or mushrooming dusty towns…

But good things don’t last forever. And as Udaipur yields to Dungarpur that borders the state of Gujarat, the sheer beauty and poetry of the landscape give way to signs of desolation… The little rounded hills continue to accompany us, still covered in a layer of monsoon green.  But there are also naked abandoned quarries and leftover rubble everywhere, that even the obliging monsoon grass cannot entirely hide.  The landscape here has an even more uncultivated feel to it than in Udaipur.  Poor soil?  An excessively exploitative feudal past?   But for a traveller there is visual compensation in the profusion of date palms…more of them here than anywhere on this journey so far, and against the thinly concealed barrenness  the date palms look dramatic and beautiful.  It is still Rajasthan, after all!  Even desolation manages to look beautiful!  And the recently refurbished National Highway No. 8 is a rich black smooth Anaconda that stretches behind and ahead, and our car purrs over it effortlessly.  Another compensation.

The Rajasthan stretch of our road trip ends at Kesariya, the last town before we enter Gujarat.  Kesariya!  How appropriate a frontier!  The word-name has so many connotations in the Rajasthani dialect, folklore and ethos that it would seem to epitomize Rajasthan itself…

But that is the subject of another blog-post!

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There is clearly something insidious and positively dangerous happening in the city of Mumbai.

Beneath the surging stock market, overpriced private residential apartments, oversized cars clogging the narrow roads and lanes, shops overflowing with goods and customers, smart gourmet restaurants, and other symbols of a “shining” country on the go…the lower middle class and poor residents of the city are eating less and less…

As food prices go through the roof and the middle class struggles hard to make both ends meet, it is a wonder that the poor manage to eat at all. Men in poor homes probably still manage to get a ‘lion’s share’ of the meagre offerings.  But what of women, who are culturally conditioned to feed their families first and put their own needs last, and who are so anemic that they need to bolster themselves with periodic infusions of intravenous glucose?

It is a truism to say that stepping out of one’s regular beat is an eye opener. But the day I decided to give a miss to my regular vegetable market, and step into the side lanes of my locality to shop for my daily needs, I realized the full force of the fact that the mundane everyday act of buying vegetables has become a theatrical experience for most and a moral dilemma for many.

With vegetable prices in Mumbai city soaring to around Rs. 80 a kilogram, the retail vegetable market has become theatre. It is not unusual to see even middle class women, bag in hand, walk slowly up to the row of vegetable carts, stand at some distance surveying the wares, then come up closer and circle cart after cart like stalking animals, pick up a vegetable or two, drop it and move on to another cart, make small conversation with the seller, throw out a remark or two to other buyers about the unbelievable prices, stand undecided, then look about to walk off, return, go through the ritual again…Finally, they may leave with their shopping bags less filled than what they set out to do. For the poor among these women, the theatre could be an even more prolonged and excruciating experience. All through the purchase ‘dance’, the vegetable seller stands as a silent observer, eyes large and sad, letting people play out their little charade, as they assess how to keep their home fires burning without losing face.

My regular vegetable vendor occupies the same two spots in Bandra, every morning and evening. In the evenings he sells his freshest vegetables at Mehboob Studio, where his clients are mostly affluent buyers. In the mid-mornings, he brings his cart to Chimbai Village (an erstwhile-fishing-village-now-gentrifying locality just off the main road), with a mix of his fresh-and-not-so-fresh-looking-vegetables. Here his clientele is dominated by middle class women and a few poorer buyers (the urban-really-very-poor can barely afford vegetables at all). At both spots he knows most of his clients by face and smile. And he can understand why buyers these days are either walking away without buying, or buying much smaller quantities than they used to…

This morning, I have chanced upon him while driving through Chimbai Village and decide to do a spot of purchase.  As I select my vegetables, I watch through the corner of my eye as he throws in an extra brinjal for one woman who looks obviously troubled by her inability to buy… He pretends not to notice that another woman – stunted and thin in a faded sari, who has been encircling the cart for some time now – has slipped a few more green beans into the minuscule pile that he has already weighed and sold to her…Yet another woman has been engaging him in a fierce duel to get him to lower the price for her, and when he expresses his helplessness she promises to pay him the difference some day when she has more money at her disposal…He laughs a quiet sad laugh and says he doesn’t know if that day will come but she is welcome to take away what she wants today…

Although vegetables continue to pour into Mumbai city as before, there is a very perceptible wilting that is going on – wilting of the vegetables on sale, wilting of their sellers, and of their buyers. Never before has it been more difficult for people of limited or fixed means to decide what food to buy and how much of it, and to assess what proportion of the family’s hunger they will be able to satisfy.

The only tradespeople in the city today who seem to be ashamed to be in business, are the small vegetable sellers. My vegetable seller tells me that he is ashamed that he what he is trying to sell, which is vital to people’s well-being,  is so grossly overpriced that he is denying those who need it most…

Also, he can no longer think of going to the wholesale vegetable market everyday – something he has done for years ever since he started this business – because much of yesterday’s buy is still on his cart, wilting and unsold. As the vegetables start losing their freshness, his credibility with his demanding clients also wanes steadily.

Another vegetable seller standing near him specializes only in leafy greens.  His  bundles of spinach and coriander look tiny…packaged to look affordable.  He scans each face around the cart with anxious urgency…When I pick up a bundle, he urges me to take a few more… “Take the whole lot”, he says, to me and the other woman standing next to me who is scrutinising a bundle.  Both of us stop and look up at him uncertainly. The cart might be only half filled, but the goods are far more than what a small family might require. He says that he needs to wind up for the day…. once all the remaining greens are sold, he can go back to where he lives, to lie down and rest… He lowers himself on his haunches, sinking back against the wall behind him his eyes half closed. I notice that he looks very sick. His eyes are sunken and he is possibly burning with fever. He looks as though he is having difficulty keeping his head up.

The newspapers have been telling us lately that Mumbai city has become the malaria capital of India (between the water-logged, insanitary construction sites and pot-holed roads across the city, there is more than enough hospitality for mosquito larvae; the prices of real estate in the city continue to rise like poison, but the conditions in which the construction labour live and work are unmatched in their squalour).  The newspapers have omitted to mention that Mumbai is also the T.B. capital (overcrowding), HIV/AIDS capital ( anomie), slum capital (housing deficit), and probably the capital for many other kinds of dubious honours as well. Understandably, they are probably reserving these mentions for other interest-creating stories.

I look at him and wonder how long his ill health might drag on, affecting his business.   It doesn’t need a genius to know that good nutrition is the only way in which people can build immunity against falling sick,  absorb medicines when they are unavoidably sick, and rehabilitate themselves  after a bout of  illness. But is good nutrition within the grasp of people like him?

I don’t have the heart to do a bargain with the spinach seller for scooping up the whole lot on his cart. Apart from the sheer ethics of it, I also know that I have no need for so much; today I truly need no more than just the one or two bundles I have chosen.  But it is a moral dilemma to have to walk away with my purchase…

The dizzyingly steep prices for something as basic as vegetables cuts at the very root of the existence of the aam aadmi, large sections of the city’s ordinary people.  Vegetables already occupied only a tiny place in their diet. Today, vegetables are threatening to become totally absent from their plates.  Which way are things heading in this ‘global city’?

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