Sunday, December 16, 2012

My book of days: a full moon

4 December 2012
The full moon is unforgettable here. It rose like a swollen orange, more than rising, hanging in the darkness, drawing all aqueous substances to its cool, pitted surface. All day the water that crashed on the beach, swung back muddy and delirious, creating a bucking, straining undertow that preyed upon you casualness, your carelessness, and flung you bodily into its unceasing dragnet. I remarked, ignorantly at that time, that the breaking waves were muddy for the first time since we arrived. The seas were definitely rougher than in the previous days. But those, even though deprived the bird of a water nymph, dove and ducked in those swells and opined them swimming-pool safe.

Much later did I realise the cause for such a colossal upheaval in the sea. A distant moon draws the earth's waters towards its parched skin—be that liquid spread over tens of thousands of square miles, or the mucosa in our upward tugged eyes, awed by the luminosity, the sheer, untarnished beauty of an orbiting full moon.

Jupiter remained the solitary sentry that witnessed the daily orbit as the moon rose steadily to reach it, and then pass on in an overarching curve.

The three following days saw a calm sea that had the water babies cooing in pleasure.

Moonlight through palm fronds. There couldn't be more filtered a pleasure, more refined a joy.

My book of days: an evening walk

18 November 2012
Walked in the evening in the park. The sun sets by 5.30 pm, or thereabouts, and the path gradually disappears into shadow. The verdure wall on my left, as I walk into the setting orange orb, blackens into a two-dimensional silhouette, above which, an incandescent sickle of silver glows ineffectually, and the western immensity of merging elements—the earth and the sky—into darkness, burns in the afterglow of a dying fire.

Invariably, at such moments of time in the mingling light and dark, the invisible, goggle-eyed stone curlew, anticipating the darkness for which its large eye was forged, lets forth its sharp, piping whistle, nervous giggle, if you will, and dreams of cloak and dagger hunts in utter darkness. It rises above the din all around, piercing the cool air like Nature was sounding taps … only here not signalling the end of day, and ensuring a safe night, but a beginning, for those like this goggle-eyed plover, whose life's activities begin during the hours that remain, largely, mysterious to mankind.

It thrills the marrow in me, that clarion, for I recognise a larger circle of life than my fellow walkers are aware of. It elevates my spirit at the ability of Nature to survive despite heavy odds.

I walk safe in the light-split, sound-split air, happy to bear witness to one world awakening, and another trundling towards end of day.

Diary entries: gossip

All-in-all, everyone is interested in a good story, pregnant with its sub-plots and subtle innuendos, open to as many interpretations as listeners. For aural traditions need not be imprisoned like the printed word, being stories-in-progress, as they ricochet from ear-to-ear, fleshing out, zesting with added masala, getting rounder with exaggerations, sharper with inflected criticisms, coloured with subtle intermingling autobiography and biography.

Diary entries: beneath a maulsri tree

After almost an hour on this butt-numbing stone bench, birds come into the maulsri-blossom scented canopy above me. A tailor bird with its measuring tape darkened neck stripe, its needle-sharp upright-tail, its cinnamon skullcap, wanders silently over internal branches, taking my measure.

A small sunbird dazzles me with its audacious boldness from two meters, deflecting rainbow hues my way on sunlight reflected purple rays. It swings and flirts its wings, chirping and singing. Dare I raise my straw-hat-encircled head and peer owlishly at it, or will that movement scare it's little heart into flight? Too many leaves obstruct my vision, but the song's pitch does rise a note or two, when I do so.

Diary entries: dragonfly

An orange dragonfly relentlessly patrols the Egyptian blue, dry fountain well. Perhaps out of habit. Perhaps too, as its insect prey do, both searching a lost oasis.

Diary entries: fritillaries

Small (1 cm) fritillaries (?) flitter fussily low over the grass, and come to rest momentarily on the granite square, holding their wings above their frail bodies, and tripping forward with mincing steps, perhaps the stone is too hot underfoot, like dhows or sailboats moving leisurely upon a granite sea. A moment's respite, and they flutter away restlessly.

Diary entries: coconut palms

Coconut palms are the botanical world's firecracker rockets. A climbing stream of arcing fire, and at the end of the trajectory, a spray of explosion—the tensile trunk with the palm fronds in its crown!

Books I have read in 2012

I just discovered how wonderful it feels to revisit the books I've read this year, by simply listing them out. Preparing such a list might even tempt you to take out a book from the shelf, and look up favourite passages, if you have marked them. I ended up with a fine cerebral and sensory buzz for a couple of hours!

The cat's table. 
The song of Achilles. Otter country. Hamlet. The golden mean. Tiger. 
Light years.
The long legged house. 
A private history of awe. 
Earth works. 
The lady and the monk. 
A patch made in heaven. 
Mrs Dalloway. 
Tell me true. 
Bird sense. 
Birdwatching with your eyes closed. 
Best of Munro. 
Goodbye to all that. 
Dr Rosenbach and Mr Lilly. 
Stop what you're doing and read this. 
The life in the skies. 
The lost art of reading. 
To the lighthouse. 
Tell me true. 
Winston's war. 
Charterhouse of Parma. Unfinished. 

Tolstoy and the purple chair. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Save Flamingo city - letter to Hon'ble Minister, MoEF

28 November 2012

Smt. Jayanthi Natarajan
Minister, Environment & Forests
Paryavaran Bhawan
Lodi Road 
New Delhi 110003

Dear Smt. Natarajan,
Sub: Flamingo city

I write to you once more to strengthen your hand in your laudable efforts to protect our country’s unmatched wilderness areas. This time it is in support of your battle in Gujarat, where that fantastic oddity of the natural world, the flamingo, is threatened by a proposed road whose purpose is dubious, and for which, if it must be constructed, there is an alternate that will fit the original intent—and, vitally, by-pass Flamingo city, sparing this natural pink-city of India, which is also the expressed intention of your ministry.
            There are Indians who question your stand, bringing up an overused, but generally effective bugbear—is the safety of flamingos above the defense imperatives of our country?
            The vehement answer, Smt. Natarajan, is a resounding YES. The perpetrators of the query are myopic. Their concern for our country’s safety is single-minded, not multi-pronged. They assume external aggression as the only threat we face.
It is an universal truth often forgotten amidst the intoxication of our hubris, that the boundaries of all political entities are protected not only by forces raised from within human society, but that the land itself defends us from within by the mesh of its physical features, its rivers, forests, grasslands, estuaries, lakes, hills and mountains, deserts, etc. These may seem barriers to our lebensraum, but they most definitely are part of the natural defense systems of our land, mantling us protectively within their ecological clockwork. No such natural area is ever sanitized of its inhabitants to be replaced permanently by an unnatural one, without the rending of the fabric of our country’s ecology, and hence safety. It cannot be. That is a simple rule of the cosmos. To try and sanitize a habitat, by superseding its incomprehensibly intricate vitality by a shortsighted, short-termed goal, be it a road that will enhance our country’s security, is a folly with insidious ramifications. One whose domino effect, the successful foisting of a single agenda, external threat, as a panacea for bulldozing projects through ecologically sensitive areas, will lay bare, one by one, each and every vital physical organ of our country, as though she were inflicted with an auto-immune disease, and destroy her from within.
            Flamingo city is one such natural phenomenon. It cannot be conceived as a simple tree in a forest; one among many. It is a standalone wonder, unrivalled on Earth, like the Gir forest, pride of Gujarat, is. A duplicate does not exist. Gujarat guards the Asiatic lion with all her teeth. She should also be made to understand the irreplaceable worth, the intrinsic value, the immense cultural connotations, and the responsibility that comes with authority, of safeguarding of Flamingo city and its denizens.
In a much-loved literary classic, wherein flamingos too figure, an adventurous young girl arrives at a crossroads, and asks of a rabbit, which path she should take. That depends, he replies, on where you want to be.
Gujarat, and indeed, every corner of our glorious land stand at just such crossroads. Every decision will hinge on the rabbit’s pitch. Where do we want to be?
We cannot sacrifice the remnants of our natural defenses, the internal bastion of stability vital to our survival, for the demigod of external threat. We must take a stand upon the grounds of reason and convince our fellow citizens that a fa├žade of safe political boundaries, protected by interventional infrastructural solutions, is not prudence but a charade of public-deception unless the natural resources of our country are also safeguarded.
I support you wholeheartedly in your defense of Flamingo city.

Thanking you,

Yours truly,

Aasheesh Pittie

Friday, July 06, 2012

Narcondam Hornbill: My letter to Smt. Jayanthi Natarajan MoS Environment & Forests

26 June 2012

Smt. Jayanthi Natarajan
Minister of State for Environment & Forests (Independent Charge)
Chairperson, Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife
Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodi Road
New Delhi 110003

Dear Smt. Natarajan,

Sub: Narcondam Hornbill

I write to you, as I am concerned about the future of the ‘Endangered’ Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami. I glean from the media that there is a proposal from the coast guard to set up a manned radar station and supporting power generation plants on Narcondam Island, citing security of the nation as their prime, and laudable reason.

Members of the NBWL would, no doubt, have apprised you about the inherent fragility of island ecosystems. I would just like to emphasise that Narcondam Island is so small a rock, comprised of such a shallow surface of volcanic soil, that any violation of its ecology by an alien invasive species, whether by design or by accident, is almost certain to trigger a cycle of events that might spiral towards disaster for its denizens. The coast guard’s proposal is a recipe for such a catastrophe, given the nature of the project, the size of the entire island, and the natural diversity at stake: construction crews, feeder roads, clear-felling, support staff, maintenance crews, accessibility infrastructure, etc. The possibility of unwanted seeds of weeds, like parthenium or lantana, reaching the island via construction sand is very real. The aftermath of such an eventuality is scary. You know that Narcondam Island suffered an explosion of feral goats in the recent past. This menace has been controlled with great difficulty, and the island’s vegetation is slowly recovering from their depredations.

What will happen to the endemic hornbill, which does not exist anywhere else on Earth, if its unique island home becomes another cog in the machinery of human civilization? India has the proud and immense responsibility of ensuring its safety in its present pristine state of existence, for we are answerable to ourselves and to future generations as to how we treat our planet. How will we justify the strange paradox that we erected this large eye to spy on the world, while we lost sight of what was in our backyard?

Dear Madam, the greater issue here is not the security of the state, but the safeguarding of a unique life form, evolved over millennia, super specialised to exist upon that single dot of terra firma called Narcondam Island. I am sure that if your ministry unequivocally upholds Narcondam Island as inviolate, you would not only nudge the coast guard to look for appropriate locations elsewhere, thus fulfilling their security concerns, but also ensure the continued existence of an exquisite form of life unique to a part of India—an enduring legacy indeed.

Thanking you,

Yours truly,

Aasheesh Pittie

Trustee, New Ornis Foundation
Editor, Indian BIRDS

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My kind of birding

In recent years I have often heard a refrain that one sees the same species of birds on field trips. Initially I would get cross at such an observation, which was remiss of me, for everyone does not think the way I do, and that’s okay. Later I was bemused, for how could new species be ordered up for a birder? Now I am concerned, for I think this is a symptom of a deeper malady.
            I have been birding for a little over three decades, and never have I been put off by the prospect of seeing the same common species on a birding outing. When something new turned up during outings or a rare bird was sighted, we were ecstatic. The excitement ignited a sense of awe in the entire group. But I cannot recall even one instance of a birder complaining about the lack of species novelty. So this lament is new to my ears.
            I feel that it is a symptom of a syndrome often called boredom, which is particularly prevalent in the digital generation for whom the predilection to channel-surf through life’s situations is an overpowering need, and this gives them a false sense of control over their lives, of the desire to change a situation at the mere press of a button. The downside of this is an ever-decreasing attention span. If this phenomenon begins to seep into one’s very nature, then activities that are not considered ‘essential’ in the life of a person, say leisure, inevitably fall prey to a ceaseless, futile hunger for novelty in whatever one does. Given such a bent of mind, and with the mind-bending peer pressures rampant today, how long will it take, I often ask myself, before this malady leaches into the more essential areas of the fabric of one’s life? I see signs of it daily in traffic snarls. Tempers flare at the avoidable inconvenience, but people do not hesitate to slip out of their lane on spotting a chance for a quick exit. If everyone stuck to traffic rules, the flow would, undoubtedly, be smoother.
            Leisure activity, as I was saying, is the first victim of such aberrant behaviour. I am of the firm belief that the constant desire to spot at least one species never seen before, and the paradoxical moaning that follows the no-show of a new species is a symptom of the channel-surfing mindset. I am concerned about such an overpowering desire for novelty, when a dynamic activity like birding, becomes suspect of being mired in stagnation, and the disgruntled birder actually begins to wonder whether it would be worth the while to spend another mundane morning tramping through the countryside, chasing the same old birds!
            Bird watching is not an eternal quest for rarity, though no birder denies the thrill of sighting one. It is not about racing all over the landscape and tallying a century of birds before lunch, though no birder will deny the special joy of such a ‘ton.’ It is not twitching for the most number of species seen, though there have been many that have basked in the sunshine of that self-indulgent high-life (they truly miss the woods for the trees).
            Bird watching, in its essence, is the fine art of becoming invisible; of merging into the surroundings in such a manner that the breath which Nature has held back upon your entry into Her parlour, is joyfully exhaled, and normal respiration restored; in such a way that the frozen statues of animate wildlife, interrupted by your brashness, are coaxed into resuming their activities; in such a way that your aural and visual senses are drenched with the buoyancy of life; in such a way that you get outside yourself and become a part of the pageant around you.
            This does require the cultivation of a patience that slows down your pace to that of the elemental cycles dominating the flow of life in an immaculate world run entirely without human help. It requires the marshalling and re-aligning of vision, and a new focus of hearing so that you absorb every single sound and identify its source, and gradually its nuances, its cadenzas. It demands the preoccupation with stillness.
            What are the rewards of this exercise? I can think of at least two that will last you a lifetime. One, you would have begun to notice things about your surroundings that you never knew existed, bringing you immediate, immeasurable joy. Two, you would have wound down your restless inner dynamo to such an extent that you would discover a quietude, a stillness within you; a fount for a fresh view of your surroundings, a new approach to life, based on re-energised sensitivities. But first you must do this.
            Then suddenly a new world opens its doors to your mind’s eye. You remain standing in front of a fruiting neem, while the large group of birders moves on, having identified one or two species. You inhale the aroma of its foliage. A fluty whistle from its canopy leads your eye to the Iora. He is dressed in breeding regalia—jet cap and coat, deep canary shirt, white epaulettes. He courts a hen iora with song, he postures, he patrols; his aria persuades her and dissuades rivals from his territory. You do not exist in his scheme of things, just in your own sensory world, as a witness. You stay with him as he perambulates the leafy canopy, lifting his warbling beak skyward, fluffing his velvet beret, vibrating his dark tail, standing on tiptoe in the fervour of his operatic song. You are trapped by its intensity. You are mesmerised by its elemental simplicity, by the realisation that the Iora’s entire world, in that moment, is its song, and that he has enmeshed you in it, albeit momentarily, till your focus expands to take in the larger picture, the shining curved leaves of the neem, the soft yellow fruit-pods, the darkened bark, damp from last night’s rain, the tangled undergrowth.
            A movement you spy, from the corner of your eye, and realise it is an Ashy Prinia that’s flown into the Iora’s neem, and you stay with it. As your senses expand, your absorption of the drama around you becomes acute and before you are aware of it, you are invisible to yourself, a part of the very landscape you’ve come to partake, all eyes and ears, inhaling its scents, feeling it on your skin. If you become aware of yourself, the spell is broken and the pageant melts away into simple, mundane, two-dimensionality. The trick is to be yourself invisible, but completely present in your surroundings. Now you are on the path to my kind of birding.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Books do furnish a house