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What My Cats Taught Me About Life

I write this post in grief. A stray cat, Smokey, whom I nurtured from kitten hood, has been missing since January 20th 2022. She was last seen electrocuted at the transformer which is just outside my apartment gate. I did not know of this incident until 24 hours later. The night security guard, who saw it happen, told me that she got up and walked away after falling down from the transformer. This information was corroborated by the KEB personnel who came to restore power.

I don’t know if she is alive or dead, but having seen a small pool of blood at the accident spot, I fear the worst. I have been looking for her in the neighbourhood for the past three days. I can’t help but recall how much I have obsessed over Smokey, and her mother, for close to two years. I will tell you why.

The story of how Smokey entered my life is unconventional. Although I loved cats, living in an apartment complex meant that I couldn’t keep one at home.  I never imagined that Smokey would become such a huge part of my every day routine. The cats and I where on our own paths which crossed unexpectedly. And eventually, they left the most lasting impression on me. 

Smokey was born to a mangy, feral cat in my apartment basement circa March 2020. She had 5 siblings, none of which survived. It was lockdown time, and the mother cat found safe haven under parked cars in our small apartment which has around 30 houses. But disease, and maybe predators, resulted in all but Smokey passing away within a few weeks of being born.

I have always been a cat lover, so when I saw only Smokey surviving the litter, I decided to start feeding her and the mother cat. I named the mother Lucy, after Lucifer, because I was horrified at how she ate up one of her own kittens. I also intended to get Lucy and Smokey sterilised so they don’t go around reproducing and adding to the stray cat population. So, feeding them was the only way I could ensure that they stuck around in the basement. Unfortunately, this ended up becoming Smokey’s greatest weakness. She never learnt how to hunt, and was entirely dependent on me for food.

Flashback to May 2020, Lucy was an extremely skittish and shy cat. She was terrified of humans, but she was very much in need of food. She was very young, and this was probably her first litter. Initially, my feeding sessions were sporadic. I did not even know what to feed her. I wasn’t aware of the different types of cat food available in the market. But, Lucy used to follow me around in the basement. Since it was the lockdown, watching her and Smokey was a good way to pass time. I gently persuaded them to shift from under a neighbour’s car to my car, so nobody in the apartment would chase them away. From milk, to rice, to egg, to cat food, I gradually upgraded their meals. Smokey was growing up under the loving care of Lucy. She had the same temperament as her mother – she was scared of humans, albeit, a little less. She was never a lap cat and hated being held. She would do a funny act of coming near me, and suddenly running away when I bend down to hold her. I don’t know if she did it on purpose or because her feral genes. Despite that, I continued my feeding and play sessions.

 

This closeness between mother and daughter continued for over a year. Usually, mother cats distance themselves from their kittens after about 6 – 8 months, but not in the case of SmoLu, as I call the duo. Meanwhile, I was becoming a better pet parent. I was feeding them healthy cat food. I made a small cat-house for them to sleep in, where they would spend all morning cuddled together. I could never figure out what they did at night or where they went, because they would not remain in the apartment basement after supper. We have a huge open area beside the apartment, so they probably spent the night there. I even installed a CCTV camera near my car, to watch over them and understand their behaviour. The CCTV had a limited coverage area. I learnt quite a lot from the recordings. For instance, there were several male cats that visited the basement. 

 

2020 and 21 were like no other. Covid was ravaging India and the world. Everyone’s daily routine changed forever, with work from home becoming a permanent thing for IT employees. This also widened the gap between people who had cushy desk jobs and those who had to slog it out.

Since I could work from home, I spent a lot of time with SmoLu. In between meetings, I would go down and watch the two of them together. Smokey would ask me for treats or food every time she saw me. She was a mischievous and curious darling. She was extremely talkative, especially around meal times. Both of them would wait for me near the lift, in the mornings. They would come running towards me if they weren’t near the lift. When I would return home from outstation trips, they would come running towards me. Smokey would mewl loudly seeing me, demanding to be fed. She would inspect the car often, and the joke was that the car is hers, and not mine. Her curiosity never faded. Lucy on the other hand was very stoic. The only feelings she ever showed was towards Smokey, who was always by her side.

For close to two years, I have ensured that they were fed. This was not always easy, because if not me, it is my mother who would have had to go down twice a day to feed them.

I was obsessed with SmoLu, because that is how cats grow on you. They have immense character, and take no shit. They aren’t easy to please or fool. It took me almost a week to trap Lucy to get her neutered. With Smokey, it was relatively easy, and I was glad that she was neutered before she got into heat. Another time, I had to take Lucy to the vet, where she scratched me so badly that the scars on my hand haven’t gone.  

A couple of incidents stand out in my brief association with SmoLu. About a year into Smokey’s life, a male cat started to trouble these two. One day he picked a fight with Lucy and chased her away. She was gone for a week. I assumed that she was dead, because the security guards, who are my eyes and ears where the CCTV cannot see, told me that they saw the male cat chase Lucy into a drain. I was terrified that the same would happen to Smokey, and I brought her home to keep her with me. She was not at all happy in her new (comfortable surrounding), and wanted to be left back downstairs. We spent several sleepless nights fostering her, much to her displeasure. She would incessantly cry all night.

Thanks to the CCTV footage, I got to know that Lucy was back in the basement after about a week. My joy knew no bounds, because I had presumed she was no more. Unfortunately, she was not the same cat after this incident. The trauma made her aloof towards Smokey, who was still a young kitten at heart. Smokey never understood why her dear momma was hissing and swiping at her. It was heartbreaking to watch Lucy grow colder than she already was. But until the very last day I saw her, Smokey’s behaviour towards Lucy remained the same. Lucy was her everything.

Smokey also had her share of disappearing. Once, she was not to be seen for almost 2 nights, and I was sick with grief. But she was back in the morning, her usual self, asking for food like nothing had happened. Of course, she was terribly, terribly hungry. In fact, Smokey’s disappearances became more frequent than Lucy’s. Especially around the full moon. New tom cats started to enter the basement, and Smokey was terrified of all of them. She never learnt how to fight, unlike Lucy, who can hold her ground. Smokey was extremely good at hiding from danger, because after all, she spent her childhood playing under cars and getting into the bonnet.

I like all animals a lot, but I have a special corner for cats. Unlike dogs, where everything is always lovey lovey, Lucy and Smokey’s temperament was closer to that of humans. Lucy had her mood swings, while Smokey was curious and mischievous. A human should be extremely lucky to earn a cat’s love. They can be selfish, and vile. Once they have eaten, they will walk away from you and look at you like you are a stranger. SmoLu were no different, although somewhere deep inside I like to believe that Smokey loved me back, but only did not know how to show it.

I wonder if I got so attached to them both because of my own emotional gaps. I grew up a single child, with no playmates. My relationship with my parents has always been troubled. I have only my mother now, and things haven’t changed. I always loved animals but could never keep a pet. I have no children of my own, and after my divorce, I never felt the need to experience parenthood. Having seen a parent’s death, a broken marriage, and several ups and downs in life, my emotional temperament is like Lucy’s – stoic. I keep my distance from humans. Only with these two animals, I gave my all. 

So, in SmoLu, I found everything I felt lacking. The bond between mother and daughter was such a beautiful thing to witness. Smol Smokey was my companion, and I spent so much time downstairs in the basement playing with her. I was her pet parent, protecting her from Tom cats, and always on the lookout for tasty, healthy food. I rediscovered my childhood hobby of making electronic gadgets, thanks to them. I rigged up a CCTV system with a long range WiFi network and made them a water feeding station which really helped me keep busy during the second COVID-19 wave.

Being so closely involved with these two strays also meant that I became more aware of the the issues other stray animals in the city face. I was directly and indirectly involved in rescues of animals in need. I regularly donated money for animal welfare. I frequently read horror stories about how humans harm voiceless strays for no genuine reason. I read in the papers how over 50% of new COVID era pet parents abandoned their pets on the street, not realising what it takes to raise an animal. From my own experience, I can say that looking after animals, especially stray cats, is an emotional roller coaster. 

I think all animals are more aware of their mortality than we humans are. They live life, one day at a time. It takes only a little love from our side to receive boundless joy from them. They show no malice, and carry 100% pure innocence which humans lack. Each animal has a different character, like us. Genes, upbringing, environment and individual temperament make each one of them unique.  If you have a little bit of extra sensitivity to the world around, you will see what perfect creatures animals are, compared to us. 

Every time I managed to catch Smokey before her feeding time, I would hold her and cradle her like a baby. She would mewl in protest, and I would give her soft kisses. Because after all, we have only this brief life to show and receive love. Maybe it was always in the back of my mind that this might not last long. I am grateful to her for entering my life. 

Sleep well, my baby, wherever you are.

Lightroom Workshops – Six Years and Counting

I conducted a one-day workshop on Lightroom/Post-Processing in Bangalore on May 5th. As I was looking at the course material, I realized that it was my sixth year of mentoring photographers in Lightroom. Our initial few workshops included both Lightroom and Photoshop, and spanned across two days. We converted it to a one day Lightroom-only workshop because Photoshop is not something that you can cover in a weekend.

In these years, Adobe has made quite a few significant changes to the software to simplify it, but the core concepts still remain the same. With Lightroom CC, the app that we once knew has actually become a ‘classic.’ Lightroom Classic CC is what Adobe calls the software that desktop version. Lightroom CC is now for the ‘mobile’ crowd and uses the cloud to store images.

In this class, we had 9 participants, two of whom were French. We also had many participants who had either traveled with Darter on our tours before, or had attended our other workshops. This is certainly encouraging for us – people come back only when they are happy.

The venue for our workshop was the Honeycomb – Video Production Bangalore, Web Design office in Koramangala. It was great to work in a space dedicated for photographers. In case you weren’t aware, Honeycomb makes archival photo prints on imported media. We had at least 50 prints hanging on the walls of our classroom. Honeycomb also offers services like image retouching and website development. Do check out their website.

Lightroom can be both easy and daunting. A common question that I get asked always is – when do I stop editing? How much of Lightroom should I use to edit an image. This question is challenging one for me, because like the question itself, there is no definite answer. The best thing would be to use a number of examples to show what can be achieved.  As a mentor, I always strive to get the participants to understand the tricky topics like tonal correction first. To do this, I use some of my own photos as examples. As someone who loves landscape photography, I use more of such images for demonstration. However, I also recognize the need to have a variety of sample RAW files.

One collective feedback that I received in this workshop was to split the session into two days. What do you think? Should a Lightroom workshop be for one day or two days? Comment below and let me know.

If you are interested in a future Lightroom workshop, visit http://www.darter.in/ and stay connected through our Facebook page.

Social Mania

Under a billion stars
Faces lit by rectangular screens
All connected, but incoherently
Society’s wisdom measured by posts and tweets.

The hardest I think is when my password expires
Is the world around me ending?
A billion stars above don’t matter
They aren’t what is trending

Between my eyes and my brain I have a 5 inch filter
I don’t care if the polar bears can’t survive
Everything is sorted in the palm of my hands
Even in silent mode I feel so alive

What will happen when the signal grows weak?
Can I still make those connections?
How can I express my patriotism, anger and expert opinions?
I don’t know how to be social without notifications.

Why I Switched my Website Address

I recently moved my website from pixelshooter.net to pratapj.com – why did I switch domain names?

I said “hello world” from a self-hosted website on Jan 06, 2006. I had purchased a DSLR, the Canon 350D, a month before. Until then I was shooting with a Canon Powershot A75 which was also my first digital camera. I used the handle, “pixelshooter” for my online presence. I first hosted pixelshooter.net on a low budget web host and then moved to ANhosting (now called Midphase).

In the year 2006, self-published photography was a deviation from the trend. Flickr (before Yahoo acquired it) was a rage, and everyone was posting there. FB and 500px were not heard of. I think there was orkut, but I never took it seriously.

The first trip I did with the DSLR was to Kasargod in the same month when I purchased the domain name. This photo of Bekal fort is one of my favourites from that trip.

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In Feburary my friend and I backpacked to Bhutan. It was my first time ever in the Himalayas. Bhutan was not yet commercialized. My DSLR proved to be the best thing that happened to me. After I came back, I wrote a travelogue which I published on pixelshooter.net. Here is a photo from Calcutta, which was my transit point to Bhutan. From early on, my photography was mostly about landscapes.

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Internet connectivity was not great back then, and people still kept in touch through offline means. One of my friends even asked me “how to get an account on pixelshooter.net” because he thought it was a website like Flickr. No one quite understood my obsession with self-hosting a website. Needless to say, the only person who was really interested in pixelshooter.net was me.

The biggest challenge in the world of self-hosting was initially about theme design. Photo blogging, or posting a new photo every day, was a popular trend. I wanted a website where I could post a pic per day, and also write about my travels. With no ready made theme available, I got my hands dirty and learnt how to make my own theme in WordPress. You can see that version of my website on old.pixelshooter.net. Since I did not have a background in coding, it took me a lot of time to get the theme the way I wanted. Later I would realise that web design was not as much of a problem as website traffic.

My thought process behind hosting my own website hasn’t changed from the very begining. It was always about sharing pics, either through my photo blog or my travelogues. I wanted to do this on a self-hosted platform because I wanted to present my work in a unique way. I paid for everything from my pocket and never used advertisements. I always kept a check on the number of assignments that I took up, because I wanted to focus on learning. In the process, I forgot to take into account that people don’t take your work seriously unless you make it glamorous.

Until circa 2009, there was no social media to share my posts, so my traffic was mostly from Google and when friends visited. I joined Facebook very late. I did not bother creating a Facebook Page (when Pages actually mattered) because I had my blog. I was not aware about how Facebook throttles organic reach. I was very late to the party.

I did my first multi-day Himalayan trek to Kuari Pass in August 2009. I never published those photos online though. Post trek, I found myself really short on time to do justice to a travelogue and it never occured to me that I should post on Facebook. The ROI of running a website was limited to self-satisfaction. The hottest place to pimp your work was still on Flickr, and later 500px. I was a lone ranger in the genre of landscape photography. Wedding, portraiture, street and wildlife were the most popular genres of photography in India, and even today. I tried to stake my claim as a travel blogger, but my travels were focused around landscape photography.

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Today, self-hosted blogs have made a come back. But blogging has become a sport. Self-hosted websites are mostly running a rat race for ‘influencer’ campaigns. When brands identify you as an influencer because of your popularity online, you promote them on your blog and social media in return for free stuff. A lot of people are writing blogs hoping to get free trips, hotel stays, goodies and road show invites. I just read an article today about these Influencer campaigns are pointless, but who cares? Likes, views, page hits and everything else that measures your popularity can either be purchased, or manufactured by careful self-promotion and branding and that is all what the marketing agencies want.

Facebook’s ‘Like’ button has hijacked the spirit of sharing anything online. Everyone has a digital presence today. All you need is very polarised opinions about the world or the skill of self-promotion to climb up the social media ladder. The joy of photography as a hobby died the day photographers focused on popularity instead of perfecting their art.

Pixelshooter.net did not stand a chance to become popular. I never shouted on top of rooftops about how awesome I was. My articles were all based on personal experience and I kept away from listicles. I only wrote when I had something to share.  I did not have a network wide enough to keep spamming my social media with links. I hardly posted photos of myself from places I visited, and even if I did, I could never compete against the young women who promoted their blogs with just selfies. I wanted to showcase my work as an artist and content creator. It was too late by the time I realised that I was competing with people who had a completely different set of priorities.

These days, travelogues are not about the joy of discovering a place, but about how you did all the awesome things that you were supposed to do at the destination so you can post on social media. Photography is not about how artistically and technically good your work is, but about how glamourous it is to quit your job and become a full time professional. The word “hobby” has almost become a synonym for “boring”. Being enthusiastic about something does not mean anything unless you have enough Likes to prove it.

Sorry, I went a bit off track. The real reason I moved to Pratapj.com, however, was due to a technical problem I faced when I switched web hosts. One of the important factors for good SEO is page load speeds. I took advantage of a black Friday deal and purchased web hosting with SiteGround in November of 2017. SiteGround servers are faster than those of Mid Phase. I spent most of December migrating the content in the backend (more on that in the next post). I set up a staging environment called pratapj.com on Site Ground for this purpose. After all the backend work was done, I realised that I couldn’t simply point the new web host to pixelshooter.net because of a few technicalities. Pixelshooter.net was deeply tied to Mid Phase. The only way I could let it go was by breaking ties with them. That was not an option for certain reasons. So I decided to simply start using Pratapj.com as my new domain name.

But in more than one way, the change of domain names also signifies a change in my thought process about self publishing. I would like to keep working hard to excel in the space of outdoor and nature photography than be a contender for influencer campaigns.  I’d rather see traffic from visitors who are genuinely interested in my content. I plan to incorporate more video into my work. I want to explore the market for commercial fine art digital prints. I hope do to more real-world product reviews.

I have fond memories of Pixelshooter.net. I hope someday I can find good use for that domain name again.

New Journal!

About my new Wordpress journal – a home for non-commercial thoughts, product reviews and photography talk.

Hello there. Hello world. Hello reader.

This is my new personal journal. I call it, “Life in Manual Focus.” I used to be an active blogger several years ago (circa 2006 – 8). Back then, a blog was where you put in real thoughts and did not make up things for just for page rank.  My old blog is still alive on the Blogger network.

Although the blog died, my website, www.pixelshooter.net continued till December 2017. Then I migrated my domain name. Now it is www.pratapj.com. Why? More on that in the next post. And how I migrated. It was quite a task.

The birth of this journal is to get back to writing. I don’t do a lot of personal writing these days. Posts on www.pratapj.com are always written for a target audience or to compliment my photography.

The internet has no dearth of blogs these days. Most of the ones that you discover via social media are commercial in one way or the other. From “influencers” to “paid reviews”, most blogs out there are just extended product marketing.

This blog is going to be non-commercial. A free flow of ideas, thoughts and learning. I hope to do product reviews, talk about photography techniques and occassionally rant and muse. Let’s see how it goes.