Tuesday, August 02, 2011
I begin scratching in my notebook no sooner we’re parked, the birding stuff taken out, and the cars locked. The ears direct my pencil, more than the eyes; the birds, of course, are always around, either visible, or audible.
Our large group troops behind today’s guide, Prof. KSR, meandering through a filigree of vegetation, towards a promised water body. I lean against a boulder and jot my tenth species, when a newcomer peers at the notebook and timorously enquires whether all those birds were seen today! His disbelief at my affirmative is expected. Most rookies do not even register birdcalls when they begin, considering them a part of background noise. He staggers away, following those who have vanished behind a screen of thorny foliage. The noisy chatter and laughter from that direction is discouraging, disturbing. Unwritten birding law frowns upon such audible excess and sudden violent movement. Breaking it is counter-productive for the birds are scared off by loud talk. But its okay I guess, for this is a day of fun birding.
I too move towards the hullabaloo and arrive at an opening in the vegetation that widens into the Gundla-kunta, a small shallow pond, with floating vegetation, and partly bouldery shores. Our group stands on some flat rocks, on its north-eastern corner. With the sun behind us we have perfect light for birding. There are a number of species actively engaged in feeding, and other activities. It is an idyllic scene. Well, almost.
This little glittering wetland, so endearing to the birds that use it, is also a dumping ground for sundry items of garbage, and a popular graveyard for that peculiar symbol of mindlessness, the shattered beer bottle. The place is littered to the gills. Empty bottles float, open-mouthed, all over the dimpled surface of Gundla-kunta. Shards of glass glint on the shores and the rock we are gathered upon crackles with it underfoot.
This act of utterly avoidable irresponsibility shocks and angers me, for it is an indignity meted to that which I revere. This was, after all, an institution for higher studies. Educated people, yes, even in the tenets of a civil society, live and study here. Does this fact absolve them of civilised behaviour and its collective, social responsibility? The wanton defacing of a public place needs a special germ of callousness to start it. The first bottle which is brought out into this pristine (read devoid of garbage) landscape, packed with care lest it break, and leak what it holds, once emptied of its contents, becomes a burden to take back for proper disposal. Chucked or shattered it simply catalyses similar future indiscretions. Such a sacrilegious act of despoliation soon assumes the dirty patina of a regular dump. Subsequent visitors see this ‘convenience’ rather than the natural beauty of the landscape beyond, which it besmirches. And before one realises what is happening, the blight takes hold.
Should not a society that permits unrestricted access to public places also demand that such areas be left in the same, clean state they were found? The self-discipline that achieves this is a social prerequisite, and really small change, in terms of the effort required, for the solace of unblemished landscapes. So what does one do to remedy the scourge? To my mind, the only solution that might last is the involvement of the perpetrators to clean their own backyard. Yes, in this case, finding the polluters might be difficult. So involve the entire campus. Let the USP of the exercise be pride in a clean campus! If this involves the teaching staff, local celebrities, environment groups, etc., so much the better! Do this every six months and I am sure it will make a huge difference, a marked shift in attitude, instil a sense of belonging to the place.
While we stand for an hour and watching birds, the excitement and enjoyment is palpable—and why not? We spot over 25 species from that one spot. Besides their ‘normal’ activities of flying around, feeding, swimming, and perching, there is some hilarious act-like-something-one-is-not, to confuse the smug birders. There are personal highlights for me—a family of dabchicks comprising fussy parents, and three precocious black baubles cavorting in the water; both species of jacanas, in different parts of the pond; and, the rare darter (two!) planing overhead in absolute abandon.
Now there are those who will argue that this diversity illustrates the indifference of wild nature to the minor callousness of devil-may-care citizenry. But that is just a senseless, myopic argument, from those who are happy to accept the visible, immediate present, as the only reality. Unfettered pollution, let it be clearly understood, ultimately wipes out entire life-cycles found in such ecosystems, big or small, gouging out the soul of a landscape, leaving behind a pauperized state of barrenness. A ‘wilderness’ overtaken by the detritus of an insensate community is a sad reflection of the state of a collective conscience, an objurgation of the right to call ourselves sentient beings.
Prof. KSR leads us northward, circuitously, through a fallow green field of rough ankle-high grass, to the earthen bund of Gundla-kunta. As soon as we scramble up its sloping side, an aura of an ancient presence, an antiquity, not so much geographical, as civilisational, is sensed. The tamarind trees leaning away from the slope are old. He says there is archaeological evidence from this very campus of millennial human occupation, even of the cultivation of millets, that much-ignored cereal. It is quite likely that this very kunta irrigated nutritious crops for several generations of Dravidians. To desecrate and pollute sacrosanct ancient sites of historical import is as sacrilegious as graffiti-scrawled monuments. What conscience permits such a strain of cultural defacement?
The atmosphere of the kunta, is so different from the bund. Angled sunlight shines on its surface. Sounds are muted under these brooding old trees, on a ground carpeted with several seasons’ leaf-fall. Wonder borders awe, and a strangely elating joy laces with deference, as though we have chanced upon a tiny gem of a marvel here, which each of us, from the glint in our eye, seems to carry away.
The walk to the nursery tosses some more birds in our path. Jaunty-tailed Indian robins, electrifying wagtails, a mysterious lark, a pair of amorous munias, and a fervently pleading plaintive cuckoo.
Tea follows, in the university’s canteen, and then, near the entrance to the campus, Prof. K leads our motorcade into an abandoned plantation of lanky-boled, thinly foliaged trees. Parking the vehicles we walk to what turns out to be the most amazing sight of our trip—at least for me: a four thousand year old granite menhir, a pre-Iron Age monolith to honour the dead. It would have taken gargantuan brawn to make it stand, or remarkable ingenuity. We shoot pictures of the group around this gigantic tombstone. Then we disperse.
Walking back to the cars, we are appalled at the lamentable repetition of litter. All around this historical monument, this irrefutable evidence of four millennia of human life, lie the same shameful broken bottles, epitomising the complete erosion of respect for culture and history, of a complete lacking of any sense of propriety that collective responsibility demands, of the lack of even a modicum of shame at negating personal margins of social obligation and behaviour.
I depart with mixed feelings: exaltation in the sense of perspective that history and archaeology provide; wellbeing from a morning spent outdoors chasing birds; utter shame at the insensitivity of fellow humans. But towering over all these emotions is a sense of rage—and the realisation that ultimately, an education only leads the horse to water.