Monday, July 13, 2015


It seemed like the other day when Hudhud created a flutter. The fury of the cyclone laid waste veteran trees in its wake and took its toll on birds; the butterflies simply stood no chance. Birds made a modest comeback even before the natural ecology of Dolphin Hill limped back to life-as-usual. Summer has been unbearably harsh, but Nature’s resilience is such that scrubland and woods have rejuvenated on their own steam. Few showers of Vizag’s monsoon have helped the ‘weed’ understory flourish. Now nine months on, something else is creating a flutter. The hillside is trembling excitedly to the rhythm of butterflies once again. They have been tardy in returning, but they are back for sure.

The much-derided lantana camara – the ‘untouchable’ among plant kingdom, has come to the rescue. Sitting on the patio, I had been witness to few swallowtails, which were once the pride of this place, flitting over verge and low trees. Common Rose and Crimson Rose, particularly attracted attention as they doubled in size mating mid-air! The general buzz of these bugs was tantalizing, so this Sunday morning I decided to give in. In my part of the woods, where ‘weeds’ have been allowed to grow, I counted nearly 20 species of butterflies in as many minutes on a 50-metre trail by the fence. Armed with my new DSLR and a macro telephoto lens, I set out on a chase.

Most species give you the slip as they flit from flower to wildflower. Some like this tailless swallowtail – the Lime butterfly – that I went after, flap constantly proving elusive. Others like albatross and emigrants are difficult to pin down frolicking as they are, usually, in twos and threes. Tawny coasters and grass yellows were gliding energetically by a carpet of ‘coat button’ daisies (Tridax procumbens or ‘Ravana-heads’ of our childhood) and Crotalaria. I did arrest the slow flight of a tawny coaster and was surprised to see that it had an oily sheen to its wings. Thankfully, the common leopard and lemon pansy posed as they did surya namaskar (they love to sun-bathe with wings wide open) first thing in the morning.

The Calotropis procera or the Sodom’s apple that grows invasive by the roadside is considered an outcast, but it is another great butterfly magnet. Its bouquet of mauve flowers provides food for variety of butterflies from tigers to pansies and the waxy leaves are a great host for caterpillars.

In all that drama, there was also the side-show. There were caterpillars—that would metamorphose into butterflies, feeding on plants. Crickets leapt out of thickets making me jump. Bugs made my skin crawl. Common Indian Chameleons basked in the sun, lazily, watching me with a curious eye, wondering at my whimsy.

This is backyard biodiversity at its best. Such macro-life can thrive only in ‘hospitable’ conditions that may seem ‘inhospitable’ for us. Most of us think that landscaping, trimmed trees, and regimented rows of pruned foliage with big, bright flowers constitute ‘natural beauty’. That unwieldy grass or scrub with dried twigs is sight for sore eyes. How many of us know that the so-called ‘weeds’ are but wildflowers with medicinal and commercial value to mankind? It is this higgledy-piggledy wasteland we so despise that is the actual breeding ground for bugs, bees, butterflies and birds that constitute the web of life. It is not my contention that, therefore, we encourage indiscriminate growth of invasive weeds. Under controlled conditions, natural vegetation can be co-opted into ‘tree plantation’ and ‘greening’ schemes to help restore soil and micro-climate. Even as we create artificial oases, we must strive to preserve wild pockets.

Lemon pansies feeding on Sodom's apple shrub 

Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus)
Dark Glassy Tiger

Lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias)
Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus)

Great Eggfly (Hypolimnus bolina)
Common Leopard (Phalanta phalanta)

Common Indian Crow 
Tawny Coaster (Acraea violae)


Friday, July 3, 2015

Heritage on Wheels

As a suburban Mumbaikar, I grew up with local trains, their rhythm resonating with the dil ki dhadkan, as it were. Perhaps that’s why one took the railways for granted. There was nothing romantic about it; if anything it was a dehumanising saga of crowds and chaos. The seasonal travels of summer holidays were another matter and while it evokes great nostalgia even today, it did not make me particularly romance the railways. Thus I can’t claim to be an ardent rail enthusiast, certainly not the 'collector' variety.

Much later, when my son was a toddler in Wellington, Nilgiris, we embarked on the heritage BlueMountain Rail (BMR) when our sojourn in the salubrious climes came to a close. The ‘Nilagiri’ Express had just celebrated its centenary year and was still going strong. I have yet to see a railway station as quaint and back-of-the-beyond as Coonoor from where we embarked on a 'fantasy-land' journey to Ooty. I still remember vividly that as the ‘toy train’ whistled and wound its way through misty mountain passes and emerald countryside with its brooks and birds, I felt I was floating on clouds. It was an epic journey that contained in it the magic of my entire ‘Nilgiri experience’. The romance began then.

Thus, later in Kenya, I sought to track the historic Uganda Railway (UR) or the Lunatic Line as the locals branded it ominously. I visited various ‘ports of call’ from Mombasa on Kenya’s East Coast to Kisumu on the West, over three years, virtually tracing the history of the nation. 

At the legendary Tsavo station of the ‘Maneaters of Tsavo’ fame the Station Master was so overwhelmed by our presence (nobody visited him at this remote outpost) that he presented us a signal lantern from the historic era languishing in the yard. A friend—a collector of railway memorabilia—whose great grandfather had migrated from India to Kenya and worked for UR presented us with an original number plate of an engine of the erstwhile UR. Both these souvenirs corner a pride of place in my home fuelling my curiosity for railway history further.

Tsavo station in Kenya
Quaint bric-a-brac at Tsavo station

Recently, another serendipitous trophy came along in the form of an autographed book on Indian Railways by a birder friend and Railwayman, Mr. JL Singh. Indian Railways - More Miles…More Smiles is a modest anthology of assorted articles edited by him. In his words: “…all facets and aspects of this monolithic organisation have been covered and presented in various books, volumes, publications, manuals, even in novels and short stories. After much consideration and contemplation, I concluded that one dimension of the railways in our country that is not recognised, appreciated and understood is the tribe of railway enthusiasts.”

"A rail enthusiast could be interested in history of the railways, in its locomotives, coaches, wagons, its stations, signalling systems, its ticketing methods, its bridges and tunnels, or even the food served on the railway platforms," Joydeep Dutta writes in 'The Hidden Face of the Railway Enthusiast'. 

Thus you have an essay by Bill Aitken on ‘Branch Line Profit and Poetry’ ruing the conversion of Meter Gauge (MG) sections to Broad Gauge (BG), a philatelic journey of steam locomotives by Vikas Singh, a photo-essay on 'Trains in Motion', and JL Singh himself holding forth on the ‘First ladies’ and ‘Sporting Traditions’, among rivetting others. Through anecdotal information, personal histories and archival photographs the book covers diverse aspects of railway architecture, residential colonies reminiscent of the British era, engineering feats, rail modelling, Railway Territorial Army and so on. 

Sample this anecdote by rail enthusiast Ashish P. Kuvelkar in ‘Romancing the Bhore Ghat’: “Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus from Mumbai is one of the most photographed buildings in India. The erstwhile Victoria Terminus (VT), this world heritage building owes its existence to the 21-mile railway line that was laid from Boribunder near this terminus to Thanna (now Thane) in the 1850s. On this line ran the first train in India on 16th April, 1853. This 14-coach train carried 400 passengers most of them being invited dignitaries. A large crowd cheered as the train left Boribunder at 3.30 p.m. to a 21-gun salute on a day declared to be a public holiday. The train reached Thanna an hour and fifteen minutes later. Railways had arrived in India!”

While the information factoid here may not be novel, the drama certainly is and it did make me view the mundane local train commutes of my college days—daily date with the Thane creek and VT station, in a new light!  

After the sampler, we simply could not resist the opportunity this summer to travel by the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, an iconic institution. Unlike the BMR, DHR retains its original character all with coal-fired steam engine. Unlike BMR, which is meter-gauge and therefore, luxurious, the DHR is narrow-gauge making the train compartments uncomfortably compact. Moreover, the constant clickety-clack of the wheels, the shrill ear-piercing whistle, the jerks, jolts, and the sooty fumes made for a nerve-wracking journey. 

The track hugs the hill-township such that we were snooping into shops and houses. What I found particularly fascinating was that though the train makes trips everyday, everyone left their business-at-hand to stop and watch the train go by, children and adults waving out. We traversed just the Darjeeeling-Ghoom (Ghoom is India’s highest railway station) stretch but that was enough for us to appreciate the guts of those who undertook the entire journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling in the colonial era. Of course, the hills would have been much more charming and serene then.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
India's highest railway station

Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest rail networks and as an organisation, the second largest employer in India after the Indian Army. More Miles…More Smiles provides a sneak peek into this world with a tinge of nostalgia. Through this book, Editor JL Singh, a ‘rail lover’ as he calls himself, awakens the rail lover in each one of us.