His life is the poignant stuff that had once moved the pen of the legendary Munshi Premchand. This Premchand is a peasant who has aged prematurely, his face lined deeply and his greyish eyes watery with the wear and tear of strenuous existence. Here, there are no exploitative zamindars or rent-sucking colonial powers.
Chand faces the menace of wild animals and an indifferent government. Chand’s father suffered the same fate and his kids are headed for the same. His six acres sit on the frontier with jungles and ravines of the Lower Shiwaliks teeming with marauding wild boars, sambhars and neelgais.
Though Chand has fenced his fields, marauding animals at night easily jump over it. Chand shows me trails leading from the jungle to his fields that are littered with animal poop. Chand then shows me a ‘public lavatory’. This is at the intersection of dusty paths leading to different farms where neelgais relieve themselves every night after gorging on crops.
Since hunting is banned and there seem to be cultural sanctions against killing animals in Gurra, neelgais are fearless and duly deposit mounds of black droppings as a parting shot for the suffering farmers. Lack of initiative by the Punjab government to publicise its schemes has meant that Chand is unaware that government is duty-bound to fully compensate farmers for crop damage by animals. I divert from this litany of woes and cheerily ask Chand how he is going to celebrate New Year’s eve.
Chand’s words are cold as the mist lightly shrouding us: “Like every evening, I will come back to the fields at 8pm with two guard dogs and bury myself under thick quilts in the ‘machaan’. I count on my dogs to chase the stubborn animals away. It gets so cold I am reluctant to stir from my quilts even though I know animals are eating my crops.’’
EEEEEEEEEKS!Most humans are fearful of darkness. Add to it the flicker of a snake's tongue and a nightmare is in the making. This syndrome does not hold true for herpetologist Vipul Ramanuj, whose group `Bike and Hike' conducts ecological tours, including the fascinating study of nocturnal snakes such as cat snakes and venomous vipers and kraits. It was in his mid-teens that Vipul first explored the darkness around his hometown of Rajkot (Gujarat) and came up with fascinating finds. The dark harboured a brave new world, much misconceived but waiting to be discovered by India's new breed of young wildlife enthusiasts. Ever since, Vipul has been exploring the habits, habitats and prey base of nocturnal reptiles.
He also studies nocturnal geckos or lizards, which are largely under-researched, and is credited with the first sighting for Gujarat of the Kollegal Ground gecko. The Indian Egg-eater snake has also been the group's discovery. The group takes adequate precautions during night herping by wearing sturdy shoes and thick jeans, avoids 'bush-whacking' by sticking to paths and carries anti-snake venom kits along with an artificial respirator. Ramanuj with a Saw-scaled viper
Photo: Vipul Ramanuj
No group member has suffered a snakebite. During monsoons, Vipul's group moves on roads and removes snakes to prevent these creatures from being run over by vehicles. The group has saved up to 70 snakes from road-kills around Ahmedabad in a single night's work. Herping is popular in the United States, too. One of the many herpers in the US is Marissa Pierce, a well-known US fashion model who has posed for Lancome and AT & T. She is one irresistible blend of beauty and the beasts. Unlike many ladies who shriek at the sight of a mere lizard, Marissa owns more snakes as pets than pairs of high heels! Pierce lends a kinky fashion sense to night herping. Her ultimate thrill is collecting snakes at night from the Florida jungles when she and her group mates, who are mostly Adams, wander stark naked! Tailpiece: Modesty forbids me from putting her group's startling pictures here or much more than my readers' imagination would be stirred.
PATIALA GUNS UNSOLDMuch hype was generated in the local media here, laced as it was with generous doses of misinformation, over the auction on December 12, 2013, in London of a pair of 16 gauge shotguns delivered in 1929 for the Maharani of Patiala. However, these royal firearms remain unsold in the stock of Nick Holt, the Norfolk-based auctioneers of fine modern and antique guns.
This pair, custom-built by Westley Richards of Birmingham (UK) for small game shooting especially wild birds, are now up for sale by the auctioneers in 'unsold lots' for an estimated 20,000-25,000 English pounds following auction failure. It is not surprising that these guns are unsold as such auctioneers have a very wide variety of such pieces on offer. As with most exquisite English guns, the weight of this Patiala pair was just five pounds 11 ounces each, and deployed 27-inch barrels. (PHOTO CREDIT:Holts Auctioneers)
The stock of these guns was emblazoned in gold with the Patiala crest, and were commissioned by the then Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Interestingly, Bhupinder's son, Yadavindra's favoured rifle was also a Westley Richards, a .375 Magnum, which Yadavindra had mysteriously christened, `Nagin'.
The Patiala Maharajas were declared worthy of a 17-gun salute in the pecking order of the native nobility before independence. The enduring mystery, as Holt Auctioneers puts it, is which of the maharanis was the one favoured for the pair as Bhupinder Singh had enjoyed several!