Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Old Man and Me

Jerdon’s Courser, Admiral… Jerdon’s Courser, it is! The name of the bird you were trying to recall. That was my last message to him which he did not see.

I was at INHS Asvini visiting Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (retd) VrC PVSM who was admitted there for a cardio check-up. I had the good fortune, unfortunately, of meeting him whenever he came down to the naval hospital in my neighbourhood. I had just returned from a holiday in Coonoor-Wellington-Ooty and had come to meet him as promised. He had desired that I return with news of Nilgiris, a destination steeped in nostalgia for him.  “I used to go on field trips in the hills with the Old Man,” he told me. ‘Old Man’ was the great ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali with whom he went on numerous nature jaunts and explored India’s flora and fauna

Our association went back several years, to the days when I was a Journalist in Mumbai covering defence and environment beat; I used to bump into him at events such as commissioning of naval ships or the Golden Jubilee of National Defence Academy. Though we did not meet often, we corresponded via emails, oftener. Ours was a relationship based on our mutual love and respect for nature and wildlife.

Not many may know that the veteran naval officer was an avowed naturalist and conservationist. He was an honorary member of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) who campaigned for the cause of nature conservation at the drop of a hat. He even penned few books such as, “The Vanishing Indian Tiger” and Homo Sapien and Panthera Leo”, the latter on the Gir lion. After retirement, he had settled in the back of beyond Vinchurni, “nice countryside blooming with ripening jowar and maize”, a perfect habitat for him. One November (2013), he wrote in response to my blog on birding: “A pair of Great Indian Horned Owl came my way as I almost walked past them in the shadow of a spreading Pimpran (Ficus reticula) late one evening here in Vinchurni. I was snapped out of my reverie as their eyes followed my movement, past them. I thought the horns quivered a bit testifying to they being two large erect feathers atop their heads imitating horns (hence the name). Now that our tank is full after a lively Monsoon, there are a huge number and varieties of water birds upon it. The last time in a similar situation seven years back there was a small flock of flamingos here. They were obviously reconnoitring. I did not see them again. This year there will be a goodly number of ducks from the north come to winter on my tank. I look forward to a busy cool season.”

On another occasion, in the peak of summer, he wrote: “I am back in good old, drought-stricken Vinchurni where there is a brown, dusty desert with nary a sign of even a blade of green. It is very upsetting, but who can fight Mother Nature, certainly not those who have despoiled her so heartily.” Even in his 80s, the Admiral was on the move attending conferences, talks and events where he was invited to speak. On return to Vinchurni he would catch up with communication unfailingly.

I would keep him posted of my sojourns in Kenya/Africa through my blogs and he would respond promptly. He told me once that he was offered the post of Wildlife Warden of Serengeti in Tanzania which he had to, obviously, decline. I could well imagine this tall personage with flowing white beard at home in a safari jeep as in a sailboat! On my verse on Olduvai Gorge, the cradle of civilisation in the heart of Serengeti, he commented: “Evocative, endearing and effervescent!”. He said that it was the nicest poem he had read on Africa. “Keep writing. You may yet write a new chapter in the relations between India and Africa, the oldest continuous civilisation on earth and the progenitor place of Homo Sapien Sapien,” he prodded me on in his inimitable way. When I shared my ‘Mombasa Msafari’ (Safari in Swahili) with him that was published in National Geographic Traveller, he took me back to Mombasa of 1950’s that he visited.

“I first went there in June 1950 in the (destroyer) old RANJIT (emphasis his). The new Indian Navy having just dropped her Royal patronage, was showing the new flag around the Ocean! The Mombasa Club would not have us. So, our very British Rear Admiral Geoffrey Barnard, RACINS, as he was identified and addressed in naval parlance and signals, quarantined it. They relented and let the brown Englishmen in (!) in an imposed, post-colonial egalitarianism. The wardroom returned the compliment. The old harbour then known as the Dhow Port was crammed with Indian and Arab Dhows much as the northern Bunders of Bombay used to be, the Lakdi, Koyala, Hay and numerous other Bunders of old Bombay Harbour. I witnessed a busy scene in Mombasa Dhow Port, shiny black, sweating muscular bodies clambering up the main sail yards to make or furl those massive cotton sails. It must have been hard work entrusted only to the most able-bodied. I last visited Mombasa in TIR, in command in 1965. It had not changed much in the interim fifteen years.”

Back in India, at the Naval War College in INS Mandovi, I wrote to him about the riches of the naval base, an ecological niche that was million years old. In that April of 2013, he urged me to explore Goa further. “By now you would have done the Mandovi-Kumbharjua-Zuari cruise and would therefore be aware of the beautiful marshes around Kumbharjua and their inhabitants, both avian and reptilian. If you have not done that trip please do it now during the dry season because once the rains set in the whole region is flooded, the birds have flown and the reptiles washed away, probably. Nature, as always, will recover fast. The point is will we? We must, to prove an important point that we belong to this earth.” Love and concern for nature poured through his writings thus; his sense of seasons and places was spot-on.

When I was stationed in Visakhapatnam, the Admiral, who was visiting for the International Fleet Review, had set out to meet me at my residence, unbeknown to me. Unfortunately, he couldn’t reach me as he had my old phone number. I was deeply touched and honoured to know that he had come all the way up the Dolphin Hill hoping that he could track me! By now, our interactions were getting stronger and I could see I had a well-wisher in him. So when I wrote about Dolphin Hill – about the Cyclone that hammered us into submission and nature’s regeneration, a year later, in “Daydreaming and the Art of Living”, I was delighted by his spontaneity.

“What does Paddy do, what has she been up to? She does a lot and has been up to a good deal during a day on Dolphin's Nose. The devastation wrought by Cyclone Hoodoo or whatever it was tabbed, has passed and the earth and Nature are restoring themselves, as they always do, bringing happiness, even gaiety to her humans wherever we are. Paddy has that rare quality and power to observe this gentle restoration through her fellow beings all about her. A rare advantage, used so beautifully to acquaint us ordinaries with Nature's pervasive beauty, kind and gentle ways. Paddy is Her messenger to us, unnatural Hedons. Sit up and take note of Paddy's doings if you wish to be Natural, get a little out of this, otherwise, meaningless existence”! He made everyone feel special endearing him to all who were awed by him. 

He did not stop at encouraging words, but urged me to send my articles/blogs for publishing. The one on Dolphin Hill’s Purple fountain grass had him raving. By now I was knee-deep into photography, apart from writing, and ‘50 shades of Red’ was a perfect marriage of both. “A poetic essay about seemingly insignificant weed. You have given it a romantic palaver (is that an apposite word?). Should go to BNHS for Hornbill for the amusement and appreciation of a wider readership. You will miss this in Bombay, in the concrete jungle of NOFRA. Borivali National Park is not far; maybe it awaits your magical camera,” he wrote when I was all set to come to Mumbai on transfer.

It was here in Mumbai that I got to meet him face-to-face again, on his medical sojourns to the naval hospital. The last time I saw him before he moved on, like I mentioned earlier, was on my return from the Coonoor-Ooty-Wellington. I had taken my camera to show him birds of Nilgiris on the LCD as I narrated my experiences. That is when he was trying to recall the nearly threatened bird endemic to Nilgiris. Awati had a photographic memory that stowed away all manner of information in neatly stacked compartments to be recalled at will, irrepressible raconteur that he was. This was just one of those stray occasions when he couldn’t summon the name of the bird that he and the legendary Salim Ali had tracked in the Blue Hills. Jerdon’s Courser was the bird he was trying to recollect, I realised later.

Soon he was discharged and I shared the edited pictures via email. On 10 October, he wrote back to say: “You really are a wonder, a gift of Nature to the Navy. The latter has yet to appreciate that. It will, one day”!

On 3 November, 2018 he breathed his last passing away in sleep in his beloved Vinchurni. He was 91.


NOTE 1: Since I had the camera handy, I shot this portrait as he was being discharged from the hospital on 1st October.  This may, possibly, be his last portrait. 

NOTE 2: His emails are quoted verbatim and are italicised.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


Sparrows are unforgettable companions of my girlhood days. I can still see clearly a flock of hundreds – in suburban Mumbai -­ roosting on umbar (ficus racemosa) and feeding by the roadside next to a kirana store, their numbers competing with the tightly-lodged figs on the tree. Their sociable nature, non-stop natter and light footprint was an affirmation of life. As children, when death and sorrow did not touch us, the sparrows stood for all that was well with the world. They were not just a living presence, but a strong metaphor for life in our yesteryear. Long after they had disappeared from the firmament, they remained in our consciousness as Salim Ali’s biographical motif and through GaDiMa’s Marathi song. Ga Di Madgulkar, the Marathi literary icon wrote of mother’s love and concern for her brood through a haunting composition that was set to music by another musical icon, Sudhir Phadke. It went like this: Ya chimanyanno, parat phira ghara kade apulya, teenhi sanja jahalya…” (Come,  ‘little sparrows’, turn around towards your home now, the sun has set and darkness is descending…) Often as we stood in the balcony at dusk on summer holidays, or stood gazing at the rains that had us confined at home, Aai would hum this song, the memory of which still tugs at my heartstrings. In my mind, the fall of the sparrow (its decline) is unshakeably linked to the sense of foreboding the song evoked. 

I don’t remember when they started fading away. The crows of childhood persisted; in fact, have exploded in numbers and the pigeons have invaded urban crannies like pests. In more than two decades of birding, I have come across the common house sparrow sparingly. The Passer domesticus has come to be a dying breed. 
In all these years of itinerant life, I have been on a personal mission to lure them back in my individual capacity. On World Sparrow Day, five years ago, I bought the Nature Forever Society’s bird-feeder - designed exclusively to attract sparrows - from a naturalist-friend in Visakhapatnam. There were few sparrows in the naval neighbourhood at the foothill, though hardly any in my locality of Dolphin Hill. The feeder had to be the first step in the reversal of the dismal trend we were seeing, but I had no joy.
When I came to Mumbai, a year ago, I was thrilled to see a smattering of sparrows in the back gullies of buildings. The feeder - filled with foxtail millet - dangling in the balcony, overlooking the golf greens, drew a blank. I thought maybe the feeder was too exotic for the sparrows to fathom, so I left a trail of seeds on the railing. Instead of the desired outcome, I had to contest with curious crows and pesky pigeons. For a while, I tried shooing them away, but I could see it wasn’t working. I left seeds outside the window where I had a better chance at guarding them even as I tapped away on the laptop.

It took a year for the first inquisitive sparrow to appear. While the crows had plenty other distractions, the pigeons still refused to let go. As a result, the sparrows quickly backed off. (Could these be one of the reasons why sparrows might have retreated from urban spaces, in the first place?) The population boom of corvids, mynas and rock pigeons leave them little chance or space.

I had to look for solutions to keep sundry other intrusions at bay. I started laying the millet on the window sill inside the house. It was a perfect niche facing South−airy with sunlight streaming in−and the inside ledge, a safe and exclusive feeding ground. The diamond grill was just the right size to let the sparrows in and sieve the “predators” out even as it served as a perch.

For a month now, a pair has been visiting the niche, daily. With exuberant cheep-cheep, the couple promptly get down to their job of pecking and nibbling at seeds by spitting out the husk. It does not bother me that they leave the husks behind littering the dining area. Satiated, they swing on the TV cable that runs outside the window, a picture of happiness. It is interesting how this cock and hen have monopolised the spot. By now, they know that the spread is laid out for them, exclusively. I replenish the millet several times during the day; just in case I forget, they are there to remind me with their persistent tweets. First thing in the morning and at the end of the day before sunset the duo pop in to gobble up their repast, and several times in between to check if they are still welcome.

House Sparrows make a comeback in my house
At the pink hour, I fling open the doors and windows out of habit, but sometimes I am late. One such morning, I was surprised to see the pair already inside the house, flitting about. They had gotten inside through a hole in the window net. It is an endearing sight then to see these innocent little beings hopping around my living room - by the bookshelf, on the arm rest, under the table... Now that the food problem has been tackled, I am hoping they find my space comfortable enough to set up home. Of course, I have the onerous task of ensuring their safety considering the ceiling fan is spinning on and away.

One morning, I heard an urgent, high-pitched chitter that was unusual. I wondered if the ever-peaceful pair was fighting. A fight had ensued alright, but not between the male and female, but two cock sparrows. Two black throats were lunging at each other mid-air. It was evident that another male had chanced upon the loot. I had been wondering all along how and why other sparrows had not found the stash yet. The new male was chased away and the “rightful owners'” territory protected from takeover, for the time being. Much as I have come to “adopt” the pair as “pets”, I would like more of them to join the chorus.

NOTE: The Title of this blog is obviously derived from Dr. Salim Ali's autobiography (The Fall of A Sparrow) but the meaning is different from that of the ornithologist's. In his book, it was the fall of a sparrow from its nest in his childhood home that piqued his interest in birds. Here, it implies the decline of the sparrow as a species.