Feb 25, 2009

What life teaches you in 25 years...

Published in Outlook Traveller Getway Guide - Pocket Book CHattisgarh in January 2008

What life teaches you in 25 years, Sitanadi condenses and crash teaches the same in eight hours. Gyan in the greens? Just one night at the Sitanadi forest guest house in Chattisgarh enlightens you on a zillion things.
That tandoori naans, when left to their own devices, undergo rigor mortis to become so stiff in six hours, they can be had only after you dunk it in water for two hours! That when you don’t have a good accompaniment for your rotis, you can split open the oily samosa – the breakfast leftover - junk the flour wrap and finish your meal with the filling alone! That the juice of Aloe Vera works as a natural mosquito repellant at those times when you brought a fancy electric repellant, and there is no power!! That the grim ant-hill next to the forest guest house has inspired scientists to build search algorithms in web search engines like Google.
Sitanadi, the wildlife sanctuary that encompasses Sitanadi, a river named after Sita in the thick of fascinating Chattisgarh, is like a tough teacher who gives the test first and teaches you the lesson later. Yet, you are more than willing to learn. Experience. Discover.
Sometimes recover. After over a dozen enquiries for a place to eat and drink in the last 100 km, the locals directed us to Hotel Bhatti. Ah, now that is reassuring. The name spooled off visions of a middle-aged Sardar with flowing white beard giving the Dal Fry his personal touch while we prod him for Punjab’s sinful sweet lassi. Hotel Bhatti - we asked the nurse at the Anganwadi, the cowherd at the junction, even the happy looking stray dog at the post office.
Before we could loosen our belts and mentally order the food, we saw the milestone that proclaimed: Kotal Batti. It’s a village? So where is Hotel Bhatti, the bearded sardar, the Dal Fry with fried onion juliennes on it?
Sitanadi never ceases to throw surprises. One moment it is gulping a mouthful of hot chai only to realize it is bitter lal chai, bina doodhvala! Another, it is knowing that after all, the deserted forest guesthouse – our lodge for that night – indeed had electricity! But then the solar power drains off by 7 pm.
After a series of revelations, some pleasant (yoohoo, no connectivity), some shocking (keep a window open to let the smoke out of the fireplace, never mind if the chill that seeps in), some plain frustrating (there are no blankets) and some supremely exhilarating (there is a LPG stove to heat up food), Sitanadi is a cocktail of experiences that will find mention in your journal and arms you with real life stories to regale your timid friends on nights with power cuts.
Frankly, surviving a night without power is not so tough as convincing the forest guest house guard about your whereabouts, antecedents and your alarming need to spend a night here braving the chill, the carnivorous beasts and the craving for a latte in this no-milk zone. The nearest milk point is 85 km from here!
Prem, the guard at the guesthouse, wants us to drive down 60 minutes to Sehawa, on that cold afternoon despite our collective lean, mean and hungry looks. At 4 pm, he is not even sure if saab will be at the office and if we can get the permission to stay there at all. Name dropping, contact flashing; ID swishing … nothing works with this gentleman. Paulo Coelho’s words that ‘When you want something badly, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it’ came true when Asst Forest Range officer BS Rajput himself came down driving in his noisy Maruti van. Ah there it worked out. The permission to stay that night and Rajput himself volunteering to show us around and introduce us to his feathered friends. “One shot. Two birds”, quipped Rajput, the bird lover, who spends his twilight hours of the day tracking down birds and reading their habits.
“That rascal is the racket tailed drongo. He imitates other birds and unless you spot him, you would think there is a myna or a parrot around. The drongo has over a 40 calls, whistles, screeches and gurgles in his repertoire,” Rajput informs.
Soon enough, we meet a languorous langur who refuses to smile or even bat an eyelid at a car, full of people waiting for him to respond. Sitanadi has a road that is pretty much a thoroughfare during the day and the langur witnesses not less than sixty trucks a day. Thank you for that deadpan langur! A few more Hanuman langurs, as they are known here, have all similar burnt black faces on hands. Legend goes that the langur is a descendent of Hanumanji, who burnt his face and palms while he set Lanka on fire. The langurs are like your regular simians, a bit more languid about life perhaps. Soon enough, we spot the chital or the spotted deer. The two species are friends. While the deers use their sense of smell and alert the langurs about the predators around, the langurs keep a watchful eye from the treetops. They snarl and screech when the predator is around. Natural synergy!
In the next two hours, a whispering ‘look there’ from him and a finger pointing towards a distant branch meant we had a bird in the bush. We were to turn off the car engine, shut our mouths and watch it intently. Then he would brief us about the bird we just spotted.
Without a care in the world was a solitary barking deer feeding on a green patch. These deers are usually like bachelors who want to do their own thing. They don’t move in groups like the spotted deer. These deers can let out a sharp bray which sounds like a bark. Deer, by the way, comes from the German word Tier, which simply means animal. How creative!
Sitanadi’s pride is the colourful plant with red, yellow and white flowers. But for every flourishing plant, there is a heap of the dried plant thrown upside down, as though somebody took it upon themselves to uproot it. Rajput says the forest administration indeed has taken it upon itself to kill Lantana, a toxic weed, its enemy number one. Lantana grows like nobody’s business in forests, eating up greedily into the tree space. It starts small by entwining itself lovingly to a tree and before you know, like the Arab and the camel story, knocks out the very tree that has supported it. Lantana is so notorious that it can start its growth all over again if left uprooted. So the only way to check its growth is to throw it upside down.
However, Lantana is the collective favourite of the birds. The birds relish the fruits of Lantana and actually are the accomplices in spreading the weed. The birds feast on the fruit and merrily spread across the pollen and seeds far and wide.
The Lantanas looked plaintive under the dwindling sun. But the sorry picture was soon replaced by the glimmering twilight of a young sunset.
The sunset was most certainly the ideal time in a forest. The animals and birds are active and just about retiring home with the catch of the day. At the forest guest house sitting on the concrete built around the tree, watching the hand pump go up and down as Janki the pet peacock would go guturrrrr, lush greenery around and the zero pollution. The setting was just perfect.
Sitanadi is a sprawling sanctuary spreading across 556 sq km and even one tour across is adequate to spot the animals. Sitanadi most definitely has the wild animals that you expect in a sanctuary - Tigers, Jackals, antelopes, wild boar and snakes like Cobra and python. The sanctuary is known to have the best collection of various deer breeds such as chinkara, Black buck, Nilgai, Sambar etc.
Deer have always been a favourite with Goddess Sita. From taming them as her playmates as a child to staking her life for a golden one, Sita has a mysterious connection with the deers. Sitanadi, according to the locals, was the place Goddess Sita chose to spend her days when she was heavy with her twins Luv and Kush. She wanted to get over the separation pangs with her husband spent time in the company of her favorite animal. The river that flows along is Sita-nadi and the sanctuary derives its name from here.
Several rivers, mountains and plains of Sitanadi conspire to provide possible proof to corroborate its claim. The Balki river that flows perpendicular to Sitanadi, and almost half its size and flow, is apparently named after Luv and Kush, the balaks of the ashram where Rishi Valmiki left. Again, the little mount near the watch tower is called Valmiki Ashram.
At 635 metres above the sea level, the watch tower is truly Sitanadi’s high point. You get a vihang drushyam or the bird’s eye view of the sanctuary. Phew! It is also the only place in the entire sanctuary where you get mobile connectivity. The quick double beep in your mobile says ‘Airtel Orissa Welcomes You. Your current balance is …” Without having made a single call in the last 24 hours, to lose talk time simply for ascending the watch tower was truly Sitanadi’s low point!
The watchtower is surrounded by seven stark mountains, each one named after the Saptarishis – Angira, Bhrigu, Vasishta, Bharadwaja etc. According to Hindu legends, it was the saptarishis who helped Valmiki gain enlightenment and transform into a radiant sage from a rascal thief. It is at these respective mountains that Valmiki personally took care of each of the rishis.
As the sun sets over the mountains, Sitanadi looks surreal in the glow of the full moon. Like a picture perfect painting, the faint rays of the moon make the old colonial forest guesthouse glimmer in the white light. The trees around stand majestically. Barring the occasional bark of Janki, the pet peacock, there was not a sound around. Incidentally, peacocks are the only other animals, besides dogs, that bark at strangers and alert its master. Janki was definitely not pleased to have a group of city revelers around the bonfire and causing it some unrest. So he would keep making his presence felt every now and then.
It was 7 pm and the solar lights gave away. The bonfire worked in tandem with the moonlight to create natural illumination. As the stars twinkled in the moonlight, the only other noise was the rumbling of the stomach. With no food in sight, the leftover paratas from dinner at Gyani Dhaba last night at Kanker came in handy. So did the half consumed bottle of Frooty, the unopened pack of Good Day biscuits, some chewing gum and the supari that Driver Swamy was so addicted to. Sometimes, the ambience makes all the difference and perhaps that’s why the dinner at Sitanadi is still one we would all remember for years to come.
It was just 8.30 and goodnight time at the forest guesthouse. The guest house itself is a sprawling bungalow with big beds and a bathroom as big as a 1BHK in Mumbai suburbia. Sagar later told us that there is no running water. Only, he did not reveal that the stored water in the bathroom was freezing. That put an end to all thoughts of the goodnight brushing and the toilet ideas.
For nocturnal beings like us, it was tough to lie still and lie that we actually slept. The sleeplessness was heightened by the utter silence around. The nearest help, should there be an emergency, is at Sehawa, 15 km away. In Sitanadi, that would take 20 minutes more than an hour! It was not really an auspicious time to have dreams of a tiger prowling there. When the alarm finally rang, it was still pitch dark. Not even a glimmer of hope that morning would be a few hours away. And we were right. Back home, the alarm is the one that goes off every night at the stroke of 12, to remind us night birds that it was time to sleep. That means we had five and half hours more to see daylight.
But when the glorious morning did happen, it happened like the way an elegant bud flowers. Slowly, gradually, showing each of its colours in detail. First it was tender pink, pretty pink a few minutes ago. Then crimson and before you go flash, flash, flash, the big, bad orange ball had taken shape looking like a tangy candy in the sky. Is it the trees, the mountains or just the lack of human populace that makes the sunrise in a forest so beautiful?
The need of the hour was latte again, that refreshing cup of coffee. With business getting done at the early hour, it was time to bid goodbye to good experiences at Sitanadi.
The way back into our next destination Udanti was equally fascinating. We traveled for another 120 km before we smelt coffee! Driver Swamy has been starving for his cuppa. At this point, there was only one thing that came between his cup and the lip. The stream again, with rocks, pebbles and water flowing across in great speeds.
Swamy was all charged up and decided he would not let the cup slip from his lip and made a huge giant leap with his revved up car. Like a daredevil stunt master in a Tata Safari ad, he vroomed across the stream, splattering water all over arrogantly. We clapped with joy as he zoomed off triumphantly.
“I’ve never done this before in my 21 years as a driver,” he said wiping his face with a towel and sipping his coffee. We told you! Sitanadi teaches you in two hours what life can’t tutor you in 21 years!
About the park:Sitanadi Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Dhamtari district of Chattisgarh, at a distance of 173 km from Raipur. It covers 556 sq km of highly undulating and hilly terrain. The sanctuary owes its name to the river Sitanadi which originates in the middle of the sanctuary and joins river Mahanadi near Deokhut. The flora here is composed of moist peninsular Sal, Teak and Bamboo forests and also Semal, Mahua, Ber and Tendu. The fauna comprises Tigers, Flying squirrels, Jackals, Four-horned antelopes, Chinkara, Black buck, Monkey, Porcupine, Wild Boar, Gaur, Nilgai, Sambar, Cobra and Python. The bird population includes Parrots, Bulbul, Peafowl, Crimson Breasted Barbet, Teetar, Tree Pie, Racket Tailed Drongos, Egrets, Herons etc.Established in 1974, Sitanadi Wildlife sanctuary is rich in hard wood that is ideal for making furniture. To check poaching and deforestation, the sanctuary has been taken under the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. It is therefore classified as a bio-geographical province.
REACHING THERE: The sanctuary is at a distance of about 173 km from state capital Raipur which is also the nearest airport. Dhamtari Railway Station (95km) is the nearest railhead from Sitanadi Sanctuary. The place is easily approachable through the Raipur-Deobhog State Highway.
Best time to visit: November – June. The sanctuary is closed for public between July 1 to October 31. November is when the winter sets in India and when birds do their annual darshan. So any sanctuary with birds will be at its best starting November. The flowers and plants also welcome the birds with their best blooms. To be able to enjoy the sanctuary without the crowds, avoid the last fortnight of December.
How to reach: If you are doing the wildlife bit, then it is best to cover Kangerghati National park and Sitanadi in one stretch. The two parks are about 300 km away and it takes a good part of the day to reach Sitanadi from Jagdalpur.
Orientation of the park: Park entry fee: NonePark timings: 8 am to 6 pmParking fee: Guide fee per day: Rs 250 for three hours. You are also expected to tip him with another 50 or Rs 100 if he has taken the extra effort. Cameras Still: NoneVideo: NoneVehicle hire charges: Rs 1,200 for half day The safari are accompanied by a guide and last for 4-5 hours in the morning and 3-4 hours in the evening. The barrier is the best point to do your enquiries and also hire the guide. Tell them your needs (from Press, or photographer, bird watcher etc) and they help you out with the right guide. Most of them speak Hindi, but they can also communicate in basic English.
• Where to stay: Booking the forest accommodation is the best way to introduce your child to the true charms of a forest. However, do ensure you carry all valid documents to prove your accommodation booking. There is no communication network to reach back to the booking office. Only papers talk for you. The only other accommodation is back in Kanker or Dhamtari. Ph: 0772 238371. Rs 300 per day, double room.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO:BALKI RIVER: A gentle river flowing perpendicular to Sitanadi, this one has been named after the twin of Luv and Kush. True to its name, this one can be easily waded through. Take your kids along for some real water sports!This is accessible by foot from the forest guest house.
BIRDWATCHING: Be an early riser and you will find it rewarding. Barbetts, drongos, magpie robins, bulbuls will greet you a very good morning if you can co-ordinate your morning walk along with the sunrise. Interestingly, the flying squirrels, which are primarily nocturnal animals, are returning to their habitat a few minutes after the light hits them. The forest guest house has tall Sal trees which houses a flying squirrel. On any good day, you can spot them while having your coffee.
LANGUR FEEDING: Harmless fun that both you and the langurs will enjoy. You can give them some harmless biscuits, popcorn, fruits etc. Go in groups rather than as solo. These langurs are especially friendly and naïve, not at all like those scheming monkeys you find in the city temples.
SWIMMING: Swimming is fun in Sitanadi but the ideal time is mid afternoon when the sun is shining bright. The water is cool, but certainly refreshing for an afternoon shower. There are some good spots adjacent the make-shift bridge near the road.
DOUBLE BONANZA: Sitanadi and Udanti are two sanctuaries, not too far away from each other. It takes you about five hours from Sitanadi to reach Udanti, which another rich sanctuary with lovely falls, gentle streams and all your favourite animals. However, the road is pretty bad and it would be wise to set aside six to eight hours only for travel.
Miscellaneous Tips: • There are absolutely no joints that serve you food 100 km before Sitanadi (from Kanker) or after the sanctuary (towards Udanti). You will not even find good stores that sell quality biscuits and beverages. Do carry enough processed food to last for two days if you are doing Sitanadi and Udanti.• At Kanker, just before you turn towards Kotal Bhatti for Sitanadi, Gyani Dhaba serves excellent food. However, avoid the rotis and go in for paratas which stay longer. Tell Gyaniji you need them to remain intact for 24 hours and he will knead it super soft himself. Gyaniji’s Dal Fry and Palak Paneer are too good. However, avoid carrying non-vegetarian food as the forest air makes it go rancid within a few hours.• Inside the sanctuary, the caretakers can rustle up some basic stuff like omelet etc but nothing beyond that. The LPG stove also is used sparingly so even if you volunteer to cook, you may not get a chance to. • Carry soup powder and a packet of instant noodles as a last resort. It certainly won’t go wrong. Sturdy fruits and loads of biscuits will also come in handy. If you are leaving the sanctuary, do give away food to the langurs. They show their gratitude in their eyes. Touching moments!• Do carry your own set of blankets. While some forest guesthouses do provide you with a mattress and a blanket, most of them are unwashed and dusty. Those with sensitive noses could end up with a bad sinus. You can always cover their bedspread with yours and remain safe.• Carry manual mosquito repellants such as Tortoise or Mortein. Don’t rely on the electric ones because either there is no power or the plug point won’t work.• Do carry both sunscreen and moisturizer. While the afternoons are sunny, the evenings get cold and moist.• Carry sweaters, woolens and windcheaters with you if you are going between November to February. • Don’t play the audio in your car in these parts as it is a silent zone. Honk only if necessary. • Unless it is biodegradable, don’t throw plastic or cans around. We personally witnessed how a langur’s foot got stuck in a pepsi can and it took her an hour to extricate herself. Be responsible.• Tip the caretakers generally because they really take the trouble to make it a nice trip for you. The tacit Sagar went cycling for 12 km to fetch some eggs and onions!• Don’t expect milk in these parts. Bring in your milk powders if you are traveling with toddlers. • If you are a keen birdwatcher, get in touch with Mr BS Rajput, Assistant Forest Range Officer, Sehawa on 094242 10923

Feb 17, 2009

2 bc 2 c arnd

Since when did it become uncool to chat up with your neighbor or co-passenger?
Published in Big Hyderabad, January 2009

Five years ago, on a good day, a train journey used to be a clamor of voices. The topic of discussion began at the laxities of the Railway officials, delay in train schedules, bad governance of the current government, the current volatile political scenario, inflation, nursery admissions and the when everybody reached the destination, they exchanged telephone numbers, addresses and made furious promises to keep in touch. All this in early 2000! But this year, the flavor of a train journey is different.

As most of the airports were on high alert, my office thought it would be a good idea to send me by a train. My trip to Kolkata last month by the Falaknuma Express looked like I was in a strange contraption where one passenger won’t talk to another. A 24-hour journey in a cozy air-conditioned coach and complimentary bedding seemed like a good proposition. Add to it the constant supply of samosas, chats, soft drinks, meals, soups… even CDs on sale… made it much more attractive besides catching up on the world with fellow passengers. Well, obviously it’s been a while since I stepped into a train. Apparently, it is out of fashion to talk to co-passengers these days.

It is cool to either pretend you work very hard by shifting to the top berth and dozing off to sleep even before the train pulls off. Alternately, you can switch on your laptop, plug-in the Data Card and go online even before the train runs on the track. If you are not so busy and important, you can choose to watch a movie.

If you are not carrying a laptop, it is only understood you will play games on your mobile, listen to music on your IPod. Of course the last option to bury your head in Aravind Adiga’s bestseller The White Tiger.

At the end of the day, a terrorist could have well been traveling in the upper berth. You will never know, because you were too busy working, networking, watching, playing and whatnot. Ditto with your knowledge about the whereabouts of your neighbor in your apartment complex or your colony!

In the pre-mobile and laptop days, at the end of the train journey, two co-passengers would have got each other’s identities, profiles, job descriptions, family background and if luck be, even had a common friend or relative in between. It was indeed difficult for anti-social elements to get away with such nosy co-passengers who demand to know his education, family, lineage, job and other such details. Within ten minutes of good natured grilling, it would be established if you are a businessman doing well, a frustrated clerk, a jet setting executive, a bored housewife or a drug addict teenager. Oh yes, if you are a terrorist as well.

Thankfully, today even if you are traveling on a blast mission, nobody would notice as they are all busy trying to act busy, distant and in their own worlds.

Next time there is a headline that XYZ terrorist stayed right in your neighborhood for three months to do a reccé, don’t blame the government. Blame yourself. You were too busy working, networking, partying clubbing, pubbing, dancing and buffeting to notice your next door neighbor. Too busy to see around! Or to say it in the new ‘cool’ lingo – 2bc 2 c arnd


Do you have an ICE entry in your mobile phone? ICE, or short for In Case of Emergency, is a number that one can dial in case of any emergency and where you are not in a position to act. The ICE entry helps the police, neighbors or those around to get to the right person (for example, your spouse, parent, sibling, friend etc in times of medical emergencies. Enter the ICE number today. Help others to help you.

Feb 10, 2009

Telugu: Idhi Chaala Cool Guru

Published in Deccan Post, March 2008
Hyderabad is loving it, NRIs are embracing it, Tollywood starlets are learning it, FM radios are espousing it and ad makers are scrambling for it. Telugu, FYI folks, is happening like never before, says Manju Latha Kalanidhi
Space = Jaaga, Backspace = Enka Jaaga, Print = Acchu, Copy = Gatlane Dinchu… This hilarious email forward on the commands of Microsoft Windows ‘Renduvel’ version in Telugu with a Telangana spin could soon be a reality. Telugu, for your kind information, is now chaala cool guru.
Telugu may be the most spoken language in India, after Hindi and Bengali, but the sudden spurt in Telugu activism is definitely a recent phenomenon. And a positive one too! English was upmarket and Telugu was looked down upon by the collegians even a few years ago. Today, Telugu has garnered its glory back, at least partly and that is a moment to celebrate.
Jodhaa Akbar, though aimed at the urban centres, was dubbed in Telugu. Not without reason. At the end of the day, nativity and the local stamp appeals to people. Telugu is the only other language the Magnum Opus was released besides Hindi and Urdu.
Even MNCs have realized the magic of the ‘Talk to Me, Not to My Dad’ syndrome and have started appealing to people in the language they think, not the language they work. Brands like KFC, which predominantly cater to the English speaking urban youngsters, are also coming up with ads in Telugu.
Says ad maker Alapati, who has been into advertising for over two decades, since the days of Eyetex, “With so much access to so many things, suddenly we are missing the local and native touch. Probably that is why youngsters are shifting to Telugu newspapers and NRIs logging onto Telugu websites for news, even if the same is available in English.”
“Everybody craves for that personal touch and the mana feeling,” he adds. A new mobile network ad says ‘Think Different ga’ with the dash of Telugu. Going ga-ga over Telugu, literally! Ad revenues for Telugu have gone up by at least 40 per cent in the last two years, he says.
Elswhere in Cyberspace, Telugu has ‘clicked’, literally. The vernacular dailies get more response than their English counterparts. By the way, Amar Chitra Katha’s Chandamama launched its Telugu website; the first out of 12 language editions to go online. It was in English alone till a month ago.
The newfound love for Telugu could also be attributed to the research findings that reveal interesting dynamics about native language. According to a latest research in New Scientist, “The native language you speak may determine how your brain solves mathematical puzzles. It influences the way problem-solving circuits in our brains develop,” it says.
Closer home, dazzling stars such as Charmme and Nayantara are learning the language from the scratch so they can dub their own voices. Asin started the trend by slogging for two hours every morning with a home tutor.
NRIs are embracing Telugu like never before. Telugu classes are held every Saturday morning for two hours at Edison, New Jersey. Software makers are scrambling to release Telugu versions of it. Euro Talk, an interactive language software, is getting an unprecedented response for the first time for an Indian language.
“Even in the US, Telugu is the flavour of the season. Peddabalasiksha is the most popular gift for the NRI kids on their third birthdays, when they start learning the language formally,” says Krishnamohan Kumsi, NRI of seven years and working with ISO New England at Holyoke, Massachusetts. During festivals and Indian holidays, kids and their families throng to the local temples not just to perform archanas and pujas but to learn Telugu as well.
The Mana Badi concept, launched by Siliconandhra.org in April 2007, runs 13 centers across eight cities in Northern California alone. 17 passionate volunteer teachers, using meticulously developed curriculum, are helping the students learn Telugu with enthusiasm. All for the love of Telugu alone.
The day is round the corner when the computer tutor dictates his wards the meaning of Telugu Windows commands. Search = Devulaadu, Save = Bachainchu, Save as = Gitla Bachainch, Save All = Anni Bachainch, Help = Nannu Bachainchu

Feb 5, 2009

Come Back Peter, Come Back Paul

Published in Kolkata Weekend Guides, February 2009 book by Outlook Traveller Getaway

At Raiganj, keep your identity as a tourist a secret. Otherwise be ready to get interrogated by the locals on the purpose of your visit as they refuse to believe that anybody can come all the way from Kolkata to ‘visit’ their town and marvel at the birds. Right from the bell desk boy to the Bhel Puri seller, everybody is surprised at your idea of a holiday here. Some of the locals even burst into a raucous laughter when we revealed we are staying overnight just to relish the sights and sounds of the town. But frankly, this dusty and sleepy town in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur district has no inkling of the magnificent natural treasure it is endowed with.

Home to over 12 migratory birds including open bill storks (also called Asian Openbills), night herons, cormorants, egrets, drongos and other such, Raiganj (pronounced Roygonj) is India’s second largest bird sanctuary that attracts over 71,000 birds every year. No mean feat for a sanctuary that doesn’t even have a concrete parapet wall to protect itself. The sanctuary (also called as Kulik Sanctuary) supports 50 per cent of the global Asian Openbill population and therefore has a pride of place in the international ornithology map.

When the migratory birds actually descend in thousands over this little town between July and November, it is a virtual siege. The birds invade every plant, tree, hole, niche and groove and water body. It is a sensory overload of beaks, paws, feathers and plumage. There is no escape from the happy chirpings, lazy gutturals, angry screeches and beseeching panic calls. At Raiganj, the birds propose and you dispose. In here, everyday is the bird’s day out.

Raiganj does not offer much else for the tourist in hot pursuit of ‘sight-seeing’ besides bird watching, but it certainly can give you the feel of a nice, languorous weekend. You could take a stroll along the meandering Kulik river right next to the sanctuary, walk across the little patches of mustard farms, snuggle up in your bed and listen to the chirping of birds as you read a book or catch up on the Sunday reading in your balcony and probably doze off while doing so. Raiganj has a lethargic pace that any city slicker would dream of while he awaits the light to turn green at the crammed city centre junction.

Early mornings at Raiganj are feel-good and will linger long after you drive back home. Being woken up by the pleasant chirpings of birdies right across your hotel’s bedroom window is in such stark contrast to the rude and impatient knocks of the doodhwala, paperwala, koodawala and subziwala back home.

By default, you end up staying next door to the bird sanctuary because Raiganj doesn’t have any decent hotels to boast about barring the government-managed Raiganj Tourist. The lodge is a 40-year-old structure with sit-outs to help you watch and capture the birds on your camera. You can see the sanctuary from your window. So park your car at your hotel and set out for a walk with your binoculars and a pocket notebook. The distances are embarrassingly short to drive around in a car.

Casual birdwatchers can tour the town in one day. However, the day lasts only till 4.30 pm and after that there is nothing much to do but stay indoors to watch television or read books.

Wake up by sunrise (around 6 am) and use the entire day to track birds and retire early. You won’t need any guide here as every part of the sanctuary is accessible for the public. The watch tower (still under construction) at the entrance of the park can easily keep you engaged for a few hours giving you a panoramic view of the birds and their activities of feeding the little ones, foraging for food, repairing the nests and even getting around together for a good time. You could ask someone in the hotel to show you around or brief you about the birds, but that would strictly be in Bangla – including the names of birds and trees.

Things to see and do
Raiganj is a place where you are pretty much on your own with little help from guides or any other guidance. Serious birdwatchers should come in groups and stay over a weekend during the season to watch the birds, discuss and exchange notes about it. Ideally, split your day into pre and post lunch, setting aside the morning for the sanctuary and evening for the river. Plan to reach back to your base by 5 pm.

Raiganj/Kulik Bird Sanctuary:
Timing: 8 am - 5 pm between October and May8 am - 6 pm between April and September
Entry: Adult: Rs 5;
Child below 10 years: Rs 2;
Students: Rs 2. Car/Jeep: Rs 50 (though there is no road around to drive through right now)
Closed on: Monday
Still Camera: Rs 20. Video camera: Rs 40

The sanctuary, built in 1985, is a landmark in the town and you can easily reach there without much trouble. It is about 5 km after the town and about a 2 km away from the Railway station.

Forget about being concerned, the local farming community holds the birds in contempt as they often forage onto their fields (usually paddy) to hunt for insects thereby destroying the crop. The board showing the direction to the sanctuary is embellished with cow dung cakes and that announces the ire of the locals.

It is spread across 1.30 square km. The core area is about 0.14 km² and the rest is buffer area. A leisurely, educative walk around shouldn’t take you more than four hours.

On a lazy weekday when the sanctuary expects just a few stray tourists, the ground is still not swept. Layers of dry deciduous leaves form a brown carpet on the floor. They break and crackle as you step on them giving the true forest feel. Even one lighted match can cause havoc to the place.

A few lazy streams from the Kulik river meander into the sanctuary. The quaint wood bridges on the streams make a pretty picture. The brick walkways are easy to walk through. The ground itself is covered with dense ferns and other shrubs imparting a dash of green to the otherwise brown forest. Every now and then, scores of teenage boys in rags pass by, carrying everything from twigs, fire wood, termite-ridden wood and perhaps even birds and eggs! The boundary itself is porous with an easy to bend mesh surrounding the sanctuary.

Even as we chat up the locals, a group of young girls walk past with bulging gunny bags filled with dry leaves and casually drop off the bags onto the other end of the mesh and jump across it to their colony. The sanctuary is certainly a no-man’s land giving access to any activity and being trespassed by clueless street urchins, women laborers, goat and cowherds and love birds. So much activity and not a single security guard around.

The only guard here is the Kulik river that wraps around protectively from outside around this U-shaped sanctuary. The sanctuary has a network of artificial canals connected with the river Kulik. During monsoon, the river floods the sanctuary and that’s good news for the Asian Openbills whose main diet is apple snail found in marshy waters.

As the monsoon fills up the Kulik river with gallons of fresh water, the Asian Openbills across the globe (probably from Siberia) instinctively know it is time to take their six-month vacation at Raiganj. The birds choose this part of India as it gets the Apple Snail insect – their staple - in abundance in the fields nearby.

Asian Openbills comprise the majority of the 164 species of birds such as night herons, cormorants, egrets and drongos here. During the peak migration season between May to January, even the indigenous birds such as doves, pigeons, woodpeckers, sparrows, kingfishers, flycatchers, owls and bulbuls join their foreign friends and hang out together.

According to birdwatchers, the Asian Openbills open the season by making a recce of the place in early July. When the first batch does not return to its base, the other birds take a cue that all is well and start off to Raiganj. By early August, the entire Asian Openbill population would have descended starting a fresh season of bird fights, one-upmanship and peace talks.

Just like the admission list in a school, the healthy, sturdy and aggressive birds take the best seats as nesting areas while the handicapped and the weaklings settle for the trees, even outside the protected areas along the NH 34 and sometimes in the garden or backyard trees the local homes.

Nestling ends by August and the birds start laying the eggs by September. The eggs take 40 days to hatch and therefore November is the best time to catch the birds in action – training the juveniles the surviving techniques in this big, bad world.

You can watch the birds standing two metres away as the Asian Openbills are now pretty used to flashbulbs and handycam lights. These birds do have their share of tragedies when a sudden rain destroys the nest or when the little ones hit the ground with a thud and pass out. Interestingly, even an adult Openbill takes a good five minutes to take off after holding the same ‘ready-to-take-off’ spread out pose. So it’s not surprising to see the little ones take an eternity to spread their wings.

By early December, the mission has been accomplished. Little ones see the world in the safety of the Raiganj bird sanctuary and are ready to take on the world. By New Year’s Eve, the Kulik bird sanctuary bleeds with the pangs of the empty nest syndrome. Come back Peter, Come back Paul!

Kulik River
It flows adjacent to the sanctuary and you can access it from behind the Raiganj Tourist Lodge. The river supports the life here. As noisy ducks paddle away, the kids take a dip, an occasional cyclist wades through with his ware and a group of Openbills descend onto the bank and fly away in one swell swoop.

NS Road
The market is on NS Road. You can recharge your mobile phone, fruits and even shop for woolens.

Rickshaw ride
A ten-minute ride in cycle rickshaw costs Rs 20. Definitely a pleasant way to soak up this little town. Buy a hard boiled candy and as you slurp in the sweet syrup, watch the town go about its life from the high seat on your cycle rickshaw. You can find rickshaws at the entrance of the sanctuary.

Where to stay
The Raiganj Tourist Lodge is the only good one in the vicinity. The rooms are basic, but clean and spacious. Every room comes with a sit-out that overlooks the sanctuary and is also the place for the birdies to wing in occasionally. Spend a while at the little marigold garden with eight varieties of the plant.
Note: If you are fussy about your boiling hot water for bath, carry your own mobile heating unit as the geysers here are not effective.
Raiganj Tourist Lodge (West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation Limited)
PO Madhupur, Raiganj
Uttar Dinajpur district
Ph: 03523-225915; 9733 08791
Book your rooms in advance at least by telephone before you land up. Mobile and wireless internet connectivity is available.

The next nearest place to stay would be at Malda, 75 km from here. Hotel Royal Park (??????) on the main road is a good bet.

Where to eat
The Raiganj Tourist Lodge has a guest-house kind of restaurant where food is prepared on order. Don’t expect gourmet food though the lack of many options is offset by the concerned and hospitable restaurant staff. Chef Robi and steward Dipyendra Sanyal take personal care enquiring affectionately about whether you’ve slept well and if the food suits your palate.
Try the Mangur Macchi curry that has been made from the fresh catch off the Kulik river a few hours before it is cooked. Vegetarians will have to settle for watery and bland dal with some mixed vegetable curry. However Chef Robi surprised us with hot Beguni bajias with a sprinkling of aamchur powder for dinner on the day of our departure. Beguni is a hybrid brinjal used for curry and bhajias.
Breakfast with eggs, omelet and sandwich are also available. Curd is not available as it doesn’t set well in this weather. Rotis and rice available though.
You can try street food such as samosa, kachori, Jhol Muri near the Railway station road.
Note: The staff is not equipped to handle the rush hour adeptly. If you’re in a rush to finish your breakfast, carry your own packet of bread, biscuits, canned juices etc.

Even Malda does not have great food options. You can try the Mayaban, a fancy dhaba (with artificial waterfalls, fountains and lawns) for rotis and bhaji. The ambience is good but food is just passable.

Fast Facts
When to visit: May to December
Weather: Even peak winter is not too cold. A simple shawl or pullover should do. However, nights are chilly. Carry a fleece blanket if your hotel room doesn’t have one.
STD code: 03523

Getting there:
Air: Kolkata is the nearest air head.
Road: Take the Dankuni toll plaza from Kolkata and get on to the National Highway 34 to Durgapur. Take right at Panagarh (18 km before Durgapur) and keep proceeding till you reach Malda. Raiganj is 73 km from here. Expect a bad stretch of about 30 km after Basudhi.
Toll taxes up to Rs 200 one way (there are four toll plazas on the way. Tickets range from Rs 10 to Rs 45).

Tip: During winter, the sun sets before 5 pm and if you are taking the road, reach before sunset as some stretches of the road are bad and deserted.
Do not ask for bird meat as they could be killing the local birds here to get it to your table. Stick to fish, chicken or mutton, if you want non-veg.
Each meal takes an average of one and half hour because of the slow service. Set aside that time if you want to have a good breakfast. If you are in a rush, skip it.
If you are driving to Raiganj, stop by at Shaktighar (150 km from Kolkata) for Lengcha sweet. It is an oblong gulab-jamun kind of sweet, but milder in sweetness. Its shelf-life is 24 hours.

Feb 2, 2009

No Mania Only Sania

Publishes in Sify's www.khel.com in 2005
Sani won’t admit. But she actually loves an awful ankle sprain. Thanks to her twisted ankle, today she gets to watch the Indo-Pak Delhi ODI on TV from start to finish as she puts her feet up, literally, on her favorite red bean bag. The cooks are dishing out her favourite biryani because Sania bibi is at home for lunch and all her friends are calling to catch up with her. Thank God for the ankle injury. But again, is this what she had bargained for when she started off as a tennis pro? Leg injuries, failing fitness levels, airline food, jetlags, early morning practice sessions, no parties, TV or dates. Sania Mirza picks up her verbal racquet to deftly field the volleys Khel.com and Manju Latha Kalanidhi serve her up.
Seven day house rest. The break you are getting is just what the doc ordered?
Yeah, that plaster to my left leg goes off next Sunday (it was a Monday that day). I am not supposed to move or walk. This rest should hopefully fix my poor injured ankle.
you’re the only Indian woman with a WTA title under your belt and to finish 75 in the latest WTA Singles Rankings. what’s next on the agenda?
I want to get into the top 50 by the end of this year. Going by the way life’s unwrapping at this moment, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
we’ve all heard of the sachin-shivaji park hardwork to success story. Tell us THE MAKING of the tennis sensation sania.
Ok, ok, ok (*shuffles her legs nervously on the beanbag and continues)… I hail from a family of sportspersons. My Dad’s cousins Ghulam Ahmed was the skipper of the Indian cricket team once upon a time and Fayaz Baig was a major Ranji trophy player. My Dad could not fulfill his dream of pursuing cricket because he had a family business to look after his parents passed away when he was young. But he is living his dream of having a family sportstar through me.
so your life was really planned to result in a sporting sensation?
No, not that way. Dad (Imran Mirza) wanted a sporting professional from the family, not a sporting star. I mean he wanted someone in the family to do well in sports and had I been a boy, I would have taken up cricket. But then, no regrets for choosing tennis. I started taking tennis coaching simply because among the sports I played I liked the game and I was good at it. So I started playing, winning local cups, then state-level tournaments, slowly moved on to the national circuit. Then I got good sponsors and there was no looking back. Each success propelled me to move further.
Sounds like a very cool ‘no-tears-no-toil’ success story.
Most people have no idea what all I went through. Today they only see my hoardings on the streets and the signed Sachin Palio gifted to me after the Wimbledon. I had my share of testing times when I had to put my academics on the backburner to pursue tennis. Those were the days when tennis was not happening and I wasn’t winning anything big. I was like ‘no ghar ka na ghaat ka’. My academic grades were falling (considering I was a bright student) and my tennis was moving at a sluggish pace. There was a time when I wanted to throw it up all. But then, winners never quit.

Do you miss going to school and college because of tennis?
The regular bunking classes, friends, movies, coffee pubs and the works. But then I was always a puritan when it comes to academics. Strangely, I used to love studying – you know just reading, writing notes, memorizing etc. That I manage to do even now. I have enrolled myself for a three-year degree course in Mass Communications from St Mary’s College, Yousufguda, Hyderabad.
What’s the high point of your career?
Winning the Bronze for India in the Mixed Doubles at Asian Games in October 2002. Being amidst the world’s best players was a big award in itself. It was great teaming up with Leander. I learnt so much in such a short while.
For someone who relies primarily on aggression, you don't seem to have a powerful second serve?
Even the world’s number one playing is never spared of a weakness. I overcome it with a strong forehand. My footwork and agility are two other points I need to work on. I am also bad on some courts. I have decided to hire a traveling coach so he can train me on every kind of court.
The media made a big deal out of your game against serena williams. Was it really?
Hmmm, I read in the newspapers a few days before the game about Serena playing against me. Serena is certainly a star but for me, it was more about being pitted against the best and getting a damn good chance to prove myself. I respect a good player like her, but I wouldn’t say I was overawed. It was a very professional admiration I would say.
Why is your physical fitness always an issue. How come players abroad, even those young teenagers manage to have custom-made bodies for tennis?
I guess it’s the Indian genes. Maybe Indian food habits. Weather perhaps. I really don’t know. I am 5 feet 8”, pretty tall for an average Indian teenager. But when I step abroad for my tournaments, my opponents easily tower on me by their sheer height. I am certainly working on my health aspect. In fact, this one week rest should hopefully put me back into good shape. And yes no more biryanis. Just healthy food.
Your cricketing counterpart Azharuddin, we hear, keeps tabs on the number of biryanis you consume every week?
Haa, that’s not true. Azhar runs a gym in Hyderabad and thanks to his interest in fitness and concern for a fellow Hyderabadi sportsperson like me, he does give me advice, dos and donts about keeping in shape. In fact my personal trainer is Faiz, who works with Azhar at his gym Est. That way Azhar plays a major role in how fit I am.
Considering tennis players retire in their 20s, what are your sporting ambitions?
Every year, I want to keep moving ahead. I want to become at least the top 25 players by the time I retire. But then one can never really predict. Tennis is indeed among the most strenuous games. If my doc says no more tennis, I have to do that. I twisted my ankle 17 times in all these years. Anyway, once I am done with my career, I’d like to start a Tennis Academy. Insha allah, in Hyderabad perhaps.
What’s your advice to budding tennis talent?
You will never become a great player if you’re after the WTA ratings, the endorsements, the fame or the money that you get by becoming a star in sports. Pure love and sheer passion for the game are the only factors that will make you success. Believe me, nothing can beat passion.