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Archive for July, 2009

Just how well do you know India and Indians?

A banal question you say? Well, over a hundred years ago the Mahatma asked it of himself, and found the answer to be so unsatisfying, he set off on a journey at once. The rest as they say is history. A similar motive, equally unpretentious, is at play in this series.

As I stated at the outset, India is so vast and varied that no single mind can truly wrap around her. It does take, er .. a number of villagers to do the job.

In this new series that I call Our Selves, Hidden Selves, I would like to highlight certain aspects of India, and certain Indians. Some seemingly minor aspect not generally given serious thought or discussion. I would like us to focus on what otherwise gets glossed over, waxed eloquent, with little attention to detail.

(A bit of a rant on the side. Like citizens elsewhere, Indians who depend on the so-called MSM (main stream media) for some understanding of our current selves are to be pitied. For the media, in India as elsewhere, is populated by the mindless, fueled by the witless, and run by the heartless. In an ancient worn out landscape such as India specially, to turn a McLuhanesque phrase, the Medium is the Mess.)

Therefore, we turn to the Internet and there in, like the swans of the lore filter out the gibberish and come up with some keen observers.

The focus today is Nature in India; the choice  is a blog called  THE BUTTERFLY DIARIES.

This is a wonderful little blog, its format is unassuming, yet the content quite rich and well-informed. Its stated motives are modest but don’t let that deceive you, it gets the job done! The writing is direct, clear, and honest. It has hundreds of photographs, the vast majority are original!

What makes The Butterfly Diaries uniquely charming despite its simple title is that, at times the blog takes on the character of a soliloquy, the author’s treat to himself, and that enables us to get inside the blogger’s viewpoint. The blogger is our spyglass, we get an intimate look at India’s nature, like never before. It should make you want to become a naturalist yourself.

The writer and proprietor of the blog is Ashwin Baindur, a scholar, soldier, and conservationist. Someone derived from the same mould as that great hero of mine, The Colonel himself, Teddy Roosevelt.

With that caveat, let’s jump right into the blog, and enjoy some great personal observations of Nature in India. Here is the real reason why this blog attracts me:

This blog has taken a vow not to concentrate only on things that always get attention, such as tigers, rain-forests and cute pandas, but also about those things that don’t get written about much such as invertebrates, plants and such-like things.

Boy, does he ever!

How is this related to Gandhi's Dandi March?  Photo via downtoearth.org

How is this related to Gandhi's Dandi March? Photo via downtoearth.org

It is a good thing that he is not merely a butterfly chaser, or even plain watcher of things living. He has an abiding curiosity about all that’s around, and how it came about too.

Else, how would we know what this picture represents.

What is that enormous squiggly line running down the map of grand old India?

Ashwin Baindur explains via this post: Taxman’s Hedge. Pull on the hedgerow here and there, unravel an entire chapter of history!

From another post we get an idea of Nature as close as the backyard:

My day begins early, the ploonk plink of bulbuls and the caw caw caw of the crows is infinitely preferable to waking up with the help of an alarm clock. It is just after dawn, the sky is still grey as the sun has not risen over the dunes at the horizon and the breeze which blows cross the sand is still cold. The last vestiges of night-life can occasionally still be seen. Today, a flicker of movement at the corner of my eye causes me to turn my head, just in time to catch a last glimpse of the tail of the large desert monitor (Varanus griseus) who lives behind my bungalow in a hole amidst a tangle of barbed wire. He has a regular nocturnal beat at this time of the year which takes him through the matchbox-sized gardens of the three bungalows side-by-side, then around the large store-house, into the transport yard, across the bordering dune, and back along it on the far side till he rounds the dune, crosses a road and is back into the tiny gardens.

Like the err, natural naturalist, that he is, Ashwin Baindur engages all the senses, to give an authentic feel to his writings. His keen senses are our portals to our India, our hidden self, so to speak.

When Ashwin is not chasing critters in the backyard with the proverbial hand lens and net, he is outdoors, on an adventure. He writes with feeling, but crafts a narrative absorbing enough to overcome the sentiment. Such keen writing, yet quite intimate and absorbing. Like you were there!

Far below out of sight, flowed the Rishiganga which eternally reminded us with its roar that we, mere mortals, had dared to venture into hallowed ground – the inner sanctuary of the Valley of the Lost Horizon, the path through which took 37 years after it had been first glimpsed to discover.

Between two rocks, bending down to ease the strain of my overfilled rucksack, I glimpsed a smidgen of green through the boulders. Yet the porter guided us unerringly through this stony maze and before I realised it, my feet trod no longer on hard rock but on soil layered with a thick carpet of grass and herbs. We had reached our destination, the bugyal of our dreams, Sarson Patal.

But crossing the rock maze, it is not the picturesque high altitude meadow which intrigues you but the feature towering over all of us high up into the sky, the most beautiful mountain in the world – NandaDevi. [sic]

The sun shone low over the Western sky and the face of the mountain was covered in a blue shadow. Eerily hypnotic, I realised that for the last thirteen years or so, no man had stepped on this earth till our expedition thrust through the Rishiganga gorge in the early summer of 1993 and made its way to the mountain’s threshold. [sic]

Sarson Patal was a carpet of grasses, herbs and shrubs. In those days I could not identify any wild flowers, unless I had Polunin and Stainton’s ‘Wildflowers of the Himalayas’ jammed in front of me and someone to guide me as I leafed through the hundreds of illustrations therein. The flowers were still few and far between because summer had yet to catch up with us at this altitude. In between the grass stalks flew small white butterflies with rounded wings having small red and blue markings.

”Snow Apollos!”, I cried. This was the very first time in my life that I had seen them. Ethereal, lightly drifting like snowflakes, they flew low on the bugyal. Amidst them also flew swift, brown Indian Tortoiseshell butterflies. [sic]

In the hollows where there was less wind, Queen Of Spain Fritillaries could be found. And everywhere, oblivious of wind, flew Dark Clouded Yellows and Common Yellow Swallowtails, sometimes zipping wind-aided across the meadows, sometimes clinging precariously onto grass stalks with wings slanted at an angle to the vertical and horizontal planes…

Further along in the post we read about the wildlife of the meadows, the rich fauna at the foot hills of Nanda Devi, the Wall of the Sanctuary, a series of high peaks that girdle the area like a protective enclosure. Getting deeper into the post we learn of an American climber who was so moved by the beauty of the mountain that he vowed to name his daughter Nanda Devi, after the mountain. And did! And we learn too, that Nanda Devi (the girl) Unsoeld, died on the mountain at a young age. A stone tablet placed by the Indian Army notes the tragic occurrence. Then there is the story of garbage; one man’s adventure, another man’s waste problem.

Sarson Patal was a major case of garbage-disposal. Most expeditions did load-breaking here, or dumped stuff on their way out which they didn’t want to pay good money to porter out. This was strewn all over in the stream-beds. The two jawans and I spent many hours collecting trash… I made a collection of tin-can labels from the different countries whose expeditions had dumped so much trash in our mountains.

There is more, lots more, in this post. Please read it and be thrilled! Now, onto other posts at this great little blog on Our Selves, Hidden Selves.

You have heard of spiders but not heard of Solifugid. You are not the only one. But, not to worry, Ashwin explains it all to us:

A solifuge looks like a thorny, bristly, cross between an insect and a large spider. Though it may look poisonous or venomous, it is not. It has an insect-like body but with eight ten legs instead of six, with the forward-most pair of ‘leg’s actually being pedipalps which are used for feeding and capturing prey. The solifugid has a pair of eyes perched closely together at the top of his head and you very soon get the feeling that he understands whatever is happening and knows everything! The solifugid kept moving throughout the garden and we succeeded in getting photographs by night despite my inexperience in photography.

As far as the common names are concerned, the common people have not quite decided what they resemble more – spiders or scorpions so that they are commonly referred to, both as wind-scorpions and camel-spiders! And sometimes, most insultingly to all solifugids, they are also called sun-spiders or sun-scorpions despite their obvious and lifelong abhorrence of the sun.

If a Solifugid is disturbed by day, he will first of all dart into the coolest shade he can find which may well be your shadow. If you move away and so does your shadow, you should not be surprised to find the solifugid following in order to keep out of the blazing sun. This behaviour can be quite un-nerving to those who don’t know much about Solifugids and has led the birth of many urban legends about Solifugids in Iraq amongst American soldiers.

The post relates with some hilarity how his daughter, a sophisticate enthalled by horror movies, but not Nature, finally found father’s work interesting when it involved, naturally Arachnids!! A delightful, must-read post.

There are guest posts at this blog too, such as by the post about Kanha National Park by Sarabjit Singh. Very elegant writing.

Finally, the word Paris Peacock might suggest the latest ingenou of a French film-noir offering, but naught!

Read all about a butterfly known as Paris Peacock by the Chel River.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing about this diarist. I hope fervently that this honorable  soldier of Hindostan will continue to publish and inspire.

The world needs his eye, India needs his heart.

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[Under the title Through Another’s Eyes I am starting a new feature that will hopefully become something of a fixture, and offer a window of a different sort to the Indian condition.
We Indians are a proud and mindful people. We know that our roots are deep and that makes our collective consciousness deeper. It is far too easy for us to become so fully absorbed in our own sense of self, that at times we have difficulty seeing in ourselves habits that others see so readily. That’s where this feature comes in handy. Hopefully.
In these posts you will sample observations made by ‘another’s eyes’.  The way others experience India may be illuminating, or at least interesting. At a minimum, I hope to have fun looking up stuff like this.]

The web log Our Delhi Struggle is a good start. I found it a year ago by chance while looking up the so-called google sari. The blog has been around long enough now, and has become quite popular. And it’s topical enough that its authors have a deal to write a book about the bloggers’ experience.

Interesting Blog

Interesting Blog

Here are some favorite blockquotes to get you started right away.

They start off real simple:

We are Dave and Jenny. We live in India, which is not like where we used to live. […] we’re blogging to showcase the fun and insanity of living in India […] (And let it be said that we now deeply regret calling this blog “Our Delhi Struggle” — the connotations are far too negative. A better title would be “The Delhi We See” or something like that. I wish we could change it.)

IU doesn’t think the title too negative, just quite a propos; a second act or a summary chapter could be titled differently, perhaps. I see no problem in a story of a struggle to cope and to understand. But then, IU is not into marketing, so what do I know! Back to the quotes:

Jenny and I moved to India vowing to go against our inclination to avoid weird situations. When a snake charmer in Jaipur tells me to pet his cobra, I pet his cobra. And when a taxi boss invites me in for whiskey when I come over to argue about a fare, I drink his whiskey.

I’ve also stopped tyring to get lost in a crowd (which is a laughable idea, by the way, because my every movement is closely monitored by just about everyone). Every store has an excessive number of employees and to each one, it’s their job to serve you. Browsing confuses them. I’ve learned to allow them to help me. For instance, I went to a pharmacy and asked the saleswoman for shampoo. She then showed me several brands. I inspected them, asked the price of those I was interested in, and made my selection. I then ask for bandaids. Again, she showed me a selection. This time I didn’t like any, and rejected them all. It’s actually quite fun once you get the hang of it.

Some of the posts at this blog are quite personal, as we have seen. Others take on the objective quality of the roving eye. Still others are near literary, even poetic. Indeed, anything but er, pedestrian. Read:

In the cumulative hours I’ve sat at this eternal intersection, I’ve memorized the scene. I know the ripped circus posters; I know the cops with their Rajasthani mustaches curled up their cheeks; and I know the people who call the weedy median home: the old men, the tired women, the energetic children, the girl with the full-length skirt smeared with dirt but not enough dirt to hide the vibrant mustard yellow of the material.

We all share the same daily ritual: I sit in my car, the cops wave at us to wait or wave at us to go, the engines idle, the rickshaws weave through the cars; and the migrants sit and stare or walk through traffic and beg.

Last Wednesday, some new people joined the ritual: a woman, her naked son, and her battered suitcase.

She had the look of a person in transit….

Indian corporate and governmental entities don’t like to take responsibility for anything. Their efforts to apologize for the horrific state of the infrastructure take the passive voice to enterprising new heights with three simple words: “Inconvenience is regretted.”

“Rest assured,” they’re essentially saying, “that someone is sorry this four-lane highway is squeezed into one lane so we can spend six months installing these sewer pipes. We’re NOT saying that WE feel bad about anything; but we want you to know that someone, somewhere, is filled with intense remorse. Not necessarily us. But someone.”

At the airport, which is under a perpetual state of construction, someone somewhere is really ringing their hands over the plight of the traveler. “Inconvenience,” say the signs, “is deeply regretted.”

That’s some pretty good eye and witty writing, wouldn’t you say?

Here are links to some other interesting posts at this blog:

Where do 14 million people go?

Yoga for real

Poverty is: Having no choice

Rags-to-Pads

This one is my personal favorite:

Delhi’s Sunday book market

Our Delhi Struggle is a terrific little blog. The writing is informal without being lazy. Its tone rather matter of fact, and the photos are vivid and telling. The blog strives to be personal without emotionality, to be objective without condescension. It is too serious to be called cute, too sincere to be disregarded as just another.

Our Delhi Struggle adds up to a tender, bitter-sweet, love letter from two loving people to themselves. But it is also a gift to us all, and an all around terrific treat. Highly recommended.

Good Luck to the good writers of ODS!

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