Thursday, October 19, 2017

Camping in Yak country

We just returned from a trek to the Goechala pass in the Khangchendzonga national park in Sikkim. In a trek that packed so much goodness - breathtaking views of the Himalayas, exotic birds, an intense football game at 16k ft above sea level, night skies to kill for, fantastic crew and companions, the best camp food I’ve eaten - it would normally be hard to pick a favourite half hour, but strangely, in this one I can.


On the 6th morning of the trek we summited the highest point on the trail and returned to our campsite, Lamuney, which is in a narrow valley sandwiched between near-vertical rock faces on the west and a patch of shrub jungle and mountains on the east. Due north, the world’s third highest peak, Khangchendzonga towers over the campsite. A stream flows from the northern direction through the camp, and a walking trail runs right next to it. Our tents were pitched on either side of the walking path. Just after lunch-time, when most of us were napping in our tents we heard some commotion outside.
The crew were excited about a flock of Himalayan Blue Sheep approaching directly towards us. The reason for these shy animals walking uncharacteristically towards humans was directly behind them. The sheep were making way for a herd of Yaks that were headed in our direction too. When the blue sheep found themselves too close to us they waded off into the shrub jungle, but not before a few moments of indecision.





They started off as details on a magnificent backdrop but soon the herd of Yaks arrived within ten metres of our tents and filled the frame with their imposing bulk. After the initial excitement of getting to photograph them from such close range passed, we realised we were locked in a tie. The yaks were unsure about how to go past us and we had no idea how, or whether, to react. So we stood there staring at each other. The Alpha male in the herd tried to resolve the awkwardness with some territorial displays, such as kicking the earth, and head-bumping some nearby mound. The females were a little more on edge, probably because they were protective of their lone calf, which, oblivious to the inter-species standoff, was running around bullying the blue sheep. A tentative mock charge by one of the females reminded us we were firmly the underdogs in this equation. Only the confidence of our sherpas allowed us to stand there for as long as we did. Eventually we got into our tents trusting that the Yaks would go past our camp. Over the next tense couple of minutes we could sense the half-ton giants saunter past us, mere inches across the thin walls of our tents.

Over dinner that evening we couldn’t stop talking about our conference with the yaks. I guess the staring match had added to the adrenaline already released from that morning’s hike. It’s strange how the unanticipated moments in a travel are the ones that stick the hardest in one’s memory. And as unanticipated moments go, a yak face-off is as absurd as it gets.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Farm Diary - Fauna


Krishna, our caretaker,  had come to the farm to collect mangoes early this morning, and had noticed that a string of trees next to our farm had, mysteriously, shed their mangoes overnight. While surveying the fruits strewn on the ground, he had noticed the unmistakable foot prints of elephants. Flustered, he had rushed back home, not wanting to risk a confrontation with the giants if they still happened to be around.

He returned later in the day and could discern paw prints of at least three separate individuals (he explained the difference between the marks but it escaped my untrained eye). The prints suggested that the elephants had come all the way up to our fence, and had turned around.  This was our closest brush with wildlife. A few months ago, on a trek to a mountain behind our farm, my friends and I had seen some carnivore's dung; our best guess was that it was a leopard's. The villagers tell tales of ferocious sloth bears that live in the forests behind. All I had seen were rabbits, mice and the occasional boar. Until today! While walking through the brush this snake slithered past us a mere 2-3 feet away. Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with snakes to identify the species, but my best guess is that it didn't look like any of the poisonous varieties that inhabit our country.

Snakes under our trees and elephants right across the fence. Our next camping trip, I have a feeling, is going to feel a lot more exciting!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Turtles of Rushikulya



Nearly three decades ago, a turtle researcher walked the coasts of Odisha as part of his work on the Olive Ridleys that nest in this region. His travels took him to an obscure village near where the river Rushikulya meets the sea. He recruited a 13-yr old, Rabindranath Sahu, to assist him in his research. The boy had been used to the turtles visiting his home once a year but hadn’t paid much heed to them. In that momentous spring spent with the researcher the lad became aware of the unique role the beaches around him played. In the manner in which destiny is thrust on some people he was to become an unwitting conservationist and, at least in my view, a hero.

Turtles have been coming to this coast probably longer than humans have inhabited this area, and for as long as they existed together, people and turtles honorably shared the space. Developments in the last century upset the equilibrium and affected every stage of the turtle life cycle: trawlers that replaced traditional boats decimated adult turtles, nylon fishing nets - even discarded ones - trapped a lot of the hatchlings and caused them to die on the beaches, and finally as humans started seeing everything in nature as an economic resource, turtle eggs became fair game too. A lot has improved since Mr Sahu’s initiation into turtle conservation. Trawlers are restricted in breeding and hatching seasons and people no longer dig out turtle eggs. This year, nearly 4 lakh females arrived on these beaches to lay their eggs, a high watermark since some sort of record-keeping started a few decades ago. Of course, not all of the success is attributable to Mr. Sahu, but he has managed something that is, maybe, the hardest part of conservation: he won his people over and made them aware of their special place in this biospheric drama that spans continents.
Yet the balance is still fragile and the turtles face a lot of dangers. Both adults and hatchlings still get caught in fishing nets. Eggs in the loose sand are easy pickings for stray dogs. Turtle hatchlings, which are believed to rely on light from celestial bodies to orient themselves, get thrown off by sources of artificial light that dot the beaches now. Many of the hatchlings spend their reserve energy walking in the direction away from water and end up dying. Habitat loss continues, and there’s always the spectre of mindless “development” that hangs around everywhere in the third world, that could decimate populations.


For now, the scenes on the beach are heart-warming. Sahu and his merry men walk the sands guarding the nests and cleaning the beach of discarded nets and debris. The locals - mostly kids and villagers - participate too, rescuing trapped hatchlings and helping them on their way to the sea. All this is thanks mostly to Mr. Sahu’s proselytising efforts. He carpet bombs his message to the kids in the area, spending a lot of his time and even some of his money in breeding successors for his work. And just like with the species he is protecting, if one in a thousand of his eggs hatch, the beautiful annual drama on these shores will continue.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ashoka

Our national jester is known to tweet the most inane thoughts. This time was no different.

While still lamenting C-bag’s philistine ways, I was thinking of the answer to the question of “What do historians do?” and it struck me that I know so little about the process of how history is compiled. At the time, I had filed in my mental cupboard somewhere the wish to come back and learn about that process. My curiosity was finally addressed by Charles Allen’s Ashoka.

For someone who now holds such a prominent place in the pantheon of our past rulers, Ashoka was relatively unknown in our mainstream culture till nearly the beginning of the 19th century. Ashoka describes the painstaking incremental process of fitting together discoveries that eventually converged into the view we now have of that complex emperor. This book is as much about Ashoka as the historical process. For me it was fascinating how multi-disciplinary in nature History really is; numismatics, archaeology, theology, linguistics, all come to the fore. Above all, I found the palaeography of Pali to be the most remarkable aspect of the unlocking of Ashoka’s story. As we developed our understanding of Pali (along with the deciphering of the Brahmi script and the Prakrit language) our picture of Ashoka and his ideas kept getting richer. There were all sorts of personalities that played a part; travellers from China, kings of Sri Lanka, monks of Tibet. Above all, our white masters took time out between all the exploitation for the pursuit of knowledge about a foreign country. I’m really grateful they did that.

In a country as big as ours I’m certain there are still pieces of the jigsaw waiting to add details to the stories we know. Think about it; millennia of unbroken civilisation! Every inch of our current land most have a story or dozen to tell. That brings me to the tweet I mentioned at the top of the post. I’m just not sure enough of us are interested in unearthing them, or if enough of our kids even know it is an option to be a historian, and even when they do, if there are avenues to pursue that vocation. We’re all too busy trying to get into IITs or sweating it out in B-schools turning ourselves into anonymous generalists. I do hope that once we get into higher income brackets as a nation we’ll find the inspiration to devote a greater proportion of our resources in learning more about our incredible past.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Scrub Jungles Around Hampi

Our guide on the safari through Daroji sanctuary pointed at this Painted Sandgrouse from just about 3-4 metres away. It still took me a full two minutes to spot this beautiful male.

Once I located it, I couldn't believe I let something this striking escape me. This uncanny camouflage perfected over millenia of natural selection seems to be a primary defence mechanism. This individual was so confident of its ability to blend in that it stayed motionless even though we had got to within an arm's length of him (without we realizing it, of course). Once he -yes, they are sexually dimorphic- did figure out that we had spotted him he used his other defensive technique- he sprang out of his squat and took off at an enormous speed. Before my eyes could focus he had dived in and become one with the earth again.

That seems to be a common trick with terrestrial birds. I've seen Nightjars use that method - trust your camouflage but have a backup plan. More than a handful of times I've been startled by the heavy flight of bushquails who took off from almost near my feet with me having no idea that they were there.

Our trip to Daroji was full of such finds. A painted spurfowl that blended in into the red soil, fledling Eagle owls on the rock face of a canal wall, rock agamas that seemed like extensions of rocks they were sitting on. I remember another not-so-popular protected scrub near Chitradurga, Jogi Matti, that seemed to have a tale to tell in every square metre too. Yet, both these places don't seem to woo enough tourists; in both cases the staff outnumbered the visitors. We seem to have an inherent bias, surely reinforced by marketing, to associate 'Nature' with only places that are evergreen, but these dry environs have their own rich stories. Just like with the Sandgrouse, though, if you're not looking out for them you'll walk past without finding them.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Obama

Was watching the farewell speech, and realised the Obama groupie in me is still alive. I'm going to miss him.

I often wonder about how Obama's legacy will age. He didn't really deserve the Nobel prize. He didn't do as much as the heady days of 2008 promised. Gitmo is still on and troops are still in Afghanistan. A lot of his fragile wins, achieved through executive action, may be rolled back by the strange man that succeeds him.

And yet, on so many issues - global warming, same-sex marriage, race relations, universal healthcare - he was, in my opinion, so far on the right side of history, I predict that even though we'll see an undermining of his impact in the short run, the world will come around to giving him his due. Everything else apart, his effortless charm, humour, decency and kindness do have that timelessnesses about them. He may have made those qualities cool again. That part of the legacy may be safe after all. And that may be the only sort of legacy that matters in the end.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Reading in 2016

The decreased commute time this year that came with moving to an office closer to home had one more benefit; my reading output. World War 2 continued to dominate my reading this year. Each of these books about the subject threw a different light on the crazy war. 

If This Is A Man/The Truce - Primo Levi: The first time I heard of Primo Levi was during a visit to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam. A plaque there carried a quote by Levi 'One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.'. The haunting simplicity of those words had stayed with me, and Levi's name had stayed in my reading wishlist. "If This is a Man/The Truce" lived up to the expectation that those words had created in my head. Bringing a chemist's objectivity to his observations in Auschwitz, Levi manages to make this account heartbreaking even for someone like me who has read dozens on the subject of Holocaust. The Truce, the second part of this twin edition, was a bigger revelation for me. I had always thought of the war as a string of horrors that abruptly ended in 1945. As The Truce reveals, for the survivors, the tragedy continued for the several months more that it took them to find their way back home and to slip into normal (if it could be called that) lives. 
Suite française- Irène Némirovsky: Irene Nemirovsky planned for this to be a 5-part novel. Only the first two were discovered and published by her daughters several years after Nemirovsky's death. The novel's jewish author met her end in a concentration camp.

The next two, one a non-fiction and the other a historical fiction, documented the role of my own country in the world war. Most history that we study in Indian schools tend to be flattened out narratives convenient to whatever party is in power at that moment. These two books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the subcontinent's role in the wartime period better. 

ಮರಳಿ ಮಣ್ಣಿಗೆ - ಕೋಟ ಶಿವರಾಮ ಕಾರ೦ತ (Marali Mannige - K Shivarama Karantha): Each year I make an attempt to read at least one book in my native tongue. This year I managed an all-time classic. At the risk of sounding parochial, no English writing does justice to the rhythms of this land as the local masters. 


Other top recommendations


The rest that didn't make as much of an impression
From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast - Karthik Shanker (Actually, this one made just enough of an impression to book my travel to the famed turtle hatcheries in Odisha.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Physical activity in 2016 or the benefits of living close to the workplace


I've always acknowledged the theoretical benefits of staying close to one's place of work, and even enjoyed it a little bit during my year in Thanjavur. This was the first time in Bangalore, though, that I've lived at a distance where commute was a negligible portion of my time in a day. This was also the year when it hit me what a difference it makes to the time and energy you have left at the end of a workday, especially in a city as perpetually gridlocked as mine. The short commute is by far the biggest reason  I finally managed to hit my long-pending goal of running a 1000 kms in a calendar year.


It also helped that Koramangala (as opposed to, say, anywhere near the ring road) was the place of both my work and home. I could afford to bike to work on most days without fearing for my life. So, despite not doing as many long rides as in other years I still managed to hit the goal of a 1000 kms this calendar year. The light yellow is all bike commute.   


When the weather is pleasant, which thankfully is still in a lot of days in a year in this city, the tree-lined trees of Koramangala are perfect for a nice walk. The goal of 300kms was met quite easily.
 And I even managed to squeeze in a bit of swimming.
Next year's goal is to replicate this year's for running, walking and cycling, and add 20 km of swimming to it. 

Highlights:
Best run of 2016: It's a toss up between the 47:30 in this year's TCS 10k and a gorgeous waterfront run at Akaroa in New Zealand.
Best bike ride: The 90 km cycling by the pipeline road that runs along Kanakapura road (why hadn't I discovered that before!!)
Best walk: The bird walk in Te Anau in New Zealand. 


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gannets of Muriwai

In my family, it’s now an established custom of sorts that most of our travel includes a good share of birding, and my wife has been a good sport about it. The first place we visited in New Zealand was a nesting colony of Australasian Gannets some 40 kms away from Auckland in a beach-side town called Muriwai.


We got our first glimpse of the gannets almost as soon as we stopped the car at the designated area. I’m not proud to admit it but I qualify as someone who is known in birding circles as a “twitcher”, and my first instinct when I see a bird is to get a record shot for my life list. It was a blustery day - we were in the roaring forties after all - and it wasn’t easy to get a respectable photo of the airborne birds as the vortices made them fly unpredictable paths. We walked further up the road, turned a corner, and realised I needn’t have fussed about getting those difficult shots at all. The cliff that was now visible was full of breeding gannets who seemed to scarcely mind the presence of humans.


Birds in New Zealand evolved without the presence of land predators. It’s amusing to see them venture close to humans oblivious to the dangers we could pose them. I’m not sure if that’s the only reason for the Gannets being comfortable with us getting close to them. Taxonomists who classified the Gannets seemed to know about their absurd lack of fear, and put them down in a genus called Morus, which derives its name from the greek word “Moros” meaning “foolish.

We spent a good hour getting a close look at the birds going about their business - preening, mating, flying, frolicking, as I took the occasional photograph, not for the last time in NZ, with my 50mm lens.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Farm Diary - Finding Water. Chapter 1- Science Edition

It’s been said of the area around Ramanagara that the gods played marbles here leading to the dramatic rock formations that you see in this region. Our farm sits nestled among such giant granite rocks. Wherever uncultivated the vegetation is mostly dry-deciduous and these rocks don’t see too much rain. According to the Köppen classification this area falls under the Tropical-Savannah climate which is characterized by pronounced dry seasons. The fully grown mango trees that mostly dot our farm cope with extended dry spells pretty well. In fact, there is a prevailing - but unvalidated - belief that says mangoes turn out sweeter when the pre-summer months are dry. However, the newer saplings that we’ve planted in the last couple of years take a real beating in the dry months. We’ve managed with short term solutions so far, such as bringing in water through tankers but we knew at some point that we had to find a more robust solution. This year we decided to dig a borewell.

For the kind of proliferation of borewells that we’ve seen in these parts there’s surprisingly little organised information available about the process of checking a land for the feasibility of groundwater. With a little asking around we narrowed down on Mr. SCK, an elderly gentleman, now retired, who had served as a geologist in various state departments. We fixed an appointment with him one sunny Sunday morning. When we went to pick him up early in the morning Mr. SCK was at the appointed place and hour and had that countenance that told me that he would have been cross if we were even a minute late. He was neatly dressed, tucked in t-shirt and, like any self-respecting south indian male of that age would, had his trousers begin at the belly. He had some large maps in hand. Despite the voluntary nature of this consultation, he was not going to be cavalier about this task. Something told me this was going to be an interesting day.

An hour into the journey, we left the madness of the Mysore highway behind as we took the turn into the country roads that lead to the farm. As man-made constructions thinned out and the rocky features peculiar to this district exposed themselves Mr SCK came into his own. Very soon we realized that this gentleman’s tenure at the various state departments had been no sinecure. He talked about the rocks like they were family. He regaled us with stories of the seismic events that had shaped this land. I learned a great deal about the rocks in our area and it turns out that the gods had not played marbles after all. A granite formation, nearly 400 kms long but only 30km across, known as the Closepet Granites, broke through the deccan plateau nearly 200 million years ago creating the dramatic rocks that you see along the NH4, all the way up to Hospet. As we drove along, he explained how the various alignment of the features in these parts made the river Arkavathy take the course that she does. When we reached the farm he continued the geo-forensics, using the hints on the ground to glean what lay below the soil. Every single thing he noticed - the density of the foliage, the dried up ridges that become streams only during the monsoons, the height of the trees, the nature of the rocks sticking out - served as hints to understand the unseen features below us.

Source: Wikimedia
In the end, he came to the conclusion that our farm is a really a thin layer of top soil sitting on very large rock whose thickness could be hard to determine. He said, rather bluntly, that there would be very little chance of finding water in this place. While pointing out two or three places that may hold some promise, he also cautioned us to get this scientifically tested before we start digging.

Not finding water in this land would severely limit our plans for this farm in the future. At some point we had been planning to live on a little house here, and without a predictable source of water that plan would have to be abandoned. On our drive back there was a pall of gloom in the car as we reconciled with the dashed hopes. Meanwhile, Mr. SCK didn’t help the mood much with his subsequent choice of topics. He was describing all the corruption he had seen during his tenure at the geological society. He attributed our lack of planning, and in cases connivance, to the decline of our storied land. The Arkavathy, for instance, shows up as a blue line on the map not far from our property, but in reality it is a near-dry valley carrying some sewage from the last town it passed through. Stories after stories had the same theme, of how humanity’s short-sightedness was transforming the land faster than is good for us. Yet, it was a strange experience that despite the cynicism in our conversation I was simultaneously fascinated by the intimacy of knowledge and concern that Mr. SCK exuded. We dropped him off at his house, and he signed off with a disclaimer that no person, and not even the most advanced techniques, can guarantee the outcome when it comes to digging a borewell. We can only improve probabilities. Those words didn’t quell my pessimism, but our short time with him had still counted as one of my most memorable experiences. I came off feeling like I understood my own land a little better.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Thithi

The late 80s, as I recall, was a fairly productive period for Kannada cinema. Every so often there would appear an unmistakable classic - Minchina Ota, Accident, Tabarana Kathe to name a few. Yet, you could already see that, at the time, the film industry was increasingly getting peopled by untalented star kids, and was driven by a sycophantic fandom which had abysmally low standards and zero expectations. The downward spiral into mediocrity was almost too inevitable. There were the odd ones in the industry, like G Kasaravalli, who toiled on and won awards in obscure film festivals, but their work had a perception of inaccessibility that never made them garner mass appeal. The rest of the industry, meanwhile, doled out drivel week after blighted week, in a trend that continues to this day.

Amidst that bleakness comes a movie like Thithi that breaks all the cliches and formulae, both of the commercial and arthouse cinema of this region. It’s about poor people but does not use poverty to invoke pathos. It’s set in a village but does not use the rural setting to imply some imagined purity or innocence. It uses the delightful Mandya and Hubli accents but not just for comic relief. It is realistic (doesn't even employ real actors, for gods' sake) but does not make realism an end in itself. It packs loads of humour but does not need an over-the-top ham actor to invoke cheap laughs. And in Gaddappa it has one truly memorable character. On the surface he is a simple old man addicted to his disposable bottles of cheap liquor. Yet he carries a mysticism of someone who has accessed higher truths. That the director manages that sophistication of character-building with a non-actor is what makes this movie a true master class.

The movie is an experience, but it’s not flawless. The visual finesse (the one thing that Indian cinema seems to be getting right lately) is missing. The subtitles are horrendous. The casting of ordinary people as actors makes some of the performances stilted, but yet the movie gets most other things right. The social commentary is spot on. For instance, it accurately captures how my people are least concerned about the living, but every person and his uncle makes it his business to have a say in how the rites of a dead man have to be conducted. My favourite part, though, were the last few frames. The final scene melts the fourth wall in the most delightful way. Are we watching the movie or are the characters in that movie watching us back?

As the lights came back on in the movie hall, I admit I felt a wee bit of parochial pride as I reminded myself that this was a kannada movie in its fourth week still being watched by a sellout crowd in an upmarket multiplex. The movie was even reviewed by The Economist. I don’t believe that’s ever happened before to a movie from this state! Every slightly watchable movie sparks off talks of a renaissance among us, but it has usually turned out to be a false dawn. This time, though, I'm daring to hope.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

TCS 10K: Edition 9

Couldn't hit the targeted 46, but still recorded a personal best 47:29.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Farm Diary: 1. First Big Summer of Mangoes



Under a blazing afternoon sun, three of us are picking mangoes off the ground, discarding the ones that seem damaged or unfresh, and making a heap out of the others, to be collected later. Every now and then, we skin one of the mangoes we have picked, and take a bite of the pulp. We discard the ones that don’t meet the very highest standard we have set for our collection today. We devour the ones that make the cut. One of the pickers is my dad, who in an unusual eschewal of grace and dignity, has mango juice dripping down his forearms, and has pieces of the fruit sticking to his chin. The other companion is my cousin, who is relishing both the fruit and the abandon with which we are attacking them. At that moment, I can’t help feel that this is the way food has to be eaten.

That yearning of the primitive is one of the factors that made me buy this farm, located off a village called Kavanapura, in the district of Ramanagara. I come from a family of farmers. In fact, my father is one of the few non-farmers in a lineage that goes back several generations on both the maternal and paternal branches of the family tree. Even people who pursued white-collar careers - and that includes both my grandfathers, and several of my uncles- returned to the farmland for their retirements. Having idolised them through childhood, that path now seems like the natural progression of life. The romanticism aside, I do have a dystopian view of the future both for my city, and for the globe. At some point I would like to lead a carbon-neutral existence and I do want to have a place to move to before the whole of Bangalore starts to look like the Outer ring road (which is not far away). Along with those other reasons, my friends, rather uncharitably, also accuse me of picking this sport because I don’t know how else to spend my money.

For the nearly three years that I’ve owned the land, I’ve only involved myself passively. This year I started to participate a little more closely. The picture that you see above is an effort to maintain a log of every tree in the farm and to track their growth and progress. (Hypocrisy alert: for all the “yearning of the primitive” I’m a sucker for data capture, gadgets and tech.) I now know that we have five distinct cultivars growing in this land. Raspuri, my favorite variety, is well represented. Badami, the most profitable of them, grows on a couple of dozen trees too. The third variety is Sindura which is the staple of the Ganesh juice centers that you see around every corner in Bangalore. The fourth variety, used mostly for pickles, is oddly named Omelette. This season I discovered a fifth variety that our lessee calls “Shiri”. I did a little research and can only conclude that this is actually the Dasheri, which is popular in the north of the country. Dasheri is a real juicy treat inside the unappetising cover, which is green and thick even on ripe mangoes. We happen to have just one tree of this kind, and that’s where we spent most of our time this afternoon. Over the last few weeks we’ve repeated the savagery of our picking routines. And for the first time in three years I feel intimately connected with every tree in the property. Since this season was a good one for mangos, the next year is likely to be slim pickings. But we do have plans for this monsoon and I’m hoping to document my experiences religiously. Watch this space.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Vultures of Corbett


Vultures belonging to three separate species - Himalayan, Red-headed & Egyptian - converge on a spotted deer carcass, presumably killed by a tiger the previous night, in Corbett National Park. There used to be a time when this congregation wouldn't have been an unusual sight but in the recent couple of decades a combination of habitat loss and indiscriminate use of diclofenac has driven vultures close to extinction. The Himalayan Vulture is classified as "Near Threatened", the Red-headed Vulture as "Critically Endangered" and the Egyptian as "Endangered". My son may never see scenes as sublime as this. What a shame that would be.

Who says Caste is dead?

As an atheist, hanging around mostly in upper middle class crowds in urban India, it's easy for me to believe that the idea of "caste" is irrelevant and on its way out. But a quick scan on the roads of Bangalore tells me there is still a large section of society for which this identity is important enough to announce it through stickers on their vehicles. Sadly, the caste system is far from its death. 






Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Nicholas Stargardt's The German War

There's a scene in Roman Polanski's The Pianist in which the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, gets discovered by a Nazi captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, in the ruins of a house in Warsaw in which the former is hiding. After a tense pause in which the viewer is left guessing about the outcome of that encounter the German officer decides to hide the pianist and later even starts to regularly bring him food. Hosenfeld's actions have a certain quality that you don't normally associate with heroism, sneakiness. I remember wondering about what drove him to take such enormous risks keeping the pianist alive through the war. Did he save other jews too? For someone with a conscience how conflicting was it to dispense his duties to such a monstrous regime? I've wondered what it would be like to get into the heads of everyday Germans as they waddled through a war that they had thrust upon the world.

Nicholas Stargardt's "The German War" tries to do that. Quoting letters and diaries written by ordinary Germans through the war, the book offers a glimpse of how everyday citizens interpreted the goings-on. It's easy to think of the second world war as an episode involving wily generals, scheming mad-men, marauding war machines, and ruthless strategies, but underneath it all were a billion little human dramas being played out. The letters chosen in the book provide fascinating answers to questions I have often chewed on. What did the ordinary Germans think about their role in the war? Or about the holocaust? What did the soldiers think about invading Poland? Or later, Russia? What did liberal Germans think about the racial discourse of the time? What was the church's role in all of it? Where were the conscientious objectors?

There are people of all shades who turn up in the book. There are a few who live in denial, continuing to believe till the end that Germany was the true victim, first of Versailles, then of "World Jewry and Bolshevism" and later of the Allies' attacks. There are those that are downright evil (Goebbel's diary is quoted liberally). There are other willing folks of varying degrees of complicity who approve of the conduct of their country. There are the mere pawns of a vile system who get driven into being hapless accomplices, or as Wiesenthal called them, "desk murderers". There are the supremely lucky ones, such as one Jewish man who manages to take on an Aryan identity through the entire duration of the war. And then there are the understated heroes like Hosenfeld. None of these stories make it easier to understand the war, though. Hosenfeld, the rare hero in a messed up time, for example, lands up in a Soviet PoW camp and dies a dishonorable death, probably during the course of torture by the "good" guys of the war. Reading this book was a strange experience. It made history seem richer. It didn't make the war seem any less absurd. It convinces me that civilization is such a thin veneer, waiting for the next perfect storm or the next great manipulator to peel it off.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Reading in 2015


Top picks for 2015 would be 
  • This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein: COP-21 happened a few weeks after I finished reading this book, and it was truly depressing how far we are from really dealing with climate change with the urgency that it deserves. "History knocked on your door, did you answer?" asks one of the author's friends who appears in the book. The answer for our generation, and I'm as guilty as the next person, is a sad 'No'. 
  • Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition - Nisid Hajari: When it comes to the Indo-pak partition, you can't really trust our history textbooks because the narratives are too busy trying to flatter our side of the story. I suspect that that's the case in Pakistan too. This books is refreshing in that its written by someone who is far enough removed to list down events without taking sides, but close enough that he feels for the subject.
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan: My obligatory WW-II indulgence. An earlier post about the book.  
  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan: As someone who tries to optimize his eating patterns for both a smaller carbon footprint and better long-term health, the pop-sci literature can be confusing as hell. This book was of help. I loved the 7-word thumb-rule that Pollan offers "Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much". 
  • Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy - Mihir Sharma: I almost gave up the book on account of its overly sardonic tone, but I'm glad I didn't. This book makes some good recommendations for an under-performing economy. Also reminds you of the opportunity that Manmohan Singh and PVN missed in 1991. 
Honorable mentions
These two were letdowns
Volume-wise, I managed just about a book a month in 2015 and that was largely due to the books that I abandoned mid-way for various reasons. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Stickiness of Amazon's Values




“Frugality”, indicating the quality of being thrifty or economical, is a word people (at least non-native English speakers) are not likely to have in their active vocabularies. Google Books' usage stats show above also seems to indicate that it's a word gradually losing favor with English speakers. Yet this quaint-ish word survives, and perhaps even thrives, in one place: Amazon, the ecommerce company which happened to be my employer till a couple of months ago. “Frugality” is one of the fourteen phrases, or “Leadership Principles” as they are referred to internally, that are meant to define Amazon’s culture. When I came across those values I remember being impressed by their completeness and brevity. In my time at Amazon I found that the adherence to the principles formed an invisible pact among my colleagues that helped me understand the company’s expectation from me, and shaped what I should expect from my colleagues (and vice versa). In fact, I believe most of these principles are good enough to carry with me even after I’ve left the company. The leadership principles are not what I want to talk about in this post, though. I’m more interested in how Amazon makes them stick.

Every company I’m familiar with makes an attempt to capture its culture in a few pithy phrases. In most companies those words merely serve the purpose of making it easy for the senior managers to pay lip service to some unattainable ideal. Ordinary rank and file would struggle to remember their company’s values. The few companies who are serious about retaining their culture invariably struggle to not dilute it when they scale. And that’s what sets Amazon apart. Talk to anybody at any level in Amazon and you’ll see not only a solid understanding but a remarkable, some would say cultish, adherence to those 14 principles.

So how is Amazon so successful at propagating these principles? Here are a few ways, I believe, they do it:

Leadership Principles Training: This is a straightforward mechanism which involves a seasoned Amazonian (that’s what an employee is called there) introducing the value system to the new hires during their induction into the company.
Hiring and Interviewing: Amazon uses a ‘Bar Raiser’ to vet every hire made, whether they are the junior-most fresher-out-of-campus or a very senior leader. The Bar Raiser typically would have had a long tenure in the company, would have conducted a few hundred interviews and would himself have been vetted by an accomplished bar raiser. While this centralized selection is a good gating mechanism I think the true genius is in how every single interviewer gauges a candidate for culture fitment. Everyone who has to interview at Amazon goes through an orientation session on how to assess for values. While doing the interviews a typical interviewer checks not only for functional expertise (say coding skills or design) but also one or two leadership principles (say, Customer Obsession or Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit). This accomplishes two things, the interviewer is not only selecting for people with the prescribed cultural traits, but with every interview and with the debrief that follows it she is refining her own understanding of the leadership principles. Since Amazon is perpetually hiring, the values are always in the forefront and always getting reinforced.

Rewards and Recognitions: The awards meant to recognise individual or team performance are centred around a leadership principle. The reward for an individual innovating around a difficult hurdle is a Cowboy Hat meant to reinforce ‘Bias for Action’. A thrifty solution to a problem, referring to the value ‘Frugality’,  is recognised by a miniature door desk. The door desk is a reference to a story, part apocryphal I’m certain, about Jeff Bezos saving costs by nailing four legs onto a door to make it a desk during the early days of the company.

Reviews: Apart from receiving a rating for performance Amazon employees are also rated on leadership principles. All the feedback, whether they are from peers or from managers, are structured around the leadership principles. There's simply no hiding from them.

Of course, there are other propaganda material such as posters or tchotchkes around the office that constantly remind you of the values. The true staying power of the values, though, are through a more invisible medium. When a sufficiently large majority has been indoctrinated through the various techniques I listed above, the value system is almost self-propagating, needing only a few lightweight interventions. The tacit social contract does a remarkable job of rewarding the conformists and ejecting the heretic. That’s partly the reason why Amazon is such a polarizing environment; there are those who swear by it and then there are others who are creeped out, with almost nobody in between. I believe this successful mechanism of replicating its culture in an undiluted way is the reason Amazon, despite its size, is still able to function like a startup.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Running my first Marathon

Long-distance running in urban India has been looking more and more like a religion. Allow me my generalization here, but the running crowds are fairly homogenous, largely consisting of us software types, in our 30s/40s, having conquered all but the highest levels of the Maslow’s hierarchy. We proudly wear our talismans and paraphernalia; fitness bands, Vibrams, running apps and GPS watches. We have our high priests. You’d be surprised at the kind of crowds Scott Jurek drew recently in Bangalore. We even have our shibboleths; “What’s your PB?”, for instance. (For the uninitiated, “PB” is Personal Best, the runner’s equivalent of golf’s handicap). And finally we have our congregations, the running events. We head to these in our sedans and SUVs, bedecked in our fanciest dri-fits, our numbered bibs and timing chips pinned on. We are sufficiently convinced about the loftiness of our activity that we block traffic for everybody else on the busiest streets of the city.

One such recent festival was the Bengaluru Marathon where I ran my first marathon. The first 30 kms were not too hard given that I had been running half-marathons fairly regularly. After that came the realization that no matter how much it looks like a religion, running is an intensely individual pursuit. As the old cliché goes, it’s a race with yourself. A constant effort to becoming indifferent to the clamour in your head. My proven trick (had worked for shorter distances) is to train one voice in the head to continuously ask the question “Is this your pain threshold?” and hopefully have the rational part of the brain answer with a “No”, in the process convincing me to go on a little longer. After km 35 though, the multiple voices join forces to conspire against you. Or maybe you realize that there are no multiple voices in the first place. The exhaustion affects them all equally and soon the questioning voice stops enquiring about the pain threshold because it doesn’t want to hear the inconvenient answer. The music that you carefully chose starts to mean nothing to you. The Quant voice which was supposed to point to me that only 20% of the race was left had decided to go silent on me. Luckily, at this point N and P jumped on to the track and started pacing with me. Pacing works as a combination of inspiration and social shaming. Either way, I credit my pacers with lopping off at least 10 mins from my final time. My wife and son met me at kilometer 38, and my son ran behind me for as long as he could trying to hand me cookie. All of that counted in the end. I crossed the finish at 4:40. That’s my PB for now!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cát Tiên National Park


"How much longer?" I asked. The conductor looked at the driver helplessly. I turned to the driver and repeated the question and he held up five fingers. "5 kms or 5 mins?". He nodded passively. I walked back in defeat. Although not too many people speak English in Vietnam this was the first time on our trip that I felt that the language barrier was going to hurt us. The concierge at the previous hotel had had kind enough to write detailed instructions on a piece of paper which indicated an obscure point on the highway where we had to get off, where a jeep from our destination hotel would pick us up and deliver us to our Cát Tiên National Park. All of the instructions were in Vietnamese, though, so i couldn't be sure what it said. If I were travelling alone I would have got a kick out of a situation like this that elevates internet-era tourism to a Marco-Polo-like adventure. But with a 2.5 yr old in tow I wasn't sure I needed this uncertainty. Fifteen mins later I asked the driver the same set of questions as before. He held up 5 fingers again and I went back to my seat to chew the rest of my nails. Finally, we stopped somewhere on the highway and the driver gestured, with a big smile, for us to get off. Our taxi driver was below smiling an even bigger smile. The biggest smile of all was on my face. We would reach Cát Tiên as planned after all.

Cát Tiên is a dense forest in the south and was, at one point, home to one of the last populations of the Javanese rhinoceros in this region. The last individual, however was found dead in 2010. The emblem of the park is a rhino and hauntingly reminds you of what's lost. Still, after wondering about the faunal silence in the rest of the country the chirps and noises here were life-affirming. The morning air was dominated by that extraordinarily loud call of the gibbon. The park is home to a wide range of birds, many of whom you would find back home in India too.

The park is flanked by a river, and our hotel, the Bamboo Lodge, was on the other bank. We spent two memorable days there, doing bird watching sorties across the river and lazing around in the lodge the rest of the time lapping up the unassuming hospitality of the owners of the property. Even from our resort we could spot the birds that were bold enough to leave the foliage.

Vietnam is the story of a third-world nation that has recently woken up and is in the midst of rapid growth. I find it particularly interesting to observe how such societies balance a high rate of development with the conservation of their natural treasures, because I anticipate my own country entering such a phase soon. So far, what I had seen in Vietnam hadn't been very encouraging. The people we had met, even those who should have known better, seemed particularly callous about their wildlife. Our guide at Bang Lang - great guy otherwise - had pointed at a Cormorant, Egret and Openbill and had called them Black, White and Grey storks respectively. From all the evidence I had seen (not ruling out my own confirmation biases here, I admit) there were simply no taboos about what not to eat, and it appeared that the country's wildlife was falling prey to the tastes of the humans. I had read about the challenges of saving the gibbon because it was considered a local delicacy.

In that backdrop, the sight of Cát Tiên was reassuring to me. Clearly, the park must have been the result of a lot of conviction from a lot of people that some things need to be preserved. Our lodge owner had even named his daughter 'Cát Tiên' after the park. It must mean something to them. It was the reassurance I needed to leave the country on a happy note.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bang Lang


Since Vietnam spans the same latitudes as my country I expected similar prevalence of the avian species but it’s eerily hard to spot birds here. I would have expected flocks of waders and pelagic species in the lush green Ha Long bay but apart from a few hornbills and the odd heron it was slim pickings. There are well-maintained water bodies and lung spaces in Hanoi and Cần Thơ, but once again, you hardly see the flock of pigeons or mynas that are a hallmark of our green zones. While traveling the countryside I kept my eyes glued to that favorite perching spots of many passerines, the electric wire. But the wires, in their fabulous messiness, play no host.


I’ve wondered about the reason for the absence of birds there. Clearly there don’t seem to be taboos on what to eat and not. Maybe the birds fell victim to the all-encompassing carnivorousness. The single biggest group of birds I had seen so far was in a marination tray in one of the eateries in Cần Thơ. There was at least one article on the net supporting that view but the conclusion seemed a tad bigoted. Poaching and illegal wildlife trading could be potential reasons. I had spotted a bird that looked like a species I’m used to and googled “White-rumped Shama in Vietnam” to verify if that species exists here too. The first two results of that search were posts on a classified site dealing with the commerce of exotic birds.(The same search for India leads you to information sites). I’ve also read about the devastation delivered by the Americans through their use of Napalm and Agent Orange. Maybe the ecosystem hasn’t recovered since. Or maybe my expectation is misplaced; the proliferation of birds back in India could be the aberration instead of the rule. Whatever the reason, the angst in me was building up as I kept looking and kept not finding. Until, we reached Bang Lang!

Bang Lang is a short distance from Cần Thơ city and plays host to a mind-boggling number of birds. The first indication is the leaves of the trees that have all turned white due to the droppings from above, from Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets, Openbills, Cormorants, Herons and lots of other waders. There’s a 3-m high watch tower from where you can watch the birds going about their business - preening, feeding, breeding, fighting, and learning to fly - all with a raucousness that’s hard to describe. After having spent days wondering where the birds are, this cacophony was sweet music.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Ninh Binh

One of the defining features of Viet Nam is that every mass transit vehicle is equipped with high speed WiFi. And because of that evil, the journey to Ninh Binh from Hạ Long bay felt like a short one since each of us had buried our heads into our smartphones (at the cost, as the missus repeatedly pointed out, of experiencing the actual real world we had paid so much to explore). When we arrived at Ninh Binh we looked up and realized it looked nothing like the pictures of this place that we had seen on the travel brochures. However, as we left the city of Ninh Binh behnd and towards our destination the scenery began to change. The urban landscape gave way to rice paddies and then to a countryside dominated by karsts. It looked a little bit like Ha Long bay with all its water suctioned out.

Our hotel was adjoining the Mua caves, a moderately popular tourist destination. Right within the property was a hillock that gave us a great view of the karsts that surrounded us on one side and the rice fields on the other. We also saw the Ngo Dong river weaving its way around, and sometimes under, the hills. The travel brochures hadn’t lied.

Early the next day we rented bikes and headed out towards the Tam Cốc caves. My son, who had so far mostly been treating this trip as a minor inconvenience finally found a reason to smile. This was the travel equivalent of the Buy-him-a-toy-and-he-plays-with-the-box moment. After traveling on an A320, sailing on a cruise and riding on a luxury bus what eventually gave him kicks was being saddled on the back seat of a bicycle on a hot sunny morning while we rode through bumpy country roads. I wish we got our kicks that cheap too.

We hired a couple of boats at the Ngo Dong river to take us to the Tam Cốc caves. Most of the boats are run by women who have perfected the art of using only their feet to operate the oars. Our omnidextrous wonder boat-woman was deftly maneuvering her boat through the 2m high grottos while alternately knitting and texting with her hands.


When we returned, it was time to check out of the hotel and leave the karstic landscapes for the plains and deltas of the south. There was something intimate about the Mua Cave Eco Lodge (our hotel) that made me wish we had had a few more days of stay there. The staff exuded a sweetness (except when they were talking about the chinese) that didn’t just stem from a sense of professional duty. The bonsai trees lining the walkways made me feel like a brobdingnagian.
The lodge itself seemed removed from civilization; the nights had that therapeutic quiet about them. The food was simple, yet delicious, and a welcome change from the excesses of the cruise. And there was Wifi.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hạ Long Bay


Legend has it that when Vietnam was just getting created it was under constant threat from its enemies. Heaven-dwelling dragons came to its timely rescue and spat out jade and other stones at the enemy which landed in the sea forming the archipelago called Hạ Long bay, now recognized as a Unesco heritage site. Of course, the real story involving a lot of geological drama - erosion, swelling of the seas, tectonic activity pushing up the karst over the sea level - and stretching hundreds of millions of years is even more fascinating. It has left behind a spectacle the likes I haven't seen before. Thousands of tiny green islands in a still emerald green sea.


We spent 24 hrs cruising around the bay, stepping out every now and then to visit some of the islands and the limestone caves in them, to explore the waters on a kayak, or to see an oyster farm. Otherwise we were on a nice little boat taking in the extraordinary sights all around us, which included one of the most ravishing sunsets I've seen.


I was torn between deciding whether I wanted to spend more days on the cruise or not. While my senses were clearly not satiated from the sheer natural beauty on display, sitting on a cruise gives you no experience of Viet Nam. Admittedly no form of tourism or short term travel can really acquaint you with all the naked truths of a region you are visiting, but the sanitised bubble that is a cruise can denude even more of the context of the place. I was now eager to see the rest of Viet Nam. Besides I couldn't afford another night on the cruise, so on we went to our next destination, Ninh Binh.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Crossing a busy street in Hanoi

The traffic in Hanoi, or in any other big city in Vietnam for that matter, resembles what you’d see in most Indian cities. Endless streams of vehicles -largely two-wheelers- that ignore lane markings and occupy every little inch of road available. If they are not at a zebra crossing, pedestrians don’t have an easy rule book to follow to cross such streets. In India you typically use one of two approaches. If you are brazen enough, you take on the traffic, start walking towards the other end brushing off the raucous honking or the gentle abuses that come your way. In the second approach, you rely on your fitness, finding the windows of opportunity and bolting across.

In Vietnam they have settled on a third approach that works beautifully even on 6-lane streets where the Indian strategies would fall apart. Here’s how it works. Your common sense might beg you against it but you walk straight into the flow of traffic towards your destination on the other side of the road. Provided you keep a slow constant pace, traffic - without slowing or stopping - will go around you at a reasonably safe distance like you see in those wind tunnel flow visualizations. This boggles the mind because the approach requires a tacit contract between the drivers (who need to judge whether to go in front of you or behind you depending on your speed) and the pedestrians (who need to stick to predictable speed and direction). Best of all, you'll not hear a single beep of the horn. If you take the leap of faith the first couple of times you’ll eventually feel like a modern day, freshwater version of Moses as the river of traffic splits and rejoins around you while you travel to the bank in an invisible bubble.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vietnam

My next set of posts will be about our recent trip to Vietnam that took us from the capital city of Hanoi, over to the archipelago in Ha Long bay, to the largest city, Saigon, and then to Cần Thơ in the Mekong delta, and finally to Cát Tiên national park in the south of the country.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Myanmar

These are impressions from 4 short days in Burma we spent in the end of Aug.


Street food: I’m a sucker for cultures that spend their evenings sitting around in street cafes, eating and drinking. Yangon, at least the chinatown part where we stayed in, seems to fit the bill. Even with the inflated prices they quote to foreigners the street food is fairly inexpensive. Here’s a lady preparing papaya salad and noodles in the middle of Yangon market.


Pagodas
Pagodas are everywhere in this country. This one below is called the Botataung pagoda that claims to house a sacred hair of Gautama Buddha. I can neither confirm nor refute that claim.


Circular train
There’s a metre gauge rail track that circumscribes the city of Yangon. A full circle ride on the train takes 3.5 hrs and is a great way to let the sights and sounds of this city sink in. Here’s a market spilling over into the tracks in one of the stations on that route.


Thanaka
A cheek paint, called Thanaka, made out of ground bark is a common feature on every cheek in Myanmar. After a short while you’ll stop finding it odd.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Agave Blooms


On our recent visit to Masinagudi we saw these huge plants all along the NH 212 - the road running through Bandipur National Park. I’ve been driving on these roads for eons now and didn’t remember seeing anything like this before. We stopped to investigate and found that they were growing out of Agave plants. A quick google search revealed that these outgrowths are called Agave Blooms. It’s a fascinating story. At the end of their lives the Agave plants expend all the energy they have stored in producing these shoots that grow up to 30-40 ft, sometimes at the rate of 6 inches a day. And then they die! The plants on this highway seem to be blooming in synchrony.

I couldn’t help wonder if the agaves knew their days were numbered because the 4-laning of this highway is underway in true earnest and a few thousand magnificent 100-yr old Banyan trees have already paid the ultimate price. I’m not even sure if the blooms will succeed in spawning a new generation. Even if they did, the next time around, we are likely to zoom past without paying attention on the shiny new highway in our shiny new country.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bear sighting in Galibore


"Sloth Bear!" shouted our guide pointing at a jet black lump moving at a distant hill. "He'll be down at the water in 10 minutes". After an interminable wait of about 15 minutes this bear finally got out of the clearing and took a few swigs out of the Cauvery river on the other bank from where we stood. She had a little cub by her side for good measure. In the fading light I had to use the highest ISO with my woefully inadequate 270 mm lens, held steady by a tripod fashioned out of plastic chairs, but I did manage to get this grainy pic. In all the half a dozen times I've visited Galibore these were my favorite 3 minutes.