By Agnes Thoompunkal
There may be a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but to what does a naturalist owe the good fortune of a baby cormorant regurgitating fish onto his Superponderosa?
The forthright gullet of a hidden cormorant and a ponderous self-assembled camera is what. The wonderfully individualistic Madhaviah Krishnan gamely shared this and other fortuitous, insightful and entrenched observations of the natural world over several decades with his Tamil and English readers, notching a steady run of 46 years with his Country Notebook series in The Statesman. It turns out a fair number of writings were devoted to birds and the Chandolas have done the right thing in compiling them in Of Birds and Birdsongs, which has been elegantly produced by Aleph Book Company. This follows an earlier anthology of his nature writings and photographs published under the title Eye in the Jungle
One note jars. It is remarkable that the prefatory Note on Style should confidently point out Krishnan’s ability to represent birds ‘without anthromorphising them’ evidenced in a certain section of the book. As though it were a party trick. As though he did anything of the kind.
The pejorative ‘a’ word, Krishnan indicates more than once in this collection, is ugly and he advises its users to ‘think twice’ before deploying it. Those who require a complete admonishment may turn to page 266, the rest of us yellow breasted sunbirds can gaily dip our beaks into any cell in this collection and find it brimming with reward.
Krishnan is as frank about his warm regard for certain birds just as he is deliciously forthcoming with his disdain for some others. His fond recollection of a certain bush-chat’s ardent song that concluded ‘on a note of untamed sweetness’ sees him put his chips on feelings rather than an idea of science that has no space for such perception.
In Bird of Surpassing Beauty, he compares the flamboyant subject to ‘the creation of some vigorous and second-rate poster artist’ and even awards it the outstanding epithet ‘Useless Creatures’. Yet another piece, written supposedly a while later, on the same feathered subject [this time in its avatar as National Bird] is more continent, though he does discuss other worthy contenders for the title.
Above all, these studies lead us to consider some amazing facts: most birds produce sound from their syrinx not their voice box, parakeets found resting on both feet, rather than one, are most certainly ailing, and the Tamil curse that [he] translates to ‘May you fall headlong like the Pond Heron struck by the Shahin’ is based on such observed contact between the two species. There are also questions we’re left to consider: do house crows mate for life? Does the hyper-vigilant lapwing really sleep on its back with its legs up, as a country legend holds? The revelation of the absence of vultures in Sri Lanka is a personal favourite. Shouldn’t it be a simple matter of flying over from South India? Could it be the nature of air currents over the sea that prevents them, as Krishnan conjectures, or could it be, a wild imagination may speculate, these vultures observe the Vedic injunction on crossing the seas?
Krishnan was quick to defend discredited birds. He takes up cudgels for the rose-ringed parakeet described by the comparatively hard-nosed naturalists Dillon Ripley and Salim Ali as ‘one of the most destructive bird pests’. He explains that the wasteful behaviour they speak of may just be an outcome of frayed nerves in the face of hostility.
Yet he never took himself too seriously. In India’s King Crows, Krishnan admits to backing out of a wager proposed by Salim Ali, a fellow naturalist with whom he had some professional stand-offs, but whom he held in high regard. The wager related to the presence of a white rectal spot on the base of the Black Drongo’s beak which Krishnan did not think to be the case. A closer look through Ali’s binoculars revealed otherwise.
Krishnan was more than content with home ground and his own means, and notably turned down an all-expenses paid invitation from the Smithsonian Institution. He kept largely to areas in South India and held strong opinions on the introduction of alien species to an ecology; he termed ‘disgraceful’ the prized exotic flowering trees at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. It’s not hard to see that his brand of candour wouldn’t have earned him the affection of some in power. Any resultant exclusion worked for the best: it meant more time for nature studies and less time wasted in blocking out distractions. We’re richer for it.