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.
I miss movie montages in which protagonists beat insurmountable odds. The storyline progress at a breakneck speed. Pulsating synth-infused rock music erupts, without fair warning. Friends and well-wishers encourage and applaud. One of them will fist-pump the air, as squealing guitar sounds build to a crescendo.
It is easy to mock them for being cheesy or just strange. Often, their inelegance is inconsolably consistent. But, imagine if we could use such time-warped narratives to deal with our own problems. How great would that be?
I am not fond of routines. Inelegantly, they wrap themselves around me, like dirty parasites. And I am left – nonplussed and numb. It’s why I cling on to weekends. I get to break my routines by watching birds go through theirs.
Some people talk about wanting to live the way the wild creatures do. Carefree, and unhinged. Driven by pure instincts. It’s a strange inference to make, though. Because birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, and insects follow routines like we do.
What sets them apart, besides the nakedness, is that they don’t emotionally invest in actualities. They don’t pursue happiness and tumble down from the sky in the process.
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’m not sure what freedom means to me. I may be free, technically, but there are signs that seem to indicate otherwise. I recognize them only while trying to plot an escape from drudgery. The hair follicles on my neck stand up. My throat is parched. My knees feel weak. Sweat trickles down the bridge of my nose. It’s a tense situation.
It’s as though a gun is pointed at the back of my head. I can hear its cold metallic mouth breathing. It whispers into my ears, like lovers on their way out, that all resistance is useless. That non-compliance will be dealt with – swiftly, harshly and permanently. To make matters worse, the gun sounds like Werner Herzog.
Freedom is more than a state of mind. It isn’t even in the heart. It’s in the feathers of birds. I realize it whenever I hear the sound of their wings flapping away from me.
I couldn’t photograph Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpeckers when I first saw them in Thekkady. They were quicker than hiccups. Every time I tried, they would disappear behind branches. Soon, I grew impatient. In a matter of minutes, I moved on to the next spot.
In less than a year, I saw a flock of them in Thattekad. Again, they kept fleeing my camera’s frame. But this time, I decided to hang around. And as time went by, they warmed up to my presence. Some were kind enough to strike remarkably curious poses.
I don’t believe that good things happen to those who wait. If you really want something, you must go out there and see if it exists – the way you think it does. And if it is prone to sudden flight, like Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpeckers are – you ought to hold onto it.
I travel alone to the hills because it’s how I want to experience the world for now. It’s not as though I am one with the sand and the sky or anything fancy like that. I just feel interconnected to the sum of their moving parts. It also lends itself more to discoveries, life-changing or merely chimerical. The more people I am surrounded with – the less likely I am to feel the pulse of the environment. And it’s not just because how loud and obnoxious they can be.
Exploring a town, a village or the woodlands is an exercise in self-centeredness. I couldn’t be more self-absorbed. If one travels with like-minded folks, it can be a delightful experience. A sharing of primordial sensibilities and digestible proportions of love and laughter.
However, with the wrong individuals, travelling can be stressful. A nuisance like no other.
If you squint your eyes, babies look a lot like old people. Their soft and wrinkled skin. Tiny rows of broken teeth. Patchy hair. They tend to behave the same way too. Both need help getting around. They are easily confused. Frightened of being alone. They are likely to get hurt while trying to do things by themselves.
The first thing that I remember of the world is the sight of my mother’s arms arching out towards me. I was ducking under them to avoid getting coconut oil rubbed on my hair. I was about 6 years old then. I can’t seem to recollect anything else before that moment.
I have wanted to write about modernized existential despair for long. How it seems to be a generational malady, thriving on our indifference towards discovery as opposed to invention. I didn’t because I was unable to succinctly encapsulate a short introduction I had in mind into words. Instead I had a sound-bite for it. A piece of guttural noise.
The English language kept failing me (or vice versa). So I decided to move on. Only lately did I realize that it was 2015. It is so easy to record and stream digital audio these days. Even by people who spell “your” as “you’re”. And I had broadband connectivity and laughably low expectations.
Utopia is where
odd fellows rest,
with blank stares
and babysit blue orchids,
bearing stars for seeds,
that come in pairs.
I have lost interest in keeping count of the number of birds I have spotted. I let it go around the 300-mark. But I still obsess over spotting new birds during every trail. If I don’t, it’s not as though my heart loses purpose. It just sports a stubble and drunkenly fumbles.