Saturday, 30 July 2016

Visit to Ranathambore National Park

The air was nippy due to the crisp December weather.  We were put up at the Ranathambore Regency Hotel where a bonfire was lit to warm the air, and Rajasthani folk dance was arranged to entertain the hotel's largely foreign clientele.  

There is only one thing that everyone wants to do when they visit this place: go on the safari.  Forget about visiting the local fort or the Raj Bagh ruins.  The large government canters - open-air trucks with seats - arrived at each of the hotels lining the Ranathambore Road promptly in the morning to take us on our pre-booked safari.

And while on the safari, there is only one animal that everyone longs to see: the tiger.  

You are reminded about being in the tiger's dominion in the hotel itself where you are greeted with pictures of the superstar in various poses and moods, lining all the walls of the lobby and corridors.  

We were all bundled into a canter, which the hotel staff had cleverly set apart for their Indian guests.  The foreigners hung around, waiting for their own canters to arrive: a neat little arrangement of segregation borne out of years of experience, perhaps.

True to its Indian nature, our canter ran into some starting troubles when it stopped in one too many hotels along the way to the forest.  Soon, it was filled to the rafters - in a manner of speaking, as it was roofless! - and the last two tourists were left without a seat.  The prospect of going on a jungle safari while standing in the canter was a bit too daunting, and they all ended up having a right royal argument.  

The couple was insisting on having seats, the conductor was begging those with kids to put them on their laps, and those with kids were refusing to do so as they had paid for the kids' seats too!

Finally, after a few magnanimous seat adjustments, we were on the way.  There was no time to lose; we rode away at a...well...canter! 

To make up for the unsavoury starting trouble, the conductor, after some coaxing, agreed to take us to the zone where a tiger was last spotted.  This had everyone perked up.  Especially one of the tourists who said he had been all the way to Corbett National Park and came back disappointed as he did not see the one thing he had gone there to see: the tiger.

We hung onto our mufflers, sweaters, cameras, railings and each other, as the canter rattled along the path, deeper into the jungle.

We came across a big lake; the watering hole where the great animals of the jungle had congregated to quench their thirst and just hang about.  Nilgais and sambars grazed about with a decoration of weeds on their antlers, while open-mouthed crocodiles lazed about in the still waters.

After a few pictures, we moved on...

Suddenly an air of expectation!  Many canters and jeeps had assembled at the same spot near another lake.  Heads were cocked and cameras turned in one single direction.  We nearly fell over each other trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that had their rapt attention.  And there it was!  A single gigantic tiger, having its afternoon siesta in the grass, after a royal repast.  

There is something wildly exciting about spotting a magnificent beast in its natural habitat, unchained and free.  There was no difference between children and their adults at that moment, as everyone was so excited at having fulfilled their life's one pending wish: to spot a tiger in the wild.  And they were so close to it!  The conductor had a tough time trying to hush them up.  After all, he didn't want the beast to wake up and then decide it was time for another repast!
The most anticipated sight: the tiger
The Corbett man, understandably, was chuffed; Ranathambore had given him what Corbett hadn't!  

And we were lucky enough to have encountered the National Animal in our very first outing to any of the national parks!  Our day was made! 

Having kept his promise, the conductor then went about collecting extra tips from each of the touring parties as the canter dropped them off at their hotels!  

We discovered that the extra tip went a long way in these quarters.  It could take you right into the zone where the tiger is.  The officials, it was said, could monitor the animals' movements though CCTV.  This information would then be passed on to the canter conductors once the extra tip is in hand!  

Even jeep booking, which ensures you go on the safari with your own family, can be arranged unofficially with the help of this tip.  

I wish the Park governing body looks into these issues, so that everyone has an equal chance at enjoying the bounties of Nature.

A word about the Ranathambore Regency Hotel.  It is an excellent place of stay.  We were garlanded on our arrival and given welcome drinks.  The manager personally took us around to show the place.  

When our tour operator bungled, the hotel staff kindly booked the safari on our behalf while we were yet to arrive at the hotel.  The staff went out of their way to make us comfortable, the facilities were excellent and the food wholesome. 

Speaking of food, there was only one thing on everyone's lips at the buffet dinner that night: 'I saw the tiger today!'

Overall, a great travel experience!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Book review: The Way Things Were

The Way Things Were
Aatish Taseer
Pan Macmillan India 2015

Aatish Taseer takes us on a epic journey through time.  He combines certain key historical events that have shaped our nation with the lives of his characters.  The other background is Sanskrit, the language that we hold dear as part of our heritage.  The title itself is a translation of itihasa: history, or literally, the way things were.

Taseer presents a tale of a modern day king, an elite, who even though is half-foreign, eulogises Sanskrit.  He dreams of a time when India returns to its once 'pure state', when all around him his co-elites have moved on; away from the old culture, towards Macaulayism and western capitalism.  He even goes on a futile trip to save the Babri demolition.  

However, he belongs to an elite class himself, something that Taseer points out was the status of Sanskrit itself; it was a language spoken by the elite (read Brahmins).  Through Toby, the king of Kalasuryaketu, and his son to whom he teaches the nuances of the language, one gets to learn about the original meanings of several Sanskrit words.  

The tumultuous relationship between Toby and his wife, Uma, and the lavish lifestyles and frivolous pastimes of the families (typified by them playing, quite literally, Trivial Pursuit during a moment of crisis), is juxtaposed against the events of national significance; such as the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi's assassination, the anti-Sikh riots, and the Babri demolition.  

Taseer simply states the facts of the events through the eyes of his characters who experience their consequences first hand, without taking sides.  The conclusion is that it is whimsical to believe that India would ever reach the 'pure state', considering the fact that the views and actions of the right-wing activists is entirely different and a lot less puritanical than what India actually was before the invasions, or even during the Vedic period.  

In other words, itihasa - the way things were - was different.  This is something that Toby, and through him we, learn in the end.  

Taseer plays with the concept of kaala: at once both Time and Death.  The story begins with Toby's death and proceeds forwards and backwards through time, until his ashes are immersed in the Taamasa - the 'dark' river that flows through Kalasuryaketu.  

The names of the principal characters are derivatives of those of the members of the First Family of the Hindu pantheon.  Toby's real name is one of the many names of the Lord of Kaala, Shiva Himself; his wife Uma is of course, Parvathi; and his son Skanda is named after Subramanya.  Skanda is even working on the translation of the The Birth (of Subramanya or Karthik). 

Overall, it is an engaging, if somewhat bizarre mix of language, culture, class, relationships and yes, itihasa.  Taseer's shimmering use of the English language makes it a worthwhile read, and he is in the same league as some of the other users of Asian origin.

And the added attraction of the copy that I read was that it came with the author's signature:

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Monday, 4 July 2016

Talent shows! A comparative observation of British and Indian shows

Coincidentally, Britain's Got Talent and its Indian import, India's Got Talent are being aired at the same time this year.

The former was shown on VH1 (in India), and the latter on Colors TV.

I don't watch any of the usual song and dance reality shows, of which there are dime a dozen on Indian TV channels.  

Nor of course, do I ever make the mistake of watching any one of the 'rubber-band' drivel.  

But talent shows are different.  They showcase real talents, of real people.  

And they end in time.  Well, certainly BGT does, but IGT gets stretched out a bit.  

So here's what I make of these two shows:

Britain's Got Talent

The upside:
  • Short, accurate and crisp.  The packaging of the show is just right.  
  • It is blessed with witty hosts - Ant and Dec; and a range celebrity judges from different segments of the entertainment industry - acting/singing/production/talent development (not just acting as in IGT). 
  • Simon Cowell.  Yes, I hear you groaning in protest.  But like it or not, it is plain to see.  Every contestant waits with bated breath to hear his comments on his/her performance.  Cowell says it like it is.  And it seems to matter to them, as well as the audience.
  • For comic relief, there is David Williams.  Loved him in Little Britain!
  • There are no commercial and promotional interludes during the program.  It is focused on the main content, without pandering to the diktats of the commercial industries.  

The downside:
  • There were too many singing and dancing acts.  Yes these are talents too, but isn't there an endless stream of  singing/dancing reality shows where these acts can be showcased?  
  • Here's a minor grouse: this time, there were quite a few acts that were not from mainland Britain.  Some were from other European countries.  It is, after all, Britain's Got Talent, isn't it?  Then why showcase talents from other countries?  Perhaps post-Brexit, we won't see this next year!
  • The entire program is directed towards only one goal in mind: entertaining the Royal Family - the Lords, Masters and yes, Gods of Britain.  It is as though the entire event is meaningless without the blessings of one family.  Sorry, I find the concept of swearing allegiance to one individual (over and above the nation) appalling.  Therefore I do not consider performing in the Royal Variety Show to be the pinnacle of showbiz success.  

India's Got Talent

The upside:
  • The talent this year has been especially amazing.  Kudos to the team for having reached out to the smaller towns and cities to unearth unseen talents.
  • Just when you think you have seen them all, along comes another act that throws you off your feet; especially the acrobatic and aerial acts.
  • Bharti Singh as the comic relief, is great.
  • Unlike BGT, thankfully, IGT is all about the common man; often even the poor man, who has fought circumstances to present his talent to the entire nation (and not just one family).  And I feel that this is telling; it is the desperation to escape from the routine drudgery of their daily lives that brings out the best in these small town folks - this you don't get to see in BGT.

The downside:
  • As with BGT, there are too many singing and dancing acts.  There is a rock band this year which has been murdering old Hindi film songs.  Unless it is something extraordinary or different from the usual singing/dancing, none of these acts, one hopes, wins.  
  • Film promotions: we are cursed with the actors/producers/directors  of upcoming releases imposing themselves on reality shows and serials.  Just blatant commercialization!  Sometimes the entire episode is devoted to promoting the film or serial, and pampering the superstars' egos.  Worse, some of these are star-kids, who should not be there in the first place, let alone sit alongside judges!  Just hate these promotional interferences!
  • As if that weren't enough, irrational decisions by the judges - all three are from the acting stream, mind - and additional rounds only end up marring  the show.  For example, the golden buzzer round comprised of participants who had already received that honour from the judges.  But in the semifinals, the judges again selected four acts to send through to the finals.  One would have thought that audience poll would be in order, considering the judges had already decided once as to who should get the golden buzzer.  And sometimes, the judges give a standing ovation for a lackluster act, and remain seated after the ones we think are outstanding.  Curious or what!  
  • There was at least one act, whose family members were seen distributing pamphlets and canvassing votes from the public.  Does this mean that even though the participants have an off day during the semifinals, they should still get the vote from the public?  What is this, a political election?  This is the downside of public vote; and it appears to be a curious affliction of public voting in Indian reality shows.   

So there you have it; my take on BGT and IGT.  

For the sake of the common man, woman, boy and girl striving to entertain us and make a name for themselves, perhaps we can overlook the downsides and give them their one chance in the spotlight.  

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