Tag: books

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)

The library with no members

The library with no members

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu on 10 January 2013 and also online here.

In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?

The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.

That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.

The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.

The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.

The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.

Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.

Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.

Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.

Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”

Sailing on a sea of words: my 100-book year

Sailing on a sea of words: my 100-book year

There is a little gem of a poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Its a poem about books, perhaps just one of a handful she wrote on books and reading.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

In the year gone by the frugal chariot had beckoned, and I’d set sail on the frigates across a sea of words.

The year 2011 thus began for me with a peculiar challenge to myself to read one hundred books before the year was out. I would read any book that seemed worthwhile. The list would naturally, so to speak, include a staple of nature writing and wildlife books. But I would read more. I would plunge into other non-fiction, history, and economics, read a smattering of poetry and philosophy, and a generous dose of fiction, especially good literature and science fiction, and finally, not less than and not more than ten comic books. I opened an account in Goodreads, where I could maintain a book catalogue online and track my progress. I was all set.

I quickly realised  that in the last few years I had neglected reading fiction, and had barely glanced at a few pages of poetry, and that if it inadvertently caught my eye. In the bustle of work, in a world that seemed to value the words ‘pragmatism’ and ‘practicality’ as more weighty than ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’, it had seemed that only reading work-related non-fiction was a justified way to spend reading time. There was so much to learn, to read, just to keep abreast of the changing times, the open floodgates of world knowledge. Far more important, surely, than the humdrum drama of real life and tales spun by the story tellers, the literary word-smiths. After all, they were only stories, right? How wrong I was!

As I read and read and read, I was sucked into the worlds of words, into lives of people who never existed except in and around human imagination, into an ambiance, an intangible aura of the mind, carrying the thoughts of many familiar strangers, the authors. Works of fiction, good literature in particular, made by far the best reads. For the duration of the book and in that delicious wake that follows when a good book is done, when one lives the ebb of thoughts, the retreating wave leaving its wavy line on the sand, when the book is closed, placed away, then you sense that your world has strangely expanded. You now carry with you the voice of the author, an unobtrusive but intimate voice, arguing, chiding, shouting, laughing, or just whispering gently in your ear. The voice of a friend by your side, a palpable presence, telling you a story, not telling you what to think, but leading you to think, even what seemed unthinkable, unknowable, eventually to set you free on your own voyage, your own story. Emily Dickinson says it better, as always.

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.

He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

As the year dawned, I also had a new gadget in hand, a Kindle e-book reader, which I instantly liked for its simple look and feel and the easy-on-the-eye, e-ink reading screen. It looked like a page of printed text and mercifully was not a back-lit screen like those on computers and iPads and such devices. Reading on the computer and back-lit screens, although inevitable at times, is ultimately annoying or at best a highly unsatisfying reading experience. Yet, I did not abandon the book. How could I? Can one replace the feel of a book in the hand, the imprint of ink on paper, the smell of books new and old, the sturdiness of a hardbound volume, the ease of a paperback, the look of its cover? In 2011, I read 36 e-books on the Kindle, 49 paperbacks, 15 hardbound books. For the e-books, I dug into the riches of Project Gutenberg and Amazon‘s online bookstore. I dug into our bookshelf to read books lying there for years, perhaps waiting for this year to arrive, walked and surfed bookstores to buy many others.

And at midnight of 30 December 2011, with one day still left in the year, I closed Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, book #100 for the year, with a satisfied smile and went to sleep. One hundred books, 23,901 pages, over eight million words: I had sailed on a sea of words.


Turgenev, who I was reading for the first time, was preceded by an array of wonderful writers. Booker-prize winning authors such as Julian Barnes, Iris Murdoch, and John Banville, Nobel literature laureates such as J. M. Coetzee, Yasunari Kawabata, José Saramago, John Steinbeck, and Nadine Gordimer, and other award-winning writers of fiction including Cormac McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, and Peter Matthiessen. I read Jonathan Swift and Gustave Flaubert, Lewis Carroll and Herman Melville, Chinua Achebe and Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka. A priceless experience, reading wonderful books by great writers. I read a generous dose of nature writing, ranging from the beautiful, almost lyrical work of Loren Eiseley, J. A. Baker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to more forthright books on environmental history, conservation of elephants and other wildlife with authors ranging from Aldo Leopold, E. H. Aitken, Martin Meredith, Gay Bradshaw, Bernd Heinrich, and others. I managed a generous dose of science fiction, another favourite genre. I had scarcely read a decent science fiction book in years. Now I read and enjoyed Frank Herbert (Dune), Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog), Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens of Titan, Timequake), Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Ursula le Guin (The Wild Girls), Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl), H. G. Wells (The Time Machine), and Philip K Dick (We Can Build You). The ten comic books were all from an old favourite: Lucky Luke! Emily Dickinson’s poetry is what I read most, from her collected works, although this is on an “forever-reading” shelf, and can scarcely be counted as ‘read’ in one year. I read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali) and I even read the Bhagavad Gita.


The books ranged from a few that were a little more than long essays (Swift’s A Modest Proposal) to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, his epic 912 pager, condensing his Watson trilogy, a brilliantly written book that was one of the five books of 2011 that I gave a five-star rating. The four others were Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer & Diaries, and the incredibly good J. M. Coetzee’s incredibly good The Lives of Animals which I have written about elsewhere. It was also fun to compare and discuss books with Divya, Daktre, and others on Goodreads.

And if you’ve read this far and are curious to see all the books of 2011, here they are.

Sridhar’s bookshelf: Read in 2011

Fathers and Sons
A Naturalist On The Prowl
The Sea, the Sea
The Red Pony
Grandmother's Tale
Western Ghats: Biodiversity People Conservation
The Story Of Our Food
The Trees in My Forest
The Peregrine: The Hill of Summer & Diaries: The Complete Works of J. A. Baker
From the gallows to the altar
Srimad Bhagavad Gita
The Klondike
Beauty and Sadness
India's Wildlife History: An Introduction
The Gods Themselves
East of Eden
To Say Nothing of the Dog
A Modest Proposal
The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Folded Earth

Sridhar’s favorite books »