In India, a Baba is a sort of holy man. Renouncing worldly pleasures, the Baba is driven by a search for truth and realization. In the olden days people with this burning desire had no choice but to become Babas. They preached sermons, dwelt over the finer points of philosophy and- if not celibate- had devoted complaining wives who put up with them because maybe, deep inside, they were seekers too.
In the present age of science and technology, the “Baba” mentality- requiring renunciation and focus has become quite useful in academia. Here is the AntibioTick’s experience with someone who in a past life would have been an ostracised saint belting out devotional songs of love, peace and harmony.
Maybe it is in blessing of those pains that he has been reborn in the vocation that all saints aspire to be in- Taxonomy.
(That being said I DO NOT think all Taxonomists were former saints- definitely not the ones that plagiarize)
The Sponge Baba studies the taxonomy of sponges- sponges are animals which look like sponges. They have a lot of pores and they filter feed and breed- that’s all they do. Insanely boring, but they can cope with it I guess. A majority of sponges are found in the sea, but there are freshwater ones too. Most are really sensitive to pollution and live in pristine habitats.
To collect sponges in the Western Ghats of India, one has to wander in the monsoon because that is the only time there is water. Because India is an insanely over populated place, you need to go to mountain tops to find pristine habitats.
I was going with the Sponge Baba not because I loved sponge taxonomy, but because I have this feeling that, even while I was working in a more popular (and better funded) sub field of biology, I thought there may be a thing or two about approaching the subject I could learn from taxonomists.
It is raining on the old Mumbai-Pune highway and we are going to Korai Fort, a strategic Maratha Bastion abandoned for centuries. The sky is overcast and every patch of soil is green around us- it is the monsoon.
The Sponge Baba is travelling on his bike. Being a Baba reborn he does not sport a flashy ride. His Honda Shine 125 cc is the kind of bike an accountant would use. He does not drive instinctually; you can see the protocol unfolding in his head, painfully methodical. I am riding pillion, my open face helmet makes me look like a dork. Two more friends are with us on another motorcycle.
The rain is not heavy and it comes and goes rather randomly and frequently. We wear windcheaters and waterproof trousers. Plastic Bags inside our rucksacks keep our cell phones and wallets dry. Armed with the usual arsenal of sample bottles, nets, scalpels, alcohol and formaldehyde we drive on with the wind and water seeping through our jacket zippers.
We should get better gear I think- but then again it never gets too cold in the Western Ghats.
The Sponge Baba is not part of the usual pack of weekend tourists that show up at forts in branded trekking kit. His gear is worn out. He is looking for things not found in civilization.
The atmosphere does give him peace of mind though and puts the sometimes moody Sponge Baba in a meditative state.
I talk with the Sponge Baba about this and that on the way. Our helmets bump frequently. We leave the highway and make our way through smaller, less travelled roads. As we ascend, the turns increase with the greenery.
At the foot of the fort there is a hamlet where we park our bikes. We make our way upwards. It’s about an hour’s slow climb to the plateau where we can collect samples in earnest.
I witness the beauty and the diversity of the plants around me, taking it in like a schoolboy. I regret for a moment that I did not take Botany seriously in college. Back then all I wanted to do was to clone sheep.
We walk slowly. Being with the Sponge Baba means that you observe everything, we collect some bugs for his bug taxonomist friends, look at an interesting plant that hosts a weird insect, and take delight in the beauty of a flower that makes the perfect photograph.
Everything is captured by his camera and attention.
There is so much beauty you sometimes forget the point of the journey. It is easy to get lost in this riot of life. Many do get lost and live lives as wanderers and tourists. They are happy enough wandering around and so was I at that time.
Not being the fittest, we struggle to climb at times. We are tired and thirsty; as usual no one brings enough water. We rest mid-climb, and finally make it to the top. Tired, sweating and out of breath.
The top of the fort is a green plateau the size of a few football fields. Stone walls crumble at the edges, the slow work of centuries. The shallow lake in the middle of the plateau is full. The wind blows, fog comes and goes. Torrents of water fall in sheets and we have long since been soaked through. We are alone except for the few couples who have braved the rain to make love on the mountain top, away from the eyes of the world.
My two other friends begin collecting samples to take home. They draw nets and collect, recording the temperature and other parameters. I see them, squatting by the puddles peering into the water.
But the Sponge Baba cannot draw nets, Sponges do not swim. They adhere to substratum and grow. He has to get into the water, turn over rocks and inspect them thoroughly one by one. Where you find a thousand insects, you may see one sponge.
I am helping my friend collect water from a particularly green puddle at the side when I look up and see him.
The Sponge Baba- a youth of average height, a little bit round and plump, fair face with a goatee, and narrow-bottom-pleated pants rolled up to his knees. His formal white short sleeved shirt is soaked, but he is not shivering. The water cannot be more than five or six degrees and he is in it up to his knees.
He bends over in the water his eyes on the lookout. He sees something and calls me to come over to him with a few sample bottles.
The water is frigging cold. I must be mad to enter, but what the heck. I have come all this way and I am not even studying anything- which make me crazier than them. My rationale petering out thus, I take the dip.
The water is freezing; it bites my skin while the chill wind cuts across my face. Water flecks my cheeks, Goosebumps rise on my arms. I wade inwards with a couple of bottles in my hand. I begin to shiver. And so, the water slowly getting deeper, I navigate through boulders towards the Sponge Baba.
“I need your help with this,” he says indicating a large boulder we see in the clear water near us. “We need to overturn this.”
We plunge our arms into the water, get a hold of the rock and turn it over. He studies the rock carefully for sponges. None found, we turn it back over to how it was originally, minimal disturbance of habitat. We move ahead, find another rock and again turn it over. It is always the same method the same painstaking adherence to predetermined protocol.
It had a strange effect on me, standing there in the cold, doing this one action over and over again knee deep in cold water. The Baba had infinite patience in his penance, the chances of finding a Sponge under any given rock is always slim, but he continues regardless. It is an ascetic mentality, to do penance almost as an end to itself- yet always seeking, and to never be disappointed in not attaining.
How can not finding the Sponge under the rock not matter to him when everything he does is to find the Sponge? How can such a meditative experience build up with such rigid methodology? Does he eventually find the Sponges? What happens then?
A little while later, my hands became numb, I stopped feeling the cold and I stopped shivering. Alone I would have gone out of the lake or lost attention but I was with the Sponge Baba, his attention rapt upon finding sponges, and therefore I too, in his presence was kept aware, not thinking, but conscious of what was going on.
And then it happened, we overturned a rock and there it was- Tiny white colonies with a spherical hole in the middle.
A tiny freshwater sponge
The adherence to protocol vanished. There were still rules, but this was not a controlled setting, it was a freezing rainwater pond on the top of an abandoned fortress. There was one tiny sponge sticking to a rock and thousands of litres of water. If he cut it out and it floated away, there would be no sponge for him to take home and study.
People say writing is about learning all the rules and then forgetting them. It is true. It is about exploring the infinity between limits that define. It was so at that moment with the Sponge Baba and his work.
There is a protocol to remove a sponge from the attaching rock, but the rain, wind, sleet and random flow of water you need to take care of on your own. There is no written methodology.
You need to be thoughtless.
Out came the scalpel, a relic from his undergraduate days, and he began sawing the sponge off while I held the upturned boulder steady in the water. He sawed till it was attached by the merest filament, and then held the sample bottle’s mouth to the sponge. The last thread he cut, and the sponge floated into the bottle.
He cut off another sponge, this time though the filament did not hold and it floated away. But he was calm. Moving the bottle a little he caught the runaway sponge just before it got out of reach.
It is not as picturesque as Yuvraj Singh taking a blinding catch at point, or Iker Casillas pulling off a stunning save, but in terms of concentration, attention and timing it was of the same quality.
The Sponge Baba was a different person there. The shackles of protocol had fallen off and the wings of instinct had unfurled. Collecting Sponge after sponge he continued, me by his side as a witness.
I have no photographs of me and the Sponge Baba in the middle of the pool on top of the fort. But the Sponge Baba did have a photo of the pool for his habitat records which I have put here in this article, along with a photo of the sponge.
I have no skill of photography anyways that would have captured what I felt and saw. And I do not know which camera would have captured that tension live, for what we do is not visually appealing in an obvious way.
I do appreciate the power of an image though so I have put the photographs for you to use like an empty stage. If you can dear reader, try to see what I saw- that moment I experienced with the Sponge Baba.
The freshwater at Koriagad
I look at the photographs and I see me and the Sponge Baba in the middle of the pool, water up to our knees, turning over rocks.
I also remember the wind and the rain shower and how the rain was blowing over the pool at great speed making all sorts of mesmerising patterns on the surface. The sound of millions of droplets crashing on to the water was like a swarm of bees, the waves lapping on to the lake side like the distant thunder of waves crashing onto a sea shore.
I remember the penance in the water that mesmerised me into another state. I also remember the trek back down, taking care not to slip while laden with filled sample bottles of water-fleas, crustaceans and filter feeding sponges.
I remember the hot cup of tea served at the little eating house, the gossip exchanged on the way and the excitement of our collection and the new things we would find.
I remember the drive back- and the exhaustion we felt when we finally got home and the Sponge Baba’s comment that his sister thought he had been very clever at choosing a profession that required him to wander to such places that others could only visit as tourists.
He would take the sponge to the lab and study it. He would look at it, dissect it and describe it in a precise technical manner. The descriptions are boring and mean nothing if you are not involved in the topic.
But I will remember the most how the whole ecosystem and climate came together for me as a homogenous whole to me in the context of the sponge. Even the Sponge Baba and I were integrated, we were complete.
I did not go up to that mountain searching for God, but the experience was amazingly spiritual. It is the sort of experience found in temples and described by saints. And the medium of that experience, the point that you focus on, be it rock or statue, person or animal is the form of God at that moment.
As for the Sponge Baba and me in this case, we experienced God- a poriferan sponge, under a rock submerged in a rainwater pool- on top of a mountain.