Monday, 7 December 2015

The Rabbit-hole


So, I have been pretty busy with office work lately. Like, crazy. I have had no time to pen down any of my travel stories, and I actually went to quite a few places - Daroji bear sanctuary, Hampi, Agumbe, Someshwara, Karkala, Udupi.... Special places, all of them. I hope my blog doesn't die waiting for me to come back and update it.

Yet, I did write, though not for the blog. I saw a writing clue in Women's Web, something tinkled in my mind, and I ended up fishing out a story - all within an hour, flat. Perhaps some kindly lady took pity at my rusty writing, decided that I need a little motivation to get back into writing, and hence published it. 

The writing cue was: “Ask the books that I read why I changed. Ask the authors dead and alive who communicated with me and gave me the courage to be myself.” – from My Story by Kamala Das.

Here's my story:


The Rabbit-hole


Image source: www.youtube.com


“Did you see her?” Reena nudged me sharply. “She is at it again.”

I turned around gently, so as not to catch the attention of Maina, Reena’s four-year-old niece.

Maina was talking rapidly in a low voice to someone. Despite my caution, she caught me watching her.

“Bill the Lizard just got a letter from his mom,” she beamed happily at me. “The dormouse told me so!”

As I nodded kindly in response, Reena rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“The child just goes on and on with her gibberish games,” she complained bitterly. “It gets onto my nerves.”

Reena flopped down on her big, cushy sofa with a tired sigh.

“I wish her mother would recover soon,” she said wistfully. “I confess I am no good with little children and their make-believe worlds.”

I looked at Maina, who was then squatting on the ground and peering at something keenly. A surge of pity filled my heart. She had seen too much pain in her short life. The unexpected early demise of her father in a violent accident the past year and the hardships that came their way had left her mother wracked with despair and disease. Maina had to lodge with her relatives, from one family to the other, like a rolling stone, while her mother lay despondent in a hospital bed.

“She is a queer child,” her relatives would say, not unlike Reena, her present benefactor. “One moment she is all grown-up and silent, and the next moment she is all hyperactive.”

Later, as I paused by the sleeping child after dinner, I noticed the corner of a book peeking out below the pillow. I gently pulled it out and read the title.

Alice in Wonderland.

“Papa had given it to me.”

I looked up to see Maina sitting up on the bed.

“But you cannot read yet, can you?”

“No, but he used to read out the stories to me every night,” she said, reaching out to reclaim her book. “When I grow up, I am going to read it all by myself.”

That was how I remembered Maina all these years –the little girl sitting upright on the bedwith a faraway look in her eyes, clutching a heavy, hard bound book of fanciful tales.

It must have been twenty years hence that I stumbled upon Maina once again. I had heard about her mother passing away after a prolonged bout of depression related ailment. The last update I had of Maina was that of her being packed away to a boarding school run by a charitable society. After that I heard no more of Maina. Her memory had almost faded away in my mind, till the day a smart young woman at my grandson’s school carnival approached me with a broad smile.

“Hello, Auntie,” she said, her smile lighting up her eyes.

I responded weakly as I agonized over connecting a name to that familiar smile.

“You might not remember me, Auntie,” the girl continued, recognizing my discomfiture. “We met at Reena Auntie’s house many years ago. My name is Maina.”

Maina!

I choked as I recollected the little girl and grasped her hands tightly within mine, suddenly overcome with emotions. She laughed and hugged me, wiping off a stray drop of tear from my eyes.

Later, over cups of tea, she told me her story. How life had treated her and how she ended up where she was today – a children’s book illustrator. I had no inkling that the name Mrinalini printed on my grandson’s story books belonged to Maina.

“It was difficult, Auntie,” she said, sipping on her tea, that familiar faraway look returning to her eyes. “Difficult to even go on living, sometimes. But I had a rabbit-hole where I would dive in whenever things were too hard. It gave me immense strength and peace and I could face everything calmly.”

“I know, my child,” I replied. “I had a best friend once and we spent our childhood together. It was not easy to grow up in a household where parents lived as strangers. I discovered my rabbit-hole, too, reading a particular book. My friend played along and we passed many a spring afternoon living out characters from the book. One day, I realized that I was healed. There was no loneliness in my heart. I gifted the book to my best friend the day we parted. It was a beautiful hard-bound edition.”

Maina looked at me with growing comprehension. She pulled out a battered copy of Alice in Wonderland and flipped it open, fingering the name scrawled across the top of the first page.

Just as I had not known the Mrinalini of my grandson’s story books, Maina had not known the Anamika on her book.

And two strong women shared a smile between themselves.




Thursday, 24 September 2015

Monsoon magic: A trip to Kabini



“You just missed it,” said the photographer, trying hard to suppress his happy grin as he put the cap back on his camera lens. His day was done.

For a moment my heart stood still, and then shattered into a thousand pieces.

The last fifteen minutes that we spent hurtling through the bumpy jungle roads, chanting prayers, had gone in vain.

We had missed seeing the leopard by a whisker.

The fact that we were in Kabini Forest Reserve, or rather Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary - better known as leopard country, and on a safari by Jungle Lodges, famed for its almost guaranteed leopard sightings, rankled painfully in our mind. 

Back at our lodgings with Kabini River Lodge, Ravi, the naturalist accompanying us, shook hands with a sad smile as we alighted from our vehicle. 

I took a deep breath, shook off all the negativities, and beamed at him.

“It’s alright,” I told him. “The fact that we are in Kabini itself is rewarding enough for us. The leopard doesn’t matter.”

I meant it.

I had always wanted to visit Kabini, the erstwhile private hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore, and stay at Kabini River Lodge, touted to be the jewel in the crown of JLR, partaking of the historical significance of this colonial structure located on the banks of the Kabini river. I had read reams about Kabini and gazed goggle-eyed at images posted from there, mostly of the magnificent leopard. The renowned tree-reclining/climbing leopards of Kabini/Nagarhole, as they are called. 

Thus, despite the monsoons and the reduced scope of sighting wildlife, we found ourselves at JLR’s reception porch on 22nd August. Bandipur had showed us that monsoons could be a fruitful season as well and we had based our hope on that. 

I found the property just as I had read about and envisaged it. The familiar sight of colonial architecture greeted us and I spent the time before lunch exploring its sprawling lawns, lanes, nook and crannies. The resort seemed to pay loving tribute to John Wakefield (endearingly known as Papa John), its founding Director, who had passed away in 2010.  The hospitality offered by JLR remains unmatched and I wonder how the management manages to keep the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism among its staff in all its resorts across Karnataka. The same goes for the sumptuous food served in the Gol Ghar.




Maharaja Bungalow




Beautiful garage for the safari vehicles

There was quite a crowd in the resort, running to full house, which was quite commendable given it was off-season. It quite proved the point that the Kabini Forest Reserve is one of the most popular wildlife destinations of Karnataka, owing to its accessibility, verdant landscape, pristine backwaters, and regular sightings of herds of elephants. It is approximately 205 km from Bangalore and comprises the south-eastern part of Nagarahole National Park. 

Nagarahole, together with the adjoining Bandipur National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, forms the largest protected area in southern India.



Sambar deer (female)


Brown Fish Owl

Malabar Trogon (female)

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

As we moved out of the resort for our safari, a cold wind picked up and lashed at us. Inspite of the chill, I loved the moisture-laden wind – it was refreshingly different from the dry wind that you encounter in the hot summers. Perhaps monsoons are the best time to visit a jungle after all. As regards sightings of wildlife, I have given that up on luck. If I have to see a tiger or a leopard, I might just see it on the highway and not on a safari. Seasons don’t matter, too, in my case.

“How does it look like?” my mom had called up to ask about the jungle. “Is it the same like Bandipur?”

The question whirled in my mind as we drove around during the course of several safaris, spotting almost the same birds and animals. Nagarahole and Bandipur are neighbours and yet, no, they are not alike. What set them apart were perhaps the imposing electricity pylons that cut across Nagarahole. I remember seeing an image of a tiger playing with her cubs on the narrow path that ran along these pylons. No such luck awaited us even though we stopped at that point expectantly for some time. 



The electic pylons


Streak-throated Woodpecker


White-bellied Woodpecker


Purple Heron

Another distinct, beautiful feature of Nagarahole is its backwaters. We splashed our way through the lake’s fringes, disturbing a few egrets, herons and a fishing eagle out of their reverie. Just a few meters away from the water, the driver called our attention towards a camouflaged figure lying on the ground – a jackal. While we tried to catch a clear shot of the lounging jackal, its partner peered at us, unnoticed by many. 


Indian Jackal



During our stay at Kabini, heavy showers racked through the night, leaving the forest radiant and swathed in lush greenery in the morning. Rays of golden sunlight filtered in through the thick canopy and perked up the inhabitants of the jungle. The forest floor was an iridescent shade of green, the fresh new shoots pushing up their heads through the soft, wet earth. The tyre tracks were dotted with innumerable dents made by hooves of deer and gaurs, while tiger pugmarks stood out prominently. The king had definitely passed through the area at night, checking up on his subjects. 


Pugmarks

Sambar deer (male)

Grey Junglefowl (female)


Jungle Owlet


I always find morning safaris to be more exhilarating, although the evening ones promise more sightings. Perhaps it has got to do something with the early morning mist and the dewy grounds. Besides, it is nice to catch the birds busy with their breakfast. It is the only time of the day that you can watch a crested serpent eagle feasting on its prey, not perched on a tree but on the ground. Shy herds of Gaur would wait patiently by the side of the road to let us pass before they resumed their grazing. Small, scattered herds of elephants would come upon us, try out a few half-hearted mock charges and allow us to move ahead. Jungle mynahs, riding piggyback on the elephants, remained the blasé witness to these antics.



Misty mornings...


Jungle Mynah on elephant-back

Indian Gaur


Crested Hawk Eagle

The monsoons released its onslaught at us well and proper on the evening we had opted for boat safari. It started out as a light drizzle while we coursed along the backwaters, straining our eyes out for any movement along the banks. A smattering of colour would show up from time to time, revealing itself to be a peacock out for its evening amble, while dull browns in the distance turned out to be a herd of spotted deer.


The jetty



Tranquil waters


Spotted deer herd

Peacock

The action in the water involved the ‘skim, dip, and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the cormorants and the ‘whirl, swoop and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the osprey. We were enthralled with these ‘live shows’ and hardly noticed when the light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. To my utter delight, the person handling our boat went about the safari nonchalantly. It is not every day that one gets to observe nature and its creations while in the middle of an act of nature. The cormorants ceased their activities for the moment and perched themselves on dead trees, folding their heads beneath their wings. The osprey had flown towards the tall trees on the bank.


Great Cormorant


Osprey


Grey Heron


By the time we finished the safari, the rain had stopped and weak rays of the setting sun were in the horizon. I could not thank the monsoon gods enough for that experience.




Lesser Whistling Duck



However much I try to tell myself before embarking on a jeep safari that I am here just for the jungle, that I am here to breathe in the fresh air and listen to the chirping of birds, I know I am telling a tiny lie. Just as nobody goes khaali haath from a shrine, nobody goes without catching sight of a leopard in Kabini – goes the unofficial saying if you look at images uploaded on Facebook communities. Of late, there have been quite a few sightings of tigers and black panthers as well.


Indian Wild Dogs



So, this brings back to my story about the leopard that eluded me. I had immense hopes of seeing a leopard on this trip and did not leave a single branch un-scanned. I strained my eyes to the maximum and found myself imagining leopards at every perpendicular bough of a tree. There were leopards doing ramp-walks in my imagination as we passed trees with sloping branches. Imagine my palpitations then when our driver got a call informing him about a leopard sighted in another zone. We drove at top speed to the spot, requesting all the gods fervently to keep the leopard on that tree.

You know the rest of the story.

We sat at our vehicle for some time even after the other vehicles had left, filled with happy people who kept on peeking at their camera monitors. And then, an amazing thing happened. While we fixed our gaze on the left hand side of the road, on the tree that had held the leopard in its branch, something stirred amid the foliage on our right hand. Slowly, a daunting form emanated, followed by another. 

They had the largest tusks I had seen in a long, long time. 




These giant tuskers strolled around casually, just a few meters away from us, while we gawped at them with our jaws dropped. We had forgotten the leopard cleanly.




And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, I love the jungle. It never disappoints you. Thank you Kabini, thank you Nagarhole. You have been absolutely kind to us. We will come back again.




PS: We had gone on a nature walk and coracle ride, and stumbled across several gems. Shall write about them soon!






Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Photo Stories: Bandipur


I am a hoarder of photographs. I don’t click good photos but I like to hold onto them. In the blog, I mostly use my husband’s images – he is the one with the DSLR and the one with photography related knowledge. I am happy with my little point-and-shoot and I am not ashamed to use its zoom facilities to the optimum. 

Sometimes, in a vehicle full of bazooka lenses, I am the only one sporting a tiny camera. But from the expression on my face you would think that I have the best equipment amongst all.

I was browsing through my folders today, trying to put a closure to my Bandipur experience so that I could start writing on my Kabini trip report, but I found it very disconcerting. I just could not let some of my Bandipur pictures pass away into oblivion, however ordinary they may be.  And so, I decided to put them here as photo stories. (Two of them are the husband’s though, could not stop myself from thieving.) Perhaps one day I shall be reminded of the stories through this post.

1. Maa aur Mamta or Is there anyone more loving than an elephant mom?

I guess I am beginning to understand elephants better after I became a mother myself. I could feel the palpable tension in the air, the restraint, the fear – the gamut of emotions that elephants with calves would be going through as our vehicles approached them. They would stand silently, not charging at us but not trusting us either, shielding and hiding the baby in their midst. As we moved away, the fortress around the little one would break and the adorable creature would romp out. I took a snapshot of that scene, but not with my camera.

Another time, we were nearing the exit gate of the forest when we came across a small herd of domestic elephants with a calf near the road. Just as my own brat would do, the baby elephant hood-winked the elders and ran across the road. And just as my own heart would skip a beat, it must have done the same with the mother elephant, too. With a loud distressed trumpet, she ran after the calf, the chains jangling at her feet. On reaching the side of the runaway naughty kid, she shoved him away from the road and waited with bated breath for the rest of the group to come to her rescue. The others had followed her with the same urgency and within seconds, the little calf was hidden from our view, secured amidst the herd.

No, I could not capture that in my camera but I know the memory of these gentle giants will remain forever in my mind.


Hard to miss this painted elephant at the forest check gate


 Come hail, come storm, we shall munch away - sayeth the elephants

 Trick question: Spot the photographer!

All in a row - could not help taking this cheeky shot!

2. The Misunderstood Ones

For a long time people believed that the Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes, as they are commonly known, killed for sport. That they are ruthless, stone-hearted hunters who fed upon their prey while it was still alive. But the fact is, they would hunt only when their clan was hungry, when they had several starving pups to feed. And since they are of small build, they cannot simply jab at a prey, generally spotted deer that are 3-4 times their size, and make a quick, clean kill. They have to finish their meal as fast as possible before another predator made its appearance and claimed their hard-earned kill as its own. Most times, the predator was man himself – villagers who lived in the forest fringes.

I learnt these one evening as I sat in JLR’s auditorium and watched the story of Kamani, a fearless alpha female who decided the destiny of her pack. Since that time, I have watched the movie several times in other JLR properties and each time I have forgotten to blink. Every time I come across the scene where the narrator witnesses his first kill – the alpha male bounding and leaping, pursuing the deer in the water body with the rest of the Dhole pack arranged strategically around the water, the failing light and the music reaching a crescendo – it never fails to give me goose bumps. (I got them even as I write this.) 

For two continuous safaris after watching this movie we had our rendezvous with the dogs. I felt we knew them – as if they were the ones from the movie. The same uncles, the same pups, the same alpha male. Kamani, were you there, too?


Our first wild dog on the first safari 

 Oooh what a sly amble...

 Second day in different light. A bigger pack!

Alert uncles 

Playful pups - so much like our mongrels!

3. The Hulks of the Forest Or Are they really?

The beautiful Indian Gaur. They seem so formidable, such hulks and yet….are their feet clad in white stockings?  Do they tell us that they are fragile inside despite their daunting, muscular outer appearance? I say they are. Because I saw them just as vulnerable as the other giants – the elephants. They are as protective and insecure about their young ones as you and I would be. 

They would suddenly emerge, grazing by the side of the road, as we turned a corner, and gently move aside. Looking at a Gaur you would not want to believe that it is quite a favourite prey of the tiger, would you? Maybe that’s why they say that size or muscles don’t actually define strength… That big guy in the movie The Hulk was quite the sentimental creature, no?


Smile please, you are on camera! 



A family portrait

4. The Builders 

Or you can call them Mrs and Mr Scaly-breasted Munia, thank you. These little busybodies entertained us unconditionally with their antics. They started the day with long discussions, followed by long gazing-out-into-the-horizon sessions and finally with warming up exercises before embarking on their house building spree. Here’s to your new home, Mrs and Mr Scaly-breasted Munia.


 The warm-up



5. The Hills and the Patchwork Carpet

The best part of going uphill is that you can look downhill. And somehow the same things that you may have passed by, look so appealing from above. Also, I love being in the midst of a thick fog. I can crank up my level of imagination and wish for anything to appear in the fog – right from a unicorn to a paranormal apparition. I did see a few elephants foraging by the hillside though.


 On the way to Gopalaswamy Betta... Looking down..

 Can you see the patchwork carpet?




 Zoomed on to a beautiful old banyan tree from above...

Here comes the fog..

6. The Stubborn Giant Or The One Who Stuck to His Guns…err Road

I know I have told this story before in my previous post. But how about looking at it again through my eyes? I can still feel the gambhir, gajagamini (sorry, can't think of a good translation) strides of the tusker towards us. 






The driver and the tusker have a face-off moment


7. Random clicks Or When I have run out of words



A story I missed. Figurines at the forest check gate. Who were they?

 A pristine water body in the jungle

 Run, little fellas, run! Jungle bush quails scuttling away

 Sigh. That should tell you something. Yes, we missed the tiger but he left his pugmarks for us to sigh over.

 I love the startled look of the deer here, while the stripe-necked mongoose remains unmindful, busy with his foraging

 At first look, I wondered where is the dude's perch? Ah, now I see.

 Smart deer grazing near the forest office - tigers wont catch them here!

Nope, not smiling! Here, take this frown!


Next up, my trip to Kabini – actually Nagarhole Wildlife Sanctuary. If I don’t get too lazy, that is. Take care!