Ancient writings, Beastly encounters, Potshots

In the Plutonium Doghouse

Sixty thousand years ago, our dear ancestral cave-people snarled and hurled abuse and rocks and bones at their neighbouring cave-people, even as their respective supporters cheered and goaded them on while keeping themselves at a safe distance…

Today, Russia devastates Ukraine with missiles and other frightful weapons after being goaded beyond endurance by NATO and EU and USA, and Russia and the USA and NATO and EU snarl at one another even as the USA and NATO and EU cheer on and goad the Ukrainians to fight back and pour missiles and other frightful weapons into Ukraine while keeping themselves at a safe distance…

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

Thus it is in this dog-eats-dog world that we humans have in our wisdom created…because we love one another.

Cheered slightly by these thoughts, I inflict ‘pon thee, O long-suffering and precious Reader, a piece I wrote over 23 years ago – in fact, soon after India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance in this article to any persons or nations on Earth, however slight, is entirely intentional.


A mysterious defence document has come to light of all places, in the wrapping paper used by a peanut-vendor who operates his business near New Delhi’s India Gate. Inquiries reveal that the vendor purchased eighteen kilos of waste paper from Raksha Mantralaya early in May, and noticed this particular document only while wrapping five rupees’ worth of peanuts. “The masthead on the pages was different from the usual Defence Ministry stationery,” he explained, “so I thought it might be important, and called the authorities!”

Titled “In the Plutonium Doghouse”, the document is typed on the memo-pad of the Defence Ministry’s shadowy Department of Strategic Planning and Control (DSPC), and appears to be a sweeping account of global nuclear history. With Defence Ministry officials refusing to comment on it, the document is reproduced in its entirety below.

In the Plutonium Doghouse

Delhi, May-June 1998.

Once upon a time there was a kennel, in which lived dogs of assorted size, shape, faith and hue. Oldest among the dogs were Big Yellow and Big Brown. The two were neighbours, and like most senior citizens, pretty peaceful characters; in fact, Big Brown spent most of his time sleeping. Then came Big White, Big Red and a host of smaller dogs.

In the beginning things were just fine. Each dog had its very own space, with enough food supplies to last forever if managed well. But over the years some dogs got greedy and gobbled up their own supplies, and then they took to stealing other dogs’ food. Naturally, a stage came when they were all fighting like cats over the supplies that remained.

One day, Big White dug up an ancient bone from somewhere and discovered that by blowing on it he could make a fearful racket; enough to reduce all the other dogs to quivering, defenseless puppies! Naturally, he put on a lot of dog after that. He strutted about the kennel, brandishing his new pipe and helping himself liberally to the others’ provisions. But soon thereafter Big Red dug out a terrible bone-pipe of his own, and he was followed by two smaller white dogs; and barely had the echoes from their cacophonous pipes died down when Big Yellow nearly brought the roof down with a resounding trumpet-blast of his own.

Realizing that it was futile to aim their pipes at one another, the five dogs went into a huddle and came up with a brilliant idea: an exclusive pipe-wielder’s club, from which other dogs were debarred! For a while, then, the Plutonium Club (named after Pluto, the Almighty Celestial Dog) ruled the kennel; The five P-5 mongrels strutted about the kennel while the other dogs cowered in terror.

But Big Yellow was hungry for variety in his diet, and soon his crafty eyes turned towards the mountainous stores of Big Brown (who of course had slumbered while all this was happening).

Now, there was a little brown dog aptly called Li’l Brown who lived right next to Big Brown. Kennel folklore had it that once, very long ago, both Big Brown and Li’l Brown had belonged to the same family; but then a bitter quarrel had taken place over property, and Li’l Brown had thrown a tantrum and moved out to live by himself. Since then, Li’l Brown had developed a habit of filching food from Big Brown or nipping him while the old dog was asleep (which was almost always), and whenever the old dog protested Li’l Brown would roll over and yelp, “Help! He’s bullying me!” Baffled, Big Brown would go back to sleep, but soon Li’l Brown would be badgering him again, egged on by Big White who found it all very amusing.

Big White had other reasons too for befriending Li’l Brown. Right next to Li’l Brown lived a host of small dogs with vast supplies of delicious Afghan and Mughal food. Now, both Big White and Big Red were partial to Central Asian cuisine, but being much closer to these little dogs, Big Red had been hogging the lion’s share of these goodies.

So Big White made Li’l Brown his ally, promising him limitless supplies of hot dogs and cold fizzy drinks if only he harried Big Red and kept him away from the neighbourhood of the little dogs while he, Big White,instead carted off their provisions by tanker-loads and pipelines … oh, their oily pilafs were simply delicious, though the skewered meats did generate a lot of gas…

Well…such were the dog-eats-dog politics of the kennel.

But even while all this was happening, a day came when Big Yellow turned to Li’l Brown and growled, “Here’s a present for you… a little bone-pipe of your own! Now be a good fellow and wave it under Big Brown’s nose. It’ll distract him while I take a bite out of his Sikkimese pudding…I’ve been fancying it for years!”

But even as he spoke, a deafening roar shook the ticks off the kennel walls. Big Brown had sounded his very own bone-pipe; how he had dug it up while asleep, no one knew.

“Blast!” growled Big Yellow.

“Dog-gone it!” howled Big White.

As for poor Li’l Brown, he was inconsolable. “I can’t hound Big Brown any more, his bone-pipe’s bigger than mine,” he yelped and wailed. Finally Big White went over to him. “Aw, come on,” he rumbled soothingly, “tootle on that little bone-pipe of yours, chew on this nice piece of Afghan kebab, and you’ll feel better. As for Big Brown, just wait till the old duffer’s asleep and then take a nip out of his tail.”

Note from Special Directorate, Intelligence Bureau/DSPC, Raksha Mantralaya: Unfortunately the remainder of this secret document is untraceable at this point. Peanut vendors and their clients in Delhi are requested to keep an eye open, and to inform us at once in case any more pages are found.

Beastly encounters, General ravings

Tick Talk

[O most valued Reader, of late I’ve been feeling that everything’s going to the dogs… the world, the environment, politics, society, and of course my writing. An appropriate time, then, to present this short essay – published in May-June 1995 by my dear friend Uma in her magazine ‘Small Change’]

We’ve at last come to realize that humankind is not the sole intelligence in the universe.

Consider the tick.

Now, anybody who owns a dog or who’s ever had anything to do with dogs will certify the truth of the following statements:

1. Ticks love dogs.

2. Ticks feed on dogs.

3. When full, ticks drop off dogs and crawl up walls.

A tick not only crawls up the wall; with grim determination etched upon its face, it continues to crawl (upside-down) across the ceiling till it reaches some predetermined spot. And there, it settles down and waits.

The question that arises naturally is: waits for WHAT?

We asked the vet. He looked surprised and immediately replied: “For a dog, of course!”

We were nonplussed. We sought urgent clarification. Surely, we stressed, ticks might not have our levels of intelligence, but even they would know that dogs preferred to walk on the floors and were in fact rarely found scaling the walls of a room, forget the ceiling?

The vet chuckled and said we’d missed the point.

“It’s like this,” he said. “The tick, having fed on a dog, falls off the dog and on to the floor, right?”

We nodded.

“Now, then, the tick naturally needs to rest awhile and digest its food. But at the same time, it must be in a position where it can find a dog at short notice…so it doesn’t die of starvation, right?”

We nodded again.

“Now, if the tick remains resting on the floor where it’s fallen, two serious problems arise. One: even if a dog passes it by frequently, it’s not going to be easy for the tick to get back on board the dog; after all, the dog will be moving pretty fast compared to the tick, and so there’s not much chance for the tick to hop on to a passing paw or tail. Two: while the tick remains lying there, there’s every chance that it will be stepped on by a careless boot, or swept away or swabbed or vacuumed into oblivion.” He paused for breath.

“You mean…the tick knows all this?”

“Of course it does! Believe me, that little tick is mighty sharp. And so, what the tick instead does is, it heads for the nearest wall as fast as it can. Then, it crawls up the wall all the way up to the ceiling, and it crawls across the ceiling till it reaches a spot from where it has an uninterrupted view of the floor below. And there it waits…for a passing dog. Sooner or later, a dog will walk beneath it; whereupon, the tick judges the dog’s velocity, matches it against the estimated distance to the floor, swiftly launches itself…and lo! There the tick is, safely back upon the unsuspecting dog’s back for another enjoyable season of feeding…”

We were awestruck. “So….that explains why we sometimes find a tick or two crawling about on our arms when we visit people who own dogs,” we muttered. “The ticks must have fallen off the ceiling on to us; they must have miscalculated their launch angles and velocities, maybe leapt too soon or late…”

“You’ve got it all wrong!” the vet spluttered. “If and when a tick lands on you, it does so deliberately.  You see, the tick knows you like dogs…or at least it knows that you know the owner of the resident dog. And so, the tick knows that sooner or later you’re going to meet the dog, or the dog’s owner. And what better launching pad could the tick have to board its dog from, than your shoulder, or arm, or neck, or hair…”

At which point we fled.

Yesterday we read a news item headlined: ‘Search for Intelligent Life Continues in Outer Space’.

They’re looking in the wrong place!

Beastly encounters, General ravings, Musings

Anopheles Dream: an exploration into the Nature of Reality

I’m not sure what philosophy is.

It’s such a heavy, intimidating word: like ‘intellectual’.

I’ve read a few people who are called ‘philosophers’ – Russell, Thoreau, Camus, Huxley, Gandhi, Sartre, Vivekananda come to mind (and leave the mind as quickly as they come). I’ve found them really interesting and absorbing to read because…well…they are common-sensey in a kind of deeper way. They don’t use long, hard-to-understand words like ‘philosophy’. They talk about the simplest, most common day-to-day things: people, situations, events and feelings and emotions that you and I and everyone else feel and experience. But they delve so deep into these things they talk about that very soon you find you’re looking at and experiencing just about every possible thing in the universe.

Right now I sit here, muttering and stuck for ideas as I always am, while Tangerine Dream’s moody notes beat on my tympani and gently stir the frail wings of the mosquito that sits on the wall across the room, relaxing and soothing our respective muscles and joints and nerves jointly and severally in gentle, soporific and sonorous waves.

I stare at the mosquito. It stares back at me.

I drink, therefore I am…

I shift my stare to the white rectangle of a blank Word document. It too stares blankly back at me.

After profound thought, I decide to undertake a philosophical Exploration of Reality.

I touch the ‘Enter’ key.


I feel, I felt, the Enter key!  It felt hard but not too hard. As I pressed it down, I heard a slight, soft click. I released the pressure of my finger; the key sprung back. And even as I went through these steps, in a fraction of a second, I saw the blinking vertical line of the cursor dart down the white virtual page on the screen.  I felt, I heard, I saw.

All these things I understand well! I know what these senses are, of touch, sight, of hearing. As I do the sense of smell, of taste.

I am aware.

I know the shapes and hues of the hills and forests, the houses where I lived in childhood, the expressions on people’s faces; I can feel winter sun’s warmth, a neem tree’s cool shade, a caress, the slap of an affectionate cat; I know and can recall the taste of mango and rum, of keema and sambar; the sighs of pine trees and tired people in a queue, the howls of lonely puppies and unseated politicians. I know the smells of coffee, of freshly peeled oranges, of grass growing in a Himalayan meadow and smouldering in a chillum, of Mumbai in the monsoon and crowded Metro trains in Delhi.  I know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feels of the millions of things, living and non-living, small and big, that I have ever encountered in my long and misspent life and that have influenced me, shaped me, made me what I am.

But now I ask myself: are these sensory phenomena and their vasanas—their impacts on the sense organs by which I perceive them—really ‘real’? Do these phenomena actually have an absolute, immutable, non-relativistic quality about them? Do their characteristics transcend space-time, are they perceived the same way by others, human and non-human, irrespective of frame of reference?

Do bacteria shiver in winter the way I do? Are goats and dust-mites moved by music as I am?

‘Of course not!’ shrieks the Voice of Rationality in my skull. Pressed for evidence to the contrary or in favour, however, the Voice of Rationality subsides into muttering curse-words like an aggressive Delhi driver who’s not been allowed to overtake on the wrong side.

The Voice of Rationality, too, has no answer.


If, then, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the reality or unreality of the animate and inanimate things that impinge on my senses and enables me to sense them….what of my senses themselves? Are these senses with which I perceive the Reality around me false? These senses that have helped me define and delineate and categorize and sort and arrange and play around with the objects – living and non-living – that have surrounded me from birth, and indeed enabled me to create my version of Reality; are these senses ‘unfixed’, variable, entirely subjective, and therefore unreal?

‘Of course not!’ comes a feeble croak from the Voice of Rationality. ‘Because if indeed our senses are unreal, non-Absolute, then what you and I and everyone else’s devar and mausee and periappa think of as Reality is in fact Unreal. Illusion.


In that case, I press on triumphantly, what I think of as Reality is real only to me –  this world of shapes, of objects living and non-living and their interactions with me and with one another, their patterns of behaviour – are quite unique to me, and me alone.

I, I alone AM.

Kazhudai vishtaham,whispers the mosquito on the wall. It has covertly been listening to my thoughts.

It is, I realize with a start, a Tamil-Sanskrit scholar whose ancestors date back to the Sangam era.

“Donkey’s droppings,” the mosquito translates helpfully, and takes flight.

I am chagrined, deflated. I am also bitten several times by the mosquito.

As I mentioned earlier before I rudely interrupted myself: philosophy and I don’t get along.

My moment of enlightenment (mosquito can be seen near right ear)

I find solace in Odomos, and in the fact that physicist Richard Feynman didn’t like philosophy too much either: he found it boring, pointless, filled with long, complicated words and explanations that didn’t seem to mean anything.

Feynman’s supposed to have said: “Philosophy is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.

By his own admission, Feynman took an unholy delight in replying, in the most philosophical manner, to the too-clever-by-half questions framed by people who want to appear extremely profound and deep.

An example—Feynman’s reply to a question from the audience, at the end of a lecture he had given on the properties of light:

Q: When you look at something, do you see only light or do you see the object?

Feynman: The question of whether or not when you see something, you see only the light or the thing you’re looking at, is one of those dopey philosophical things that an ordinary person has no difficulty with. Even the most profound philosopher who’s sitting eating his dinner, hasn’t any difficulty in making out that what he’s looking at perhaps might only be the light from the steak, but it still implies the existence of the steak which he’s able to lift by his fork to his mouth. The philosophers who are unable to make that analysis and that idea have fallen by the wayside through hunger!

Hail Feynman, hail the great philosophers of MAD Magazine and other immortal epics.

Beastly encounters

The Squirrel’s Victorian Secret

[or, Thongs from the Wood]

The local squirrels and I get along very well.

Every day, I set out water for them – well, for the squirrels as well as for the pigeons, mynas, sparrows, crows, bulbuls, doves, sun-birds, babblers, wasps, chameleons, and all the other assorted creatures that have permanent citizenship and visiting rights to the terrace upstairs.

1 Community ground

Whenever I can, I toss the squirrels – and all the others – snacks to nibble on. Regular snacks include peanuts, cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, bits of biscuits, pieces of buttered toast, and leftover rice. And in winter, when Delhi is at its best, with blue-and-gold mornings and clear, chill nights and the air crisp as the Marie biscuit that accompanies your hot cup of chai, I sit out on the terrace with the squirrels et al., and we bask in the sun for hours on end and chew assorted snacks and contemplate the beauty of the Universe, the subtleties of Creation, and the idiocies of Indian Polity.

Sometimes, the squirrels and I do yoga together.

2 -That's my spot

“You’re sitting in my spot!”


3 Yogi Gileriswamy in aerial Uttanasana
Aerial Uttan-asana

I’ve discovered squirrels eat all kinds of things we eat: potato wafers, murukku, samosa, paratha, slices of apple and mango (well, who wouldn’t eat that!), even gobs of ice-cream. I had always thought squirrels were vegetarian. And then, one winter’s day, I saw a scampering squirrel come to a screeching halt beside the tiny, desiccated remains of a long-deceased beetle. The squirrel peered at the hors de oeuvres; sniffed it thoroughly from end to end; and then grabbed it in two little paws and scrunched it down with thorough enjoyment before racing along on its interrupted errand.

Once, I offered a young squirrel a fish tikka in its foil wrapping, complete with a liberal daub of peppery green chutney. The squirrel unwrapped and ate the tikka with great delicacy, as though it were a gourmet dish, proceeded to lap up every last drop of the green chutney…and then sat on its haunches licking its chops and staring at me hungrily, hoping for more.

The squirrels are adapting to my ways, just as I am adapting to theirs. It is deeply comforting, this mutual bonhomie and peaceful coexistence.

Yet, the squirrels and I have our personal spaces; for do not strong fences make good neighbours? We too have our border; a Line of Actual Control (LAC), reasonably well demarcated, that both sides respect and do not breach, barring occasional, unarmed tests of strength that are as brief and non-violent as the scuffle between unarmed Chinese and Indian soldiers on the LAC in Sikkim, and as speedily and honorably settled with mutual withdrawals to our respective ground positions.

Thus, barring a few choice epithets hurled in their general direction, I do not bear the squirrels ill-will when I discover that they have vigorously uprooted and consumed all my carefully planted bulbs and seedlings in the terrace garden; nor do I run to the United Nations wailing for third-party mediation when a cheeky little squirrel-pup filches the buttered toast from the saucer that I had left unguarded for a minute while I went indoors for a coffee refill. Likewise, beyond tweeting a few derisive comments about me, the squirrels don’t complain when I chase them away from the chili plants whose slender twigs they love to use as toothpicks; or when I periodically clean up the window-sills that they use as community toilets (inspired, no doubt, by the Swacch Bharat Mission).

Recently, however, the spirit of Panchsheel that has hitherto governed our relationship was shaken by an unprecedented security breach on the LAC.

It started with a strange aroma in the kitchen: a scent that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant but quite distinctive: a cocktail of ancient pocha-kapda (mopping cloth), straw, damp leaves, grease and dog fur.  For two days I hunted for the source of the smell. I checked every cupboard and shelf and drawer, every container and bottle; the fridge, toaster, the sink, the drain, the waste bin, even the water filter. No luck.  The scent grew stronger, my appetite weaker, my mood fouler.

And then, returning home in the evening on the third perfumed day, I saw a squirrel taking a stroll on the kitchen counter-top. It executed a hop-skip-and-jump via the water filter up to the exhaust fan vent, within which it disappeared.

4 Exhaust fan
Theatre of action – LAC

The exhaust fan vent…the one place I hadn’t thought to check! So I climbed on to a stool, stood on tiptoe and peered into the recesses of the vent. Voila! There it was, the source of the aroma—a pile of shredded cloth and rope and string and straw, carefully arranged layer upon layer to make it soft and springy, so tall that it completely obscured the hinged vanes on the far side of the vent. Of the squirrel, there was no sign.

The squirrels had built – or were still building – a nest.

But how on earth had they managed to get into the vent, that too with all this nest material, when the vanes on the far side  normally remained shut and opened only when the fan was running? I soon discovered the answer: professionals that they were, the squirrels had wedged some kind of rag tightly between two vanes, so that the vanes remained half-open during the great construction project to allow smooth ingress and egress of squirrels and building materials.

5 Spring bed
Playpen in the making…

The discovery of the nest plunged me into a great moral dilemma, such as that which nearly undid the great warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra before Krishna talked some sense into him.

I didn’t have the heart to demolish the nest. For the squirrels, the cool and dark tunnel of the exhaust fan vent provided the perfect refuge from the scorching summer heat. Besides, wasn’t it possible that Ma Squirrel was expecting to deliver a batch of little squirrel-pups, and was making this snug little nursery for her young-ones-to-come? How cruel it would be for me to undo all her hard work, her labour of love!

But countering this emotional response came the harsh yet compelling voice of reason. The nest was fragile, precariously located…in the exhaust fan vent of all places! Wouldn’t it be awful if I, or someone else, turned on the exhaust fan and hurled the feather-light nest – and possibly the pups – against the cruel vanes?  Even worse, the fan blades might cause injury – or worse – to the squirrels. Surely that would be far crueller than removing the nest now, when it was empty?

And then, there was the little matter of mosquitoes. Every mosquito and her sister-in-law, from Noida to Gurgaon, must surely be making a beeline (or mosquito-line) for this inviting gap in the vanes, which, from a mosquito’s point of view, was like a blazing signboard over a fast-food joint; namely, me. Little wonder that of late, I was being eaten alive every night by the bloodthirsty members of the Family Culicidae…

What was I to do?

Like illustrious Arjuna, I chose the path of vacillation. Like brave Arjuna, I thought up seventy-six excellent reasons why I should not do anything. Let’s give it a day or three, I told myself: maybe Ma Squirrel will give up her nest project now, because she knows I’ve spotted her.

And so three days passed, with strict instructions given to one and all not to turn on the exhaust fan at any cost.  The kitchen walls and ceiling grew grimier, the mosquito bites grew more numerous and painful, the nest grew thicker and wider. This made me feel worse: I had to do something fast, before it became too late for Ma Squirrel to change her plans…and before I was completely consumed by the mosquitoes.

On the fourth day I had a brainwave: I would simply remove the rag that held the vanes open! The vanes would snap shut; Ma Squirrel wouldn’t be able to get into the vent; she’d fret a bit, and then shake her furry head sadly and find another site for her nest.

So I fetched the stool, reached into the vent and tugged at the rag holding the vanes open till the rag suddenly came free and the vanes snapped shut. Leaving the nest intact, I descended and examined the rag: it turned out to be the frayed remnants of my face towel that had gone missing from the clothesline on the terrace the previous week; I had assumed the towel had been carried away on the gusts of a dust storm.

Problem solved…or so I thought.

Two days passed uneventfully. On the third day, while sipping my morning chai and scratching idly at a mosquito bite, I glanced up at the exhaust fan vent and noticed that the nest was distinctly thicker. What’s more, there was something blue resting on top of the nest. I climbed on to my trusty stool and peered into the vent. Not only was there a fresh layer of shredded pocha kapda on top of the nest, but carefully placed right in its middle was a blue clothes-clip – no doubt, Ma Squirrel had chosen it to decorate and liven up the little nursery.

Ma Squirrel was at it again! But how on earth had she got into the vent ?

I peered into the dark tunnel…and groaned. Once again, there was a piece of fabric carefully and tightly wedged between two vanes to hold them open. Muttering like an irate old squirrel, I tugged out the piece of fabric, descended to examine it closely…and nearly gave up my ghost there and then.

In my trembling hands was a pair of panties.

Slightly worn, slightly frayed, but definitively a pair of red panties. Size L, by the look of them; though I did not look closely.

7 The ghastly evidence
Exhibit A

Well might you chortle, O dear reader. But picture my plight…and empathize! Leave alone Arjuna, even Bhimasena would have quailed at the dreadful situation in which I found myself.

Here I was, a single man, a senior citizen at that, holding a pair of panties. Whose panties they were, I knew not; nor did I want to know. I just had to get rid of them, fast. Imagine if someone walked in and found me in possession of lingerie!

How could I explain it? What could I say?  Speak the truth?

You see, I found these panties in my exhaust fan vent…The squirrels were building a nest in there…and they used these panties to prop the vanes open, so they could get in and out…”

It sounded a highly unlikely story, even to me.

I had to get rid of them! But carefully; I couldn’t risk anyone tracing the thingies back to me.

For a brief wild moment I considered burning the panties out on the terrace – but discarded the idea with a shudder. Imagine if the fire, and its source, drew the attention of neighbours…

And so, feeling like a murderer disposing of an inconvenient corpse, I wrapped the panties in three layers of newspaper; placed the paper package deep inside a black garbage bag; and then, deploying nest-layering skills and care that would have made Ma Squirrel shake her furry head in admiration, I buried the package beneath layer upon layer of vegetable peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, shredded paper, and finally and regretfully, the material of the nest.

A month has passed since that traumatic day. To my immense relief, there has been no discernible change in the neighbours’ attitudes, or in the attitudes of the squirrels. Clearly, the panties have been safely consigned to the landfill.

It’s now safe for me to reveal the truth, complete with photographic evidence – such as it is – in the interests of transparency.

Ma Squirrel has not resumed her nest-building. Still, I continue to check the exhaust fan vent, and especially the vanes, thrice daily…just in case.

You just can’t underestimate the squirrels. Or under-rate their underwear-filching skills.




Beastly encounters, Musings, Potshots

A coffee bean’s trauma (or, Nightmare on Dung Street)

Feverish insights into the goodness of dung and the oneness of all living things


A week or so ago,  a great Indian thinker—the Hon. Mahesh Chandra Sharma, recently retired judge of Rajasthan High Court—provided new and wondrous insights into the Divine Attributes of the Indian Cow [click here to read full report].  We were enthralled, delighted, by his revelations; we were eager to believe.

Alas, many highly ill-reputed intellectuals in India and abroad greeted Hon. Sharma’s revelations with amusement, skepticism, and even scorn. Our belief was shattered.

Was Sharma-jee wrong?

Is the bovine no divine but a mere mortal?

These and other weighty  questions kept us tossing restlessly in bed night after night, till we resolved to seek wise counsel from one of the world’s leaders in bovine research: Dr Pashupalan Moosa, Senior Director at  the Indian Cow Research Institute (ICRI), Gurgaon and  Head of the Product Innovations, Design & Development Labs (PIDDL), located in the sprawling 1400-acre campus of ICRI.

We met Dr Moosa in his spotlessly clean lab-cum-office. He was a curly-haired, bespectacled gentleman of about sixty-five, wearing a white lab coat and the placid expression of the Indian water buffalo. On the wall behind his desk was a fetching portrait of Kamadhenu, the Celestial Cow. Dr Moosa bade us sit and poured out two cups of black coffee from a large percolator. We accepted a cup gratefully and took a sip. The coffee was excellent: just the right warmth, strong yet not bitter, heady in fragrance, with a kind of wild, mossy, moist flavour that evoked the freshness of rain forests.

“We have ten minutes,” Dr Moosa murmured.

“Sir,” we began hesitantly, “the Hon. Mahesh Chandra Sharma has provoked considerable mirth and wrath with his claims that the cow is a divine creature. As a leading expert in bovine sciences, what do you make of his statements?”

“Of course Sharma is right: the cow is divine,” Dr Moosa murmured. “Just as you are divine! As indeed is a tapeworm, an ant, a chicken, a tick, a bacterium, a cuttlefish!” He leaned forward, warming to his theme.  “Listen: all living creatures on Earth are made of the same genetic stuff. Whether we are bacteria or Bactrian camels, conger eels or Congressmen, capuchin monkeys or capitalists, Komodo dragons or communists, giraffes or jihadists, all of us share the same DNA and RNA at the cellular level. We are all, at the core, truly One—whether we like the idea or not. All living things have spawned and evolved in the same great river of the Genetic Code, which some people call God by various names and others simply call names. So why should we exclude the poor bovine from this all-embracing divine realm?”

He was being a tad evasive, of course; but we were so awestruck by the potency of his words and his coffee that we let it pass. “All right, sir…but what about Sharma-jee’s other claims? For instance, he declares that a cow inhales as well as exhales oxygen! What kind of respiration is that, sir? It flies in the face of science!”

“Not at all,” said our colleague gently. “Haven’t you heard of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?  It works because you can actually exhale part of the oxygen you inhale. So…it’s not only the cow that can inhale and exhale oxygen: we all can!”

“But…Hon. Sharma also quotes some obscure research by some untraceable Russian scientist named Shirovich to claim that a cow’s bellows can kill germs in the vicinity! Surely that’s absurd enough to make a buffalo laugh?”

Our learned colleague chuckled. “Well, first the point about a cow’s bellows killing germs. Here too Sharma is factually correct. It’s the media that’s got the story wrong! The media has misinterpreted the word ‘bellows’ to mean the sound a cow makes with its mouth, and ended up looking at the wrong end of the cow…um…pipe. You see, a cow does not bellow; it moos. By ‘bellows’, Sharma is referring to the simple, age-old mechanical device used for squeezing out gas from a bag at high pressure. Now, it is an established fact that a cow…er… squeezes out more than 60 litres of methane and other gases daily from its stomach bag – a direct result of its grassy, high-protein diet.  Think of it: 60 litres! Forget germs, no living creature can possibly survive such saturation bombardment by the highly aromatic emissions from a cow—not even an elephant that’s lost its sense of smell!” Dr Moosa paused and looked at us keenly. “If you like, I can take you across to PIDDL’s integrated cattle shed complex; you’ll vividly appreciate the point when we’re half-a-kilometre away.”

“There’s no need for that, sir!” we assured him hastily. “But then, what about this Shirovich, the Russian bovine scientist that Hon. Sharma referred to? He’s untraceable! We’ve hunted for Shirovich and his purported work on the Net, in libraries…but to no avail.”

Dr Moosa shook his head sadly. “I have no doubts at all that this Shirovich exists or existed, and that his work is authentic. My guess is that Shirovich must have quietly succumbed to an excess intake of bovine emissions while undertaking some long-term experiment, doubtless in some remote bovine lab in Siberia or the Ural Mountains where his demise went unnoticed. That’s why he is untraceable, poor fellow: a great loss to the scientific world.”  He sighed and refilled our cups with steaming coffee.

We fought off the feeling of unreality that was slowly enveloping us. “There’s also been a lot of unkind comment in social media over other things Hon. Sharma said. Like, he says the cow is a clinic! And he goes on and on about the healing powers of cow urine and cow dung…”

“Of course he’s right!” broke in Dr Moosa.  “You must try and ignore the cackling of the hoi-polloi!”  He paused, reached into a desk drawer, took out a small dark-brown package wrapped in plastic and handed it to us.

“Behold!” he cried. “This is the latest product from the PIDDL stables…er…cattle pens. It’s pure, fresh cow dung, painstakingly collected by my team from cows that have grazed only in the ISO 9001:2008-certified organic pastures of PIDDL. We’ve enriched the dung with vitamins and minerals, added subtle flavours, and given it a catchy brand-name: ‘PIDDL Dung’!” His face was flushed with pride and enthusiasm. “PIDDL-Dung is now being marketed as a breakfast-food supplement in 114 countries, including USA, EU, UAE, Japan and Australia. It’s one of the greatest success stories of the Make in India initiative!”Grazing dream

“That’s amazing,” we whispered, holding the PIDDL-Dung package gingerly. “But why is it only being exported? Why aren’t you marketing it in India?”

Dr Moosa smiled tolerantly. “Our marketing team knows what it is doing. Indians will never embrace any traditional Indian product—until the West first embraces it. Now that other countries, particularly the West, have started consuming PIDDL-Dung by the ton, Indians will soon follow in droves!”

We tried to speak but only succeeded in making soft mooing noises.  On the wall, Kamadhenu twitched her tail and gave us an inquiring look.

“PIDDL-Dung comes in six flavours at present,” Dr Moosa went on. “This one’s chocolate-almond; please accept it as a gift!”

“Thanks, but sorry, sir,” we mumbled, placing the package down on the desk. “It’s just a little hard to stomach the idea of eating cow dung…”

Arre bhai!” he cried. “If you can eat sheep’s brains and goat’s gonads, if you can gobble up fish eggs and frog’s legs, if you can wolf down globs of pounded flesh stuffed into bags stitched from pig’s intestines in the name of sausages, why’s it so hard to savour some clean, tasty cow dung? Hahn-jee?”

His logic was irrefutable, yet hard to swallow. “But …but these are animal feces!” we protested feebly.

Dr Moosa relapsed into moody silence.  But after a moment he looked up and smiled. “Did you like the coffee? Would you like some more?”

“So kind of you, sir… the coffee’s really superb. But we’ve taken up enough of your time, thank you.” We rose, nodded at Kamadhenu who nodded back, and shook our host’s hand.  He walked with us to the door.

“This is Kopi Luwak coffee, you know,” he murmured as we reached the door.  “It’s from Indonesia. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world. A kilo costs anything from 1200 dollars to 3000 dollars, that’s two lakh rupees…”

We were stunned. “What’s in that coffee, gold?” we asked.

He chuckled. “No, it’s not gold.  Although curiously, gold is the word used by local Indonesians to describe the animal feces from which they get the coffee beans…”

We clutched the door for support. “What!”

“Yes…you see, the coffee beans are picked out from the feces of the Indonesian palm civet cat. This lovely animal likes eating coffee cherries. The cherries are digested, but the beans stay intact as they pass through the animal’s stomach and intestine. In the process they absorb certain unique flavours, and so when they emerge…”

Dr Moosa broke off and started to laugh at our horrified expression. It was an extraordinary laugh: not quite human, rather a series of shrill, persistent monotonic beeps that grew louder and louder. It was almost like the sound of a morning alarm…

Mercifully, it was.

Beastly encounters, Potshots

Cow’s laughter

Cow's laughter 001

Ah! Recycling is such a joy, for the environmentally aware citizen as well as the struggling writer. Buoyed by this ignoble sentiment and by the nationwide brouhaha over divine bovinity (bovine divinity?) and whether it is right to hog beef, I dust off and present an ancient piece carried by The Times of India on 15 April 1999 under the title ‘Cow’s laughter’.

“What do you feel about cow slaughter?” asked the chairman of the interview board.

“Well,” I began confidently, “the issue’s unfortunately been clouded by religious sentiment…”

“Indeed, we know cows have religious feelings,” interrupted the chairman, “but what do you feel about the issue?”

Mercifully, the interview was terminated soon thereafter. Yet the true significance of the chairman’s remarks struck me – literally and rather forcefully – only many years later. I was in an auto-rickshaw, and my driver, like so many of his tribe in the Great City, was knowledgeable and voluble. Having discoursed at length on rising prices, falling morals and the urgent need for a Truck Driver Eradication Programme, he turned to the subject of cows.

“Ah! What a creature!” he breathed reverentially, swerving us towards a passing dog and missing narrowly. “She gives us milk, from which we make butter, cheese, curds, ghee…her strength pulls the cart and the plough, her very dung fertilises the soil…”

“And her meat is rich and nutritious!” I cried, caught up in his enthusiasm. “Her hide makes footwear, and her…” but I stopped short at his cry of horror. Indeed, so agitated was he at my remarks that he accelerated and braked at the same time, and our chariot executed a series of skips and jumps before shuddering to a halt. He turned to me.

“Sacrilege!” he whispered hoarsely. “To speak of eating cow’s flesh. But then you, sir, are undoubtedly a product of inadequate spiritual education, and therefore ignorant of the divine attributes of the cow. Let me tell you…”

At that moment, disaster struck. A dappled cow had been grazing contentedly on the grassy divider nearby. A passing truck sounded its horn; the cow jumped out of her skin; and the next instant she was charging straight towards us, mooing plaintively. I yelled in alarm; the driver twisted around, but too late. The cow lowered her horns instinctively before hitting the windshield, which disintegrated with a splintering crash. Stunned by the impact, I watched as the cow – not a bit put out by the incident – poked her head through the gaping hole where the windshield had been.

“Moo?” she inquired softly. But the driver, who had assumed a foetal position on his seat, did not reply; and so, with an apologetic nod at me, the beast withdrew her head and trotted off briskly down the road.

I disembarked and joined the interested crowd of sidewalk ghouls which had gathered. At length, the driver uncurled himself, a limb at a time, and lurched to his feet. And then, he began to curse.

We were awestruck by the flow and fluency of his expression. He began with a general character assassination of the impugned cow, went on to cast ghastly aspersions on its antecedents and parentage, and finally dismembered it with ritualistic slowness. “It should have been strangled at birth!” he cried, and demanded to know what the government was doing in the matter.

At this, a bystander chided him gently for speaking ill of divine bovinity.

“Rubbish!” the driver yelled. “That was no Bharatiya cow! I saw the spots on it: it had foreign blood in it. It was a foreigner, I tell you, a foreigner…”

Beastly encounters, Musings

Bondla Ramble

The silence is deafening.

Last night too there was silence, when we were sitting out on the verandah of our little cottage. It was quiet then too, but a different quiet – the dense forest around us was alive, filled with a sizzling, electric, watchful kind of silence, a silence strangely intensified  by the rhythmic breek-breeks of an orchestra of crickets, muffled bumps and thuds, sudden bird calls, a startled cry from some unknown animal (a fawn? a bear cub?), the excited chatter of a faraway monkey, the rustling of leaves, the steady drip-drip of raindrops from a billion leaves…

Our abode in Bondla
Our abode in Bondla

But now, at dawn, the silence is absolute. The air is clear, cool, still but for an occasional stray breeze; the sky is overcast, a great brooding grey presence that portends more heavy downpours. The creatures of the night are deep in slumber; the leopards and civets and owls and other nocturnal hunters doubtless dreaming of sweet meals had and yet to be had, while the deer and squirrel and countless other hunted ones are only now wakening wearily yet watchfully from the shadowy realms of half-sleep, thankful to have survived another dreadful night, already gearing themselves to brave a day filled with perils old and new…and the night to come.

I look to the right, up the road. About fifty metres away stands a small spotted deer, nibbling leaves off a bush. It looks up at me and then gets back to its repast; but its ears are cocked now, there’s a new tenseness to its limbs. I turn and hesitate…should I wake the others? Udai is in deep delta sleep; the door to the other room, where Rekha, Nisha and Tarini are, is shut. Quietly – or so I think – I step back into the room and open the side door, thinking to step down the path that leads to the road. The door swings open silently, but the deer is gone.

I walk down the slippery, mossy flagstone path and amble along the road, looking in vain for signs of animals among the mist-blurred thickets on either side. Giant carpenter ants march busily among the inch-thick avenues of dead leaves on both sides of the road. Countless black centipedes wander about like tourists lost in a metropolis; one runs headlong into a soldier ant, pauses and scratches its head thoughtfully with about seventeen limbs; doubtless it is asking for directions?  But the ant offers no assistance; instead it executes a remarkable backward spring of about three inches, capers around the centipede several times in an ever-widening circle, and then sprints away at about 60 kilometers an hour. Clearly put off by this discourteous behaviour, the centipede flexes its mandibles, shakes its head in disgust and moves on.

I wander into the gently sloping forest on the right, walking as silently as I can—the faded blue bathroom slippers make this task easier, but I am acutely conscious of how vulnerable my toes and ankles are to uninvited explorations by all manner of creatures, from leeches and spiders to centipedes and snakes. A slight flicker of movement in the corner of the eye…and I see them! A group of five, no, six spotted deer are standing about a hundred metres away, staring at me; their bodies are barely visible in the deep shadows , but the occasional twitch of an ear gives them away. After a long moment they decide I am harmless; with twitching tails they turn and walk away deeper into the woods, soon to be lost among the dark green caverns beneath the tall trees.

I move on towards a small hillock where the road ends in a flight of steps, leading up to a low, rectangular building with CI-sheet roof; this must be the canteen. The steps are covered in bright green moss and treacherously slippery. Emerging on to a large paved courtyard,  I stare at the sightless windows of the canteen; there is a large lock on the door. To the right of the door is a small shed—just a roofed enclosure with low walls, inside which are piled rusting table fans, broken chairs, a cracked plastic table, and similar junk. As I approach the shed there is a sudden scuttling noise from within; I freeze and hastily move the other way, towards the low wall around the courtyard. All of the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary is visible from here. Beyond the wall, the forests fall away into a valley; above the tree-tops, and behind and all around, are high forested hills, their outlines blurred by the moisture-laden air.

A steady drizzle begins as I make my way down the steps. I see Nisha wandering through the woods where the deer were browsing. We meet on the road and walk slowly back towards the cottage.

“When does Krishna take his morning walk?” I ask, a tad anxiously.

“Around 9.30, I think,” Nisha replies. Krishna is the lone, slightly psychotic tusker who resides in magnificent isolation in the forested hills surrounding us; last evening we’d been told by Loveleen – the Veterinarian in charge of the Bondla Zoo and the Sanctuary – that Krishna enjoys taking a stroll down this very road every morning to inspect the lower reaches of his kingdom.

Nisha pauses and points towards an overgrown path leading off the grassy verge down into the wooded valley. “Here’s one of the nature trails.”

“Ah…so should we walk down it a bit?”

She nods. We move slowly and cautiously down the path, she leading the way, treading as silently as we can on the wet leaves. The slope is steep and slippery in parts; I stumble now and again, trying hard not to make so much noise as to scare away every living thing from Bondla to Kaziranga.  At one point the path curves sharply to the right, ducking behind thick undergrowth. I decide on a short-cut and plunge bravely into the thicket.  The earth seems alive beneath my feet…I look down and realize that it is, with large, fierce red ants. I execute an agonized leap that would have turned a spotted  deer green with envy, and narrowly  escape the ignominy of landing rear-first on the other side of the path.

As we descend, the forest closes in on us. It is like walking through a colossal green cathedral; a hall pillared and arched with countless trees of every imaginable size, shape and hue, tall and thickly leaved and so densely gathered in patches that the grey sky above is completely obscured. Many tree-trunks are festooned with creepers that swing lazily in the slightly chill breeze. The air is filled with a cocktail of scents, the primary ingredients comprising damp soil, crushed leaves and rotting wood. The earth is carpeted with a thick layer of sodden leaves. Bushes gather in fraternal clumps; some tall and thin with tendril-like leaves, others short and thickly leaved, with huge curved thorns;  still others sporting flowers blue, white, yellow and red. Mushrooms poke their yellow-white heads from rotting twigs and fallen boughs. There is water everywhere; myriad little trickles of rainwater flowing down the slopes, coalescing to form larger channels that eventually merge with the stream that bubbles and chuckles its way along the bottom of the valley.

Gallery of green
Gallery of green

Nisha pauses, holds up a warning hand, points to her left. I squint in the direction she’s pointing and see nothing but a large tree with thickly-leaved branches. And then, one of the branches shakes violently and I see two huge squirrels leap off it on to an adjacent branch, where they sit on their haunches and make derisive faces at me. They’re the largest squirrels I’ve ever seen in my life; each the size of a well-fed cat, and as agile too. “Malabar giant squirrels,” Nisha murmurs. The squirrels stare at us awhile, chattering their disapproval of the current political climate, and then turn in unison and leap out of view behind the foliage.

Spot the squirrel
Watching me watching you [photo: Nisha]
The drizzle is now a heavy rain; Nisha steps off the path to find shelter under a huge tree. I join her and we wait for the rain to subside. Incredibly, not a drop of rain falls where we stand; so thick is the canopy above us.  I am acutely conscious of the gaping hole in the tree-trunk right next to my shoulder. A perfect nesting place for a cobra, I think to myself gloomily; perhaps there’s an entire joint family of cobras in there, the young ones even now fighting over who among them gets to take the first nip at my scrawny neck…

Nisha touches my shoulder, startling me out of my serpentine reverie. She’s pointing towards a tall tree about a hundred metres away.  I stare hard at the tree, bringing into play all my powers of observation honed by two decades’ wanderings in the wilds of Meghalaya and Assam.  All I can see is the tree. Like a befuddled visitor at some gallery of modern installation art, I study the tree very carefully, closing one eye and then the other as I examine and appreciate its features. No doubt it is a fine tree, with a thick tapering trunk and many branches. The lowest branch is long and twisted, with a large oval-shaped knot halfway along its length…

“I don’t give a hoot” [photo: Nisha]
“It’s an owl…a tawny frogmouth owl,” Nisha murmurs helpfully. She’s now aiming her camera at the knot on the branch.

And then, at last, I see it. The knot is not a knot; it’s an owl. It’s huge, perched on the branch with its back to us, shoulders stiff and slightly hunched, its ruffled feathers clearly silhouetted against the slate-grey sky. “It’s sulking,” whispers Nisha. “Maybe because it’s wet…or maybe it doesn’t like being photographed by strangers.”

The rain thins; we leave the owl to its sulking and move on. Suddenly the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds, bathing the green hall in golden light from a billion glittering leaves. But only for a moment; like a curtain dropping, the thick grey veils of cloud conceal the sun again.

Now, slowly but surely, the creatures of the forest are waking up.  The air is filled with the hum of insects; dragonflies hover, butterflies flit about.  A sweet, fluting bird call wafts through the trees.   Nisha pauses, holds up a hand. “That’s a ruby throated yellow bulbul…the state bird of Goa,” she murmurs, scanning the tree-tops above us. After a moment or two she points; I see only a bewildering tangle of leafy branches.  She takes a few pictures, and then all of a sudden there is a flash of brilliant yellow amidst the green, and the bulbul does a fly-pass high above my head, a distinctly sardonic tone in its musical cheeping as it stares down at me. “Whee wit wit wheeNow do you see me?” it seems to chant.

The gurgling and murmuring of the stream grows louder and deeper, the light grows dimmer, as we near the base of the valley. Suddenly the stream is before us, about five metres wide, its dark but clear waters foaming among rounded rocks and pebbles and rushing between the bushy banks.  I step down to ford the water, and pause as a faint but pungent aroma reaches my nostrils. It’s a distinct odour, evocative…

“Elephant dung!” I whisper hoarsely. Nisha nods, eyes wide.

Silently, cautiously, I cross the stream, clamber up the bank on the other side, and emerge into a small clearing. On all sides the dense forested slopes press in; in the foreground on the left stands a light-grey rock formation; a monolith with an extraordinary shape…

It’s Krishna. He stands at least four metres high at the shoulders; his tusks are like giant yellow-white pincers; his legs as thick as tree-trunks. His eyes are open, but he is as still as rock from giant rear to pliant ears, from slender tail to stupendous trunk.

Nisha’s already crossed the stream and is climbing the bank. I point towards Krishna. For a moment we stand there, frozen, staring at our colossal slumbering colleague. And then, we turn and hasten back across the stream. Our ascent through the forest is far more rapid than our descent. I bravely lead all the way, happy that I’ve redeemed my reputation as a keen-eyed wildlife spotter.

After all, I’ve successfully spotted a three-tonne elephant at ten metres.