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Welcome to my stream of consciousness…


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Turd-green remains my valley!

An open invitation to not just Carmelites to get a ringside view of turd-valley…

I spent five of my formative years at Mount Carmel College (MCC) in Bangalore. Right after school, MCC became my alma mater, growing up. That was 25 years back. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice President of the Congress Party who is only a few years older than me, was likely entering his 20’s at the time, and was hardly headline news material. But yesterday, as he spoke at the MCC auditorium, addressing an all-girl audience, the man once considered a sought-after bachelor with his dimpled cheeks, seemed to make quite another impression. If most media reports are to be believed, his supposed outreach to Bangalore’s youth, was not only a non-starter, they called it quite a disaster. In videos widely circulated, he is heard entering a direct Q and A with his audience, with the purpose of hitting out at the ruling Modi government. Targeting the BJP’s flagship Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign, he asks if the girls think, the project is working. Although what one hears is a mixed response, with voices saying both “Yes” and “No” simultaneously, the headline that aired was that “Rahul was stumped”. Caught somewhat unaware by the response, RaGa seems a bit slow with a comeback, posing a counter question, “You think Make in India is good”? Again the response is quite mixed. But given RaGa’s own awkwardness, and inability to think on his feet to turn things around, the story that went out was that he was out of tune with the “people’s pulse”; that the Modi government’s programs were successful, and appreciated and it was RaGa, who seemed to not know. The story had barely broken when those on either side of the camp began to post their versions on social media. For all those who cracked “Pappu” jokes about RaGa, there were spirited defences from the opposite side that called the reporting biased.

With my Facebook timeline already riven over the Aamir Khan episode, the misreporting, and selective reporting involved, this was the next one to evoke sharp responses. There was euphoria from RaGa’s haters and sympathy from those willing to give him the benefit of doubt. Meanwhile, I, sitting at home, watching the drama unfold was wondering what I’d have said and done, had I been right there in my college auditorium. MCC is quite well known in the city. In the past, it was more famous for the boys that hung around outside the high walls of the campus, just waiting to get lucky with the pretty girls inside. Mount Carmel was where the ‘hot’ crowd was supposed to be. If there was a wannabe beauty queen or one in the making, you’d be sure to find her on campus. But it wasn’t a beauty vs. brains thing. I, for instance was the typical plain Jane. I was there to study, get good grades, become someone. If you came from my kind of background, you’d be like that too. I came from the most regular family and had nobody to look out for me. So I was hardworking, driven and determined to be someone. I cycled to college, 8km one-way daily, for the lack of better options and never missed a single class. I couldn’t care less about the boys outside the gates. I worked so hard, to gain entry into the coveted Journalism/ Psychology/ English Literature course, that I became an overachiever by dint of necessity. I shocked myself by landing the third rank in the state of Karnataka. That was the first time that my mug shot appeared in the local newspapers! So, my guess is, had I been in that auditorium yesterday, I’d have been quite vocal and honest about the whole affair.

Now, here’s the thing. My blog post from five months ago about the problem of open defecation in my neighbourhood, still stands. You see, the crappers, have been making a beeline all along. I’ll admit, I just don’t have it in me to go embarrass them myself. Nobody else has done anything about it either, so they just keep coming, and going and doing their business. And yes, some of them are still fancy enough to drive-in, in their car, park it, take a walk to take a dump, and walk back as if everything was hunky dory, checking their smart phones as they return, newspapers tucked under their arms. This just happens to be the reality. So, all those young ladies at MCC, who think Swachh Bharat is a roaring success, here’s an open invitation to visit turd valley. Come, see, then opine. Here’s the other thing. They’re running a poster-making contest for children at my son’s school, for all grades, asking them to come up with innovative slogans and art work for the Swachh Bharat campaign. Those who participate, get short-listed and finally win the contest are promised commendation certificates and credits from the  Central Board of Secondary Education. This happens to be a programme coordinated by the Union Human Resource Ministry all over India. Trouble is, I don’t get the point of an exercise that names people like me as it’s target audience. Without me trying to make this about “Us and them”, the problem is already that. I’m not the one walking around ‘lota’ in hand. The program is targeting the wrong demographic.

Turns out, more than one crore toilets have been built in a year under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Then why is the government’s well intentioned scheme, despite massive infrastructural investments still a pipe dream? Why is this clean revolution still outside our grasp? The Economic Times reports, an all-India survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) found that “Not even half the toilets built under the cleanliness mission are being used…While just 46% of 95 lakh toilets built in rural India are being used, the figure is barely 50% even in urban areas”, as per the survey.

So, what’s with the people? Why won’t they just use the new toilets? According to the ET report, “surveyors found households using toilets for storing grains or as general storage space and still going to the fields early in the morning to relieve themselves.” Why is this happening? Because most toilets are apparently dysfunctional. Adequate and proper supply of water might’ve provided an incentive, but, the toilets as of now are only brick and mortar structures.

And here’s the gem- The report says, “The ministry of statistics and programme implementation, the nodal ministry for NSSO, had planned to release the report on October 2, the anniversary of the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. However, the ministry withheld the report after a review by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The PMO thought the survey report would be used by the Opposition to slam Prime Minister Modi’s cleanliness initiative”.

ET published this on 23 Nov, just a couple of days before RaGa landed at MCC. Could he have used this info as ammunition in his speech? Yes, perhaps. But we all now know he didn’t. Hope his team does better research next time.   

So, is the Swachh Bharat program working, then? Quick reality check for the ‘Yes club’ at MCC, not really.

I’m happy to extend an open invitation to fellow Carmelites to come explore that facts on the ground in my neighbourhood. The sights and smells should take care of things. And while we’re at it, we can also check out the frothing Bellandur lake, just a hop and skip from my place. The news of this toxic lake has made headlines world over, but we manage to remain blissful in our ignorance!

It would’ve been great to quiz RaGa on the pathetic state of civic amenities in Karnataka while he was here, especially since his party is in power in the State. The potholes, the apathy, the garbage and stench, not all of it is a by-product of the Centre’s cleanliness drive, after all. Meanwhile, I don’t know what draws the car-borne crappers to the open greens. Do they have unusable toilets too, or haven’t they bothered with it at all? Whichever it is, it is indeed sick and if driving up to empty one’s bowels is an indication of things to come in India’s silicon valley, then I dread to think what else might be in store…

Look! There’s a huge snake, up on the tree!!

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When it comes to reptiles, especially the slithery snake, I belong with the vast majority that reacts first with fear before being able to switch on any other impulse in the brain engulfed by panic instinctively. The mere sight of a snake, spells ‘Danger’ for me like a flashing red beacon, ordering every part of me to act defensively to protect my own life and all those I care for. This natural reflex doesn’t follow a real-life encounter involving a venomous species, in my case. I think my extreme caution comes simply from being hard-wired to react that way. It’s probably an innate tendency reinforced by conditioning. The reason why I’m writing about snakes today is because of this rather rare sighting over the weekend at my brother’s farm.

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

This incredibly long rat snake resting on an acacia tree was photographed by one of my brothers, during their fortnightly visit last Sunday. I hadn’t accompanied my brothers, but my son, was with them. I have to say, this is the longest snake I have ever seen. It’s hard to tell just how long it might be, from the way it seems to casually spread its body rather languorously around the thorny branches of this tree. An Indian rat snake can apparently grow as long as 11 ft. From the looks of it, this is probably a healthy adult living up to its potential, and perhaps some more!

Looks like it went up to catch something- maybe a squirrel or to visit a bird nest for food, and then decided to sun itself because the weather’s been somewhat wet lately. I got to see the images only hours later in the evening, when everyone returned from the farm, but my first reaction was a jaw-dropping ‘Oh My God’!

For all my fear, I was still struck by the sheer magnificence of the creature. Its massive size seems to suggest an environment that must be rather conducive to its well-being. Lots of food- mostly mice, rats, bandicoots, squirrels, birds, eggs etc I suppose. I wonder what I might’ve done if I ever got up-close and personal with this snake. Given its huge body, it might have taken the snake a while to slither away, but I’m sure I’d have bolted out of there in a real hurry!

   

I’ll admit that I did not grow up with the kind of people who think of reptiles as being ‘beautiful’ in the way we tend to admire and dote over puppies and kittens. I have always been surrounded by animals, mostly dogs and cats, apart from the occasional bird or rabbit. I love nature and all things natural, but snakes… well, not really. I wonder if I’d have reacted differently, if I had been ‘trained’ to, in a sense. These days, there are lots of places you can go to where experts will help you overcome your fear of snakes through ice-breaking sessions where you get to know them better, in controlled situations. Once you find the nerve to touch them, you can actually learn to hold and handle them with guidance. Be that as it may, I doubt I can ever shake off my instinctive revulsion for snakes at my age. But regardless of how I feel, I don’t let the ‘fear’ dictate a violent reaction. There are many for whom the only good snake is a dead one. But I’d rather not get down to carnage. I realise that snakes are just as scared of humans and if you simply let them be, they’ll mind their own business and wander off. It’s not as if they’re on an aggressive mission to get you, just to get even for all the snakes humans wantonly kill or hunt for trophy. Snakes are not social creatures. They don’t seek association or approval from humans like domestic animals and they’re better off wild in their habitat.

I quite like how my little 6 yr old managed to stand alongside his uncle, a retired Army officer and a graduate in Environmental Science, as he patiently filmed the snake-on-the-tree episode. In the background commentary picked up during the recording, my son asks to know about every move the snake makes- from the flick of the forked tongue, to the turnabout it makes, wondering if the snake is stuck. “Lets get out of here before it comes down” he says before checking whether the snake can see and hear him, whether it will come down the tree and make a charge at him, and if there’s a chance snakes are “afraid of sticks”, because he has one. 

While he seems to cover a lot of ground, most of his comments are interspersed with genuine, heart-felt pleas to beat the hastiest retreat possible! The boy can’t for the life of him understand, why his uncle would put himself in harm’s way, along with his little nephew, just for a few pictures!! So, he tries repeatedly to draw the attention of his older uncle, in the hope that at least he might be a little more ‘sensible’ in the face of what he seems to perceive as an ‘imminent threat’. “I’m afraid of snakes…A lot” he can be heard saying. “I’ve never seen a snake this huge,” he goes on to say, before admitting outright, “holy crap! It’s so scary!!”.

When I posted these pictures on Facebook, I received a range of responses. Some found the snake “beautiful”, even “magnificent”, others went “eeeks!” I suppose, that pretty much describes the general spectrum of perceptions. Some are plain averse to the slithery snake, others find themselves “drawn” to them and are “fascinated” by them.

Turns out, a third of adult humans, actually suffer from a phobia of snakes. This makes ‘herpetophobia’ or the fear of reptile, and/ amphibians one of the most common reported phobias ever. There’s also ‘Ophidiophobia’, a more specific type of abnormal fear of snakes. In extreme cases people might even fear thinking about snakes and react adversely to pictures in a book or even on TV. No wonder so many films have been made around that theme- the fear of snakes. You might want to watch this incredible video showing the unedited display of fear by celebrities including Hollywood actress Salma Hayek a few years ago, when a snake suddenly appears on the location of a live TV show that she’s on.

Research suggests that humans are not born afraid of spiders and snakes, but that we can learn these fears very quickly. One theory about why we fear spiders and snakes is because so many are poisonous; natural selection may have favoured people who stayed away from these dangerous creatures. So, the fear of the ‘creepy-crawlies’ has been explained as an evolutionary bias that predisposes us to fear things that have posed a threat throughout human history.

Interestingly, researches have been able to prove a consistent gender difference in the incidence of snake and spider phobias. Women are apparently four times more likely than men to have fears and phobias for these, but not other stimuli like injections, heights or flying.

David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment with 11-month-old infants. He showed them a series of pictures- a snake, a spider, a flower, and a mushroom, paired with either a happy face or a frightened face. Baby girls quickly associated the snake and the spider with the frightened face, while baby boys did not. Amongst the explanations offered, one possibility is that social transmission of fears and phobias is more common or promoted among women than men. Alternatively, women’s fear mechanism may be more sensitive to snakes and spiders than males’ fear mechanism because they were more exposed to them over evolutionary time (e.g., during child-care, while foraging and gathering food). It has also been suggested that a fear of snakes and spiders was particularly important in women because it protects both their child and themselves. In other words, the fitness costs of being bitten by a snake or spider would have been greater for women than for men because infants and young children, historically, rarely survived a mother’s death. Finally, because of the higher reproductive variance for men, evolution would have selected against males with overly powerful fears because it could have inhibited risk taking involved in, for example, large game hunting.

I’m not trying to find scientific evidence to justify the way I feel and respond to snakes, but the empirical proof appears to explain my reaction to a great extent. I don’t know what kind of person you are- the kind that could bring home a snake as a pet, or the type that might wet their pants at the first sight of a reptile. Whichever it is, I hope you can find the calm and wisdom in your heart to teach your children that all snakes are not dangerous. Some, like the huge rat snake being discussed here are actually non-venomous, and will be glad to just hide someplace, doing its own thing, rather than get in your way and create trouble. Also that snakes are crucial to maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem.

Their presence or removal from an area can directly impact the environment. As a natural form of pest control, snakes are actually good for you. They tend to control rodent populations in particular. As predators, they feed on a variety of creatures. Small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects. Larger ones eat mice, rats, and other small mammals that can destroy crops or damage personal property. In the food chain, they serve as the link going higher up- becoming the food source for larger predators such as hawks, owls, herons, and carnivorous mammals. Mindlessly removing snakes from the equation can cause a crash, we can ill-afford. So, like them, or hate them, we sure as hell need the slithery snake in the backyard.   

This gallery contains 6 photos

Black Kite- Bird of Prey

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A first hand account of my battle for territory with the visiting Black Kite and its brood!

This gorgeous creature is no stranger to me. In fact, we’re engaged in a bit of a tango. This juvenile Black Kite, like the rest of its family and friends seems convinced, the house we live in, is actually its own! It isn’t that our house has invaded an area which may have been the traditional habitat of this bird. It’s just that we’ve kept our surroundings greener than the neighbours, which gives them plenty of perches from where to survey the lie of the land as it were and to add to that our home happens to have a large terrace with one section raised higher, with a water tank atop it. This area has been conveniently appropriated by the Kites, leading them to wonder if ‘we’ might be the unfriendly intruders in ‘their’ territory.

So much so, these otherwise magnificent birds have really pushed me to the edge, forcing me to test my resolve about cohabitation. To hell with the idea of ‘live and let live’, I have caught myself saying a lot lately. Of course I enjoy their presence. This display of comfort from them as they sit wings outstretched to the sun, perched on the eucalyptus tree outside our front gates, the morning after a night of rain is proof that they don’t mind me pointing the camera at them to shoot. But we both know we’ve had our fair share of encounters. Till a couple of months ago, I used the terrace as my open-air gym. I’d spread my mat, carry my weights and other equipment there and park myself in the shade each morning till done. But I was shocked when one day, these birds decided to turn aggressive. One unguarded moment and I’d have one of these huge things fly straight at me. They’d swoop down from behind when I least expected, strike me on the head and disappear. Not a friendly hello, I can assure you! One after another, they’d come for me, always striking the top of my head and mostly from behind. Their deadly talons would leave tell-tale signs. Once I ended up with a cut on my forehead and another time a scratch on my head. It got so unpleasant, I started to carry a long stick with me to scare them off. A running, screaming, freaked-out scare crow of sorts!

I knew they had a huge nest up in one of the tall eucalyptus trees nearby. I noticed that when the attacks became more frenzied, there were more of them rushing off to the nest, taking turns. I guess they had little hatchlings at the time and were feeling particularly vulnerable with a potential predator my size, at an elevation, on their beloved terrace. This was them working overtime and going overboard to protect their young.

By then, I had become quite paranoid about them. I wouldn’t even step out of the main gate on the ground floor without stick in hand, because they would attack all and sundry without warning. But I was also feeling somewhat belligerent and unwilling to cede space to them. So, I’d go up to the terrace each day and waste half the time meant for my workout, fending off these fiendish dragons in the air. I suppose what I lost in terms of exercise, I gained in honing my sixth sense, learning to read the bird’s shadow to predict where the next strike was coming from, developing what I thought was a third eye… well, I guess I was preparing for a full-blown battle for habitat. If it’s going to be about me or you, it’ll be me, I said. But I wasn’t all that methodical, precise or successful. I’ll admit I was simply no match for them. The truth is, I could hear myself screaming at random birds in the air daily, challenging them to come get a piece of me!! I think I nearly lost it 🙂

Then, in self-interest, I decided to become a bit more reasonable. Turning into a screaming banshee was plain foolish. Thank goodness no one was around taking pictures of me in action! I made a tactical retreat from the battle-terrace. I wondered secretly if there was some way I could get my hands on an air gun perhaps. Taxidermy crossed my mind too. I felt somewhat like a character from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, ‘The Birds’.

But that was then. Several months down the line, I’m back to liking the ‘Birds’ again. More recently, this juvenile Black Kite landed on our grape canopy. It sat there quite a while posing for pictures etc before taking wing. Must’ve made its peace too!

DSC06596

It’s a good thing, I don’t need to fight for the terrace with my winged visitors anymore. I’ve moved to Yoga, which only needs me to find enough space to lay my mat, and I’m quite comfortable indoors. Quite likely, this was one the juveniles that was being protected all this while, because now that its out and about, the birds have all calmed down. For all you know, this is only a temporary truce… until the next breeding season!

This gallery contains 6 photos