Driven By Passion

In which a Washington DC taxi driver gives some invaluable life lessons.

Car photo created by standret – www.freepik.com

Kenny was his name. A genial six footer, African American. He was invariably dressed in a white suit and a black and white patterned muffler. His rich and resonant southern drawl which could give our movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, a run for his money, completed the picture. He looked like a kindly college professor but I was in for a shock when he introduced himself. “Hi! I am your driver around Washington DC” he grinned. His eyes twinkled, “I shall be your friend, philosopher and guide”.

We were a young couple from India visiting Washington DC for the first time. With all the enthusiasm of the young, my wife and I were raring to get around the city but we were a tad apprehensive about moving out on our own. We need not have worried. Kenny very kindly took us under his wing. Knowing the city intimately he took us to the big sights and small and kept us entertained with nuggets of information about each place. My wife often puzzled about our driver’s depth of knowledge and the philosophical insights he gave to the history of a place he was describing. He was also exceedingly generous with his time not once hustling us to wrap up a leisurely day!

Unwittingly, Kenny was of great help to me one evening. The wife, with a knowing gleam in her eye, suggested a shopping expedition. This was going to burn a nice deep hole in the pocket. Nevertheless, I put on a brave face and summoned Kenny. Sensing my distress, the man, bless his soul, bypassed all the glitzy malls and drove us down to a chain of reasonably priced shops on the outskirts of the city. The wife meanwhile is still wondering why people rave about Washington’s shopping malls.

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It took an ankle sprain for me to get to know Kenny more intimately. While my wife hit the Washington Museum trail, I hobbled back to the car where Kenny was snoring. He awoke soon enough and seemed ready to chat. “Tell me something about your life, Kenny”, I urged.

“Well”, he responded,” You may find it somewhat difficult to believe but I was a professor of child psychology for ten years, then I got kind of bored with it. So I thought why not give my childhood passion, driving, a try and now here I am, doing what I love, for the last fifteen years.”

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I gaped “ Was it not a huge climb-down, in terms of status, pay and all?”

“Of course it was,” Kenny grinned. “Lots of raised eyebrows but I have always felt that one must do what one must do, what one enjoys and believes in. Keep the child in you alive and follow your dreams.”

By the time Kenny drove us to New York and finally left, I could not but reflect that he had taught me some great lessons about life.

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Hope and Heartbreak

Ashok Alexander’s, “A Stranger Truth”, is a gripping first person account of India’s ongoing war against AIDS, speaking of amazing people and incidents.

First published in the “Open” magazine, January 2019

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Review of ‘ A Stranger Truth’ authored by Ashok Alexander

        Today the battle with Covid has consumed the world but it bears recalling that India has successfully overcome health challenges in the past. Of the two public health battles fought by India, the conquest of polio is extensively researched and well- documented. Strangely and sadly enough,the war on HIV — which is ongoing and which comes with its own set of challenges and invaluable life- lessons— has merited only glancing attention. Ashok Alexander’s book, “A Stranger Truth”, documenting his experiences over a decade in leading ‘Avahan’( which means a clarion call), from 2002 till 2012, an anti- AIDS initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, therefore, comes not a day too soon. From its compulsive opening sentence ( no spoilers here), it grabs you by the collar and does not let go. Alexander’s voice— articulate, eloquent and persuasive— deserves the widest possible audience.Subtitled “Lessons in Love, Courage and Leadership from India’s Sex Workers”, Ashok’s work is as accessible to the specialist as to the lay reader— doubling its value.

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       Part 1~ “Far, Far Away”— sets up the canvas. The “ action”, as it were, kicks off in the bustling port and steel city of Visakhapatnam, also known as Vizag, on the east coast of India. The resulting experience is well captured by the author: “ On my first night out, I had been transported into a strange new realm of hidden sex work in a field in Vizag, where a godman sold sex, old women offered themselves for almost nothing, lust- filled men stood in line, and sex workers dispensed wisdom.”

        The canvas unfurled by Alexander is vast and varied. On the one hand, it details the baby steps taken by Avahan, in the teeth of humongous difficulties. On the other, it recounts heart- rending tales of an HIV baby’s abandonment and the gang-rape of a sex worker. There is also an analysis of HIV success stories, both international ( Thailand) and national ( Sonagachi, West Bengal). Of particular interest—and importance—are the many facets of leadership, and human qualities, that Ashok discovers in female sex workers: judgement, courage,negotiating skills, humour and selflessness. Each characteristic is backed by anecdotal evidence and telling examples.
         Injecting drug users in Nagaland and Manipur get a whole chapter to themselves (“Heartbreak in Eden”), seeing that several districts in these States had the highest HIV levels in the country. Harm reduction therapies are discussed as is their grimmer alternative— being chained to a bed and locked in a dark room, sometimes with only a Bible for company! Ashok also offers a fascinating peek into the shadowy and secretive world of transgenders, MSM- men who have sex with men, and truckers. 

     Part 2~“Learning To Fly”—is more of a nuts-and-bolts exercise. It is set in Mysore, focusing on the part of the Avahan programme that was established there, built by sex workers and christened ‘Ashodaya’ ( meaning ‘ dawn of hope’). It is a deep dive into how Avahan worked at the grass roots.

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         There are three components to Ashok’s story here. The first is the organisation and strategy followed by Ashodaya. This brings in elements of learning from communities, the importance of trust and compassion, the value of institutions like committees, ownership of the programme through elections, and micro planning. The planning and execution of a unique census of sex workers – the capture- recapture exercise — is a highlight. The second component is the sad but ultimately inspiring stories of sex workers like Kavita and Shahid. Kavita , a sex worker in her forties, rose above her circumstances and became a part of the Avahan’s  Ashoday  programme at Mysore. The story, told in Kavita’s own words, speaks of how she – an educated  young girl, hailing from a lower middle class family, the youngest of four siblings and the only sister of three brothers – ended up as a sex worker, gave in to alcohol abuse, tested positive for HIV/ AIDS  and then took charge of herself to rise to become a treasurer at Ashoday; and is today a role model for her companions on the  street  and is an inspiration for her young college going  daughter. Shahid’s is a poignant tale, of a transgender’s attempt to live the straight life. It  highlights the challenges faced by effeminate men in India. Finally, the spotlight falls on the work of self- effacing leaders like Dr. Sushena Reza- Paul and grass root workers such as Suranjana.
            Ashok avers, “The containment of HIV in India is likely to always stay one of India’s least celebrated public health victories.” He attributes this to the high levels of apathy associated with this most stigmatised of health conditions. By keeping the tone of “A Stranger Truth” light and readable, peopling it with feisty characters, and giving a blow-by-blow account of how Avahan grew to become the largest ever privately sponsored HIV prevention programme in the world, Ashok Alexander has done yeoman service to the anti- HIV cause. Salute!

Bewitching Bhutan

Bhutan resembles a giant kaleidoscope.

First look and it is ‘Druk Yul’, the land of the thunder dragon, a verdant , mountainous Himalayan  kingdom,  with an astounding green cover of 70%.

Flip it and it’s a philatelist’s paradise with unique, never-seen-before stamps.

Turn it again and you are in a land that gave the world the life-altering construct of Gross National Happiness. 

Give it another twist and you are struck by the rich colour and design in the traditional, hand-woven fabric and the abundance of handicraft.   

And on it goes …

Our love affair with Bhutan started when our family of five, ranging from a peppy under-thirty to a staid over-sixty, converged at Bagdogra airport from different parts of the world. We opted for the picturesque drive to Thimphu, crossing from India into Bhutan at  the  Jaigaon – Phuntsholing border where our entry permits were issued by the courteous border staff. All of us cozy in a large SUV spent the enjoyable four hour drive taking in the sights, singing , joking, dozing – generally bonding!  The light June rain added to the charm.

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Arriving in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, first up was the delightful market place. Mesmerised by the  vibrantly coloured  masks of the Gods, intricate fabrics, elaborate silk paintings from the painters themselves and the outstanding locally brewed peach wine, we  stocked up on gifts to carry home. The youngsters in the group fell for the smart traditional outfits. The daughter-in-law promptly tried out a nifty Kira woven with vibrant stripes and playfully challenged her sartorially non-adventurous husband to try and match the handsome young shopkeeper in his smart Gho.

There are two diadems in Thimphu’s crown.  

The first – Tashichho Dzong, “the fortress of auspicious doctrine”—  is  a stunning structure located close to Thimphu town, next to the banks of  river Wang Chhu. As the day dawned bright and clear, we joined the milling crowds eager to see this awesone piece of history which houses the throne room and offices of the king and now also  the secretariat and some ministries.

Tashichho Dzong by night

Our guide asked us to be  silent and respectful throughout the conducted tour. This fabulous painted structure with a rich and storied legacy of over eight centuries has withstood several calamities and each time it was remade more beautiful than the last. Originally constructed in 1216 A.D., it survived fire and earthquake before being  completely renovated in 1952- in traditional style using neither nails nor written plans!

From the ancient to the contemporary. We drove up a hill to the majestic , golden statue of the Great Buddha Dordenma. Constructed in 2015 on the occasion of the sixtieth birthday of Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the fourth King of Bhutan, this statue, towering 169 feet above the ground, inspires awe and devotion and suffuses one with a deep sense of peace and inner happiness. The surrounding high mountains, the clear mountain air and nature in all its glory, all seem to be paying obeisance  to the great, serene Budhha as he showers His blessings.

The Great Buddha Dordenma

The Statue houses within the Buddha’s vast chest a hundred and twenty five thousand smaller Buddha statues, made of bronze and gilded in gold, like the Great Statue itself. Our guide informs us that the statue was foreseen by two noted Buddhist sages—Sonam Sangpo, and more importantly, Guru Padmasambhava as far back as the eighth century. With folded hands we thank the sages for their vision. To take back memories of this otherworldly experience, we pose for photographs beside the statues lining the circumference of the complex. As we descend, we look back from various turns in the mountain road, from vast distances, from all directions, to see the Budhha smiling down at us.

Thimphu’s Postal Museum took us back to our childhood. We excitedly recalled our collection of exotic Bhutanese stamps – those printed on silk and even steel foil, a set of scented rose stamps, and the famous Talking Stamps, miniature records which could be played on a normal record player. And of course, the fun we had playing with the world’s first 3D stamps .

We saw all those and more at the well appointed museum which opened in 2015 . The tale of Bhutanese stamps really deserves a book by itself. The story, we were told, really took off in 1962, when Burt Todd, an American businessman, and advisor to the Bhutan Government, hit upon the novel idea to finance the development of Bhutan’s infrastructure through the sale of innovative stamps. What came as a really pleasant surprise  and filled our hearts with pride was to find a Bhutanese stamp featuring a fellow bureaucrat and good friend in the Indian Police Service, Mr. Mukesh Jain, honoured for his sterling contribution to the development of hydropower in Bhutan, while serving in the concerned Ministry in India. Truly a special and memorable tribute, having no parallel!

Mr. Mukesh Jain gets Bhutan’s stamp of approval!

The next day saw us on our way to Punakha, erstwhile capital of Bhutan till 1955. Our boutique resort gave us a traditional welcome with beautiful cream coloured silk stoles featuring the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. After a hearty breakfast, we set off for our first tryst with river rafting on the Mo Chhu, a major river in Bhutan. Kitted out in bright yellow life jackets we entered the craft – our guide handed us our paddles, guided us to sit on the edges of the rubberized craft and told us to hold on tight. Swirling on the white waters, with hills rising on either side and a fabulous Dzong on a bend in the river, it was a magical and exhilarating experience.

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Punakha Dzong rising out of the river

My wife naively carried a bag of plums thinking we will have them on the raft as a fun picnic event. But it was all we could do to hang on for dear life as the waters tossed our craft around! We hit the other end of the ride with the plums crushed to blood red juice! In the middle of the swirling waters, our younger son impulsively decided on a swim and leapt in, bringing our hearts to our mouths. He emerged safely after what seemed an eternity and clambered back in, chilled to the bone but grinning from ear to ear!

Our final stop was Paro. We checked into a homestay, managed beautifully by a young schoolteacher couple. We were treated to a unique stone bath – the family had taken the trouble of heating large stones in a wood -lined pit an evening before  and had  kept the fire going through the night so that by the time we arrived the stones were red hot and the water into which they were put became wonderfully warm, melting away all our travel fatigue. They then treated us to a sumptuous home -cooked meal. Unfortunately, beautiful Bhutan too is now facing the brunt of global warming. Our kind hosts despaired at the house flies now plaguing their home in a country where the cool climes earlier just did not allow the pests to exist.

Taktsang Monastery better known as Tiger’s Nest

Next, the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery beckoned. Situated about ten kilometres from Paro, at a height of some 10200 feet, the sheer audacity of building a hermitage on such a precipitous cliff face took one’s breath away. The monastery-cum-hermitage dates back to 1692. Myths about this place abound, but most Bhutanese believe that Guru Padmasambhava flew to this place on the back of a tigress from a location in Tibet. Colored prayer flags blowing in the wind dot the route, inspiring us with their gentle swaying to undertake the extremely arduous trek, of more than eight- and- a -half kilometres, definitely not for the faint-hearted. As we debated about whether or not to venture up, we saw numerous monks in their maroon robes effortlessly walking up the steep incline. That fired up four of us. So off we went – taking the first quarter of the trip by mule, after which my son and daughter-in-law looked up at the tough road ahead and promptly gave in to the worldly charms of the strategically placed tea-shop, where they sat taking in the gorgeous vistas. So eventually, with coloured bamboo sticks in hand it was the youngest and the oldest who formed a trekking team!

The real climb started from here and we took a good three hours to reach the monastery. Reaching the top was extraordinarily fulfilling. Fabulous, stunning—overwhelmed by the beauty, words failed us. On our way down, my young son had quietened. His mind filled with deep respect for the monks who have made this remote, inaccessible mountainside monastery their abode and spend their time praying for the well being of the world. Spiritually fulfilled, we returned and sank into the welcoming stone bath yet again.

Before we knew it, it was time for the final flip of our kaleidoscope. It took us to the Paro Airport, the sole international airport in Bhutan, nestled dangerously amongst the mountains and considered one of the most difficult in the world, with only a handful of pilots licensed to land.

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It was with a heavy heart that we bid goodbye to this beautiful, happy country, promising each other that we would come again.

The Search Eternal

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                        I

Beneath my fractured dreams there lie,

My deepest fears. An anguished cry,

Breaks free from my troubled heart. I,

Restlessly watch the world go by.

A strange tattoo  beats under my,

Skin. A ghostly voice echoes, “Why?

Why are we born? Why do we die?”

In response, the centuries sigh.

                        II

“But you are not the only one,”

They chorus, “Ever since the sun,

Has beaten down and earth has spun,

Man’s tried to go beyond the fun,

And games; attempted not to run,

Away from deeper meanings. Hun,

Or Eskimo, pagan or nun,

Soul-searching man has always done.

                      III

Belonging to that lonely band,

Of men who sought to understand,

The deep mysteries of Life and,

Death, was Gautama Buddha, who planned,

To go beyond the shifting sand,

Of what is and what is not. Land,

A family, a palace grand,

He had – but life was just too bland.

              

    

  IV

But all that changed that winter day,

When morning dawned, all dull and grey,

Gautama found an old beggar lay,

By the roadside, whose sores did say,

“O! Pray for me, traveller! Pray,

Death, come, seize me without delay!

Or, to treat me, will someone stay?”

But the Prince hastened on his way.

                    V

Sores suppurated in his mind,

The Prince, who was gentle and kind,

Felt that what he had left behind,

Grew on him, left his forehead lined,

He could not bear the daily grind,

Leaving behind the ties that bind,

One evening, after he’d dined,

He left – his own way he would find.

                   VI

He lashed his body, cut a vein,

Attempted to go beyond pain,

Till he became almost insane,

He felt there was not much to gain,

From such acts, for they damaged brain,

And body too. He tried again,

Enlightenment he could attain,

At last – for mankind, a big gain.

                       VII

Let us pay tribute where it’s due,

Gautama found a path that was new,

For mankind, whom he sought to imbue,

With a sense of his own value,

We cannot all be Gautama – true,

Though his mantle will fall on few,

The inner search must continue,

Yes – it must ever continue!”

The inner search must continue

Awesome Australia

“Namaste! Aapse mil kar khushi hui, ” our Australian driver, Jimmy,  greets us in chaste Hindi as we board his Hop-on Hop-off explorer bus at Katoomba Railway Station in the Blue Mountains. We are taken aback! But we are not the only ones. Turns out the man is a linguist, similarly greeting passengers in seven languages. In fact Jimmy seems positively disappointed that his only Chinese guest does not speak Mandarin!  But we are getting ahead of our story. 

Blue Mountains Explorer

            We took the Blue Mountains Line train from Sydney Central station, itself a tourist attraction with a classical 75 metre clock tower, great elevated approaches and a long history to match its fabulous architecture. Australia is a tourist’s delight- friendly people, easy to read information booklets, trained ticket clerks at all attractions and train, ferry, bus stations and attractive combination packages that allow you to roam free without having to queue up for tickets everywhere. We opted for a night’s leisurely stay in the picturesque Blue Mountain area less than two hours by train to the west of Sydney.  Arriving at our boutique hotel on the musical sounding Lurline Street, we were greeted by a flutter of yellow crested cockatoos and red breasted parrots, flying free and feasting on the bird seed liberally scattered by our gracious host.

Welcoming Cockatoos

Peter and his family make each guest feel at home. Vegetarians, we were a little worried about the fare we would get. But we just had to mention it and Peter brought forth the most attractive platter of colourful seasonal vegetables, sautéed to perfection, deliciously seasoned, served up with freshly baked bread! Their intense love for their chosen vocation and deep sense of hospitality left a lasting impact. With this perfect start to the day we stepped out to take in the sights.

The Greater Blue Mountains are a UNESCO world heritage site. And it is easy to see why. First up for us are the Katoomba Cascades which, with their heady mix of frothy white waters tumbling down the rocky mountain face, lush greenery and cool mountain air, send the spirits soaring. Breathing deep on the eucalyptus  scented mountain air, the tranquility and serenity stays with us.

Katoomba Cascades

Next on our tour is the  Echo point, with a panoramic view of the vast, verdant, Jamison valley and the Blue Mountains, named, for their purplish-blue haze, because of the blue light dispersed by the Eucalyptus oil from the abundance of Eucalyptus, a favourite food of Koala bears. The choosy fellows with a sharp nose, the Koalas, eat the leaves of only some 34 types of the hundreds of varieties of Eucalyptus in those forests!  Even as we crush the leaves and take in the magical essence of an array of eucalyptus varieties, our attention is riveted by three columns of rock, standing stoic and tall in the midst of all that natural grandeur. The three sisters, we are told, have stood through the ages, proclaiming to the world the primeval emotion, ‘Love knows no boundaries’.  The story goes that three sisters of one aboriginal tribe fell in love with three brothers of another. But as marriage between these two tribes was prohibited by tribal law, the brothers decided to take their brides by force. War broke out. To protect the girls, the wise man from their tribe turned the sisters to stone intending to release them  after hostilities ended . Unfortunately, he lost his life in the battle. Ergo, the sisters wait to this day, to meet their loves!

The Three Sisters

As we amble through the place another love story unfolds- Australia’s love for ecological conservation – the Echo Point area is lit by tapping into the abundant solar power and water conservation and recycling projects are proudly displayed on large information boards in the spotlessly clean area.  

Winding through a glade of the famous bird of paradise- the Lyre bird, we reach the lyrically named, postcard pretty, Leura village. As the bright warm sunny day suddenly clouds over and large droplets descend, Jimmy’s warning of weather changing, without warning,  over the course of the day makes sense.

We take refuge in a shop-cum-museum ‘Treasured Teapot’ which has a collection of over 5000 exquisite teapots and tea services from all parts of the world. Looking at the astounding variety of teapots, we think a Samovar from Kashmir would provide a beautiful counterpoint. Refuelling on a  hot cup of the best Devonshire tea  with fresh scones we are delighted when told its two for the price of one! The rain subsides almost as suddenly as it began, leaving us enough time to tramp around the friendly village, taking in its timeless charms. Strolling through the church grounds, we are pleasantly surprised to find three gargoyles nailed to a tree trunk, exhorting every passer-by to ‘see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil’. The universality of Gandhiji’s message, loud and clear! 

See no evil!

Next day  the Jenolan caves, the world’s oldest with 340 million years of  history behind them, beckon. After a ninety minute drive through breathtaking scenic mountainside, we find ourselves at the blue lake with its single, and elusive, platypus. Jimmy expertly negotiates a particularly narrow entry with rock overhang to break on to  a vibrant mural of tribal art with animal and bird motifs greeting  us at the entrance. The tribal art falls in place as we learn that the caves hold special significance for the aborigines of the Gundungurra tribe. For thousands of years aboriginal people brought their sick, from far and near,  to bathe in the “Nadyung”, or the healing waters of the Jenolan caves. There are three cave tours to choose from, each, in keeping with the entire Australian  approach of making the nation tourist friendly, conveniently labelled by level of strenuousness. So no unpleasant surprises.

We opt for the Orient caves, labelled ‘moderately strenuous’. ‘Oh these are the most beautiful ones’, the elderly gentlemen at the ticket counter assures us with a genial smile. We don’t have to wait long to test his judgement. Our guide takes us through the caves, revealing its wondrous forms to gasps of awe and delight. There are stalactites, stalagmites, helectites and other cave forms, delicately coloured by the impurities in the water that has trickled down over the ages. So crystals in hues of ochre, amber, pink, rust, pale green and cream glisten and shimmer reflecting lights that have been strategically placed throughout the caves.  Amongst them you can visualise a bird of peace, a crystal chrysalis, a chandelier, a frozen waterfall, luxurious drapes, pillar of Hercules and myriad others, limited only by your own imagination. Their beauty, a result of the marriage of water and limestone, helped by gravity, matured with time. Struck by the sparkling, dust free look of the limestone formations, we are told that the entire interiors, top to bottom, had been pressure cleaned- marvel of nature meeting man made ingenuity! And for those interested, there is a whole book on the process and extreme care it needed in the richly stocked, souvenir shop near the Tours office. 

Back at our hotel we step out for a late evening  walk through the market place and to a music concert nearby. Strolling in the crisp mountain air, we were pleasantly surprised to find many Indian eating joints.  India is quite the flavour of the season!  And its not just any Indian ‘curry’, the Clarendon Cafe in Lurline offered vegetable ‘ Korma’ with rice poppadums and mango chutney!  And the guide at  Orient cave at Jenolan had taken special pride in pointing out the ‘Indian Maharajah’s Canopy ‘ of stalactites !

Pleasant memories of the Blue Mountains enshrined in our hearts, we bid Jimmy a heartfelt dhanyavad . He surprises us yet again.  “Phir aaiyega”, he says with a warm smile! Felt welcome -did we? Every step of the way!

          

Pulsating Pench

      “So how was Keel?” asked my sister. Bemused, I replied, “Didi, not Keel, it was Pench”. Laughing out loud, she said, “I recalled that the name had something to with carpentry!!”

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      She was referring to our visit to the verdant forest of Pench, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Drawing its name from the Pench river meandering through it, the forest hosts a National Park and a Wild Life Sanctuary. It is now a tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh and boasts about 50 tigers at last count. They roam the land from Kanha and Satpura in MP to Melghat and Nagzira in Maharashtra. Curious, a friend asked, “How do you count them? How do you know that you are not counting the same tiger over and over?”.  “Oh ! each tiger sports a different pattern of stripes; not just that, they are natty dressers, the pattern of stripes on each side also differs!” the Forest officer explained, showing us how camouflaged cameras, called camera traps, are placed at such a level on the tiger trail so as to capture the pattern of stripes on each tiger as it sauntered past.

      A smooth two hour drive from Nagpur airport brought us to Pench where shortly after the Turia Gate checkpost, we made our way to the MP Tourism Guest House for a welcome cup of tea and sandwiches. The charming little souvenir shop in the Guest House set the mood. We took such a fancy to the dainty straw hats that the shopkeeper had to source more! The excitement was palpable. Guest house staff spoke of recent tiger sightings. The forest with its fifty shades of green and rich fauna beckoned. Pre-booked on the late afternoon Jungle Jeep Safari, armed with binoculars, cameras, sun shades and water bottles, we quickly got into small groups and onto our open Jeeps alongside our own trained forest guide.

      Chattering like teenagers, clutching our new hats against the sun which was now strong, off we went into forest country- badgering our guide for information on tiger tracking, looking out for the low level camera traps and trying desperately to look for pug marks on the dirt track. All of a sudden our guide tensed. He motioned to the staccato, cough-like alarm calls of the langurs, and softly said that the animals have sensed a large predator nearby, leopard or tiger. With stopped breath, we clutched cameras and binoculars, ready to capture the moment as our guide tried to read the direction of the sound.

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      Suddenly, he pointed to a far away tree, atop which the leopard had taken its kill. We strained and squinted to catch a glimpse. Excitedly someone said, “woh dekho poonch dikhi” while another twisted unbelievably to that clarion call!  Abruptly, the leopard, put us out of our state of expectation! Done with his lunch, he descended and languidly crossed the narrow dirt track on which  our jeeps stood. We froze in the moment! The majestic beast glided by, his muscular body lean and graceful, his spotted coat glistening as it caught the late afternoon sun. On the other side of the dirt track he headed to a clearing in the forest and settled down for his siesta. And then, just before dozing off, he took a curtain call! He raised his head and turned, looking directly at us. As if posing! In a frenzied clicking of photos, each of us got our trophy. We had earned our bragging rights!

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       But in the frenzy of trying to see a tiger, we had missed the magic of the forest. It was only the next day, on a Jeep Safari at the crack of dawn, that our senses were jolted by the abundance of its charms. The dense forest with its generous canopy kept the forest cool and welcoming. The large number of shady teak trees, we learnt,  served the forest throughout their life cycle- their bark as food for herbivores, the leaves enriching the soil and  even the dry or dead tree providing nesting holes for woodpeckers. What also took our breath away was the huge bird wealth – in myriad colours, sizes and habitats- it was a treat to behold. What added to the fun was the process of identifying each bird from a well thumbed book on ornithology that our young guide for the day carried. The theatrics in the forest too were on full display as the graceful cheetals gambolled cheerfully  by the river and then, at the slightest sound of danger, were suddenly on full alert, their ears and heads cocked in full attention before they took off to safety; the wild boar fighting each other passionately in the tall grasses disappeared in a trice and the clever  deer and the jackals took advantage of their gifts of camouflage…. Nature, in all its majesty and full of drama. Mesmerising! Little wonder then that Pench found mention in the 16th century, ‘Ain-i-Akbari’. And inspired Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’.

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      Our guide on this early morning trip was a very pleasant, enthusiastic young lady. Selected and trained by the Madhya Pradesh Government, she was one of a group of young women periodically engaged by the Park authorities. Confidently pointing out the forests’ many riches, assuredly articulating the features of the rich fauna she identified for us, she glowed with self worth. In traditional Madhya Pradesh, our guide, a young mother, her husband serving in another city and her own mother stepping in to take care of their baby, had successfully entered a male bastion. The in-laws were supportive. New emancipation was emerging in the bowels of the lush Pench Forest. Yes, the social fabric is getting a new cut, ever so gradually.

      Our final stop was the fabulous museum in the National Park. With life-sized representations of  forest flora and fauna and a wealth of information about them, it was the icing on the cake. One section had a lot of trees with models of different birds – the bird calls and sounds of the forest could be recreated at the touch of a button. Playing them over and over we challenged each other to identify the birds. Our return to the child state was complete!  My friend promptly took to the life sized model of the huge, heavy bodied, herbivorous, Gaur, the Indian bison which we learnt can weigh upto 1500 kilograms. She stood beside it, smiled radiantly at her petite, five foot nothing frame being dwarfed by the huge beast and took a selfie- this is to show the little students back home that there are other huge mammals beyond the elephant, she said. Her charming, vivacious smile stays etched in our memory as we lost her to cancer soon after this memorable trip.

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     Pench is not a place. It is a mood, a memory where our bruised city minds could refresh and reinvigorate.