Once upon a not-so-far-away, but gone-in-a-twinkling Time, I was young. I was younger than free India by a few years. The country of my youth did not have television, designer jeans or foreign brand names smirking in supercilious solicitousness. But my Bharat did have clean, sweet smelling air and vistas of green, even in the cities. Even in Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai-Madras.
I take a careful peep through the Kaleidoscope of Memories and this is what I see: Gul Mohar flaming in the parks. Roses blushing pale or deep. The gardens around Rashrapati Bhavan with their glorious blend of soft and vivid colours. School picnics in a variety of locales in Delhi - laughter and innocent play under abundant trees.
I turn the Magic Kaleidoscope gently and look eagerly at another crop of memories from those years....Summer holidays in the South of India with my grandparents. Ample gardens full of a lip-smacking array of fruit trees - mango, banana, chickoo, lime, woodapple.
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Furtively, I indulge in one last careful glimpse of my Yesterday Time.... It is early morning in my maternal great grandmother's house. I am rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I walk quietly through the slumbering rooms to the garden at the back, to see the two kingfishers that swoop down, every dawn, to sip the water that runs down a little gully, just as the sky turns from diffused pink red to cloudy blue.
If you have seen a kingfisher, even but once, you will know what I mean when I say, no turquoise, no amethyst or lapis lazuli, whether set in silver or in gold, can match the living blue of that beautiful bird. On the odd day, when lazy eyelids did not open in time, I carried a heavy heart.
The days of summer holidays in the South lasted only some weeks, my stays with my great grandmother were even less, mere days, and my sightings of those kingfishers measured only in seconds
And now, I must carefully wrap that fragile Kaleidoscope in the soft tendrils of grey matter and white matter; though it's Fate matters not to anyone else, it matters too much to me.
Life has taken me here and there - to pleasant Lands with Clean Air, Clean Water and Clean Soil. There are vast tracts of land in these places and sparse population. Nature reserves, carved out by some long dead visionary, continue to delight generation after generation. New havens for tree, animal and bird are still created by determined citizens who have, over time, realised that without the green lungs of forests and diversity of fauna and flora, Humans are shortchanging their Humanity.
In these reserves of Nature and even in the trees in the backyards of houses, there is an abundance of birds. When I had but newly arrived, the soft chirp or raucous call of crimson rosella or sulphur-crested cockatoo winging across azure blue skies would fill me with complete pleasure.
But with each passing year, a strangeness has taken hold. When I now laugh at the clownish kookaburra, only half my heart smiles. The other half cries, quick, furtive, gulping tears, for the Land of my birth, for the Tiger, the Peacock, the Kingfisher, the Elephant, the Lion and yes, even the Monkey.
I will tell you what I read, so that you can think about it and discuss it with others. Once you have digested the words, you must ask as many people as you can, questions like these, 'Who are these people? What does the State Government do? Why do Indians not discuss these things with anger, with sadness? Why do our schools not actively promote awareness of larger issues like conservation more aggressively? If being a vegetarian, wholly or in major part, plays a role in saving wildlife and prevents over-exploitation of earth's forests and scarce fresh water resources, especially in overpopulated countries, why should it not be proclaimed to be more 'life-friendly'? What is so great about eating beef? How many people know that to produce one kilo of beef requires the use of 100,000 litres of water - with most of this water irrigating the feedstock that is grown for consumption by the cattle?
Does it mean anything to anyone that one kilo each of rice, potato and corn require only 2000 litres, 500 litres and 580 litres of water respectively? Do individuals ever wonder how water is used in a world burgeoning with people - a world in which cattle bound for abattoirs are often fed better than millions of poor humans. Why look with awe at fat, overweight Westerners who must have their bulging stomachs filled with more calories than is good for their bodies and whose taste buds dictate the destruction of Amazonian forests and their conversion to yet another hog and cattle ranch?
And who are the Zemi Naga tribespeople, who quietly moved away in 1895 from the Cachar Hills? And what sort of people, bowing to what gods, are these Jantiyas, who now wait for those cold, overcast nights of October, every year, when they can club to death, soft feather and warm blood?'
The report that made me rue man's taste for blood of bird and animal appeared in a daily newspaper in Sydney. Their New Delhi correspondent, Rahul Bedi, wrote the article. Here is a condensed version of what I read:
In the midst of the Cachar Hills, along Assam's border with Burma lies a valley known as Death Valley. Under certain weather patterns, overcast skies, ground mist and drizzle, a macabre scene, straight out of Hell can be witnessed, every October. Thousands of rare birds, kingfishers, emerald doves, hill partridges, racket-tailed drongos and other rare species, are clubbed to death. By 2000 villagers
A group of Jantiya tribespeople took over the area. And they enjoy this bloodthirsty, senseless, 'annual sport'. The ways of trapping the confused birds are not pretty. Modern electricity and bulbs join force with lanterns. It is easier to electrocute birds when the arms grow tired of thrashing to death one bird after another. One bird after another.
The article ended with this paragraph, "'The young men brag about killing beautiful birds for fun, but what will they boast about when they are all gone,' laments the local school teacher, Jephri Well Massa."
I looked in the papers again the next day. There was no more about it. Just a little article thrown in about the way people in the Third World live and don't let live. There were no 'Letters to the Editor' about this awful carnage either. It happened so far away. If it had happened in a First World Country, the noise, the outrage, the anger, the public determination to do something would have raised this issue to another plane altogether.
But a Third World Country. What else to expect? But that Third World Country sits in one half of my heart.
In all humbleness, I have tried to explain the strange mysteries of the Quixotic Heart and the Living Planet to my daughters. I tell them, as often and in as many different ways that I can think of, words to this effect:
The human heart has two halves, two pumps, working as a unitary whole. What do they contain? Good blood, bad blood? No! They contain oxygenated blood and deoxygenated blood. Into one side of the heart, oxygen depleted blood pours in from all over the body and is sent to the lungs for revitalization. Into the other side pours oxygen enriched blood that is sent speeding around the body to keep a trillion little cells functioning and alive.
The heart is not a symmetric organ. One side is larger and its muscle wall much thicker than that of the other. But the bigger part, without the smaller one, would be a crippled organ - incapable of sustaining the human body, nurturing the human mind or cherishing the human soul.
The world too is an organic whole - with many examples of a bigger part and a smaller part, divided by seemingly definite, impermeable, impenetrable barriers. But just like the two parts of the human heart, the separateness is only in name and form. For, as surely as the air you breathe has gone in and out of a million lungs, so too are all the Living bound by timeless links to Earth, to Air, to Water, to Animal, to Bird, to Flower, to one another and to the Soul of Life.
First World versus Third World. Rich versus Poor. Humans versus Animal and Plant life. All these 'opposing' pairings seem to be at an impasse today, with one side winning and the other losing. One half claims superiority over the other by virtue of economic imperative, wealth or by simply being Homo sapiens. Such divides are a fallacy. An immeasurable tragedy. For there is only one Earth, just as within you there is but a single, lonely heart."
Slowly, over the years, these words take root in young hearts. Tentatively, young minds begin to question and learn wisdom. Then eagerly, human cubs and fledglings too make acquaintance, on another footing with Mother Nature and her vast treasures.
And so it was, in search of another encounter with the Natural World, we entered the little sanctuary of Ranganathittu, in Mysore. We arrived a little before the peak season, on a weekday. The whole place had a clean, wholesome feel. Trees casually flung out branches providing welcome shade.
Bamboo rose up laconically high and arched gently and gracefully, only as bamboo can. Little wooden plaques carried the names of birds and words on avian life by the one and only Salim Ali.
Further on stretched the water with small islands and clumps of rocks covered with bushes. We stepped into a boat. The man who effortlessly plied the oars had lived just outside the sanctuary all his life. He had been a boatman at Ranganathittu for many years - his deep burnt teakwood skin attested to this. Not only did he know all the species of birds but had bestowed a personal name for each and every crocodile around!
Although we had not gone at that time of the year when migratory birds swarmed in their lakhs, there were enough feathered bundles around to keep us enthralled. Our boatman took us circling around the little islets. He would stop every now and then and patiently urge us to twist this way and that, till we saw the birds hidden between the branches or snuggled flat on grey-brown sun-flecked rock, camouflaged so perfectly, that our inexperienced eye, though looking straight at them, had not the knowledge to see.
And as on land, so on water - a friend must greet a friend. We found ourselves being introduced to a crocodile 'yaar' with these heartening words, 'So, Ramu, which little missy would you like to eat!'
My parents, when they later saw the video, were aghast. To go so close to a crocodile, even a somnolent one, oblivious to the world on his warm bed of rock, was to tempt Fate. Luckily, the crocodile was in contented dreamland under the noonday sun and did not see lunch moving away.
The boat floated away in another direction and slowed as the boatman pointed towards the bank and hissed, "Peacocks, up on that tree." Our eyes squinted and struggled to focus. Yes - three peacocks with long beautiful plumage were sitting on a tree at a fair height up from the ground. As we watched, one of them suddenly screeched and took flight.
Flapping, in an endearingly ungainly manner, it crossed the stretch of water, landing with heart-warming clumsiness on some bushes on an islet.
We had never before seen a peacock fly across water before. We sat staring at the bird with bemused smiles. As it had dashed across, propelling its large, brilliant purple, blue, green self over our heads, we had been filled with quick consternation. The sparkling liquid spread between bank and islet had seemed too wide for this big bird. But we had been mistaken.
The boatman laughed at our confusion. Maybe, somewhere, the souls of Salim Ali and a hundred other ornithologists too did the same.
Click! Snap! Record!??' No, we had no time for that. For when a peacock wants to fly, it does not wait for such flippancy. A bird takes wing, a bird begins to sing, not for cold cash or photographic archive. It flies, it sings, because it is a living thing.
The flight of that Peacock, remains for us, the most evocative memory of our visit to the Bird Sanctuary of Ranganathittu - to be added to that Kaleidoscope of Memories that we must keep safe. Wrapped in white matter, grey matter......
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.