Occurence of Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo –Clamator coromandus

I am not sure whether this bird has been recorded in this part of the country.  On 16th February 2011 afternoon at around 4.30 p.m. the bird landed on a broad leaved tree near my residence in the Pondicherry University Campus.  It was a slightly pleasant afternoon and the sunlight was trickling through the sparsely wooded campus. The bird appeared not too frightened and intimidated by the photographer. After a quick glance around and waving its crest the bird flapped into the neighbouring wooded area adjacent to Auroville campus.

Clamator coromandus

The Pondicherry University campus is coterminous with the boundaries of Auroville—(a significant place on all tourist maps of the country on account of the idealist bio-centric international community living together inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s vision of harmony)–  and the land, soil and vegetation certainly is not much different. There are not much variety in terms of trees and bushes. Cassia, Acacia and Cashew Nut trees along with variety of palms comprise the major flora. An occasional Neem or a Tamarind would add spice to the air. Many new species are also being planted and cared for.  But then for the most the campus is dry and does not harbor many fruiting or flowering tree, except of course for the ubiquitous cashew—and when in season it is rife with birdlife. Coppersmith Barbets and the other kinds of frugivorous birds usually live off the nuts and berries. Tamarind, Mango and Lime are also not too hard to come by.  Insects and reptiles abound. And so do a variety of amphibians.  An occasional visit from a Peafowl from beyond the walls of the University Campus would add a tinge of colour to the red sand dunes.

Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo

The heart-line of the campus is of course the deep gorge or the Ravine that runs toward the sea on the east coast. A walk down or even along these red slopes in the early dawn or late evening is bound to yield interesting results for the avid bird watcher. Resident owls and nightjars have been reported by enthusiastic students. During the rains this ravine empties the excess water down to the sea and all along the dry summer days the ravine affords some sort of cool shade and respite for the ground dwellers, lizards, scorpions, snakes and chameleons as well.

Clamator coromandus

For the most the sprawling eight-hundred acre campus is a quiet haven for a large number of bird species. And overhead at almost any time of the day depending on the season one can find large flocks of estuary and coastal birds, egrets, and herons slow winging toward the marshes and salt water ranges on the east coast road. The crackling racket of Roseringed Parakeets is a fairlycommon greeting for the naturalist who steps into the campus during the day. So is the tonk-tonking of the Coppersmith Barbet.
The afternoon of the 16th February was just like most other late winter afternoons—there were Common Myna, Black Drongo, Red-Vented Bulbul, Iora, Brainferever bird, Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Bulbul, and Golden Oriole, hunting about when the Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo landed. There was a slight breeze from the east. My excitement was overflowing. At first I had thought this was a rather plump Paradise Flycatcher female, but then closer inspection showed the clear white shoulder patch and black crest. Identity confirmed! [Clamator coromandus]

It was the Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo visiting the campus and perhaps taking off immediately. Strangely enough I spotted the very same specimen the next day at almost the same time on the same whereabouts.  But that was all. The bird’s brief visit had ended as suddenly as it began.

s.murals@gmail.com

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NOT SO un-COMMON BIRDS OF PONDICHERRY UNIVERSITY CAMPUS

The Pondicherry University campus is coterminous with the boundaries of Auroville, and the land, soil and vegetation certainly is not much different. There are not much variety in terms of trees and bushes. Cassia, Acacia and Cashew Nut trees along with variety of palms comprise the major flora. An occasional Neem or a Tamarind would add spice to the air. Many new species are also being planted and cared for.  But then for the most the campus is dry and does not harbor many fruiting or flowering tree, except of course for the ubiquitous cashew—and when in season it is rife with birdlife. Coppersmith Barbets and the other kinds of frugivorous birds usually live off the nuts and berries. Tamarind, Mango and Lime are also not too hard to come by.  Insects and reptiles abound. And so do a variety of amphibians.  An occasional visit from a Peafowl from beyond the walls of the University Campus would add a tinge of colour to the red sand dunes.

The heartline of the campus is of course the deep gorge or the Ravine that runs toward the sea on the east coast. A walk down or even along these red slopes in the early dawn or late evening is bound to yield interesting results for the avid bird watcher. Resident owls and nightjars have been reported by enthusiastic students. During the rains this ravine empties the excess water down to the sea and all along the dry summer days the ravine affords some sort of cool shade and respite for the ground dwellers, lizards, scorpions, snakes and chameleons as well.

For the most the sprawling eight-hundred acre campus is a quiet haven for a large number of bird species. And overhead at almost any time of the day depending on the season one can find large flocks of estuary and coastal birds, egrets, and herons slow winging toward the marshes and salt water ranges on the east coast road. The crackling racket of Roseringed parakeets is a fairly common greeting for the naturalist who steps into the campus during the day.

These are among some of the birds most commonly met with by anyone who has been fortunate enough to have fairly good eyesight and equally good hearing.

  1. Common Myna
  2. House Crow
  3. Jungle Crow
  4. Tree Pie
  5. Magpie Robin
  6. Oriole
  7. Golden backed Woodpecker
  8. Drongo
  9. Sunbird(s)
  10. Rose ringed Parakeet
  11. Brainfever Bird or Indian Cuckoo
  12. White Browed Bulbul
  13. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  14. Red Vented Bulbul
  15. Partridge
  16. Spotted Dove
  17. Small Green Bee-eater
  18. Brahminy Myna
  19. Coppersmith Barbet
  20. Crow Pheasant
  21. Hoopoe
  22. Indian Koel
  23. Pariah Kite or the Black kite
  24. Swifts
  25. Blackheaded Munia
  26. Shikra Hawk
  27. Iora

This list of course is not exhaustive—I have haphazardly noted from what comes to my mind at the moment. If I were to verify my bird notes and field guides I am sure I could bring half a dozen more common birds to light! However, among the more exotic are the following:

  1. Orange Breasted Green Pigeon
  2. Indian Pitta
  3. Sand Lark
  4. Crested Serpent Eagle
  5. Green Billed Malkoha
  6. White Throated Ground Thrush
  7. Paradise Flycatcher

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to capture some good and some not so good images of these amazing forms of life. When I reflect on these images I am transported to those moments of ecstasy and intense happiness that I shared with them. Birds no doubt form the most endearing and colourful forms of life that we humans are fortunate to share our living spaces with. Dr Salim Ali the doyen of Indian ornithologists has recorded that there is perhaps no place on the globe that has not been darkened by the shadow of a bird—this goes to prove the extreme adaptability of this life form. Almost anywhere in the world one is sure to come across bird life—provided of course one keeps one’s eyes and ears open!

When I reflect on the years of bird watching that I have gone through the most exciting thing that comes to my mind is sharing notes with the legendary Salim Ali. It was in the late seventies that I had the good fortune to meet this great man. We were instrumental in setting up what was then known as the Kerala Natural History Society—KNHS for short—and our president was none other than the pioneer of Kerala’s bird studies, Dr K K Neelakantan. I was then an undergraduate student under him involved in trekking and natural history alongside my literary studies. As part of the natural history work I organized a wild life exhibition and I was awarded a prize for my involvement. The prize was none other than a copy of the famed Book of Indian Birds. I had also the good fortune to be introduced to Dr Salim Ali who was then engaged in field work in the Western Ghats. He was delighted in signing the book for me! This priceless possession is now adorning my book shelf. And every time I take it down I am whisked back to those days!  How decades ago I was walking down the Ponmudi hills with Dr Salim Ali with his dangling his field glasses, listing the hill birds. The high pitched rackets of Grackle and Racket tailed drongo even now float down the byways of my imagination. The sounds and songs of birds no doubt serve to make our otherwise dreary life meaningful and joyous.

 

Magpie Robin

Ask anyone to name a singing bird and you will be fairly surprised by the quizzical looks that might appear on their surprised faces—well, they might murmur, how about the Koel? That’s a singing bird, right?  Some who are blessed with wild imagination and with a bit of general knowledge trivia might come out with astounding names like the Nightingale, or the Skylark!  True, they are all birds that sing—but the most commonly available sweet-singing thrush of our own lawns and backyards as yet remains seldom noticed or recognised! Most people would have some rehashed knowledge of birds through their brush with romantic poetry—either in English or in their own native tongues. Hence their idea of the Cuckoo! But then come March, and this sprite black and white bird bursts into such sweet melody perched on the top of some tree or bush and will keep on for months together till it raises its chicks. The Magpie Robin certainly has a special place in every bird-watcher’s heart; there is little doubt about it. You can meet with this bird usually in the mornings or evenings almost anywhere in our campus. Its favourite nesting spots are on dead trees or among electric-wiring boxes!

Oriole

Orioles are certainly among the most beautiful birds anywhere in the world. They catch our attention as they dazzle their way through the sunlight.  Many a time you would see only a flash of golden yellow. These are Golden Orioles. They are more or less residents in our campus. The Black Naped Oriole is conspicuously absent in these parts. And so is the Black Headed. After the rains you can usually hear the fluting cry of the orioles among the trees. They are not very shy birds and one can easily watch their flying antics.

Common Myna

This bird is quite common in our campus and its sprightly gait and variety of calls is bound to attract the attention of even the most uncaring student in the campus!  One could see them hitch hiking on cattle many a time, helping the cattle get rid of marauding insects. They are omnivorous birds and the young ones as a rule appear to have a ravenous appetite. The poor parents are kept on their toes diving for insects and feeding the little ones. Many a lamp post in and around the campus is the nesting place for these sleek black and brown birds.  Their yellow eye patch gives them a dignity no doubt. Perhaps they are postgraduates here and elsewhere!

The one I have here was being attacked by an oriole!

Small Green Bee-eater

Bee eaters are definitely eye catching. They swoop down on their prey in flight and deftly gathering it up return to the very same perch. The common one in our campus is the Small Green. I have also come across the Blue Bearded Bee eater perched on high tension wire near the building sites.

The small blue nests in holes in the ground.  And you might be surprised to come across their nest in such obvious places that you wonder how the birds survive from their natural predators. But that they do is a sign of their success. They plan their breeding season in early summer when there is a plenitude of insect life. And the little ones are quite deft and spritely as they flirt around lamp posts and telephone lines.

 

Brahminy Myna

Dr Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian ornithology, lists so many varieties of mynas in the Indian subcontinent—they are almost fairly commonly distributed too. Apart from the common myna, there is the Jungle Myna, Blyth’s Myna, Grey Headed Myna, Pied Myna, Grackle or Hill Myna, and Brahminy Myna. In our sprawling campus you could easily come across the Brahminy—so called on account of its white tuft no doubt. They are usually found in pairs. The best time to spot them is immediately after the rains.

Hoopoe

The hoopoe is certainly a majestic bird with its outstanding crest and royal gait. Its hooping call most often echoes round the campus and floats down the corridors and through the open windows. Your first sight of the bird would be surely on the ground as it walks by kingly in its grace. It would take off flapping its barred wings at your approach. Insects are its food and you can meet with them singly or in pairs, almost anywhere in the campus.

White Browed Bulbul

There are many birds that one usually hears but seldom sees.  This is one such bird. The bubbling calls echo and reecho among the bushes morning and evening, and the birds dash about usually in pairs. The white brow is distinct, provided you have enough patience to wait for the bird to show itself. Other than this brow the bird is drab and not at all noticeable. It usually merges with the dry foliage.

Red Whiskered Bulbul

As the name implies this bird sports red whiskers and is adorned with a black crest.  Most often you might mistake its crest for its beak and the bird appears to have two heads—so a Janus-faced bird! It is not uncommon in our campus and you are bound to come across fairly large hunting parties in and amidst bushes, crackling away. They are usually early risers and quite active throughout the day.  These bulbuls— so named on account of the musical instrument of that name—are among the lovable birds which keep our campus alive.

Red vented Bulbul

It would be good for the beginner to keep some standard sizes of birds in mind for further reference when you come across newer birds.  Sparrow, Bulbul or Myna are usual reference sizes.  Red vented bulbul is usually found alongside mixed hunting parties of red whiskered and white browed.  As the name implies it is identifiable on account of the red patch below its tail. The head dress is something that resembles a crew-cut!  It nests on small patchy bowls of twigs and dry leaves amidst bushes.

Iora

This beautiful resident bird in the campus is a famed singer—but seldom do people see it! Obviously the usual pair loves to hide amidst the thick leafy braches and tease the searcher! Anyone who takes a stroll down the green part of the campus is certain to hear unusual whistles and chirpings from among the foliage. If one were to take the pains to wait it out patiently one is sure to spot the couple darting between the branches. The male is yellow and black and the female dullish green. One is left wondering how such a small dumpy bird could hold with in itself such lovely repertoire of notes and songs! The life of the campus would be drained if these lovely birds were to desert us! A couple of years ago I was taking an overseas professor for a morning walk round the campus and hearing an Iora pair among the trees we both stood amazed and silent – so religiously like in a church or a temple!

Green Pigeon

One evening in mid-February I was most excited on sighting a whole family of Green Pigeons right across a small clearing beside my quarters. They were perched high up on a cassia tree eating the berries on the lantana or some sort of parasitical growth on the trees, and the late evening glow of the sky was reflected in the bosom of the male. I am not quite sure whether these Orange breasted Green Pigeons were just visiting the campus for a breather in the midst of a long distance flight or even local migrants. Either way the campus is a bustle of bird life between October and March.  However, as each year passes the numbers of our feathered friends are certainly dropping.  Massive tree-clearings, no doubt, here and elsewhere are regularly destroying their green cover. Just imagine what a dreary place our earth would be without these beautiful creatures!

Birds against the blue skies

One morning in November last year I was gazing up into the deep blue sky when I spotted these long distance fliers.  Their flight formation is amazing. Just as a taut bow, they were a gaggle of Geese. Large groups of ducks and geese assemble during winter alongside pelicans, storks, herons and egrets in the water bodies in and around Chennai—the best time to watch them is between October and late March. Ducks and geese like flamingoes are among the high flying birds—ducks have been reported flying as high in the air as even five miles!

White Throated Ground Thrush

A long time ago while bird watching  in the western ghats I had many an occasion to come across this short stumpy ground thrush—and I recall making a even a presentation for my naturalist friends including images of this beautiful bird that I had sketched in my notebooks of those days.  But then imagine my surprise when I came across this bird here in our campus one morning sitting and meditating all alone among the leaves! The short stretch of tree cover amidst the bamboos near to the Centre for Pollution control was the haunt of this silent one. I have never heard its whistling songs here in Pondicherry.

When one starts writing about birds there is no end to what one could put in. Birds are such delightful creatures that once you have started noticing them you will find yourself drawn to their calls, their songs, their movements and their habitats more often. The study of birds has developed so much these days that from being a mere amateur birdwatcher one could progress to a full-fledged ornithologist in no time provided one takes the pains for it. However, as an aesthete and a committed bird photographer I have discovered another dimension to the whole thing: waiting for the right moment for the right kind of light and aperture, I have found, is a process of silent meditation. It bestows you with a patience and quiet –a calm that passeth all understanding!

smurals@gmail.com

The Song of the Whistling Thrush

Come to think of it, we have known each other for over thirty, thirty- five years! That is a very long time indeed.  We speak of each generation in terms of a gap of thirty years, and so this is over a generation of friendship. He was always a calm and composed person, and when he did laugh his whole body shook, and his long dark mane of hair flew in the breeze like a flag behind him. He was Shanthiprasad– we called him Shanthi. Many a time I had been tempted to ask Shanthi whether he had allowed his beard to grow without any trimming at all! In fact someone had the cheek to ask me one of those days how I managed to maintain my beard! With the characteristic impudence of youth I had derided: I don’t maintain it, it just grows! But Shanti’s beard was much longer than mine and bushier. Yes, in those days all of us friends had unkempt beards and we also dressed carelessly in loose fitting garments sometimes much longer than our knees, and I had always been at home only in jeans! This was a generation that didn’t fit anywhere just like that. Born after Independence, and not being able to connect to the previous Gandhian era in any meaningful manner. Religion did not hold much sense either and neither did skepticism for that matter.  We were willing to believe, provided we could.

I had taken up teaching in a state Government College in north Kerala in the early eighties and then one day a whole host of admiring students ushered in two kurta-clad bearded forms right from the highway all the way up the hill to the college. I was in class lecturing when Shanthi and Raman came up to the open door. For a minute I couldn’t believe myself, I had given up hope of ever being with my old friends once I joined the Collegiate education department. And here they were right in my classroom! I had just about winded up my lecture on the nuances of modernist writing and so we all trouped into our college canteen. Shanthi said while munching banana fries: we are on our way to Kollur, care to join us?  I said yes and then we were off in no time. I stuffed some things into a haversack and we jumped into the first available bus north-bound. Travel in those days was a little more difficult than that of the present. Buses were rather few and far between. Trains two times a day. Our journey took us to Kannur, to Kasaragod and then to Mangalore. There we got into a private bus and were on our way to Kollur and the Mookambika temple. We reached sometime in the late evening and stayed at an Ashram. The next day Shanthi went around looking for his friend and guide to the hills Chandukutti sami.  He was a rather short dark tough person who spoke very little and smoked beedies. He agreed to come with us into the hills. And we set off the next morning. Santhi and Raman had gone about collecting a few essential stuff for lighting a fire, vessels for cooking etc. The walk into the shola forests of the greener parts western ghats was memorable. Trees of the tropical evergreen always appeared to reach right into the skies and each one struggled to reach higher than the rest for the favoured sunlight and warmth. Dew dripped from above on to the bush and creepers below.  The rivulets sparkled in the speckled sunlight as the breeze blew high among the trees. It was late September and the touch of autumn was on every leaf. The climb was slow first and then became arduous and demanding as the path became steeper and steeper. Once we were on the top of the Kodajadri I was informed that the total walk was but 16 kms. However, the scramble through the tangled bushes and creepers dodging thorns and sharp rocks appeared then to me pretty long indeed. This was my first exposure to the wonders of Kodajadri.  As the ubiquitous mist withdrew briefly I could see the breathtaking panorama of the blue and purple hills. All three of us were silent for the most and our stops and pauses were as though decided in unison. Perhaps this was what they meant by the touch of the hills. I had written in a rather long poem about Ganga a couple of months ago:

The mountains know the hand of god. They are so huge, so mute, so invincible.

I have lost my bearings confronted with such vastness.     

I recalled my experiences in scrambling up the lower Himalayas in search of the trickle in the bosom of Himvant!  Here in the far south of India I was experiencing almost the same breathless joy! The touch of the hills was magnificent, almost religious. What is prayer but the heart’s lonely mutterings to the unknowable? The seeker and the search have become one here in the silence of the hills. Kodajadri will remain with me forever. The profundity of feeling, the depth of emotion, the largeness of vision my heart experienced cannot be expressed in plain words and I did not try the impossible either. I had just let myself go and merge with the rising curling unknowing mist of unreason. Where was I? Was it morning or time to sleep? None of us cared. We were in the thick of being. That was all. Shanthi always had a smile as answer to many of my queries. Raman was one of those people who could simply fade away here in the hills. He kept pace with the breeze and clouds.  He helped to light the fire and make the food, wash up and get our sleepings places readied. Shanthi sometimes would talk about many things, about his Guru, about meditation and meaning. We sat around the dancing fire near the Sarvajnapeetam and listened. This was the sacred place that Adi Sankaracharya lay when he was sick and the benignity of the Devi brought water trickling down the hills. We huddled together in the late evening and watched wide eyed as the sun disappeared over the hill tops and the cave Chitramoola became mysterious all the more. The trickling sound of falling water and the gathering dark were extraordinary. And then I heard the whistle. Because I had heard it earlier in many of my wanderings in the hills I recognized it immediately. The Malabar whistling Thrush, we call it the Whistling Schoolboy. Because the thrill and the casualness of a truant boy straying off from school was there in the song. Now this day it rang mysterious, while the bird lay hidden in the darkening evening. This entire Kodajadri, this outcrop that descended from the hump of the hill that held the Sarvajnapeetam, on to the sheer drop below the cave of the ancients called Chitramoola, reverberated with the song of the dark thrush. We did not know the passage of time, neither did we care. The trees were shivering in the coldness of late September and the sky was vibrant with vanishing and merging colours. The hills were sentinels of a strange experience a hastening in of complete being.  I had not felt such calm mingled with such excitement; the sheer touch of amazement. The bird would not stop.  The breeze was becoming chillier and night was swirling up the carpet of darkness through which some strange points of lights flickered. Kodajadri was lighting up with the mystery of all being. Here was the centre of all life. This was the point where everything returned. My mother’s arms reached forth and embraced me. I was a child once more.  I didn’t know anything. There was no knowledge. The song and sky and mist and breeze and star all rolled into one. The rock on which we sat for meditation had disappeared and the sound of falling water was so loud. Where is the thrush song leading me? A deep fever rose in me—deeper than the distant seas, dreams and forms rolled into one long experience of nothingness.

It took me a few days to get well. We slept in the cave and meditated on the sun and wind. Water was there a plenty and silence through the colours of the rainbow as the sun’s rays danced on the droplets. Then many days later we decided to regain our mortal existence as Shanthi and Raman and myself. Our walk downhill was even more silent. The thrush song was everywhere but the touch of mystery had lifted. Life was so ordinary afterwards. But then we are all mortals. We live and we pass. I had kept in touch with Shanthi for a long long time. Much later when I was travelling toward Umeo in Sweden, I flew into Stockholm and the old familiar face with the long beard appeared at the airport. Shanthi had driven all the way from Goteborg where he was living then and he brought me a large case full of warm clothing.  He had known I was flying further north and had come to arm me for the severity of the northern winter. By then he had become quite well known and had followers and disciples all over the world as far away as Rome and Italy and Sweden. We both looked up at the moon and marveled at its upturned figure. This was close to the north pole and cold.  There was thrush song too in this late autumn in Europe. But I recalled our Kodajadri.  Our own Himalayas. The toughness of the mountains and the pure existential touch of the hills. The song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush!  Nothing like it before and after.

smurals@gmail.com

Anguish and After

When I was thirty I wrote a poem and called it Autumnal.  I thought that was the end of the world. I was facing the worst critical intellectual dilemma in my life so far and didn’t know where to go, which way to turn. I even considered terminating my life in a philosophical manner. My greatest passion then was the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. And Kirilov who appears in The Possessed was one character whom I totally identified myself with.  At one stage in his life he states categorically that life offers barely two options: either to kill oneself or the next immediately obvious one – to kill the other. Suicide or homicide would lead to some definitive action and thus provide meaning to one’s life. This was indeed crazy and the more I reflected upon this logic the more crazy I felt within. There was no essential morality no essential ethics. In fact, faced with a philosophical existentialism I realized there was no valuable essence as well. Existence precedes essence—that was Sartre’s dictum. And I then wholeheartedly believed it too. However, there was action, the possibilities of commitment to life in the real world, some ideological yearnings that my thirsting mind was egging me on to. What about the world out there that held me and everything else? What about my fellow creatures? What about earth and nature and all that beautiful world of sun rises and dawns long bright afternoons and awesome evenings leading on to silent star-studded night skies? How could I terminate my life? Shouldn’t I seek out the answers to those million questions of existence and being that my thinking brain churned out second by second? What am I? The passionate nature of my quest led me on from question to question. And no answer came up. It was interminable anguish.

Readingwas one way. Meditating, another. I would spend long silent hours lying under the shade of my favourite tree on a hill slope overlooking the border of our city. Many of my friends thought I was foolish and was simply wasting my time avoiding work and entrepreneurship. Of course I had also indulged a great deal in my other passion of sketching, painting and writing poetry. And then there were the innumerable birds. I had taken ornithology quite seriously and kept a small bird note book. Wherever I went I had it in my sling bag along with a copy of the Bhagavat Gita and my other favourite books by Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Nikos Kazantzakis. The world held the answers to all my questions, some how I was sure of all that. But then how does one go about getting the world to spill them all out? On the one hand there was this nagging anguish that was like a deep unquenchable thirst that left the throat parched and dry always—existential questions that loomed large like some lilac mountain, solid, unrelenting, mysterious, and yet tempting, tantalizing…on the other hand there was this tremendous feeling of an oceanic nature, beautiful, bounteous, wholesome, that was on an aesthetic and spiritual dimension—this was never fulfilling though; however, it is the experiences of this second kind that held greater promises of a holistic kind that was as yet probable and possible.  There is bound to be some order, some harmonious rhythm that would set the heart and soul at ease and satisfy the deep yearnings of the inquisitive intellect. Poetry and art gave some hints of such possibilities. The natural world of beautiful creatures and exquisite experiences delighted the sensuous aesthete in me and prodded me on like a passionate pilgrim in an eternal search of stars and sonnets. There was Rilke, there was Yeats, there was Herman Hesse, and above all there was KCS Paniker and Pablo Picasso, Ravi Varma and a multitude of like minded souls who appeared and disappeared perpetually taunting the mind as though they were equals and kindred spirits who also underwent such distressing moods of depression and loneliness and who also somehow survived to set everything right. However, there never was anyone who in my view succeeded in finding some permanent solace to the yearnings of the heart. Each encounter only served to deepen my troubled mind and dampen my creative self. Not in poetry not in art, not in nature, then where in the world was I to seek recompense for my self-quest? Nikos Kazantzakis and Freidrich Nietzsche and Herman Hesse spoke about the torments of the self and soul—while on one side the flesh with its pounding heart and sensuous skin held multitudinous desires of the self that throbbed for unending gratification, the soul that gleamed like a distant star uncontaminated and untainted by any of this tumult and turmoil, held the profound promise of a spiritual fulfillment. The split with in was so deep and I could feel this eternal battle raging in the apparent silence of the dark night of the soul! I empathized with Zorba, the Greek; Narcissus and Goldmund; Zarathustra and a dozen other great existential heroes of the world literature. This, I realized, was not the sheer romantic tensions of an immature soul, they were abiding passions of the human mind.  W.B Yeats has immortalized this in one of great poems: The Dialogue of Self and Soul.

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing ,

We are blest by everything:

Everything we look upon is blest.

However, I believe he has given a more touching poetic expression in his Wild Swans at Coole. This could work like the Arnoldian touchstone:

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

This not withstanding, my greatest humbling fear was that what if all these torments were merely another aspect of the human mind, the trickster? Then this great human tragedy would become nothing but the human comedy of errors. I was hooked on to The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno. I identified with that great pessimistic philosopher and the prophet of the will: Schopenhauer who also remarked that “life is essentially tragic and I am willing to make it more tragic by reflecting upon it!”

On my book shelf I found Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant resting side by side with the Gita and the Koran and Khalil Jibran and Gurudev Tagore. I rode with angels and demons. Recited the Lalitha Sahasranamam, chanted the Gita and relished the immortal lines of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s classic translation.  The Buddha spoke to me and so did Christ. Lenin and Mao and Che Guevera found equal place in my inside. I was like Hesse’s Siddhartha meditating on the moving river all day and night. Sri Aurobindo and Ramana spoke to me. I lived through the struggles of these great minds. While Ramana sounded simple at the outset he made me pause and think. Sri Aurobindo was tough. But then I was fortunate enough to read through all that he wrote, not missing out any single line. His complexity I found was only at the outside, while deep within he was like I was, confused and bewildered, confronted with a million existential questions, relishing the great aesthetic experience of being and becoming, at one with the universe. Of course it took me only a little while to recognize his great and steadfast will that gave him the continued impetus to forge ahead in the supreme quest of the spirit. I felt I understood the reason for his overt withdrawal from the world of politics into the silence and solitude of the ashram. It was not a withdrawal at all but an all inclusive immersion into the larger being of the cosmic spirit. What delighted me most about this amazing intellectual yogi was his continued openness to the questions of the body and the intellect. Someone had called him a radical mystic. Yes, Sri Aurobindo gave clear cut answers to many of my questions. However the greatest challenge was in unlocking these observations in the laboratory of ones own mind. Behind every Jelkill there is this Hyde. It might be one thing to follow these teachings of these noble masters as teachings but another to experientially encounter them. My questing mind was always alert and devious, mischievous. I wanted the cake and to eat it too. Yoga and spirituality demanded great disciplining of the senses and the mind. I was worried whether these might lead to an incarceration of the sensuous self. I wanted the passions of the body and the soul to be equally well balanced. It was a virtual impossibility.

There are among the many possibilities of life two major options: having or being. The desires of the physical self are only gratified by the possession of material objects and other things relishable through the physical senses. The hungers of the higher self are not easily satisfied: the entire being has to be transformed. Now, the most wonderful aspect of existence as I came to understand aesthetically is the inexhaustibility of life. There is no end to what you can, have or be. The craving of the self can never be abated; the desires of the soul are equally well unsatisfiable. One can go on possessing the endless riches of this world and still feel the emptiness that only becomes vaster by the second. The physical being is like a hole in the ground the larger it becomes the more emptier it becomes. The soul on the other hand desires completion of being, as Sri Aurobindo has rightly pointed out in his The Life Divine. Aspiration rises up and grace comes down– the final union results in a transformation of the being. The physical ceases to be itself and the encounter enhances the human being. The process, as I understand it, is never complete in a stasis, but results in a dynamis—a constant process of becoming. Being is becoming. The passions of the mind are not mere freaks of the imagination but they are the beacons of the divine becoming.

This is the point where the Nietzschean superman recognizes that morality and ethics are for the commoners. This is devious turn of events; leading only to fascism and eternal perdition. This is anti humanism. But reading Nietzsche closely revealed to me that he was not so naïve as to lead humanity into eternal damnation. If I were to state that he was a self-realised soul it might raise many an eye brow and even raise the hornet’s nest against me. But then the man who debated music with Wagner and pried open the philosophical positions of the western rational enlightenment grounded on binary opposites only to reveal that there are no contradictions but only complementarities, could be no simple intellectual philosopher but only one with a profound insight gained out of rigorous self analysis very much in the lines of the Upanishadic Rishis. Blake had claimed : without contraries there is no progress. Nietzsche propounds: there are no contraries but only complementarities.  Not in complete possession but in complete surrender lies the ultimate becoming of the cosmic spirit.

I have come to understand that the intellect never gives up. It always craves for more. The mind never is satisfied. It is always questing. The passions of the self are uncontrollable. Well, why should one try to do the impossible? Living is its own becoming. Love and compassion, understanding and tolerance swell forth from a completeness of being, that is forever becoming. Not in having, that is for sure, but in becoming is the greatest satisfaction of having lived! A life that is free from regrets and misgivings, free from intentional acts of evil that bestow pain for the other, relishing in the completeness of being, is spiritual indeed.

To believe the poet: after such knowledge what forgiveness? Once you have looked into the heart of anguish there is no escape. Knowledge is pain. The more one comes to know the more one feels burdened, until one learns to empty one’s intellect like unwinding a taut spring. My passion for the unknown that used to torment me then is with me still; however, I have learned to look upon those tensions with more controlled ease. The Upanishad speaks of two birds sitting on a tree. One calmly looks on while the other eats the fruit. I am sure this is to be seen in the symbology of the Upanishads as the self-aware soul reflecting on the self. There is a certain calm that befalls one as one enters a huge cathedral or a temple or any religious site, and provided one is able to maintain the same calm one can come away with it. Just like the sannyasin who returns to the human habitation after sojourning the jungles as a vanaprasta, with a calm that passes all understanding, the tormented intellect is smoothened after it allows itself to be percolated by the spiritual.  Perhaps this is the self same condition in which Dostoevsky’s Kirilov comes to decide that he is ready to quit the world. It does no more matter whether he exits this way or that; no more is he a vassal to the flesh, nor bound by the lesser moral laws of the mortals.

smurali1234@yahoo.com

Ecological Criticism for the Present: Literature, Nature and Critical Inquiry

ASLEIndia Announces New Book on Ecocriticism
Ecological Criticism for the Present engages with the logic of ecology and rhetoric of the theory, seeking to inquire into its reach in terms of continuity and interdependence. When ecology and the environment have become catch words often blown and bandied about indiscriminately and casually these days, the essays in this volume lead us to reflect on their theoretical connections and profounder socio-historical depths in unproblematic terms easy to comprehend. With contributions from diverse hands, this book edited and introduced by a leading ecocritic from India, is certainly bound to interest and engage the casual reader as well as the inquisitive scholar.
CONTENTS:
1. Murali Sivaramakrishnan—Introduction– Continuities and Interdependence: Literature, Nature and Critical Inquiry–Ecological Criticism for Our Times
2. Murali Sivaramakrishnan –Echoing Ecospiritual Values for a new age
3. Mihai A. Stroe — Ecomorphic Horizons: From the Dark Ages to the Romantic Big Bang of Culture and Beyond
4. Reena J Andrews — Ecocentric Dimensions in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
5. BS Korde –Descriptions of Landscape in Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the Water and Winter Trees
6. Margarita Carretero-González– The other Wordsworth: a female gaze on the natural world
7. Priyadarshi Patnaik –Embodying Nature through Aesthetic Experience
8. Rohith P –People and Forests: An Eco-Social reading of Kadamanitta’s poems
9. Elmar Schenkel. Poppo Pingel and Hugo Kükelhaus– Exploring the Physical Roots of Architecture.
10. Usha V.T. The Ecopoetics of Ted Hughes
11. K. Reshmi –Body as Colony: An Ecofeminist Analysis of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
12. S.M. Gupta — Ecocritical Reading of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
13. Sumana Biswas– An Ecocritical Expedition into Shakespeare’s Cymbeline
14. Wanda Baxter –To Know ‘Place’: proposed curriculum that integrates literature and science, imagination and reductionism
15. Ujjwal Jana: Representation of Nature in Ancient Indian Literature
16. Murali Sivaramakrishnan– Life Lines :Water, Life, and the Indian Experience— Cultural Meanings, Social Significance and Literary Implications
For Copies you may also contact: AUTHORSPRESS Marketing Office: E-35, Jawahar Park,Laxminagar, New Delhi-110 092 Ph. 011-22436299, 22460145,authorspress@yahoo.com

Where Ignorance is a Virtue!

C.F Andrews, the English clergyman and public activist who was a close friend of both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, described to Romain Rolland a discussion, at which he was present, between the two great men on the significance of idols: “Gandhi defended them, believing the masses incapable of raising themselves immediately to abstract ideas. Tagore could not bear to see the people eternally treated as a child. Gandhi quoted the great things achieved in Europe by the flag as an idol; Tagore found it easy to object, but Gandhi held his ground, contrasting European flags bearing eagles, etc., with his own, on which he has put a spinning wheel.” [ Amartya Sen, http://www.countercurrents.org/culture-sen281003.htm]

The difference in the attitude of these two giants of India’s history on what might at the outset appear such a trivial issue is certainly quite significant. As a poet myself, I cannot disagree with the committed optimism of Gurudev in his essential faith in the people. At the same time I cannot disagree with the insightful vision of the Mahatma either—our people are never mature enough to understand these great ideas!  The masses are always incapable of raising themselves immediately to abstract ideas! How very true indeed! Gandhi’s spinning wheel and his famed symbolic action of walking toward the sea coast to pick up a handful of salt as a sign of protest against the imperialist powers are now blown in the wind on the face of the crass stupidity of us Indians of the present day. Crime, corruption, murder and fraudulence coupled with acts of hitherto unprecedented terror are essential parts of our very existence.  On the one hand there are those who claim to uphold truth and nonviolence, and clamour for a corruption-free society, government, and administration – holding forth public demonstration, rallies, protest marches, hunger-strikes and what not to raise the humanitarian awareness among the people and the powers that be in the establishment – through self-proclaimed Gandhian means—and on the other hand there are the public servants,  the elected representatives of the people in the largest democracy in the world who indulge in crass inhuman deeds of power politics, swindling inordinate amounts of public money, and proudly bask in the blinding lights of the media—be it the press or the TV—having waded their way through  cheap political intrigue and bloodshed.  Caught between the two the common man and woman are thrown literally into the dire streets of misery.  Now, over and above these are the heinous and scandalous acts of atrocity, like the one that happened last night in Coimbatore Tamilnadu—the decapitation of a statue of the Mahatma. Little wonder that the man himself was shot at close range by a deranged mind.  Perhaps they believed that the violent acts perpetrated by the Congress government at the Centre in Delhi against Baba Ramdev who had gone on a hunger strike was something to do with the Mahatma of yore ( he is not going to walk anymore among us, that is for sure, neither is he going to turn his charka!)  As a Tibetan saying goes:  It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves! One can certainly understand the compelling need to clear the country of the terrible canker of corruption that is so very blatantly rampant in our country today. It is the need of the hour and all self-respectable citizens need to conscientiously join forces with those few who have brought it right in to the media’s eye.  However, violence to end all violence is a far cry!  And marauding acts under the cover of darkness are certainly unbecoming of a people beginning to awaken to their own deplorable situation.  The Mahatma and the Gurudev are both right—one cannot continue to treat all people as children, and masses are forever incapable of raising themselves immediately to noble ideas!  For the higher levels of human idealism are forever abstract, not easily grasped by the immature and the imbecile!  How could one talk of maturity in this ridiculous condition? Where there is little human sensitivity we are forever condemned to rage, rave, murder and tear at each other like wild animals! Perhaps, the comparison is quite misplaced: animals are far wiser. At least they do not erect statues, nor do they wave flags or worship at temples, churches or mosques!  And yet one thing is for sure: the Mahatma himself would have simply shrugged his shoulders at all this uproar, for he would tell himself that the people are always a little on the immature side. Gurdev would not have disagreed with him at this juncture.

NOW, at the heart of Kurfürstendamm, in the German capital city of Berlin there stands a bashed in church—bombed and shelled by the Allied forces during the II world war.  The German people have retained the very same battered building even to this day perhaps as a souvenir of their wounded pride, and ceremonies are still held there.  Likewise, let us also allow the Mahatma’s statue in Coimbatore to stand headless—as a reminder of our blighted childishness!  All we need to do is only to put a charka by the demolished statue as a remainder of our mindless acts. After all, where ignorance is a virtue it is certainly folly to be wise. And to have a sense of history is far, far, dangerous in a land where everything and everyone is forgotten so soon. More so in a country where the feats of misinformed children who refuse to grow up to noble ideals continue to disprove even the Mahatma—because their acts are not the mindless actions of the ignorant masses but the cool, calculated, willful, acts of the sophisticated  kind. They would easily be taken in by the waving of flags and rally round in the mindless madness of party-politics—dangerous and callous in the avatars of the cutthroats– but the symbol of a handful of salt or the charka would make so very little sense. The headless statue of the Mahatma and the broken charka by his side may one day far in the future usher in some light of sense. Perhaps.

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