Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Big Cat

 The denizens of Kurubarahalli Doddi - the nearest village from our farm - have had two unplanned feasts in the last couple of months. NN, one of the goatherds in the village, drives his livestock to a part of the local forest that's home to a particularly enterprising leopard. In two separate but eerily similar incidents, the leopard, in broad daylight and right under NN's nose, ambushed the herd and sunk its teeth into one of the goats. In each incident, NN managed to chase the predator, but didn't manage to the save the prey. In this community, when a goat dies the owner reaches out to his network and lines up a bunch of sellers for the meat and negotiates a price with the group. The distress sale usually happens within the two or three villages in this area that are all inhabited by the lambani community, a fascinating people that trace their lineage to a nomadic tribe that descended from the north of India. 

We've been hearing about leopards in this area in other contexts too. The person who owns a house on one of the main streets claims to see a leopard from his balcony every other day. One of them even made the leap to his terrace when they had tied their dog there. 

All these stories had made me eager to set up the camera trap and capture one of these leopards in our farm. We had conclusive evidence that at least two of them had walked right in front of our gate on one rainy night, leaving their unmistakable paw-prints in the wet soil. 

After months of waiting I finally caught a grainy footage of one of them right across our gate. When I reviewed the footage from the camera trap in the morning, and saw the timestamp on the video capture I realised that this big cat had walked on the path less than five minutes after I had set up the camera. Goosebumps! 

Saturday, September 19, 2020


They say nature reveals its secrets to its keenest students. Our caretaker, KN, is one such disciple. He combines an earthy wisdom with excellent observational skills, to the extent that it feels like he has one additional sense organ. This morning he came with a spring in his step, and he declared that the conditions were perfect for mushrooms. He sought out the places where he had seen them sprout last year, and lo and behold, right under the brush were these beauties.

 Another half an hour of scouting yielded enough of these mushrooms for our two households. This kind of mushroom is quite big with almost as much of its body under the ground as is over. Unlike other mushrooms that are more prominently visible in the farm this time of the year, these are fleshy in texture. 

By evening the mushrooms were ingested in the form of an exquisite tasting curry, thanks to KN's wife this time, who shared her recipe with us. Taking the cue from what he saw here, KN went to other such hotspots in his secret Mushroom map and went home with quite a haul. Given that the mushrooms blossom only one or two weeks in a year I hear that the KN household treated this as quite the celebration today. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Farm Diary: The birds learn to tolerate me


As we spend more time at the farm this pandemic season the normally shy birds around here are getting accustomed to human presence, and are letting me have privileged access to their lives. Full post here

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Farm Diary: Neem's nemesis

Neem trees have almost mythical status in these parts. The wood is said to be largely termite- and pest-resistant. Neem oil has the reputation of being an extremely effective pesticide among organic ones. Neem seeds sprout in the most barren of lands here, muscle their way through the competition (mostly weeds and other brush) and establish themselves in no time. They may do a lot of things right but they have one big vulnerability. 

There's a family of parasites called Loranthus or mistletoes that seem to have Neem's number.  The seeds of the parasite usually end up on the branch of the neem tree through bird droppings. Once there, they grow roots on the branch and start to grow their own branches usually drooping down from the host's branch. For a while, because they match the colour of their host, they make the foliage look robust and healthy. Over time, though, they start to crowd out the neem's own leaves.The host's branches develop thick nodes out of which no new branches or neem leaves sprout. And then over the course of a season or two the host dies completely. 

I don't have the "before" photos but the picture above is of a neem which succumbed to Loranthus this year. As I take stock now I realise we've lost dozens of healthy trees to this blight. From my research on the net I didn't find effective ways to combat this parasite without the use of chemicals. We've been experimenting with pruning off the affected branches right after the initial infestation, and so far that seems to have worked. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Farm Diary: Nightlife in the farm

The area around our farm has a few protected state forests, but each of them is so small and fragmented that I always assumed none could shelter any megafauna within them. Many of the designated forest areas are only protected on paper, while on the ground much of that is encroached upon by the neighbouring land owners. Yet, the villagers are always talking about bears or leopards prowling around their settlements. For years I dismissed them as old wives’ tales. As I spent more time at the farm, however, the evidence of wildlife started to become clear. You’d see banana plants uprooted by unknown trespasses, termite mounds upended by what clearly look like bear claws, and the occasional exotic-looking faeces on the paths that lead to the forests.

When the monsoons set in this year, and as we were spending more time at the farm, the evidence started stacking up. These prints below left in the soft mud by a leopard mother and cub walking right outside our gate convinced me that the night-life here is more exciting than I had led myself to believe.

I got myself a camera trap to find out what happens around here at night time. The very first morning this peacock sashayed across the camera’s path.

There was a surprise visitor the next night. I had no idea that jungle cats lived around here.

A few nights later, this magnificent tusker walked on the path. Even while I was engrossed in reviewing the footage our caretaker pointed my attention to our broken fence. The elephant had walked right into our property. We reconstructed the events of the night based on the footsteps that our visitor had left behind. He had uprooted a few banana shoots, broken some branches of mango trees, but mostly had found our farm uninteresting. Then, as if to tell us who’s boss around these parts he made a new hole in the fence to get out.

Some days later it rained pretty heavily. Responding to some strange ancient instinct winged termites started pouring out of holes in the ground. That night the camera caught another exquisite visitor, a sloth bear. This one had come inside the farm too, and judging by the number of termite mounds it had opened up, had spent quite a bit of time at the property.

Meanwhile, the leopard continues to leave its pugmark around here but it seems to have this knack of evading the camera. We keep waiting.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Lockdown in the farm


Seven years ago we bought a mango farm in part to scratch an intergenerational itch that I've explained (sort of) in other posts. This post is about how that farm has come to play such a major role in our lives in these last few bizarre months.

For much of the time we’ve owned this parcel of land we’ve visited the farm over for short visits, mostly weekends. All along, I’ve nursed this hope of spending longer periods of time at the farm and execute more meaningful plans there. Given that I was still a salary-slave all those wishes were stowed away for some distant future, possibly post-retirement, until two unconnected events conspired to hasten my plans. First, Mr. Mukesh Ambani’s hairy ambitions brought high speed internet to even the rocks of Ramanagara where our farm is located. And then the pandemic happened. We no longer needed to be in Bengaluru. Scratch that. We were better off being away from Bengaluru.

Suddenly it became possible to work out of Ramanagara for weeks together. The privileges of staying there are endless. Most days, my alarm clock is a flock of peafowl that trumpet loudly just before dawn. Since there’s no interaction with humans other than my close family I don’t ever have to wear a mask. While in Bangalore, during the lockdown, I get frustrated about the lack of opportunity to exercise, at the farm I clock 4000 steps before breakfast without trying too hard. And waking up to the sight of the dramatic monsoon clouds over the granite hills that surround us is enough of a dopamine fix that makes up for all the other privileges lost during this period of lockdown. In short, it feels like a celebration.

Yet, after a week or two, we do have to come back to town - and that rhythm is dictated usually by the need to refill our LPG cylinder. When we do get back to the city we get to see the joys of urban life with a fresh pair of eyes - hot water, the washing machine, Netflix - and life feels like yet another celebration but of a different flavour. We’ve found the ultimate cheat code against hedonic adaptation.

I’m still hoping that we wade through this pandemic without a major hit to our health and if that happens, this period will remain one of my fondest memories.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Reading in 2019

It's nearly May of 2020, and I finally decided I've procrastinated this enough. So here's my reading list for 2019.  

Top recommendations
  • Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt: While my reading for the last few years has been predominantly non-fiction, very few books make the kind of impression that the Righteous Mind. As a classical liberal with a slight left-lean, I've struggled with truly understanding the conservative view points, and I've been fairly troubled with the rise of the right all over the world. After this book, some how, it all made a lot more sense. This one was a definite viewquake, to borrow from Robin Hanson's dictionary. 
  • Why We Sleep - Matthew Walker: If Righteous Mind made the biggest difference to my worldview, Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep forced the most number of practical changes to my life. I've stopped using an alarm clock altogether, all the lights at home turn yellow at home, and I've barely sacrificed sleep for anything else (work, exercise) if I could help it. 
  • The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert: I've grown increasingly fatalist/defeatist about humanity's ability to tackle climate change. I can't tell if books like this force me out of the stupor or push me deeper into cynical resignation. Either way, this is a fascinating book. 
  • The Fish that Ate the Whale - Rich Cohen: Everytime I read a book on history I come away marvelling at our modern education system's ability to take such an interesting subject and make it as boring as they do. Who new the humble fruit had such a role to play in shaping modern geopolitics? 
  • Maus - Art Spiegelman: I feel like I've read so many books on holocaust that nothing on that topic can shock me anymore, but Maus still did. Probably because of the novelty of the format.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles: One of only two fiction books that I read this year. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • Travels with Charley - John Steinbeck
Second-tier recommendations
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying - Marie Kondo
  • Early Indians - Tony Joseph
  • I'll be Gone in the Dark - Michelle McNamara
  • The Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu & Ken Liu
  • Zero to One - Peter Thiel
  • Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber - Mike Isaac
  • The Algebra of Happiness - Scott Galloway
  • Sense of An Ending - Julian Barnes
  • Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World- David Epstein
Some other books I read didn't make that much of an impression for various reasons
  • Classical Music of India - L. Subramaniam and Viji Subramaniam: While the subject fascinates me no end, I realise my vocabulary and comprehension of the basics are still too raw for me to understand everything in this book. I'm sure I'll return to it some other time. 
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century - Yuval Noah Harari: After having read his first two, the topics and the treatment in this book didn't really trigger the thought processes that much.