Life is not a holiday.

The Life and Times of the Only Man Eater I’ll Ever Love

I saw Ustaad four years ago, and he was breathtaking.

I had been travelling to Ranthambhore National Park with my family for years by then – I had visited the jungle innumerable times, and seen some of the most popular tigers, including the famous Macchli. But Ustaad, or as I first knew him, T 24, was by far the most beautiful creature I had ever set eyes on.
We sat in our gypsy as he strolled across the road, just meters away from us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, his stomach hanging low, which, as our guide told us, meant he had just eaten. He seemed to be like any other tiger I had seen, his appearance and his behaviour resembling those of his contemporaries.
But then he did something that set him apart, in my mind, forever.

While we stood in our vehicle, alongside all the others around us, the sound of camera shutters working like background music to set the scene, Ustaad suddenly stopped in his endeavour of manoeuvring his way among the bushes, turned his head, and looked, it seemed, straight at me.
Our eyes met, and I literally felt like my heart had stopped, along with the passage of time.
His glance wasn’t lingering, like that of other members of his species who I had encountered. Instead, he held my gaze for what felt like hours, but was probably a few seconds, then nonchalantly turned his head, and walked out of my life, leaving me awestruck.

Ustaad has been a central part of the news the last few days, the topic of great controversy and debate. The reason? After three attacks on people in five years, he carried out a fourth. This time his victim was a forest guard, Rampal Saini, who worked in Ranthambhore for eighteen years, and then breathed his last, before his time, because of one of the creatures he worked so hard to protect.
Following this, in the midst of passionate arguments, the tiger was relocated to Sajjangarh Park, a decision that has met with a lot of flak and protests, with several pictures circulating online in the animal’s support, including images of ‘Je Suis Ustaad’ (honestly, at least use the local language for this).

A lot of the arguments in favour of Ustaad have got my blood boiling, something that hasn’t happened for months now, and which is really not a feeling I cherish.

The prime amongst these is one that claims the tiger has a right to kill people when they encroach into his territory, and hence anyone who goes into the jungle has no right to cry foul when he is attacked. The solution? Leave the animals alone.
The reality? If even forest guards leave the animals alone, poachers will have free reign. It is necessary, if the animals are to be protected, for some amount of human encroachment into the jungle to take place, even if you exclude tourism. This does, whether we like it or not, involve some amount of movement on foot, into parts of the jungle where vehicles cannot go- a task T24’s latest victim was entrusted with for many years, and while doing which he risked his life, day in and day out.

Saini died days ago, but stories about the events surrounding his death that continue to circulate are many, each more offensive than the one before, all claiming the victim was at fault, had done something to provoke his perpetrator.

There are, inarguably, tigers who only kill because they are provoked, who attack to defend themselves, to kill people they believe are a threat to them, and these are deaths that everyone who lives around the forest of Ranthambhore- hoteliers and villagers alike- have reconciled themselves with. These are deaths that occur more regularly than we hear about them, and are seen as the fault of the victims.
But the fact is, Ustaad wasn’t provoked, not this time, not before.

The reason his attacks have attracted so much attention is because they were uncharacteristic, because they were unprovoked. He attacked from behind-he stalked and followed, then attacked. Attacked, not defended.
Of the animal’s three victims before Saini, two were villagers and one was a forest guard. The bodies of the former were partly consumed when they were found, and that of the latter only survived because it was removed, keeping the tiger at bay, before it could meet with the same fate (crucial facts that have been left out in almost all the news reports I have read).
A tiger that, when unprovoked, has killed three people, is not to be taken lightly- this is something I, at the age of twenty-two, being only a regular visitor to the jungle, know. To believe that a man who has worked in the jungle for eighteen years will suddenly decide to let his guard down, or do something foolhardy, in the very area where such a tiger dominates, is ridiculous to say the least.

Then there are reports and debates around the relocation of the tiger, with some of the people against the move blaming it on hoteliers who they believe supported the relocation only because they were afraid a man-eating tiger would scare tourists away and ruin business. That makes little sense. If anything, a man eating tiger would be much more likely to attract more tourists, adding to the thrill of the forest.

It is also important to understand, when talking of relocation, that removing Ustaad from Ranthambhore was essential because his actions, while there, posed a threat directly to humans, but indirectly to other members of his species as well.
The villagers around the forest have been living more or less in harmony with its occupants for years now. If, however, they feel the creatures have started to pose a threat to them, could attack them when they have done nothing to deserve such behaviour, their protective instincts will most likely take over, and in the battle between humans and animals that will follow, the latter will undoubtedly lose.

I see nothing wrong in voicing an opinion regarding Ustaad’s relocation, in favour or against it. I don’t agree with those who argue for the latter, but that doesn’t mean they are at fault. What annoys me is that most of the arguments emerging in support of the animal seem uninformed, ignorant, and, worst of all, disrespectful to the memory of his latest victim- a man who died while working to protect the creatures of the forest, including the one who killed him.

I have loved tigers for as long as I remember. The first time I saw the pug marks of a tiger in Corbett National Park, I promptly claimed I wanted to do the big job, because I didn’t want to admit I was terrified, and I knew it was a strategy that would get us out of the jungle and back home quicker than any other I could adopt (It had been tried and tested in Goa- I was terrified of the water). But from being terrified of pug marks, I soon lost all fear of the owners of those marks.
I warmed up to tigers. I began to admire them, and eventually fell in love with them.

But I don’t think I ever admired any animal as much as Ustaad, who made a lasting impression on me with just one look. I don’t know what his fate will finally be, but I don’t see his return to Ranthambhore leading to good things for anyone, especially him.
However, despite everything he’s done, regardless of what the consequences of his actions will be, he continues, in my mind, to be the king of his species- majestic, regal, magnificent.

Ustaad, June, 2011

                                  Ustaad, June, 2011

Is Delayed Justice Justice At All?

India believes in delay.

Trains are delayed.

Traffic is delayed.

People are delayed.

Justice is delayed.

It took thirteen years for the verdict to be announced in the hit and run case against Salman Khan, a Bollywood actor who has finally been sentenced to five years in jail for running over five people with his car, injuring four and killing one, while he was drunk. Thirteen years during the course of which the star delivered several movie hits, hosted two television shows, made exorbitant amounts of money from advertisements, started a charity organization, and failed to kill any more people.

Even if you put aside the surprisingly little time he is being made to serve considering the magnitude of the crime, the amount of time the sentence has taken in coming is astounding, and can lead one to question its purpose and effectiveness.

As I understand it, the purpose of legal repercussions for a crime is reformation- to punish the culprit so that he never commits the act again, out of fear of punishment if nothing else.

But what’s the point of a punishment that comes years after the crime has been committed- years in the course of which the culprit has either already had time to realize his mistake and reform, or in the course of which he has had the time to repeat his mistake several more times knowing there will be no immediate consequences?

Furthermore, the magnitude of the crime, in the eyes of a large part of the public, seems to diminish over time, which indirectly affects the extent to which justice is finally served in the case. Public pressure and opinion, directly or indirectly, can do much even when it comes to the judiciary, and when cases come under consideration years after they have been filed, the public, it is likely, may no longer feel a need to get involved, especially if the culprit has had time to redeem himself in their eyes.

The latter seems to be exactly what Salman Khan has done with his charity organization. It may not have been an intentional move- maybe he wanted to actually help the world when he started it, or maybe he wanted to atone for his crime- but what he did end up doing was, to an extent, in the eyes of the public, redeeming himself.

Salman Khan deserves punishment, that fact is unarguable. But it must also be acknowledged that when it’s taken so long in coming, its effect is almost redundant. In this case, the delay in justice had little effect on society at large since the culprit didn’t repeat his crime.

But if the Indian Judicial system continues to take this much time to announce the verdict on cases, it is very likely that the delay in punishment for the criminal will become a punishment for the wider society.

Security in Insecurity

Few people will admit it, but we’re all insecure.

We’re insecure about everything – the way we look, our relationships, our academic or professional performance – maybe not all day, maybe not everyday, but at some juncture in our lives, at some level, we’re all insecure.

That’s normal.

What’s not normal, or rather should not be, is the way most of us respond to it.

Insecurity is our problem. It’s not the problem of the people who make us feel threatened, intentionally or unintentionally, it’s our own, and we have to deal with it, we have to confront it.

The sad thing is most of us forget this fact, and we do what’s easier – we don’t confront our insecurity, we confront the people who bring it to the surface.

We put the blame on the shoulders of those we hold responsible for making us feel insecure, and regardless of what our conscience says, we set out to ‘put them in their place’, an effort that can include anything, from outright violence, in words or action, to a more subtle form of manipulation, using apparently innocent words to slowly but surely have the desired effect.

The aim of such ventures is twofold – to get our ego back to where it was, in its little bubble where it ruled the world and faced no competition, and to inflict similar feelings of insecurity and smallness on our ‘culprits’.

But that doesn’t work, not in the long run.

Revenge is a short-term solution. It may make us feel better about ourselves for a while, make us feel like we’re as good as we always thought, or rather hoped, we were. But then someone else comes along, or something else, and we’re back to square one, planning, plotting, fighting the enemy, and if we still give any attention to our conscience, fighting that too.

And that’s exhausting business.

The tougher road is to accept the insecurity, to understand that it’s a part of us, a part that we may potentially never get rid of, no matter what other people say or what experiences we have, to understand that its point of origin is within us, not those around us, and that to fix it, we have to fix ourselves, not the rest of the world.

We’re all insecure, at some point, at some level; how we act on that insecurity, that’s the decision we have to make.

Captured or Constructed?

I remember when I was younger, and pictures were about the moments, not the people. They were a way to archive events, to hold on to them forever, even while you moved on.

Now pictures serve a completely different purpose. Like so much in our lives, they’re all about projection, about showing. They’re images, carefully constructed, not captured.

There was a time when the shutter went down, but the picture came days later, by which time the moment had passed and it was too late to take another version, pose in a different way, create a different impression.

That’s not the case anymore, not with the option of seeing a digital version of the picture immediately after it has been taken, creating the ability to improve upon it-change your posture, alter the lighting, smile a little more, appear better.

That’s what pictures seem to be about now-appearance.

With social media taking the spotlight, the focus is on sharing for feedback, for approval, for validation, rather than to provide a snippet of an event for people who actually care. We alter the situation while we’re in it, taking the picture keeping the response we want in mind and, with Photoshop, we continue to alter it even afterwards, so that the end result, more often than not, doesn’t reflect the reality and is only an image laboriously created to garner maximum likes and positive comments.

We now take pictures for others, not ourselves.

I’ve seen people who don’t wear the same clothes at two consecutive events because they know cameras will be there and images will be shared, I’ve seen people who make extra effort to dress well solely for the camera, I’ve seen pictures where people turn their backs to those beside them, regardless of their relationship with them, simply because they photograph better from that angle.

The way we take pictures is changing, the reason we take them is changing, the pictures themselves are changing.

I’ve seen pictures of my childhood, where I stand awkwardly beside my sisters, hands by my side. Now I see pictures of children, their right arm strategically placed on their waist, one leg sticking out in front of the other. I’ve seen pictures of my childhood, where I look funny, my nose is too big or my limbs akimbo, but I’m laughing with my sisters. Now I see pictures of little kids continuously conscious they’re being clicked, ready with well-rehearsed, camera friendly smiles. They look prettier in most of their pictures than I ever did, but I look happier.

Home and Homosexuality

The bridges in London are multipurpose. They are the lifelines of this magnificent city-connecting two banks, providing spectacular views and, for me, inciting reflection on exactly how terribly same sex love is treated in India.

When I first came to London from Delhi, I noticed several stark contradictions between the culture I had entered into and the one I had just left behind, including the attitude towards alcohol, towards public display of affection, towards sex.
The most regrettable of these contrasts, however, hit me while I travelled on a bus across Waterloo Bridge one morning. Looking out my window, I saw amongst the heterosexual couples, a homosexual one-two men, holding hands, kissing.
This was unheard of in India.

I’ve seen men holding hands in India. I’ve seen them as I walked down the street in my neighbourhood in Bombay, and I’ve seen them as I walked to the metro station from college in Delhi. But this wasn’t romantic hand holding. This was heterosexual, disturbing, weird Indian male hand holding.
In fact, the latter time it involved a complex politics of hand holding as well, with three friends walking down the street-two holding hands while the third walked alongside, excluded, until he gatecrashed their party and forced himself between his friends, and all three of them continued on their way, hand in hand, while I walked behind them, bewildered.
But even a hint of non heterosexual hand holding, forget kissing, between members of the same sex, would be enough to bring down the moral police in India, made up of politicians, narrow minded, conventional sections of society, and worst of all, the law.

India is possibly one of the only countries that extends the notion of “it’ll be back in fashion” to the law. Criminalisation of same sex intercourse went out of fashion in 2009, when Section 377 was amended to exclude sexual acts between two consenting adults from its notion of unnatural offences, but its criminalisation returned in the winter collection of 2013, once more adding to the woes of the LGBT community. Although legally it only deals with the sexual aspect of homosexuality, its misinterpretation and misuse provides the basis for regular harassment of homosexuals by the police, and society in general.
Homosexuality has never been popular in India. For every group of people who refuse to see it as a taboo, there are ten who do. In such a situation, the life of a gay man or woman was never a cakewalk to begin with-in a country where most people are still coming to terms with, or more often refusing to come to terms with, heterosexual relationships outside their own caste and community, universal acceptance of relationships outside the dominant idea of sexuality seems like an unreachable dream.

India itself is a country of contradictions. We refuse to accept homosexuality, socially or legally, but we all stream into theatres to watch Dostana, because the only way to handle something we don’t understand is laugh at it. So we pay money to snigger at two straight men while they act out every gay stereotype in the world, but we refuse to accept the actual thing.
While big names in Hollywood come clean about their homosexual orientation, encouraging others to do the same, those in Bollywood only sink deeper into their closets when the topic is brought up, regardless of the status of section 377, which says a lot-if those at the top, who have all the stability, money and fame, fear the repercussions that will follow such a revelation enough to completely avoid it, what chance does the common man stand?

I love India, and since I left it behind, I’ve only loved it more. I’ve often found myself wishing that, as a nation, we would stop trying so hard to blindly emulate the west in our day to day lives-the music we listen to, the fashions we follow, the books we read, the films its ‘cool’ to watch- and recognise the fact that we have so much that is unique, our own, just ours, so much to be saved and nurtured and appreciated. But I also recognise the fact that we have a long way to go until we can be known as a completely liberated, open, accepting society-in the context of religion, gender, sexuality.
But someday, I hope that is exactly what we will be. Someday, I will drive past India Gate, and see two men holding hands, kissing, and no one will care.


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