Sunday, August 31, 2008


In a paper written and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry many years ago on Eating Disorders in India, we had argued that the need to do well in education is a stress for young students and their families, and in some vulnerable young girls and boys, it may lead to some psychopathology. The point we wanted to make was that education remains a very important means for upward mobility in Independent India.

For nearly two decades now, I have patronized Harish, a fruitwallah, in Kotla. Kotla is a versatile market for all household necessities in South Delhi known for its wholesale prices. It is not in the league of nearby up-scale markets of South Delhi like South Ex or Defense Colony. Harish has a ramshackle kiosk and specializes in some select fruits and sells full boxes only. I like to go there because he stocks fruits like mango, apple, grapes, oranges etc that I like to buy in bulk for our use and share with friends. When I went to him yesterday, he asked me if I could make a medical certificate for his child. Though I never told him, but he has seen the sticker on my car announcing the place where I work. I thought he must be wanting a med cert for his child studying in school and must have been missing his school on account of truancy. I told him that my certificate would not work in the school, but was curious to know the school where his child was studying. No, not for school, it was the Australian embassy which was demanding such a certificate. I could barely manage to hide my shock – I knew Australian embassy demands med cert only if the applicant is applying for a long term visa, like immigration or for studies. I asked him why he was going to Australia. His son had obtained admission in the Univ for studying Computer course. Harish would be spending Rs 25 lakh on his education.
More shocks were to follow. His son no. 2 is already in Sydney studying for his Masters. He supports himself by doing part time teaching in the Univ itself. His son no. 1 is in Bangaluru and works for an MNC, Accenture. He is coming back to Delhi on transfer with a package of Rs 2.5 lakh a month.
I thought I had enough shocks that early morning for the entire day. But I was extremely happy. Though I managed to conceal my shock, I did not try to conceal my happiness. I expressed my desire to meet his sons. Harish said in a very matter of fact manner, and may be with a sense of pride that all his life when he was working hard, he never allowed his sons to come to the shop or to extend help. Harish’s hard work and sacrifice has worked so well for his children, who did not disappoint him.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


While in Beijing, it is almost customary to visit the Great Wall of China. Though China is known for many things, the Great Wall, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, remains an attraction for all the visitors. So when we were planning to visit Beijing, I had made sufficient enquiries before hand if it was possible to make a day-long trip to the Great Wall from Beijing. After all the name ‘Great wall’ has been etched in my memory ever since I knew there was another country by the name of China in my primay classes many decades ago.

There are two or three areas of the Great Wall, within 100 km from Beijing, which have been well developed for tourists’ visits. The visit is also combined with other attractions enroute. We chose a package which combined it with Ming’s tomb. Also thrown in the package were visits to Jade factory, enamel factory, Tibetan herbal medicine house and tea house. All such factories had packaged these visits as an educational tourist attraction, but in reality they all were commercial enterprizes which organized guided trips within the factory with the ulterior motive of persuading the tourists to buy their products. As a sale strategy, these houses had employed English speaking charming damsels to lure the visitors. We disappointed all the pretty young girls, but were impressed by their perseveration. However, the Great Wall was interesting. We had chosen the Badaling section of the Great Wall for our visit. It is 70 km northwest of Beijing and is the best known section, and hence the most packaged. The moment you reach there you are welcome by a number of restaurants and souvenir shops. And since we were there just three weeks before the Olympics, the most saleable souvenirs were Olympic memorabilia. It had been cloudy since morning, and by the time we reached there it had started drizzling. So we also made a beeline to one of these shops to buy ‘one-time use’ kind of raincoats. We decided to climb the wall from one part of this section and descend from the other negotiating and climbing steep stairs and hiking on the wall. The wall followed the contour of the adjoining steep range of hills. The area was full of local and foreign tourists, and the local school children made the entire atmosphere very lively. We three Indians stood out different from the rest and were in huge demand by the school students to have photographs with us. Of course, we did not disappoint any. We decided to walk and walk leaving the crowd behind us. Then the natural landscape and scenic beauty got better with hills and lush greenery on both sides of us.
The Great Wall of China is 6400 km long and has been built over a period spanning from 6th century BC and 16th century AD, making it a wonder that has taken the longest time to be erected, by successive dynasties to defend themselves against the northern invaders. Over the centuries the wall has been in despair at many places due to neglect, vandalism, and harsh climate or sandstorm. Our guide also told us that at many places, local people vandalized the wall to use the building material for their own houses! However, at Badaling, the wall has been restored for tourists and does not give the feeling of ancient ruins, unlike the ruins of Greece. In fact the wall does not seem restored but rebuilt in its entirety. Some people feel that there is nothing genuine about the experience. However, we were happy with the visit and other experiences and returned to our hotel in time for the evening Beijing Opera show.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Hiking and Rock Climbing

The moment Las Vegas comes to mind, one thinks of the casinos, gambling, spectacular shows and all the adult entertainment that the city has to offer. The city thrives on the pleasure principles and has been nicknamed as the ‘Sin City’. It has some of the grandest hotels and fanciest malls in the world. Though Macau has fast grown in gambling opportunities, however, it is not at the cost of Las Vegas, which still remains as popular as ever. Undoubtedly Las Vegas is known more for its casinos and gambling, yet it has many other activities and recreations to offer. The state of Nevada boasts of two very popular recreation areas just outside Las Vegas: the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Park. The austere wilderness of both the areas is home to several plant and animal species that are unique to these areas; however, what attracts the adventure sports enthusiasts is the unique and varied climbing environment. Mountain peaks rise thousands of feet off the desert floor and the mountain faces are among North America’s most unrelenting formations.
If you happen to plan a vacation with Kush, you will find yourself invariably landing into some hiking or climbing spots. So even if our itinerary began with man made amusements like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, it ended with a day-long visit to Mount Charleston in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area which lies west of Las Vegas at about an hour’s drive from the famous Strip of Las Vegas. Mount Charleston is an imposing peak at 12,000 ft rising from the meadows below.

We drove from our hotel, Flamingo, and soon left the hot and humid weather of Las Vegas behind and entered the town named Mount Charleston in the valley of Spring Mountains. The air became cool and pleasant and soon we sighted the Mount Charleston Lodge, a rustic hotel which must have been a popular joint with Las Vegans to escape heat. If I tell you the population statistics of this town nestled in the valley, you will laugh. As of the census of 2000, there were 285 people, 133 households, and 80 families residing here. The population density was 9.7 people per square mile (3.7/km²). Such low density of population in India is just not thinkable, or may be, some village in far North-East or high up in Himalayas could match it.
The area is full of hiking trails for easy walks, and mountain faces for rock climbing enthusiasts looking for adventure. We chose an easy trail of 5 km for our hiking. Kush was not carrying his climbing gear, so we were comfortable in our thought that he would not insist on initiating us into this difficult and technical sport. Towards the end of our trail, we came across a group of young women and men, some on the ground and two of them high into the air with nylon ropes and slings around them on a mountain face which was sheer vertical. One girl was climbing up with nylon slings and harness gear, and a rope trailing between her legs. The climb was totally vertical and to our unaccoustomed eyes appeared totally smooth. How she was going to climb there, we wondered. ‘But small cracks and protrusions from the rock would provide passage up’ explained Kush. That explained why she would stop intermittently and scan the route above before reaching for such a crack or protrusion. It required subtle balance, long reaches and precise footwork for her climb. One thing was sure: this girl could not be suffering from acrophobia, that is, fear of heights. I wondered what happens to the depth perception on such height and open spaces.
After all the glitter, fun, excitemen, and tensions of Las Vegas, time spent in the green environs and fresh air of Mount Charleston was quite refreshing. Kush will return here quite soon with his rock climbing group; we may also come here in future, but only for our easy hikes.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Flight of the Condor

2nd August, 2008

While at the Grand Canyon, I was lucky to spot a condor soaring high above in the sky and shoot it, of course, with the camera. I had read and heard so much about the ‘flight of a condor’. We also attended the educational programme on the condor and its successful conservation which has brought it back from the brink of extinction.

On the wing, the movements of the condor, as it wheels in circles, are remarkably graceful. The birds flap their wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they seem to sail majestically on the air.
Wild condors inhabit large territories, often traveling 250 km (150 miles ) a day in search of carrion. They prefer large carcasses such as deer or cattle which they spot by looking for other scavengers. That led to their near extinction, since the caracasses of wild animals shot dead by bullets killed the condors too by lead poisoning. Attempts are being made to induce the hunters to use copper bullets instead of those containing lead.
Condors are basically vultures. California Condors are the largest flying land birds in North America.
The adult plumage is uniformly black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers nearly surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large patches or bands of white on the wings. As an adaptation for hygiene, the head and neck have few feathers exposing the skin to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes, and are meticulously kept clean by the bird. The head is much flattened above. The white patch under both the wings at the armpits is diagnostic of condors (see the photographs). California Condors' huge wingspan measures up to 2.9 m, and they can weigh up to 10.4 kg.
California Condors are intertwined in many Native American cultures. There are people who believe California Condors were the origin of the Thunderbird myth, while some Western tribes regarded the California Condors as sacred beings, using feathers in religious ceremonies. The Chumash tribe believes that if the condors become completely extinct, so will the tribe. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted condors in their art. The same is true of the later Incan civilizations: the condor represented sky as one of the three celebrated animals. Vultures have been immortalized in Indian mythology too. Jatayu, one of the heroes of the great Indian epic, Ramayan, belongs to the race of vultures.
Twenty years ago, the California Condor Recovery Program began a new era when condors known as AC-4 and UN-1 produced the first egg to be laid and hatched in a managed setting. The resulting chick, Molloko, turns 20 years old on April 29, 2008. The goal of the California Condor Recovery Program is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona. As the Recovery Program works towards this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are four active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja California, Mexico with condors flying free.
While listening to the success story of condor, I thought of its cousin, the vulture, back home. In Delhi and most of North India (I hope it is still thriving in other parts), nearly 99% or common vultures have disappeared due to a drug, diclofenac, a common and popular analgesic; it is also used extensively in veternity medicine in farm animals. When vultures scavenged on their carcasses, they died due to diclofenac toxicity. I wonder why we can not replicate the same success story in India for our own vultures.


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