Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lessons in Humility

It had been a hot, sultry day. I was in Vedar Colony, a small tribal hamlet at the foothills of the Nilgiris, the ‘Blue Mountains’, in the Western Ghats in South India. The sun dipped below the hills, lighting up the sky with a dazzling array of colours. I had spent the day with WWF-India’s Western Ghats team, trooping around the area, inspecting elephant-proof fences and identifying areas for improvement, and discussing ways of streamlining the process of installation and maintenance of these systems. I stumbled through a freshly-ploughed field as we approached yet another ‘private’ fence, consisting of a single strand of wire, usually connected to a dubious source of electric power, often capable of turning pretty much anything that came in contact with it into toast. With dusk approaching, we would soon have to call it a day, and as much as I loved being out in the field, the idea of hot soup and some brainless entertainment on the TV was starting to sound way more exciting than I would have otherwise liked to admit.

I was beginning to go through the motions a bit, when I suddenly felt a buzz in the air. A small crowd had gathered in the field next to us, and were looking intently at the periphery of the village, where the mountains flattened out into more hospitable terrain. I followed their gaze, trying to figure out what was happening, in the failing light, and there they were - Elephants!

A herd of elephants were slowly making their way from the forests to the west of the village, along the village boundary. It was a small group, comprising of just 2 mother elephants and 2 calves. Their target was a small water body outside the village, a pond shared by people and wildlife. In a few minutes, as the entire village turned up at the spot, they reached the pond, and started bathing and drinking. The calves frolicked around gleefully, while the mothers watched us warily. I watched, transfixed. We were just a 100 feet away, a distance that a charging elephant can cover in almost no time. While unlikely, a charge would have undoubtedly resulted in casualties, and the tension in the air was palpable.

Suddenly, a man started talking, almost shouting. I turned back and looked at him. He was looking intently at the elephants, and he was loud enough for the animals to clearly hear him. He went on and on, without stopping, for a few minutes, while the rest of the village continued to look curiously and intently at the animals. He was speaking in the local language, which I do not understand a word of, so I tapped my colleague and asked him what the hell was going.

‘He is talking to the elephants’, my colleague calmly replied.
‘He is… what?’ I asked.
‘He is talking to the elephants. He is telling them that they need not fear us, that we mean no harm. He is saying that we are just curious and want to watch them. They can drink as much water as they want, and he then requests them to peacefully return to the forest.'

I watched the man, bewildered. The elephants did not respond; they seemed to be comfortable with the distance between us. After a few more minutes of bathing and splashing the water around their large bodies, the mothers nudged the calves out of the water and towards the forest. Soon, they were ambling away, having had their fill. As the (usually) gentle giants peacefully made their way back into the forest, I wondered what I had just experienced. Here was a village which experienced a high level of Human Elephant Conflict, where elephants frequently raided crops and took away an entire season’s livelihood for a family, or caused human deaths and injuries once in a while. People had lost their family members, their livelihoods, and often their houses due to these pachyderms. And yet, there was intense fascination, admiration and even love and respect for these denizens of the jungle. These people were happy, even excited to see the elephants - their presence didn’t make them take off for the nearest safe haven, it brought them out of their houses and into their fields, trying to get a better look. How do you explain this with rationality or logic?

I walked back towards our vehicle with my head bowed in humility and respect for these magnificent communities which cover large expanses of my country. People who have co-existed more or less peacefully with wildlife, including large mammals such as elephants and tigers, while the rest of world went through a frenzy of killing over the last century, wiping out large mammal populations across large parts of the globe. People who are likely to have never heard of sustainability, but practice it in their everyday lives, with every passing breath, while the rest of the world gobbles up most of the planet’s resources. People who, unless pushed to the very edge, accept nature’s vagaries and the often debilitating impact that it directly has on their lives, yet love it, and have a deep-rooted fascination for its incredible denizens.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Runaway Feline

Homesickness is a strange emotion. About 2 weeks after returning from a family trip to the US for my younger brother's graduation ceremony, during which we had been suddenly bombarded with questions about marriage, children and our plans for the rest of our lives on an otherwise fine evening, I had the following conversation with him. I thought that both of us were still recuperating from that ambush, but no, apparently, he seemed to want more of the same very soon.

Him: I’m coming to India.
Me: That’s great! In December?
Him: Umm, no, in the first week of August!
Me: Why?
Him: Err, just like that?
Me: Cool. Don’t get the girlfriend along, they’ll probably ensure you go back married.
Him (ignoring my attempts at humour): I want to come to Delhi
Me: Why??
Him: So that I can meet you!
Me: Why in the world would you want to do that?
Him: Because you are my brother?

Now this was a bit much to take. In family gatherings, both my brother and I have the conversational abilities of a rock, so put together, the sum total of conversations across our lifespans would probably not go beyond a couple of hours. Coming all the way to Delhi seemed to make zero sense, given that (a) we had just met a couple of weeks ago, (b) we would meet, ask each other how we were, and spend the rest of the weekend wondering why the wall clock had stopped and whether they allowed you to enter the airport a day before the flight and (c) it was August, and no sensible soul willingly travels to Delhi in that god awful season. Just as I was grudgingly admitting to myself that he was a much nicer soul that I was (actually I had reached that conclusion a long time ago, I had just successfully buried the thought deep in the recesses of my head), I had a eureka moment.

Both my brother and I have a thing for felines. Especially the ones you are allowed to domesticate. This affection had continued to grow as we grew up, denied as we were the pleasures of pet ownership during our formative years by our keep-that-thing-away-from-me dad. This affection continued till the point the then-wifey and I got a kitten named Chikki, which had subsequently grown into a significantly large, albeit loveable cat which systematically marked the whole house with his scent lest any other creature mistook it for his territory. Having moved straight from home to the university dorms, my brother had been deprived of such pleasures, and was quite besotted with Chikki and demanded regular updates as to his latest misadventures. My hunch was that the Delhi trip was actually to meet the cat. Which, to be honest, made a lot of sense. In fact, it made more sense than the purported reason. And I was very happy for him to come over and meet the cat, given how happy it seemed to make him. Excellent, I thought.

Except for one small problem. Chikki, after being a house cat all his life, had come back in not too bad a shape after 2 vanishing acts, the first a month and the second three months long, and was absolutely annoyed at being forced to stay indoors and not go bounding along out of the house when anything cat-like meowed, groaned, howled or shrieked anywhere within earshot, either to go trade a few punches with the silly male who was invading his territory or to mate with a female who seemed to be passing by. Any open door, window or accessible ledge had him exploring ways to escape, much to our frustration. I had sort of made up my mind to let him loose and come and go as he pleased, when my brother announced his decision to come. Now this was a problem. Keeping Chikki in for 3 weeks was going to drive both him and all of us mad, especially with his infernal howling through the night when he really wanted to go out. Letting him go could be problematic if he decided that he was going to take his time in coming back, and especially if he decided to make himself scarce just on the weekend that my brother was here. This was going to a long three weeks.

All seemed to go well for the first 2.5 weeks. The situation was explained to the home mates, who gravely agreed with my assessment of the situation. The maid was duly warned and threatened (not that that makes too much of a difference, she has a mind of her own. Asked not to cook a specific vegetable, she cooks EXACTLY that almost every single time), and seemed to cooperate given that brotherly relations were at stake. Everything was in place, with a day to go for him to arrive.

I came back from work the evening before and opened the door to the terrace. A well-spaced grill, which can let an obese baboon pass through, much less an agile cat, separates the final bit of the terrace from the neighbours balcony. A piece of fibreglass had been tied to this grill to prevent the cat from using this to take off, as there was direct access from there on to the road below. Unknown to me, an afternoon storm had loosened the knots that otherwise kept this sheet firmly flush with the grill, thereby creating a few centimetres of space for a determined feline to explore and exploit. 

Around 11 in the night, I realised that Chikki was missing. A thorough search of the house, including his favourite hiding spots, revealed nothing. In a few minutes, the 3 of us were roaming around calling his name, until we heard a faint meow. More calling from the terrace resulted in a louder meow and a happy, excited looking cat face popping out of one of the square shaped holes in the building’s terrace wall, about 12 feet above our terrace. This was the terrace above the house, and inaccessible to us without a set of keys which the landlord insisted on keeping with himself. Most importantly, this terrace was at the same level and directly connected to all the terraces in the line of buildings in this area. Anybody who has ever lived in Delhi knows that you can easily go from house to house by jumping over the wall separating the terraces, since multiple buildings are physically connected without ANY space in between. Basically, the blasted animal was free to do as he pleased and go anywhere he wanted to. Add to this the fact that he had not been able to go anywhere for the last month and a half due to the house arrest imposed on him, and we had a highly delicate situation at hand.

My first attempt at reaching him consisted of standing on a chair perched on top of a square table, stretching my hands up and calling for him. This, expectedly, had little impact, as he continued to gaze at me through the square hole, with a you-really-think-THAT’S-gonna-work expression on his face. He continued looking around from his newly acquired vantage point, with a vary eye on my movements, lest I did something unexpected and suddenly managed to reach him. The next step comprised of rapidly clearing the dining table, resulting in my room being thrown into utter chaos, and lugging it all the way to the terrace. The square table was put on top of the dining table, and the chair placed on top of that, and I started my precarious ascent to the top of this contraption, with the house mates holding the table and chair in place, while at the same time looking around carefully to figure out which direction to jump at in case I came crashing down and they had to make a clear choice between themselves and me. Standing on top of this thing felt like what those dahi handi breakers must have felt, the ones who are at the very top and break the handi. The fact that your life depends on your friends standing below is slightly unnerving, especially when you know that in case things start going badly, there is a clear incentive for them to get the hell out of the way and come out fairly unscathed, leaving you in a fair bit of bother.

I was finally high enough now to be able to see through the square hole directly, as it was perfectly at eye level. The top of the terrace wall was still about a foot and half above. Having seen my ascent with a lot of interest, Chikki had popped his head back in, and was sitting somewhere behind the wall, out of sight. Calling his name, I inserted my hand through the hole. For a while, nothing happened. Then, a furry paw seemed to come out of nowhere, swiped at my hand and immediately disappeared. I withdrew my hand and waited, and it came again, out of the hole and missed my face by a whisker. Apparently, it was play time. This continued for a while until I realised that I was in a distinctly unfavourable position, and there was no way I could catch him this way.

One of the advantages of having a greedy pet is that any hint of food being offered is usually irresistible. Rattling his food bowl was a common method of getting Chikki out of sticky situations when the reluctant feline refused to oblige and move, or to even find him from his hiding spots. A bowl food of freshly poured cat food was delivered to me, which I rattled around a few centimetres away from the opening. Sure enough, the greedy bugger responded, and thrust his head out, attempting to reach the bowl. Quick as a flash, I grabbed at him, trying to get a hold on the scruff of his neck and yanking him out through the opening. Cats, however, can be notoriously difficult to catch hold of when they don’t want you to, and within a flash, he had wriggled out of my grip and disappeared. A few moments later, I saw him sitting about 5 feet away from the opening, on the terrace floor, having decided to withdraw from the scene of the battle, with a very wary, how-could-you-stoop-to-that look on his face. Round 3 had also gone Chikki’s way.

It was about 11.30 in the night now, and I was fast getting weary of this expedition. I told Gayatri and Bhale that I was going to climb into the terrace, as I could reach the top of the wall and pull myself up and catch hold of the offending feline. I had no idea as to how I was going to climb back down, but at least we’d have the cat, which was probably the preferred option given the situation. Dismissing their protests, I put my hands up and pulled myself, expecting to quickly climb over the ledge and into the terrace.

The next thing I remember was being covered head to toe in construction debris, with the ghastly stuff finding its way into my nose, mouth and ears. Gayatri and Bhale ran for cover, leaving me precariously perched on top of the contraption, barely able to stand steadily. Dire threats and some choicest cuss words later, they were back, warily holding the table while ready to take flight in an instant if things worsened. Looking up at the wall revealed that the top had completely crumbled off, leading to calls for abandoning the mission.

‘Come down, yaar. That looks bad.’
‘Hmm. I think the loose stuff at the top has already come off, now I can climb up. See, I’ll prove it to you.’

I thumped the wall to prove its solidity, and the whole thing shook like a bedsheet in a mid-summer thunderstorm, sending more debris onto me and a plume of concrete dust in the air. Chikki continued to watch the proceedings with a dispassionate gaze. I climbed down with a bit of alacrity, convinced that the whole thing might collapse on me at any point in time.

After dusting off some of the debris on me, I refocused on the larger problem at hand.

‘Ok, we need to get the keys to the terrace’, I said, calculating that the brother’s flight would land in precisely 8 hours from now.
‘Umm, it’s midnight, and you look a bit terrifying at the moment’, Gayatri pointed out.
‘Stuff that’, I said and dived into the bathroom for a quick shower and scrub.

About ten minutes later, I was standing at the landlord’s door, the building across the street, having rung the bell and hoping that he didn’t flip out. About a minute or later, he emerged, looking (obviously) very sleepy. For a moment, I felt bad for waking up the old fella so late, but then what had to be done had to be done.

‘Yes?’
‘Umm, can I get the terrace keys?
‘Now? Why?’
‘Err, my cat has somehow managed to get there and I need to get him down before he runs away and gets lost.’
‘Your cat?’
‘Yes, my cat. I need to get him down.'
‘Ok, sure. Just keep the keys, you can return them tomorrow’, convinced that I’d turn up half an hour later otherwise.

The terrace was thus opened, and Chikki decided to prolong the game for a few minutes more, by sitting under the water tanks, as far as possible from any probing hand. The whole thing ended after an exasperated Bhale crawled underneath and dragged the reluctant feline out by the scruff of his neck. Mission successful!


Monday, June 6, 2016

A Lunatic's Guide to Making Cherry Jam

It was one of those hyper, super-enthusiastic weekends that I occasionally tend to have. Thankfully, I have come to realize that most people do not share my enthusiasm and seem to look at it with the kind of wariness that you reserve for somebody running down the street yelling something unintelligible. Which, when I think about it, seems to describe my condition with a degree of accuracy which is unnerving. The good part of this realization is that these phases are unlikely to affect anybody else, unless the said person unfortunately happens to have some degree of affection or concern for me, resulting in him or her either trying to give me company or trying to understand and rationalize my actions. 

Unfortunately, these crazy phases still have to compete with my inherent laziness and reluctance to do absolutely anything remotely productive on weekends, which means that pitched battles end up being fought in my head, most of which go like:

Mind: Let's go to Azadpur Mandi tomorrow morning at 6 to buy mangoes and cherries. Yaaay!
Head: But.. the Mandi is 22 kms away. It is a wholesale market, possibly the largest in Asia. And most importantly, you cannot possibly consume, even with the help of the bottomless pits that you seem to share your house with, more than a dozen quickly ripening mangoes and 1-2 boxes of cherries over the next few days.
Mind: But they’ll be cheap. I wanna go to the Mandi.

Off I go to bed, dreaming of luscious mangoes and bright red cherries. Only to wake up at 9 am.

Head: It’s 9 am. Its already like 75 deg C outside.
Mind: I wanna go to the Mandi :( Why did you not wake up?

The next couple of hours consist of a dreadfully annoying debate in my head, during which I do absolutely nothing other than sit on my already toasty bed and get more and more pissed. Around 11 am, when the temperature outside has crossed something like a hundred degrees, I decide that I am indeed going to the Mandi.

Exactly an hour later, I am standing outside Azadpur metro station, cursing myself. After wandering around for some time, I figure out where the darned thing is. It is a pretty interesting place,to be honest. If you are a cow, that is. Or a foreigner trying to see the real India or some jazz like that. I wander around the place, with my mind and head going on and on as always:

Mind: Let’s go see that section.
Head: Why? Can we go home? Or somewhere where there is shade?
Mind: Oooh, there is an entire different section for fruits about half a km from here!!
Head: Dear lord
Mind: Oooh, melons!

Most people, after going through the above experience, and following that up with trudging all the way back to the metro station with 3 kgs of mangoes and 2 boxes of cherries, in the middle of one of the hottest days in Delhi this year, would (choose one of the options):

(a) Die (Sensible, about time you did that if you were bonkers enough to keep torturing your body like this occasionally)
(b) Sleep
(c) Spend the rest of the day in a zombie-like state, drinking gallons of water, and experiencing sequential organ failure due to heat stroke eventually leading to (a)

Not me, though. Having realised that I might have possibly bought enough cherries for me to survive on for a week without any other food sources, I decided that I had to make best use of them and not let them go bad. And so, a decision was made to make some cherry jam.

Now, I follow a fairly minimalist kind of jam-making philosophy. This consists primarily of waiting for inordinate amounts of time for the water to reduce and trying to get the fruit/syrup ratio just right. Just a few days ago, I’d made my first attempt at making cherry jam, which went like something along these lines:
  1. Buy an inordinate quantity of fruit. Something which you couldn’t resist at the shop, but very quickly realise you aren’t going to make a dent into with normal consumption patterns. Something which needs a disproportionately large amount of effort, like cherries, which need pipping, is ideal. Simple fruits like strawberries, which are ideal for jams, should be avoided (Is there anything like jackfruit jam?)
  2. Put 2 large pots of water for boiling. Put scarily large amounts of sugar into them
  3. Peel/clean fruit. Realise that you still have way, way too much fruit and about half a dozen less gas stoves to heat water on for this quantity of fruit
  4. Wait for the water to reduce. Taste to check that there is sufficient sugar in it to make you sick, even when it has barely started reducing
  5. Start dripping with sweat, since you decided to move into a house with no fan in the kitchen. Thank the heavens for having a maid cum cook who hasn’t turned homicidal yet due to his.
  6. Wait
  7. Wait
  8. Wait
  9. Dump fruit into water/syrup. Realise that still you have way, way too much fruit, even though you dumped only about a third of it. Put more water to boil
  10. Wait
  11. Wait
  12. Wait
  13. Rush out to buy more sugar
  14. Wait
  15. Wait
  16. Wait
  17. Exactly about 2 hours into the process, realize that things are finally happening, and that some progress has been made.
  18. After some adjustments in the fruit/syrup ratio, the jam is finally ready. All 50 grams of it :|
This cannot do, I tell myself. I did not go through all this trouble for about 3 spoonfuls of jam. And so, batch 2 starts. Except that I am now drowning in my own sweat, and after dunking the fruit into the syrup, I proceed to take a break for a few minutes. Unfortunately, my re-entry into the kitchen consists of a frantic dive into plumes of smoke, startling the feline which so far, unlike its owner, had decided that it was not moving anywhere away from its water-sprinkled mattress under the fan. A whiff of the smoke and the critter was bounding out of the house and into the neighbour’s balcony as if its own tail was on fire. As I put the badly burnt vessel into the sink, I made a mental note to sleep through the maid’s visit tomorrow morning, to avoid getting an earful from her. Restoring that vessel into its former glory was going to be some task, not helped by the fact that the main constituent of the sick, black mess in it was about half a kilogram of sugar.

With vengeance in mind and dreams of a full jar of jam, I start on it again. Now starts the fun part. After 2 hours, I have some cherries which have been boiled the hell out of, and a pitifully small amount of syrup which is not very syrupy. I google ‘how to repair runny jam’, and decide that I need to put in lots of lemon and lemon peel, for the pectin, which apparently magically thickens the syrup. And of course, water and sugar. So off I go to boil another large vessel of water, add tonnes of sugar to it, and start reducing it. After another hour of this, the newly formed syrup is added to the earlier lot. Further reduction happens, until it seems to have become thick enough. I decide to let it cool down a bit.

After about 5 minutes, I decide to have a look at how things are coming along. What I now have is almost rock-solid candied cherries, with a resin-like tenacity, sweet to the point of making me gag, with the fine ghastly bitter aftertaste of lemon peel. The whole thing is stuck into the pan like concrete. I somehow manage to coax it out, shove it into a jar, close the lid, dump it into the fridge and plonk into bed. Now, what could I do with those mangoes...