Mint & Gold
Creative Non Fiction
Songs and Solitude: What Birds Taught Me
'Birds taught me all I needed to learn about life', says the writer
Besides me, another creature lives in the room
On the same rent,
A wall lizard.
Our only difference,
It has no food scarcity.
In these lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s prose poem, Banshi or The Flute, a clerk working in Calcutta describes the execrable state of his life in the city even as he thinks of his village home with wistful exhaustion. As I read them, I think of the creatures -- sparrows -- who similarly shared our living quarters when I was growing up in Delhi. We had only recently moved to our own, well, my grandmother’s house in Chittaranjan Park (C R Park to the locals) in South Delhi, and come summer, the frisky sparrows would enter our living room and build nests -- on top of pelmets and in the hollowed space behind photos and paintings hung to the wall by cords. All through Delhi’s burning summer, they lived rent free in the coolness of our home’s interiors. There was an air of nervousness and perhaps even exasperation among our family members regarding this avian encroachment. Not because we didn’t want them making homes and raising families in our midst, but more because of the risk of a bird occasionally getting caught in the whirr of a ceiling fan in motion and dropping dead on the floor. I now wonder if that was the first time I learned how setting up home in an unfamiliar environment could be possible, if fraught with uncertainty and even danger. The sparrows returned every summer year after year, notwithstanding our chafe with the ruckus their young ones created or the mess their abandoned nests caused on our floor, in our hair.
Before I saw the tenacious sparrows of C R Park, as they might be called in this age of Instagram, I had read about another tiny but mighty bird -- the Tuntuni. From her, for that -- as a female -- was how the author, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury introduced her to his young readers, I learned how valuable presence of mind could be when dealing with imminent crisis. The tiny tailor bird, a new mother with a brood of fledglings she shelters in a nest she’d neatly stitched with the leaves in a brinjal plant, had to protect them from the greedy eyes of a cat on the prowl. In the fantasized world of children’s literature, she finds a language -- of strategic deference -- bowing to the cat and addressing her as Maharani, her royal highness, to earn the feline’s trust. Up until the time her chicks learn to fly, that is. The moment they’re able to take off on their own, little Tuntuni stands up to the cat, makes a face and calls out her slyness before flying off herself.
The sparrows of C R Park gradually disappeared. So did my grandparents, lost to cerebral thrombosis and heart ailment within a year of each other, during my teen years. Their journey hadn’t been unlike the sparrows themselves. They too had to set up a nest in Delhi, a foreign environment with an unforgiving arid climate, far away from Bengal, their homeland. As the country got divided in 1947, their migration to Delhi came with a one-way ticket, with their home and ancestral property in purbobongo, then part of East Pakistan, consigned to the exigencies of Partition. The losses stretched far beyond mere bricks and soil, though and showed up as fractured relationships, financial strain, smothered dreams and lasting psychological horrors. For me, the passing of my grandparents was a body blow; it wasn’t my first direct encounter with death alone, but also my first steps through the valley of loneliness. Like a growing fledgling that had to find its way through solitary flights, I had to grapple my way through that darkness, tottering and stumbling, waiting for specks of light to sneak in through the cracks.
In my early thirties, I made a major career shift. Taking a break from nine-to-five day jobs, I began freelancing full time. Suddenly, I had the luxury of time as I could set my own schedule. And suddenly, the world of birds opened up to me in the most delightful of ways. One of the perks of my freelance life included taking a walk on our C R Park terrace every morning and seeing birds -- of different feathers and temperaments -- up to their antics. From the cacophony of crows to the laid-back stupor of pigeons, from a kite’s majestic flight to the swiftness of a parakeet flock swooping upon a guava tree laden with fruit, my walks gave me more than footsteps to count as part of some exercise regimen. They made me pause to take in the thrill of watching a kite sweep an entire stretch of sky with its wings and also the tense jitters of negotiating my walk when an aggressive murder of crows hovered close by. The power of flocking together, the freedom of self-exploration, the value of quiet resting, the pleasure of feasting together -- from the birds I met during my terrace walks, I gleaned lessons for life, lessons in the aesthetics of life.
On the backwaters of Kerala, where my husband and I went shortly after getting married, I saw cormorants for the first time. Having lived in dry Delhi most of my life, I wasn’t all that acquainted with water birds. To absorb the poise with which the birds sat on logs along the breadth of the lagoon was to witness a Lonely Planet moment without finding it any bit artificial. The birds seemed to have all the time in the world; they were alert in their search for fish and yet visibly calm, some almost in the vrikshasana, the yogic tree pose, with one leg raised and the other grounded. In a strange coincidence, years after my brush with the crows of C R Park and the cormorants of Kerala, these two birds would come together in a flashback scene in Victory Colony, 1950, my debut novel. In the scene, Amala, the protagonist is reminded of the apparent serenity of the cormorants in her village in East Pakistan one morning. Later that morning, as she looks out of the window of the public bus that takes her to her workplace, she sees a murder of crows foraging through a dumpster with gusto. Amala is seen to admire the crows for their feistiness and community spirit, attributes that helped scores of faceless refugees rebuild their lives as they crossed borders to escape disgrace and death.
In March 2020, when the world went into a lockdown because of Covid-19, I, like many of us working from our homes, became a birdwatcher. The backyard window, next to my work desk, drew my attention to birdsong I must have heard before but never really paid attention to; to the relaxed stance of robins as they sat on the grass looking for a worm; to the friskiness of finches who couldn’t have enough of the food in the bird feed and would often bring over friends for partaking in the buffet of seeds and nuts; of the tireless and incredibly musical whistles a northern cardinal couple exchanged as part of their courtship. Birds taught me all I needed to learn about life -- to pause and reflect but also to get busy; to embrace solitude but also to engage with community; and most of all, as I wrote in one of my poems, In Praise of Slowness, to reserve my haste for love alone.
A Literary Repast: The Jaipur Literature Festival
The 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival proves without an iota of doubt that the literary heart of the country as well as the world is alive and pulsating with life.
Is interest in serious literature declining? This seems to be a matter of debate as well as quiet conversation among book lovers and academicians all over the world. I also felt the first niggling of this disquiet when as the editor of a literary magazine, I realised that the readership for serious literary content was difficult to come by. And then I discovered the Jaipur Literature festival. I also learnt that 80 percent of the attendees were below the age of 25. And my belief that serious literature would outlive contemporary ‘literary’ trends, was restored.
The 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival proves without an iota of doubt that the literary heart of the country as well as the world is alive and pulsating with life. The festival was inaugurated by none other than Abdulrazak Gurnah, a British novelist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2021. This seemed to set the tone for the entire festival that was abuzz with names of creative wizards from different countries of the world who had made a name for themselves in varied literary genres. What added charm and a rhythmic ambience to the festival was the seamless braiding together of literature and music. Every day began and ended on a musical note, with traditional as well as fusion artists regaling the audiences with classical, folk as well as western music. Whether it was the fusion band, Pangaea, comprising composer-songwriter Mike Hogan; tabla player Saptak; and sitar player/flautist Mayank, and their soul-stirring Indian classical piece or a recital by award-winning Carnatic vocalist Sushma Soma or Pop icon Usha Uthup’s rendition of the sultry and mischievous ‘Darling’. The dance performance titled Āhuti by Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, in collaboration with the Chitrasena Dance Company of Sri Lanka, featured Kandyan and Odissi dance with stunning visuals and choreography.
The sessions, across the 5-day event, were contoured in a way so as to appeal to the palate of the most diverse reader. For those who are inclined to read the works of Nobel Prize, Booker prize or Pulitzer Prize winners, the place was a veritable treasure trove. Perhaps the most coveted session for me was the one in which Nobel Prize winning author Abdulrazak Gurnah shared his life’s experiences and talked about how they shaped his literary work. The one nugget of Gurnah wisdom that resounded with me the most was his ‘take’ on writing. For Gurnah, “Writing, above all, is about upholding the ideas and beliefs that we think are important and that we value. When someone says, ‘writing as resistance’, these are the kinds of things I think of rather than fighting tyrants or necessarily standing on platforms making powerful speeches to energise people; but more the ordinary, mundane business of not forgetting, of making sure that what is important is always kept alive.” It is this concept of writing that inspired me the most.
International Booker Prize winners Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell, in conversation with Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar recipient Tanuj Solank, talked about breaking stereotypes, which again is necessary for literature that is new and innovative. When talking about breaking stereotypes, one cannot forget what Booker Prize winning Srilankan author Shehan Karunatilaka did in his book ‘Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.’ A ghost’s point of view is definitely cutting through the set-in-stone stereotype of a narrator. Shehan’s comment, “what if I write from the ghost’s point of view and it took me to this idea of what if Sri Lanka’s dead could speak” stuck with me.
For history buffs, the session with Caroline Elkins, Pulitzer Prize winning Professor of history at Harvard University and author of the book ‘Legacy of Violence: A History of British Empire’ would be very illuminating as she talked about a variety of themes, including the global history of empire, its violent undertones, the legal case that was filed against Britain and its manifestations in South Asia. Through the book, Elkins said, she hoped to connect the dots of what happened across the colonial events of violence in 1857 India and 1954 Kenya, among others. She says that while these are explained as one-offs, they are in fact rooted in the very ideology of liberal imperialism which was deeply violent. The fact that the well-known politician, Shashi Tharoor, drove the conversation, made the session extremely interesting.
For lovers of poetry, especially Hindi and Urdu poetry, there was a treat in store with sessions devoted to Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, well-known and respected poets of India. Gulzar was in conversation with award-winning translator, writer, and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil, to discuss A Poem a Day, a volume of Indian poetry selected and translated by Gulzar. Gulzar sahab said, “You will get the sense that shayari is not something that can be kept in the textbooks. It is as alive as you are, and the way you breathe, the poem breathes…” Javed Akhtar on the other hand talked about his conversational biography, ‘Talking Life’ and regaled the audience with snippets of information from his interactions with stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna etc.
I was particularly riveted by a panel of speakers (under the aegis of Jaipur Bookmark) who discussed the importance of building communities of readers. The panel talked about making efforts to strengthen these communities and educate them to promote readership. This I thought was needed in today’s day and age. There is lots more to write and discuss but the literary buzz and pulsating life of this unique festival cannot be replicated by a handful of written words. Suffice it to say that it is indeed one of the greatest literary shows on earth and offers a repast that every literature lover can savour and cherish.
In an interview with The Wise Owl in August 2022, Namita Gokhale, the co-founder & director of the Jaipur Literature festival had told me, “When we began, I had a vision, a dream - but what we have now managed to collectively conjure up is beyond those early expectations. William Dalrymple, Sanjoy Roy, and his committed colleagues at Teamwork Arts- all bring their special understanding and interests, and the whole is greater than the parts. The festival has a throbbing life of its own - let’s see where it takes us next.” The festival has scaled great heights. It has promoted serious literature as well as or perhaps even better than any other literary forum in the world. Whatever comes next will surely be bigger, better and brighter.
A golden toast slathered with butter beckons the writer and she is unable to resist the siren song.
Things were getting beyond control now.
All sorts of nocturnal cacophony were assaulting my ears, and the demons in my mind, lounging in diurnal sloth, had all jumped out of the claustrophobic confines of the mind, to make it a night of entertainment. Their guffaws, giggles and grins rent the air. Were they notes of laughter? No way. More like shards and shrapnel clashing and clanging against each other, trying to hone the serrated edges of a threnody. The trees seemed to be lamenting something – perhaps the loss of their leaves?
The mind is a runaway lover. A philanderer. My mind kept running in the direction of the kitchen, where a newly bought toaster stood gleaming in its fresh, virginal splendour. It stood rooted to the spot – the mind, I mean. My heart stealthily crept out and joined it there. Both stood looking at the toaster.
‘Oh, for a freshly toasted slice of white bread, slathered with lots of butter.’
“Have you seen your girth?”
Now, that Inner voice, perennially talkative, had taken over. Yakkity- yak it went. How come it is so intuitive? I had not even given voice to that yearning, but it read my lips, prematurely. I looked at my girth from the corner of my eye. The corner twitched an ugly twitch. I turned away, beating a hasty retreat.
Was someone drooling over the thought of having buttered toast, at midnight?
No, not me!
Through open eyes, I saw myself running a race – stumbling-tumbling, falling-getting up, grumbling, plodding forth relentlessly. A rodent running the rodent derby, sometimes with an ataxic gait, sometimes with diffident steps, sometimes reluctant, sometimes willing – but running nonetheless. I was still running when a sunbeam peeped through a chink in the curtain. The sun appeared to be on the verge of breaking into a symphony. Looking at the sky, I wondered at the games the mind plays. What tricks and what pranks it is up to!
On the wall in front of me hung a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Canna . The early morning sunrays fell directly on it, and before I could exclaim at the beauty of it, I saw the Red Canna detaching itself from the painting, cruising towards me, standing before me, and offering itself to me with a HAPPY NEW YEAR greeting.
Clasping the canna to my chest, face sheathed in a broad smile, smacking my lips, I headed towards the kitchen to have that buttered bread slice, toasted in the brand-new toaster-the mind-games forgotten in the anticipatory gluttony of the moment.