Here was a mighty river, as large as the Indus and the Ganges systems, that was expressly reverenced above all other rivers in the Vedas; that shored up the Indus Valley civilization; even dispatched old cities and created new ones as it mercurially shifted its course again and again by connecting and disconnecting with the neighboring Himalayan rivers flowing down to the marginal seas...
... It was amply written about in both literary and archeological tomes, oftentimes with evolutionary and hydrological precision (impressive even by current day standards);
Other well-known rivers continue to flow its path today; traditions tied to the river continue to be followed in the places that are now dry and built upon. Still, the Saraswati River was presumed to have been mythological, because the proof of its existence was muddled up with traditional stories, and all geological evidence was buried beyond the reach of scientists... until today!
Today, satellite imagery confirms that the River Saraswati did exist, and substantiates many of its hydrological properties that were recorded in the old texts; Scientists are now sifting through the old archeological material, religious texts, and folk stories, and separating the errors from the truths, the erratums from the political plugs, the nonsense from the non-science, the non-science from the science... in general, challenging some previously divined truths, and also crediting some previously dismissed views.
This book is a comprehensive compendium of the search for the lost, and the research of the found River Saraswati, and the civilizations that lived along it. It is presented more thoroughly than any other book has done thus far (for laypeople).... Except, its dryness rivals the River Saraswati as it is today! I still waded through the book's slough, imagining the river's once awe-inspiring stature, because it was written conscientiously and with untiring diligence.
I read only recently that, among other things, the purpose of science is also to come up with questions that have never been asked before. This books shares some new questions that archeologists have only just begun to ask, and that says a lot about how far we have come with exploring the River Saraswati, and how many more questions there are to ask, and with some luck, answer. In archeology, guided speculation is an important component of discovery.
I hope the next edition of this book includes many more well-designed maps and colorful images integrated into the text, to help readers unfamiliar with the geography of the area, string along with the author better.
The author shares a lot of detail on the past and present work by archeologists to find and excavate Indus-Saraswati sites. But, I would have liked to see the places alongside the 1500 kms of River Saraswati come to life in a more vivid way, by tying archeology to anthropology, and the civilization to the river. I would have also liked to see more story-telling, and more scientific, political and social contexts of the current archeological investigations.
Because this book is dry, I recommend that the reader read the last two chapters, that is, 'Part 3: Section 11: The Saraswati's Testimony', and the 'Epilogue: Saraswati Turns Invisible', before diving into it whole hog. That way, you kind of jump into the pool knowing how deep the water is. :)
(This book would make a fantastic documentary film).
December 2014 Filed in: Books
This post shouldn’t take away from Samanth Subramanian’s excellent book on the life in fishing towns around the Indian coast. It’s one of the most enjoyable travelogues I have read in a while. I only hope to add to it.
His is mostly an andocentric account of men who fish, men who drink toddy, and men who’ve adapted their life to the sociocultural history of fishing towns. His women are either in the kitchen cooking him a meal, or absent, with the exception of one or two, who he amusedly observes from a distance! Perhaps, this is because the life of fisherwomen doesn’t lend itself well to a lighthearted travelogue, or because women drink toddy in the privacy of their community. But, to me, this unwittingly makes plain the invisibility of two million working people of one gender, who collaborate with both those at sea and those on the shore! The nature of their work puts them quite literally front and center, in market squares, selling the product that runs the economy of their sector (Several research studies address the critical role of fisherwomen in India’s national food security); And yet, far from receiving maximum prominence, they are sidelined and tuned out. (Except in cinema, as Silk Smitha in a toddy shop, wearing a sexy Kaliakal saree and doing something fishy! Cinema has led me to take it for granted that behind every drunken man in a shaaaap, there is a woman, or more accurately, in front of every man in a shaaaap, there is a woman's behind!).
In the market too, fisherwomen’s trade is subject to the whims of solipsistic male competitors or big merchants (also male). Hired thugs of market contractors have been denying fisherwomen basic infrastructure (not only tables, chairs and iceboxes, or space to dry or salt their fish, but also drinking water and toilets, and prime market spaces). They are denied transport to carry their fish baskets, and are forced to walk miles with heavy loads of their perishable product over their heads from one market to another. There are very few places that provide special buses for fisherwomen. Even in the market, a lot of their stamina goes into escaping physical violence from men. As a result, they not only incur huge losses from poor quality product, but also suffer from ill-health compounded by poor access to health services.
Fishermen, on the other hand, are able to use vehicles to transport their fish (secured in ice boxes). They have also co-opted mobile phones and GPS technologies into their large list of cultural indulgences that only men ‘should’ have access to. Therefore, only men have immediate information on the prices and availability of fish throughout the country's vast coastline. Women are deprived of participation in economic decision-making. They suffer from severe wage disparities, are excluded from many cooperative societies, and are denied equal access to banking and credit facilities (because of both social and economic reasons). There is also very little support for fisherwomen in government policies, because women are mostly engaged in traditional fishing activities. Existing policies focus on increasing fish production and modernizing the fisheries. This also makes women easy prey to loan sharks. In spite of all this, because there are two million fisherwomen, working alongside four million fishermen, they remain a force to reckon with even without the powers.
The contribution of fisherwomen penetrates every operation of fisheries in both micro and macro levels. They perform every role, from that of auctioneers to retail vendors, and serve both producers and consumers. In many parts of the country, women are almost entirely responsible for fish and ornament trade in all landing and marketing centers, and have to compete only with the big commercial fishing trawlers and middlemen! Within their communities, from the time the fish arrives on land, it is mostly the women who manage the post-harvest operations! They work meticulously for long hours in sorting and grading, curing and drying, segregation and stocking, preserving and peeling activities. They work in processing plants as well. They feed and harvest fish, manage hatcheries, construct and maintain ponds, make nets, collect wild seeds, seaweeds, and shellfish. More recently, they have been very involved in conservation efforts, beach work, and running mobile food businesses for the workers at the landing centers and fish markets. Seasonally, they even play a supportive role in active fishing, both in marine and inland sectors, and especially during multi-day fishing. In addition to this, fisherwomen have almost the exclusive responsibility of running the family, and taking care of financial management.
Over the years, fishermen have struggled to compete with the big industry boats, forcing women to buy fish from outside contractors and also compete with powerful outside forces to make their sales. Only those women who buy fish at the auctions and market them at a profit are able to set a value on their labour. The defeated male-folk in the fishing communities have either diversified into other alternate industries such as tourism, or have forcefully taken over the jobs of women in the market. The worst of them have taken to alcohol and gambling. In Kerala, alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of road accidents and 80% of divorces. The fishing community is not immune to alcoholism. If anything, they are often both the cause and the victims of this problem.
Fisherwomen have found innovative ways to stay in the fishery business in spite of the tough market. For instance, in Kerala, women work all night to deliver late-night catch fresh off the boat to homes. In off-seasons when high-value fish are nonexistent, fisherwomen sell sardines and cheap fish to the poultry industry. They run petty shops or sell toddy (not always illicitly) to supplement family income from fishing. The fisherwomen of Vizag have broken into the IT market in big cities, and are selling their employees dry fish snacks for an impressive profit! With the help of non-profits, women are also slowly overcoming their dependence on traditional fisheries and are learning to adopt to new technologies. ICT training is also helping them take calculated risks during their active fishing trips. There are some women entrepreneurs who are also in the forefront of fishing technologies, with some technologies patented and licensed to them! This is a huge step, given the sociocultural barriers that have thus far prevented them from embracing technology. In another example of daring, after the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, several fisherwomen took swimming lessons (offered by Austrian trainers), and willingly wore swim suits with dupatta-coverings (shawls) in defiance of cultural taboos. Fisherwomen also work in conservation planning, such as the preservation of the lives and habitats of Olive Ridley turtles.
However, some of their ventures put their lives at risk. In Bhitarkanika National Park, fisherwomen work as illegal crab catchers, even though they face arrests by forest guards, or attacks by crocodiles because of improper safety practices. Government regulators often enforce conservation regulation without consideration for those who depend entirely on these lands for their living. What is needed in fact are more realistic regulations grounded in both science and social responsibility.
In the tourism industry, many young women are forced into sex work in “Ayurvedic massage parlors”, and even provide escort services to elderly tourists! The industry has also taken away much needed physical space from fisherwomen to perform their post-harvest jobs (and less importantly, for them to mingle privately within their community). Women play a huge role in continuing the cultural customs and norms of their fishing communities. Subramanian shares some detail on how fishing communities have done well to assimilate Christianity into their native Hindu traditions. Even in Hindu fishing communities, while some have retained centuries-old customs, others have created amalgams of two of more traditions. For instance, the Telugu-speaking Hindu community in Odisha have assimilated traditions of both States into their lives and customs. Hinduism too has several mythological stories about fishing communities, like that of Parvati living among the fisherfolk when Shiva banishes her from heaven, or the more famous Satyavati story. For some strange reason, this mythology seems more popular among the non-fishing communities! But, they are worth reflecting on, because the prominent figures in all these stories are women!
(The information for this post is entirely from the first few links on google from searching Fisherwomen + India + “Research Study”, or Fisherwomen + “National Food Security”, or some such.)
This video is part of a collection of eight documentary shorts featuring medically-different children from across the UK. What really makes them (and their friends) different from most kids I know personally is how active and proactive they are, and how they eat yummy foods and play popular sports in different ways than normal!
The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
October 2013 Filed in: Films
Manikarnika is a sacred ground in India that offers us the best chance to meet our maker at the end of our lives. There, we are laid southward, in "the direction of the dead," and set alight, till the fire consumes our body and liberates our soul. If this ritual is not done correctly, our spirit floats restlessly above the sacred earth, and haunts the living!
Among those ensuring out proper departure are children, who stoke our fire, collect our dropping limbs that detach from us and throw them back into the pyre. Some take a few hours to burn and some a whole day, depending on how much fat and sin we have accumulated. With bodies burning round-the-clock, a hundred at once, all lined up next to each other, the temperature rises to a 50° (122°). The children are covered in burnt pocks and wet ash from all the sweating, and reek of melting flesh and the fetor of a thousand bodies. It is unconscionable to touch them, or let their shadows fall on the living. If the priests don't volley abuses or whack these varmints, they pluck the shiny shrouds straight off our cold bodies from right under the priests' noses, and sell them to recyclers for scraps. They smoke marijuana to ward off the images of burning corpses that interfere with their minds when they work; some corpses escape into their dreams and scare them all night in spite of the dry high. They mock our departure, by imitating the priests and chanting nonsensical verses over unclaimed bodies that they find lying on the ghat. They candidly speak uncomfortable truths that expose our affectations. They know too much. But, it is when they dance uninhibitedly, that their spirits transcend to where our delicate souls cannot reach! Not even when we are tempered perfectly for departure. And so, we stay back to haunt them.
The documentary is available on Netflix to Watch Instantly.
September 2013 Filed in: Films
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) trilogy speaks of a multiverse with many earths parallel to each other. In some earths, people’s souls live inside their bodies. In others, they walk beside them as animals spirits called Daemons. Flowing through all the worlds and connecting people to their souls is Dust. Dust is the living essence of everything. It confers wisdom on all that it settles on. And while it is invisible to most, there are some who can see Dust and identify other sentient creatures with its help! On our earth, we call these people Birders.
One will find Birders in Central Park, a haven in the heart of the city, where two hundred and eighty species of birds visit every year. Some birds and their birders visit the park in every season, but most others visit it in Spring in Fall, when the leaves on trees are their vibrant best. When dawn breaks, millions of birds fly past Manhattan and a few thousand drop down from the sky for a morning snack. If you happen to walk in Central Park on such a Spring morning, you might find at least a hundred different bird species, and just as many birders perambulating in the park. Time has different meanings for all of them. Time is the changes to the foliage, it is the migration of birds, their travel and feeding schedules; it stand still for one, crawls for another, flutters for the third, and zips for the fourth...
The birders believe these birds are their souls. They say when they are not birding, they are missing out on something in an “almost bodily way”. It is as if they are part of the flock and need to be out there with them. It’s a deep impulse that presents itself as an addiction. “That sense of anxiousness, impatience, unease, that can only be stilled by getting over to the park, getting a binoculars and seeing the first warbler of the morning.” You could say they use the binoculars to look into their souls, and to look within themselves and feed their insides. Sometimes they use bird feeders, which seems to me the more direct approach.
Some birders seem to think the binoculars makes them defenseless, because they are looking at something that nobody else is looking at. They seem to think their souls are less corporeal to others; although, there is no evidence to support that.
They also seem to think the birds are more cooperative in Central Park than anywhere else. Lloyd Spitalnik says that one might find a yellow-throated warbler sixty to eighty feet away from a human at a breeding ground. But in Central Park, she might get within three of four feet of a birder. Conceivably (no pun-intended), breeding grounds are like restrooms, necessitating privacy. They are off limits even if a bird builds its nest at the Shakespeare Delacorte Theatre, on Juliet’s chest with Romeo looking down at it; or on the ledge of a fancy fifth avenue apartment building.
But, in Central Park, they seem manifestly metaphysically connected and can't seem to distance themselves from their humans for too much or too long. Birds and birders are awake and asleep at the same time (except from the birds of witches and shamans that remain awake even when their humans sleep and can fly five thousand miles in the pitch dark of the night away from their humans). Sometimes, the souls of birders change forms spontaneously. In the Spring, a birder’s daemon may be a Downy Woodpecker, in the Summer a Mountain Bluebird, in the Fall a Brambling, in the Winter a Western Grebe. In this documentary, they identify their daemons of the season for us.
“Bay-breasted Warbler. Boreal Owl, Gray Catbird. Hermit Thrush. Indigo Bunting. Wood Duck.”
“Worm-eating Warbler. Yellow-throated Warbler. Oven Bird. Northern Shoveler. Black-headed Gull. Blackpoll Warbler”
You see Anya Auerbach wistfully watching the birds and remembering her bird daemons. She speaks of how "alive, active, beautiful and varied" birds are... and it makes her feel protective of them, like she doesn’t want them scared. One wonders if she is projecting her own fears on the birds, and then one realizes that she and the birds are one and the same. They are her daemons, made of the same Dust! She dreamt just before one Spring-migration that every single migrant bird was perched on the same tree and it made her "so happy". Clearly, they are her past daemons paying her a visit, and assimilating themselves into a whole.
Central Park is an artificially created environment in 843-acres of land in the middle of an urban jungle. It has become real overtime by the sheer magic of Dust. Dust has settled on humans who manage the landscape, the birds and birders, the millions of people who visit on a daily basis, the transportation... Every little part of it, the greenery, the insects, the fungus, the soil has been put there by humans. The ponds and lakes and streams in them have water coming out of a hidden pipe under a rock, that can be turned off with the flick of a switch. But, it is not just Central Park; there is no place unmanaged by Dust. There is no land in the United States that is not managed to some degree or another. Even some of our most wild national parks and wildlife refuges have management underway, controlling the water levels in lakes and rivers, the vegetation of the place, the animal population… What is to say, this is not how it is meant to be? But then, there is extinction. Nearly a quarter of the species of birds have declined more than 50% in the last 40 years. Some dark matter is severing birders from their bird souls and wilfully killing joy. When it comes to birding, Joy is a very specific pursuit.
Chris Cooper speaks of the seven joys of birding.
- Experiencing the beauty of the birds: It is not narcissism when one appreciates the beauty of one’s own soul;
- Being in a natural setting: EO Wilson calls this Biophilia. We instinctively bond with nature and need it around us to feel more like ourselves.
- Puzzle-solving: Sometimes a birder’s daemon never shows itself fully. As it hides behind the leaves, birders piece it together to identify the bird that is their daemon;
- Collecting birds: As old daemons give way to new, birders collect them as memories and recollect them in their leisure time.
- Scientific discovery: In the Golden Compass, this is called Experimental Theology. When it comes to Dust, science converges with spirituality.
- Hunting without bloodshed: A birder often has to stalk his daemon to get to it.
- Unicorn effect: Sometimes birders become familiar with their bird daemons and develop a sense of intimacy with them, without ever seeing them. So they take on a mythological status and the birders wonder if they even exist. It’s what we call “soul-searching”. And then, one day, a daemon appears like a Unicorn came walking out of the forest.
- But, it won't be long before birds are imaginary and the Joy of pursuit is extinct. Respire by Mickey 3D reminds us such a world.
A special mention for Starr Saphir, the “matriarch” of birding, featured in this documentary. She had been leading bird walks in Central Park for over twenty years. You see her striding through the park with such love for the birds, and with such determination to meet as many of them as she could. She kept diaries (eighty in total) for many decades to note down the birds she saw everyday. One day, a Northern Goshawk landed on her apartment’s fire escape! She exclaimed “A bird appears in front of you in the most unlikely place or time!” and called it “the beauty where there wasn’t a moment before. It was so thrilling. It’s like magic.” Starr counted 2,582 different species of birds in her lifetime. Wherever she is, there's her favorite Cerulean Warbler by her side and a Northern Goshawk visiting to say hello. It must be magical place!
Today saw the demise of a great intellect; a man with an insatiable appetite for experiencing life and informing ours, and he did so with sass and class.
While I often find myself thumbing through his film books, poring over his blogs and lists, and the articles he shared on twitter, the most recent book of his that I read was curiously about 'the mystery and romance of the rice cooker'. You might think cooking and Ebert are ill-matched, but it is the only cookbook I have read cover to cover in one sitting; and his rice cooker has gone with him to the Sundance Film Festival and has therefore been legitimized and hallowed by the film world.
I grew up in South India where rice is the predominant staple food, and it continues to be a major part of my diet even today; and when it is not, I am either dreaming about rice and salivating copiously or reading about it; only now, when I cook rice, it is sometimes infused with herbs and vegetables I didn't even know existed. My rice cooker also cooks other grains and pastas, including oatmeal, and my food is served with the kind of wisecracks and anecdotes that he collated in his lifetime. But, when I bought the book, I never intended to try Ebert's recipes as much as enjoy the book for his sake; the scrumptious recipes and health insights only came as a surprise bonus. I picked up Anna Thomas' Vegetarian Epicure, only because he called it "the most influential cookbook in the history of modern vegetarian cooking", and added Marie Sharp's Exotic Sauce and House of Tsang sauces to my condiment arsenal, only because he swore by them, and I do now.
The most intriguing thing about the book for me is the way in which he incorporated the readers' comments from one of his blogpost about rice cookers as a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book, and they flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, as if they were in response to the content in the earlier chapters of the book. This is the only meta-cookbook of this sort that I know; and is telling of Ebert's openness to experience, who after having lost the ability to eat due to cancer was only able to enjoy food vicariously or by way of nostalgia.
The rice cooker allows me to sit at a table and leaf through a book while it does all the cooking. Coincidentally, it is this luxury of leisure that cookers make possible that Ebert too enjoyed about it, and it is this type of relatability in small moments that he brought to his writing that made him appealing. While we both grew up in different worlds and eras, we seemed to have so much in common, and it didn't all boil down to rice, movies and living in our heads. Somewhere, our thoughts manifested our reality in some form or the other.
He wrote this cookbook after he stopped eating ("when it became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion"), he tweeted after he stopped talking; I know he will live on after he has stopped breathing… for me, this is every time I watch a movie, or use the rice cooker, or do a thumbs up or down.
I had been meaning to read his autobiography for a while now. I'll pick it up today, although I know it won't be the same reading it after he has laid down his life as if I had read it before. The book is called Life Itself: A Memoir.
New York Times: Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
February 2013 Filed in: Books
I am participating in the South Asian Women Writers Challenge, and will be reading six South Indian books by women writers and reviewing at least three by the end of this year.
Feel free to recommend both fiction and non-fiction books from the red area; and also participate in the challenge.
I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edward Allan Poe around when I watched the Life of Pi (although I had read the book many years ago), and couldn't help but contemplate the two in tandem. There were many apparent parallels in the two novels, right from the names of the characters and the overarching themes of solitary survival at sea and cannibalism, but they also had their own distinctive qualities, so much that even when the story-lines crisscrossed, the similarities only seemed superficial! The Life of Pi was a tamer and more openly spiritual cousin of the Pym of Nantucket.
In almost every great story about sea voyages gone awry, there is truth mixed with the unspeakable; where humans confront their savage instincts, and one Richard Parker becomes victim to the Custom of the Sea. This is true for both fiction and real life. In real life, back when there were no proper telecommunication facilities, cannibalism used to be accepted as an execrable, but necessary evil, unavoidable in certain circumstances, such as survival at sea. In The Mignonette case, a century ago, three lost crew members chose to eat an unconscious fourth (a Richard Parker), and the only objection raised by the law was that it was done so without drawing straws!
But, in all shipwreck stories, there is also the aspect of nature revealing itself in all its splendor, and making itself look dream-like! It brought the element of magic in magic-realism, as was best showcased in The Life of Pi. When the story was uninterrupted by human presence (besides Pi, who stands witness to this phenomenon), the world seemed ineffably vast and harmonious! There was chaos, there was stillness, and there was a perceivable rhythm to both. The twinkling of the stars was echoed in the bioluminescence of the jellyfish; the reflective water faithfully mirrored the golden sky above; the chaos of waves complimented the wrath of the storm, the fusillade of flying fish paralleled the scurrying of meerkats up the trees; the synchronous movements of critters and beasties matched the intricate anatomy of the woods, which in turn contrasted the tiny boat in a boundless sheet of uninterrupted velvet blue. The roar of the tiger and his continued stare into the abyss complemented the lyrical words of Pi and his nonstop monologues!
How much of it was real, and how much of it was made up, we will never know; just as we will never know which of the two stories was true, and if anything like the floating island really exists in our world! What we do know is what we wanted our unexplored world to look like, and it was delivered!
The human aspect of The Life of Pi came in the form of Pi's soliloquies, which at times left me mentally adrift, and trying to find ground! In being besotted with nature, I may have been distracted from the wonder of God. In the end, I was more happy that Pi found his gastronomical path than his spiritual one!
But just as one man and one tiger learnt to share space on a tiny boat in a fictional story, in real life, we have been witnessing a different result to the battle between tigers and humans sharing the same space. For sometime now, the score has been tipping heavily on the human side, so much that last week, 200 men savagely attacked a "released" tiger and ceremoniously killed it!
Almost all reserves in India have tiger populations in two-digits, and tigers have lost 93% of their range, and yet they seem to come in the way of human settlements. Environmentalists have been working hard to reverse this change and promote nonviolence. Tigers too have been somewhat proactive in changing their ways to thrive in this manscape. For instance, the ones in Sundarbans rarely attack the villages encircling the reserves. In order to provide for themselves in the wild, they have learnt to swim, and sometimes tread deep water for up to three miles to catch their prey. They have also adapted to eating honey from beehives. In other parts, tigers have adopted a nocturnal life and prowl on forest paths only at night when we are asleep. It seems they have done everything short of growing wings. Despite that, on occasion, particularly when food is scare, they polish off local livestock, and rattle our cage!
One begins to wonder if the solution to the riddle about transporting the Tiger, Goat and Grass to the other side holds water in real life. Secretly perhaps, our most desirable solution is to let the goat eat the grass, then feed the goat to the tiger, then eat the tiger, and deliver ourselves in fine fettle to the other side!
Cannibalism hasn't come that easily to tigers as it has to us! They do well playing Richard Parker. I know one tiger that did.
More on Tigers: http://worldwildlife.org/species/tiger