Whispers of the Wild
Meditation on Birds, Fatherly love, Radium stars, and Plum cakes
Thank you for your presence and the light that you share with this world. I am grateful that you are here at Berkana. I see you.
Perhaps we are all fragments of the universe, temporarily assuming form and senses to marvel at its infinite glory, to confront its myriad horrors.
Days are shorter here in the south now, but they still seem a tad bit longer than on the eastern coast of the subcontinent. The Tropic of Cancer (one of the Euclidean lines of the European conquest) dissects India right in the middle, forming two climatic zones. The central region is sub-tropical, while the north is temperate to highland climate, and the south is tropical in nature. Due to such variations, the experience of winter varies across the country. You could be sipping piña colada in Goa or enjoying hot chocolate in Shimla, depending on whether you want to spend Christmas in a port city of the former Estado da Índia (Portuguese State of India) or the former Himalayan outpost of the British East India Company. Because of such diversity, there is not one ubiquitous winter experience in India, and the year-end holidays are uniquely celebrated throughout the country.
Winter is a universally special time. I love the distance we traverse away from the sweltering summer sun because tropical places become more bearable during winter. Also, I always experience an awakening sense of clarity in these colder months—not a promising kind, only a passing syllable of words pronounced before meeting the silence of the next moment. Whispers of slow breathing and a quietly hibernating earth surround me. I tend to notice subtle shifts between the passing of days, the interplay of the light and the dark that often go unmarked in the active spring, summer, and monsoon months that aren’t as still. I can sense my voice shifting too, much like light shifting over a thatched roof, casting shadows on the place it lit up a few hours prior. It is an act of letting go, for all the things I couldn’t forgive myself. For all these promised earnest murmurs that are lost in time. The moments that have passed have become memories - reliable conduits of clarity. Though clarity is also an object of passing. It is here now, but tomorrow it might all be muddled again. Yet, even in its impermanence, this lingering clarity has the power to transmute experiences from their raw mineral state to a lasting compound state.
For a good walk, I like long winding roads that go on and on, trailing up through wild terrains. You can unpack any amount of life baggage as you need to on such unperturbed wild trails. I went for one such walk last week before the turn of Christmas Eve, as I had a lot to unpack. The tropical dry forest ecosystems are evergreen—unlike human life, which is so entrenched with the grays and glooms of nature. I sometimes wonder if the human consciousness is hardwired to experience beauty and melancholy simultaneously so that we never forget the transient nature of reality, allowing us to appreciate everything longer. Perhaps because we, of all beings, are the ones most susceptible to ungratefulness and greed. And so, as I walked on, I observed the seasons unfold and listened to the dry leaves crackling under my feet, with the strangely coupled stirring of deep joy and sadness. Seasons do not betray the flora of tropical dry forests. They hardly look any different with changing seasons, making them earth-bound reservoirs of mystery. I stood, admiring the indefinite stretches of the silver oak overlooking the farmlands on the other side of the reserved forest boundary.
Boundary—a strange word to define the limits of a wild, organic form of life, such as forest ecosystems. Concrete walls built to stand against the evergreen canopy, as if we could demarcate the soil and ever-extending roots through which all of nature’s minerals flow, creating a life-sustaining web of interdependence between the trees, fungi, and animals of the forest. Our human constructs of boundaries will never break the reality of natural ecosystems into perfect, lawful silos. The nature of our world is an enmeshed, interconnected, shared existence—no amount of borders and ideas of separateness can or will ever change that. We created boundaries around a patch of reserved trees, and nature smirked at us as a route of fungi grew on the moisture-soaked cemented bricks, distributing the nitrogen of the forested soil into the farm next to its barricaded walls. Nature does not comply with man’s law; it has its own systems of balance and justice.
Amidst the grove of silver oaks, I stopped treading along the tracks for a while and tried listening—to the wind rustling through the leaves, to the birds calling out to their respective flocks to return home. Some notable species were recently spotted in decent numbers, including the Greater Coucal, Black Kite, Shikra, Gray-headed Swamphen, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Ashy Prinia, to name a few, and at least a couple of hundred more species. They are here, co-existing with us, evolved through the expansion of time and space to be right now at this exact moment just to relate to us—our avian relatives to whom we are often dismissive and unkind. When I paid attention, their wild, mismatched calls made sense to my human cognition. I looked up, and yes, there was what I expected: a descending sun. In that moment, I knew with clarity that those earnest beckonings are for their mates, for homecoming.
I grew up in a small industrial town in central India with limited access to wilderness and its many wonders. One of my innate joys as a child was encountering birds migrating back to the south during winters. In search of food, they flocked towards the warmer southern parts of the country and temporarily stayed in the central parts (where I lived) on their long journey to find a warmer home. I loved their migration stories so much because they showed a certain resilience in nature—a newfound treasure in my box of childhood experiences.
Among many other things, my father also loved birds. On one particularly stormy evening, Papa brought home a sparrow chick that had fallen from a broken nest. We kept it in a box under a lamp to keep it warm, fed it, and loved it as well as we could. But without a mother’s nest, life is often a cruel place for a chick. It perished on the second day, and I held it in my hands and cried for an entire morning. Papa found a place where it could rest forever and later buried it.
I picked a marigold from our potted terrace garden that my father carefully kept, covered the bird in a white linen that my mother allowed me to take from her stitching collection, and tied the sunset-yellow marigold on its tiny chest with a cotton thread. I cried myself to sleep that night without any comforting from my parents. They did not want to lie to me; they did not want to lessen the gravity of the little bird’s death by saying anything trivial or futile. If there is an afterlife, I hope the chick grew up to fly into yellow sunsets, calling its flock home.
I spent my schooling years in a missionary school run by an orthodox church founded in the order of St. Mar Gregorios of Parumala. Although my upbringing was secular, and my parents were practicing Hindus, the traditions of Christmas always amused me—the festive lights, the decorative wreaths, and the stories of the birth of baby Jesus. Every Christmas, my father brought a plum cake, the kind that took more than a couple of months to reach perfection. The dry fruits were soaked in orange juice and syrup for a month and later baked into a hard and dense block. Then, the block was dunked in syrup for another month or so to yield a perfect plum cake. Papa made us cut the cake while singing, “Happy birthday to dear Jesus.” What can I say? He is an eccentric and sweet man.
I remember once incessantly demanding radium star stickers for my bedroom wall. He asked me, “But why radium stars?” and I told him, “Because baby Jesus too has a big star hanging above his cradle.” He threw himself into a fit of laughter, and that was the end of the conversation, that and me sulking the whole week.
If someone had told me back then that my father is mortal, that this stout, strong, and hardworking man would one day grow old, develop a terminal disease — I would have punched their gut and left them bloody. If they had told me that I would have to lose my Papa one day, I would have had a beef with them like never before. And yet here I am, bawling my eyes out as I write this, telling you that he is mortal with a terminal illness, slowly shrinking as I watch him fight against all odds. This man, who was once full of life, vigor, and a wicked sense of humor, who raised us well, kept us safe, and made us laugh when things got difficult, who I have loved all my life — is mortal. And this is one of the most difficult sentences that I have ever written.
The skies of Bethlehem are bright once more this year, but not with radium stars or Christmas lights, but with the dust from their neighbour’s bombed city dwellings, scattering whatever remnant of light that remains in this human world torn by wars and conflicts. Baby Jesus will never know why there are bright lights hanging around him, no more than the babies born in Gaza know why the fire is dropping from the sky above them. The cradle of compassion and charity is broken in this war-stricken world of megalomaniacs and religious fanatics. How many chicks can we save from this ongoing storm? How many can we heal enough so that they could fly away into yellow sunsets? What could I have wanted more on Christmas than a world where stories of plum cakes and radium stars outdo the ones of innocent citizens getting bombed? For fathers to come back home with baby birds in their hands for their children to understand love and compassion, and not play puppets for the Masters of War. For us to learn how to let go of the expectation of loving someone or something without the burden of grief that it brings. For us to accept the consequence of being mortal.
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