Archive for April, 2013

Spotting a tiger at a wildlife sanctuary is a matter of chance. On a good day you can see one or more and on other days none. At Ranthambhore we had feasted our eyes on a tiger just 15 feet away that posed for us for over an hour. But one cannot get so lucky every time. Guides who show you around can also be good or bad. But what do you call one who falls asleep and leaves guests to fend for themselves for those five hours? That’s what happened to us at the Mukki zone at the Kanha sanctuary on April 24.

We drove around Kanha first through Mukki and tried to figure out the sights and sounds on our own. Secondly, waiting for a tiger to make an appearance can, sometimes, take up to an hour if one hears the calls. Our friend Santosh didn’t want to wait more than five minutes at any spot. He seemed more interested in rushing us through the forest! At one point we heard the growls of the tiger a few feet away initially, and after a few minutes because the deer had stopped calling the guide decided to push off, even as I requested him to wait a while.

But apart from this unpleasant episode, the fortnight (although a topsy-turvy trip because our bookings had to be rescheduled for extraneous reasons), was a refreshing change. I remember what the late editor SD Wagh used to say when he took leave -‘if I see one more newspaper I’ll vomit’! While I don’t feel so strongly I did need a break. Working thirty six months without a holiday does take its toll and I was desperately in need of one. We drove through tiger terrain in Nagzira, Pench and Kanha and were fortunate to see the cat.

The reserve at Nagzira is also looked after by the forest department but it was a lovely place. Our rooms were right in the middle of the forest and through the night one could hear either monkeys or deer warning the inmates of tigers or leopards in the vicinity.  Here too we spotted a tiger walking in front of us. This guy was a bit shy because as he heard the jeep he ran off into the jungle. This was the same animal that lunged at a jeep with a pesky woman in it.

Before coming to Nagzira we also visited Navegaon sanctuary but calling it a sanctuary is a misnomer. It is maintained by the Maharashtra Forest Department and is in a state of disrepair. The rooms are in terrible condition with latches missing on toilet doors and furniture that looks like it has seen better days. A lot of guests were couples on two-wheelers who seemed to have come from the village for a ‘quiet’ afternoon in one of the rooms. And except for hundreds of simians and some deer there wasn’t anything else to admire. The staff, however, were very helpful and courteous.


Indians make lousy tourists, even in their own country. They make a spectacle of themselves when they go abroad, but I guess in their own country, it’s like their ‘baap ka raj’. Take those at the tiger sanctuary in Pench. A majority were ‘aapli mansa’. They were loud, boisterous and thought they were at a mall or multiplex. One idiot even asked the guide to shake the tiger out of its reverie – ‘usko zara hila do’! The guide told him very sarcastically “usko agar hila diya to woh aap sab ko hila dega”. The sarcasm was lost on the idiot.

The minute the guide signalled them to stay quiet they would break into excited whispers that would have woken up the dead. They made so much noise when a tiger was spotted that the scared animal fled. They were screaming to each other that they had spotted the ears, nose and tail of a tiger — which had already left the area! It was embarrassing to say the least., watching the manoos make a fool of themselves. And they also came with infants who screamed their lungs out. Like I said, just like in a mall or multiplex. On the other hand were the foreigners who admired the magnificent beast and clicked away…in silence.

And this was the state of affairs at each place. At Nagzira there was this particular watering hole being frequented by a tiger. Thrice it landed up there to drink water only to be disturbed by a horde of screaming tourists who raced towards the spot. We were told by one of the guides that one adventurous young lady thought she could distract the animal so used her flash. This enraged the tiger so much that it charged at the jeep. It was the shouts of other equally frightened tourists that scared the animal away. I guess it is the Indian upbringing – If I’m paying for it it’s ‘baap ka maal’ – that makes us what we are. What we don’t realise is that in wildlife sanctuaries we are the intruders and should give the animals their space. I guess some Indians will only learn the hard way some day.

Visiting Pench National Park was easily the best part of the trip. We spotted tigers twice and I loved the drive through the jungle. Mukesh Ambani was right, it is the best managed sanctuary. Our driver Shivshankar Baghel was pretty amazing too. He ensured that the three days we spent did not go waste. He drove around Pench like a man possessed to ensure we spotted a tiger up close. “Itni door se aap aaye hain, to aise kaise jaane dein?”

He then drove us to Rukhad forest. This was a real jungle, yet unexplored and so really scary. MP Tourism had just started promoting it so it had no visitors. Even here we spotted fresh pug marks of a rather large tiger. We followed the marks for quite a while but two guards who roared past on a bike must have scared it away. Baghel was so apologetic about it the whole way back that he even gifted my son a lathi!

We stayed at Kipling’s Court which was a very swanky star resort with a swimming pool, bar, a fee snakes on the premises, but little else. They made up for that with their professionalism and the enthusiasm. Thankfully the guides we had were also good. I guess when you’re cheek by jowl to the Taj group resort you really are up against it. The most interesting thing about the Taj crowd was this dark, pretty and extremely sexy woman dressed in camouflage outfit, with studs in her nose and ears, driving one of their canters! She also spoke perfect English to her guests. Both, my wife and I, gave her an appreciative look! Wonder when I can afford a driver like that!!

Kipling's Court in Pench

Kipling’s Court in Pench

When we reached Kanha National Park on April 23, we first stayed two nights at the Muba Resort.  It’s a cool place in the buffer zone of the forest. Very hospitable and friendly staff and since we were the sole occupants it was fun! An entire group had just checked out so the staff was a little relaxed and friendly. They have TT and snooker tables, and a badminton court of sorts. And, thankfully, no TV sets in the rooms.

The tiger in Pench. Clicked by junior.

The tiger in Pench. Clicked by junior.

We entered the Park through the Mukki Gate. This was where we met our ‘sleepy joe’ guide Santosh. In four of the five allotted hours – we left an hour early in sheer disgust – the guide didn’t really do what he was being paid to do and made our driver look for any tell-tale signs of the big cats, while he nodded off frequently in the rear of the jeep! He was the first to grab his food when we stopped for refreshments and then disappeared. He insisted we look at a baby python, which he heard about from a fellow guide. Incidentally he missed the reptile even though it was lying in the open as we drove past it! My wife told him coldly that she was used to them as they were a common sight in her hometown in Bihar. But he was adamant. We were told later that other tourists had also complained about the guy but the Madhya Pradesh Tourism officials refused to act against him. I was told that he also showed up under the influence of liquor on occasion and is supposed to have joked to some that the reason he wore dark glasses was to ensure tourists did not catch him nodding off.  Except for the day at Muba, this part of the Kanha trip was a let-down. Also,  there had been a thunderstorm on the previous day and the animals had relocated to safer climes.

The deer and the fawn

The deer and the fawn

From there we moved to the expensive Bagheera Log Huts in the Kisli zone of the same Park for the next two days. I am told that by this yearend they are moving this resort out, since environmentalists feel human habitation in the core zone disturbs the animals. Till then, enjoy the sight of deer, fox and other animals loitering outside your room! Also while you sit outside your rooms enjoying the breeze, listen to the monkeys and deer warning of danger lurking in the vicinity.  Apart from that, the food and service is average and the breakfast they give tourists for the safari is rubbish. The two safaris we took were also disappointing in terms of the fact that we didn’t spot any tigers even though they were in the vicinity. We did spot quite a few interesting birds, of the feathered kind and clicked a deer feeding the fawn right in the middle of the track.

The night before (April 27) we left Kanha we calculated the distance between Kanha and Pune, as estimated it to be around 800 kms. It was a gross miscalculation. When we left Kanha at 6 am on Saturday morning we thought of stopping for the night near Aurangabad because we knew we would be there around 6 pm and we could cover the rest of the 200-odd kms to Pune the next day.  We knew we would be able to maintain just a 35-45 kmph speeds. We finally reached Aurangabad at 8.45 pm and after getting some dinner packed we debated whether we should stay the night there or move on. However, the excitement of getting back home spurred us on. Unfortunately it took us an hour to get out of Aurangabad because everyone there, it seems, had decided to get their children married on that Saturday, so all the roads were blocked! We also missed a turn and ended up again on the road to Jalna!

At around 10.45 pm we stopped at a food mall about 50 kms outside Aurangabad, to get a coffee. I was chatting with one of the staffers and he said I would reach Pune by 2 am. I think that’s when I felt wave of exhaustion come over me! I had been behind the wheel for close to 17 hours and the thought of driving another three hours, made me feel even more exhausted! My wife asked me if I could drive up to Ahmednagar, and immediately went online on her mobile and checked up about hotels there. She called Yash Palace Hotel and booked a room. There were occasions when I thought the dividers had disappeared and would brake suddenly because I thought there was a vehicle in my lane! Strangely, by the time we reached Ahmednagar at around 11.30 pm I felt better and by the time we checked-in while I was exhausted the wooziness had completely disappeared. I guess, in retrospect it was a wise decision to stop for the night. When we reached home early morning on the next day on Sunday, April 28, we had covered 3187 kms from April 14-28.

Most of the roads we drove on in both states were okay except a few. The roads in Nagpur were wide and well maintained. The city is charming and I am wondering why our city planners can’t do something about the mess that is Pune. The stretch after Nagpur up to the Madhya Pradesh border en route to Pench is a mess. Once we entered MP from Nagpur en route to Jabalpur, the road was a revelation – four-lane most of the way and superbly made. The only disturbing factor was that at various points suddenly the four-lane became two-lane because the NHAI had still not got total clearance from the environment ministry! And to make matters worse there are rumblers at these points and no indicators to warn motorists. At night, especially if it rains, it could be disastrous. So watch out.

The second terrible stretch is of 120 km from Balaghat to Baihar en route to Kanha. Attempt it only if it’s the last option. We were guided there so didn’t realise it till we were in the middle of it. There is no road, just huge craters for almost 60 kms (most of them on the ghats) on which you can only travel at speeds of 10-20 kms per hour. Anything faster and you risk serious damage to your vehicle and yourself. There are other better routes from Seoni or Mandla.

It was an interesting fortnight without any newspapers, news channels or even access to mobiles except on occasions. In Jabalpur, where we stayed with relatives of my wife I spent three days doing absolutely nothing and the folks were really quite understanding. We did go to the famous India Coffee House but besides that did nothing else. At Pench and Kanha, apart from the odd safari, the rest of the days were spent doing nothing. I should do this more often…but now back to the grind!

Back on the road again…

Posted: April 16, 2013 in Travelogues

Lonar, Maharashtra

It was like the swarm. Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration but when we stepped into the room at the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation’s resort at Lonar, we were attacked – not by bees but by mosquitoes. And this was not at night but a little after 3 pm. My son had an entertaining hour swiping at them and see them crackling under his electric mosquito killer!

This was the first long distance trip we were on in the last 36 months. May 2010 was the last one when we had driven around in Rajasthan and Gujarat seeing tigers, lions and other assorted flora and fauna. That was a bit rushed, almost like a pit stop that Formula One racers take when they are whizzing around like crazy on a track. This time, I told my wife that we would take at least a two-day break in most places and would not visit too many places. Lonar was the only one that was an overnight halt, and that too only because we were driving to Jabalpur via Nagpur and I had no intention of driving non-stop. We always stop for a night’s rest somewhere, anywhere. So we decided to stop at Lonar.

Lonar craterWe left Pune at 7.10 am – we had planned for 6.30 am! It’s become a joke in my house, actually. We reached Lonar at 2.20 pm after driving 395 kms. Once we crossed Aurangabad we were driving through villages and some of the roads were pretty bad. So to maintain an average of around 60 kmph wasn’t bad.

Then we were at the mosquito-infested hotel room of the MTDC. We thought that by the time we returned, the insects would have been removed, but we were wrong. The mosquito repellents only seemed to have helped the mosquitoes multiply rapidly! Surely, the MTDC could put mosquito netting on the doors and windows of the cottages and let tourists enjoy their stay instead of spending a restless night swatting away insects!

With all its history, the crater, to me, resembled a dirty lake that hadn’t been cleaned for ages. The guide, Ramesh Rathod, who first tried to impress us with his English, and then decided, by the pained look on my face that he was better off in Marathi, extolled on the medicinal properties of the water He made us scrub our hands with it to prove that it contained things that cleaned one’s hands, but the cynic in me just became even more cynical. We did spot two huge peacocks in the shrub and heard plenty more around.

Khajuraho redux

Khajuraho redux

There were also Vijaynagar dynasty era temples at the crater and around Lonar with their beautiful architecture, sadly vandalised by idiotic Indians who believe in leaving their names on the walls for posterity, along with the customary ‘Dilip loves Vandana’! Why is it never ‘Vandana loves Dilip’? I guess, because women have a lot more common sense than illiterate Indian men and don’t believe in vandalising our history. The ASI or whosoever looks after these places can easily use a little water and wash away the mess on the walls. Unless of course it has been inscribed on the walls in 300 AD, but as ancient history has shown, people were far more civilised then.

Yes, it would be heaven in the rains, if you felt like sliding and slipping down the rocky terrain 720 feet below and trekking back up the same distance to the ground above – and then, if you had that much energy, walking around the entire 7.5 kms diameter of the forest around the crater. The guide claimed one could spot a leopard or two in the monsoons, along with the peacocks.

The walk around the area surrounding the crater and the climb up to the top was invigorating, but the Lonar crater, history, science et al,  left me cold.

I don’t know what it was that the young lady from a Mumbai college did to get herself expelled, but whatever it was, I think the punishment was a bit too harsh. Suspending her for being an administrator of a confessions page could have been the appropriate thing to do, if at all.

From what I’ve read in yesterday’s Hindustan Times, the student was expelled because she was the administrator of a Confessions page started by students of the college. The college authorities believed that neither the institution nor the staff should have been maligned on the page and took objection to it. They decided to teach her a lesson. Again, I am only going by newspaper reports, but I do think it was a bit harsh, and the reaction to it as overly dramatic, as the incident in Palghar some months ago when two girls were arrested for posting something on Facebook during Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral.

Just a couple of weeks back students of a media college, where I take classes, opened a Confessions page. I love reading what these youngsters have to say about life and a lot else and I have often commented as well. There have been times, when I’ve felt the urge to put my comments down in “their language” with the A, B and C in the right place! I’ve refrained from doing so, purely because I realise that what I say as their teacher could have its repurcussions.

Anyway, I went on this Confessions page and found some really nasty comments about people’s sexual orientations and these kids were named in these updates. I was appalled. Whether it was fact or fiction and whether X was a lesbian, Y a homosexual and Z a transgender was an extremely personal issue and no one had the right to flog it on a social networking site. Worse, there were some factually incorrect statements made by some students, which maligned some members of the faculty, again anonymously.

I registered my protest on the page and from there, others picked it up. Then a post written by an anguished student Sheikh Rehmatullah, questioned the need for such a page and the kind of scurrilous content it was propagating. Another faculty member posted her response to it and suddenly the shit hit the fan.

Rehmatullah asked for my comment and I responded. I agreed with most of what he said. My reply to a faculty member (since she berated me for being diplomatic!) was that students need to let off steam, so I didn’t have a problem with the page per se, as long as there was someone filtering it, which in this case, seemed unlikely. If there was, he or she was either nodding off on the job or was finding the deluge of updates too much to handle.

These are 17/18-year-olds, and they can hardly be expected to behave like 35-year-olds, but some of the updates were downright defamatory. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many students voicing their opinion, some quite vehemently, against the page. And most blasted the rude, crude and extremely insulting anonymous updates. Then one smart kid decided to post an anonymous message from “The Director” and I remember saying “This is what I mean by self censorship” or some such thing. I believe the page was pulled off a few hours later.

Cloaked in the garb of anonymity, you cannot say anything you want and get away with it. And mind you, unlike the girl who was expelled from the college in Mumbai, these kids are media students, who should understand restraint and practice some form of self censorship.

Unfortunately, many of today’s media students (and I stress on ‘media’) believe freedom of expression means NO restrictions. I have no argument with students from any other colleges who wish to vent their spleen against college, professors, government, politician, friend or foe. But I do believe that such liberties are not applicable to media students. They need to understand that in the profession they are in, it is imperative they stop and think of the reactions their actions could provoke. on a larger canvas. If they still think ‘viva la revolution’ is the answer to all ills, they are in the wrong world.

In newspapers during editorial meetings, people raise objections to a point in a story and argue over it. Sometimes one argues that the report is half-baked forcing it to be put in cold storage. In journalism classes I have spoken of checks and double checks on a controversial story to ensure there are no loose ends, which could come back and bite one in the ass! We even consult lawyers on the newspaper’s payroll to confirm whether we can carry a report without inviting a lawsuit. We don’t publish just anything. Sometimes we may err on the side of caution, but then it is better to do that, than be forced to print an apology the next day. I’ve seen national newspapers carrying front page apologies for stories done, where they accept that they hadn’t got their facts right.

We love to talk about the American or the British media, but even they have some form of self censorship, and it is something my young friends in media schools need to learn. It’s not a ‘free’ world as everyone would have us believe. The sooner some media students understand that, the better their future…