Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher?

It all began when I was eight. At that tender age, I was 'volunteered', along with three of my classmates, to represent my school in an Animal Identification Contest. This didn't mean that you got to rank all your teachers and decide which of them was most like a hippo, nor did it involve police line-ups and playing who popped the weasel. It meant that you'd get shown a bunch of photographs of animals and the kid who identified the most would get a prize.

Unfortunately, the definition of what constituted an animal was left kind of vague. Were birds included? Were fish? Our activity teacher, a Ms. Sharma, took a distinctly Old Testament view of the question and decided that we contestants must have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowl in the air and the fish of the sea alike. The result was that I and my classmates spent significant hours poring over assorted picture books in the library, learning to distinguish between various fauna. Ms. Sharma assured us that all this extra knowledge would prove useful 'later in life', though she remained vague about the specific mechanism by which this utility would be achieved. Personally, I've never had occasion to use the expertise I gained (women, for instance, are singularly unimpressed by a man's ability to tell a cheetah from a jaguar by the pattern of its spots, and the subject almost never comes up in job interviews) and while I haven't really kept in touch with any of my fellow contestants, I rather doubt that any of them ended up as big game hunters. I still have the occasional fantasy about saving the world from certain destruction by being the only person who can tell a lion tailed macaque from a rhesus monkey, but with the Republicans in power even that seems increasingly unlikely.

At any rate, the great day eventually dawned and four shiny-faced children found themselves in the Jaipur zoo (not actually, in the zoo, you understand, just visiting) sitting down to ID those critters. The person who designed the contest, it turned out, took a fairly dim view of the average eight year old's general knowledge, intelligence and ability to read. Not only were the pictures we were asked to identify ridiculously simple (I mean, really, what can you mistake a giraffe for?) but about half of them had the additional virtue of having the name of the animal in question clearly visible in the slide we were shown. Every single one of us could identify all ten of the animals correctly.

Almost. It turned out that among these pictures was one of what was clearly an anteater (the organisers had been generous enough to provide an ant hill in the background just in case we were confused). Except it wasn't any old anteater. It was a pangolin - a fact that only yours truly had seen fit to mention. Not that I could tell a pangolin from an aardvark. I just happened to know that pangolin was a kind of anteater, and decided that I might as well show off my vocabulary (clearly, some habits die hard). But why look a gift vermilingua in its snout? I'd won, and the first prize (presented at an awards ceremony where the chief guest seemed to imply that my heroic feat of nomenclature had somehow saved all the world's tigers from imminent extinction) was mine.

This first prize, it turned out, was a beautiful leather-bound copy of Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds. Now, of course, this should have changed my life forever. I should have taken one look at those full colour drawings of spoonbills and parakeets and felt a thrill deep in my boyish soul. "I'm going to be a bird-watcher" I should have told my mother, and stormed off in a huff when so grave a pronouncement was met by a bemused smile. While other boys were busy playing cricket or football or whatever it is the little louts play, I should have been staring dreamily up at the sky, notepad in hand, dreaming of all the wondrous birds I was destined to discover. Then, one quick cut later, I should have been tramping through the Amazonian rainforests, in search of the elusive Lagazzius Lardius, eventually meeting up with a suntanned Jennifer Connelly, and wooing her with bird-calls.

Needless to say, none of this ever happened (imitating bird-calls, by the way, is an even less successful strategy for impressing women than trying to distinguish a cheetah from a leopard). And the reason none of it ever happened was because the book in question, while enchanting in all other respects, happened to be in Hindi. Not that I have anything against the other official language of the country. It's just that I'm not very good at reading it [2]. And this wasn't just any ordinary book, remember, this was a detailed text about the habits of various bird species in India, complete with facts about their mating rituals, migration patterns, nesting habits, etc. all rendered in arcane Hindi phrases of the kind that never make it into Amitabh Bacchan movies [3].

To my credit, I tried. For two whole weeks I put aside a hour every day when I would diligently plug away at this book, trying grimly to extract some enjoyment from it, like a toothless dog with a bone. Eventually, though, I gave up, and the book has since come to occupy a sort of emeritus position on our family bookshelf - taken down and dusted once a year for our annual pilgrimage to Keoladeo National Park (where my father and I make valiant attempts to imagine the features of the rarer birds in the book in the common egrets we see) but otherwise more or less left to languish.

And yet every now and then, something will remind me of that glorious future as an ornithologist I could have had, something like these pictures over at Zigzackly's blog. A future where I could have been hunting whippoorwills in the forest of Central America instead of teaching Porter's Five Forces to hapless undergraduates. Sigh.


[1] The title of this post is taken from this marvellous Ezekiel poem.

[2] The furthest I've ever got is one whole chapter of Raag Darbari in the original. One day I plan to finish that book.

[3] This was, of course, in the days when there were actually movies that the Big B didn't appear in, so that the adjective was relevant.


m. said...

ah. to senilely go on a deja vu trip,my school too used to specialise in awesomely bad prizes. the project quiz special was a booklet on leprosy. with heavily magenta tinted colour photographs.

n said...

that brings me to a major gripe i have abt the use of hindi in india. most documents, instructions, warnings recoomendations, nething use a sor of hindi that is so convoluted and hard to understand that it is increasingly making the language unpopular. humph.

witnwisdumb said...

I found this riotously amusing! Definitely among your funniest posts. I too could narrate a couple of strikingly similar tales, except in my case, I haven't yet not become an animal expert, ala Jeff Corwin. The option still remains open...

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

I envy you . My school specialised in giving away plastic tiffin boxes and Salem Steel water jugs. I Hmph too.

Aishwarya said...

women, for instance, are singularly unimpressed by a man's ability to tell a cheetah from a jaguar by the pattern of its spots

This is SO untrue.

hedonistic hobo said...

hilarious. absolutely! but have you actually tried this skill on women? i know a few who'd be completely enchanted by a man who could tell an aardvark from a..what was that again? oh right you couldn't but but BUT cheetah and jaguar's good too. i like sharks, great white ones. and tiger ones too. know anything about them? :)

km said...

Just thank God you weren't into Sting-Rays.

That Salim Ali book is a gem, btw.

Falstaff said...

m: Interesting. An almost Pavlovian strategy to get people to treat quizzers like lepers.

To be fair, that bird book was one of the best prizes I ever received (it must be the only thing I got in those years that I've held on to) - if only it had been in English.

n: yes, I know.

witnwisdumb: Thanks

shoe-fiend: My school tended to give away little wooden mementos with the school logo and a label with your name on it. Absolutely no utility whatsoever. The book was courtesy the National Wildlife Something or the other, who were the organisers for this particular contest.

aishwarya / hobo: See, I knew I was hanging out with the wrong kind of women. I really should have gone to that prom dance at the Jane Goodall Finishing School.

km: No fear. I'm regularly frightened by squirrels, so crocodile hunting was never a viable career. And the book is lovely. At least the 1/5th of it that I can understand.

km said...

prom dance at the Jane Goodall Finishing School.

Careful, Falstaff, not when I am drinking my first cuppa in the AM.

Aishwarya said...


Random useless information goes down really well with some women (the reasonably intelligent and completely purposeless ones. Like myself, you see). Really.

Anonymous said...

Thats quite nice.

hedonistic hobo said...

jane goodall's finishing school is actually an essential survival technique for all women. it's all about learning to cope with creatures that walk using their knuckles. i'd never be able to cope with men if i hadn't been there. :o)

bookworm said...

great blog! definitely one of the funniest i've come across :D