Melodies of Restoration
Sometime in the 1800s, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, overcame the “sinking feeling” of the afternoons with tea and cake for the very first time, and created the custom of afternoon tea. Thanks to the Duchess, we too find renewal and satiation of our spirits in tea every evening.
Just as the scent of tea fills the flat afternoon air, another sensorial element lifts the veil of inertia: the music of birds. The barbet understands teatime better than the others and sings repetitively while I sip and munch. Following its lead, the Common mynahs make their loud calls in varying levels of intonation. Parakeets screech past, leaving their usual haunt in the coconut trees to fly home to their roosts elsewhere.
For renewal of my mind, restoration of my spirit, and to lift me up from the ‘sinking feeling,’ this music is what I tune in to every evening, and whenever possible, in the mornings too. It’s my escape, my meditation. When you listen to birds–really listen–you notice a certain clairvoyance in all the different musical notes. A certain wisdom in their voices, an invitation to feel the natural world, to lose the touch of your own for a while, to step into an enchantment.
Allow me to paint a picture of my customary evening ritual, so you can behold it in all its poetic beauty. Tea in hand, I go to my terrace to watch the composers. The landscape is a visual supplement for restoration: Mysore is made up of stunted buildings, so the anthropogenic landscape doesn’t entirely engulf the natural one. Chamundi Hill forms the backdrop of the view from almost every rooftop in Mysore. Tall Millingtonia trees bejewelled with white tree jasmines hanging from their branches look like dangle earrings, swaying gently in the breeze. Temple towers dotted among sprawling Tabebuia and Gulmohar trees, and umbrella-like Rain trees, Rock pigeons flying everywhere making rapid flapping sounds with their wings, the regal call of black kites gliding high above, and all of this against a sky that’s slowly turning purple.
All this beauty, which isn’t rare at all, goes unnoticed in our world of concrete and tar–endless work, goals to reach, emotions to manage, exigencies to navigate. I have discovered the possibility of visiting the natural world right where I am, at my doorstep, only using all my senses–opening them up to the parallel world. Before this discovery, I was between losing and finding myself in my own limited world, seeking restoration but never finding it, my senses trained to perceive nature anthropomorphically. For most of my life, I’d never heard the everyday sweet whistles of the magpie-robins or the tut-tuts of the flowerpeckers. These sounds were just part of the mundane. Often, people don’t hear them, even when you tell them to listen. While it’s true that most of the music is drowned in the city’s banal noises, there is also a certain way of learning to notice. My initiation to the healing world of nature transpired by way of conscious noticing. I had entered a world that turned out to be new to me–surprisingly refreshing, and full of beauty and meaning. This renewed way of experiencing the world teaches humility–reminding us that we are newcomers to this ancient land, where the music has evolved and been around for millennia. And has seen vast changes since we arrived. The panoramic Chamundi Hill was home to several birds that have now virtually disappeared.1
The population of Yellow-throated bulbul, whose sweet warbling song resembles that of the White-browed bulbul’s, has reportedly vanished from the hills over the last two decades.1 I’ve never heard its music except on the internet. But over 20 years ago, my elders may have.
Bird songs offer ‘quick fixes’ to a mired mind. My mother once told me that her grandmother had had a breakdown one evening, and all she’d wanted was for someone to take her to Chamundi Hill, where she knew that the fresh woodland air and scenic beauty would heal her mind. Like an emergency medication. It is only in my mind that I can see the landscape of the hills all those years ago. Through the eyes and mind of my great-grandmother. I’d like to imagine: the winds were stronger, blowing relief into the cracked and broken crevices of her exhausted mind, turning the long end of her cotton saree into a flag, releasing its laundered, domestic scent, the various scents of the woods encircling her. Was it the raptor-like calls of the Indian grey hornbill that flooded her with repose, or the lost song of the Yellow-throated bulbul?
This bulbul, endemic to the Deccan thorn scrub forest regions of southern India, is the oldest endemic species of peninsular India, which evolved around 11.3 to 5.3 million years ago.2 Deccan thorn scrub forests are characterised by some of the oldest geological formations (the hillocks of Chamundi Hill were formed some 0.8 billion years ago but are considered young in geological timeline!)1 made of granitic boulders and scrubby, short vegetation. These regions have fallen prey to large-scale destruction of soil for mining, making bricks, and quarrying for granite.3 Today, the Yellow-throated bulbul is a Vulnerable species under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means they face a high risk of extinction.4 Can we bring back the music that revived my great-grandmother? How do we bring ourselves to decimate lives that have survived over millennia and proffer nothing but beauty?
I imagine myself being revived by the bulbul’s song while I sit looking out of the window at the pearly white smooth blanket of snow during a Canadian winter. So much silence here; I miss the songs of the birds of Mysore. However, towards evening, when the row of quaint tiled houses and naked trees acquire a vermillion halo from the setting sun, I hear the hypnotizing honks of Canada geese flying over the suburbs, and the funereal hoots of a Mourning dove in the frozen garden. I set out for a walk, hoping to find more music. I reach a trail overlooking the river Thames. I watch a Mallard couple and Canada geese float peacefully. I notice a sweet song being issued in a loop, with no other sounds to mask it. I close my eyes and breathe in the music. Then I walk towards it, to find a lone Red-winged blackbird singing, perched on a bare tree. The bright red and yellow patch on its wings stands out starkly against the grey skies. A flock of Common grackle lands on the tree near it, observes its song without singing its own, and flies away in unison. Satisfied that there is renewing music within reach after all, I walk back home.
I know that I should not expect it even in my wildest dreams, but I do hope.
That one day, the music of Chamundi Hill will be restored. That I’ll be able to listen to the stories that once soothed my great-grandmother. To the bygone tales that cannot be narrated in our human language.