On December 5, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had passed away. The city of Chennai came to a screeching halt for 24 hours. The stillness was eerie. It didn’t help that we were already dealing with demonetization, the government’s mischievously impotent strategy to fight corruption. It was a stressful day. But it was nothing compared to how the city would look a week later.
On December 12, we were bruised by the state’s worst cyclone ever. The wind was howling at speeds of 150 kilometers per hour. Roofs and panels were getting blown away. Glass windows shattered, trees uprooted, and power lines disrupted. Ten people died. Many livelihoods were lost. It was our second consecutive winter of managing a calamity. Last year, we were put through a flood crisis. It has not been a good winter for us so far.
I won’t ever forget it. But it isn’t because nothing eventful ever happens in the city. Or because I live in a third world country in which the progress is adjudged on the seamless accessibility of Starbucks and 4G. It is because I finally spotted wild cats during the first weekend of this month.
The scariest part of a downward spiral is the speed at which things fall apart. You are always a bad decision away losing it all. One phone call. Just one unexpected turn to find yourself in a bottomless pit. But life doesn’t come crashing down. It caves in. Crumbles under the weight of despair. Then, like some injured lizard, you try to pick yourself up. But you feel helpless. Uncoordinated. So, you collapse to the ground. And you just lie there, with fistfuls of dirt, tonguing your cheeks and hoping that this too will pass.
Conversely, when something good happens – seldom does it snowball into something more tangible. There are no formulas to sustain an unexpected burst of happiness. It can be a one-hit wonder that leads to sophomore slumps. Often, it just slinks away on its chubby hindlimbs.
I develop a gag reflex for certain things I am passionate about. Whether a new style of writing I want to try out, the type of people I socialize with or the kind of music I listen to. After shifting the paradigm, I just throw my hands in the air and walk away. A simple explanation is that I am easily distracted. I may be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Another may be that “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”.
It doesn’t really matter why. Popeye taught me that a long time ago.
Somehow, my love for birds survived the onslaught. Four years later, I am as lovestruck. Every time I see a bird of prey – my heart doesn’t just skip a beat, it leapfrogs over a bunch of them stacked on top of each other. Like the flap of some Malabar Trogon’s wing – it takes to the sky.
No year has ever gone by without its share of obstacles. Except when I was 8 years old. Yeah, that was a good year. It must be the same with you, right? I hear people talk about their ups and downs. Isn’t that how things work? At least, I hope so. I will feel a little better knowing that your life, consistently, has shitty moments in it too.
If I were to make a list of the traits that distinguish humanity from other species, I would start with ‘kindness’ and end with ‘cruelty’. Our ability to be harmonious has co-existed with our capacity to be a destructive force. Most of us were Frankenstein monsters in search of the doctor who had created us. Thankfully, some were concerned about the science.
A few days ago, I was introduced to the works of Dr. Yuval Harari – a historian. In his book, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, he talks about how we are the “only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers”. He also opines that the human tendency to invest in fiction is what separates us from the other species.
“…as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, and the same values.”
I love photographing birds. It feels so exhilarating that I am willing to walk out on any part of my life for it. But first, I must buy a professional camera. Then, figure out a way to make people pay me for it. It’s a pipedream that may take another decade to evolve into a purposeful plan. And even though I can wait, it probably won’t work out in my favor.
Good things don’t happen to those who contemplate. They happen to those who make the first move. And the heart often wants what the brain can’t make sense of. It wasn’t a career I had ever thought about before. Not until I spotted a Black-and-Orange Flycatcher one rainy afternoon.
Many birds feel shy around humans. Perhaps, they are just terrified. Why wouldn’t they be? Our species has a dubious track record. We are like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, except that we think we can repair the damage. Start all over again. Make everything bloom.
Look at me, for instance. I pollute the air that birds breathe in just by driving to where they live. I also contribute to a process that takes away food from their beaks. Yet I fetishize their existence. And I spend time promoting my passion for them instead of helping conserve their habitats.
Birds needn’t feel shy around me. They should be terror-stricken.
It was a cold start to the day in the sleepy village of Kurangu Mudi in the Anaimalai Hills. The sun wasn’t up yet. I was sipping on hot beverage outside a tea shop, petting an old mongrel. We were watching the mist disappear from moist skirts the forest wore that morning. Suddenly, out of nowhere, ghostly cries hijacked the air. I looked around and saw only the sleepy stare of the shopkeeper.
So, I craned my neck upwards to see if they were birdsongs. I noticed that a flock of pigeons had taken to the skies, and they were heading towards the other side. They were too quick for me to identify them by name at that moment. And so I ran after them until I reached a fence safeguarding the wild animals from people and vice-versa.
Sholinganallur is the nearest birding spot from where I live. It is home to many residential and migratory birds. But I haven’t been there much. I visit places like Vedanthangal, Kanchipuram or Pulicat, which are further away, during weekends. It isn’t easy to wake up at 3:30 AM and leave for a 2-hour drive with bad roads and poor visibility. Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I believe that nothing worth having comes easy. Whenever the universe has been randomly benevolent – without expecting something in return – I have questioned its motive. Karma doesn’t work that way. Even if we may not always reap what we sow, we must keep toiling away in the fields. Especially, during the harvesting season.
Coppersmith Barbets don’t look like they belong in metropolitan cities. One might assume they reside in secret fruit gardens. Watched over by wood elves and courted by cellists with sunflower stems instead of strings.
A year ago I had an unforgettable experience with one in my city. I noticed an emerald bum jutting out, rather comically, of a hole in a tree stump. A Coppersmith Barbet was playing peekaboo with the midday sun, and the monster in me.