Saturday, March 27, 2010

Books in my life: men and their madness for mountains

Mountains of the mind: adventures in reaching the summit. By: Robert Macfarlane. 
[Vintage Books: 306 pp.]

Mountains fascinate me no end, yet, I do not have the you-know-what to be a mountaineer. Altitude drives a peg in my cranium—the pump climbs behind the eyes and works overtime. The vacuum in the rib cage yawns like a chasm.

Occasionally I pick up a book that propels me beyond the stable plain of my flatland existence into the oxygen-starved realm of men, and their madness for mountains.

In the much-acclaimed Mountains of the mind, Macfarlane delves into the psyche of why men climb mountains. The work has as many insights into our characters, as it has descriptions of climbs, and vistas of vertical landscape. It speaks of the pursuit of fear, the concept of geologic time, the fascination for new landscape, and the foolhardy conquest of unbelievable pain, and suffering, both, of those who climb, and those they leave behind—sometimes forever.

One climbs a mountain first in the mind, then physically. It’s a slow process; cannot be rushed, and every climber has to come to terms with time and space that are sculpted and scrubbed over millennia into the ‘aesthetics of inordinate slowness’ (p. 44).

The sense of geologic time that he conveys is what I would like to leave you with. For the entire journey up a mountain, through human history, you will need to read the book.

‘To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape. They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify, where granite slops about like porridge, basalt bubbles like stew, and layers of limestone are folded as easily as blankets. Through the spectacles of geology, terra firma becomes terra mobilis, and we are forced to reconsider our beliefs of what is solid and what is not. Although we attribute to stone a great power to hold time back, to refuse its claims (cairns, stone tablets, monuments, statuary), this is true only in relation to our own mutability. Looked at in the context of the bigger geological picture, rock is as vulnerable to change as any other substance.

‘Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called “deep time”—the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant; flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage. And it is a physical as well as cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body’. (p. 43).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Silence of the sparrows

My childhood was spent among sparrows. There were other winged commensals too, that shared those golden days with me, but it was sparrows I felt closest to. Our house had an infinite number of crevices and cornices where these birds nested and a small garden and goshala bordered with stretches of loose sand, that they dusted in. Late afternoons were chosen for this surprisingly disciplined, communal affair. The fine sand had warmed by that hour, from a sun that slipped behind buildings on its journey to the other side of the world, leaving the dusting area in gentle shadow. Manik the gaiwala would have finished chopping fodder for Lakshmi and Nutan, inadvertently scenting the afternoon stillness with moist, sappy, resinous aromas of bruised verdure, setting those bovines into an impatience of nodding heads, flaring nostrils and unbelievably widening eyes, till he poured it into their fodder-boxes, barely avoiding spilling it all around as they nosed the flow of falling pieces. Not that it mattered, for their rough tongues later lapped up whatever dropped outside the box. It was between this time and an hour or so later, when he sat next to Laxmi, on his haunches, with a bucket between his knees to milk her, that the sparrows began their daily ritual. Sometimes they would continue while the milk sang in the bucket.
Twenty to thirty sparrows, cocks and hens, would gather on the ground between the henna hedge and the goshala, in an apparently meaningless flock, till a few of them shook off their listlessness by puffing up and ruffling their feathers, twisting this way and that on a patch of particularly soft sand, forming, in the process, a tiny rim of the fine powder around them. The sand billowed in miniscule clouds around them, passing through their feathers, suffocating irritating lice and mites. Their activity attracted those around and soon there was a line of sparrows patiently waiting their turn at the dusting bowl!  Impatience and intemperance were put down with a sharp peck. Patience rewarded by the duster hopping off, making place for another’s ablutions. It was a safe place in a moment of distraction, for others were alert and shelter from bored canines in search of fun or a deadly shikra, close at hand in the spiky henna. On days they chose not to dust themselves, for whatever unknown reasons, remnants of the dusting patch, with its scattering of tiny depressions, remained on the ground, a microcosm of life’s infinite rituals—meaningful to the observant, hidden from the preoccupied.

The Hyderabad of 20-30 years ago has changed from a city of minarets to one of massive billboards. In our hurried preoccupation with transforming the city into a modern metropolis, we forgot the house sparrow. Perhaps it’s ordinariness, its commonness, it’s dull omnipresence, like some old-fashioned traits—etiquette, sentience, an adab that was unique to Hyderabad—could not keep up with the blinding speed of development, the new culture of big, bright and brash that seized us with a manic frenzy. Before we realized it, sparrows had disappeared from our midst. Increasingly at parties, at street-corner gatherings, at offices and in meetings, the hot question was, “Where have all the sparrows gone? Why have they forsaken us?”

Those are not easy questions to answer. Sparrows have declined in many parts of India, as they have in England. They thrive in some cities—Mumbai, Delhi—but have almost disappeared from others (Bangalore, Coimbatore, Hyderabad). In England its population has dropped by more than 50% since the ’70s. We are not as meticulous about our data, so we do not knowthe scientific trend of our sparrow populations. But we are aware of a reduction in numbers!

If this decline was a question of housing, of modern architecture lacking the extravagance of alcoves, cornices, crevices, and stucco, versus older structures, basking in their resplendence—there are the modern cities cited above that contradict. If the presence of man, so essential for this commensal, was the question—for the sparrow thrives amidst the press of humanity—nobody can complain of a drop in human populations. What then is the matter with sparrows? Is it food, living space, or a combination of various situations? One can but conjecture and theorize.

Food could be a reason. Most families, buy neatly packed grain from shops. Some time ago, these would be cleaned at home and the chaff thrown for birds. But sparrows do not exist by grain alone. They need insects and arthropods too in their diet, especially while raising a brood of ravenous nestlings. The use of pesticides in urban areas, private and municipal gardens and within homes, has increased hundredfold in the past two decades. Their harmful effects are unrecorded scientifically but are graphic in fact. Living space might be a reason—the lack of holes and cornices in modern architectural structures—our eagerness for clean-lined, designer-book homes. How many of us tolerate a bird’s untidy nest within our dwellings? How many, let the web of a spider be? And who wants sandy places in these days of cement and concrete? The very trails within gardens and larger parks are under threat of being cemented and paved! Or is it something intrinsic that was catalyzed by our actions? Perhaps the sparrow needs the society of an unknown number of brethren to survive successfully. That could be a genetic prerequisite. If the depleting populations of certain species reach a critical low in their numbers, they are incapable of a recovery. But what, finally, is the cause of this decline? There seems to be no single answer yet.

One thing however is certain. They have not forsaken us. We have them. The decline of the sparrow is a symptom of a uniquely human malady. Our carelessness towards all other life, save our own. This matters as we have the power to alter our environment like no other living force on earth does. And if we are careless towards life, can we take care of ourselves? Sometimes I wonder which is worse—to be blind or to see and not comprehend?

[Published in The Hindu dated 10 December 2002.]