Neralu. Only questions. No answers.

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For the third time, I set aside a weekend to attend Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival. And for the third time, I came back with some nice pictures – and little else.

neralu-1-9Neralu, like other such “celebrations” of Nature, has a lot of passion, enthusiastic volunteers, energetic workshops, the usual collection of grey-headed academics and assorted “experts”, and the mandatory music concert accompanied by lusty applause and thunderous foot-stomping.

The primary reason for carting myself across the city through all the traffic (even on a Sunday) was the talk delivered by Dr Harini Nagendra. Turned out to be a disappointment. The title of the talk was itself misleading, the content was nothing new and its conclusion was hardly inspirational. One expects a lecture by a qualified ecologist of her repute to be considerably better than what one can learn from Wikipedia.

That Bangalore’s current state is alarming, is already well known. Bangalore’s ecological history is also well known, at least to me. And I’m not even an ecologist, mind you. What one is really concerned about is Bangalore’s ecological future. This was the one question that I posed to her that Dr Harini would not answer.

Her evasiveness on the question served to confirm what I have long known – that Bangalore’s doom is all but inevitable. To my mind, Doom is already here.

The cyber-talk on plant evolution that followed, delivered via skype (or whatever) by Pranay Lal was equally pedantic. It may be fascinating to learn that dinosaurs once ruled the Deccan and feasted on cycads during the Mesozoic, but the questions that trouble those of us who live in the Cenozoic remain unanswered. DSC00613.jpgNothing wrong in an author trying to promoting his book through a lecture, but in this instance, I do not think the purpose was served.

What I did like was the tree-walk at Krishna Rao park conducted by Narayan, Divya and Srikanth. And I did enjoy the workshop conducted by Charumati Supraja. These are nice, unpretentious folk with a genuine fondness for trees.neralu-1-4.JPG

The evening musical performance was, well, passable. One cannot doubt the musical know-how of Bindumalini Narayanaswamy and Vasu Dixit. What one looks for though, is clean melody, a sweetness of voice, that sincerity of sound that pleases the ear and thrills the heart. The raucous support from their fans in the audience notwithstanding, this rare quality is missing from their music. This is what separates the good from the great. One hopes that this singular quality will develop in this couple’s music over time.

A professional music critic I am not. I am not even a bathroom singer, I am that bad. But I did learn a thing or two from a lifetime of listening to real musicians (like my mother) and I did learn something directly from Dr Balamuralikrishna himself, whom I once met in my childhood, that all music is Carnatic music, because Carnatic music is nothing more than “Karnau madhura”.  That which pleases the ears, that alone is Carnatic music.

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Passion, enthusiasm, concern, anguish, energy, so much youth.

But, no answers.

 

That is because Neralu, like other eco-movements in the city,  has all other emotions, except the one emotion that matters.

Rage.

Cheers … Srini.

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I am not your mother’s brother!

respectStop calling me ‘Uncle’.

Nature photography is one of my serious hobbies. Outdoor photography is a powerful stress-buster, a good way to get myself some cardiovascular exercise, and it keeps me off my butt and off the streets.

For the serious hobbyist, modern digital photography is an expensive avocation. Thankfully I’m single. Even better, I don’t need to pay alimony, to either of my ex-wives. Neither of them would let me buy expensive lenses, speedlights, filters and other costly accessories that I keep buying to pursue my passion.

Notwithstanding the absence of a sullen wife, there are several major irritants that frequently keep me from enjoying photography as much as I would like to. Too many inquisitive on-lookers who keep poking around my equipment. Too many drunken sots who keep asking me if I am from a TV channel (as if!). Too many stray dogs. Too many moronic security guys who keep blowing their whistles in my face. As if taking a photo of a flower will kill it.

The worst irritants however, are those half-assed nitwits who insist on calling me ‘Uncle’. Last evening, as I was taking some particularly difficult shots of a Saraca tree in bloom, a boorish photographer taking photos of his clients told me to ‘Move aside, Uncle’.

I let him have it. That a*hole of a photographer got the shock of his life when he discovered that ‘Uncle’ knows several foul words in several languages. Apart from questioning his legitimacy and his father’s mating habits, I informed him in the worst possible language that I am not his mother’s brother, and therefore not his effing ‘Uncle’.

Don’t call anybody ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’, unless you know them really well. Hailing a random stranger as Uncle is insulting, abusive, arrogant, condescending and downright rude.

And equally abusive and condescending are phrases like “even at this age”, “he’s an inspiration to other people of his age” or worse, telling a 70-year old grandfather of six grandchildren that “you just don’t look your age”.

We elders have mirrors in our homes and we know exactly what we look like, thank you very much.

In civilised society, the correct form of address for a person of mature age is Sir or Madam, or the equivalent in whichever language you use. Samskrit being an especially refined form of communication, specifies the use of ‘Mahoday’ or ‘Mahodaya’. Since all other Indian languages are derived from or influenced by Samskrit, they each have honorifics to be used for elders. Learn them and use them.

Don’t go ’round town creating brothers for your mother. Unless you want an ‘Uncle’ like me to ask you why your mother has multiple brothers from multiple fathers.

No cheers … Srini.

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Birds? What birds? Bird Race? What Bird Race?

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The stinking carcass of what was the Vrishabhavati river. Once a pristine river, now an enormous canal of pure sewage.

Bangalore is finished. For years, the demise of this fair city was foretold by heads much wiser than mine. I have been a prophet of doom as well, to the amusement of anyone who took the trouble to listen to me.

What I did not expect was that demise to occur so soon. Cheerful optimist that I am, I always hoped that my grim predictions and the ecologists’ dire warnings would be proven wrong.

But no. Doom is here. It is today. It is now.

I finally had to accept this reality during the annual Bird Race on Sunday last.

Since a decade, the third Sunday of January has been the day of the Bird Race. Sponsored by HSBC, the Race was one event that birders would look forward to. Although no prize money was involved, winning the Bird Race was a matter of prestige in the birding community. Competition was fierce albeit cordial, bird tallies and sightings were taken seriously, often resulting in furious arguments. There were bad eggs who would cheat, but the majority of us birders were scrupulously honest in our reporting. Invariably someone would sight a rare species and win the Bird of the Day prize – as my team did with our sighting of the Grey-necked bunting. Well, my friend Sumesh and his team saw it too and shared the prize with us, but I’d like to think we saw it first!

Until one fine day, the organisers decided abruptly to remove the competitive aspect of the Race. If a race is not competitive, then how is it a race? Whatever be the reasons, the Race stopped being a race. That resulted in the best birders in the city dropping out of the event, and the overall quality of birding going downhill.

Even so, some of us would participate in the event for the sheer love of the sport and for the sake of our feathered friends. The problem with our feathered friends, unfortunately, is that very few of them are left in Bangalore.

Birds are primary indicators of impending disaster. Bird populations in Bangalore have drastically declined, many native species like the sparrow are gone, and most of the migrant species that would visit us every winter have stopped.

What else do you expect? Trees butchered, lakes filled with human waste, or better yet, choked with chemical foam. Where there were parks there are over-crowded malls. Where there were grasslands there are enormous condos. Where there were farms there are huge IT corporates. Where there was a century-old well there is an open-air toilet. Where there was a 400-year old banyan tree there is a parking lot. Where there was a pond, there’s a slum.

Corporate greed and political gluttony are not new to Bangalore. But now there is savage glee, brutal rapacity, blatant disregard for the law, a terrifying recklessness, a complete lack of discrimination.

We started the Bird Race long before sunrise, so that we could be at our first location, Rishi Valley school, at the crack of dawn. Only to find that all our favorite birding hotspots have been replaced by rubble and garbage heaps. Apartments and an effing industrial estate right in the middle of what is supposed to be a forest reserve.

Kanakapura road, our favorite birding route, has been destroyed in less than a year. Every last banyan tree, each of which was a century old, butchered. Every quiet little waterbody, that existed since the times of Kempe Gowda, buried under debris and shit. Ancestral homes raped out of shape to make way for Namma Metro. Cement dust, construction debris, migrant laborers crapping in the open, deafening noise, a million honking vehicles, chaos.

Every place we went, it was the same hellishness. Not one village, not one hamlet, not one lake, not one tree has been spared.

Birds? What birds? We were grateful for the few that we could sight. Since the Bird race is not a race anymore, we were not too worried that our tally was “just” 110. During the dinner meet at the end of the day, I found out informally that this was the highest tally for one single team, but that doesn’t matter. Three years ago, we would rack up a tally of 130 species without breaking a sweat.

What matters is that just three years ago, the evening meet was held in a large hall, with 300 birders and enthusiasts in attendance. Exhausted with an entire day’s birding, they were still excited to be there and the atmosphere was electric.

Mitch Leachman, Exec Director, St Louis Aubudon Society talks to the sparse audience

Mitch Leachman, Exec Director, St Louis Aubudon Society talks to the sparse audience.

This time, the meet was in a hall so small that the ceiling could scrape your head. And this time, I counted hardly 70 of us. The mood was gloomy, the birders dejected. Even the normally cheerful compere of the event wondered if there would a Race at all next year. Notwithstanding the excellent movie on the Amur falcon that we were shown, there was an air of despondence and resignation. The food was bad. The gulab jamoons were nice though.

Bangalore is done. For years, the scientists warned the government that the city was reaching the point of no return. That point has been crossed.

Nothing can save the city. Worried citizens have done what they could. Several have taken to the streets in protest. Some have taken the government to court. Some have tried to rejuvenate local waterbodies, and have faced criminal intimidation and outright violence. I applaud them all. And I feel for them all.

Too little. Too late. Bangalore is done.

Nothing can reverse the horrific damage. Nothing will bring back our lakes and our trees. Nothing will bring back our birds.

Four thousand permanent migrants every day. Three thousand new vehicles registered every day. 11.5 million population. Increasing at 10% per annum. One of the highest populations of stray dogs – and highest population of stray dog activists. Highest number of pedestrian deaths. Depleted water table. Worst air quality.

I cannot leave the city. I have no options. If you can relocate, do. If you can’t relocate, then no matter how rich you are, brace yourself. Learn to live without water. Learn to sleep in the midst of constant honking and drunken brawls. Learn to inhale the stink of human waste instead of real air. Get yourself vaccinated against rabies. In Bangalore, rabid stray dogs have the sole right to life – unlike you.

Dog activists don’t care if your child is eaten alive by street dogs. When a city tells you that the life of a mad dog is more important than a four-year human infant know that you are living in a doomed city.

I no longer need be a prophet of doom. Doom is already here.

If you die within the next decade, consider yourself blessed. You will wind up in Hell, but you are going to a better place, believe me.

And as for the birds? They are the lucky ones. Birds have wings. You don’t.

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A wonderful bird is the pelican …

 

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The Spot-billed pelican is a large, graceful bird. The species gets its name from the spots on its upper bill. There are eight species in the Pelecanus genus, of which the Spot-billed species is found only in the Indian sub-continent.

Pelicans feed almost exclusively on fish and an adult bird can eat as much as 5kg per day. They nest on low hanging trees close to waterbodies. Pelicans have a characteristic fishing style. Usually, two or three of them get together, gradually push fish into a corner and scoop them up in their bills. They store fish in a large pouch under the lower bill, to feed their young. Like all other birds, pelicans do not have teeth, and gulp the fish down whole.

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The bird’s Latin name Pelecanus phillipensis, is derived from the Phillipines, where the Spot-billed pelican was commonly seen once upon a time. Ironically, it is now extinct in that country.

In India too, the Spot-billed pelican is an endangered species, thanks entirely to human greed. Many lakes in Bangalore and Mysore have either been encroached by developers or are heavily polluted. Of the few remaining lakes with fish in them, a lot of illegal fishing goes on. Not many pelicanries are left in India. Madivala Lake in Bangalore once had a thriving pelicanry, but it is now gone. If you’re lucky, you might spot a pelican or two at Madivala lake. If you’re lucky.

Other lakes in Bangalore in which you might spot the odd pelican include Hebbal, Jakkur, Begur and perhaps Gulakmale. All the other waterbodies in and around Bangalore are finished. Bellandur and Varthur lakes are filled with foul, evil-smelling chemical foam, and the rest are filled with sewage, weeds, rubble and human waste.

Kukkarahalli Lake in Mysore has a well populated pelicanry with over a hundred nesting birds. Given all the ‘development’ going on in that part of Mysore, I’m not hopeful that it will remain undisturbed for long, but as of now, it’s doing well.

Better visit the place, before it is too late!

Class Aves rocks.

Srini.

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Hail to you, Muse of Poetry …

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Appreciation of fine poetry was never one of my virtues. With the exception of nursery rhymes and naughty limericks, I have always kept myself at arm’s length from the world of poetry. Quatrains and verses stirred nothing in me, rhyme and meter meant little, prosody a waste of my time.

When my friend Usha Rajagopalan prevailed upon me to purchase her book on the poetry of Subramania Bharati, I did so with some reluctance. The book remained safely unread on my shelf for a long time, until I finally took it up one idle winter’s evening.

And then something very strange happened. For the first time in many years, I read a book from cover to cover in one single sitting, without so much as rising from my chair for a break.

All I knew of Subramania Bharati was what I had learnt about him in school and what I had heard from my mother. That he was a renowned Tamil poet and a nationalist was not unknown to me, but other than that I knew little of him.

Thanks to Usha, I am now significantly enlightened – and quite furious with myself for not learning Tamil formally, when I had the opportunity.

Translating the work of a poet of Subramania Bharati’s stature is no mean feat, but then Usha Rajagopalan is no mean author herself. Most people have the very wrong idea that translation is a simple matter. Far from it. Almost anybody can transliterate. Few people can translate. And fewer still understand the fundamental difference between the two.

Usha demonstrates an insight that is not often seen among translators, as she accurately translates selected poems from the Mahakavi’s vast repertoire. In doing so, she gives the ignorant reader, i.e. myself, a look into the man’s mind and heart.

“The darkness of ignorance fades into the air, the radiant sun of knowledge rises steadily, casting its luminous golden rays everywhere…”.

My general impression of Subramania Bharati was that he was a fierce nationalist and that his poetry was largely anti-British in character.

“To take the name of Bharat, our country,
is to kill the fear of poverty and grievous enmity”.

“The mighty Himalayas belong to us!
The copious sweet Ganga is ours too”.

What I never knew that he was also a social reformist:

“The four castes are one.

If any of them were missing,

All occupation would be shattered,

And mankind would perish”.

And a feminist:

“Foster women’s wisdom and see,
The world shed its ignorance”.

And a passionate lover:

“I have fallen in love with you, Valli, with you!
Sweeter than life, you have no equal”.

And a philosopher:

“Show mercy to the enemy, kindly heart.
Show mercy to the enemy”.

One now realises that Subramania Bharati was a multi-faceted genius with a towering intellect and strength of character. What an enormous pity that he died so young, killed by serious injuries caused by a temple elephant.

Riveted to one’s chair, fascinated by what Usha Rajagopalan tells us about Subramania Bharati, one finally emerges with

“knowledge with clarity … and .. warm feelings that well up and flood the body”.

Of special mention is The Stream, this being the painting that makes the cover of Usha’s book, rendered by Achuthan Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan awardee and one of India’s finest mural painters.

Usha tells me that her next book on the Mahakavi is in the offing. This time, I will not hesitate to read it!

Cheers … Srini.

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