Nepal Safari Lodge for T+L

A piece I wrote about the amazing Chitwan and Taj Safaris for Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia.

The Great Game

a stylish new safari lodge on the edge of chitwan national Park is raising the hospitality bar and bringing eco-tourism back to nepal. by Shoba NarayaN

Beyond/Back Story

10bynd_backstoryThis issue’s contributors

Last Mint Lounge column


Journeys with a nine-year-old column

In her very last column for Lounge, Shoba Narayan lays bare the processes of writing ‘The Good Life’

The first Mint Lounge issue

The first Mint Lounge issue

This will be my last column. My first coincided with the first issue of Mint Lounge and so it continued for nine years, weekly for the most part. I have grown and changed with this paper, participating in and bearing witness to its multifaceted issues. To be one of its voices has been a privilege I have never taken for granted.

I was going to write a philosophical piece about time. About how this wasn’t really an ending but a new beginning. About how the ancients viewed time as cyclical. I researched the Pirahã tribes of Brazil who know no past or future but live, like Buddhist monks, in the present always. I even emailed Jared Diamond and Ed Yong, favourite writers, about notions of time in anthropology and science.

“Write from the heart,” said the husband.

Words, unlike numbers, are not about absolute truths but about resonances. There is no single right way to express an idea. It is all about perspective. I may be moved by the writings of Edward Said or Elena Ferrante, but they may not move you at all. With every column, the hope was that something would resonate in the reader; catalyse something—an echo, empathy or insight.

Words have climbed above other forms of expression. They have survived and thrived as the fittest communication method for this age. As recently as a generation ago, people sang to express grief. In Tamil Nadu, a group of old women would sing songs called oppaaris when a person died. Today, we give speeches. Instead of touching each other to comfort, we text. Words have surpassed song, dance, art, hugs and all other rituals that humans invented to communicate and connect. They have become what ecologists might call a “keystone species” in terms of influence. To be a wordsmith today is to experience an embarrassment of choices. Unlike the bards of the Shakespearean age, who had to sing their words, today we just need to tap out sentences. Or tweet.

From the beginning, I formulated certain rules for my writing, mostly subconscious, informed by writers I liked to read. Humour was a big aspiration, perhaps because I was never satisfied when I attempted it. I didn’t have the acerbic wit of my friend, the late David Rakoff; nor the breezy insouciance of V. Gangadhar and R.K. Narayan, both of whom I read as a child. So I struggled with creating funny scenarios à la David Sedaris. I studied and imitated Shazia Mirza, Nora Ephron and Sloane Crosley. I hoped that people would read my words and smile. Laugh out loud? That was a grand ambition.

I kept away from politics—there are plenty of political writers in this country. A great weekend paper, in my view, expands the canvas of its readers; shines the light on topics that nourish soul and spirit; and offers them respite and grace from the noise of the week. Mint Lounge did that splendidly with sections on poetry, music, film, literature and art. That was my beat, and then some. I was lucky to have editors who gave me carte blanche in terms of topics. So I wrote about Matunga mornings, female architects, Ig Nobel prizes, eudaemonia, birds and cows. Week after week, the copy desk—an obnoxiously impersonal title for a magnificently acute-eyed group of readers—gave my writing clarity and accuracy. I am reciting their names to myself here as I say thank you.

I was more fox than hedgehog, to use the Greek line made famous by Isaiah Berlin: multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. A fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing. Like the fox, I sniffed around and engaged my curiosities. What a ride it has been: “to strive, to seek, to find,” but always to “yield” to the clarion call of deadline and word count.

I begin column-writing days with a ghastly concoction of leaves, shoots and eats: brahmi, tulsi, fennel, and betel leaves from my garden, cinnamon and ginger shoots, along with a big teaspoon of virgin coconut oil, all dunked into hot water with honey and lemon. I swallow said concoction and follow it with coffee decoction. I wait for the coconut oil-induced ketones to kick in and make my brain explode. I dream of benne (butter) masala dosa from CTR (the Central Tiffin Room) in Malleswaram, Bengaluru. I stare at the simmering oatmeal porridge with murderous rage. I stand waiting for the milk cooker to whistle and meditate for ideas, always in the hope that I might levitate one day. Mostly, I stare at the computer and sweat through my compression exercise garments, which I wear to hide the fact that I don’t exercise.

I love this time with the computer. It is just me wrestling with syntaxes and semi-colons; massaging adjectives to convey the slant and spine of ideas. Writing is where my neuroses and angst come to rest; where I achieve flow and equanimity. For someone who dislikes social media, I share a lot in my columns. To do this involves a hypocritical but necessary exercise: I have to write like nobody will read me and then hope like hell that they do.

Connecting with readers is a columnist’s particular pleasure. One woman wrote an insightful response to a piece on parenting. We began corresponding and ended up forming a music troupe that has performed in a few cities. We were strangers before words brought us together. A man wrote, “Shoba, I adore you,” and drew me into his epicurean world. A Mumbai businessman taught me about tea and yachts. A Delhi hotelier took me on a night about town; a Delhi designer still teaches me about fashion and textiles. A birder in the US visited me to discuss Gulf Coast pelicans. Readers who become friends are like random acts of kindness: They beget surprise, smiles and sighs of gratitude.

Transience and change are a constant: wabi-sabi, as the Japanese call it. Psychologist Carol Dweck calls it the “growth mindset”. So I pull out a Montecristo, saved for a special occasion. Pour myself a glass of Corton Grand Cru, Domaine Latour, 2001—a gift from a generous friend. I stare at my fountain pen. It is a Ratnam’s and it still leaks, through all that chalk I have ministered it with.

It’s time to move on. Climb new mountains, flex new muscles—in my case, only figuratively. To learn something new and leap into the unknown. I feel a frisson of fear when I say this, but that is as it should be. Any enterprise worth undertaking ought to be scary in the beginning and hurt a little at the ending. If it doesn’t, you haven’t invested enough. So it is with this column.

Parting is such sweet sorrow, said Shakespeare’s Juliet. I know exactly what she meant.

No endnote this time. Just an ending.

Shoba Narayan tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Mirzapur and the Greater Coucal

Saw my first golden oriole of this season.  Flew in and perched on a Millingtonia tree.  We were in Mirzapur at the fabulous guesthouse of Obeetee Carpets.  A highlight was the sighting of two Greater Coucals, two Hornbills, one Rufous Treepie; and tons of other birds I had seen: drongos, bulbuls, peacocks, wagtail, etc.

Birds in culture– the last of the four part series that I hugely enjoyed writing.

I pontificate on the pleasures of bird watching in this audio podcast here

Like Arabs and falcons; like Indians and peacocks; like Americans and their eagles, like the French and their…..I don’t know which bird sparks the French imagination…. birds and animals are the stuff of our dreams and subconscious.

The eagle, the ‘hamsa’ and other bird myths

Birdwatching led me to delve into poetry and mythology; from Urdu children’s ditties to Maya Angelou
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In which the author loops in some history and fables and talks about her habitat.

Birds are the stuff of myth and legend in every culture. Some of the most beautiful poetic images come from birds. My father, an English professor, loved the Romantic poets: Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, who lived in the Yorkshire moors in close proximity to nature and wrote lyrical poems about what they saw. John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” is one of his favorites. I have read the poem, but I don’t really understand it. What speaks to me is Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings.”

The eagle is a singular image in Allama Iqbal’s poetry. Iqbal reveres the eagle because it proudly disdains eating dead prey or anything other than what it has caught. As Mustansir Mir says in the website, allamaiqbal.com, this description might apply to a hawk rather than an eagle. Iqbal gets a number of bird facts wrong, but as this website points out, the eagle, for him, is a poetic construct. My favorite Urdu poem is a children’s song sung by Nuzhat Abbas: “Bulbul ka bacchha. Khatha tha khichdi.” I used to listen to this ad nauseam years ago, and was delighted to discover it on YouTube recently.

Sanskrit literature’s most resonant bird image has to do with the Hamsa, which can separate milk and water that are mixed together in a bowl. The Hamsa is used as a reference in poetry for anyone that has the discrimination (or judgement) to simply suck up the milk and leave out the water.

Then there was the practice of divination based on the movement of birds that was common to most primitive cultures. When the crows caw, my grandmother used to say, you will have unexpected guests: divining arrivals from the sound of a crow’s caw. As K.N.Dave’s magisterial (and sadly, posthumously published) book, “Birds in Sanskrit Literature,” says, superstition surrounds the magpie, not only in India, but also in Europe and England. My tangential interest with respect to bird-watching has been to delve into poetry, but it could be something else for another birdwatcher. This ripple effect is a perk that comes from any deep dive into a hobby or passion; and clearly, I am pushing bird watching as an option.

I have seen many beautiful birds: a greater coucal, collared dove, pied kingfisher, and hoopoes in Masinagudi; racquet-tailed drongoes, shrikes, hornbills, and rufus treepies in Kanha; nightjars, spotted owlet and serpentine eagles in Pench; and several other birds at game park. But I get the greatest pleasure in my backyard. While it is good to tick off the birds that I have seen, learning to see birds in the trees around my building offer the pleasures of a deepening relationship. I know the moods of the birds in my neighbourhood if that makes sense. I know which trees they like to go when it is cloudy and the ones they favor with the first rays of the sun. The golden orioles that were here a few months ago are gone now, I know not where. I am hoping they will return when the weather becomes cooler. And I know the trees. The silk cotton tree next to my home is growing tiny leaves now—Tamil has a nice word, “thulir,” for these tender light-green shoots. It was bare just a few weeks ago and redolent with red flowers and fruits a few months before that. These last few weeks, it has been bare and has offered great sightings.

Just today, I watch two black kites huddle in a silk-cotton branch and peck at their nest. They had built a nest in the dense foliage that existed some months ago. I could barely see the nest. As the leaves fell, I saw how large it was. I never saw the chicks though. These days, the two black kites come at 8:30 in the morning to remove the nest. They peck at each twig and pull it out of the nest, throw it on the ground. Why are they taking apart a nest instead of letting it rot and die? What ancient instinct is forcing them to come every morning and remove this nest? The silk cotton tree is a good place because the birds have used twigs, earth and cotton to weave their nest. Every now and then a strange bird will come by as I peer at the kites. Today, a brilliant songbird came into view. It had yellow undersides (chest), green wings and a different coloured head. It flew away quickly so I am not sure what it is.

Kites are easy birds to watch because they are large and don’t flit around too much. Songbirds cannot stand still, and usually are a pain to catch on the binoculars. Kingfishers, rollers, cuckoos, and drongos stay still for it is long enough to observe through binoculars. Karnataka’s state bird is a roller, which has the beautiful kannada name, Neela-kanthi (or blue throat). This bird: Coracia benghalensis is the state bird for Odisha, Telengana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. West Bengal’s is white-breasted kingfisher; Rajasthan’s is naturally the Great Indian bustard. It would be a good project to go from state to state and see each of these birds. But like I said, I am content for now with my ecosystem.

Everyone says that bird-watching requires patience. I don’t think so. I think that the pleasure of bird watching comes from the questions you ask. You can watch a crow and try to figure out why it is cawing at that moment. You can listen to the variety of calls that a common mynah makes and try to see if there is a pattern. I watch the birds come and go in the trees in front of my home and see if there is a reason or pattern that they follow when they sit down and take off. I watch the way the parakeets spread their tail feathers just before landing and see the different shades of green. Most interesting of all are the birds that are sitting still. What are they doing? What are they thinking? Does their call predict something? Is the wind changing? Does that define when they take off and land?

Bird watching for me is an engrossing and pleasurable hobby. It gives me great aesthetic joy to watch these most beautiful of God’s creations. Then again, I see a butterfly and think it beautiful too. Oh, but there is the dragonfly with its transparent wings; and the honeybee that gives up its life for its colony. All waiting to connect with us.

Shoba Narayan is looking forward to seeing an Asian paradise flycatcher this year. This is the last part of a four-part series on bird watching. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

 

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

birds-khjG--621x414@LiveMint-1

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

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?

VSCO Cam

So I have been using Instagram a lot and my account is here so please ‘follow’ me if you like those images.

I like clicking photos and sharing them on Instagram and VSCO Cam. The two sites are somewhat different. Instagram is huge, and VSCO Cam is artsy. Clicking photos on my handy iPhone is a way of getting back to the visual side of things. It helps me observe as I walk around, and also has forced a problem in my mind.

I find that the people I follow have a subject; a topic. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are in fashion or the arts. They post on one topic. The British Museum and MOMA, both of whom I follow on Instagram, help me stay abreast of the goings-on in the art world. Fashion sites on Instagram are just visually beautiful and help me track designers who I like. This raises an interesting problem for me: what is my visual aesthetic? I’m still toying with the idea and don’t have an answer yet. On the one hand I like photographing humans; and on the other, trees and nature attract me as well. I love birds, but don’t have the camera expertise or equipment to photograph birds. The site that I troll late at night however, is India Nature Watch, a fantastic site if you are even remotely interested in mammals, birds, and reptiles. Posting on Instagram and VSCO Cam has forced me to figure out what I want to say visually.

Today, I received an email which pleased me inordinately. It is pasted below and is self-explanatory.  Funny to see that the photo which has been chosen is this one.  Does this mean that I should focus on temple photography? The interplay between what psychologists call “strokes” and creation make up the final voice of a writer or in this case an amateur photographer.

Begin forwarded message:
From: “VSCO” <support@vsco.co>
Date: February 21, 2015 at 2:10:06 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>
Reply-To: support@vsco.co
Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
WITH HONOR
Shoba Narayan, your work has been chosen for the VSCO Grid™ — a curated gallery of original imagery.

Use this link to view and share your work within a selection of the finest images online:
Thank you for using VSCO Cam® and VSCO Grid. We are grateful for your support.
 
The VSCO Team

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