Monday, December 28, 2015

The other side of the Kanha-Kisli experience.

Anglers love telling stories about the-one-that-got-away. Likewise, people back from a visit to a Tiger Reserve always have a story of how they almost saw the Tiger (fresh pug marks are a favourite). A tiger sighting or its absence, leads to fond reminiscing regurgitated for various occasions. These stories are the same no matter the geographical location of these Parks. There is disappointment, but instead of an air of despondency surrounding these raconteurs, what one senses is a distinct resolve to try ones luck again. Such unrequited visits only increases the desire to sight this noble beast.

But, there is a tale to be told of the process that gives one this opportunity to see the Tiger.

This tale is a rare mix of Greek heroism laced with the absurd. There are certain facts that give meat to this story. People can visit the Core Area or the Buffer Zone. The possibility of sighting a Tiger is far greater in the Core Area, but entry is limited to approximately 900 tourists daily at the Kanha National Park. There is no such restriction for the Buffer Zone. This attempt to regulate tiger tourism created an
   online booking system for entry to the Core Area. With these regulation, locals play the role of guides  (approximately 123) or Jeep owner cum driver who  either run independently or are associated with a resort. Tourists have to hire guides and these jeeps, which run on a roster, to enter Kanha.

Now comes the clincher, online bookings for entry into the Park need to be done 2 months in advance if not earlier. Those who get to Kanha without a pass can get lucky at the ticket counter by purchasing the few tickets that are sold or wait for a ticket cancellation. Others reconcile themselves to visiting the Buffer Zone.

The entry to the Park is through three gates, Khatia, Mukhi and Kisli. Khatia, by far has the highest population of resorts and therefore tourists, jeeps and guides. 140 jeep rides and four government bus runs are split into morning and evening visits into the Core Zone through these gates.

My presence in Khatia was serendipitous. While travelling on the soon to be shut Narrow Gauge track I realised my proximity to this Tiger Reserve. So I hopped into a bus that dropped me three kilometers from the Khatia gate. The final leg of the journey was on a motorbike through some dense greenery.

This sudden diversion from my planned route made finding a place to stay difficult. The process of getting a room gave me opportunity to talk to quite a few locals including a resort owner. Their insights
opened a window of experience far richer than the attempts to play peekaboo with the Tiger.

I was intrigued by the stories of all night vigils at the ticket counter to get a pass into the Core Area. They told me that people form a queue at 8 pm the day before for a pass for the next day. So I decided to put myself through this grinder just for the experience.

After a post dinner coffee I walked to the ticket counter. There were just two people talking to a guard, it was 10 pm then. I was intrigued at the absence of crowds and so asked them, they replied that I should return at around 12 am. I walked back to my room, some distance from the ticket counter, through the silent dark looking for the glow of wild beady eyes. Tethered buffaloes loudly exhaled in bursts as I passed darkened huts. The sky was lit. Later the next day I asked the locals about the absence of dogs and goats, I got a one word answer 'Panthers'.

On returning at 12 am there was already a line of 15 people with a rudimentary tea stall to serve them. One of the tourists had taken up the task of writing down names of people serially so that their place on the line was on record. This person was a tourist too, he had come from Bhopal. Like a good hunter gatherer he stood at the ticket counter while his family slept in the warm confines of the resort room. The ticket counter had an all-male-line-up.

Tourists come in their own vehicles for a day or two. The personal vehicles are switched for a jeep that takes them into the forest for a 5 hour morning tour or a three hour afternoon tour. Tourists then return to their resort and may take another trip through the forest the following day. After which they drive back home, mission accomplished or not.

Stories of happenstance flew up and down the line - visitors catching a tiger on their first visit others who had passed through the gates 22 times without a sighting. The tea man was berated by some for putting too much sugar in his tea. He was told they have 'sugar' which he and everyone in the line understood to be Type II diabetes.

Time flew on the wings of these stories. Those who came later were directed to the scrivener so that they could put their names down, after which they got in line. The line grew and the number of tea stalls increased to three.

Some of those in line had come along with 'attendants' from the resort. I think the role of the attendants was to stand in line for the guest so that the guest could relax, but because names were being recorded this luxury met with an early death.

While sipping tea with one attendant he explained that the number of rooms were far greater than the access to the Core Area. They were not sure of the number of resorts built in close proximity to these 3 gates but estimated their number to be 55 with rooms numbering 10-90. They spoke philosophically saying that if it rained daily and there were 70 umbrellas then only 70 people would remain dry. They discussed the demeanour of the tourist. Before getting into the line the tourist was like a veritable king of the jungle, once he saw where he stood in the queue he transformed into this mass of uncertainty trying to find an easy way to get a pass.

Back in the queue I heard confidence boosters being passed up and down the line even as alternatives were provided. Those in the first 10 were assured of getting a vehicle. As newbies realised that each jeep took 6 passengers they began asking those ahead if there were spare seats. Others opted for a trip
in the two buses that carry 18 passengers each. Those at the bottom the list reconciled themselves to a visit to the buffer zone or to a hopeful wait for a cancellation from an online booking.

By 4.30 am forest personnel manning the ticket counter came and began asking those in the line to park their cars at some distance. This was to make way for the jeeps and the two open air buses that would take tourists in. With the first hint of light the jeeps began trooping in. A surge of anticipation and despondency ran through the queue as they realised that only a lucky few would get an opportunity to ride in the jeep into the Core Area.

The ticket counter opened at 5.45 am and the gates to the forest at 6 am. The line that was so orderly before the counter opened was now under threat of dissolving into chaos. However, after a few shouts and fights things settled down. Two middle aged men in queue with IIM Lucknow sweatshirts saw similarity to the US Visa line of yore when visa hopefuls would either sleep on the pavement off the US Embassy or pay others to do so. They spoke highly of the online visa service but were not happy with this system to enter Kanha. They complained, like many others, that they would have to plan their holidays months in advance which was not possible in this day and age.

The jeeps begin entering the forest, women tourists seem to be better dressed than the men. Shades of various shapes and sizes adorn well rested faces. Those in the line watch all this glumly while others who have procured a pass from the counter hurriedly call their families telling them to get ready. People at the back of the line use their voices to get ahead, but sound has no weight here. Desperation causes the line to melt into a scrum at the counter. I join in deciding to get the 'whole experience'. I shout out 'single, bus' not as a plaint of my marital status but of my status of one person inclined to take the bus tour. I get the last seat in the bus on count of me being alone.

In a few hours there will be a queue for the limited seats for 'matinee show' but till then there will be those willing to buy a pass to the Buffer Zone and take their chances there.

Read about my travels through India in my book '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'

Monday, November 9, 2015

Last of the Narrow Gauge

The Indian Railways decided that from 1 November 2015  the Narrow Gauge trains will be a thing of the past (like all things the shutting down was delayed to December). The places where people will be privileged to travel on these choo-choo trains will be in Darjeeling, Shimla and Ooty. The Narrow Gauge is collateral damage to the chug of progress - Broad Gauge Conversion.

Getting to the Narrow Gauge  platform in Nagpur is similar to getting to the 9 ¾ platform from which the Hogswart Express leaves. Walking on Platform 1 of the Nagpur station one comes to a pillar that separates this platform from the path to the narrow gauge platform. On this pillar is a little board that announces 'To Narrow Gauge'. You could easily miss it. Walking past the board, one gets a view of the Narrow Gauge track. There is a soon to be extinct Narrow Gauge train on the platform, it is heading to Nainpur in Madhya Pradesh.

The Narrow Gauge line in Central India began in the 1900s. The Gondia – Nainpur line was opened on the 13th of April 1903, there was the Chindwara-Pench Coalfield line that began in 1906-07. The 2ft 6 in (762mm) gauge line extended to just over 1000 km.

In this railway division the conversion to broad gauge began in the December 1992.When I heard that the remnants of the Narrow Gauge line was being finally shut down I decided book myself on a rain travelling between Nagpur and Nainpur.  This being the longest route, I hoped it would  give me a full experience of travelling on this line.

I booked my tickets on-line and chose a sleeper class seat, the idea being that I would be able sleep and also walk to the general compartments between stations. The sleeper bogie on the Narrow Gauge line is very different from what the passengers of the Broad Gauge line are used to. Here the bogie seats 38, there are 10 sleepers that hang above the benches.

This means that only 10 of the 38 onboard this compartment can buy the privilege of lying down. The only difference between the general compartment and the sleeper is the absence of these overhead berths.

The train left on time – 12.45 pm. As the train headed out of Nagpur, we passed through shanties that were at arms reach from my window. The tracks are part of peoples courtyards suggesting that people had encroached on railway land or the railways had usurped land from the people. One of the first things one appreciates on travelling by the Narrow Gauge is that speed of the train does not match its sound and fury.
The Narrow Gauge connects the less developed areas of this region. This fact was brought home by the stations we stopped at. Many were just signposts, others had a little concrete shed which also served as ticket counters. Being  a single line, there were a few  stations that were a little more elaborate to ensure oncoming trains could pass each other on parallel tracks and then get back on the single track.

As these tracks were built to connect the hinterland there isnt much distance between stations. The train stopped every few minutes, my fellow passengers were all of the short haul variety. As I was travelling before Dushhera many were headed back to their villages/towns.  
 There is not much to eat at these stations. Any lone snack stall at these halts does quick business. Many villagers sell fruits and vegetables here and Sitaphal seemed to be the fruit of the season. While sharing a piece of this fruit with a student headed home he told me that the best of these fruits are found here and that the tastiest Alu Bondas are found at the Karaili station on the Beena line.
When I asked one of the passengers what he would do once this line was shut he replied that journeys would become a luxury undertaken on family emergencies and to answer government notices. The fare of a bus ticket is double that of a Narrow Gauge train ticket.

Before becoming part of the Indian Railways behemoth, this Narrow Gauge line was known as the Satpuda Railway which was developed by the Bengal Nagpur Railway. Nainpur was the hub of this section. The train passes through the Maikal ranges of Satpuda hills and we covered some densely forested areas. Once in the hinterland, the train chugged past mud houses surrounded by green fields bordered by jungle. In the forested areas  there was a lot of gauge conversion work in progress. Stones dumped in huge piles, cleared areas deep in the forest, concrete sections that would soon become part of a station or a bridge popped up at frequent intervals on this journey.

Some railway gangmen got on board a few hours later. They said that even though this line would soon be shutting down the Railways would ensure that they worked for their money. 
 We reached Nainpur on time – 2.30 am the next day. The Nainpur station was lit and there was activity. Like in other stations people were sleeping on the platform, porters carried the trunks of guards and drivers to rest areas. However, there was a sense that this place had seen a far greater rush in earlier times. I walked into town to find a place to stay but at this early hour the hotels/lodges were shut and their attendants fast asleep. I returned to the station to chat to the owner of a tea stall there. Just then a near empty passenger train rolled in. While pouring me a warm cuppa chai, Babloo Kushwa, the owner told me that the station used to be packed at all times of the day. He reminisced that this train that had just rolled in used to give him a business of more than Rs 600/-. But with hardly any people using it, it was difficult to make even fifty rupees. He said that as train operations had been slowly whittled down people were forced to use buses.

He said that Nainpur was a railway town and its economy revolved around the presence of the railways. When I asked him what he would do once the station shut he said he had not thought of it as yet. My question was answered by another passenger who said that in all probability the tea stall owners would take their business to the bus station.

After a snooze I hired a cycle rickshaw to see the town. The importance of Nainpur as a rail hub could be gauged by the many British styled large railway offices and residences that were shut. 

The ordinariness of these trains could not  take away from the important role they played in the socio-economy of this region. Students, migrating families, regular passengers, vegetable sellers, tea stall owners  were all linked to these  Narrow Gauge tracks.  

The essence of time is  change, gauge conversion is an example of this. In this transformation many are going to be left out. What's going to happen to those little stops that had no station building to their name?  Would people collecting wood in the forest be able to hop on and hop off at the next station?  Or are they going to be swept aside as the Broad Gauge  trains thunder past?

Read about train journeys in my book '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People' available on Amazon, flipkart and book stores.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People in Business Standard

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Subtexts in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

I recently spent a few hours watching 'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy'. The movie successfully captured the Calcutta of yore. Additionally the use of heavy metal as the score served to highlight the disjointedness of the characters involved. The Tarantinoisque fight sequences accentuated this further.

All in all the movie was very well packaged. For me the takeaways were not the maturing of Bollywood or the attempts to juggle many experiments within one movie – successfully at that. What stood out was the role of the moustache in the movie. The other thing that found resonance was the plot about making a deal with the devil ie getting the Japanese into Calcutta in exchange for 'freetrade' of sorts.

You could say that there was scent of more than just a movie in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy.

It is believed that the moustache is a symbol of machismo and virility. It is supposed to embody manliness and the male qualities of courage, valour – most kings who ruled this land and or parts of it wore these hirsute principles. The moustachioed male twirling his moustache adds gravitas to the moment of contemplation while also showcasing his manliness.

Byomkesh has a moustache too. However, unlike the characteristics of the moustachioed, the hero comes across as someone with a gentle soul. This is first put across to the cinema goers when he is slapped by Ajit Bandhopadhyay in the first few minutes of the movie. The slap floors him and he remains one with the floor as the camera pans the smoke heavy room with the carom playing crowd. The next time we are accosted by his sensitive spirit is when he turns his face to avoid looking at the ghastly wound on the leg he is holding. This persona is constantly brought to the fore in the movie - when he does not come to the aid of Ajit when they are accosted by a group of men who begin roughing them up. His flinching when Ajit raises his hand even though a slap seems to be furthermost from Ajit's mind.

Though the gentle demeanour hides a brave and enquiring spirit the value of the mooch on him is watered down by the heroes actions or want of them.

This watering down is complete when one compares the actions of Ajit who is not only clean-of-face but wears spectacles, is short, a tad rotund and wears a look of constant wonder. This man slaps the hero, exercises vigorously, shows off his boxers and fights a gang of men. These are the exploits of a hero, of a go-getter ie of someone who many would like to see with a moustache.

This hero's sidekick does not wear wear a moustache but displays all the faculties of someone who is moustached. So, is the common refrain 'mooch nahin tho kooch nahin' false? Yes there have been movies where the hero is clean shaven but he acts like a hero, bashing up villains and what have you. However, one has not come across a movie where the clean shaven 'side-kick' ostensibly performs this function of the moustachioed hero which is so popular, widely accepted and ingrained in people.

The movie clearly assigns the role of the thinker and of the action man to two different people, usually the hero does both. In doing so the director has also subverted the much held hirsute principles.

Dibakar Bannerjee, the director, also speaks of the dangers of acting on the ' enemy of my enemy is a friend' philosophy. The young freedom fighters who join Anukul's plot to get the Japanese into Calcutta and so rid the city of the British realise much to their dismay that they are pawns in a far greater conspiracy. Their desire for independence had made them puppets to a drug laced conspiracy and had blinded them to the perils of opening the gates of the city to another imperial army.

Though Byomkesh saves the day with some dexterous planning and quick thinking there is much food for thought at the end of the day. What would have happened if the Japanese did finally control Calcutta? Would Anukul have become the drug lord he wanted to be under Japanese rule? Would the freedom fighters have realised their dream of freedom under the rule of another imperialist? Would the Japanese have diluted their imperialistic ambitions for the dreams of these people?

Thankfully, the answers to these questions will remain conjectures. However that being said the movie does bring to light the pitfalls of blind nationalism of any given time. Such fervour catalyses decisions and actions that on the surface seem correct and justified, but in fact may only bring horror on an unsuspecting population.

Samir Nazareth is the author of '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'