Wednesday, February 25, 2009

of names

I would hate to be a bird. It’s not just the lack of opposable thumbs that would get me down, the things that humans called me would depress me. What were people thinking when they named birds? Here are things that would vex me:
Insult: imagine going through life as a Lesser Cormorant, knowing that no matter what you did, you would never grow out of the Lesser. But even that is better than the Intermediate Egret. An afterthought, that is what it is. Undistinguished. Defined not only by the existence of a Greater, but also of a Lesser.
Identity Crises: The Pied Mynah is also the Pied Starling. Is it supposed to steal things like a starling, or merely have raucous parties like a mynah? Decisions, Decisions. Is it surprising that whenever I have seen it, it has been sitting alone and brooding?
Personal Comments: being named after an exceptionally ugly part of one's anatomy. the Thick-knees and the Frogmouths have reason to complain, think you not?


I want to visit Rajaji National Park. And I am plotting to do it this weekend. Do I have a map? No. Do I have a plan? No. Do I know where to go? Well, sort of. Will I go there? I will let you know on Monday.

Kanpur-Dehradun: Story/truth

It was on this visit that I came across a great many of my childhood stories now come alive. This is similar to making the discovery, while weeding, that fairies and evil gnomes do really battle it out in one’s garden. What were these stories? Well, I have already written about the coin collectors. Here are more:

The Grand Trunk Road: such a wonderfully evocative name! And in my childhood, I read and re-read the lovely description of the road in Kipling’s Kim. And then of course, there were other books, other references. I came close to it a couple of times (in Calcutta, and Kanpur), but never actually set foot on it. And this time, I did! I only travelled an infinitesimal fraction of that lovely length, of course. But I walked along it, drove on it, and ate by its side. How was it? well, at times it definitely was the ‘river of life’ that dazed Kim. And at times, it was this tiny road meandering through fields that made us wonder if it really is a National Highway. Surprising? Yes. Disappointing? No!

Gangetic floodplains: As a child I was extremely impressed when I learnt the extent and depth of the alluvial deposits in the flood plains. And I had imagined it- a vast flat, fertile expanse with rich fields and the smell of good earth. And no, I couldn’t smell it. Not in the summer. But the soil looked just like I had imagined it.

The middle reaches of the Ganga: I looked at the river and thought to myself, “Diminished flows? Where?” because you see, I am from a place where most of the streams are ephemeral, and the ones that are not are called large if they are 50 metres across. Over here, they measure width in kilometres. It is huge and totally overwhelms my provincial sense of scale. And then of course, i wanted more. I wished with all my heart that I could go back and see the river before the first barrage was built, before the first pump was installed.

Dacoits: Excuse my naïveté. But I did seriously believe that dacoits were the stuff of sensationalist reports and hindi films. I mean, I did know that they once existed, but not now! And then I travelled in an area where dacoits are a part of everyday life. Yes, today. Where there are gun and ammo shops in the tiniest villages, and people rear pet crocodiles on the corpses of their enemies.

Strange, na?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kanpur-Dehradun: the coin collectors

When a bus/ train passes over a bridge, people fling coins into the river. Partly as prayer, partly for a safe passage. I used to do that myself as a child and it always gave me a big thrill when one of my coins actually landed in the water. in the konkan, traffic was too little and the rivers too swift to make recovery possible. On the holier rivers in the plains, enough coins get tossed in and the water is placid enough to make recovery a profitable business.

When I was a child, 'phoren' magazines were pretty hard to come by. We did however, have some National Geographics, and the only article I remember of those was a photo essay on the coin hunters on the Ganga. I still remember one of those photos vividly: a pair of hands holding mud scooped from the river bed with beads, flowers and coins.

And so I was delighted when I came across the coin collectors of my childhood on this trip. But things have progressed. Instead of scooping up mud with their hands, they drag magnets tied to lengths of rope. Several people wade in the water, but there are also several who perch on the bridge parapets. I saw a woman lower a dabba from the bridge- was it lunch, or something to place the coins in?

I spoke to a group of children and they told me they can collect Rs.500/- a day. I am not sure if this is an accurate figure, or something to impress the notepad and camera carrying woman. but they did not ask us for coins, which makes me think the figure is not too off the mark.

Kanpur-Dehradun: the photos

I have loaded them on Picasa, and you can see them here:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kanpur-Dehradun: The wildlife roll-call

Mynahs: the Pied, Bank, Common
A Common Flameback, a Pied Kingfisher or two, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Indian Peafowl, cattle egrets, maybe a lesser/intermediate egret (I can’t distinguish between the two unless they are standing next to each other in a police lineup- and how often does that happen?), Little Cormorants, a Black-winged Stilt, some ducks, some Indian Pond Herons, and what I think was a black-shouldered kite. I also think I saw some fishing eagles and some Pariah Kites, but I cannot be sure.
I did not see any dolphins, but we did not really go out of our way to see them.
And bonus: in a field of mustard, I came across a herd of Nilgai! Some of them were sparring with each other; some were looking at this strange being looking at them.

The preamble: Kanpur- Dehradun by road

I had been to Kanpur for a meeting on environmental flows. My boss, colleague and I then decided to motor our way across Uttar Pradesh from Kanpur back to Dehradun. I am quite full of the stories of that trip, so the next few posts will probably be of it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

storms, rain and snow

will post at length later.. but know that it rained yesterday and today (finally, the drought is over!) and it snowed in the hills. so now, in the late morning, the hills around my house are sparkly with snow.. i want to go there..

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


It’s raining. After being oppressive and dull and depressing all day, it’s raining! Now the world is dark, the clouds are majestic, the thunder is LOUD, and I am hoping for lightning. And the earth smells so good, this crisp, cold wind is moving through the office and all the oppression of the day is washed away.

I want to go home, make tea and stand on the lawn with my face turned up to catch the raindrops..

Friday, February 6, 2009

My favourite salads..

A spinach thingie.
You’ll need:
A bunch of spinach/other greens
Some button mushrooms: maybe a 100 gms?
Some of whatever else you like. Torn lettuce? Shredded carrots? Mixed greens? Boiled eggs? Cooked shrimp? Bring ‘em on!
Wash the greens in several washes of water. I detest this part...but ‘tis must be done, and done well. Keep the smaller leaves whole, tear the large leaves, discard the diseased ones. Spin dry in a towel being careful not to spray self/extremely expensive electronic equipment. Wipe the mushrooms with a dampish cloth, quarter or leave whole. Treat the rest of the salad ingredients the way you like them.
The dressing:
Some vinegar. You could also use lime juice, but i don’t because it becomes too chaat-like- which is not bad, just not wanted here.
Some oil
Some honey
one diced apple (or something equally tart and sweet: like grapefruit, or in a pinch, tomatoes)
one minced red onion
The usual gang: salt, pepper, mustard
Shake all together, pour over the salad, toss, stick fork in. Yippee! Perfect for a weekday lunch, which is where i am having it in the photo.

A mildly Turkish salad, with many thanks to D for making it for me so many times.
You’ll need:
Some tomatoes, large and red.
A cucumber or two
A large bunch of dill
Chop the tomatoes and cucumbers into large dice. Chop the dill fine
The dressing? Vinegar, olive oil, mustard, salt, minced garlic, maybe some oregano. Pour over the salad and toss. If you have some pomegranate, toss that in for the colour.
Now you will see that this is a very highly flavoured salad. The way to eat this is to take it, still in the bowl it was tossed in, a crusty baguette wrapped in a project report or something just as splendidly inappropriate, some olive oil in a saucer, a bottle of red wine, two stemmed glasses, and a good friend to a moonlit terrace.. Enjoy.. And if you insist on eating this as weekday lunch, then I would recommend adding a little something to make it less intense. Some lettuce perhaps, or cabbage, or spinach.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

of trains and motives..

when my colleague told me today, that a train was stolen from Delhi, I assumed that the train in question was an old engine, shunted away and forgotten, poor thing. No, it wasn't. It was the brand new Garib Rath (a sort of Janshatabdi) from Delhi to Ranchi. And oh, when it was stolen, it had 1862 passengers in it. The runaway train was caught (bad train! You are grounded for a week!)at Kanpur -400 kilometres away. Today evening, I heard that the whole issue was that of rivalry between two worker's unions.
But I only found that out now. In the morning, very little was known of the incident, and only one newspaper-the Amar Ujala carried the bare facts. And so, of course, my mind boggled at the thought of what the train-stealers could possibly be thinking..after all, it is not like they could change its license plates and sell it off..not to mention the slight technicality of 1862 passengers (i love the precision of that was in the paper this morning, and in my head all day).
But then my sis told me that maybe it is not necessary to have a reason. Maybe stealing a train is motive enough...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

BSNL, Dehradun

I have mentioned BSNL earlier on this blog, but they deserve praise not just for their flirtability.
Two days after the meeting I described, I received a call asking if it was convenient for me if they came and installed my landline. The man was there when he said so, and my phone was installed. The next week, I applied for internet- a totally painless process, and instant registration.
After that, I was out on tour for two weeks, and could not follow up. When I finally took myself down to the office, on a Tuesday, my number was noted and I was told that they had come but no one was at home. I was further told that I would have a line by the end of the week. By Friday, no phone calls, and I had resigned myself to another trip to the office. But Saturday afternoon, I receive a call from my linesman telling me that he was outside my gate! He came in and installed my internet, and I was guided most capably and cheerfully through the setting up process on the phone.
A couple of days ago, I realised that I needed to upgrade to another plan. I called up at three pm on Saturday, 31st January, and was told that I have three hours to submit my application for the new plan to take effect in February. I took me down there with a copy of my phone bill, and filled in a form. That’s it, it was done. The procedures are painless, the services are efficient and cost-effective, and the people are almost always friendly and never ask for baksheesh.
Yay for BSNL.

The Dehradun-Mussoorie Trek

Only, I cheated a little, and took the bus to Rajpur. The route then, is Rajpur-Jharipani-Barlow Ganj-Mussoorie.
Ok, now. Be warned, this is going to be a long post. When I was thinking of this trek, I could get very little information online. So here, in case any of you ever decide to do it, are all the details.
To take:
Water ,snacks (carrots and beets in my case)
I had the survey of India map (Open series, No. H44G03, available at their sales centre, and an absolute steal at Rs.50- if you have the discipline to stick to buying only the maps you need and not all the pretty maps available).
More useful than the map, I had a set of instructions written by the amazing M, who has made D’dun a far less lonesome place than it could have been.
I did NOT carry a bird book, instead opting to take detailed notes of whatever i saw. I did regret it sometimes- instant gratification of curiosity is a pleasurable thing- but i don’t think i totally missed out.
Here is how to do it.
07:15 am: I caught the bus to Mussoorie from well, the Mussoorie bus stand near the railway station. Since you only go till Rajpur, it is also possible to catch a city bus/vikram from Rajpur road/ Clock Tower. I needed to get down at the Christian Retreat, which the conductor did not know of, but promised to stop when I hollered. The centre is on your right, a little after Rajpur, when the bus starts climbing through forest. On the opposite side of the road, a little past the Retreat, is the Moravaiya High school. Right opposite the school a metalled road leads to Jharipani. Incidentally, this village is pronounced Zadipani, and not Jhareepani. I was the recipient of blank looks and then giggles when I asked some schoolboys if that was the right road to you-know-where. Go up that road, and turn left at a chai stall. From this point, by the way, there are no right turns. If you just keep going uphill and left-wards, you will be ok. This path is paved with concrete blocks. And I was here at
08:00 am: on this paved road, I walked for a few minutes past a small group of houses with a yappy Pomeranian, till I came to a pass. Now this is not one of the formidably Himalayan passes, but this is the only way to describe it. If you do this trek too, you will instantly recognise it. There are two chai stalls there, but before the chai stalls, there is a trail going- yes, that’s right- left. This is a slightly steep and loose path, overgrown by lantana, but you cannot miss it. A little after that, the road seems to fork, and I obediently turned left, but that path goes nowhere and is extremely overgrown. I stuck to the main path then, and carried on. This part of the trail is flat and open scrub- lantana and wild curry leaves being the only plants I could recognise. It gets steeper and hotter; by this time I had taken off several layers. Around this time, I started skirting the base of a hill, and this is a lovely place to see wildlife, more details about that later. I started climbing the hill now, and faced a slightly steep and slippery patch. At its top, someone has tied prayer flags to some cacti, and this marked the end of all steepness for the trial. And I was here at
08:45 am: and here I pretty much stopped looking at the time. The trail is very pretty. There are short, flat steps. The risers are of concrete and the treads of beaten earth. Here too, the shrubbery skulkers give way to woodland birds and the lantana and cacti are replaced by oak and wonderfully fragrant flowers. Go along this road then, stopping every now and then to look at the birds and sniff the flowers. Far too soon, though, the road becomes paved again, and forks. Here, choose the path that goes uphill and right, and then left again, and so reach Jharipani.
The paved path here is not tough, but hot and relentless. Bikes whizzing past me only added to my grumpiness, till I reached the little main street. This is tiny, with a few shops, one chaiwallah and the most absolutely sweet post office. Sadly, it was shut. But the next time I get there, I will buy some postcards to send home. I would have taken a snap, but was too self-conscious to do so. But picture a crumbly little house with red roofs that looks as if it has been built of cake and marzipan and you have seen it.
I had chai here (2 Rs. if you have change madam, otherwise never mind) and chatted with the chaiwallah. He saw me looking at my map, and suggested that I try google earth instead- and then was sceptical when I told him I like the look and feel of printed maps.
From here it is 3 km to Barlow Ganj, and all of it is along the metalled road. Most people only walk to Jharipani and then take a jeep/bus. But the walk is not bad-and if I ever find a trail that I can walk along rather than the road, it will be far more pleasant.
At the main chowk of Barlow Ganj (where the water tank is), I turned left and got on to another paved path that winds a little steeply upwards. This part of the walk was interesting for the buildings I passed. Lovely little cottages, concrete blocks, and a strange white building with green turrets- the path had them all. Here, the change in altitude is visible as the broadleaved forest of Jharipani is replaced by mixed oak and deodar.
After a while, i came to a city bus stop that said ‘Landour Bazaar’ and had an arrow pointing right. I took it, and it did get me to Landour, but added maybe two kilometres to my walk. From the bus stop, the mall road is within spitting distance- go there, have more chai, and then walk to Landour and Sister’s bazaar. As it was, I was a little tired after the last part of the trek and opted out of a planned coffee at Devdar woods, Sister’s bazaar. Something for next time. I am not sure of the exact time I reached Mussoorie, but I was having lunch at 12:30
But yes, then I lunched off a paratha, walked to the bus stop and was home by 2:30- in time to visit the library and the BSNL office. Not bad at all.

The Dehradun-Mussoorie trek: What I saw

Birds! Oh, so many birds.
Right at the beginning of the trek, when the path skirts the hill, there were several birds in the undergrowth. I am not sure if I could identify all of them, but especially common were the White Browed Shortwings. I also saw tits, and am reasonably sure some of them were the Green-backed Tits. As for the rest, I have an impression of greenish yellowness and of crests- the Black-lored Tit, perhaps? Red-vented bulbuls were there in plenty, and those I can confidently name. There were also a lot of olive-khaki clad little things. Warblers, certainly. But which ones?
Immediately past the steep bit, there is a flat stretch. And here I saw two Kalij pheasants, a male and a female.
On the wooded part of the trail, just when the ‘steps’ start, I saw the Slaty-headed Parakeet. I only saw one, but there were three of them across the valley calling out in turn- as if doing triangulation. A little later, I am fairly sure I saw the White-tailed Robin, male. Also saw a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, very fleetingly as it flew across the path right in front of me.
Near Jharipani, where the path becomes paved again, I saw three eagles, but I am really bad at identifying them. Reading my bird book has left me inclined to Bonelli’s Eagle, but I wouldn’t bet on it. just how bad I am at identifying raptors, you ask? Well, on this trek, I thought I saw a Changeable Hawk Eagle in its dark morph, and was pretty proud of having identifying it. And then it landed on a branch and cawed. The only way of excusing myself is by hoping it was a Large-Billed Crow. Let’s move on..
Yes, do let’s move on, because now we come to the best bit. Earlier on, where all the warblers and shortwings were, I heard a rustling in the shrubs by the path and was excited thinking that it was caused by a flock of quails. Till I saw sunlight glinting on what could only be fur. A moment later, a deer stepped out onto the path and paused for a moment. No spots, excitingly backlit by the sun, it was a dull brown with silvery tips and that lovely silvery haze around its ears. One quivering breath from each of us, and it was gone! Lovely.

my poor lungs

I have been reading about the brown haze that is covering most of Asia and is troubling scientists by obscuring most of the landmass when they study satellite images. It is clearly visible in this photograph. Sorry, my body. This stuff looks like floating sewage and I am asking you to inhale it. Blech.