My first short film for WWF:
This short film provides an overview on how the technique of camera trapping is used to estimate tiger numbers and how this aids in tiger conservation.
This film can also be seen on WWF-India’s YouTube channel here.
My first short film for WWF:
This short film provides an overview on how the technique of camera trapping is used to estimate tiger numbers and how this aids in tiger conservation.
This film can also be seen on WWF-India’s YouTube channel here.
(Note: First published on WWF-India’s website)
A rare beauty
Known for the beauty of its reddish-orange coat and white ‘teardrops’ falling away from its eyes, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is found in parts of Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Southern China and India. In India, it is found in the states of Sikkim, northern West Bengal, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, where a majority of its population occurs. Classified as a Vulnerable species by IUCN*, increasing habitat loss poses a major threat to its survival. WWF-India is currently working with its stake holders to conserve this rare animal in most of its distribution range across North East India.
Communities for nature
Since 1992, WWF-India has partnered with local villagers, Indian Army and Forest Department in the Western Arunachal Landscape (WAL), which covers nearly 7000 sq. km. area of Tawang and West Kameng districts, to conserve its rich biological diversity. The maximum forest area in WAL is under the customary tenure of local indigenous communities. WWF-India facilitated the establishment of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) in 2004 to ensure sustainable management and community protection of such forests that also form the habitat of the red panda.
One such CCA is the Pangchen Lumpo Muchat CCA, which comprises of Lumpo and Muchat villages. According to Nawang Chota, Secretary of Pangchen Lumpo Muchat CCA, “After the formation of the CCA we stopped hunting and fishing in it, and prevented outsiders from indulging in these as well. We also started community based tourism to provide a source of income to the villagers.”
In November 2010, three other villages – Socktsen, Kharman and Kelengteng, came together to form the Pangchen Socktsen Lakhar CCA. Together the two CCAs control 200 sq. km. of area. The wide variety of wildlife found in these forests includes the red panda. While formation of the CCAs stopped the hunting of wild animals, the continued loss of habitat posed a threat to the long term survival of the red panda. To prevent this, villagers from the two CCAs came together to form the unique Pangchen Red Panda Conservation Alliance with the support of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and WWF-India. The aim of this community initiative is to help red panda conservation not only by banning its hunting or capture, but also by preventing the habitat loss and protecting the plant species on which it is dependent.
By preventing habitat loss the alliance also hopes to reduce human-wildlife conflict caused by wild animals such as wild boar, porcupines and monkeys raiding crops and villages. A Yak dung briquette unit is also under construction in the area to reduce fuel wood consumption and provide additional income. In addition, Pangchen Tourism Package involving five villages from the two CCAs is being developed to attract tourists and thereby provide an alternate source of livelihood for the locals.
WWF-India’s continuing support
Pijush Dutta, Landscape Coordinator, WAL, WWF-India said, “With this one of a kind initiative it is hoped that conservation of red pandas can be undertaken in a scientific manner with proper records maintained of sightings by villagers. The next step is to prepare a detailed master plan in consultation with the villagers for the management of the forests in a sustainable manner”.
“WWF-India will support this Conservation Alliance by undertaking a biodiversity documentation of the CCAs, conducting training courses for the villagers for sustainable management of local forests and support community based tourism as a conservation incentive,” adds Pijush.
* Wang, X., Choudhury, A., Yonzon, P., Wozencraft, C. & Than Zaw 2008. Ailurus fulgens. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. . Downloaded on 09 December 2010.
The art of photo printing is slowly becoming archaic like a floppy drive or a cassette player. Nowadays, hardly anyone prints their digital photos, forget printing from film negatives. But not too long ago it was an art. It is still an art but the great practitioners of that art are slowly but steadily dying out. The intuition to judge the correct timing for development and fixing, the ability to extract detail from where it would seem impossible, correct mistakes made by the photographer and in the end produce a print that is virtually identical to the vision of the photographer is no mean task. But great printers are rarely given their due and most are content to toil in their darkrooms in search of that perfect print. It is therefore all the more important to celebrate one of the true artists in this field who printed for some of the very greats in photography. Reproduced below is an excerpt from one of the two lovingly written articles paying homage to Voja Mitrovic – one of the greatest printers in photography.
If you have even the slightest interest in photography, go grab a coffee, put your feet up and read the two articles (links after the excerpt) at your leisure.
Both Voja and Picto would have a tremendous impact on my own destiny. In June of 1979, after arriving back in Paris, I went to see Pierre Gassmann at Picto and asked for a job as a printer. Pierre, with his tough-love gruff voice, asked me what I knew how to do—and I exaggerated and told him that I was a great printer and knew how to do eve- rything with black-and-white prints. He said to me, “We will see. You will have a three day tryout, and if you aren’t as good as you say, you won’t get the job.” On my first day of my tryout, I was given 100 negatives and told to make 8×10-inch prints of each by the end of the day. At 4 p.m., a tall, handsome man with a foreign accent, one of the printers in the lab—Voja—came to my enlarger and asked how it was going. I told him that I had only printed 20 negatives. He said to me, “You will never get this job—give me the negatives.” I watched him take the hundred negatives to his enlarger, and in one hour, he printed the remaining 80 negatives, putting each sheet of printing paper in a closed drawer after exposing each negative. At 4:50 pm, he took out 80 sheets of exposed photographic paper and went to the open developing tank. I watched him chain develop all the prints, and one by one put all 80 prints, perfectly printed, into the fixer. At 5:10 p.m. that day, Pierre Gassmann walked into the lab and said, “letʼs see how you have done.” He put his foot on the foot pedal to light up the fixer tank with bright red light, and went through my 100 prints laying in the fixer-and a few seconds later, looked up and said to me, “you are as good as you said; you are hired!” After Gassmann walked out of the dark room, I took Voja aside, and said, “thank you. I will find a way one day to thank you for this!” He looked at me and said, “I was an immigrant also. I know what it means to need work—we need to help each other!”
—Copyright 2010 by Peter Turnley, Paris, France
Both the articles were written by Peter Turnley and were first published on Mike Johnston’s consistently excellent photography blog-The Online Photographer.
by Ameen Ahmed and Anil Cherukupalli
(Note: First published on WWF-India’s website. The following modified version appeared subsequently on WWF’s Global Intranet.)
Meet the Pardis
Hardly a community in India’s recent history has been more affected by changing laws and times than the Pardis. A nomadic tribe spread across the central states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the Pardis have depended on forests for their livelihoods for countless generations. In particular, they hunt wildlife.
The erstwhile Maharajas, recognizing the Pardis’ considerable skills, employed them to drive wildlife toward the kings’ hunting parties. Many farmers in central India employed Pardis to guard against crop-raiding wild animals; the deal was that the Pardis could keep the meat of the animals they caught.
Within the Pardis community, there are divisions according to various occupations and hunting practices. For example, the Phaandiya Pardis hunt their quarry using a rope noose. The Teliya Pardis sell meat and oil extracted from reptiles they capture. But the most remarkable aspect of hunting by Pardis is their total dependence on traditional means and basic equipment, like rope, wooden clubs and knives, to bring down wildlife. They rarely use a search light, vehicles or guns.
Troubled times: post-Independence and the Wildlife Protection Act
The British treated most Pardis as social pariahs. Most of their sub-sects were included in the list of “criminal tribes” in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Though the act was overturned after independence in 1952 and they were “de-notified,” the historical stigma remains.
Life for the Pardis took a dramatic turn for the worse in 1972, when the Indian government adopted the Wildlife Protection Act. Pardis were not only prohibited from entering many of the state-controlled lands, now designated as protected forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but overnight they were also required to stop hunting.
After hundreds of years of practice and perfection in making a living out of hunting, they were suddenly left without a profession. With no formal training or assistance to help them adapt to the new law of the land, they continued hunting covertly. According to Mr. Golla Krishnamurthy, India Forest Service, who has worked in the Panna Tiger Reserve, “They mainly hunt big game and trade the skins with middlemen in cities for further illegal export. They hunt animals like deer, wild boar and other small herbivores for staple food on a day to day basis.”
The new law, combined with the historical stigma and the fact that they are traditional nomads left the Pardis out in the cold. Village after village viewed them suspiciously and drove them from town. This discrimination and lack of opportunity forced the Pardis to the very margins of society, where their poaching activities were a means of survival.
The way forward
According to sources in the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, a vast amount of the wildlife poached in that state, particularly in and around Panna Tiger Reserve, has links to Pardis. But serving India’s big wildlife traders and illegal trade mafia hasn’t improved life for the Pardis; they remain impoverished. Surely there has to be a way to empower this community and save wildlife. The key is education for the next generation, so they have opportunities to earn a decent living on the right side of the law.
WWF-India, along with the forest department, has been conducting a “Residential Bridge Course” at two locations around Panna, under the government’s “Sarva Shiksha Abyiyaan” (Education for All) scheme. The nine-month course prepares the children to enter the formal education system. Their stay at the student hostel also helps them make the shift from a nomadic to more mainstream lifestyle. Simultaneously, the adults are offered training in alternative professions.
Though it’s too early to tell what paths the Pardis children will take, they are enjoying the opportunity to attend school. “I’ve been studying in the school in Kunjwan for the past two years. Before I started schooling I used to stay at home, though I never liked that,” says 9-year-old Bamina. “My father and mother used to roam around a lot to provide us food. Even then, we had to go hungry many a time. But that has changed now. I like it here in school. We play a lot of games and also study. I’m learning many new things.”
And though it took two years of persuasion to get her into school, 11-year-old Chiranga now enjoys attending classes. She has even taken it upon herself to educate her family members. “My father used to shoot wild boar earlier. Members of my family used to hunt tigers and partridges. But now they no longer hunt,” she says. “My mother now sells ‘manihari’ (traditional cosmetics) like bindis, kumkum and traditional medicines, while my father sells ‘rudraksha’ beads (talismans).”
Dr. Diwakar Sharma, Associate Director of WWF-India’s Species & Landscapes Programme, says these two enthusiastic students speak for the rest of their classmates. “Once they join the school they do not want to return to their old lifestyle that was filled with hardship and poverty. They are now filled with a desire to learn and succeed.”
Mita Goswami, Director of Environment Education with WWF-India, adds that the Pardis’ unique upbringing has its advantages: “They are a treasure trove of information on our wildlife. During the nature walk we had with them, we were pleasantly taken aback by the wealth of knowledge they had on nature; from insects to trees and birds to mammals.”
In what may be a fortuitous development in the long Pardis history, the children’s knowledge of their local environment may one day help save the wildlife they used to hunt. “When they grow up, their in-depth knowledge about wild flora and fauna can develop them into excellent nature guides, nature interpreters or researchers,” concludes Sangita Saxena, WWF-India’s State Director for M.P. and Chhattisgarh.
(Note: The following story is the result of a series of interviews done with affected villagers, environmental activists, lawyers and other stakeholders along with visits to the affected areas by Anil Cherukupalli and Tushar Dhara in June 2009 as a follow up to news reports referring to a Swedish study that found extremely high concentrations of many drugs in local water sources in the Patancheru area of Hyderabad.)
The mantra that drives India today is development through industrialisation. Having missed the first wave of industrialisation India latched on to the emerging industries of the new millennium: Information Technology and Biotechnology. The precursor to biotechnology was the pharmaceutical industry which took root in Hyderabad from the late 1970s onwards. The succeeding decades saw Hyderabad emerge as one of the world’s largest centres for bulk drug production. The drugs were exported to major markets around the world including Europe and the USA and in lesser developed markets in Africa.
The rise of the Indian generics industry was made possible by a host of institutional and non-institutional factors: availability of a large pool of scientists; the Patents Act of 1970 that made a distinction between product and process patents which removed the legal constraints for manufacturing generics. In particular, the establishment of Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL) in 1961 by the government in Hyderabad led to the concentration of the generics drug industry in the southern Indian city.
The pharmaceutical manufacturing units are concentrated in the Patancheru industrial area, which lies 25 kilometres to the northwest of the city. Although a separate municipality before 2007 Patancheru became part of the newly constituted Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation that year. The newly constituted GHMC made it possible for the erstwhile suburban municipalities to access more funds for civic amenities and provided an integrated development plan for the Greater Hyderabad conurbation.
Though Hyderabad has become an important node in the global pharma industry, the environmental, human, economic and social costs have been overlooked. Although the benefits of providing cheap generic drugs are not in question the environmental cost is being borne by communities located in the vicinity of the drug manufacturing units in Patancheru. Since the early 1980s, when the pharma industry took off, these communities have had their water and soil polluted by the untreated industrial effluents. This has affected their livelihoods in the form of decreased agricultural yields. On the health front, although the evidence is anecdotal, abortion rates have increased; stunted growth has been reported in children, and increased incidence of skin diseases. The communities lack of the means to make their voice heard and along with willful disregard of existing environment laws and their monitoring by the regulatory authorities makes Patancheru a typical case of environmental neglect in a developing country.
A Swedish research team led by Joakim Larsson from the University of Gothenburg conducted a study on the levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the water discharged from a common effluent treatment plant in the Patancheru area of Hyderabad. The shocking results of the study, which was published in January and April 2009 in peer reviewed scientific journals, revealed the presence of very high levels of antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin (up to 6.5 mg/L) and the anti-histamine drug Cetirizine (up to 1.2 mg/L). In one place, the levels were found to exceed human therapeutic blood plasma concentrations!
Moreover, it was not just Ciprofloxacin or Cetirizine that were found in the treated effluent. According to an Associated Press report, the supposedly cleaned water contained 21 different active pharmaceutical ingredients, used in generics for treatment of hypertension, heart disease, chronic liver ailments, depression, gonorrhea, ulcers and other ailments. Half of the drugs measured at the highest levels of pharmaceuticals ever detected in the environment!
The study states that pharmaceutical production ‘severely contaminates surface, ground and drinking water in the investigated region and that the previously demonstrated pharmaceutical releases from PETL is still occurring‘. The Patancheru Enviro Tech Limited (PETL) is the common effluent treatment plant that was set up in 1995 to treat the discharge from around 90 bulk drug manufacturing units located in the Patancheru area, including Dr Reddy’s Labs, Aurobindo Pharma and Newland Labs.
The treated effluent from PETL is discharged into the Iskkavagu stream, which then flows into the Nakkavagu river. The Nakkavagu river then runs into the Manjeera river which ultimately joins the Godavari river. Manjeera river is the major drinking water source for the city of Hyderabad while Godavari river is one of the major rivers in southern India whose waters are used to irrigate millions of acres of agricultural land in Andhra Pradesh. Although there are three to four other streams that flow into the Nakkavagu river the Swedish team’s findings showed the Iskavagu and Nakkavagu to be the most contaminated of the water sources in Patancheru.
There are 20 villages in and around the industrial area with an estimated population of a lakh people. Plus, there are an additional 75,000 people in the Patancheru suburb. Pocharam and Ganapathigudem, two villages that are located closest to PETL, bear the brunt of this potential ecological disaster. The villages lie downstream of the Iskavagu stream. This has resulted in severe contamination of all ground and surface water sources in and around the villages.
Pocharam is located roughly a kilometre from PETL. By accident or design, the administrative boundary of Pocharam gram panchayat ends a few feet before PETL. The treatment plant effectively falls in the jurisdiction of the GHMC. Although topographically the village and the treatment plant are contiguous they are governed by different laws legally. The villagers have to travel to Hyderabad for any matter concerning the plant. Meanwhile, the plant sits on the other side of the Iskavagu stream and the villagers can do nothing. “If the plant was within our gram panchayat boundary we would have had the authority to close them down, “says Praveen Singh, a resident of Pocharam.
As seen from the photos taken of the Iskavagu stream, which flows beside the PETL plant and where the treated effluents are released, the stream surface is covered by a layer of thick white foam. Basketball sized flecks of foam are blown around by wind over a greater area. The stream water is dark brown in colour and smells bad. Praveen Singh also added that when the foam lands on skin it causes severe itching and rashes while contact with eyes lead to eye burn and redness.
According to the villagers, apart from mosquitoes no other life forms exist in the stream or in the river. According to other residents of Pocharam village, the quantity of white foam and the bad smell increase greatly in the night. The villagers allege that this is because the plant and the tanker trucks (that normally carry the effluent to the plant during the day) resort to open dumping of the pharmaceutical waste into the stream in the night without treatment.
It is hard to independently verify the villager‘s claims as no government agency has thought it fit to conduct a study to assess the potential social and health problems caused by the presence of such high levels of drugs in their local environment. Satti Reddy, 60 yrs old, who is a resident of Ganpatigudem village, alleges that not a single government official came to visit their village even after the Swedish studies generated much international and national media interest and reached even the attention of the Indian prime minister. Sadly, official apathy seems to be the norm for the Patancheru area when it comes to protecting the environment.
Dr. A. Kishan Rao, a medical practitioner and member of Citizen’s Against Pollution (CAP) recalls the genesis of a remarkable people’s movement in the late 1980s against the rampant dumping of chemical industrial waste in the Patancheru area. The Patancheru industrial area was set up in the mid-1970s to stimulate industrial growth in Hyderabad. But in the rush to industrialise many of the environmental regulations governing the proper disposal of industrial waste were either overlooked or unenforced. “This resulted in,“ says Dr. Rao, “illegal and often open dumping of industrial waste in open areas not just from local trucks but by trucks that came all the way from the neighbouring state of Karnataka!“
In 1986, CAP launched an awareness campaign against pollution. Along with affected communities they formed the Patancheru Anti Pollution Committee (PAPC). The activists staged dharnas, relay hunger strikes and demanded an end to the pollution. “We marched to the office of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (PCB) demanding an end to the pollution,“ says Prof. K. Purushottam Reddy, President of CAP, recalling those times. In 1987, nearly 2000 people marched 40 km from Patancheru to the AP State Assembly and presented a list of demands to then Chief Minister N. T. Rama Rao. Some of the demands included the construction of an effluent treatment plant for each industrial unit, adequate compensation for degraded agricultural land and supply of safe drinking water to effected villages.
PAPC’s continued pressure resulted in the Medak district administration serving notice to 22 industries in Patancheru. The court set a deadline of September 3, 1987 to build individual ETPs. This order wasn’t complied with. The PAPC then started its second, more innovative phase of public protest. They blocked the National Highway 9 connecting Hyderabad and Mumbai with 500 bullocks! In October, the farmers filed a petition in the AP High Court against 20 of the 22 polluting industries. The subsequent High Court ruling went in favour of the industries.
The farmers then approached the Supreme Court (SC) through prominent environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta in 1989. The half a decade long legal battle resulted in the SC asking the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to conduct a thorough study on industrial pollution in the Nakkavagu basin. Based on the NEERI report the SC ordered the industries to cease the release of effluents into local water bodies. The SC ordered that compensation for the affected families must be paid by the polluting industries. The apex court also directed the local authorities to provide safe drinking water to the affected villages.
But the compensation paid has been uneven. According to activists, 2.13 crores were paid to families spread across 10 villages. Although less than adequate, it was a start. But even this has petered out in recent years according to the villagers. In addition, a drinking water pipeline was laid by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board.
Meanwhile, a district judge who conducted an investigation pointed out that the PETL was itself a major contributor to pollution. In 2000, the SC expressed ‘anguish’ that no action plan had been formulated to tackle the problem even after a decade. That same year a plan to build a 22 km pipeline from Patancheru to Amberpet, in the heart of Hyderabad, was devised by which effluents would be taken from Patancheru and dumped into the Musi river that flows through Hyderabad. The pipeline is now almost ready, though it is yet to start functioning.
“We are not happy with it because unless you treat the effluents at the beginning and at the end you are essentially dumping the pollution in the heart of the city instead of at the peripheries, “says K. S. Murthy, an advocate who represents the farmers by the banks of the Musi river who moved the AP High Court against the plan. According to him, the Patancheru case is about reducing pollution and securing compensation, both of which have been less than satisfactory.
The AP Pollution Control Board meanwhile says that it has the situation under control. A PCB official, who didn’t want to be named, said that the pollution is showing a ‘decreasing trend‘. “After the pipeline is completed the effluents will not be dumped into local water sources in Patancheru, “he added.
The villagers living in Patancheru seem resigned to their fate. When they talk about the pollution it is in a matter of fact way. Ganapathigudem is a village of 600 odd people located 2 km downstream of the PETL. Many villagers own tracts of agricultural land in the area that they say produce below average yields. Srisailam Goud, a resident of Pocharam village said, “We used to get 40 bags of paddy per acre which has now reduced to 10 bags“. A few of the better educated ones get some of the menial jobs in the factories. Some of the economically better off families have sold their land and houses and moved to the city. The infrastructure needs of Hyderabad have brought some relief. A massive ring road, meant to ease the traffic woes of the city, is being built and the north-western section skirts Pocharam village. Land was acquired from some villagers at government rates. Though below market rates, villagers lucky enough to receive it moved out rather than stay here.
According to Dr Kishan Rao, a more serious problem, which can lead to grave public health problems in the future, is the development of antibiotic resistance due to the very high levels of antibiotics in the discharge from the PETL. The Swedish reasearch team also expressed the same concerns. According to them, “The most obvious risk associated with the findings is that the high levels of broad-spectrum antibiotics could induce the development of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms.“ Antibiotic resistance develops because the bacteria present in the environment are put under selection pressure by the high levels of antibiotics found in the water sources. What this means is that only those microorganisms that have developed resistance against the antibiotics survive. These surviving microorganisms will then increase in numbers and spread in the environment. These resistance characters, which are nothing but genes, could be transferred to human pathogens through horizontal gene transfer. This is when genes from one microorganism are transferred to another microorganism. This could lead to the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens against which the existing antibiotics may be ineffective. Previous studies done in and around Pencillin manufacturing sites in China have shown this to be happening leading to the development of multi drug resistant bacterial strains.
“Not a single Indian scientist or doctor has conducted follow up studies to the Swedish study“, laments Dr. Kishan Rao. He expresses concern over the possible contamination of the food chain through food grains and vegetables grown using the contaminated water or through cow/buffalo milk from cattle that drink the contaminated water. These correspondents had indeed seen cattle from the Pocharam and Ganapatigudem villages drinking from the foam covered Iskavagu stream just downstream of the PETL plant. The villagers expressed their inability to stop the cattle from drinking the polluted water.
In the case of Patancheru, due to the presence of extremely high levels of antibiotics and other drugs in the local water sources no one knows what health problems they will give rise to in future through the development of previously unknown drug resistant microorganisms. As the Swedish research team’s paper suggests, “The increasing occurrence of multi-resistant pathogens is a serious global threat to human health and is promoted by the heavy use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine. “ The problem is even graver at the PETL plant as it uses approximately 20% raw human faeces to maintain biological activity. As human faeces contains pathogens and other microorganisms it is possible that such close contact between the pathogens, resistant bacteria already existing in the effluent and the high concentration of antibiotics might lead to development of new multi-drug resistant pathogens. This could have grave effect on current treatment strategies that depend on antibiotics like Ciprofloxacin.
Compounding the existing problem of high levels of pollution is the lack of regulatory oversight. The APPCB, according to activists, is not capable of monitoring antibiotic pollution because it lacks trained personnel and equipment.
Activists say that the problem can be tackled by having individual effluent treatment plants for each industrial unit with effective and regular upstream and downstream monitoring of effluents. Dr. Kishan Rao estimates that setting up of individual ETPs will cost between 1-3 percent of an average pharma company’s turnover. But as long as companies worry more about toplines and bottomlines that will remain unfulfilled.
Recommended Citation: Dhara, Tushar., Cherukupalli, Anil. The Cost of Cheap Medicines: Antibiotic Pollution in Patancheru. http://anilcherukupalli.com/blog/2010/03/07/the-cost-of-cheap-medicines-antibiotic-pollution-in-patancheru/
Nearly 4.5 years and 250 odd posts later I thought it was time for some change. As you can see I’ve shifted domains. Do feel free to look around and explore. Many things have changed while some have remained the same. I hope you will like what is to come.
(Note: This trip report was first published in the April 2009 edition of Bird watchers’ Society of Andhra Pradesh’s newsletter-Pitta. An edited version of this post was featured in You & I Magazine.)
They say that you can never forget your first tiger sighting in the wild. The majestic walk, the earth shattering roar and the easy but arrogant confidence apparently imprint him in your mind forever. With such descriptions and statements in mind I set off back in late January 2009, to the Jim Corbett National Park in Ramnagar, Uttarakhand to join that relatively small club of people who have seen the magnificent beast in the wild. While two days of frantic dashes and sudden hushed stops throughout the length and breadth of the Brijrani area of the park did not yield even a small glimpse of that much praised animal (except for some fresh pugmarks), in all those wanderings I did get to see an amazing variety of bird life both in Corbett and a few days later in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. And in the latter I saw a sight that completely drove the tiger from my mind. It was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen in my short birding career. But more about this bird and the Bharatpur sanctuary later. Let me first guide you through the foggy grasslands, thin gurgling streams and cool woodlands of Corbett by conveniently concentrating on birding aspects of the trip and ignoring for most part our increasingly desperate attempts to spot a tiger.
We reached Ramnagar too early to enter the park so our jeep driver took us to the Kosi river to pass time. It was still dark but a thin light was breaking out in the east marginally illuminating the murky riverbed that was mostly dry except for a small flow. As we stumbled over the smooth and rounded pebbles of the river bed, a sudden clear ringing rent the perfectly still dawn air. It was the di-geri-doo call of a lapwing. Although it was still too dark to see the bird. I wanted to hang around a bit for the light to brighten to identify the lapwing and see if there were any more birds but it was time to proceed to the park.
As we waited to collect our park entry permits at the Brijrani gate and be assigned a guide we saw that ubiquitous septet, the Jungle Babblers (Turdoides striatus) hopping around. After we proceeded into the park, as soon as we passed the buffer zone and were crossing a shallow stream we saw a Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) running away from us. After crossing the stream and climbing the crest of a small mound we found a rivulet below on our left in which we observed through the rapidly thinning fog a group of Black Storks (Ciconia nigra) out fishing early. We continued towards the canteen at the beginning of the park proper to quieten our grumbling stomachs. Stomach filled, I was sipping on some hot Bournvita when I spied a little bird hopping around the tables in front of the canteen with its tail raised. It was a White-Capped Water Redstart (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus), a bird I did not expect to be so used to civilization.
No sooner had we left the canteen, our guide Mahesh pointed out a Lesser Flameback Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense) in the distance seemingly bent on breaking its beak on the bark of a tree. As we were driving through a wooded area we heard the harsh bark of an Indian Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) from near us and stopped by the side of the track to investigate. A flash of color in the dense bushes next to us sent our pulses racing. Alas, it was not a tiger passing through. It was only a “lowly” timid Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) giving us the once over with its bobbing head!
Towards late afternoon we made our way towards the Malani region of the park to catch a glimpse of the core forest area that no day visitors are allowed to enter even with entry permits. Mahesh, sharp as ever, pointed out a group of birds in the distance sitting high in the branches of a tree well above the average tree cover. Their bare, red colored fleshy necks gave them away instantly. It was a group of Red-Headed Vultures (Sarcogyps calvus) seemingly relaxing under the late afternoon sunshine.
After tempting me throughout the day among the many grasslands that litter the park, I finally managed to get a good close-up photo of a Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea) as we made our way back to the main gate. Just before we passed into the buffer zone, Mahesh spotted a lone bird atop a tree in the distance. He identified it as a Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we soon confirmed through the good offices of the zoom button on my camera. And with that ended our first day in the Corbett National Park.
After a good night’s sleep in a camp on the banks of the Kosi river a few kilometers away from the park we made our way back inside again the next day. The second day was almost similar to the first, except for the absence of fog making visibility much better. As if to confirm this we were immediately greeted by an Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) sprinting away. A short drive on we encountered a Stork-Billed Kingfisher (Halcyon capensis). A short distance away from the Kingfisher our new guide for the day pointed out someone staring at us fixedly from a lone branch of a dried tree with his intense amber eyes. It was an Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides). Immediately after that we saw what I later tentatively identified as a male Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) but without the distinctive white shoulder and an eclipse male Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja). As we passed a grassland a streak of yellow flashed in the skies above us. We craned our necks and were rewarded with the sight of a magnificent bird soaring away on its huge gold edged wings outstretched flat against the pale blue sky. It was a beautiful sight. Too late I remembered my camera. I clicked a couple of shots but they did not come close to doing justice to the majesty of the Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis).
All in all it was a good morning birding-wise. But the rest of the day was no slouch either, with sightings of more Grey Bushchats impressively perched on extremely thin stalks of jungle grass, a group of White Wagtails (Motacilla alba) hopping on the edges of a stream, a Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) searching for food in another stream, and a lone White-Throated Kingfisher (H. smyrnensis) sitting patiently on a branch above the same stream waiting perhaps for a fish to appear. The best part though was hearing the high pitched but melodic cui-cui-cui call of a Changeable Hawk Eagle (Spizaetus cirrhatus) in the air around us, its subsequent sudden appearance drinking water from a small stream a few minutes later and holding still long enough for me to reel off a series of shots of it slaking its thirst.
As we drove around the park still in search of what increasingly seemed like a mythical tiger we saw a good variety of big animal life too over the two days. Tarai Grey Langurs (Semnopithecus hector) were hanging around in the trees chattering among themselves, the white fur on their long prehensile tails glinting under the weak winter sunlight. A family of Indian Sambars (Cervus unicolor) eyed us warily as we slowly passed them. A pair of Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) were grooming on a tree while below them another one glared and bared its teeth at me as I pointed my camera at him. Groups of Spotted Deer (Axis axis) greeted us at every corner of the park. Elsewhere, a solitary Indian Sambar was busy desperately trying to break its antlers against the side of a tree.
Towards the very end of the day as if rewarding us for our patience we spied a magnificent tusker (Elephas maximus indicus) that was slowly walking along the same track our jeep was on. We stopped first, turned the jeep around to flee at a moment’s notice if needed and waited. The elephant continued walking towards us for a while longer as if willing us to leave. When we did not budge he stopped about 40 feet away and observed us patiently. He seemed to be wondering whether to bother with the headache of charging us. In the end I guess he decided otherwise as he veered off the track into the trees and headed to the small stream we had just passed to drink some water and splash himself.
Spirits lifted, in spite of the tiger no show, we raced back to the gate in the gathering gloom but not before we spotted a dark-colored vulture sitting still like a sentinel silhouetted against the western sky on a tree.
Ever since the growth of the so called ‘multiplex cinema’ it has been fashionable among some quarters to keep stating at regular intervals that the Hindi film industry has finally come of age. In other words, the Hindi film industry has finally shed its insane plots and acquired a global persona that everyone from San Francisco to Sydney can relate to. For a long time I believed that to be mostly empty hype. Having seen Dev.D yesterday changed my opinion. If a crazy, beautiful, hilarious, sad, mad, ugly beast of a film like this could get made in the context of mainstream cinema and receive a wide release then indeed Hindi cinema has come of age like no other language cinema of India I know of has.
Anurag Kashyap always had a reputation as a talented and controversial director and through Dev.D he demonstrates why he is one of the best directors Hindi cinema is lucky to possess. Saratchandra’s Bengali novel ‘Devdas’ has been a perennial favorite among Indian film directors with as many as 9 versions already made using it as a source. Kashyap’s film is anything but faithful to the novel. Along with co-writer Vikramaditya Motwane he twists, bludgeons, and mutates the novel into a contemporary setting. He wisely avoids going the melodrama way like other directors before and instead concentrates on the core, the emotional attyachar if you will, of all the central characters and especially of Dev.
Abhay Deol is steadily building his reputation as cross over cinema favorite and with this film he demonstrates why he is so good in such ‘auteur’ films. After a stunning performance in his recent ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’ he cements his indie status with a sterling modern take on Devdas.
Newcomers Mahi Gill and Kalki Koechlin are equally stunning in their roles as Paro and Chanda aka Chandramukhi. Mahi as the headstrong Paro and Koechlin as the disarmingly seductive Chanda prop up the emotional core of the film with star making turns. The transition of Koechlin, in particular, from an unconventional school girl to a professional seductress of great charm is both stunning and shocking.
What is even more remarkable is how strong Paro and Chanda are. They are completely unlike the simpering, crying-behind-closed-doors, always-waiting-for-the-hero ‘Bharatiya naris’ that you usually find on Indian film screens. Spurned brutally by Dev Paro soon moves on to her new life without a second thought or signs of weakness. Spurned by her parents and a hypocritical society Chanda soon makes a life for herself, and even if she has to sell her body and voice for that life, she does it on her own terms. I wonder what the regressive Indian right wing organizations will think of such strong characterizations?
The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is another aspect of the film that hits you with a solid fist in your visual guts. While the camera starts sedately, almost conventionally it steadily deteriorates into extremely ugly close-ups, insane time lapse sequences, flashy over saturated colors and kinetic character driven movements mimicking the emotional upheaval of the film’s central characters. The frenetic, adrenalin-infused editing needs special mention even if in certain segments of the film the edits should have been much tighter.
The soundtrack by Amit Trivedi, to put it simply, is mind blowing. It is music that grabs you by your auditory balls and just does not let go. Be it the raunchy Bihari twang overloaded but hilarious ‘Emosanal Attyachar’ or the world weary beauty of ‘Saali Kushi’ the music is an aural romp through ever shifting soundscapes.
Final word-get out and immediately drive to the nearest film theater and watch this mad fuck film. It will be a blinking benchmark on your filmy radar. And if you can, watch the film after sampling a few choice shots of vodka. Taken over and ruled completely by the film for 172 minutes your roughly surprised senses will thank you for it.
The guns have finally fallen silent. The staccato bursts of gunfire have died down. The intermittent explosions have stopped. The pigeons which flew away after every explosion have settled down. But something does not feel right. This was not like one of those bomb blasts we have been seeing with such regularity in India over the past few years. The blasts, even though extremely tragic, had a neat closure to them. But this siege was not neat. It was brutal, ugly, bloody and drawn out. To think that a dozen terrorists made the city, the country, nay even the world stand still speaks volumes both of their meticulous planning as well as of the utter failure of our security apparatus.
I’ve never liked Mumbai as a city. I’ve never lived there but while I was in college I visited it every year for four years. And every time I came away irritated by its insane (to me) rush to get somewhere, its ugly contrasts, mixed with a little envy too perhaps that Mumbai was so much more cosmopolitan than Hyderabad. I’ve always thought people made a lot of unnecessary fuss about Mumbai, its so called spirit, character and every other clichéd adjective you can think of. But this time, unlike the many tragic events before, my heart went out to Mumbai and its people. As I followed the breathless TV reporters fall over themselves to bring the rest of the world as many live images as possible of the ‘unfolding situation’ I was filled with a curious mixture of emotions. There was sadness at the needless and immense loss of life. There was multi-directional rage too, at the politicians who seem to mumble the same platitudes every time something like this happens but are soon back to their ways, of dividing this beautifully complex country to suit their narrow needs.
There was rage too at the terrorists, a helpless and hopeless sort of rage mixed with some despair. I’ve tried but I still cannot understand how someone of roughly my age can take a machine gun, walk into a hotel, into a railway station and start shooting indiscriminately. How can he look into the eyes of a woman trying to go home after visiting her relatives and shoot her in the throat? How can he separate people based on their nationality and gun them down? Try as I might I just cannot comprehend this inhumanity, this utter, deep dark hate that someone has inculcated in him. After all, he was not born with it. He was somebody’s son. He must have experienced some love. How do you go from being a human being to someone who does not blink twice before pressing the trigger and pumping bullets into fellow human beings, irrespective of whether that human being is an old man, a woman or a child? This hatred is beyond me.
And that fills me with a certain hopelessness. How do you guard against such unfathomable hatred? How do you tackle it? Will a more proactive intelligence help? Will upgrading our archaic police force into something more modern and efficient help? Perhaps those measures will help in the short term. But in the long run we have to reach out to the source of such hatred and wipe it out. Not with guns or smart bombs as so many have now begun to advocate, the ‘Israeli way’ they call it. For that will only lead to a never ending cycle of violence. But by understanding the roots of such terror and turning people away from this futile murderous orgy; through education, through alleviation of poverty, through better job prospects and through respect. For nothing blunts hatred more than happiness and peace.
(This is a true story. It really happened. Names have been changed to protect identities. Most of the conversations that form part of the narrative are based upon that most unreliable of friends-memory or from conversations after the fact so some literary license has been taken in narrating the precise sequence of events.)
A fancy red Chevrolet smoothly glided to a stop beside us as we waited for the light to turn green at the Dairy Circle cross in South Bangalore. But it was not the car that attracted our attention; it was the pulsing beat emanating from within it. An unknown song of the techno variety was playing. The bass from it throbbed intensely and seemed to overpower our heartbeats into voluntary synchronicity. It was an excellent sound system. I turned to the auto driver and said as much.
“Kya sound hai na? Mast system hai!”
“Arrey, hamare pass bhi hai boss. Main mera system lagaya tho mera auto bhi dance karne lagega!”
I smiled at the infectious enthusiasm of the driver and his obvious pride over his auto. In fact, it was a most interesting auto. Its interior was festooned with ribbons of glowing, multicolored lights so that it gave you the feeling of being in some dingy dance bar.
I did feel like dancing. What had seemed like a bleak and hopeless case initially turned around in a most dramatic fashion at the end. The many twists and turns tinged the whole week with a cinematic quality. Even now, when I look back, I marvel at the amazing adventure it became in the end.
Like most things in life, it started in an innocuous fashion and can be traced back to my insistence to get out of the city for the weekend. I was in Bangalore on a break and was staying with Pavan in his flat, my college friend who was working for a startup and shared the flat with two of his friends, Anand and Vishwas. I was getting bored staying alone in the flat so I kept pestering Anand to plan a weekend trip. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily in light of the events that transpired later, we soon learnt that a couple of our common friends were driving to Mysore for the weekend. They invited us to come along and we quickly decided to follow them there. So the three of us, Pavan, Anand and me took an auto from Pavan’s place to go to Brunton Cross Road to another friend’s place. The plan was to pick up a friend’s car from there and travel in that to Mysore. Pavan was in a hurry. He wanted to be in the car as soon as possible so that he could catch up with our common friends somewhere on the road to Mysore. We quickly packed and started in an auto for Brunton Road. The auto we had taken was one of those old, sputtering and whiny ones. It was going too slow to suit Pavan. So we got down opposite Shopper’s Stop on Bannerghatta Road and quickly took another auto. The auto driver of the first auto saw us take another auto and was not amused. He started cursing us. We were in too much of a hurry to pay much heed to his angry words.
The second auto was new, fast, relatively quiet and smooth. Since we were three people in the auto with two being considerably overweight there was not much space for us to sit comfortably. So Pavan asked me to keep his bag behind us in the luggage space of the auto. His bag contained my Macbook Pro laptop apart from his wallet, cell phone, money, clothes and some documents. I was carrying my camera bag; a constant companion while Anand was carrying his own bag. The rest of the auto ride was uneventful. We braved the horrendous Bangalore traffic and reached our friend’s place on Brunton Cross road. We got off the auto and I started taking out money to pay the fare. In the meantime, Pavan and Anand started asking the auto driver for directions to get to Mysore Road from where we were. The auto driver seemed helpful. I paid him. We then climbed to the second floor flat of our friend to pick up the car keys. We drank some water, checked out the flat, locked it and then climbed down to the garage. We got into the car we had come to pick up. I got into the back seat and Anand, who would be driving, gave me his bag to keep it in the back. Pavan, who was sitting next to him, asked me to keep his bag too in the back.
“What bag?” I asked him.
“My bag re. Don’t you have it?”
“No, I thought you were carrying it.”
Pavan turned to me with a shocked face and cursed in a loud voice.
“Shit! It’s still in the auto man.”
Our lives were not the same after that. We all took a deep breath and considered our options.
“Ok, the auto would not have gone far so let’s go looking for him,” said Pavan.
“Alright, we might have also forgotten it in the flat upstairs so let me go up and check and you two go look for the auto on the road,” I suggested.
Anand and Pavan left in the car while I went upstairs to look for the bag with a thin and already fading hope.
There was no bag in the flat. I went back downstairs and waited for my friends to come back. The laptop was a recent acquisition and as such I should not have had much attachment to it but even though I hated to admit it to myself I had fallen in love with Apple’s sleek design. It was also bought from money that I had saved by foregoing some luxuries and healthy food! And that made the loss acute.
Anand and Pavan returned soon after and one look at their faces told me the full story. We decided to search again over a larger area, as the auto shouldn’t have gone all that far. So I got into the car and we set off. We looked at every auto along the way hoping against hope to find the auto we had taken. As we searched, I asked Pavan to use my phone and call his mobile that was in the bag. There was a chance that the auto driver might hear the phone and answer it. Pavan’s phone kept ringing and ringing for about five minutes before we got the dreaded message. His phone was switched off!
Pavan apparently also had an unknown amount of dollars in the same pocket where his phone was present. We realized that once the auto driver heard the phone ringing in the bag and opened it he must have found the dollars and then the laptop and decided to keep them.
Unfortunately, honesty is in such short supply in contemporary India that whatever little hope we had entertained of the auto driver answering our call shattered in an instant once we heard the message that the phone was switched off.
Still, we searched for the auto all along M.G. Road, Brigade Road and Ashok Nagar but to no avail. We went back to our friend’s place to ask the caretaker of the building if in case the auto driver had returned. The answer was negative.
With a heavy heart we made our way to the nearby Ashok Nagar police station. There we talked to a young Sub Inspector (SI) named Mohan. Mohan listened to our sorry tale and asked us some questions.
“Do you have the auto number?”
“Do you have the police serial number or DL number of the auto driver?
“Do you at least have the name and address of the auto driver?”
“Not exactly sir but we remember reading the license display board of the driver and remember his name and the locality he lives in.”
“(Smiling) What is this sir? Without the auto number or police serial number there is no way to trace the auto. You can register a complaint but to be frank I suggest you stop hoping. 99% of the auto drivers in Bangalore are corrupt. It is next to impossible that you will find the bag now. For your satisfaction I’ll ask the constable to send out a wireless message just in case the auto driver has returned the bag at a police station.”
“You know you should change your T-shirt,” said the SI pointing at Pavan’s t-shirt, which mocked the iPod frenzy at that time with a drawing of a toilet and iPooed printed above it. “These things will happen to you if you wear such sarcastic T-shirts.”
We thanked the SI for his reality check, for stating the obvious and for his gratuitous advice and went and registered our complaint. The constable who registered our complaint was properly shocked upon hearing that we had forgotten our bag in an auto but he also repeated whatever the SI had said and asked us in future to note down the police serial number of any auto we got into or at least take a photo with a cell phone of the license display board. All good advice but which came a little late in the day to help us.
With our hopes slipping by the minute we decided to follow the advice given by a traffic inspector we had met in front of Garuda Mall before coming to the police station to register our complaint. There is a database of all Bangalore auto drivers at the DCP (traffic) East office, Shivaji Nagar Bus Stop. The inspector had suggested that we try our luck there with the limited information we remembered of the auto driver.
So we made our way across town to the DCP office. But by the time we battled through the traffic and made our way there it was already 6 pm, well past closing time. The person who managed the database was long gone. Another person offered to help and with his assistance we managed to narrow our search and get a few addresses based on the auto driver’s name and locality. We were asked to return the next day to seek formal permission from the DCP to resume our search for a needle in a haystack.
I had been harboring some hope still until I saw the sheer size of the auto driver database. There were over one lakh auto drivers in Bangalore at that time! Finding just one in that huge database based on our limited information seemed a Herculean task, an almost impossible exercise in sheer futility. The faces of my friends also bore the same signs of despair as if they were thinking along the same lines.
By the time we got to the DCP office in the afternoon he was long gone. So we spent another fruitless day searching the database and jotting down a few more addresses. We even made our way to the police station in the vain hope that there had been some breakthrough overnight. Our expectations were set right soon. It was time to call it a day, head home and drown our sorrows at the bottom of a beer bottle.
I made my way to the DCP office again and finally managed to meet the DCP. He listened to my tale of woe with grave concern and agreed to give me permission to go through the database at my leisure. But the catch was that I could not take any printouts. I could note down as many addresses as I wanted but sorry, no permission to take printouts. I spent the rest of the morning coming up with more addresses by refining my search parameters for the auto driver’s database which was in the form of an excel sheet. There were photographs too of the auto drivers. However, photos existed only for those auto drivers who had registered or renewed their details within the last 3 years. As luck would have it, none of the potential candidates we had narrowed down had a photograph.
Now, our plan was simple if very tedious and highly hopeful. With the addresses in hand and taking a police constable along we wanted to go knocking on doors in the hopes of somehow ferreting out the auto driver.
Tuesday morning was bright and cool unlike our rapidly diminishing levels of patience. Day after day, going from one end of the city to another was taking its toll. Pavan and I started snapping at each other over small things. Pavan was missing work just when he had an important product release around the corner. I did not have much to do in life then but I did not know Kannada and nor did I know Bangalore enough to do the running around on my own. Still, since this would be the day of knocking on strange doors both of us made our way to the Ashok Nagar police station again to meet SI Mohan. But he was not around. We learnt that the state assembly was in session so he was on that security detail. After waiting for an hour for the SI, we almost gave up and left but the Chief Inspector (CI) suddenly turned up. We met him and explained everything that had happened and requested him to send a constable with us. Surprisingly, he agreed without making any fuss. A constable in mufti from the crime section was assigned to us. Together, we set off to another end of the city-Magadi Road.
Magadi was a chaotic and crowded locality that can be found in any fast growing city in India. Small houses built in a haphazard manner clustered around narrow lanes. As it was early afternoon there were not many people on the streets. As we walked through the locality, we could see through open doorways women preparing the afternoon meal. Our first address was supposed to be in one of the inside lanes but no one could tell where the house was located exactly. A shopkeeper pointed us in one direction but our house number did not even exist in that direction. Someone else directed us elsewhere. We wandered deep into the locality, into lanes we would never see in our life again. People stared at us curiously. We were obviously outsiders. No one wanders in the middle of the afternoon with sheets of paper asking for non-existent addresses. We soon realized that the first address did not exist and moved on to the second.
In one narrow lane we found children in green uniforms playing games. Their cries and laughter gave life to an otherwise deserted street. This lane was where our second address should be located. We walked past the school children to find a father just dropping off his daughter from school at home. The mother was standing in the doorway wearing a nightdress. She was laughing. I was captivated by the brightness of her laughter, her easy happiness. We stopped before them. This was the house. This was the second address on our list but the father did not seem to be an auto driver. The constable spoke to him.
“We are looking for this driver named G.”
“There is no one living with that name here. There is an auto driver living in the house behind us but his name is not G and in any case he drives a goods auto. Why do you ask?” the girl’s father asked.
As we were talking two more people joined us. The constable explained why we were there. Instantly, all of them opened up and offered more suggestions. None of them were practical. Our last little hope was crumbling before our very eyes. As warned by the DCP traffic office earlier, the auto drivers of Bangalore were not known for providing accurate home addresses.
It was 1 pm and all of us were hungry. It was hot. The third address was on the other side of Magadi Road. We decided to break for lunch and resume our half-hearted search. We started walking towards a restaurant we had seen on the main road.
This is when things turned. It was not a clear change. It did not offer any clarity at that time. Nevertheless, we were climbing a crest even if we did not know it then. My phone started ringing. It was Anand, excited and speaking rapidly.
“I got a call from somebody. He claims to have the bag and laptop!”
“Wait…wait…slow down. Who is he? How did he get your number?”
“From Pavan’s cell phone. My name is the first one in his contacts list. Anyway, he has given me a number and asked Pavan to call him back.”
I took down the number. This was a new development. We were more curious than hopeful. Pavan took my phone and called the number. Someone picked up and started speaking in Kannada in an authoritative manner.
“May I know who is this?” asked Pavan.
“Our names are irrelevant. Do you own the green colored bag and laptop?” replied Mr. Kannada.
So there was more than one person involved.
“Yes. Do you have it?”
“Yes. Do you want it back?”
“Then take down this number and call it. That person will give you further instructions.”
Pavan took down the phone number and hung up. The constable looked amused. I was confused but a tiny sliver of hope started to wave its hands. Pavan called the other number. Someone speaking in Hindi picked up the phone. He was calling from Mumbai and tried to speak like a cool and benevolent Bollywood don.
“Who is this?” asked Mr. Mumbai
“I’m one who lost the bag and laptop. I was asked to call you,” replied Pavan politely.
“Achha, achha, so tell me do you want the bag and laptop or not?”
“Of course, bhaiyya. Do you have it?”
“Yes, I do. Since I’ll be returning them to you, you know, I expect something from you in return.”
“No problem bhaiyya. Tell me how much you need.”
“No, you tell me. You know the value of your belongings so it is best that you come up with whatever you think is right.”
Pavan looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I held up five fingers.
“How about five thousand?”
“Nah, nah that is too low. I can easily get more for the laptop if I sell it. You see I’m a decent person. I’m offering to give it back to you instead of selling or throwing it away. You have to consider my position too.”
“Achha, so you tell me bhaiyya. How much do you want?”
“I think 30,000 rupees would be right,” Mr. Mumbai said coolly.
“Arrey, that is too much bhaiyya. We are not that rich. Please think of us too. Let us settle on 10,000.”
“No that is still too low. There is no profit for me in that. I’ve promised to pay the person who brought me the bag 5,000 so that will leave only 5,000 for me. Too small. Too small. I can sell the laptop and get more.”
Pavan looked at me again. I signaled that 15,000 is fine but that would be the maximum. We were haggling with a thief like we were buying vegetables.
“Ok, bhaiyya, let us make it 15,000. Please accept. That is the maximum we can go. You have to consider our situation too. We only want the laptop back because it has important data on it.”
“Ok, ok, 15,000 is ok for me,” he said as if granting us a big favor.
“How does this work then? Where can we meet?” asked Pavan.
“No, no meeting. That is too risky for me. You will call the police. I’ll give you a bank account number. Tomorrow morning, you deposit this money in the account and in the evening I’ll check with the bank. If the money has been deposited I’ll send someone with the bag to your house.”
“That is too risky bhaiyya. What if you run away with the money after we deposit it? We have no way of being sure. Please meet us and we can do the exchange in person. I promise we will not call the police. We do not need the headache,” said Pavan.
The constable who was carefully trying to listen to the conversation seemed amused.
“No, you will say like that only. We have to do this way only. Take down the account number!” commanded Mr. Mumbai
Pavan noted down the account number, promised to tell him about the payment next morning and hung up. All three of us stared at each other. Pavan and I were in equal parts relieved, disgusted and angry. The constable had a smirk on his face as if he saw cases like this all the time. We continued walking towards the restaurant. Over plates of steaming dosas we discussed our options. The popular opinion was not to trust Mr. Mumbai. What if after we transferred the money he simply vanished? We had no leverage. He was simply holding all the cards.
This was almost the same advice we got from my uncle later that evening. I had talked to my parents in the afternoon and explained the situation. My father in turn had talked to his close friend, my uncle-Mr M, who was part of the Indian Civil Services and held a senior position in ISRO. On my father’s suggestion, I had called him up to explain the situation. He asked us to do our best to hold off or make alternate plans while he made some calls.
Pavan called up Mr Mumbai again and explained our position. He requested him to change his mind and look at our situation. But Mr Mumbai was a stubborn man. He refused to budge from his position of not meeting in person. Finally, after haggling for thirty minutes Pavan came up with a mutually acceptable compromise. The new plan was to arrange a simultaneous exchange. A friend of Pavan’s would meet Mr Mumbai in Bombay and hand over the money while at the same time the bag and laptop would be handed over to us in Bangalore.
Pavan started calling his friends in Bombay and late in the night got hold of one. Balu was not entirely convinced that he should get involved with some plan straight out of an underworld film. I did not blame him. He needed some convincing. Slowly, he came around even though he still had a lot of reservation about the whole plan. There ended a long day. A day that brought back a little hope into our lives even if it was mixed with much frustration.
Wednesday morning came with a fresh problem. Apparently, Mr Mumbai wanted Balu to meet him somewhere deep in Dadar at some shady spot and nowhere else. Again, he refused to meet anywhere else. Understandably, Balu was reluctant to venture into unknown territory to meet someone whose name we did not even know. Pavan called Mr Mumbai again hoping to make him meet Balu somewhere in the middle of Mumbai in a crowded place but Mr Mumbai would not budge one inch. It was Dadar or nowhere else. He was also getting exasperated over the delay in consummating the deal. In the end he suggested a compromise. He asked us to transfer 10,000 into his bank account and the remaining 5,000 we would have to hand over to his contact when that person gave us the bag.
Soon after Mr Mumbai’s call my uncle called to tell us that through an IAS friend of his he had managed to get us an appointment with the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Crime of Bangalore at 11:30 am the same day. Hurriedly, the three of us made our way to the DCP’s office where we met my uncle.
After waiting for a few minutes we were ushered into the DCP’s presence. It was a big room with a high ceiling. The usual portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hung on the wall behind the DCP. The DCP himself was dressed simply but he radiated a quiet air of authority. Once you were in his presence you got the feeling that here was a man who could get things done.
After we had made our introductions we began to explain what had happened in chronological fashion. He listened to us intently, interrupting us occasionally to clarify a detail in our sometimes disjointed narrative and made a note of all the crucial points. He then made some quick phone calls and assembled a team consisting of an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), a CI and our SI, Mohan. I still remember the shock that registered on the SI’s face when he realized that we had somehow managed to reach all the way to the top of the police establishment when he saw us in the DCP’s office once he came in. The assembling of the team took some time as all three were based in different police stations of the city. We waited in the room while the DCP met other people. Once the team was assembled the DCP briefed the three about the case and had this to say in the end to them.
“This is a simple case. We have cell phone numbers and a bank account. So all you need to do is make a good plan and move quickly. If you plan well this case should be solved soon. Good luck gentlemen.”
The DCP then turned to us and introduced the three policemen.
“All three are very good policemen. They are young and dynamic and they will help you with everything. Please give them all the details, stay in touch with them and I’m pretty sure they will crack this case.”
With that our meeting came to an end and all of us filed out of the room.
The ACP was busy with another case so he talked to us briefly and asked us to give all the details to Inspector Purohit. We sat down with Inspector Purohit and SI Mohan, narrated our story yet another time and gave him all the details. The Inspector was laconic but also radiated an air of efficiency. Unlike the SI who always talked to us with a smirk on his face the Inspector was all business. He directed the SI to get the Call Detail Records (CDRs) for the cell phone numbers of Mr Mumbai, Mr Kannada as well as Pavan’s cell phone, which was in the missing bag. He also promised to send someone to Mr Mumbai’s bank to make discreet enquiries about the bank account number he had given us. He advised us to record the phone calls from Mr Mumbai and anyone else connected with the case by installing special software on our mobiles. We exchanged phone numbers. He asked us to keep him updated of any developments. He assured us that he would do the same and also promised that the case would be solved soon.
To be frank, we were not entirely happy about the new direction the case had taken. We had seen too many films where involvement with the police usually meant immediate disaster and long-term headache. The police are not exactly known for their efficiency and honesty. There were the warnings and threats of Mr Mumbai too. He had warned us that contacting the police would result in the immediate destruction of the laptop and disappearance of the bag and its contents. Yes, he had threatened us too that if the police got to him through us he would make sure that we would be ‘taken care’ of. It was too late. Whether we liked it or not the police were involved and for once we decided to trust them.
Pavan and Anand pushed off to work. It was lunchtime. My uncle decided that we should have lunch together. Since I hadn’t had breakfast I concurred with him. Instead of a restaurant he suggested we go have lunch with a junior IAS colleague of his from Andhra Pradesh who was posted in the Karnataka waterworks department. It was a pleasant lunch initially but it soon turned into an interminable discussion about the inner workings of the Indian bureaucracy and the increasing effects of globalization and privatization on it. Once my uncle got a rhythm going it was difficult to make him stop. He held forth on various projects he had worked on, how efficient even a small African country, in which he had worked for close to a decade on deputation, was compared to India and so on and so forth. I could see that his colleague, who was soft spoken, was getting bored too. I decided it was time to leave. After thanking my uncle for all his help I took their leave and headed for Pavan’s office. There, Anand and I spent the evening trawling the net for phone call recording software. We managed to find one that worked on our phones through some forum. It was cracked software. The irony of the situation, using cracked software to record extortion phone calls, did not escape my attention. Moral quibbling was put aside for the selfish need to get our belongings back. We returned home tired after yet another long day.
Later that night all hell broke loose.
It started with a phone call from an agitated Mr Mumbai. He began accusing us of speaking to the police and setting them after him. He threatened us again with dire consequences. Someone from the bank had come to his house! We were as shocked as him. The inquiries at his bank by the police should have been discreet. Something had gone wrong somewhere. Pavan recovered from the shock quickly and managed to soothe Mr Mumbai’s frayed nerves (Pavan was the one who talked to him always). He assured him that we had never approached the police and had no intention of doing that. We had no idea how or why someone from the bank had come to make enquiries at his address. Pavan again asked him to trust us and assured him that we would pay the money as agreed.
As Pavan was calming down Mr Mumbai on my phone (which was used for almost all conversations) Anand got a call on his phone from Mr Kannada to add another twist to our already complicated story. Mr Kannada claimed that he and some others were coming down from Bombay with the bag and laptop. They wanted us to meet them in Bangalore the next day. They would hand over everything to us and all they wanted in return was a refund of their travel expenses. They made no mention of the 15,000 payment. It was obvious that all of them were nervous and scared. Mr Mumbai again threatened to throw away the bag and laptop if we talked to the police. As both phone calls were happening simultaneously I ran from one phone to another trying to keep track of a fast changing situation. Both calls were being recorded.
The calls ended on a hopeful note finally. Mr Kannada and friends wanted to meet us the next day at a place outside the city (they refused to meet us in the city). Mr Mumbai asked us to coordinate with Mr Kannada and friends for the handover. Even he dropped the demand for money. He asked us to give whatever we thought was appropriate to them.
With that we finally ate and went to bed. We had no way of knowing then how long the next day would eventually turn out to be.
Thursday morning started early with an unexpected wake up call. It was Mr Kannada and friends. They wanted us to set off then and there and meet them somewhere on the other end of the city. They asked us to get out of the house immediately, get into an auto, call them and then give the phone to the auto driver. They would reveal the exact location for the handover only to the auto driver. Of course, there was no way we would set off immediately to some unknown place outside the city. We delayed. From then on they started calling every half an hour wanting to know whether we had started off or not.
In between bargaining with them for more time I called the ACP and explained the situation to him. He asked us to delay the meeting as much as possible so that it would give him time to organize a police team and autos. He also asked me to get in touch with Inspector Purohit. I called him up as well and explained the situation. He asked us to delay the meet until 11:30 am and asked us to meet the police team he would assemble at a hotel on Mysore Road. The next time Mr Kannada called we asked for time citing distance and traffic as issues and managed to fix the meeting at 11:30 am.
We set off immediately to meet the police team. After battling through the interminable traffic we reached the hotel. The police team was already there, waiting for us. All of them were in mufti. There was SI Mohan looking like an executive with one of the tech companies in his jeans, a laptop bag hanging by his side and sunglasses shielding his eyes. There were two constables from the Anti-Terrorist Cell (ATC), two from Inspector Purohit’s police station and another constable who was dressed as an auto driver. They had also arranged two autos to take us to the meeting point. We learnt from SI Mohan that Inspector Purohit had already left for the meeting point area in his jeep.
After brief introductions were made all around we called Mr Kannada and gave the phone to the policeman acting as an auto driver. He gave him the exact location for the meeting point. It would be a lane next to a half finished apartment complex right on the edge of the city. The autos were started and we piled into the autos. Pavan, Anand and SI Mohan went into the first auto with the policeman disguised as an auto driver along with the actual auto driver. In the second auto were the two constables from Inspector’s Purohit’s police station sitting on either side of me. The two ATC constables went ahead on a bike. In this procession we set off. As we were already on the outskirts of the city there was less traffic and we made rapid progress. The hunt was on!
There was not much excitement though. I was more curious about what would happen than excited. I had no idea where we were going so I stared out of the auto looking at all the areas we passed through, localities with wide roads and quasi-slums with narrow streets. After about 30 minutes of driving we reached the meeting point area.
Our auto continued past the meeting point. I had a brief glimpse of an apartment complex with bare cement walls. We went down the road for another hundred meters and stopped by the side of the road. The constables asked me not to get out of the auto. Fortunately, I had a clear view of the road behind me through the small window behind the auto. The ATC constables had stopped behind us on the same side as the meeting point. They got down and one of the constables immediately bent down beside the engine of the bike and acted as if he was trying to fix something on the bike. The first auto had stopped at the meeting point minus the policeman disguised as an auto driver who got down before reaching the meeting point.
It is strange but at that time as I sat in the auto all alone all I felt was boredom and a mild curiosity about what was happening at the meeting point. I was completely cut off from my friends and whatever was happening to them. I did not even have my cell phone as I had given it to Pavan before we all set off for the meeting point. Even if I had had a cell phone nothing would have changed as we were instructed by the police to not make any unnecessary phone calls. I guess in a way I wished I was there at the meeting point instead of my friends but as Pavan and Anand had been the ones who had talked to the various people in this drama who claimed to have the bag throughout, it had been decided that they would be the ones present at the meeting point. Whatever happened at the meeting point I pieced together from conversations I had later with Pavan, Anand and the SI.
My friends and the SI got down from their auto in front of the apartment complex and walked to a small tea shop that stood at the mouth of a lane beside the complex. After a few minutes three men approached them from the lane. All three were in their mid twenties. One was wearing a blue shirt, another was wearing an orange colored t-shirt and the third was wearing a striped shirt. Orange shirt walked up to my friends and asked them in a low tone in Kannada, “Are you here for the bag?”
“Yes,” replied Anand.
“But you are not the third person in the auto that day”, said Blue shirt looking closely at SI Mohan.
“No, he is my brother,” interrupted Anand, “I brought him because you are all strangers. You can’t expect us to come alone to some unknown place to meet you people.”
“Ok, ok, no problem. Did you get the money?”
“Where is the bag?” asked Anand.
“The bag is down the road. You give me the money and I’ll send two boys with the bag.”
“Sorry boss. Give us the bag and we will hand over the money. See here, we have brought the money.”
Anand showed them the money I had given earlier to Pavan and him.
“Since we have come so far to a place of your choosing you will have to do this one thing our way. You give us the bag and we will give you the money.”
The three conferred among themselves and agreed to get the bag. In the meantime, our auto had crossed over to the opposite side. One of the constables left the auto and walked to a tiffin shop a little way ahead. A couple of minutes later he rushed to us barely able to contain his excitement and exclaimed in hushed tones to the other constable,
“There are two kids ahead walking with a bag,” he said.
“Where?” asked the other constable.
“They are coming out of that lane.”
He pointed to a lane that ran parallel to the lane where my friends were. The second constable looked and immediately his eyes lit up. As I was still inside the auto I could not see anything. The first constable rushed into the auto and waited impatiently for the auto to start. The second constable admonished his junior colleague and asked him to keep his cool. Our auto started up the road towards the meeting point. As we passed the lane the constable had referred to I saw two kids carrying a white plastic bag between them. Peeking out of it was Pavan’s green bag!
I alerted the constables on either side of me and confirmed that the kids were indeed carrying our bag. By that time we were about to pass the meeting point. Suddenly, both the constables raised their hands to hold the rod that ran over the auto under the roof. They were blocking my face so that no one at the meeting point could see me. After we passed the meeting point the constables made our auto driver turn into an empty compound. As soon as we stopped the senior constable called up one of the ATC constables and informed him about the two kids with the bag walking towards the meeting spot.
Meanwhile, at the meeting point, Blue shirt, who seemed to be a sharp fellow, had seen our auto pass by slowly and asked Anand in a suspicious tone, “Did you bring the police with you? We warned you what would happen if you did.”
“Arrey, relax. We did not bring the police with us. Now will you get the bag or not?” asked Anand in return maintaining his cool.
“The bag is on its way. It will be here soon.”
The two boys carrying them soon came into view. Behind them were the two ATC constables and the constable who had acted as an auto driver.
Suddenly, someone yelled ‘lock’ in a loud voice. Immediately, the SI and the constables fell on everyone. The constables next to me bolted as soon as they heard the code word. The ATC constables caught Striped shirt and one of the kids immediately. The other constable took hold of the bag. Orange shirt ran down into the lane of the meeting point. SI Mohan set off after him. The second kid ran down the lane and tried to disappear into the area behind the empty compound where I was sitting in the auto.
SI Mohan was in hot pursuit of Orange shirt. The latter ran down the lane and turned left. It was a dead-end! Before he could figure out what to do next the SI came around the corner with a gun in his hand.
“Bastard! Stop! If you try to run I’ll put one bullet into you.”
Orange shirt froze immediately. SI Mohan went up to him and gave him a hard slap across his face. All resistance vanished and a look of utter despair crossed his face.
The first constable from my auto had set off after the second kid. The latter tried hard but he couldn’t outclass an experienced policeman. He too was caught soon and got one hard bonk on his head for his efforts. Tears started immediately and he started pleading with the constable to let him go as he did not know anything. The constable was not moved. He shoved the kid forward towards the meeting point where all the arrested were gathered. They were then shoved into the autos we had come in. Orange shirt refused to get in. With another slap across his face and a punch in his stomach he was bundled into the auto where he doubled up in pain.
It suddenly dawned on everyone that in the chaos Blue shirt had escaped. He was last seen running down the main road. Inspector Purohit who was stationed down the road was immediately alerted. The ATC constables also set off in pursuit.
We waited by the tea shop as SI Mohan recovered from his pursuit. He gasped for breath, sweat streamed off his forehead as he gulped huge amounts of air. In spite of his obvious discomfort he was excited. As excited as a teenager who gets to drive his dad’s car for the first time. It was obvious that this was the first time he had been involved in a chase. Between huge gulps for air he recounted his adventure.
“Boss, you should have seen him running but as soon as I pointed my gun at him he almost pissed in his pants. Did you see Black Friday?” He did not wait for an answer as he continued, “this was just like that chase between the inspector and the terrorist in the film!”
Meanwhile, down the road, the hunt was on for Blue shirt. He had disappeared somewhere. The police were searching the area trying to flush him out. As we were waiting my cell phone began to ring. It was Mr Mumbai!
Pavan answered. For a second he did not recognize the voice on the other end for it had changed so much in tone. Gone was the swagger and confidence replaced by fear and uncertainty.
“Udhar kya hora bhai? Mujhe Blue shirt ka phone nahi lag raha.”
“I don’t know bhaiyaa. He has gone somewhere down the road,” Pavan replied.
“You have called the police right. I know. Please don’t make a case. Please talk to them.”
“No bhaiyya. Nothing of that sort has happened. He has gone to get the bag.”
“No, you are lying. Blue shirt’s mobile is switched off. This has not happened before. Please, please, talk to the police. Here someone else wants to talk to you.”
A woman started speaking. She requested the same thing as Mr Mumbai. To talk to the police and convince them not to make a case. Pavan mumbled something and hung up.
All of a sudden the policemen sprang to life. Inspector Purohit’s jeep was coming towards us. In the back was Blue shirt.
The Inspector informed us that upon seeing the policemen searching for him in a colony down the road he came out of a lane and started running down the main road dodging cars and lorries. Inspector Purohit noticed him almost immediately and chased after him in his jeep. Man was no match against machine and he was soon caught.
It had been a successful outing for the police. Within about a day of being on the case they had managed to nab all the culprits. They were smiles all around.
Even the normally reserved Inspector could not suppress a smirk as he handed over the bag to us and asked us if we were happy. We mumbled our gratitude. He asked us to check the bag to see if everything was in order. Everything was except for about $70 that belonged to Pavan. Even Pavan’s cell phone was recovered from Blue shirt who had been using it to call us. It was minus Pavan’s sim card though. While trying to escape, Blue shirt had taken the sim card out and thrown it away.
It was late afternoon by then. The sun was beating down on all of us. Suddenly, everyone was in a hurry to get back to the city. The five culprits were handcuffed and piled into the back of the Inspector’s jeep along with the two constables who had been with me. The inspector sat in front while SI Mohan and the three of us squeezed into the middle seat. After paying the two auto drivers who had assisted the police in the operation we set off for the Ashok Nagar police station.
It was the quiet after a storm. Everyone was in a reflective mood.
“Crime is such a fascinating subject. The deeper I go the more I’m surprised. You can spend hours studying it but what you encounter in the real world will be nothing like what you expected,” Inspector Purohit observed in the voice of a man who had seen everything.
He lapsed into silence again. We thanked him and the SI again for their prompt help and successful conclusion to the case.
“Oh, do not thank us. Thank the DSP. It is because of him only that this has happened. He is a dynamic man. A great man. He gets things done,” he said.
We reached SI Mohan’s police station. The culprits were taken to rooms at the back of the station. We were asked to wait in the cabin of SI Mohan. Suddenly, there came the sound of a loud whoosh.
It was immediately followed by a heart-rending cry. After that, blow after blow rained down on the different culprits in quick sucession. They cried and pleaded but all to no avail. The blows continued to find their mark. Shrieks of agony reverberated around the station. A hush descended on the rest of the policemen in the station. To say that we were shocked would be an understatement. We knew the culprits were guilty. We had cursed them a hundred times over the past few days for their dishonesty and greed but in that moment when we heard them plead like animals to be spared from the pain we sat in shocked silence as a wave of sympathy washed over us. Pavan was ready to bolt. He had enough of the whole thing. After informing the SI he left.
The ‘interrogation’ continued for some more time. All the gaps in the case were filled. We soon learnt that the whole plan was the handiwork of Blue shirt who was also Mr Kannada along with Orange shirt and Striped shirt, auto driver buddies of his. In fact, Blue shirt was the auto driver in whose auto we had forgotten the bag. He had sold Pavan’s dollars as well. That left Mr Mumbai. Who was he? What was his role in this whole drama? SI Mohan casually told us that Mr Mumbai was in fact Blue shirt’s brother and was studying in Bombay.
Anand and I could not leave even though it was late evening by then. We had to file a formal complaint. The police refused point blank to go easy and not make a big case out of the whole thing. “They have to be a taught a lesson” was the common refrain. But the real reason was something else. It was a successful case that they could proudly enter into their books and show off to their superiors. After all success rate in such cases was woefully low. They had even managed to trace the foreign exchange dealer to whom Blue shirt had sold the dollars and made him pay us back the money. The constables involved would be getting commendations. We could not stand in their way as they basked in the golden glow of success. What if the case ran for another 3 years? What if the culprits including the child were booked under potentially severe IPC sections like extortion? What if we had to attend the court 3 or 4 years down the line when the summons came keeping every article from the bag unchanged? It was part of the process. It was the law.
The bag and its contents would not be released to us immediately as they were evidence. We were asked to come the next day and file an application with the court to release them.
Friday came with a bang. Five in fact spread throughout Bangalore. I narrowly missed one of the blast sites as I was supposed to pass through Richmond circle at the time of the blast on my way to the police station. An upset stomach saved me from whatever might have been in store for me. As I lay in bed and watched the news channels go overboard I saw one after the other all the players from our case appear on TV. There, on one channel was the DSP on the phone reassuring everybody that the police were in control. There, on another channel was the ACP overseeing the clues team. And there, on yet another channel was Inspector Purohit photographing the blast sites with his cell phone.
If our case had stretched just by one extra day there was no way these policemen would have worked on our case. The blasts would have wiped out all hope of recovery. Life sometimes is such a study in selfishness and coincidence.
I suddenly remembered a short conversation I had with the inspector the day before as we were going back to the police station after nabbing the culprits. In the course of other small talk I had asked him on how he would rate the Bangalore police in comparison to other Indian state police. Without missing a beat he had answered, “Oh, we are the best.”
To get the bag released by the court I had to run around for another few days. More applications were written. More forms were filled. More challans were paid in government banks. More running around the court constable who needed money to move the file.
Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, I got the bag and everything in it, including my ‘precious laptop’. An attention lapse of two minutes had cost all of us so much. Especially the people who were caught. Their life would be living hell as their families made endless rounds of police stations and courtrooms to get them released. If only Blue shirt had handed over the bag as soon as he found it in his auto instead of planning an elaborate extortion game. If only honesty held more value in contemporary India. If only the yawning and ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots could be bridged in a humane manner. If only…
As I left the police station and soon Bangalore I was reminded once again of Inspector Purohit’s apt observation.
“Crime is such a fascinating subject. The deeper I go the more I’m surprised. You can spend hours studying it but what you encounter in the real world will be nothing like what you expected.”