Sunday, May 16, 2010

Delhi - 21st century city?

The Hindustan Times Brunch on Sunday had an interesting theme:

Is Delhi the Indian city of the 21st century?

The article argues that Calcutta - which for 300 years was the business and cultural capital of India - went from "can do" to "hobey na" between 1940-60. Staggering under the onslaught of Partition, with huge waves of poor migrants, and a sharply slashed economy, the city slid further down as Communism took hold.

Bombay, which looked like the Golden City of the 20th century, now appears to be on a downward slide. The closure of the mills in the 1980's, the 1992 Hindu-Muslim riots, the current anti-migrant policy of the Sena brigade, the slums, the traffic woes...these seem to suggest that the city is becoming cancerous.

Delhi, on the other hand, seems to be on an upswing. The article suggests that Delhi has many things that make it a city you want to live in - a new Metro (finally, safe public transport for women), new roads and flyovers, an increasingly cosmopolitan mix of people (unlike the earlier Delhi of Punjabis and Haryanvis), and a happening cultural scene. Most importantly, Delhi is not a state capital; it is not constrained by the demands of less prosperous rural surroundings, therefore it can determine its own future.

So what do you think? Does the 21st century belong to Delhi?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Falling in love - my Kanha trip report

We are just back from a 3 day trip to Kanha Tiger Reserve. We flew into Nagpur, and drove 5 hours through the countryside, to a pretty lodge called Camp Dev Vilas. We did four safaris into the jungle - two in the morning, and two in the evening.

By the time I came back home, I was exhausted. But I had fallen in love with Kanha.
Why, you ask? No, it wasn't the tigers. Or any of the beautiful birds we saw. Or my first sighting of a leopard in the wild.

I fell in love with the land itself.

There are very few places in India where time stands still. Kanha is one of those places. In the tall sal forests of Kanha, it feels as if nothing has changed for a thousand years, as if the forests and the trees have stood there forever.

A sounder of wild boars in Kanha's Sal Tree Forests. 
Apart from the noise of their feet on the leaves, there was no other sound.

I have been to other forests in India - but none of them have had this kind of impact on me. Maybe it is the sheer size of Kanha. You can keep driving around; the park seems endless.

One evening, we drove up to a plateau for a look at the park boundary. The forest stretched as far as the eye could see. The park is all of 2000 square kilometers., with habitat that includes not only sal forests, but also more wild forested tracts, and beautiful meadows.

Kanha is horse-shoe shaped, with hills ringing the park.
Can you see the hills in the far distance?

By the way, if you have heard of the word 'Gondwanaland' - referring to an ancient continental structure that existed up until 130 million years ago - it comes from the Sanskrit words "gond" + "vana" - meaning Forests of the Gonds.

In the late nineteenth century, an Austrian geologist, Eduard Seuss, studied the ancient land formations in central India, and came up with the theory that the continents as we know it today were all joined together. It was he who coined the term Gondwanaland to refer to this ancient supercontinent.

The famous meadows of Kanha. Looks like a water-colour painting 

The people of Kanha are ancient too. One morning, as we drove in the dark pre-dawn hour to our safari, I saw a group of Baiga tribals, carrying wood. There were men and women in the group walking with small quick steps, balancing their loads on their shoulders. As they melted away into the darkness, our guide Monu explained that the Baigas still make their living from the forest, collecting honey and timber.

In the buffer zone of Kanha, we also saw many small settlements of Gonds. Their houses are uniformly painted an auspicious blue. Their cattle are short, with small horns. They are farmers and cattle owners, living a simple rustic life.

Gond house under a mahua tree

Rocks, forests, people - everything about Kanha seems ancient, reminding you of a time when the world was  a different place. Although the animal population of Kanha is nowhere the size it once was (the vast herds that once roamed these meadows are gone), the Forests of the Gonds seem to have escaped the complete destruction we see everywhere else in India.

One of the endearing features of Kanha is that the animals are still very shy of humans. It is a very different experience from say, Africa, where the animals lie around, indifferent to the hundreds of tourist jeeps. I for one, rejoiced that I had found such an Eden. I will return to Kanha soon, I am certain.

Chital run away in alarm when they see our jeep.