Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How the race was run

Ever been so happyexcited, so tired that you had no words left? Had your head in such a whirl of activity, been so pumped up with the thrill of competition that you couldn’t tell anyone else what the hell that had been about? That was the Hyderabad Bird Race. I came back with honest intentions of a nice long post on it, I sat down to write it, and nothing would come. Best say it baldly: it was FUN. Bole to, kutte ke maze.

Three days later, I feel calmer and more able to give an account of sorts. More than 15 teams, people of all ages (the youngest was four or five and we certainly had people in their sixties), more women than men – all haring off after birds. What’s more, we discovered our true characters: who’d stretch a half glimpse into a tick on the checklist, who’d conjure up a pink headed duck, and who would play it so scrupulously as to come back with half a dozen less than they should have.

More than half the teams wound their way first to the beautiful ICRISAT-Patancheru campus, which has never yet yielded less than 50 species to anyone knocking at their gates.

Winning team: Geese with a final tally of 110 captained by naturalist Rajeev Mathew.

We were allotted teams so as to even the playing field a little. So there was one captain, usually a more experienced birder, with a couple of wet-behind-the-ears newbies in each team. The first couple of hours in many cars went like this:

Newbie: What was that?
Captain: That’s a rock pigeon. You’ll see great numbers in our cities. Greyish bird with glistening sheen of green and purple.

Newbie: Oh, look, look, another bird, there, flying in there.
Captain (who’s driving, avoiding pedestrian and craning neck perilously): That’s a rock pigeon.
Newbie: Oh? But it was so far, how could you tell?
Captain: Aaaah, umm… it flies in that typical way…

A few minutes later
Newbie (alert and determined): Oh, there, there!
Captain (pulling over to look, and then, with voice ever so slightly edgy): That’s a rock pigeon.
Newbie (with embarrassed laugh): It looks so different…


Ten minutes later
Newbie (hesitant): Oh, there’s a bird there. Maybe it’s a rock pigeon.
Captain (not turning around and driving past resolutely): Yeah, probably.

Behind them a Peregrine Falcon swoops for its prey.

ICRISAT was good, but nowhere up to its usual standards. The lakes were almost bare where normally you’re unable to look at one bird for any length of time because there are at least half a dozen others clamouring for your attention. Still, slowly, with more hard work than we’re accustomed to at this campus, the numbers went up.

Reluctantly, we shifted to the Hyderabad Central University which gave us many of our more common birds, as well as the gorgeous Tickell’s blue, a bronze-winged jacana and what Shweta is fairly convinced was the brown flycatcher. A peacock silhouetted on a rock against the dying sun was our last bird of the day. My team’s tally was a middling 79.

I must tell you about this mystery bird at HCU. Clearly a babbler, rusty brown down the back, distinct white underparts, sharply defined. And – I’ll need your special attention here – red, red eyes. The newbies shuffled impatiently – such a fuss over one bird! but Arjun, Shweta and I needed to know. We rifled through the books to the babbler pages. The rusty cheeked scimitar babbler strayed across from the Himalayan foothills? Perhaps not. Had we missed a little grey on the head, could it be a Wynaad laughing thrush? After all, how far are the Western Ghats anyway; the birds don’t really refer to distribution maps. Finally we filed it under the suspense account.

The mystery was cleared up for us after dinner by Rajeev Mathew. It was the yellow eyed babbler. ‘But, how…the red eyes,’ we spluttered, ‘we saw it distinctly – it couldn’t be the yellow eyed babbler!’ Patiently, the explanation came: yellow apparently is only for a yellow ring the dratted bird has AROUND its RED eye – the yellow was bleached out in the afternoon sun and we hadn’t been able to see it. Salt was rubbed into wounds by Sharada Annamaraju, who knew all about this little trick the bird plays on gormless birders, and was disgustingly superior about it. Incidentally, the bird was in our neck of the woods quite legitimately: its distribution is widespread and splatters into every contour of the Indian map.

Well then, much maja came. We are going to insist that BSAP have this every week.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Nostalgia limited

Know what gives me a kick these days? Throwing out stuff I don’t need.

I didn’t always use to be this way. I was born a Hoarder. A genetically-ordained Packrat. I kept clippings. I kept papers, magazines, scraps, papers I’d scribbled interesting/abstruse illustrations on, poems, letters, cards, address books, every leaf and every pebble that meant something. I kept Sunday supplements of The Hindu till they took over the entire shelf. And when they started to give us Asterix once a week, I remember starting to put together Asterix in Belgium, so I’d have the entire book in a file.

Intervention came in the form of my mother, who HATED those Hindu supplements. Spring cleaning invariably signalled battles, where I held on but just. It often happened that I hadn’t looked at my stuff between one cleaning and the next, and the fifth or perhaps the sixth time that happened, it began to occur to me that perhaps she had a point: I didn’t actually need all this. The purging became voluntary but it was still an effort. I didn’t need to keep history textbooks from graduation, or that notebook from middle school even if it had scribbles in my best friend’s handwriting. Letting go took time.

Today of course, I rock at it. Anything that has outlived active use goes OUT. This isn’t as unfeeling as it sounds, and it doesn’t mean either that there is no room for record, or nostalgia – just, it’s not policy to keep stuff. For instance, mum herself keeps these tiny little pair of sandals that went on my feet when I was one. I can’t begin to tell you how cute they are, and of course, they stay. So do my French grammar books, and my billets-doux, but material from that seminar I attended four years ago that I couldn’t keep my eyes open in? They go, even if I'm hazily convinced I'll need to refer someday.

It clears up so much room for the present, it’s liberating. It tells me: what you have now is important, it deserves work space. Now it just remains to flex my hands and start to fill the present, so help me god.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

About the Bird Race

Hokey, now about that race we've been chirping about.

The Birdwatchers' Society of Andhra Pradesh (BSAP) is having a bird race on the lines of the big ones in the UK, USA and Singapore. Before one of you rushes off to drop a quiet line to Maneka Gandhi or the SPCA, let me quickly add that it will be humans doing the racing, and the birds will be left unmolested, more or less.

The funda is simple: to form teams of four or five members, and see as many bird species as you can in 12 hours between dawn and dusk. The area you’re allowed to traverse is a 60 km radius around Hyderabad. Teams will travel by cars or bikes: bird races in parts of the world are such high profile events, I’m told birders even hire choppers to be able to hop across to wherever they want to be. Since this is Hyderabad’s first race, I doubt we’ll be seeing those but what a fun anyway.

With one thing and the other, BSAP’s monthly outings haven’t taken place for nearly two months, and members are uniformly suffering from birding deprivation. The result of course, is that everyone is thrilled to bits about the race and chomping at the bit.

The race is open to all, not just BSAP members. So if you’re in Hyderabad, even half interested in birding, and would like to see what the fuss is about, do come.

Date: 26 November 2006
When to report: At 6:00 am; with cars, captain and all team members
Where: In front of the Hyderabad Public School, Begumpet main road, next to the foot over-bridge
Flag-off: At 6:30 am, after being briefed re rules, and being handed log book and breakfast hampers
Finish line: 6.30 pm at Hotel Green Park, Begumpet, where teams are required to turn in their log books
Register with:
Siraj: 98482 72520 / Shafaat: 98859 20851 / Susheel: 93933 19333 / Nandu: 98480 84362 / Moorty: 98494 70411

If you need more details, please mail me (my id’s in my profile) and I’ll send you the format and rules. Looks like much fun will come.

Friday, November 17, 2006


How much longer is this Daniel Pearl movie thing going to take? I'm sick of Jolie-Pitt already.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

This evening...

Just back from watching a wildlife film by Shekhar Dattatri called Monsoon – India’s God of Life. Didn’t expect a crowd of over 200 people for such a screening, but organisers Orient Longman and Universities Press had done their groundwork and the turnout was impressive and interested. Chennai-based forum NatureQuest is seeking to establish a similar platform in Hyderabad and they have Romulus Whitaker, the snake man from Chennai visiting next.

Monsoon... has high production standards, was really well made but left me a little discontented. It sought to look at how the rains affect wildlife in the subcontinent, and while it did do that, it did so erratically. I’m quibbling – it was fun, it informed and it entertained.

Met many people I haven’t met in a while, the Birding Society is having a Bird Race (more of that anon) and I’ve just had two cups of irani chai. All of this is leaving me pretty buzzed and so you get a post.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jaaneman, tick

Have fallen behind with Bollywood. The Diwali releases’ backlog is being taken care of now and I made a dent in the pile with Jaaneman today.

People had said it was whacky and so it was. Shirish Kunder seems taken with the Broadway musical and I was vastly entertained with the first half. It was a quirky, merrily-paced narrative and I laughed readily at all the jokes: archival footage of Filmfare Awards from god-knows-when, and particularly the troupe of qawwals walking insouciantly out of the closet to add ambient sound. When wannabe star Suhaan Kapoor (Salman Khan) knocks producers’ doors in search of work, the scene brings a faint whiff of the Maestro Gene Kelly, when he so famously declared ‘Gotta dance.’ Of course all this tapers off quickly as the story turns earnest but it was great while it lasted.

Seriously, it is time our movie makers cut down on reel time – this one was half hour too long. I may have time on my hands, but I like to have it respected. And our heroes have taken to crying too much. New Man and all is very well but a little less of that please.

Tomorrow, Vivah. Doing good, aren’t I? I wish I had smileys, I’m needing a wide toothy grin.

Don that

At long last, Don.
Didn't dislike it, but could see why they dissed it - bores you in the middle and, but for a moment here and there, lacks charm. Since the original isn't razor sharp in my memory this was almost like a fresh movie. Loved SRK, thought Priyanka Chopra quite alright (she irritated me in Kkrishh) but I tired of Boman Irani, Om Puri and Arjun Rampal.

One reason I particularly looked forward to Don was Rajiv Surti. This man was one of the choreographers in Star One's Nach Baliye competition last season and he was head and shoulders above anyone else there. Farhan Akhtar, if you remember, was one of the judges, and Surti had had his couple Rajeshwari and Varun Badola do an extremely intelligent version of Khaike paan banaras waala.

Akhtar was pretty impressed with Surti and had him do one song in Don (not Khaike, which was choreographed by Surti's mentor, Ganesh Hegde). I didn't know which one Surti was given to tackle but as it happened, it didn't matter: no number stood out.
Loved the Main hoon Don sequence though. Sexy, stylish and velvet. Long live the King.

Correction: A commenter tells me it wasn't Hegde who put Khaike paan banaraswaala together, but Saroj Khan. Thanks.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sahyadri Diary – 2

Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji!

Yeh hai mulq Marathon ka, yahan Shivaji dola tha
Mughlon ki takat ko isne talwaron pe tola tha
Har parbat par aag lagi thi, har parbat ek shola tha
Boli ‘Har Har Mahadev’ ki bachha bachha bola tha
Sher Shivaji ne rakhi thi laaj hamari jaan ki
Is mitti se tilak karo ye dharti hai balidan ki

Aao bachon tumhe dikhaye jhanki Hindustan ki
is mitti se tilak karo ye dharti hai balidan ki

There are 300 forts in the area that Shivaji used in his campaigns, and each has a story attached. Coming from Hyderabad, where our concept of forts is shaped by the opulent Golconda, I was taken aback with the sparseness of the Maratha forts. There are hardly any structures here, save a few to store grain and the odd temple. The fortifications are just secure spaces that were used as temporary camps – these were wartime forts, not forts for living in.

I knew of course that Shivaji was revered the length and breadth of Maharashtra, but I had no idea the man lived so vividly in the state’s imagination. Perhaps it was the assortment of Marathi people in our group, perhaps it was the fact that we were touring some of the forts the great Maratha had used, but hero worship flowed through the course of our trek, and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ rent the air quite frequently. All this was great fun and I sympathise with patriotism but attitudes often spilled over into chauvinism that had me squirming a bit. On the plus side, I can now do a rousing impression of ‘Jai jai Maharashtra maaza…”

Weighty matters

The weight of your backpack, as I have hinted once or twice before, is very important. Everyone on our trek was inordinately interested in what exactly made up other peoples’ packs. Most trekkers are extremely gram-conscious and go to some trouble to cut down. Acquisition of light gear can become quite obsessive, I’m told. One experienced trekker confessed to cutting his toothbrush in half, and bringing only midget plastic spoons.

On the other hand were the Gujjus, who brought a wide assortment of eats, nearly four kilos of munches: roasted peanuts, chikkis and stuff as well as three types of pickles. But they bore these hefty packs cheerfully and were heart-warmingly generous with their food, which shamed us for we had nothing to offer beyond glucose. Still, a refreshing drink of jaljira is not something you can turn down when you have been walking six hours, so we accepted with gratitude. No doubt we will square up this life or the next.

Many splendoured things

What the trip lacked in birds was made up for by butterflies. What a vivid collection the Sahyadris have: blue monarchs, eggflys, yellow grasses, striped tigers in great numbers and all at once…. Most luckily we had entomologist Dr Nanabhai for names and descriptions. I’m afraid we’ll now have to buy a butterfly field guide as well.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sahyadri Diary – 1

Aeeeee… yo..ooooo

Bit of a backgrounder on the trek. This was organised by the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) who do some really commendable work in organising treks and guiding people across wilderness terrains at astoundingly low costs. YHAI has treks all over the country and they keep adding routes as they go. There is a desert trek in Rajasthan that sounds daunting and a beach trek in Goa that beckons like a siren.

This trek in the Sahyadris took us from Karjat to Lonavala, through Kondana, Rajmarchi, Shirota lake, Karle, Bhaje and Lohgad. Landscape: hills, scrub, lakes, tanks, caves and forts.

Trekking is addictive; most people can never stop with one and soon you’re needing to trek as often as three times a year. While you’re struggling up steep ascents, fighting to get air into your lungs, valiantly trying to match pace with the merciless person in front of you, you begin to question the sanity of people who’d leave behind reasonably comfortable lives to kill themselves on a mountain. But then, pain leaves no memory, and what remains is exultation. I don’t know why, but it stays – a nice, enduring high. That, and images that change you forever. Even if you’re encased in concrete for a long time after that, blue skies stay with you.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

...and back

The shoes were on their best behaviour after all. The pack was too heavy, eventually – I should have left out the shorts, perhaps the hawai chappals, maybe even two shirts. Drat, they were right.

The binoculars were a waste – someone way at the head of the long line of trekkers saw a giant squirrel (Ratufa indica) but of course, there was no chance of its hanging around once several wheezing people traipsed along, and it bounded away.

However, it is all done – the trek was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. While we panted up and down the hills hauling our sorry asses and even sorrier bags, we had been dimly aware that we were having fun, but it is now quite certain – totally fulltoo rocking.