Our parallel universes: Eyes must see, Ears must listen, heart must seek

I realized that time wasn’t rushing by, I was. This long lockdown has meant longer hours at home watching the birds, and they in turn have promptly obliged, writes Sneha Sudha Komath for South Asia Monitor  

Sneha Sudha Komath Jun 21, 2020

If Delhi was the city of hearts, I lived in the heart of hearts. And also, perhaps, its lungs. Spread over roughly a 1000 acres, the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was a get-away-from-the-city space within the capital city of the country.  Yet, for a while, I almost didn’t notice it. For as far as I could remember, I had been driven by my passion for science and, for over a decade, I had given my all to establishing an independent research group within the university. Setting aside all my other interests, I had single-mindedly driven myself into a hole and woken up one morning completely exhausted and ill. Today, when the whole world is in the throes of a pandemic whose end appears nowhere in sight, I am reminded once again of that moment. 

As I sat back and took stock of the time that had slipped by, and the grey that had crept into my hair, it was apparent that I needed to find myself again. Of the few things that had endured through the years were my long morning walks. So the next morning when I set out on my walk, I carried a small camera in my pocket. I began to notice once again the colours of the butterflies and the angle of the sun. The camera, it turned out, had become my portal to the many parallel universes that existed around me. Suddenly, I began to notice how the mynahs had a running feud with the squirrels and how tenderly the crows fed their young. I noticed how the otherwise unruly dogs kept well away from the lapwings and how fearlessly the latter would attack any dog that strayed uncomfortably close. I noted how different the jungle crow sounded from its cousin, the house crow, and how the jungle babblers were so much noisier than the large grey ones. That the common babbler was not so common at all and that the yellow-eyed babbler had orange eyes. 

Camera in hand, I began to record our common residents, the feisty purple sunbirds, the mellifluous magpie robins, the quarrelsome common mynahs, the gentle-collared doves, the bashful Eurasian hoopoes, the garrulous rose-ringed parakeets. And our many hardy visitors - Siberian chiffchaffs, black redstarts, taiga flycatchers, lesser white eyes. I began to learn to identify them, note their eccentricities, anticipate their arrivals, and wait for their calls. 

In spring, when a nip was still in the air, the palash trees would be in full bloom, attracting a wide variety of birds, and me. In March and April, when the mulberry trees would bear fruit, the strawberry finches would don their finest robes. Murmurations of rosy starlings would then cover the Delhi skies and the koels would begin their songs. In April, when the neem flowers blossomed, white pioneer butterflies would appear and the brightly coloured bee-eaters would return. In May, when the wild figs ripened, plum headed parakeets would pay me a visit. And in June when the mangoes were ready Alexandrine parakeets would host a feast. 

I learned that golden orioles would arrive at the start of summer, with the males preceding the females into our campus. That even before summer set in, the hawk cuckoos would arrive with their pre-dawn ‘brain fever’ song, and that the pied cuckoos would follow, a couple of months later, with the promise of rain. When the cuckoos were readying to leave, red-breasted flycatchers would be planning to fly in and the peacocks would have fallen silent. The barbets and woodpeckers, though, would keep calling for quite a while longer. Booted eagles would challenge the black kites and ashy drongos would give company to the black ones. 

I listened for the scops owl’s nightly whoop and the demanding squawks of fledgling parakeets. I recognized the gentle whistle of yellow-footed green pigeons and the mocking laughter of laughing doves. I knew from the cackle of the treepie that it was looking for a meal and when it sang most soulfully that it was looking for its mate. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to notice that the background music changed with the landscape, with the seasons. Arrivals and departures, love, and survival, the theatre of life hosted it all. 

Yes, the jackals sometimes caught a peacock and the shikra got a bulbul. The white-throated kingfisher frequently caught a lizard and the brown-headed barbet occasionally ate a hatchling. 

When I ventured into the city, long pauses at red lights or the many unpredictable jams no longer made me impatient. I instead noticed the bluish bank mynas at the chaotic Mahipalpur crossing and the beautiful black-winged kites on the busy national highways. I saw that red-naped ibises had built nests on eucalyptus trees and that the tiny tailor birds sang lustily over the vegetable market’s din. Sometimes grey hornbills flew over traffic, wire-tailed swallows perched on electric cables or little swifts whizzed over the malls. 

I realized that time wasn’t rushing by, I was. This long lockdown has only brought it home to me more forcefully. The enforced slowing down has meant longer hours at home watching the birds, and they in turn have promptly obliged. Rare flocks of greater flamingoes, bar-headed geese, painted storks, a pair of purple herons, Asian paradise and ultramarine flycatchers, cinereous tits, black-crowned night heron and an oriental pratincole, have all come by to investigate the unusual happenings. 

And, yes, I continue to stop now to watch a crow soften its food in the water bowl I left outside or a peacock entice the peahens with its dance on my terrace. On night walks, I see the small civet catching insects under street lights and the porcupine investigating the dustbins. I notice the dewdrops on the rose petals and the jamuns under my feet. And, yes, the camera is really just a prop. To live, not merely exist, the eyes must learn to see, the ears must learn to listen and the heart must learn to seek.

(The author is a Professor, School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an enthusiastic amateur birder. She can be reached at sskomath@yahoo.com)