Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Nature Speaks to Us: A Little Kitten's Encounters With Life and Death

THEY SAY cats have nine lives. Maybe. The other day, as I watched a little kitten’s encounters with life and death, I realized there is something in this old saying.

It was a new-born, just a few weeks old, still suckling on its mother who had given birth to five little ones this time. The mother is called Surumi, may be because she has beautiful eyes and she has been a favoured one with kids at home.

I think Surumi invited herself to our house the same way her ancient ancestor had walked into the abode of a tribal family in Mesopotamia, who had settled down to a life of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. Ever since, cats had been domesticated and women and children had a special relationship with them.

So Surumi was part of our household ever since she was a tiny kitten, and when she gave birth for the first time a few months ago, she had a poodle of five. They were living in the small work area near the kitchen and a few weeks later the little ones started playing around in the yard. But soon she lost all the kids for some reason or the other, and one of them got run over by my office car one day as I watched helplessly.

The driver had parked the car in the courtyard and nobody noticed the little kitten which found a nice place to play beneath the vehicle, and as I was coming out of the house, I saw the driver move the car a bit forward and then, a terrible cry erupted and in a moment I saw the blood-splattered body like a soiled piece of cotton behind the wheel.

I was shaken as I witnessed death taking place just in front of me. It was Surumi's last surviving offspring in her first delivery.

So this time, as she got pregnant again, I was keen she had better luck as a mother. She gave birth to five again, and one of them simply disappeared a few days later. Probably the stray dogs on the prowl might have made an excellent meal of her. These days the street-dogs have developed a taste for blood as they feed on slaughterhouse waste, dumped everywhere.

She was living happily with her remaining little ones and, everyday as I watered plants in the afternoon, I watched with amusement their play in the garden, often running and fighting and then training themselves in climbing up a tree or trying to catch a fly or a lizard. Surumi was not only a good mother, but a vigilant guide and a watchful teacher.

Day before yesterday, as I was sleeping I heard a soft mewing after midnight in my bedroom and I realized one of the kitten had got trapped in the room. But it was afraid of me so much that as I tried to coax it out, it withdrew deeper into the recesses of the room. Early in the morning, she got wind of her mother and ran out of the room, like an arrow released from the bow.

I remember it was the one with a long black line on the back of her white fluffy body. It was a weakling, often preferring to keep herself close to mother, while her brothers and sisters played around.

My wife was away and I had to get some breakfast ready before the children went to college and so I hurried to the kitchen. As I was working, I heard the same soft and weak mewing again, this time more terrified and pathetic. I looked around, but there was none to be seen. The mother and kids were there, but this time one of them was missing: the black-spotted one again.

It was surprising. The terrified mewing was heard continuously, but she was not to be seen. I searched all around and as I looked into the well in our little compound, I saw her precariously perched on the small round ring just above water.

So she had managed to fall herself into the well. It was unbelievable. The well has a protective iron ring around it with small holes and above it my wife had kept a wire-mesh net to stop leaves falling into the water. It was simply beyond me how she had got over all these obstacles to fall into the well.

But I had a rescue mission on hand. There was no way to climb down the rings and try to rescue her for two reasons. First, I could not go down easily because it is beyond my physical powers and secondly even if I went down how could I get hold of her? She was so terrified and surely she would struggle and might even jump, and that would mean both of us ending up in the water.

It was a tough to decide what to do. Then my friend Devadas, a historian who incidentally has written about Poochakkanam, the cat tax that Arakkal royal family in north Kerala had imposed on the beaches to protect the cats, rang up. He suggested sending a bucket down and trying to coax her to jump into it. I had requested Sujith, another friend, to come and help me in the rescue mission and we both got the bucket ready and tried our luck.

The bucket went very close to her and of course she knew it was a rescue mission. She touched it with her paw and as it moved a bit, she withdrew again in fear. It happened a few times.

Then I thought we should keep the bucket there and allow her to take her on own time. Let her decide whether she must choose life or death. And summon the courage to act. So we tied the rope on the iron grill and waited...

A few minutes later, she decided to take a chance and jumped into the bucket. She landed safely at the bottom of the bucket and then she lay there like a piece of cloth, wet and shivering...

Now as I write this, I can see her playing in the garden, happy and without a trace of the terrified look I had seen then. But what keeps me wondering is how she got my message. How did she guess the bucket that came to her was the proverbial ship in the deluge, that hand of God coming to lift her to safety and deliverance? Is there a universal language that helps all beings to be in communication with each other? I keep wondering about the mystery of mother nature as I see her there.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Why Do Most of Our Television Commentators Look and Sound Simply Silly?

MY FRIEND Damodar Prasad is a highly intelligent and well-read person. He is a no nonsense person and his comments are always sharp and incisive. Recently, he made some comments in a discussion group on our commentators on television news programmes, and as usual he was quite forthright and aggressive. Here is an example:

Why can't these commentator chaps take some sabbatical leave or even think of applying for VRS. I think the journalist association should keep some funds reserved for these commentators to offer them a VRS golden hand-shake.

And on the political commentators on CPM affairs, he has some more:

In heights of CPM factionalism, let the evening come, all these guys wait outside our TV studios like the contract labourers waiting for the contractor to pick them up. Do these chaps have any refreshing views to share? I really doubt.

Unfortunately, I happen to be one of the people who have been commenting on left politics, especially CPM affairs, in Malayalam television channels in the past few years. In fact, during the height of factionalism in the party, I had to visit two or three channel studios on many evenings, and when the Kairali TV interview with Fariz Aboobacker became a major issue of controversy in the party, I had to visit news studios every evening for over a week continuously, speaking to various channels and radio stations on the topic, may be because I was one of the pioneers there when Kairali TV was launched in August 2000.

Still, I do not have any wish to defend the tribe of people called commentators, because I also share some of the criticisms expressed by Damodar about the quality of television debates. But I do feel we need to take a look at the issue from the commentators’ point also, as what Damodar gave was, essentially, a viewer’s point.

My points are as follows:

First, the commentator has no choice on his/her being a commentator. As far as I know no self-respecting commentator has ever made a request to the channel authorities seeking a place as commentator. They are invited by the channels to give comments. If poor quality people are invited, quality of comment also suffers. (I recently heard of a Malayalam professor who did actually seek such a thing and his intention was to debunk a close friend who was likely to get a Parliament seat nomination .But this is an exception that proves my argument.)

Secondly, if the commentators are poor in quality or ill-equipped to argue the case, I feel the people who invite them are equally culpable. Either they should know the quality and capability of the person invited or they should stop such programmes that need a supply of commentators in plenty.

Thirdly, it is also a fact that if one look for good people who can speak intelligently and cogently in Malayalam on serious issues, there is a real shortage among us. That makes the commentators’ position rather difficult because often he/she has to address the same issue in two or three channels. This is one reason why we see the same crop of commentators appearing again and again in various channels on the same issues, repeating the same points ad nauseam. It is really sad that most of our Malayalam channels do have a fetish for CPM stories and if one takes a survey, one can see a large number of debates take place on left or CPM politics. I do remember having to talk about the same topic on as many as four channels only recently. Repetition makes one really boring.

Fourthly, there is also a technical aspect that is part of the inherent shortcomings of television communication. The commentator has to answer to specific questions and he has maximum one minute or so (if he is lucky and the anchor patient enough) to make a coherent reply and in two or three sentences, it is next to impossible to develop any real argument even if you are adept at this game. The fact is, you can reply to a question and if the question itself is rubbish or biased (which they often are), then the reply can't be any better. I have encountered this problem often and it is highly irritating to the commentator himself, though he only would face the criticism.

Finally, our comments on TV are amateur and needs to be professionalised. Check CNN or BBC or any other major international channels, they do have their own in-house experts on topics from politics to international affairs to environment. (Even our own national channel, NDTV, has a crop of in-house experts.) They are paid for their services and are committed professionals with a stake in the professional standards. Here, as far as I know, no expert gets any payment for his services and the comment can only be off the cuff. In journalism there is an adage that facts are sacred, comments free. I think the channels have misunderstood its meaning and feel one need not pay anything for comments. But even small newspapers do pay as much as Rs. 500 to 1000 for a 500-word comment piece these days. If you can't spend money on quality, how do you expect quality stuff, whether it is report or comment?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

From Jawaharlal to Rahul: On a Second Reading of Nehru’s Autobiography

Rahul Gandhi's visit to Kerala campuses trigger a wave of enthusiasm among the youngsters: news

AS ONE crosses fifty, a realisation slowly takes hold that one is no longer part of the present. Maybe not quite passé but still there is something that forces one to think about the past as well as the future. A person at 50, is a person like the Greek god Janus, he looks both to the past as well as to the future, with mixed feelings for both. At 50, a considerable part of one’s life is already behind, and of course there is another considerable part waiting in the future also.

I am at such a juncture, having left behind five decades behind and now I realise one of the things I always think about these days is the future; not my own-- there is nothing much to think about there-- but about our society’s, our country’s.

In the seventies when we were young people and active in politics, we were angry and impatient. We wanted change and nothing short of a revolutionary change, and hence we took up the red flag, the symbol of a revolutionary future.

Now more than thirty years on, I know that these dreams were nothing but pipedreams. We said the freedom from colonialism, from the white bosses to brown bosses that took place at Red Fort, was nothing but a sham. It was not real freedom.

But we grew up in such a country and slowly, but surely, we saw it coming to grips with the massive problems that beset the new nation. Not that we are a completely successful democracy, but what makes me happy now is the fact that we are surely not a failed nation, either.

That is why I was keenly watching the new generation of our leaders at the national scene, trying to come to grips with the Indian reality. Most of them make me sick and tired, but somehow Rahul Gandhi is one person on whom I pin much of my hopes right now.

I was keenly watching his performance at the national scene, and his visit to Krala’s campuses yesterday gave me the feeling that this young man has something quite similar to the spark shown by his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, as he entered Indian politics as a young aristocrat almost a century ago, in the 1920s.

What I liked about him is his simple, straightforward style, his disarming frankness and palpable sincerity. All these qualities were evident in his numerous interactions with youngsters in all parts of the state in a one-day tour.

I was reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s Autobiography again last week and I could not but notice the same frankness, sincerity and straightforward nature of the person who wrote those lines, and his personality that comes through this thick volume that he finished as he spent so many solitary years in jail in the early forties.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Laughing Gas

India celebrates Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2.

Cheers, and thanks for the holiday, dear Mahatma...!