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Title: Free from School
Author: Alvares, Rahul
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Free from School" ***

                           Free From School

                            Rahul Alvares
                           22nd August 2003

It's not every day that a 16 year old writes a book. In fact, girls and
boys of that age are supposed to spend their time studying what other
people write. It is presumed that at that age they do not themselves
have anything significant or interesting to say. And the education
system guarantees just that. The best rewards go to those who can
parrot set answers to set questions in examination halls. Those who try
to use their imagination or reply differently are often punished with
low grades.

Rahul Alvares did not set out to write a book. Under the encouragement
of his parents, he consciously set out to try his hand at learning
things outside the school framework and you might say as a result, Free
From School actually came looking for him! After his SSC, unlike his
other classmates, he opted out of schooling to follow his instincts:
fond of reptiles, he chased them up at the Pune Snake Park and at the
Crocodile Bank at Mamallapuram. In the process, he also picked up
trails of spiders, earthworms and turtles. He caught snakes in the
company of Irula tribals. He got bitten by hot-tempered reptiles. He
came out of it all grinning and wiser.  'Free From School' is his story
of a year out of school, when the learning graph of his young life went
up leaps and bounds. He wrote it to encourage other boys and girls his
age to move out of the sterile school and college environment offered
by India's antiquarian educational system, if they wish to experience
another side to life and learning. He lost nothing but gained a lot. So
did his parents. When you read his story, so will you.

This book has been originally published by the Other India Press,
Mapusa, Goa.  Copies of the print version are available from
oib@sancharnet.in or The Other India Press, Above Mapusa Clinic, Mapusa
403507 Gao.  Tel. 0091.832.2263306

Copyright (c) 2003 Rahul Alvares

Permission is granted to copy of distribute this document under the
terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later
version published by the Free Software Foundation.  The author however
requests anyone downloading this book to make a donation
(recommendation $2 or Rs 50) to a group working for the cause of
wildlife, particularly in Goa.  If you would like to know of Rahul
Alvares' preferences on which group could be supported, contact him at


Chapter  1: A Fish Shop in Mapusa
Chapter  2: Learning a Bit of Farming
Chapter  3: Plant Festivals
Chapter  4: Learning about Mushrooms
Chapter  5: A Trip to Kerala
Chapter  6: Snakes Alive!
Chapter  7: A Vacation within a Vacation
Chapter  8: Earthworms
Chapter  9: Spiders
Chapter 10: Crocodile Dundee
Chapter 11: Learning to Teach
Chapter 12: You Have Sight, I Have Vision
Chapter 13: Surveying a Forest
Chapter 14: Chief Guest At Belgaum

Chapter 1: A Fish Shop in Mapusa

You must try to understand that when I finished school I was as raw as
raw could be. I had never travelled anywhere on my own, never purchased
a train ticket, since like most kids my age I had only travelled with
my parents or relatives and they made all the decisions. I had no
experience of how to handle money (my knowledge being limited to
spending the 50 paise or one rupee I would receive as pocket money now
and then).

So while I had set my sights on travelling far and wide my parents
wisely thought that I should begin by learning to manage on my own
within Goa itself. It was also the rainy season and travelling around
the country would be much more difficult they explained.

So I started out by helping at an aquarium shop in Mapusa, the town
nearest my village. The proprietor of the shop is Ashok D'Cruz, a
college friend of my father's. I must tell you about Ashok. He is no
ordinary businessman: keeping fish is a passion with him. He is far
more interested in chatting with his customers about fish than making
money selling them. I have never seen him forcing any of his customers
to buy from his stock of aquarium fish.

In fact, it was Ashok who introduced me to the amazing world of
aquarium fish way back when I was just nine and studying in Class V.
Under his guidance then, I experimented with breeding guppies, platties
and mollies, fairly simple types of fish to breed. However, it was a
matter of great excitement for me at that time to be successful in my
experiments and Ashok was generous enough to even buy back from me the
baby fish I reared just to encourage me. Later I developed sufficient
confidence to experiment with and breed more difficult types of fish,
like Siamese Fighting Fish and Blue Guramies-all under the expert
tutelage of Ashok.

So it was to Ashok's shop that I went every morning at 9.00 a.m.,
speeding on my bicycle to be on time. I would stay there until lunch
time, a regular hands on, doing whatever I was asked to do.

Ashok's shop is not very large. It is a two-roomed shop on the ground
floor of the Gomes Catao complex. It has a display section in front and
a store room at the back. The showroom has about twenty fish tanks on
display with a variety of fish that Ashok purchases mainly from Mumbai.
Each tank stores a particular species of fish. Ashok's shop is located
away from the main market area so he does not have the advantage of
casual customers dropping by. However Ashok has his regular customers
and there are always at least twenty to thirty customers daily.

During my first few days at his shop, my work was only to watch the
tanks, clean those which were dirty, remove the dead fish and do some
other small jobs. I also fed the fish and treated the wounded and
diseased fish. Sometimes, I also attended to customers. Gradually, I
began to accompany Ashok on his rounds to various places.

A gentleman in Moira wanted to set up an aquarium at his home. He had a
tank. He also had definite ideas about how he wanted it to finally look
and Ashok was called to see how it could all be done. The man sent his
car for us. At his house we discussed the location of the tank,
lighting arrangements, the water filters, the kind and quantity of fish
he would like to have, and maintenance. After we were fully satisfied
that we had everything right and had noted down his requirements, we
returned to Mapusa. Later he came for the material which we kept ready
for him.

Another time I accompanied Ashok to a client's office to put a pair of
Dwarf Guramies in the fish tank and to fix a picture as a backdrop for
the tank. On such visits I watched care fully what Ashok did and soon
enough Ashok started sending me on my own to visit some of his clients
who had small or simple problems.

I went to clients to fix aquarium equipment such as air pumps and
filters, to fix toys in the tanks, to check fish for diseases or if
there was a sudden crisis such as fish dying in numbers, or if a client
wished to add more fish to his collection. I was sent to collect
overdue payments or simply to enquire the aquariums were doing.
Sometimes I went on my own to visit some of the places where we had set
up tanks and enjoyed watching the fish swimming happily in their new

One day my employer decided to send me as a spy to find out the prices
of fish and fish food at a competitive fish shop. I tried to behave
like a casual customer and walked coolly into the competitor's shop and
gradually began to ask the prices of fish and fish food. After I had
found out what was needed I bought a pair of cheap Black Mollies from
his shop just to show him that I was a genuine customer. From the
information I got, we found Ashok's to be comparatively cheaper than
the competitor.

During this period I improved my knowledge about aquarium fish
tremendously. This was mainly due to two things. Firstly, I had spent a
lot of time observing the fish at Ashok's shop and getting practical
experience from the places we visited. Secondly, I had been reading the
fish books that my father bought for me as a gift for getting a
distinction in my SSC exam. The books were quite expensive but well
worth the cost. Being able to get theoretical knowledge and practical
experience at the same time gave me a lot of confidence with regard to
aquarium fish.

One of the important highlights of my experience at Ashok's was
learning to make fish tanks. Ashok told me that since we were going
through a slack period, he would teach me how to make fish tanks. I had
to start from basics which meant purchasing glass for six tanks, having
the glass pieces cut to specifications and then having the pieces
delivered at the shop without a scratch.

I had accompanied Ashok on several occasions earlier to the glass shop
and watched as he ordered glass explaining his requirements, or having
a piece re-cut because it was done wrongly. In fact, I had been sent
often to the glass shop for small purchases so I was fairly familiar
with the owner and the procedures. Ashok had even taught me how to
calculate the price of glass. Still it was a new experience for me when
Ashok handed me some money and gave me general directions on what to do
and I was on my own.

I managed to purchase the glass and also to get it cut to size. So
far, so good. Now came the difficult part of transporting the glass
pieces to the shop. I wondered whether I should get a rickshaw for the
purpose but was a little hesitant since I hadn't checked what it would
cost for the trip, short though it would be. While I was trying to make
up my mind by testing the package for its weight, the shopkeeper
assured me that I would be able to handcarry the glass to Ashok's shop,
which is what I finally did.

I started out. In the beginning, it was no problem. However, the
package grew heavier and heavier as I trudged up the road to Ashok's
shop with rickshaws, taxis and motorcycles honking away on all sides.
Even before I reached my destination I doubted the wisdom of my actions
for I was tired and my arms ached but I dared not put down the glass
simply because it was glass. When I finally reached the shop I heaved a
sigh of relief that the glass was intact. Ashok was horrified at my
decision and understandably very angry too for as he explained to me
should I have had an accident on the way the consequences would have
been disastrous and he was after all responsible for me! I truly learnt
an important lesson that day.

Learning to make an aquarium tank is great fun. One has to first plan
the size of the tank. For this one must first decide on the length of
the tank. After that, the height and the breadth are to be
proportionately calculated. The sides of the glass are held together
with silicone, which is a glue, and which feels like rubber when it
hardens. Silicone does not dissolve in water. The tricky part is being
able to apply the silicone only to the edges of the glass and not
letting your sticky fingers touch any other portions of the glass.
Otherwise, the glass will look dirty, for the silicone marks will stay
like a fingerprint on the glass forever. After the tank is resealed on
the inside with silicone (to give double protection), it is left for a
day to dry. The next day it is tested by filling with water and if all
is well the tank is ready for sale and can be delivered to the

After I was taught how to do the first tank, I started helping with the
rest. I recall how once by mistake I stuck the glass upside down.
"There's something fishy about the looks of this tank," said Ashok.
When he realized what my mistake was, he very nearly put me into the

My first opportunity at testing my skills at finding out the reasons
for "fish dying in an aquarium" (the most common complaint from
customers) came when the manager of Hotel Osborne in Calangute asked
Ashok to come and examine their aquarium on the hotel premises. The
fish were dying, he said. The owner of the hotel was a very good
customer of Ashok's and so Ashok was keen to solve the problem. However
as he could not go himself that day and did not wish to delay matters,
he decided to send me instead. He gave me the manager's visiting card,
directions to the hotel, some fish medicines and a pump to install in
place of the old one which was defective and I was on my own. I was
proud and happy that Ashok felt confident to entrust me with such an
important job.

I left in the evening for the hotel. I found it with no problem at all.
It was a large hotel with lovely lawns and a swimming pool. I walked
into the hotel proudly, with my head held high, and tried to act as if
I were a very experienced fish doctor. I went and met the manager. He
told me which fish had died. I searched for symptoms of disease but
found none. I then realised that the problem was very simple and one
that is very common: a case of overfeeding. Fish require food in
proportion to their size but often people put more food than necessary
into the tank. The extra food makes the water cloudy and polluted and
this causes the fish to die.

I cleaned the tanks, replaced the pump, checked the filters and showed
the hotel staff how to feed the fish. I even managed to do some sales
work by selling them some fish medicines which they could keep as
standby and made a bill for them on the bill book that Ashok had given
me. They seemed satisfied with my work and made me a cup of tea, which
I didn't drink because I don't drink tea. After I had finished I
couldn't wait to tell Ashok about my experience.

During this period, I took the opportunity once to visit fish shops in
Panjim which I had heard about but had not yet seen. The occasion came
when my 3-gear cycle broke down and I needed to go to Panjim to get
spares. I tried to persuade my mother to get them for me from Panjim
since she went there often. She refused, saying that I should learn to
do things on my own. That's when I thought of making a whole-day trip
to Panjim to buy the spares, visit fish shops and also make a few
purchases for Ashok.

The next day, I accompanied my mum to Panjim where she showed me a few
essential places and then left me on my own. I was a bit nervous but
was determined to manage somehow. I first went to the Kamat restaurant
to eat as I was hungry. I was amazed at how much it cost me to fill my
stomach outside home! After that, I searched for a shop from where I
could purchase silicone (Ashok's errand). After a lot of asking around
I found the place. Then I looked for the cycle shop, found it quickly
enough but discovered that the item I wanted was out of stock and would
be available only the next week.

I was then free to visit the two fish shops I had in mind: "Bislin" and
"Something Fishy". Bislin was well stocked and had many types of exotic
fish but I found it very expensive. I chatted with the people who ran
the shop (it is a family business). They also kept birds for sale.
After watching the fish for sometime I decided to go to Something Fishy
which was just around the corner. At Something Fishy, I was
disappointed at first sight to see very few fish. The shop assistant
told me that as they were expecting fish the following weekend almost
all their tanks were empty. But what I saw remaining in the display
tank amazed me. I saw man-eating piranhas with my own eyes for the
first time in my life! However, the piranhas were quite timid and shy.
Apparently, it is only when they are kept hungry that they become
ferocious meat-eaters. Something Fishy also had exotic fish called
Black Ghost which sold at Rs.3000 a pair!

Apart from learning about fish at Ashok's shop I gained a lot of other
valuable experience.

I had never done banking before. But one day Ashok casually asked me if
I would go to his bank to withdraw some money. I didn't feel like
telling him that I had no idea of how to go about doing this. Instead I
asked for directions to the bank and set out. Somehow I figured my way
around and got the job done. I was sent many times after that to the
bank to deposit and withdraw money.

Although I had all the time in the world at my disposal I found it was
not the easiest thing for me to effectively manage my time. Several
times I would be speeding away on my bicycle to Ashok's shop because I
had woken up late that morning. Or I had to push my lunch hour till
later because I had not completed all my tasks for the day. It was an
experience learning to plan my day properly and I would feel quite
pleased with myself when I got things right on my own.

I also gained a lot of valuable insights into my own hobbies and
interests since for the first time in my life I was on my own and free
to make decisions or experiment with ideas I thought worthwhile.

I discovered that I have a great passion for reading books. I used to
go every morning to the library, on my way to Ashok's shop, and pick up
something to read during my free time. My favourite books were the
Hardy Boys and I finished practically the entire series while I was at
Ashok's. I also enjoyed comics like Tintin and Phantom.

Evenings, after I had finished with Ashok's shop, I would listen to the
FM radio music programmes. Like any other teenager, I like fast and
loud music. Fortunately, my aunt Allison visiting us from Canada gave
me a walkman which enabled me to play my music without disturbing the
others. I thought about starting to learn the guitar but my parents
advised against starting guitar lessons immediately as I had plans to
travel out of Goa in the coming months. Letter writing is not one of my
favourite things. However, I was forced to reply to the people who sent
me letters and cash prizes, congratulating me on my examination
results. I was overjoyed to receive prompt replies from several of my
relatives and friends commending me on my choice of a year's
sabbatical. I also realised that you only get letters when you write to
people. However, I still don't enjoy letter-writing.

On Sundays, I used to do a few odd jobs to earn some pocket money. Like
washing the car for which I used to get five rupees from my dad. I was
also the main errand boy at home and I did all kinds of jobs like
paying the electricity bills, buying the rations and so on.

All in all, working at Ashok's was a good beginning.

Field Work Notes:
Now Julie Has a Fish Tank

Juliet and Peter D'Souza are college friends of my parents. They live
at Calangute. Peter is a criminal lawyer and Juliet is a school
teacher. Our families occasionally go on outings together. On one of
these picnics during my SSC year Juliet discovering my interest in
aquarium fish promptly tried to get me to assist her in setting up an
aquarium in their home.

Actually they did have a fish tank earlier but the bottom glass had
cracked and Juliet had given it to Ashok for repairs. And there it
remained, in Ashok's shop, with nobody attending to it. Juliet had
reminded me on several occasions about the tank but there was little I
could do other than pass on her reminders to Ashok. When I started
working with Ashok I quickly took the opportunity of keeping my promise
to her.

The first problem was to find the tank. I began searching for it in the
storeroom of Ashok's shop. I found it right at the bottom of all the
other big tanks. I was relieved to see it still in one piece. Ashok and
I then removed the broken bottom glass. We took the measurements and
bought new glass from the glass shop. After fixing the tank, I went to
Peter's office and told him to pick it up and take it home whenever he

Peter came by and took it home the next evening. A few days later I
cycled down to their house to set it up. Once there I realized that
Juliet did not have any material for placing in the tank except a
little gravel which was not enough to cover even the base of the tank.
I explained to her all the essential items needed and she gave me a
freehand to purchase material and decorations for the tank. On my next
visit, I took a few kilos of gravel, a pump, plastic plants, fish
medicine, the undergravel filter, some pipeline, a few regulators,
T-joints and a fishnet. I also took four types of aquarium toys and two
shells for her to choose from.

I started off with washing the gravel, then fixed the under-gravel
filter. I next poured gravel over the filter, and placed the
decorations of shells and toys on top. Then the tap and filters were
joined to the air pump. All this while I was watched intently by
Angelann and Miriam, Juliet's two young daughters, who kept offering
opinions or help here and there. After about two hours, everything was
ready. Only the fish and aquatic plants remained to be put in the
aquarium. The task of selecting the fish for the tank was not part of
my assignment as Julie said that she would buy the fish from a fish
shop in Candolim. However, as she doubted whether live plants were sold
in Candolim, she asked me to send her the plants through Peter. She
also told me to prepare a bill for her which I was to hand over to
Peter. All this I did within the next two days.

A week later, I had to visit Peter and Julie's place to deliver a note
to Peter from my dad. I was keen to see the fish she had bought and how
they were doing in the new home I had made for them. As a present I
decided to take five pairs of guppies from my garden tank. Imagine my
shock when I found that the tank was just as I had left it, with no
fish at all to inhabit the lovely quarters. I was glad I had brought
along the guppies and these became the first lot of fish to inhabit the
tank. I also fixed the light and the regulators and set the plants

Juliet's little daughters crowded round me as I stood back to admire
the now complete aquarium: fish swimming happily with newly installed
plants and air filters bubbling away in a corner. Juliet soon joined us
and thanked me warmly and to my utter surprise slipped a 50 rupee note
into my pocket. I protested that she should not pay me for this as I
was having great fun but she insisted that I take the money and this
became my first earning.

In similar fashion I set up fish tanks for a few other family friends.
Besides having a lot of fun and gaining valuable experience, I also
earned pocket money! Avdoot and Rekha Munj in Mapusa have a lovely big
tank which I helped set up for their daughter; Alvito and Celine
Santiago from Parra also had an empty fish tank which they wanted to
put back in use and I organised the fish for them too.

There was also the large fish tank in the office of the Principal of my
school (St. Anthony's at Monte Guirim), which I had maintained during
my school days. I continued to keep watch over it through my younger
brother Milind, who, like me, is also a fish fan.

Chapter 2: Learning a Bit of Farming

One of my plans for the rainy season was to go to RUSTIC Farm which is
in Thanem, a small village near Valpoi in the remote north-eastern
district of Sattari, so that I could gain some experience in farming.
RUSTIC Farm holds a special attraction for me because I was born when
my parents lived on this farm and we stayed there till I was three
years old. Although I have no real recollection of that period, we have
many photographs of my baby days on the farm and many stories that my
parents tell us of those times. We still visit the place at least once
a year and also maintain contact with several of the villagers who
worked then on the farm. Yesu, our domestic help for the past 16 years
comes from that area. In 1985 RUSTIC Farm was sold to the present
owners Shyam and Ujwala Achrekar. I had intended to stay with them for
a month and learn about farming first-hand. Unfortunately due to some
personal difficulties they could not have me visit them. It is one of
the few regrets I had during my one-year sabbatical. As things worked
out, however, I was able to learn a few basics about farming in my own
village at Parra.

My neighbours, the Kandolkars, are a peasant family and during the
rains they take to farming their own fields. They also do ploughing
work for others. Guru, the eldest son, has a fine pair of bullocks for
the purpose. It so happened that Guru was doing some masonry work at
our house and I was chatting with him about my sabbatical when he
casually asked me whether I would like to come ploughing with him. I
jumped at the offer even as he seemed a bit surprised that I had so
readily agreed. Next morning I was woken up early and we set out for
the fields which are quite close to our homes.

Holding the plough may appear a simple task but believe me it is not so
and calls for quite a lot of skill and stamina. The trick is to keep
the plough in the centre and avoid cutting the hoofs of the animals at
the same time. One needs to put the right amount of pressure on the
handle as the plough should neither be too deep nor too shallow in the
soil. Also one has to constantly keep one's eye on the bullocks to
direct them to turn around at the end of the field and to lift the
plough when it reaches a bund. Lastly (and this is most important) the
bullocks must recognise you or else they won't take orders from you.

The bullocks knew Guru very well but I was a stranger so Guru made me
keep shouting cries of "heeree heeree" which is how they get the
animals to move-so that they would at least begin to recognise my
voice. Although I went ploughing with Guru for several days in a row,
he never let me plough on my own because getting the right balance was
still very difficult for me and if any of the bullocks got hurt due to
my inexperience he would have to give the animal at least 15 days' rest
which would cost him heavily in earnings.

After the ploughing is done the ground has to be levelled for seeding.
This is also done by the bullocks who drag a wooden piece shaped like a
broad fork across the field. This I was allowed to do on my own and I
enjoyed it thoroughly. It was like having a nice ride, standing on the
wooden leveller while the bullocks went up and down the field.

I also tried my hand at spraying seeds and later fertilizer, on the
fields. Sometimes I did a bit of weeding, to while away the time
in-between ploughing. On some days when we were ploughing it used to
rain heavily and I enjoyed working in the rain with all the other
farmers. After ploughing we would be treated to hot tea and bread or
pao baji by the owner of the field.

I recall how surprised the owners of the fields we had ploughed would
be on seeing me sitting with the other workers-dirty with mud like
them-because naturally, they recognised me, since I am from the same
village. One lady, in fact, thought I was playing truant. She told me
she was going to inform my mother where I was that Sunday morning. She
thought that I ought to have been in church attending Mass instead.

The field work was a good experience and one which I cherish. I helped
Guru plough about half a dozen fields and even now when the rainy
season approaches I remember that experience with warmth and pleasure.

Chapter 3: Plant Festivals

The rainy season brings out the average Goan's passion ate love for
plants and some of this fervour and enthusiasm finds its way into plant
exhibitions and plant festivals. I would like to recount my experiences
with two of them-at Saligao and at Siolim-two villages close to where I
live. At the first I was a mere spectator but played a more active role
in the second.

Sunday, the 1st of July, was an unusually bright day for the normally
dull, wet, cloudy rainy season. I was looking forward to going to
Saligao to see an exhibition of plants and was glad for the dry weather
as I pedalled the 20 minutes it took to reach Lourdes Convent, the well
known school in the village where the exhibition was being held. I
reached around 10.30 in the morning. The exhibition had already been
inaugurated and the place was crowded with people all trying to enter
the main hall where the exhibits were kept. I too did likewise.

The main exhibition hall was quite big and the plants were exhibited in
pots in the centre of the hall. Many of the plants were for sale. They
had been brought there by different people and most of the pots had the
names of their owners on them. The cacti were grouped together on a
table on one side of the hall and the prize winning exhibits of the
flower arrangement competition on another. I noticed that the first
prize had been given to a flower arrangement done inside a painted
scooter tyre. I thought this a really unusual idea. The two most
attractive and unusual cacti were ones on exhibit: while one had a thin
green base and a bright red lumpy top the other was like a cotton puff.

Besides the plants in the hall some classrooms alongside were also
occupied with plants and other items for sale. There were food plants
like coriander and coconut seedlings, ornamental plants such as money
plants, creepers, and indoor decorative plants. There were also garden
implements including spraying tools, cutters, flowerpots, seed packets
and organic manures.

At eleven o'clock there was an announcement that there would be a talk
given by Mr Francis Borges, the topic being `Organic Farming'. Francis
Borges is a college lecturer but is better known for his experience and
knowledge of plants. He practises organic farming and has a nursery
called Apurbai. He used to write a weekly column in a Goan paper the
"Weekender". My dad had already told me about him so I was eager to
hear what he had to say.

His talk dealt with the consequences of using chemicals (pesticides,
insecticides, fertilizers) which he said was a recent happening in the
world. He stressed the need to return to organic farming which he said
was the only sensible way of farming. He also spoke about the role of
earthworms as friends of the farmer.

Many questions followed. Most of these dealt with problems people faced
while gardening at home. Mr Borges in his reply offered practical
solutions which he himself had tried out successfully. For example, to
the query, "Why does a papaya plant die after flowering?" he suggested
building a bund round the base of the plant because water collecting
there rots the papaya base stem. In this connection he also spoke of a
medicine which he and his colleagues had invented to drastically reduce
the diseases which attack papaya. He markets this as "Papaya Cure". By
around noon the talk ended and I left for home.

The plant exhibition at Saligao had given me an idea of what to expect
at the next plant festival I attended, which was at Siolim. Here I took
an active part thanks to the invitation I received from Alexyz, the
well known Goan cartoonist, who was in charge of the Siolim Plant
Festival called "Green Heritage". Green Heritage was started by Alexyz
and his friends a few years ago and it has proved to be an enormous
success with people eagerly awaiting the event each year.

I woke up early on the morning of August 11th, 1995 and pedalled away
to Siolim, which is a picturesque village across the hill from Parra. I
found myself sitting at Alexyz's doorstep much earlier than expected.
Alexyz and his wife Tecla arrived home in time for lunch. After lunch,
I hopped on the back of Alexyz's Kinetic Honda and we set off to visit
the homes of all those participating in the exhibition, informing them
to keep their exhibits ready for us to collect the next day.

I woke up on the 12th morning to the sound of Alexyz's gibberish much
like scatman's scat. "Come on man, let's get going", he yelled. He was
a college friend of my parents and he is one of the funniest people I
know. Just being in his company is one big laugh!

Our task that morning was to collect the plant exhibits from the homes
of all those on our list. The tempo arrived at 9.30 a.m. We covered the
base of the tempo with shrubs to act as cushions for the potted plants.
We had a long list of homes to visit. Each time we picked up an item
for the exhibition we tagged and numbered it so we would know the
correct house to return the pot to later. We had to be careful at some
houses otherwise we might have ended with torn pants ripped up by the
huge Dobermans people owned.

When the tempo could carry no more we would return to SFX school where
the exhibition was to be held in order to unload the pots and start out
again. Each round was an experience of new people, new homes, new
gardens. On one round we visited the famous pop singer Remo's house.
His mother was taking part in the exhibition.

It took us all day to complete the list and we eventually made three
trips round the village. We then arranged the pots on the benches in
the school hall. Miguel Braganza (an agricultural officer of the
Government who at that time was posted to the Indian Council of
Agricultural Research in Old Goa) and Francis Borges (the same person
who gave the talk on organic farming at the Saligao Plant Exhibition)
were also there along with several other village boys and girls all
helping in various ways to set up the show which was to begin the next
morning. In fact by the time we finished it was already one a.m. of the
13th. We would have only a few hours of sleep before we would all be on
duty again at 9 a.m. to complete the last minute jobs before the
festival got started.

The Green Heritage Plant Festival lasted three days. The Director of
the Agricultural Department, Mr P.K. Desai, inaugurated it at 11 a.m
(instead of a ribbon to be cut between the doors of the exhibition,
there was a creeper). He also released a book titled, Green Aid
III-Total Gardening that the Green Heritage had published. The book was
wrapped up in a large money plant leaf instead of wrapping paper. I
thought this an unusual and apt idea. After the inauguration and the
release of the book, the official made his speech which was followed by
a funny speech made by Alexyz.

The Green Heritage programme had several aspects: (i) the exhibition,
(ii) lectures and talks on different subjects and (iii) competitions of
different kinds-all related to the green world.

The main exhibition hall was very big and it was filled with all kinds
of plants, arranged in such a manner that people could move around
easily and view the plants without too much difficulty. Altogether
there must have been about two hundred pots. There were vegetable
plants such as chillies and brinjals. There were flowering plants,
cacti, creepers, ferns, bonsai of Banyan trees, peepal trees, etc.
There were also lime trees, orange trees and chickoo trees all growing
in pots.

On the stage in the hall, competition exhibits-vegetable-carving crafts
and flower-making crafts of students from different schools-were kept.

Outside the hall there were two corridors. In one corridor the
government nursery was stationed, where neem, mango, coconut, chickoo,
tamarind, cashew and some other kinds of trees were being sold. Along
the other corridor a variety of other items were kept on sale: a small
table held copies of the book, Total Gardening as well as the previous
two volumes released at the earlier exhibitions by the Green Heritage;
another table held beautiful coconut handicrafts for sale. There was an
elephant head, a table lamp, a skull, all made out of different parts
of a coconut. Next to this, The Other India Bookstore had set up a
stall with a large variety of environment titles. Further down was the
Garden Glory stall selling various types of garden implements such as
lawn movers, cutters, sprayers and other accessories. Apurbhai had a
variety of organic manures like leaf mould, Karanji and bone meal
besides ornamental plants, palms and creepers. There were pickles,
squashes and medicine for papaya plants also on sale.

At the far end of the corridor was the canteen. Here, whenever we were
thirsty or hungry, we went and had a cold drink or some snacks. I
didn't have to worry about my bill, because it was taken care of by the
Green Heritage group.

Next to the canteen, there was a small table, a blackboard, some chalk
and some benches. This was where the programme of lectures and talks
was held. Altogether there were four talks given during the Green
Heritage Programme: on vegetable carving, jams and squashes,
wine-making, and cacti.

I decided to attend the talk given on cacti by a person who grew cacti
in his flat. His talk was extremely interesting and full of practical
information and handy hints on how to grow cacti. Although I have not
tried my hand at growing cacti, yet I took down detailed notes which I
shared with my mother, who as I correctly thought was very happy to get
the information as it helped her in her little cacti rock garden. And
it certainly was a very educative talk for me.

All through the three days I was assigned simple jobs like watching
over the plants in the main hall, watering the plants, carrying pots
and furniture around, handling the sales of the Green Heritage
booklets, and so on. And with Alexyz around each task was great fun.

On the last day, there was the prize distribution ceremony. I was proud
and happy to receive a special certificate for having assisted in the
Green Heritage Festival. As the fair came to an end the organisers all
felt that it was yet another successful event. I was happy to have been
a part of it. But the fun was not yet over for we all had a barbecue
dinner that evening that lasted well into the early hours of the
morning. We slept only briefly for there remained the final task of
returning the pot exhibits to their respective owners. This we
commenced early next morning.

I had enjoyed my work at the Green Heritage and my stay at Alexyz's
house. I was indeed sad when it all ended. I rested the next day at
Alexyz's house and on the 18th morning, left for home.

Field Work Notes:
Growing Cacti At Home

Cacti are plants suited to the desert and we must keep this factor in
mind always when growing ornamental cacti in our gardens, for it helps
in the survival of the plant. For example, a cactus should never be
watered over its body as it will start to rot. This is because it is
covered with a waxy coating which prevents water loss through
evaporation. When one waters the cactus over its body, the waxy coating
is washed away and the plant begins to rot. The amount of water that
you must supply to the cactus is very much dependent upon the season
and upon the climate of the place. During the summer season one should
water cacti every four days whereas in the rainy season once every
fifteen days is quite enough.

Cacti need a minimum of two and a half hours of sunlight per day.
However they should not be kept all day in the sun because they may
wrinkle in too much of bright sunlight. Unlike other plants cacti
produce carbon dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night.
Hence, they are ideal plants to be kept in bedrooms to freshen up the
air at night.

If the cactus plant is to thrive and prosper, the size of the pot in
which it is grown has to be carefully monitored. The pot should always
be a little smaller than the plant itself because it is only when the
plant has to struggle to survive that it will thrive. If the pot is too
spacious the struggle element is removed and the chances are that the
cactus will die. Cacti are like human beings. When they suffer they
will grow. Similarly if a cactus shows no signs of growth, stop the
watering. It should be resumed only when the plant resumes growth.

The substrata of a cactus pot is ideally composed of pieces of broken
bricks at the bottom, charcoal above it, then coarse sand and pebbles
above it. Leaf mould is the best manure.

Grafting of cacti is very simple. A very small piece of the cactus
plant should be stuck with cellotape to the plant that needs grafting.
The smaller the piece the easier it is to graft. To reproduce cacti,
one has to simply cut off a piece of the cactus, allow it to dry for a
few days and then just place it over the cacti substrate. It will
automatically develop roots.

To differentiate between cacti and other plants that look like cacti is
very easy. All cacti have fine hair at the base of each thorn. The
so-called thorns are in fact highly modified leaves which prevent loss
of water through transpiration. If one ever gets pricked by cacti
thorns, one should take cellotape, place it over the area where the
thorns have penetrated the skin and then peel it off. All the thorns
will get stuck to the cellotape and will be removed.

Chapter 4: Learning about Mushrooms

Attending the Green Heritage plant festival in Siolim had one more
advantage for me. It brought me into contact with Mr Miguel Braganza,
an agricultural officer of the Goa Government. It was through him that
I learnt of a two-day course on mushrooms to be conducted by the Indian
Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at Ela Farm, Old Goa in the
last week of August.

This programme also marked the beginning of my experience in getting
around on my own. For, although the course was conducted in Goa itself
I had never been to Ela Farm nor did I know anyone at the programme.

Mr Braganza had informed me that participants would be offered free
accommodation on the campus. However, it was not compulsory to stay
there. I assumed that most people would avail of the accommodation
facilities offered since late evening transport is not very good in
Goa. At any rate I enjoy camping out and so I asked my parents if I
could spend the night on the campus. They agreed. My assumption however
proved wrong as I turned out to be the only residential participant!

Anyway, on the morning of 24th August, after taking directions from my
dad, I left for the ICAR at Old Goa which is about 22 kms from my home.
I arrived there without any difficulty. The ICAR is located within Ela
farm. At the gate I had to fill in a gate pass. Down the right lane was
the ICAR office. On either side of the road were coconut, guava and
chickoo plantations. Further down was a small office which looked more
like a lab with various specimens of preserved mushroom. I enquired
about the course with the man in charge and was directed to the Farmers
Training Centre.

Mr Miguel Braganza and Mr Oscar-the two persons conducting the
course-were already there and so were some of the participants. We were
first made to register our names for the course and immediately after
and to my total surprise we were informed that each of us would receive
a stipend of Rs.500 for attending the course. This appears to be a sort
of bonus or incentive which is provided to the participants and is
meant to cover expenses for transport, food, etc.

I noticed that all the other participants (there were thirty-three
other students) were older than me. Most of them were farmers, so all
the people who gave talks either spoke part English and part Konkani,
or if the lecturers spoke only English then Oscar would translate into

The course which basically comprised lectures and demonstrations
started with a talk by the tall, thin, long-haired Nandakumar Kamat.
His first question was: "What do you want to cultivate mushrooms for?
Kitchen gardening, small scale production or large scale export?"
Depending on your objectives you can decide on the variety and the
quantity, he told us. His talk included slides of different varieties
of mushrooms, poisonous and non poisonous.

The talk was lengthy but very interesting. It ended well past lunch
time and most of the participants including myself were happy to go
straight to a meal at the FTC canteen where a delicious fish curry
thali could be purchased for just Rs.6.

The second session began at three in the afternoon. There were two
talks in this session, the first by a scientist from the ICAR who spoke
on pests and diseases that attack mushrooms. Among the problem areas he
mentioned insects, fungi, bacteria and improper management.

Unfortunately most of the remedies he suggested were limited to
spraying of insecticides and pesticides such as lindane, malathion
dichlorose, copper sulphate or citronella oil. To be fair, he also laid
stress on proper management and hygiene as an effective way to reduce
diseases. Since none of us had ever grown mushrooms before there were
not many questions or doubts raised at the end of his lecture.

Then there was a talk by a woman who explained to us the nutritional
value of mushrooms. For half an hour she spoke on the low fat and sugar
content of mushrooms and how mushrooms prevent pain in joints of bones,
tooth decay and bleeding gums. It made me feel that I should make
mushrooms my staple diet!

The programme for the day ended at 6 p.m. That's when I was surprised
to discover that everyone was going home and I was the only residential
participant. I decided to stay the night anyway since the organisers
told me that adequate arrangements had been made for anyone wishing to
do so.

I spent the evening and early in the morning the next day looking
around the campus. I noticed that the ICAR had a small nursery, a
flower garden, a small fish pond, pens for small animals such as
rabbits and chickens, cattle sheds and vast paddy fields. There was
also an orchard with a variety of fruit trees such as mango, chickoo,
coconut palms etc.

In the midst of all this greenery were the residential buildings with
the canteen in between. I occupied one of the rooms on the first floor
of the four-storey building. It was a small room, with two beds, a few
lockers, a table and a mirror. Since there was no one else staying the
night, the watchman was asked to stay with me for company. The canteen
served good and cheap meals. I had already eaten there in the afternoon
with the others. For the night the cook prepared some fish curry rice
for me. The next morning I had a breakfast of bread and vegetables for
three rupees only. That night, not having much to do, the watchman and
I decided to walk up the hill at the back of the campus, at the top of
which was a temple.

Most of the second day was conducted by Oscar. Oscar's presentation was
more of a practical exercise. He gave very practical information on how
to grow mushrooms and interspersed his talk with slides and live
demonstrations. He showed us the inoculation and culture room for
tissue culture as well as the ultraviolet tube where the mother spawn
is prepared. Rushing up and down the lab and the lecture hall we were
shown how straw is boiled, how the mushroom bags are filled, and so on.
We were allowed to actively participate and fill in the bags ourselves.
All the participants enjoyed Oscar's session and wished it could have
been longer.

None of the participants had any experience with growing mushrooms for
commercial purposes so Oscar had invited two people who grew mushrooms
for the local market as well as for export purposes to address us. They
had been growing mushrooms for the past one year, selling them fresh or
dried according to the demand and they gave us very practical
information based on their personal experience. They said that they
filled two hundred bags of straw everyday. They told us of the problems
they faced with pests (mainly rats) and diseases and also the
difficulties they initially faced when selling mushrooms. The programme
finally concluded with a speech by the Director of the Farmers'
Training Centre who told us about the general activities of the FTC and
the ICAR.

Some of the students took spawn-filled bottles home. I didn't, because
I knew I wouldn't be in a position to get into action immediately as my
travel plans for getting out of Goa for the next few months were
already underway.

So although I didn't really get into the act of mushrooms-growing, I
learnt much and also made many friends.

Field Work Notes:
How to Grow Mushrooms

There are many varieties of edible mushrooms, of which the oyster and
button mushrooms are the most popular with both the mushroom
cultivators and the general public.

Mushrooms can be eaten by anyone including children since they are
easily digested and absorbed by the body into the bloodstream within
two to three hours. They contain iron, vitamins, calcium and protein.
They are especially good for pregnant mothers, and diabetic and blood
pressure patients. Mushrooms have medicinal properties and are known to
reduce heart, liver and blood diseases including cholesterol and
stomach cancer.

Mushrooms can be profitably grown using little investment. However one
has to master the techniques and follow all the procedures and
requirements very carefully. One does not need land to become a
mushroom cultivator for one can grow mushrooms even in one's own house.

Climate: Mushrooms require a temperature of 20-32o Celsius and about
35-90% humidity. They also require adequate ventilation, diffused light
and semi-darkness. Too much light makes mushrooms dark in colour.

If the room temperature increases above 32oC, it should be decreased by
hanging wet sacks around the place. However the sacks should be first
sterilized using savlon, formalin or dettol to avoid fungi or bacteria
entering the room. If the temperature decreases below 20oC, then a 200W
bulb (for a small room) should be lit to generate heat.

Spawn: Mushrooms are grown from spawn. The colour of good spawn is
milky white with a sweet smell or no smell. The spawn should be
compact, white on all sides and cottony. If it is yellow, it means that
the spawn is old. Any other coloured patches seen on the spawn signify
contaminant fungi in the spawn. Spawn should be maximum 18 to 20 days

To prepare mother spawn, one needs good quality jowar, wheat or gram.
The seed should be of uniform size, good quality, free from pests and
diseases and dry. The grain should be washed, all hollow grains should
be removed and the remaining boiled for one hour so that it is half
cooked. While boiling some formalin or savlon should be added to
disinfect the grain. The grain is then spread on a disinfected muslin
cloth and mixed with calcium carbonate. It is then filled into bottles
which are tightly corked using nonabsorbent cotton. The bottles are
then put into a pressure cooker.

The inoculation or the culture room for tissue culture was also shown
to us. This room should be about 2.25 m in height and 1.25 m in length.
Two tubes i.e. an ultra-violet tube and a normal tube light are used. A
spirit lamp is also used. One can produce up to six generations from
one bottle of mother spawn with the help of tissue culture. After six
generations the strength of the spawn decreases and the yield of the
mushrooms will be less.

Substratum: Paddy straw is the main substratum used for growing
mushrooms-it contains cellulose and lignin, both of which are necessary
for the growth of mushrooms. However many other kinds of substrata are
also used, for example, saw dust, sacks, banana leaves, dry mango
leaves, coconut leaves, sugarcane, wild grass, rice husk, etc.

The paddy straw must be carefully selected. It should be brittle,
yellow or golden brown in colour and not older than 6 months. The straw
should be dried in the sun for several days, stored if necessary in an
air-tight container and used within two months. The ratio of paddy
straw to mushroom spawn should be 1 kg "prepared" straw to 4% spawn.

Procedure: First the straw must be prepared. The straw should be cut to
3-5 cm pieces. It should then be filled in cloth bags and soaked in
water (1 kg straw to 10 litres water) for 10 hours. The straw should be
weighted down in the water so that no part of it remains above the
level of water.

The next stage is pasteurization. Water must be boiled to a temperature
of 80 to 85oC. When bubbles appear, the soaked straw, surrounded by the
cloth bags, should be weighted down and fully immersed in water. The
bubbles will disappear when the straw is immersed and then reappear.
Thirty minutes after the reappearance of bubbles the straw should be
removed. It should be drained of water and cooled at room temperature,
then spread out on a clean surface and dried for two hours.

The moisture content of the straw should not exceed 60%. To judge the
moisture content one should hold some straw between one's fingers and
squeeze tightly. If only one drop of water comes out, then the moisture
content is correct.

Polythene or polypropylene bags are now required to fill the straw
into. The bags should be approximately 35 x 50 cm and should weigh 150
gms each. Before using them, they should be washed with savlon or
dettol or formalin. Four strings should be tied together at one end
which should be placed at the bottom of the bag. The four free ends
must be held outside the bag. The bag can now be filled. First a 5 cm
layer of straw should be put in and the straw pressed lightly against
the bottom. Mushroom spawn should then be spread over it. Then another
10 cm layer of straw, over which the spawn should be spread and so on
till one reaches the top of the bag. Finally it must be covered with a
final 5 cm layer of straw, and the four pieces of string and the bag
must be tied together. The bags can either be kept on the ground or
hung in the room. Hanging them enables one to get at the mushrooms from
the bottom of the bag easily.

The following day, 30 to 35 holes should be made in each bag with a
sterile needle. The bags should be kept in darkness, with very little
ventilation allowed to them, for 15 days. The bags should then be moved
to another room. Here they should get four hours of diffused light and
cross ventilation. After one and a half days the substrate should be
sprayed with water three times a day with a shower pointing upwards so
that the water falls on the bags like rain. On the following day small
mushrooms, the size of pinheads will appear. Two days later fully grown
mushrooms will appear. The mushrooms should not be pulled out because
the substrata will also be pulled out with it. Instead they should be
cut or twisted and broken off from the base. If the substrata is dry
the bag should be given a quick dip in water. Otherwise continue
spraying with water. The second crop of mushrooms will reappear one
week later. The process can be continued upto 4 times. Then one has to
start afresh. This is because after 4 crops the substrata begin to
attract disease and get contaminated.

Pests and Diseases: Mushrooms are easily attacked by pests and diseases
and therefore require utmost care and good management. Of the two well
known types of mushrooms, the button mushroom is more prone to disease
whereas the oyster mushroom is hardier.

Insects which attack mushrooms are the Scearid fly, the Phosid fly,
Spring Tails (small insects like grasshoppers) and mites. To prevent
insects from attacking mushrooms it is best to keep the mushroom bags
at least one foot above the ground. One can burn sulphur in the room
before seeding the mushrooms. Citronella oil mixed with water can also
be used for spraying on the bags. It is absolutely essential to
maintain the highest standards of hygiene to prevent attack by insects.

Bacteria and nematodes are other causes for worry. Bacteria occur when
there is too much humidity and this shows in a wet rot or a brown
blotch. To avoid this problem it is essential to constantly monitor the
humidity level and maintain it as required. To prevent the occurrence
of nematodes, the substrata should be constantly changed-it should
never be older than six months to one year. The straw must be carefully
selected and should be disinfected thoroughly before use. 100 gms of
potassium permanganate, or 20 ml of formalin should be sprayed on the
bags if the disease should appear.

Chapter 5: A Trip to Kerala

It was now the end of August and also the end of the heavy rains. I was
eager to begin travelling out of Goa to visit the many places on my
agenda. I had got fairly comfortable now with being on my own within
Goa (where I could at least communicate in the same language with
anyone I met) asking for directions, buying myself a meal and learning
to handle small quantities of money. I therefore impatiently awaited my
trip out of Goa.

Another reason for my wanting to travel was because I was fed up of my
neighbours and friends constantly asking me what I was doing after my
SSC and why I was not in college. Somehow they couldn't get used to the
idea that I was enjoying myself learning the things I wanted to on my
own, so I would be constantly badgered by queries. I thought that if I
went away I would certainly escape all these queries.

It so happened that my father was attending a seminar on organic
farming in Kottayam and as he would also be visiting some organic farms
he thought it a good idea if I came along. The trip would take us to

Dad and I left Goa on 30th August, 1995. The bus departed from Panaji
bus stand at six a.m. and reached Mangalore the same day at four in the
evening. En route we passed through Karwar, Ankola, Kumta, Honavar,
Kundapur and Udupi. Mangalore happens to be my ancestral home. (My dad,
though born and brought up in Mumbai and now living since marriage in
Goa, is originally from Mangalore.) Although we do not have an
ancestral home any more we have lots of relatives in Mangalore city.

We stayed at my grand uncle's house which is very close to the
bus-stand. It is a two storey building in the heart of Mangalore and my
grand aunt Monica Mauxi lives there with her three sons, Reggie,
Patrick and Lambert and their families in a sort of joint family
set-up. My grand uncle J.S. Alvares who was a very well known Konkani
writer passed away a few years ago. I was meeting my aunt and cousins
almost for the first time.

After the introductions were over and we had had tea and snacks Dad
showed me around the city. Since I knew that I would be returning to
Goa alone at the end of the seminar in Kottayam I took care to be very
observant about landmarks and other details so that I would not get
lost on my return trip. I carefully noted the locations of the railway
station, Hampankatta, which is the centre of Mangalore and the old bus
stand and the route to Aunt Monica's home. We returned at dark to a
splendid meal and went to bed early for we had to wake up at 3 a.m. for
our onward journey.

Our train left Mangalore on the dot at 4.15 a.m. We travelled all day
through green countryside, passing through Kannur, Calicut, Thrissur
and Ernakulam to reach our destination Kottayam at 3.45 p.m. We were
booked at Hotel Aishwarya. I had a refreshing bath and then as usual we
went off to explore the city but had to return soon because it started
to rain.

The seminar was at Hotel Green Park and we set out for the venue early
in the morning. We had already been registered as participants and each
of us was given a cloth bag, notebook and pen to use during the
seminar. There were many stalls selling a large number of items from
organic tea and pickles, to books and manuals.

We looked around very briefly for the organisers were already calling
out to everyone to settle down for the inaugural. All day there were
talks, most of them by scientists. The sessions continued till evening
with a break for a vegetarian lunch in between. Of all the talks, the
one that caught my attention was the talk given by Dr Sultan Ismail on
earthworms. I have refrained from giving details of Dr Ismail's talk
here because I have a full chapter on my association with his work
later in this book.

The next morning the same sort of programme continued. However there
was a farmer's session which was chaired by my father. Many farmers
spoke about their experience in organic farming. I found it quite
interesting. Sometime after lunch my father and I, along with Guru
Rishi Prabhakar (the founder of the Siddha Samadhi Yoga programme) and
Kartikeyan (who was researching some chapters for a source book on
organic farming) left to visit the farm of an organic farmer, a Mr.
K.T. Thomas. He showed us his shrimp pond, rubber plantations, cows,
fishing ponds, orchids, giant bamboo filter ponds, etc. His farm was
really huge, dark and damp-like a forest in the night!

Next morning we took a train to Calicut. We passed through Ernakulam
and Trishur. At Shoranur we changed trains and from the railway station
we took a bus to Sultan's Battery where we spent the night at a hotel
called the Resort. As usual, we spent enjoyable hours walking around
the town.

The next programme was at Wynad. Here, another meeting of persons
interested in organic farming was taking place. We stayed at the Wynad
Wildlife Division Guest House.

The group here was not very large and they generally had small intense
discussions. I was not much interested in the sessions and wandered
about as I pleased. But I liked the company of the people there very
much for all of them were very knowledgeable and they were the active
type too. Some of them-like Bernard from Auroville, Korah Mathen and
his daughter Nidhi from Ahmedabad and Omkar-I would meet again during
my sabbatical year.

We used to go for long walks in the forest, morning and evening. On the
first day itself we saw Nilgiri Langurs and a variety of small birds,
frogs and trees.

In the evening the organisers showed us two movies on the pollution of
the river Bhavani. After that we watched a very popular and lovely
movie called `Animals are Beautiful People'.

On our early morning walk the following day (the second at Wynad) we
saw a herd of spotted deer and a barking deer. We also saw many
footprints of animals, especially of deer; and traces of elephant
footprints too. The experience excited me very much and after that I
would eagerly set out with whoever was interested in taking a walk. On
the third day, a Mr Shivanand gave a very interesting talk on the
Western Ghats. He showed us many slides on the Western Ghats i.e.
insectivorous plants, mountain goats, rivers that are formed by
condensation of water vapour, plants that flower every ten years, etc.
All that I had studied in geography and science in school now came
alive for me.

That evening we watched two movies, one called `The Whistling Hunters'
(about wild dogs) and another called `The Lord of the Jungle' (about
elephants). Both were very good. The next morning we went walking again
and saw only birds. We walked about 12 kms that day. Later that morning
the concluding session of the programme was held.

In the evening the forest department organised a tour for us through
the jungle. We walked quite a distance, saw the watchtower, then deer
and a wild boar, but we had to turn back soon because we saw tiger
footprints. At night we saw another two movies, one on the Narmada
called `A Valley Rises' and the second called `The Silent Valley'.

After the meeting ended my dad was scheduled to go to Chennai for some
work but I was to return to Goa on my own. My dad came along with me by
bus to Calicut. At the railway station, my father bought me a ticket to
Mangalore and left me at the station at about 2 p.m. to await the train
which was due at around 4 p.m.

It was the first time I was travelling alone and I was quite nervous.
Although it would be two hours before the train arrived I dared not
fall asleep. I had with me a small battery operated video game and I
occupied myself with this while waiting for the train to arrive. When
it did there was a general commotion as people started rushing into the
compartments. I enquired with one or two persons whether there were any
special seats but nobody was really willing to pay attention so I just
found myself a nice spot and settled down. The train started soon

I stayed fully alert during the entire journey, keeping a watch on my
things (I carried a haversack and a sleeping bag, both new) and having
heard about pickpockets and other thieves I wanted to be doubly
careful. I did not get down at any of the railway stations as I was not
sure how long the train would stop. So I contented myself with eating
the fruit that Dad had bought for me at the Calicut station.

The train arrived in Mangalore at 9 p.m. From the station I took a
rickshaw to my grand aunt's house for which I paid thirty rupees. This
was quite a lot of money, but since it was night-time and since I was
not perfectly confident of the route I did not bother to argue with the

My aunt and family were pleased to see me and urged me to stay on for a
few days. But I knew that my mother would be anxiously awaiting my
return, and not wanting to be irresponsible, I decided to return as
planned the next day itself.

In the morning my cousin Reggie took me on his scooter to the bus
station where we saw a bus about to depart for Goa. I jumped in and
managed to get the last empty seat. The bus reached Panaji at 5 p.m.
From there I took the local bus to Mapusa. Only when the bus reached
the Mapusa bus terminus was I finally on familiar territory. I looked
around at the familiar street dogs and hawker stands and then hailed a
motorcycle taxi to take me home, which was a short distance of 3 kms.

Back home I proudly walked up to my mum who was smiling a welcome, my
brothers punching me, my dog licking me-all so far away from the world
of elephants and tiger footprints.

Chapter 6: Snakes Alive!

It took several letters and phone calls from my dad to establish
contact with Mr Neelimkumar Khaire, Director of the Snake Park in Pune
till finally the green signal was given and I was all set to visit the
place. As the arrangements were not absolutely "pucca" my dad decided
to come along with me to Pune, which is what we did on the 3rd of
October, soon after he returned from Chennai.

We left Goa by bus and arrived at Pune early the next morning. Two of
my parents' very good friends, Sujit and Vidya Patwardhan, live in
Pune. Our entire family, dad, mum, my two brothers and I, had holidayed
at their place a year earlier. That was when I had my first glimpse of
the Pune Snake Park and the idea of my one year sabbatical took root.
(Later, I was surprised to learn from Bany, their daughter, who I
became good friends with, that her elder sister Lara and her friend had
taken a sabbatical several years ago on completing school and they had
toured the countryside looking at alternative methods of education.) So
it was to the Patwardhan residence at Ganeshkhind Road that we first
went and after a wash and a brief rest we set off for the Park.

The Director Mr Khaire was not in, but the Assistant Director Mr Rajan
Shirke was aware of my visit and assured my father that once Mr Khaire
arrived he would make arrangements for my food and stay. Until then I
could spend all day at the Park but would have to go back to Sujit's
house for the night. My father had no option but to leave it that way
for Mr Khaire was expected to return only after three days. Dad then
left me at the Park and proceeded to Mumbai. For the first few days
therefore I journeyed back and forth from Sujit's house.

Sujit's home is at Ganeshkhind while the snake park is at Katraj, a
good 20 kms away. I remember how I got lost on the first day. My Dad
had shown me the bus stand in the morning and given me the bus number.
In the evening, one of the staff dropped me off at the bus stand where
I waited and waited for the bus, which never arrived. I asked the
people around but their answers were either "it will come" or "the
frequency of that bus may be low".

Soon it started raining and since that bus-stand had no shelter in
sight I had to stand in the rain and get wet. While I tried as much as
possible to take shelter under the note book I carried, I was surprised
to see a number of children, who didn't seem to mind the rain, walking
coolly past me as if there were no rain at all! By seven in the
evening, I was soaked to the skin. My feet were numb and it was getting
dark. My first day at the snake park and what an experience!

Anyway, I crossed the road and walked to a telephone booth. While I was
phoning Sujit the electricity went off. Sujit kept trying to explain to
me how to come home by another route. I took out my half wet note book
and scribbled "Deccan Gymkhana" and "Simbla Office". I managed to get a
bus to Deccan Gymkhana (there are several buses which take you there)
and from Simbla office I took a rickshaw and after going round in
circles for sometime, I managed to find Sujit's house. How I wished I
had my trusty bicycle instead of having to depend on buses and

During the first two days at the park I only scribbled notes and
watched the workers. I tried to make friends with the workers and as a
result I was allowed to handle one trinket snake. On the third day Mr
Khaire arrived and immediately made arrangements for me to stay at the
Park in spite of the Park not having accommodation facilities. Several
students came there now and then to work for short stretches of time
but they all had their residences in Pune and went home in the

Mr. Khaire is very popular among the workers and is affectionately
called "Anna" ("big brother" in Marathi) by one and all. He always
wears a glove and long sleeved shirt as he lost his left hand to a
Russell's viper bite several years ago. Still, his love for the reptile
world and his enthusiasm for snakes has not diminished one bit.

The Snake Park is quite large and has several snake pits housing
various types of reptiles. In the centre is the administrative building
which is a one storey cottage having on the ground floor a small office
which doubles up as reception area, a room which holds the display
exhibits like the king cobra, python etc., a store room and a toilet.
On the first floor is a large room with two beds. It is here that I
began to stay, with the watchman as company for the night. Anna
installed a small T.V. in the room and also had a phone extension made
to my room. He told me that I was welcome to come over to his place
anytime, to eat or even to stay. However, I preferred being at the

In addition to Anna and Shirke there were about 8 to 10 staff at the
park. Some of those I got to know very well included Mahesh, Milind,
Bhushan and Baba, the watchman. Many of the boys were studying at night
school and working here during the day. On Sundays and holidays there
would sometimes be extra students to lend a hand. All of them lived in
Pune and would go home for the night. However now and again some of
them would stay the night with me and we would watch T.V. or they would
tell me tales. I also wrote my daily diary every evening after dinner,
and sometimes read a bit.

My work at the park was to help the workers with their jobs for that
was the only way for me to learn about snakes. So everyday I would
clean the starback tortoise pit, the turkey pit, the chicken pits and
later on the ratsnake pit, the chequered keel back pit and the monitor
lizard pit. I also assisted with feeding the snakes, which is usually
done once a week. Most of the snakes are fed small rats-the white mice
come from the laboratory-and frogs while the python gets a chicken
every week.

I was also taught the proper way of holding and handling snakes. On
the third day, I was bitten by a wolf snake. Now you must understand
that this is a non-poisonous snake and it was deliberately allowed to
bite me for my experience and to enable me to get over the irrational
fear of snake bites that all of us have acquired as a result of
grandmother's tales being dinned into us from childhood. In my case
even though I liked snakes, still, Anna explained, there will be a
subconscious residual fear! This bite was not particularly painful and
treatment was like any other wound one might receive.

During my stay at the snake park I was bitten on several occasions by a
variety of non-poisonous (but hot-tempered) snakes and when I left
after 3 weeks I had at least about 15-20 bites on my arms. Some of the
bites were quite painful and one was so bad that my wrist had swelled
up and I couldn't wear my watch for quite sometime. However when you
remember that the snake gets damaged much more than you-it loses quite
a few of its teeth in the bite-then you don't feel too bad. At any rate
there was no question of using anti-venom as the snakes were all
non-poisonous. And I learnt to think of the bites as injuries and
wounds rather than the much feared `snake-bite'.

Besides snakes, the Park also has a number of other animals. Some had
been rescued, others found injured and brought to the Park for rest and
recuperation. At the time of my stay at the Park it housed a wild boar,
a civet-cat, a leopard, a Shikra bird, a jackal, three mongooses and
several owls and eagles with broken wings. The eagles and owls were in
cages with the top end kept open.

Once they were able to fly again they could fly out if they wished.
There were also many types of exotic fowls, guinea pigs, white mice,
rabbits, monkeys and a pair of turkeys. And of course there were Ganges
soft shell turtles, starback tortoises and melanac turtles. All these
animals had to be fed daily and their cages cleaned regularly.

The snake park has a system through which people in Pune city can call
up the park if they sight a snake. Someone from the park will then go
to the site with the caller, after taking directions from him/her, and
try to get the snake. This ensures that people do not unnecessarily
kill snakes. It was on two such occasions that I went with the boys on
"calls" and returned without a snake. You see when the distance that
the rescue team has to travel is long, the snake may not necessarily
remain in the same spot till it gets there.

The snake park has a lot of visitors daily and people are always
looking for someone knowledgeable to answer questions. I used to feel
quite proud to do this and would gladly answer all the queries like,
"What is the name of the snake?" "What does it eat?" "Which is the male
and the female?" and so on. At other times I would be pestering the
staff to answer more complicated and detailed questions about the
habits of snakes. Workers are a mine of information and all of it is
knowledge gained from practical experience.

Some nights we went frog catching. We used to go after dinner on
scooters to a river about 10 kms away. The method was simple. One
person shone a torch on the wet banks of the riverbed, blinding the
vision of the frog, which would stop dead in its tracks, while another
nabbed it with his bare hands from behind. (Frogs must be taken alive
or else the snakes won't eat them.) It was easy to catch the frogs as
they remain quite still for the few seconds it takes to catch them, the
difficult part being only to ensure that once caught they do not slip
out of your grasp, for frogs are quite wet and slippery. After two to
three hours we would return with 25 to 30 frogs in our sack.

I used to have my food at a small shack where some poor people cooked
meals mainly for the Snake Park staff. One of the popular items was
something called `shample' which was made of vegetables and had lots of
oil floating over it. This was served with bread and it was deep red in
colour and very spicy. After a couple of days of eating this delicious
food, I had a very bad stomach and I had to go to the toilet seven
times that day. That was the end of shample. I decided to stick to dal
and chappaties, and cheap creamrolls.

The bathroom of the snake park looked very dirty and I usually avoided
having a bath. I would wet my long hair and pretend that I had had a
bath. When the Snake Park staff found out about this they decided to
give me a bath. One day they caught me and stripped me of all my
clothes, then they dragged me to the bathroom and, using detergent and
a little bit of Harpic, they scrubbed me with the toilet brush.

Somehow these chaps also came to know that I was afraid of the dark and
all night sounds. So they kept telling me ghost stories which despite
my fears I liked to hear. Finally, on the last night I even met this
"real" ghost. It happened this way. Three of us, together with the
watchman were watching TV when Bhushan, one of the boys said he had to
go on a "call". Shortly thereafter the lights went off and a sound like
a cat mewing was heard. Baba, the watchman didn't seem to care but the
other boy Popea and I were terrified. Next a light appeared at the
window and the door started banging. A voice (in Marathi) thundered,
"close the window". All sorts of strange things kept happening one
after another. A skull with bones was floating in the air outside the
window and when we went out, cautiously, to see who was there we found
no one. Returning to the room we found my bedding thrown around and my
clothes and the whole room in a mess. The door frame shook, the windows
rattled and I held on tight to the watchman's hand. I remembered being
told that if one makes the sign of the cross the "ghost" will
disappear, and so I did that, but it didn't work. This ghost apparently
did not know the rules. Then suddenly we received a phone call from
Bhushan saying that he was on his way back, and strangely, with
Bhushan's return, the ghost had done the disappearing act. Nothing more
was heard from the ghost after that. The next day when I told Anna and
the others about this night-time visitor they all had a good laugh.

During my stay at the park I learnt how to handle almost all the
non-poisonous snakes except the pythons. I also learnt how to handle
monitor lizards, catch geckos and eat earthworms. Eating earthworms was
not part of my diet or training, but once I saw Mr Shirke toss one into
his mouth after being challenged to do so by one of the boys. I thought
of trying this out and though I felt nauseated the first time I took a
bite. I was okay the second time, for earthworms taste crunchy, like
raw cucumber, not slimy and wet as they look.

On my last day at the Park, I was allowed to handle a cobra. I held a
stick under the neck of the cobra and then lifted it by its tail. I did
this about 2-3 times after which the cobra was put back in its box. I
was so excited and happy. It was a perfect ending to my stay at the
Snake Park.

As I write this I think about my other previous experiences with
snakes. Like the story my mum tells about the time when I was only a
few months old, sleeping one afternoon in my cradle at our home in
Valpoi. She had heard a soft thud and to her utter horror she saw a
thin bluish green snake which had obviously dropped from the roof
making loops all over and around the cradle. Snakes are not unusual in
the countryside and RUSTIC Farm was no exception. Mum says she was
terrified but dared not make a sound for I was sleeping soundly and the
cradle was covered with a mosquito net, outside of which the snake
leapt around. It was less than a minute before it bounded onto the
chairs and was out of the window and she rushed to reassure herself
that I was safe which I very much was. From her description I know now
that it was a green whip snake, a very delicate and absolutely harmless

Another time as a toddler, Mum says, I was playing with some old
cartons and boxes at the farm when out leapt a snake from one of them.
To my parents' astonishment, instead of crying out in fear as one might
expect a child to do, I promptly went on my hands and knees crawling
towards it as fast as I could, reaching out and trying to catch it.

In fact, as mum tells it, I seem to have deliberately gone out of my
way to befriend snakes as a child. I would be afraid of dogs, for, as I
would say, they had teeth and could bite, but snakes didn't appear to
have any and for that reason perhaps remained my best friends.

Field Work Notes:

There are around 2500 species of snakes in the world. Of these, only
about 15% are poisonous. The maximum number of species of poisonous
snakes is found in Australia (90% of the snakes are poisonous).

238 species of snakes are found in India. Of these, 72 are poisonous.
But only few can cause serious or fatal bites. For example, Pit Vipers
are poisonous but rarely prove fatal to human beings. The poisonous Big
Four are (1) the Cobra, (2) the Krait, (3) the Russel's Viper, and (4)
the Saw-Scaled Viper. Of these the most poisonous is the common Krait.
Its venom is about four times more toxic than that of the Cobra.

All sea-snakes are poisonous. The most poisonous snakes in the world
include some sea-snakes which have venom 5 times more toxic than the
Cobra. But sea-snakes will bite only when severely provoked and are
never known to attack swimmers in water.

Snakes are cold-blooded; their eyesight is very poorly developed and
they have no eyelids. They are deaf and can only respond to vibrations.
They taste, feel and smell with their forked tongue. These senses are
very well developed and enable them to differentiate between living and
dead creatures, prey or enemy.

Some poisonous snakes inject venom into their prey, release the prey
and then track it down with their tongue after the venom has done its
job of killing it. The venom contains digestive enzymes that start
digesting the prey from the inside.

Snakes grow rapidly till they mature and then continue to grow very
slowly till their death. As they grow, they outgrow their skin so they
moult the old one after a new skin has formed under it. The snake
splits the old skin at the nose and literally crawls out of the old
skin. During moulting, the snake stops eating but becomes aggressive.

A bite from a poisonous snake affects either the nervous system
(neurotoxic) or the blood vessels (hemotoxic) of human beings. The only
cure against snake bite is snake anti-venom. It is made by injecting
very small doses of raw venom (about one-tenth of the fatal dose) into
a horse and then gradually increasing the dose, making the horse immune
to snake venom. The blood of the horse is then drawn, frozen and
processed after separating the antibodies and crystallized into a
powder. This is anti-venom as we know it.

When a snake bite occurs, the following first aid measures should be
taken. Panic should be avoided and the patient should be kept warm and
reassured. The wound should be checked to see if it is a poisonous or
non poisonous bite. A poisonous bite will have two big fang marks, a
non poisonous bite will have many teeth marks.

If the bite is poisonous, the patient should first be immobilized. No
alcohol, tea, coffee or other stimulants, nor even painkillers should
be given.

The wound should not be washed or cut or the poison swabbed out as this
could cause infection and loss of blood. A tight tourniquet can be tied
a little above the wound, such that one finger should be able to pass
under the tourniquet. The patient should be transported as quickly as
possible to the nearest hospital. The tourniquet should be left in
place until antivenom is given. But it should be released for 10
seconds every 90 seconds and should not be used for more than six
hours. At the hospital antivenom will be given which rapidly subdues
the effects of the venom.

To avoid snakes, the following precautions must be taken. Rubbish
around the house should be cleared. Rat holes should be filled and rats
should be prevented from breeding in and around the house. Long tree
branches touching the houses and creepers trailing the porches and
window panes should be cut. Good boots should be used while walking
through forested area. Avoid stepping over any obstacle when the other
side is not visible and use a torch while moving outside the house at

Chapter 7: A Vacation within a Vacation

My stay at the Pune Snake Park was to be for about three weeks but I
was enjoying the experience so much that I was reluctant to return
home. To my good fortune the family decided to spend the Diwali
vacation holidaying in Rajasthan and since it was necessary to travel
to Mumbai to catch the onward train north, I persuaded my parents that
I would come to Mumbai directly from Pune where I would meet them at my
grandparents' house in Girgaum. So I got myself a few extra days at the
Park and another experience of finding my way around, this time in the
big city of Mumbai.

Sujit bought me a bus ticket to Mumbai and dropped me off at the bus
station as well. I had earlier received elaborate instructions on the
phone from my dad on how I was to get to Girgaum once I got off the bus
at Dadar and backup information from my nervous Mum on what I should do
in case I got lost. I later learnt that my uncle and family were also
put on alert to receive a call from their nephew in distress, which did
not happen for I was determined to find my way on my own, and I
succeeded in doing so.

The bus left Pune at around 10 a.m. and arrived in Mumbai a little
after 2 p.m. I took a taxi, gave the driver the address and watched
carefully as the taxi sped away down unfamiliar streets. I could barely
recognise the place where the driver dropped me off but I asked around
and after wandering about for around 20 minutes, found myself suddenly
at the doorstep of the familiar 47/C Khotachiwadi, my paternal
grandparents' house. My aunt and uncle were expecting me and so were my
favourite cousins, Lucano and Ricardo. An hour later came my parents'
anxious call from Goa to find out if I had reached safely. By then I
was already in my shorts watching a movie on TV with my cousins.

The next few weeks were strictly not part of my sabbatical programme
for it was a holiday along with my family, with snakes and frogs and
fish left far behind. Our holiday included a brief visit to Ahmedabad
where we stayed with Korah and Sue Mathen. I had met Korah and his
daughter Nidhi a few months earlier at the organic farmers' meeting in
Wynad. On knowing that there was a snake park in Ahmedabad we simply
had to visit the place, just to satisfy my curiosity. At the park, we
found pythons, Russel's vipers, kraits, chequered keelbacks, boas,
ratsnakes and a king cobra, all in glass cages. The park also had
starback tortoises, monitor lizards, ducks and geese of various kinds,
monkeys and other small animals. There was also a small aquarium, kept
very poorly. I don't know whether the whole setup was run down because
of lack of funds or lack of interest.

From Ahmedabad we went by train to Jaipur where we spent the next eight
days at the home of Srilata and Mahendra Chowdhury. Although our base
was Jaipur we visited and stayed two nights at a real fort, on the
outskirts of Jaipur. It was my first visit to a fort and it was quite
an experience living high up in the residential part of the fort with
its cool rooms, some large, others tiny, some corridors so narrow and
so low one had to bend one's head to walk through. The time of our
visit coincided with the famous solar eclipse which was the talk of the
town but I was disappointed with the eclipse as it darkened only
briefly before returning to normal again. My friends told me later that
the TV experience was far more wonderful.

In Jaipur we went sightseeing almost everyday, visiting forts, palaces
and shopping bazaars, and had delicious kulfi and lassi in mud pots,
and mouth-watering chicken tandoori. We drove down to Udaipur, where we
went boating on the famous lake, saw some more palaces and then to
Srilata and Mahendra's second home in Ghantali where we swam in the
river behind the house and fished with the village boys.

The vacation ended with a 3 hour bus journey to Ratlam station, from
where my brothers and I returned to Mumbai with my mum while my dad
went on to Delhi. This time we stayed at my maternal grandparents'
place in Mahim. My grandfather, a sprightly 86 year old and a very
active gentleman, was there to greet us. It happened to be his birthday
and he decided to take us all out to dinner to a Chinese restaurant not
very far away from the house. I recall we were all dressed and ready to
go when Mum asked Grandpapa how we were going to the restaurant. To
which he said: "You and the boys take a taxi, but I will walk. I prefer
to walk." I was quite astonished. Of course, we all decided instead to
walk to the restaurant, with Grandpapa briskly leading the way, and had
an enjoyable birthday dinner.

My mum and my two younger brothers, Sameer and Milind returned to Goa
soon thereafter, but I stayed on with Grandpapa in Mumbai for a few
more days, since I was to proceed from there directly to Chennai where
I would spend the next two and a half months in the pleasant company of
spiders, earthworms and my all-time favourites, crocodiles and snakes.

Chapter 8: Earthworms

On the 6th of November, I was put on the Chennai Express, which was to
leave Dadar Railway station at 7 p.m., by my Uncle Alan who is very
knowledgeable about trains since he has worked in the railways all his
working life. My mum had requested him to check my departure from
Mumbai since Dadar railway station is a crowded and busy place and I
too was not confident of finding my way around. Earlier Grandpapa had
brought me to the railway station by cab after making me double-check
that I had my ticket, sufficient cash, little tidbits to eat and my
water bottle filled for the long journey ahead.

I was to spend one night and the whole of the next day in the train for
it was due to arrive in Chennai at about 8.30 p.m. on the 7th. Having
travelled on a couple of journeys by train during the past few months I
was quite relaxed on this one although I continued to be watchful and
careful of my things throughout.

The train journey from Mumbai was entirely uneventful. I had a window
seat and slept the night on the lower berth. Around me was a family of
migrant workers who spoke neither Hindi nor English and who were quite
busy doing their own things. I did not speak with them nor with anyone
else on the journey but contented myself with watching the countryside
we passed through and the hustle and bustle at each station, and when I
was bored I just went to sleep. I had about Rs.500 with me in cash and
some of this was carefully tucked away in different pockets of my
jeans, the balance in various compartments of the haversack. When I
slept the haversack was my pillow. I also carried a water bottle, some
snacks and some fruit which was all I ate during the journey.

The train was delayed by 3 hours and it was well past 11.30 p.m. when
it arrived at Chennai Central railway station. I was to be met at the
station by my parents' long-time friend K. Manoharan. Uncle Mano and
Aunty Sagu had willingly agreed to look after me during my stay in
Chennai, even though both of them were not keeping good health. Not
knowing where exactly Uncle Mano would be waiting I walked towards the
entrance keeping a careful lookout for him. Yet, I failed to recognise
him when I saw him for his hair was whiter than when I had seen him
last. He recognised me, however, from the bright yellow haversack that
I carried. He took me home in a rickshaw. I had some food there and
went straight off to sleep. Uncle Mano suggested that I relax the next
day, which I did, watching T.V., looking at photo albums and generally
chatting with them about my sabbatical so far and about my plans in

Early the following morning Uncle Mano and I set off for New College
where Dr Sultan Ismail's Earthworm Institute is located and where I
would spend the next fortnight studying earthworms and vermiculture.
Actually I had a choice of studying at Dr Bhawalkar's centre in Pune or
Dr Ismail's institute in Chennai. But I chose Chennai because I had
heard Dr Ismail speak at the organic farmers' convention in Kottayam
and had liked his talk very much. Another reason of course was that I
was dying to get to the Crocodile Bank in Mamallapuram and being in
Chennai which was close to the Croc Bank was infinitely better than
being far away in Pune where Dr Bhawalkar works.

Although Uncle Mano, being a heart patient, does not usually travel by
bus, he deliberately took me by bus that morning so that I could get to
know the route to New College. On the way he pointed out to me various
landmarks which would help me know my way around, and gave me general
bits of advice on how to travel in the city. I had to learn well and
quickly, for language would be the main problem for me in this city
where I spoke no Tamil.

At the College we met Dr Ismail who took us through the college campus
down to the fields where the vermi-pits were and we saw the biogas
plant, the garbage collection pits, the culture crates and the organic
compost now ready for use. I was quite eager to begin and happy when
"Sir" as everyone calls him, suggested I start work from the next day

Every day, except Sundays, for the next 15 days I followed the same
routine which was: wake up at 6 a.m or so, eat a hot breakfast of
idlis, sambar, dosas, vadas or whatever was cooked for breakfast, carry
a hot packed lunch which Aunty Sagu prepared for me and catch a bus by
7 a.m. from Ashok Pillar to Panagal where I had to change buses and get
on one going to New College. Usually I would land up at the College by
8.30 a.m. or so and would be at the College till about 3.30 or 4 p.m.,
after which the journey would be reversed. These timings helped me to
avoid the office rush both ways. My dad had suggested to Prof Ismail
that I be given practical experience and so my programme included a
mixture of study from books, taking down notes, watching and helping
the others and finally making my own vermi-pits.

During the first two days I read up as much as I could about earthworms
and the world they inhabit from books which were recommended to me by
Dr Ismail. Later I started to observe the different types of
earthworms, their movements, colour and other characteristics. I also
learnt a lot about different types of soils, their textures and nature,
and was taught how to take soil samples using the tulgren funnel.

There were about 8 to 10 students doing different kinds of research
under Dr Ismail and all of us worked in a large room which was formerly
the main library. Each one had a separate desk to work and when I came
I was also given my own desk and chair. The big hall also had a mini
library on earthworm related books at one end and it was a simple
matter therefore to find the books I needed to read.

The main vermi-beds, compost pits and so on were on the ground floor
but some of the vermi-beds which were in crates were stacked in the
narrow corridor outside the study hall, where we also gathered to eat
our lunch in the afternoons. Usually any one of the students would
briefly guide me in the work that I was assigned for the day after
which I would manage on my own.

During my fortnight stay at the Institute I learnt a lot about
earthworm environments, including determination of porosity of soil,
moisture content and texture. I also observed the other organisms
present in the soil and took photos of microarthropods with the help of
a compound microscope. At the end of the course, I practically prepared
a vermi-bed and also ate a few earthworms and cockroaches for

My stay in Chennai was not without its share of adventure. I recall
that on my second day, I had entered a bus and rushed for an empty
seat. I was completely unaware of the procedure, that while in Goa the
ticket collector comes to you and sells you the ticket in the bus, in
Chennai one has to go to the conductor (who is seated at the end of the
bus) and buy the ticket. So while I waited for the conductor to come on
his rounds two inspectors came up to me and caught me for not buying
the ticket. One of them started shouting at me in a forceful stream of
Tamil. After much action and hand waving, I explained that I did not
know Tamil, that I was from Goa and it was the first time I was
travelling in a bus in Chennai. He fined me Rs.25! Fortunately, I had
enough money on me and paid the fine but when I got down from the bus,
I found that my empty purse had also been pick-pocketed!

Another time I was on the last step of a bus which I thought would be
quite okay for I had seen many people travelling while hanging at the
doors of crowded buses. However, as this bus started gathering speed I
found it very difficult to hold on because the weight of so many people
began to press against me and it felt like I was literally holding
everyone in with my outstretched arms as I hung practically out of the
door. I resolved never to travel on the footboard, if I could help it,

I also got lost several times. But I would never phone for help with
directions but would struggle away, walking this side or that, asking
passers-by till I reached familiar landmarks which would get me home.
Often I found that I had alighted from the bus a few stops before or
after my destination. On one such occasion the next stop was so far
away that I jumped out of the bus while it slowed down at a traffic
light and then spent nearly 30 minutes walking back!

Although Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu had welcomed me very warmly. Looking
back, I think I must have given them quite a headache during my stay at
their house because of my rather careless and casual ways and the
laid-back lifestyle I had acquired and was thoroughly enjoying. Uncle
Mano would constantly be shouting at me for not having a bath regularly
or for staying in the bathroom forever when I decided to have a bath or
for wearing soiled clothes again instead of washing them.

Aunty Sagu cooks well and I enjoyed her food but both she and Uncle
Mano would notice that I ate much more when there was chicken or fish
for dinner rather than vegetarian food and I would get a lecture again
for my poor appetite for simple food. I was also quite a sloppy fellow
and would slouch around on the sofas after coming back from the
college, channel surfing as I watched TV, which must have been quite
exasperating for both of them. Anyway, they took very good care of me,
not only in terms of feeding me but also going out of their way to make
arrangements for me to study at the Earthworm Institute, the spider
centre and later at the Crocodile Bank and I am most grateful for that.
I hope when they read this book they will forgive me for all the
trouble I must have caused them.

Extracts from Diary:

10th November: Sir gave me a book on earthworms to read, then Jagan
took me down to the field. There I was able to observe many organisms
other than earthworms. We took a soil sample from one place and then
went back to the lab where we put the soil sample into the tulgren
funnel. I then went and brought three more samples from the vermi-tech
pit. We then put these also into three other tulgren funnels. By then
it was lunch time and we all ate together. After lunch I weighed the
soil samples and got to see the organisms that were in the beaker under
the tulgren funnel. At 3.30 p.m I left for home.

11th November: In the morning, I was given two types of earthworms i.e.
Lampito mauritii and Perionyx excavatus and told to observe them. I
spent the whole morning doing this. After lunch, I wrote down the
observations that I had made. In the evening we went out to the College
playground and also to the area near the College Boarding to make some
observations. We dug two pits of 25 cm x 25 cm x 25 cm each at the
playground and one, of the same size, at the Boarding. We made many
observations which included the number and species of earthworms we
found and whether they were clitellates or not. We also made
observations regarding soil, atmospheric temperature and relative
humidity and took soil samples to measure the moisture content.

12th November: Left for New College as usual. I was told that Sir did
not come today as he had a high viral fever. Yesterday a research
scholar had expired and so there was a condolence meeting today. After
that everybody left as it was declared a holiday. I arrived home at
about 10.30 a.m. I had a bath and then some food. I then watched a bit
of TV and wrote my diary. In the night Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu had
invited some guests and had cooked chicken curry which I enjoyed very

14th November: Sir did not arrive today either. With the help of Jagan
I used the Infrared Moisture Balance to find out the moisture content
of the soil samples which we had taken on Saturday. After we finished
one sample, the voltage started fluctuating so we used the tulgren
funnel instead. Then Jagan sent me to get soil samples from the field
and from the area near the Boarding. We put the soil samples in the
tulgren funnel and observed the arthropods that fell into the beaker
under a compound microscope. We also observed some preserved specimens
of microarthropods.

15th November: Pounded 100 gms of soil sample and then sieved each soil
sample through 5 sieves. Then weighed the soil in each sieve and noted
this down.

16th November: Did sieving of soil in the morning. In the evening, used
Keenscups to find out the waterholding capacity/porosity.

18th November: Sir arrived this morning. Read some books in the library
for sometime. Then did a bit of soil sieving and then did burning of
soil in a bunsen burner. In the afternoon, I watched a very comic film
called "Junior Shylock".

19th November: Started preparing my report in rough. In the evening I
went with Babu to buy a film roll for taking photographs for my report.

20th November: Did burning of a second sample of soil. After that
Jagan, Sir and I photographed microarthropods with the help of the
compound microscope that has a camera attached to it. After lunch, I
attended a seminar conducted by one of the students.

21st November: Ate a Perionyx excavatus earthworm in the morning. Then
weighed some soil samples to find out the waterholding capacity of
different soils, weighed burnt soil, also learnt how to calculate and
find out soil texture of different samples of soil. Continued writing
my report.

22nd November: Sat and wrote the final parts of my report. Then I gave
it to Chitra who corrected it. After she finished, she gave it to Sir
who also made some corrections.

23rd November: Wrote my report in fair in the new notebook I had
bought. Then Jagan and I stuck the photographs we had clicked earlier
in the various spaces in the notebook. Then Sir said that I would have
to prepare a vermi-bed on my own. He gave me a bucket and I made a
vermi-bed in it. Sir checked that I had done it correctly.

24th November: Drew some diagrams that remained to be done in my
notebook. Then gave it to Sir for final approval. He made me write a
few lines about each photograph. He said I should come and collect it
after a week or so. After that I said bye to everyone and left at 4.30
for home.

10 days later...

5th December: Today was a holiday, so I went to collect my report book
from New College where I had given it to Sir for his signing. Met all
my friends there. All of them wrote their remarks in my report book and
then it was stamped. Sir gave me a certificate for the earthworm course
I had finished at the Institute. Then Chitra dropped me in her Fiat car
near the Panagal Park bus stop.

Field Notes on Vermiculture:
Turning Garbage into Gold

Vermicompost and vermiwash are the two earthworm products that have
become very popular nowadays. Ordinary organic garbage which consists
of litter, such as, kitchen waste and dead plant material is used and
converted into manure with the help of earthworms.


There are three kinds of earthworms. One, the epigeal or surface
earthworm (Perionyx excavatus) which eats only organic litter which is
present on the top layer of the soil. Two, the anecic earthworms
(Lampito mauritii) which are present in the upper layers of soil and
feed on waste and leaf litter. The third kind are present deep inside
the soil and are known as endogeic earthworms (Octochaetona

The most suitable earthworms recommended for vermiculture are the
epigeic and anecic earthworms. Perionyx excavatus is purplish red and
rough. Near the two ends the Perionyx excavatus is almost black in
colour. It is smaller and thinner (approx. 10 cms long) and more active
compared to the Lampito mauritii. They also breed faster than Lampito
mauritii. Lampito mauritii are greyish white in colour and shiny,
thicker and longer (length-16 cms) compared to Perionyx excavatus.

Earthworms prefer cool temperatures, moist soil, humidity, relatively
less sunlight and neither too coarse nor too fine sand. These are the
ideal conditions that must be kept in mind when using them for
vermiculture. Since earthworms breathe through the skin, they perish if
their skin becomes dry or the quantity of mucus diminishes. Hence to
keep earthworms alive in the vermicompost containers, care should be
taken to ensure that the vermibed remains moist. Earthworms however do
not prefer waterlogged soils. In fact if earthworms are kept in water
for too long, the concentration of ammonia that is discharged through
their excreta makes the water too toxic for the earthworms to survive.
Earthworms also cannot tolerate salt or salt water even briefly.

Earthworms are hermaphrodites. Depending on the species, their life
span is between six months to one year. Fully matured earthworms upon
mating shed their clitellum (a small band like an overgrowth of skin)
and produce cocoons which take about 14 days to incubate and hatch into
juveniles. Maximum three juveniles are hatched from each cocoon. From
the juvenile to the clitellate stage i.e. the fully matured or
reproductive stage it takes 15-18 days. Thus earthworms are able to
multiply several times in their life span which makes them ideally
suited to process even large quantities of garbage.


A pit, a small plastic or wooden crate or, even a bucket, can be used
for vermicomposting organic matter. Although not necessary, two crates
can be used simultaneously; while one is being used for fresh garbage,
the garbage in the other can be allowed to decompose.

First, 6-8 holes should be made (one at each corner and four in the
middle of the crate). A pot or a bucket needs about 3-5 holes. The
crate or pit must first be filled with a one inch layer of pebbles or
broken bricks. Then, a half to one inch layer of sand should be spread.
Over that, a five to six inch layer of soil should be spread. Then
Lampito mauritii and Perionyx excavatus earthworms should be
introduced. The soil must then be moistened with water. A little bit of
cowdung (nitrogen) and some hay (carbon) should be spread on it, and
the contents of the pit left for 20-30 days. This is called a vermibed.
The cowdung and hay will allow the worms to multiply. With this, the
vermicompost crate or pit will be ready for processing organic waste.

All organic waste should be evenly spread out on the vermibed. As far
as possible add garbage in small quantities regularly rather than
dumping large quantities at one go. The earthworm begins processing the
garbage immediately. Water the container occasionally so that the
vermibed remains moist. Once the container is full with organic waste,
it should be covered with a little soil and allowed to decompose
undisturbed. Only watering the pit should continue. After it has
decomposed fully (roughly 45 days) watering must be stopped for about 3
to 5 days. This will force the earthworms to migrate down to the bottom
of the container which will have some moisture as compared with the top
soil. Then the top layer of soil which is really the organic matter
which has been converted into manure should be removed without
disturbing the vermibed. This organic manure can be used for plants.


A drum, barrel or bucket can be used for making vermiwash. The drum or
bucket should be placed on supports a little above the ground. A hole
should be made at the bottom of the container. A pipe should be pushed
through the hole and a tap attached to the outer end.

The bottom of the drum should be covered with a layer of gravel (about
6-8 inches). Over it, a layer of sand (6-8 inches), and then a layer of
soil (6-8 inches) should be spread. The earthworms should then be
introduced and the soil moistened a little. Then a little bit of
cowdung and hay should be mixed together and scattered over it. This
should be left for a few days.

Whenever vermiwash is needed, water should be sprinkled with a shower
or, gradually poured on top of it (5 litres of water for a 150 litres
drum). The water will pass through the earthworm burrows and the
organically rich soil will become liquid manure and can be collected at
the bottom of the container. As the hay and cowdung is eaten up by the
earthworms, this should gradually be replaced.


In nature, litter is decomposed in a way similar to what happens in a
vermicompost pit. Litter (consisting of leaf material, twigs, bark,
dead wood, flowers, fruits and other plant and animal material) that
falls on the ground is constantly moistened by dew or rain.
Decomposition then sets in with the help of microbes, fungi and

Microarthropods are of two kinds-the detritivores that feed on the
litter attacked by the microbes and fungi and the predators that feed
on the detritivores. The litter that has not been decomposed, dead
microbes and microarthropods, along with their excretions and
secretions, mix and form humus. This humus is in a complex form and
therefore not available to the plants for use. Here is where earthworms
come into the picture. The earthworms present in the soil feed on the
humus. The castings (wormicasts) excreted by these earthworms, as a
result, contain nutrients in a form that is readily available to the
plants for their growth. The plants in turn, when they die or shed
leaves, contribute to the litter which becomes food for microbes and
fungi. Thus nature's cycle is made whole and complete.

Earthworms have proven that they are wonderful creatures for they can
truly turn garbage into gold.

Chapter 9: Spiders

My stint with vermiculture over, I had another fortnight of study with
Dr K. Vijayalakshmi, whom my dad calls India's `Spider Woman'. Dr
Vijayalakshmi has been doing research on rearing spiders as a
biological weapon for controlling cockroaches and her workplace is full
of spiders of various types, all in bottles, and bred under her
supervision. An authority on spiders, she is also the author of a
well-known book on the subject.

Actually I had been anxiously waiting for a phone call from my parents
saying that the decks were cleared for my Crocodile Bank visit. Instead
Dad had phoned to say that the final arrangements for my stay at Croc
Bank were still being finalised and that I could use the 10 days or so
in between to learn what I could from Dr Vijayalakshmi about spiders,
and the unusual use she intends to put them to. I had readily agreed.

Dr K. Vijayalakshmi and her husband both work in an organisation called
the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS). CIKS is housed in a one
storey building and Dr Vijayalakshmi's office is on the first floor.
Here she studies various plants that are useful as pesticides and so
on. But I was not at all concerned with that aspect of her work.

In the garage of the building was the Spider Room-a laboratory of sorts
filled with bottles of different spiders in various stages of growth.
There must have been over 500 transparent plastic bottles at the time I
was there, each one neatly labelled, and all sitting one next to the
other with spiders in them. For air, each bottle had tiny pinholes in
its lid. Feeding was done through another small hole in the lid: this
hole was plugged with cotton. All these spiders and their activities
including growth, moulting, mating and hatching of babies were
monitored by Dr Vijayalakshmi. She had an assistant called Selvan and
he followed her instructions, keeping the records and making the
notings in a log book.

During the fortnight that I worked with Dr Vijayalakshmi, I simply
slipped into this set-up, reading books about spiders that Dr
Vijayalakshmi gave me, then learning to identify different spiders and
simultaneously helping Selvan in all the tasks that were needed to
maintain the huge spider population housed in the garage.

The spiders that Dr Vijayalakshmi deals with are called giant crab
spiders. These spiders do not build webs. They feed only on
cockroaches. The spiders were a little smaller than their prey i.e. the
cockroaches. I used to separate the babies, feed them, check the
moultings and catch flies for feeding them. I read a lot of books here
and sometimes caught the spiders in the garden in order to identify and
study them.

Spiders were not the only creatures housed in the garage. There were
also cockroaches bred in buckets with rolled cardboard in the centre
and broken biscuit pieces thrown in the bucket. The cockroaches were
fed once a week or so to the giant crab spiders.

The smaller spiders used to get flies to eat and these were caught by
us everyday from the garden. The flies have to be fed alive to the
spiders, so we used transparent plastic bottles to trap the flies and
once caught we would carefully put them into the spider's bottle.
Sometimes the spider would immediately catch the prey and eat it; at
other times the fly would buzz around in the bottle for days till the
spider was ready to eat it.

Dr Vijayalakshmi also bred a particular species of fly in a small cage
with fine mesh with a small saucer of milk in the centre as a medium
for breeding.

Baby spiders were also housed individually in bottles and these were
fed fly larvae or the larvae which come when maida or rava begins to
lose its freshness.

The purpose of all these experiments was to find out which types of
spiders were useful for using as pest control agents to deal with
cockroaches. Information about spiders such as their growth, hardiness,
their eating habits, reproduction etc. are important indicators of the
species of spiders that can be kept in houses as predators for

Other than the spider work I tried to learn Tamil from Selvan but he
was keen to learn English from me and so both of us failed in learning
a new language and ended up speaking a cocktail of TamEnglish instead.

Extracts from Diary:

26th November: Uncle Mano and I left for Dr Vijayalakshmi's office this
morning at 7 a.m. While Uncle Mano and Madam chatted, I read some
books. Madam then showed us her spider collection. She also introduced
me to Selvan. Before we left she gave me some books to take home to

27th November: Watched how Selvan separated baby spiders from their
mother, placing each baby in a separate container. There were about 110
babies. Then we fed about 200 older spider babies. Selvan showed me how
to check their moulting.

28th November: Today I did feeding of the spider babies on my own. Then
transferred adults from one container to another and then fed them.

29th November: Today did only feeding of spider babies. Madam did not
come to the office as she was ill but her husband Dr Balasubramanian
came to check on us instead. Read some books on spiders in the
afternoon. Left early for home as Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu were going
away for a few days and I would be staying at their relative Santosh
Kumar's place instead. They left at 7.30 p.m. and I waited at their
neighbour's place for Santosh to collect me which he did at 9 p.m.

30th November: Being Sunday I got up late and ate idlis, dosas and
sambar for breakfast. Wrote out my diary for the past 2 days and
watched some TV. In the evening Santosh took me to the bus stand and
explained the route I would have to take next morning to CIKS.

1st December: Madam came to the office today and showed me how to
collect spiders which were in the compound of the office. She also gave
me some more material to read on spiders and told me to start preparing
my essay on spiders. After doing a little bit of feeding as usual, I
went out on my own and collected few species of spiders. Then Madam
helped me identify them and also some other species of spiders that
they had caught. Spent the afternoon catching flies to feed to some of
the older spiders.

2nd December: Today I only did identifying of different species of
spiders. I took some material home to read and so I left early; was so
busy looking at the books I was carrying, I didn't notice the terminus
where I was to get off and got over carried much further. Had to walk
nearly half an hour back. Asked people for directions and finally
reached the terminus.

3rd December: Did not feel well today so I didn't go to CIKS. Read the
books I had brought at home. Started preparing my written report.

4th December: Today did feeding of spiders as usual. Then caught about
70 flies and fed them to the adult spiders. Put 2 spiders to mate and
made my observations. Continued writing my report in the evening.

5th December: Went to New College to collect my vermiculture report.

6th December: Did feeding of baby spiders first. Then caught flies. A
female spider's eggs had just hatched so Selvan and I did the
separation of the babies into individual containers.

7th December: Did writing of my report first today. Then I gave it to
Madam to correct. After she finished with it, I started writing it in
fair. I finished writing the report before evening and left it with
Madam for final approval.

8th December: Went to CIKS late as I had a bad stomach. I was given my
final report signed and Madam also gave me a certificate. I left
slightly early in the evening as I was still feeling unwell and was
scheduled to leave for the Croc Bank the next day.

Field Work Notes:

These days most of us use Baygon or some other synthetic poison to
control cockroaches and other pests. But what does this do? It only
makes cockroaches or pests immune or resistant to such poisons.
Moreover, synthetic chemicals are very harmful and pollute the
environment. How nice it would be if we had a biological method of
controlling of pests. But that's just what spiders are!

A spider is not an insect. Insects are made up of a head, thorax and an
abdomen. They have compound eyes and are six-legged. They usually grow
wings in certain stages of their life and possess feelers or antennae.
Insects produce eggs which hatch into young that are completely
different from their parents. The young ones usually grow through

A spider on the other hand is an arthropod, made up of a cepolothorax
joined to an abdomen. It does not grow wings at any stage of its life.
It is eight-legged, and in place of the normal insect antennae it has
pedipalps. A spider generally has eight simple eyes or it could have
six eyes e.g. a spitting spider. Depending on the species the eyesight
may be well or poorly developed. Some species, such as the cave
spiders, are totally blind. Depending on the species a spider's life
span ranges from a couple of months to more than a decade (e.g.

Almost all spiders have their first pair of appendages later modified
into fangs with venom glands. But only a few have fangs that are large
and strong enough to pierce human skin. Out of these, most cannot do
any serious damage to human beings except for about four to five
species which can be lethal.

The Black Widow spider, for example, which is found in South America is
the most poisonous of all spiders. The female of the species, whose
poison is strong enough to kill a human being, often kills and eats the
male after mating and is thus aptly named the Black Widow. This spider
is shiny black in colour with a red hour glass mark on the ventricle
side of the abdomen. Fortunately, there are no spiders in India which
can seriously harm human beings.

There are about 30,000 species of spiders in the world. They have been
found upto a height of 23,000 feet up Mount Everest as well as

Almost all spiders are carnivorous. They can eat insects, small birds,
mammals and reptiles, including poisonous snakes and other spiders,
which they first subdue with their poison. They inject their prey with
a highly lethal venom and, having no teeth, suck out the liquid from
inside their prey. Large spiders with longer and powerful jaws may eat
part of or even the whole of their prey. Spiders can live without food
from a few weeks upto three months, depending on species, size, and
age. They obtain liquid from their food and thus do not need water.

Many spiders spin webs to capture their prey. However spiders also have
other means of capturing their prey. Some spiders spit a sticky web
onto their prey. Others live in burrows with trapdoors. Whenever they
feel hungry they come out and catch an unsuspecting insect. One species
attaches a sticky drop to one end of its silken thread and holds it
with its first three pairs of legs. When an insect passes by, the
spider waves the thread at the insect and ropes it in, as it were.

Some spiders sit on flowers and catch insects that come to collect
nectar. Others spin a small web, hold it with their first few pairs of
appendages and then throw it on insects passing below them. Still
others feed on other spiders only and are called pirate spiders. A few
spiders live on the webs of other spiders: they are too small to be
eaten by their host. They eat the small prey that get caught in the
web, thus keeping it tidy.

Spiders also have amazing defence mechanisms. Some spiders camouflage
themselves as a bird dropping. Others, as a dried yellow or black
rotting leaf or twig. And yet others resemble ants which are often
rejected by birds, reptiles and other insects. Some are even able to
change colour and shape, to some extent, to match their surroundings.
Some species build zigzag white coloured threads in their webs which
are visible to birds who avoid flying through the webs and damaging

The male spider is smaller than the female, and is thus liable to be
eaten by his mate. So, the male uses many tactics to prevent his being
devoured by his mate. In some cases the male drums or pulls at the
strings of the web in a special code to announce that he is not a prey
or an enemy, but a sexual object.

Some spiders offer their mate a gift such as a juicy fly, wrapped in
silk. But it may well be taken back after mating and offered to another
female. Sometimes a male may even offer the female the empty husk of an
insect. Sometimes the male loosely binds the female with silk to
immobilize her before mating. Some species of male spiders may
patiently wait near the web of a female spider for weeks until she has
caught a prey, and then mate with her while she is busy feeding on the
prey. Sometimes, the male is so small compared to the female that the
female is practically unaware of him while mating and this gives him

Most spiders are solitary in nature. Each one builds its own separate
web. If one spider falls by mistake into another web, the bigger spider
will eat the smaller spider. However, there are some spiders called
social spiders that live together in one web. Sometimes there may be
hundreds or even thousands of adults and young ones living in one web.
Even if a single prey is caught (such as a small fly), all the spiders
will share the meal.

Spiders multiply very rapidly. After mating, an egg sac is constructed
and the internally fertilized eggs laid inside the egg sac which is
carried by the female with her palps and fangs. Fertilization of eggs
may be internal or external depending on the species. Within 15 to 20
days, 80% of the eggs hatch. (The eggs hatch into young spiderlings.
The new born spiders are similar to their parents, only smaller. The
spiderlings moult to mature.) After a gap of one week to ten days the
next batch of eggs is laid in a fresh egg sac, and fertilised with the
help of stored sperm. The female can do this three to four times
without mating with another male, although she will readily mate with a
male after the laying of every batch of eggs.

Spiders have proven themselves to be one of the best biocontrollers of
insect pests. Very few of us realize that spiders were, are and will be
laying traps for insects even after man has finally disappeared from
the earth.

How to Rear Spiders

Spiders have cannibalistic tendencies, i.e. if two or more are kept in
one container, they will prey on each other. Hence from birth, they
must be separated into individual containers.

Transparent plastic containers (size depending on the individual
species) can be used to rear spiders. A few pin-sized holes should be
made in the lid of the container as aeration holes. One big hole should
be made for dropping prey inside. It should be blocked with a piece of

Baby spiders will eat culture foods such as Thrypolium, drosophilia,
fruit fly and house fly larvae. As they grow, they will eat house flies
and later on cockroaches.

Cleaning the prey remains and moults is a must. Two containers should
be used. Every week the used one should be washed with soap and water,
and allowed to dry in the sun.

The legs of the stands on which the spider containers are kept should
be placed in bowls of water or oil to avoid ants. The adults should be
fed well before allowing them to mate. Spiders will tolerate moderate
room temperature.

Culturing food

1. Milk powder and a medium sized piece of cotton, mixed with water.
Every day, a teaspoon of milk powder should be added.

2. Drosophilia larvae culturing: quarter cup of wheat flour and two
medium sized pieces of jaggery should be boiled in two cups of water.

Housefly and drosophilia can be reared in a wooden or metal framed box,
covered with a fine mesh or netting. The above mixture should be put
into small bowls and introduced into the cage. Adult houseflies and
drosophilia should be captured and put inside the cage and left there
to lay their eggs.

3. Thrypodium larvae: adults are found in rava and maida. A special
bucket should be kept with an aeration hole and the maida or rava in
the bucket, sprinkled with a little bit of water every day. A strainer
can be used to strain out the larvae wherever necessary.

4. Cockroaches: need a bucket with many big aeration holes, covered
with a fine mesh. A few rolls of paper can be placed vertically inside
the box for the cockroaches to climb on.

Chapter 10: Crocodile Dundee

December was the most eagerly awaited month of my one year sabbatical.
All decks had finally been cleared for my long awaited trip to the
Crocodile Bank at Mamallapuram. Nearly three months earlier my dad had
written to Romulus Whitaker the legendary snakeman who now runs the
Croc Bank asking whether I could spend some time there. There had been
no reply largely because Rom travels quite a bit but also because, as I
discovered, writing replies to letters is about the last thing these
animal-dedicated persons have time for.

I was in fact beginning to feel quite frustrated thinking that my trip
would not work out when Srilata Swaminadhan (with whom we stayed in
Jaipur) told my father that her sister lived at Mamallapuram and would
help out. Phone calls back and forth and finally it was all organised.
I was overjoyed when my dad's phone call came to Uncle Mano's house
saying I could go.

Babu, Uncle Mano's nephew, reached me by bus to the Croc Bank on the
9th of December and I spent one glorious month there, the nearest I got
to living in the wild. Although I was supposed to return home for
Christmas I begged to be let off and was in the seventh heaven when my
parents agreed. In fact I enjoyed my stay so much, that in March, I
returned to the Croc Bank again (for a brief while), as that was the
breeding season for crocodiles.

The Croc Bank is situated at Mamallapuram which is about 37 kms from
Chennai. It is a huge place with a beach just behind it.

Croc Bank is home to thousands of crocodiles, all of them housed in
pits of varying sizes with sloping walls to enable water to collect at
the centre so that the crocs can sunbathe on the upper part of the
slopes. Some of the huge crocodiles have individual pits but usually
the species is kept separately, male and female further separated from
each other. A large enclosure divided into several sections houses the
baby crocs.

In addition to crocodiles, snakes also have a significant position at
Croc Bank for snakes were Director Romulus Whitaker's first love, and
he is still known as the Snakeman, having founded Madras Snake Park
several years ago. There is, in fact, a big snake pit at the Croc Bank,
in which various kinds of snakes are kept. Here, snake venom is
extracted from the snakes by the Irulas. There is a separate fee for
visitors for entering the snake area. While the poisonous snakes are
kept in pots in a snake room, the King Cobras, of course, have special
separate rooms.

Croc Bank also has enclosures and pits for various kinds of turtles and
large aquariums with fish in them.

At one end of the campus is the library, well stocked with books and
magazines on all these creatures. Adjacent to it are the residential
quarters of researchers and guests (there were mainly foreigners at the
time I was there) who come to stay at Croc Bank from time to time. The
residential quarters are quite simple but comfortable. Each room has a
bed, desk and table, and an attached bath and toilet. I occupied one of
these rooms during my stay here.

The Irula families live in a separate area close to where the Snake
pits are located. The permanent staff which includes the Director,
Deputy Directory and others have their own individual houses located in
various places within the Croc Bank.

During my stay I became good friends with many of the people at the
Croc Bank including the six foot tall Director, Romulus Whitaker, whom
everyone calls Rom; his wife, Zai Whitaker; their sons Samir and
Nikhil; Harry Andrews, the Deputy Director who hails from Kerala;
Romaine, his wife and their son Tharak, Gerry the snake-catcher from
Bangalore and many others.

My stay at Croc bank was exciting throughout and I learnt a lot. For
the first few days, I was given my first assignment i.e., treating a
2-foot long turtle with infected skin. I used to apply ointment to its
feet and then put on some bandage. The next day, before repeating the
treatment, I had to feed the turtle with cabbage in water.

From turtles, I moved to big lizards i.e. monitor lizards and Green
Iguanas. The Green Iguana I handled was quite big-about the size of an
average dachshund. His tail measured two to three times the length of
his body if not more. From head to tail, he must have been about two
and a half metres long. But he had been in captivity for so long that
he was very friendly, though he had sharp claws and a spiny back and
head. Sometimes, when I used to guide special guests around, I would
take him out so that they could have a feel of his sandpapery skin. I
was surprised when Harry, the deputy director, told me the Iguana was
as old as I was.

Sometimes, I also handled monitor lizards. They were very strong, had
sharp claws and a very bad bite. Every time I jumped into the pit to
handle them they would rush into the water. I soon learned to be quick
enough, and would get them before they could reach the water. Once they
were cornered they would whip their tails about and inflate their
necks, hissing dangerously. Of course, you had a few of them running up
trees and then you couldn't do anything about it. I soon discovered
that though it looked scarier, it was easier to catch them in the

The croc bank is filled with pits. Each of these pits is an enclosure
varying in size, depending on the size and type of reptile, and the
number of them in it. Every pit has a pond of sorts filled with water
for the reptiles to swim in or to drink. Most of the crocodile pits
were bare, but the monitor lizard pits were usually filled with trees
which they could climb to the highest branches. The branch ends were
kept within the range of the pits so that the monitor lizards did not
get out by trying to climb other trees or jumping out from the high

The ponds of the monitor lizards were almost waist deep with dark murky
water and you had to feel around until you touched the head, leg or
body of the monitor (they are less likely to bite in water). Then I
would feel around till I got the tail, slowly lift it to the surface
and grab the neck under the water. Their necks were so huge that I
could hardly get my fingers round them. On land, catching them by
grabbing the tail was much faster, but one had to avoid the biting head
by quickly grabbing the neck.

Once, when the Croc Bank staff wanted to get some monitors down from
the trees, they just took a long stick and pushed them over from the
height of almost a two storey building. They fell on the ground but
suffered no damage and just continued running around. I recall the day
Gerry challenged Nikhil "the bodybuilder" to pull a monitor lizard that
was half out of a burrow. At first he thought the monitor's tail would
break but though he tugged with all his might his rippling muscles
couldn't move an inch of the monitor.

In the mornings, I helped the workers clean the croc pits, a task which
I thoroughly enjoyed. We would jump into the pits with big sticks and
chase all the crocs into the water. Then we would clean out the croc
shit and the left overs of their food which included a lot of bones.
This exercise was usually done with a male worker first chasing the
crocs into the water. Then the remaining 3 to 4 women would help with
brooms, baskets and spades. Occasionally, we would have a crocodile
wanting us to get out of his pit instead. No matter how hard you hit
him on his nose he would chase you around until he would finally give
in, so to speak, and dash into the water with a big splash or
sometimes, glide gracefully to where he could join his friends who
sometimes numbered a thousand! (The Croc Bank had around seven thousand
crocs at the time I was there.)

I also had occasion to participate a few times in the operations
involved in shifting crocodiles from one location to another. That was
quite an adventure in itself!

One day Rom and Harry decided to shift the largest male Gharial in the
Croc Bank from one pit to another as it had broken its upper jaw in a
fight with another male during the previous breeding season.

Normally you try to catch a croc by throwing a sort of a small anchor
in and when the croc latches on to it you try and pull it out. Once it
is out, about 10-15 people quickly jump and sit on it. (That's the only
way to prevent a croc from getting back into water!). With its mouth
bound by rubber bands, the croc is then rolled onto a ladder, bound to
it, lifted and carried to the pit that it has to be transferred to. An
average adult croc is about 250 kg and about two to three metres long.
It takes 15-20 people to carry it.

Once it is released in the pool the ropes and rubber bands are removed
and the last unfortunate or brave man, depending on how you look at it,
makes a run for his life over the edge of the pond onto the safety of
dry land.

As we were transferring the male Gharial into a female mugger pit,
Harry jokingly yelled: "What do you think we will get-a Ghammer?" Of
course crocs only mate with others of their own species and there is no
way a Gharial and mugger will get together. We were in fact
transferring the male here in order to give it a period of rest and
recovery from fighting with other males.

Another time the exercise was because `Jaws III' needed female company.
Jaws III is the biggest captive salt water crocodile in India. He is
about 16 feet and ranks may be, 3rd or 4th in the world in terms of his
length. Therefore, after Part II of `The Great White Man-eating Shark'
was produced, called Jaws II, the Croc Bank rightly decided to name its
crocodile `Jaws III'.

Jaws III was a loner and would kill anything including other crocs
which fell into his pit. So he lived a lonely, if majestic life.
Whenever we jumped into his pit to clean it he would come charging at
us even if he was in the water. He seemed to give us more exercise than
all of us put together gave him. Anyway, the Croc Bank, after ten
years, finally felt it was time to find a him bride. Since he had on
more than one occasion bashed his head against a wall sensing a female
in the opposite pit, we knew he was ready!

The first female we caught was about to be thrown into his pit when I
asked to examine her. (I had just learnt how to sex them). I began to
feel inside the crocodile and felt a hemipenis! "It's a male," I
shouted. "Can't be," said Gerry, "let me check." After a few seconds
there was a reassuring nod from Gerry: "Yes, Rom, it's a male!"

"Rahul, Champion Sexer," cried Gerry.

One cannot tell if crocs are male or female by their outward
appearance. So, at the Croc Bank, after crocs grow to a certain length
they are sexed and markings are made on their scales. But workers can
sometimes make mistakes while sexing small crocs. That's perhaps how
the error occurred with the first bride we got for Jaws. I can't
imagine the plight of the poor chap had he been put in the pit with
Jaws. He would have been turned into minced meat in minutes.

After that episode we physically examined every supposed female we
caught to be doubly sure of not making any error and found that most of
the supposed females turned out to be males! By then, most of the crocs
had run into the deepest part of the pond and we had hardly any crocs
to choose a female from. Rom suggested chasing the females out of the
water onto the land, but that's not easy at all. So he came up with
another idea.

We got some iron gates and tied them together with a thick mesh net
over it all. Then we had to wade into the green water with the net in
front of us. This would effectively push the crocs from the deep water
onto the land. But the best of plans can go haywire and, instead, the
reverse started happening. The crocs from the land started coming into
the water colliding with those being driven out by us. Thereafter there
was general commotion in the water and all the crocs started thrashing
about. One almost got my neighbour's hand. I could feel the crocs at my
feet through the iron mesh that I held grimly onto. However we finally
accomplished our dangerous mission and when we had driven a sufficient
numbers onto the land we were able to select a female for Jaws.

Imagine Jaws' surprise when he saw a companion after all those years.
She was exactly half his size in length and width. Perhaps he was just
very excited or maybe it was due to a normal state of male aggression,
we don't know, because he just caught the hapless female croc between
his huge jaws and thrashed her about. "Croc barbecue is delicious",
said Tharak expecting the poor creature to perish any moment.
Fortunately or unfortunately, his wish was not fulfilled. The female
survived although with quite a few bloody marks. Thereafter she kept
her distance from the water as any sane creature would, avoiding Jaws
like the plague.

Much later, when I visited Croc Bank a second time, it was the breeding
season and there were a few nests to be excavated everyday. Each nest
would occupy about the space of a medium size basket. Each egg was at
least three times the size of a hen's egg and they usually numbered
around 30 to 35. Every female-and each one of these measured from about
2 m to 3.5 m-would determinedly guard her nest, refusing to budge when
we tried to chase her into the water in order to clean the pit.

There is now a problem of excess population of the mugger crocodiles
at the Croc Bank partly because they breed twice as much at the croc
bank compared to in the wild and also due to their high survival rate.
In the wild, at the most, one or two survive out of the 30-35 eggs as
many are lost to predators, etc., but here due to artificial
incubation, special enclosures, etc., a large number tend to survive.
Therefore the croc bank has stopped all breeding of this species which
meant that we had a surfeit of eggs for breakfast! We used to scramble
the salty eggs and finish them off with sauce, although a larger number
used to be sent raw for the monitor lizards' breakfast.

I sometimes went snake hunting with the Irulas. The Irulas are tribals
that are expert at snake catching. They formerly caught snakes for the
snake skin industry. After the ban, they went out of business and found
it difficult to make a living because they did not own land and did not
know how to cultivate fields or do any trade at all. After the croc
bank opened they were back in the business they excelled in, but this
time it was to save people and snakes with snake venom extraction.

Carrying only a crowbar and a few cloth bags, they would set out,
overturning every bush and digging any hole that showed signs of a
snake in it. Their crowbar had three uses, namely: (1) to shine light
into the burrow; (2) to dig the hole and (3) to handle the snake.
During my outings with the dark, short, curly haired snake hunters, we
caught striped keelbacks, ratsnakes and also black scorpions.

Apart from snakes the Irulas also caught rats. These rats, which
destroy crops and fields, build their burrows within the bunds. After
catching the rats, the Irulas would take away the rice which the rats
had stowed away and cook it to eat with the field rat meat. These
outings were long, hot and tiring but I found them nonetheless

The Irulas also taught me a lot about snake handling. I learnt to
handle the four poisonous snakes of India (the "Big Four", i.e. Cobras,
Common Kraits, Russel's Vipers, Saw-scaled Vipers) and also Pit Vipers
and Pythons.

Snakes were kept in mud pots that were placed in the snake room (no
different from an ordinary bedroom). Outside, a board merely announced:
`Danger: Snakes Loose'. This was done to discourage intruders. But
really speaking, snakes were let loose only under supervision. There
was a small canal of water outside to prevent ants from entering the
room. (You may not believe it but ants can reduce a snake to a
skeleton.) Next, there was a little space outside the room and about 1
to 2 metres after, a smooth wall, about a metre high. I used to remove
the snakes from their pots, put them to drink water in the canal and
then clean the pots. During this exercise I would take the opportunity
to improve my skills at handling the snakes. Basically one has to hold
the tail with one hand and control the snake using the snake hook (a
long stick with an iron hook at the end) with the other.

Bites! That's practically the first question anyone asks me when I talk
of my croc bank vacation. Did I get bitten? Yes, several times, mostly
by accident. But sometimes I allowed myself to be bitten just for the
heck of it. I recall once when a ratsnake gave me a bite on the nose. I
tried to prevent Rom seeing it but he found out soon enough by the
blood on my shirt. A bite from a ratsnake is not painful but it bleeds
like a leaking tap. "Don't worry, Rahul," Rom said cheerfully, "the
venom will not take effect for another half an hour." (Ratsnakes are

Another time I was getting a picture taken of myself with a baby
crocodile when it turned round and bit me. That was quite bad! Imagine
a sawing machine running over your hand. But I was cool, and happy that
I had been bitten by a crocodile!

Then I was dumb enough to try the bite of a wall lizard that Gerry had
caught to feed to his pit vipers. The scar, still on my hand, reminds
me also of the chequered keelback bite I got in Pune (the one which got
so bad that I couldn't wear my watch for a few days).

And on the last day of my stay at Croc Bank the red-eared turtle which
I was taking away as my gift and souvenir from Croc Bank bit me so bad
that I could see my flesh and I could barely use my hand for a few

Now when I look back I think I was collecting bites in much the same
way that some people collect trophies. Although this may appear quite a
foolish thing to do and perhaps it was too (some of the bites were
quite painful), one good thing did come out of all those bites. I have
no paranoid fear of such bites any longer. I am very careful when I
handle reptiles and take all the precautions that I have been taught
but I know that I would not be terror stricken should I get bitten and
would know what remedial steps to take.

Apart from my practical studies, there was a huge library at the Croc
Bank where I would browse through several books on crocs, snakes,
monitors, turtles, the works. It was always with great pleasure that I
would search for information about something that I had learnt or seen
that day. And the best part is that although I didn't have to memorize
the facts for any examination, nothing of what I read has gone out of
my head.

And then, there was always time for fun. Sometimes I would go to
Harry's house where Tharaq and I played music or recorded songs. Other
times, I would watch a movie at Rom's. There was time for barbecues of
field rats, froglegs, frankfurters, parrot fish, chicken and beef,
rounded off with chocolate cake. The beach at the back was for swimming
during the day and catching crabs during the night.

One of the interesting happenings at the time that I was there was the
arrival of a film team from the magazine National Geographic to film
the King Cobras at the Bank. I became one of the many hands-on they had
for the job: I would assist in various ways like holding the flash,
helping with the setting up of shots, catching and re-catching the
frogs as they scampered off during the numerous retakes.

One lazy afternoon Tharaq suggested a haircut for me. My hair was by
then really long. In fact I had not put a scissor to it since the
beginning of my sabbatical. So now it stood nearly at shoulder length.
He told me he had one and a half months' experience in hair cutting. I
was thus persuaded to take up his offer of a "free" haircut in the
"latest style".

I explained in great detail to Tharaq how I wanted it cut and he
nodded attentively making a few suggestions here and there. Then he
started to work with the scissors, cutting and shaving here and there.
When he announced that he had finished he produced a mirror and I
looked into the face of an unrecognisable Rahul with a hairstyle of
triangles sitting amidst shaved parts and a long strand of hair in the
front. I looked crazier than any rock star! It was only then that I
learnt that Tharaq did not know the ABC of haircutting, much less
hairstyling and that he had just had a great time experimenting on my

Anyway I decided that now was a good time to try out the "bald look"
and so I got to a proper barber and had my hair shaved off completely.
It was truly liberating. I took several pictures of myself at this time
with the reptiles at the croc bank to remember my days here and also to
record for posterity my new look.

I felt truly sorry when it was time for me to leave Croc Bank. I
promised everyone that I'd be back soon. I carried a souvenir with me-a
red-eared turtle (which I still have) and some turtle eggs.

I travelled through the night on a bus to Bangalore. At my foot was the
turtle in a box and I had left a small opening for her to breathe.
Suddenly I noticed that the turtle was out and was already making for
the door of the bus. I quickly caught her and put her back without any
of the sleeping passengers noticing it except for a dear old lady who
smiled and said, "Dropped your water bottle, son?"

Field Work Notes:

Living millions of years before man, but today facing extinction...with
many myths about them and very little known about their nature. Many
are considered dangerous. None are considered useful. Who are these
creatures? They are called crocodiles, alligators and lizards.

There are 21 species of crocodiles and alligators in the world.

Three species of crocodiles are found in India, namely:

1) the Gharials-which are fish-eating crocodiles;

2) the Muggers; and

3) the Salt-water crocodiles.

The biggest and the most dangerous of all crocodiles in the world is
the salt water crocodile, which can grow upto 25 feet. It is the only
crocodile that can live in the sea for a long time. The Nile crocodile
of Africa is yet another deadly species. Fossils of three other extinct
species of crocodiles have also been found in India.

These cold blooded animals have evolved with dinosaurs millions of
years ago and are more closely related to birds than to snakes or
reptiles. Being cold blooded they control their body temperature by
seeking shady, sunny spots or different levels in water. They often
bask with their jaws open, which probably helps them to keep cool.

Their eyes, nose and ears are positioned in a straight line along with
head and snout. They have good eyesight and a good sense of smell, and
can hear very well. Their tail is very strong and helps them in
swimming. They have a very low metabolic rate and thus need to hunt
only every few days. They can decrease their metabolic rate and stay
under water for a long time. Alligators have been known to stay under
water for upto 6 hours. They do not make any unnecessary movements but
can move very fast even on land when necessary. Small salties can
gallop at a speed of 48 kph for short distances.

Crocodiles are found in large and small rivers, lakes, mangroves, and
in brackish and fresh water. When a baby crocodile hatches, it is just
about three quarters of a foot (25-30 cms) in length. In a few years it
matures into an adult. Maturity depends upon size rather than on age.
Generally males mature slower than females.

In the wild, a female will take between 5-7 years to mature whereas
males will take 9-11 years. Gharials take longer to mature; about 8-10
years for the female and 12 years for the male. In captivity, such as
in the Madras Crocodile Bank, females mature in four years and males in

The average size for maturity for a Mugger is-male (2 metres) and
female (1.6 metres). Males of Gharials and Salties mature at three and
a half metres and females at three metres.

Mugger crocodiles breed in between February and April. Salties breed in
April and Gharials between the last week of March to the second week of

Breeding depends on environmental conditions. In the breeding season
males often fight for the right to court with several females. During
courtship each pair may blow bubbles, rub noses, raise their snout and
periodically submerge and re-emerge. Different species show different
courtship displays. Gharials, for example, often court each other by
making a loud buzzing sound. Mating occurs under water with the male
mounted on top of the female.

The average gestation period is between 35-60 days. The gestation for a
Mugger is 35-40 days and for Gharials and Salties, 40-65 days. The
temperature at which eggs are incubated and the moisture content of the
environment (humidity) influence the sex within the embryo.

Crocodiles will either dig a hole about 30 cms deep or pile up leaves
to incubate their eggs. They sometime splash water on the nest to
control the temperature. In mugger crocs, females are exclusively
produced at constant temperature of 28¡C through 31¡C. At 32.5¡C only
males are produced. Both sexes in varying proportion are produced at
31.5 to 33¡C.

The female guards the nest. At the time of hatching the young start
croaking so the mother (sometimes even the father) digs open the nest.
Then she cracks some of the eggs with her teeth to set free the young
and carries them to the water in her mouth. The adult crocodiles
continue to guard the young until they are about 5-7 months old.

Crocodiles have many uses in nature's ecosystem. They help keep the
environment clean by eating the carcasses that would otherwise rot.
They capture the diseased, wounded and weaker prey thus letting only
the strongest survive and thus maintaining a healthy population and
keeping up the genetic quality of their prey species.

In the dry season, wallows and tunnels dug by crocs provide essential
water for other animals, turtles and fish. Many animals depend upon
crocs for food for e.g. the sacred Ibis and monitor lizard will eat the
eggs of the Nile crocodile. Crocs are also exceptionally resistant to
disease and thus may be of great use in medical research.

Chapter 11: Learning to Teach

January brought fresh experience for me and it happened entirely
because of Hartman de Souza. I was to return to Goa via Bangalore and
since our good friends, Hartman and Ujwala, live in Bangalore and had
expressed willingness to accommodate me, should I need a place to stay
for a while during my sabbatical, my parents suggested that I spend a
few days there before returning home. I was to stay at their place,
sight-see Bangalore if I liked and inform my parents as soon as I was
ready to return. This then was the general plan.

I reached Bangalore at 1.40 p.m. on the 7th of January. Bing (that's
how we all call Hartman) was at the bus-stand to pick me up, with his
car. We drove to his house, me chatting away in reply to all his
questions. At home there was Ujwala and their kids, Zuri and her
younger brother, Zaeer. Also living with them at the time was Mrs Kalai
who was Bing's colleague at the India Foundation for the Arts.

After settling down to a good meal and generally relaxing, Bing told me
that he had in mind a few people and institutions connected with my
interest i.e., wildlife and that I should use my time in Bangalore to
meet them. I agreed to his suggestion, little realizing that the people
he suggested I meet would make their own suggestions about other people
I should meet and when I would report this information to Bing, he
would insist that I go and meet them as well. So I spent quite a few
days meeting, or writing to, various persons connected with wildlife in

Bing is quite a hard taskmaster and he would not let me off easily; if
the people were not in station at that time or, if the names suggested
were not from Bangalore, I had to write to them instead. I wrote
numerous letters as a result. The general purpose of this activity was
that I should get an idea of what options were there for me if I
decided to pursue a career in wildlife eventually. Bing also suggested
that I should try to find out how and why these people decided to take
to environment and wildlife studies, whether they were happy in their
choices and so on.

Bing made several copies of an introductory cum reference letter for me
which I was to give to the people I was to meet. The letter, which was
signed by him, stated that I had taken a one year sabbatical to explore
wildlife which I had done for the past eight months and that I would
like to have a small interview with the person concerned. I also
prepared small questionnaires to help me in the interviews. Bing would
most often phone the person in advance and make the appointment for me.
Sometimes he even reached me to the place; at other times I went in a

The first person I met was Mr T. Parameswarappa, Retd. Principal Chief
Conservator of Forests. I reached Mr Parameswarappa's house at 11.45
a.m. I had an appointment with him at 12.30 p.m. However Mr
Parameswarappa was out and did not arrive home until 1.30 p.m. So I sat
and looked at a couple of books in his office. Soon after he returned
we began to talk, first about my sabbatical and then about what I
wanted to do in the future.

He told me that after graduation, one must answer a competitive
examination held by the Union Public Service Commission. The students
who are selected are trained and then posted to a forest. At the
University of Agricultural Sciences at Dharwad or Hebbal, a four year
course on forestry can be done after completing pre-university. At the
Wildlife Research Institute short courses may be available, he said,
but after graduation long courses are definitely available.

I asked him some questions and I relate briefly the interview I had
with him:

Rahul: Is it possible to have a ranger give you a private guided tour
within the Banargatta Wildlife Sanctuary?

Parmeswarappa: I'm afraid not. There are only routine safaris for
visitors. But if you like you can meet Mr Venkatesh, Deputy Conservator
of Forests and give him my reference.

R: What is the condition of the sanctuary?

P: It is a government initiative and as you can expect, there are good
and bad points to all such activities.

R: Are there any unusual career courses offered in Wildlife?

P: In India there are no privately run sanctuaries or zoos. Therefore
any career in wildlife or forestry must be through the government. This
makes it almost impossible to have any rare or unusual career courses.

R: What are the duties of the staff at the Banargatta Park?

P: Their only duty is to see to the well-being of the animals i.e. feed
them and keep their surroundings clean. They do not study or do
research on the animals.

R: How did you acquire this post of Principal Chief Conservator of
Forests? What was your background?

P: Like you, I had to study. I answered an examination and got a job
as a forest officer. Later I went to the US for two years and on my
return I was appointed as Chief Conservator of Forests.

R: Is it possible to set up a Snake Park for doing snake venom

P: Of course it is possible. But one must apply for a
licence/permission for keeping wild snakes in captivity. Pune Snake
Park will know the procedure and if you write to them they will give
you all the details.

Mr Parameswarappa proved to be a very friendly and helpful person.
Before I left I showed him copies of the letters which I had already
sent to the Indira Gandhi Research Institute and to the Indian Wildlife
Research Institute at Dehradun.

My second appointment was with Mr Arun Kotankar, one of the main
persons running an organisation called Samvad which has a programme
called SMILE (Student Mobilisation Initiative for Learning) in
Bangalore. I reached the office at 10.30 a.m. although my appointment
was at 12 o'clock. I showed him my reference letter and in a little
while he sat to talk with me.

Mr Kotankar told me about the SMILE programmes in Bangalore. On
Saturday afternoons they have an informal open house at Samvad. They
watch a film, have a debate or just talk on a specific topic of
interest to students, like tourism, dowry, child abuse, fisherfolk's
struggles or topics like marriage, love, education or parents.

Students also visit organisations working with dalits, tribals, women,
street children, fisherpeople, etc. One can also learn environmental
conservation. If the students cannot go to far off places and have to
stay back during vacations, they are advised to take up campaigns or
undertake studies on local problems like child labour, environmental
degradation, construction workers' rights, etc.

Shodhane which means `search' is a newsletter brought out by students
who have been to these exposure camps and they write about their
experiences during the exposure or generally about other social
concerns. One can contribute articles, poems, cartoons or stories in
Kannada and English. I was quite interested to hear all that Mr
Kotankar had to say about this organisation.

Later, I went straight to St. Joseph's College where according to the
information Bing had, there were various environmental courses being
conducted for college students. I met one of the clerks in the college
office who gave me the information I requested and also a pamphlet
listing the different courses one could take after graduation.

Two days later I went to meet Dr Harish Gaonkar at his house, at 11
a.m. Both he and his wife (who is German) were very friendly and I
spent a lot of time talking with Mr Gaonkar who is a specialist on

I learnt from him that butterflies are insects that are more closely
related to plants than to insects. From the number of species of
butterflies in an area, a butterfly collector can also find out the
number of species of plants in that area. This is because each species
of butterfly will use only a certain plant/plants species. For example,
in Goa, there are about 250 species of butterflies, that means that
there are about 900 to 1,000 plant species in Goa. This information
would be much more difficult for a pure botanist to give. Thus
butterflies are an ideal medium for a botanist who wishes to have an
idea of the plant species in the locality.

Eggs are laid by the mother butterflies in distinct places on leaves to
avoid predators from feeding upon them. They hatch within two to three
days. The larvae will moult many times (on an average five) to become a
pupa. During the pupa stage, it does not feed and after a few days it
emerges as a butterfly. It waits for about 10 minutes to dry its wings
in the sun and then flutters away. The whole process to become an adult
may take a period of five weeks to two months. Then the butterfly will
live for about 2 weeks, and within the first few days, will lay only
one batch of eggs.

Moths are the ones that spin silk. No butterfly spins silk. There are
about 10,000 species of moths in the world-much more than butterflies.
Some butterflies and moths are poisonous e.g. the Crimson Rose, even
found in Goa. It is a butterfly with wings and a red body. It also has
red dots on its wings and black dots on its body. The smallest
butterflies are about a few centimetres in size and one of the biggest
butterflies is about the size of two palms put together.

At the end of the meeting Dr Gaonkar showed me some books on
butterflies and some papers written by him on the subject. At around
1.30 p.m. I took leave of him and left for MES College where I had an
appointment with Dr Leela for the same afternoon. There I saw preserved
dolphin tails and specimens of hammer-headed sharks.

My stay in Bangalore also became very special because of the Times of
India programme that Bing managed to arrange for me. The Times of India
in Bangalore has a special section called "Newspaper in Education". One
of the programmes of NIE is to have workshops in schools on varied
topics. On the 20th of January, I went to The Times office on M.G. Road
and after talking with the person in charge for sometime about what I
had been doing during the past year I was asked whether I would take a
few workshops in some schools over the next couple of days. Although I
was not too certain how well I would do this job I agreed because if
there is one thing I learnt during my sabbatical it is that one should
always give a try to anything new because things are not always as hard
as they might appear to be. So I said yes.

My first workshop was on the 22nd of January. I was picked up by one of
the organisers from NIE and taken to the Srivani Education Centre where
I was to speak to the students of Standard VIII. I was expected to
speak for about 35 minutes and keep around 10 minutes for questions or

I was a bit nervous at first but as the talk progressed and I found
the students listening attentively I talked more freely. After these
sessions were over I would be dropped back home or to Hartman's office
whichever was nearer. After the first few schools went off well and I
became accustomed to the routine I found myself enjoying these classes.
I was even more pleased to learn that I would be paid Rs.100 per
workshop plus my travel costs.

For the talk I would start by telling the students about my sabbatical,
how the idea came up, the various places I had visited and the various
things I had done so far. After that I would speak about two
topics-vermiculture and snakes-because I thought that these would be of
most use to the students. Vermiculture because they could practise this
at home to process the garbage into compost and snakes because people
have so many fears about them.

When I talked about vermiculture, particularly about mixing cowdung
with soil, sometimes the girls and boys would find it distasteful and
would make jokes about it or laugh at the idea and I would think that
these are city kids and they don't know anything about cowdung. But
still I would continue to explain how a vermipit can be set up in their

On snakes, I would first give general information about poisonous and
non-poisonous snakes, and how to identify the poisonous ones. Then I
would tell them what should be done if someone got a snake bite. I
would also discuss the various beliefs that people have about snakes
and which of them are myths. Depending on the time left, I would speak
about other things too, like crocodiles, turtles or spiders.

At the end of the class, I would show them croc teeth, photos of myself
with snakes, crocs, monitors, etc., and then my red-eared turtle that I
always carried around with me in my bag. At this point there would be
maximum excitement. Everyone would crowd around, some would ask to hold
the turtle and they would ask questions about its eating habits etc. I
would allow them to touch the shell and nothing more because the turtle
is very nasty and bites.
In this fashion I took workshops at several other schools including
National English School, Sindhi School, St. Mary's School, Bolivian
Girls School and Bangalore International School. I usually spoke to the
students of Class VII to X. At Bangalore International School however
the workshop was for the students of Class III and IV.

A few months later back in Goa I was pleased when the postman handed me
a registered letter from NIE, Bangalore which contained a cheque for
Rs.1075, my full earnings for giving the lectures. Later when I wrote
an article on my one year sabbatical for the Hindustan Times I sent a
copy to NIE and they too published it in their newsletter. Newspaper in
Education has also invited me to take more workshops whenever I am in

Bangalore was very enjoyable in many other ways as well. One morning I
went to a swimming pool with Kalia and got the shock of my life on
jumping into the water; it was freezing cold! I resolved never to try
swimming in Bangalore in the winter again.

I ate out often especially during the day and tried out various small
eating joints (Bangalore has plenty of them), sampling South Indian
food, vegetable cutlets, milk shakes and so on. Of course, I constantly
had to watch my purse, for my budget did not allow lavish eating.
Sometimes I went to a book shop, sometimes I did small errands for Bing
and Ujwala, and I recall helping Bing with the cooking on at least two
occasions and occasionally helping Ujwala with her garden.

I also used to accompany Bing and Ujwala and their two kids on family
outings. Once we went to a lake called Sanki Tank where I enjoyed
motorboat rides and then played with Zuri and Zaeer in a small
children's park. Another time, we all went to see a dance performance
that I didn't understand too much about. Sometimes we all just went out
for a drive (I enjoyed these rides best) and then would have ice-cream
cones on the way home.

I must tell you how I learnt to eat vegetables. I have generally
disliked vegetables as far as I can remember. My mum tells me that she
regularly fed me vegetables as a baby and we have always had one or two
vegetables on the table at home for any meal. Still I would generally
refuse vegetables and preferred to stick to fish curry and rice, our
staple food in Goa.

When I was starting on my travels my parents warned me that in several
places the food would be only vegetarian, and that did happen to be the
case. During the year I learnt how to eat all types of food at
different people's houses. But I stuck to veggies I could tolerate like
cabbage and potatoes or I would eat the dhal and rice with pickles. I
had still not started eating vegetables like ladyfinger and brinjal.
Bing found out about this when chatting with me and said that he hated
anybody making a fuss about food. So everyday while eating he would put
a huge helping of vegetables on my plate. Especially the ones I didn't
like, like tomatoes, brinjal and ladyfinger.

I would finish the vegetables first so that I could enjoy the better
part of the meal i.e. the meat or fish without having to deal with the
veggies. But no sooner had I finished the vegetables, he would say: "Oh
lovely, you like this vegetable? Have another helping!" and despite my
protests I would get another huge helping of vegetable. In this way I
would eat about three times the quantity of vegetables as I took the
first time before I finally ended my meal.

Eventually, I stayed on in Bangalore for three weeks, returning home
only on the 30th of January. I had not met my parents and brothers for
nearly 3 months and was eager to share my experiences with them.
Unfortunately when I arrived, I got just an hour or so to chat with my
parents as they were leaving that very day for a 10-day stay in Delhi
to attend the World Book Fair along with some of the staff from Other
India Bookstore. So I had to wait till their return to regale them with
my tales.

But in the meanwhile there were my two younger brothers eager to know
about my travels, my neighbours who hadn't seen me for five months and
of course my old pals like Ashok who were happy to welcome me in their
midst again.

Chapter 12: You Have Sight, I Have Vision

I was at home for practically the entire month of February, partly
because my parents themselves were away for nearly half the month and
had asked me to help in the house during that time. Also, I had to
re-plan my programme for the last few months of my sabbatical and some
time was always needed for replies to be got from the people we had
written to.

I found that I had completed most of the things I had set out to do
during my sabbatical though there were a few areas like honey bees for
which definite programmes had not yet been worked out.

I busied myself during this time with writing out those special essays
of the past couple of months that I had not yet completed (though my
daily diary was up-to-date and in perfect order).

I also set up the earthworm vermicompost pit in our backyard. It was my
dad's idea that I should put into practice immediately the vermiculture
that I had learnt, since managing garbage is becoming a problem in
almost all households. His idea was that once I mastered the technique
of setting up the vermipits by trial and error at home, I could set the
same type up with little variations if needed for friends of ours and
later for anyone who wanted this useful method of garbage management.

Dad suggested that I prepare a large vermipit which would be suitable
for any family having a large compound like we have and also one or two
small vermibeds which could be used by people living in flats who do
not have lots of space of their own. We would keep all the pits going
by putting waste into all of them from time to time and this way I
could get experience on how the big and small pits both worked so that
when people asked for such information I would readily have it.

So to start with I had to construct a vermibed. I began with the tank
itself which was to be of brick. We had a labourer doing some odd jobs
at that time at our house and he said he knew a bit about how to cement
bricks together, so he and I constructed this 3' by 2' by 4' high tank
of bricks. We mixed cement and sand in some rough proportion with
water. Within a day we had the bricks placed one over the other with
the cement mixture holding it all together. This was easy stuff I
thought as I wrote out my record of how many bricks and the quantity of
cement and sand we had used to construct the bed.

Next day, I dutifully wet the construction twice as instructed in order
to have the cement set. Imagine my shock when on the third day I found
that our entire tank was shaking and ready to collapse. I rushed off
next door to my neighbour Guru who took one look at the tank and told
me that we would have to take down the whole thing and start from
scratch again. Apparently we had not used the right proportion of
cement and sand mixture, or laid the bricks right. Nor had we laid any
foundation for the structure. Masonry was not that simple, I realized.

I immediately got down to carefully removing each brick without
damaging it as the bricks were to be re-used. Guru, the expert mason,
then came over to construct the tank, and I helped. In fact, we built
two tanks that day: one large and one medium. I then prepared the
vermipits and Yesu, our maid, was instructed to henceforth put all the
household wastes (except paper and plastic) into the pits, alternating
between the different ones.

We also started vermiculture in a wooden crate. Eventually the crate
was used as a seed bed and a fine crop of jackfruit seedlings was
raised in the box. The other two vermipits (of brick) function well,
and all our household waste is processed by the earthworms.

At the end of February, I was eager and ready to set out again.
Although some contacts for the study of bee-keeping had been made by my
dad, I was personally not very much interested in the subject. Crocs,
snakes and the wild had gripped me and I was longing to get back to the
Croc Bank.

I also had another totally unrelated and unconnected programme that I
wanted to accomplish, namely to improve my eyesight by taking a course
on eye care and learning eye exercises at the Eye Clinic at the
Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry.

I came to know of the Eye Clinic through Farida, one of the resident
staff at Croc Bank. I have been wearing glasses since class IV when my
mum made the discovery that the reason I was not copying lessons from
the blackboard was not because I was inattentive or disobedient but
simply because I couldn't read clearly from the blackboard at all. Then
came the visit to the oculist and the mandatory spectacles.

But I fervently wished to rid myself of these glasses ever since I
heard that with eye exercises one can improve one's eyesight. In fact,
I had begun doing eye exercises with Sister Gemma, a Medical Mission
Sister who is associated with my parents' work. I had continued these
exercises when I was at the Croc Bank, where Farida seeing me at it,
had told me about the Eye Clinic at Aurobindo Ashram where I could get
proper training.

As I was also eager to return to my favourite Croc Bank and since
Pondicherry is not very far from Mamallapuram I proposed to my parents
that I be allowed to go to Pondicherry via Bangalore, complete the eye
course there and then proceed to Croc Bank where I could spend a
fortnight or so before returning to Goa. This would comfortably keep me
away during the month of March when my brothers would be studying for
their school finals and I would return in time to enjoy the April-May
vacations when our cousins from Belgaum, Lucano and Ricardo, would join
us for a whole summer season of mangoes, jackfruits and umpteen picnics
on the beach.

My parents approved of my programme and on the 26th of February, I set
out for Pondicherry. By now I was quite familiar with the routes and
did not need anyone to pick me up from the bus stops on arrival.
However, I had phoned Bernard at Auroville earlier and made
arrangements to stay with him at Auroville for the duration of the

I travelled by an overnight bus from Goa to Bangalore, rested briefly
during the day at Hartman's place and caught the night bus again at
Bangalore bus station arriving at Pondicherry at 4 a.m. There a cycle
rickshaw fellow managed to cheat me of Rs.40 by promising to take me to
Auroville but instead depositing me at Aurobindo Ashram which was more
or less next door to the bus stop.

I had to get into another local bus to get to Auroville which was more
than 10 kms away and after walking a short distance was greeted by
Bernard, whom I knew, as I had met him some months earlier on my first
visit to Auroville. I stayed free of cost at Auroville in a room in
Bernard's quarters, sharing with him the meals he prepared.

I cycled twice a day from Bernard's house to the Ashram. At the Ashram,
I used to do my eye exercises and then return home. I did a total of 45
kms of cycling per day i.e. 360 kms of cycling for the nine days that I
was there.

The Ashram itself was an old building. Before you entered you had to
leave your slippers outside and place a plastic tag, with a number, on
them; another tag, with the same number, you carried in your pocket as
you walked barefoot up the stairs of the ashram. The place reminded me
of a retreat centre with people in meditative moods and soft Indian
classical music playing continuously.

The first exercise was the most terrible one. I would have just reached
the Centre after cycling in the sun when honey drops would be put in my
eyes. I then had to stand sweating in the sun with my eyes burning
because of the honey. (Honey is sweet on the tongue but burns in the

The next exercise would be struggling to read fine print in the dark
with only a candle light burning. Next, one had to carry out the same
exercise in normal sunlight, outside. There was an exercise involving
eye movement through the use of a small rubber ball, then the reading
of a chart with letters and words of diminishing size in varying
degrees, bathing the eyes with steam, much in the same way as
inhalation is done, and then cooling the eyes with cold cotton packs.
Finally, there was the colour treatment, where one stares at bright
colours reflected over a lamp in a darkened room.

Each exercise had to be performed a specific number of times with small
details like opening, shutting and blinking of the eyes controlled to
the finest degree. After I finished I would return to rock music on a
walkman, on my way to Auroville.

There was no charge for the 10 day course at the Ashram but at the end
of it I paid Rs.77 for the material needed to enable me continue with
the exercises-namely, 4 bottles of eyedrops, 2 small jars of honey, one
rubber ball, two charts and two booklets with fine print.

I benefitted a lot from the course and within a month or so, after
regularly doing the exercises, I was able to read without spectacles. I
still do the exercises, though not so regularly, and the best part is
that after having been a regular wearer of glasses I now have to use my
glasses only occasionally, like when watching TV or movies-which I do
very rarely anyway since we do not have a TV set at home.

After the course was over I was eager to get another look at the Croc
Bank and as per the prior arrangements made on telephone I set out for
Mamallapuram, once again, on the 7th of March.

A funny, but expensive incident happened to me on the way.

I got to the interstate bus station early that morning and waited till
8 or 9 a.m. for the bus going to Mamallapuram to arrive. I started
asking around and eventually I was directed by a bus driver to the
Mamallapuram bus.

Before I could reached the bus a man dressed in a conductors' uniform
walked towards me. "Where are you going?" he asked. "To Mamallapuram",
I replied. "Come, come with me", said the man. We both got into the
bus, I took a seat and he put my luggage on the overhead rack.
"Ticket", he demanded. "How much?" I asked. "25 rupees", he replied. I
handed over the amount to him.

Shortly after the bus had started on its way, and to my astonishment,
another conductor appeared and started issuing tickets to the
passengers. I explained that I had already paid Rs.25 to the other
conductor only to find that there was no "other conductor", only a
clever cheat who had taken me for a ride while the bus was still
stationary. I had to shell out another 18 rupees for my journey to the
Croc Bank! What I found hard to accept was that the man was able to
cheat me in front of all those passengers sitting in the bus. No one
thought to tell me that he was not the real conductor.

This time I stayed at the Croc Bank only for a week as Rom, Harry and
everyone else on the farm were leaving for Kerala to continue with the
National Geographic film programme and there was little else I could do
at the Croc Bank with everyone away.

Chapter 13: Surveying a Forest

The summer vacation that year was great fun. My cousins from Belgaum
arrived on schedule and since no one had Board exams that year the
holiday season began in the first week of April itself. We would enjoy
two whole months of the sea, swimming as often as we could in the river
that joins the sea at Baga.

One morning in May my dad asked me whether I'd like to participate in a
project that the Goa Foundation, an environment organisation of which
my dad is Executive Secretary, was organising for college students. I
agreed. The project turned out to be field visits to the forests in
Betim in order to identify which areas were still forest, which areas
had been cut down and by whom, which projects/constructions had come
up, and so on. The two students who had opted for this project were
Stephen and Jerry, both from St. Xavier's College, Mapusa doing their
graduation degree. I joined the team as an extra.

On the morning of the 20th of May, Dad and I set out in the car for
Betim. On the way we picked up Stephen and Jerry. Dad showed us the
different spots in and around the area he wanted us to cover and then

Steven was the leader of the team. He had obviously been briefed by Dad
on how we were to proceed for he soon took out a note book and started
writing notes. I took my notebook and wrote down some names of birds.
Stephen said that just in case anybody questioned us, we were to say we
were birdwatchers!

We found two illegal houses in the middle of the forest and a huge
clearing made by cutting a lot of big trees. The trees appeared to be
cut with the use of an electric saw and tar was smeared on top of them
to prevent further growth. Many logs were thrown nearby. It was a
tiring task and being the month of May, it was extremely hot and my
shoes had begun cooking my poor feet. Even if we saw a small path,
Steven would insist we go to the end. Jerry would sometimes complain,
"Steven who the hell do you think will go down there, in that
inaccessible valley, to cut trees?" But Steven was stubborn and would
retort, "Jerry if we don't go down there we will have it on our
conscience that there was a path which we could have checked out but
didn't." So we trudged down each and every pathway we saw, howsoever
narrow and unused it appeared to be.

On the second day, I went on my bicycle to Betim. We continued and we
found another two illegal houses and a big tree cut, on the hill. This
tree was also smeared with tar. The exercise usually took the whole
morning and we would call it a day by about 2 p.m. or so.

On the third day, my Dad and my cousin Luke joined us. We showed my
father the different spots we had visited, the places where trees were
cut and the illegal houses. Dad had brought along a camera which he
gave to Stephen to take photographs of the different patches of forest,
the felling and the constructions. In some areas we found that fire had
been set to the area after the trees were cut and this had destroyed
the scrub bushes as well.

I was glad that the fourth day would be the last, since by now I was
quite tired of this assignment. I had a lot of thorn pricks all over my
body and they had become little itchy swellings. My feet were also sore
and the heat was killing. But I carried on, as the project was near
completion. On the hill we found a lot of houses, several of them
illegal, coming up in the forest. We also found clear-felled plots with
barbed wire fences around.

My part of the assignment was over that day and I received a small
stipend for my work from the Goa Foundation. Steven and Jerry later
prepared the project report with photographs and write-up. The report
was submitted by the Foundation to the Forest Department. The
department sent an officer to investigate the matter and also issued
orders not to allow felling or constructions in the area.

Chapter 14: Chief Guest At Belgaum

A year had gone by since I had finished school and what an exciting
year it had been. Having to go to college now seemed quite tame in
comparison. But as I busied myself with filling up the admission forms
and getting the ID card photographs ready another surprise awaited me,
and it came from a totally unexpected place.

I was invited to be Chief Guest at an Environment Day function to be
held in Belgaum on 5th June, World Environment Day, where I was to
speak on my experiences during the past year. This was surely the
crowning event of my one year sabbatical.

The invitation came from Dileep Kamat who was one of the organisers of
an environment awareness programme, which he and others in Belgaum had
organised for school children during the previous month. The programme
included painting and essay competitions. The concluding part of the
programme was to be held on 5th June where the finalists would give
their speeches and the winners of all the competitions would be given
their prizes.

Dileep, his wife Nilima and their son Partha are family friends of long
standing and whenever Uncle Dileep comes to Goa he stays with us. As he
explained, the purpose of the environment programme was to inculcate
the idea that one can do things on one's own and one has to think out
ways and means for this. And so, he said, he had considered the idea of
inviting a young person, whom the students could identify with, to
speak on the occasion. The Committee had wholeheartedly approved when
he suggested my name as I had done something quite unique during the
past year; and the fact that my preference was in the field of ecology
made me an ideal choice, according to Uncle Dileep.

Of course I was delighted and accepted the offer. Who wouldn't be?
Uncle Dileep said that all my expenses would be taken care of. I had an
uncle (my father's youngest brother, Benjamin) at Belgaum, at whose
house I could stay. There was only my bus ticket which the organisers
had to pay for.

I started preparing my speech straightway as there was only a week left
to go and I knew that I had do a good job as this was a big occasion
for me. As usual I turned to my mum for help. She helped me choose the
points I would speak on, then I wrote out my entire speech which she
corrected and I set about memorising it.

Public speaking was not a major problem for me nor did I suffer from
stage-fright as I had participated in several school competitions and
also represented my school in inter-school debates. In fact, I had been
awarded the Best Speaker prize in my final year at school. Still,
speaking at a competition was one thing and being the main speaker for
the day was quite another.

My mum gave me several tips on how to address the gathering, what I
should do if I felt I could not remember the next line and so on. I
rehearsed the speech several times at home and when I left on 3rd June
for Belgaum I felt quite confident and well-prepared.

Along with essentials like clothes to wear, etc. I carried with me in
my haversack my red-eared turtle, and another small turtle found
locally in Goa, the croc teeth and photos of myself at the Snake Park,
the Croc Bank, etc.

I arrived in Belgaum on 4th June and was met at the bus stand by my
cousin Lucano who took me straight to his home. That evening Uncle
Dileep came to our house, briefed me about the next day's programme and
when he left he took with him the photos which he said he would put up
on exhibition at the hall.

The next day Lucano took me to the venue at 3 p.m. The function was
held in the school hall. There were children from several schools
already there along with their parents. I noticed my photos put up on a
cardboard on one side of the hall. My uncle Benjamin and aunt Grace and
my other cousins also came for the function which began at 4 p.m. The
hall was quite full when I entered. I was seated in front with my
cousin Lucano next to me.

The programme was compered by one of the students. It began with the
prize winners of the elocution competition delivering their
speeches-one in English and the others in Marathi and Kannada. Then one
of the students introduced me to the audience and I was called up to
the stage to deliver my speech. I spoke in English and initially had to
halt every little while for Uncle Dileep to translate what I had said
into Kannada. Fortunately, however, after a few rounds of this
English-Kannada speech it became obvious that the audience did not need
the Kannada translation since they all understood English quite well.
Then it became easier for me to continue and I finished with great
confidence and was roundly applauded.

As I had done in the workshops I had conducted in the Bangalore schools
earlier, I then took out the red eared turtle which I carried around
for the audience to see at close quarters while my cousin took around a
local turtle which those who wanted could handle. There were many
students and parents who wanted to be photographed holding the turtles.
I also showed the croc teeth to those who were interested.

The compere then announced that they would like to get on with the rest
of the programme, but in view of the fact that several students wanted
to ask questions, a question-answer session would be held, after the
programme of skits was over. I returned to my seat and watched the
skits which were on the theme of ecology.

After that was the prize distribution ceremony and I was called up to
the stage to hand out prizes to the winners of the various competitions
(elocution, as well as dramatics and drawing which were held earlier).

After this, the organisers allowed questions from the audience which I
answered on the spot. I was quite happy to find that the audience had
heard me attentively for there were many questions both from students
and adults. Most of these concerned information about snakes. From this
I gathered that snakes not only frighten people but fascinate them as
well. The function ended at around 6.30 p.m. Before departing, the
organizers gave me an envelope containing Rs.300 which more than amply
covered my expenses for the trip.

Uncle Dileep invited Lucano and myself for dinner that night. On seeing
that he had an interest in keeping the small turtle, I happily left it
behind for him. Next morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that
one of the local Kannada papers had reported the previous day's
function and there was a photograph of me at the function and a report
on it as well. I was thrilled beyond words.

Later I wrote an article on my one year sabbatical for the Hindustan
Times which appeared on the Youth Page together with a couple of
photographs and was pleased when my parents told me that several of
their friends had read it and had complimented them and me for this
bold and unusual step of taking a break from studies. The same article
was eventually carried by several other newspapers and magazines
including The Utusan Konsumer in Malaysia.

In my speech at Belgaum, in the workshops I had conducted at Bangalore
for the school students and in the article I wrote I always recommended
at the end of my presentation that every student ask their parents for
a break from regular studies when they finished school as it is
something they would never regret.

And I wish to repeat here, at the end of my book, that June 1995 to
June 1996 was the most wonderful year that I can ever remember. I
learnt a lot, not only about the things I wanted to learn, but about
many other things as well. And best of all I had a lot of fun and a
whole lot of freedom to do all that I ever wanted to do. I certainly
look forward to another sabbatical! And so, by now, should you!

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Free from School" ***

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