“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When I touched Ganges

The photo is dulled with age. 4x6 in size, the print’s edges have been affected by some kind of chemical reaction. On touching, the image comes off as soft powder. Yet, it is one of the most memorable moments of my life. The picture shows a pair of feet partly submerged in swirling waters of a river. I took the picture, the picture of my feet touching for the first time, the waters of Ganga.

24 years ago, in 1986, I was in Haridwar, for the Poorna Kumbh Mela. First time north of New Delhi, first time on the foothills of Himalayas. It all began on a lazy evening in the lodgings I was staying in Ernakulam. My room mate, a novice sub-editor in a daily newspaper had brought the latest issue of Frontline magazine which carried a feature on the Maha Kumbh Mela that is held once in twelve years in Haridwar. I loudly wondered how it would be to jump into that melee of thousands of people. People from all over the country, Sadhus from the Himalayas, beggars, the rich and the poor – a veritable cauldron of the nation gurgled over Haridwar during a period lasting more than a month. It would be an unique experience to blend into that crowd, to experience firsthand the exotic flavour that India is. My taciturn roommate said – ‘Well, why don’t you? You can go to the Himalayas also if you wish’. In a week I was away on my way to New Delhi - 3000 rupees, an autofocus camera and a sleeping bag all borrowed, a small travel bag , a pair of ‘Hunter’ shoes, an eternal corduroy and a couple of Khaddar kurtas, a copy of the Gita, a string of Rudraksh beads ornamenting my neck, a saffron dhoti ( I wanted to blend with the crowd– I already sported a lush black beard).

In Haridwar I managed to get a cot in a dormitory for Rs.40/- per day. The bare cot had a wooden box attached to it. It had a a top-opening lid that could be locked. One could keep one’s belongings in it. As soon as I could, I changed into the saffron dhoti and Khaddar kurta. A cloth bag (Jhola)hung on my shoulder, I walked to the banks of Ganga where there wasn’t any crowd.

Ganga! For an Indian, the name conjures up many images, feelings and emotions unexplainable. It is in our subconscious mind, in our blood, in our culture. Physically it may look like any other river, but for one born in Indian soil and brought up listening to the lore of this country, Ganga is much more than a river – it is a presence that goes back to the origin of his ancestors and will extend till the extinction of his genes.

I sat on the bank and looked at the river for a long time. I couldn’t step down into the water. I felt I would be defiling it if I did. So, I bent down and took a palmful and splashed over my face. Mind you, Ganga at Haridwar is not the Ganga at Varanasi. It is not polluted yet with half-burnt carcasses and pesticides and fertilizers and industrial discharges. The waters are still clean and pure glacier melt.

The river enters the plains about 25 km before Haridwar, at Rishikesh. Channelized here in Haridwar, Ganga flows at a fast pace. I slowly stretched my feet and touched her. Here began a lifelong affair, a passion unparalleled, devotion, a yearning like for nothing else – with Himalayas. I have seen many of Ganga’s tributaries deep in the mountains and glaciers. Truly, a single day hasn’t passed since then, when I haven’t thought of the snowcapped mountains. Whenever the tensions and predicaments of this mundane life in a world that I barely survive gets too much, I run away to the consoling lap of Himalayas.

All I wish is that I had the courage and strong conviction to take refuge there for the rest of my life.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tread Softly


The following is a small piece I had written for a magazine. I was inspired to reproduce it here by Subodh’s blog on travels. Subodh is an inveterate traveler and through his blog he gives a comprehensive picture of the places he has been to, with wonderful photographs and excellent description. However, I found that Subodh mentions only the prettier side of the whole picture. To enjoy nature, one should not take it for granted. Especially pristine natural locations. I hope the following would be useful for those readers who love to visit wild, natural places and enjoy them responsibly.

Tread softly…….

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. The modern man is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Land is something he has outgrown’.

- from The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Today, as we go to the seashores or forests for a picnic or a trek, when we exclaim at the beautiful scenic shots in a movie, when the sight of a waterfall enthralls us, when the sight of a colourful bird makes us pause for a moment – perhaps we are unconsciously reminded of our past when there was harmony between nature and man. Perhaps as we learn to enjoy nature more, we may learn to preserve and protect it. Perhaps, the tree that gave you shade and cool breeze today, will not be cut off tomorrow to make way for your poison spewing automobile.

Forests, to some, have high recreational value. The peace and solitude, fresh air and water, the sight of wildlife, the excitement of lurking dangers, the sense of achievement as you stand on top of a mountain – look within yourself deep – and you will see that it is the spirit in you that soars high. Nature liberates you.

But – tread softly - so that the frame of beauty before you shall remain there for you tomorrow too. The tips given below might help you – to enjoy forests today – and tomorrow.

1. Read books on nature, the area you are visiting, its wildlife, etc. Plan your trip well.

2. Keep yourself physically fit; being a straggler in a trekking group is embarrassing. It could cause problems; sometimes danger too.

3. Always get the permission of the forest department first.

4. Remember that you are a guest – this is the home of the wild - even your footstep can cause disturbance- treat nature with respect, courtesy and love.

5. Never go in large groups – you reduce your chances to see the wildlife. Also large groups cause larger damages. There is great pleasure in solitary wandering; but gain some experience first before venturing out alone.

6. Wear light coloured (preferably green, grey, brown) cotton clothes. This helps in camouflage. For colder climes, wear appropriate dress.

7. Wear comfortable footwear. ‘Hunter’ shoes are ideal.

8. Do not use perfumes. Animals have a very sensitive nose.

9. Carry your stuff in a haversack. It is advisable to cover everything in plastic bags. But don’t ever drop one in the forest.

10. Carry essential personal medicines (Paracetamol, painkillers, anti-inflammatory tablets, anti-septic ointment) penknife, matches, candles, biscuits, sweets, lemons, water, magnifying lens, maps, water bottle, a small sachet of salt (this helps to remove leeches).

11. Do not carry any valuables other than binoculars or camera.

12. Keep the weight of your bag as less as possible. While trekking the high mountains, every additional gram will extract its toll.

13. Always start early in the morning. Early mornings and late evenings are the best times for watching wildlife.

14. Speak as softly as possible. No shouting and singing please.

15. Always walk in a single file. Guides or experienced members should walk in the front and in the rear.

16. Be alert. It is fun. It also pays.

17. Do not use transistors, tape recorders, etc. You can always enjoy that in your city home.

18. Never collect anything, even a flower. If every one took something, soon there won’t be anything left.

19. Do not carve on trees and scrawl on rocks. Let the ones who come after you also feel that they are the first witnesses to the beauty.

20. Never throw litter, plastic etc. The sight of a brightly coloured plastic bag deep in a forest is like the sight of an abused child.

21. Try not to smoke. If you have to, smoke while resting, then make sure the butt is stored in a safe place in your pocket. You can throw it out once you are out of the forests.

22. Try not to use alcohol. You can always enjoy it at your home or your favorite bar. Forests are a different high.

23. Never swim or jump into unfamiliar streams or waterfalls.

24. If you come across tribal people living in the forests, treat them with respect and humility. They are the masters of that land. If they offer food or drink, accept it with grace and pleasure. It will be 100 times more hygienic and healthy than your Paratha and Chicken fry.

25. Don’t be disappointed if you could not catch a glimpse of any wildlife. The chances are that they would see you long before you saw them. Patience will be rewarded.

26. Keep a notebook and pen handy. Record everything you observe.

27. If you camp anywhere, clean up the place before you leave. Leave no trace that you have been there. Leave nothing, not even your footprints.

28. Nothing comes free of cost. You repay by loving and caring for nature.

************* Balachandran V, Trivandrum 20.05.2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Islam and Dogs

Google the above, and you get your answer. Ritually unclean animals. Prophet Mohammed didn't like dogs. Dogs, like other animals may be treated kindly but do not keep them in the house because angels do enter the house with dogs, etc etc.

Among his bosom friends, my son has two, who are Muslims. They frequent our house, but with caution, because we have two dogs, that too mongrels, never chained, always running around in the house, leave a lot of fur on the floor, jump up on our laps; when it rains or when it is too hot they spent the nights in our bed room (Sancho, the younger one and my special pet even jumps up onto my bed and go to sleep curling into the curve of my lower legs as I sleep on my side). Whenever the snack box is opened or I bring biscuits, cutlets, samosas or vadas in the evening, they end up getting the largest share – in short, they are part of the family. Right from the time I was born 53 years ago, till date I have had dogs in my house. I simply cannot live without dogs. They are to me the fountainhead of love, faith, justice, truthfulness and all the rest of the virtues that we humans pretend we have or we aspire for. A glance, a touch of the paw, a nuzzle on my ears take away all my misery.

Coming back to the Muslim friends of my son – Akhmal is wary of the dogs though I think he really likes them but the rule of his house being to wash seven times after every visit to his friend's (my son’s) house, he merrily lies away that he had been somewhere else. But Jitin is different. The fear of dogs is so deeply rooted in him that he literally shivers when Tommy or Sancho looks at him. Even Tommy with his great charm and love has failed convert him.

I may be too biased in favour of dogs, but I cannot understand why a global and ancient religion like Islam does not tolerate such a great creature as the dog. Does this dislike extend to other animals too? Why is it that Islam or Christianity or Hinduism or almost all religions abhor rational and free thought? Why do they deny the right to think, act and live free, in love and tolerance? How can life be less important than the Faith?

Considering humanity as a whole, I guess there would be different heavens, one for humans alone and another for all the rest of the world. All I hope is that at the gates, dog-lovers and animal lovers and nature lovers like me would be invited to join the latter. The former, you see, is Hell.

************** Balachandran V, Trivandrum 19-05-2010

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_animals





‘What then, Raman?’

From the countless books and comics that I used to gobble up as a boy, a handful stands out shining bright in my memory. One of them is ‘Our Children’ – there is a recent post on it. Another was the first complete English novel I read when I was 9 – ‘Ten Little Niggers’ by Agatha Christie. Its name was later changed to ‘And Then There Were None’. It is a chilling murder mystery based on a haunting nursery rhyme. Another is the Malayalam translation of ‘Swami & his Friends’ by R K Narayan, which any Indian anglophile would have read. There were illustrations in it by R K Laxman. Oh, how I identified with Swami! Even after reading the English original, I somehow prefer the Malayalam version. It is kind of strange to read our culture and life described in an alien language. But most of all, the book I loved and still loves the best is ‘Pinneyo Rama?’ (What then, Raman?) by Shirley L Arora, published in 1961.

The novel is about a poor young boy, Raman, who grows up in Kodaikanal, in the Palni hills. The period is late 50s or early 60s. Raman, around 11 or 12, is the son of a wood cutter. His mother sells vegetables. His illiterate father has great dreams about his son. Raman, unlike most of his friends in the village, goes to a school in the valley. Books open up a world of fantasy to Raman.

Raman is obsessed with Hindu mythological stories. Every single paisa he would save to buy illustrated books that had the stories of the Mahabharatha war or Ramayana. As Raman moves into the world of literature, he gradually moves away from the illiterate community in which he lives. As the only boy ‘who studies in the valley school’, Raman finds himself alienated from his old friends who think Raman is stuck-up. Due to his studies, Raman cannot contribute to the family kitty as much other boys. For his family, Raman’s schooling and his future would be the breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy.

One day an American lady comes to stay in one of the bungalows of Yercadu. She is old and handicapped. She paints pictures of flowers. Raman is asked to collect Orchids from the deep forests, for which he is paid handsomely. Raman saves a small percentage of his earnings. His objective is to buy that One Single Book in the village book shop – a big illustrated book on Ramayana. Gradually he saves up enough. The coming day is the big day he will be the proud owner of the book. That night as he was about to sleep beside his young sister and brother, Raman notices the torn and patched blanket draped over them. Raman knows his responsibility as elder brother; yet he is torn between his passion for books and the harsh reality of his poverty.

Next day, Raman goes to the bookstore; but then rush down to another shop and buys a blanket. He returns to the bookseller and looks longingly at the book he had nearly bought. He tells the old bookseller – ‘Grandpa, I will definitely buy that book one day when I save up again. But would that book be there then?’ The old man replies gently – ‘Yes son, it will be. I will definitely keep it for you’.
‘What then, Raman?’ is a coming-of-age kind of book. Weaved through the above brief outline I have given is the beautiful colours of a culture and a pathos that has long ago left our minds. It is as gentle as the cool breeze that sweep through our mountains, reminding us of a way of life that has been taken away by the tides of time.

I cannot remember how many times I have read it. About a decade back I salvaged the English original from a roadside hawker. It is renamed as ‘Tiger on the Mountain’, referring to a legend narrated in the novel. I googled Shirely L Arora and found that she was an American married to an Indian. She is a Professor of Spanish and Portugese. I tried a lot to contact her but to no avail.

My son and most of his peers do not read much. The way we used to as youngsters. It not only improved our language skills but also our power of imagination and instilled human values. It gave us access to cultures across the world and insight into human life. Movies and internet are poor substitutes. Where we used to gaze at the vast horizon, my son’s generation's vision is narrowed by blinders.

Balachandran, Trivandrum 19.05.2010

Please see http://mytravelsmylife.blogspot.in/2011/01/happiness-is-book.html also


Jean-Georges Cornelius (1880-1963). Bois.

Consolation Oil on wood Musée eucharistique du Hiéron, Paray Le Monial

Isn’t it a pleasure

To offer succor?

Oh yes, we are so genuine,

Touched to the heart

Feeling, we say, the same pain and sorrow

Though sometimes I wonder if we really do.

Be it death or a lesser misfortune

We condole, condemn the flippancy of fate

That dealt our kith or kin this cruelest blow.

Yet, I wonder, is it regret or relief

That predominates our minds

Regret for them and secretly, guiltily,

Relief that we have been spared for now?

My friend says – ‘Take it easy! Be cool!

Heavens won’t come falling down!’

I take a deep breath; try to loosen my facial muscles

Taut like strings of a tennis racket.

How easy to comfort others

How easy to say ‘I understand’

How easy to say ‘ I am with you’

When really

We are eons away from each other!

******** Balachandran V Trivandrum, 19-05-2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Under the dimmed lights, shadowed faces.

Bow-tied waiters pad by silently.

From the blistering sun

Into dark, cold caves

Offering anonymity, security

Of a faceless existence.

The impassive courtesy

A flicker of familiarity

Assurance of a sanctuary -

How I love this place!

In the glass, the liquor

The clink of cubes

Frozen like my soul.

Fizz fizzling out

Like my dreams!

By oneself, in twosome or in groups

Men sit, talking, thinking, brooding

Staring into space like

Refugees in a transit camp.

On the wall, behind the glass

Fish swim listlessly.

How comforting, this asylum

Where I shall sink into

A transient oblivion!

************** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 13.05.2010

Before the Bureaucrat

This face of pompous, arrogant authority!

You envy him the comfort

Of cold air wafting from the machine.

Of the revolving chair, cushioned

For the sluggish comfort

For the sullen stamp

That with a bang approves or don’t.

The sheaf of papers that your extend

With humility and hope

Flicker in anticipation

Awaiting from his twisted lips

A word of kindness, a smile gentle.

With a flick of his pen

A scrawl across the paper

With a swish of his hand

With a shake of his head

With a glance of his eyes

He could decide my fate –

How whimsical is my life!

In times like this I realize -

God resides in every man!

*********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 13.05.2010

Monday, May 10, 2010


Far away, beyond the green paddy fields

Beyond the thatched huts and palm tops

A hazy gray blending into darker black

Touching the shimmering white clouds

Mountains stand like sentinels.

It has been raining here; the leaves

Underfoot bear my weight in silence.

I pause – leeches, wriggling, reach out

And clamber up my legs; a flutter in the woods –

A bird? A boar? A deer? Who is it that I disturbed?

In the deep forests, everything is dark and moist.

Steam unfurls in the scattering sunlight.

Silently, I watch – across the ridge, a rock shifts –

In awe, with love, oh with so much love, a tusker in sight.

Above my head, Minivets, Scarlet, like flashes of fire.

The soil is black and squidgy; little puddles filled to the brim

Overflow and jump merrily to join a run, running down

Over the stones, tickling the grass, past a meditating frog.

A Pipit hops; skips past a Wagtail.

Bush Chats dart in and out of the trees.

From afar – or is it nearby, a Sambar coughs.

Suddenly, a tree sways overhead –

The forest is filled with calls of the Squirrel –

Giant of Malabar, king of the treetops.

Flycatchers twitter in the bush.

Past the woods, amidst the grass

Gusts of wind hit me, old friends hugging

And roughing up my hair;

From the next hill

A lone Tahr looks askance-

Where you been all these days?

Hills beckon; Sholas raise gnarled and knotted hands.

Mist, tender, comes up slowly, enwrapping me with love.

I am home.

********* Balachandran V balanpnb@gmail.com