Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The heroes in our midst...

Yesterday the winds brought sad tidings. A great man had passed on. He had lived a full and fulfilling life and the universe let him sign off in style by ensuring that even his last breath was spent doing what he loved doing most - teaching and inspiring another generation. I have, unfortunately, never met or listened to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in person and yet I felt the loss in an intensely personal way. It was as if one of the bright lights that radiated warmth and hope had been suddenly put out. The world seemed a little darker, at least for a while.

It got me thinking. As the years pass by, stories of life and death hit us with increasing frequency. And yet, I don't seem to be impacted by all the highs and lows the same way. So why would I feel this way about a man I have never met once in my life. Was it his speeches or his books or the articles I had read about him? How much of it was based on fact versus someone else's perception of facts. How much of it was based on what I wanted him to be versus what he really was. I don't really know. I also realized that many of the people I consider heroes are people I have never met. Billy Arjan Singh - creator of Dudhwa National Park, Rakesh Shukla of Voice of Stray Dogs, Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd and  Wendell Berry just to name a few.  And in the interest of full disclosure I haven't really met Phantom, Batman, Ironman, He-man or Tarzan and I consider them my heroes as well.

I was also fascinated by a strange phenomenon I observed over the last couple of days. As the world mourned the loss of a great man and social media exploded with tributes there was also a steady trickle of articles that strived really hard to peg the man somewhere between a warmonger and an ordinary man with no significant accomplishments. This isn't a new phenomenon - all my other heroes seem to be inviting a lot of attacks as well. Between wondering why I was finding heroes in people I had never met and wondering why a few were so eager to kill the hero others see in some people, I found myself toying with Marianne Williamson's words in my head "It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us". Maybe we are scared of acknowledging the hero within each of us. To acknowledge in another may mean we have to face our own light.

Maybe it doesn't matter what the facts are. If a few in our midst can inspire the spark in the rest of us, maybe it doesn't matter if we met them, listened to them or even if the stories about them are true. All that matters is that they inspired us to reach out to our own greatness, even if they never meant to. That makes them heroes. Marianne Williamson again had the right words...

"It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others."

And maybe some heroes even find a way to talk to you after crossing over to the undying lands. I found myself leafing through his book yesterday only to have these last few lines stare at me.

"I do not wish to set myself up as an example to others, but I believe that a few readers may draw inspiration and come to experience the ultimate satisfaction which can only be found in the life of the spirit. God's providence is your inheritance. The bloodline of my great-grandfather Avul, my grandfather Pakir, and my father Jainulabdeen may end with Abdul Kalam, but his grace will never cease for it is Eternal. 

Thank you, Sir, for being my hero.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I want to be a farmer.

On most, if not all, days I wake up and quickly remember that life has been amazing to me. It starts with opening my eyes every morning and finding a fantastic partner in crime next to me. And it keeps getting better. The good morning stretch and wag from Neo, the conversation with mom and dad on the way to work, working at a company that makes aircraft engines (planes have been a lifelong fascination and a part of me is amazed I get paid for doing this), conversations with colleagues and the odd chats or calls with close friends & family and then finally an evening spoilt with choices that I infrequently exercise but choices I have nevertheless - running, programming lego robots,   learning to play the guitar, reading a middle earth fantasy book, playing warhammer games with my high elf army at the local games workshop, thinking of ways to contribute to wildlife conservation, dreaming up start ups and finally falling asleep, content. Heck, most things I have wanted to do in my life, I am doing now, even if the degree of doing varies.

Which brings me to one other thing I have always wanted to be. To be a farmer. I am not quite sure when I picked that up as an aspiration but as a kid there were plenty of sources of inspiration - books by Enid Blyton, particularly Six Cousins Again and summer vacations with grand mom soaking in the art of cultivating paddy and raising goats, cows and chickens. I still clearly remember the first time I helped sow paddy seeds when we were short of people on a particular day, I remember taking the goats everyday to their pasture and I remember getting lessons from the boys next door on how to get the attention of a wandering cow while grazing them.

Then the rest of life happened. College, an engineering degree and finally work. As I traveled the world on work life got a lot more complicated in comparison to those summer vacations, life almost got surreal. The most exagerated it ever got was when I would take a flight from the US to India on a Friday and fly back to the US on Monday, and then repeat the exercise again next month. The kid who wanted to just be a farmer had come a long way, almost too long,  and ran the risk of getting lost. But even during all madness a visit to grandmom's place always grounded me, reminded me of who I really was. I would always be the Keeper of the Goats. In the midst of everything else in life I made sure of one thing - that in my lifetime I would always have access to that one place that was the most magical of all places to me.

And then in 2013 we moved to Cincinnati. If there was a list of places where I expected to make progress on the farming dream, Cincinnati would have been at the bottom. But I underestimated the universe. The first twist came when D & me met Drausin & Susan (a D&S coincidence) from Grassroots Farm & Foods at a nearby farmers market. Drausin is a banker turned farmer and Susan is a lawyer, magical cook and weekend farmer. They sell grass-fed lamb & beef and it's been a privilege to get to know such a fantastic and fascinating couple. Their views on life, food, farming and everything else are remarkable and we have learnt so much. They love and respect what they raise (a part of me is still troubled by the fact that the animal is killed in the end...but I do love meat, so thats a contradiction for later resolution) and have created a wonderful farm. They are also followers of Wendell Berry, a farmer whose essays touch my very soul. We have visited their farm a couple of times. D helps them with marketing and cooking samplers and I get to spend time every other Sunday at their stall in the farmers market. Its hard to connect selling aircraft engines and selling grass-fed meat but strangely I relish both and feel at peace. I have a whole new respect for food, something that touches us every day and is so critical to our very existence.

D & me have taken yet another step towards farming. A couple of weeks ago we leased a small garden plot (25ft x 25ft) to grow our own vegetable garden. We were late to start for this season but we have planted every possible seed we could lay our hands on. The evenings have one more choice now - weeding, watering and just relishing.

Who says you can't have it all in this lifetime?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Keep fighting, we must...

The world often times is a depressing place. Just go about your day to day life and many many negative stories will hit you before an inspiring tale makes its way up to you, if at all. On some days you just want to give up the fight and chug through the motions. But maybe we must remember this...

मन करे सो प्राण दे, जो मन करे सो प्राण ले, वही तो एक सर्वशक्तिमान है
कृष्ण की पुकार है, ये भागवत का सार है कि युद्ध ही तो वीर का प्रमाण है
कौरवों की भीड़ हो या पांडवों का नीड़ हो जो लड़ सका है वो ही तो महान है

"Only He can call you. And if there is honor it is in being in the battle ground. Not victory. Not glory. The fight." - Piyush Mishra

So here is my compilation of some fighters and their fights. Some of these people and organizations I have met and experienced, some others I only observe from a distance. I have added a brief summary on each of them and maybe you will take the time to explore them in detail. There are many more, but I just picked the six that have inspired me the most. They all may have an animal theme to them but in the end I think the fight is for whatever makes us human. 

Animal Care Society
This is a no kill shelter that is based in Louisville, USA. This was the first place I volunteered at, way back in 2006. They pick dogs and cats from the city pound where abandoned animals are eventually euthanized, rehabilitate them and put them up for adoptions. The place was run on donations and by a lot of dedicated people, most of whom where unpaid volunteers. The dedication, expertise and professionalism exceeded anything I have seen in the corporate world. You had to pay a fee for every animal you adopted and what always amazed me was how hard it was for anyone to adopt from them. The stringent interview process ensured that a rehabilitated animal went to a forever loving home. Every animal there had a story to tell, a story that made you lose faith in people. But the folks at ACS fight on and in their own way redeem humanity. 

Save The Animals Foundation 
This is yet another no kill shelter based in Cincinnati, USA. D & me have been volunteering at STAF for the last few months. This place is 100% run by volunteers and houses abandoned dogs & cats that are looking for a second chance. This is yet another place that is run really well with the animals being the one and only focus. The fact that everyone is a volunteer is no excuse for any compromise that hurts the animals. There are folks at STAF that have been volunteering there almost for a decade and they are passionate & fierce advocates for the animals...and I think, for humans too. 

Voice of Stray Dogs
This is an organization based in Bangalore,India and is run by Rakesh Shukla.  I first heard of them when we were trying to adopt our Great Dane, Bruno. I have never met Rakesh or worked for VoSD, but the times I have interacted with them through social media or on the phone, I have been super impressed by Rakesh's crusade. VoSD, runs a trauma service for Bangalore's strays among other things. I stole the quote at the top of this post from Rakesh's FB page and from everything I have seen so far, it is apt for him. He reminds me of the impact one person can make, by just fighting the fight that needs to be fought. 

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
I had never heard of this group until I watched the series "Whale Wars". This is a global, non-profit activist group that strives to preserve marine life. Headed by the dynamic "Admiral" Paul Watson this organization has evolved its own unique strategy to take on unscrupulous fishing fleets & governments. Their biggest focus is taking on the Japanese "research" fleet that kills 1000+ whales in the Antarctic every year in the name of science and this they do with their own flotilla of ships that come in between the whales and the harpoons. They also play a key role in highlighting the dolphin slaughter at Taiji and other threats to marine life globally. I fully recommend watching the Nat Geo series "Whale Wars". In a different world Paul Watson would be a hero, in our world he is on the Interpol list. And yet this man doesn't back down and will fight for the whales to the end. He is really fighting for us.

Tiger Watch
This is an NGO based in Ranthambore, India. The organization was founded by Fateh Singh Rathore and is now headed by Dharmendra Khandal. TW has played a big role in ensuring that tigers still remain in Ranthambore National Park. They are heavily involved in anti poaching efforts, educating the locals and the forest department and in being the voice of the forest above all else. D & me we lucky in being able to spend a week with TW on a conservation course and our lives have been different since then. If nothing else we have a deeper understanding of the problems around conservation and I personally found a real life hero who will always inspire me. He is a spider biologist and an academician at heart, and yet he will take on the poaching mafia because they need to be taken on. He will make a stand. We should all be standing with him.  

Sanctuary Asia
This is not an organization but a wildlife magazine based in India founded by Bittu Sahgal. I first picked up a copy in college and have been mesmerized since then. There are tales of beauty, greed, courage, cruelty and hope and for the longest time this was the only wildlife focused magazine in India that educated people on India's beautiful forests and the challenges of preserving them for posterity. We had the privilege of listening to one of Bittu's talks in Bangalore.  Despite all the despair and mindless destruction that he witnesses as he crafts his stories this is a man that will fight the fight till he is finished. 

Fight on, folks! 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Being Human...

Yesterday D & me were driving back to Ottapalam after a trip to visit family in Guruvayur. It was about three in the afternoon and the weather was unusually hot for a late December afternoon. That or I was simply spoilt by the weather in Bangalore. D was driving and I was just staring vacantly at the road. A few kilometers before Ottapalam we spotted a man walking along the side of the highway. The only reason we paid him any attention was the manner of his walk. His head was somewhat hunched and he was just limping along. Even at a distance, and despite the fact that we were cruising along, it was evident that it was a troubled and painful walk. D, being D, pulled the car over to the side and asked me to check on the man and to determine if we could give him a lift. I have to admit, at that very moment, my head scrambled to find a reason for not stopping to talk to that man - he could be drunk, he could be a thief, a scamster etc. Any number of reasons to convince myself that I ought not to react to that scene. Nevertheless I walked up to him.

He was wearing a pant and a shirt, had a bag on his shoulder and was probably seventy years or so. He was sweating profusely in the afternoon heat and as I got closer it was evident that he had suffered from a stroke. One half of his body was almost paralysed and he couldn't even look up at me properly. I asked him where he was headed and he said it was to a nearby market and it was to repair a torch he had purchased recently. I asked him if we could drop him off at the market. He quietly agreed and with some difficulty managed to get into the car. A few minutes later we were at the market. I got off the car to help him out. He struggled again to get out of the car. He then shook my hand and told me (in Malayalam) that he hoped that he hadn't put us through too much trouble. I told him that it was no trouble and asked him why he was attempting to walk in his condition instead of taking an auto. His response was jumbled but I gathered that he didn't have enough money. I think it was then than the dam gates opened. Struggling to hold it together I mumbled something incoherently, stuffed some money in his hand, asked him to get an auto back and jumped back into the car. And wept. D couldn't hold herself back either.

Later, as I pondered over the meltdown I realised that I had not witnessed a unique one off tragedy. Every day I come across instances like this, people or even animals in need. And yet, almost every time I convince myself that there is a reason I shouldn't react. I am numb to such things. At best I would feel bad but I would do nothing about it. Although I never stated it explicitly, implicitly I accepted that such things happen and that it wasn't my place to try and make a difference. D reacts to these situations differently.She never over thinks anything, but just reacts from the gut. In the two years I have known her, she has bought home a puppy that followed her on the road, scooped a half dead pigeon from the road and allowed it to die a dignified death on our balcony, saved a hawk fledgling from the crows, adopted a four year old Great Dane, run around a street, bun in hand, trying to keep an injured dog distracted until help arrived, distributed excess balloons from a party to every kid she met on the road, bought McD burgers for two kids that were on the other side of the restaurant window and yes, it was her idea to stop the car yesterday as well. In almost all these instances I have, at a minimum, feebly protested at whatever she was trying to do. D is a tough cookie on the road and is quick to cut down the offending driver that crosses her path. But unlike me she isn't numb to the suffering she sees. Even better, she actively reacts vs. passively sympathising.

I've read that situations are presented in our lives so that we have an opportunity to react. So that we can come up with our best and brightest response to that situation and in doing so define who we are and what we stand for. Sadly, over time, and especially as adults we become conditioned to accept situations we would have never accepted as kids. Slowly the kindness and generosity is bled out from us and replaced with doubt and selfishness. We walk away from that sick and struggling stranger on the road, we walk away from the injured dog with the broken leg on the roadside, slowly and surely we walk away from being human.

As I ponder over a year that has gone by and reset my goals for the year that is to come, I raise a silent toast to the D's that still exist in our midst. She isn't the only one I know, and while they seem to be few and far in between, they do exist...the ones that remind me of what it really means to be human. And I promise myself not to be numb, not to conveniently walk away...but instead to offer my highest response to every moment and every situation.

To being human. Cheers!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Stripes & Patches

Finally D & me are gearing up for our first step into unchartered terrain...

The idea of Stripes & Patches began in May 2011 at Ranthambore, the tiger heartland of Rajasthan. We are avid animal lovers who were trying to figure out ways to make a difference to conservation efforts and chanced upon a course conducted by Tiger Watch, a Ranthambore based NGO. The week long course exposed us to how complex the problem of conservation was, and provoked more questions than providing answers which probably was what Dr. Dharmendra Kandhal, who heads Tiger Watch, intended for to achieve. Tiger Watch followed a two pronged approach to saving the tiger - on one hand it actively and aggressively cracked down on poachers while on the other hand it sought to understand and address the socio-economic causes that drove many of the local Mogiya tribals to become poachers. Dhonk, headed by Divya Shrivastava works with Tiger Watch and attempts to provide locals with alternative livelihood which would then wean them off the need to exploit the forest and its denizens. The efforts of Tiger Watch and Dhonk are yielding real results at Ranthambore. Our experiences with both these organizations coupled with our entrepreneurship zeal sparked the creation of Stripes & Patches.

Stripes & Patches is inspired by the striped lord of the jungles and is our small patch that attempts to weave into the larger fabric of conservation. Through Stripes & Patches we want to create a self-sustaining platform that showcases products that are made by people who otherwise are dependent on the forest as a primary source of their livelihood thereby reducing the pressure on the already threatened forest cover and wildlife. Through these products we also hope to spread the message of conservation because in our heart we believe that if the tiger goes, we will go too.

“The air we breathe and the water we drink stem from the biodiversity of the universal environment and its economics. The tiger is at the center of this truth. If it goes, we go!”
—Billy Arjan Singh

Stripes & Patches on FB: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Stripes-Patches/340417622668418

Monday, April 26, 2010

God's Forsaken

As a kid, family trips invariably meant trips to temples in Kerala with the Krishna temple at Guruvayur being the most popular destination. My fascination for elephants probably started there. Stories of Guruvayur Kesavan and the sights of the fully caparisoned elephants during the temple rituals captivated me. I would stand spell bound and watch these giants for hours together, prayers to the gods were almost an afterthought. The sight of an elephant was always the highlight of any trip to Kerala. Until recently a trip to Guruvayur temple to watch the night “shiveli” was my idea of a spiritual reset. The combination of the traditional drumbeats, the wicker lamps and the caparisoned elephants always mesmerized me. The local temple “pooram” was also the high point of my summer vacations at my granny’s place. Twenty plus elephants lined up, with the tallest one carrying the god/goddess, the spectacle was magnificent enough for me to believe that even the gods were having a grand time. The Thrissur pooram has for long been considered the “pooram of all poorams” and it has always been on my mind to witness this event as well. So when I realized that the day of the pooram coincided with my trip home with some friends, I decided to make that trip to Thrissur. Much has been published about this event and a simple web search would provide as much information and photographs as you ever care to see. This post really isn’t about the Thrissur pooram.

I am a self-professed animal lover. I also eat all kinds of meat, I have murdered fishes by the hundreds as part of my tropical fish-keeping hobby, and I have owned and continue to have a fascination for purebred dogs. My life’s ambitions include owning a pet store. I have always sensed the obvious contradiction, but haven’t had the will power to resolve them or question my primary premises. Until now.

I enjoyed the Thrissur pooram just as much as anyone else standing in that multitude of people did. In fact I walked away feeling quite privileged to witness to such a wonderful spectacle. What first set off the fuses in my head was news of one of the elephants collapsing due to sheer fatigue in the middle of the pooram. The next was probably the sight of an elephant on a lorry during the drive back home. I spent the next day looking up the general conditions of domestic elephants on the web. What I found has left me appalled. In truth though, what’s shocked me even more is that I always knew these things existed but did nothing about it. I mean, was I naïve enough to just assume that the temple elephants were just born this way? Had I never seen an elephant being punished by his mahout? Had I never read newspaper reports of elephant deaths at the hands of drunken mahouts? Like all other contradictions in my life, I just chose to ignore inconvenient facts. Mea culpa. Mea máxima culpa.

The following videos are extremely disturbing.



I am now forced to ask myself what was so spectacular about the sight of elephants lined up pressed to each other for hours together in the sweltering heat, chained with heavy irons and prodded by their mahouts, listening to sounds and noises that distress them and carrying a bunch of people who keep waving some umbrellas and other colorful items. Spectacular perhaps, if the intent was a demonstration of man’s might. Shameful surely, if the intent was to celebrate divinity. Man does much in the name of the Gods, but if a God’s sense of festivities did in fact require activities of this nature, one would have to do a rethink on all matters divine. I am tempted to condemn mankind and its cruel ways. But of what use is condemning myself. I may have not been the prime perpetuator of many of these atrocities, but was I not an essential part of the charade?

I am confused right now. It will be a while before I can make sense of what I feel and decide on what I can do about it. For now I do know that the night shiveli at Guruvayur will no longer be a spiritual reset. They maybe denizens of God’s own country, but for these four legged giants on duty divine, God’s forsaken might be a more apt title.

An animal lover I can call myself no more. At least, not yet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright...

It is the Chinese year of the tiger. And yet the year started with Billy Arjan Singh, passionate tiger conservationist, creator of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve and my personal hero, passing on to the happy hunting grounds. It is also the year when I had the privilege of encountering the Royal Bengal in his home range at Bandipur – a moment that will forever be etched in my mind. I can’t quite figure out when my love for animals started. As a kid, I was guilty of committing innumerable acts of cruelty on all things small and living with many ants, beetles, lizards and other such denizens of my garden being at the receiving end of my war games. I was also terrified of dogs with “Japan” my landlord’s dog and “Jimmy” the neighbour’s crazed dog being the prime antagonists. Somewhere, somehow, all that changed quite dramatically. It could have been the temple elephants I was fascinated by and felt sorry for during my trips to Kerala. It could have been “Shiva” and “Parvathi” the pair of lions and their cubs at the Coimbatore zoo. It almost definitely involved “Puppy”, the Labrador retriever owned by the Coimbatore prison jailor. There were books by Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and James Herriot and the Walt Disney movies “A Tiger Walks, “The Bears & I”, Free Willy”. And then a memory that stands out…the book section in Reader’s Digest titled “Eelie and the big cats” from the book by Billy. The book describes his tales with Tara – the tigress, Prince, Harriet and Juliet – the leopards and Eelie – the adopted stray that ruled the roost. I was captivated. I wanted to be Billy.

One of the items on my bucket list has been to meet Billy and as I reflected on my New Year resolutions in December 09’, I resolved to make an attempt to go to Dudhwa this year. I’ve been living life on the mindless fast lane for the last few years and in many ways had let my heart trail my mind. It therefore hit me quite hard to wake up on Jan1st 2010 to the news of Billy’s death. I have never believed in coincidences, and I felt the universe’s nudge once again. The heart began to assert itself over the mind and I resolved in all earnestness to keep it that way.

I’ve been visiting tiger reserves for a decade now, and had never spotted a tiger before. But when I set out on the safari on an early, misty February morning in Bandipur, I somehow felt that the moment was right. On cue, “Agasthiya”, the 12-year resident male majestically and almost magically appeared. To many, sighting a tiger in the wild might be just another exciting experience, but at the risk of sounding dramatic, in a very inexplicable way that moment meant much more to me. There are truly no coincidences. Thanks Billy! I will always hear you roar. And I will always remember what you said, “If the tiger goes, we go too…”

I may have found a calling in life…