March 29, 2006

Unlikely Pilgrims of a lonely road

As we played hide-n-seek with the sun, reveling in the peace of the countryside, we fell into a steady rhythm, letting the car ramble to its own beat with Raju at the wheel, and Ajay by his side. Donald and I sat behind, munching Lays Classic Salted potato chips that I had bought in Sanquelim near the Dattatreya temple where we’d stopped for a film roll for the camera. The shopkeeper did not have a Kodak 200 ASA in stock. “I have only this,” he said, offering me a Konica film roll. I don’t usually prefer Konica, but reluctantly I bought it for I doubted if I would get any once we left Sanquelim. Ajay had lent me his Minolta since I hadn’t carried my Nikon FM 10. Moreover his camera had a macro mode that I knew would be useful in photographing flowers. At the onset of spring, the Western Ghats should be fairly awash with flowers, I thought as I loaded the film into the camera. I'd preferred a Kodak any day for the warm colours but as it turned out, the Konica didn't do too badly either.

As we moved away from urban centers and villages, we became quieter as miles stretched into terrain empty of people, hitting stretches of road that were straight in parts, and other times curving past bends, brushing vegetation as we negotiated the turns in the road. Looking back now, I find it surprising how when passing through quiet stretches away from the bustle of the city, silence influences us into talking less. I wonder if the reason we go silent is because we seek out noises alien to our lives in bustling cities where we’d rather talk to drown out the world outside our windows than hear the jarring jumble of orphaned noises intersecting our spaces in a wild medley of unconnected rants. It is not so out in the countryside where life teems in myriad forms, each with a voice unique to the space it inhabits, rarely interfering with another, and co-existing naturally with others equally at home in the wilds as them. This gives them a unique identity with which to identify them, hence heightening the experience when those melodies and other jungle sounds float in. Motoring along bumpily over speed-breakers that cropped up unannounced, helped in no small measure by Raju believing in not slowing down, we heard birds in the trees on either side of the road as deciduous vegetation flashed by outside. We also heard the silence, and our breathing.

The sun was beginning to dip to our left as we drove on the empty road on a cool summer evening in Goa. Patches of road lit up in gold where the sun got through the trees. I watched as the car ran down the golden shafts, and turning back I saw them resurrect again. Raju had taken time off from the fabrication firm he runs back home in Ponda, and so had Donald with his Electrical Contracting business. It was a welcome break for him from the daily grind at the Kundaim Industrial Estate at Kundaim, a village ten kilometers from Ponda on the way to Panjim, off the NH4A. Ajay had completed his portion of the syllabus at the school where he teaches and was enjoying his vacation, having halted work on the Fast-fire Downdraft kiln he was building in his backyard to make this trip possible. We’d gotten together after a long time, our association going back a long way. I had come down to Goa from Mumbai where I work, and it’s not often that we get to meet. And when we do, we take off into the countryside.

Nine kilometers from Sanquelim we passed a clump of trees on our way through Querim enroute to Chorla. A low concrete wall encircled the trees, holding up earth that held the trees in a tight embrace. A series of steps, painted white with lime powder, led up to a tiny temple barely two feet high, made of bricks and plastered with cement, its roof an inverted V. Inside the small opening rested a deity, garlanded with Marigolds. The temple had no door covering the entrance, allowing the deity unfettered views of the road that ran past it. 'Shri Parodeshwar', the name of the deity, was written in red paint on the wall, velvet green from being covered in patches by moss indicating that not many people sat on the platform housing the temple. The place looked far from everywhere! A garland of marigolds lay on the platform beside the tiny temple, glowing orange in the evening sun. We pulled up to the side of the platform encircling the trees while I took a few pictures. ‘A type of Sacred grove,’ I thought, ‘to protect and worship trees’. It’s not often that I come across Sacred groves in Goa though there are many to the South of the state. Usually I come across individual trees protected similarly by a deity to whom they're dedicated. Though this one consisted of more than one tree, their numbers were insufficient to qualify it as a Sacred grove. Sacred groves are patches of forests dedicated to deities or ancestral spirits.

These forest patches may consist of a single tree species or multi-species depending on the make-up of vegetation in the area. In Goa, I've mostly seen individual trees dedicated to deities and worshipped. They are easily identifiable from the small temples built on low platforms that encircle them. Sometimes a group of trees are dedicated to deities like the one we saw on our way to Chorla. But Devran (also known as Devrai), a Konkani term used to describe Sacred groves in Goa, are not as common though the one at Nanoda-Bambar in Sattari taluka, in the Western ghats mountain ranges, is well known for its significance in protecting vegetation categorised as Myristica swamp forests. "There are only two known instances of Myristica eco-systems in the world," Dr. Kasturi Dessai, a lecturer in Botany, and Dr. Narayan Dessai's wife, told me. "The other one is found in Kerela." Declaring it a Sacred grove ensured its survival.

Bambar, near Nanus, a short way off Valpoi, is among the few places in Sattari taluka where one can see the Western ghats in all its grandeur. In the late nineteen-eighties, a group of us used Nanus as our base camp over five days to trek in the mountain ranges along three routes: Satregad, Krishnapur, and Bambar. I barely survived the first day after Samir and I were caught in the middle of a rising river on our return from a very difficult climb up the Satregad. The rescue lasted one and half hours using wild bamboo fetched from the forest nearby and ropes taken from our tents to tie the bamboo together. The route to Bambar was infested with leeches, turning my shoes red from the bleeding as I tried to pluck them off. We had carried tobacco and salt to use on exposed skin to deter the leeches, but there were far too many streams along the route, washing off the salt and tobacco we'd applied. After crossing each stream we reapplied the preparation only to see it washed off after a few metres when crossing the next stream. Eventually we gave up though I found it difficult to ignore the leeches latching onto my skin as we brushed past vegetation on our way. Bambar is also home to rubber plantations. It was there that I first saw how rubber is processed into raw products for dispatch to processing plants. It was November, a time when most of India has emerged from the monsoons but out here, mountains and hills were damp from incessant rains.

Sanguem, the other Goan taluka in the rain shadow of the Western ghats is also home to Sacred groves. The very nature of these mountain ranges, home to dense forests and tribal communities who've lived there over hundreds of years, facilitates nature worship, helping preserve the tradition passed on from generation to generation.

Later, talking of the temple I saw on the trip to Chorla, Narayan Dessai, Principal at a higher secondary school in Canacona to the south of Goa, told me that there were several reasons behind this practice taking root across Goa.

“Where single trees are to be found, the tree and the deity it is dedicated to form a religious motif,” he said. “Usually, the way the holding wall is fashioned around the tree, with a small temple housing the deity, it facilitates gatherings where people meet up and sit on the circular platform after offering prayers. The other reason is to ward off evil in lonely places that people are fearful of negotiating alone or in groups, usually when alone. Having a temple in the area effectively says ‘Now you need not fear, you’re protected by the deity. Pass this way in peace.’” He believes that this practice also seeks to assign value to trees, adding, “Historically, some species like the Ficus, the Banyan, and the Peepal are protected in this manner, even Mango trees, and it’s not without reason. These trees find wide mention in Hindu traditions of worship, and in Hindu religious texts.”

It reminded me of the massive Banyan at Farmagudi, two kilometres from Ponda town, where a low platform encircles the Banyan. A tiny temple not dissimilar to the one in the picture is housed on the platform where people offer prayers and light incense sticks. The Banyan is a permanent fixture in the landscape at Farmagudi, and travelers alighting at Farmagudi get off the bus at the bus-stop under the Banyan. Students studying at the PES college of Arts and Science across the road from the Banyan, and those awaiting their college bus to take them to the Goa Engineering college up the hill a short distance off, sit on the platform awaiting Ponda bound buses arriving from Panjim to take them to town, or those from Ponda on their way to Panjim. In the years when Chandroo was alive, we used to savour his Usal-pao at his inn outside the Ganpati temple on the other side of the Banyan, off the narrow road that leads to Nagueshi. Now his son runs the place. The Banyan accommodated many a traveler sheltering under it from the heat of the summer and the fierce monsoons until, one monsoon day a few years ago, a part of it bent over and crashed during a particularly fierce storm. For a long time afterward the massive branches remained where they fell, in time becoming a permanent fixture themselves until they were cleared. A part of the Banyan still stands, spreading roots, and reinforcing faith in nature and its pilgrims.

Nature worship is central to Hinduism. Narayan Dessai made an interesting comment, “At times, these temples serve as boundaries of villages. When you pass the tree and the deity that guards it, you'll know you've left one village and entered another though this is not true in every instance. In worshipping trees where deities live, this practice helps protect trees and aids conservation in a big way." 'Besides protecting pilgrims on their way elsewhere,' I thought recollecting our trip to Chorla when we were the unlikely pilgrims of a lonely road.

March 25, 2006

Night Queen

It was several years later that I returned once again to Chorla ghat, this time with Raju, Ajay, and Donald. It is strange how when you return after several years to a place you like, the memory that you carry with you on the trip is the one you experienced just before winding up the previous trip to the place.

So, when the four of us drove in Raju's car recently through Banastarim, Marcella, taking the new bridge over the river Mandovi at Khandola to cross over into Amona, touching Navelim before passing through Sanquelim, then Querim, and eventually hitting the stretch to Chorla, the memory of long ago kept playing in my mind, that of Ajay and I searching for flowers in the dead of night in the Western Ghats mountain ranges. It took us some time to find them after we'd paused in sudden anticipation on being 'waylaid' by an intoxicating fragrance in the dark of night when on our way back from Chorla. We knew flowers are plenty in the mountains at the onset of spring, and that in daytime their bright colours draw attention, but we hadn't bargained on being 'stopped' like this in pitch darkness. This is what happened that night.

Years ago, Ajay and I had ridden to Chorla ghat on his white LML Vespa scooter. The mountain ranges at Chorla, part of the Western Ghats that runs along India's West Coast in a bewildering array of wilderness, had drawn us into exploring them. We thought it might be also be a good idea to see the Keri dam. We had always wanted to return one more time but one thing led to another and it was years before we made the return trip a few months ago, this time with Raju and Donald in Raju’s Maruti .

On that trip Ajay and I hit the stretch from Panjim, riding to Maphusa before crossing Sanquelim on our way to the mountains. As night fell, we rode cautiously downhill. It was a dark night, pitch black, and to our left the valley fell away rapidly to display ant-like lights miles away in the plains. There was a fair nip in the night, and it was silent except for the purring of the two-wheeler. We rode in silence, senses alert for any unusual sound the jungle on either side of the road might spring on us. It was then that we caught the fragrance as sudden as if someone had parted a dark curtain and punched us square in the face. There was no whiff of the fragrance building up as we drew near. We had ridden into its vortex on the turn on our way downhill. It was the kind of fragrance that can only find a home and jell in mystical mountain ranges. We stopped, turning the headlights back the way we came, searching the roadside for what we knew surely must be flowers.

“It has to be the Raat Rani (Night Queen),” Ajay said.

“Could be,” I replied.

The Raat Rani (Cestrum Nocturnum) flower is legendary in the Western Ghats (also known as the Sahaydris), particularly in the night when it opens its small petals to let an intoxicating fragrance suffuse the place. Originally a native of the West Indies and Central America, the Raat Rani, from the Jasmine family, is now cultivated in India, and can be found on jungle trails across the Western Ghats. The night-blooming Jasmine has been in use as perfume over the centuries. Jasmine flowers come in several varieties, and the Raat Rani is among the most well known, and is found in hot and humid conditions, opening up in the night to charm unwary riders of the night.

After several attempts we located the flowers on the side of the road. In the headlights, they looked yellow, but we knew them to be white. Only a Jasmine could stop someone in their tracks like this, I thought. They were Jasmine alright, but I wondered which. Chamelli? Mogra? Raat Rani? The small white, pointed petals, five to a flower meant we had found the Night Queen. We switched off the ignition. The silence of the jungle night fell heavily around us, in a dark blanket. The fragrance took over, silencing us. It was past nine, and we had a long way to go yet. I breathed deeply, washing my insides with the fragrance, holding it down, keeping it still. We couldn't wait long because we had a river ferry to catch. After a while, reluctantly we left her behind. That must have been the slowest we’d ridden back the slopes in all the traveling we did over the years. Looking back, I think it must have been in part due to the anticipation that rode back with us after the fragrant encounter, an anticipation of a similar experience further ahead. There weren't any.

Then we rode through Bicholim on our way back and took the river ferry at Amona to cross over to Khandola, before riding to Marcela, past the famous temple, on our way to Banastarim where we latched onto the NH 4A out of Panjim, past the bridge over the Zuari, heading to Ponda. The bridge over the Mandovi at Amona wasn’t up then but fortunately for us, the tide was in that night otherwise we’d have to sit on the side of the Mandovi for the tide to come in. I’ve been through 'waiting for the tide to come in' once at Amona, but if it was not for the fact that both of us had to get back home for dinner, I wouldn’t have minded sitting by the river bank one bit. It is one of those experiences one doesn't forget quickly, of waiting by the side of the river and watching the water come in little by little, rising all the time, timing its rise to keep busy, and of following the wake of barges transporting iron ore from Goa's mines as they materialise out of the dark in silence. It can be momentarily nightmarish to be surprised by a barge bearing down on you suddenly in the middle of a river at night. Sleep did not come easily that night, and I could smell the fragrance all the way back home. It was almost morning when I slept that night.

The memory stayed with me for a long time, and when the four of us decided on Chorla recently, the fragrance of the night five years ago returned anew. We drove up the mountain, stopping by the side of the narrow road to see the mountains to our left rising pyramid-like over the plains and valleys. Grass had turned to copper, setting off the green of the mountains. Spring was setting foot in the mountain ranges and colourful flowers graced the sides of the road that crosses over Goa’s border on its way to Belgaum in Karnataka.

On seeing purple flowers, I asked Raju to stop the car, and while Donald and Ajay waited outside, Ajay training his binoculars across the expanse that stretched between us, uphill, and the neighbouring peaks to our left, I adjusted Ajay’s Minolta camera to Macro mode, and took some pictures of the flowers. Nearby were two other varieties which I photographed. For a moment I wondered if there was a chance I might find the Raat Rani somewhere around. It was nearing evening, and I wouldn’t know until night fell.

We crossed over into Karnataka, drank tea at Tulsi Hotel four kilometers across the border from Goa, unpacked chutney sandwiches on our way back that Donald had packed for the trip, and ate them under a Ficus tree ripe with figs that we had passed on our way up earlier in the evening and which I had climbed to photograph the figs, the mountain sloping away beneath the branch I hung on to.

The velvet of the fruits was heightened by the sun beginning to drop behind the mountains. It was dark when we stopped by the tree on our way back from the hotel. The full moon was coming up from behind the hill to the side of the road, across from where we'd parked the car. We sat on the edge of the hill, letting our legs dangle over its side. Below us the open valley stretched for miles, our eyes blurring from looking across its expanse. The lights of the new bridge connecting Khandola to Amona shone bright in the distance. Initially we mistook it for Verna until we came upon it near the Sesa Goa mining plant later. Then we waited for the full moon to come up from behind the mountain to light up the valley and turn it to silver. It was then we heard a leopard, or so we thought on hearing the sharp, piercing cry that I knew to be similar to the one a leopard is known to use, but there was no way to know for sure in the darkness. Then we got into the car and went further downhill, stopping on the way to sit on a parapet where valleys opened up on either side of the mountain road. Other mountain peaks rose across the valley, and bathed in the full moon, the night turned silver.

There the four of us sat and talked, of now and of long ago, of growing up, of people we'd grown up with, remembering our foibles, laughing at incidents of years ago, of dreams we'd left behind to pursue our reality. There was no one but us where we sat, nor any trace of Raat Rani that night. Our memories turned silver in the moonlight, and precious as a result. In the peaks that rose opposite, where water running off the mountains had cut deep, wide clefts in their sides, I imagined silvers of moon tracing the clefts, leaving shadows to hide in the full moon where the clefts ran very deep, chiselled by water rushing down from god-knows-how-many-years ago. We argued over the width, and the height of the cut as it ran down the mountain opposite. “The cleft must be atleast 100 metres wide, and its height, not less than 250 metres. That must be a real impressive waterfall to see in the rains,” I said.

Raju and Ajay disagreed. “Less than 250 metres surely,” they said. But no one knew for sure. I wondered for a while what it must be like to go down there. It didn't look like anyone had been there before for, it looked fairly inaccessible. And so we talked into the late hours.

No one was in a hurry to go home that night.

March 23, 2006

Nankatai and Chai in Nadirsha Sukhia street

On most days after getting out of Victoria Terminus (renamed CST) in Bombay (renamed Mumbai), I walk down the DN Road in the direction of Flora Fountain. I like the urgency of the chaos that hawkers hawking their wares in the corridors of the old buildings bring to the place. A left turn into any of the narrow side streets returns me to the peace of mind I sometimes long for in the city.

The side streets cut through neighborhoods where buildings sit cheek-by-jowl, ensuring ample shade in the streets for most part of the day. I like the cool of the side streets, the small shops that line their sides, the handcarts parked in front of shops, the flow of people going about their tasks, and the voices that float about the place. There are far fewer motor vehicles to be found in these narrow streets, lending the place a less-hurried feel which suits me well coming from Goa as I do. It is in these streets, the narrow intestines that abut the main thoroughfares - the large intestines - that I get to actually pause and look around without anyone pushing me from behind to make way. It is here that Bombay regains its real age, and displays its veins and the lives that course through them. There is no one place that I can call Bombay’s heart. I find it everywhere. However, there is one narrow street I often return to, sometimes to sit on the wooden bench outside a small one-room hotel opposite the pink building that straddles part of the Cawasji Patel street and the Nadirsha Sukhia street that branches off it, bounded by the Janmabhoomi street on the other side.

The Nadirsha Sukhia street takes it name from the four storey pink structure named Sukhia Building. The building is different from the others. I cannot recollect seeing many buildings in the Fort area painted pink. The balconies are covered with windows made of netting. One can open these windows and look out into the street below. These windows are grouped into sections which are demarcated by wooden pillars. Above each section of six windows in each floor, two glass windows with six panes each are centered in wooden panels. The balconies of each floor appear to have survived their original design except for the first floor balcony whose glass windows are all that’s left of it, though the railings are still intact.

The hotel opposite the Sukhia building is a busy one. I try not to look inside the hotel for, its innards could easily pass for the dissected lungs of a chain smoker, all black, and it can get fairly depressing. The bespectacled owner, in his fifties, has put out three wooden benches in front of his hotel in the street outside. Two benches are placed on either side of the hotel entrance, perpendicular to it, and the third is placed along the wall adjoining the entrance. I prefer the third one because it is off the street and I don’t have to watch my back for the occasional vehicle passing through, moreover I get to lean against the wall and rest my eyes on the Sukhia building and watch the activity in the street while munching nankatai with a glass of chai (tea).

I don’t fancy chai much but I make an exception in these narrow side streets, especially if small hotels that dot the streets put out wooden benches in the street where I can sit with my back resting against the wall and take in the atmosphere of the place, better still if an old building rises up from across the street. One reason why I like the Sukhia building is because it has so many elements to it, especially the balcony which comprises of three elements; the railings, the series of windows above the railings, six to a section and three to each of the two sub-sections within each section, and the wooden panels above these windows which hold two glass windows to each section, with six window panes to each glass window. From below, it looked like a network of squares and rectangles, not dissimilar to paddy fields I see on my train journeys along the West Coast to Goa on the Konkan Railway.

The place has several offices, and workers taking a tea break make their way to the hotel for a glass of chai. To my left where I sit on the low wooden bench, a small mandir (temple) dedicated to Sai Baba is nailed to the wall and tended by a pujari (priest) who sits on a narrow ledge abutting the wall. Every once in a while a passing devotee stops by and places his right hand on his heart and murmurs a short prayer, bows his head in the direction of the mandir and carries on his way. The pujari looks at me, expressionless.

I ask the hotel owner for a glass of chai. He barks the order to his staff inside. After five minutes a young boy, in full sleeved shirt and trousers emerges from the hotel and passes me a glass of tea which I place on the bench to cool.

“Do nankatai de do (Give me two nankatai),” I say to the owner. He nods.

Nankatai (also spelled Nankhatai) is a type of biscuit prepared from maida (refined flour got from milling the endosperm of the wheat kernel, it is white, finely grained, and soft), powdered sugar, and ghee. The ghee is made into a fine paste and the powdered sugar added to it, followed by flour (not all at once) in to get a proper dough which is fashioned into small flattened portions and baked after greasing the tray with ghee until the biscuits turn brown. Alternately one can spread cardamom powder on the surface for taste before baking them. Nankhatai can differ from recipe to recipe, and is considered to be among the popular Indian delicacies. In one variation, semolina, made by processing wheat after separating wheat germ from the rest, is added to maida alongwith a pinch of baking powder before adding the preparation part by part to the mixture of ghee and sugar.

He reaches into one of the two glass jars placed on the counter and draws two round shaped nankatai. He has two varieties of the biscuit, one is shaped round, and the other is elongated.

“No, give me one of each,” I tell him. He returns one of the two biscuits to its jar, and retrieves one from the other jar holding the elongated variety, and passes them to me. They taste different from each other. I like the taste of the elongated nankatai. Though it is not sweet like you would expect many Indian sweet preparations to be, it's more agreeable to the palate than the rounded one. Both are soft, crumble easily. I ask for two more, one of each. A middle aged man steps over to one of the benches and sits down. He is dark, and thin. He asks for a ‘cutting chai.’ In Bombay parlance, ‘cutting’ refers to half a cup of tea.

I sit there in silence, and take a few photographs, of the building, of the man drinking tea before returning the camera to my bag. I finish my tea, and munch the nankatai lazily. Life is peaceful on the bench, even if a tad slow. I sit there a long time, letting time wash over me. Then it is time to go.

March 20, 2006

Time moves only if you do

It was Amol’s idea and it took Philip and me less than a second to endorse it. One Saturday evening in late 2003, Philip Fernandes and I drove down from Ponda to the Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in his blue Mahindra jeep. Philip sold the jeep last month and bought a new one. On arriving at the sanctuary we met Amol Naik at the Range Forest Officer’s (RFO) office. Amol volunteered at the wildlife sanctuary when he found time off from work as a gym trainer. Eventually, talk turned to leopard sightings as it usually happens in such settings. “Lets wait out the leopard on the machan (observation post),” Amol suggested. “Maybe we’ll get to see one if we stay the night out in the jungle.” Philip and I nodded in approval. It was an exciting prospect and we couldn’t wait for nightfall.

On the treks that Philip and I went together over the years we came across several instances of leopard droppings and pug marks on jungle trails but never came face to face with the big cat. However I remember one instance in early 2003 when we came very, very close to facing up with a leopard. Philip and I had driven down to the sanctuary from Curtorim where I had stayed the night before at his prawn farm. The Columbia crash that killed Kalpana Chawla and her crew dominated the local papers that day. On reaching the wildlife sanctuary, we walked in the direction of Caranzol, and it was at the edge of a grass plot developed as a grazing ground for bisons that we almost faced up with the leopard. We were drawn to the far corner of the plot by a series of staccato langur-calls. “Anil, these are alarm calls,” Philip said. “I saw monkeys in Gir use these calls to alert the rest of the troupe on seeing a lion.” Philip had returned recently from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat. “Yeah,” I replied. I had heard my share of similar alarm calls when trekking in the Tadoba wildlife sanctuary in the Naxalite tracts of the Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, bordering Madhya Pradesh.

We walked noiselessly to the edge of the grass plot in the direction of the alarm calls. The calls intensified in pitch, becoming sharper as we approached. We sighted the langurs in the trees that rose over the thicket beyond the plot. There we stopped and held our breath. The unmistakable smell of a big cat blew our way. We took a few steps forward, freezing on hearing a heavy movement behind the thicket. Then we heard it again, and a short growl. The alarm calls grew more urgent, giving away the predator. I felt the first signs of anxiety. We were unarmed, not even a stick to defend with. Neither of us moved for several minutes. “Lets go closer,” Philip whispered to me. We inched closer still, barely fifty metres from the animal. It had to be a leopard, I thought. It could not be anything else. We could hear the animal retreating. We waited there until the alarm calls grew fewer before leaving the place. It would’ve been too risky to crash the thicket and surprise the animal. Two weeks later we returned to the sanctuary. We trekked along a stream, then dry, not far from the grass plot of two weeks before and came across pug marks of leopard cubs. Later that day, the RFO, Prakash Salelkar, confirmed that a leopard was raising her family near where we’d passed by earlier in the day. I looked at Philip and said, “Which means we were real close the other day.” Philip smiled.

So when Amol mooted the idea, I thought ‘Here, this is another chance.’ We left for the machan at eleven in the night. Since we hadn’t planned it, we were not carrying blankets. As we approached the grass plot, Philip turned off the ignition and suggested we search for snakes. “What,” I exclaimed. “At eleven-thirty in the night you will search for snakes?” He looked at Amol, and replied, “We stand a good chance of finding one.” By then Amol was sorting out two miner’s lamp setups. “You guys go search for them, I’m not getting off the jeep,” I declared. Amol and Prakash Salelkar had only recently managed to capture a King Cobra, easily over eleven feet long, from a villager's dwelling in Gouliwada, Satpal, in the the sanctuary. Amol told me he was sweating in apprehension during the operation. Both got off alive and eventually released it back in the wilds after people had traveled from far to get a glimpse of the giant snake. India does not have the anti venom needed to treat a King Cobra bite. Philip and Amol strapped the lamps to their heads, leaving their hands free to look for snakes. The jungle was quiet, and very dark.

After a fruitless search lasting over forty minutes we moved along. “Stop,” I cried out a few minutes later. In the headlights I saw in a branch overhanging the path, a moth sitting still on a leaf. It was a Lunar Moth. The tail curved away like the one kids attach to paper kites. We got off. I asked Philip and Amol to train their head lamps on the moth while I took a picture. The moth sat still, undisturbed by the commotion past midnight. I’m fascinated by moths. I get to see several varieties where I stay in Ponda, surrounded by hills and dense vegetation. They're richly patterned, and 'quiet'. Then we drove further, to the machan. It was the smallest (in height) that I’ve come across in my time trekking across India. But it looked solid enough. The steps were easy, unlike those that most machans have, too step and rickety. A baby could climb these, I thought, as we lay down on the wooden floor facing the clearing in the front. The vigil for the leopard lasted late in the night. I cannot recollect when I went to sleep or for that matter, Philip and Amol. I tried shrinking into my shirt as the night got colder. In the distance trucks sounded on the national highway out of Goa, into Belgaum in Karnataka. Then sleep overtook me, and the cold.

On waking up the next morning to the most delightful orchestra of birdcalls I’d heard in a long time, the first thing I did was to check if Philip and Amol were still around and not spirited away by the leopard. They weren’t. The leopard had stayed away. We leaned against the railing and let the jungle charm us no end. Then it was time to leave. I wondered if the Lunar moth was still around. It was close to seven hours since I photographed it. We kept our eyes peeled out for the overhanging branch, driving slowly. “There it is,” I shouted out. It hadn’t moved an inch. We got off. Seeing the moth stopped time for me. It was as if nothing had changed between yesterday and today.

I took more photographs, all along wondering if one could really make time stand still if one stood still enough. Maybe yes. After all, time moves only if you do.

A few months later, the nation turned to television to watch the melodrama telecast by news channels in the wake of a spate of killings attributed to leopards in the vicinity of encroachments in and around the Borivali National Park which measures a meagre 100-odd sq. kms. They took away the leopards instead. Their time had 'moved' even if they hadn't, after all leopards don't vote, but encroachers do. The leopards might've stayed away if they could but there was nowhere to stay away. Their world had shrunk beyond their door-step.

In empty places there are no answers

When A.K Sahay first broached a trip to Chorao, I readily agreed. It's not often that I get to see from the other side the Mandovi meandering toward the Arabian sea. For years I've seen her from Old Goa, then past Ribandar on my way to Panjim, the capital of Goa. And I like the ferry ride from Ribandar across the Mandovi to Chorao, watching the mangroves come up as the ferry nears the island, a part of which is declared a bird sanctuary and named after Dr. Salim Ali, the celebrated birdwatcher, though I'm sure I can find more birds on a lazy afternoon in Mollem than out here. We drove down in Sahay's Maruti from Ponda, and waited in the summer sun at Ribandar jetty for the ferry to return from Chorao while a Paradise Flycatcher frolicked in a nearby tree, then took the ferry across the Mandovi, and walked on the elevated mud pathway (a bund) that holds the saline water back from the paddy fields to the east.

We passed a sluice gate, mangroves and low lying banks. The tide was out. As we walked in a single file on the narrow bund, mangroves hid the placid Mandovi to our left, only occasionally opening up to afford us clear views of Goa’s most famous river. To its left, hills rose in the distance beyond the strip of mangroves that ran the length of the Mandovi on the other side. We paused to watch fishermen out on the river in their canoes. They drifted gently, two to a canoe.

All along A K Sahay kept his eyes peeled out for water birds. He found many. Curlews and Sandpipers went about looking for fish while Large Egrets paced up and down the riverbank. He had fitted his Nikon with a 300 mm Tamron lens. Occasionally, birdcalls floated in from near and far. Suddenly I caught a hint of movement to our left where the water had receded to expose the riverbank. Laterite stones were placed in a line across a shallow channel to allow people to walk across. “There is a mass of movement down there,” I pointed out to him. “Could be crabs,” I said. Sahay climbed down the bund and went looking for them. I stayed back to watch the landscape. A gentle breeze blew across. As I looked around I noticed a pair of chappals a few metres from where I was. Walking to get a closer look, I was intrigued to see them neatly placed, indicating that someone had taken them off recently before getting off the bund to wade across the exposed bank. A fisherman, I thought. As I bent down, curious, I saw that one was shorter than the other. ‘Strange,’ I remember thinking. Why were they not the same, had he lost the twin of the shorter chappal or the longer one? Where did he get the other one to go with the one he lost? From someone who had lost one of his own?

In empty places there are no answers.

March 15, 2006

Get a Cold . . . . drink

For its size, Goa has many soft drink manufacturers, and their products can surprise you with their taste which can vary widely from place to place. The brands are often intriguing for their choice of names, and I doubt it is much different across the border in Karnataka as we found out when we crossed the border on our trip to Chorla ghat.

Four kilometres from the border we came across Hotel Tulsi where we found several trucks parked in front. It was not much of a hotel. A few plastic chairs, a fairly bare cupboard for its size except for a plate of mirchi bujjiyyas, some loaves of bread and a few other eatables that did not look particularly encouraging. The four of us sat at a table and ordered tea, and pao which we dipped in tea and ate.

In a plastic crate to my left were a few bottles. Curious, I picked up two bottles and to my surprise found out that D COLD need not always be a tablet used in treating cold and flu, it can also give you one. Someone somewhere had put two and two together and came up with five!

March 13, 2006

The Village is King

If the two girls near the front of the bus hadn't hurried to the exit door, I might've gotten off the bus earlier as it slowed down on the turn opposite the Ghatkopar railway station to the west. They dithered at the exit and prevented those of us who're adept at stepping off a slowing bus from exiting. So, I stood in the gangway in front of a cursing man who was in a hurry to get off as the bus went past the railway station, losing precious minutes. As I sprinted back the way the bus had come, toward the railway station, I reached the platform just in time to see the slow train to Thane pulling out of the station. So, I bought some wafers (I particularly like Frito Lays Magic Masala) and sat out the next train to Thane 25 minutes later, at 7:45 pm. I had left my office at 6 pm, slept in the bus as it got stuck in a traffic jam past the Saki naka signal, woke up in the commotion as the bus took a turn in the traffic and headed to Ghatkopar station.

The station is crowded. I watch trains to Kalyan and Dombivali stop, disgorge, load, and pull out, making way for the next train. Minutes pass. I keep an eye on the electronic board for any announcement of the next train to Thane. Eventually the electronic board flashes 7:45 T. I get up from my seat and take my place on the platform just as the train arrives.

I manage to get in and squeeze into the corner by the door, for that's as far as I can manage to go, shielding myself from the shoving and the pushing. An old man in front of me puts his hands over his head to offer it what little protection those frail hands can. Then he looks up and smiles at me. I smile back. "Everyday massage," he says with a wry smile. "Ha ha. Unwanted one surely," I respond. He chuckles. I hold my breath within to expand my lungs. If I don't I'm afraid they might collapse in the pressure of bodies pushing me against the metal support. The train leaves. Shortly after, it pulls into Vikhroli. I let out my breath and take in a lungful quickly and hold it in to brace myself against the rush of people getting in at Vikhroli. Then Kanjur Marg. At Bhandup the crowd eases out. At Mulund it empties somewhat. I breathe easily now. A tallish young man, buck-toothed, gets in at Mulund and stands beside me. His shirt is splashed pink. They're first colours of holi that I've seen this year.

"Holi (the festival of colours) is tomorrow. You got splashed today itself," I say to him.

He smiles and says, "My friends did it a short while ago. I stay with them in Mulund."

His name is Mahendra. He is from Rajasthan and it's been five years in Mumbai that he's been working as a cook. "There're twelve of us with the thekedar," he tells me. "We take contracts for cooking at weddings, parties etc."

"April will be a busy time then," I say, referring to what is considered as a wedding season in India for the auspicious dates in the month. I'm getting married in April myself.

"It's already season time for us," he replies. "Tomorrow we're cooking for a client-party in Nallasopora at the pre-holi celebration, followed by the dinner. The guest list is over fifty people." They rely on contacts with local outfits around Bombay to supply them with the utensils needed to cook for a gathering or a party. These utensils are given out at a fixed rate on a daily basis. "Otherwise we'd have to carry our set of utensils around each time we're contracted for cooking in other suburbs," he said.

I ask him what the going rates are for such contracts. "It depends," he tells me. "The cost of each plate per person can vary from 150 rupees to 250 rupees. We cook at the client site. The raw material cost is borne by the client. They supply us vegetables and for whatever else we've agreed on as the menu for the event."

He lets on that should I need someone to cook for a party he’s available for hire. "I charge 400 rupees for a day’s work of cooking for upto 40 people. The next two months will be a busy time for me," he says as the train pulls into Thane. We get off the train and vanish into the crowd. The first colours of holi looked promising. Colours always promise even if they don't get as big on Holi day as they do up north as I learned from Sanjay on my way to the office earlier in the day today.

Bombay is home to a large population of North Indians. “Holi is a bigger occasion for us than even Diwali,” Sanjay Paswan, a rickshaw driver told me as we negotiated the early morning Saki naka traffic on my way to the office today. Sanjay is originally from Bodh Gaya in Bihar, a state he says is not a safe place to travel. “Whenever we had to board a night train in Bihar, we would go to the railway station early, in day time and stay on at the station until night even if it meant we had to while away our time on the platform for several hours. If we waited at home to travel to the station after dusk, there’s always a chance we’d be looted. The luggage offers a tempting target.” He said that Buddhists who ferry tourists to Bodh Gaya are honest, remarking, "After all how can they loot someone who's come to pay respects to their God - Buddha?"

He talked about his village back home where they grow 'wheat, and gram, and other things, but hardly any fruits except for a few bananas'. Then he narrated me his neighbour's woe, an old man from Mulund who complained to him early morning today, saying, 'Someone robbed me of my cattle-feed of twenty-five rupees I’d bought to feed my buffaloes. They were four bundles. I followed the trail of hay they left while spiriting it away and found the bundles stacked among fire wood.' I asked Sanjay why the old man did not retrieve his bundles of cattle-feed. Sanjay replied that there is a tradition which forbids retrieving wood or other similar material stolen for use in burning to produce ash on the eve of Holi. “Chacha (a term North Indians use out of respect for the elderly) said to me ‘Ab unko gaali du bhi tho kya du, Holi jo hai.’ (How do I scold them, after all it is for Holi).” This reminded me of my time in Almel, deep inside North Karnataka, when we sat up all night to shoo away marauders roaming roof-tops, scouring back-yards for fire-wood to steal on Holi eve. We could hear footsteps on the roof from time to time. My uncle kept up the vigil and I sat up with him. a kerosene lamp lighting up the room, its flame lent the whole setting a surreal feel. He said that they even steal doors if they can. I found the whole atmosphere thrilling.

Sanjay said that he missed the atmosphere ‘back home in Gaya.’ “Over there Holi begins over a week in advance. People get into the mood for playing with colours and there is much merriment. Today night they’ll burn wood that they'll have collected through the night yesterday, sometimes by stealing from others. Then we dance and sing the whole night, and use the ashes in smearing each other once the dawn breaks on Holi day, tomorrow. Then if the Panditji, after looking at the date-cycle in the holy book, tells us that we can play with colours tomorrow, then we’re done with smearing ash by noon and bring out the colours. Then it is a free for all, otherwise we use ash through the day and bring out the colours the next day,” he paused.

He came to Bombay in 1995, and initially worked in advertising, painting hoardings, and walls with advertising slogans. He married a Maharashtrian girl whom he met in the locality where he was staying. He has two children, and told me that his four-year old daughter loves his village more than Bombay, adding "Even I miss village life. We often use the word Azaad (freedom) without actually experiencing it. But when I return to Gaya, to my village, I experience true azaadi," he said turning to see my expression before continuing, "Here (Bombay) we don’t get to experience that kind of fun. Over here friends are few and far between. Over there (Gaya) the whole village is friends. Gaon Raja hai (The Village is King).”

He wished me a happy Holi. I wished him the same before getting off the rickshaw.

March 12, 2006

Where flowers bloom when sidekicks get jealous

Bombay is among the major transportation hubs in India. Trucks come here from all over the country, transporting goods back and forth between cities and towns. A truck driver-khalasi duo I met in the city said they came from Calcutta, driving for five days to get to Bombay. The driver said, "We load up in Bombay, unload in another city or town. Then we load up there and unload in some other city or return to Bombay to unload here, and then back again. We go wherever we get business." They were originally from Bihar.

The driver was a muslim, short statured and slim, a beard barely broke surface on his pointed chin. He said, "I have no home. I live on this truck." It's a story not uncommon among the truckers who criss cross India. The three of us had kulfis I bought from a bhaiyya (migrants from Uttar Pradesh) who'd stayed on to listen to our conversation. He sold me three kulfis for five rupees each after he convinced me to eat one to give the other two, the driver-khalasi duo, company. "Chalo, aap mere taraf se ek le lo. Paisa mat do," he said after he saw me hesitate. "Nahi, nahi," I said. "Main bhaiyya hua tho kya hua, dil bada hai," he said, offering me one kulfi for free. "Did I say that you've a small heart," I asked him jokingly. By then a tall sardar had joined in, and we all laughed. "Na, na. You didn't say it. But some people say that bhaiyyas have small hearts," the kulfiwallah said, adjusting his dhoti. "Of course not," I said. "Don't pay attention to them. Many bhaiyyas have contributed generously." We had our kulfis and I went my way, passing several trucks on the way.

The city sees a steady stream of trucks passing through on their way elsewhere. Sometimes I look out for interesting sayings or poetry that some truckers write on the sides of their trucks. One truck that I saw today had a Haryana number-plate and was waiting in a queue at the Octroi Check Post. At the back of the truck I saw what I thought might be an interesting sher (a form of poetry whose exponents are called Shair in Urdu). I squeezed into the narrow space between the back of the truck and the next one in the queue behind and bent down to read the lines in Hindi written in white paint:

Chalti hai gaadi, uddthi hai dhool
Jalte hai chamche, khilte hai phool

When my vehicle runs, it kicks up dust. Sidekicks get jealous, flowers bloom. But I wasn't quite sure what the second line meant in the context. I knew chamche to mean sidekick. But why was he jealous as jalte seemed to suggest? And what could he possibly be jealous of in the truckers world? Who could possibly be the sidekick in this scenario?

I asked a truck driver waiting beside his truck in the queue. He said, "Imagine you're the owner of a truck and you've employed a driver and a khalasi (helper). The driver, without your knowledge, steals petrol from your truck and sells it to another trucker at a discount. That trucker in turn pockets the difference by showing his employer the market rate for the petrol he bought from your driver for much cheaper. Then he tells you that your driver steals petrol from your truck and makes money. Your driver then labels him your sidekick, accusing him of being jealous for making some money on the side." But he said nothing about the flowers.

I was about to ask him why flowers bloom when sidekicks get jealous when a horn blared just then and the truck moved ahead, so I smiled at the driver and walked past the Police station and took a rickshaw to the railway station. Behind me several trucks are revving up in the queue. It is a sunday morning, and I love sunday mornings in the summer. Ciao.

March 09, 2006

Sitting on the Fence

I had slept for just two hours when I was roused from my sleep at eight on a Sunday morning four years ago.

“Anil, wake up. Wake up,” a voice sounded urgently from the hall in the Range Forest Officer’s (RFO) residence in the wildlife sanctuary at Mollem, Goa.

The RFO, Prakash Salelkar, Amol Naik, Nilima Komarpant, and I had stayed over after working on wildlife posters, captions, and displays through the night. We were getting them ready for display at the Wildlife week celebrations the next week. If it wasn’t for a chance remark late in the night by the RFO, I wouldn’t have been caught napping when this Bronzeback made an appearance in the early morning sun on the fencing opposite the RFO’s residence.

It was late in the night, around half past two in the morning, when the RFO, Prakash Salelkar, let slip that I had missed out on a chance to photograph a full grown cobra that he and Amol had caught outside his residence three days ago. Beyond the verandah where Amol and I sat on the floor, the jungle was silent except for occasional noises. The wildlife sanctuary stretched a fair distance from the main entrance where we had gathered at his residence, sitting on the floor under a yellow bulb with pictures, paper, glue, scissors, and pens among other things spread out all around us. It was hard to imagine in that small pool of yellow light that the sanctuary stretched out over 240 sq. kilometers in the Western Ghats mountain ranges.

“What did you do with the cobra?” I asked Prakash Salelkar.

“Amol and I found a jute bag lying around, and put him in it after tying up the bag. Then we left the bag in the bedroom leaning it against the window for eventual release back in the jungle the next morning,” he replied. Amol looked up at him and smiled.

The bedroom lay adjacent to the hall we had gathered in.

“Where did you release it the next morning?” I asked him.

The RFO looked at Amol, then back at me, and said, “We couldn’t release him.”


“When we woke up the next morning and opened the bag to check up on the cobra, we found the bag empty. It had escaped through a small hole in the bag. It was an old jute bag that we hurriedly located when the cobra made an unexpected appearance outside the house,” he said calmly.

“Did you look around the house for it?” I asked him, a tad cold now.

“We did, but we didn’t find it in the house,” he said.


Then we got back to working on the themes but somehow I was ill at ease. After all it was only three days ago that the chap escaped in the room behind me. It was nearing three when I yawned again.

“Why don’t you sleep now?” he said to me.

“It’s ok. I’ll work some more. There is lots to finish,” I said. A group of us volunteered our services at the wildlife sanctuary whenever we could find time from work. The RFO was among the most vibrant and lively persons I had come across in my time trekking and camping in wildlife sanctuaries across India. It had been refreshing to meet a warm and enthusiastic individual in Prakash Salelkar, and working alongside him was an experience I cherished.

It was getting difficult to concentrate now. The commotion that followed after Amol, sitting across from me, pulled me towards him, shouting, “Anil, get away. Get away. There’s a scorpion just behind you,” banished my drowsiness for some time while Amol and the RFO chased the big, black scorpion, a few inches from my butt, into a small crack in the wall leading up to the entrance to the hall. They coaxed it out and put it in an empty, transparent plastic water bottle after punching a few holes in the plastic.

“We can hand it over tomorrow morning to one of the three girls who is researching scorpions for a college project,” Salelkar said. The three girls were put up in a cottage across the fence that separated the Forest Staff quarters from the tourist cottages. Nilima, a researcher working at Carmel’s college in Nuvem, near Margao, the other main Goan city after its capital, Panjim, was guiding them in their project. The other two girls were working on lizards and spiders. They were in their teens.

The scorpion was furious, maybe even fearful, at being confined to a bottle, and kept clawing at it. In pauses between conversations the rattling noise filled the room in an uneasy reminder of all that I’d heard about scorpions, even surfacing memories of being bitten by one in my childhood. My uncle had applied the glue he used to patch up punctured tyres. Miraculously it worked though the swelling took a while to subside. The scorpion dug into me when I reached inside a sack of jowar to hide glass marbles from my cousin.

I yawned again though I tried to stifle it. It was nearing half past three in the morning now.

“Why don’t you go and sleep in the bed room,” the RFO asked of me again.

“No. It’s ok here,” I said, leaning against the powdery green of the wall behind me.

He looked hard at me, searching for a reason. Then he burst out laughing. “I know. I know why you don’t want to sleep,” he said. His laughter boomed out in the warm room. Amol and Nilima looked at the both of us. I let out a sheepish smile.

“It’s the missing cobra, isn’t it?” he asked me. I merely smiled. Amol and Nilima caught on and we all laughed.

“Of course,” I said. There was no use sitting on the fence anymore and pretending. “You don’t know where it disappeared and you’re asking me to sleep in the same room,” I said, holding back from grinning. But eventually, by six in the morning, my sleep got the better of me and I crashed on the bed though I can’t remember walking to it.

So, when I was roused from my sleep at eight the next morning to see the Bronzeback sunning itself in the morning warmth of the sun, I was in no position to focus my camera well. But I suppose I managed somehow. The picture is not too bad, is it?

March 07, 2006

Looking nowhere in the middle of 'everywhere'

If you're a girl how do you look nowhere in the middle of 'everywhere'?

The Blank Noise Project got people together to talk about it (street harassment) in its blog-a-thon today, tuesday, 7th March.

It's been close to three years now that I've been traveling by Bombay locals. Days change out here, but some scenes remain the same, like for instance . . . .

A crowded Dadar station on the Western line. The girl waits for a train to take her to Mumbai Central. Every which way, men crowd the station. The girl waits with a group of women commuters on the platform. If the driver gets it right, most times he does, the ladies compartment should draw up near where the group of women commuters is waiting. The girl is dressed up in a ochre salwar kameez; her hair is done up in a ponytail, and she shifts from one foot to the other, marking seconds as she does so, looking nowhere in particular, turning her face elsewhere each time a roving male eye seeks her out to lock into her line of sight, searching for acknowledgement that comes from returning the look. In a minute or two she’ll turn her face away again, in time to avoid another interested male from zeroing in.

As the clock ticks by, the platform gets crowded, and more male faces turn toward her expectantly, hoping to catch her eye even as she keeps turning her face, now every few seconds, to avoid being latched onto by searching male gazes intent on locking in. She’s been doing the route for quite sometime now. She knows that to avoid being smiled at by complete strangers, leered at by hopeful Romeos, commented upon by serial teasers she must avoid looking into those eyes. It took her sometime to master this; avoiding facing in any direction for too long by facing everywhere all at once. There was a time, in the beginning, when faces hosting those eyes would sear her conscious moments, and before long the unconscious ones too.

The train is late by two minutes. The platform is packed to capacity now. There is nowhere empty she can 'hide' her face, nowhere she can look and not find eyes looking back at her, so she puts her head down, crosses her hands across her bosom, and looks at her feet. Her feet don’t have eyes, so it’s ok. Over time she’s learned the moods of her feet better than her own.
*The picture is taken from the Blank Noise Project site.

March 04, 2006

Firing an old idea anew

It was half past four when I walked into Ajay’s backyard with my father. His house is painted deep red the colour of red oxide not uncommon in Goa. Though there are no yellows along its edges to go with the red, something you’d expect to see in Goan houses, the house spat enough red at the sky to stand out even if much of its bulk hid behind itself on the turn in Bethoda, past Sapna Ceramics, up a narrow road that runs past a series of duplex flats.

There is this patch in his backyard where Ajay has spent a significant part of his adult life since 2003. Few places around have been dug up more than that patch, measuring over 20 sq. ft. or thereabouts. And today as my father and I walked past his porch fronted by flowering trees, turning left to take the narrow path between his house and the garage that is home to a succession of his two-wheelers over the years, dodging a coconut tree and sundry other things that lie scattered all around the place where his father has planted guavas, breadfruit, black pepper, drumstick, and mangos among other varieties, I was taken aback to see Ajay peering out from behind what looked like a brick chimney rising over the curving roof of a rectangular structure in the front, and a largish opening that ran along the length of the structure. Another kiln I thought; the fifth in three years. Looking at the brick structure rising up, I reckoned from the look of it that this one would last longer than its predecessors that Ajay buried in the same pit where he had laid their foundations once. From electronics, rock music, painting, reading, to clay-work, Ajay Dongre, a brahmin originally from Malvan in the Konkan region of Maharashtra to the west of India, had made one long journey in more ways than one from his college days when he went around town on his red Kinetic Honda scooter with a 'Thank God I'm an Atheist' sticker displayed prominently on the front of his scooter. I tease him about the sticker once in a while, not that he has suddenly found common cause with god. He is still an Atheist. In some ways he hasn’t changed much, only in some ways though.

I first met Ajay in the mid-eighties when I was in school. In the early years, soon after his arrival in Goa from Bombay after his father was transferred on his job with the Food Corporation of India, Ajay became a part of our group, playing cricket with us after school hours, and joining us on our cycling trips to the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary in school vacations. Those trips to Bondla, 24 kilometres each way, left memories that’ve lasted time even as it swept away many others. At other times we shared an interest in electronics, building gadgets and generally having a good time when we were not studying, which was often. Eventually we completed our post graduate degrees; he took Physics while I opted for Computer Science. On completing his degree he took up teaching, and I left for Bombay in search of a job.

Meanwhile we explored Goa together, free-riding and photographing along the way. By then Ajay had taken up a job teaching Physics and Electronics at a local college, a job he still holds except for the year-long break he took to teach at Lisa Chowgule’s school in Vasco last year. After spending several years with what came to be known as the Abhiruchi group, named after the youth who congregated at Hotel Abhiruchi in Ponda, whiling away evenings over endless cups of tea and cigarettes and thinking up things to do but not quite managing to except occasionally getting together to organize a bicycle motor cross, Ajay sensed that his spare time after work was going nowhere over the endless cups of tea and banter. He 'opted' out of the Abhiruchi group to use his after-job hours to pursue painting instead. It was then he drifted toward sculpture after trying his hand at painting, eventually finding company in Raju Gujar and Donald D’Souza. Raju runs a metal fabrication unit in Jaycee nagar and has a yen for sculpture, having fashioned from chalk pieces a series of rivetting figurines that never fail to draw attention whenever exhibited. Ajay’s aptitude for design and Raju’s ability to implement the design at his workshop worked well for them both, resulting in sculptures made from scrap metal. All along Ajay practiced claywork, experimenting with clay, form, and kiln firing though the availability of refractory bricks to construct the kiln was as much a problem as was the Kiln design until he got hold of Frederick Olsen’s The Kiln Book from a fellow potter, Gauri Divan, a studio potter practicing in Goa.

Ajay sourced refractory bricks for his new kiln from a local foundry. "They had large quantities of these reject-bricks they were prepared to spare, rejected on account of fine cracks they developed and which could leak molten iron if used in their foundry. I recycled them for use in building my kiln," he told me. These bricks were originally designed and manufactured for use in making iron ignots. They’re hollow from the inside to allow molten iron to flow in a complex circuit. He picked up two varieties of these bricks. One measured 15 inches in length and 3.5 inches in width and height. The other variety measured 9 inches in length; the width and height were the same as the other.

Since these bricks were not designed for construction purposes they presented quite a few problems to Ajay and Raju in the construction on the kiln. Ajay cut them to required proportion to get them to fit in. The hollow insides presented a different set of problems. He filled mortar (made of chalk powder, sand, clay, and sieved mud) in the hollows that ran the length of the bricks, and placed them at right angles to each other to prevent any heat loss through 'straight lines' along the hollows. "It was quite an experience setting these bricks according to the kiln design," Ajay let on when we sat talking in his first-floor room where he has his studio; the remaining rooms are stacked with his clay work and sculpting-implements. Over 1000 of these refractory bricks went into the making of the new kiln; 600 bricks of the longer variety, and the remaining of the shorter one. "If we had managed to get refractory bricks specially designed for construction purposes, our task would’ve simplified greatly," he said. ”We needn’t have bothered cutting the bricks to desired lengths to get them to fit in then.” However they had to fetch special bricks from Khanapur in Belgaum, a border district in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, for use in constructing the kiln’s chamber floor measuring 40.5 inches x 40.5 inches inclusive of the two openings that let in flames into the chamber from the fireplace underneath. For now he is thinking of using wood to fire the kiln. "Gas-firing is a costly proposition as of now," he said. Both flame inlets, constructed diagonally across from each other, measure 18 inches x 6 inches each. "The kiln at Khanapur is a massive one. So big that trucks can drive in. It’s truly huge," he said of their trip to Khanapur. He’s expecting his new kiln to generate a temperature of 1200 degrees centigrade. "That should be useful," he says, smiling at the thought.

Refractory bricks or firebricks as they’re known are made to withstand higher temperatures. Clay is the common refractory material available in nature. However, clay quality varies from place to place. Ajay sources his clay from Bicholim as do most people who practice clay-work in Goa. Typically clay consists of Al2O3 (Alumina) and SiO2 (Silica). Its Iron Oxide content is a variable. The Alumina content is varied to control the clay’s refractory quality, increasing it enhances its refractory quality.

Ajay shows me Frederick L. Olsen’s The Kiln Book. He used Olsen’s book to design his kiln. It lists several basic principles to follow in constructing a kiln. The principles Ajay followed were specific to the type of kiln he is constructing – Fast-Fire Downdraft kiln. "It was a challenge to conform to Olsen’s guidelines with bricks that were originally meant for use in an Iron Foundry," he said. "However we did try to approximate closely to Olsen’s guidelines." In his The Kiln Book Frederick L. Olsen has crystallised his lifetime work experience and offered tried and tested kiln designs for use by professionals and amateurs alike. For over thirty years, Olsen’s The Kiln Book has explained in clear and detailed instructions and text the process of kiln design, choice of design, method of firing, fuels and combustion techniques, materials and construction. Ajay used the following principles from Olsen’s book in constructing his kiln.

The cube is the best shape for the kiln.
The chamber housing clay-work should allow for a free flow of flame.
The fire-place in wood-fired kilns should be ten times the chimney cross-section, and the inlet for the flame should be the same size as the outlet that opens into the chimney.
The taper of the chimney as it rises up should create a natural draft, and aid in trapping heat.
The chimney height should equal three times the height of the chamber multiplied by one-third the chamber length plus the height of the fireplace.
Critical areas of a kiln should be planned and built to be altered easily.

"Though a height of 18 inches was sufficient, I designed the fire-place to measure 21 inches. I thought it better to allow for tolerance on the higher side than fall short eventually. If the efficiency were to drop, I can always bring down its height by raising the base," Ajay said as Raju, whom Ajay calls 'My Chief Engineer on this project', nodded solemnly. "Even an inch of gap makes a big difference. I’ll know by how much once I start using the kiln." Similarly, he left the top two layers of the chimney loose to allow for any future modifications depending on kiln performance.

In his experience building four kilns of various dispositions before this one, Ajay lists several factors affecting the Firing performance: humidity, wind direction, the type of wood used to fire the kiln, the size and shape of clay sculptures packed into the Firing chamber and the way they’re packed together, and so also their thickness.

He shows me small clay sculptures (usually faces) that he makes from time to time, and which are favoured by some of his more fashionable students for use as key-chains. A few wear them around their neck. "They asked me for more of these," Ajay told me when he first made them over a year ago, surprised at their popularity. "These pieces were fired using sawdust," he tells me. "Sawdust firing is the simplest form of firing clay-work. It is particularly good for simple kind of work. Group the pieces together, pack them in sawdust and light the whole thing." He used the Bottle kiln to good effect when he first started out with clay-firing in 2003, two years after starting out with clay-work. Until then he never clay-fired his creations. Whenever I went over to his place he I would look around his room, stacked with books, cassettes and audio CDs, for new sculptures. "Many pieces I did in those days cracked from not firing them. I did not have my own kiln then," he reflected. Eventually he built his first kiln in 2003 - a Bottle kiln.

The Bottle Kiln gets its name from its shape. It is the oldest and the simplest kiln known to man, and is a modification of Bonfire-firing that people practiced in ancient times where clay-work was stacked together and covered with firewood before lighting it. Though it resulted in loss of clay-work, sometimes in significant quantities due to lack of proper temperature distribution, it was used for a long time for want of a better design. The Bottle Kiln improved upon the Bonfire technique but was not found to be effective for all kinds of clay-work, leading to the invention of better kiln designs.

"I might’ve still been stuck with my previous kiln (a Bottle kiln) if it was not for the over 100 pieces of table-decorators that a friend ordered for that were blackened beyond use when I fired them recently," he said, showing me some of the severely blackened pieces while we (Raju, Donald, Ajay, and I) took a break from digging one feet deep pits around the kiln to put up a scaffolding in place for use in raising the chimney to its slated height of 14 feet the next day. Raju, in purple coloured bermudas, and Donald sat eating mirchi bujjiyas that Ajay had ordered from a Rajasthani outlet in the colony. We took our plates and gathered around the tap in the backyard where the maid washes utensils and sundry birds saunter over for a quick bath or drink from the dripping tap in summers. It was the first time I'd eaten a mirchi bujjiya that had potato-filling in it, the kind you might expect to find in a samosa but not in a mirchi bujjiya. "I had to discard the whole lot," he said turning the blackened clay pieces over in his hand. "Lack of proper oxygen resulted in the reduction of iron content in the clay, turning it black."

I’m not sure how long he can sustain his new kiln with firewood. Not only is it costly and inefficient when compared with a gas-fired kiln, it is quite a hassle to source firewood over a length of time. "The kiln design need not be modified much to accommodate gas-firing," he explains. "If not for the cost involved I would’ve gone for right now. Eventually I will have to use gas-firing."

He derives particular pleasure from the fact that the kiln now nearing completion did not cut deeply into his finances. "I paid 5 rupees each for the refractory bricks, 500 rupees for transporting them from the foundry to my place, 8 rupees for each butti of sand in preparing mortar, 500 rupees for whiting (chalk powder) for use in preparing mortar, 1,400 for 4 cubic meter of raw clay, the contents of a TATA 407 truck we hired for transporting the clay from Bicholim to my place, and 600 rupees labour charge for the three days it took to sieve the raw clay. About 8000 rupees in all."

As I prepare to leave, I congratulate him over his effort. "Wait until I test-fire the kiln," he says, smiling, betraying his concern from his experience with his previous kilns though they were nowhere near the sophistication that went into constructing this one. Outside, the night is still except for an occasional vehicle passing by his house up the incline, noise trailing in its wake. Suddenly it’s like old times even though times have changed and we cannot sit for long periods the way we used to, reviewing and listening to music, discussing dreams and ideas, cribbing about our education system, thinking up mechanical models one could build, going through picture books, and talking books and of even older times. But still . . . .