Wednesday 27 April 2011

Roses are not just red (my love)

My Nature series Part IV is about roses.
Bobby Vinton's great song Roses are red (my love) and I are almost contemporaries. I can't say if that's why in my childhood I never saw a rose that was not 'red', if you know what I mean (pic, right). We always had roses in our lawn, red roses. At school, there were some pink ones, but not enough to matter. Roses were red, that's it. Even when we visited Rashtrapati Bhavan's Mughal Gardens, the flowers there came in a range of colours beyond the possible, but I still don't recall if the roses were anything but red. At school, on picnics, they were always red: just occasionally pink or, once in a blue moon, even white—and those didn't count for me.
I'd heard of rose gardens where the flower showed off many other colours, but the one we visited in Chandigarh right after our marriage was yet to bloom with those unseen splendours. I was so disappointed, I have never stepped into a 'rose garden' again.
When the husband decided that family vacations must be spent in the hills, I grew very fond of the rugged bushes on which small roses bobbed in marvellous bunches not seen on the plains—and the roses were not red, but baby pink.
An erstwhile neighbour (I know, my neighbours keep walking in and out of my blogs, too) and I shared not only the same month of birth but also a weakness for roses. She planted rose bushes outside her flat and mine. Hers prospered, mine would not. She fought and struggled till finally she trumped nature and one day called out to my father-in-law to flaunt the fruit of her labours...a lovely white rose. More have followed, and her successor in the house even today looks after them with as much care.

Now there's a whole assortment of roses right outside my house in Punjab. They help keep the husband in good health, for he must admire them morning and evening for at least half an hour daily. This lot's fresh from my latest sojourn there. My amateur self took quite a while to click these "things of beauty" (due apologies to John Keats) over a couple of days so that they become "a joy forever": white roses, pink ones, soft orange, peach-coloured, yellow-running-into-orange, yellow, pale pink, white with red edging, deep red, bright red. They come in solo formation, couples, triplets and even clusters. I could spend days feasting my eyes on them, so am putting a few of the beauties out here.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Newfound obsession: nature's guttural music

Breathe hu-hu-hu softly into a deep hollow through a very long bamboo stick, count three, hu-hu-hu, count three, hu-hu-hu... that's how the guttural call sounded. It transfixed me.
I was taking a walk outside my home in Punjab. The rumble-resonance combo was haunting. I tried to trace what could be emitting this addictive call, but could just make out the general direction it came from.
In the evening, though, I hit pot luck...plenty of it. Nature's guttural music was playing again. As the husband and I zeroed in on a huge tree, a streak of wide black wings carried away a bronze-coloured body right across our path. Our gaze followed the black silhouette as it alighted amid thick foliage, highlighted against a darkening horizon. How I missed my camera!
The next morning I spotted it again, but it was too far away for my camera phone to capture. A deep rust body with a large, flat, black tail, the bird was like a crow in shape--only more generously built. Had it been bigger, it could have possibly beaten a full-grown eagle. I believe the eagle is the most majestic among birds, but this bird too had a regal bearing all its own.
All day it was as if I had one ear cocked for just that sound. Why that soulful note? Was the bird a loner that kept others at bay with menacing defiance? It didn't seem to keep any company. Did it generally let 'whomsoever it may concern' know this way that it was around? The sound was neither inviting nor forbidding; it was not lonely either, just sort of...brooding. I searched for a similar bird sound on the Net. The closest resemblance were the sounds made by the brown fish owl and greater coucal: yet these don't look at all like Guttural Music.
My newfound obsession seems to prefer luscious leaves; each of the trees I saw it on were dense with thick green discs that shone as the light played on them.
I'm afraid I have switched loyalties. For years, from my flat in Delhi, I have tried to catch glimpses of a bird my late father-in-law said was a shikra. It is smaller than the kites that hover in the Delhi skies, but cleverer, sharper and a better hunter, he explained.
Dad never did approve of my strange attachment to the shikra, though now I seem to connect why. Recently I heard a snatch from a Punjabi song Nee main ik shikra yaar if the singer was still yearning for a loved one despite being betrayed. Maybe Dad couldn't figure out how to warn his daughter-in-law against one known for its fickle nature!
The shikra had a scruff of white feathers around the neck that differentiates it from the rest of the kite family. It was a fledgling when I first saw it, letting out a loud but mournful screech at intervals, as if it had been separated from its family. Over the years, whenever I heard its distinctive call, I'd rush out and frantically scan the surrounding trees to see if I could spot it. Very reclusive, it has rewarded me with a few sightings over a decade or more: always alone. I firmly believe it is the only shikra that visits our apartments.
I've spotted it on the Net now, but haven't seen the real one for months now (its infrequent calls continue) though I walk much more than I did before. Yet I don't think I'm going to miss it any more, having found another elusive, feathered one to obsess about.
That was Part III of my Nature series.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Giving Delhi many more lungs

The park next door is a sight to watch. Anyone in the neighbourhood who can afford to rise early and leave home heads here—bent on fitness. Contributing to the morning hustle-bustle are a small band of middle-aged men and women taking yoga lessons; a laughter club letting out loud peals at regular intervals; siblings playing handball in what was conceived as a skating rink; some indulging in solo exercise shows, oblivious to others milling around; slow walkers dodging joggers; and grandparents standing guard over frisky kids.
At least this riot of colour does not fade any time during the year. It’s a day-long affair in winter; in summer, the shouts and squeals peak in the morning and evening, but fade after dusk.
It’s a rather large and well-maintained park, but not too conducive for the old and infirm. Its footpaths are uneven, with steps that break your stride every now and then. And yet, it’s a community space that a hundred-odd are very thankful for, every day.
The sad part is that not all other green areas are as well looked after. Indeed, there isn’t enough open space in every locality in the city. Many public parks have been encroached upon, some have gone to seed, while a good number have been converted into parking lots because the lanes around are so cramped. Worse, a sense of ownership is missing, as in most other aspects of civic life in the Capital.
A Taiwanese official who visited Delhi in 1993 and then in 2000 remarked on the progress the city had made in those seven years…better roads, signage, street lighting and connectivity, sure, but most of all he was impressed by its green cover. He said it was one the greenest capitals he had seen.But that, I mentally added, was because he was looking out of the Taj Mahal hotel, at Lutyens’ Delhi and not its dusty, unkempt counterparts.
Untrimmed bushes turn a footpath into a convenient urinal.
No doubt the city has gained much more in terms of looks, courtesy the chaotic beautification drive for the Commonwealth Games. But its citizens need much more: clean and safe public places (not more malls, thank you); accessible and affordable sports clubs; sidewalks free of squatters to allow pedestrians some manoeuvrability, overbridges, parking lots; a urinal at every kilometre for Delhi’s eternally piddly men—and efficient policing.
Short-changing honest taxpayers.
Newspapers the other day ran stories on 75 years of ‘the lung’ of Delhi—Lodhi Gardens. But Delhi needs many, many more lungs. Only then will people take to that healthy habit called walking. To reach a park today, you have to negotiate smelly roadsides, broken tiles, bushes where there ought to be none, vendors, parked bikes, even poop. I clicked a stained pavement (top) and a half-laid footpath nearby that had been ‘beautified’ for the Games. If we can just repair and maintain what we’ve built, even if we don’t add more, Delhiites will cheer.
For now, there are too many deterrents against venturing out on foot. I’m resigned to taking short walks within my housing society’s compound. And there will be thousands like me who would rather gain weight than risk injury (yes, treadmills too are not universally beneficial).

Sunday 10 April 2011

What politicians have in common with birds

I was ambling instead of walking briskly that morning, my mind on the headlines I’d just read about Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption fast in Delhi.
A single bird perched atop a bare tree caught my eye. It sat as if it was a disinterested purveyor of all that walked the earth. Its neck was cocked impertinently to one side, and the body language…yes, that was a Eureka moment for me: it struck me that this ‘splendid isolation’ was also the defining characteristic of the political class.
Disdainfully aloof, politicians too behave as if they are masters of the universe, untouched and unmoved by what we, the people of India, want—or don’t want.
Ensconced in their ‘safe’ perches, it seems politicians take only a bird’s eye view of all that happens in the country. And like birds, they swoop to the ground only to feed their hunger (read votes). At election rallies, ‘leaders’ address voters from diases built tens of feet high, from where members of the ‘janata’ are mere specks. The suffering of this sea of humanity, immediate or long-term, gets only lip sympathy; soon the entourage (security and all) moves on to the next set of suckers.
Their ivory-tower existence has actually struck deep roots. Our ‘leaders’ are today above reproach, beyond accountability, a now-active judiciary notwithstanding. Over the years, they have abrogated all articles of faith, even as they have arrogated to themselves all conceivable powers to silence dissent or criticism by means overt or covert. Which of us is willing to stake a rupee on a politician’s word today? Do we believe them any more when they point a finger at one of their own ilk? Four fingers are pointing back at them, and for good reason. Scam after scam has rocked the country for decades now, but ‘leaders’ continue to roam free. If a rare conviction does happen, the ‘leader’ can still happily file nominations, run extortion rackets from jail, or attend to his ‘legislative obligations’ when out on bail.
Though always at loggerheads, politicians vote as one to jack up their own salaries in their only show of solidarity. Critical pieces of legislation can be shelved indefinitely, not this.
Then there's this recent move that puts an additional Rs 2,370 crore MPLADS burden on the common man. It is wholly unwarranted. What prevents members of Parliament from ensuring in their individual constituencies that each government agency is performing its duty well? Holistic development would be guaranteed. But such vigil would be too tedious for them, besides loss of benefits that come at our cost. And why look a gift horse in the mouth, when there won’t be a squeak of protest from those being milked?
They tax us heavily, breed corruption, gift away money, set up schemes to siphon funds that we contribute for better education, healthcare, infrastructure, law and order; they squirrel away our hard-earned money in secret accounts abroad, and woe betide if we question what they do.Witness the fate of whistleblowers.
These are inconvenient issues, shrugged off by politicians insulated from inflation, poverty and misery, because the entire official machinery is geared to serve them and their cohorts.
To the bird in the picture, it doesn’t matter that the tree bearing its burden is bare. What’s important is ‘splendid isolation’—exactly what the politician revels in, too. Let’s hope the #annahazare campaigners succeed in bringing him down a branch or two.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

The receding colours of spring

This is in a way Part II of my Nature series, if you will. As spring gives way to searing summer—Delhi is already 35 degrees Celsius—the flowers are drooping into slumber, as if to wake up only when the wind turns softly congenial and the thundering showers inevitable in a few months give way to gently falling dew.
The petunias are putting up a good fight, but they are bound to succumb soon. Only the occasional rugged rose and marigolds will hold their ground. The delicate ones will bloom in the hills or in protected nurseries and homes, not out in the unsparing open.
My infrequent walks will give my eyes less to feast upon. Maybe I’ll have to look heavenward more often, for trees that had gone bare are beginning to sport tender greenery.
As I worked with my phone camera to catch the receding spring, it struck me that we have very few blue flowers, at least in Delhi, from the little I've managed to see of it this season.
Among the flowers that dot public parks and gated colonies, there are many shades of pink, red, mauve, purple and yellow, even dull and bright whites, but very few of the blue variety. Here are a few pictures that I clicked when the city was alive with blooms of all colours and shapes.