Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

Animal rights

Driving in India may seem somewhat chaotic to visitors from northern Europe including the UK. It might seem less so to visitors from the southern parts of Europe or from Egypt. However, there is some order in the apparent mayhem that can often be observed on Indian roads.

One unwritten rule is that it is advisable to give way to something bigger than you. If you are driving a car, it is best to yield to a lorry or a bus. If a cow or bullock or even an elephant wanders into your path, it is best to avoid it. If you collide with a large beast, your vehicle might suffer greater injury than the beast. Best to give the creature the right of way.

If you should happen to be an autorickshaw (‘tuk tuk’) driver, you are likely to have superbly fast reflexes, the courage of a lion, and nerves of steel. Drivers of these vehicles take risks on the road that sometimes seem suicidal, but overehelmingly they know what they are doing.

One autorickshaw driver in Bangalore once told me that he had been a truck driver before taking up his present occupation. He said that to drive an autorickshaw it was necessary to employ all of the senses. He said that his whole body had to be fully aware of what is going on around him.

However, even the skilfully adventurous autorickshaw drivers will give way to, or avoid cattle in the street. This is not because they hold the cow to be sacred nor because they are believers in animal rights, but because they have a sensible regard for self-preservation.