Thursday, December 25, 2014

What Shri Zafar Futehally meant to me

When he moved on to happier hunting grounds last year, the world lost a great earth citizen; I wrote of my loss and what Zafar sahib meant to me, to Mrs Futehally.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books I read in 2014

  1. Bombay-London-New York. By Amitava Kumar. 5/5
  2. Sightlines. By Kathleen Jamie. 3/5
  3. Istanbul: Memories and the city. By Orhan Pamuk. 5/5
  4. A portrait of the artist as a young man. By James Joyce. 3/5
  5. A river runs through it. By Norman Maclean. 5/5
  6. Butterflies on the roof of the world. By Peter Smetacek. 4/5
  7. The great work of your life. By Stephen Cope. 2/5
  8. An enchantment of birds. By Richard Cannings. 3/5
  9. Handling the truth: on the writing of memoir. By Beth Kephart. 5/5
  10. Why I read. By Wendy Lesser. 3/5
  11. The goldfinch. Donna Tartt. 5/5
  12. The elements of style. Strunk & White. 5/5
  13. The end of your life book club. Will Schwalbe. 5/5
  14. The summing up. Somerset Maugham. 5/5
  15. Ransom. David Malouf. 5/5
  16. Land of the seven rivers: A brief history of India's geography. Sanjeev Sanyal. 3/5
  17. India. A history. John Keay. (Part). 5/5. 
  18. The last wave. An island novel. Pankaj Sekhsaria. 3/5. 
  19. The collected works of A. J. Fikry. Gabrielle Levin. 4/5. 
  20. Discovering birds: The emergence of ornithology as a scientific discipline, 1760-1850. P. L. Farber. 4/5.  
  21. This is the story of a happy marriage. Ann Patchett. 3/5. 
  22. Arctic summer. Damon Galgut. 4/5. 
  23. Macbeth. Shakespeare. 5/5. 
  24. A short guide to a long life. David B. Agus. 5/5. 
  25. Their fate is our fate: How birds foretell threats to our health and our world. Peter Doherty. 3/5. 
  26. The forest unseen. David George Haskell. 3/5. 
  27. Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. 5/5. 
  28. The wind in the willows. Kenneth Grahame.  5/5. 
  29. Fire season. Field notes from a wilderness lookout. Philip Connors. 5/5. 
  30. Four fields. Tim Dee. 5/5. 
  31. The narrow road to the deep North. Richard Flanagan. 5/5. 
  32. Wilderness and razor wire. Ken Lamberton. 4/5. 
  33. People of the book. Geraldine Brooks. 5/5. 
  34. In the suicide's library: A book lover's journey. Tim Bowling. 5/5. 
  35. Claxton: Field notes from a small planet. Mark Cocker. 5/5. 
  36. The art of stillness. Adventures in going nowhere. Pico Iyer. 3/5. 
  37. The loser. Thomas Bernhard. Didn't complete. 
  38. The song of the magpie robin: A memoir. Zafar Futehally. 4/5. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

ICRISAT diary: 07 December 2014

Lark song
An early morning sun haloed the landscape in golden light as I drove between fields of ploughed black soil, towards the dump near Patancheru cheruvu, where I hoped to see a frisky Bluethroat prance after insects. Lark song suddenly poured in through the open window, and I pulled over to the side of the track. An Indian Skylark was fluttering somewhere between the sun and me. I could not see it, but that did not matter, for it is one of those birds whose song surpasses its physical appearance in attractiveness.
            I simply stood against the car, drenched in the glorious and profuse warbling emanating from his tiny, quivering syrinx. He drifted hither and thither on vibrating wings, exploding with the wound up energy of his voluble performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if his pinions fluttered with the kinetic fervor and excitement that consumed the little creature. I would like to believe that his ecstatic levitation and buoyancy were the result of that full-throated flood of uncontrollable sound rebounding from terra firma in aural waves and cushioning him in the ether.
            Listening to him, all else fades away. I squint into the sun, but the bird is unseen, just his radiant melody floods down mesmerizing me with its repetitive strain, its slyly imitative descants, and its clever improvisations. His stamina is monstrous. The performance just goes on and on, never reducing in volume, never slowing down, and never faltering. Minutes pass and the aerial songster’s luminous art abides. What a magnificent moment; to stand still and listen to an invisible bird pouring out his heart through sunlit skies! To spy his partner crouched beside an upturned sod, awash in that rhapsodic serenade! To realize that the world’s magic, its charm, its achingly simple joys, are so easily within our reach; one simply has to connect with nature, or disconnect from artificiality.
When his time in the sun had run its course, his song ended abruptly, as though switched off, and he parachuted on cupped, outstretched wings, landing unobtrusively beside her. No one who didn’t know better, would believe that this superficially nondescript ball of feather was a virtuoso; that such a drab consumer of chitin and seed be so spectacularly endowed.
That is, precisely, the endearing charm of nature. She reveals her secrets at her own pace. Hurry she knows not, neither tolerates she impatience. But silence, stealth, and solitude are handy at divining her mysteries.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

ICRISAT diary: 07 December 2014

Patancheru Cheruvu
As I eased onto the dirt road that is ICRISAT Campus’s boundary with Patancheru Cheruvu, a Purple Heron stood transfixed mid-way upon a connecting track. Its posture was oddly comical; one leg in front of another, halted mid-step, the beak agape, its entire body stock-still. How odd was that! Normally, it should have taken off at my proximity.
            Looking up the road I was to drive on, I saw three mongooses. The fur of one was all ruffled up, as though it had had a vigorous Turkish towel rubdown, after a dipping. Two Herpestes edwardsii were on the right side of the track, and a third emerged under the chain-link fence that marked the boundary. The couple was intent upon something beyond the fence, on Patancheru Tank.
            I followed their gaze and through the ipomea-veined links spied a female Marsh Harrier perched gingerly on semi-floating vegetation. She was clearly uncomfortable, shifting her position this way and that.
            The mongooses looked distinctly unhappy, almost dying to complain about something. After hesitating for three or four minutes, they crossed the road with much raising and lowering of heads, taking furtive sniffs of the air; with minced, floppy footwork, strangely reminiscent of an indecisive hyena. Their attention evidently was riveted upon the harrier, which, momentarily, rose with an eight-inch limp fish hooked on its talons, landed on firmer ground, and commenced breakfast.
            Minutes before this drama Circus aeruginosus was seen harrying water birds, flushing ducks and sandpipers. Clearly it had been on the hunt awhile, as its aggression seemed to flush the birds. But he had no luck with them.
            So who killed the fish? Was it the mongoose trio that did it, creating a ruckus over the prey that attracted the hungry bird that pirated away their prize? Or did the harrier come by the fish first and the mongooses simply coveted it? Did the heron at all play a part?
            Every moment is filled with the drama of life in the wilderness. Luck, and chance, play their hands in revealing the poignancy of a pageant sometimes, which has its delights. Stealth, patience, and watchful silence are no less powerful tools in a naturalists’ toolbox, and provide the greater satisfaction to an inquiring mind.
            The mystery of the behavior of those four creatures remained. Perhaps with my intrusion into their landscape I had perpetrated events that one or the other could not foresee, and a third benefitted!

* * * * *

Eucalyptus plantation, southern perimeter
A Short-eared Owl-sized bird of prey flew away from me on the road bordering the eucalyptus plantation huddled at the extreme southern border of the campus. It must have been perched on one of the trees that lined it.
            Straining through the windshield for some distinguishing features on the rapidly disappearing rear profile, all I could register was an ochre brown wash, concentrated in the tail region. Too, that its secondaries were held perfectly horizontal and the propulsion was from an energetic flicking of the primaries, carpal joint outwards.
            I had stalled the car in my excitement at the thought of an Asio, and could merely watch as it dipped into the leafy sanctuary about 100 m ahead. My adrenalin draining as it disappeared into the trees.
            Viewed upon the horizon from a distance, the trees were impressive, even grove-like. But up close they had the frigid regimentation of plantations. I wondered whether this stood as a windbreak, or for timber. There was no undergrowth. The trees stood like soldiers on parade, at arm’s length from each other. On the other side of the road, a meadow of thigh-high grass flourished.
            I drove on, beyond the point where the bird had disappeared, switched off the car and climbed out into a partially tamed landscape. A railway line paralleled away not far beyond ICRISAT’s boundary, and the combustion engine roared periodically on the outer ring road. But once I put that behind me, the land rolled away nicely without an object of artificiality, a scarce commodity in urbania but a solace for concrete-weary eyes!
            A hen Montagu’s Harrier coasted the eddies above the platinum blonde grass with such effortless ease that one wondered whether that flamboyance was at all the function of heart, muscle and feather. Entranced I watched her slide and turn and pirouette, and albatross into the breeze to gain height, and slip and curve to catch the invisible element repeatedly under her masterly sensitive pinions. All the time her white-framed facial disc faced earthward focusing owlish eyes and ears on the tiniest movement and breath that betrayed fear, in the feathered or the furred. What a formidable combination of power and grace, of locomotion and concentration, of economy and extravagance!
            I walked back, the way I’d driven, pausing now and then expectantly. But no owl flushed. I stood a while, taking in the serenity, and then returned to the car. Just before opening its door I looked along the ruler-straight tree line, and from the apex of a eucalypt, mid-way down that line, a Butastur teesa blazed its white eye at me. Motionless and ramrod straight it stared me down from its height. This was the raptor I’d disturbed and its displeasure lasered me with that lacerating eye. Were its talons kneading its frustration into its perch? Such a soundless moment of heightened consciousness was it, in that pocket wilderness, when I realised that despite all caution and stealth, and desire to mingle, human presence would always remain an intrusion in the world we walked away from.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ICRISAT diary: 12 October 2014

Barn Swallows pepper the skies. The mind flutters to think that their fluid flight has power enough to propel these feather-light globetrotters across the crumpled and ruptured geography of continents, over the endlessly curving horizons of oceans, keeping faith to a genetic clock whose earth-girdling pendulum swings them between the high points of procreation and perpetuity. And here they stretch a horizontal seine, an animated mobile net over marsh, open water, open crops, snaring the massed arthropods in their flying gapes!

* * * * *

In black cotton soil stood three Indian Coursers. The field had been prepared in neat rows, as most fields seemed to have been, and their accordion canvas revealed these smooth humped creatures on their bleached bone skeletal legs. The symmetry of their beings is such a powerful magnet. We glass them, twisting uncomfortably in the car, whispering our awe to each other, scared our movements might scare them into flight. They too seem frozen in fear, or that supreme confidence cryptic creatures have in their invisibility. The tension is palpable. Their tricoloured heads, black, white, and shades of sand, remain fixed at one angle for endless minutes. When they relax, it’s the head they move first, easing the crick in their larynxes; one cocks a black iris skyward, another looks away and I glimpse the tricoloured ‘V’ at its nape. Gradually they begin their comical dart-stoop-straighten-dart form of foraging, moving away from us imperceptibly.

* * * * *

Opposite the Red Tank, separated by the raised earthen road, and at a much lower level than either, lie inundated paddies. They’ve been freshly planted, at least two fields, and the sprouting crop of rice is still thin; much soggy ground clearly visible.
            Three Common Snipe stand in ankle-deep water like earthworks. When one tilts and inserts its straw length bill into the squelch, does it sip up the earth and become dun-coloured? When still, they coalesce in their surroundings, gathering the mantling sky and the cradling earth into their protruding nocturnal eyes. In flight, are these bedazzled in the shining light of day, zigzagging the rocketing snipes as they skim towards escape?
            Their hungry companions in the field are a few jittery and cautious Spotted Sandpipers. Both birds more seasoned than the swallows as world tourists, returning to India once the monsoon has quenched her bone-dry pelage and the depressions in her contoured landscape softened with reflections from the liquid succor they hold. They form the vanguard of the teeming flocks that will arrive as the cooler months progress.

* * * * *

Treading a trembling floating world of plant and water, Purple Swamphens utter shrill creaks, as though freaked out by the sudden sensation of sinking unbidden. They mime a scuba diver crossing overland, as they exaggeratedly lift their reed-stalk toes high over recumbent soggy water plants, pantomiming stealth, and place them cautiously upon floating fronds.

            Several were on firm ground, twitching their stubby white tails up over their backs as they strolled in the thin shadows cast by reeds on the margins of banks. I saw one reach up to a seeding grass head, with its beak, and bend it to be clasped in the folded skeletal umbrella of its grotesquely long toes, then clean the seeds into its mouth with a sideways swipe of its partially open crimson beak. Their feathers are a frenzied palette of the azure and verdure world, now dominated by dark hues of shadows, now bouncing the light of the sky through emeralds. Yet my eyes miss their robust rotundity in their marginal world of land and water.

Monday, July 21, 2014

'Birds in Books' … discovered within another book!

My good friend C. Sasikumar discovered my book within another that he was reviewing. Here is his review. Please see the penultimate paragraph.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Birds and People

Birds and people
By Mark Cocker & David Tipling.
London: Jonathan Cape. 2013.
Hardback (22 x 28 cm), pp. 1–592.
Rs. 2,999/-.

As bird books go, this whopping doorstopper took eight years in the making in which 600–800 people, from 81 countries, responded to the authors’ invitation to contribute. The responses of 300 people were selected and woven into the mesmerising and encyclopaedic tapestry of Mark Cocker’s lucid narrative. Stitched into its landscape are 350 spectacular photographs that David Tipling captured on visits to 39 countries on all seven continents (an enterprise worthy of a book in itself!). Birds and people covers 144 families of birds, of the over 200 families currently recognised, that encompass the world’s 10,500 species (it does not cover 59 bird families).
So what kind of bird book is this, dedicated “to all those 650 contributors from 81 countries…?” “Birds,” says Cocker, “are fellow travellers of the human spirit, and have also colonised our imaginations, as if we were one further habitat to conquer and exploit.” This work then is an evocative summation of the “living lore of birds”. “It is a sourcebook on why we cherish birds” (p. 10). The authors however, are quick to point out that it is far from exhaustive. To do justice to the subject, they say, would easily cover twenty such volumes (p. 11), for mankind and birds share a relationship that goes back in time, perhaps to the very advent of man. Much of this relationship must surely have been lost over aeons, but that which remains as our living lore of birds, is still an enormous storehouse of recorded culture. Yes, birds have indeed affected us so much that they exist as integral parts of all facets of our lives. Birds and people reveals how they feather our literatures, echo in our music, are icons of heraldry in our aggressions, hover in our mythologies, energise our visual arts, pepper our tongues, are food on our tables, ornament our vanities, and even terrorise our frailties.
This book is not so much about birds, as it is about us, and it is not so much about us, as it is about our relationship with these feathered bipeds. It is about how birds have entered our very spirits, at every conceivable level—aural, spiritual, mortal, immortal, physical, mental, victual, and practical. We have absorbed them into our life-streams so completely that we edify them as beacons of our emotions and character—fear, love, wonder, threat, aggression, horror, dominance, depression, joy, valour, grace, and desire, to name a few—even though we cannot, yet, understand those of the birds themselves.
When one writes the history of human civilisation from the point of view of mankind’s interactions with birds, the canvas is immense, stretching into the foggy realms of myth, legend, and prehistory. Multifarious aspects of this imbibing, of bird by man, are explored in Birds and people. It provides an ever-expanding vista of this human-centric relationship, opening innumerable leads into mythology, history, fable, literature, song, film, and art, covering realms at once personal, as well as encompassing the myriad human communities in the world, in an apparently unending journey of discovery, and celebration of our obsession with birds.
The text rejoices with glorious poetry, like D. H. Lawrence’s evocative paean to the wild turkey (P. 46):

“Your aboriginality
Deep, unexplained,
Like a Red Indian darkly unfinished and aloof,
Seems like the black and glossy seeds of countless

Or the more familiar skylark-adulation of Shelley (p. 423):

“Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:”

It tells stories: How we’ve pirated the symbolic use of feathers from birds, as implements that enhance behavioural traits, and donned them as ornaments to bolster our own insubstantialities, like the use of feathered ceremonial headdresses. Our fears and superstitions are hounded by bird imagery. Our religious iconography is replete with it. Our heroic glorifications of valour are idolised by invoking birds that are at the pinnacle of food chains, consummate symbols of strength and speed.
But I do not even begin to touch the tip of the iceberg here, the true lodestone lies within its covers.
The more I browse its pages, the more I am drawn into the spell of this mesmerising one-sided relationship, because its cognitive absorption is only our privilege. The bird has no active involvement in this association, besides that of living its life; indisputably unaware of the universally overpowering effect it has had on another earth-dweller.
How many volumes would such a work from India take up, two, three? Multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural India has a man-bird association that permeates her multiplicities in all their mind-boggling diversity—documenting which would be a challenging and fulfilling project for an Indian anthropologist or ornithologist.
This volume mentions India in at least forty entries, and quotes from eight works on Indian ornithology. There are, however, just a handful of Indians listed in the authors’ acknowledgements. This is unfortunate, for the project was widely publicised, and a larger participation from India’s burgeoning fraternity of ornithologists would have brought a lot more to the authors’ table. It is immensely heartening to see a unique facet of Dr Salim Ali’s ornithological contribution eulogised in Appendix 2, “he was also alive to the human ‘story’ in the lives of birds and his observations are full of colour, feeling, wide scholarship and good humour,” (p. 534).

There cannot be a worthier ambassador, than this book, to spread the message of conservation and preservation of birds, and for its immense archival value as a chronicle of humanity’s immemorial need for coexistence with birds. It should find a place in every public and institutional library as a compendium and tool for education, for conservation, for advocacy among administrators, and as a companion for the bird-enthusiast, whatever her level of interaction with the “blithe Spirits” of the natural world, for the sheer joy of reconnecting with them in the comfortable recesses of a reading chair.

Published in Indian BIRDS 9 (4): 108–109 [2014].

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Random thoughts on reading 'The Last Wave: An Island Story' by Pankaj Sekhsaria

To write the story of a people who are as incommunicable and incomprehensible as the Jarawas—is well nigh impossible. Whatever we try to think about them, write about them, or imagine about them, in whatever way we interpret their behaviour, we do so from our point of view—for we are not privy to theirs.


At the book launch, after the conversation between Pankaj Sekhsaria and Usha Raman, someone from the audience observed that the Jarawas did not come out well in the novel. I thought, ‘now they’re telling Pankaj how he should have written his book!’ But that gentleman was spot on. How could they have? Tanumei and his ilk, who had the ‘misfortune’ of being forced into contact with us, first due to medical reasons, and then due to the sinister pull of a certain type of Pavlovian conditioning, were jostled into that circle of human livelihood that harks more of the rough and tumble of the working class, than into the invariably presumptuous cerebrations of the staid, educated, more ‘cultured’, if you will, types. And a rough stone quickly gathers up the common morass, unlike the patina of one that’s seen more of life. All we are able to give the ill-fated Jarawas that brush against us are a mouthful of curses, the naked leer, and an ultimately debilitating addiction for tobacco and hooch. We also pacify them with bananas and coconuts. Their brief interactions with our types either draw out the cuss words, to the gallery’s delight, or the sullen, sometimes mildly threatening demeanour of the ‘untamed savage’, demanding intoxicants or victuals. So, they do come across in bad light—but is that not because we apply our judgmental standards to their responses to our own behaviour towards them? And if we applaud, or acquiesce, then are we not the guilty party?


It crossed my mind, that evening that given our abilities of comprehension and empathy, the Jarawa is perhaps akin to what we pompously call ‘wildlife’. We, they and us, exist in different realms, connected to each other only by the physicality of our planet. If we cannot understand our fellow denizens, can we expect them to understand us, or our evidently destructive ways? If we know that we need to save the planet from ourselves, are we willing to extend that knowledge to embrace all life within its encircling enlightenment? Since the inception of our natural science curricula, and the resulting innumerable studies of life forms, has one cheetal admired our firelines? Has one cheetah brought a blackbuck to our picnic? And if they did, do we have the wherewithal to comprehend? All our studies seem to work towards ensuring our own continuum. Is not the ultimate aim of conservation biology a safer world for us? To manage habitats and wildlife we cull populations under controlled conditions, yet our own explodes exponentially. Are we even remotely concerned for the well being of other life forms, if it were to be at the expense of ours?


Pankaj observed that the local borns feel they too have a right to the island’s natural riches, even though most of those treasures only remain in the out of bounds Jarawa Reserve, that people nurse great angst against this sacrosanct area, which supports a paltry Jarawa population. How and when will we educate ourselves to the fact that the entire world supplies us, our greed, and yet we covet the slip of land that must barely fulfil the Jarawa’s need!


So, in trying to understand the Jarawa, the protagonists endeavor to comprehend those who live closest to the ‘uncivilised’. Perhaps motes of Jarawa psychology, Jarawa civility, Jarawa dignity will waft into their constantly searching empathies. Physical contact with the Jarawas is electrifying but frustratingly incomprehensible. Would comprehending them save them, save their way of life, or will it civilise them, corrupt them to ours? Will we, after learning how they survive in those humid, forbidding forests, strive to re-afforest our own lands and adopt their ‘liberated’ lifestyle? Or will we patent the chemical they use to intoxicate the honeybee and name a multi-million dollar conglomerate built upon that fortune, Jarawa Inc., immortalising forever the great Jarawa for their unparalleled contribution to the advancement of human civilisation?


Despair and tragedy appear and disappear. Hope springs forth to carry the day. One person is all that’s required to make a difference. So we like to believe. But we will remain fools, being fooled all the time, unless all of us become that person.

8 July 2014