Many of the houses I grew up in never felt like home to me. No matter how sturdy their foundations were. How well-cemented the bricks. All the fine craftsmanship that had gone behind them. They lacked the comfort and warmth I wanted under a roof. Or they belonged to an ecosystem that seemed alien to me. Their walls were sturdy but they held grudges. The ceiling fan was too loud. Beyond the front door, privacy was in absentia. And the view outside the window often a peek into the lives of my neighbors; how unhappy they can be when they don’t realize that somebody is watching them.
But in the winter of 1988, I found myself in a four-storied residential building in Chennai called Joy Apartments. My parents had rented a flat on the third floor. No matter the weather, its ambiance was stuck halfway between a siesta on a rainy day and a funeral procession of woodland creatures. It was tranquilizing and charming. On Sunday afternoons, one could hear the rustling of leaves, in the streets, under a broom. Or the sing-song squawking of the fish vendor as he crooned his way into our bellies.
Today, I saw a Black Kite skirting past the opaque moon against a teal-blue evening sky. It was a refreshing change of scenery. Considering I had been bed-ridden since February. About two weeks ago, my spinal chord was operated upon. The disc bulge in my lower vertebrae had become worse. There was a growing risk of suffering permanent nerve damage on my left leg.
So, I had decided to opt for surgery. Now, I have a giant scar to show for it. If things don’t go according to plan, I may have a T-Shirt idea. Buy one for yourself and get two for your friends. But, strictly no refunds. I have a mouth, below my nostrils, to feed.
Some of the most self-destructive people I know are writers. Vain, isolated and insensitive. Yet they are also some of the most interesting human beings I interact with. Prone to kindness, observant poignancy and witticism. A writer’s appetite to learn is often large, as is his/her capacity to love. But intelligent, emotionally-stable or even rational?
Conversations with children below the age of five and animals can be more heuristic than those with adults. Sometimes, halfway through a grownup discussion, I lose track of the plot. I slip and fall on the regurgitated mess of inorganically-acquired information. If the other person looks close enough, the sheepish bewilderment is evident on my face. I used to think it was because I was smarter than most of the people I had met. Then, I grew up. And it became clear that I was as dumb and distracted as the rest. Possibly I have been more deluded for having believed, for so long, that I was different from anyone else.
I love talking to children and animals because there are no clear agendas. They are jazz compositions. Free-flowing and nimble discussions. With neither the conformance of structure nor the pressure of outcomes. Also, if I get bored – I can walk away without feeling like a mean bastard. But, I don’t ever see that happening. At least, not when I am talking to birds.
During the Christmas weekend, while in Ponneri, I saw the flycatcher breakfasting on a large moth. It was a breathtaking sight. How beautifully its iridescent crest glistened. The whirling dervishes that were its milk-white tail-feathers. Unable to contain my emotions, I cried. Not in a way that makes passersby smile at how kind and wonderful this deranged blue planet can be. It was sort of awkward. Weird-sounding. There was definitely some reverse-blowdrying of the nose. I had been waiting for the moment since 2013, after all.
On January 2, though, bad news arrived. I was diagnosed with a disc prolapse in my lower back. And it had struck a nerve that is connected to my left leg. There isn’t a cure for the condition. However, with the right treatment, I may be able to return to my routines.
Great Indian Hornbills look visibly upset when they sense danger in their surroundings. They let out a guttural cry as they take flight like wondrous paper planes, to find a vantage point. They aren’t scared easily, though. They are one of the largest hornbills in the world. Any predator would think twice about pissing them off. Malabar Trogons panic, like most smaller birds, when their nests are under attack. With one swift movement, they position themselves at a safe distance. Then, they stare at the intruder, dead in the eye, and purr softly – like a spellbound cat.
Earlier this year, I had the dubious distinction of interrupting the feeding sessions of these gorgeous birds. Yet I was spared the guilt of being a nuisance, and the Hitchcockian tragedy of being pecked to death by birds.
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.
Over the past 11 months, I have spotted and photographed 200+ birds in South India. I have also spent the year working on two documentaries. It means that I was not gainfully employed. So, time was on my side. I got to watch birds every single day. I was on the lookout for bird poop that drizzled from above. The thin branches that swayed when all else remained still. Dancing phone lines, scissoring through cities and forests, on which they perched upon. Quick movements in shrubs and bushes.
But, it was mostly several gigantic strokes of luck. I saw them wherever I went. Soon, I started to believe that the birds found me as often as I searched for them.
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.
In Karate, one of the most important lessons you learn is to take an ass-kicking. You understand that you need to pick yourself up and move on.
Before every session, you socialize with your opponents. They are your friends. You like each other. You also take pleasure in roundhouse-kicking them during a sparring match. Because there are competitive elements to it.
Karate breaks down the art of fighting into algorithms. A series of rapid-fire decisions. And at times, someone figures it out quicker than you do. Then, you will fall down, palming the bridge of your nose in pain. When you get back up on your feet, you are stronger in the broken places.