“You are remembered for the rules you break” – Douglas MacArthur
The year was probably 1987. I was a young railway officer, posted on the prestigious project for computerization of railway reservation system as the electrical project manager. We were working to rigid deadlines.
During this period, I approached my project head for my annual leave of about a week to visit our parents. He did not refuse my leave, but forwarded it to my Chief Electrical Engineer (CEE), asking for a replacement for those 6 days. I was surprised, since I had timed my leave when no critical decisions were required from me, and my supervisors were fully competent to handle all the construction activities in progress.
I was called by my CEE. He could not spare another officer. I objected that absolutely nothing could go wrong in my absence. He made a statement, which has remained with me even almost 45 years later, “Sanjay, you may do nine good things for the system, but people will always remember one mistake. I cannot take a chance on this project for that one mistake on this project in your absence,” (even if the probability of that mistake is practically non-existent).
Needless to mention that I was refused my leave. I was disappointed, and felt listless at work. The family was also dejected. I, probably, worked at less than my usual efficiency for a few days
That is how the government worked, and probably still does, considering people as indispensable, instead of relying on the systems.
I was born in 1959, only 10 years after India gained independence. An independent India was taking baby steps; I was also learning to walk in this environment. Read about many sweet and sour experiences in my book The Life And Times of a Common Man.
The governing body of our residents’ welfare association (RWA) held the AGM in physical mode in the first week of April this year. Corona had already reared its ugly head – cases were on the rise. There were voices from the residents to postpone the event or hold a virtual meeting. It was informed by those in authority that the meeting had to be conducted to comply with the Act, and Registrar of Society had refused to recognise virtual meeting for want of provision in the rules. AGM was held in physical space, attended only by limited numbers. The minimum number of attendees required for the meeting to be held was not met, and the meeting had to be postponed. The fallout was that our residential complex followed the national trend – an exponential rise in Covid positive numbers.
This was an event at a much smaller level. On a much bigger canvas, the country hosted two mega events since March/April. One was the Kumbh Mela, and the other were the elections to several state assemblies. Both the events had the potential to snowball into super spreader of the deadly virus.
We tend to become wiser with hindsight, “see, I told you so.” But it was apparent that it was impossible to maintain social distancing during the mela or during the rallies. We had pictures splashed all over the newspapers showing people bathing in crowded spaces in the holy river, or all major leaders addressing rallies attended by more people than what the restricted space could hold with social distancing norms. Many of these pictures were with the leaders themselves without masks surrounded by supporters.
Requests to the organisers of the mela to end the event, or the statements of the leaders withdrawing from the rallies, or attending smaller rallies, was something which should have been ensured in the first place.
The country did witness an exponential rise in covid infections, in what is now called as the second wave. It is immaterial that these were not the only events which might have contributed to the wave.
In all these events, those in authority, whose role it is to safeguard the citizens, failed to do so.
It is not that leadership cannot or has not responded to the situation on occasions. J&K administration and Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board have decided to cancel this year’s annual Amarnathji Yatra in view of the Covid pandemic, second year in a row, with live telecast of all the religious rituals and the morning and evening aarti.
Having said that, I return back to my initial query. Who is responsible for our own lives? Are we not the authority of our own selves? As we start opening of lockdown, the disappointing pictures in the media of the crowds without social distancing or the use of masks, suggests that we do not think so. It will not be out of place to mention that many of these people in the crowd would be from the educated class.
This second wave was more lethal than the first one. There may hardly be any person in the country who may not have lost a family member or a friend to the deadly virus in this second wave. Experts predict that we are now facing a third wave. I dread to think of the fallout of a third wave if we fail to be the authority of our own lives.
I still believe that in our country, where people trust leaders, it is imperative for the latter to set examples. There is also need to re-examine the provisions for disaster management. If action plans have not been formulated in case of such events, like elections or religious assemblies, etc, then there is need to prepare it.
But we are also a country, where more and more people are continuing to be educated, and it is necessary for at least these people to be the authority of their own lives, and be an example to those less fortunate.
Come my friends. Is our life only the responsibility of our leadership? Are we not the authority of our own lives!
“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life”, so said Sir Michael Palin, the famous English actor, comedian, writer, and television presenter.
We, as a family, had embraced this philosophy almost since we can remember. Till… March 2020. Life stood standstill. Weeks became months, and then a year. Used to as we were, to travel out for vacations twice a year, our rested tired feet started itching.
Still apprehensive, we mustered enough courage in December, not to venture too far away from home, but to travel to any nearby destination in March for a holiday, or a staycation, if you please, of more than a week. Corbett National Park looked promising as a nearby destination where we could drive down.
What is a holiday in Corbett if we do not take safaris inside the forest to spot the elusive tiger? We also decided to rough it out, for at least a night, and stay inside the forest to improve the chances of tete-a-tat with the big cat. A search on the internet took us to the official government website https://www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/, the only authorised place where you can book permits for safaris and forest rest house accommodation inside the jungle.
Reservations open three months in advance. All bookings – both for gypsies, and for stay in the forest rest houses inside – were available in December, possibly due to the virus scare. We became complacent and waited till February for the bookings. It was a mistake – all forest rest houses were fully booked. Under the circumstances, we booked a gypsy safari for Bijrani zone, and a canter safari for Dhikala. Gypsy safaris are allowed in Dhikala only for those who have booked forest rest house accommodation inside the forest. We understood that it is important to book for these permits or accommodation almost on the hour and day immediately as they open for your planned date.
Corbett National Park is divided into multiple zones – Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna, Dhela, and the newly opened Sonanadi. One needs a permit for entry to the specific zone or for forest rest house bookings. Official government charges for the permit, the gypsy or canter, and the guides are all shown there. The website also provides list of authorised gypsies with contact details. We did save substantially for each of our safari by making all bookings ourselves rather than through the resort or a travel agent.
Dawned the morning of our departure. Luggage loaded in our car; we were off. Uncomfortable of using the public utilities on the way, we were equipped with more than enough sanitizer and disposable seat covers. We were also apprehensive about the eating places along the way. Our fears were unfounded – dhabas, restaurants, fast food joints are operational every few kilometres. All of them are following standard procedures and have clean restrooms – not to forget, no crowds.
A word of caution – it is better to drive a little further beyond Gajraula and take the Moradabad bypass, instead of taking a left turn from Gajraula towards Amroha. Both the roads are good and route through Amroha is shorter by around 20 km, but this route has many narrow stretches which slow you down.
We reached the resort in eight hours. We were ready by 6.15 the next morning, waiting for our gypsy for the first safari of our stay, in Bijrani zone. It was a clear morning, with a chill in the air. It was cold enough inside the jungle till about 8.30 for us to continue wearing our jackets and woollen caps. We have gone on many such safaris in India. Each safari gives the thrill of being in the jungle as if for the first time. We would crane our necks each time the driver stopped, and the guide pointed out a bird or an animal. We saw wild fowl, deer, sambhar, pheasants, and a few others. The tiger was eluding us.
We heard the trumpet of an elephant nearby. Our gypsy raced towards the sound on the unpaved jungle road. A couple of gypsies came rushing towards us. Our driver and the guide wanted to give us the adrenaline rush. They moved the vehicle closer. There she was, the matriarch of the herd, charging towards us through the mist. We were scared for our lives and turned back. The lady was safely guiding her tusker calf and other members of the herd across the road into the jungle.
There were still no calls for a tiger. We waited patiently at several locations where a tigress had been spotted earlier with her cubs. But no luck for us. Disappointed we came out of the forest. Our driver advised us to book permit for afternoon safari in the Jhirna zone. Back to the resort, we checked the site. We were lucky to get one of the few remaining permits.
Jhirna (or Dhela as it is also called) gate was almost 45 minutes away. We soon entered the jungle excitedly. Watching the flora and fauna, we continued to follow tiger calls. There were other gypsies like ours. One such gypsy was pointing something in a bush. There was a mad scramble to get closer for the tiger sighting. I even clicked a burst of photographs to zoom and say that it looked like a tiger. But it was not.
We received message from another vehicle that a tiger was seen going down the path towards the river. We also rushed. What a sight it was! Gypsies were lined along the road, looking down the ravine. There indeed was a tiger frolicking in the water. It was a full-grown male cub. We clicked a few pictures, but though only about hundred odd meters away from us, it was still far away not to come sharp on our camera.
We turned back, half-heartedly, following calls for another tiger. The driver would stop every now and then, the guide straining to hear a call. Once we thought that there was a deer call. We stopped patiently for some time near a water body along the grasslands in the elusive hope of another tiger sighting. It was a long wait, but still no tiger.
It would be soon sunset, the time when we had to be out of the forest. We turned for home. The driver and the guide decided to divert towards another location on the way out. A tusker across the river was having his bath. Having cleaned himself, he started taking a mud bath. It seems that this coating by mud acts as a mosquito repellent for the animal in the night.
Our eyes were still looking for another sighting in the grasslands. Deer were grazing peacefully. We thought our adventure for the day was over. But the driver and the guide had other ideas. They spotted another gypsy waiting patiently by the edge of the grassland. The guide also noticed that a few monkeys on a tree were looking intently in one direction towards the grassland. Most of the other gypsies had already gone out. We also decided to wait patiently with the other vehicle. A couple of more vehicles joined us. Kawarias, who are pilgrims, who travel along the road from long distances towards some famous temple during special days of the year, had also stopped around 100 metres away, sensing some wild presence.
An elegant figure rose from the tall grass, only about 100 metres from us, and stretched its muscles. It started walking majestically. All the people went shutter crazy, trying to capture every moment of that minute and a half catwalk, so close to us. The tigress was unconcerned, as she crossed the road, barely 10-15 metres in front of us.
This was a divine moment! Our patience had paid off.
We took the canter safari also a couple of days later, this time in the Dhikala zone. People have seen tigers in the grasslands on other days, even in a canter safari. We were not so lucky. It was probably because one does not get to exercise patience when driving with a group of tourists in a canter. The canter takes only a predefined route and is not permitted to enter smaller dirt paths. It also makes too much noise. Though, the guide explained that the animals are used to the daily canter sound; it is the smells of deodorants or perfumes that we city breds carry inside the jungle which disturbs them. Those staying inside in the forest rest house did see the tigress and her cubs playing in the open just across the river.
To give credit where it is due, Dhikala gate has a museum, dedicated to the forest. The tiger does get a prominent place in this building for obvious reasons. It is an interesting place, worth spending an hour. Apart from the stuffed animals and photographs, they screen a short movie about the jungle, a sound and light show about the night life inside the jungle, a gallery capturing rain fall inside the forest, and a display box where you get to hear sounds made by different animals on press of respective buttons.
During this visit we also tried eating more of our meals in the Dhabas outside our resort. These small roadside eateries are dotted all along the road. We were not disappointed. The food is basic, but tasty, and cooked fresh. It is also inexpensive and easy on the stomach, compared to the rich and spicy food inside a resort.
Soon it was time for us to return, with a promise, that the next time we would certainly attempt to stay inside the forest.
“There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already” – Ashlan Gorse Cousteau.
We come from an old civilisation, probably the oldest as many now believe. This places on our shoulders a heavy burden of looking after our children. We do not take this duty lightly. We have never been the ones to shirk from our responsibilities.
One such duty is to ensure continuity of values handed down by our ancestors. Out of the many values, one is about the celebration of our festivals. There are a few misguided who feel that our festivals are harming the environment. Can you believe it! Fear not. We have brigades of vigilantes to ensure strict compliance.
One such festival, though relatively new to our culture, is that of the elections. No longer the good old days when we used to have kings or queens and they passed on the mantle to their progeny. But trust the British to spoil the party. They handed down to us a new festival, which was also to be celebrated periodically, though not necessarily every year. Over the past one hundred years or so, we have mastered the art of celebration of elections.
The fun starts a few months before the announcement of election dates. New alliances are formed, old alliances are broken, defections are engineered. There are a few volunteers, they are now called Chanakyas, who know their role in the scheme of things. A whisper campaign, which is louder than a whisper, is initiated against a few likely candidates who may be considered a threat to the designs of these masterminds. The dirtier the smear, the better it is.
The electorate and the prospective candidates start looking forward to the announcement of election dates, which do get published in due course. Now the frenzy starts. Many of the alliances formed earlier, are once again realigned. The king makers get down to serious work.
The backroom boys must ensure that those elected will toe their line. Behind the scenes negotiations are the most important feature during this period. They must ensure that the top man is only interested in the chair, and nothing more than that. Promises are made to some, promises made to some are broken. Word is sent around to some candidates to step down in favour of others. The smear now becomes a deluge of muck. Manifestos are released which are much more interesting than the Disney fairy tales.
A relatively recent entry to the celebration of elections is the non-resident. He is making his fortune in distant lands. That does not mean he is not worried about the affairs in the land of his birth. This is his land too. He too joins the bandwagon. His expert comments are eagerly awaited. His muck is also the same colour as the domestic muck. It does not matter. End justifies the means.
Dawns the day of polling. Volunteers of different groups are still at work. Last minute canvassing is important. That last blob of mud is yet to be thrown. Food needs to be arranged for those camping in front of the booths. Insincere apologies are to be made to those maligned – it was only in the interest of the good of the majority.
The results are announced. A few candidates win, and the others lose. The winning team has its task cut out – read the manifesto and look up to the Chanakyas, not necessarily in that order. Manifesto! What is that! We did not contest the election to work. The top leader has of course achieved his life ambition. There is nothing more for him to attain. The next election is some time away. A few of the winners are unaware of the roles they are required to play. Before the next elections, these few will start to hear the voice of their conscience and resign for reasons not connected with what they were supposed to have done.
I lost the last elections. What did you think I was talking about? I am a patriotic citizen of my country. Which country? You ask too many questions!
I narrated the events during the recent RWA elections in my society.
But then I realised that this is a national festival everywhere. Did you not witness the recent elections in the USA?
I write this open letter to you as I do not know any other way to communicate with you, without drawing the ire of so many others who have a much more known claim to address you as Dear. Though I do not agree with them, you are our dear prime minister, and all of us have the right to call you as one dear to us. I hope, no I am certain, all of us are equally dear to you.
My concern this time arises out of the control that my wife exerts over the household. Though all wives exert a control on their husbands, mine is particular about water. I know… I know… You are going to tell me that everyone must drink a certain minimum quantity of water every day, and my wife is well within her rights to tell me so.
But it is not the water I drink that is the issue here. You see, I have been used to running my tap to almost its maximum, when brushing my teeth, shaving, washing hands, washing dishes, and so on. I see you are smiling Sir – I am sure all husbands of the modern generation are washing their own dishes after the meals. You see I belong to the new generation of 61+ year olds.
But I am digressing. She tells me that we should not waste water as the ground water is depleting fast. People are also telling me that the next world war will be fought over water.
I am a very small person Sir. I do not understand world wars. But I do see our people fighting for sharing of river water. Funny our people are – the things they fight for. I thought rivers, like other resources of nature, were for everyone to enjoy.
I read many reports in the newspapers. Though it is increasingly becoming difficult to figure out which news to trust. You see Sir, different newspapers are printing different news about why the farmers are blocking our roads instead of producing what we who are living in cities have come to believe as our birth right. If one newspaper says that the agitation is wrong then there is another paper which justifies the fight of the farmers. And WhatsApp messages on my groups are not helping either. It is so confusing.
But I was talking about water. So, I read in many newspapers that the problem arose because we asked the builders to construct beautiful houses for us. Then the builders went and covered the beautiful water bodies to construct these beautiful houses. So, the water under the ground started going down. I do not understand why the water goes down when the builder builds my house. But if good environment people are saying it is so, then they must be right.
I also understood my wife’s logic.
But then where will I live – in a boat on the water? Can you imagine so many people living in boats? I thought and I thought… so much that it gave me a headache… you see Sir, I am not used to thinking so much. I have left this work for others.
Then I remembered the forests that were earlier cut down for our beautiful homes. You remember Sir, what you did? You passed a law for us to take permission and plant as many trees as we cut.
I came up with an idea to save myself from the daily harangue that I face from my wife to save water. I thought, if you pass a law that every builder, who covers a water body for my home, is asked to develop another water body of the same size, then the problem is solved.
Brilliant, is it not?
Then I will also be able to go for walks in my own lake near my house surrounded by so many trees. I am sure even the clouds will love these beautiful surroundings. They may give me more rain out of sheer happiness.
You will ask me what happens about the thousands of lakes already covered by the builders. I am sure Sir; our government will find a way to build same number of lakes.
Please do not ask me where the money will come from for so many lakes. I have a dreadful feeling that I will be taxed extra for my brilliant solution. Please do not impose more tax on me. I am sure you will find investors to generate the extra money.
Please help me Sir to lead a peaceful and harmonious life at home. I have high hopes from you.
Ron Burns said, “You cannot make anything idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious.”
My wife and I are so much used to a walk together in the evening, wherever we have lived. These difficult times have not deterred us in continuing with our walks. We also started walking together in the morning since the days of lockdowns as my wife started working from home and had more time.
Conscious of the dangers in the air or surface – nobody really knows with theories changing in the newspapers at a much faster rate than the positivity rate – we decided to be fully armed. We got enough masks, converted a ball pen without the refill but filled with sanitiser to operate the lift; and we were armed to continue with our walks inside our gated condominium complex.
This is when we encountered self-professed saviours of mother earth. They would hang in their balconies, probably all the time, to catch the unsuspecting at any time of the day or night, and then call the PCR complaining against the stray walkers who were walking with full protection. The police would necessarily have to come since a complaint had been made and then go back irritated at the complainant.
My wife, who even in normal times, is an activist of sorts, fighting her battles for a green earth, turned more militant. She started requesting those not wearing a mask to cover their mouth and nose. Most of them were good natured, resisted on the first day with some excuse or the other, but were masked from the next walking session – and continue to remain masked.
It was during one such walk that she encountered a much younger lady walking with no mask – not even one dangling around her ears. The sensibilities of my wife aroused, she stopped the lady, and requested her to comply with the regulations. My wife was angrily brushed aside and in the next round was rudely advised that she is a doctor, spends long hours in the hospital with a mask on, and she needs her lungs to breathe fresh air, uninterrupted by any mask; and then walked away. To put it mildly, my wife was stumped; and so was I. God save us from such doctors.
I am not a medical professional, thus, I inquired from those who are. They were unequivocal in their opinion – the lady in question is an idiot. And she continues to be one even now. In later days, I have come to know that she is not alone, and such people are called Covidiots.
But being an idiot is not limited only during pandemic times. We have all been guilty of this at some time. I went to a university – a few days before lockdown – to speak about my book. I made a point that communication amongst people should never stop, even if it meant communicating on the social media – be it Facebook, or Instagram or Tinder. The audience erupted and I preened with pride at my own oratory skills. Till… I searched the net on the train back and found that Tinder was a dating platform. I may choose to call this a faux pass, but simple fact is that it was stupid of me to speak of something of which I had no knowledge.
But then this foot in the mouth syndrome is nothing new – particularly amongst the politicians – across the entire spectrum. An idiotic statement made in a public rally leaves them unfazed till the next rally – to make another such statement. The unfortunate part is that these statements are crass, racist, or sexist – and are not funny.
“Virgin, as per the dictionary, means an unmarried and pure girl. So, all these words are not objectionable,” and a medical college did nothing wrong when asking female candidates to declare their virginity in a form for admission, stated a minister in one of the states.
Nobody can forget the now infamous quip by a senior leader about crime against women, “Boys will be boys, they commit mistakes.”
But this one takes the cake. A senior leader said that electricity must be provided in all villages so that they spend more time in watching television rather than procreating. Or when a leader said that crimes against women are happening in urban India and not in rural India since we are losing our culture in the urban cities.
Having convinced myself that I am surrounded by idiots, which presupposes that I am not an idiot myself, at least in my eyes, I have made peace with myself and the world around me.
I agree with Sarah Cooke, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”