An Inordinate Fondness for ... Butterflies!

"I turned to the teeming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger: the little things that compose the foundation of our ecosystems, the little things, as I like to say, who run the world." - E.O. Wilson

A few months ago, I went on a hike with my extended family in one of the many wonderful State Parks that dot the state of Texas. By the end of the short, two mile trail, I received the comment - "You know, we are usually through with the trail in half hour or so!" We had taken about four hours to complete the same trail, all thanks to my birding. Just for perspective, a half mile or less stretch took our class of fifteen students more than 3 hours, when the focus shifted to the 'teeming small creatures', on a field trip for our course on Invertebrate Ecology. With that shift in scale, when one stops to look at every little thing that is best seen with a magnifying glass, time shifts in scale too, me thinks.

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Pill Millipede

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The Masai Mara National Reserve

The Masai Mara is synonymous with wildlife, safaris, and an event that has come to be called the 'great migration'. Mention Africa, and a picture of game from here springs to mind right away: zebras and giraffes, wildebeest and hippopotami, lions and cheetahs, amidst the tall grasses of the savannahs and murky pools of the waterholes. The Masai Mara National Reserve is the best known of Kenya's parks and reserves, and along with the Serengeti, epitomizes Africa and the word 'safari'.

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The Masai Mara plains

Contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Mara is a large game reserve in Narok County in south-western Kenya, just below the equator. It is named in honor of the ancestral inhabitants of the area, the Masai people, and their description of the landscape when seen from afar, Mara. In the Masai language, "mara" means "spotted"; the plains do indeed seem dotted with trees, shrubs, herds of animals, and shadows from the clouds, along the savanna.

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Edinburgh in a Day

Edinburgh (pronounced ed-in-burr-a) is the beautiful capital of Scotland. I cannot stress on the word 'beautiful' enough. It is not big by most standards and walking through the alleyways, exploring the city was tremendous fun. With the Edinburgh Castle being the highlight of the skyline, the undulating streets and cobbled pathways, made exploration a pleasure - the view that met one's eyes at every turn and climb never ceased to please or surprise.

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This is how a place begs to be explored!

The buildings seemed to reek of history, the streets too ... The entire city, actually. I occasionally felt transported back to medieval times - the city truly seemed to come alive with history while still being somewhat cosmopolitan.To add to the charm, it has been home to the who's who of the literary world, from Sir Walter Scott to J.K.Rowling, and McCall Smith of course. Every nook had a story to tell, quaint pubs with quaint-er names would beckon silently for an experience from an earlier age, filled with tales of famous regulars, long dead now and rolling in their grave ...

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Of Tomistoma and Taxonomy ...

There is something strange about the way some creatures seem to court controversy for no apparent rhyme or reason. And there are those for whom controversy is a birthright. I think that taxonomists ought to categorically be classified under the latter set. The irony of this classification should not be missed. Please do not take me wrong, I have immense admiration for Linnaeus and his Systema Naturae; his academic descendants, however, are a mixed lot and can on occasion give one the heebie-jeebies. Take the class Aves, for instance. Some warblers, pipits, and larks have me tearing my hair apart, only to be topped off with random changes in nomenclature ever so often based on some obscure physical characteristic. Unfortunately, the Tomistoma or False Gharial is hounded by both controversy and taxonomists, for no apparent fault of its own.

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Here Be Dragons

This is a collection of lateral, dorsal, and ventral profiles, and other scientifically relevant photographs of different crocodilians. Some of the photographs were taken at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology with specimens in captivity. Photographs from the wild are provided with location wherever possible. Please note that the images are fairly low resolution since I had to scale them to roughly a fifth of their size, primarily because bulky images take inordinately long to load. If there is any image you would like to use, please email me for a high resolution photograph.

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Bali, Indonesia

Lost in a volcano

All was quiet. A respite from the almost constant music of the wind. Nothing moved. The lake was a dark marble of reflections and surprises. A pause. But not for long. The wind blew gentle ripples on the still and placid waters of the lake. Everything above the surface of the water was a haze of deep purple and saffron, thanks to the setting sun. The skyline was smudged with undulating hills of a dark green, the peaks wrapped in a blanket of white clouds. It was an alien landscape. Silent, beautiful, desolate, and surreal. One could hear the wind conducting multiple distinct orchestras.

The swish of the chilly breeze so characteristic of being in the mountains and the grating noise of our bike cutting through the harsh wind. When you stop, lost in the spectacular beauty of the terrain, you hear the ripple of the small waves being sculpted on the surface of the water. The gentle rustling of the leaves on the occasional tree. There is magic in the air. The lake is the prestige of a master illusionist. The colors play tricks on my eyes, metallic splotches of shades in a tapestry of modern art that change with the light. Rock formations jump out, a fluoroscent green where the rock touches the waters of the lake that then erupts into a pastel riot of colors. A miniature volcano of hues.

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Land ahoy! The island of Bali as seen from the Bali Sea.

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The Wildlife of IIT Bombay

I live inside the IIT Bombay campus. And, consider myself privileged to stay there - a little haven within the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, a tiny island (metaphorically speaking) that is cut off from the city's concrete jungle, fumes, pollution, famed commutes, and crowds. It is nicely ensconced between the breathtaking (and crocodile infested) Powai lake on one side and a hillock worthy of picnics on the other. What's more, it shares borders with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park - one that the numerous residents of the park frequently disregard! There are even notices warning folks to not venture into certain areas that are prone to, say, a stray leopard that wandered in from its home adjoining the campus :) During the rains, tracts transform into mini rainforests - replete with Rhesus Macaques and Grey Hornbills.

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An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with fish in its talons, breakfast at the Powai Lake ...

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Portraits and Landscapes

It was twilight. Almost. The setting sun visible between two peaks of a mountain range, reminding one of the crayon masterpieces that kindergarten kids wave into existence. The clear, blue, and cloudless sky of the day somehow transforms into a haze of purple and diffused pink. The flat desert terrain encapsulated by towering, slaty mountains, almost the color of obsidian in the play of glows and shadows. I had picked up a fragment of the black glass just that morning, a treasured keepsake from a harsh land.

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Shadow play

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Charting the Cranium Underneath the Color

A review of:

RACISTS by Kunal Basu; Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2006; Pages 214, Rs.250

Racists by Kunal Basu, is a poignant tale of the scientific racism that was rampant in nineteenth century Europe. The title, simple and suggestive, reeks of what is to come, but falls short in that it is too direct while one begins to anticipate allegorical nibbles and analogies. Considering that racism is an area that is widely discussed but rarely explored with quality literary works even harder to find, it is considered politically taboo thereby stifling true scientific discourse and hence, literary appreciation is due. But think fiction with a spine of racism, and the incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird will still race all others to the top, although it is a trifle unfair to compare these two with their totally different narratives. The similarities end with the boy-girl duo on which the narratives are built with the sole similarity in style being the bildungsroman approach of both, wherein the protagonists evolve physically and mentally with the flow of the story.

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