A Walk in the Woods

Recently, we made a trip into the lush jungle at the foot of B. R. Hills near Mysore. This has been one more of many trips into the forest that we have made and this time we had the added joy of making the trip with friends.

We set out early on the 20th morning and with a small detour to see the Sivasamudram falls, made it to the K. Guddi Wilderness camp by lunch time. The camp turned out to be a delightful space, nestled in the lush green forest. After a perfect lunch, the idea was to rest a little before going on the safari in the evening. Sanjiv and I found that we just couldn’t bear to waste time sleeping, there was so much to see and hear. The fantastic jungle at our doorstep, the variety of bird calls, the odd deep-throated cry which we were told was made by rutting stags… everything was a delight. So we sat out and breathed it all in, storing the images like camels in a hump to draw nourishment from when the concrete jungle gets too dehydrating.

Somehow in cities, in social gatherings, everything seems to be about who is seen and heard, where you feature in the hierarchy, and to be unnoticed even by strangers seems to be a source of hurt. Strangely, in the jungle, where the animals are not curious about you and no one is really looking at you, just catching sight of a uncommon bird or animal can make you feel that you have been honoured with a precious gift. For me, it is the door opening to a world where I do not matter in the least that is the precious experience. To view a space where human beings are not the top of creation, where other forms of life blossom, both flora and fauna, is what is most nourishing. It takes me out of the rut I meander in and makes me glad to be alive.

We set out on the evening safari in the grey light of a sky that spoke of possible rain. As we left the camp, we had the incredible sight of a family of wild dogs in the distance. This is a rare sighting, rarer than catching a glimpse of the main act, the tiger, they say. They were resting in a group, babies and all, dressed in their gorgeous russet bodies and black busy tails. There were a few spotted deer and some wild boar around, but the dogs were not hunting then so every body was relaxed and could share the space without alarm. Something that is so different from the world of humans were violence and mayhem can happen anytime, without any corresponding hunger.

The jungle being so dense, the naturalist who drove us apologised for the low rate in sightings. I could see how that would be important for a safari goer, to see the big cat out in the open, but what I delighted in was in getting into the depths of the forest and hearing the songs of the jungle, catching glimpses of the birds that I have not seen outside the pages of a book or in a zoo. We had spells of rain that washed all the leaves and dressed the trees in shiny robes, but not the discomfort of getting wet. It was a joy to see the plentiful waterholes and know that the animals had plenty of food and water and were not hungry or thirsty. Sighting an owl (brown fishing owl) so still on a tree recalled Gerald Durrell’s description of his pet owl Ulysses, who he described as sitting on the pelmet of his room imitating a decaying tree stump while he gathered his energies for his night of hunting. Durrell’s descriptions of animals have been and will always be a lens through which I view them (whatever be the differences I have with him on his description of human beings). It was only the odd movement of the head that indicated that this was not a tree stump. Such flashes of colour from the kingfishers, a grand big guy, the serpent eagle… so much to delight in. Even the crocodile bark tree which can hold around 15 litres of water and which elephants bore into to access when they are really thirsty and there is not a drop in sight.

We did see some sambar deer and a gaur and family, but no big cats. From my early trips where I would be so fixated on seeing a tiger that I didn’t get all that the jungle had to offer, I am now in a place where I am just observing and taking in all the gorgeous beauty out there and feeling nourished by it.

Our guide was very keen no to disappoint us and somehow get us a glimpse of a cat, but cats will do what they do, so we headed back in the dusk to the camp without having sighted one. We were travelling fairly fast on the road and the guide had not turned on his headlights full (perhaps to avoid upsetting the animals who would now be out to forage), when suddenly there was this huge elephant charging at our van, just about 100 feet away. We came to an immediate halt and the naturalist immediately said that there was a mother and baby calf on the right side which is what had provoked the ‘mock charge’.

We were 6 of us in the van, and I think we have as many versions of what happened then. Pummy, who sat behind Sanjiv and me, was the one who saw her first. The elephant had her back to us and was crossing the road when we happened and she turned in a flash to charge and warn to van to not mess with the calf. What I saw was the charge and how she managed to stop within about 5 feet of the van and just raise her trunk in warning. It was something to sit there, still, and not to turn tail and rush away. Of course if we had retreated, she would have chased us further and the story would have ended differently.

The next act shifted to her going to the left side (the calf and family were on the right) and then she charged us again. Coming to a halt within 5 feet and again just the upraised trunk as warning. Not a word said. She did this again. The forest guide was suggesting to our naturalist driver that we could try to just speed off, but the driver knew his world and held his ground, so confident was he about the fact that she had no real intention of coming to attack the van. The next time she charged, she had clearly had enough with our lack of comprehension, so she trumpeted out aloud, again just a few feet from the van… I will not forget this ever. This is when I thought that maybe it would be a good idea to back off, and suggested to the driver that we reverse… he of course, knowing far better what would work, held his ground and stayed put. The lady then went on the road and looked at us. Maybe she thought of charging us again, but this is where our guy turned on the van lights and she gave us a defiant glare and crossed the road to her family and safety.

What I found incredible was how, when she was clearly upset, angry and worried about the safety of her calf, she had the control to think and not just lash out senselessly. She appeared to have enough self-possession to think and act. Amazing. Afterwards our naturalist told us that he had been in many such encounters and that the females invariably do a mock charge when they sense any danger to their vulnerable calves. I wonder, if it had been a male tusker angry at the invasion of his space, would he have held back and just warned us, or would he have knocked over the van?

Anyway, we drove off and heard her yell at the van that followed us, though she did not feel it necessary to charge them. And all’s well that ends well, as they say.

I came back high from the encounter and remained high for some time after. This was the natural world telling us something and it was worth hearing. That it is possible to live with difference and not destroy.

Then I thought of how humans handle anger and stress; I thought of the school shootings that we have been reading about, about the wars being raged and lives lost over something that in the final analysis is not worth anything. And I have a clear sense of this grand creature who could stop herself without destroying what she could have so easily.  God bless you and I hope that you live your life out and see your family grow without any interference from us humans.

We did a morning safari and the jungle greeted us with beauty and song. We came back with such gifts that will be with us for a long time. Thank you.

Stories and Assumptions

My father’s family was expressive; I recall hugs and emotions unembarrassedly put out there. They were creative with their hands, which expressed itself in colours and paintings and making beautiful craft items. It even showed in the food—the delicacy with which vegetables would be finely cut and the celebration of delicate flavours. They were rather thin-skinned though, and rather quick to take offense. Not very good at laughing at themselves.

My mother’s family were into stories and humour. I think I got my love of stories from this world. Someone always had a funny story to share about someone in the family. Someone would come out with a story of some hilarious mess; we would all collapse in laughter and that formed the bond. At times the stories got really creative and the boundaries between fact and fiction were definitely blurred. But, as one great storyteller aunt said, so what is there if a little masala added? Doesn’t it make the story more fun? You had to be a real stick in the mud to insist on the dull truth. Were there hurt feelings when vulnerabilities were exposed? Yes, I would imagine. But that was never given space. You had to laugh at yourself and just get on with it. Hugs and expressing feelings were greeted with some embarrassment. Humour held the pride of place.

A friend just sent me one of Chimamanda Adichie’s talks on TED talks on stories and what they do. As always she is amazing, so sharp and funny and brilliant in the way she speaks her truth. This talk was on the assumptions people make about cultures and people and what these constructions do to our understanding of the world around us.

As a Nigerian in the United States, she had to deal with many assumptions that were made about who she was and where she came from. A huge surprise that her English was excellent. (Though English is a local language in Nigeria, as it is in India.) Talking of an abusive father in one of her novels, a person in the audience told her that it was so sad that men in Nigeria (all men) were such abusive human beings. She came back in a flash with how she had just read American Psycho and it was so sad that men in America were serial killers… A perfect response I thought. What she goes on to say is how the stories we construct can both destroy or build togetherness among different people.  

I got to thinking about assumptions that we make about people. Families are full of this. Parents and children make assumptions about each other that do not hold the whole truth of the individuals they are. Children are known for seeing their fellow siblings through a very distinctive lens that no one else will get. Husbands and wives will be filled with certainty about what their partners like or dislike and this certainty will quite often be hotly contested by the other, who will be filled with the feeling that the other had got it all wrong and had simply not seen what was an obvious truth. After many moons together, we tend to not observe what is around us every day, unless some event forces us to look again and actually notice what is going on. Certain actions are supposed to be conducive to unalloyed happiness. Certain lifestyles bring forth sympathy, the assumption being that such a life is incompatible with happiness. Today, confronted with so much of random assumptions that are being made, without a shadow of proof offered, I find myself stretching for some little grit that would resemble a bit of slightly objective truth.

Friends make assumptions too. And some friendships have hit these rocks and capsized or at least floundered for a bit till a magical life jacket saves the day. Mostly it happens that communication clears the air more easily among friends, because we trust them to accept us as we are, and the cloudiness can be dispelled.

Assumptions are, however, a way to giving a coherence and shape to disparate bits of data that we are flooded by and helping to make sense of what whizzes past us on a daily basis. In one example that my professor used to highlight this idea, he spoke of how in any middle-class restaurant in south India, the assumption would be that you want your coffee after your meal and never before it. In India, we make huge assumptions about people north and south of the Vindhyas. Then it is between states and then between communities…

Vivian Gornick (Fierce Attachments) talks of how her mother had the gift of translating gossip into wisdom. She would hear a note in a neighbour’s voice and decode it to understand what was actually going on in her life–a higher note meant that she had had a fight with her husband, a lower note proclaimed that her kid was ill. We need to be able to make these connections between bits of data to make sense of what is going on in the world we live in.

But at which point do the assumptions we make cross the line and get to be plain wrong? Is there a safeguard to avoid falling into traps? The assumptions really get highlighted at weddings and births and funerals. Suddenly differences appear that were papered over in the average give-and-take of daily life; suddenly what looked like a close relationship opens up and shows cracks in the edifice. Assumptions can create huge divides and exclude rather than include people. And there is no court of appeal because none of the assumptions will be voiced and so cannot be clarified.

Perhaps the issue is that we try to reduce a people or a culture to a unified story, to make it manageable and, in the process, we make assumptions that can create distances between people. Einstein spent his life trying to create a unified field theory and he didn’t manage to find one that fit all the parameters. Adichie’s take is that while stories can help build understanding and togetherness, they can also reduce and maim, so she feels that we have to be open to all the stories in order to build a more inclusive picture of a culture. And it is only this way that we will avoid the pitfalls of blindness.

Stories are magical in their ability to open our eyes and make us see what we have missed in rushing through life. We need to trust and be open to all of them…

Of Homes and Loss

What is your home address? This is a question we routinely encounter and we answer it mostly automatically. Home implies permanent roots, though we know that nothing is permanent in this world, and we fill in the form without a second thought.

But there are those who do not have a permanent address, those who for one reason or another have lost their homes. Can we who have not been displaced really take in the enormity of what it means to not have a home? What is it that makes one place more of a home than any other place?

Madhulika Jalali’s documentary Ghar ka Pata explores this difficult terrain (made particularly complicated in this politicized environment) in tracing the story of her family, Kashmiri Pandits, who had to leave their home in Rainawari during the turbulent nineties and of her return with her family and her attempts to find her old home. She is told that the houses in the area had all been burnt down and new constructions stand in their place. But that doesn’t stop her from searching for the road, the boundary wall, anything to give her some sense of what had been her home in the past. The question as to why this would give her a sense of ‘home’ whereas the houses she has lived in for the last couple of decades do not is one that does not have any logical answer. But while she does not find her home, she finds ‘family’ in a different way. An elderly Muslim couple who remember her father welcome Madhulika and her sister so warmly into their home. Stories of the past pour out. The story unfolds so gently and explores the idea of loss without taking any strident political position. It is a beautiful movie and it stirred many questions …

I wondered about the idea of belonging and loss. What is it exactly that makes a place, a community feel like you belong there? Sometimes you can be in a space where you technically belong and still feel alien. Why do we sometimes yearn to return to some place or something while we are comfortably ensconced somewhere else? There are so many different ways of losing something—physically, psychologically—and the memory of the loss suddenly surfaces triggered by a smell, a tune, a picture.

You know how you are vaguely thinking of something and you open a book and it talks of the exact thing you were looking for? I was browsing through an anthology and found myself in the magical world of Loren Eiseley. His essay, ‘The Brown Wasps’ that I wandered into was such a gem. Everything about that essay touched me so deeply, the style, the tone and the world evoked. Eiseley watches a tiny field mouse scurrying for safety away from what looks like a safe haven of a field. It then turns out that that haven was scheduled for ‘development’ and was soon to be churned up and built over. His heart bleeds for the little mouse and its kindred displaced fellows. And that takes him down a memory lane where his idea of a sanctuary was a tree that he had planted with his father in the dim past. For Eiseley, that tree spreads its soothing shade in his mind and he reclines in this haven and dreams of a different world. Finally, when he does make a journey to look at his tree, he finds that there is nothing there, that the tree had not possibly survived the first year after planting. In his mind, though, it had set down deep roots and flourished, spreading its cool shade in which he reclined. What remains with him is his father’s assurance of love and belonging when he told him that he would be able to enjoy the tree in the years to come and never have to leave. While life did take a different shape, for him the idea of the tree stood for a deep love and belonging.

I wondered about all such trees we carry in our minds. Trees that have no existence outside our minds, but which have such a powerful effect on our lives. What is it that makes one particular tree stand out among so many others? That Wordsworth line comes floating in, there was a tree, of many one… which evokes a time that speaks of a past that is no more but which has set down such deep roots in his memory. To all such trees, a deep thank you…

Bulbuls and happily ever afters

It all comes down to trust. A pair of bulbuls have nested on my window creeper. There have been four pairs of bulbuls who have nested here. The first pair abandoned their chicks on the sixth day and the chicks wailed their heart out for a day and died. After that tragedy, two pairs have successfully raised their chicks who have flown away and lived happily ever after (that is the way I want to see it). Why then, every time a bulbul comes to nest, do I persist in panicking that the story will end not in a celebration of life but in death and tears? What is it that makes us believe more in the negative than the positive, when the positive is what helps you get out of bed and face another day?

I look in at my window from the outside and all I can see is a thick creeper screening the inside from an inquisitive gaze. From the inside, the dead leaves form a thick screen, shutting out the nest from my prying eyes. Who would imagine that in this tiny space there was such a world holding life and death in a fragile nest?

In this case (round 4 of the bulbul saga), I was pessimistic from the start. The parents were so hyper, fleeing at the slightest sound and taking alarm at any hint of a movement, that I expected them to flee from day one. They also made a quick nest in two days, a rather shallow one I thought, and then laid their eggs. I expected that the nest would not stand up to the test. I feared that the chicks might fall out. Oh so many fears. Given the location, shielded from my prying eyes by a thick cover of brown leaves on a branch that had died, I couldn’t really see much of what was going on. What I could see was the parent birds flying to and fro and hear them talking. From what I assume to be a plaintive ‘where are you’ to more mundane conversation I would like to imagine.

The male seemed to be announcing to the world that he was expecting a happy event. I rather thought that he was asking for trouble (which did come in the shape of a drongo with evil intent, but which luckily got chased away). I believe that the calls are about announcing claims on territory. I have difficulty, however, in believing that the sweet call is anything aggressive. The female had very little to say, though she relied very heavily on his being around to guard her, even when she was nest building. I have seen her perch on the barbed wire on the wall and wait, twig in beak, for him to come before she flies in to do her nest.

This pair behaves so differently from the earlier ones. I have learnt to distinguish their warning clicks and alarm cries, apart from the usual bulbul calls. I saw one deep pink speckled egg on the 31st, possibly another happened later. She sat for long stretches on the eggs and I didn’t get a sense that the male sat too, though he came often to check on her well-being. The earlier pairs had hatched their eggs on the tenth day, but this pair step to a different drummer, so the eggs finally hatched on the 11th (that would make it the twelfth day). I saw the mother picking up something from the nest and eating it, so I assume that it was the shell. What a tidy little body she is.

Again, a difference in behaviour when it came to feeding. The earlier pairs had got into a frenzy of bringing food for the chicks, rushing in roughly every 10 to 15 minutes. This pair were rather slow on the first day, the mother still sat for long spells, with just the odd bug being brought after long intervals. Again I felt that this pair were first timers and were not doing everything right. Ah, but nature showed me how wrong I was in my assumptions.

The feeding pattern was so different. The parents would bring insects and berries together in what was clearly a meal time. Then the mother would sit for a long while on the nest, till she felt that the bell had sounded for the next meal. They did seem to find such a variety of insects and berries, once even a rather large spider which I felt was too much for the chicks but which they relished without a problem.

One evening there was a bit of rain, not really expected at this time of year, and as the first drops fell, the mother came charging in to shield her chicks. The next night there was a proper thunderstorm and I feared the worst, but woke up to find that the nest had held, the mother was shielding the chicks and all was well.

These bulbuls had discovered that there is a world beyond the glass window. The earlier pairs saw only their world reflected in the glass and felt safe. But these parents come and perch on the window grill and look into the room so intently. I am convinced that they could see my moving around, and, terrified that they would get spooked and go away, I took to staying very still myself. (Honestly, to be so put upon in my own house…) I have seen the mother bring a tasty titbit and perch on the grill for quite a while before delivering it. I am sure that I couldn’t hold a gulab jamun in my mouth for so long and not be tempted to just eat it. Whether she saw me and got spooked, or whether she was waiting for a sufficient interval between feeds I have no idea. But this is what I have seen them do many times.

On the 8th day I actually heard the chicks make a high-pitched cheep for food. While the previous two sets had had their beaks gaping wide open in a plea that a kindly parent would ease their gnawing hunger, I had not heard any cry. Possibly the cry was in a range that was beyond the human ear, may have been meant only for the parents. (Actually it was the first bulbul lot whose cries I heard. That one horrible day when the chicks called out to their absent parents is something I will never forget.) So strange that I didn’t hear the cries of the next two pairs. And now this pair are regularly singing for their supper. The parents seem to want them to put on a show and will perch on the rim the nest and wait while the two chicks make an impassioned case for who needs the food more. Finally one is rewarded with a morsel. But no one starves. The other parent is usually waiting to deliver his/her titbit to the other, so everyone gets served.

One day, a little bird, much smaller than the bulbul, came to check out the creeper. The mother was sitting there and made no movement to dispel the intruder. Perhaps she scented no threat to her babies. It is the larger drongo that reduces them to terrified statues. I have seen them sit frozen for over half an hour, not even a blink to show any signs of life. They only thaw once the all clear has sounded.

I can see the downy grey brown fluff on the chicks. This is day 10, and they should have flown off, but these are on a different time table. 

And we have lift off. Oh boy, twelve days after hatching, the chicks took to the air. I find it so incredible that every time I watch this, the chicks never look back at the nest once they have decided to step out. They stay on the creeper for a while, taking in the world, but they never turn back. Maybe they heard about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt because she turned back?

Anyway, once more the bulbuls have raised a pair of chicks successfully. I hope the world is kind to them…

Mary Oliver’s little gem of a poem says it all: 

                                I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn

as it was taught, and if not how shall

I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am well,

hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave up. And I took my old body and went out into the morning,

and sang.

Bulbul Wars

War is not fought on far away fields. It has come very close now.

It is a constant source of amazement and joy to me that the bulbuls who have chosen to nest on my window creeper have all been so very distinctive in their behaviour. This is the fourth pair now and each one has had their own ways of being.

The current pair came and checked out the site and seemed very hyper to me. They made very brief visits and fled like they were being chased by some fierce monster. So I did not hold out much hope for them settling down and raising a family here. But I was wrong. They were very active about the nest building process, looked like the matter was urgent and they were on a tight schedule to deliver. They worked for most of the first day, in itself a bit of unusual behaviour, since the previous pairs were clearly on union time and worked only in the early mornings and in the early evening. The third pair took 5 days to refurbish the already built nest, till it came up to specifications. This pair seemed to create the little teacup in no time and then activity eased. I even wondered if they had changed their mind about the locality and gone off elsewhere. Then there were two days where there was a little activity in the early morning and then no sign of them for the rest of the day. I was even more convinced that this was not going to work. But on 31st, I peeped and found one dark pink speckled egg. The nest has such good cover that I cannot see into it very well. There could be one more egg hidden away.

From what I can see, the female is doing all the incubating while the male is on guard. It seemed to me that he was very earnest but going about his job the wrong way, announcing to the whole world that he was a family man expecting an important event. He called out from the roof tops, from the drumstick tree, from the electric wire at the back. She seemed to need the reassurance of his presence before she would settle down to sit on the eggs. I felt he was asking for trouble.

Then yesterday, I witnessed what might have been attempted murder. There was a bulbul anxiously watching a Rangoon creeper while a large bird (I thought it could be some cousin of a dove or pigeon) seemed to peck at something in the creeper. The bulbul was clearly incapable of taking on this big bird and flew around anxiously, unable to do more than utter a few alarm calls. I felt I had to intervene and whistled to the big one to push off. He/she froze and hoped I would go away. I kept whistling and that put it off the meal and he/she flew off. I have no way of checking if I did actually save a baby bulbul from becoming dinner, or if the bird simply had intentions of adding an egg to the nest and letting the offspring be raised at the bulbul’s expense. Whatever happened, there was no fatality, as far as I saw.

Today though, matters became far more serious. Everything seemed to be fine with my bulbul pair till about 2 in the afternoon, when I heard a sharp alarm call and saw one tiny bulbul sitting very very still on the barbed wire on the wall and the other sitting outside the nest, on the creeper, both frozen still like they had some spell put on them. I wonder if you are familiar with this old game “Statue” that was popular in my childhood? You had to move around till someone yelled ‘statue’ and then you had to freeze till the signal to unfreeze was given. If you moved a whisker, you were out. That is what I was reminded of when I saw the bulbuls this afternoon. They sat for over half an hour without moving a feather. It could even have been longer.

Now if you have had even a passing acquaintance with bulbuls, you must know that sitting still in one place is not their thing. They twist and turn and tilt their heads and call out and dash off here and there. They can’t sit still, and yet here they were, frozen to the spot and looking like they couldn’t move. I knew that something must be happening, so I too froze and watched without taking my eye off them. Then there was a small sound that disturbed them and they left. I continued to watch, puzzled, not clear about what had caused this sudden change in behaviour. Then all was made clear. Out of the blue this huge bird landed on the creeper, next to the nest. It was a spangled drongo, very beautiful with its blue spots, and clearly intent on mayhem. I shooed it off and it disappeared in a flash. It is so amazing that I have never seen this bird before and yet it appears to live in my neighbourhood. It has visited twice. Once when the first pair were raising their chicks (which ended in tragedy because the parents abandoned their nest as I have recorded in my earlier post) and now. What possessed it to chose this nest to raid? Why didn’t it come to raid when two other pairs raised their chicks? I have no idea. Anyway, the bulbuls waited a bit for the all clear and came back to the nest.

As I write this, I can hear the male back at his announcements. I have now picked up quite a bit of the bulbul vocabulary. There is the sweet cry of where are you? Which is the distinctive bulbul call as I see it. There is the little soft murmur of the female when she comes to the nest, sometimes muttering sweet nothings, there the little alarm cry which is more like a click, and the warning call which definitely communicates a sense of danger.

The bulbuls are safe for now.

More thoughts on treevelling

Growing up in the family house in Kerala there was lots of family around but the big house offered the space to be alone if desired. We seemed to do everything together, eating, sleeping, bathing even, with everyone talking at the same time. But I recall running off to sit with a book in the curve of the mango tree in the garden, away from the noise and chatter. Why did I choose to climb a tree rather than go upstairs and sit in comfort in a chair, or lounge in bed? All I know is that my image of the house is linked with the image of me in the tree and, when it had to be cut down, it has left a void.

When I was a kid, my interest was mainly in the grand old tamarind tree at the corner, which would yield delicious tamarind that I would sneak away to gorge on. And of course the delicious mango trees which yielded the best mangoes in all the world. We grew up regarding the mango as a sacred fruit that only our house could offer. In fact, my mother had the greatest difficulty in buying mangoes when she moved to Bangalore and the legend of the Kottieth mangoes continued to be passed down from generation to generation. There was a hierarchy there too. The abundant Peter (no idea how that name happened or why. It is a close cousin of what we see now as the raspuri) was clearly of a lower caste with the malgova holding the place of honour, and the rare dil pasand (the tree had fallen during a cyclone but continued to yield fruit once in a season) were clearly upper caste. My mother spoke (without a trace of anger or judgement) of the discrimination when she was growing up, her brothers getting the best fruit and she and her sisters getting the slightly damaged ones. They saw it as the way things were and no one thought to question the system. Bu the time I came along, democracy had established itself and I remember family dinners where we all sat at table after dinner and the mangoes were cut and shared. Everyone got a piece of each mango so no one got lucky with a particularly tasty one and no one got stuck with a not so good one. One of my cousins would take a bite of a piece and if it was particularly good, she would hoard it so that she could end the meal with the best tasting bit. The Kottieth mango even found its way to the far reaches of Delhi and Calcutta, where carefully packed boxes would make their way to cousins who would otherwise have been deprived of this manna. (There were stories of some mangoes reaching in a not-so-great condition and the much-vaunted taste not quite getting through. But those stories are for the mockers, possibly the in-laws who did not know any better, and we will not give them space here.)

There were of course the obligatory jackfruit trees, some custard apple and bull’s heart, a mulberry and a rose apple tree which yielded very little fruit but drew beautiful birds and, of course, the coconut trees that we all lived off every day but never really bothered to look at. (I do recall though being entranced by the sight of these tall giants bending gracefully in a storm in the monsoons. But that was when I was older and had learned to appreciate their beauty.) Somehow the mango stole the show and all family talk of the past included this precious fruit, its flavour, size and magnificence. There was a fantastic acacia at the gate that drew people when in bloom, being such an exotic and rare sight. I don’t know the history of how it got there, but it stayed throughout my childhood till it fell during one cyclone, taking away a bit of beauty from the place.

So when I think about trees now, I see that my gaze has shifted from the early utilitarian gaze, seeing them only as bearers of fruit, or offering shade and the nook to climb into to what I see them now as beautiful steadfast giants, each with its own kind of beauty, as masterpieces of generosity and tolerance, enduring in spite of a being in hostile world. I see them in various moods: a tree that has shed all its leaves appears bereft and desolate as opposed to one where the new leaves have come, which I see as a happy girl dressed in new clothes and delighted with life. In the hot, dry days of February and March, I look at these giants and feel them thirsting for the rain. And oh, after the rain, the shiny glistening moist leaves, who can look at that sight and not feel happy?

So many people have talked of the healing property of walking in the woods. I have always come back from any trip to the countryside refreshed. And I think the trees are speaking more to me now that I am actually looking at them. I see how viewing them teaches me about the world and myself. The voices of Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver are matchless if you want a friend to take on a walk. You will come back changed.

Birdsong

The bulbuls are back on my window grill. After I had ruthlessly trimmed the dead branches on the bridal bouquet a couple of months back and heartlessly removed the previous nests (such beautiful works of art), an occasional bulbul pair has come and looked sadly puzzled and flown away. They couldn’t figure out why anyone would destroy their nice locality and take away their home… Of late, one pair has come and checked the neighbourhood and, apparently have not got put off by the locale, they have settled into the serious construction of their new home.

The first day was rather frenetic activity, both of them rushing in with twigs and chattering and dashing off for more twigs, all done at top speed. Its hot in the sun and at some moments I saw the male struggling to keep guard while his lady worked on her home. He had his little beak open, trying to cool down his tiny little body with the hot sun beating down. Hard work. The work has since slowed down. The nest has taken shape, a little teacup nestled in the midst of thick foliage, well sheltered from prying eyes. She brings a carefully chosen twig and pauses on the barbed wire on the compound wall to check if any unfriendly gaze is picking out her sacred spot, then she waits for him to come to keep watch while she busily weaves the twig in place and stamps and circles till it takes the shape she wants. And how, you may ask, do I know who is who? Well, I don’t actually. Bulbul males and females don’t have the distinctly different colours as other birds do. They have more or less the same colour patterns, so it is in the behaviour that I see the difference. The female seems to quietly go about her business (whether it is nestbuilding, or incubating her eggs), while the male who clearly has to be the protector is alert and watchful, ready to defend his family if there is an attack. It makes him prone to alarm calls I think.

Birdsongs seem to affect people differently. I know some for whom the pigeon call is a huge irritant, something that drives them to murder and mayhem. I find the turtle dove call very sweet and lovable, sending out a loving ‘where are you’ into the world. Or the koel, whose increasingly frantic calls only one made of stone can resist. But the sweetest cry for me is that of the bulbuls, linked as it is in my mind with cool mountains and beautiful greenery. Why the bulbuls have chosen to come down to the city is a mystery, but I am filled with joy at their trill and can’t help beaming every time I hear it.

By that strange coincidence, where I stumble on a book that seems to address whatever I am thinking about at that moment, I picked out ‘Spring’ in Annie Dillard’s classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Immediately, I read with delight her take on bird songs. It is spring, and the birdsongs catch the mountain tops and pool in the valley, she notes. She listens to the mocking bird who seems to be happy singing down her chimney, trying out a range of notes. (Apparently, he does not believe in sleep, but goes on from 2 in the morning to about 11 at night–not a neighbour I would be friends with.) So, she wonders, what is it all about? What are they saying? Scientists have put down birdsongs to territorial claims, but she is not convinced. Neither am I. I have heard 4 pairs of bulbuls at my window and they seem to have much to say that is not about staking territory. The pervious mother murmured lovingly to herself as she happily made her home and then even more lovingly as she fed her chicks and cuddled them to keep them from the cold rain. The male seems to be warning and directing operations from the outside, all alert and brave. He has much to say even while she is nestbuilding, which I am afraid she does not seem to listen to very seriously… It does not appear to matter, though, as they fly off together amicably and I never heard anyone ticking the other off for not listening…

So Dillard listens to the different birds talking in her valley and wonders what it is about. Are the birds announcing who they are, as in ‘I am a sparrow, sparrow, sparrow…’? she asks. Then she comes to what finally is the important question for her: Why is it beautiful?

And this question stopped me in my tracks. Why do I find the bulbul song beautiful? I read all sorts of meaning into the different cries (and each bulbul pair I have heard has had a different song. Perhaps they have different dialects?). Beauty cannot be reduced to an equation that will give a standard answer. The male this time sits and seems to be murmuring to his lady, I see and hear concern, also a deep attachment that keeps him from flying off and enjoying a life of ease. I hear the female calling out to him, ‘where are you’. And I hear beauty. 

What a gift. Thank you.

Right now I have no idea if I have been given tickets for a happily ever after or a tragedy. I can only wait and watch and hope…

Reading and other journeys

I am never alone when I am reading. I am engaged in a conversation with the writer (and this can be as varied as having a comforting cuppa tea with a friend who shares your tastes, or gazing through an exciting window into a new world) and then I am also figuring out which of my friends would love this piece the most and I can’t wait to either read it to them or press the book on them…. What it is is a world of shared thoughts and I am feel completely surrounded by kindred spirits. The only way the experience of reading a book that stirs me is complete is when I can rave about it to a friend, at length. Through what I can only describe as a huge gift bestowed by a benevolent fate, a friend and I have discovered the joys of sharing reading and have been engaged in weekly sessions of journeying through and discovering a community of kindred souls. Searching for pieces of writing to share with her has opened up a brave new world for me. I look for writing that I think will speak to both of us and this has led me to sample writers that I hadn’t tasted before. Such a delicious variety of flavours; it is like sampling at an ice-cream counter, trying to find the one that you find irresistible over all others. The thing is that life happens and your soul calls for different tastes at different times–a soothing vanilla for comfort to a tart sorbet to wake you up… and, ah, the delight when you get the perfect spoonful…

Of late I find myself a ruminant in reading. Yes, I read in great gulps in my youth, bounding over paragraphs in big leaps in my rush to find out how it all turned out. Today I halt at every word or phrase or sentence that strikes me and I wander down a path, going over the thought and following the trail of the companion thoughts that were set off. Sometimes I have had to stop reading the book to be able to relish the flavour and savour the tang of the idea… I have even on occasion got so side tracked as lose the original entirely and be swept away on my own trip. Such fun.

On one recce to find the perfect piece, I stumbled on M. F. K. Fisher’s ‘Once a Tramp’. It was my first time, dipping into her writing. I had, without sampling, put her down as a voice that I wouldn’t find interesting. But I found myself so wrong. She begins by questioning the old idea that an overdose of something can teach restraint, and then goes on to examine the idea of craving. While the primary images were of food, they resonated with other cravings as well. What kept me hooked to her essay were the glorious details she brings in to illustrate her story of what her favourite tastes are, from her first memory of tasting them to the perfect moment that she will hold in her mind forever when everything worked to create a magical moment of satisfaction.

I started wandering down the road looking at my reading life. Clearly here, an overdose cannot kill the appetite for more. It does not teach restraint. Yes, I agree that sometimes I fall into a space where I cannot relish new voices and so only the tried and tested old familiar writers will do. But even then, as I reread the books I have read so many times before, I find that it is not the same experience. Something has changed in me and I find new thoughts engaging me, finding some little treasure that I had overlooked in my earlier forays on this path, some violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye becomes as fair as a star when only one is in the sky (sorry, Wordsworth). Sometimes too, there is the sadness of coming across some thought that I cannot reconcile with and have to regretfully distance myself from an old love–some nasty whiff of racism, sexism or any of the many isms that seem flavoured with hate that I just cannot take now. Some seem rather faded in colour and I cannot capture the first fine careless rapture I felt when I first met it. Well, I will not be twenty again, and what calls to me now is a whole world of other things. But I remain a glutton for reading and hope to be till the day I say goodbye to this green earth.

Trees and Treevelling

As a child, on the bus from Kerala to Bangalore, crossing the Western Ghats was a treat. I was on the lookout for monkeys (and with the wild optimism of childhood, who knew if a tiger would suddenly decide to say hello?), while my mother pointed out the delightful colours of the leaves–the old green turning red and brown, or the delicate new leaves of tender pink or lime green. Mostly, though, trees remained those gentle giants I took for granted, forming a backdrop to my world. As I grew older, I started looking at trees, admiring their shape and foliage and slowly separating the individuals– the gul mohar, with its beautiful flowers in a range of shades from read to orange (which I wrongly called the ’flame of the forest’ for years), the raintree with its hugely generous tree cover and its beautiful feathery flowers, the jacaranda for the exquisite purple smoke of its flowers that always came in under the heat of the March sun… so many colours and so much beauty. The flamboyant tabebuia with its hot, yellow flowers came later in my life, such exuberant flowers, almost taking over your mind in their overpowering presence. It is hard to think of anything other than those flowers when confronted with that riotous yellow plumage.

As I grew older, I realised that trees were under threat all the time. They grow so slowly, and get chopped down in a few minutes. So my gaze took in their vulnerability. I would walk down a road and look at the construction happening around and get anxious about the fate of many a giant lining the roads and offering such beauty and shade. I just couldn’t wrap my head around how people continue to think that this world will ‘progress’ only if we cut down all the trees around us… today, with all the data screaming at us about the impact of our unthinking lifestyle on the climate and the threat it poses for our future on this planet, I still see trees being hacked down and more roads being built. How on earth can we ignore what we can clearly see happening before us?

Then I started noticing trees wherever I went, noticing their absences too and mourning the fallen ones. Sanjiv, on one of his daily walks, started noticing a raintree that had half its branches lopped off. It stood at an intersection of roads and looked very vulnerable. So he started just touching the trunk in a sort of blessing as he passed. Then I started doing that too as I passed by. In a while, the tree sprouted new branches and started flourishing again in that forgiving way that trees do. I told my friends about the tree and a few more people would notice it as they passed by. Today the old friend is still doing fine, holding on in the middle of all the chopping and changing that has been going on around it.

I looked at trees, but it was my friend Charu who really made me sit up and see them in a whole new way. She talked about being a ‘treeveller’, one who travelled to meet trees; she talked about feeling connected to them in a deep way and the healing it brought her. So when she asked if I would join the first ‘treeveller’s katte’ I was most enthusiastic to be part of something that I was sure I would enjoy, even if I had no idea of the shape that it would take.

Being an artist, she had made the space beautiful, drawing attention to the colours and the various aspects of trees, including the fascinating variety of seeds that they produce. Just entering the space made you feel that you had stepped out of the noise and dust surrounding you and into a magical world of fantasy. She then put two questions before us: If we could choose to be a tree, what tree would we choose to be and why? Was there one particular tree that stands out in our lives and what was the story of that tree?

The moment I thought of the first question, I was aware of going down a road of discovery, being asked to look at myself and take note of what I considered to be important. I flirted with the idea of being a mango tree (oh the joys of biting into a delicious mango), but then realised that it was the raintree that I wanted to be, with its beauty and the huge shade that it so generously offers to all who approach it. Some raintrees have a perfect umbrella shape–a beautiful canopy set by a master stylist. The stories that came from the other participants were also so revealing. It made all of us look at ourselves and others through a new lens.

The second question immediately triggered memories. For me, it was the mango tree in the family house in Kerala. It had fallen during a cyclone but grew aslant and curved up and survived for many decades. When I knew it, it was this curving tree that made it so easy to climb. The trunk formed a perfect easy chair and I found my perfect room, with tamarind in my pocket and a book to read. With the thick foliage, even in sweltering Kerala, it was a perfect place to be. And this made me think of myself and the family. I had always carried this image of me being in the thick of the family, at the centre of a close web of relations when I was young. But when I looked at this image of me in the tree, away from people, I realised that something in me had cried out for space and the need to dive into the world of literature and the tree had offered that space. The tree finally died and had to be cut down. I look at that space and feel the void left in my life that nothing else will fill.

I am a complete city person and I want all the comforts I get at my doorstep. But I also notice that, the moment we drive out of the city and into some bit of wilderness, I cannot stop beaming and return feeling like I have had a life-saving transfusion of something that I desperately needed but didn’t know I did.

Taking a line for a walk

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. [. . .] The essayist rises in the morning and [. . .] selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter. [. . .] I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit.

                                                                                                                                E. B. White

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It is an aggressive, even hostile act. [. . .] You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want [. . .] but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

Joan Didion

When I browse through a bookstore, all sorts of books call out to me. Sometimes it is the colour on the book cover (I have to admit shamefacedly that I picked up Susan Sontag’s brilliant essay collection, Where the Stress Falls because I was seduced by the gorgeous cover. It was only later that I was bewitched by her mind). Sometimes it is a book title, as was the case with Joseph Epstein’s A Line Out for a Walk. I was so intrigued by the title that I immediately dipped into the book, and of course, the voice was something I was charmed by. He had taken the title from a line from Paul Klee, who described his art as “I take a line out for a walk.” Epstein felt that that perfectly encapsulated what he wanted to do with his essays. Anyone who has taken a dog for a walk with relate to this; the slow walk, the many pauses while interesting smells are sniffed and savoured, some scents being pursed down by lanes with great interest… much to dream over when you get back home and drowse over all that caught your fancy. Who wouldn’t want to go on such a trip?

It is funny how a poem can pierce through to the bone and shake you up and yet hide the poet. In a novel or a play, we play guessing games about which character comes closest to being the author’s stand-in. So you have Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, who got the best lines and the best man. Tolstoy sounded so very Old Testament about judging Anna for her adultery, but, as Mathew Arnold pointed out, he loved his creation so much that he wouldn’t let the train wheels disfigure her beauty but had them go over her neck instead. Or you can have Shaw, where every character talks like Shaw (but we forgive him because of his brilliant humour and the great lines).

I love essayists because you get the author on the page, with no disguises to sift through. If you like the voice, reading the essay becomes a conversation and you have a friend for life. Of course personal essayists are my favourite group. I love seeing the world through their lens and being beguiled into wandering into a space that I had not noticed before. Once the voice has seduced me, I will follow the author down any garden path. (I did talk of my favourite old friends in an earlier blog “Its Personal.”)

I stumbled into E. B. White in an essay anthology by accident and have been hooked ever since. White writes from his perch as a write/farmer. So he leads you from the world of detail in nature that meets his eye every morning to meditating on the world. His unsentimental report sometimes has details that make me wince, it is nature without ribbons and sometimes there is death and suffering, but I love his voice so much that I am prepared to travel through the harsh reality of farm life. Under the description I hear a humanity that fills me with trust and hope. I love his persona in all the shirts that he dons. I have felt that is what I want to do in this space, to put down what has caught my eye and rummage through the attic of my mind to find connections with all the beloved writers stored there…

I came upon Ursula Le Guin rather late (again, just picked up her collection Wave in the Mind because of its beautiful blue cover and immediately fell in love with her voice). What a wise old woman; she is brilliant and funny and reading her is like having tea with a friend.

Sontag and Didion are eyeopeners. They shake you up and you come away seeing the world a little differently. Jenette Winterson is in a class by herself. What can you say to someone who says “Why be happy when you could be normal?” This is the title of her autobiography, sharing her life in a repressive home which treated books as the work of the evil one. Its so brilliant that you find yourself gulping it down in one go and reaching for more. Atwood of course is so brilliant, but she wouldn’t do personal essays…

When I was thinking about this form and why it appealed to me so much, I started thinking about my idea of a personal essay. I saw it as a walk with a friend who was gently pointing out sights along the way. No pressure to accept the view, just something put out there. You get that feeling from White and Epstein certainly. No agenda being pushed at you. But then you read Didion’s line and you stub your toe. Aggression? Imposition on your private space? What on earth are you talking about, you ask? Think about it a bit and you see that it has the uncomfortable ring of truth. Why put writing out there, if you didn’t mean it to convince your reader of the rightness of your perception?

Like I said, Didion has a way of shaking you up and making you leave your comfort zone.

I guess it is great that all these writers come in different garbs and you can choose who you want to spend your day with.