Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Quiet Please

08-June-2015, Dammannakatte, Nagarhole National Park

The first evening safari had begun auspiciously enough.

The narcissist

A purple rumped sunbird had decided to check out its rival hiding inside the rear-view mirror of our safari canter and we were all enthralled. The green head, yellow body and purple rump of this outrageously coloured bird & its antics brought a smile to everyone's faces and a hope of even better things to come. The canter hadn't even started its engine yet.

In a few minutes, it did and just as it was about to roll out of the booking office area, three gentlemen, one of them with a professional TV camera came running up to the bus. The guide opened the bus door to let them in and they occupied the front most seats which were kept empty so far.

As soon as we started towards the Park entrance, the guide turned around to say that maintaining silence helped in better spotting of the animals and in keeping them undisturbed. One of the 3 gentlemen who had boarded last, turned around and repeated to everyone "Quiet please!"

As the gate lifted to let the vehicle in, this aforementioned gentleman Mr. Quiet-Please immediately set about ignoring his own instructions. With a vengeance. As it happened to be, Mr. Quiet-Please was the producer of a Malayali TV news show and was committed to shooting video of their trip into the National Park… with a running commentary!

Could tolerate Mr. Quiet-Please only briefly

The guide tried, I tried, a visibly irritated co-passenger tried but none of us could do anything to make this 'dedicated' team trying to get their ‘takes' to keep the peace. The forest, freshly revived from the first rains, was green and beautiful, but was particularly grumpy about revealing itself. Aside from a fleeing Malabar giant squirrel and really distant (luckily for the animals) elephants bathing in the Kabini river, we spotted absolutely nothing in the entire safari.

Mr. Quiet-Please was now, after all being central to all the problems, making protesting noises about how he felt cheated out of the money that he had paid for the safari.

“There is nothing in this forest!”, he said, as he and his team disembarked at the booking office.

The follow-up safari, the second of the evening had some seats empty so I had already booked myself into the next. The same drill again as the guide told all passengers to maintain silence.

The big difference on this trip? The passengers actually obeyed.

And what a difference it made! Even entering the forest was an adventure when human voices were silenced. The buzz of the insects, the calls of the birds, the drip drop of raindrops – all audio enhancements which we had missed on the preceding safari. The jungle felt so much more mysterious, almost holy, and the atmosphere thick with anticipation.

There it was! The reason I had wanted to come to the banks of the Kabini in the first place. In full view of our safari canter, the master of the night… a massive male leopard. He stalked by in front of the vehicle.

Rewards Program

Apart from an initial involuntary squeal of surprise from the back of the canter, our entire crew of watchers remained particularly silent. As a reward, the leopard decided to give us even more of a memorable experience. He circled our canter thrice within 20 feet or so and then clambered up & down neighbouring trees making the leopard’s typical sawing call.

We humans held our silence, only the sound of our thrilled breathing was to be heard. It got to the point that we had to let the leopard be and move on. For him, we didn’t seem to exist and we wanted to keep it that way.

The silent attitude was to pay further dividends. Further ahead, we arrived within seconds of a pack of dhole having hunted a chital down and were privy to a hurried feeding by them. One by one, each of the senior dogs took turns to keep an out for other predators in the area while the others fed. With a group of like-minded and rule abiding people, the jungle was indeed a gracious host.

Fresh action for the noiseless

It’s sad when due to the behaviour of a handful of boorish people, a wilderness as splendid as Nagarhole gets a thumbs down from Mr. I-visited-a-jungle-one-time-and-I-was-bored. Sure, not every safari is guaranteed spectacular animal sightings but that’s the way of the jungle and the charm of the jungle.

But from my back to back safari experiences of the same place, I can surely vouch for the value of silence. There is everything in this forest but for that you really need to be quiet please.

Good things come to those who wait...

... in relative silence

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Are Safe

I say so, knowing full well that Google's Artificial Intelligence (AI) has finally beaten humans at the last board game where we were still able to beat computers at. Go, a Chinese board game with a not undeserved reputation of being the toughest board game invented by mankind, was until recently ruled by human champions. Not so much anymore.

I say so, knowing full well that two computers programmed by Facebook to converse with each other in human language discarded it as too inefficient. They chose to develop their own version of language, understood only by fellow machines, to converse thereby cutting humans out of the loop.

I say so, because of what you see below.

Nope!

Computers are stupendously good at spotting patterns. The only issue with their superpower is that a pattern exhibited by a human may actually mean zilch. Recently, I had been spending significant amounts of time on an insurance comparison website studying options in health insurance to switch over from my current one. After getting one, my interest in anything remotely insurance related were back to normal levels, i.e. zero.

So, Mr. AI, I am loathe to imagine myself working at BankBazaar.com. If anything, that sounds like my worst nightmare.

If this is what AI is targeting me with after intently scanning my Internet surfing patterns, we are well and truly safe.

Fiction Fails


The following words, I assure you, are as far away from fiction as anything could possibly be. More like non-fiction in the truest sense.

The number of people who know that I like to write is significantly higher than the number of people who actually read what I write. I put that down to enthusiastic self-declaration on my end and unenthusiastic audiences at the other. That is actually not a terrible thing.

It is but natural for anyone, when he/she hears that I like to write, to ask me what kind of stories I like to write. After all, stories are where there is maximum scope for the creative and minimum scope for the mundane. The truly sad bit is that I have nothing but a dry answer in reply.

I don’t write fiction.

As in I have never written fiction and don’t necessarily want to write fiction in the future.

A quizzical eyebrow raise is the usual reaction I get and the reaction gets even more pronounced when I add that I prefer to write about my experiences and opinions. What I do is to overlay my nerdy POV over routine reality and imagine that the end results are somewhat interesting.

Who are you? Is your life really that amazing? Who are you kidding? Questions I have seen flash in many a polite enquirer’s eyes but here, for the first time, put into words.

I am a terrible fiction writer and even though my life is really not amazing, I am saving the world from unnecessary meh-ness by admitting so. No matter who you are, you have better things to do than reading my fiction and no, I am not kidding.

My very first attempt at fiction was when I was almost 10. I remember the not so subtle copy of the infamous lion and mouse story where a monkey and a pulley save an elephant in the well. Yes, that bad! In fact, when I re-read that story just after finishing it, it left such a terrible scar of guilt and distaste that I could not write any fiction for the next 20 years.

More recent attempts all inevitably lead to a lonely protagonist, working with passion on something that he will eventually fail at, even as his world collapses around him in excruciatingly slow motion. Sure, the world desperately needs antidotes to Shiv Khera’s insufferable peppiness but I assure you my stories are not addressing that gap. They are more like a You Can W(h)in(e) on a ventilator machine, beyond redemption but still unwilling to give up.

Part of my self-hate also stems from the fact that I love reading fiction. Knowing what the good is makes consistently producing the bad all the more unbearable. I’d rather be boring about something was initially interesting (before it was run over by my words) than be interesting about content already long dead (deservedly stabbed to death by boredom).

Mob


It was only a month into our first semester of engineering, at the peak of the collective ‘Seniors must be obeyed at all costs’ spell cast on us. The spell would dissipate in a few weeks and it would surely be attempted on subsequent newbies in newer batches, it would never ever have as much power on us greenhorns as it had then. We believed.

In this environment, Dubious (all names including this changed for privacy purposes) and me found ourselves roaming the campus at 02:00 AM, roughly hewn heavy wooden sticks in hand. We were part of a battalion, a few dozen strong, entrusted with the protection of our engineering college from possible attack by the enemy.

The enemy in this case were Kurukshetra University (KU) students. This was all part of an endless cycle of insults and avenge-of-insults that KU and engineering college students were engaged in, possibly just because they needed something to do in this semi-agrarian town in Haryana.

With soldiers like Dubious, a short dreamy literature fanatic and me, a skin and bones contraption wearing telescopes for glasses, the future of this battalion if it chose to engage in any kind of physical battle was bleak. As it happened and as indeed happened on many a night, the KU chose to sleep off their insult while we patrolled the perimeters. Dubious and me weren’t above looking relieved at this turn of events.

The obvious lack of action in combination with the ache in our arms was leading us back towards our hostel and peace. We nearly made it when Jhamelaa from the leading dozen announced “This Popat has been showing off too much in class. Isn’t it time someone put him in his place?”

Just like that, the KU threat was gone but a visceral hatred for Popat replaced it. The mob had turned.  Now Popat, a batchmate I barely knew from a different branch, must be sought and taught.

What this Popat had done was something I had no idea of, yet it was truly astonishing how the focus had shifted on what was a cool October night. The mob had already swarmed towards Popat’s ground floor room before logic could step in.

Luckily for Popat and the extremely confused me, a baritone voiced negotiator friend of his managed to send us all back to where we should have in the first place, our rooms and our beds. The immediate unavailability of Popat, who had wisely decided to make a speedy exit towards safer climes before his lesson teachers showed up, also helped.

Whenever I read of mob mentality, I always go back to that night in Kurukshetra. I remember how Dubious, until then as much a passive participant as me, declared “Yes, Popat must be taught a lesson!” and merged into the crowd at Popat’s door. The very night air, it had seemed to me then, carried the perverse ability to turn thinking off and frenzy on.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A house on Ripon Street


No, it’s not even on Ripon Street. Ripon Street actually ends at Lower Circular Road but in the long standing tradition of locating themselves on the nearest modish sounding address, the occupants of the house often do the same. Haji Lane just doesn’t have the same ring.

The house is old. Some say that the ground floor base of the house is 150 years old and was the studio of noted painter Abanindranath Tagore. Like that of the blue-eyed Englishwoman said to have been seen by some domestic servants, this story about the house is yet to be confirmed.

For a functionally focussed house, so much so that it wasn’t given a name, it has its fair share of stories. The tall cool walls and their wooden shuttered windows, watched over by the brilliant red in spring krishnachura tree, have enclosed within them many a memory – newly married couples tentatively learning the ropes of matrimony; happy childhoods by the dozen as experience and an experienced pool of grandparents allowed them to be; and re-unions of re-animated cousins as they talk of them days past whilst the latest generations make latest memories.

A first-time visitor might note the long first floor verandah, once open to the streets and neighbourhood burglars but now protected by a grill of elaborate design, where the sunlight casts all manner of patterns through the day and where it is possible to daydream looking out onto the ultra-busy street, with a distance more emotional than physical.

Then there’s the roof, that is open to the breezes from the Ganga and the azaan calls of numerous mosques. With whimsical views both distant and near, there is never quite a wrong time to go up to the third floor in search of innumerable imaginary stories.

Addicted


The inquisition is an everyday reality.

“Don’t you have any *real* friends?”

“Staring at a computer screen for hours together?”

“Get away, get outside, before you go crazy!”

The parents. Forever overreacting.

They see partial benefits though. Dad has discovered the world’s greatest library of WW2 documentaries, also known as YouTube. Mom has committed herself to that blue and white temple of baby announcements and perfect(ly staged) wedding pictures, also known as Facebook.

Yet they cannot bring themselves to see their son’s Internet usage as anything other than addiction. The lack of any business formals on my person in my newly chosen career as freelance writer has them convinced that their son is now that anti-social, work-shirking, manic-depressive Internet person that the newspapers sound warnings about.

So, when a severe thunderstorm conked out the Internet connection at home one morning, an opportunity to relive those golden pre-Internet days presented itself. The crew would take at least a day or two to restore services, I was told. I dusted out an old book or two, long kept in a forgotten queue. I stood for long in the verandah watching the rain pelt down. It was glorious.

My parents? All through the outage, every couple of hours they would ask me about the status of the Internet connection. After restoration, I ran upstairs to let them know.

I was late to the party.

Two senior citizens were already hunched over the blue glow of their respective smartphones, surfing with the devil.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Eternal fire


My trip to the Olpadwala Community Hall on Chowringhee today was to learn more about one particular Indian community which has long intrigued me.

My first encounter with the word was when I heard what the oldest section of the town I grew up in was named. The stately ancient houses and the narrow twisty lanes had a name – Parsiwada, the area of the fire worshippers.

Whether there were any Parsis left in that neighbourhood by the time I first saw it is a matter of debate but that they did sail there, escaping persecution in Iran, a few hundred years ago back when Bharuch was still a port town is certified history.

The exhibition which I visited, named “Threads of Continuity”, was peppered with bookmarks from my formative years in Gujarat, port towns and stories as to how Parsis had first found refuge to launch the incredible Indian chapter of their 3000-year history. I became aware, even more than I had been earlier, of how this tiny community had always punched far above its weight giving India some of our greatest freedom fighters, scientists, industrialists, soldiers and rock stars.

These factual updates and the current crisis in their community notwithstanding, that first image that I had of Parsis, of ship sailing families carrying and protecting their sacred flame, braving stormy seas and uncertain fates still holds strong in my head. The fire that they saved - the fire of faith in better worlds for those dared.