A teak wooden desk and walls flanked with original lithographs from John Gould’s Birds of Asia are the first things one notices about author/avid birder Aasheesh Pittie’s office. That it overlooks the pristine 300-acre KBR Park (Hyderabad’s answer to Central Park) which Pittie frequents both for morning walks and birdwatching is just a coincidence.
Pittie’s The Living Air is a deeply personal collection of essays (updated in terms of facts and anecdotes) that were published for over four decades. For the author, it is a compilation of a life spent tracking, understanding, and loving the creatures of the wild. “My school (the great enabler Vidyaranya) inculcated in me a love of biology and nature.” he said. When his father presented him Salim Ali’s birding bible, Book of Indian Birds in class ten, it cemented his curiosity for these gentle creatures.
A ‘laid-back birder’
“It was a talk about birds, in school, that fascinated me. I was also an introvert, and birding could be a one-man pastime. Besides, I realised that I was fond of wild creatures and wilderness areas, even if these were in my immediate vicinity or neighborhood.” he said before asking a question of his own, “And who is not captivated by the charm of flight, the lilt of song, the kaleidoscope of colors, and the sheer vitality of birds?”
Pittie, also the editor of Indian Birds, calls himself a “laid-back birder” who propagates “slow birding”. “Humans are taught to venerate only human creations. We need to slow down to the pace of nature to understand it. My kind of birding allows one to be a part of the environment one is surrounded by. We need to be mindful to understand, observe and listen to birds.” he said.
Birding is a solitary occupation but for Pittie, it is the perfect companion which makes solitude acceptable. As someone based in Hyderabad, which is fast becoming another concrete mega polis with little interest for lung spaces such as parks and lakes, can one find, let alone notice birds? The author laughs before reeling off a list of birds commonly found in the Deccan (Indian Robin, Magpie Robin, Purple Sunbirds, Coppersmith barbets and many others) and adds, “More people live in cities today than outside of cities. Yes, development is necessary but so are natural habitats.”
The Living Air is a gentle and nostalgic read about birds, their habitats and a life spent in birding. From city birds like the Sparrow which can be heard and seen everywhere in Hyderabad to a tryst with Jerdon’s Courser in Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh or speaking about the interdependence of human and animal lives, the victory of the book lies in the fact that both birders or non-birders are drawn into the wealth of its stories, its warmth and wit.
Though written over decades, they remain topical and hence, are able to reel the readers in. For example, In the essay “A Plague of Pigeons”, Pittie writes, “It is difficult to imagine how the iconic symbol of peace, the dove, metamorphoses into an emissary of death.” Given the fact that modern day apartments and high-rises constantly tackle the problem of these rats of the sky, the essay becomes a contemporary read. When he bemoans the death of the Vulture, the natural scavenger of the sky, it is as pertinent as it was, when it was written in the 90s.
Primarily, the subjects of the essays, whether birds, the art of birding, or even environmental issues, remain as relevant today, as they were when written. Pittie said, “This single volume brings together a selection of my writings and highlights the daily contemporary joys and challenges we face. Scattered over decades they are chaff to the wind, but in The Living Air they demonstrate and celebrate the beauty that surrounds us and how we may enjoy it.”
Birding, over the years has moved from an ascetic and spiritual sojourn to a numbers game which is driven by (like everything else) social media. Human ingenuity fuels change, and birding has come a long way from when an earlier generation of birders used its basic tools: notebook, pencil, field guide, and binoculars.
“The latter was a luxury then.” the author reminiscences, “Modern birders are armed to their teeth with gear and gadgets: photographic, and sound recording equipment, top quality optics, cloud-storing apps for notes, satellite telemetry, and what not.” Despite the gadgetry, if birding is not done at the pace of a bird’s life, and on its terms, it will remain a shallow experience, Pittie warns, something that is played to the gallery of instant social media gratification – not deep, nor abiding.
Requiem for the city
The Living Air is as much about birding in general as it is about birding in Hyderabad. The author evokes the city in silent and subtle ways: when he says that Hyderabadis know the Black Drongo as Zulfikar or the Spotted Owlet as Chakwa-Chakwi or when he references many of the city’s popular lakes and parks (be it Shamirpet lake or the heritage precincts of Qutb Shahi Tombs) which were birding havens in the way. In a way, the generous references to the city’s past, and its rich wistfulness take one down the memory lane.
Pittie asserts that the city still remains a haven for birds. “One just has to pause and look.” he said, “Urban environments are in flux all the time. Today the city is certainly not what it was four decades ago, but neither was it in the 1980s, like it would have been eight decades ago. But wild creatures are adept at finding niches and surviving. It is up to us how enriched or pauperized a life we wish to live and bequeath, in the way we cohabit with non-human life.”
For birdwatchers inside a city, the “best spot for birding” depends upon what a birder is looking for: diversity, numbers, or neighborhood birds. Pittie asserts, “The important thing is to keep records of what one sees so that the knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations who may inhabit drastically altered surroundings. This prevents generational amnesia and preserves vital knowledge.” “Birds it is said, can live without man, but man cannot survive without birds” the author writes.
While the contributions of birds are manifold: they pollinate plants, disperse seeds, are consumed as food, scavenge and clean our environment, their other seminal contribution remains unsung. “Birds are most valuable to humans in the solace they provide in overcoming human fallibilities.” Pittie said, “For here’s the thing, when we are unable to handle our lives, we take solace in nature and, by simply being, allow nature to give us what we cannot reciprocate, the peace of wild things.”
The book opens with the author’s darshan of the rarest of the rare, the Jerdon’s Courser. Among iconic birds Pittie has been awed by include the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican. While today it is a tragedy that these magnificent creatures are prey to human hunger for their habitat and open grasslands, books like these enable us to pause and ponder, and encourage us to look up and catch the flutter of their wings or perhaps tune in enough to hear the bird song that surrounds us.
The Living Air: The Pleasures of Birds and Birdwatching, Aasheesh Pittie, Juggernaut.