April 22, 2018

My first tiger sighting - at Kabini!

I have been to jungles earlier, but have never had the good luck to spot a tiger. Of course, I have always been of the opinion that just spending time in a forest is a great experience and a wonderful break from the complicated human world. Any sighting is a bonus. But since the last 6 months or so, I have been wishing that I too could see a tiger in the wild.

During my last trip to Kabini Jungle Lodges in Karnataka in December 2014, we did see quite a few animals, especially tuskers and their families, deer, peacocks, and several birds.

On this trip, I got luckier! After about 2 hours in the jungle, we spotted the tiger! The buildup to the tiger sighting was very interesting. The naturalist in our jeep came to know that there was a tiger lurking around somewhere near the bund above a moat that had a little water. We waited here a long time, but the tiger did not show up. We then ventured to the other parts of the forest, saw other animals and birds, and then came back to the same spot and waited. Within 10 minutes, an elephant came from the right of our jeep, crossed the road before us, and headed towards the moat, perhaps to drink water. But she suddenly changed direction, and went into the jungle. Then the deer started to make the alarm calls that they make when a predator is around. The entire atmosphere became tense and still like something was about to happen. The constant chatter of the human beings died down as they concentrated on their cameras with 2 ft long lenses!

Then from the bushes behind the bund, the tiger walked out, quite oblivious to the audience that awaited its appearance, and the animals that feared its presence. Cameras immediately started clicking and the tiger - a young 'sub adult' - plonked down and sat on the bund. Within a minute, it lay down...yes, it was nap time, much to the disappointment of the serious photographers! After about 10 minutes, it was on its back, with its paws in the air, much like a dog or a cat! It lay there, sometimes turning left, sometimes turning right, sometimes whisking off a fly with its large paw. It was the cutest thing I ever saw, and I am so glad that rather than seeing a ferocious tiger chasing a deer and killing it, I saw a tiger that was chilling after a meal!

The tiger sitting down...
Taking a nap...
On its back, with paws up in the air :)

This is how the tiger I saw looked through the binoculars
(Photo by Joybroto Dass)  
Arjun, our naturalist told us later that in all probability, the tiger had had a kill, eaten part of it, and had left it behind the bushes from which it came. She was resting, but was also alert turning to keep an eye on the kill on and off, to see that no other animal came and feasted on its meal. Apparently tigers lie on their back to air their inner thighs that get very hot, especially in summer.

It was nearing 6 pm, and we left because we had to get back to the lodge by 6.30 pm. We were happy to leave the tiger and other animals in their beautiful world, where we were really not needed.

It was a very special moment, indeed -- one I will never forget, and one I will re-live every time I think about it. I found the buildup to the tiger sighting fascinating. Having heard about it from others, I was dying to experience it myself. It is one of the things in my life list that I have been able to tick off!

Yes, and one more thing. I am so glad that Kabini's tigers are not identified by name, as is being done with tigers from Tadoba, Kanha and other sanctuaries. It upsets me that human beings are so familiar with them that they actually identify them. Makes it seem more like a zoo and not a jungle. I think we should stop doing that.

March 21, 2018

Want be rich? Get this tree!

Money tree (Pachira aquatica) - good for your finances!

This is a native of Central and South America. The tree in the photos is outside the cactus garden in Sanjeevaiah Park. I saw the flower and the huge fruit in March. It is also called Malabar chestnut, French peanut and Guiana chestnut, and is sold as an ornamental, sometimes with a braided trunk.
See the photo in full size to see the delicate flower with banana-peel like petals and yellowish orange stamens. Nuts that taste like groundnuts are inside a large woody pod. Apparently, the leaves and flowers are also eaten!
According to Wikipedia, the name ‘money tree’ refers to a story where a poor man prayed for money, found this ‘odd’ plant, took it home as a good omen, and made money selling plants grown from its seeds! In Taiwan, these trees are symbolically associated with good financial fortune and are typically seen in businesses, sometimes with red ribbons or other auspicious ornamentation attached.

March 16, 2018

Becoming famous, what to do?!

Kobita and I used to talk about what we would do if someone wanted to write about us. We had decided that we would say no, mainly because we wanted to keep it simple and because we didn't want expectations to rise once people knew about our work.

However, when we were first approached by Wow! Hyderabad for a story, we could not say no! "It's a good cause...", we told ourselves..."let people know about it". But we insisted on reading the story before it was published, and are grateful to Mallik Thatipalli for letting us read it and make a few changes. Here's his writeup published in the March issue of the magazine. Love the photos and the layout of the page. Our thanks to Mallik, for the writeup, and Ratna Shekhar for featuring it in Wow! Hyderabad.

Very soon after this was published, I got a call from Prabalika Borah of The Hindu, and she wanted to do a story on us. It seemed too soon after the first one, but again, somehow we could not say no. I guess we are only human! The photo shoot was a disaster. After the photographer took a few photos, he tried to jump a fence to get a better angle, and badly twisted his ankle in the process. We felt really bad for him. Could not also finish the chat with the writer. We did that subsequently on the phone. We were disappointed when we were told that The Hindu's policy does not allow interviewees to see the article before it is published. Anyway, the photoshoot happened on Saturday, and the next Tuesday's (13 March 2018)  newspaper had the article. Nice article, but the photo was really bad. Composition was good, but our expressions didn't go with what she had written about us! I am looking particularly bad :(. Still trying to get over this, but it is an exercise in acceptance, I guess. Much like looking at your Aadhaar or Voter id photos! Here's the article. And the link.

The very same day, Harsha sent me images of an article in Pune Mirror about ID-ing trees. It had a photo of "Just look up..." and said nice things about it in the para that also mentioned Pradip Krishen's book! This made me really happy. I once again realised how close to my heart "Just look up..." is.

I guess being featured is a good thing, but all this attention has made me want to hide under the bed!

March 15, 2018

TREES I MEET - Variegated sea hibiscus - A beautifully patterned tree!

I first spotted a variegated sea hibiscus in Basheerbagh, near Balaji supermarket. I was stunned by its beauty, having never seen it anywhere earlier. The chore of grocery shopping became a little more enjoyable, and I looked at it each time I went into that galli. But natural things don’t last in urban spaces - the tree was between two small shops, and one of the shop owners felt that his wares were not visible because of the tree, and it soon fell victim to an axe. How easy it is, to cut a tree, and how flimsy a reason for doing so. 

When we had a chance to choose a few trees, we planted one in Vidyaranya, and happy to say it is thriving there.

The tree you see in these photos is in an office compound in Hitech City. It is a glorious tree - lush and multi-coloured. For the first time, we also observed a flower on it, but were told that unlike the plain-leaved Sea hibiscus, which I have already written about, this flower does not change colour.

Scientific name is Hibiscus tiliaceus ‘tricolor’. I did not find any local names. Do tell me, if you know of any.

February 02, 2018

SFX, loud speakers and the effects of sound

Morning starts on Himayatnagar streets, with sounds of sunbirds and bulbuls, traffic sounds from the main road, the bandiwalas with their song-song shouts selling their wares - moz (bananas), mousambi, ulligaddalu, muggu, and vegetables. All of them have loud voices trained to countertenor levels over years, and are audible over eight or more apartments along the lane. They are familiar voices that we have been hearing since many years. They are somewhat soothing too, and we know exactly what they are selling. 

And now disturbing this happy, familial camaraderie, is an imposter. A fellow with a loudspeaker! As he rattles off into the mike, his voice hits my ears and I feel as though he is pushing his cart from my pinna, along the ear canal, to my exasperated ear drum! Yet, despite the high decibel levels, I do not get what he is selling...all I know is that it costs Rs 100 a kilo. I bet it is too expensive. :I 

Others in the loudspeaker brigade include the guy who comes once in a while in a van, I imagine, announcing in a sort of kind voice that he will repair our mattresses and make diwan covers. Another chap wants old silk sarees in exchange for new (how devious and clever), and yet another wants to buy old stuff from homes. Thankfully, all these make guest appearances, and do not cause the level of irritation that the Rs 100-a-kilo chap achieves. 

Speaking of loud speakers, the breed is increasing. I have never felt the need and so have not explored the ease or difficulty level of setting up a mike and shouting or singing into one. But I suspect, as with other technology, it is becoming easier by the day. Bhajans and chants that travelled a floor or two in a muffled sort of way are now travelling loud and sharp - out of those blasted speakers - permeating almost the entire locality. When this happens, our whole building reverberates like there is an earthquake, and however many doors and windows we close, the blast from the neighbour's loudspeaker literally throws us around the house with our hands to our ears, helpless and in agony. God help those who are very old or sick or mothers with babies who just fell asleep, looking forward to a quiet cup of tea.  

How easy or difficult is it to sound proof one's home? - is what I am wondering now. But then, I would miss the birds, the traffic and the old bandiwalas. And I do know from occasional trips abroad that the pin drop silence of the suburbs there disturbs me more than the comforting SFX of my surroundings. Minus loud speakers, needless to say. So is there a solution to this, apart from training one's tympanum to be tolerant to the increasing decibel levels, and hoping that one would not become deaf in the process?  

Photo by Jon Snydal on Flickr

December 27, 2017

Maqtha Art District

It was in 2016 that we discovered with excitement and happiness, the street art at the basti near the car parking on Necklace Road, called Maqtha. Double delight this year, when Maqtha has been declared an art district, and a lot more murals added, making the already buzzing basti, an explosion of colour!

This public art project has been taken up by St+art Foundation that works across cities in India, their aim being to make art accessible to everyone. Maqtha Art District is the third in India, the first two being Lodhi Art District in Delhi and Mahim (E) Art District in Mumbai.

There are four areas - Green gully, Yellow gully, Pink gully and Blue chowk, and arrows along the way lead to the paintings. However, in some places, the markings are not easy to follow and it is a bit of a struggle to find them...but as in any basti, there are other interesting things to admire, so the walk is well worth it!

Just hoping that this initiative will help improve other amenities in Maqtha, such as roads and sanitation.

Green gully

A mixture-seller walks down the Yellow gully

Her dress seems to be so well coordinated that she could've been part of the painting! 

Holding up the blue and pink together!

Children of Maqtha seem to be loving the colours and the attention!

Weaver bird nests and motorbikes!

Everything blue...this is work in progress at the Blue chowk. 

Busy watching colours coming to life...

October 29, 2017

Pillalamarri - An awe-inspiring 800-year old Banyan tree in Mahbubnagar

Note: No photo can do justice to this tree. Please view these images on full screen to understand and appreciate the tree better.

Looking at Pillalamarri gives you an exhilerating, other-planetary feeling. In the 800 years of its existence, its branches bore roots that became branches that bore roots that became branches that bore roots that became branches that bore roots...many many times over. It must have been planted during the rule of the Chalukya or the Kakatiya dynasty, and grew and kept growing even as the rulers built their temples and  forts, fought wars, won and lost, followed by the Golkonda Kingdom, Qutb Shahi dynasty, Asaf jahi dynasty, Indian independence and everything else that happened to human beings in these parts between the 12th century and now!

This banyan is unlike any of the others I have seen so far. While others such as the one in Chennai’s Theosophical Society grew tall and formed a forest, this one seemed to have crawled parallel to the ground, and twisted and turned, sometimes looking like a huge python, sometimes like a dragon or a hydra or the head of Medusa. Sometimes it looks like the Lochness Monster, and sometimes like an octopus with a hundred arms. You can see a yoga pose here, a dinosaur or a Bankura horse there! An amazing natural installation, a ‘living sculpture’, as a friend put it, which would inspire not only the naturalist, but also the artist.

An old man walks past the convoluted network of branches.
Those who grew up reading the Young Folks’ League page in the Illustrated Weekly of India, would remember a fascinating graphic story called ‘The topsy turvy tree’, about a little girl’s adventures as she climbs down and discovers a tree that grows underground instead of above the ground, twisting and turning and forming an entire world down below. Pillalamarri reminded me of this story and I wouldn’t be surprised if it may have inspired that story.

A little boy bends down to cross the branches growing close to the ground.
I am sure many contemporary stories happen on and around this tree. As we spent a precious 3 hours under this tree, we observed many bird species, saw a territorial fight among parakeets trying to make nests, a dog that had just given birth to puppies in a safe hollow at the base one of the trunks, a huge group of school children picnicking under the tree in disciplined silence, a man walking around speaking loudly on the phone, telling someone his life’s problems, couples finding love amidst its twisting branches, and there we were - three nature-loving friends - completely swept off our feet, trying to comprehend this magnificence. 

She just had five puppies. They are black, white and brown. The banyan keeps them safe!
When you discover something good, unfortunately, you also discover the bad that is being done to it. Pillalamarri used to be spread over 4 acres, but is now reduced to 2.5 acres. Parts of the tree are drying up, there is fungal infestation in places, and parts of it are breaking up. While one can see attempts at propping it up with cement structures, a lot more needs to be done to take care of it. This tree should be treated as a national treasure and given the due respect, so that it will thrive, flourish, spread and live for several hundreds of years more.    

Attempts to hold up the tree - the cement props.
Fungal infection that needs to be addressed

The word ‘Pillalamarri’ comes from ‘pillalu’ (children), and ‘marri’ (banyan), meaning a banyan tree with its children. It also called Peerla marri because there is a Muslim Saint’s tomb under it. 
Offerings at the saint's tomb.
Pillalamarri is 5 km from Mahbubnagar, which is 108 km – about two and a half hours drive – from Hyderabad on the Bangalore highway. It makes a great day trip, either by bus or by car. Decent restaurants and toilet facilities on the way make it a relaxed and comfortable drive. 

*Please credit photos to Sadhana Ramchander in case you use them somewhere. Thank you.

October 07, 2017

Monsoon 2017 - The rains don't stop!

My city gets used to rains
October has never been like this. It is 7 October and we just had a huge rain, albeit without lightning and thunder. It has still been raining a lot - every day - it feels pretty much like the beginning of the rainy season. A lot of thunderstorms this year, the last one being on 2 October, when a 13.2 inch rainfall (in a day) broke a 100+ year record. It was in 1903 that there was 11.7 inches of rain on a single day in Hyderabad!

It has been raining almost continuously, although I did not note down the days of rain. The rainy season started on time, in June, unlike in previous years when it would start only in August.

I will now record rainfall here, at least until it stops! We are ready for winter.

8 October 2017: Huge rain 1-1.30 pm. Some loud thunder.

It was finally in the second week of October that the rains stopped falling, just in time for Deepavali.

But, as of 28 Oct, it is not cold at all. Very very disappointing weather. I pine for the days when I had different clothing for different seasons. Now it is cotton all the time.

Hopefully November will be cold. 

September 27, 2017

Dasara across India

Happy Vijayadashami, friends!
Dasara is indeed an interesting festival, and perhaps represents best, the cultural diversity of our beautiful country. If someone is doing Durga puja in uniquely decorated pandals, someone else is doing mythological plays and making effigies of Ravana to burn on the final day. 
Some adivasis celebrate it as a harvest festival, and in rural Telangana (and now in Hyderabad), girls are picking wild flowers to make Bathkammas to sing and dance around.
In a few other parts, girls and boys dress in all finery and play dandia to loud music. Some are busy making bommala koluvus and some others get the leaves of the jammi tree to give elders and take their blessings. Elsewhere, there are illuminated palaces and elephant processions that go across the city. Most people do the ayudha puja - a beautiful gesture of thanks to the tools, implements and vehicles that people use every day. It's a happy, busy time all over the country, and I am sure there are several more variations of this festival.
In one of the pandals in Kolkata.
Bathkamma pandaga in Warangal.

Dandia in Vadodara.

Ravana effigies being made in Uttarakhand.
Whatever it is people do, it is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. The weather is getting drier and a wee bit cold, seetaphals make an appearance, and everyone eats well and makes merry!

August 19, 2017

Just what is development?

It is a question that bothers me very much.

Driving back from Warangal last week, I found myself once again grieving for the trees that had recently been cut down to make way for the 4-lane road. I thought a great deal about what this new road would do for people doing this drive. Before they made the 4-lane road from Hyderabad to Bhongir, the entire Hyderabad-Warangal stretch used to look like this:

The old road: why is this not 'development'?
 Now the road is like this:

The new road: why is this called development?
I do understand the advantages of 4-lane roads - faster transportation of goods, fewer accidents, no head-on collisions and so on. But if time is the only factor, this is what it looks like...read on.

We used to drive down from Warangal to Hyderabad innumerable times during my childhood. As a child, I always used to want to stop midway and have a picnic amidst trees and rocks, but for my father, the excitement of covering the distance in the shortest time was important. So what was the shortest time that he took, to get to Hyderabad? Two and a half hours, on lucky days when the several railway gates along the way were open. 

So how many hours do we take now, with half the distance covered on the 4-lane road? Three hours minimum or maybe the same two and a half hours as my father did, if you drive fast without stopping. How much time will people save when the second half of the road is widened? Maybe half an hour

So we displaced farmland, demolished houses, cut all those trees and spent all that money to save half an hour

July 22, 2017

Paris once again!

I just got back from Paris - a city I love. I was there 29 years back, in 1988. I was just married, and I fell in love with this artistic city. I stayed there for just three months, but it was enough time to leisurely explore a layer beneath the touristy one. Being interested in art, I was overwhelmed by the aesthetics of the place. Much as I always wanted to live in India, I was reluctant to come back. There was so much more to discover! We told ourselves we would go back...but then, life happened, and Paris remained shut in the six albums that we had painstakingly and lovingly filled with photos we had taken and postcards we bought.

Re-visiting Paris with my children filled me with great happiness. They had grown up listening to references to Paris and I introduced them to the city like I would an old friend, and this time it was their turn to fall in love with Paris.

If a foreigner visited Hyderabad 29 years back, and came back now, she would find a huge difference. She may be amazed at how much this city has developed; at the lights and the malls; she may not be able to recognise many of the new areas; she may be shocked at the traffic and the number of people; and she would of course miss the slow pace of life of the eighties.

I was somewhat apprehensive about my bubble bursting; at coming back disappointed by what I saw, especially because of recent terror-related events. So how did Paris change?

For one, like in Hyderabad, the population has swelled immensely. In addition to the metro and the buses, they have now introduced trams in some places.The number of people in The Louvre the day we went was unbelievable, as also the crazy rush to see Mona Darling!

People in public places are a lot more cosmopolitan, and I found that unlike earlier, local people were more willing to communicate in English. One huge difference of course, is the presence of security checks everywhere, even though it was to be expected. And then, it gave me a shock when I saw, at the first tourist place we visited, hefty, well built policemen - about six of them - walking around carrying some serious weapons. It was scary because I didn't immediately think they were security. We subsequently saw them everywhere. As with the rest of the world, Paris too had lost a certain innocence.

Seen from Sacr Coeur (Sacred Heart Church), Montmartre, the city seemed to have become extremely dense, as was to be expected. I later read about how a beautiful old book shop was replaced with a five star hotel, about how charming old houses had given way high-rises.

View from Sacr Coeur...a lot of building up has happened.
There is a staircase to one side of the hill to Sacr Coeur, a black and white photo-poster of which Vijay and I had bought back in 1988. We had chosen this photo taken by Rene Jacques simply because we liked it, and because we knew this place. It stays framed in my home, and we look at every day. We went searching for this place and found it, exactly as it looked in 1988, and in this photo of 1950! Somewhere, some faith was restored.

This photo was taken in 1950.
It looked the same in 1989, except that to one side, there was a funiculaire to take people up.
This is the 2017 view...it was the same, except that perhaps Rene Jacques' photo was flipped?

The heart of Paris, that is the classic Paris on the banks of River Seine, remains the same. Nothing has changed. The Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Assembl√© Nationale (Palais Bourbon), Notre Dame, The Conciergerie and several others have been preserved beautifully. Place St Michel and Latin Quarter also have the same buzz, charm and energy - more perhaps - because there are so many more people now. The variety of food places seemed more, and included an Indian restaurant and a Tunisian sweet shop selling large jilebis!

The Bouquinistes of Paris - green boxes on either side of The Seine, which sell used and antiquarian books, a tradition since the 16th century - were still there, just as we had seen them (see first photo in this post). They are on both banks of the river, and The Seine is described as the only river in the world that runs between two book shelves!

The metro remains as amazing as ever, and we enjoyed taking it to get to various places. There is now apparently one route (Line 14), which is automated and has no driver! Can't wait for Hyderabad metro to become reality! 

There are many green spaces in Paris, and two things made me very happy - one, that there is now a conscious effort to re-introduce species of plants and trees that were there in the past but which were not seen any more, and the other, that wild plants and flowers were allowed to grow freely even on main avenues where earlier they were removed for neatness. This, about a city, is the ultimate in development, I feel. Having said that, mine might still be a superficial assessment, and Parisians might have their own complaints about a changing city.

Shakespeare and Company, a classic English bookstore at Kilometre zero, was a joy to go to. It was the same as earlier except that there is an awning now, and they run a cafe next to the bookshop. Every bit of this store is quaint and interesting - the cat that shouldn't be disturbed, the typewriter that was actually being used, the wooden staircase, the writings on the walls, the beds tucked among the towering bookshelves on which people can actually sleep when they stay overnight!

“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” 
— George Whitman, founder 

Who says crazy new traditions happen only in places like India? The institution of  'love locks' did not exist in 1988. It started in the 2000s apparently, on one of the bridges on River Seine. Lovers put these locks and throw away the key, to signify that their love lasts forever. The practice caught on, and spread to the other bridges. They soon began to add to the weight of the bridges, and the parapet of Pont Des Arts bridge collapsed. In 2014 there was a movement 'No Love Locks', and some panels were replaced with glass to prevent being 'littered' by locks! More details here.

Can you believe this?!

Surely this is unsustainable?

Nostalgia took us to Rue d' Patay, the road we had a little flat on, and also to Cite Universitaire, where Vijay studied. It was hard to believe that so many years had gone by. 

Paris has many layers, literally and figuratively, and is a very inspiring place to explore, especially if you are interested in the arts. Charminar-loving Hyderabadis would love it :) 

This trip was indeed a rediscovery of Paris, a rediscovery of my love for this city, and a rekindling of the desire to go back yet again.  

July 19, 2017

Picture post-card pretty Chamonix

We visited a very close and dear friend in Switzerland - a trip postponed for many years - and they drove us to Chamonix-Mont Blanc for the weekend. Chamonix is a resort area in France, near the junction of France, Italy and Switzerland. You drive up into the mountains and become part of a picturesque painting. It is a skiing destination. Cable cars take tourists to various peaks with beautiful views. On a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc from Chamonix. The air is fresh and there are wild flowers everywhere. And cherries, blueberries and raspberries too, that you can pluck off and eat!

Beautiful landscapes...
...wild flowers everywhere 
Chamonix is perfectly pretty!
View of the glacier from the village, near the farmers market. 

If you look closely, you see people taking rock-climbing lessons. 
This farmer was selling a huge variety of olives at a market. When I asked if I could take a photo, he thought we wanted a photo with him, and said, "Come, come"...and then as I took the photo,
he said, "This is my harem!" Ouch!...but it resulted in bright smiles :)
Arre, 'All is well' bolo na, hojata! Itte board-an kaiku?
Just kidding...I found this cute!
There has to be a Restaurant Indian everywhere! 
Chamonix has lovely woods to walk in, and they have a lot of beautiful birch trees.
It is a great place to just be.
The weather was unpredictable and clouds and rain were a constant. Walking around with rain coats on Day 1, we met a woman on the bus and got talking. She spoke English and wanted to know where in India we were from. My friend said, "Karnataka". She immediately asked, "Bangalore?" She obviously knew India. Then we spoke about the weather, and just before we got off, she said with an air of certainty, "Tomorrow there will be no rain. It will be clear".

The next morning looked gloomy, and we joked about meeting 'god ' on the bus, referring to the woman who had made the prediction about the weather. It looked like her prediction was not coming true. However, as the day progressed, the rain stopped, and although it was not sunny, it was dry and comfortable, and we had a great walk in the woods, sans rain coats! 'God' was right, after all!