Photo essay

Something about their beaks felt like 1968 to me

As much as birdwatching lends itself to transcendental possibilities, I am painfully aware that I don’t speak the same language as birds. But, it has never stopped me from talking to them. I try to keep it short and one-sided. I tell them about the little things that pass, like thunderstorm clouds, through my head.

Either they ignore me and continue their daily businesses. Or they turn extra attentive about perceiving me as a threat to their nesting areas, and they become frightened and annoyed. It may be a selfish relationship, but nobody gets hurt – so, I don’t feel bad about it.

After all, my biased interpretation of what is right or wrong is more important than anyone else’s. Simply because they are mine. All my world’s a chicken coop. I will poop wherever I want to.

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Goodbye is the new hello: Jewel bugs

It was around 5:00 PM. I was tonguing the evening air on a parrot-green grass hill at Mooppanpara in Kerala. Despite the cloudy weather, I wanted to stick around. It had been a long and tiring day. And the scenery was mesmeric. The sun resembled a dusty grapefruit trying to un-blush. It sunk, beneath the jagged shoulders of mountains. I felt calm, as though a blade of grass had found itself in-between my teeth.

But the weather wasn’t having any of it. Howling winds turned into hesitant whispers. The blueness of the sky gave way to a frowning shade of gray, as rain-fed clouds loomed. Unbeknownst to me, the stench of the struggle for survival was around the corner.

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A house that built me

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.

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Birds are not musicians; they are songs

White-Throated Kingfishers sound like a jackhammer in the hands of a jazz drummer. Asian Koels can be mistaken for star-crossed Shakespearean strangers cooing goodbye one last time. Black-Winged Kites shriek as though they are auditioning for musical satires. If the world was any crueler, music labels would hire poachers to hunt down Malabar Hornbills, and steal their summer playlists.

The most beautiful bird call I have ever heard belongs to a whistler in an electric blue coat. Found in the Western Ghats, it is the Beethoven of alarm clocks.

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When life gives you hospital beds, find your inner balconies

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.

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Look who’s talking: Purple Sunbirds

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.

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Paradigm lost, Panthera Tigris found

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.

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In search of bluebirds and fairies

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.

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You can handle the truth about Swamphens

Sometimes, I literally can’t see the forest for the trees. Only when I sit down to rest do I realize how tall they are. I start noticing how the branches bristle with life, death, food and music. I scratch my forehead and wonder why it took me so long to experience their grandeur.

The first time I spotted a Swamphen up-close, I saw an ugly side of me. It was a moment of realization. A fresh perspective. And I felt terrible about it.

Like someone once said – “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off”.

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They might be giants

In 2013, I saw a large squirrel hiding in-between the branches of a plum tree in Kodaikanal. Bashing its bushy tail against the leaves, the creature stared at me with its beady eyes. Its reddish-black coat  shone in the sun. I had never seen anything like it before. The only squirrel I knew then was the three-striped palm sub-species.

When it leaped onto another tree, a taxi driver – standing nearby – pointed at it and said, “There it goes”. He looked at me and asked, “Ever seen a Giant Flying Squirrel before?”  I shook my head sideways and mumbled. Words escaped me. I was shaken. I felt like I was on the precipice of something strange and important. It was the only time I ever wanted to write a novel.

But the squirrel had other plans for me.

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