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Can a little knowledge be a wonderful thing?

  • The joys of bird-watching, with some help from Mehran Zaidi’s Birds And Butterflies Of Delhi
  • The acquisition of this information is quite unlike memorizing the capitals of countries or the directors of movies

Jungle babblers, who are ‘always grumpy and always in a group’.
Jungle babblers, who are ‘always grumpy and always in a group’. (Photo: Alamy)

Till I was 30, I knew the names of two birds. Crows and pigeons. Okay, fine. I knew a few more. But they were fancy and foreign, like pelicans, penguins and toucans. They were like birds you met at parties and were polite to. Not real. On the other hand, I could call crows and pigeons by their names in multiple languages. I knewone crow-based Malayalam nursery rhyme and several pigeon-based Hindi film songs.

Then a flat I rented after seeing it just once at night turned out to be right next to a forest. I will be protecting the identity of the forest here in case someone thinks it can be upcycled into a nice Metro shed. We will lightly gloss over a monkey episode since it lends no dignity to me or him. The encounters with birds were quite another thing.

At first, I was just startled to see these avian strangers. They ignored me, I stared at them and went to work. Then, on impulse, I bought a book called Birds And Butterflies Of Delhi by Mehran Zaidi. It lay unopened until one morning I was amused for the thousandth time by the grumpy expression of some brown birds on my balcony. Always grumpy and always in a group.

They are called jungle babblers, I learnt from the book. The short note next to the great illustration immediately converted me into an interested party. Zaidi writes, “Jungle Babblers are cross-looking birds, rather like some school teachers who think that the ‘crosser’ they look, the more easily they will be able to discipline their wards. These birds mostly remain in groups of six to twelve, which is why they are called Sat-Bhai or seven brothers in Hindi/Urdu." A few more sentences followed and each one served to fix the grouchy birds in my heart forever.

A few weeks later, I was walking on the footpath that runs parallel to a multi-lane road in the middle of Delhi and was startled to see a kingfisher (for the very first time. As a Bengaluru girl, I was used only to seeing them on hoardings of Kannada star Upendra holding up bottles of beverages). It swooped and disappeared into a dry storm drain. I wondered what on earth a pretty bird like it was doing in a place like this.

At home, I consulted Zaidi. “This kingfisher is spotted alone in both cultivated and wooded areas, near and away from water." Oh, so my girl wasn’t lost. Zaidi goes on to say, “It builds its nest in a horizontal tunnel dug into the side of a dry nullah." I was now a fan of Zaidi and birds. Years later, this sentence still gives me the deep satisfaction of a solved mystery. It was like a friend encouraging you to swipe right for the very first time. I had no interest in dating nature but nature was suddenly looking datable.

Since then, I have learnt the names of a few more birds. I know that the pair of plump, green birds who make a nest outside my house every year are brown-headed barbets. I no longer live near a forest but the one tree outside my house contains multitudes. I suspect the Mighty Mouse type character I saw zooming around yesterday is an Indian robin but I will need a few more sightings and Zaidi readings to be sure.

The acquisition of these tiny pieces of information is quite unlike my memorizing the capitals of countries or the directors of movies for quizzes and social advancement. It’s not even like being “knowing" in the way I was encouraged and trained to be as a journalist. This is more like bird gossip but it gives me pleasure even without sharing. And if there happens to be someone else on the balcony who says, “Oh look, there is a green bird on the tree," I can say, “It’s a brown-headed barbet, and, by the way, the coppersmith barbet was voted bird of Mumbai in a online contest." But I don’t have to. That factoid is interesting to no one but me and that’s perfect.

I chose a career which required me to be moderately, somewhat reasonably up to date. That’s my fault. But some years later, we have all fallen into a world where we are assaulted by news and information all day long. It’s like you fell into the Did You Know series your uncle owned and can’t get out. And worse, it seems like every interest needs to scale and photograph well. Let no interest feel bad by being called esoteric.

Schools in Kerala are apparently teaching children to identify fake news. That’s great but I wish schools would also teach them how to learn something pointless and pleasurable. Something that doesn’t subscribe to the “you can do anything as long as you are the best at it" school because no one can be the best at it. To do an Alexander Pope/Mae West mash-up, a little knowledge can be a wonderful thing. Then, like the kingfisher, you may be spotted happily alone in both cultivated and wooded areas, near and away from water.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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