A bird chirping away while on a stem

Wakey-Wakey

The birds wake us up.

But who wakes them up?

Ah, the worms.

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Graphic of a human hand wearing a glove touching a baby sparrow on the ground

Tiny Tale | The Sparrow and the Universe

Have you held a baby sparrow? I have, or rather, needed to some days ago.

I was returning from my morning walk / jog, back into my complex, when I noticed this tiny critter near the barred gutter. A little wind, and he / she would have got blown into the gutter. If he / she (instead of continuing with he / she – and he / she was too small to make out the gender – I think I’ll just call him / her ‘Harrow’: you know, harrowed sparrow) remained there, Harrow would have been in the direct line of the stationed scooter on its way out from its parking spot. Of course, before these eventualities, there is the tiny matter of this tiny critter just being squashed by an unseeing foot.

I bent down, picked up Harrow, and placed Harrow on my palm. Harrow sounded scared to the marrow. Some part of H seemed bent or broken – beak, wing, leg – but I just couldn’t make out due to H’s tiny size. But what H lacked in size and skill, H made up in survival instinct. H jabbed at my hands, more like a couple of fingers, with all the miniscule might of H’s beak. It felt like lightly squeezing the end of a couple of staples. H also either tried to gain balance on my palm, or was trying to squash it, and that felt like squeezing four of those staples. I was trying to see this from H’s perspective: to H, me, or just my hand, would have seemed as big as the universe.

Not wanting to scare H anymore, as I obviously wasn’t able to reassure H that I was trying to help, I placed H behind a small projection of the wall, hopefully out of harm’s way. I noticed an adult male sparrow on a CCTV camera, and felt the minutest bit of reassurance: hopefully, Adult would come to Harrow’s aid. I left soon after, not wanting to put any more distance between point A and point H.

The next morning, remembering Harrow’s plight, I went to the spot to see if by any chance, H was still there. He wasn’t. Any of Adult, gutter, scooter, or any of a baby’s sparrow’s million enemies could have gotten to H. Whatever, but in H’s short span on earth, Harrow could say he / she had seen the universe.

Linocut of sparrow, with illustrator's signature in the bottom right

Animal Friendly | Where the Sparrows Are

Whenever I go rental-hunting in Mumbai, I face a hostile reaction from flat-owners, and by association, brokers. Given my kind of name and that I’m single, I guess they think I plan to set off explosive devices or go around strapped with them. Very few doors open, and those that do, lead to a dump or a worse dump. I eventually manage somehow, courtesy landlords who are open-minded, single themselves or both.

This time when I started my search though, I faced traas (loosely, agony in Marathi) much before the agents and landlords and from very unlikely quarters. My friends. Reason? My choice of location. They were belligerent: it’s at best a hamlet, it’s actually a weekend destination for many city folk, the commute’s a killer, and as a final assault, they aren’t likely to visit me in a hurry here. Read our livid lips, they sneered: it’s far-out far.

Is it? Aadhaar aside, I’m not one to share my personal details in the public domain, but here’s a bit: my station of choice is the northern extremity of one suburban railway route of Mumbai. By the local, you have to cross two sizeable inlets of water to get here… after crossing the official limits of Mumbai. It takes me 1.5 hours point to point, on the lower side, for a meeting or meet-up. The cell-phone reception is patchy at times, and I go on roaming when entering the proper city. There’s no mall or multiplex. And true to their threats, my friends haven’t come visiting thus far.

One of the two sizeable inlets of water on the way to my station

One of the two water inlets on the way home

But it’s for many of those reasons that I chose this area. I’ve been working from home for some time now, so was looking for a bigger flat. My work is in the creative space, so was seeking a quieter neighbourhood. I also wanted to live closer to nature. To find all the above in official-limits Mumbai, you’ve got to either be earning millions or have inherited them.

And so far, it’s been so good. Oftentimes, the loudest sound in my study is the whirring fan. When I step out into the balcony, I see a small range of hills in the distance, the sun breaking through them at dawn. Stepping down, I see people sitting and chatting on kerbs, with nary a worry of a speeding SUV smashing into them: the roads are wide, the vehicles few. There are two verdant trails close by, one leading to a jetty, where you can repose along the passing river, the river interrupting, or aiding, your meditation with gently lapping waves. These paths go past paddy fields, where you find village folk with bent backs, a lone tree providing shade and masquerading as a giant scare-crow against felonious birds. During the monsoon, toward the end of which I moved here, the combination of hill, sky and cloud, culminating in silver rain, could inspire one to conduct an impromptu class in precipitation. And after the Ockhi thundershowers, the resulting air smelled Hill-station Crisp.

An image of two trees in the middle of a field, with the text 'Living Far Away'

But it seems I was brought here by a greater pull of nature, or rather, smaller. Sparrows. These tiny, hop-happy ovates of fluff, who I’ve hardly spotted in main Mumbai the more than two decades I’ve lived in the city, are in merry abundance here. They bounce about ceaselessly, from one morsel or twig to another, with no fear of arthritis or plantar fasciitis. They swoop in to pick up fallen sprigs, while accomplices keep a watch perched atop, well, CCTV cameras. They puddle- and mud-bathe and relay it with such joy, you sigh at the cheerful communication their inspired creation, Twitter, was purported to be. It’s when they squabble with each other that they sound more like present Twitter.

A male sparrow with his leg on the beak of a female sparrow

I regularly sight a couple of furries in the process of, erm, coupling. I hop away sparrow-like myself at this, wanting both not to embarrass them or keep them from creating the only beings cuter than sparrows: baby sparrows. I’ve also come across a fluffy in another act of privacy, but this time, I couldn’t get away fast enough. After all, such a small being takes hardly any time to… poop. The pellet popped out the colour and size of a Tic-Tac, and I’ll stop here because I think I just ruined that mint brand for its consumers.

A sparrow bathing in a puddle of waterThe benign birdies clearly relish the space and green this area offers them. Possibly lending weight to the popular theories why they have all but disappeared from the cities. There are fewer cell-phone towers here (and so my unsteady reception). But then too, there are fewer pigeons, or at least not as predominant as they are in the city. Actually, both species seem to get along fine here. Outside grocery stores, where benevolent store-keepers cast grains in the morning, both winged gangs peck away amicably, albeit in broadly segregated zones, much like the zebras and lions slaking their thirst in a call of truce at the African watering hole. Closer home, they take turns going down my balcony railing to roost in the vacant flat next door. Only, the pigeons waddle clumsily, the sparrows bounce buoyantly.

But perhaps, not for long. ‘Progress’ seems to be slowly taking the local train and landing up here. My suburban railway line now goes up to a station further north, placing my location half-way between the starting point and this new end point. A few buildings are taking roots near the paddy landscape, and after stealthy breaking and entering, will convert it into ‘landscaping’. Confirming the real reason why the critters are disappearing from cities, as ornithologist and conservationist Bikram Grewal shared at a session I attended recently: concretization. Like most areas embracing megapolises growing in beast mode, there’ll eventually be a property boom here too. The people, residential and phone towers, and pigeons swooping in will drive out the serenity, silence and sparrows. I might then move out again to someplace quieter. Maybe, to that new northern extremity. Or, to wherever the sparrows are.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD