Berlin Diary I

Late last year, I received an ARThink South Asia Fellowship from the Goethe Institut for the year 2011-12. One of the components of the fellowship is that I get to go to Germany and work with a cultural institution of my choice to gain some first hand experience on how art institutions are run. So this is where I’m at now. For the next 4-5 weeks I’ll be based in Berlin. I’ll be on a secondment with a documentary film production company called Loupe for 3 weeks and for the remaining week and in between will be trying to meet people in the photography field.

During the time I’m in Berlin I’m supposed to record observations of my time and learning here so for the next one month this is what I’ll be doing, hopefully on a regular basis. And now, after this explanatory prologue, the first installment follows:

So after all the last minute hassles I made it to Berlin after two tiring flights with a stopover in Helsinki (see photo). Dog tired due to the lack of sleep and the bad seats I got on the flights so feeling slightly numb now even though coming back to Germany should have been a little emotional.

As an aside, some of Finnair’s ground staff at the T3 New Delhi seriously need lessons in courtesy! The lady who gave me my boarding pass was rude, uncommunicative, did not give me a seat of my choice on both the flights (I was seated in the middle next to a really fat guy on the flight to Helsinki even though I asked for aisle seating on the window side) and to top it did not even inform me that I had not got my seating of choice! I only found out after I got on to the plane.

Waiting at the Helsinki Airport for a connecting flight

Moving on, for the time I’ll be in Berlin I’m sharing the flat of a German lady. It is a very nice and big place, one of those old Berlin flats with rather high ceilings having ornate work on them. The floors are wooden and make a nice creaking sound as you walk on them. The silence in the house takes a little getting used to though. I’m so used to the soothing hum of a fan while sleeping that when I was living in Germany before I bought a table fan just so I could run it for the background noise and sleep easily! I guess that won’t be possible this time so goodbye easy sleep.

The shimmering red curtains of my room!

From Pobitora to Manas

An eye witness account of the translocation of rhinos carried out in Assam between 27-29 Dec 2010 and 17-19 Jan 2011.

Note: An edited version of this was first published as a special feature in the Jan-March 2011 edition of Panda.


It is 5 am on a Tuesday morning, towards the end of 2010, and a thick fog conceals the vast grasslands of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, located about 60 km east of Guwahati. I’m on the back of an elephant, for the first time in my life I should add, sitting behind the mahout and hanging on for dear life with one hand while trying to shoot with a video camera with the other hand. We are following three elephants, each of which has one veterinarian equipped with a tranquilizing gun. Much ahead of them, lost in the gloom of the fog, is the locator team. Waiting behind at the elephant camp is the logistics team along with forest department officials and guards, WWF and other NGO staff as well as a host of other support staff. All of them are part of the team tasked with translocating rhinos from Pobitora to Manas National Park in northern Assam under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020, see below).

The sun is still not up but a faint glow suffuses the fog. An occasional bird call and grunts of the elephants disturb the stillness of the early morning. I slip into a pleasant limbo induced by the gentle rocking of the elephant. But it does not last long. A burst of static shatters the stillness. The locator team is contacting the veterinarians through the wireless. And they have some good news. They have found a couple of rhinos and apprise the team of the location. We rush together into the fog. By this time the sun has risen and is a pale disc hanging low in the sky. Suddenly, a little ahead of us, a silhouette resolves itself into the thick outlines of a rhino. Behind it is another rhino.

The First Attempt

The elephant I’m on falls back a little while the elephants of the tranquilizing team take up a triangular position to box in the rhino and enable correct targeting. Each tranquilizing gun is loaded with a diluted solution of the powerful narcotic-Etorphine. I’m told one undiluted drop of which if exposed to bare skin is capable of killing an adult human within minutes! However, the rhino doesn’t play to their plan. It quickly cuts through the fourth side before the doctors can take proper aim. We follow him and there begins a fruitless chase that lasts more than an hour and a half. By this time the sun has climbed the eastern sky. The fog has also cleared improving visibility. The tranquilizing team decides to leave this unsporting rhino alone and they move to a different location with the locator team. I return to the base camp to join the remaining translocation team there. I’m actually grateful for the chance to dismount the elephant, even if it was an enjoyable experience, as it was not easy shooting with one hand while hanging on to only a rope with the other hand.

The Second Attempt

The locator and tranquilizing teams then move off to a new location in another part of the sanctuary in the hopes of having better luck at finding rhinos. But little did they know that their luck would stay rotten until early afternoon. After a series of near misses, partial hits and uncooperative rhinos the tranquilizing team finally meets with success and manages to tranquilize a female. The rest of us rush to the new location to find the rhino tottering with her concerned calf hovering nearby. A decision is taken to tranquilize the sub-adult rhino also as it is a female too and more importantly would keep the mother and her calf together.

The mother quickly falls asleep and the logistics team swings into action. A bulldozer is brought in to dig a shallow trench next to the tranquilized rhino so that a platform can be placed there onto which the rhino can be rolled. This is soon accomplished.

From Corbett To Keoladeo

(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.)

Breaking Dawn

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.

Lonely Morning

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.

White-capped Water Redstart

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.

Red Junglefowl

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.

Trier Troubles

We needed alcohol. Due to the lack of time and poor planning we had not picked up any before we started traveling. So we hit the streets of sleepy Trier in search of a shop that sold alcohol. But try as we might we could not find one. We drove through deserted neighborhoods and leafy suburbs but there no sign of alcohol on the horizon. We crossed the Mösel many times in our quest. It was as if we were living in a time of prohibition. All our impromptu plans of playing poker with a cold beer in hand at the camping ground were at risk of going waste. So we wandered some more. There were comparisons between the ease of finding alcohol after midnight in India and in the beer capital of the world, Germany. I found it strange that it was taking us so much time to find an open kiosk. Back in Cologne I only had to walk a few hundred yards from my house to find two. It seemed as if the people of Trier had no craving for alcohol after midnight. And so we found ourselves across the Mösel yet again. Cars passed us and their inhabitants seemed strangely content. Had they been more successful than us? Would we ever find what we were searching for? Or would we have to return empty handed and crawl into a tent without the cool balm of alcohol in our stomachs to ease the cold passage of night?

After crossing the Mösel another time we took a random turn to the left and found ourselves at an intersection. And standing right there to the right of the intersection like a lighthouse for floundering ships was an open döner shop. My friend ventured out full of desperate hope. I joined him. But our hopes did not last long. The shop did not sell any alcohol. Perhaps he saw our faces droop or felt our hopes slipping away, whatever the reason, as we were leaving the shop owner threw us a bone in the form of a suggestion. He pointed to a bar opposite his shop, tucked away on the corner and suggested to us to try our luck there. Hopes renewed we thanked him, crossed the road and approached the bar. From the outside it was unremarkable. I forgot its name as soon as I saw it. We passed through the open doors and strangely it felt like as if I had crossed some kind of special portal into another world. We walked into a land not often encountered.

The bar was a large room interspersed with wooden benches and tables. Along the walls at regular intervals were garishly bright game machines with blinking lights. At the far end, opposite the door was the bar counter. On the right side of the room were two doors. One presumably led to the toilets while the other opened into a room filled with a pale yellow light. I could not see clearly what the room contained or ascertain its function. It seemed rather odd and out of place as if it was added as an afterthought by a bored builder.

There was an air of impending decay about the place. The bar was not in disrepair but perhaps due to the sickly yellow light or the garish lights of the game machines the bar had an air of approaching apocalypse.

There were six people in the bar. Two young men were sitting in an alcove right next to the door. They were talking among themselves in the harsh guttural German that is characteristic of first generation Turkish immigrants. I was struck by their presence in that bar. It did not seem like a place for young people. What were they doing there? Had they also set out on a similar quest as us, wandered into that place and could not go back across the portal into the normal world outside? What was the strange attraction that the place held for them? I suddenly realized that sometimes when you spend too much time amidst mediocrity and routine and encounter anything out of the ordinary it exerts a force on you that is not easy to shake off. I could almost believe that the young men there were caught in the same force.

The remaining people in the place consisted of two women and a man with a white beard sitting at the bar and drinking. The fourth person was the bartender. He seemed ancient and had the same air of slow decay about him as the bar. His cheeks were sunken in gloom and he spoke in deep ponderous tones with long pauses between his words. It was as if he was measuring the passage of time in the spaces between his words. In this he reminded me strongly of Vajpayee, the former prime minister of India, whose speeches were also filled with such thoughtful pauses between words.

The Museum


How much of history do we remember? As a philosopher once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But we keep forgetting and thereby keep repeating the same mistakes. Our collective history is littered with examples of the vilest of deeds that have repeated themselves through the ages. From Germany to Gujarat and from Rwanda to Cambodia millions have been murdered and massacred just because they were the ‘other’. A group of ‘others’ who could conveniently be blamed for whatever imaginary wrongs those in power could propagate about them. And people would believe them for it is easier to blame someone else rather than confront a problem.


Therefore, it is important to create symbols and to build special places where memories of the past are kept alive and remembered. For it is necessary to remember even if memories seem futile. For in remembering we make a promise even if we do not always keep it. A promise to do whatever it takes to prevent what we are seeing of the past from repeating itself in the present or in the future.


One such place is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Among the museums I’ve seen it alone makes brilliant use of light and space to evoke a feeling of great loss and sadness. Each facet of the architecture and arrangement is meant to mean something and that meaning is conveyed using the simplest of means: stark unadorned walls, huge empty rooms, select photos and belongings, uneven ground, all meant to reproduce at least in part the unbelievable horrors experienced by the victims of the holocaust.


Pourquoi Paris?


Steve McCurry’s photographs were a like a balm to my tired and bored eyes. The intense and saturated portraits of mainly South Asian faces formed a wonderful contrast to the grey and gloomy Parisian streets outside the gallery. He has this amazing ability to capture the wondrous beauty of the eyes of the people in his portraits. Bright blue eyes big enough to fit the world, intense green eyes that arrest you in mid stride and deep dark eyes that you can disappear into on a journey into their souls. There were perhaps twenty portraits there but ah what a pleasure it was to stare at each one of them to my heart’s content! From the very famous ‘Afghan Girl’ to the lesser known but equally captivating photo of a flower seller on the way to the market in a boat on the weed covered waters of Dal Lake, I stared transfixed at slices of human emotion hung up in front of my eyes.

I was therefore grateful that I saw the price list before I embarrassed myself by going ahead with my original intention to enquire about buying one of the prints. The ‘cheapest’ price for a print on sale was 4000 Euros! With a sigh and a last wistful glance around I wandered back out into the now raining streets of the art gallery neighborhood of Paris.


I was lost among graves of people unknown to me. The cemetery was divided into divisions but without a map I was hopelessly lost. I could have asked someone. But even those with maps seemed lost. More than that though, I wanted to find his grave on my own. Call it my own little musical pilgrimage if you are being generous or a foolishly romantic notion if you are just being charitable. So I walked on past grand graves over which angels in stone kept watch, past graves neglected and now conquered by kingdoms of moss, past newer graves that were adorned with small photographs of the dead, past graves that were enclosed within small Gothic chambers that seemed to be designed to keep the dead away from the reach of the living.

The Great Connection


Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up


It was Smack My Bitch Up that was playing as I read a particular section towards the beginning of Bank’s Excession where a drone, if I remember correctly, has to escape from a spaceship that is being taken over. And in one of those inexplicable coincidences the music and the action in the book fit each other perfectly. I could imagine a scene of the same on film with the music on the background and the drone running to escape out of the ship. There was a thrill of adrenaline as the music pumped the page into a 6 minute scene of pulse pounding action. And when the song entered the slow meditative section in the middle the action also entered a seemingly slow motion stage on the page where the drone glides through the air. Spielberg couldn’t have done it better on film. Incredible!


Greece was sunny and bright, the very opposite of Auster’s grey and moody New York in City of Glass. As I ran from one end of Greece to another I seemed to mirror Quinn’s random wanderings through the dark side of New York. It was a wonderful contrast to look out of the window of the ferry and lose myself in the endless blue of the Aegean and a moment later lose myself in a world of a different sort between those pages, a world where wrong numbers led to postmodern detective adventures. And on the plane back as Quinn descended into a spiral of pointless obsession I felt the darkness outside the thick window reach in and for a second grip my heart.


The wild rain and wind made me stay indoors in a bunk bed in a hostel near the Princess Street Gardens in the heart of old Edinburgh. There, Safran-Foer held my interest with his young protagonist dealing with post 9/11 trauma and his mute grandfather, witness to the Dresden firebombing. Reliving the firebombing lying on a hostel bed does not seem, at first glance, the most profound or sensitive thing to do. But what did surroundings matter when body and soul you are beside the narrator experiencing the endless horror. The shriek of the wind outside the window became the cries of people burnt and mutilated. As he ran through the smoking ruins of a glorious city, crazed and horrified, the rain outside seemed to fall in tandem to his running footsteps. The strength and precocity of the young boy instilled hope in a dark world taken over by low grey clouds and muted light.

Riviera Redux

The Riviera


It was hot and humid. The sun beat down upon me like a bully intent on inflicting bodily harm. The heat was different from the dry heat of Hyderabadi summers I knew so well. In Nice, the heat had a burning quality. As I stood by the unfinished bus shelter waiting for the correct bus to take me near my hostel, after having gotten on the wrong bus, with my camera bag pushing down on one shoulder and the backpack weighing down my back, I could feel every inch of exposed skin burn. But it was a change. It was a change from the cold, wet, grey and miserable ‘summer’ which was on offer in Cologne. So even though I felt like complaining I did not. I just cursed my stupidity in not having taken the correct bus, continuously wiped the sweat off my brow and rejoiced silently when a refreshingly cool breeze off the sea blew across my face.


The waves sounded different. They did not have the majestic power of the waves on the Bay of Bengal nor did they have the soothing synchronicity of the waves of the Arabian Sea. They seemed dispirited and mild. It was as if the Mediterranean herself was tired from the sun. But she made up for the lack of drama with the brilliant blue of her waters, an endless deep azure that seemed to hold infinite beauty in her jeweled tiara. The beach itself was stony, soft and rounded pebbles that could hurt and soothe at the same time depending on the way you walked, sat or slept on them. But they hardly troubled me. On the contrary, they soothed my tired feet by applying pressure on seemingly the correct points. I lay down and amid the cries of children playing in the water and the waves breaking; I read a book set in Ottoman Istanbul and dozed off by the white fence in the shade offered by the shrubs.


She was slightly different from the way I had imagined her from her photos. She was as slim as she was in the photos but not as tall. The spectacles she wore were like a wall, distracting one’s gaze from her pretty face and hiding her big beautiful eyes. Her lips were as lovely as they were in the photos. I had not been wrong.

A Scottish Jaunt

Alone in Kyoto – Air


The first view of anything below was when the clouds cleared briefly to reveal the grey and choppy waters of the North Sea far below. Small waves crowned by foam marked the surface of the huge stretch of water. I remember feeling a curious mixture of awe and fear. Awe at seeing so much water all the way to the horizon, unmarked by mankind. Fear for the sudden silly scenarios that invaded my mind. What if the engines of the plane failed and we plunged into the water below? What were the chances of survival? You get the picture.

The first thing I noticed about Edinburgh was the smell. The city had an all pervasive metallic smell of urine. Was something wrong with my nose? Was it because of the incessant rain washing the streets? Who knows? And yeah, the rain. It was a rainy, grey and blustery Edinburgh, with winds reaching perhaps 30-50 kmph, that I walked into. Yes, the famous Scottish weather was welcoming me in all its irritating splendor. My umbrella was broken by the wind within the first 30 minutes. I was battered and assaulted by the shrieking wind and the pin pricks of a million rain drops. Welcome to Scotland indeed!

London To Oxford

The passage through immigration feels like as if I’ve crawled through dirt. The tone of the questions asked, the officer putting you under pressure so that you might either lose your temper or make a mistake. It takes away the fun from traveling, this trial of words. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and your skin begins to feel dirty. You feel as if you have done some wrong by coming to this country. The chance of birth determines the ease of arrival in the developed world.

In the dim neon light everyone seems sulky. Grim looks as people hurry with little molehills of suitcases; black, brown, red and green. A limo turns up suddenly. It feels as out of place as an elephant would on the streets of New York. White coaches turn into the bays and people scurry like disturbed ants. The wind carries with it the smell of rain, a cold and unhappy rain.

The bus arrives. It’s arrival is greeted by a bugle of horns from the other vehicles hunkered down in their respective bays. I wonder at all the journeys these buses might have undertaken. How many stories can they tell for every kilometer they have traveled? What horrible accidents have they witnessed? How many roads have their tires tasted? Does the petrol they drink ever leave behind a memory? A memory of ignition and constant burn?

The world is dark around me with only a small light overhead to guide my fingers. The road stretches on to the blind horizon like a coiled snake waiting to strike at those who threaten it.