How do you know when you love a book? I know when I resist finishing it. It’s a habit I picked up for Lord of the Rings. Today, I did finish reading the Bird Business, by Rohan Chakravarty: the illustrated peek into the daily lives of a 100 species of birds in India (paraphrased). The last few pages greeted me like old friends.. As it turns out the last page was on Shaheen, the Peregrine Falcon of India, its namesake the peaceful battleground of anti-CAA and anti-NPR movement led by muslim women of Delhi. And the poster Rohan made that I took with me to Shaheen Bagh, because of which I have a photo that reminds me of, well, me.
I usually call myself a birder, which will tell you I officially took the tag on in the US, because in India, I would have called myself a birdwatcher. But I started in India, my most amazing friend from Bangalore introduced me to birdwatching in Delhi, I only had perhaps three outings with him and friends. With no personal binoculars, I clearly (!) remember seeing the golden oriole and a peregrine falcon, hahah, I know, I saw a greyish bird far-ish away and VSM jumped 2 feet, which was utterly peculiar behavior for him, even on a birding trip. So I guess my relationship with the falcon has culminated today and I am its forever. Thankfully, I am not a feral pigeon, as RC will point out in his illustration once you read his book. In my numbered birding (oh, it is fewer letters) outings in India, some were in Bangalore, one was to see water birds, egrets and ibises, in Rangenthittu. At that time two people in my group had binoculars, so I saw a lot better. Today when I flipped through Bird Business I was reminded of a bird I saw on the boat ride, the Indian cliff swallow in their ‘mud apartments’, as RC calls them. I had no recollection of these birds until he mentions where to see them. For each bird, since the book is on bird behavior, the illustration is of its characteristic behavior, presented in a way only a genius could have done. I do not use that word lightly, if you text mined my blog AND any other thing I have written you may find 3 instances of use of the word “genius” and they are all well deserved. To drive the point home: the bats reflected in the eyes of a Shikra, which only hunts in dusk for the pipistrelle bat, as the text tells you, are an example of the expert illustration. This type of a knack for detailing cannot be taught or learned, and therefore is genius, dang, text mining has to be supervised, but you get my meaning. Anyway, I digressed, so in addition to a characteristic behavior there is an explanation of mechanics: like for the Red crossbill and its special bill for pine seeds. There is also more than one dance illustration. Until you see them, or I saw them, I had no idea how well non-human dances can be depicted in masterful strokes of color, it was beyond my imagination and my generally hard-to-blow mind was blown back in January when I first opened the book. I have a thing for dancing (which I have never mentioned in this blog, so there’s another first).
Today I started with first looking at the illustration of the rosy starlings murmurations, because its now a part of a curated hall of fame in Singapore, and yes, I have seen European starling murmurations, I am not blind, but I don’t think even the rosy starlings can live up to what the illustration makes of them swinging around. Or they might.
The habitat birds occupy often determine their characteristic mating behavior, as I have been aware before of course, but had no idea that the Lesser Floricans leap high to attract attention in the tall grass they live in, “high-jump gold-medalist” RC calls them. I cannot-not-mention the coordinated courtship dance of the flamingoes, because, what else is there in this life if one is not at least aware of such a phenomenon (even if this “one” has never seen one, sniff!), flashmob he called that. The final piece of dance I want to mention is the Eurasian Wryneck and its twist (girls like to twist, and we will get to swing): this twist is accompanied by hissing and is an adaptation to ward off predators the wryneck faces, by taking the form of snakes.
While all birds are special and in this book they all get a VIP treatment, with spa and ego massage, I want to special mention two: the Nicobar Scrubfowl that incubates eggs using a special mechanism that you cannot just guess. If any of you make compost, that’s a hint, but read the book to know. The second is the white browed bushchat, which does a delightful dance move, which I would call a shimmy and a spectacle it is too. Last week I saw a video for it for the first time and today I saw it in the book, and I have to say both the bushchat and RC do the shimmy proper justice. As do I, so sorry, not sorry, for another mention of dance.
Finally I want to take space and time to make note and highlight how courtship, mating and raising the young is handled in the book with love, spice, mischief, majesty and respect. Birds do it all, males raise the young as female finds new mates (Pheasant-tailed Jacana), both raise the young, female raises the young, are promiscuous and may mate for life (Sarus cranes) , what they don’t do as RC will tell you: is be disrespectful. And he gives a peek into his own personality of being respectful and a feminist as you finish the book. Of course, if you follow Green Humour comics you already know that, but I hope this time I am not singing to the choir and someone reads this who does not already follow his work.
I want to finish with special mention to the Indian roller illustration as I have actually seen them roll (back in Bangalore) and that was the day I knew I would be a birder. My current most favorite illustration is that of the Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo, who knows individual rights, as well as how society works with cooperation, as it nucleates mixed flocks by mimicking various pretty birds. But may startle them with calls of a falcon too, so they drop a fly or two.. This is not merely an illustrated book on Indian birds, I have always defied categorization of ethereal things. RC is elven, this book is artistic, humourous, joyful and an uplifting treatise. Trust me.
While I still haven’t finished reading the last chapter of The Return of the King, because Frodo will reach his primary goal and what he does next is unknowable to me; Rohan Chakravarty – Green Humour and king as well as the ring-bearer ( since he defies categorization) of wildlife and environmental comics for India, has only just begun. The world cannot have enough of his work.
Happy Anniversary Bird Business.
A little on art this year, as a post even if I am cataloging most of my art work under projects in my art portfolio on this blog as well.
This year I visited India and made new contacts with nature enthusiasts, some professional conservationists furthering the cause of wildlife conservation through political campaigning. Being someone who always accepts their real reaction to significant events rather late.. ( perhaps because my subconscious is way more powerful and obscure than my consciousness) I was only to realize what a extraordinary trip this was going to be later, but this time, not too late (one hopes). In terms of its repercussions.. or what I hope will be the repercussions. I also went to show support to the women of Shaheen Bagh, now famous worldwide to lead a peaceful protest against GOI’s discriminatory CAA (citizenship ammendment act) and NRC. I felt kinship to the women sitting at the camp, that was supported by artists like Shubha Mudgal, writers, poets and professors who went on stage to explain the constitution as experts. The rights guaranteed by the constitution to every citizen, and how CAA is anti-constitutional. It is not clear to many Indians how the government can pass unconstitutional laws, even if it is quite a mainstream subject in the US. In India it is generally assumed that the government is lawful, and more so in these times of extreme nationalism when you are either with the government or anti-national. At any rate, somehow this minor (negligible) participation in something significant made me want to do make more negligible contributions to significant things that make my heart feel at peace with the world. Because it is in the right place, with the right people even if both the place and the people are under threat.
As witnessed in this blog and by my friends, I have gravitated towards being a conservationist for several years now, while continuing to use my “academic” training. Since last year I became more closely involved with the Sutton Avian research center in town, which is a very small (in terms of personnel) center pursuing breeding and reintroduction of at least three types of game-birds and separately conducting breeding studies in Oklahoma.So, coming back from India and with my continued and increasing awareness of phenomenal researchers and conservationists working in India, I find myself in the middle of a pandemic, and waiting to go back to India. As the Indian government make naught of forest protection acts, sentencing pristine, global diversity hotspots to destruction, like by (nearly approving) the construction of the Etalin dam in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh or by the approval of coal mining in Dehing Patkai elephant reserve in Assam, I feel more drawn towards wanting to make a meaningful contribution. To somehow make concrete my connection to the Indian wild. Somewhere I have never really been, but I know I must try to see if it will have me.
Most of these drawings are not of India species, but everyone needs to practice somewhere, and if I may ask for your wishes to help me get to somewhere I can use this practice.
Other artwork from this series is also here in my blog.
While there is a lot to think about Covid19 it self and write, both of which I am doing or have done, I won’t be writing much about it in this post. Today it’s time to rue the time we were in New Orleans and going around the oldest restaurant streets, in a food tour. I have been cooking for many years now (but I don’t want to count),I am enough of an existentialist to be a gourmet cook. And I had never heard of Roux until September 2019. So, that means unlike researching every thing about modeling, vaccines, treatments, policies that are needed to combat Sars-CoV2, I don’t even know where to look for food knowledge, even if my foodie friends have tried to direct me to TV shows, but I have not been compelled. It is much nicer to go to a place they make food a divinity. NOLA is certainly one of those places. Roux is a french sauce that can be the base of any type of seafood, meat stew. It is basically equal parts oil (plain/white) and flour and constant stirring, because if one doesn’t, it will burn. People make large pots of it and store. Our cooking demonstrator had a way of measuring how long it takes: the number of wine glasses she has had. The lighter (white or blond) roux is for seafood chowders, soups and darker for meat gumbos. The darker one takes her 3-5 wine glasses.
Then she told us about holy trinity, the basis of creole food: Onion, Celery and Green Pepper. We met our food tour guide at Tujagues, the second oldest restaurant in the world, with the oldest bar in the US (brought over from France over 200 years ago).This restaurant can claim to have had a previous owner, Elizabeth, Kettenring Dutrey Begue (whose descendants combined two old restaurants)who invented Brunch at around 11, a second breakfast, to feed people who worked through very early morning at the french market. She told us creole just means a mixture of cultures, which Nola is: that of the German Catholics, the Africans (who brought with them, Okra and rice, now a staple in Louisiana cuisine), French of course and Spanish. And if this wasn’t enough of a mixture, a simpler mix is Cajun: developed by the French canadians who settled in the wilderness, which includes chilies from native americans. Cajun is boudin sausages for example, and gumbo is creole. During Prohibition, these old restaurants continued to serve alcohol under the covers or behind in one of their labyrinthine rooms, and even invented drinks like Grass Hopper. Antoine’s the oldest restaurant in America is also in the french quarter, I had the famous sazerac from their bar. The classy restaurants had serious owners who started the business, some decadent descendants like Germaine Wells who had so many Mardi gra ball outfits they made a museum, which understandably led to many hardships that they survived through donations by rich patrons. Sometimes the patrons may have been the mafia, like the Brossard’s, where we tastes croquetes. From Pralines, to muffalata and creole mustard, from Po boys, for the ‘poor boys’: which is a sandwich with french bread, even if it just has onions, it is still a Po Boy, but usually it is stuffed, to the hurricane, NOLA has invented food and drink for the masses. Even while catering to the elite, under resplendent chandeliers and upscale bars, the culture of NOLA is inclusion, creole and warm plus cajun and hot. As the city , as many in the country, fights off the virus, I hope everyone I met is safe. I regret forgetting their names, but their warmth has left a glow within.
Just when I almost gave up. Although, that’s a terribly arrogant statement to make, who was I to give up anyway. What did I ever do. I grew up thinking the country belonged to everyone, people who didn’t think so were in a minority and could be ignored, we were secular, progressive without trying to open my eyes to reality. I didn’t know about the state sponsored atrocities on the indigenous (POSCO etc), the AFSPA of the northeast, the ratio of armed forces to civilians in Kashmir. OK, I may have known the last, but that was justified, and aren’t armed forces nice? We lived around military officials living in the same complex as us and in general they seemed strong and capable.
The only thing I ever did that made me a real Indian was moving to the US. Unless one can count going through every Indian girl’s issues of traveling by public transport or even existing. I do count that towards a huge part of the reason (or a small part, depending on the day) I no longer have an Indian passport.
Hey, if papers were going to tell me who I am, I would be a Doctor of Philosophy and a Master of Science and I actually worked hard for those papers. So…. (shrugs) But now, papers are going to tell Indians if they are Indians, and since their life, already filled with struggles that still accommodates real pride in being Indian has been brought to the dot beneath the question mark, I want to claim my Indian heritage. I want to be speaking out for them, as the Modi -Shah led government announced Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA,(that breezed through the parliament and sang through the President) that ‘everyone’ was welcome in India. As long as everyone was a persecuted non- Muslim from one of three Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh), our close neighbors, but definitely not our only neighbors. Persecuted? Its one of those terms that mean nothing and everything in India, because one would be hard-pressed to find anyone not persecuted by someone there, whether or not they are fully aware of that fact. And this and the NRC would be just another set of laws that persecuted the poor, the adivasis, the people without power and papers.
So, NOW I am working hard to earn the Indian heritage I just gathered up in the little incubator they put me after birth. Holy Family hospital, somewhere close to Jamia Islamia University, where the Delhi police- under union minister Amit Shah spread tear gas indoors, inside the library when students were inside, beat up and terrorized unarmed students protesting outside. Because this muslim majority university was protesting against the CAA, as is their right in our constitution. Oh, on that, I should mention I was aware of the constitution, who wrote it, what it was supposed to do (give everyone equal rights and protect the real minorities who were ignored by everyone unless their land had minerals). I was not aware that the constitution made us the republic and the secular country we are, I instead, assumed, that we made the constitution so that it reflected who we are. haha!!! What a travesty. Naïveté should be banned.
However, in the US I learned people like to throw around the constitution at each other, all the time, while everyone says they believe in it. And freedom of expression is in between a tumultuous right and a double-edged sword. Sticks and stones….. except words matter. (Even if they are just tweets. )And I get completely insane when the wrong ones like “jihadi” or “anti-national” are used against students in India. I was a student in India. That was the one time in my life I was clearly, categorically SOMEONE. But so was everyone else around me who I do not recognize anymore. So, I suppose as opposed to my peer ex-students who think HINDUISM is our heritage, my real heritage is: not the history (belongs to the world), not the culture (belongs to everyone and is ever changing), it is having been a student in India. A student with dreams and hope. When I thought science had no boundaries, I had a stable family and government that let me think acquiring knowledge was a good thing and using it would be my privilege and contribution to society. Adding to the knowledge, has been my life’s goal. And in the US, for the first time being really on my own, where my assumptions no longer had a pre-existing framework I could hang them on, I realized people really cannot comprehend the sum of human knowledge. They don’t even want to know (which, I have to say, was the most shocking thing I had learned in my entire student life, yes, I was and am from that India where everyone appreciates knowledge). Yes, sure, I thought everyone who went to JNU was a poet with a jhola, but never did I doubt they were good. Because, wasn’t I, good?
So anyone who attacks even a single student in India is attacking me, the quest for knowledge, the hope of this world and the very existence of human civilization. Because, without the knowledge of our history in every possible topic, we are animals (yes, borrowed from Game of Thrones, but really from Anathem by Neal Stephenson). If we do not perpetuate the accumulated human knowledge, and try to expand it, we are like sheep. So, what’s to KNOW about CAA: it is discriminatory towards Muslims, non muslims from other nations without proper papers that show their Indian ancestry (Indian parents) or birth (born between 1950-1987, again with papers) will be granted citizenship, Muslims will not. However, the catch is that when National Registry for Citizenship (NRC) was implemented in Assam (NE India) people had to PROVE they were Indian. Doubtful citizenship is actually enough for incarceration ( i got that information from a post by the dependable Gautam Bhan, activist and researcher, on FB, so my faith in the uses of social media is restored). When people are expected to keep papers one imagines rooms in houses with shelves or drawers. People don’t have them in India. Some of them have trunks for papers, but you know, daughters often leave their homes and papers behind. We have had floods, landslides, hurricanes, tornadoes. People have been sent to detention centers in Assam for years before it could be proven they were indeed Indians. I would be remiss to mention here that the Indians of Assam have been worried about their cultural dilution because of “infiltrators” from other countries and have supported NRC, and removal of foreigners of all religions. So, they are actually not interested in the religion of the foreigners. They have been opposing the CAA (mostly) because the government plans to grant citizenship to non-Muslims and that does not solve their issues against illegal foreigners. But they are not the student protestors I am supporting.
The students on the other hand have been protesting nation-wide (god bless them, or Doctor who can too!) against the CAA because it is unconstitutional, discriminatory and a carte blanche to the HINDU right to deprive muslims from their rights, and their country and once NRC is implemented, people will be sent to detention centers (and I don’t even want to say like Nazi Germany, because it is so obvious, but just in case someone missed that), and await trial or deportation. Deportation to where though? Is it likely that someone living in India has kept their papers from some other country? There are scores of examples of exclusion of citizens in the NRC because of religion .
When it looks like, smells like and tastes like it.. It is oppression of minorities and dissent. If you cannot see the swastika flashes, boy, naïveté should be a crime!
So, I am no longer Indian by right. I never earned it to begin with. But, I did earn a logical brain and it works. I did earn humanity and that also works. And I am with every student protester and everyone who supports them. I am with Sadaf Jafar who was arrested by the UP police, UP where there is an internet blackout (like Kashmir), where protesters have died and police claim they didn’t shoot anyone, she was live on Facebook. People saw her reporting.. The police tackled Ramachandra Guha.. a historian (what did I say we were without history?) and my cousin in law who is never going to read this, said proudly she was with the saffron gang. She uses things like pseudo-secularism and pseudo-muslims.. That is when I realized why I support students from Jamia and JNU, they know education is a privilege, not something that can simply be paid for. The country has been busy producing engineers and mbas and doctors and forgot about the liberal arts and you know, humanity a global perspective and the kind (I wanted to say right, but you know, I don’t know what the heck is right or how to define it without sounding like a pompous ass) way to put it in context.
IF all the current government has to show for itself is 1) oppressing kashmiris, well, we have been doing it for many decades, they have only made it totally inhuman now. 2) some railroad in the NE 3) Making a temple in Ayodhya.. Is the Hindu rashtra agenda really what India wants? I had a feeling it does, and that is the primary reason my papers are from elsewhere. I had hopes to be a world citizen. A hope that India nurtured unknowingly. A hope I still carry. Who knows where I will be next. But I will never stop being an Indian Student who wants to learn and has the right to do so no matter what their parents believe, no matter where they pray. The right to dissent is much more of a right than freedom of speech, in my opinion. I don’t particularly think giving a platform to nazis to talk without corroboration by facts helps anyone even if it is freedom of speech: however I believe in that freedom too. Just that dissent can be curbed and purged and then the people fighting FOR freedom of speech will no longer be there.
Do you see me finally
Her eyes asked unassumingly
In this crowd of happiness
I must confess,
I’m no village beauty
They darted to the other girl
Everyone admired earlier..
Perhaps it’s my baby
That you now see
I dressed her special today
I put the camera away,
after this shot
Barely noting what I’d got!
Held those eyes with a grateful smile
I didn’t know then, it’s been a while
She would be poetry.
ID Nov 8 2019