In a famous photograph, a Bishnoi woman is shown breastfeeding her child on the one side and a chinkara calf on the other. The picture is a beautiful reminder of how Indian communities care for other creatures. Although the broader picture of our wildlife is not very bright, yet the common man is still in love with it, despite the toll that development has taken.
Some years ago, when I was in England, I used to frequent the countryside as most of my English friends belonged there and would take me along for those Friday nights. The countryside seemed beautiful, green with manicured meadows, ready for a game of golf. But all you could see in them were a few sheep, cows and horses grazing, not a sight of a bird.
On other afternoons, we would take a walk in a nearby garden which was equally civilised with finely hewn topiaries, meticulously patterned flower beds and square hedges with not a single blade raising its head above the stipulated height. The lawns looked gorgeous. But where were the little birds, the humming bees, the striped centipedes or the occasional rodent?
The county of Yorkshire Dales was the greenest and most protected. And here was a lonely village where one of my friends finally anchored himself in his late years. So, on my next visit, when I contacted him, he took me to his country manor. The house gave the look of an old but appropriately refurbished stone castle with plenty of green patches for fresh vegetables and a couple of concrete strips to ambulate.
The next morning, sipping a cup of tea and taking a stroll on these silent pathways, I suddenly asked my friend, “Do we have birds here?” He nodded and asked me to wait. A couple of minutes later, cupping his ears for attention, he asked, “Can you hear one now?” I did try to emulate his action and was able to catch the faint whistle of a distant bird.
My mind instantly went back to my home on the university campus, as it does now, to the cackle and cluster of calls my winged friends made every morning. In those days, I had a few mangled thickets for a hedge that made my front garden, but it was a virtual little zoo, where besides a variety of birds and insects, we had a gang of monitor lizards, a resident snake and up in the drain pipe, a whole family of mongoose.
In the name of development, we too have changed. Bird calls in the morning have faded away. Sparrows and crows, once so commonplace, have disappeared, left to their fate. Perhaps the need for us is to pause, once in a while, and think of them not just as mere winged creatures but as the essence of our surroundings.
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