Until I spotted her sitting on the nest, Delhi had been grey and grim, turgid with a foul combination of particulate matter and fog. But on that day, the sun had come out and maybe that’s what caused me to see it clearly. Lodged in a wedge of the eucalyptus tree, the kite sat, as generations before her had, protecting her nest, allowing only her head to move.
I had recently returned from spending the better part of a globally traumatic year cocooned in Singapore, where order was the preferred weapon against the pandemic. The city-state was neat, prepared, precise, and I was aware of my privilege every day. Masks on (running merited exemption, walking did not). Social distancing defined in feet. A lockdown more accurately described as a “circuit breaker”.
Rules for everything – the number of guests at home, the distance between tables in restaurants, where you could sit and where you couldn’t in the doctor’s waiting room. Once the butt of nanny state jokes, there was a new reassurance that this was a government with a plan, that it was reasonably transparent with its citizens, that it would brook no deviation. Follow or go.
But Delhi was where my children were, adult women, but children all the same. Delhi was where work was. Delhi was home, or where my nest was wedged. But Delhi was also chaos and I had returned to it.
Three agriculture laws, passed without a debate in Parliament, had resulted in an uproar of farmer protests. On Republic Day, a dull, cold morning, the chief guest was missing: Boris Johnson had begged off due to the emergence of a new strain in his country. Given the climate, a military parade, all sharp salutes and snappy eyes-right, followed by garish cultural tableaus seemed like an anachronism. As some farmers spilled into Delhi, violence erupted, police personnel were injured by the hundreds and someone even hoisted a religious flag atop the Red Fort.
The state’s response to this hooliganism was to snap the internet and file police cases for sedition, using a 151-year-old British colonial era law, against senior journalists and a politician for tweeting that a farmer had been shot in the melee. It demanded that Twitter suspend handles it deemed offensive. Twitter complied briefly, then restored them and a face-off with the State continues. Days before, India had slipped two places further to the 53rd spot in the Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index.
Back at the protest sites, images of police preparing for armageddon by erecting concrete barriers with nails and concertina wire evoked memories of the Cold War.
Elsewhere, the jurisprudential observation of the great Supreme Court judge, Justice VR Krishna Iyer – “bail not jail” – seemed to have been overturned. Hearing a bail plea for man jailed with kidney failure, the Supreme Court chief justice observed: “If he dies, then he will die when he is out on bail too. Everyone is dying.” Earlier, a request for a straw and a sipping cup made by the lawyers of a jailed 83-year-old priest with Parkinson’s disease was held up through procedural delays. Another journalist jailed while on his way to cover the gang-rape and murder of a Dalit woman at Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, appealed for bail so that he could go and see his dying 90-year-old mother.
A stand-up comic arrested for jokes he did not make did make bail but it took a midnight call from the Supreme Court to ensure his jailers actually set him free.
Meanwhile, three states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party have ushered in laws that have effectively banned interfaith marriage. Opposition parties remain strangely silent, perhaps in the knowledge that majoritarian opinion frowns upon “love marriages”, particularly when they breach caste and religious boundaries.
Like all good dystopian stories, this too had an element of the comic. On February 2, the pop star Rihanna tweeted a link to a CNN report on how India had cut the internet around Delhi as protesting farmers clashed with police. She asked: “Why aren’t we talking about this?” That tweet by the singer with over 100 million followers seemed to strike a raw nerve in the government. For the first time in recent memory, the ministry of foreign affairs decided to comment officially on a statement, or rather a question, made by a foreign citizen in her individual capacity.
This was a take-no-prisoners war. Indian celebrities from cinema and cricket – some have argued India’s true religion – issued a series of uncannily similar tweets in quick succession about external threats to India’s sovereignty, pleading with India to “remain united as a nation”. Delhi Police, meanwhile, filed an FIR over a toolkit tweeted by young activist Greta Thunberg in support of the farmers. The ham-handed Big Brother approach swung between the fictional and bumbling Inspector Closeau and the infamous “foreign hand” routinely invoked by Indira Gandhi when she suspended civil liberties and the Constitution during the Emergency of 1975.
The world was at war with the pandemic. But in India, the state was also at war with its citizens. In this war, the first casualty was the free press, or whatever tatters remained of it. As news anchors co-opted by the government hectored their benumbed viewers about nationalism, the more intransigent were arrested for simply doing their job of covering the protests.
Yes, Delhi was grim and grey when I flew back to my nest.
Passage Of Life
The tree on which the kites had made their nest year after year was a mature eucalyptus. As a groundwater guzzler, the species had fallen out of fashion. In 2008, when I moved into the house where I live, I had applied for permission to have it cut. The inspector from the concerned government department arrived, asked for a Rs 20,000 bribe that I refused, and so the tree remained, much to the delight of all manner of chirping happy birds that sang through the early dawn.
Two summers ago, I was caring for my mother’s sister who was dying of cancer when an unseasonal dust storm caused the trees to sway like a pendulum. The crown and a large upper portion of my eucalyptus came crashing down, snapping the electricity wires and plunging the entire lane into darkness. When the lights came on, I saw that the nest had fallen too.
Seeing it now again filled me with unreasonable happiness. The terrace from which I had observed its current inhabitants, from nest to first fluttery flight, was my domain. This is where I conducted my daily calming laundry routine. There was something meditative really about sorting the clothes to be washed, taking them to hang in the sun. Banal, predictable, orderly, this solitary ritual that required no thought, anchored my day.
Now more than ever, the possibility of renewal seemed irresistible, urgent and necessary. There was a vaccine, actually several of them, though whether they would be injected faster than the mutations remained to be seen.
The farmer protest continued despite the might of the state. Pockets of resistance stood out. Would they endure, or would we sink further?
It was easy to find symbolism in the resurgence of the nest, easy to understand why that symbolism was important at this time.
The yearly ritual of occupying it was a reminder of the seasons, altered by climate change, but seasons all the same. The coming of spring and renewal, birth and life, nurturing and protecting.
But the passage of seasons, one unfolding into another, also marked the passage of time. At nearly 58, I was no longer the frequently reckless, risk-taking youth I once was. I now did my exercises regularly, tracked my blood sugar levels neatly, even tried to quit smoking (not entirely successfully). Yet, I was mortified that younger journalists, now at leadership positions, attached “ji” to my name, and as my birthday approached, I realised that I would have retired this year had I been in a government job.
A friend’s mother, now in her late eighties, tells me: “In the mirror I see only a young person.” In my mirror I see the lines on my face and my vanity leads me to cover up the grey strands. But in the mirror I am still that young woman who had to fight for her every freedom. Yet to come to terms with middle age, it is shocking to me to count that I am just two years away from being an official senior citizen. When a health and fitness app I recently downloaded tells me that my “fitness age” is 52, I am ridiculously happy. It is absurd.
What is the symbolism of the nest? Perhaps it is a reminder that better days are around the corner. Or maybe it is nothing more than biology. A species bent on procreation and survival.
Like everything else, it will pass.
Namita Bhandare is a veteran journalist who lives in Delhi.