Saturday, January 20, 2007

without a trace

A gruesome serial-killing case raises furious questions about whether the police are doing enough to find the 45,000 kids reported missing each year in India.

By Jason Overdorf

(Newsweek Web Exclusive Jan. 20, 2007) - Half an hour from the heart of New Delhi, in the mushrooming grid of houses, cottage industries and tech companies that make up Noida, one of India's fastest-growing cities, a small crowd of protesters are calling for the head of their state's chief minister. "Mulayam Singh," the leader chants. "Murdabad!" the crowd shouts in response. "Noida police," the leader calls. "Hai! Hai!" the crowd echoes.

Their chanting means: "Death to Mulayam Singh!" and "Noida police, shame! shame!" Many of the lower-middle-class demonstrators hold aloft handmade flyers emblazoned with the photographs of schoolchildren, some in uniforms, some in poorly knotted neckties, others in colorful salwar kameez. The kids on the flyers have one thing in common. They have all disappeared without a trace, some of the approximately 45,000 children reported missing each year in India. And now, behind a block-long screen hastily erected to thwart rubberneckers, a backhoe and a team of forensic investigators are digging up their small bodies.

In a case that came to light on Dec. 29, police have detained businessman Monander Singh Pandher and his servant Surindra Koli for interrogation about the abduction and murder of at least 20 women and children. No charges have been filed, the suspects are under judicial remand while the police conduct their investigation. According to reports, the servant has confessed and implicated his boss, but the boss hasn't admitted any crime. Body parts and skulls, mostly from the kids, were found hidden in municipal storm drains attached to Pandher's house. The protesters are furious because the police discovered the alleged murderers and the grisly evidence of their crimes by accident, after ignoring as many as 40 missing- persons reports in the area over the last two years. And their anger has tapped into a deep and growing well of resentment in India, where the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day.

According to summaries of interrogations and other stage-whispering that has been leaked to the press, the alleged murderers were said to be sexual predators who operated as a team, with Pandher supplying his house and veneer of respectability to protect them from suspicious eyes and Koli acting as procurer. Police say they found 17 skulls and a large number of bones in the drain outside Pandher's house and surgical knives, gloves, a butcher's knife, and blood-stained clothes inside the home. Last week, the Uttar Pradesh police turned over the case to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI—a national policing unit similar to America's Federal Bureau of Investigation—after several weeks of bumbling that allowed journalists and curious neighbors to trample all over the crime scene. Dr. Rajat Mitra, a criminal psychologist who has worked closely with the police, admits frankly that the authorities (even perhaps the CBI) are out of their depth. "The understanding of serial killers is virtually nonexistent here. They could not understand what kind of crime it is. It involved pedophilia, gory rituals ... The diabolic nature of the crime was not something they believed happened here."

But the victims and their activists remain convinced that the police failures amount to more than simple incompetence. "This is a failure of our democracy," says Kailash Satyarthi, the leader of a group fighting the trafficking of children, "because it shows that the poor, and especially the children of the poor, are totally neglected." As long ago as September, Satyarthi's group, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement, approached the Noida police on behalf of parents who alleged that their missing-persons reports had been ignored. At that point, 31 neighborhood kids had disappeared. One local TV channel picked up the story. The police, apparently, did nothing. Only after the apparently unrelated kidnapping of the 3-year-old son of a rich businessman made stop-the-presses headlines, and the entire police and government apparatus mobilized to secure his safe return, did Noida's other missing kids draw notice. Even then, they were soon forgotten. Not until neighbors who'd earlier been dismissed once again complained of a rotting stench coming from the storm drain outside Pandher's home, was the first body discovered.

Noida is not the first Indian city to suffer a serial killing. Last year, for instance, a gang of nine taxi drivers based in Gurgaon (another booming satellite town) confessed to robbing and murdering at least 35 passengers. In 2004, a 57-year-old merchant named Sadashiv Sahu was nabbed for murdering 22 elderly and middle-aged men in the small Uttar Pradesh town of Fursatganj. And in 1995, a rickshaw driver nicknamed "Auto" Shankar was executed for kidnapping, raping and murdering six young girls throughout the late 1980s. Although these documented cases are far fewer in number than the cases of serial murders in the United States and other developed countries, Mitra says that police ignorance of profiling and other relevant investigative techniques, the lack of coordination among law enforcement in different regions of the country, and problems as simple as poor record-keeping, make it likely that there are many more serial murders that have never been linked to one killer.

But more than any previous case, the horror of the Noida murders has drawn attention to an unpleasant truth about the safety of children in this intensely family-oriented society. The 45,000 children reported missing each year doesn't include those whose families are turned away or are afraid to go to the police. Eleven thousand youngsters, presumably trafficked for prostitution, pornography or slave labor, are never found. Yet, in large part, the official apparatus continues to treat these cases as though they are a necessary condition of poverty—children running away from starvation—rather than as undiscovered crimes. "Missing children masks a lot of more heinous crimes [like pedophilia]," says Mitra. "That notion needs to get into the police psyche."

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

the good life

Four Hours in Detroit

(Newsweek International, January 22, 2007)

You thought people only wanted to leave the Motor City? Believe it or not, there's much to enjoy—the cold notwithstanding of course.

STROLL through the future of the car at the North American International Auto Show, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (Jan. 13-21;

GROOVE to the sounds of Hitsville U.S.A. at the Motown Historical Museum, home of Studio A, where the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and others recorded with the Funk Brothers (

RIDE the People Mover, an elevated monorail that offers an unsurpassed tour of the city, from the Cobo Exhibition Center to General Motors' headquarters in the breathtaking Renaissance Center (

EAT "nouvelle soul" cuisine at Sweet Georgia Brown, where there's live jazz every night.

—Jason Overdorf

Monday, January 15, 2007

bioinvaders: the next plague

Migrating species may be the biggest threat to plant and animal life on the planet

By Mac Margolis
Newsweek International

Jan. 15, 2007 issue - Tall and tan and fat and ugly, achatina fulica is not something you'd want to behold on the sands of Ipanema. But you may not have a choice. Since gaining a beachhead in Brazil 19 years ago, this unlovely mollusk, better known as the giant African land snail, has proved unstoppable. Imported on the sly in 1988 as a cheap substitute for escargot, it has become a scourge, blistering Latin America's biggest country like a strange pox. Growing to the size of a man's fist and weighing one kilogram or more, it lays up to 2,000 eggs a year and eats a tenth

of its body weight a day, devouring everything from lettuce to mouse droppings to its own dead comrades. Worse, it can also carry rat lungworm, a nasty parasite that burrows into the human brain and causes meningitis, and another that can rupture the intestines. "It crawls into gardens, up walls, over the pavement," says Silvana Thiengo, a snail expert at Brazil's Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. "We found it in Copacabana. I mean, Copacabana!"

Brazil's unwelcome snail is just one of a burgeoning breed of pests and pathogens that have broken free of their native habitats around the world. Biologists somewhat quaintly call them exotic species. The rest of the world knows them for what they are: bioinvaders. They come in all guises, from trifling microbes to towering trees, from the mosquito to the mongoose. What they share is a penchant for stealth, spiriting around the planet on the wings of migratory birds, nestled in the threads of clothing or swimming in the human bloodstream. Scores of bioinvaders are deliberately set loose by farmers or eggheads trying to outsmart nature (importing snakes to chase rats), gardeners with exotic tastes (knotweed) or entrepreneurs too clever by half (seeking the perfect escargot). Bioinvaders are also ferocious competitors; free from the predators of their homelands, they prosper on virgin territory, monopolizing food supply and reproducing at a rate that would make rabbits blanch. Once lodged in a new land, the intruding species may never go away, forcing public authorities to battle them again and again with earthmoving equipment, fire and poison—a job as futile as Sisyphus'.

There is nothing new or automatically pernicious about wandering wildlife. Without the millennial scrambling of life forms, humankind would neither eat nor prosper. "More than 90 percent of food crops like wheat, corn and rice, and almost as many strains of livestock, are exotic species," says Cornell University's David Pimentel, a leading scholar on the subject. But bioinvasion has taken a quantum leap in a borderless world where billions of people and tons of goods traverse the globe in a matter of hours, making a mockery of customs inspectors and quarantines. Indeed, the very forces that make the international economy flourish—trade, travel, transport and tourism—also make it vulnerable to invasive species.

World trade has increased twenty-fold over the last half century, with cargo ships, planes, and trucks providing a free ride for countless bugs and germs—an epic genetic upheaval that Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist for the World Conservation Union, called "the great reshuffling." Pimentel reckons that the total numberof alien invading species known to science has climbed to 500,000—double the figure of just 60 years ago. Keeping track of invaders is vexing for even the most vigilant societies. A few years ago, the National Academy of Science reported that some 13,000 plant diseases are intercepted every year at international ports of entry in the United States. Yet customs inspectors are able to examine just two percent of incoming cargo and baggage. "This is the cost of globalization," says Charles Perrings, an environmental economist at Arizona State University.

Any pest, domestic or foreign, can be a nuisance, spoiling the flower patch or buzzing about the ears. But bioinvaders are especially dangerous. Some wipe out harvests, choke waterways and desiccate the landscape, inviting wildfires. A deadly few microbes cause pandemics, like mad-cow disease and AIDS. Even when they aren't an outright menace, exotic plants, animals and pathogens impoverish nature by crowding out a whole suite of homegrown species or creating mongrel hybrids through interbreeding. An increasing number of scientists now agree that bioinvasion is the most immediate—and surely the fastest-growing—threat to plant and animal life on the planet after deforestation and breakneck development. (Of course, global climate change may eventually trump all other dangers, but in part because invasive species are likely to run rampant in a warming world.) "Once you get a nonnative plant or animal species in the system, then it's very difficult to get the habitat back to where it was," says Mark Spencer, an expert on invasive species at the Natural History Museum in London. "We are at an ecological tipping point."

In the United States alone some 50,000 bioinvaders cause an estimated $120 billion in damages to harvests, trees and fisheries every year, according to Pimentel. Throw in India, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and Brazil, and the cost nearly doubles, to $228 billion. Globally, says Pimentel, bioinvasion's toll on the economy and the environment—accounting for damage to watersheds, soil degradation and extinction of wildlife—may be a staggering $1.4 trillion a year. And if the majority of experts are right, the cost of bioinvasion is only going to get worse.

Fittingly, perhaps, invasive pests and pathogens seem perfectly suited to the rigors of a world without flags. Some alien plants and animals need little more than a toehold to lay siege to a new land. Barely a decade after washing out of the ballast tanks of European ships into the inland waterways of the United States, the Baltic zebra mussel has spread from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi Delta, choking water pipes, clogging hydroelectric-power plants and driving native water plants and mussels to the brink by monopolizing food and oxygen. Officials spend $1 billon a year combating zebra and quagga mussels—just two of the 88 exotic species loose in the United States.

Often in the natural world, what goes around comes around. So while Old World mollusks choke U.S. waterways, Yankee imperialists like the American mink and the signal crayfish are "taking over British waterways, outmuscling native competition and spreading disease," warns Britain's environmental authority. Then there is Japanese knotweed, a peripatetic ornamental plant so aggressive it can crack roads, fissure buildings and simply overwhelm native plants. London Development Agency director Gareth Blacker, who is excavating a vast East End brownfield site to build a sports complex for the 2012 Olympics, says unexploded World War II bombs will be "less difficult to deal with than knotweed."

Like so much else in the global marketplace, the burden of bioinvasion falls unevenly across the world. The human toll is often devastating to the poorest nations, where a failed crop can start a famine. Implacable exotic pests like the cassava mealybug, gray leaf spot and witchweed claim up to half the harvests in the poorest countries, posing a "serious threat to life and livelihood" with "enormous economic and political ramifications," says Guy Preston of the Working for Water program, a South African government initiative dedicated to preserving fresh water.

Since exotic species tend to thrive in milder weather, global warming has expanded the frontiers for a host of heat-seeking organisms. Not surprisingly, one of the major ports of entry for bioinvaders in the U.S. is Florida, which is already home to half of the country's 50,000 known alien species, from rogue ornamental plants like hydrilla to escaped pets like Burmese pythons, which have been found in the Everglades. "Invasive species are at a definite advantage in a warming world," says Pimentel.

Bioinvaders can be sleeping giants, lying about for decades until a biological opportunity like a storm or a heat wave arouses them. Take the Hottentot fig. Known for its profusion of pink and yellow flowers, this carpetlike succulent plant spread only modestly in the decades since its arrival in the U.K. from South Africa more than a century ago, held in check by the cooler climate of the British Isles. But the run of mild winters brought on by global warming has set it loose. "It's rampaging," says Spencer, "smothering local plant communities as it goes."

The planet's most reckless species has given bioinvaders some of their biggest breaks. The African snail, originally from East Africa, found its way to steamy Asia a century ago, perhaps tucked away in the cargo of some trading vessel, and never stopped. In 1936 a gardener from Formosa (today's Taiwan) took a couple of specimens to Hawaii to bejewel her rock garden and touched off an environmental emergency that still hasn't ended. Achatina fulica later landed in Guam and then Saipan, apparently stowing away in the gear of U.S. soldiers, sparking one of the less celebrated occupations of World War II. So thickly did living and dead snails line the island highways "dat de jeeps er slipten," one Dutch scientist reported. Twenty years later, a boy returning from vacation in Hawaii landed in Florida with a pair of snails in his pocket, touching off an invasion that took seven years to eradicate.

By then, you'd think the word on African snails would have oozed out, but apparently not to Brazil. In 1988 an ambitious merchant showed off a box of them at an agricultural fair in Curitiba, waxing about the fortunes to be made off the mother of all escargot. A cottage industry was born, as snail farmers began to export their harvest for a tidy sum. But along came Brasília's economic-stability plan, which caused the country's currency to spike against the dollar, pricing tropical escargot out of the world market. Scores of breeders ended up dumping their glut into the wilds. The authorities eventually banned the snail, but too late. At last count, the giant African snail had spread to 23 of Brazil's 27 states. Now civil-defense teams scramble around the map, shoveling up yesterday's delicacy by the unsavory ton.

Importing nature can be a blessing. A parasitic wasp from South America has helped millions of African farmers control the cassava mealybug, which ravages that continent's staple food, while Australia has successfully turned a killer virus from the Czech Republic against the ubiquitous European rabbit. Often, though, nature bites back. The Indian mongoose was shipped to the West Indies to hunt rats, but ended up feasting on almost everything that crawled or croaked; a handful of ground-nesting birds and up to a dozen amphibians and reptiles were driven to extinction.

Indeed, bioinvasion's worst legacy may be the havoc it wreaks on other forms of wildlife. In the United States, as much as 40 percent of all extinctions can be blamed on invasive weeds, predators or pathogens, says Pimentel. In South Africa, many alien weeds come hard-wired for combustion, worsening the hazard in a nation where wildfires cause $461 million in damage a year. So thick are the palisades of thorny mimosa—an aggressive weed akin to the touch-me-not—that India's endangered one-horned rhino can no longer move about freely in Kaziranga National Park. Chinese authorities have spent some $800,000 battling the American white moth, which now destroys more than 1.3 mllion hectares of woodlands each year.

And yet getting rid of bioinvaders can often prove equally problematic. Brought to China from the Philippines to eat mosquitoes, the mosquitofish has lately become a tyrant, spreading throughout the marshlands in southern China and driving several native aquatic species to the brink. The only way to kill the mosquitofish is by dousing the water with rotenone—a poison so potent it also kills almost everything else that swims. Still, doing nothing may "threaten China's most important species—the Chinese people," says Wang Fanghao, who lectures at China's Agricultural Science Academy.

Perhaps the only sure way to curb bioinvasion is to plug the gaping holes on international borders. If customs inspection in the United States is lax, in much of the rest of the world it's almost laughable. Only in 2005 did India get around to asking arriving passengers whether they were carrying any fruits, vegetables or plants—all major pathways for disease. But customs controls have their limits in the global economy. Thanks to tough import laws, Australia has developed one of the best bioinvasion defenses of any nation. Yet in the late nineties Canadian salmon farmers cried foul, charging Australia with unfair trade barriers. The World Trade Organization agreed, forcing Australia to open its market—a ruling that scientists fear could undermine other quarantine regulations.

And yet in a time when germs ride the wind and tide, even the most zealous border guards may be of little use. In most countries, exotic species are simply too entrenched to eradicate. Now a few scientists, mindful of Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that "a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered," are trying to put bioinvaders to work. In India, one team of researchers is helping rural families turn lantana camara—a scraggly weed that overruns native woodlands—to good use as a substitute for bamboo. Not all pests and weeds may prove so compliant, but that doesn't mean scientists should give up and grab the flamethrower. "The issue isn't stopping bioinvasion, but understanding it," says Perrings. In the end, that means learning to live with the enemy.

With William Underhill in London, Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, Karen MacGregor in Durban, and Quindlen Krovatin in Beijing

Monday, January 01, 2007

kingdom for a horse

By Jason Overdorf

Outlook Traveler (January 2007)--Ten years ago, when local villagers dragged Thakur Hemant Singh Deval back from the big city life of Udaipur to take over as sarpanch and head of the one-time jagir of Ravla Khempur, he wasn’t sure what to make of his new life as a country gentleman. But today, it’s clear from the unspoiled metalled roads and well-equipped school that the villagers knew what they were doing. And for visitors, Hemant’s skill as host and hotelier shines through in the homely atmosphere and casual efficiency of Ravla Khempur, today an eight-room heritage hotel that caters to horse lovers.

A long-time resident of Delhi, I travelled to Ravla Khempur to rid myself of the black mood that had crept over me through the long, hot summer in the crowded capital and to recapture the love for Rajasthan that I’d cultivated during my first year in India. The key to both, I knew, was Rajasthan’s beautiful and spirited Marwari horse, the subject of my first ‘big’ story as a freelance writer in India and an enduring fascination for a grown-up boy who’d spent many an hour fancying himself a character in Riders of the Purple Sage. On this trip, I’d leave books and breeders’ conferences behind and ride. I wasn’t disappointed by Hemant’s horses or by his hotel, which provides a window into authentic Rajasthani culture and an escape from the state’s turban-and-camel cliches.

Ravla Khempur is set amid the sarson and jowar fields like an antique gemstone—slightly faded and nicked, but all the more enchanting for its wear. The climate here is not as dry as it is further north and west as you approach the Thar Desert, so the landscape is touched everywhere with a subtle pastel beauty. The cactus, which grows thick across the untilled land and which villagers cultivate for the hedgerows around their fields, is the pale blue of an old knife. The drying jowar that Hemant feeds his horses is tinged with salmon and rose. And here and there bougainvillea blooms like a burst of flame.

Ravla Khempur itself is a grand, two-storey haveli, pale yellow in colour, with arched windows trimmed with ornate white carvings that reminded me of the sugary frosting on a wedding cake. Wherever possible, Hemant has allowed the building’s age to show through, so the exterior walls are streaked with mossy water patterns that set off the frilly balconies and give the estate a dignified air that harkens back to the origin of the jagir—which was awarded to Hemant’s great-great grandfather when he killed two assassins to save the life of Jagat Singh II, future Rana of Udaipur and builder of the Palace on the Lake. Having seen havelis before, though, the first things that struck me were the fine, arched stables alongside the haveli’s iron-spiked doors. Originally used to stable the horses of travellers visiting Ravla Khempur, today the four stalls house Hemant’s four Marwari broodmares, all of which were in various stages of pregnancy when I visited.

Their nickering and snorting and earthy smells are the perfect introduction to the hotel, I soon found, as I began to explore the property. Though Hemant only took up horse-breeding a decade back, he is now thoroughly obsessed with the Marwari, and his obsession is reflected everywhere at Ravla Khempur. Nearly every wall features a painting or photograph of one of the prime specimens of the breed, and at every turn Hemant’s love for horses reveals itself in some unexpected form—in a glass-topped table supported by wooden horses, or coat hooks in the shape of horses heads.

Hemant can arrange riding lessons, excursions for experienced riders and day trips to Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh. But Khempur is a quiet, clean place, without babbling televisions or whining air-conditioners, best suited to travellers who have learned how to relax and understand the merits of doing nothing. There is no menu card or dreaded multi-cuisine restaurant. Instead visitors are treated to traditional Rajasthani dishes prepared with local vegetables under the supervision of Hemant’s mother. I’ve never stayed in a hotel in India with better food. “We don’t want to be too commercial,” Hemant is fond of saying, along with, “We don’t have to operate on a schedule,” even though he’s always energetically striding from place to place to keep everything running smoothly.

Relaxation is one area in which my expertise is unsurpassed, so the pace of life in Khempur suited me. I spent my first day sitting in one of the window seats on the verandah and watching the grooms work with Bazigar, Hemant’s prize stallion, next to the small temple in the courtyard below, every so often turning my attention to a flock of green parrots. Later, I took a stroll through the village with Hemant, stopping by the temple steps where old men congregated to smoke chillums and discuss the problems with the “young people of today”. After that, I took a nap on the window-seat in my room, lounging in the coloured sun that filtered through the stained glass. There’d be plenty of time for Hemant’s Marwaris in the morning.

Every school kid in India knows the story of Chetak, the grey Marwari stallion that carried Rana Pratap safely away from his battle against the Mughals at Haldighati on three legs after one of his hind legs was hacked off above the hoof. But few know much else about this indigenous horse breed—or even that it has only recently begun a return from the brink of extinction.

Bred as a battle mount by the Rathore clan (of Jodhpur/Marwar), the Marwari is a hot-blooded horse with a thick, arched neck, long-lashed eyes and flaring nostrils. The Rajputs bred the Marwari to be passionate, showy and quick-tempered and nurtured the breed’s most distinctive characteristic: ears that curve inward to a sharp point, meeting at the tips to form an almost perfect arch. Today, every carthorse in India has some form of these arching ears, so most non-experts are stunned to discover that pure Marwaris number only in the low thousands and there are only a few hundred truly excellent specimens. Sadly, though, the same Rajput pride that created the Marwari has nearly proved its undoing in the post-Independence era. Because in feudal times only Rajput nobles had been permitted to ride them, the Marwari became a symbol of casteism and oppression following the incorporation of the princely states into independent India. And after India stripped the jagirs of their fiefdoms in 1956, thousands of Marwaris were shot, castrated or turned over to the peasant farmers to use as draft animals. Though there was little demand for Marwaris then, except for use in wedding ceremonies, the Mirasi caste of horsebreeders who’d once supplied the Rajputs with their mounts kept the breed alive until the 1980s, when Rajasthan’s erstwhile nobles began to regain some of their former wealth through heritage tourism and the Marwari began its comeback. But over the years, the breeding stock was diluted and essential information about the lineage of the top horses—once kept by the bards the noblemen employed to sing (and perhaps embellish) their exploits—was lost.

That’s why Hemant thinks of himself as a horsebreeder as much as a hotelier, even though hospitality rather than horses is his roti-sabzi. “I bought my first Marwari in 1990 for Rs 80,000,” he told me. “At that time I didn’t know the first thing about horses. After some time passed, my father explained why this wasn’t a good horse for breeding, showing me all the points that one should look for in a Marwari.” A few months later, Hemant sold that colt for Rs 15,000. He bought and sold another horse, and another, and another, learning more about the business as he went along. “Horse breeding isn’t rocket science,” he said. “Anybody can learn it if he takes the time and he has the passion.” Today he breeds some eight foals a year, some of which later sell for a lakh or more. The frequent presence of ‘baby horses’ at Ravla Khempur adds to its attraction for families with small children.

That morning was bright and cool, and Hemant had consented to put the stallion, Bazigar, through his paces for me and the other hotel guests, a party of tourists from New Zealand. Ravla Khempur generally accepts only one group at a time, so visitors feel that they are guests in a Rajput house rather than patrons of a hotel. But he’d made an exception so that I could see how the hotel operated when it was full. Bazigar, too, had an equine visitor—a dapple-grey mare belonging to the local MLA that was to be ‘covered’ or bred over the next few days—so the stallion was more than happy to preen and strut for us. “See, this is the true Marwari,” Hemant said, providing an apt description of himself and the rest of the Rajputs as he squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest. “He’s like the hero in a movie. Here you see him in a jacket. Later he wears a hat. He’s always looking good.” Hemant was dead-on. Bazigar was as big a ham as Salman Khan.

That afternoon, I climbed aboard Rajroop, Hemant’s most obedient mare, which he uses for displays of the traditional art of horse dancing popular at Rajasthani weddings, for a ride through the village and the local fields. Finally, I was riding a Marwari. A beautiful, chestnut-coloured animal with four white socks and an auspicious white ‘tilak’ on her forehead, Rajroop was more responsive than most tourist horses, perhaps because she has not been spoiled by legions of inexperienced trail riders. But though she was always ready for a gallop, a gentle tug on the reins was enough to keep her in check—even when another of the pregnant ladies, Kalyani, decided to take a vicious kick at her.

On the way back to the stable, I hatched schemes to delay my return to the car horns and shoving matches of Delhi. All I could think was, “All this, and all you had to do to get it was hack off a couple guys’ heads?” What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for hot-tempered girls.