While we were engrossed in watching a group of Griffon Vultures, I saw a pair of birds flying side by side, the ends of their wings almost touching each other. They were gliding and turning over in flight, each one keeping pace with the other. I wondered what they were, till one of them settled down in a branch afar. I took a good look and it was the Egyptian Vulture.
My first sighting of it was almost two decades ago, on the banks of Nelliguda lake in Bidadi on the outskirts of Bangalore. When I was looking through the binocular, I could sight an odd looking, pale, medium sized bird with a yellow face and a thin, long bill. It was unlike anything I had seen before. A quick glimpse of Salim Ali’s book informed me that it was an Egyptian Vulture. To my amazement, it was busy picking up a stone and throwing it on something on the ground. I got to know that it is one of those rare birds that can use tools! I was fascinated by its ingenuity!
As its name suggests, the Egyptian Vulture was the sacred bird of the ancient Pharaohs: its appearance is immortalized in the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet as the letter ‘A’. Since the ancient Egyptians thought that all vultures were female and were spontaneously born from eggs without the intervention of a male, they linked these birds to purity and motherhood. They were held to be sacred to the mother goddess Isis and were also themselves elevated to the rank of a deity as Nekhbet, patron of Upper Egypt and nurse of the Pharaoh. The priestesses of Nekhbet wore garments of white vulture feathers, and the goddess herself was often portrayed as a vulture-headed woman, her wings spread to provide protection. Her cult was in fact linked to the eternal cycle of death and rebirth because of the vulture's role in the food chain as a scavenger and its supposed parthenogenesis.
Although vultures figure prominently in ancient Egyptian mythology, they are also important in other cultures. They appear in Greek mythology, where Zeus transformed two enemies - Aegypius and Neophron - into vultures: the former became a Bearded Vulture, and the latter an Egyptian Vulture. This became the source of the Egyptian Vulture's Latin name, Neophron percnopterus. The latter half of the name is said to come from combining two Greek words: perknos, which means "dark", and pteros, which means "winged."
In Turkey and Bulgaria, the Egyptian Vulture is commonly referred to as akbuba, "white father". There is a story about one of these birds saving Muhammad from the claws of the golden eagle. According to this legend, the vulture was rewarded with eternal life and gained its white plumage as a symbol of purity, wisdom, and bravery.
The Egyptian Vulture also appears in the Bible with the name of râchâm, often translated as "gier-eagle". It is only mentioned as an "unclean" bird that should not be eaten. In fact the Egyptian Vulture is a very clean animal, as its feathers are disinfected by the UV light of the sun during flight, and its stomach acid kills off any bacteria it might have ingested. Further, its name contains the root for "love": since these birds are almost always seen in mated pairs.
Orally transmitted since centuries, these legends make obvious its status as a sacred bird. Alas in modern times it is often denigrated as a scavenger.
It is saddening that such an amazing bird and one that bears such cultural significance through history, is currently threatened by human activities. In the last fifty years there has been a sharp decline in its numbers, and the Egyptian Vulture is currently in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The causes of this sad decline have to do with pesticide poisoning, lead poisoning, the use of antibiotics on cattle and habitat destruction. If the trend is not reversed, there is a very real chance that all that will be left of this strikingly unusual bird would be just ancient myths.
There is a story of a Pharaoh who punished whoever killed these birds with death, making it the first ever protected bird species in history! Not surprisingly, this bird was also called “Pharaoh’s child”.
Wonder who is going to care for this child in these times when concern for environment seems to be least of the priorities in body politic.
I am not new to the world
Once I conquered the majestic skies
Now I crave for fresh air
My breath lost
In defiled fields…
While we were birding in the Great Rann of Kutch in the company of Mr Jugal Tiwari whose knowledge of the Rann of Kutch is unsurpassed, I was quite enchanted by the melodious call tune of his mobile. One day I couldn’t hide my curiosity and asked him what bird it was, and he replied that it is the call of the White-naped Tit. It was very impressive to hear that he had assiduously studied the bird for over a decade with many research publications to his credit.
Mesmerized by his account, I was keen to have a glimpse of this often elusive bird.
Next day, early morning we drove down to a thorn forest where the bird had been sighted. We searched the terrain in early morning light for some time and suddenly we could hear the characteristic sweet melodious call of the White naped Tit.
We started scanning the trees and there it was, a little bird, scuttling busily among the branches.
It was a sight to behold. Photographing it was an extremely difficult task due to the speed at which it was moving through the branches in search of food. But watching it delicately making its way with an occasional musical whistling note was itself an enthralling experience.
On the way back, Mr Tiwari spoke to me at length about the travails of the White naped Tit. With little importance given to thorn-scrub forests, the globally threatened White-naped Tit is getting pushed towards extinction. Cutting thorn-scrub forest for fuelwood and illegal charcoal making, clearance for agricultural land and settlement construction, and over-grazing are principal causes for its habitat loss. The species nests in cavities in old trees, many of which are now being razed down, leading to nesting failure. In Kutch alone an estimated hundred Acacia trees per day are felled for the collection of twigs for toothbrush manufacture.
There are two separate populations of the bird in India. One is found in the thorn forests of Gujarat and Rajasthan and the other in the states of Karnataka, Kerala & Tamil Nadu. Endemic to India, recent surveys have found the species to be scarce and declining (maximum 3,500-15,000 individuals) across its range and absent from many previously occupied areas.
Despite intense efforts to look for the White-naped Tit even Salim Ali was unable to locate the species in its South Indian range and he wrote: “Unfortunately, the survey failed to come across this tit in spite of a very special look-out for it, and the species is obviously very rare in S. India”.
Recently, retracing Salim Ali’s “Mysore Birding Diary”, Dr Subramaniam and colleagues made an effort to locate the elusive bird in the Sathyamangalam range. Even though they heard what sounded like the call of the White naped Tit, they were unable to find it.
In Tamil Nadu, the White-naped Tit is known to occur only in Salem district till date.
It was indeed a precious moment to sight this dainty little bird,,,
As you urgently flit
High among bare branches
My heart flutters
With your wings
Watching your joyous, undulating flight
A strange sense of stillness
Settles within me
On the last day of our memorable sojourn at the Great Rann Of Kutch (thanks to the ever inspiring Mr Tiwari), we headed down to Modhva for some birding on the coast. Modhva is about six kilometers from the town of Mandvi. When we reached there, the town was unusually crowded as it was the day of Sankaranthi. People dressed in their finery thronged everywhere, many of them holding onto to very colorful kites. We decided to grab a bite of lunch before heading to Modhva. All the restaurants were jam packed. Finally we found one after waiting for a hour to get a seat. After a simple, tasty lunch we made our way to Modhva.
The beach at Modhva was completely deserted, except for an occasional fisherman returning from the sea with the day’s catch. The beach was spotless; the waves of the azure sea caressed the spotless beach gently with many birds foraging for the bounty that a fresh wave brought in. I was totally enraptured watching them silently at work.
As we made our way across the sands, Mr Tiwari told us about the behavioral patterns of many of the birds. We were truly entranced by his immeasurable knowledge of the avian world. Nearby we could see many greater flamingoes daintily making their way across the sands like trained ballerinas.
While I was lost in the magical scene in front of me, Mr Tiwari gently tapped my shoulder and with much excitement whispered, “Look at that bird which is walking among the oyster catchers doctor, it is the Indian Skimmer!”
And there it was... a single bird with a black and white plumage, black head cap, white face and collar and a distinctive long, thick, bright orange bill with a yellow tip. The colorful bill was quite unique in that the upper mandible was shorter than the lower one. Mr Tiwari told us that the bird is also known as the Indian Scissors-bill because of this unique configuration resembling a knife, which helps it to skim through the surface of the water, picking up aquatic prey. Flying a few inches above water, the skimmer drops its elongated lower mandible under the surface and moves over the water until its bill comes into contact with a fish, at which point it reflexively snaps shut! In doing so, they also need to be able to protect their retinas from bright sand and reflections off the water. To do this, skimmers’ pupils close vertically, forming thin slits that act as natural sunglasses. Skimmers are the only birds in the world with this kind of a mechanism.
The Indian Skimmer’s stronghold is the Chambal River and it was very strange to see a lonely one on the coast of Kutch. I wonder whether the Indian Skimmer might have arrived in Kutch, beyond their usual distribution range, looking for new habitats! Incidentally they have been reported in other far off places like Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu!
We were very lucky to have had a glimpse of this unusual bird. Even the bird man of India, Salim Ali was not so lucky as he didn’t spot one during his bird surveys in Kutch during the 40’s.
It is a sad story for the Indan Skimmers like many others in the wildlife scenario in India especially in recent times. They are declining in numbers and there are just around 2500 in India. The International Union For Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), has classified the bird as a “Vulnerable” species as its population is declining drastically, a direct consequence of widespread degradation and disturbance of lowland rivers, lakes and other wetlands.
When flamingo sanctuaries are sacrificed to provide way for the bullet train, what chance does this beautiful bird has to survive?!
In these times when human need and greed are so salient, it is the skimmer attached to the ATM machine which is in public consciousness rather than the perilous plight of this bird.
It was our second day in the Great Rann of Kutch. The first day was quite extraordinary. We saw an amazing array of raptors…about them a little later!
We were keen to have a glimpse of the elusive Hypocolius. It has been a difficult bird to find because its entire breeding terrain is in the politically disturbed countries of Iraq and Iran. Birders used to look for it in the Arabian Peninsula and still do, but in the early 1990s a wintering population was found in the Kutch district of Gujarat by Shri Jugal Tiwari.
How often can you have the company of the person who was the first to report its presence in India? We were blessed indeed to have his wonderful company and all of us set out early in the morning in search of the elusive bird.
Shri Jugal Tiwari is an institution. Birding has been his passion and vocation for a long time and he has enriched our understanding of their habitats through several research publications. Notwithstanding his impressive stature, he is such a genial, friendly person with whom one connects immediately.
We passed through a thorn forest and scrub land and Shri Jugal Tiwari pointed out to a rather nondescript tree and mentioned that it is Slavadora Persica, often referred to as Miswak or tooth brush tree. Its branches have been used for centuries to clean the teeth. We have been using Meswak toothpaste for quite a while and saw the origins of it for the first time! It is mentioned that Prophet Mohammed recommended the use of Miswak for oral hygiene.
Hypocollius seems to prefer this tree and we waited patiently, scanning the branches for its presence. Shri Jugal Tiwari whispered that it was hiding in the tree in front of us and we waited with bated breath for its appearance.
We could see it fluttering through the leaves and finally after sometime, it came up onto the top branch of the tree to offer us a good glimpse. It was a slim bird with a long tail, slight crest and thick, short bill. Its shape and soft, satiny plumage was that of a waxwing. We could have easily mistaken it for a bulbul from a distance. Over the next few minutes we saw several of them flitting from one tree to another.
Why is it so special to have a glimpse of Hypocolius?
There are very few birds that form a single species and single genus and these are often referred to as “monospecific families”, also known as “monotypic families”…they are one of kind!
A few years ago I went in search of one such species..the Ibis Bill in Nameri. Little did I know that spotting this bird would involve floating down the Jia Bhoroli river in a makeshift coracle. I gingerly stepped into to it while it was already swaying alarmingly with the tide. As we were going down the river, the boatman excitedly pointed out to the presence of the Ibis Bill which was sauntering across the rocks on the banks. It was a memorable experience to have a glimpse of it in the fading light of the evening. But soon it began to rain and we were steered towards the rocky banks. The boatman just turned the coracle upside down and it offered us protection as an umbrella against the onslaught of rain. That we continued to sail through the river for the next few hours despite the downpour is another story!
There are birds that one has heard of or seen in books that captures the imagination, but never had a chance to see...and then one day, there it is in front of you, as if some mythical creature has stepped out of a storybook and come to life. There's no thrill quite like it.
It is these moments that makes birding an unforgettable experience!
There are moments in which we feel an intense connection with the world around us. In many of my sojourns into nature, I have experienced a deep tranquility emanating from around and settling within me. These are moments of indescribable transcendence filled with intense joy.
One such occasion was when I was birding two years ago in the grasslands of Nannaj. It was a hot, humid afternoon. After walking around in the beautiful grasslands, savoring its riches, with hosts of larks and sandgrouses keeping company with us, we settled down in a hideout with the hope of sighting one of the most elusive of birds in the subcontinent:the great Indian bustard.
We must have spent several hours sitting in the hideout, fervently hoping for a glimpse of the bird. What unraveled over the course of next few hours will remain deeply entrenched in my memory. A male great Indian bustard gently made its way across the barren land several yards in front of us, where there was a pool of water. Soon it engaged in a display of its finery and to our great amazement and surprise, a petite female walked across! What happened in the next few hours was an experience to cherish. The male stood with its head held back as much as possible, its tail cocked, wings drooping down. It slowly started inflating the gular pouch which was now hanging like a balloon in front of the legs. It produced a deep moaning call to further highlight the effect. But the female did not appear to be too interested and kept a safe distance. As the male wandered off into the grasslands, the female kept pace. We lost sight of the female soon after, as she went deep inside the grasslands. Meanwhile the male continued to engage in elaborate displays. Time was ticking by and the sun was setting in the horizon. In that magical moment in fading light, the female walked out and laid herself down on the ground. The male tapped her on the head a few times and after a brief while mated with her. It was a moment of intense exaltation to watch them as the setting sun caressed the grasslands with golden hues. It was also a moment tinged with sadness about the fragile existence of these majestic birds.
When I went back to Solapur a few weeks ago, I was informed that there are no more great Indian bustards in the Nannaj grasslands. It was a great shock to me that these magnificent birds were no more in their natural habitat…a habitat that is being eroded mercilessly by human avarice and ill conceived plans of industrialization by those in power. Despite their tremendous biodiversity, the grasslands are in throes of grave peril. With their habitat dwindling over time, the great Indian bustard has also vanished from Nannaj.
Soon after my return, by sheer chance I came upon a book by Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. It is a remarkable oeuvre. It focuses on the precarious lives of five bird species, including the Indian vulture. Van Dooren raises many ethical questions about human complicity in their fragile existence. His concepts of the ‘dull age of extinction’ in which their ‘flight ways’ are compromised are useful frameworks to explore the plight of endangered birds. I was particularly moved by his narration of what life is like for those endangered birds who must live on the edge of extinction, balanced between life and oblivion, protecting the young and yet at the same time grieving for their dead. His narration is quite poignant, outlining ways in which we can care for these birds in peril.
Reading Flight Ways also reminded me of another gem of nature writing; The Moth Snowstorm; Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy. He wrote, “The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us”.
But often nature is framed as a resource, by viewing forests, trees and the grasslands, in this instance at Nannaj, as economic and marketable entities to satisfy ever-growing human needs….and in the process, the existence and survival of birds like the great Indian bustard is lost sight of.
I was also reminded of Denise Levertov’s poem about our ambivalent relationship with nature, which I quote in full below..
We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it “Nature”; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be “Nature” too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we’ve been, when we’re caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.
It is an evocative reflection of our inability to see ourselves as part of nature, except for those fleeting moments in our sojourns in the wild, when we feel in tune with it.
Wonder whether it will last for long…
Glimpses of an earlier account of the great Indian bustard from an earlier sojourn is at: www.profraguram.com/musings--reflections/at-the-edge-of-extinction1
A few photos from the recent visit at: photos.app.goo.gl/NHi2ZiveLtszwYvK6
Kindly post your comments here...
My first experience of war was when I was eleven years old. The unexpected incursion by the Chinese after vowing allegiance to the principles of Panchasheel, took everyone by surprise. Needless to say, the ill prepared Indian army incurred heavy losses and even in down south in Chennai, we feared that the enemy may attack us anytime.
The only time in history when Chennai came under a hostile attack by the enemy was during the second world war when a German ship Emden sneaked close to the harbor of the city and fired a volley of shells in the middle of the night. I heard from my father about the ensuing panic and people fleeing the city in droves. He had to stay put as he was working in the Tamilnadu police. Our neighbor, who later became a judge of the Madras High Court, once took us to the high court complex to show us the spot hit by an Emden shell.
With this unsettling incident deeply embedded in the memory of the Madras populace, the city swung into action to prepare for an assault by the Chinese. All the glass windows in the house were covered with black paper overnight and frequent drills were carried out with air raid sirens to prepare us as to what should be our response in the advent of an air attack.
Thankfully, in spite of our worst fears, the Chinese never ventured south…
Looking back, as a child I felt very vulnerable and feared that the worst might happen anytime.
All wars leave a deep imprint . . .
One of the most iconic images of children caught in the midst of war is the picture of a young girl running naked down on a road, screaming in pain after a napalm attack incinerated her clothes and her skin during the Vietnam war.
There were more such unsettling images when Ahalya and myself watched Ken Burn’s searing documentary “The Vietnam War”. It is an encyclopedic account of the war running for 18 hours. Burns and his partner Novick have an amazing skill for making an immensely complex story, comprehensible.
The documentary begins with the sound of helicopter blades whirring. Vietnam War was mostly fought from above. Thirty six million sorties were made by the helicopters during the war! And in the final episode you see the last helicopter leaving the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.
How was this war fought?
Even by the standards of 20th century warfare, America’s war in Vietnam was harsh and brutal. Three times the munitions used in all theatres of World War II were dropped over Vietnam. For a decade, the world’s most powerful air force dropped every explosive and incendiary substance known to man, along with a hefty dose of dioxin-based herbicide, Agent Orange. The My Lai massacre was the most horrific atrocity of the Vietnam War when American soldiers herded and slaughtered scores of terrified unarmed villagers.
More than 58,000 Americans died during the full arc of the war, an estimated quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers, and anywhere from 1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese in total; many of the latter died from explosives dropped by U.S. bombers.
The mainstream media portrayal of Vietnam War has largely been through Hollywood films like the ‘Apocalypse Now’. In all these films the north and south Vietnamese people were nameless extras playing the enemy. What is distinctive about ‘The Vietnam War’ is its focus on both sides of the war. There are numerous, deeply moving narratives of men and women from both sides who fought the war. An American soldier sums up the nightmare of killing a stranger by saying, “That wasn’t the only casualty. The other casualty was the civilized version of me.” Often the point of view of the Vietnamese witnesses is consistently deeper and more philosophical than that of the Americans.
For a country that never faced major invasions, it is perplexing to understand America’s aggressive postures, which continue till now. It sits uneasily with the country’s constant trumpeting of the importance of individual freedom and its conviction that it is a force for good in the world.
What made the Vietnam War uniquely horrifying was the sheer pointlessness of it all.
The futility of Vietnam War is poignantly recaptured by its most celebrated writer, Bao Ninh in his classic novel, The Sorrow Of War. Kien, the prime narrator in the novel comments “In this war people have unmasked themselves and revealed their true, horrible selves. So much blood, so many lives were sacrificed for what?"
I was also reminded the powerful book on Syrian war, “We crossed the bridge and it trembled” by Wendy Pearlman. It chronicles the messy conflict and the worst humanitarian crisis after World War II through moving narratives. A young man maimed in the war comments, "In this whole thing you don't matter. You as an individual - your aspirations, your ideas about what is right…mean absolutely nothing. All this suffering is for nothing…it is futile”.
As Wilfred Owen poignantly wrote in his poem “Anthem For Doomed Youth”;
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
It is a strange fact that the traumatic debris of war inspires and animates creativity.
Burns and Novick bring us no immediate hope or assurance or comfort in their epic portrayal of the Vietnam War, but they make us question as to what it is to be human.
It is a reminder that the seeds of war perhaps lie buried within all of us …
Feel free to post your comments here . . .
When we walked into the precincts of the Ekambareswarar Temple in Kanchipuram, we were surprised and were overwhelmed by its sheer size. It is one of the largest temple complexes in Kanchipuram. But alas, our wonder lasted just a few minutes. As we ambled along its corridors, we were deeply saddened to witness the sheer callousness and negligence that engulfed us. Electric wires, ropes and sundry items were carelessly strung around the beautifully carved pillars, defacing carefully etched works of art. Yet despite these man-made disfigurements, the pillars still exude a wonderful charm and beauty.
This is all the more poignant in the context of one of the legends associated with the temple. According to folklore, it is believed that Parvati worshipped Shiva in the form of a Prithivi Linga, made of sand, under a mango tree. One day, Vegavati River overflowed and threatened to engulf the Shiva Linga. To avoid it being swept away Parvati embraced the Linga. Touched by the gesture, Shiva appeared in person and married her. Hence he is also referred to as Tazhuva kuzhainthaar ("He who melted in her embrace") in Tamil. Hardly would Shiva have envisioned the kind of embrace that is strangling these beautiful pillars!
The neglect is not just confined to the pillars. More than fifteen years ago, the Skanda idol that is part of an exquisite Chola era Somaskanda bronze idol dating back to the tenth century went missing. The Somaskanda bronzes are a renowned icon in South India – it consists of Skanda as a child, flanked by his parents Shiva and Parvathi. The Ekambareswarar temple too once had such a magnificent Chola bronze. A replacement was quietly kept in its place and devotees have since then been worshipping it, no questions asked.
Twenty five years after the loss of the Skanda icon, the temple priests along with the executive officer submitted a proposal to create a new Somaskanda bronze idol, as the original metal idol had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be taken out in procession. The chief sthapati (architect) of the temple inspected the original idol and determined that it was composed principally, about 75 per cent in his estimate, of gold. Permission was obtained to re-cast the idol but the quantity of metals to be used differed from the original. The idol, whose total weight was 50kg, was to contain metals in the ratio of 80 per cent copper, 12 per cent brass, 2 per cent tin, 1 per cent silver and only 5 per cent gold. Posters were put up to collect gold for the new idol. The new idol was readied and consecrated. However, some devotees grew suspicious and questioned as to what was the real content of the idol. Further enquiries and investigation revealed that there was no gold in the newly made idol in spite of the temple authorities collecting more than 5kg of gold for it. The mystery of the missing gold still remains unsolved!
It is tragic that temples which are not merely places of worship but depositories of rich architectural and aesthetic heritage have been systematically plundered, pillaged and defaced over time.
This is not a comfortable narrative.
But I hope that the beauty of these pillars that have stood the ravages of time and years of neglect assuage your discomfort…
Have a look at them at: photos.app.goo.gl/BbDPtuosNb5HRYP6A
And feel free to post your comments here and not in Google Photos!
Last week was a memorable one. Fifty years after entering the medical school at JIPMER, our batch of 1968 met for a Golden Jubilee Reunion. We spent two days renewing our ties and refreshing our memories. Recollecting the times I had spent in JIPMER and the people I had shared those times with, was like rewinding an old tape.
In the process of winding tape back, I was also reminiscing about how I got into JIPMER. Paraphrasing in the words of recently deceased VS Naipaul, “there’s no landscape as interesting and intriguing as the landscape of our memories.”
All my early education was in Tamil at the Ramakrishna Mission School, Chennai. We had some exceptional teachers, most notable among them Sri TS Ranganathan, who taught us English and Science. He was also an amazing tennis player with a booming service. Clad in his panchakacham - five yards of dhoti tucked in five places - he had a dominating presence on the court. It was always a demanding and humbling experience to face him on the other side of the court.
Having completed SSLC, I had two months of a breather. The practice in those days was to ensure that boys learnt typewriting and short hand, to prepare them for a career at least as a clerk if nothing else worked out. Every day in the typing institute I sat in front of an ageing typewriter and monotonously typed the lessons, starting from asdfgf;lkjhj! Somehow I passed the lower grade typewriting exam.
The next task was to prepare for further studies in college where English would be the medium. It can be a daunting task for a person who had spent all his formative years learning in his mother tongue. Fortunately, the British Council started a program called the Bridge Course to prepare students who had studied in their mother tongue to switch over to English as a medium of instruction. It was a wonderful experience. We were exposed to the nuances of the language in all its forms.
Exposure to English opened up an entirely new vista of exploration. I started devouring English books and novels, often finishing a book a day. This was also made easy through daily expeditions to the Eswari Lending Library on the bicycle. Awash with books, it had a lovely feel. The owner ( I forget his name), used to silently hand me yet another stack of books when I returned the previous pile. Accompanying my mother to the Connemara Public Library was yet another enriching experience.
Between learning typing and losing myself in the new found love of the English language, I also spent time discovering the beauty of Batik painting under the tutelage of the famed artist Krishnamurthi. I spent countless hours, often extending late into the night, testing my prowess in the new medium. Krishnamurthy introduced me not just to painting but also to the enchanting world of aesthetics.
The SSLC results came in and having done well, I got into Loyola College. Among all the subjects, I fell in love with physics, thanks to a wonderful teacher, CC Ouseph, who also authored the text book which we studied. I made it to the principal’s merit list in physics in the first term thanks to his inspiring inputs. I also got interested in the innards of biological processes through dissecting slimy frogs and delicate cockroaches. Altogether, it was a fun filled period of learning. With the stimulating ambiance and efforts of great teachers, I secured distinction in all the subjects in the final exams.
Now it was time to plan the next move. Hailing from a family of doctors (my grandfather and grand uncle were doctors), the choice was made clear. I applied for admission to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu and patiently awaited the call for the interview. When the call came, I gingerly walked into a big room full of stern looking people. I sat nervously on the chair. The imposing man in the center asked me in a booming voice, “What is your caste?” I murmured the answer in reply, looking forward to the next question. There was none. They asked me to leave. I wondered what the purpose of the question was and the mystery was revealed shortly after: I was not among the selected candidates, in spite of scoring impressively in the qualifying exam.
It was a traumatic experience in many ways. A sense of exclusion, not entirely of my making had a demoralizing impact on me. Needless to say, this must have been an unnerving experience for many in the past who have faced discrimination based on man-made separations systematized by social institutions.
While I was ruing this unanticipated setback, a small envelope landed at home one day. It was from JIPMER, informing me to take the entrance examination at Pondicherry. The letter carried a ray of hope. I made the journey to Pondicherry, travelling alone for the first time out of Chennai on my own. I stayed with a relative of ours and to my pleasant surprise found V who was also taking the exam at this place. On the exam day, there were hordes of students and anxious parents thronging the school where it took place. The examination itself was a smooth process and I didn’t find it tough. As I made my way back to Chennai, I was wondering whether I would be able to make it among the several thousands who took the exam.
Several weeks later another envelope arrived from JIPMER. I opened it tentatively, preparing myself for the worst and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a call for an interview. The letter also specified that I would have to pay the fees on the same day that the results were announced. Taking cognizance of the fact that arranging money at a short notice would be a daunting task for my parents, I told them that since Pondicherry wasn’t too far, I would make a trip immediately once I was selected and take the money back to pay the fees.
On the interview day, all of us waited patiently in a room adjacent to where the interview was taking place. Anxious students were brushing up their knowledge with books with restless parents hovering around them. But among them all was M who was sitting quietly reading Adventures of Father Brown by GK Chesterton. Occasionally his face would burst into a repressed guffaw and a tentative chuckle. I envied his calm and cool demeanor in a sea of apprehension.
Worried parents stationed themselves outside the interview room, asking the students who finished their interviews as to what questions were being asked and rushing back to their wards to brief them. It was my turn. I walked into the room and strangely I felt calm. Once I sat down, an impressive looking elderly man asked me the customary question “Young man, why do you want to study medicine?” I said without much thinking “I want to study medicine because I love literature”. I cursed myself was saying something that was not too appropriate. To my great relief the elderly man asked me as to what was common between medicine and literature. This drew me into a discussion on physicians who were also writers and how literature can sensitize the physician to understand patients’ experiences in distress and disease. I must have talked non-stop for five minutes on this! But the next question surprised me further “What is your view on the cultural revolution in China?”, which again resulted in a long reply from me. Fifteen minutes had passed by now. The interviewers looked at each other and finally one of them asked me, “Young man, where would you go if you have to stitch a fine suit?” Without batting an eyelid I said ‘Hong Kong’. And that was the end of the interview. It was much later that I came to know that the elderly gentleman who asked me about the relationship between medicine and literature was none other than VK Gokak, President of Sahitya Academy and recipient of Jnanapith Award!
When I emerged from the room, people crowded around me enquiring as to what kind of questions were asked. As I briefed them, I could sense their incredulity and barely concealed sympathy that I stood little chance of making it since no question on the subjects had been asked of me,. Nevertheless I personally felt a sense of relief and went to the town and took a walk on the beach. I came back around 5PM to JIPMER and the results were up on the board already. To my great surprise and joy I found my name among them.
The next task was to pay the required fees. I walked up to the cashier and informed him that I had been selected and that I would rush back to Chennai and bring the fees next morning. Looking at me sternly, the cashier told me “Is it not mentioned in your interview letter that you have to pay the fees immediately after your selection, as otherwise you will lose your seat?” I tried desperately to convince him, but to no avail. While this conversation was on, a man with an imposing mustache was in the next counter, drawing his pay. He walked up to the cashier and told him that he would pay the fees. I was moved to tears by his spontaneous gesture and told him that I would return his money the next day. He put his arm around me and said “You will be here for the next five years, that’s a long time to pay me back, don’t worry”.
My entry into JIPMER was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. A random act of kindness from a stranger ensured my passage into the healing profession. To this day I cherish that moment and it has had an enduring impact on me, especially in my profession of tending to minds in distress.
In the words of Dalai Lama, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness”.
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Of late, Varadaraja Perumal Koil in Kancheepuram has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, when the priests were engaged in an unseemly squabble as to which is the right way to anoint the god.
If you cast your eyes beyond these indecorous spats, the temple is a repository of some of the most intricate carvings one can cast eyes upon.
Ahalya and myself spent several hours at just one section of this vast temple complex, the hundred pillar hall, otherwise known as the Kalyana Mandapam. These structures along with the Raya Gopuram are signature components of the Vijayanagar style of architecture.
When we stepped into the mandapam which was guarded by an imposing and incongruous steel gate, an elderly gentleman informed us that there was an entrance fee which turned out to be all of One Rupee!
Each pillar was exquisitely carved with sculptures on all four sides bottom up, with not a single inch left empty. The pillars are embellished with sculptures of horse-riders, mythical animals, dancers, musicians, Manmadha riding a Hamsa bird, Rathi with a parakeet, Krishna, Hanuman and so on. An interesting sculpture shows a horse-rider with one side of his face sporting a moustache and a beard wearing pleated trousers while the other side of his face is clean-shaven and here he is wearing a dhoti!
These standalone pillars held us spellbound. Every single block of pillar had a tale to tell from the epics or the history of the place. They are resplendent with sculptures that portray characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, various forms of Vishnu, various kings and queens of the Vijayanagara empire and several depictions of Lord Krishna.
One particular sculpture caught our eyes. It was an unusual representation of Vishnu carrying a bow, conch, wheel and playing a flute, probably symbolizing three aspects Vishnu, Rama and Krishna. There is also a replica of the prime deity of the temple, Varadaraja Perumal.
Even if one were to pass by this structure oblivious to what it holds within, the free hanging chain of stone rings suspended from the intricate cornice would draw attention. The most amazing part of this chain is that the rings can move freely within even though the entire chain is made of a single stone. A fine example of the finesse and skill of the sthapathis of the time.
We must have spent over four hours examining each segment of every pillar. Each and every part of it deserves an extended description by itself. They served as a canvas for artisans of yore to display their boundless prowess and ingenuity.
By the time we finished savoring the richness and beauty of these pillars, it was too late to pay obeisance to the main deity. It was a hot and humid day and we were quite hungry. When stepped out of the mandapam, we were greeted with wafts of the famous Kancheepuram idli which was being sold right in front of the mandapam. They were as delightful as the pillars we just saw!
Amble along the pillars at: photos.app.goo.gl/1c5Frtt8rjSM8v2L8
And do take some time to pen a few lines here….and not at google photos!!
Someone who strives valiantly towards a hermeneutic understanding of mental health issues