Mar 29, 2011

Where Streets Do Not Exist....

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see the dust cloud disappear Without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name

Bono of U2 crooned in this 1987 Grammy award winner.  To an urbanite the entire idea seems so strange – the notion of having streets with no name, in turn making most of us lose their apparent identity in a society which ascribes high credence to the streets or the localities where we choose to live or have our work-place.  A utopian situation of global equality impossible to be found in civic society – in fact not even acceptable as to our orderly mind, this would be an anti-thesis - chaotic and anarchic. No wonder the same album of U2 had Bono singing – I still haven’t found what I am looking for.

This February I experienced something even stranger – a place where let alone the streets without names, streets just do not exist – not at least for the urbanites like us, nor exists the dwellings of any kind, and this is what this travelogue is all about.

We had spent last 2 days roaming in the watery world of Nalsarovar & Thol. With water in plenty, crops abundant, the eyes & the soul had feasted on the greenery and the birds – resident as well as migratory of all sizes, hues & colours. The image of large flocks of geese clouding the early morning sky swooping down on to the greener pastures was still afresh in the mind.


All that had changed now – just about 100 KMs away from the bustling city of Ahmedabad, as our adventurous spirit had brought us previous afternoon to Patdi, a small town in Surendranagar district of Gujarat. The plethora of small waterbodies and green fields seen during the road journey had slowly decreased in numbers, though not really disappeared. It was yet early hours of the day in late winters, the breeze was cool, Sun had just started waking up the nature as its morning beams reflected on the streak of a jet in the sky. Our day also had begun early as we went exploring the Little Rann of Kutch (Rann), as a part of our annual pilgrimage to celebrate and commune with the nature.


The Rann is a vast area of almost 5000 Sq Km, believed to have been a navigable lake in the times of Alexander. The growing civilization of 2300 years, however, had changed its features - now comprising largely of arid grassland, saline desert & mudflats, thorny scrubs, marshes & seasonal shallow pools of water.  It still is one of the most remarkable and unique link in nature’s ecology - one of its kind in the entire world. It is a vast desiccated, unbroken bare surface of dark silt, encrusted with salts which transforms into a spectacular wetland for a brief while after the monsoon. 

What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well – so says Antoine De Saint-Exupery, in his classic allegory “The Little Prince”. Here, we were the adventurers in this desert looking for our well of treasure. For us, that morning the treasure that lied hidden in the Little Rann were some of the species of the birds and the mammals, unseen yet by us, one of them being Asian Wild Ass (the Khur), for whom, despite dwindling numbers, the Rann is their last refuge in the world. Our wish list however was not restricted to the Khurs but also included the Sand Grouse, Merlin, Owls, Harriers, Larks and Houbara Bustard, among others. The evening before we had already spelt out the wishlist to Pratap, the local guide, who nonchalantly had promised to show us most of these, while leaving remaining ones to the luck. His confidence seemed inspiring and despite not so good food at the resort we were staying at, the large number of stars above us in the sky and the tranquility around, made us look forward to the morning.

A few moments in the desert, and I was not sure any more about the sightings. The entrance into the sanctuary itself seemed to be an anticlimax – no gates, no road, just a signboard and a dirt-road track leading us away from the semblance of civilization into the vast span of mudflats dotted sparsely with the oasis of greens, and a few pools of waters. These pools of waters were the remains of one or two months of monsoon rain, during which a large area get inundated with water and attract enough of the migratory birds on their annual sojourn to escape the colder climates.


The disturbing fact, however, was the absence of any distinctive features in the landscape. Jidhar dekhoon, teri tasveer nazar aati hai..sung AB in Mahan to his object of affection. The uninteresting landscape all around us was making me think of these lines, though was not sure if our object of affection at the moment – the flat, arid, and monotonous, would have cared a bit. For us city-folks, used to travel in the concrete jungle through the myriads of street networks, leading to a variety of architectural efforts, this was disconcerting and a bit scary. It also made me wonder about the confidence that Pratap had shown the night before.

It seemed too late to worry, and since there was no turning back, it was time to look forward and enjoy the experience. I soon found out, that my lack of confidence was misplaced as sure enough, Pratap ably guided our driver in the vast monotonous expanse:

 - sometimes to the fringe of a waterbody, with vegetation nearby to point out a solitary Greater Spotted Eagle, getting ready for the day ahead, its eyes reflected the rising Sun –


 - egging us sometimes to lurk behind the shrubs and reach closer to the Lesser  Flamingoes, busy looking for their morning grub in the shallow pools of waters, with mirror like reflections


- peering constantly like an oracle into distance & then guiding us to reveal a male Marsh Harrier almost blending with the landscape.


With the breakfast time approaching, this was soon turning out to be much more than just a birding trip. First the Khurs made their appearance. However, the mistrust of the generations with the human beings ensured that they stayed at a distance, protecting the younger ones and conferring about the way to tackle the growing menace of the intruders in their area. 


The Neelgais were quicker in their thoughts and actions and resorted to galloping away to the safety.


Perhaps finding us affronted with the callous behaviour of the other mammals, the Rann decided to unfold its beauty.  The month of our visit being February, the aftereffects of the monsoon had more or less disappeared, turning the land into the parched caked mudflats. These mudflats seemed to be running into the omnipresent pools of water in the distant horizon. The water, which seemed to be evaporating faster than the laws of physics could make it possible, as we reached closer, till I realized that I was experiencing the beguiling magic of a mirage firsthand. Like travelling to the mountains and coming face to face with those titans, I was finding ourselves very insignificant with endless mudflats all around and the nature guffawing as it played pranks on us.


Soon the Sun had risen higher in the sky. The hoardes of Neelgais, Khurs & Common Cranes had reduced their early morning activity, conserving their energy, and disinterestedly, but cautiously, maintaining their distance from us. The sudden breakdown of our vehicle due to a punctured tyre just seemed to make us conspicuously interesting for a moment as a Khur started walking towards us, before changing its mind and direction. Of course, amidst all these, the kestrels with their fluttering flights overhead, the crouching sandgrouse, the grey francolins, the larks, the white cheeked-bulbuls, the wagtails and the desert wheatears were constantly making their presence felt.


The rising heat and aridity, despite the cooler breeze, was making us thirsty. This was also making the birds seeking shelters under variety of shrubs, making birding look easier. All that our guide had to do now was to visit these shrubs and hey presto – there were those elusive birds for we city folks. Sounds easier in a city but  we were in a land with no streets, similar looking landscape with the mirages confusing one further & the only GPS we had was embedded in the memory of our guide. Yet, it goes to the credit of our guide who unerringly made us sight birds like Merlin & Short Eared Owl.


With the noon hour approaching, we left the Rann, and after nourishing the body, spent some time in visiting a waterbody near Patdi. The Sun was scorching the earth yet the flocks of pintails, shovellers, geese, common teals, cormorants, grey & purple herons and a variety of waders were  holding otheir court looking like choir singers engaged in the practice before the beginning of the show.


Amidst this the occasional sorties by the raptors including a marsh harrier and a juvenile imperial eagle failed to make any impact on the siesta time of the water birds, refusing to budge from their chosen position in the court of nature.


With afternoon Sun reducing the heat, we returned to the Rann seeking the elusive Houbara Bustard in the wilderness. But the capricious Rann was sulking, refusing to reveal any more f its treasure – at least for this trip. As a result even though it was at an arms' length from us, the Houbara preferred to give us only a fleeting glimpse, before shying away in the shrubs.


As the evening hour approached, the setting Sun was giving long-shadowed kind of hints for us to go back . The expressions of the larks foraging on the ground also indicated that they have had enough of us.  With even the ducks deciding to fly away in the sky ablaze with the colours of the setting sun, we also bid our goodbye, gazing at the parting Rann with a fervent hope that it would generously welcome us again  and  unravel some more of its marvels when we meet next.

Mar 16, 2011

Talking Harsh is Nothing to Crow About...

“Hey, isn’t the crow your friend?”
A statement, which I am not sure was spoken in jest or sarcasm, - started a thought-process. Why is it that  normally Crows are not supposed to be among the adored birds?

Crows have been associated with human beings from time unknown; have been known to be sturdy, playful, intelligent and cunning.  While we all know about the folk tale of Thirsty Crow, those with any doubts about their playfulness & cunning must see them dodging our society’s resident dog Caspian, always leaving him with stupefied expressions.  

In various ancient mythologies from across the world, including the Scandinavian, Celtic, Mayan and South East Asian, crows have been depicted as the symbols or messengers of  God.  Among the Scottish, a complete body of lore has been built up from listening to the varied calls of the crows who have  the ability to mimic many kinds of sounds as well as to communicate with its own kind.  In the medieval times, the crows were said to have magical properties which included an ability to divine the future and to dismantle the past, as well as to teach human beings how to mix love, humor, and playfulness.

Closer home, in the Aryan culture, the crows have been associated with food & fertility while among Hindus, the Crow has been the emblem of God Varun as well as a messenger to our departed ones.

And yet, when a poll was conducted recently to select the symbolic bird for Mumbai, the Crow was among one of the contenders but lost out to the petite and more colorful Coppersmith Barbet- despite crows adding their might regularly to clean up the garbage, that we generate a plentiful of, on a regular basis.

Surely, there is something about crows that makes us dislike them….

Is it colour related racism on our part? But then koel (the male koel) is also black, so are the Drongo and a number of other birds and not yet ignored the way a crow is.

Could it be due to its being in too many in numbers all around us leading to the contempt that familiarity breeds? Not really conclusive when I notice the affection for sparrows, though they are declining now. Even common mynas or parakeets who command a large presence have never been treated so disdainfully.

Or could it be their continuing raucous calls, always harsh & discordant in nature, creating a cacophony, which puts one off? Yes, this seems to be the raison d’etre for this dislike.  

The mystical poet and one of the greatest saints of our country, Kabir had said:

Aisee Vani Boliye, Man Ka Aapa Khoye
Auran ko Sheetal Kare, Aaphu Sheetal hoye.

Kabir was always a keen observer of human behavior & profound in his analysis. In our personal interaction, our likes & dislikes of a person largely gets determined by how, when and what of his talks. The success & failures of high level negotiations, even among the countries as well as in the corporate world, have depended largely upon the demeanor & language of those who carried out the talks.

With the advent of the mobile technology, where more and more of us have become talkers then listeners & doers, to know how to talk is becoming critical even for the success of interpersonal relationships. Yet, we are talking more, getting aggressive, and letting our indignation and necessity to have the last word get better of our softer emotions.

Such being the importance of how we talk, it might be a good idea to actually understand the depth of the words that Lebanese poet & philosopher Kahlil Gibran used about the way we talk in his classic - The Prophet:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.
Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;
For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered
When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.

I hope I am on the right track here. But again, my entire idea of equating the way we talk with the crow may make me look like someone wet behind the ears, just like this crow whom I caught facing the hard thunderous rain with equanimity:


Mar 4, 2011

The Goodluck Charm...the beginning

On one of my recent postings about the Birds (O! Thou Heavenly Creatures…), a dear friend of mine commented..."You really are in love with these winged creatures. Aren't you?"

That simple, and completely true statement made my mind wander back to about 5 years ago when in Coorg, I first chanced upon (from the hotel room's window) a strange bird - shying away in the shadows of trees. The curiosity to know more about it, slowly unrevealed a world of treasure for me, as that marked the beginning of my hobby of bird & nature photography.

For all  passionate birdwatchers, the number of bird-species sighted (for the first time) has always been important, and it has not been any different for me. My recent trip to Gujarat made me cross a landmark of 300 different kinds of bird-sightings. Yet, in a country boasting of almost 1200 species, this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The real treasure still lies hidden, waiting to be explored.

On the course of my journey to reach this number, I captured, through my lense, not only birds, but also the smallest of creatures, the most varied kind of landscapes, and other celebrations of life on my camera. It also made me realise how, with so much demand on natural resources to fulfill our needs, we are depleting this treasure. Little do we realize that in the process we are also straying away from nature & in turn from God.

Akbar Illahabadi, the well-known Urdu poet had penned a ghazal - Hangama Hai Kyun Barpaa in response to his critics objecting to his friendship with wine-drinking friends of other religions. This was made more popular by Ghulam Ali in his inimitable style. One of the couplets of this ghazal was about the omnipresence of God:
Har Zarra chamakta hai, Anwar-e-Illahi se,
Har Saans yeh kahti hai, Hum hain to Khuda bhi hai..

Similar sentiments were echoed by William Blake, the English poet and painter of the late 18th century, in his all-time classic - Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

These are not solitary voices, as there are many more echoes, from different parts around the modern world. Our ancient Indian scriptures & philosophy was possibly the earliest known proponent of being close to nature. Rig Veda itself equated Nature's beauty as an art of God and commands us to feel the touch of God's invisible hands in every beautiful thing. Atharva Veda tells us God’s joy manifesting through splendour of his creations in the nature. “Kan-Kan men Bhagwan” has been one of the corner stone on which our mythologies are also based.  And yet, we – the citizens of the modern, more educated India are repeatedly isolating ourselves from nature.

My own regret has been about losing out on a precious 40 years of my life, ignorant about nature’s calming & well-balancing effect on the workaholic’s soul. Yet, I am not the only one. There are scores of others, still unaware of our deep rooted affinity with nature and the joys of simplicity – even if only once in a while. 

It may not be practical anymore to live a life like Henry David Thoreau, who decided to spend more than two years on the Walden Pond, away from civilization. Yet, there exists a fundamental truth in his writings: 
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind….. Our life is frittered away by detail….. We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without…Simplify! Simplify!

I believe that getting back to the roots on a regular basis, forsaking all luxuries and just to experience the simplicity, just like a lost child returning to its mother, and to learn what it has to teach, is something worth yearning for.  

This, being the thought uppermost on my mind as I complete 5 years of efforts of getting closer to nature, I chose to convert my blog into a bi-weekly update through a picture, hopefully, inviting and tempting enough to let nature reach out to us- soon, and more often.

To begin this (hopefully life-long) project, nothing better but to bring to you alive the colours of that strange shy bird with whose sighting this journey had begin for me – the Greater Coucal. Incidentally, while on almost all my birding trips I have had a sighting of this bird, it took me more than 4 years to capture a good picture of this good-luck charm of the farmers (& mine!). I just hope it continues to inspire more & more human beings, the way it inspired me…



A time to follow your dreams…

On a hot October morning, I and my friend were sitting at the rocky shore of Vashi Creek. Facing the ever increasing heat on the beach devoid of any shade was proving to be tiresome. More so, as with passage of time, our chances of sighting the migrant waders, having arrived in the region recently, seemed to be diminishing.

Not that, the shore was without any activity. We could occassionaly sight some of the residents making a cameo-kind of appearances – Brahminy kite, Spot-billed ducks gave a few fly pasts while Munias, juvenile golden orioles, little kingfisher, zitting cisticolas and bee-eaters were busy in their early morning routines in tall grasses, mangroves and the trees. Long tailed shrikes, having arrived recently, were vociferously establishing their territories. Away in the sea, occasionally we could see a not so visible flock of waders moving like a phantom, but the shore where we were sitting – the rocks were barren and had stared emitting the heat. My patience was running out and yet something was holding us back.

And then, like the song of Abba – they came flying from the far away – a good size flock of small waders, their silvery bodies glistening in the sun rays  – a mix consisting of curlew sandpipers, stints, ruddy turnstones, and plovers.

Flying into our region from places as far as Siberia and Alaska, some still juveniles, these waders cover a distance of almost 10000 miles! While there continues to be a plethora of studies to understand the migration phenomenon, watching the entire flock of these little feathered bodies, I stood wondering about the tenacity, energy, courage and the risk taking ability of these waders.

As these, and many other migratory birds, move out of their safety zone, leave the known shores, I am sure somewhere in their intelligence they must be aware of the challenges that they would face in their zest for the sunnier climate. Crossing oceans, facing storms they fly onto a route imprinted in their brain genetically since generations. But never do they falter because of their belief in their own capabilties.

Yes! Without knowing about Zig Ziglar, these visitors epitomize his words - When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal; you do not change your decision to get there.

And I, just a few moments ago, was ready to retreat back into air-conditioned comfort and give up seeing such a wondrous sight. So here was yet another lesson learnt from the nature: You have to risk going too far to discover just how far you can really go!!

But most important was to comprehend the thought behind the words of Sergio F Bambaren:
There comes a time in life
When there is nothing else to do
But to go your own way.
A time to follow your dreams,
A time to raise the sails of
Your own beliefs.
Don’t let your fears stand in
The way of your dreams!

Here is a glimpse of these feathered friends as seen that morning.

Wishing you all an inspired week ahead!