17 August 2007

Kileshwar, Gujarat

Old man, Barda hills, Gujarat

Wednesday 14 February 2007
little palm squirrel sits on the road, in the opposite lane. Jagdish slows and beeps, sending the little animal scurrying to a safer location. Three doves get the same treatment, the same respect. Jagdish is a gardener, but his concerns extend beyond plants. We continue towards the Barda Hills and Kileswar[1].
J's birthday. The memory draws my thoughts to my family, even more than usual. This year, being so far from them—geographically, but not in other senses—I'm closer to them than ever. And, two days later (I write this on the 16th), as Jagdish drives us to Kileswar through a landscape that reminds me of parts of Canterbury and much of the Mongolia I visited, I think of Winchester and Temuka, where my father and mother spent much of their childhoods; I think of Banks Peninsula, to which so much of my own childhood belongs—and to which I still belong—and I think of Mongolia; so much of my past; and I wonder who accompanies me, other than Jagdish and M.
At the Guest House an unsmiling man in a uniform which appears to be his pride and joy shows us one room with two beds. No, we were to have two rooms. Jagdish goes off to find another man who resolves the problem simply by showing us separate rooms on the second level and asking if they're suitable. They are. Meanwhile, I've had a rudimentary conversation with the slow, immaculately uniformed man, and even managed to get a slight smile from him. But we never see him again.
Another man, ex-military, tells us to “refresh”. He will come to collect us later.
One o'clock,” he says, pointing to his watch.
I shower—the cold water's bearably pleasant—
wash my hair and my shirt and am just about to hang the shirt to dry when the military man returns. At midday. “One o'clock,” we gather, means, “in one hour's time.”
Lunch, as we're also beginning to realise whenever it's associated with the Maharaja, is wonderful, a slightly smoky flavour suffusing most dishes. We're also introduced to a delicious, nondescript fruit about the size of a golf ball; round, brown, with a suede-like skin and a delicious, butterscotch flavour. Chiku, better known elsewhere as sapodilla[2] (and with many other common names), becomes a favourite. The setting's cool and tranquil, the table under the strangler fig providing great opportunities for viewing birds: black ibis, tailor birds, magpie robins, babblers, red-vented bulbuls, an occasional koel, treepies, and the remarkable paradise flycatcher[2]. Afterwards, we're given a tour of the grounds, seeing one of the muggers in the lake and a turtle hauled out to sunbathe, and in the late afternoon the military man—I call him that because although he's left the army, the army hasn't left him—takes us around the Rabari village.
We return to the table under the tree for another chai (our cook pronounces it “char”) and a chance to relax and talk. A conversation about power and responsibility and freedom, and, inevitably, religious beliefs. M's attitudes are much the same as mine, but, unlike me, she has extensive experience of life in India—including its multitude of religions—on which to base her thinking. And I wonder: perhaps the saddest consequence of belief in any kind of afterlife is that it allows you to waste at least some of your moments. If you believe you'll get another chance, it's not so important if you fail to appreciate every moment. On the other hand, perhaps the best consequence of such a belief is that it allows you to appreciate each moment unconstrained by the almost unbearable sadness of knowing this is the only chance you'll get.
A triangle of sunlight on an old, plastered wall; a lone shirt tugged and fluttered by the breeze in an open window. The snap of pigeons' wings and the gurgling coo from those already lined up along the high ledges. The triangle of light fades, and the heat goes from the sun.
We're served dinner at the Guest House, after dark. During the meal the generator provides power for lights and enables me to recharge the camera battery — not quite fully, but enough. The meal finished, the night watchman turns off the generator and the building fills with darkness and the sound of the night wind. I sterilise two of bottles of water and write by the light of a guttering candle until tiredness forces me to bed.

Saturday 17 February 2007
During the night a bat eats part of two of our bananas. I assume it was a bat—I hope it was a bat. I did hear many dogs barking, but nothing identifiable as a leopard, although this is leopard country and the military man had assured us he's seen one just behind the Maharaja's enclave one evening. The night eventually grew cool, and for the first time since Mt Abu, I crawled into my sleeping bag.
I manage to wake and get out of bed at 7 a.m., in time for breakfast at 7:30. Saija bhai[4], the Rabari cook, with his smile and welcoming attitude, brings breakfast of puri, an aloo dish, and chai. He has no English—not a single word—but with great patience he teaches us a few words of his own language, smiling wonderfully when we get something right. After we've eaten, the military man walks us to Jamsaheb's enclave, stopping just before the entrance to admire the enormous strangler fig and the wall loosely mosaiced with broken crockery. But it's the little palm squirrel collecting nest material that most appeals to me.
Our programme, according to the military man, is, “7:30 breakfast; 8:30 walk!” But lunch must be prepared. This takes some time and throws the programme into disarray—well, at least it causes a readjustment of the plan. Now we are to walk at 9:30–10:00 a.m.
And walk we do. About 5 hours of it, although for much of the time we sit around at small Rabari settlements—sometimes only a single house, sometimes two or three; one, where a wedding party was in progress, more substantial.
We left for our “trek” at about 10 a.m., accompanied by a 60-year-old guide and a boy in his early teens. They carried our enormous lunch; the MM carried the burden of responsibility for our safety—particularly, it seemed, for M's—and a large kitchen knife which he tucked, sheathed, under his belt at his back, bringing it out occasionally to slash at brambles and thorns. Not that the slashing was entirely gratuitous, however, as the first section of the walk proved the hardest, through vicious thorn scrub and scrambling, hook-toothed vines, along a rudimentary or nonexistent trail up the watercourse above the temple lake. Mehsu bhai, our oldBrown fish-owl, Barda Hills but nimble guide, had little difficulty and still managed to spot a huge, brown fish-owl[5] in a tree on the far side of the gully, while we'd been mostly concerned with spotting where to put our feet and which thorn branches were about to impale us.
But the going eased after this section, and as the thorny shrubs opened out we came to a dam. The lake behind this, we were informed, was where Lord Krishna had bathed. Now, a small herd of buffalo bathed at the far end. On the dam itself, the carapace and a few limbs of a freshwater crab lay, black and dry, in the shimmering heat; at the edge of the lake another crab, very much alive, slid sideways into its burrow beneath the water as we approached. A turtle basked on a rock at the water's edge and a black ibis stepped slowly over the mud at the head of the lake beyond a small group of attractive little ducks; a couple of pond herons[6] stood hunched and motionless nearby, and the ubiquitous red-wattled lapwing[7] yelled from the mud by an inlet. A buffalo lumbered down out of the scrub and peered at us. Sullen and huge, the beast stared as if making up what little mind it had, before taking the hint when the MM threw a stick at it. It heaved itself down to the water and made its way along the track towards the other wallowing buffalo.
On the far side of the swampy inlet, we stopped to meet a Rabari family. I tried my hand at churning milk, teaming up with the ancient woman after she and her husband had showed us the technique—one on each side of a long, upright paddle, each person holding the ends of a cord wound around the paddle; synchronised to-and-fro pulling on the ends of the cords spinning the paddle like a bow-drill. After a false start, I got the hang of it. A simple arrangement, but effective. Appropriate technology? Probably, but certainly it was traditional—I imagine milk being churned this way a thousand years ago. Possibly more.
I asked the MM to ask if I might photograph them. The old man nodded, and glowered, grim and suspicious, at the camera. His sons did likewise, peering closely; the old woman had vanished into the darkness of the house. I suspect none had ever seen a camera.
We stopped for lunch in what shade we could find, just beyond the settlement where the marriage party was underway. More ritual than knees-up, the party comprised mostly middle-aged to elderly men except for Mother & child, Barda Hillsthe groom, who lounged on a charpoi at the base of a spreading tree, seemingly indifferent to the activity around him. How would his life change after his marriage? Where were the other men of his age? Was he one of the few who had chosen, or not had the opportunity, to leave; to pursue the rumours of that world beyond buffalo milking and dust, heat and thorn scrub, ritual and myth?
Another family further on tended strange buffalo, a paler colour, the calves with distinct whites around the irises of their eyes. One had one eye like this, the other almost entirely dark like that of normal buffalo. The old woman showed us how she moulds fresh cow dung into thin rounds the shape and size of pizza bases to dry in the sun, later to be used as fuel or sold for the same purpose. Two other family members bathed and washed laundry in the well nearby. How much longer can this way of life survive? Longer here than elsewhere, I suspect, because the area is a wildlife sanctuary—here, a human way of life will remain insulated from encroaching “progress” and “development”. But not forever. Watching the laundry drying on the dusty ground and the old woman, hands deftly manipulating the green-black shit, I realised I could never live like this; realised that, where one person sees simplicity, another sees poverty and disempowerment. What will be lost, and what will be gained? 'Grandfather'Those who will notice the loss and feel it most keenly will, I suspect, be those who already have the most, who already enjoy the greatest privilege.
At the last settlement—comprising a house and a well—we were introduced to the MM's elderly friend, known to everyone simply as “uttar”—“grandfather”. Like everyone else we'd met, he spoke no English, but the humour in his face communicated what's most important. Seeing an elderly woman making her way slowly up the hill from the well, carrying two full kerosene tins of water, I jogged down, took the cans from her and carried them up to the house. I felt comfortable, at ease; felt we were welcomed, enjoyed. Everyone wanted photos and M and I were kept busy, although I found it a struggle because of the harsh, contrasty light. The old, small, and dull LCD screen on my camera made it nearly impossible to show the subjects the results, but M was better off, as the screen on her camera was much larger and brighter. When we finally left, we were pursued down the path by someone who'd heard about the visiting photowallahs. A man with a small boy in his arms caught up with us; I encouraged him into the shade and took two photos. With a little encouragement he smiled beautifully. The opportunities for photos had been good, despite the hard light; the catch was that we were asked for prints. But this was hardly even a price to pay—even if we hadn't been asked, I'd have tried to get prints to them. It's a chance to give, not just take.

Monday 19 February 2007
Wind rattles shutters and doors all night; the hooks and eyes holding open the shutters squeak. A rat eats the remains of the small bar of green ayurvedic soap from my handbasin and leaves two droppings in return. In the morning we sit and read at each end of the long hall. Heavy wooden armchairs and a settee at each end; Boy in the Barda Hillstapestry upholstery. I read The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and we both wait for breakfast. When it comes, puri and a potato dish with a bite, we finish it all, for the first time.
The second bird I see at the table under the tree is the male paradise flycatcher[5]. He drops from the branch and vanishes behind the wall, his enormously long, white tail streaming behind him, his black head and bill like the cap on a projectile. The simile could not be worse, unless you're a fly.
Sunlight on the corky bark of the fig; the deep crevices like the skin on the face of the old man at the first settlement we visited yesterday. The man and the tree, which might have been growing here for centuries, could be the same age. The wind picks up, and patches of soft-edged sunlight sway back and forth over the torn plastic tablecloth, over the weathered wooden tabletop where the plastic has torn or peeled back, over the closed book, the open page where these words follow the movement of the pen. Sunlight, dancing, forms patterns in time between the memory of leaves.
A glimpse of the paradise flycatcher, the chestnut female, but by the time I've raised the binoculars to my eyes, she's gone. Paradise remains elusive. I write postcards to friends and family in another time, other worlds. The postcards are my photos from Khijadiya and Jamnagar—a painted stork[8]; a pelican in flight, leaving the water; the stillness of reflected posts in the dawn lake; the infinite patience of a spider hanging in its web at the Darbargadh. When all you know is how to hang in a web, waiting, can you be considered patient? This is what you do.

Wednesday 21 February 2007
At dawn the wailing cries of peafowl echo around the guest house, the stone walls, the ruined buildings, like a lament for memories; for what, even now as I lie listening, half asleep, is being lost. How different will this place and its people be ten years from now? When will the great change come, and what will bring it? Electricity and television, so the children can grow up seeing a fantastic—mostly in the pejorative sense—world, so they see what they think they're denied by living here? Education, which will unlock some of the doors currently keeping them here? People like us, whose presence suggests a wider world to be explored? Dissatisfaction can be one of the consequences of curiosity; perhaps, to know how lucky you are, you must find out for yourself how less fortunate others are. Living a simple life because you grew up like that differs from living a simple life because you've chosen it:
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.[9]
Perhaps this is what I’m doing. Trying to find the simplicity to deal with what happens as it arises; travelling without expectations; carrying my life with me. But simplicity is relative, and here, for me, temporary. I lie half asleep, listening to the peafowl, knowing I’ll soon leave; knowing I’ll leave this world of birds and leopards, cattle and buffalo, the still, glittering lake, and old women yoked to kerosene cans of well water. Drying dung and churning milk. Soon I’ll leave, and re-enter the complex world. I have no idea what of me will remain.

Magpie robin, Kileswar, Gujarat
1 Kileswar is often (perhaps usually) spelled "Kileshwar", a more phonetic spelling for English speakers. I've used "Kileswar" because this is the spelling on the identification plate of the Guest House.
2. Manilkara zapotilla, Sapotaceae.
3. Black ibis, Pseudibis papillosa; tailor bird, Orthotomus sutorius; magpie robin, Copsychus saularis; common babbler, Turdoides caudatus; red-vented bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer; koel, Eudynamys scolopacea; rufous treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda; paradise flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradisi.
4. Pronounced “SAY juh”. I confess to not knowing how to spell his name. “Bhai” ("BUY-ee") seems to be a term of respect, much like the Japanese “san”, I suppose.
5. Ketupa zeylonensis
6. Ardeola grayii
7. Vanellus indicus
Mycteria leucocephala9. T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets (East Coker). P. 201 in Collected Poems 1909–1962. London, Faber & Faber (1963). 238 Pp. ISBN 0 571 05549 4. I chose this rather than the over-quoted “We shall not cease from exploration...” for two reasons: first, the latter quotation is over-quoted, and second, the quotation I’ve used has a depth and complexity that appeals to me.

Photos (click on the smaller photos to enlarge them):
1. The man at the first household, where I churned milk and was laughed at until I got the knack.
2. One of the kids at the village at Kileswar. I wanted to do something different with this photo, so I played around with it in Lightroom and Elements.
3. One of the babblers that regularly checked us out at the table by the temple.
4. The brown fish-owl. The photo's heavily cropped, as the owl was a long way off, on the far side of the gully.
5. Mother and child at the last household.
6. This is grandfather. Everyone's grandfather, I think.
7. One of his grandkids, I assume.
8. Oriental magpie robin.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


R.R. said...


burning silo said...

Lovely piece. I very much like the second photo of the you fellow. Yes, a little hard to imagine living as some of these villagers, isn't it?

christy said...

Hi Pete,

Thank you for the reminder about chiku! They were my favorite fruit during a visit to Bali, and I thought they tasted like dates might taste if dates were fresh (though later in another place got to taste fresh dates and I think that chiku are more delicious)

And thank you for this latest selection of beautifully detailed descriptions and wonderings and images. The traces left in you by those days and those places emerge in your words as vivid evocations and subtle light-and-shadow moods, which then leave traces in my own imagination -- just-out-of-reach traces, sort of like a dream.

"...carrying my life with me" -- I imagine the life we each carry as trailing all those traces we leave and that are left in us, the life we carry somehow inseparable from all the lives and places we have affected and been affected by.

Avus said...

Pete, what a treat! You have returned, but we are still enjoying the memories of your travels.
Your mention in the last post about the Ruahine brought back memories of traversing that dirt road through those hills from Taihape to Napier (why do they call it "Gentle Annie"?). In spite of all the North Island's beauty, this is the one that I remember best. We had delightful Spring weather and went at walking speeds for much of the way. To come back one day and do it by bicycle is my dream.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks for the stone, rr :-)

Thanks Bev. Which photo do you refer to? No. 2 or no. 7? Anyway, I'm pleased you liked it!

Christy, I hadn't thought of comparing chiku to dates, but it's an apt description — I can imagine it well, both the flavour and texture. And thanks for the reflections :-)

Avus, that route's certainly a lovely one, although it's been very many years since I traversed it. Now you've reminded me, I might just get up there; maybe go exploring in the Kaweka Range, (somewhere I've never been: the Ruahine's too close and appealing).

zhoen said...

Magpie robin, what a dapper creature.

Oh, and I had never imagined the corollary,

unconstrained by the almost unbearable sadness of knowing this is the only chance you'll get.


Duncan said...

Great post, great pictures, a delight, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen: glad I gave you a new thought :-) I certainly get plenty from your blog.

Thanks Duncan!

burning silo said...

It was the second photo of the young boy looking to the side. He has a gentle expression on his face and the softness of the photo seems to work well with that. The other photo is nice in a very different way. Very direct and rather fun.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bev. It's interesting to hear what appeals to other people, particularly when I try something a bit less usual. Perhaps it's something about understanding what connects us.

vegetablej said...

Hi Pete:

I used to feel that "unbearable sadness" of knowing that here aren't any other lives to follow, but have found lately that it's more of a relief. After all, now I don't have to spend all that energy thinking about what I have to do to get somewhere or avoid somewhere else (I was brought up in a fundamental religion) but can just concentrate on squeezing the best from whatever there is.

You seem to have that talent, in spades. You also have a lovely eye for portraits. These are some of the best I have ever seen. Somehow you can actually see the "soul" or should I say essence, of everyone who goes in front of your camera. And it's so lovely to see these people from India. Thank you.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, that's a huge compliment. Thankyou :-)

That's an interesting point you raise, and a very pertinent one, too. I sometimes feel a sense of frustration and tragedy when I see people totally focused on the kind of post mortem reward I simply can't believe in. But, I suppose they feel something similar about me...

lala said...

It is painful to hear criticisms about the pugmark technique for estimating the minimum numbers of tigers and leopards. Why criticise the technique? Blame the person who has not practiced it with sincerity. The following note may give a quick insight into the much misunderstood pugmark tracking.
Pugmark Tracking
In India, ‘Pugmark Tracking’ involves collection of pugmark tracings and plaster casts from the field and analysis of these separately for individual male, female, and cub of tiger and leopard, and their diagnostic track dimensions and spatial distribution.

In order to obtain good pug impressions, PIPs (Pug Impression Pads) are laid along various roads, animal tracks and footpaths. To cite an example, during the year 2002, in 71 Census Units of Similipal 8946 PIPs were laid over 1773km of tracking routes, from which 764 pugmark tracings were collected along with 316 plaster casts.

Field data for each pugmark are collected in specially devised census forms. The plaster casts and tracings along with field information are together analysed with map of the area to remove repetitions and overlaps in pug-evidences collected for the same tiger.

The final result indicates the (a) total numbers of male, female and cub of tiger and leopard, (b) their pugmark dimensions with stride where available, (c) the names of locations where the pugmarks of each tiger have been traced to show the gross movement areas (d) interrelationship among different tigers by linking each male to female and the latter to cubs tracked in the movement area, and finally (e) spatial distribution map.

The above approach to pugmark tracking has been developed and got refined over three decades since it was first implemented in the year 1972 at the All India Level.

Compared to any other method of obtaining data on population of large carnivores, ‘Pugmark tracking’ is quick,--- involving about 10 days of ground preparation, 6 days of rigorous data collection, and about two to four weeks to analyse the data. It is very cost-effective or economic, and all money spent in the process goes to local tribal people who act as assistants as they possess the skill to track animals in Indian jungles. It results in data which shows which forest beat possess how many, of what sex/age and which type of large carnivore. This brings a sense of responsibility among the Guards, as none of the animals is ‘virtually’ generated through statistical interpretations. Like any study technique, Pugmark tracking also calls for sincerity for true reflection of structure and spatial distribution of the population of large carnivores.

Further reading:
Singh, L. A. K. (2000): Tracking Tigers : Guidelines for Estimating Wild Tiger Population Using the Pugmark Technique. (Revised Edition). WWF Tiger Conservation Programme, New Delhi.

pohanginapete said...

Lala (Dr Singh?): Thanks for the extra information, although unfortunately the comment should have accompanied the post about Ranthambhore, not this one. I accept that pugmark tracking has some advantages over other methods (for example, camera trapping is simply not practical in many situations because of the expense and vulnerability of the equipment, and because it uses mark-recapture methods, and I suspect when tiger numbers are low (as usual) the estimates it delivers have too much error). I like the potential for pugmark tracking to encourage local workers to assume responsibility for the tigers, and the way it can deliver benefits to local communities.

However, the primary aim of any sampling technique must be to deliver accurate and precise estimates of population parameters. A technique vulnerable to substantial operator error (it's a matter not just of sincerity, but skill) can only be useful if operator error can be accurately estimated and the population parameters corrected accordingly. Just how this could be achieved for pugmark tracking remains unclear.

Finally, in terms of the 5 categories of results you list as being delivered by pugmark tracking, I see no reason why these cannot also be delivered by the digital pugmark technique or a similar, refined method; methods much less susceptible to operator error.

Lala, I don't wish to dismiss the good work (yours?) that has been done on pugmark tracking, but I don't believe the method can be defended adequately by blaming insincere operators. If the problem of operator error (deliberate or not) could be overcome, then I'm sure the criticisms of the method would drop away. Perhaps this would be a fruitful avenue for future research?

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Lala.

Biren said...

Hi Pete,

This post is awesome. It feels as if I was there traveling with you.

I am a photographer at heart and belong to the same state of India where these villages belong, i.e., Gujarat. But I have never been able to visit this region of Barda hills.

Would you be so kind as to share some details as to where was this Guest house that you stayed in???

Biren Brahmbhatt
Gujarat, India

pohanginapete said...

Hi Biren,

The guest house was actually just the old forest service headquarters on the outskirts of the settlement, not far from the temple and the Maharajah's residence. I don't know what the situation is now (it's 7 years since I was there), but when we stayed there it wasn't officially open to the public.

The entrance road is rough and about 10 km long, but if you have appropriate transport, a visit is well worthwhile.