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


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


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.)