How to bird-watch. How to watch birds

I am writing about nature.  About what is turning out to be a favorite subject.

How to birdwatch

Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching

In which the author makes a case for bird watching as a hobby and tells you how to start:

It begins with a pair of binoculars; and a balcony, if you have one. If there is some greenery visible from your balcony, even better. But you need binoculars to begin this voyage. Mine are Bushnell binoculars from Amazon for about $35. They have a magnification of 10X50, which didn’t mean anything to me except that it seemed better than the 8X40 advertised by other brands. I use them every day, except during travel, and even that, I want to change. Chroma sells pocket travel binoculars for under Rs.1000. I am considering buying a pair.

My bird-watching happens around 7 AM, when the sun is up. I have a cherished morning routine. I usually begin by sipping lemon water or orange blossom water (from Muscat) as I make filter coffee. Naturopathy says that beginning the day with water and some sort of citrus is a good idea, and I have been doing that. I like making filter coffee. We use Kotha’s coffee powder with an 80: 20 ratio of coffee to chicory, available at Thoms, my local grocery store. I prefer stainless steel tumblers at home. They help froth my coffee. Recently, a friend gave me some Black Cat classic espresso beans from Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago. If I am by myself, I go to the trouble of grinding fresh coffee beans and savoring their aroma in the morning quiet, as I make myself an espresso.

Coffee and binoculars in hand, I walk out into the terrace. Across the road is an army cantonment with lots of trees. This is my ecosystem; one I have come to know very well. Friends have asked for a bird watching primer, and that is what this attempts to be. With the zeal of a convert, I can write it. Most of my bird watching friends have done this for years. They are too far-gone to give— or even remember– basic instructions such as these.

Essentially, what you do on your first day is to sweep your binoculars from tree to tree to figure out your baseline: a tree that attracts a lot of birds. My baseline tree is a tall Millingtonia with fragrant white flowers. This is the tree that I train my binoculars on, first thing in the morning. Usually, there are birds on it. Parakeets, kites, crows, this tree gives me something to see everyday. When you see your first new bird; one you cannot identify, it is a seminal moment, for this is when your bird watching journey begins. You have to train your binoculars on that strange new bird and notice its markings. What color are its wings? What color is its chest? What size is it? Does it have a long beak or a short beak? Does it have any streaks across or above its chest, eyes, or back? How long is its tail?

Once you have memorized these markings, you have to identify the bird. This is what I do. I type what I see into Google Images: “small bird, white chest, green wings, Bangalore,” or something like that. Several images appear. I keep scrolling down till I identify the bird. My first was a white-cheeked barbet (Megalaima viridis). Only it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw what I thought was a white-cheeked barbet, only to discover that there was a similar species called the brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica). Identifying sub species is a whole new game and we’ll get to that.

I spend 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before sunset—give or take half an hour depending on bird activity. This is not because the birds are most active at this time, although they are, but because it’s easier for me to stand on my terrace for extended periods of time when the sun is not shining hard. At first, even holding the binoculars at eye level for more than a few minutes was challenging. Now, I have gotten used to it. Bangalore ornithologist M.B. Krishna showed me the right way to hold binoculars. Essentially, you keep your elbows down, not at the side.

I have a simple goal: I want some sort of “wow” effect. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. It could be a close up of a male Asian koel as it emits its mournful call: koo-ooo. Or it could be two golden orioles pecking each other mid-flight. The best part is that nature usually delivers. Everyday so far, I have seen something that catches my breath. I lose myself for 15 minutes as I scan the trees with my binoculars.

A Brahminy kite flew towards me from the horizon one day. The flap of its wings were rhythmic; its movement through the clear blue sky, slow and majestic. It looked lonely and somehow profound as it made its passage across the sky. I stood still and watched unwaveringly. Pariah kites– Krishna says that Black Kites are as racist as the previously used term, Pariah Kites, and so I have started calling them that. These kites—Milvus migrans– are common in my neighborhood. I see them in the sky all the time, usually a dozen of them flying high or low. Brahmini kites are rare, and this has to do with the habitat, I guess. There was a section in Kerala where I drove past and found tons of Brahmini kites in the sky and the trees. Dime a dozen. For some reason, the trees in my neighborhood don’t support the Brahmini kite and therefore, when it becomes visible, it is usually a heart stopping sight. On that morning, I followed this kite with its white chest and brown wings etched against the blue sky all the way till it was out of sight. Where was it going? Why was it alone? Who was it searching for? What was it thinking? Lost in these thoughts, I forget who I am. Connected to the flight of that Brahmini kite, I lose track of the mundane minutiae of my life. For that moment, I am linked with nature. I am linked with innocence and divinity. That noble kite takes me to a higher plane. It is for this reason that I watch birds. Next week, I will tell you how.

 

Shoba Narayan has been watching birds for over a year. This is the first part of a four-part series on bird-watching. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

The Sanskrit Podcast

I met Vrinda Acharya through my sister-in-law in Florida.  She teaches my sis-in-law carnatic music via skype.  Vrinda is a young, dynamic musician, performer, researcher and has a Master’s degree in Sanskrit.  Her husband is a mridangam artist.  She lives in Malleshwaram and is steeped in music and sanskrit.

I interviewed her on the Sanskrit Podcast here and embedded below

Sacred Food

Some years ago, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin approached me to write a book on “Sacred Food.”  At that time, I wasn’t ready to do it.

Some weeks ago, Sukumar, the editor of Mint, told me about this long-form platform they were launching and told me to write for it.  The multimedia digital platform is exciting.  I did my first voice over here.  They sent me a video and I memorized what I wanted to say.  Played the video on silent, recorded on Garageband, emailed the file over, and voila!!!

You can see Mint on Sunday here and my piece here

Eudaemonia, Rahul and Kejriwal

Rahul Gandhi, Kejriwal and eudaemonia

Rahul Gandhi could take a lesson from St Augustine of Hippo. Wait, before you roll your eyes, let me finish. St Augustine of Hippo was a remarkable man. Born a Berber, this Algerian-Roman philosopher began life as a pagan. His mother Monica, ordained a Catholic saint, entreated him to lead a life of virtue. In his youth, Augustine was anything but. He wined and dined, had a rollicking time, wavered between hobbies and passions, and had relationships with a series of women.

As he says in his book, Confessions, Augustine’s early life consisted of “being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving”. There is something comforting about a saint who sinned as spectacularly as Augustine. There is hope for the rest of us.

When he turned 32, Augustine—in somewhat Bollywood fashion that involved his mother’s death and chance meetings—reformed himself. He turned to celibacy and priesthood as a way to reach God. This continued throughout his life and he was ordained the patron saint of printers, theologians and, appropriately, brewers. In philosophy, St Augustine is known for his deeply personal account of the Western philosophic concept of “eudaemonia”, or the good life.

Gandhi junior, back after a two-month break, has taken up his role again stridently. The question is whether his reformation is for real—this time; or whether he will waffle, yet again.

Years ago, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, entreated people to “follow their bliss”. Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and, most importantly, Aristotle, called it eudaemonia. It is often misrepresented as happiness—but has more to do with practising virtues in daily life.

Eudaemonia is about doing the right thing at the right time in the right way, about having the wisdom to resolve conflicts, something that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal could learn. It is a robust, action-oriented philosophy that is somewhat akin to the Hindu notion of dharma. Eudaemonia marries the idea of dharma, or doing the right thing, with the tantric notion of sahaja, or spontaneous ease, as poet Kabir called it, in which the mind is returned to its own primal ecstasy without the help of external substances.

I like eudaemonia because I think an action-oriented philosophy shouldn’t be plodding and diligent and entirely about duty and morality. What is Gandhi’s duty? Quit the party? Bear the burden? Take on the mantle? What is Kejriwal afraid of? Why does he win an election and then self-combust?

Much of philosophy, both in the East and West, focuses on duty and morality. The problem with this approach is that it excludes ownership, passion and enjoyment. To have power, and to take pleasure from wielding it, should be part of the composite as well.

Eudaemonia celebrates happiness, and all those daily activities that lead to happiness. It wasn’t popular among philosophers, by the way. Immanuel Kant vociferously opposed it, and although he is a giant in Western philosophy, let me adopt the immortal words of Bertie Wooster and say that with respect to eudaemonia, Kant “was an ass”. Later philosophers—the existentialists, for example—also viewed eudaemonia as a shallow fantasy put forth by medieval philosophers and theologians who had no idea about the harsh realities of everyday moralities.

The same could be said of eudaemonia’s counterpart in India: tantric philosophy. Mention tantra, and the average person usually thinks of the Kama Sutra. Well, it is that; but it is also about beauty, colour and bliss. There is a lovely passage in Sudhir Kakar’s book, Shamans, Mystics And Doctors, that explains this. “The true tantrik is always in a state of non-suppression and enjoyment. The purpose of every moment of life is to experience ananda. Ananda is active enjoyment of everything that comes your way.” No quarrel there.

How can one experience ananda, or enjoyment? Or eudaemonia, or happiness? Well, the reason those Kantian moralists were against eudaemonia is because they believed that humans needed external objects in order to experience happiness. Well, that’s true. Hand me a bottle of Ruinart and I’ll be one happy person right now. People like Kant would belittle this approach, and so would a vast number of anti-consumerists. Kant believed that true happiness or contentment comes from performing virtuous actions for their own sake. You do the right thing and you are happy. If not, you are guilt-ridden and have to drown your sorrows in wine, women (or men) and song.

But what if you could adapt your desires to suit the situation? Bear with me here. Again, to quote Kakar: “A tantrik has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy. This is not because he denies any of his wishes or rationalizes them later, but because he has developed his capacity for attention and is intensely aware of where he is and what he is doing at every single moment of time.”

Read the previous sentence. Twice. Insert your name. “Rahul/Arvind/Rishad (or female counterpart thereof) has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy.” That makes sense to me. Essentially, it says that since you cannot control what the world throws at you, you control your reaction to the external stimuli. You prime yourself to be receptive to the world and learn how to enjoy each experience.

Let’s say that you are going to a really boring party. Instead of flagellating yourself for accepting that invitation, what if you become “intensely aware” of where you are, and figure out ways of having some fun, given the circumstances. Maybe you decide not to make small talk; maybe you dress differently; maybe you decide to sing. The point is to extend your bandwidth; increase your surface area with respect to what gives you pleasure.

The ancients called it eudaemonia, or sahaja. Kejriwal and Gandhi should try it—Kejriwal for the sake of Delhi; Gandhi for the sake of the Congress party; and for the sake of the people that walked before them and fought to get them where they are today.

Shoba Narayan alternates between Kantian guilt and eudaemonia. Write to her at thegoodlife @livemint.com

Astrology of the Apple Watch

The astrology of the Apple Watch

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The problem with the Apple Watch is that it aspires to be a timekeeper; a gadget amd a fashion accessory. Admittedly, Apple’s genius is creating products that people didn’t know they wanted; leaving slack-jawed competitors in its wake.

But do you really need yet another smart device when you are already checking your phone some 154 times a day? I decided to test this premise on an early-adapter relative of mine—called Seenu mama by one and all, including his wife.

Seenu mama, 78, lives in T Nagar, Chennai, and frequently goes to the Bay Area in the US where his three children live. In his Godrej almirah, amid the odd dead cockroach with transparent wings, are a slew of gadgets given to him by grateful nieces and nephews in exchange for the astrological predictions he dispenses with uncanny precision. He begins his day at 3am, when Chennai is quiet and mellow. After a cup of frothy filter coffee, Seenu mama does his morning prayer and peruses the horoscopes that have been emailed to him from all over the world. While he prefers to make calculations by hand, he also looks to apps and software for corroboration. He skypes with students in Toronto; consults with worried software engineers in the Silicon Valley; and helps real estate magnates in New Delhi decide on a suitable time for breaking ground on a new project. Seenu mama is an avid user of digital devices. Were it not for his age, this septuagenarian would fit the perfect customer profile for the just-out Apple Watch.

Seenu mama’s current gadget of choice is the iPhone 5S, on which he has several apps of choice: Yik Yak, to anonymously complain about his wife to strangers; The Night Sky, to track whether Gemini or Cancer is ascendant; and astrological software that he uses to chart planetary transits on a minute-by-minute basis. But a watch? Would he use the Apple Watch, particularly since he is so devoted to his Titan Edge? I wasn’t sure.

The products that give us pleasure are deeply personal and occasionally contradictory. The corporate executive who wears strait-laced pinstriped suits may reveal and revel in striped orange underwear and pink Paul Smith socks—known only to his lovers and laundress.

Free-spirited hippie types who eschew bathing and cleaning may stock OXO Good Grips soap-dispensing cleaning brushes in every bathroom simply for the pleasure of that satisfying squirt.

We each contain “multitudes”, as poet Walt Whitman said; and unpredictable contradictions, which drives marketers nuts.

The normal non-Apple Watch occupies that nebulous space between relic, heirloom, status symbol and luxury product. Young people generally don’t wear a watch, except when they are going for job interviews. My husband has a Rolex watch, given to him by his father, who himself got it as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. None of these men, as far as I can tell, has worn the watch. Well-heeled friends collect Swiss watches and prattle on about minute repeaters and escapements to a Bitcoin-crazy generation that views currency, forget a watch, as a quaint has-been and writing code on GitHub as an alternative to a university degree.

Can Apple make a watch an edgy must-have accessory? For the first time, I am not sure. The gadget universe is divided into purists and, for lack of a better word, mixologists. Purists like objects that do stated, specific, single things. A watch is for telling time; a fountain pen, for writing; a cocktail shaker, to look cool; and a stiletto, to look sexy. The beauty of these objects lies in their simplicity, and elevating that specific task to perfection. Apple specializes in mixology. Its phone can do things that your mother cannot; and oh, as the late Steve Jobs famously said, it also makes calls. Apple-ifying a watch seems like the logical next step, except that it is wearable. Therein lies its strength and its weakness.

For many, the biggest concern with wearing a device on your wrist is the electromagnetic radiation that will ensue. These are the people who never carry a phone on their person; never stand in front of a microwave; and believe that the radio frequency (RF) radiation that these devices emit will change their blood glucose levels. For these people, wearing an Apple Watch would be akin to curdling the brain.

Apps are Apple’s secret weapon. They are what make the phone addictive. I have about 40 apps on my iPhone 6 Plus. I use Pocket extensively to read offline. I exercise using 7 Minute Workout and walk using Moves. I downloaded Life360 to track my family, but they didn’t register. I can access the app version of Carnaticradio.com, which streams Carnatic music from a station in Singapore, on my phone; as I can Bird Calls, which helps me recognize my avian neighbours. Current research states that we should spend on experiences rather than objects, but I love my iPhone. This particular object gives me so much pleasure. At the same time, I struggle to keep away from it, lest I become more addicted to it than I already am. I periodically put it on silent and ask my children to hide it for a few hours.

Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari brutally likens computer games to a drug-addled brain in a conversation with Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, titled “Death Is optional”, for Edge.org. As robots and technology make us humans redundant, we will have no meaning in life, he says cheerily. We will solve our inner problems by clicking on digital gadgets. Many of us do that already, witness the slew of passengers who attack their anxiety by babbling into phones the minute the plane lands. What will happen with an always-on watch? I shudder to think.

As an Apple product user, I have doubts about their latest product for these and other reasons. I would hate to wear a device that vibrates or buzzes with every silly Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter notification. At a time when I am trying to figure out how to detox from digital gadgets, the thought of wearing one is like hugging the enemy. As for Seenu mama, his problem with an Apple Watch is simple: It needs to be charged. “Who wants to carry one more charger while travelling?” he says. “I’d rather carry my Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra (astrology book).”

Shoba Narayan will not be buying an Apple Watch. She will buy a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard instead. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.