Birding: seeing versus hearing

This season is hard for birding.  The trees are lush with leaves.  Small birds are chirping and I can’t see them.  Drives me nuts.

How to identify birds just by seeing them

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Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch—if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell. Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy listening to good music or sounds.

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called Bird Calls, that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away. I am not sure.

It all has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common. I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website (Allaboutbirds.org) to build seeing skills. The trick to quick identification is differentiating or sorting birds based on size and shape, colour patterns, behaviour and habitat, according to this website. They even have a Merlin Bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet. Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird calls emanate from and wait for movement. I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound. Once I hear and identify a bird by its call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighbourhood. I know the Rosy Starlings that have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the crow by its caw.

My birdwatching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same. On another branch, a Black Drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat still, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with pig-headed ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavour now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: White-cheeked Barbet, Grey-headed Barbet, Coppersmith barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, you get the picture. They all belong to the Megalaima species.

The bird that is easiest to observe is the kite. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time—up to 20 minutes—before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I was walking near Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek—and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a birdwatcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Indiabirds, The Internet Bird Collection, and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species. Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy to me but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

Shoba Narayan’s bookmark folder is filled with bird sites.

This is the third in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Trees and birds

In London, it was the sweet song of the thrush.  In India, it is the kooo of the Asian koel that I am listening to right now.

Birdwatching is also about the trees

The rhythms of nature are evident in the patterns of the bird movement

In which the author connects birds and bees with flora and foliage

Like most things that require identification, be it wine, textiles, or art, identifying birds is figuring out patterns; like recognizing an artistic or musical signature, or the terroir of wine. It is about seeing patterns, not just on the birds but also on the trees that they inhabit. Nature is both generous and opportunistic. Trees attract birds during certain seasons; and then allow other trees to get that opportunity. The red silk cotton tree beside my house was agog with birds when it flowered a few months ago. Today, it stands bereft, with its flowers and leaves gone. The silk cotton pods have opened out and released their cotton puffs. Now the tree has become a playground for squirrels. Meanwhile, the gul mohar tree across the street is in full bloom; and attracting wagtails, rose-ringed parakeets, bulbuls, and barbets in droves—like the sirens of yore.

Trees are nifty that way. They know when to attract and when to repel. In his book, “What a Plant Knows: a field guide to the senses,” biologist Daniel Chamovitz talks about how willow trees that are being attacked by insects release specific pheromones that can be “smelled” by neighboring trees. Suitably warned, the neighboring willow trees produce higher levels of toxic chemicals, thus making their leaves unpalatable for caterpillars and other insects. I can see this happening before my eyes. The mango trees are in full bloom now. They are attracting the birds who have abandoned the neighboring millingtonia, bauhinia, and cassia trees. Instead, they perch on the mango branches, nipping at the green fruits and spreading the seeds.

This symbiotic ecosystem was invisible to me before I began watching birds. Now I see the dance of birds, butterflies and bees as they move across trees: mango to jacaranda to cassia to bauhinia to ficus to silk cotton, depending on the warp and weft of seasons; and indeed, the time of day. The male Asian koel calls when it is cloudy; the female Asian koel like to shriek in the middle of the day; the black kite calls throughout the day; the crows are loudest early in the morning.

The rhythms of nature–the waves of flowering, fruiting, and shedding of leaves that a tree goes through–are evident in the patterns of bird movement. Indeed, our ancients could divine an approaching storm just by the way the birds flew sideways, buffeted by invisible wind currents. Seasonal and daily differences in temperature and weather are reflected in the behavior of birds.

Some birds prefer certain trees; and some birds like certain locations in trees. Spotted doves and Asian koels, for instance are secretive birds that like to sit within the green foliage rather than look at the view from top like an eagle does. You should see how they nestle with the tree? Like a tree hugger. The male koel is black like a crow with red eyes and a curved gray beak. I had a devil of a time discovering it. It would coo loudly from within a tree and I couldn’t see it at all. It is only now—in this season– when the koels come to rest on the bare silk cotton tree that I am able to view them. Koels, once you are able to see them through your binoculars are easy birds to watch because they are of medium-size and don’t move around too much. The female bird is spotted and gray. The male bird is more beautiful–as is common in nature. It is only in our species, Homo sapiens, where the females preen and primp and take the trouble to look beautiful. Birds and animals have the opposite equation.

Hobbies and passions change people. They give you a prism through which to view the world. Religion and spirituality change people, sometimes for the better and sometimes, I would argue, for the worse. When you begin seeing the world through religious boundaries— who is faithful and who is an infidel– you close yourself in. Bird watching in this respect is unique because it gives you depth of perspective without impacting your political, moral or religious values and principles. It can become political but it doesn’t have to. You can watch birds without becoming strident about climate change and the environment. As hobbies go, bird watching like gardening or anything to do with nature allows tolerance and expansion, rather than jingoism and contraction of lifestyles and values.

The best thing that is happened to me as a result of this year-long journey is the cliché: I feel connected with the universe. Let me be clear. I don’t think you wake up one morning and suddenly feel at one with the cosmos. It is a gradual process of shedding layers of armor that you have built around yourself. The way it happened for me, and I am by no means there yet, has to do with connecting multiple species and seeing a greater whole. Once I started paying attention to birds, I began noticing the butterflies that flitted around. I began identifying them. Then I noticed the carpenter bees with their shiny backs that are just big enough to be able to fly. I began to take kindly to lizards and even became somewhat benign towards the cockroaches I once hated.

As I stand in the balcony every morning, gazing through my binoculars, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the wind on my skin, watching the dance of birds and the wave of leaves, I sniff the air and smile. This precious, fragile planet that we are privileged to occupy has wondrous beings that are right in front for eyes if only we care to look.

Shoba Narayan has joined a butterfly group on Facebook. She had the privilege of observing a Dakhan Dark Blue Tiger at close quarters. This is the second part of a four-part series on birds. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

How to bird-watch. How to watch birds

I am writing about nature.  About what is turning out to be a favorite subject.

How to birdwatch

Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching

In which the author makes a case for bird watching as a hobby and tells you how to start:

It begins with a pair of binoculars; and a balcony, if you have one. If there is some greenery visible from your balcony, even better. But you need binoculars to begin this voyage. Mine are Bushnell binoculars from Amazon for about $35. They have a magnification of 10X50, which didn’t mean anything to me except that it seemed better than the 8X40 advertised by other brands. I use them every day, except during travel, and even that, I want to change. Chroma sells pocket travel binoculars for under Rs.1000. I am considering buying a pair.

My bird-watching happens around 7 AM, when the sun is up. I have a cherished morning routine. I usually begin by sipping lemon water or orange blossom water (from Muscat) as I make filter coffee. Naturopathy says that beginning the day with water and some sort of citrus is a good idea, and I have been doing that. I like making filter coffee. We use Kotha’s coffee powder with an 80: 20 ratio of coffee to chicory, available at Thoms, my local grocery store. I prefer stainless steel tumblers at home. They help froth my coffee. Recently, a friend gave me some Black Cat classic espresso beans from Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago. If I am by myself, I go to the trouble of grinding fresh coffee beans and savoring their aroma in the morning quiet, as I make myself an espresso.

Coffee and binoculars in hand, I walk out into the terrace. Across the road is an army cantonment with lots of trees. This is my ecosystem; one I have come to know very well. Friends have asked for a bird watching primer, and that is what this attempts to be. With the zeal of a convert, I can write it. Most of my bird watching friends have done this for years. They are too far-gone to give— or even remember– basic instructions such as these.

Essentially, what you do on your first day is to sweep your binoculars from tree to tree to figure out your baseline: a tree that attracts a lot of birds. My baseline tree is a tall Millingtonia with fragrant white flowers. This is the tree that I train my binoculars on, first thing in the morning. Usually, there are birds on it. Parakeets, kites, crows, this tree gives me something to see everyday. When you see your first new bird; one you cannot identify, it is a seminal moment, for this is when your bird watching journey begins. You have to train your binoculars on that strange new bird and notice its markings. What color are its wings? What color is its chest? What size is it? Does it have a long beak or a short beak? Does it have any streaks across or above its chest, eyes, or back? How long is its tail?

Once you have memorized these markings, you have to identify the bird. This is what I do. I type what I see into Google Images: “small bird, white chest, green wings, Bangalore,” or something like that. Several images appear. I keep scrolling down till I identify the bird. My first was a white-cheeked barbet (Megalaima viridis). Only it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw what I thought was a white-cheeked barbet, only to discover that there was a similar species called the brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica). Identifying sub species is a whole new game and we’ll get to that.

I spend 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before sunset—give or take half an hour depending on bird activity. This is not because the birds are most active at this time, although they are, but because it’s easier for me to stand on my terrace for extended periods of time when the sun is not shining hard. At first, even holding the binoculars at eye level for more than a few minutes was challenging. Now, I have gotten used to it. Bangalore ornithologist M.B. Krishna showed me the right way to hold binoculars. Essentially, you keep your elbows down, not at the side.

I have a simple goal: I want some sort of “wow” effect. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. It could be a close up of a male Asian koel as it emits its mournful call: koo-ooo. Or it could be two golden orioles pecking each other mid-flight. The best part is that nature usually delivers. Everyday so far, I have seen something that catches my breath. I lose myself for 15 minutes as I scan the trees with my binoculars.

A Brahminy kite flew towards me from the horizon one day. The flap of its wings were rhythmic; its movement through the clear blue sky, slow and majestic. It looked lonely and somehow profound as it made its passage across the sky. I stood still and watched unwaveringly. Pariah kites– Krishna says that Black Kites are as racist as the previously used term, Pariah Kites, and so I have started calling them that. These kites—Milvus migrans– are common in my neighborhood. I see them in the sky all the time, usually a dozen of them flying high or low. Brahmini kites are rare, and this has to do with the habitat, I guess. There was a section in Kerala where I drove past and found tons of Brahmini kites in the sky and the trees. Dime a dozen. For some reason, the trees in my neighborhood don’t support the Brahmini kite and therefore, when it becomes visible, it is usually a heart stopping sight. On that morning, I followed this kite with its white chest and brown wings etched against the blue sky all the way till it was out of sight. Where was it going? Why was it alone? Who was it searching for? What was it thinking? Lost in these thoughts, I forget who I am. Connected to the flight of that Brahmini kite, I lose track of the mundane minutiae of my life. For that moment, I am linked with nature. I am linked with innocence and divinity. That noble kite takes me to a higher plane. It is for this reason that I watch birds. Next week, I will tell you how.

 

Shoba Narayan has been watching birds for over a year. This is the first part of a four-part series on bird-watching. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

The Sanskrit Podcast

I met Vrinda Acharya through my sister-in-law in Florida.  She teaches my sis-in-law carnatic music via skype.  Vrinda is a young, dynamic musician, performer, researcher and has a Master’s degree in Sanskrit.  Her husband is a mridangam artist.  She lives in Malleshwaram and is steeped in music and sanskrit.

I interviewed her on the Sanskrit Podcast here and embedded below

Astrology of the Apple Watch

The astrology of the Apple Watch

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The problem with the Apple Watch is that it aspires to be a timekeeper; a gadget amd a fashion accessory. Admittedly, Apple’s genius is creating products that people didn’t know they wanted; leaving slack-jawed competitors in its wake.

But do you really need yet another smart device when you are already checking your phone some 154 times a day? I decided to test this premise on an early-adapter relative of mine—called Seenu mama by one and all, including his wife.

Seenu mama, 78, lives in T Nagar, Chennai, and frequently goes to the Bay Area in the US where his three children live. In his Godrej almirah, amid the odd dead cockroach with transparent wings, are a slew of gadgets given to him by grateful nieces and nephews in exchange for the astrological predictions he dispenses with uncanny precision. He begins his day at 3am, when Chennai is quiet and mellow. After a cup of frothy filter coffee, Seenu mama does his morning prayer and peruses the horoscopes that have been emailed to him from all over the world. While he prefers to make calculations by hand, he also looks to apps and software for corroboration. He skypes with students in Toronto; consults with worried software engineers in the Silicon Valley; and helps real estate magnates in New Delhi decide on a suitable time for breaking ground on a new project. Seenu mama is an avid user of digital devices. Were it not for his age, this septuagenarian would fit the perfect customer profile for the just-out Apple Watch.

Seenu mama’s current gadget of choice is the iPhone 5S, on which he has several apps of choice: Yik Yak, to anonymously complain about his wife to strangers; The Night Sky, to track whether Gemini or Cancer is ascendant; and astrological software that he uses to chart planetary transits on a minute-by-minute basis. But a watch? Would he use the Apple Watch, particularly since he is so devoted to his Titan Edge? I wasn’t sure.

The products that give us pleasure are deeply personal and occasionally contradictory. The corporate executive who wears strait-laced pinstriped suits may reveal and revel in striped orange underwear and pink Paul Smith socks—known only to his lovers and laundress.

Free-spirited hippie types who eschew bathing and cleaning may stock OXO Good Grips soap-dispensing cleaning brushes in every bathroom simply for the pleasure of that satisfying squirt.

We each contain “multitudes”, as poet Walt Whitman said; and unpredictable contradictions, which drives marketers nuts.

The normal non-Apple Watch occupies that nebulous space between relic, heirloom, status symbol and luxury product. Young people generally don’t wear a watch, except when they are going for job interviews. My husband has a Rolex watch, given to him by his father, who himself got it as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. None of these men, as far as I can tell, has worn the watch. Well-heeled friends collect Swiss watches and prattle on about minute repeaters and escapements to a Bitcoin-crazy generation that views currency, forget a watch, as a quaint has-been and writing code on GitHub as an alternative to a university degree.

Can Apple make a watch an edgy must-have accessory? For the first time, I am not sure. The gadget universe is divided into purists and, for lack of a better word, mixologists. Purists like objects that do stated, specific, single things. A watch is for telling time; a fountain pen, for writing; a cocktail shaker, to look cool; and a stiletto, to look sexy. The beauty of these objects lies in their simplicity, and elevating that specific task to perfection. Apple specializes in mixology. Its phone can do things that your mother cannot; and oh, as the late Steve Jobs famously said, it also makes calls. Apple-ifying a watch seems like the logical next step, except that it is wearable. Therein lies its strength and its weakness.

For many, the biggest concern with wearing a device on your wrist is the electromagnetic radiation that will ensue. These are the people who never carry a phone on their person; never stand in front of a microwave; and believe that the radio frequency (RF) radiation that these devices emit will change their blood glucose levels. For these people, wearing an Apple Watch would be akin to curdling the brain.

Apps are Apple’s secret weapon. They are what make the phone addictive. I have about 40 apps on my iPhone 6 Plus. I use Pocket extensively to read offline. I exercise using 7 Minute Workout and walk using Moves. I downloaded Life360 to track my family, but they didn’t register. I can access the app version of Carnaticradio.com, which streams Carnatic music from a station in Singapore, on my phone; as I can Bird Calls, which helps me recognize my avian neighbours. Current research states that we should spend on experiences rather than objects, but I love my iPhone. This particular object gives me so much pleasure. At the same time, I struggle to keep away from it, lest I become more addicted to it than I already am. I periodically put it on silent and ask my children to hide it for a few hours.

Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari brutally likens computer games to a drug-addled brain in a conversation with Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, titled “Death Is optional”, for Edge.org. As robots and technology make us humans redundant, we will have no meaning in life, he says cheerily. We will solve our inner problems by clicking on digital gadgets. Many of us do that already, witness the slew of passengers who attack their anxiety by babbling into phones the minute the plane lands. What will happen with an always-on watch? I shudder to think.

As an Apple product user, I have doubts about their latest product for these and other reasons. I would hate to wear a device that vibrates or buzzes with every silly Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter notification. At a time when I am trying to figure out how to detox from digital gadgets, the thought of wearing one is like hugging the enemy. As for Seenu mama, his problem with an Apple Watch is simple: It needs to be charged. “Who wants to carry one more charger while travelling?” he says. “I’d rather carry my Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra (astrology book).”

Shoba Narayan will not be buying an Apple Watch. She will buy a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard instead. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale
To: thegoodlife@livemint.com
Cc: shoba@shobanarayan.com

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement

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A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

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Wildlife Taj Safaris

My father knows William Blake’s verses by heart.  Maybe I should memorize it too.

Click here for story in India Today – Travel Plus – Taj Safaris

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies          5
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Mumbai

Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.

weekend@thenational.ae

The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

MISSING THE INDIAN SPIRIT
By
Shoba Narayan
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Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho.com, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com