Tales of the 'Gifted'
This book tells the stories of 15 differently-abled people who have made a mark for themselves. Here is an excerpt featuring tiger conservationist and Mumbai resident Hans Dalal, who has conquered cerebral palsy
When I look back at my life now, I find it unbelievably amusing and a bit amazing that I never walked till as late as 5 years of age but spend my time today criss-crossing the country's wildlife sanctuaries, tracking tigers, and roaming around in the wild with scores of people following me with bated breath. I have lived in jungles, climbed mountains, enjoyed the soul-stirring beauty of the Himalayas, and come face to face with tigers on many occasions. And each time, instead of the raw fear that people experience when they see one, my heart leaps with joy and my determination to spend my time in their company only strengthens further.
AllL smiles: Sudha Menon (left) and Hans Dalal (2nd from left). Pics/Atul Kamble
In the Himalayas
To this day, I remember the Himalayan treks that I was introduced to by my uncle. From Manali, we would walk up to the start of the river Beas. I’ve also done one Indo-British camp where we walked from Rohtang pass to Chandratal. It was a six-day trek one way. We went to this lake in Chandratal, 14,500 feet up, camped there overnight, and walked back. It was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever done in my life. I have done fourteen days of non-stop walking in the Himalayas, in the middle of nowhere. That’s when you hear true silence and come to understand its meaning. In the urban jungle of city life, you feel like you're the king, but when you are standing surrounded by the Himalayas, you feel so small. It puts so much into perspective.
Comic touch: Sundeep Rao who is visually challenged, is also in the book, performs a stand up comedy act
When I grew up, I started going into the outdoors on my own. There have been times when I would get myself a train ticket and take off for fifteen-days or a month. Often, I head to the jungle, or the Himalayas, and do nothing at all but wake up in the morning, look at the mountains, go down for a small walk to the river, and sit there enjoying my own company. My mother is used to it now and so are my friends.
So often, I’ve woken up, called a friend, and we have taken a car and gone on a road trip, deciding where to go as we drive along. We drive and camp where we please and the freedom that it gives is so good even though it sometimes gets us into a spot with wild animals.
At a camp near Solang in the Himalayas, I went out one day to relieve myself and I suddenly heard the rustling of leaves from somewhere above me. I peeped from behind the rock I was sitting near and was frightened out of my skin when I saw a huge Himalayan black bear coming down the mountain. Luckily I was behind a rock, so he couldn't see me and did not sniff out my presence. I sat there praying for ten minutes flat after that incident!
Tiger and I
There have been other interesting encounters of the wild kind and each time I have learnt something from it. Like the time I along with a couple of wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists and got stalked by three tigers at the Corbett National Park in December 2010.
When the then Deputy Field Officer of the park heard that we were there, he asked to meet us. He was, at that time, seeking various ways to reduce the pressure of tourists in the main Corbett area and wanted us to go there and tell him what animals and birds were to be found at the Sitabani forest area, which was not open to tourists. Our jaws fell at this unexpected opportunity and before he could change his mind, we had said yes to the proposition. There are no roads in Sitabani and we would have to walk all the way there, but to get to walk officially in a tiger reserve was like a dream come true for us.
We stayed that night in the government guest house and were off like heroes early in the morning. There is a temple in the forest that is dedicated to Sita. Legend goes that she lived there after Ram abandoned her after her abduction by Ravan and her return from Lanka. We explored that for a bit and set out, walking along a mountain stream to get on our task. Since it was unknown territory, we felt safe following the stream.
There was a bank of sand followed by a short curtain of grass, and then the stream. This gave us a feeling of security because if there was any danger or wild animal approaching, we’d be able to see it from far. After walking for 45 minutes to an hour, we noticed our first pug mark on the river bed. We knew immediately, that it was a big female tiger. And since the entire sand on the bank except the pug mark was dry, we knew she had crossed over from the other side of the river a few minutes ago. We presumed she had gone into the jungle but five minutes later, we saw a second pugmark, this time heading in the opposite direction.
Dealing with two tigers is a scary proposition and suddenly, we felt very, very worried. Just as we were getting over that shock, we heard a low growling from the bushes and knew that a big cat was watching us from behind the bank of bushes. We froze for a moment but decided to proceed, with three of us looking in either direction so that we would not be ambushed by one of the tigers.
I am sure you have heard the phrase ‘When it rains, it pours’. We had only proceeded a few metres ahead when one of the team members stopped dead in his tracks, pointing towards the hill and there he was, a magnificent big cat, walking up the hill. That would have been okay, but suddenly the cat stopped and turned to directly look at us, emitting a menacing snarl.
We ignored that, too, and started walking ahead, our hearts in our mouth but there, in front of us, was another tiger, walking directly towards us! He was still a distance away and we ran that day like never before to save our lives. Tigers can't climb trees because they’re too heavy. I don't know how I climbed that tree, but for the next three months, muscles I didn't know existed hurt. For the next three hours we sat on the tree waiting for the tigers to leave. Thankfully, they went off without any fuss.
Even after that incident, I continued to go on walks with forest guards in Ranthambore and the thing I have learnt is that a tiger will never attack you face front. He will only attack from the side or back. So if you’re ever walking and see a tiger in front of you, no matter how big the tiger is, the best thing to do is to continue walking in his direction and 99 per cent of the time, he’ll go into the bush and walk around you, in order to avoid you. They don’t want to have a face to face confrontation with humans. You just keep alert and continue walking.
From being a boy who could hardly walk without balance because of cerebral palsy to being a tiger monitoring expert, a naturalist, and a lecturer on wildlife all over the country, my life has been an adventure through and through.
Most young people — including me at some point in my earlier life-worry about earning a decent livelihood and getting all the trappings of an urban life. But living in the jungles and waking up to the call of a tiger, a deer, or the sound of peacocks is altogether different. My dream now, is to be able to live in a jungle. I've learnt that if you follow your heart, things work out in the end.
Following a tiger’s trail is my calling...
>> Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a general term for a group of permanent, non-progressive movement disorders that cause physical disability, mainly in the areas of body movement.
>> There may also be problems with sensation, depth perception, and communication ability. Difficulty with cognition and epilepsy are found in about one-third of cases.
>> There are sub-types including a type characterised by spasticity, a type characterised by poor coordination, and types which feature either symptoms or neither.
>> Cerebral Palsy is caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain and can occur during pregnancy, during childbirth, or after birth up to about three years of age.