On December 5, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had passed away. The city of Chennai came to a screeching halt for 24 hours. The stillness was eerie. It didn’t help that we were already dealing with demonetization, the government’s mischievously impotent strategy to fight corruption. It was a stressful day. But it was nothing compared to how the city would look a week later.
On December 12, we were bruised by the state’s worst cyclone ever. The wind was howling at speeds of 150 kilometers per hour. Roofs and panels were getting blown away. Glass windows shattered, trees uprooted, and power lines disrupted. Ten people died. Many livelihoods were lost. It was our second consecutive winter of managing a calamity. Last year, we were put through a flood crisis. It has not been a good winter for us so far.
I won’t ever forget it. But it isn’t because nothing eventful ever happens in the city. Or because I live in a third world country in which the progress is adjudged on the seamless accessibility of Starbucks and 4G. It is because I finally spotted wild cats during the first weekend of this month.
As a child, I was in awe of the role that my mother played in my life. I found it baffling that she had the final say on everything I did. She could take decisions on my behalf. Order me around to do chores. Create arbitrary rules I had to abide by. Even though this worked out in my favour most of the time, I wasn’t comfortable with the kind of power she could wield. It weakened me in a peculiar way that she could correct all my wrongs – without even consulting me.
I had never understood her influence until much later. Only as an adult did I realize how important it was to have had a loving and supportive mother while growing up. Unfortunately, I couldn’t show her just how grateful I was. At least, not in ways that she might have wanted me to.
Nobody knows what they are capable of unless the situation demands it. Heroism isn’t hereditary. Circumstances make people do extraordinary things. Most of us would like to think we are capable of some bravery in the face of danger. However, when the threat is posed by a wild animal, valor can be misplaced.
In 2013, during an Indian gaur attack, I ran faster than I ever realized I could. A friend, and a tribal kid were with me. But I didn’t look back to see if they were safe. Instead I took off, leaving a cloud of cartoon smoke. They did too. I knew that if I had turned around, I might have been gored. We were a just few meters away from an alpha gaur. That’s nearly 1000 kilograms of power, agility and anger charging us at an alarming speed.
Sure, I like my friend. The kid had a charming disposition too. But I liked increasing the odds of my survival a lot better.
I used to obsess over spotting wild cats in their natural habits. Leopards, tigers or jungle cats, it didn’t matter. I would feel like a fortunate son of the earth as long as it had whiskers. While I gave up the search in favour of bird-watching, the felidae family members continued to haunt me.
Even now, when I explore the hills of south India, I keeps my ears open for an untamed roar. A guttural cough maybe. Any sign that a darling of the feline variety is on the prowl.
I haven’t seen a single one though. Just pug-marks and poop. But I can’t complain. I have had the privilege of seeing many other gorgeous beasts. Considering that I am not a conservationist or a census assistant, I should just shut up and consider myself a lucky bastard.
Does the journey really matter more than the destination? It sounds like a consolation prize to me. Why must I emotionally invest in a process when I can figure out what my goals are, and do what I can to achieve them? Last week’s visit to the Meghamalai mountain range left me with some answers. A lot more questions too.
The drive from the foothills of Chinnamanur to this esoteric paradise is a rocky but calming one. Only bird calls and cicada songs interrupt the quietude. Yet there’s excitement in the air. Always the promise of rare fauna lurking by the roadside. But for three winters, Meghamalai had me on a streak of bad luck. As bio-diverse as the range is, it had seemed barren to me.
Last weekend, things changed. I spotted a large Sloth Bear on a balding cliff side. He saw me too. And nobody got hurt.
This weekend may haunt me forever. I saw The Great Indian Hornbill feed his brooding mate for the second time in my life. It was my third encounter with these magnificent birds in the Western Ghats. I also watched a person die, a few meters away from me, in a horrific road accident.
I am unsure what affected me more – the death of a stranger or the return of a friend.
Nilgiri Tahrs (or Ibexes) are goat antelopes exclusively reside along a 400 kilometer in-between the Nilgiri Hills and the Ashambu Hills. Found at elevations of 1000 to 2500m above sea level, they are cautious, tough as nails and dashingly-handsome. The last time I saw them was early this year in Valparai. It was unexpected since it was late in the morning. They are known to disappear into the thickness of shola forests during these hours.
The three years I spent in college felt about two-and-a-half years too long. Since I possessed none of the characteristics of the Tahr, I needed a happy place to survive. A shola forest would have been perfect. Not to escape the soulless drudgery of the modern education system. Just to hide behind a tree. Stay there until the smoldering heap of embarrassment that was my pursuit of individualism turns into sawdust.
Snakes have a nasty reputation because of widespread ignorance about the nature of equilibrium in the wild. And our impact on the environment. They aren’t superficially considered cute like baby seals or magnificent like tigers either. The truth is that they are beautiful and peace-loving creatures who want nothing to do with us.
We don’t leave them in peace though. We take from this planet beyond what we need. We give back nothing. Even animal conservation, in many places – especially third-world countries, is a cruel joke. One that finds its roots in pretentious altruism and the commerce of greed.
I was on a birding trip with a friend last week at the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. While good weather played truant, the birds certainly didn’t. I was lucky enough to see some for the first time. There were a few scares too. We had to climb a tree to escape an enraged Wild Boar. There was yet another Indian Gaur incident. And a storm had us holding onto our dear lives.
Like Dickens said, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Except that even the worst of them wasn’t all that bad.
You are in an empty parking lot after attending a friend’s funeral. You are holding a water bottle in one hand and twiddling with your smartphone in the other. “We are all dying” anyway. Unbeknownst to you, an elderly and distraught aunt of the departed approaches. She taps you on the shoulder to ask you for some water.
Ping. Someone just re-tweeted your quotation about death. She seems painfully dehydrated but you remain oblivious to her presence. She asks again. Ting. Your colleague thinks the eulogy you wrote on Facebook was heartfelt.