Tuesday, July 27, 2021

My Sandalwood Teacher

As a farmer, when you choose a crop that’s not meant for the local terrain or climate, nature gives you very strong feedback. No matter how well you take care of the land preparation, or how you add the choicest manure, or how efficiently you control the weeds and pests, your sapling will still conspire to give up on you. Sadly, so much of modern agriculture is about going against the grain of nature and hence dealing with all pains that come with it. On the other end of the spectrum, where a plant species happens to be perfectly suited for the conditions, there is a beauty about the ease - no, inevitability - with which the plant grows. Like this particular Sandalwood tree that grows out of a crack in one of the large rocks on our farm. Probably dropped as a seed by a bird about 10 years ago, the plant has not only made itself at home in an unhelpful little place, but spawned a dozen other saplings of various sizes and ages, which judging by how they’ve thrived, all seem to have inherited the tenacity from their parent.

There are many things to like about the Sandalwood tree. It stays evergreen - and what a beautiful tint of green too - all year around. It seems unaffected by the insects that wreak havoc on our other plants in this season. It’s got a nice symmetrical conical foliage that makes it compete favourably in the aesthetics category against the proverbial poem. It’s not all form either because it supports a robust little ecosystem within and around it. At this time of the year it is covered with tiny flowers that seem to be quite a hit with the bees and other pollinating insects. These nectar-seekers attract the rest of the links in their food chain. There’s a species of spider, for instance, that builds massive webs to cash in on the bug bounty. The spiders in turn attract a whole bunch of sneaky sunbirds that pick off the insects stuck to the web, and I suspect, help themselves to the spiders too.

So the Sandalwood has many virtues, but most of all, the tree is known for its fragrance for which you need to wait for the wood to mature a bit. Sadly, in our own farm we’ll never experience that part of the life cycle because this tree will meet an untimely and tragic end. The fragrance of the wood, and its association with ritual purity in hindu tradition, have made the sandalwood a prized commodity. The economic incentives are so strong that even the nice people around these parts will be tipped over to the dark side. It’s already scripted; in the next couple of years, one of the villagers will trespass into the property, chop the tree off before it has even grown to the right level of hardness and girth, and will sell it off in the black market.

Initially I thought about installing electrified fences and other protection mechanisms for this budding sandalwood grove but that would be going against the grain. I went through grief and anger and those other stages but I now accept the eventuality of losing these trees. That’s the other thing that this tree’s given me, a grudgingly acquired ability to appreciate something and still be detached about it.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Big Raid

 Hollywood has us all believe that when a large animal approaches you, you first realise its presence through the vibrations it causes. Think ripples in the glass of water on your table a few seconds before the beast shows up. After last night, I can debunk that trope with confidence. We were woken up by an elephant last midnight right next to our bedroom window. The CCTV footage confirmed that it had come in to the property a few minutes ago and had treaded around the house noiselessly. What eventually gave its presence away was not the vibrations in the ground but a really poor eating etiquette. The tusker was trying to pick the juiciest mangoes from the top of the tree, and it employed a brute force technique of breaking the branches, sampling the fruits, and then discarding most of them away noisily. 

I watched this individual snack around the house for nearly 4 hours, and while it hurt that our trees were getting destroyed, I consoled myself that we had to share the bounties of this land with its original inhabitants. At some point, though, it got close to a bamboo brush that I feel particularly attached to, and apparently that's where I drew my line for the spirit of coexistence. I had to shoo the beast away from there and the only way I could think of in the fuzziness of that night was to flash my torch at the animal. That tactic seemed to work and the tusker chose the nearest point in the fence to get out of our property. Having deftly dealt with the crisis I slept a satisfied man. So I thought! Only in the morning, when I surveyed the far end of the farm did I realise the full extent of the drama of the previous night. At least six elephants had come in to our farm, and in an unfairly lopsided ratio, they had left behind nine breaches in the fence. The damage to our trees and saplings is too long to mention here. They even managed to mangle one of my tarpaulin ponds, presumably because they tried to all take a bath in it. 

In the morning, I went looking for my camera trap that I had placed in that area and found it half buried in a ditch. Luckily it had survived the onslaught to tell us how these giants had tried to snuff out the evidence of their heist.  

We'll spend the next few days repairing the damage the herd made, and unlike the farmers in my neighbourhood here, I'm probably among the privileged ones who can shake off the financial damage. I'll soon even forget the hassle of fixing the fences and repairing the pond. Watching the elephants make light work of the large tree from 4 (elephant) body lengths away, however, will remain one of the most surreal wildlife encounters I've ever had. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Reading in 2020

As an introvert most days of the week, I've always favoured a good book even over wholesome social interactions. Expectedly, this period in which the pandemic forced us indoors was good for reading.

Let me start with the book that caused the biggest "viewquake" for me. As a parent, the biggest takeaway from DNA was how little my parenting actually influences a child's eventual personality. Strangely, instead of making me feel helpless the realisation actually made me feel free.

* Blueprint – How DNA Makes Us Who We Are - Robert Plomin

I came across Jugalbandi in the Seen and the Unseen podcast where the host Amit Verma engaged with the author in a nearly 3-hr conversation on Indian politic's most fascinating pairing - Vajpayee and Advani. Most liberal portraits of these two men tend to paint them as simplistic good and evil pairing. Sitapati's storytelling lends so much more color, nuance and detail to them. Most interestingly, you understand why the combined biography makes sense, because so much of what transpired can only be explained as the result of that peculiar combination. As soon as I finished this book, I picked up the author's other biography of who I believe is India's most underrated Prime Ministers. 

Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi - Vinay Sitapati
Half-Lion: How P.V.Narasimha Rao Transformed India - Vinay Sitapati

There was more history in the portfolio this year. The popular caricature of Genghis Khan being an unsophisticated marauding conqueror always ringed false to me. It just didn't make sense that he could stitch together such a large empire without a method to it. This biography filled in those details for me. 

Among bloggers that I follow, Scott Galloway is one of my favourite thinkers. Much of what this book has to say was already said in his newsletters and posts, but it was still rewarding to read them together in this collection. 
We started a book club in office this year, and I credit my colleagues with introducing me to these books that I probably wouldn't have read otherwise.  

My relationship with self-help books has shifted over the years. I held them in contempt in my 20's, consumed them surreptitiously in my 30's, but now I'm a completely unabashed about reading them. Even the not-so-well written books give me a structured way of thinking about various aspects of life, and I can't see the harm from that. 
The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg