Thursday, August 13, 2015

A plague of pigeons

It is difficult to imagine our iconic symbol of peace, the dove, metamorphose into an emissary of death. That’s just what’s happening in our burgeoning and congested urban areas. This is not some Hitchcockian vendetta. Indeed, the birds are innocent and ignorant, but they have help—from us.
I am talking of the apparently innocent, slyly endearing feral Rock Pigeon Columba livia, aka ‘kabootar’, or ‘pavuram’ (in Telugu). Before elaborating upon my seriously accusatory beginning, let me fleetingly touch upon antecedents of pigeon-human interactions. These birds originally inhabited rocks, and cliffs, where they nested, and eked out their lives. But their association with mankind has evolved over aeons. They’ve been a part of the weave of worldwide civilizations and cultures.[1] With the formation of towns and cities, they became our commensals, adapting to the facilities our clustered environments provided them. It was a more involved relationship in the past when we used them for sport and pastime, for service (pigeon post), and as food. With the advance of our civilization, and the diminution of leisure, kabootarbazi has all but disappeared; technological advance in communications has retrenched the messenger pigeons; and the poultry industry has removed the roast squab from our menus.
Our spiritual inclinations too have fanned expansive pigeon colonization. The Prophet Mohammed (AD 570–632) is thought to have received divine messages from a dove sitting on his shoulder; the pigeon / dove is mentioned in the Rig Veda (1500–2000 BC); for the Sikhs it is a bird of peace, always depicted with Guru Gobind Singh, symbolizing amity and peace in fractious times; and had the dove not returned at eventide with a fresh sprig in its beak, poor Noah would have had a hard time of it [Source:]. Rationality has seldom been religion’s strength. The nuance and symbolism of religion and history have become gospel, and human acts related to them, even if irrational, assume the invisible sanction of communities at large, and the faithful in particular. In a world torn apart by fractious sectarian strife, we ‘worship’ this symbol of peace, pandering a mere icon, and ignoring the message in real life situations. Such misguided whims radiate through communities and congeal into deceptive folly. Blind faith can be a Trojan horse. The explosion of rock pigeon populations in our cities is a direct result of this conundrum.
The compassionate act of feeding pigeons has become an overzealous absurdity that supposedly imparts spiritually elevated feelings of benevolence. In our religious fervor we feed feral pigeons vast quantities of grain. We strew it charitably in public places and enjoy emotions of well being from this act of ‘piety’, but spilt grain brings not peace, only huge quantities of poop from booming pigeon populations! No scripture desires the faithful to feed pigeons enmasse, though they warn of the folly of excess, which we conveniently forget.
Meanwhile, the birds have become emboldened beyond redemption. Their Pavlovian instincts are easy to train. With an unending, year-round supply of grain, and water, they need only breed and perpetuate their kind. Our beehive-dense urban agglomerations provide a plethora of ideal nesting places where pigeons breed unhindered. Their traditional predators, Peregrine Falcons, are migrants to India, preferring to patrol coastal areas. Few come inland. Their resident cousin, the Shaheen, is a forest dweller. Feral cats are simply too few, and have easier food available to them, from our garbage, to bother expending energy hunting pigeons. Feral pigeons prosper in this heavenly urbania.

The problem
The problem with feral pigeons is that they produce major antigens from their droppings, feathers, and blood that cause diseases in humans. This is a known historical fact amongst pigeon fanciers—those who indulge in ‘kabootarbazee’. People who have dovecotes, who race pigeons, or once used them to carry messages, are prone to the malady called ‘pigeon-fancier’s lung’; a pulmonary condition. Pigeons, along with other birds like parakeets, and ducks also cause a number of other zoonotic diseases: Histoplasmosis (caused by the airborne fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which grows in the bird’s droppings.), Cryptococcosis (another fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans); Psittacosis, Toxoplasmosis, etc. When pigeons are concentrated in large numbers, and live in close proximity to us, the chances of infection increases alarmingly.
The grave concern about the relationship between feral pigeons and human health is the bird’s unrestricted population explosion in congested urban built up areas. We live in dangerously close contact with them, given the number of diseases they cause. We pamper them with food and water, we accept them as neighbours, we tolerate their droppings, their feathers, the mess of their nests, and their vocalisations. We accept all this because living in unsanitary surrounds does not seem to bother us. We are a tolerant lot. As long as the garbage is outside our homes, our compounds, it’s not our problem. We don’t also complain to civic authorities for the result of that is, invariably, a series of unwanted headaches; not the desired remedy. We also tend to ignore the fact that epidemics explode in congested areas in which the causative antigen-producing agent is also included.

The disease
In recent years it has been established that pigeons are one of the causes of a somewhat mysterious lung disease, Hypersensitive Pneumonitis (‘HP’), which is one of the several forms of Pulmonary Fibrosis. HP suggests itself on a chest X-ray and produces a distinctive pattern on a CT scan. The threat is so serious, that Pulmonologists frequently advise their patients to rid their environs of pigeons, or even change their neighborhoods!
To be fair to the bird, there are nearly 150 other identified causes for Pulmonary Fibrosis, related in one way or another largely to moldy substances, or the presence of dust in the various forms of work that men and women do. Contaminated water, extremely humid work conditions, and various chemicals are also suspect. Given this variety of causes, implicating the pigeon may prove difficult—and indeed, seem a tad extreme to some people. Yet, it cannot be denied that the pigeon is one of the commonest offenders in the propagation of HP, and doctors find it difficult to ignore such a patently obvious aetiological agent—especially one that can be ‘eliminated’ easily (see below).
We don’t know yet why Pulmonary Fibrosis strikes, and we don’t know yet how to cure it. Till a cure is found, we need to tackle what’s known: Whether this involves giving up some habits, curbing irrational pseudo-religious activities, or reducing unnaturally burgeoning wild animal / bird populations. Our addictions, even to vague religious sentiments, make us overwhelmingly selfish. We crave satiety at any cost—until the addiction catches up with the addict, or a loved one. (Tobacco ravages mankind like a scourge; yet it is sustained by the economies it spawns.) But the feral pigeon is no longer a commercial option. It merrily thrives on our gullibility.
Meanwhile, Pulmonary Fibrosis is making rapid and catastrophic progress in our urban areas. People working in certain professions, or atmospheric conditions, are more prone to it historically. But the urban pigeon problem has now created a ‘new’ source of the disease, which now strikes unchallenged across the spectrum of our social orders. A majority of its tragic victims remain unknown, but there are some it has struck, or felled that we have held in high esteem: Marlon Brando, Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Laurance Rockefeller, James Doohan (Star Trek), Peter Benchley (author of Jaws), and many others.[2] Once afflicted,[3] a patient is prescribed cortico-steroidal drugs, which have the potential to suppress the natural immune defenses of the body. The soft tissue of the lungs gradually stiffens like cardboard, effectively dying, shrinking the tissue that helps absorb the life-giving oxygen into the blood.[4] Breathing becomes an ordeal for the patient. Simple actions like talking, sitting down, standing up, sleeping and turning in bed, eating, drinking, all result in erratic levels of breathlessness, becoming moments of discomfort and adversity, and indeed, even fear and apprehension. Gradually even the personal dignity of privacy in toilets is compromised. No one should suffer this if we can help it, or even mitigate it.

A solution
All is not lost. There is at least a partial solution to the problem. We have encouraged and allowed the feral pigeon to expand its populations without bounds. It is in our hands to reduce its numbers. The remedy is simple; it involves no action, and saves money all around, a win-win situation really. Let us resolve to stop feeding pigeons. Stop scattering grain in public places, in open spaces, on rooftops, on pavements, in compounds, and around places of worship (disease knows no religion). Pigeon populations will automatically collapse. Let us make the feeding of pigeons in public places a punishable offence (by imposing fines), as has been done with resounding success around Trafalgar Square in London, and in several other cities, including San Francisco, Venice, Albuquerque, New Jersey, Ontario, etc. The Municipal Commissioner of Greater Hyderabad should take action under Section 565 of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Act, 1955.
Without food pigeon populations will crash. The birds will not breed. They will gradually thin out, and disperse into an increasingly wider geographical area. The processes of nature will take over, forcing them to forage for themselves—as it should be.
Human suffering will reduce, lives, and money will be saved—no more expense on grain, on sanitation, and no more filthy buildings. Those with charitable inclinations might even reorient their largess towards destitute and poor people. Let us restore this fallen dove of death to its rightful place as an icon of amity and goodwill.

[1] Cocker, M., & Tipling, D., 2013. Birds and people. 1st ed. London: Jonathan Cape.  Pp. 1–592.
[3] Statically data is lacking, but anecdotal impressions of pulmonologists indicate scores of new cases of ILD every week just in Hyderabad. Projections for the country boggle the mind. There cannot be a more compelling reason to tackle the pigeon problem swiftly and resolutely.
[4] ILD affects the interstitium, a lace-like network of tissue, which is a part of the lungs’ anatomical structure. This gets scarred, causing, what is called, Idiopathic [=the cause of which is unknown] Pulmonary Fibrosis [=scarring].

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Delayed flight doodling

In the lap of nature

The old man and the sea

The title is, of course, borrowed [with profound apologies] from that of Ernest Hemingway's Nobel-clinching novella. I've conceptualised a man at sea, perhaps fishing, but away from his world, immersed in himself. Far out at sea, out of sight of land, it must be another world altogether. But the terrestrial home that he inhabits, exists all the same, looming in the background, or in his thoughts.

There be worlds out there we know not of

El-Nino: a concept

Doodling, is fun, relaxing, and can become meditative for it stills the mind with repetition. Here I conceptualise the El-Nino phenomenon of unpredictable weather conditions, and the human condition.

Friday, July 17, 2015

'Quandaries': A blog post by Nimesh Ved, and my response

Nimesh Ved's ruminative blogpost, "Quandaries along a journey on wildlife conservation", started a chain of thought in my mind, about the importance of the written record. I wrote him a letter, that I wish to share with you, and again, hope for a larger dialogue. Do make time to post your thoughts. Both, Nimesh, and I will benefit; and who knows, who else might!

Provoked by 'Road to perdition' by Sinha & Shankar Raman

My friends, Neha Sinha, and T. R. Shankar Raman wrote a thought-provoking piece called Road to perdition, in Fountain Ink

"The central government has started relaxing norms that protect the environment in favour of industry and development projects, leading to loss of forests, habitat, and wildlife".

I wrote back to them, for I felt strongly about the topic. I am posting my letter here, because I would like a wider discussion on how we write about environmental conservation in India. I hope it begins a dialogue. You are welcome to widen the conversation with your comments here.

"In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead," here is Sridhar's must-read response: 'Writing about the environment'.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Far from the madding crowd

Two images from last week are stuck in my mind. Both involve cats trapped in crowds. One was a moving image, the other, still, but both revealed something about the hostility of such gatherings.
The short film, posted on Facebook, was about the fate of a lioness trapped upon a small rock, surrounded by a multitude of very angry Cape buffalo. The film did not show how the lithe feline came to that predicament. It just concentrated upon the herd mentality of the buffalo as they closed in for the kill. The lioness was tossed around like a rag doll; and stomped upon by half a ton each worth of milling hooves. Her defiant roars and snarls were barely audible above the thunderous lowing of the bunched up bovines, their hoof stampings, and the sickening thuds of their massive horns. Towards the end, the cat’s cries sounded piteous. She did not escape.
This was a natural encounter in the wild. To kill and be killed, to eat and be eaten, are the unwritten laws of wild creatures. They don’t know this, and they are none the worse of it. We do, but our opinion does not matter to them. Survival, and natural selection have their task cut out. Emotion is not part of the process.
The static image was of a leopard, lynched from a tree by a mob in West Bengal []. I was naturally drawn into the action on the African plain, but repelled by the murder of the leopard. The prequel to the hanging was a familiar story. The leopard was spotted near some fields. Given chase, it took refuge inside a hut. The hut was locked from the outside, and the authorities informed. Meanwhile the crowd of onlookers began to swell. The identity of the prisoner was known, so all were armed with lathis, iron rods, and sharper stuff. Upon arriving, the person of authority went straight to the hut and unlocked the door. All hell broke loose. From the depths of that confining human abode, the petrified cat sprang towards freedom. All it wanted was to escape that madding crowd and return to its haunts. But frenzy was at fever pitch. A bull-headed mob mentality kicked in and the cat was beaten, clubbed, and stabbed to death. However, the mob’s pent up fury, or its fiendish frustration, wasn’t satiated. The mobsters cut off its paws, and docked its tail. Then they swung its carcass from a tree.
It was a depraved state of utter senselessness. Those that are hanged unto death, are graphic messages to the living, of an impending fate if the prevailing law of the land be violated. Onlookers comprehend the deathly image, and spread the word. But who was this sign for? Were there leopards in that milling multitude, or just craven chest-thumpers who found joy in the message hanging from the tree, “fear not this one, it’s done for.”
Frenzied mobs have an ancient history that’s remained static through the march of civilisation. Amok, they return to the anarchy of the uncivilised. The cerebellum shrinks, the upright stance disintegrates into a crouch, the club is hefted in the hairless hand, and manic sounds emanate from quavering throats, bolstering one another’s puny angst. A mob may wrest the license to kill, unto itself. It may be absolved of the crime too, especially when the victim is not even considered a fellow citizen. But will the mobsters be able to absolve themselves of the cowardice of their act? Cowardice is an inherent element of a rampaging human mob. Individuals that comprise it would not act thus if they were not in a group, surreptitiously ignoring each other’s wrongdoing, mutually drawing courage from each other’s hubris, slyly complicit in the horror of their act.
The hanging was dastardly because the men could have left the animal alone. Prudence is a human prerogative. It was foolhardy in that the spotted one may have been an invisible vigilante protecting the fields of its murderers, from hungry hooves.
Though it’s best to stay far from a madding crowd, the buffalos seemed the saner in this instance, compared to the psychopathic dementia of the berserk humans.
I hope there is an inquest into this crime. The law of the land is clear, but do the enforcers have the will, and the teeth? 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A short meditation on writing, and its tools

I gaped, slack-jawed, at the fluid strokes that ‘Mama’s’ steady hand left, as it swept across the graph paper on which Babuji’s philatelic collection was being mounted. His calligraphy seemed an extension of his shoulder, his arm, the gentle firmness of his cupped hand, his carefully fingered penmanship. It was effortless, as though the dip pen he used was a finger trailing ink, a wand. The curlicues of his ‘H’ had me gasping for air. He rendered it with such a mellifluous movement that his years of practise to achieve that √©lan disappeared in what seemed, casually natural. From that moment I was determined to master at least that one letter of the alphabet.
So I practised. Over and over again; blackening paper of all kinds and shapes—brown paper bags, from the time when stuff was given away in them in shops; the backs of used envelopes, a particular favourite (I made pads of these, after slitting them lengthwise, arranging all the blank sides facing upwards, aligning at least one side, and stapling them); tooling it into the corners of newspapers’ banners; even finger painting the motions on greasy plates, between bites.
By the time I got it in a flourish, the magnet of inevitability pulled all the other letters out of the alphabet and lined them up on the page; I couldn’t resist mastering them in an italicised cursive hand.
In hindsight, now when I reconsider ‘Mama’s’ cursive on those graph-papered philatelic sheets, I can see his amateur’s lack of confidence. The samples of showcase calligraphy that flower the Internet are strokes ahead of his tentative, tremulous style. His hesitant hand may have been curtailed because he may not have been fluent in the English language, and so lacked confidence in using it. He was good at copying words placed before him. I recall now, that he made frequent mistakes, scraping off the truant letter with a few deft flicks of a safety razor. The roughened spot bore re-inking without visible blotting, which saved him the blushes. But Babuji tolerated his lapses, as he was himself in awe of that beautiful script.
Peers, and teachers at school admired a hand that delineated near perfect joint handwriting. It had to be neat and legible. Flourishes were treated with veiled derision, and I will never forget a put down in high school, when my studiously tooled penmanship was struck out with a red nib, and a gory bland letter burned beside the excised one, in all its simple wickedness.
One graduated from a simple, un-joined hand, to cursive, or joint handwriting as one grew, for that was the way to write faster. The pen did not lift off the page after each letter, wasting time. It simply glided from one word to another, magically.
One day Babuji saw my hand and was aghast, or perhaps even ashamed. Vere Foster’s writing manuals were too zealous and missionary for my Jiddu Krishnamurty-principled school, but not so in his books. They were indeed, de rigueur qualifications for a good education. I slogged through several of those slim volumes that must have trained the hand of generations of secretaries.
Soon however, there was a sea change in the entire art. Mechanical objects took over the role of speedwriting. Typewriters became the rage. Their USP’s were several: speed, clarity, uniformity of style, neater, multiple copies, and that feel-good bonus of having worked hard all day banging those typewriter keys. All those bells, and adjustments, and forceful returns of the carriage, the judiciously gathered sheaf of carbon-interleaved paper: a parchment original, followed by two white, or yellow onionskins for copies. Though typing had its own charming rituals, and ushered a revolution in the process of communication, it erased charming social innuendos from the era of longhand writing. It wiped clear the portrait of the person behind the hand. All typed upon envelopes became bland. The task of the postman became easier, but the recipient could no longer delight upon seeing a longed-for hand, nor cringe from one that bore portents. It distanced people from one another. And no one would rub a candle over a typewritten envelope to prevent ink from running in case the post got caught in a shower. The typewriter was a dispassionate medium.
A handwritten letter was often candid about the mental state of the writer: joy, sorrow, grief, urgency, fear, love, all had their own ways of inadvertent exposure, sparking an immediate, intense emotional connect that went far beyond that conveyed by mere words. The blot of a petulant stab of the nib, the faded ink from brushed away teardrops, the electric urgency of a hurried scribble, all disappeared. As did spontaneous art doodled into a letter’s margins, or words written around sketches, or even more involved artwork. And what about the giddiness of the spontaneous note, dashed off from any remote location, in any state of being, however uncomfortable, as compared to the mandatory angular furniture a typewriter required? No more ink-stained fingers identified a scribe. The typewriter was not for such people of letters. An entire facet of handwritten letters vanished with the mechanisation of the art.
But one had to keep up with the Jones’, and learning to type was a must. The efficiency of the apparatus captivated. We became adept at operating it; developed fascinations for its few idiosyncrasies: the aluminium-cased, portable, Baby Hermes with its large letters; the paper supports that swung upright; the two-toned cloth ribbon that came into play when we depressed a special key to raise the ribbon vibrator to align the red inked portion to the hammering type bar for red impressions; the concentration required for spooling in a new ribbon; the delicate jostling of limp onionskin sheets to align edges before inserting a sheaf into the platen; the industrial power of typing full tilt, fingertips kissing the keys, the clickety-clack of the type bars striking ribbon to paper, a mechanical music. Then came electric typewriters, with thermal transfer ribbons, and memory banks; then the metamorphosing digital revolution.
I like to believe that this overpowering dependence upon complicated machinery revived the romantic charm of putting pen to paper. It’s a simple, direct, tactile system of making thought visible, and communicable. Its execution is seamless. It’s results, immediate, tangible, pliable, and effective. One connects to it emotionally, for one has crafted it oneself: each up-stroke, each down-stroke, each curve, and flourish. It imparts the spiritual satisfaction of working with one’s hands, like kneeling in the soil, and planting a garden. The elemental connect between paper, pen, hand, eye, and mind draws out thought.
All those who write, and pride themselves for it (pride being essential here, for I hear that cursive is now considered expendable from curricula, allowing artificiality to usurp another wonderful natural human trait), have favourite tools to ply their trade, collectively called stationery.
In my younger days, writing instruments, pens, pencils, even ballpoint pens, were just that. They never assumed a life of their own. They were tools to accomplish a job. Any attachment between the writer and his or her writing tools was simply functional. The need for speed, however, transformed perceptions. Pens and their ilk, which had sustained the conversion of thoughts into visible words, were sacrificed at the altar of mechanical, and digital speed, and other attendant conveniences. I too was swept up in this wave of change, but not completely.
The metamorphic gene had a spanner in the works—the diary. I had begun writing mine in college, and have kept at it since then. Our relationship has blown hot and cold over the years, but has endured—saving not just shards of a life, but also that delightful made-for-each-other relationship of pen and paper; the intensely personal satisfaction of filling a blank page with cursive thoughts.
I use digital technology all the time to write: e-mail, word processors, and the social media platforms on a smartphone. But thoughts flow only when I stare at a blank page, with a pen in my hand. My first drafts are always physical acts fuelled by the visceral nature of writing in longhand. Once done, they are copied into a word processor. Further drafts, and copyediting may continue on the computer, but often I carry with me a printed version, and copyedit on the go, impulsively, which is only possible with the simple, classic combination of pen and paper. Physical copyediting is closer to playing god with a manuscript, than digital track changes can ever be. I run sentences through with my gore-tipped Pilot Tecpoint. I even walk away from the battlefield, abandoning a bloodied, massacred manuscript.
Initially my diary comprised any notebook with a semi-glossy paper of fine quality, so that it did not blot ink. After a couple of hardbound volumes, I discovered spiral bound notebooks; the convenience of flipping them 360 degrees to bring the recto closer to my body (I am a southpaw), was not only more convenient, but also facilitated working in restricted spaces. A case in point being those palm-sized pads I use in the field when birding. But two years ago the Moleskine seduced me. I couldn’t resist its charismatic antecedence—the object of choice of that intrepid globetrotter, Bruce Chatwin, and his illustrious, multi-talented predecessors, Vincent, Pablo, and Ernest. I’m partial to blank, un-ruled Moleskine notebooks.
For long-form writing I use plain, un-ruled yellow A4 sheets. A sheaf of three or four cushions the pressures of penmanship, and eradicates the inconvenient step, across which the palm’s outer edge perforce rests, if writing upon a gathering of more sheets. Initially I took a pencil to the paper: the traditional, hexagonal wooden one, my favourite being the black-and-yellow Staedtler 2B. I kept several sharpened when writing, working through the lot as they blunted one by one, not breaking the flow of thought to re-sharpen any. That way I also limited the length of my ramblings. I liked the firm resistance of the table, and the crayon-give of the softer lead.
For long I’ve used those fine writing instruments produced by the Japanese Pilot Corporation. I was initially a fan of their ‘HiTecpoint 0.5’, till I graduated to the ‘jV5 Hi-Tecpoint (0.5)’, now marketed by Luxor in India. They are convenient, trustworthy, and satisfying. I still use a red one for skirmishing during copyediting.
The ballpoint pen is a marvellous and ingenious invention, but pedestrian. It has not chutzpah. No presence. It is functional, and dependable even. But lacks the “ah!” moment that the unscrewing of a fountain pen’s cap excites, “I like that pen!”
Fountain pens resurfaced in my life when my brother presented me with a beastly Montblanc Meisterstr√ľk. Life has changed forever since that watershed. I had bought myself a Sailor before the Swiss mountain came to me, but was left uncharmed by its small size, though it is efficient and smooth. It’s improved much with constant use, and my vigorous doodling to run-in the nib.

Sometimes nostalgia shades mundane objects with romanticism. One day I rummaged in a lower drawer, and retrieved some fountain pens from my student days. They stand on my desk now, lovingly rejuvenated and recharged, and fit into my cupped fist with a startling snugness. An astonishingly smooth Parker 51, and a green and chrome Sheaffer. They’ve both withstood the test of time and flaunt their pedigree. I rue that somewhere in the past I disposed a Parker 61 I’d used in school. It was turquoise, with a heritage silver and gold cap, and sucked ink via an unbelievably cool capillary action; one just had to stand it upside-down in an ink-bottle! It had perhaps jammed with disuse. I could have had it cleaned, but didn’t know better.
I like writing longhand. It forces me to slow down amidst the sapping frenetic pace that life is lived out around me. It allows me to savour skills I learnt as a child and have retained. It evokes thought and argument in the mind, it coaxes complete sentences before they are written down, resulting in a cleaner draft; unlike the think-while-you-type hurried writing on computers, where errors can be wiped clean by pushing a button, which is not the point. It connects me with corners and alcoves of my mind, and atrophying surfaces of my heart. It creates a circle that completes me.
When did you, dear reader, write with pen on paper last? 

Monday, April 27, 2015

S is for Shikra[1]

Siraj Ahmed Taher (1942–2010). 
President Emeritus, Birdwatchers' Society of Andhra Pradesh. 
Portrait courtesy the Taher family.

In 2010 I lost two people who were very dear to me. They had studied in the same school, lived out their lives in the same city, had many common friends, at least one common hobby, and both died, within two months of each other, in the same hospital. Both were paterfamilias of more than one ‘family’—philately, and ornithology. Both had a tremendous impact on my life. Their journey into the sun was uphill.
Siraj sahib was passionate about birds. That is how we met the first time, at a meeting of the fledgling Birdwatcher’s Club of Andhra Pradesh [BCAP]. The fact that he was a generation older than me was never discussed between us, while everything else was. The Hyderabad he grew up in, the social culture of tehzeeb that made him what he was, has now vanished. He came to birds in the best way possible: First, pursuing them for sport, once a gentlemanly pastime, played to exacting rules; then swerving towards conservation, like so many of his enlightened contemporaries. I pressed him once, to tell me why he gave up his gun. He’d shot a sambhar once, a poor shot, he confessed. The injured stag blundered off into the forest. Raised in a tradition that valued a pricked conscience, he decided to follow the stricken animal and put out its agony. But the sambhar fought the inevitable for several hours, staying either unsighted, or out of range from its pursuer. When finally he caught up with it, the profusely bleeding animal was finished. The sight of the dead animal, and the realization that here was a living being that need not have died, had indeed tried to escape death, moved him immensely. With the bursting of its heart, that sambhar converted its nemesis forever towards conservation.
After a couple of outings together as part of the BCAP, we began to hit it off. To this too, there was a quirky angle, which showed the apnapan of those days.
One evening he met an old school friend of his in Riyazath Husain’s iconic bookshop on Abid Road, A. A. Husain & Co. After the pleasantries and backslapping subsided, under the convivial eye of the senior Mr Husain, Siraj sahib asked him, “Arre, ek bachcha ata hai hamare chidiyon ke club mein. Tu jaanta kya?” In a city steeped in social niceties, the use of the “tu” was reserved for those that were dear to one; unlike the rough meaning it is ascribed today.
Apna hi bachcha hai, Siraj,” chuckled my father. Again that tehzeeb—not the grasping “mera bachcha”, but the inclusive, “apna”.
In the next outing, he stumped me with a loud, “Arrey, tum bolaich nahin ki Murari ke bete hain”. Seeing me taken aback, he chortled the bookshop episode. After that, my birding outings had no querulous or disapproving looks at home. I was going out with shareef log. Thus began a life-long association with one of the finest people I’ve known. In some matters he took me under his wing, in some we did things together.
That shareef quality of the man, I think, was ultimately what drew so many people to the BCAP, which was rechristened the Birdwatchers’ Society of Andhra Pradesh [BSAP] upon its registration. The hierarchy of the organization was never apparent to any of the participants. Except for Mr Pushp Kumar, top gun in the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department, who was thus accorded a genteel deference by the elderly birders, the subtle unsavouriness of implied superiority, whether of rank, or knowledge, never left its residue on any of us youngsters. Everyone travelled together in the forest department’s jeeps, all walked to where the birds were, victuals were mutually partaken, and the day’s count discussed later in a much-anticipated circle of friendship. Topical and irreverent banter, and repartee, were the norm. This was an exceptional illustration of the altruistic spirit of those who planned, promoted, popularized, and participated in this pastime. And to my mind, the single factor that contributed to the organisation’s successful promotion of an undoubtedly new concept of outdoor activity for the citizenry of Hyderabad. Plus, who could deny that element of thrill, shrouded in the past of fondly recalled boyhood days, of a Boy Scout’s revving adrenalin, of a golden nostalgia that tugs adults to another shot at nirvana? The wilderness, and its wildlings, does such things to men.
Every specialized activity has its own terminology, and ornithology was replete with enough to confound a polyglot; its lexicon spanned classical European languages, English, Sanskrit, and the immense mythologies of the world’s cultures! This hurdle notwithstanding, our motley group soon cobbled together a bristling argot of nicknames, abbreviated codes, hand and eye signage, and often, a whistled mimicry of surprising drollness, pulsating with distinct onomatopoeic bemusement. Newcomers stood stupefied by this bunch of loonies telling time on a tree while trying to locate a bird! Siraj sahib was privy to this notorious gang, and thoroughly enjoyed the perplexity of the uninitiated. Being accepted into the group was considered a rite of passage.
His sense of fun was legendary. It often kept in good humour a tired, flagging group returning after a day of slim pickings. A master raconteur, he spiced tea breaks with stories from vintage days. In turns becoming moist-eyed-sentimental for the Days of the Beloved, or rasping street-slang Hyderabadi in his baritone.

The BSAP ‘pavilion’ at the first Pan-Asian Ornithological Conference in Coimbatore, 9–16 November 1996. L to R: Siraj Taher, M. S. Kulkarni, Noritaka Ichida (Vice-President of BirdLife International, and Chairman, BirdLife Asia Council), Tim Inskipp, and Maj. Ahmed Abdul Aziz. Photo: Aasheesh Pittie.

For Siraj sahib, every birder was special, and welcome to his home. I met many heavyweights of the birding world there, and cannot recall even one person who was not at as much ease, as he would be in his own drawing room. The city’s birding lads walked in and out as if they were visiting their own homes. To me it was always a special place. I went there for all the reasons that a deepening friendship draws two people to spend time together. Our discussions ranged from ornithology, to social behavior, politics, the philosophy of morality, and ethics; the nuances of Urdu shayari; the importance of art in comprehending the world; the unceasing turmoil that was the status of our environment; the way to take the Society forward—several ideas springing up spontaneously during conversation, which we worked on and made something of. But the deepest moments were the silences we lapsed into between words, ruminating, pondering, or simply savouring thoughts that rush in at the end of a satisfying flow of words. I always took away the comforting thought that here was someone who I could speak with about subjects that shone with clarity once the polishing strokes of give and take had burnished their cantankerous edges.

L to R: Siraj Taher, Richard Grimmett, and Aasheesh Pittie (1996). Photo: Aasheesh Pittie

The heady plan of collating our own checklist of the birds of Andhra Pradesh was cast during one such evening. Why could we not do it? It was the first step to more comprehensive ornithologies—but this was achievable by just the two of us. As often happens, the force with which an idea hits one, it also pushes out and lays bare methodologies for fructifying it in the same instant. I do not think it took us more than half an hour to decide our workflow and apportion our responsibilities. Subsequently, there must have been innumerable meetings to iron out creases, to enjoy quaint discoveries in published accounts from the past, to streamline every step so that both were on the same page with regard to content, presentation, citation, taxonomy, etc. But there was no major change; no rollback of methods; no U-turn on our road map.

Release of the Checklist in 1989, in the corridor of the A. P. Forest Dept., building. L to R: Maj. Ahmed Abdul Aziz, Pushp Kumar IFS, S. Ashok Kumar. I am talking about the work, a stack of which can be seen on the bottom left of the picture. Photo: Aasheesh Pittie.

Comparatively, the translation of the Birds of southern India, by Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp (2005), into Telugu, was a minefield. Collaborations were imperative because he only had a good working knowledge of the language, could be the ideal Telugu-speaking ornithologist, but was not proficient enough to take on the entire work himself. Translating the extensive lexicon of birding, into a language that seemed to have no specific, definitive words to suit scientific interpretations, had to be executed by a twin-nibbed pen: One, that wrote with bold hearty strokes, delineating the work; the other, with the fine point, working in all the telling details that illuminated the manuscript. I was the troubleshooter who tried to unclog detritus in the workflow, to ensure smooth progress. Not least of these was dealing with the names for the colours of plumage, “brownish-yellow,” “blue-green”, etc. Ultimately we did get our own Telugu colour palette! Siraj sahib worked hard and long at the manuscript, and may have taken it through at least six proofs, after, often nerve-wracking meetings with the translators. The fine pointed pens scratched away day and night, and I would notice fresh stacks of papers during our daily meetings. He had this thing for coloured inks and would mark up his sheets with differently coloured inks, each colour linking a unique chain of thought. He wrestled with extant Telugu bird names, which were invariably of a generic nature, and had the distinction of coining dozens of new ones. But it was mighty frustrating work, and often did I catch him in a reverie, absentmindedly sucking at the end of a pencil. The lack of a consensus, the engine that could have driven this naming work, rankled him. Invitees never bothered to respond, except a few, for which he was so grateful. Dialect, that verbal filigree of distinctiveness within a language, a culture, tortured him, till one day he realized the only way forward was to ignore it. One could not please everyone. When published (2007), it was a work that justified his sense of achievement, in that of his team, and in his pride that the Society was a co-author.

Siraj Taher speaking at the release function of the Telugu translation of Birds of southern India (2005) L to R: A. K. Malhotra IFS PCCF APFD, Asad R. Rahmani (Director, Bombay Natural History Society), and Shafaat Ulla. Photo: Aasheesh Pittie.

Siraj sahib, and indeed, Pushp Kumar, worked with an extraordinary zeal to promote an awareness of birds among Hyderabad’s citizenry, and as a consequence, highlighted the environment we collectively belong to. The media, both print, and radio, smelled the potential of an unique angle to pitch stories, and people began to discuss birds, the urban environment, and even the activities of the BSAP! Birds have always attracted mankind, and when brought out from the realms of literature, poetry, art, or even mythology, into the ambit of casual conversation, they ushered delight, rekindled memory, nudged people to look around and notice the natural world. The quiddity of our surroundings during our growing up years is deeply ingrained in our bones, recumbent though it may lie as we rush about our busy days. But comes a moment when memory stirs, awakened by a petrichor sprinkled upon our passivity by people like Siraj sahib, and a delightful facet of the natural world is miraculously visible to us. Birds can charm the most indifferent of people!
If passion fuels altruism, the result is joyous. Siraj sahib’s involvement with BSAP was such a phase of his life. Whether he was organizing a field outing; writing in long hand the next month’s programme on all the post cards that he would himself mail at the post office; correcting proofs of the Society’s publications; sitting with the patience of a Buddha for various permissions from a forest official; answering media persons, even when they came unprepared and posed prosaic queries; preparing environmental assessment reports of places he deeply cared about, like Kolleru Lake, and sending them to the concerned authorities on behalf of the Society; speaking to students; chairing symposia—it was all “for the birds”, as though he had an oath in heaven!

Siraj Taher being honoured as the first President Emeritus of the Birdwatchers’ Society of Andhra Pradesh (30 August 2009). Standing L to R: K. Nanda Kumar, Umesh Mani, Shanti Mani, Siraj Taher, K. Bhardwaj, and Shafaat Ulla. Seated L to R: Aasheesh Pittie, J. V. D. Moorty, Sushil Kapadia, and M. S. Kulkarni. Photo: Aasheesh Pittie.

And when his penchant for the living bird needed a rest, out would come his philatelic collection, with birds as its theme! He worked on it whenever he found time, and even displayed it successfully (winning competitions) in several philatelic exhibitions. The forest department regularly petitioned him to display it during their annual Wildlife Week celebrations, and he would willingly oblige. After all, it presented a fantastic opportunity to convert the visiting school kids to a lifetime love of birds, and philately!
He took great pleasure in the company of life-long friends, in the earthy delight of seasonal fruit, in the song of garden birds, in the pressure of his granddaughter’s tiny hand around his finger. In a sense, he did see that world in a grain of sand. And when the end came in the month of January of that fateful year, he had a befitting farewell. A gentle evening descended; the annual numaish that he enjoyed with his dear Ayesha flung high its illuminated, rotating, giant-wheel; Mukesh’s poignant, pathos-filled, “Jeena yahan, marna yahan”, wafted from that direction; and as clods of his hometown earth sprinkled the path of his onward journey, a pair of spotted owlets, his endearingly named Chakwa-Chakwi, exchanged yarns inside a dusty tamarind.
Two months later, that other person, his friend, my father, too passed away.

[1] The title is a reflection of Helen Macdonald’s visceral account of coming to terms with her father’s death, through the numbing ordeal of training a Goshawk. I’ve borrowed and changed her book’s title, here, for recalling my time with Siraj sahib has been no less wrenching. Too, he celebrated the shikra.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A lifelong relationship with the bookstore that changed my life: A A Husain & Co.

Books from the floor to the ceiling!

Asif Husain Arastu—Proprietor

Showkath bhai (centre) had a huge influence on my reading preferences.

From the children's section on the mezzanine.