This could have been the day when Kumbhakarna of the Ramayana and Rip Van Winkle of the Sleepy Hollow might have been eulogized as role models had the movement started a couple of hundred years ago.
But the movement took off only in 2008.
Through this day, awareness for the necessity of sleep in our lives is said to be raised. Essays and papers have to be written beforehand. There might have been some whose nightly slumbers were interrupted due to the cogitations they faced while writing papers on sleep but they could not dose or indulge in what they wanted to recommend for others, as then their thesis would have gone unrecorded. My take on sleep has been written after a good night of somnambulant ramblings. I believe sleep deprivation has become a modern day syndrome because we have always regarded Kumbhakarna and Rip Van Winkle as eccentric personalities.
The thing to do now is to idolize these two characters.
If you fancy being Kumbhakarna, this is what you start doing. You sleep and you sleep…. but you cannot snore like he did because if you snore while sleeping, it is considered unhealthy. Perhaps a series of conferences to discuss how to sleep without snoring will be held soon. And then, a course to teach you to sleep without the interruption of snores will be started. Somebody posted on Facebook that three different kind of snores were being researched and the third one was life threatening. So, you could die snoring … perhaps they will harness the power of the deadly snore as a weapon eventually for wars between different powers, the little “guys” who like to shoot missiles hither and thither in playful abandon and the “not-so- fake” politicians who can press a button and annihilate a city between spoonfuls of chocolate cake with visiting dignitaries.
In my childhood, I had heard stories of Kumbhakarna’s snores while he slept. However, none of his snores were described as deadly but his appetite was! He was said to devour humankind by the dozens when he woke up from his six month long slumber, much like weapons do mankind. If you idolize Kumbhakarna, you can sleep for six months in a year and wake up when elephant hordes rumble over you. Outwitted by Saraswati, the goddess of learning and wisdom, Kumbhakarna asked Brahma the creator to grant him sleep instead of the ability to destroy the devas or the gods from Indian mythology. Perhaps he was wiser than we think… maybe he had the foresight to see that in the future mankind would suffer from sleep deprivation and he was not really tricked but actually, it was he who conned Indra, the king of the devas, and Swaraswati into thinking he had been outwitted! Kumbhakarna knew his day would come… and, perhaps, that is why the 32 nd highest peak in the world has been named after him. It lies in the vicinity of the Kanchenjunga. And is not an easy climb…
If, however, you want to follow in the footsteps of Rip Van Winkle, you need to sleep longer. He slept through the whole American Revolution under the influence of faerie liquor. To sleep through a whole revolution and beyond, for two whole decades without snoring (no one has said good old Rip was given to snoring), is a skill that victims of current day crisis would do well to imbibe. Maybe, if the victims who succumbed to bomb violence had slept peacefully without snoring all the while, they could not have been victimized, be it in towers, homes or villages. Of course, given the current invasive weaponry, they would have had to conduct their somnambulant venture inside a bomb shelter! However, they might have evaded all the controversy, displacement and violence and be still living as was good old Rip was in the Catskill mountain by the Sleepy Hollow. That time there was no weaponry to annihilate people by pressing buttons, shooting missiles and jumping with glee.
To celebrate their greatness we now we need to build monuments to these two giants, the two super sleepers. Hopefully, the construction of these will not start another raging controversy among adherents of the two different legendary sleepers.
The other thing that concerns me is the fate of one of my favorite songs…
“ Sleep, sleep! I couldn’t sleep tonight
Not for all the jewels in the crown…”
This song sung by the lovely Eliza Doolittle in My Fair lady of Hollywood make would perhaps have to belong to the restricted section of an audio library! Or, maybe, the lyrics could be altered from
“ I could have danced all night”
“ I could have slept all night…”
Or, could it be, horror of horrors, banned forever?
Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs… of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been luring us since 2015, after we saw the cinematic rendition of Sandip Ray’s father’s story, Badshahi Angti, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhul-bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda or Prodosh Mitter, wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. As he fought villains in the Residency and bit into delicious kebabs and savored biryanis, we imagined ourselves in this city of grace, charm and courtesy and firmly decided we would explore Lucknow during our next trip to India.
Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda as I had read the last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company conquistadors more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still there was their palace, Chattar Manzil, on the banks of the river Gomti and the mysterious Bhul-bhulaiya built by the nawab who moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, Asaf-ud-Daulah, that remained to be explored. The Bhul-bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of it’s kind in all of India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…
When we landed in Lucknow, we were told courteously and gracefully that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom as our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments after landing in India. The airport had access to a sad bathroom as the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India, I thought as we got in to the cabs that would take us to the hotel. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We, first timers to Lucknow, had to download google maps to guide the seasoned local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and took us to the right place.
The first morning greeted us in a mysterious shroud of a white, opaque fog. We could hear temple bells from somewhere in the mist.
We strained our eyes from the inside of our hotel rooms to locate the source of the sound. As the fog drifted and lost it’s opacity, we noticed one of the temples had cows grazing outside. As we ‘gazed– andgazed– but little thought’, we had a glimpse of a situation that would bring pleasure when we were in a ‘vacant or pensive’ mood, much like the daffodils did for Wordsworth in 1802, about fifty four years before Wajid Ali Shah succumbed to the poet’s countrymen. The sight we had from our rooms was that of a cow chase. As the cows ambled on the grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who I would dub the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh… It was like an episode from a silent film as we could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. There was no way of knowing if the cows in the fold were doing a choral number pleading for the return of the cow on the run.
Breakfast brought us back to the reality of arranging a transport to take our party to Bara Imambara. We had called up a distant contact to help us book a “big” car the night before. He had said he would look into it. The next morning, however, he as well as the hotel staff both assured us that Ola was the best option, except we discovered that Ola taxis did not offer cars that could accommodate five people…four maybe, three yes, two … surely… but not five. We called up the airport taxi company. They promised us a transport in some time… when we checked after half an hour, they said as the big car was coming from Kanpur, we would have to wait a couple of hours! Mind you, all the while everybody, including the hotel staff, had been courteous, warm and welcoming!
But, we lacked patience… it was around noon. So, we went to the hotel concierge for help. We had a big car in half-an-hour and started our journey by the sides of the river Gomti, a tributary of the Ganges.
In Hindu mythology, Gomti is regarded as the daughter of Ganga and sage Vashisht. Bathing in the Gomti river on certain auspicious dates (Ekadashi) is said to absolve the bather of sins. However, 25 drains in Lucknow also pour untreated sewage into the river! Perhaps, the purity of the river dissolves the impurities generated by untreated sewage … I definitely would not want my sins absolved in this manner. The banks of the Gomti had gardens and fountains. It is known to house some magnificent structures, including the Chhattar Manzil. However, I was disappointed to see that we could only see the building from outside as from 1950 it housed the Central Drug Research Institute. Though the Wikipedia entry said that the government of Uttar Pradesh is renovating it to make a museum of it, the CDRI board still hung at the entrance. A bit confusing for a tourist I guess.
At the entrance of the Imambara
Rumi Darwaza, view from Bara Imambara
As we approached Bara Imambara, we were amazed at the number of people, vehicles, cows and dogs that infested the entrance. In the movie, the area had looked deserted and mysterious. But, we discovered that it was a haven for crowds. There were people outside, people inside and people all around!
At a distance we could see the Rumi Darwaza. Despite the crowds, as we entered through the majestic gates, the beauty and mystery of the structures overrode the sense of congestion. The Asfi mosque on the right hand side of the Imambara was exquisite. One could get a glimpse of the elegant Rumi Darwaza beyond the palms and the boundary walls of the mosque and Imambara. On the left hand side was the Bowli, a step well built by the nawab. The Bara Imambara with it’s Bhul-bhulaiya took the center stage. The whole atmosphere felt electrifying as the ancient edifices beckoned with past splendor.
But the fact was that there was a huge queue outside the Bhul-bhulaiya and we had to find a guide. As we approached the doorway of the main building, we were told to take off our shoes and enter to locate the guides. A square counter of shelves surrounded the shoe keepers, who seemed so busy that it was a task to get their attention and deposit the shoes.
As we padded into the Imambara in our socks, we were surrounded by official guides. They negotiated a fee with us. The ticket counter had given a hundred and fifty rupees as the fixed price. But the guides wanted more. They told us that price only covered the labyrinth. We needed to pay more if we wanted a guide for the whole complex. In the Chinese tradition, we had to pay before the guide took us on a journey of the complex at breakneck speed.
We started by exploring the inside of the Imambara. The elegant black and white ceiling is fifteen metres high. Ornate tazias line a wall… tazias from the recent and past Muharrams, a festival that celebrates sorrow and death. And here also lies the simple grave of the Nawab Asaf- Ud- Daulah. In fact there is an interesting story story around how this Imambara was built. There was a huge famine in 1785. People had no jobs and no food. The nawab decided to generate jobs by having this Imambara built. Every day the workers would toil to build the walls. And every night, noblemen would tear down what had been built during the day. In this way the nawab and his noblemen generated jobs for the jobless. This process went on till 1791 when the whole edifice was completed. The nawab did not want to give out free doles to jobless workers. He believed that people needed to learn to earn a living and not depend on charity and avoid work. This approach has been dubbed Keynsian by some. The other unique thing about this Imambara is that the architect of the building is also buried here.
An overview of the inside of the Imambara
From the Imambara, we were rushed to the Bowli by the guide. The Bowli is a step well with running water. The nawab’s source of water was guarded by a special mechanism. The security guards could see the reflection of people who were entering the gate in the water with the help of skilled engineering. It was interesting to see.
From the Bowli, the guide literally ran to the labyrinth in the main building. Perhaps, I thought, he wants more clients.
The labyrinth had no sense of mystery at the entrance, as there was a huge queue of people outside. But once we squeezed ourselves behind the guide with crowds pressing on us from both sides on the ancient staircase, we reached the outside of the maze. There is a beautiful view of the main gate from the top, especially of the front entrance.
Outside the maze
View from the top
The labyrinth itself has 1024 passages and 489 doorways. Some of the passages are said to lead up to the river Gomti, Faizabad, Agra and even, Delhi. There are stories of people lost forever in the maze. Portions of the passages were crowded and portions were dark and empty. When the labyrinth came in view of the main hall, the crowds grew in strength. The guide left us at one end of the labyrinth above the main hall and went and lighted a match at the other end. The acoustics were that good that we heard him light the match despite the noise of the crowds.
The Bhul-bhulaiya was an experience that I would not fast forget, especially the steepness of the stairs and the sense of relief I had on reaching the open top… definitely not a climb for people suffering from claustrophobia. It was amazing to see the engineering feat of the nawab’s fleet, elegance laced with practicality. As we came out of the maze, the guide bid us adieu. I still wanted to see the Asfi mosque but the guide told us we could do it on our own. Getting our shoes back was another task…but we managed to be well shod again. The Asfi mosque was under repair and a sign said that as it was still used, only namaz readers would be allowed in. Perhaps, an understandable precaution for the devout… what little bit we saw of the façade of the mosque was beautiful.
Then amid beggars, flies and crowds, we found our way to the oasis of our car and did the rest of the tour of the area from within the vehicle. The Rumi Darwaza was exquisite. The clock tower adjacent to the Rumi Darwaza is 67 metres high. It was built in 1881 to mark the arrival of the first lieutenant governor of the United Provice of Avadh. The tower is also located opposite the Chota Imambara built in 1838 by the then nawab to serve as a mausoleum for his mother and himself.
Our next destination was the Residency. The hotel concierge had described it as a set of insignificant ruins but the buildings held so much history and the museum had a wealth of information about Lucknow. The Residency has the remains of homes, a palace of an English Begum, a mosque that is still functional, a church, a graveyard, mess hall for bachelors, canons, storages and so much more. The museum had photographs, paintings, maps, letters and etchings from the eighteen hundreds. It was constructed by the fifth Nawab of Awadh, Sadat Ali Khan II, between 1780 and 1800. It must have been a magnificent building in it’s hey days. Now, what remains are bombed towers and edifices, broken buildings with big holes. The Residency was almost completely destroyed in the revolt of 1857. This rebellion took place because the British altogether ignored the religious sentiments of the soldiers who battled for them against their own kind. The British greased cartridges with pig and cow fat. The Hindu and Islamic soldiers had to bite the cartridge open while loading the rifles. The cow is holy to some Hindus and therefore, inedible and the pig is unholy and dirty to Muslims, and therefore, inedible. To be forced to bite into holy and filthy things was too much for the sepoys and, therefore, they broke into a rebellion, which lasted almost a year in the Northern belt of India. People from both sides died. The Residency remains an ode to those who fell to the rebel guards.
Tablet in memory of Indian loyalists
Inside the residency
Residency before the revolt, a eighteenth century sketch
Interestingly, there were still some indigenous soldiers loyal to the obtruding British during the rebellion. At the entrance to a hall is a plaque bearing the names of Indians who remained loyal to the British and fell as victims to the ‘rebels’, their own countrymen who felt their religion had been violated. There are two ways of viewing the rebellion … as the traditional Indian historians do it and as I see it. The traditionalists side with the rebels and talk of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah Zafar. I see it as a tryst to express the soldier’s indignation against the violation of their beliefs. Both sides lost men, women and children.
Violence is the last resort of the uneducated and that is what most of the troop was. The strange thing was that most of the nawabs and majority of the population had not noticed that in the name of trade, the British had taken over their country, perhaps more peacefully than the violent predecessors of the last Mughal , Bahadur Shah Zafar. The rebels crowned him emperor, though his ancestors have been labeled conquerors. Bahadur Shah, no one noticed, was the last vestige of the earlier conquerors, who built buildings that are still disputed (like the Babri Masjid).
The indigenous people had reacted to an act they felt would destroy their religious standing. Was that more important than the lives of humans, especially their own brethren who fought by the side of the British or against them? The handful of rulers who joined the rebellion probably felt violated as their crowns had been taken or shaken by the traders of the East India Company. How many of them really thought of an unified India? Did India exist as a unified whole before the advent of the British? The British introduced the concept of nationalism after industrialization so that, eventually, the cloth mills of Lancaster could have a market and raw materials. Jehangir never realized that he was playing into the British hands when he signed the document. So, what were the rebels really fighting for?
The Residency stands as a mute witness to the destruction generated by wars and differences. The sprawling lawns and graceful architecture is preserved but only to highlight what negative passions can do to the innocent, the beautiful and the helpless.
We were told not to stay within the precincts after dark. I wondered why as I strolled through a graveyard with graves of children and adults. There was uncooked rice strewn all over the buildings. Evidently, uncooked rice keeps out evil spirits. There are tales of cries of anguish and a white child asking to be taken home within the Residency after dark. However, I only saw squirrels and birds having a fiesta with the grains in the bright light of an afternoon sun.
The other thing we discovered in the Residency is that the bathrooms had no running water. They had beautiful pictures indicating men and women and all the fixtures but no running water for more than a year, according to the attendant. We were still using bathrooms frequently as our stomachs had not yet won the battle against the germs of India.
Actually, it was difficult to find decent bathrooms and clean restaurants in Lucknow outside of our hotel. The driver took us to a few recommended by friends and the concierge but they did not live up to our hygiene standards. One of the most sought after kebab and biryani joints had no running water in the bathroom and the kitchen but lot of dirty water running on the floor of the smelly yard…
We had a memorable trip to Lucknow, except we met no nawabs or their ghosts and had no kebabs or biryani…
Title: The Librarian Author: Kavitha Rao Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd Price: ₹ 299/-
The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.
The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity…
A monkey sat and watched the passers by in the middle of the walk with thoughtful eyes. A little boy was trying to hold a conversation with the creature…the monkey stared at the child with a patient look. Passers by were taking pictures with their mobiles. I was returning home from a walk by the waterfront and paused to take a picture too.
Every now and then, I see otters at play in the ‘river’ in front of my home. They dive and they swim in the fresh water reserve. One of them even likes to pose for cameras! Earlier the fresh water reserve was a sea inlet and was called a ‘river’. The name has stuck to this water body, which has a walk lining its shores up to the sea. A decade or two ago, we used to have schools of small shiny silver fish jumping in the water during high tide. I do not know the scientific name of the fish but we christened them the jumping fish…Now, they have been replaced by fishes that don’t jump, otters and turtles.
We also see a variety of snails and birds fishing by the river. The snails lay eggs that look very pink, almost the color of a flower! Especially visible by the river are a herons, egrets and kingfishers. A Brahminy kite glides in the sky every now and then. I have even spotted a koel on a treetop from my window at home, sitting by the river and calling out…somehow the koel’s song always reminds me of the cuckoo in Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper.
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
And a “Cuckoo-bird” can also be found around here…in fact many cuckoos…
The other day when I was returning home from my evening walk, a monitor lizard crossed the jogging track on its way to the river. It gathered a number of joggers. Some took pictures and some merely watched.
Now, you must be thinking I live near a zoo or in an animal reserve.
I live in a flat in the heart of Singapore. Many perceive this city as a paradise for shoppers and a place lined with cement brick and mortar. Almost half of Singapore is green (47 per cent) according to a research published by an online website (http://www.skyscrapercity.com) whereas Shanghai has 2.6 per cent of greenery, Mumbai 2.5 per cent. New York and San Francisco have greenery below 20 per cent! And in the 47 per cent greenery, live birds and animals in harmony with man and nature.
Each morning, I wake up to bird songs. I watch butterflies flit from the yellow angsana flowers that cover the heads of the trees near my home. If the butterflies are yellow, they almost seem like flowers taking flight. White and pale green butterflies do stand out.
The other avian visitors near my home are sunbirds, pigeons, mynahs, doves, orioles and flocks of parrots. The orioles blend in well with the yellow angsana blooms and like the butterflies, seem to become a part of it. Parrots on the top of trees look almost like quivering leaves. The only issue is they make so much noise that you know there are parrots out there somewhere…they can also be seen in the seaside parks squawking and flying from tree to tree! Sometimes they fly in huge flocks across the river.
Sunbird by it’s nest
Once, one of my neighbors had a sunbird nest in her balcony garden. It was a little yellow sunbird with a nest made of dry leaves and twigs… such a quaint sight!
We discovered snakes sometimes live by the sea. One evening, when my children were renting cycles from a shop by the beach, we saw a green snake entangled amid some vines outside the shop. It almost looked like an extension of the plant! Later on googling, we found it was called the oriental whip snake. Evidently, a family of whip snakes nested near the shop and the shop owners let them be… live and let live was the motto they adopted!
Pigeons and mynahs often take sips from our swimming pool. Every now and then, we have white pigeons among the grey. Thankfully, in our condominium, we only have bird visitors. I heard a monkey went for a swim in the pool of a neighboring condominium on a hot day!
Why he opted for the pool when there is a fresh water reserve right next to the condo is something that remains a mystery… maybe the monkey liked the color of the pool. After his swim, he felt peckish. He found a table laden with food in a home with open windows. He helped himself. Unfortunately, humans draw a line at sharing their meals with monkeys and they were forced to call authorities to help. I believe, the monkey has been relocated to greener pastures!
Monkeys are a common site in most nature reserves in Singapore. We have had monkeys relaxing on the roof of our car when we were returning from a walk in a nature reserve one day. Ducks, swans, crocodiles and mudskippers can also be spotted in some of them. Of course one has to be careful in reserves with crocodiles. Reserves with crocodiles do put up signs that ask one to watch out for these creatures. One good thing is most Singaporeans who visit these places are educated enough not to tamper or tease wildlife. These creatures live outside the realm of ‘tourist spots’ or zoos, in places more frequented by the local population. Sometimes you can see flying squirrels leap from tree to tree though they are less common than normal squirrels or monitor lizards.
I have seen a mynah frighten a monitor lizard as it strolled across a lawn littered with picnickers on a Sunday afternoon. The mynah squawked and pecked near its eyes till the monitor lizard found shelter under a fern and rock overhanging. A crowd gathered to watch our tiny, feathered friend object to sharing the lawn with a lizard that was more than ten times it’s size.
Monitor lizards by and large seem to walk around freely. I remember, one rainy day, we had a huge traffic jam in the road outside my home. The jam had been caused by a monitor lizard parking itself in the middle of the road! Cars had to wait for it to cross, pretty much as we did in Kruger animal reserve in South Africa. Of course, there it could be monkeys, zebras, kudus or elephants crossing. In Singapore, it was a jam caused by merely a monitor lizard!
As I stood on top of the lighthouse in Cape Town and the wind ripped through my hair and face, I could see rain clouds drifting towards the landmass from all sides. I was filled with a sense of wonder and exhilaration. Those were the seas that Bartolomeu Dias must have sailed in 1488 when he landed after being tossed across the stormy waves on a landmass that he christened the Cape of Storms. And that is where I was standing! So, much had happened since then. The whole world had changed over this one discovery. It had drawn closer in quest of ‘Gold, God and Glory’.
The Cape was only renamed Cape of Good Hope by Dias’ monarch, the King of Portugal, King John. He called it Cape of Good Hope “ for the promise it gave offinding India, so desired and for so many years sought after”.
Vasco Da Gama was the one who, with the help of a pilot from Kenya, ultimately ‘found’ the sea route to India. He landed in the Keralite city of Khozikode (Calicut) in 1498, ten years after his predecessor had discovered the Cape of Good Hope. The Arabs had been trading with India from the seventh century. However, they did not need to use the Cape of Good Hope as they crossed only the Indian Ocean. The Arabs also made no attempt at blocking other traders. The Portuguese subsequently conquered land to try to monopolize the trade. The British, the Dutch and the French later beat them at their own game!
While driving through the park towards the Cape, we had seen distant crosses dot the landscape in memory of Dias and Da Gama…but the highlight was the view from the Cape with the sea stretching out and beating against the tall cliffs with the strong breeze
I could see the old lighthouse at a distance. There is a trekking route to that point too as there is to the beach.
view from the top of the Cape of Good Hope
Walking trail to the beach
The new lighthouse is above the ticket counter and restaurants. Tickets are only needed if you ride the trolley, which takes you part of the way to the lighthouse. The trolley does not go up to the top. You have to take the stairs built into the cliffs. There is a walking trail all the way up too. The view from the top with the sea beating on all sides is unparalleled. A sense of euphoria envelops ones being as the beauty of the wide expanse makes ones heart sing.
Below is the beach, unlittered, white and pristine. The walk to the beach has breathtaking views all along. When we headed back to the visitor parking from the beach, we saw a huge goat grazing. It was almost the size of a cow!
Interestingly, Cape of Good Hope is not the Southern most point of Africa. The Southern most point is Cape of Agulhas about 150 km east-southeast of the point where I stood. That is where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet… but the history of mankind found the Cape of Good Hope and popularized it long before the factual misconception was revealed.
The restaurants are near the parking lot, midway between the beach and the lighthouse. In the outdoor seating area, there was a monkey chasing a lady with a pizza. He wanted a bite too! While one could merrily enjoy the plight of another chased by a monkey, it was difficult for me to empathize with the red wing starlings that I met at the Cape. The birds wanted a bite of my sandwich whenever I stepped into the outdoor picnic area. They swooped down so close to my hand that I could almost feel the beat of their wings. I was compelled to run and take shelter inside the self-service restaurant. I did not dare step out till I finished my sandwich!
Starlings at Cape of Good Hope waiting for a sandwich!
Seagulls on a picnic table
As somebody told us, the birds in Cape Town are crazy… we saw an Egyptian goose knock at the window of a jewelry store in the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It stood patiently and knocked but, unfortunately, no one answered. It waited and waddled but went back to knocking every now and then… a very persistent and patient bird one must say. We saw ducks roosting on their eggs along the edges of this historic area, named after the British monarch and the prince, who made a splash in this part of the world with his visit to Africa in 1860.
Seagulls were one of the most prominent occupants of the Waterfront. They screeched, they flew, they even occupied most of the outdoor picnic tables made for people. They had no fear of humans. They did not sleep at night! We were staying in a hotel in the Waterfront. Sometimes, the seagulls even knocked on our windowpanes late at night.
The Waterfront is of course dotted with shops and restaurants.
The other interesting thing is the old battery that they dug up along the waterfront, the Chavoness Battery built in the early eighteenth century to protect Cape Town. This was excavated in the 1990s by students from the Cape Town University and now stands as a museum. The Chavoness Battery Museum had some interesting exhibits like guns, cannons, cannon balls, an old well and walls. It was an extension of the Castle of Good Hope. The Castle of Good Hope was built earlier in the 1660s by the Dutch. That is now located in the heart of Cape Town and houses the Castle Military Museum.
One of the things most visible from the Waterfront is the Table Mountain. It forms a backdrop to the whole of Cape Town and is one of the most popular tourist venues in South Africa. The cliffs at the Cape of Good Hope are an extension of the Table Mountain National Park. The Table Mountain is a flat plateau made of rocks dating back to 450 to 500 million years. It is home to one of the most iconic creatures we had never met before met, the dassie (hyrax). They belong to the same clan as elephants, Paenungulata. One would presume that relatives of elephants would be huge, like mammoths. But these were not huge. They were rodents, cute ones that liked to pose for the camera. They basked on the rocky surface of the Table Mountain absorbing the heat from the sun and attention from tourists.
View of Robin Island from Tabletop
view of the bay
Table Mountain has fabulous views and unique plants. You can see the whole of Cape Town stretching out to the sea. It glitters and glimmers like jewel in the sunshine. The sea changes colors as the waves splash against the rocks and white foamy waves create fluid borders that keep changing. One can see Robin Island, where the famous Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The vastness and the sense of freedom one experiences at the top are unique as is the geographical structure of this National Park. These mountains form a natural amphitheater to the city bowl and the table bay. While queuing for almost a couple of hours to get to the top of the mountain in the cableway, the view is one of the things one can enjoy. From the top, the view is breathtaking as is the walk around.
Other than catching up with dassies, colorful sunbirds, red winged starlings and an agama lizard basking under a rock, we saw the unique flower called Protea, after which is named a hotel chain adopted by Marriot in South Africa. The branch in Cape Town has history. It is housed in an old prison built for white prisoners and showcases torture weapons!
Behind the hotel, by the Waterfront and aquarium (which was under renovation) is theRed Bus Tour office. The Red Bus is a great way to experience this sunshiny town with fabulous beaches. You can sit on top of the open bus and take a tour of the whole city or get off where you want. We took a red bus to and from the Table Mountain and got to see not just the Tabletop, where we spent the day, but also fabulous beaches on the way back. We even thought we saw a whale at a far distance. The whale disappeared before we could photograph it.
Penguins are more open to photography we discovered at the Boulder Beach. The South African penguins are cute and funny to watch. They waddle when they walk and tumble and glide into the water.
Penguins at Boulder Beach
Mingling and nesting
Though the Boulder Beach, like the Cape of Good Hope, is a part of the Table Mountain National Park, it can not all be done on the same day. Distances are huge and to do the Park justice, you need at least three days to a week. On the way to Boulder Beach, we stopped at a port in Simon Town. This is a naval base and a good spot to buy souvenirs. I bought a few things from a local artisan who told me her name. Her name had a clicking sound in it and she said, it meant luck. This is one of the customs I found most appealing in South Africa. The locals tell you their names and the meaning of it before they sell you anything.
The sunsets, like in the rest of this beautiful country, are like molten colors rippling through the horizon.
The other unique thing I found was the ‘ tablecloth’ that spread over the Table Mountains. When it rained or grew cloudy, a misty cover seemed to spread itself over the mountain and one could see it distinctly from the Waterfront! The tabletop disappeared in the mists! It was a strange sight and one could keep gazing at it… just like Wordsworth did at the daffodils…
I wonder what he would have written if he saw the views and the amazing landscapes in South Africa…
One sunny day, we went to look for lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa. We spotted zebras, giraffes, a leopard, a rhinoceros, elephants, hippopotamuses, baboons, impalas, kudus, a variety of birds and more fawns and monkeys and even, warthogs and crocodiles…but not the elusive king of beasts.
We heard four lions had escaped from Kruger during our sojourn. But did we meet any of them?
I think I heard them at midnight as I woke up to the sounds of roars in my hotel room at Kruger gate.
My elder son and our guide heard them too around six in the morning when they were queuing up for tickets to enter Kruger. We had to buy a permit every time we went into Kruger. As lions are supposed to be more likely to be visible in the small hours of the morning, we decided to enter as soon as the gates opened at 6.30 am. The rangers had said the lions were at the bridge in the hedges.
We saw a lioness stalking her meal of water bucks around mid-day. Unfortunately, the waterbucks had sixth sense and walked gracefully to the other side of the waterhole, leaving the lioness hungry and lonely. She ultimately disappeared into the bushes.
On our last day, we saw three lionesses basking in the sun on a sand bank mid-morning. We were so excited that we got off the car and stood on the bridge watching them! Getting out of the vehicle is not something one does in Kruger for one could frighten the animals or become a prey to them incase they are hungry and starved, though they are supposed to be rather averse to human meat.
Impalas are popular on the menu for predators. We spotted a leopard stalking a herd of impalas. A drongo let out a warning cry and alerted the impalas. The males stood alert looking out in all directions for the leopard. The leopard was cornered. Our guide told us a leopard is wary of the male impala’s antlers, which could well injure them, thus, retarding their ability to hunt. And if they were not able to hunt, they would starve and die. The leopard tried to go into hiding in the bushes but the impalas got the better of him. Four males with big antlers stood facing him as at least twenty to thirty female and young impalas walked gracefully away… There was no running, no chasing, no roaring… none of the excitement we had thought would be a part of our jungle adventure.
Though we did not see predators chase preys, we did see impalas and wildebeests chase each other in play and we did get chased by angry elephants a couple of times.
Animals by and large liked to cross roads that were made for men to drive on in Kruger. We saw zebras crossing, impalas crossing, monkeys crossing, kudus crossing, wildebeests crossings rhino crossing… and, we thought, therefore, as a matter of course elephants crossing…
The first time the elephant that was headed for the road got angered when my thirteen-year-old shouted for excitement on seeing a bull come towards the road and the car. Our windows were open. His voice carried and the elephant headed for us and our guide started the car and headed for the far distant reaches…
The second time, we queued up with a number of cars to watch a herd cross the road. The big ones crossed. The little ones crossed. The medium ones crossed. But, the biggest one had yet to cross. We were all watching one young elephant that seemed to have turned berserk and rushed every now and then to the road and trumpeted. We wondered what was up? We also wondered what had happened to the biggest one till our guide saw a huge, angry elephant charging towards the car in his rear view mirror as the vehicle was in it’s path. The big bright red object was not an obstruction the giant elephant cared for and she would have it out of her way…Suddenly with a strange purr, the frightened red object ran off at full speed!
The elephant crossed the road and passing cars heaved a sigh of relief and congratulated us on our lucky escape!
Why this sole elephant decided to cross the road where we had parked is an issue on which we still need to ponder and wonder…
One of the best ways for spotting animals in Kruger is to stop where there is a crowd of cars. That is how we spotted our lions, the elephant herds, giraffes and zebras…and a number of other sightings. And our car started the crowding for the leopard that my husband had found stalking the impalas. Other cars followed to watch the drama. In Kruger, humans stay in car cages and view the animals that roam freely. Sometimes, the animals walk right by your car. Occasionally, they walk with your car. Birds hop by. Once a flock Guinea fowls crossing the road held up traffic! Sometimes, it is monkeys…I recall how vehicles containing humans drew to a halt when some baby monkeys decided to play a game of hopscotch in the middle of the road!
Another time, we paused as not only were elephants meandering all over but also a calf had decided to drink milk from his/her mamma in the middle of a jungle path. Cars waited patiently as the animal finished it’s feed and frisked off merrily behind his/her mother.
Though we spent two-and-a-half days looking for lions in Kruger, we saw very less of the park as it stretches over an area that could contain more than 27 Singapores, and beyond to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Limpopo river. We only saw the part around Sabi River and drove out ultimately through the South Gate, close to Nelspruit. The land rolled out for miles beckoning animal lovers. It was relaxing and entertaining to watch crocodiles with their mouth open, waiting for their dinner at the water holes, hippopotamuses stroll into a stream and giraffes munch leaves in the afternoon sun. We even caught two young hippos play and splash water at each other.
A variety of eagles, vultures and birds dotted the landscape. At lunch, we were surprised by a Cape glossy starling waiting for crumbs. At dinner, outside Kruger gate, we had a night visitor from the park, a bush baby. It created a stir among the tourists. It did a round of the Lapa barbecue area and we were all taking pictures of it. Cute would be the right word for this exhibitionist! The next day, we had a picnic breakfast at a hilltop in Kruger and had a yellow-billed hornbill visit us. It even posed for our cameras…
Cape glossy starling
Brown snake Eagle
Storks in a social weaver’s nest
There are many lakes, waterholes and hills. The part that edges Mozambique is very scenic. We saw the Orpen Dam with its lush vegetation, the South African blue crane, Egyptian geese, hippos and crocodiles. We watched the animal and bird life through binoculars as they were unreachable and far…
But we had still not seen a lion. The land with its unique vegetation and animal life concealed the king from us.
I was also wondering if humans had ever inhabited this vast landscape or had it always been home of only animals? There were no clear answers till I googled …The land had earlier belonged to the Tsonga people, who were evicted by Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic between 1883 and 1900 and other nature park lovers. The first cars drove into Kruger in 1926. Paul Kruger played a heroic role in the Boer wars and left the country when the Boers faced defeat in the hands of the British in the 1900s. He died in 1904 and was brought back to South Africa to be given a hero’s funeral and buried in Pretoria.
I wonder what happened to the Tsonga people…Perhaps the lions that evaded us through our entire sojourn in Kruger could tell us…
Maybe the lions in Kruger National Park avoided us because we had seen a lion behind a caging of electric wires in the Lion Safari in Johannesburg. That time, we had got off the car on the way to the Cradle of Humankind and the lion was fenced…We did not explore the park as we wanted to experience the wilds in Kruger…instead we went to see the goldmines and were taken around by a Tsonga guide. She told us that her name meant ‘to give’ in Tsonga!
My home is anywhere under the blue skies. I enjoy drifting like a cloud, exploring the world and in my thoughts the outer space. I see no boundaries… no limits in space or time…no barriers of cultures, language, religion or politics…
However, when recently a friend asked me why I was not contributing to develop my home…the place whose language I use as my mother tongue and where my ancestors had paused for a considerable period of time, I grew defensive instinctively. I tried to condense my life… Then, I started to say that I believe in mankind and not borders…and therefore lacked a need to belong or to be tied down to a region. I explained I try to help people in need wherever they are irrespective of borders. I see myself as a citizen of the world, a term coined by my fourteen-year-old more than half a decade ago…
The simple answer would have been do I consider the place my home…? I have never lived there. My great grandfather moved out… and none of his children returned to the region, leave alone his grand children… his ancestors had lived there for probably a little less than one and a half centuries. Before that, they were in an area that now belongs to another country…The first time I visited the city for a few days was when I was sixteen. Subsequently, I have visited the town a number of times because I really like the place. The issue now is that for the last twenty-five years, I have not even lived in the country I was born. For, more than the last couple of decades I have been roaming the world. I have lived in a number of countries, including China…
And yet stories are made and songs are sung to glorify Man’s homing instinct. John Denver’s song… Country road take me home to the place I belong…is a song I liked all along… but perhaps I like it for the ‘blue ridge mountains’ and the ‘… river’, for ‘the misty taste of moonshine’… I am not quite sure…
I love L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, again a story that centres on the protagonist Dorothy’s need to return home. I almost wept when Dorothy after her adventures in the land of Oz clicked her magic shoe clad feet and repeated, “There is no place likehome. There is no place like home…” and she was magicked back to her home in Kansas…to the farm…and to aunty Em…Dorothy’s whole adventure took place because she wanted to return home from where she had been deposited by a swirling tornado, in the wonderful Land of Oz with it’s rainbow, Emerald Palace and magical creatures…
Analysing my tendencies, I would probably have continued in the Land of Oz like the wizard, who could not leave because the balloon did not take off…yet the story is about Dorothy and not the wizard…
There is something magical about visiting unexplored lands, a kind of promise that opens new horizons for the mind and heart. I loved reading the travels of Marco Polo, even though it may have had it’s biases. Tagore has a song that says “kothao amar hariye java neyi mana, mone, mone…” ( “I can lose myself anywhere in my mind…”).
…And I do find myself getting lost in the mists of time when I read Marco Polo. Those days they wandered in search of trade through so many lands fraught with so many dangers. Then, at some point Marco returned home facing more adventures, weaving more fantasies (he talks of unicorns the size of elephants, cannibals and men with tails!). Despite his wonderful adventures he returned home, first to be imprisoned, then to become a merchant. But, what endears him to the world is the retelling of his marvelous adventures by his co-prisoner Rustichello da Pisa…
Sometimes, I wonder if all our ancestors had returned to their home, like Dorothy and Marco Polo, where would we all be? In the heart of Africa where mankind originated, where Lucy danced in the wilds? And how many people would the continent support? If we also retained our original culture and homes, what would we be like?
Perhaps, that is why this summer I am off to find answers to these questions in the rolling plains of Savannah grasslands that beckon me with the lure of endless mysteries… I am off to explore the part of the landmass where our ancestors originated…
The land that was first populated by man rolls out an invitation to explore why we all did not return home or why we developed other parts of the world which we spread out to populate over centuries and millenniums…and not our original home…