The best sort of literary correspondences come entirely unannounced. I am not talking about the exchange of mails that bear the weight of one person’s ambition and the other’s suppressed tedium at having to read and thus bear that burden, but rather that other kind of correspondence; a concurrence; when words and ideas align in a way that make you think of other things.
This past week, I underlined a passage in The Nine Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat, where she wrote of a flock of starlings tracing their ephemeral ballets in the sky. She did not name the phenomenon, but I knew it. It is a murmuration, and to see one —beyond the astonishment; the wonder — is to be reminded that there is still mystery in this shrinking world. Why do they fly just so? At whose call do they swoop and soar? Pariat has her character speak of souls returned as these soaring sprites: “That all the dead in the world are reborn into creatures of flight.”
It is a trope I’ve heard before, and it was referenced again in a book I was reading at the same time, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. A very different novel, about watchmaking and women scholars and Japanese geniuses in England in the 19th century, it too drowned me in itself.
A Japanese aesthete tells his female friend of watching swarms of swallows when he was a child (“from the castle walls”, naturally). “They fly in enormous numbers… they make the strangest shapes. One can see,” he says, “why people in medieval times thought they were seeing spirits and suchlike.”
How many times have I seen someone do this, to acknowledge with some grace the power of nature, and then dismiss with authority the effect it has on the rest of us?
His is the pose of the worldly, just as familiar to us as that of the naïf, craning upwards to the sky with a volume of Wordsworth clutched to his or her chest.
But who hasn’t held a shell to an ear, as Wordsworth’s curious child does, to hear the “murmurings” of the distant sea? In this time, in this criminally diminished world: Couldn’t all of us do with some wonder in our lives?
I’ll tell you one way in which Delhi absolutely kills Beijing. Birding.
I am by no means a twitcher, the appropriate Salim Ali volume in one hand and field-glasses in the other. But I miss looking out of a window and having 10-15 avian species to look at within about a minute. In Beijing, once you are past the sparrows and magpies, you’re pretty much done. Every so often there is a bulbul or a woodpecker, and there are waterfowl down by our local river, but a passing hoopoe almost made me fall off my bike in joy.
I have no idea why this is so. My assumption is that it wasn’t always like this. (It is not even true, active birder friends in Beijing have told me, often and vociferously, citing studies and lists.) But all I can do is compare my experience of both cities. I am sorry, but you are just not going to see babblers and sunbirds and parakeets and kites in downtown Beijing.
I have catalogued similarities between my two cities, and yes, I have pointed out, over the course of these past 18 months or so, just how much Delhi has to learn from Beijing. It is nice then to finally redress the balance.
This accounting has also made me remember how intrinsic Delhi’s birds are to my memories of it. Parakeets in Lodhi Garden. Vultures, growing up, in the big neems outside Safdarjung’s Tomb. Owlets holed away in the boles of trees that I couldn’t name as I walked with older people in the parks where I had my youth.
The sound of cuckoos as the weather warmed, the barbets calling in summer, migratory geese overhead signalling fires on corners and the smell of mothballs at home as the woollens were shaken out.
Kites over Nizamuddin.
My cartography of Delhi is a feathered thing.
Beijing is less so. What will I use to mark it by? I guess it’ll have to be outstanding meals.
I wonder, though, how long can Delhi’s avifauna survive the siege of the city itself? The pollution, the building that is swallowing up open areas, the depletion of water sources. A citizenry too busy to put dishes of water out on their balconies.
Imagine a Delhi without its birds. I can’t.
Yet so much of what we took for granted is already gone.
One of the murmurations I mentioned earlier takes place in London, a city with a well-documented history of facing severe man-made stresses, like its infamous “fog”, and a diseased river. Not even London’s most ardent defenders would claim that they’ve sorted themselves out. But they’re trying, as is Seoul, for example, in the Asian context.
Nobody has to reinvent the wheel. Learn from other places with similar issues, from their triumphs and their mistakes. So we all have something to look forward to, and nostalgia isn’t all there is. And wonder remains a part of our lives.
Before the only murmurations the generations to come will see will be the tracks of jetliners, their flight-planned “freedom” the merest echo of what had soared and swooped before.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing; email@example.com