Sunday, December 21, 2008


It seems to be happening for some time now; I am revisiting my favourite cities lately. First it was Dharan in Nepal, then Chandigarh, and now we recently visited Sariska. Sariska, as you know, is a wild life reserve in Rajasthan which has been lately making to the headlines for all wrong reasons. This forest could boast of a tiger population a few years ago; however, all the tigers have vanished, falling prey to the greedy poachers who supply tiger hides and bones to the weird taste of rich and famous who would adorn their drawing rooms with a dead tiger rather than see a handsome live specimen roaming and roaring freely in the wild. Rajiv Gandhi provided Sariska forest and Sariska Palace some moment of hype and glory when he organized an official meeting there soon after his assuming prime-ministership. However, I visited Sariska more than 30 years ago with Chitra, Chitra’s parents and Girish. That being my first ever visit to a wildlife sanctuary, I was excited and had an intense desire to spot a tiger. However, we could not see one; in fact, in many of my subsequent visit to this forest, I could never spot a tiger. Over the years I have realized (and now advise all who are visiting a sanctuary) that one should not visit a wild sanctuary with the sole aim of seeing a tiger. Each Indian wildlife park has so many other things and sights to offer that even if one does not spot a tiger, there is nothing to be disappointed. The tiger does not make appearance easily; after all, he/she is king of the jungle! But if you spot one, it is a bonus.

So this time around, when there was this opportunity to visit Sariska for a meeting, I almost jumped at it. Though I was to give invited lecture, the organizers were only providing local hospitality but no transport to and fro Sariska. It required some persuasion for Chitra to agree to this weekend trip, who took time off from a long list of her weekend errands. Sariska is 200 or 230 km from Delhi depending on which route you take; either way for most part you negotiate new Delhi-Jaipur toll road. This new highway is a world class road, smooth, wide and with good road signage. However, the driving habits of users are worse than any of the developing country that I have visited in Asia or Africa. The most horrible and dangerous are the drivers coming from opposite direction on your side of road. And these are not just occasional cyclists, bikes, or bullock cart or tractor, but all kinds of public and private vehicles. And the worst are these SUVs which are catering to the cyber cafes all over National Capital Territory. These SUVs, mostly Innova and Tavera, are the new road killers around NCT or beyond. Lately I have come to realize that truck drivers are unnecessarily the maligned lot. They are mostly underpaid, under-rested, and are always at the receiving end of public’s ire or police excesses. They still follow some of the rules of highway driving, or may give you way on request, but these SUVs would not ever budge. We left highway at Behror, and took a small road going to Sariska via Alwar for another 100 km passing through many small villages and village haat, and beautiful fields which were just glorious with yellow mustard fields at this time of the year. This road had very little traffic and almost no heavy duty vehicle, and driving would have been fun, only if the road was in good shape. It had not been maintained at all with potholes strewn all over. I am sure if it is maintained properly, it would be a popular route to reach Sariska or Alwar and would also take some pressure off the busy highway.

Next morning we headed for the park. The visitors are allowed to drive on a 21 km long stretch of metal road. I do not understand why the road was in such a state of neglect and disarray. One side of the forest was closed for public as it has been priviledged to receive and house Sultan and Rani, a pair of young tiger under a scheme to reintroduce tiger once again in Sariska. We were told that the pair has electronic collars and chips to monitor their movements. I wondered why collar these beasts; we should put collars and tags on to the poachers so that they do not approach even the vicinity of any forest. We could sight eagle, owls, herons, partridges, quail, wild boars, cheetal (spotted deer), sambhar, neel gai etc in plenty. And peacocks were in abundance. The males were not so handsome at this time of the year, after their annual shedding of plume and feathers around Deewali time. We saw one solitary mongoose who must be at least 4 times larger than the one we normally see. The road ends at Pandupole which has a Hanuman temple. No prize for guessing that Pandupole must be connected to 5 Pandav brothers. They are believed to have visited this forest and met Lord Hanuman here.

The vicinity of temple had a large population of monkeys and langurs. Their acrobatics and playful acts were a source of joy I could watch for hours. One female langur had just been blessed with a baby and was fondly grooming it. She was joined by three other females of the family who took turn in fondling and grooming the baby who was getting restless with each passing minute to get out of their clutches. It was a beautiful sight. The head of the family, a lone alpha male, showed on interest in the new arrival and was just lazing around in the sun. A large group of monkeys was active inside the temple compound. I was fascinated by their drinking water from the tap. I was wonder-struck when one monkey maneuvered the tap by revolving the knob anticlockwise to drink water, and then closed it after quenching his thrust. It was now turn for the next; however, before it could finish, the guard came with a big stick and chased it away. The monkey had to run away leaving the tap open. But this guard, the man, did not bother to close the tap. I am certain if the monkey had the chance to fill his quota, it would have closed the tap. We, the naked apes, have a lot to learn from our hairy ancestors in environment protection and resource preservation.

Friday, December 12, 2008


While the mental health professional bodies have shied away in taking up the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality, a team of Delhi’s bright young lawyers has committed its time and legal acumen to challenge the archaic provisions of Section 377 in the Delhi High Court. Indian Express profiled these lawyers in its print and electronic editions at:

Some excerpts:

It makes no sense. Corporate lawyers in India are paid upward of Rs 12 lakh a year. Why, then, should India’s brightest young lawyers - the world at their feet - be working at minimum wage, even free, arguing for the decriminalization of homosexuality in India? It just makes no sense.
Section 377 of the Indian Panel Code, drafted in Victorian India, criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. This has been interpreted to include sodomy, effectively criminalizing homosexuality. A century and a half later, the law is being challenged in the Delhi High Court. The petitioner, Naz Foundation, has challenged it on medical grounds, arguing that it prevents India’s gays, many of whom are at high risk for AIDS, from receiving treatment. The other group challenging the law, ‘Voices against 377’, relies more on human rights, contending that Section 377 violates the constitutional rights guaranteed to homosexuals. The court’s judgement is expected anytime now.
A team of highly educated young lawyers has committed its time to this case. Chief Justice A P Shah of Delhi High Court told the petitioners, “You seem to have gathered much medical evidence that homosexuality is not a disease, unlike the other side’s lawyer, who argued in court that ‘homosexuality is a matter of fun’.”

While, Vasuman Khandelwal (27) is a hard-nosed Supreme Court lawyer, driven to the case by the Constitutional obviousness of the cause, the other three, Shivangi Rai (27), Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh (29) and Mayur Suresh (28) are more activists.
Shivangi, (a graduate of Indian Law Society, Pune) lawyer of the petitioner Naz Foundation, is fighting Section 377 in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that Section 377 violates the fundamental right to privacy, right to dignity and right to health of homosexuals. Shivangi values her legal training. “We are not just activists; we are first and foremost lawyers, so we use our legal skills to make a persuasive case in the court, not just shrill rhetoric.
Shrimoyee (LL M from University of London) is associated with “Voices against 377” fighting for decriminalizing homosexuality. Why homosexuality? “I think that as a feminist, I understand the sheer wrongness of Section 377, and how it stigmatizes an entire community. Discrimination on the basis of identity is something that feminists can easily relate to.” She further says that Section 377 is just a violent, archaic, incoherent law that needs to go.
Mayur, (LL B from National Law School, Bangalore and LL M from Columbia University), is using his legal arsenal to work in Delhi as a litigator, and is currently combating what he terms one of India’s most unjust laws. As a gay lawyer, he feels lawyers play an important role in the wider movement in the country fighting for the rights of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. He finds that his skills as a lawyer help him to take a bunch of facts, cut out the faff, and present a legal argument that will stand scrutiny in court. “We are able to make a medical argument and a human right argument, but what about love, why is it the state’s business to regulate love?”
Vasuman (a graduate of National Law School, Bangalore and LL M, SOAS, London) says that his interest in Indian Constitution and court room drama drove him to become a Supreme Court lawyer. “The Constitution protects homosexuals against discrimination; they deserve to live lives and build relationships - so essential to fulfilling life’s goals”. Vasuman is a very much mainstream lawyer, sharpening his legal skills working on corporate and tax matters in the Supreme Court as junior to the eminent lawyer Shyam Divan. Vasuman rejects the human rights lawyer tag, terming it as ‘bad slotting’. He contends, “But the argument for decriminalizing homosexuality is very much a mainstream argument.”


When we were in San Francisco this summer, Pride Parade was organized on the last weekend of June. I wanted to go there more for curiosity than anything else. I was curious to know what these guys do in such parades. Do they make fun of themselves or of the world? Or it is a show of their camaraderie and bonhomie! Or is it show of revolt against the callous and non-understanding world, activism or politicking? Or it was a show of strength to fight for their rights and rightful place in the society.

We all went to the city centre where this parade was being organized. In fact it was a big ‘mela’ where people of all ages and all hue and colour had assembled. The parade with colourful floats had all assembled at the city centre. There were many stalls enrolling members to various organizations. You did not have to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) to get the membership. Many stalls were for health promotion regarding HIV and AIDS. And of course, there were numerous food stalls. People were in festive mood with colourful dresses. Of course, some were defying the evening chill and were in their birthday costumes, but only a few. Men and women in fancy dresses were in great demand for getting photographed with.

We also approached a few who gladly obliged us, and on knowing that we were visitors from India, very warmly welcomed us and wished us a pleasant stay at San Francisco. For sure, there was no obscenity or lewdness in the whole show. We stayed there for nearly two hours and never felt awkward.
On our return, we learnt that in India too coordinated pride events were organized on June 29, 2008 at Delhi, Bangalore, Pondicherry and Kolkata where about 2000 people turned up. The pride parades were successful, given that no right-wing group attacked or protested against the pride parade, although the conservative opposition party BJP expressed its disagreement with the concept of gay pride parade. The next day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for greater social tolerance towards homosexuals at an AIDS event. On August 16, 2008 (one day after the Independence Day of India), the gay community in Mumbai held its first ever formal pride parade (although informal pride parades had been held many times earlier), to demand that India's anti-gay laws be amended.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time

Let me be honest. I must confess: when I picked up this book, I wanted to read it to improve on my knowledge of topography and geography of Karakoram region and the people living there. I also wanted to know a little more about K2, the savage mountain, which has no other name. Though K2 is the second highest mountain (8611 meters or 28251 ft) after Mount Everest, I knew very little about it. Having lived in Nepal for some time, and with my fascination for Himalayas, I managed to read a little about Mt Everest, and like most people, I equated Himalayas with Mt Everest only. It is also a fact that much less is written about K2 since it is believed to be the world’s most treacherous and dangerous mountain, and technically most difficult climb. Far less number of mountaineers have attempted and succeeded on K2. I have personally heard Everesters who admit that Mt Everest is more about physical fitness and less about technicals (but you must still have sound technical abilities of rock climbing, snow and glacier walking, negotiating crevasses, rescuing etc), but K2 remains formidable as it tests a climber in all aspects of summit climbing. As of now, only 305 people have successfully ascended K2, compared with about 2600 who have summitted more popular Mt Everest. Mortality rates continue to remain high on K2.
I also wanted to read the book since it was about Pakistan and its relationship with Himalayas. Other than K2, I never associated Pakistan with Himalayas. But I was made aware of my ignorance in the opening pages of the book when I found out that in a comparatively small region of Karakoram, more than 60 peaks reside which are more than 20,000 ft high.

In 1993, a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson, drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. He was rescued by a Balti. Moved by the inhabitants’ kindness he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but fifty five schools – especially for girls – in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to Taliban. His story is at once a riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit. Three Cups of Tea is co-authored by Greg Mortenson and David Relin and published by Penguin.

When I started reading the book, first I was captivated by the beauty and desolateness of formidable and merciless Karakoram region. However, soon I was flowing with Greg in his mission to build his first school in Baltistan and was periodically filled with thoughts of doubts, apprehension, fear and hope. It was a Herculean effort to raise money for his school in US even before the days of 9/11. He had begun his mission in 1993. He had no idea of how to raise money. People were generally not interested in the Islamic world; Tibet had remained a favourite cause for charity. He begins by writing letters. He had returned from his K2 mission not just as a failure, but completely broke. He sends 580 letters of plea for his cause. After an agonizing wait and some lobbying, he finally gets a single cheque, but it was worth twelve thousand dollars, enough to build one school in Baltistan. Even then, it was not easy; many people in the village thought their village had different priorities. Many suspected his motives. However, with time, persuasion, and patience he manages to win their trust and support. Like one village chief told him “Here, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family and for our family we are prepared to do anything…even die.”
Illiterate high-altitude porters of the region put down their packs (and giving up decent salary and benefits from expeditions) to make paltry wages wit him so their children can have education they were forced to do without. A taxi driver who chanced to pick Greg up at the Islamabad airport sold his cab and became his fiercely dedicated ‘fixer’. Former Taliban fighters renounced violence and the oppression of women after meeting Greg and went to work with him peacefully building schools for girls. Though he managed to build 55 schools in 10 years in the most formidable region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, he did not have a smooth ride. He was termed a CIA agent, was threatened to wind up his mission; clergy of a village issued a fatwa against him; and he was even kidnapped. Like a true missionary, he did not give up and persisted with his goal. His logic in those regions as well as in his own country, US, was simple: though the US was fighting terrorism, it was doing nothing to rehabilitate families or empower them. Very soon he had discovered in his mission that education of girls was key to health, peace and prosperity. Aren’t we in India familiar with the slogan ‘you teach a woman, you teach a family.’

Some reviews of the book:

“As the US confronts Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Greg Mortenson is quietly waging his own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists, who often recruit members through religious schools called madrassas. Mortenson’s approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education - particularly for – in the world’s most volatile war zone, support the Taliban and other extremist sects eventually will dry up.” (Kevin Fedarko, Parade cover story, April 6, 2003)
“In an age when every politician and talking head has little but rhetoric to offer for the seemingly irreconcilable mess of warfare and cultural conflicts wash in the Middle East and Islamic territories in Central Asia, Mortenson’s book is a stunningly simple story of how to make peace in one of the most beautiful places in the world: build schools for girls… his mission is a relentlessly positive one, and his ability to reveal the beauty and refuse to accept the brutal reality around him is an inspiring, heroic and at times even crazy pursuit.” The Bloomsbury Review

Three Cups of Tea is a beautifully written book about one man’s crusade against poverty, illiteracy and terrorism. Though sometimes it gets repetitive, but is still unputdownable. I shall recommend it to everyone who feels his/her life has been affected by terrorism

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The terror strike in Mumbai has not only been painful but shameful too. With immediate loss of life of innocent civilians, the forces too lost their valiant officers. Watching it live on the television was tragic; one felt so vulnerable and impotent at the same time. Ten people had held the whole country to ransom where life had gone still. The Taj, the pride of India, Oberai Trident, the place to enjoy and relax, Nariman House, the place of peace and safe abode had all become war zones and fields of destruction. While the whole drama was unfolding on TV channels right in the drawing room, one did not think of past or future. But after it is all over for rest of the country, the pain and grief continue for the bereaved families. Drama unfolding in the newspapers now is getting more shameful everyday. Within 24 hours, all agencies have put together the route, mode of conveyance used, terrorists’ training etc for our consumption. All this did not come from the captured survivor; intelligence, though in piecemeal, was available to most of the intelligence agencies much before the terror strike. Blame game has started within our most prestigious defense and security organizations. Heads of the ministers are rolling. But the politicians at ministerial levels could be so callous is unimaginable, Kerala CM takes the cake and would not even send his dog to a martyr’s home; Maharashtra CM finds his visit to war raven Taj as opportunity to promote the career of his son and takes a well known producer-director on a guided tour who may soon launch his next production on Mumbai’s terror strike with the son in a leading role; deputy CM wonders why people are so agitated over a small incident when the death toll is only 200. Union cabinet minister lost his seat so early in the game that he did not get a chance to display his latest wardrobe or shoe collection.
We have heard the phrase ‘Mumbai’s spirit’ so often it sounds like a cliché. Mumbaikar’s never-say-die spirit has given power that be the right to let it be assaulted repeatedly with floods, bomb blasts and terror strikes.
How long will we in India continue to suffer this terror and humiliation?


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