Don’t Tell Anyone About Surajpur


As I got out of the car the first thing I realised was that the temperature had dropped drastically. I reached into the backseat to retrieve the down jacket that I hadn’t bothered to put on when I left from home on this freakishly early January morning.  There was, of course, the fog which was doing a fantastic job of obscuring the massive iron and wood gate that I knew lay not ten feet ahead of me.

A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters
A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters

I was standing outside Surajpur, the small, yet intense reminder of the habitat that once surrounded what we now, rather unimaginatively refer to as the National Capital Region. Surajpur is essentially a large, shallow lake, surrounded by reeds and a sparse forest. While other wetlands fell prey to residential high-rises and the occasional Formula 1  track, Surajpur survived. In fact, with a little help from the WWF and the Uttar Pradesh government, it is now thriving.

Surajpur, much like bonfires and barbecues is a part of my winter ritual. Over the last few years, it has become so engrained in my muscle memory that even wheI I write this, in a featureless, boxed-in office building on a sultry September evening, I can still catch the faint whiff of rotting vegetation. Wait! Was that the quack of a northern shoveller I just heard. Surely that can’t be true. Oh how the mind plays games!

The lake at Surajpur is home to a variety of resident birds, including Sarus Cranes, Spot-billed duck, Black-headed Ibis, Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Spoonbill, Painted stork, etc. In the winter months, however, the numbers swell with the arrival of the migrants. Walking along its sometimes overgrown paths, the occasional nilgai might just cross you.

Here’s a selection of some of the resident birdlife of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary:

One of the smallest and perhaps the most charming residents of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary are the Munias. Unfortunately, during my visits to the park, I have only spotted the Indian Silverbill, or the silver-billed Munia.

One of the largest (actually, the second largest after the graceful Sarus crane) birds of the park is also one of my favourite birds – the Black Necked Stork. Possessing a jet black neck and a menacing, almost sword-like bill, loharjung as the bird is known in Hindi, has acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. In my five years as an active birdwatcher, I have had numerous sightings of this magnificent bird, but never got as close to it as I would have desired. Surajpur was where I got the closest. This passage from the Wikipedia entry for Black Necked Stork tells an interesting tale:

The Mir Shikars, traditional bird hunters of Bihar, India had a ritual practice that required a young man to capture a black-necked stork “Loha Sarang” alive before he could marry. A procession would locate a bird and the bridegroom-to-be would try to catch the bird with a limed stick. The cornered bird was a ferocious adversary. The ritual was stopped in the 1920s after a young man was killed in the process.

Conservation planners at Surajpur have ensured that the wetland is dotted with a number of man-made islands for birds to perch and nest on. In certain cases, Surajpur Bird Sanctuary’s resident population of Purple Swamphens take over a particular island, resulting in what can appear to be a purple floating mass:

Every winter, the resident population of Surajpur welcome travellers from the steppes of central Asia and the wetlands of Siberia. Unlike Donald Trump, the spot-billed ducks and the Sarus Cranes of Surajpur have not yet passed an executive order banning seasonal migrants like Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Pochards, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.

 

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A male Northern Shoveller in all its glory
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A group of resting Teals.

The walking trail at Surajpur is essentially one long oval circuit, parts of which are often overgrown. On many a winter morning, I found myself walking through knee high grass, dripping with dew. Towards the end of the circuit, one comes across a grove, that stretches till the water’s edge. This is my favourite spot in the park. The picnickers do not make it till here, so it is often quiet, and if you sit here quietly for some time, the birds start to get accustomed to your presence.

Surajpur is a brutal reminder of what once was, and what precious little we have left. Surajpur is a cautionary tale against human greed and mindless ‘development’. Recently, I hear whispers of an ‘eco-village’ being planned on the side of the sanctuary that is the most undisturbed. Why? Why can we not let the wild things be? There is a large and very selfish voice inside me that wants nobody to know about the existence of Surajpur. This part of me does not want people to come here for picnics. This part of me does not want to see children running amok and parents running after them, dropping plastic bags and wrappers wily-nily. This part of me wants to keep Surajpur a secret.

So if you chance upon this blog, do not go looking for Surajpur. Do not share this blog on your social media timelines. Let the first and only rule of Surajpur be ‘You don’t speak about Surajpur’. So here is one last look at Surajpur before you purge its memory off your brain.

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Pelicans in the heart of New Delhi


In the recent years, Delhi has been in the news for mainly two reasons – the lack of safety for its women and the ever worsening quality of its air. So be it the shocking rapes, pollution or the other Delhi staple – politics –  you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing good could possibly come out of the city. But Delhi, in its own endearing way comes to the rescue of those like us who love this city.

We, as birdwatchers are used to travelling out of the city to take a look at the resident species and our migrant friends. We however, often overlook a gem that hides in common sight, right in the heart of this throbbing metropolis. Yes, I am taking about the Delhi Zoo, and no, I am not talking about the captive birds.

The Zoo is located under the lofty walls of Dinpanah, popularly called Purana Qila (Old Fort). Sections of the moat of the old fort were converted into water bodies and the relative protection offered by the park meant that egrets, herons, painted storks, spot billed ducks and other waterbirds started breeding here. While these birds can be seen all-year round, winters offer a special treat.

The habitat in the Delhi Zoo premises:

Every winter, a flock of Rosy Pelicans (also known as Great White Pelicans) descends on one of the water bodies, located right next to the tiger enclosure. Great White pelicans are some of the heaviest of flying birds. The birds swim effortlessly, their spotless white plumage in stark contrast to the algae-stained green waters and the even greener background of the park’s trees.

Getting the heavy bodies airborne is no mean feat, even if you are equipped with sturdy wings that span from 7 to 11 feet. Much like an airplane, the take off begins with a run, in the final stages of which the bird actually uses its webbed feet to walk on water. Once airborne, these huge birds glide through the air, gaining height and momentum with flaps of its massive wings. Touchdown involves a sudden drop to the water level and the use of the webbed feet as a brake.

The zoo is home to a flock of 30 Rosy Pelicans, all of whom live on a single water body. At the center of the lake is an island where the juveniles spend most of their time. Apart from humans, a fully grown pelican has no natural predator, but juveniles need to be careful. As I sat and observed this flock, one particular individual caught my eye. Unlike the others, it sported a rather flamboyant hairdo. The light on this winter morning was just about perfect and my camera was drawn to him over and over again.

Just look at him… can you really blame me?

Pelicans are great survivors and live and breed on all continents, except Antarctica. With their exceptional size, oversized beaks and an outlandish pouch they have fascinated nature lovers all over the world. This nifty little limerick neatly captures the weird appeal of these giants of the sky:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for the week;
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.

pelicans

BONUS IMAGES

The Delhi zoo is a good place to see birds that live in the city’s urban habitat. Although the focus on this particular trip was to observe and photograph the resident Pelicans, I did manage to capture some other birds that came my way:

 

Okhla Bird Sanctuary: A study in decay


Delhi, with its 2 crore people, buildings to house them in, vehicles to transport them is bursting at its seams. The cost of this human expansion is sadly being borne by the animals and birds that used to call this bit of geography their home. Nowhere is this terrible price clearer than at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, at the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Here are 5 things I noticed on a recent visit to the park:

The stench

The bird sanctuary is located along the eastern bank of the Yamuna, upstream of the Yamuna Barrage at Kalindi Kunj. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and multiple attempts (and crores of rupees) to clean it has yielded negligible (at best) results. As a result, the moment you enter through the gates of the sanctuary, your nostrils are assaulted with the stench of untreated sewage and human waste. Even the otherworldly beauty of the reeds on a misty winter morning does not take your mind off this olfactory onslaught.

The dogs

I love dogs, I really do! I will also confess that I usually prefer the company of canines over most humans. But even I will admit that feral dogs have no place in a protected sanctuary. Okhla is home to a number of species of endemic waders and waterfowl and most of them nest on the ground amidst the reeds. Packs of dogs roaming across the sanctuary decimate the nests and massacre the chicks. Here is hoping that the UP government comes up with a humane process for relocating the dogs that roam inside the park. (The following photographs by Sriparna Ghosh)

 The rubbish

Okhla Bird Sanctuary is popular with a wide variety of people – birdwatchers, errant schoolchildren, lovers in need of a quiet moment and even picnicking families. While most leave with pleasant memories, they leave behind bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags and all forms of refuse that have no place in a bird sanctuary. The park is also massively understaffed, which means that the garbage rarely gets collected and removed.

Where are the migratory birds?

While Okhla is home to a vide variety of endemic species, every winter thousands of migratory birds descend on the marshes. With the birds come birders like yours truly. This time, however, things were different. Sure, we did see a number of resident birds like spotted owlets, Red and Silverbilled munias, spot billed ducks and purple swamphens, but the flocks of Northern pintails, Northern shovellers, Common Teals and Eurasian Wigeons were conspicuous by their absence. According to this report by News18, it was ‘due to the pollution at the Okhla barrage as the Chhath Puja concluded recently’.

 

Some welcome changes

On my previous visit to OBS in November 2014, I encountered a bizarre set of rules. You could drive your cars / motorcycles anywhere within the park. You would also have to cough up an exorbitant Rs 500 for the privilege of carrying a camera in the sanctuary. I am glad to report that both these rules have now been scrapped. Cars remain parked outside the sanctuary gates (no designated parking) and all you pay is a Rs 30 entrance fee.

 

Have you visited Okhla Bird Snctuary recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Mobile Photography] As Seen in the City #2


This is a continuation of my photographic adventures in the city, armed to the teeth with my mobile camera. This is also an effort to convince myself (and any others that need convincing) that you do not need a DSLR to take good photographs.

No, I am not replacing my DSLR with my Nexus 5, not yet. I am using the mobile to go where the DSLR might be conspicuous or unwieldy. Let’s look at some images then:

 

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A man waits for his flight announcement at IGIA, New Delhi

 

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Vegetable seller adds a dash of colour to my street on a rain soaked morning

 

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Delhi on a rainy afternoon

 

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Continuing with the theme of precipitation: Going to work on a rainy winter morning

 

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Waiting for my dumplings to arrive, at a restaurant in McLeodgunj, Himachal Pradesh

 

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More Rains!! This time it is the seat of the government

 

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I loved the sky in this otherwise nothing photo

 

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If i could capture the spirit of my hometown Siliguri in one photo, this would be it.

My previous experiments with  mobile photography: Markets, Black and White, Delhi’s fiery sunsets and more street photography.

[Mobile Photography] As Seen in the City #1


I was a late adopter of the smartphone; and once I did, it added much fuel to my already flaming love for photography. Now I did not need to carry my DSLR around. As long as I understood the limitations of the mobile snapper and had help from an editing app, I could produce decent images.

It is true that my phone is unable to shoot in RAW, but in the next couple of years, most of the top-of-the-line phones will have that ability. Now, if the mobile OEMs can crack a practical optical zoom design, the point and shoot market should see a heavy decline. Are you listening Canon, and Nikon?

In this series within a series, I will post images from the life of Delhi and a few other cities that I keep travelling to. All the photos here have been taken with my Google Nexus5 and edited with the Snapseed app.

PS: My previous posts on Mobile Photography: Delhi Sunsets, Markets, Experiments with Black and White

 

[Mobile Photography] Markets


One central aim of this series  is to prove that you do not really need a fancy DSLR to take good photographs. Even though I do own a said fancy camera and a number of lenses, I have discovered that a decent mobile camera and a good editing app will cover most of your photographic needs.

Yes, there are restrictions when it comes to mobile photography. Your low light abilities are restricted. So is your ability to zoom in. But playing within these margins has helped me develop a my own style – one that relies predominantly more on the composition of the shot.

As I said in my previous post, all the images below have been shot on the Nexus 5 and have been edited on the Snapseed app. Though the app has options for filters, I have chosen not to apply any. Instead all of them have been edited by adjusting parameters like brightness / contrast, shadows / highlights, saturation, etc.

Today’s theme: Markets

 

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A Different Christmas


No, festivals do not excite me. The only use i see of them is the fact that you generally do not need to work on those days. But ever since I started working at a news channel, i had to say goodbye to those festival holidays as well. Because, you know, news just keeps on happening. So yes, I am not that big on festivals.

The last Christmas day was slightly different though. Everyone in my team was working and so I took advantage of the fact that that I am the boss and took some time off to join the good folks at Delhi Birds for an old fashioned bird walk. I am not big on group activities either, but the DelhiBird group is led by expert birders who know those secret little corners which I, on my own would never have known. This is how on a cold, foggy Christmas day, I landed up at Dankaur – a village in the middle of nowhere.

The map embedded above only shows you the location of the village. The spot, a now dry lake bed, was a few kms away from the village. The group met up at a designated spot in Noida before taking off towards the destination, around 50 kms away. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons. Ever since I started working in the live news environment, i lost my weekends, a sense of time and personal life. So, unlike other years, this was to be my first day out birding this season! Secondly, I had finally managed to fix my trusty motorcycle (Dope, as I call him) and this trip out of the city would test my modifications .

For the first few miles we were on the Greater Noida Expressway. Turning off the Expressway at Greater Noida we kept turning into  smaller (and increasingly more potholed)  roads till we reached what looked like a massive grassland with a shallow pond at its center. This is supposed to be the fabled spot, where, on a good day over a 100  Sarus cranes congregate. Will this Christmas day be the proverbial ‘good day’?

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Snapshot: Stills from Sultanpur


Delhi is a good place to be if you are a birder. Not only does the many parks and green belts house a significant number of species you can, much like me, observe them right off your balcony (see THIS and THIS). Then there are the immediate outskirts of the city. Numerous wetlands (albeit severely threatened) dot the vicinity of this megacity supporting a wealth of endemic as well as migratory species. But the proverbial jewel in the crown is definitely the Sultanpur National Park.
For decades, bird lovers of the city have flocked here to see the winter migrants. Peter Jackson (the ornithologist, silly, not the film director) was impressed by the habitat at Sultanpur jheel (wetland) and wrote to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to protect the area. Working on Jackson’s recommendation, Sultanpur was turned into a Bird Sanctuary in 1972 and later upgraded to a National Park in `1989. At 1.43 sq kms, this is, in all probability the smallest National Park in the world. Size, it seems does not really matter.
I have only started noticing, studying and photographing birds for a little over two years now. In fact, after I upgraded my equipment, Sultanpur was the first place i visited. While it is clear that I am yet to perfect the art of spotting a photographing the residents of Sultanpur, I will nevertheless thrust my attempts till date on you unsuspecting lot!
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Walking among Tombstones: Nicholson Cemetary


It was the summer of India’s discontent. In May 1857, Indian soldiers in the East India Company – sepoys, as they were popularly called – revolted against their colonial masters. The spark ignited in Barrackpore, near Kolkata, soon reached Meerut. Delhi, for the sepoys was the next logical step.

The sepoys met their former masters outside the gates of Shahjahanabad in September, that year. After days of bitter fighting, the British forces emerged victorious, though not without losses of their own. One of the main casualties of the uprising was Brigadier-General John Nicholson. Known as the ‘Lion of Punjab’, Nicholson was a charismatic figure whose leadership was instrumental in settling the unruly North West Frontier Province (tribal areas now on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Along with Nicholson perished many other Christians. In fact, the numbers of those killed in the uprising were so large that there was an immediate need for a new cemetery.  The area right outside the Kashmere Gate, which has seen some of the bloodiest pitched battles, was chosen as the spot to commemorate the dead. Nicholson was one of the first to be buried in it. Along with his mortal remains, he also gave this patch of land its name – the Nicholson Cemetery.

That was then. The Nicholson Cemetery of 2015 is an oasis of calm in the middle of Delhi’s transit district. It will take you a minute to get used to the sight of a metro train zooming overhead as you try to read the epitaph of a tomb from the 1860’s.

Your portal to the city of the dead
Your portal to the city of the dead
In the city of the dead
In the city of the dead
Wild and overgrown
Wild and overgrown
A grave forgotten by time
A grave forgotten by time

The cemetery today is clearly divided into two parts. The grassless, almost barren, somewhat tidy part which still inters the recently departed and the wild and overgrown remainder which is older and, needless to say, more atmospheric.

The graves in the newer part of the graveyard are more or less similar. Neatly laid out, rarely with a headstone, almost always capped by a black granite tombstone. Every now and then, an old grave pops up – a visitor from a different time, in a different space.

Home to the newly departed
Home to the newly departed
A flotsam from the distant past
A flotsam from the distant past
Resting in peace
Resting in peace
Gone but not forgotten
Gone but not forgotten

Walking among the graves, it is difficult not to notice the overwhelming number of infants and children buried here. Born in an alien land, a land of heat and dust, of malaria and cholera, very few children lived beyond the age of five. The Raj, it seems, paid a terrible price for its fortunes.

Unbearable grief
Unbearable grief

Scrawled on the grave pictured above are two lines, telling the story of an unimaginable tragedy:

Cornelius: Born and died 1st January 1868, Kussowlie
William: Born 13th and died 14th August 1869, Barrackpore

A large number of graves are also marked Deo Notus: ‘known only to God’.

These are the graves of soldiers who died anonymous, an overwhelming majority of whom perished in the Battle of 1857. There are also those who died fighting in various other outposts of the Raj – from Rangoon to Peshawar and Gwalior.

Alone in her corner
Alone in her corner
And onto the land he returned
And onto the land he returned

And then there were people who left this world rich in love. The tombstones often bear words which, even after a century and a half, continue to touch the strings of your heart.

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Tomb of the mother

The following lines were etched on the grave pictured above:

A loving wife
A mother dear
A faithful friend
When she was here
A loving hear
So true and kind
No companion on Earth
Like her you’ll find
We miss her more
Than tongue can tell
The loss is more severe
In life beloved by all so well
In Death forever dear

A beautiful black cross
A beautiful black cross
Grave of the 15 year old girl
Grave of the 15 year old girl

Among the many epitaphs i came across, the one that moved me the most was etched on the tomb of a 15 year old girl (pictured above):

“Safely safely gathered in
Far from Sorrow, Far from sin
God has saved from weary strife
In us drawn this fresh young life
For our loss we must not weep
Nor our loved one long to keep
From the Home of rest and peace
Where all sin and sorrow cease”

As I walked past one forgotten corner of the graveyard, a very familiar name appeared on a tombstone. It was the final resting place of Satya Nand Mukarji, the sixth principal of St Stephen’s College, my alma mater. He taught in the college from 1912 onwards, serving as the Principal from 1926, until his death in 1945. The hostels in St Stephen’s College are named after past principals; I happened to have spent four of the best years of my life in Mukarji West.

Oh Captain, my Captain
Oh Captain, my Captain

We end where we began – at the tomb of John Nicholson, one of the few protected by cast iron railings. The life and exploits of the Lion of Punjab lie summarised on a marble slab, looted from a Mughal Garden in Delhi in what is a somewhat fitting idiom of British rule.

In peace
In peace

Some say that, even now, on dark moonless nights, a headless Nicholson can be seen galloping through this necropolis on his otherworldly steed. Curious, considering Nicholson was shot in the chest and died with his head still attached to his torso!

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Birdwatching from my Balcony: Barbet you not!


These early spring days are the best. It seems that everyone is out to find a mate. Yes sir, even the Brown-headed Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica) that calls the park next to my balcony home.

One particular morning, in the usual rush to get to work on time, i almost missed the rather enthusiastic kutroo…kutroo…kutroo call of the male bird. I put on my Sherlockian deerstalker and decide to investigate (work be damned). A short search later, i locate the male bird, perched on the crooked branch ardently calling away.

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Hello there

He was clearly calling with an agenda. By the time i spotted him, he has been calling for an hour with no sign of tiredness. Hopping from one branch to another, his calls added another dimension to a slightly still Tuesday morning.

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Who’s that hiding behind the branch?
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Just perched here, being cool
Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

The calls, especially at this time of the year are meant to attract a female. Given the enthusiasm of the male bird, a female had to be close by. And sure, there she was, a fluffy little thing sitting coyly on a neem branch across the park.

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You talking to me?
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Yup, it’s me. Nice calling, btw!

The thing about Brown-headed Barbets are that they are rather large, ungainly birds. Along with their cousins from the Western Ghats, the White Cheeked Barbets, they are perhaps the lest visually appealing of the Barbets. But there is another of the species that nests on the Gulmohar tree near my house – the Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala).

Yup. Its me
Yup. Its me

It is a small bird and due to its predominantly green plumage it is rather difficult to spot. However, the red forehead, yellow eye-ring and throat patch with streaked underside and green upperparts gives it a fairly striking appearence.

Look ma, so pretty
Look ma, so pretty
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do

This tiny little bird has a metronomic call that is similar to a coppersmith’s hammer hitting the metal. Hence the name. The bird usually calls more during the springtime so in my native Bengal, its calls are considered to be a prologue to the golden season.

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About to fly away

I love these Barbets and I am waiting for when they come a little closer to my balcony. Till then, I leave you with this one parting shot of the little Coppersmith.

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Till we meet again!

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Central Delhi Panoromas


Nahi haal e Dehli sunane ke qabil
ye qissa hai rone rulane ke qabil

Ujade luteron ne wo qasr is ke
jo the dekhne aur dikhane ke qabil

Na ghar hai na dar hai raha ik Zafar hai
faqat haal e Dehli sunane ke qabil

‘Not worth narrating is the story of Delhi
This story is worth crying and wailing

Such places have the raiders destroyed
Which were places to see and praise

Neither home is left nor door,
Only Zafar is there to tell the story of Delhi’

Banished to Rangoon, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, penned these lines as he bid farewell to his beloved city of Delhi. In the 157 years since his rather unglamourous exit, Delhi has become the capital of India. The demographic of the formerly regional city has been turned on its head at two notable points in history: first, with the Partition, and then, with the opening of the Indian economy in the 1990s.

Like any other metropolis in the developing world, Delhi has its fair share of urban irritants –such as its crumbling infrastructure, slum clusters and the complicated fight against air pollution. The saving grace, however, is the city’s unparalleled greenery.

Conveniently located next to the historic Delhi Golf Course and in close proximity to Humayun’s Tomb, the Oberoi Hotel (particularly its rooftop restaurants) is the one of the best places to observe Delhi’s green lung. At a recent seminar, I took the opportunity to stitch together some panoramic shots of Central Delhi.

(Click to enlarge photographs)

Sweeping view of the Delhi Golf Course
Sweeping view of the Delhi Golf Course
Delhi Golf course, with Lodhi Gardens in the background
Delhi Golf course, with Lodhi Gardens in the background
Looking eastwards, across the Nizamuddin Flyover
Looking eastwards, across the Nizamuddin Flyover
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From Pragati Maidan (left) to Lajpat Nagar (right) – a slice of Delhi

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Delhi: Frames of the Past


A few months back, our organisation, Good Earth Publication received the bid to produce a coffee-table book on the monuments of Delhi from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). At the behest of the protectors of Indian antiquity, the book was to be very imaginatively titled “Monuments of Delhi”. It was to be released on the occasion of the Commonwealth Games, and possibly was the only project that was completed and delivered well before the start of the event (if it takes off at all, that is).

A coffee table book means more photographs and less words but sadly i was given the task to shoot only the smaller monuments while the task to capture the more significant ones like Humayun’s Tomb, Qutb Minar, Red Fort etc, were given to reputed free-lance photographers. But i toiled, nonetheless, in the pre-monsoon sun, which is one of the worst times to shoot monuments. Everything is dirty and the sky, for most part of the time remained a dirty shade of white. So every time there was the rare pre-monsoon shower, i remained on the tenterhooks, scooting off as soon as the rains ended and the clouds cleared to reveal a bluish sky.

 

My first destination was the tombs of Dadi and Poti. They are amongst the many tombs in Green Park, an area north of Hauz Khas village. Set side-by-side on a slight elevation along the road that leads from Aurobindo Place to Hauz Khas, the tombs of Dadi and Poti are well-preserved, though the identity of those buried within remains unclear.

The larger of these buildings is known as the tomb of Dadi (grandmother) or Biwi (mistress), and the smaller as that of Poti (granddaughter) or Bandi (maid-servant). Both tombs are built of rubble and plastered, and both follow the square pattern characteristic of Lodi tombs: with openings to the east, north and south, and their façades broken into a semblance of ‘storeys’. The western walls of both tombs are closed with mihrabs, but only the tomb of Dadi rests on a plinth.

The tombs of Dadi and Poti
Remains of the exquisite facade that once adorned the entrance to Poti’s Tomb
Graves inside Dadi’s Tomb

My next assignment took me to Begumpur Village, near Sarvapriya Vihar. It has has two Tughluq era monuments of immense archaeological significance. Of these, the Begumpuri Masjid is best preserved, while the ruined palace known as Bijay Mandal is unfortunately dilapidated.

Over the years, the village of Begumpur has been engulfed within New Delhi’s ever expanding city limits, but the Bugumpuri Masjid remains quite spectacular still.

Sanctuary of Begumpuri Masjid through its arched eastern entrance

It is generally held that Begumpuri Masjid is one of the seven mosques built by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of the great builder and restorer, Firuz Shah Tughluq. Its large, paved courtyard is enclosed by arched cloisters to the north, south and east. To the west is the sanctuary of the mosque, which is three aisles deep. The entire structure rests on a high plinth. Begumpuri Masjid, to this day remains the largest mosque in Delhi after the Jami Masjid in Old Delhi.

The courtyard, photographed from atop the cloisters on the southeastern side
Pillared cloisters surround the courtyard on three sides
The sanctuary
A part of the sanctuary that has not survived time

The façade of the prayer hall is broken by 24 arched openings and is flanked by tapering minarets. Of the arches, the central one is the highest, and the building’s most prominent feature. The prayer hall’s central compartment is surmounted by a large dome, while smaller and lower domes rise along the roof from the central aisle and from the corridors.

The main entrance to the mosque is to its east, through a domed gateway, reached by a flight of steps. Within, the Begumpuri Masjid has five mihrabs, and it has been conjectured that it might have once been connected to the Bijay Mandal.

Children playing in the mosque posed for this one!
View of Begumpur Village from the dome of the mosque
Bijay Mandal, from Begumpuri Masjid

Lal Gumbad, an elegant Tughluq-period structure, is located south of Panchsheel Park, on the road leading to Malviya Nagar. Dated to about 1397, this is the tomb of Shaikh Kabiru’d-Din Auliya, a disciple of the Sufi saint Shaikh Raushan Chiragh-i-Dihli, whose dargah is in the urban village of Chiragh Delhi, barely a kilometre east of Lal Gumbad.  Chiragh-i-Dihli himself was a disciple of Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya, whom he succeeded as the head of the Chishti sect.

Built on a plinth about a metre high, the tomb consist of a square chamber whose walls are faced with red sandstone. The building is surmounted by a conical dome that rises on an octagonal drum. This dome is reminiscent of the one in Ghiyathu’d-Din Tughluq’s tomb. The dome was once topped with a golden finial, which was stolen. Thieves used iron rings (called rakab) to scale its western wall, thus giving the tomb its popular name of Rakabwala Gumbad

Lal Gumbad is entered through a pointed arch on the east, decorated with marble bands, which faces the mihrab on the western wall. Within, its northern and southern walls are adorned with intricate sandstone jaali screens. East of Lal Gumbad is a smaller domed building, which probably served as the gateway to the tomb enclosure.

Lal Gumbad
Remains of smaller contemporary structures in the Lal Gumbad complex

The Khaljis came to rule Delhi in 1290, and so turbulent were these times that only six years later the third king of this dynasty, Alau’d-Din Khalji, ascended to the throne, and was responsible for building the second city of Delhi.

This was the city of Siri, which Alau’d-Din Khalji began building in 1303, and it was also the first originally Islamic city of Delhi. Little remains of it now because the city was destroyed by Sher Shah Suri, who used the rubble to build his own city, Shergarh. What survives are some stretches of thick stone walls near Panchsheel Park, the Asiad Village and Khel Gaon Marg.

These walls still have some bastions, some holes through which to shoot arrows, and battlements shaped like ‘flames’, a feature that makes its first appearance here. Nothing of the palaces within has survived, though there are a few derelict buildings in Shahpur Jat, a village near the Siri Fort Sports Complex, from this period.

All that remain – Ruins of the walls of Siri

The nearby Hauz Khas reservoir (later in the post) was dug by Alau’d-Din Khalji, and originally called Hauz-i-‘Ala’i. Its waters served the needs of Siri’s inhabitants.

 

According to the medieval traveller Ibn-Battuta, Alau’d-Din Khalji was not just a great builder but ‘one of the best of sultans, and the people of India are full of his praises’. Besides Siri, Alau’d-Din Khalji also built the beautiful Ala’i Darwaza near the Qutb Minar.

On the peripheries of the old city of Siri is a monument that dates to a much later period, when Delhi was ruled by the Lodi dynasty from 1451 to 1526. Set within an enclosed courtyard, the Muhammadwali Masjid can be found just north of the entrance to the Siri Fort Sports Complex. There is a gateway made of dressed stone leading into the courtyard. Within, the prayer chamber of the mosque has three bays, the middle one of which is domed.

Muhammadwali Masjid
Dome of the Muhammadwali Masjid from the inside
Remains of beautifully engraved niches

The eastern façade of the building contains arched niches in red sandstone and one can still see vestiges of the blue tiles that once decorated the wall. Further decoration remains on the ceiling, which has patterns of intersecting red bands on it. Originally, the mosque had chajjas (eaves) as evidenced by some extant brackets.

When Alau’d-Din Khalji built the city of Siri, in 1303, he also excavated a vast tank to provide water for his subjects. Originally named Hauz-i-Ala’i, it is now called Hauz Khas. A medieval alcove surrounded by modern bustle and construction, Hauz Khas is located just off Aurobindo Marg, south of Green Park.

Half a century after Alau’d-Din built the tank, Firuz Shah Tughluq gained Delhi’s throne, taking great pains to restore and expand many of the monuments built by previous dynasties. Not only did he de-silt Hauz Khas but he also erected several buildings along its eastern and southern banks.

Hauz Khas and the surrounding architecture
Hauz Khas and the surrounding architecture -II

So great were the proportions of Alau’d-Din Khalji’s tank that even the conquering Mongol, Timur, who blazed through Delhi at the close of the fourteenth century and pitched camp by these waters, was impressed. It is ‘so large,’ he wrote, ‘that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other’. A century after the tank’s construction, it was still fulfilling it’s original function, for Timur went on to note that it ‘is filled with rainwater and all the people of Delhi obtain water from it year round’.

The tank that exists today was built by the Delhi Development Authority and, though pleasing and inhabited by a variety of waterfowl, bears little resemblance to the original and almost a quarter of its original size.

The most prominent structure in the Hauz Khas complex is Firuz Shah’s tomb, a square chamber built on a low plinth and surmounted by a lofty dome. The tomb’s entrance is to its south, while its northern and western walls have narrow arched openings leading to adjacent buildings. Its eastern and southern façades are each broken by an archway, which acts as a door.

Over the southern doorway, there is an inscription dated to 1507 AD, when the then ruler Sikandar Lodi ordered some repairs to the tomb. There is also a courtyard outside the southern entrance, surrounded by a stone fence that is typical of early Buddhist stupas, and has here been elegantly mingled with features of Islamic architecture.

Although the tomb is fairly austere in appearance, the severity of its construction is broken by a decorative panel of red sandstone and marble, and carved battlements. Within are four graves, of which the central one is believed to be that of Firuz Shah, and two others of his son and grandson.

Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb
Chhatris around Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb
Chhatris around Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb

Contiguous with the tomb, to its north and west, are a series of two-storeyed buildings rising along the banks of Hauz Khas. These were built by Firuz Shah as a madrasa (or school of theological learning); and to their north is a mosque. An unusual feature of this mosque is that the obligatory mihrab on its western wall is pierced by arched windows.

The madrasa, which once attracted both students and teachers from across the Islamic world, is designed in an L-shape, and its many chambers are decorated with latticed windows, medallions in stucco, lotus motifs, painted ceilings, projecting balconies (jharokha) and deep niches. An independent building to the south-west served, in all probability, as the principal’s residence. The principal during Firuz Shah’s reign was Sayyid Yusuf, who is buried in the courtyard of the college.

There are several other tombs in this area. It is not know who is buried in them, but archaeologists believe that at least some must belong to teachers of the madrasa.

Today, Hauz Khas village is a pleasant labyrinth of narrow lanes, many lined with boutiques and popular restaurants. The village also has a Deer Park, which contains the beautifully preserved Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad, an early sixteenth-century Lodi tomb.

Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Madrasa

While most of previous assignments were in south Delhi, this one took me to Central Delhi. Within the premises of Delhi Golf Club on Zakir Husain Road, are two tombs collectively known as Lal Bangla, or the ‘red bungalow’.  The larger of these tombs is supposed to contain the graves of Lal Kunwar, mother of Shah Alam II (Mughal emperor of India in the latter half of the eighteenth century) and Begam Jan, his daughter. It is uncertain whether the monument derives its name from Lal Kunwar or the profuse use of red (lal) sandstone in the structure.

Laid on a similar plan, both tombs consist of a square central chamber with square rooms on the corners connected by halls. Both structures are surrounded by arcaded verandahs, while the smaller tomb, though built on a less elaborate scale, has a disproportionately large double dome.

The main gateway to the tomb enclosure is to its south. It is decorated with arched niches, sandstone brackets and octagonal chhatris on either side.

The bigger of the two banglas!
Unnamed tomb in the Delhi Golf Club

One of my favourites…

Peacock on the gateway of Lal Bangla

Najaf Khan’s Tomb is located southeast of the tomb of Safdar-Jang, opposite the Safdarjang Airport. Najaf Khan came to India in the early eighteenth century from Persia when the Delhi throne was occupied by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Later, Najaf Khan entered the service of Shah Alam II and attained a high position in his court.

The tomb, constructed by Najaf Khan in his lifetime, is set in the centre of a large enclosure, which has a gateway to the east. The enclosure was landscaped to a Mughal-style charbagh (explained later) garden and has been amazingly restored by the ASI. The mausoleum has bastions on each of its four corners and is entered through a projecting arched entrance on its eastern side. From here, a vaulted passage leads to the central grave chamber. The tomb’s two marble cenotaphs are inscribed and belong to Najaf Khan and his daughter, Fatima, who died in the early nineteenth century. The real graves, however, are in one of the two chambers at the core of the platform on which the mausoleum stands.

The austere tomb of Najaf Khan sits in a beautiful garden
A close-up of the tomb

The Mughal tradition of erecting a grand mausoleum in the middle of a garden that started with the Humayun’s Tomb would end in the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abu’l Mansur Khan. Better known as Safdar-Jang, he was the viceroy of Oudh (modern Lucknow) under the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-48).

According to an inscription on the eastern entrance to the tomb, it was constructed in 1753-54 by Nawab Shuja’u’d-Daula, the son of Safdar-Jang. The sprawling square garden, which measures 300 m on each side, is enclosed within high walls. These walls, with channels over them to carry water to the various pavilions, contain a series of recessed arches on the inside. On four corners are octagonal towers, covered by hemispherical domes (chhatris). Following the convention of the Mughal charbaghs, the garden is divided into four squares by wide pathways and tanks.

Safdarjung’s Tomb – Shot from the western side
Safdarjung’s Tomb srom the main entrance.

The complex is entered through an impressive double-storeyed gateway at the centre of its eastern wall. The mosque on its second storey, built of red sandstone, was added much later. At the centre of the other walls are several multi-chambered spacious pavilions – Moti Mahal (north), Badshah-Pasand, or the ‘king’s favourite’ (south) and Jangli Mahal (west).

Safdar-Jang’s tomb stands at the heart of the enclosure. This double-storeyed structure, measuring 18.3 m sq, is built of red sandstone and is lined with white marble. The central chamber of the tomb, directly under the dome is square and is surrounded by eight apartments. The corner rooms are octagonal while the remaining are rectangular. While the central chamber has one cenotaph, the underground chamber directly beneath it has two graves. The other grave is presumably that of Safdar-Jang’s wife. The building is capped by a bulbous dome that rises from an octagonal base.

The mausoleum rests on a high platform which is faced by a verandah lined with arched openings.
Another view. Notice the towers on four corners of the tomb

On each corner of the tomb are polygonal towers, inlaid with striking designs in white marble and covered with chhatris. The four facades of the tomb are built on similar lines. They have a central cusped arch, framed in marble and red sandstone, through which the tomb is entered.

Ceiling of one of the entrance chambers of Safdarjung’s Tomb
A closer view
The main dome of Safdarjung’s Tomb from the inside

Incidentally, the marble and red sandstone used in the tomb of Safdar-Jang were pillaged from the tomb of Abdu’r Rahim Khan Khan-i-Khanan, located around a kilometre south of Humayun’s Tomb. With its large garden enclosure, Safdar-Jang’s tomb is laid out on the pattern of its prototype – Humayun’s Tomb, but is set apart by structural differences. The tomb has often been described as ‘the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi’.

And this is to go..

Drama!

Indian Ocean Forever


College opened a whole world of experiences for me. I came to Delhi in 2002 to study history at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi from the small town of Siliguri on the foothills of the Himalayas in northern Bengal. I had been sheltered and protected like only Bengali parents are known to and it was for the first time that i tasted limitless freedom. Whatever happened as a result of that limitless freedom is very entertaining but not pertinent to to this story.

Before college, music for me meant the Hindi and Bangla oldies and being trained in Hindustani Classical from a very tender age, semi classical music and Rabindrasangeet. I still remember that evening. It was my very first day in the hostel and i was called by a menacing senior to his room for a session of ‘positive interaction’ which included familiarization with certain college traditions like the Blacksmith’s Song, the Oath, the Bhajan and other sundry.

So there i was, standing in the very unflattering stance that you need to take while reciting the Oath when i heard the most beautiful musing wafting i through the air. It was like nothing i have heard before. As the hours rolled by and my knowledge of the traditions of the great institution grew, so did an immense curiosity for the music playing in the background. By the time i was allowed to go to bed, the music was long gone. Next morning i was back in my room during a break in the classes and heard the same music playing through the corridor. I followed a sound like a hound follows the smell and knocked on the door from which the music was coming. Knocking on the door of a senior on the second day of college meant suicide, but as luck would have it, the door was opened by a gentle soul who was perplexed to see me standing there.

He turned out to be a third year physics student and did not possess the urge to interact positively with the first years. Muttering a few apologetic words, i mustered the courage to ask him the name of the artist. That was the very first time i heard of INDIAN OCEAN. To this day, my dear friends, i have never looked back and my appreciation of the band and their music has only grown.

Rahul Ram – Vocals and bass

Its been over eight years now and in this time, i have attended more than 30 of their concerts in various college fests, charity events and music festivals across Delhi. I remember one time when i was in my second year of college, i had gone to the festival of Miranda House, where my girlfriend was and together we eagerly waited in the crowd for Indian Ocean to take the stage. Imagine our surprise when we saw the band members standing in the crowd, chai in hand, waiting for the setup to be done. I took the chance to talk to Amit Kilam, the percussionist and was surprised by how down-to-earth he was. I had to get an autograph but had neither a pen not any paper. A quick search of the girlfriend’s bag produced a couple of tissues and a stick of kajal. I still have to tissue somewhere, inside one of my books, perhaps. I have not seen it in years and as i was writing this, i promised myself to look for it as soon as i am done .

Amit Kilam – drums and the gabgubi
Sushmit Sen – Guitars
Asheem Chakraborty – vocals and percussions

Indian Ocean’s music defies genre and paradigm. It is an experience by itself and the very essence of this experience is the live performance. I lived for these soulful moments when the foursome poured their hearts and souls out on the stage. There was always something new and there was always life.

In the college days, i was always jealous of people shooting at Indian Ocean concerts. So one of the first thing i did after i got the camera was to go to an Indian Ocean concert. Since then i have shot at a number of concerts but always from the crowd and always at night.

Magnified!
Silver Lining
Blessed
The quiet guy

My favourite moment in any Indian Ocean concert is the performance of Ma Rewa. Love the way Amit and Rahul spar with the guitar and the gabgubi. Almost a dance. Then later is the duet between Amit on the drums and Asheem on the tabla.

The Ma Rewa routine
Frozen
Green Haze
The many moods of Mr Ram
The many moods of Mr Ram – II

The last time i went to a concert was in September 2009, shortly after which Asheem collapsed at the airport after a heart attack. Even though he recovered, he never really got better and finally left us on Christmas day. Frankly, since Asheem’s passing i am somewhat in doubt if i would want to go to another concert. I mean, Indian Ocean cannot be Indian Ocean even if one of them is removed. The music would not be the same. I am not sure i want to find out how much my favourite sound has changed. Not anytime soon. For the same reason maybe, i haven’t heard any of the songs from the latest album, Khajoor Road.

Soul Power!
Frozen – II

Maybe one day i will go to another Indian Ocean concert and maybe i will shoot more, but for the time being, its time to say goodbye. I have to find the tissue with the autograph in it.

And to conclude, here is my favourite photograph from this lot.

Unleash!!

Ramzan in Delhi


Last Ramzan (August-September 2009) Aamir and I along with some other friends from Genpact (where i used to work earlier) went for an iftar mission to Old Delhi. Lucky for me, i decided to take my camera along. I took some shots and while i sat and looked at them, the desire to do something different with them became increasingly stronger.

I have always been inspired by graphic and comic book art and one of my very few regrets in my life is that i cant draw to save my life. Even in the digital domain, my knowledge is immensely limited. So i summoned up whatever knowledge i could and worked on the pics. Here are my first baby steps to graphic-city

ramzan project 1

ramzan project 2

ramzan project 4

ramzan project 6

ramzan project 7

ramzan project 8

ramzan project 9

ramzan project 12

ramzan project 13

ramzan project 14

ramzan project 15

ramzan project 16

ramzan project 17

ramzan project 18

ramzan project 19

ramzan project 21

ramzan project 22

ramzan project 23

ramzan project 25

ramzan project 26

Until we meet again, friends…

One Sunday Afternoon in November


The cold is beginning to set in on Delhi. While the days are still warm, the evenings have this endearing way of reminding you that its time to enjoy Delhi to the fullest.  Sadly, Sundays are all i have to soak in the warmth of the winters… load my mind with fresh memories to last me through the next summer. Yesterday, i woke up at 1 in the afternoon feeling rather cross with myself for having wasted almost a half of this precious 1 day i get to myself.

Saturday was lost in a haze of dust and smoke. The entire city lay shrouded with the depressive smog and i kept wishing that Sunday would be better. As soon as i woke up on Sunday, i rushed out of bed and stuck my head out of the window to look at the tiny patch of sky visible between the lane cramped with buildings. And i saw blue…however faint it was, blue nonetheless. It was time for me to head to Aadilabad. It is THE place for me in Delhi. I still remember the time in my second year when i stood on the ramparts of this deserted, overgrown fort and said to myself  “God, i love Delhi”.

Very few people are in fact aware of the presence of Aadilabad. Located on the other side of the road from Tughlaqabad, it can be reached by crossing the dust bowl, full at this time by youngsters enjoying a nice game of cricket. At first sight, it looks monstrous and overgrown…intimidating and foreboding to some…but for me, it is a place where i thrive. Thoughts fall into place, and i find myself in the ‘zone’ as i stand and stare from the high ground, across the plain on to the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and the epic backdrop of Tughlaqabad.

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Aadilabad was borne out of the whims of Muhammad Bin Tughluq. After the death of his father Ghiyasuddin, he decided to build his own citadel. For this, he chose the hill directly facing Tughlaqabad, the fortress his father built. At that point of time in the middle of the 14th century, what is now the dust bowl, was a lake. He had his problems with his father, but now they lie in the eternal sleep under the same roof, exactly midway between the citadels they built.

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You can take a bike up to the base of the hill and then proceed to climb over the rocks to reach the main entrance.

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Tughlaqabad is built on a much larger scale, but lacks the appeal that Aadilabad carries. The absence of a road leading up to it, the creepers growing through the rocks, no names on the walls… alright, very few names on the walls, and most importantly, SILENCE – this is Aadilabad.

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The Archaeological Survey of India is undertaking some renovation work on the fort. The workers on the projects live in these little hutments inside the outer walls of the fort. Funnily enough, go back 700 years and the same people would have lived in the same way (minus the plastic sheets), in the same part of the fort. The inner citadel was no place for squatters.

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Squatters of a different kind.

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The old, naked, disembowelled walls…How i love them!

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Friend, bitch, reluctant partner in crime(s).

PS: Tughlaqabad walls in the background.

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This is where i always sit!

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Looking inwards into the fort. Where we are is a giant bastion. In front of us lies the ruins of a great palace. Still discernible are a large hall full of arches, a pillared hall, several chambers and the foundations of what can only be an elaborate hammam. At one point of time this was one of the finest palaces in the world. At least Ibn Batuta thought so!

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This picture was taken from the bastion looking onto the squatters’ village. The kid was walking around in between the huts and stopped just short of a junction of two tracks left by passing livestock. The wild hedges, the littered garbage and the dusty kid made it look like life had been annihilated of the face of the planet and she is the lone survivor, surveying the remains of the day!

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There is a method in madness, order in chaos, beauty in squalour and a hearth in front of a home.

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The thing about plants is that they dont need an excuse to grow. I want to be a plant!

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I have lost weight and i dont own a belt. So i put my hands in the pockets so that it does not fall down.

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Khandahar!

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This side of the fort was less crowded. It was away from the road, the cricket-bat wielding crowd and the voices in my head. We sat here on a rock and stared at nothing. Yet we saw everything. Then suddenly a muezzin sang the Azaan. If somehow you minus the jhuggis outside the fort, the jets passing overhead and the distant honking of horns, you can actually go back in time. The fort would have been the same 3oo years back. So would have been the language, tune and appeal of the Azaan. All you need to do is block out the inconsequential, the mundane, the ephemeral.

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Come with me… lets take a walk on the wild side!

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Kids are always a joy to watch and photograph. The one on the right found the cricket ball in one of the thickets and that made his day! This frame, i think, defines friendship.

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Then they turned back to look at Imroz and me.

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When they saw the camera, they called out some names and out of nowhere more little boys materialised for a photo. …and i thought that the fort was deserted. Over the next half an hour, we became very good friends. The kid with the ball would even let us play ‘catch-catch’ with it. We parted after exchanging locations of secret hideouts in the fort and batting techniques.

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Imroz has ugly hands.

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One thing i hate about winters is the short days. I could have happily spent a couple more hours here. On one hand was the fading daylight and on the other was Imroz going on and on about how we are only wearing tee shirts and the later we leave the colder its going to get. What do i do with this guy?

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Thats him stepping outside the fort. The field stretches ahead. Games are being wrapped up and goatherds return home with their flock. We would go back hime and wait for the monday to come and drive the blues away!