Kashi, Ganga and the politics of religion

I enjoyed writing this four part series for Mint on Sunday.  Kashi is a dream-like place.  Seems to belong to another time, and yet to all time.  The photos are mine too:)

 

Photo: Shoba Narayan

In her quest to embrace faith, the ultimate feel-good pill on the rocky road called life, this writer looks for divine intervention in Kashi

A dead cow is floating down the river Ganga. She is a black and white Holstein Friesian cow, like the one I own in Bangalore. She floats sideways, legs spreadeagled. Half of her face is visible, even though it is dark—7pm on a Friday. I wish I could say that she looks peaceful, but her teeth are bared.
Some 100 boats filled with Indian and foreign tourists are converging on Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga aarthi, the spectacle that is the culmination of daily religious life in Kashi. The cow floats amid the boats, forcing embarrassed guides into stuttering, apologetic explanations in Spanish, French, Russian, Hebrew and English.
“Sometimes, when people have a pet cow that died and they cannot afford to bury or cremate her, they simply throw her into the Ganga,” says our guide, J.P. Mishra, of Magic India Tours. He stares at our horrified faces and shrugs. “Ganga is the mother. She accepts everything.”
Would the Ganga have been better served, had we imagined her to be our child rather than mother? What if our ancients imagined the Ganga to be a daughter, or better yet, given the Indian preference for male heirs, a son? Would we have taken better care of Ganga, our child, than we do of Mother Ganga?
These are moot questions; whispers into the mists of time that reach back to 1500 BC when the Vedas were “revealed” (not written or composed but revealed, but more on that later) to Hindu rishis. The first Veda, the Rig Veda, mentions the Ganga but a few times. The most famous reference to the Ganga in the Rig Veda comes from thenadistuti sukta, or the “hymn in praise of the rivers”. Even that mentions the Ganga somewhere in the middle, along with nineteen other rivers—including the Saraswati, Yamuna, Purushni, Asikni and Gomti.
The hymn is predominantly in praise of the river Sindhu, or Indus, described as the mightiest of all rivers, into which other roaring rivers run “like mothers to their calves”, not calves to their mothers as I first mistakenly thought. The Sindhu—who flows flashing and white, with ample volume; whose roar can be heard to the heavens; who bellows like a bull; and who is beautiful like a steed. Ganga is just part of a list in these early days of Hinduism.
An aside: Unlike other ancient literature like the Egyptian Book of the Dead (recorded on papyrus) or the Sumerian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, often called the first story in the world (recorded on carved tablets), the Vedas were not written down until much later. They were not even believed to be composed by humans. They were heard—a better translation is seen—by Hindu sages, who were therefore called seers.
For this reason, the Vedas are apauraseya or authorless—revealed texts that were grasped by Hindu seers as fully formed philosophies or insights about the world. The Vedas are preserved as shruti or listened literature in exactly the same form—unchanged words, exactly the same meter and intonation—for millennia.
It is only later when stories and myths were compiled into the Puranas that the Ganga gains importance. Her creation myth, depicted in the Bhagavata Purana is spectacular and goes thus: To teach a lesson to an arrogant king called Mahabali, Lord Vishnu lifts one of his feet heavenward in the Trivikrama pose, and pierces the sky with his toenail. Like piercing an egg, this causes the milk of human creation—the Ganga—to flow downwards from the upper reaches of the cosmos into the mere heavens where Brahma the creator resides, the Brahma loka, as it is called—Brahma’s world. In some tellings, the Ganga is imagined as the Milky Way. The gods enjoy her fertile waters and she enjoys her stay and status in heaven.
Several millennia later, on earth, a dutiful son is in a quandary. He has just discovered that 60,000 of his ancestors are wallowing in the netherworld because of a sage’s curse. They cannot even attempt reaching heaven. The dutiful son performs a lot of austerities, which pleases Brahma, the creator. Brahma tells him that the only way his ancestors can have a shot at heaven is if the purifying waters of the Ganga touch them. The son begs Brahma for help. Brahma orders the Ganga to fall to earth. She isn’t particularly thrilled to leave the heavens, but has no choice but to agree. Brahma, after all, is the creator, her father.
The problem is that the power of her fall will smash the earth to smithereens, wash it away in a great cascade of water. So the son prays again, this time to Shiva, begging him to cushion the Ganga’s fall by absorbing her into his long matted locks. As is seen in a wonderful painting by Raja Ravi Varma, there stands Shiva, with the kind of six-pack abs that would put Shah Rukh to shame. His long matted locks flow out like Sonam Kapoor’s—and isn’t it pathetic that the only metaphors I can come up with are from Bollywood?
Moving on, a leopard skin is wrapped around his waist, a snake around his neck. Shiva gazes upwards as the Ganga falls. He wraps her in his hair, trapping her impetuous arrogance, and allowing only a small trickle to fall on earth. Man subdues woman in the feminist telling of it; except that Hindu myths are gender agnostic. There are enough Durgas and Kalis who will ruthlessly kill the bad guy and swallow his blood if they need to, like Kali did with the demon Rakthabeeja.
So the Ganga hits the earth. With folded hands, the son—his name is Bhagiratha—leads her to the netherworld where she purifies the souls of all 60,000 of his ancestors, allowing them to make their journey upwards to the heavens. No wonder all Hindus want to have a dip in this holy water—touched by Vishnu’s feet, Shiva’s hair, and Brahma’s command, she is the liquid goddess linked to the divine trinity in Hindu mythology.
As creation myths go, the story of the Ganga is hard to beat or duplicate. Is there a way to massage this myth to serve the Ganga in her present state? Indians view her as Ma Ganga. Mothers are taken for granted. Viewing her as a cherished daughter—or son—might have served her better through the ages. The instinct to take care of a child is primordial.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

Might we have taken care of Ganga the child, better than we do Ganga the mother? Too late. Rationality cannot alter lore. Myths are carved in stone, and certainly one that is so braided into the Indian psyche cannot be morphed so easily, even if it might potentially help the river.
A dead cow is floating down the Ganga. This irritates me on many levels. Cleaning the Ganga is a Herculean task—or should I choose from Indian myths instead of Greek and say, Bhagirathan task? And why not choose a woman’s name? Cleaning the Ganga is a Malala Yousafzai-ian task.
This dead cow with her wide-open eyes symbolizes everything that is impossible about this venture. Why couldn’t this cow have been given to a slaughterhouse? Did the poor farmer whose cow it was live in a state that banned the killing of the cow? Why couldn’t the poor farmer have cremated the cow instead? Or did he love the animal so much that he wanted it to attain salvation through the holy waters of this river?
Or was it simple economics? He didn’t have the money to deal with her death. Tossing her into the Ganga was an easy option. Was it faith or desperation that led to him throwing the dead animal into the waters, polluting her further?
***
At the Dashashwamedh (Ten Horse Sacrifice) Ghat, the Ganga aarthiis about to begin. The boats are fitted against each other like a jigsaw puzzle, to form an arc that faces the bank. In the next boat, two young women—American by the sound of their accent—sit cross-legged on the wooden boat, chatting with their guide. Ahead of us, on the steps of the ghat, a huge crowd of people has gathered. In the buildings behind them are billboards with photographs. Actor Sunny Deol posing, as if in a Calvin Klein ad, selling Cozi underwear to religious tourists who want to elevate their minds.
Those of us on the boats are a captive audience, or as it turns out to be, customers. Within a few minutes, an energetic group of children balance their way across the boat, carrying bamboo baskets filled with ice water, candles to float on the Ganga, matchboxes, incense and photographs of gods.
One young boy who looks about seven years old entreats the two American women beside me to buy his wares in broken English.
“This candy (he means candle) very nice,” he says, holding up a leaf cup inside which nestles a small tea candle amidst a bed of yellow marigolds.
It is a beautiful arrangement, Balinese in its simplicity, handmade and tenuous—a floating candle, carrying wishes and hopes into the Ganga.
“You buy? Good price,” the boy says.
The two American women shake their heads even though he is charging them the same price that he charges everyone—Rs10. Hardened by beggars and touts who swarm around them, warned by guides about bargaining for anything sold to foreigners in India, they fail to recognize a good deal. I feel sorry for the kid and buy six candles even though I don’t intend to float them on the already overburdened Ganga.
A male voice begins singing over the loudspeaker. Seven priests, all male, take their positions at different points on the broad ghat. They depict the Saptha-Rishis, or seven primordial sages. They follow the protocol of a puja, beginning with flowers, then incense, then a lamp with a single wick, and then a beautiful multilayered lamp with a tiered pyramid of wicks, all shining in the darkness.
In synchronized movements, the seven priests lift the shining pyramid of flickering lamps, face the river, and circle their hands round and round. A group of men paying homage to a female goddess. All religions are male-dominated. Hinduism is no different. I have never seen a female priest in any Hindu temple. I resent the fact that Ganga aarthi does not even have a token woman as participant—a female singer at least?
“Here have a peda,” says our guide, opening a box. “It is from the Hanuman temple.”
In Kashi, sacred food is everywhere. The peda is delicious and we chew it contentedly while watching the priests do their synchronized movements—like chewing popcorn at a movie. The aarthi lasts about half an hour. At the end, I search for the cow, wishing I had photographed it.
Ghai? Woh chala gaya,” says the boatman casually. It has gone.
“At least it is better than those corpses we used to see floating in the Ganga,” says our guide soothingly.
We take the motor boat upstream to Assi Ghat where my hotel is. Along the way, we see a dead buffalo right by the bank of Harishchandra Ghat, which, along with Manikarnika Ghat, are the two crematoriums on the Ganga. Somehow, this isn’t as horrifying, perhaps because it is on the banks of a crematorium. A remnant corpse, even if it happens to be an animal, left behind, perhaps by a poor farmer, who couldn’t pay for its funeral.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

A few yards upstream, a couple is immersing themselves into the river. Like most devotees, the man is topless, with a cloth wrapped around his midriff. The woman is fully clothed in a maroon sari and mustard yellow blouse. She wades into the water and dunks her head in. The man does this three times. Can’t they see the dead buffalo to their left?
“So many people take a bath every day in the Ganga. They don’t fall sick. It is the power of belief,” says our guide in explanation.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

Ah, belief. The great divide between the rational and the spiritual. The problem with religion is that it is predicated on tenets that are hard to measure, understand, explain or duplicate. Like reiki healing, noticing auras, or anything to do with intuition, religious belief has to be experienced. That is the problem.
The path to belief can be zig-zagging and precarious, full of questions and second-guessing, like mine is. Sometimes, it happens gradually over a course of a lifetime through a guru—although that too is a circular, chicken-and-egg situation. They say that a guru will come when you are ready to accept the lessons she has to offer; but how can you evolve to the stage when you are ready for mysticism, faith and spirituality without a guru?
Faith can also happen in an instant, like a lightning stroke, through divine grace, although that is rare and requires miracles. “Look at me through the corner of your eye; your kadai-kann,” goes the lyrics of a Tamil song. Just a glance from the goddess—not even a full one—but one from the corner of her eye—can elevate a moron into a mystic, as the goddess of learning, Saraswati, is supposed to have done to the poet Kalidasa by drawing on his tongue.
As nebulous as faith is, numerous studies point to its benefits. Faith is in vogue—on the cover of publications worldwide. It confers self-control and peace of mind, fosters relationships, increases happiness and nurtures community. Faith is the ultimate feel-good pill on this rocky road that we call life—it heals and empowers. I get all that. I would like to embrace my faith. I would like to be a better Hindu.
Religion, however poses a perplexing paradox. Only if I have faith will I experience the benefits of faith. But how to embrace faith without some sort of proof—not scientific proof necessarily but even some sort of inner awakening, some sign from the cosmos? “Anything?” as George Costanza said in Seinfeld.
How do I get on the religious bandwagon? Where do I jump in?
The first of a four-part series.

Can wine be described well?

Lots of nice wine tastings coming up in Bangalore.  One with Food Lover’s Magazine.

How best can you describe a wine?

wine-kHdC--621x414@LiveMint

KRSMA Estates has invited me to a tasting of their wines next week, and frankly, I am a little nonplussed. Not because I dislike their wines, which I don’t, but because there is this whole brouhaha in wine circles over the esoteric terms and pretentiousness of wine descriptions. You know the kind I mean? Descriptions that attempt to illuminate the wine-drinking experience by stating that one of your favourite Rhône reds tastes like a mixture of tar, wet leather and the inside of a man’s shoes (notice the specificity—not the insides of a woman’s shoes, but the more robust, stinkier version that comes from the male chromosome). And this is supposed to entice you?

Robert M. Parker, the influential American wine critic, is often considered the originator of these long, often meaningless descriptions. He once described a Haut-Brion as having “a sweet nose of creosote, asphalt…” and an array of berries. Having never tasted asphalt, and having no idea what a creosote is, this description is absolutely useless to me.

Actually, the credit—or discredit—for wine descriptions does not go to Parker. It goes to Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose famed department of viticulture and enology offers short wine appreciation courses that are on my bucket list.

It was Noble who came up with an “aroma wheel” to describe the flavours of wine. Ironically, she invented it to streamline things in the wine world; to bring some order into the way wines were described; to give a methodology that would simplify, not complicate things. Look at how that turned out.

Today, there is a reverse trend: wine professionals trying to puncture the opaqueness of wine descriptions. The American Association of Wine Economists has “waged a nearly decade-long crusade against overwrought and unreliable flavor descriptions”, as illustrated in a recent article in The New Yorker by Bianca Bosker titled, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?” The article quoted several sources, including the Journal Of Wine Economics, which stated that the wine industry was “intrinsically bullshit-prone”. No surprise there as anyone who is caught standing next to a swish-and-sip bore at a party can relate to this.

Some wine descriptions make sense. You drink enough Australian Shiraz and you will learn to identify the thick, viscous, fruity taste that is often described as “jammy” by aficionados. The same grape varietal, when grown in France, does not have this taste, but I have never had the pleasure of drinking an Hermitage Syrah to be absolutely certain of this.

For me, “minerally” wines are easy to identify. They taste pretty much like the water I drink first thing in the morning. A year ago, a well-meaning aunt gifted me a copper lota and told me to drink from it. It would change my life, she said. For the record, it hasn’t. But I continue to drink from copper and brass containers anyway.

My aunt’s recipe for drinking water could give a minerally wine a run for its money. She stores the water in a mud pot, pours it into her copper lota to steep overnight, downs it first thing in the morning in one shot and then proceeds to vomit. I have tried the first part of this experiment, and, I have to admit, the water tastes of copper, mud and some unidentified metal flavour that could be categorized as “minerally”. It tastes, in other words, like the Chablis wines I love.

Some descriptions just don’t make sense to me. What does “flinty” taste like? Do you have to lick a rock to figure out flinty? Some try to be overly helpful by listing a wide range of berries that the wine is supposed to taste like. Having never tasted a linden berry or even a raspberry in its natural, just-picked state, my palate has no clue how to process this information.

Which is why I was glad to see wine guru Jancis Robinson describe the 2005 vintage of Burgundy reds as “surly and tough” early in their lives. Surly, I can relate to. Surly is how we pucker up when we taste some tight reds that have been stored for far too long in state warehouses—although people call that tannic as well.

When I choose a wine, particularly if I want to impress someone, I don’t go by the description. I usually pick one with a long French name—the more syllables the better. Château de la Tour, Château Tertre Roteboeuf, Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Domaine Georges Roumier—winners all, and ones that I aspire to drink after I win the lottery. Château Palmer is highly rated, but it is too easy to pronounce; it could use a few more syllables that cause your tongue to coil itself into asanas. It sounds like an American winery aspiring to be French.

The same applies to Indian vineyards that pretend to be European. York and Reveilo make decent wines, but isn’t it about time they lost the European wannabe nature of their names? The same goes for Fratelli and its highly regarded wines. Why not choose something like Akluj, the town in Maharashtra where the winery is based, which even non-Indians can pronounce easily and which references their terroir in that most French of ways? The Indian wine consumer is evolved enough not to need such pretensions. Particularly when we can come up with authentically Indian names such as Mandala, Grover’s, Deva, or my current favourite, Sula’s Rasa Shiraz—now, that’s a name. Contrast that with Chateau d’Ori, sans provenance or soul. Give me Dindori anyday.

This is the first of a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan loves the name Amrut even though she isn’t a single malt buff. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Katha Review

Thank you Vijaya Pushkarna, for the generous review.  I am supposed to have a Twitter conversation with you or The Week tomorrow, August 5th from 4 to 5. Have never done this before.  Nervous.

KATHA: TELL A STORY, SELL A DREAM

Tales pitch

A STORY for every occasion. Anyone with such a repertoire would be much more than the life of a party, attracting people with their eyes and ears wide open. But how does one come by such a treasure?

Shoba Narayan says it is no big deal, and goes on to show it is QED―quite easily done―in her book. The book is about how storytelling could transform business and management. And she does tell a whole lot of stories on how to generate or source stories, when to tell them and how and with what consequence.

From simple and upfront selling of a product or service and breaking the ice at workplace to breaking bad news or sharing good tidings and for a million other things, simple anecdotes or even sentences can work wonders. Take, for instance, this anecdote about a guy trying to sell software. He begins with a dramatic description of his poor grandfather who died a broken man because he had to sell his Udupi hotel. Before the clients could wonder why, he got them hooked on to the product by saying the software could have saved the hotel.

97BookTalk

Stories transmit mission statements and core values. They build teams and create a shared sense of purpose. There is also a chapter on eight ways to find stories in real life―get out, leave your cellphone and look around, cultivate skills and hobbies and read.

The book is a breezy story that even those who are not attempting to sell a dream or have anything to do with business would like to read. That is because Narayan makes you believe that storytelling is neither an art you have to be born with nor a craft difficult to learn.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream

And, the best part―the book does not have a single word that a class five student will not know or that cannot be found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. That, a former news editor would tell batch after batch of youth wanting to become journalists, is the hallmark of good storytelling. When that is married to the idea of selling dreams, making businesses grow and succeed, it is a book people will want to grab.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream
By Shoba Narayan
Published by Maven Rupa
Pages 192; price Rs295

Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk

 buttermilk-kvaH--621x414@LiveMint

My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. 

Birding: seeing versus hearing

This season is hard for birding.  The trees are lush with leaves.  Small birds are chirping and I can’t see them.  Drives me nuts.

How to identify birds just by seeing them

birds-khjG--621x414@LiveMint-1

Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch—if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell. Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy listening to good music or sounds.

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called Bird Calls, that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away. I am not sure.

It all has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common. I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website (Allaboutbirds.org) to build seeing skills. The trick to quick identification is differentiating or sorting birds based on size and shape, colour patterns, behaviour and habitat, according to this website. They even have a Merlin Bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet. Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird calls emanate from and wait for movement. I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound. Once I hear and identify a bird by its call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighbourhood. I know the Rosy Starlings that have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the crow by its caw.

My birdwatching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same. On another branch, a Black Drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat still, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with pig-headed ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavour now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: White-cheeked Barbet, Grey-headed Barbet, Coppersmith barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, you get the picture. They all belong to the Megalaima species.

The bird that is easiest to observe is the kite. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time—up to 20 minutes—before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I was walking near Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek—and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a birdwatcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Indiabirds, The Internet Bird Collection, and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species. Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy to me but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

Shoba Narayan’s bookmark folder is filled with bird sites.

This is the third in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Trees and birds

In London, it was the sweet song of the thrush.  In India, it is the kooo of the Asian koel that I am listening to right now.

Birdwatching is also about the trees

The rhythms of nature are evident in the patterns of the bird movement

In which the author connects birds and bees with flora and foliage

Like most things that require identification, be it wine, textiles, or art, identifying birds is figuring out patterns; like recognizing an artistic or musical signature, or the terroir of wine. It is about seeing patterns, not just on the birds but also on the trees that they inhabit. Nature is both generous and opportunistic. Trees attract birds during certain seasons; and then allow other trees to get that opportunity. The red silk cotton tree beside my house was agog with birds when it flowered a few months ago. Today, it stands bereft, with its flowers and leaves gone. The silk cotton pods have opened out and released their cotton puffs. Now the tree has become a playground for squirrels. Meanwhile, the gul mohar tree across the street is in full bloom; and attracting wagtails, rose-ringed parakeets, bulbuls, and barbets in droves—like the sirens of yore.

Trees are nifty that way. They know when to attract and when to repel. In his book, “What a Plant Knows: a field guide to the senses,” biologist Daniel Chamovitz talks about how willow trees that are being attacked by insects release specific pheromones that can be “smelled” by neighboring trees. Suitably warned, the neighboring willow trees produce higher levels of toxic chemicals, thus making their leaves unpalatable for caterpillars and other insects. I can see this happening before my eyes. The mango trees are in full bloom now. They are attracting the birds who have abandoned the neighboring millingtonia, bauhinia, and cassia trees. Instead, they perch on the mango branches, nipping at the green fruits and spreading the seeds.

This symbiotic ecosystem was invisible to me before I began watching birds. Now I see the dance of birds, butterflies and bees as they move across trees: mango to jacaranda to cassia to bauhinia to ficus to silk cotton, depending on the warp and weft of seasons; and indeed, the time of day. The male Asian koel calls when it is cloudy; the female Asian koel like to shriek in the middle of the day; the black kite calls throughout the day; the crows are loudest early in the morning.

The rhythms of nature–the waves of flowering, fruiting, and shedding of leaves that a tree goes through–are evident in the patterns of bird movement. Indeed, our ancients could divine an approaching storm just by the way the birds flew sideways, buffeted by invisible wind currents. Seasonal and daily differences in temperature and weather are reflected in the behavior of birds.

Some birds prefer certain trees; and some birds like certain locations in trees. Spotted doves and Asian koels, for instance are secretive birds that like to sit within the green foliage rather than look at the view from top like an eagle does. You should see how they nestle with the tree? Like a tree hugger. The male koel is black like a crow with red eyes and a curved gray beak. I had a devil of a time discovering it. It would coo loudly from within a tree and I couldn’t see it at all. It is only now—in this season– when the koels come to rest on the bare silk cotton tree that I am able to view them. Koels, once you are able to see them through your binoculars are easy birds to watch because they are of medium-size and don’t move around too much. The female bird is spotted and gray. The male bird is more beautiful–as is common in nature. It is only in our species, Homo sapiens, where the females preen and primp and take the trouble to look beautiful. Birds and animals have the opposite equation.

Hobbies and passions change people. They give you a prism through which to view the world. Religion and spirituality change people, sometimes for the better and sometimes, I would argue, for the worse. When you begin seeing the world through religious boundaries— who is faithful and who is an infidel– you close yourself in. Bird watching in this respect is unique because it gives you depth of perspective without impacting your political, moral or religious values and principles. It can become political but it doesn’t have to. You can watch birds without becoming strident about climate change and the environment. As hobbies go, bird watching like gardening or anything to do with nature allows tolerance and expansion, rather than jingoism and contraction of lifestyles and values.

The best thing that is happened to me as a result of this year-long journey is the cliché: I feel connected with the universe. Let me be clear. I don’t think you wake up one morning and suddenly feel at one with the cosmos. It is a gradual process of shedding layers of armor that you have built around yourself. The way it happened for me, and I am by no means there yet, has to do with connecting multiple species and seeing a greater whole. Once I started paying attention to birds, I began noticing the butterflies that flitted around. I began identifying them. Then I noticed the carpenter bees with their shiny backs that are just big enough to be able to fly. I began to take kindly to lizards and even became somewhat benign towards the cockroaches I once hated.

As I stand in the balcony every morning, gazing through my binoculars, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the wind on my skin, watching the dance of birds and the wave of leaves, I sniff the air and smile. This precious, fragile planet that we are privileged to occupy has wondrous beings that are right in front for eyes if only we care to look.

Shoba Narayan has joined a butterfly group on Facebook. She had the privilege of observing a Dakhan Dark Blue Tiger at close quarters. This is the second part of a four-part series on birds. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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

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.