Month: March 2013

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

February 2013 wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with departure and demise of dear ones. It started with the death of an elephant. She was found in a stream after many days of her death. Fishes in that stream and maggots on her body were having a feast. We couldn’t really tell which herd she belonged to. Several speculations were made—she could have been unwell, or that she probably slipped while crossing the stream, and so on. In the government records her passing on was registered as a “natural death”. May be it was.

'Natural death'
‘Natural death’:Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

This was followed by the death of a leopard. A very young leopard was found dead amidst tea bushes. Again, the reason for her death was not clear. It was presumed that she was killed in a territorial fight with another adult leopard. Traces of blood and drag-marks were all over the place. She was half eaten. She was taken away for a postmortem.

Yet another 'natural death'
Yet another ‘natural death’

Individuals like these will continue to live in the government records, in a researcher’s field notebook, technical reports, and as photographs or newspaper articles. But there are certain deaths that will go unnoticed, even by us, and no one may even be aware that it happened—like the roadkill of a mouse deer that I saw in mid February. The driver of the vehicle might be aware of that or he/she may simply have heard some noise, a thud, or a squelch and moved on. Or the driver may not have even known that he/she had killed a living being. Few passers-by like me, in the middle of that night, probably noticed that dead mouse deer, or probably did not.

Incidents like these make us feel sad for a few minutes, hours or sometimes may even last for a few days. We may or may not remember these again. Even if we do remember, we may not feel the same way as we did when we first saw it. But if we know the individuals, if we are attached to someone or something or some place, if we feel the connection even if it is only one-way, then, when we lose any of them, the sense of loss will haunt us forever. Because, we are not just losing them, we are also losing the connections we once had with them. This will be painful, like how we feel at the demise of a friendship or a relationship; much more painful than the physical death of a friend.

Few years ago, while passing through Kavarkal, Divya said,”I am missing that guy ya”. Across the valley on a hill, in a degraded grassland patch, near the electric pylon, we used to often see a tusker grazing peacefully. She was referring to him. Some months after that, somewhere near that place a tusker was found dead. Anand went and looked at the decaying body but was unable to recognize that individual. He doesn’t want to conclude that it was that guy we used to see there. Before that death, even if “our guy” wasn’t seen there, we knew that he would be have been roaming elsewhere. But after that death, that hope slowly faded away. Even now, whenever I happen to pass through that place my eyes involuntarily look in that direction, scanning, searching for him, and remember Divya’s sentiment.

Our guy - The tusker
Our guy – The tusker: Photo Divya Mudappa

Similarly, usually while heading back to Valparai from Coimbatore, we stop at Nalumukku Sungam for a cup of tea. Nearly a year ago, on one such occasion I noticed that something was missing there. Sridhar said in a shocked tone, ”Damn, they cut that tree”. There used to be a large tamarind tree in one of the corners of Nalumuku Sungam. On the ground, no trace of that tree can be seen now. I never paid much attention to that tree until it was cut and removed from that place. There is a large void now. That tree would have been planted at least several decades if not a century ago. I miss that tree now. Sridhar has been commuting through this route for over a decade and he would certainly miss seeing this tree more than me. I wonder if (and hope) there is someone who lives in that town, who went and stood under the tree for its shade, or grew up along with that tree, or harvested the fruits from that tree, feels the same way or fondly remembers that tree. Those people probably miss that tamarind tree more than any of us do.

Pollachi-Valparai SH78 road near Vedasandur from 2003-2012: Imagery courtesy Google Earth

Then, there used to be a huge log near the Selaliparai club. Two years ago, just before the NCF annual meeting in Valparai, I remember Divya mentioning in a sad tone that a huge Calophyllum tree has fallen. This was a large tree, one of those identified as a heritage tree by us in this landscape. I only vaguely remember seeing that tree when it was alive and standing majestically. But I am more familiar with that only as a Calophyllum log, with its deeply fissured bark and heavily laden with epiphytes—just as majestic and alive horizontal as it was when vertical. In late February, while driving past that place we saw a crane about to lift that log and take it away. Now without that log, that place wears a desolate look. In coming days or months or years, when we go that way, we are sure to tell this story to others with us or sigh with sadness amongst ourselves.

There used to be a Calophyllum log...
This is that Calophyllum log…

I feel personally connected to that tusker, the tamarind tree and the Calophyllum log because I liked them. I knew that the connection was one-way, but I still feel bad when I don’t see them in their spots. But what if someone reciprocated the affection which we gave but suddenly vanished from our lives? Obviously, the magnitude of loss will be immeasurable, and drive us to despair. I realized this when Baby disappeared.

Baby
Baby

Baby was Anand’s cat. When he moved to a different house, although close by, Baby moved to Divya & Sridhar’s place. She also made our office her home. I am not a cat person. To be honest I was not fond of pets at all, until I met Baby. She was an exceptionally friendly cat. I often felt that she was a talking cat. I loved the way she greeted me when she saw me for the first time everyday. It was not just me. She was friendly with everyone over here. She captivated us with her sheer friendliness. It was a great feeling when she came to me and mewed in the middle of the night or gently tapped me with her soft forepaw to signal that she was hungry or wanted to play. She always liked to be with people, among people. I had not taken care of her all her life. Only on a few occasions or few days when the others were away. But she had had a deep impact on me. I can imagine how the true cat lovers and caretakers—Anand and Divya—would have felt when she suddenly disappeared one night. Soon after she was missing, for many days they would call-out for her, with hope and prayers. It was unbearable to hear their voices. She never turned up. It was unlike her not to respond or stay away from home. Although Divya kind of knew the minute she had disappeared since she had heard some scuffling noise outside. Divya had the feeling after hearing the noise outside that our neighbourhood leopard had paid a visit to our doorstep. It is nice to know that he is still around, but wish the evidence had been something else. Or maybe not. We do not know exactly what happened to Baby, but I hate to think that she has passed on.

Baby’s disappearance made me think of certain other things which went out of my sight and my life. But they will be etched in my memory for a long time to come.

Books on birds in Tamil

Books on birds in Tamil

Birds have fascinated human beings since early times. There have been many books, notes, and descriptions of birds and their behaviour in world literature, including several Indian languages. Birds have a special place in classical Tamil literature. Names given to some birds in ancient Sangam Tamil literature are still the same and in use (e.g., Koogai – Barn Owl and Thookanang Kuruvi – Weaver Bird). The famous old Tamil verse on White Stork, ‘Narai Narai Sengal Narai’, gives us a glimpse of the observation skill of the poet Sathi Mutha Pulavar on the migratory behaviour of this bird. Birds are mentioned even in Tamil film songs. For instance, I have made a list of twenty songs mentioning Chittu kuruvi or House Sparrow. Although there are mentions of various birds in old Tamil literature, proverbs, contemporary poems and film songs, and birds are also depicted in temple murals and other paintings, there are as yet few popular science books and field guides on birds in Tamil.

In recent times, efforts to popularise birds and their behaviour in Tamil were pioneered by the famous naturalist M. Krishnan. He wrote about birds and other wildlife of India in various Tamil magazines and newspapers. In 2002, Krishnan’s writings in Tamil were compiled by Theodore Baskaran, another accomplished nature writer in Tamil in the book Mazhaikalamum Kuyilosaiyum (The Monsoon and the Call of the Koel). M. Krishnan also wrote about birds for the Tamil Encyclopaedia Kalaikalangiyam, published in ten volumes between from 1954 to 1968 by the Tamil Valarchi Kazagam. These articles on birds have been compiled and brought out in the book Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum (Birds and Vedanthangal) by Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (read his foreword for this book here). This collection includes M. Krishnan’s booklet on Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which was published in 1961 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, an English version of which is available here.

Among the significant works on birds to emerge in Tamil after M. Krishnan, is the book “Theninthiyap Paravaigal” (South Indian Birds) authored by Dr. K. Ratnam, a retired Tamil professor. Published in 1974 by the Tamilnattu Padanool Niruvanam (Tamil Nadu Textbook Corporation), this book was part of school and college curriculum for a while, but is now out of print. After this Ratnam also produced another important publication Tamizil Paravai Peyargal (Bird names in Tamil) in 1998. In this amazing work, he compiled Tamil names of 410 bird species, referring to various books and sources including M. A. Badshah’s Checklist of birds of Tamil Nadu with English, scientific and Tamil names. Ratnam coined new names for species that did not have common names. This book, which I clearly remember buying in 1995 at the the 8th World Tamil Conference book fair at Thanjavur, is one of my prized possessions. It is now available online for free download. Still, Ratnam’s landmark book came a few years later. Published in 2002, Tamilnattu Paravaigal (Birds of Tamil Nadu) became the first field guide for birds in Tamil, covering 328 birds species that occur in Tamil Nadu.

Bird books in Tamil by Dr. K. Ratnam

Other nature writers in Tamil, including S. Mohamed Ali, Theodore Baskaran, Athi Valliappan, and Kovai Sadasivam, have published several articles and books on birds. Another acclaimed work on birds in Tamil is by Asai, a modern Tamil poet who is a writer and editor of Cre-A publications. Asai’s Kondalathi (Tamil name for Eurasian Hoopoe), a collection of his poems about birds, is a pioneering work in modern Tamil poetry.

Kondalathi, Tamil poetry on birds by Asai, and Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum, a collection of M.Krishnan’s articles on birds in Tamil.

Cre-A Publications is one of the highly reputed publishing houses of South India. Apart from the well known Kriyāviṉ taṟkālat Tamiḻ Akarāti (Tamiḻ-Tamiḻ-āṅkilam): Cre-A Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil (Tamil-Tamil-English), Cre-A has published an impressive array of Tamil literary works and translations from other languages. Cre-A’s co-founder and managing editor, Cre-A S. Ramakrishnan, has also pioneered the publishing of books on nature and environment, such as Inthiavin Sutruchulal (1986), a  translation of The State of India’s Environment, Maram Valarpu (Tree Planting), and the famous Spiders: An Introduction by K. Vijayalakshmi and Preston Ahimaz.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore when Asai approached me with his idea of bringing out a dictionary of birds in Tamil to be published by Cre-A. He had made an initial draft of the manuscript with about 50 species of birds, taking help from Dr. R. Bhanumathi, an environment educationist experienced in the art of puppetry. The initial list was extracted from Cre-A’s Tamil Dictionary. Over the next few months, we worked together on developing this and decided to bring it out as a photographic field guide.

Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide)

The result is Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide) released in January 2013 at the 36th Chennai Book Fair. This compact (10.5 cm X 14 cm) guide contains photographs and brief accounts of 88 bird species commonly found in Tamil Nadu. The selected species are mostly those commonly seen in the plains and a few from hilly and coastal regions. The books carries 166 full-colour photographs of these birds taken in the field by famous wildlife photographers such as Ramki Sreenivasan, Radha Rangarajan, Kalyan Varma, Gnanaskandan, Vijay Ramanathan, and many others. To aid in bird identification, photographs taken in different angles to clearly show plumage and posture of the bird are used in the book. Wherever necessary, differences between the sexes, plumage variation during breeding and non-breeding seasons, and different morphs of the same species, are also illustrated through photographs. Descriptions to help birders identify birds in the field are given in simple language. Tamil names of birds sometimes differ from region to region and we mainly use the names given by K. Ratnam, while mentioning any alternative common names. For each species, brief descriptions of habitat, ecology, and behaviour are given. Here are a couple of sample pages from this guide:

This guide is produced for anyone who are fascinated by birds and want to learn about birds. Besides the species accounts and photographs, there is a detailed introduction to the classification, nomenclature, and history of Indian ornithology. The book also lists various Indian research institutions, including those that offer courses on ornithology. To help birdwatchers who wish to know more, there is also a list of other field guides on Indian birds, tips on  birdwatching and bird identification using calls, plumage and nests. There are brief sections on bird migration, conservation, importance of birds, list of bird sanctuaries and links to Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) in Tamil Nadu and other books on birds in Tamil.

This book is a collective effort of many people. I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Athi Valliappan and Mr. Theodore Baskaran for their comments on the draft, all the photographers who generously contributed their wonderful photographs, Mr. Balaji for designing this book attractively, other staff of Cre-A for their help in various ways, and Divya and Sridhar for their encouragement. This book was a brainchild of Cre-A and I thank Mr. S. Ramakrishnan and Mr. Asai for giving me this opportunity.

To buy this book contact Cre-A. Email: creapublishers@gmail.com (Tel: 044 – 42020283)