Monday, August 23, 2010

Twitter's Tale

God has a twisted sense of humour, because there is no other way you can explain my meeting with Twitter.

While returning from college, I either get off at the station nearest to my house and walk home through the park, or get off at the next station (if I have some work there) and walk home over the road. It can’t be both. It was never both until last Tuesday. On Tuesday, I alighted at the next station with a friend who had some work there, and as he was returning, I just boarded the returning train with him. “I’ll return to my station by train,” I thought. “The walk through the park is better.”

And while in the park I noticed an unusually shaped dark mass among the leaves under a tree. I could have easily trodden over the small thing if it had not uttered chirping sounds. When I looked properly, it was a baby bird. As I stooped to get a better look, a tiny beak opened into a yellow gaping mouth that could mean only one thing in any language.

“Food!” it said. I wondered what to do.

On one hand, if I left it there, it could be trampled by humans or mauled by dogs. That spot is very popular with dog walkers. On the other hand, taking it home would almost certainly mean removing it from nature forever. I could not be certain the parents were still feeding it, and surely they would not be able to lift it back into their nest. Death was certain for a bird on the ground. But I had no idea what to feed it, and so I called up a friend who looked up what to feed a baby robin on Google. Then I carried the little creature back home in my hand, King-Kong style.

Feeding it was not easy. While I boiled an egg and thawed some frozen fish, the chick decided to explore the kitchen on foot. A little later, I was mashing the hot boiled egg and boiled fish with cold milk and raisins soaked in water and desperately trying to bring everything to room temperature (that is more variety of food than I eat in one meal). Finally I placed the bird in a tissue-lined deep Tupperware container that it could not jump out of and tried to feed it. But it would not open its mouth for me. After some time I gave up and went upstairs. I updated my Facebook profile with all this news and was instantly bombarded with suggestions. None of that was needed, though, because the bird decided to eat whatever I offered once hunger defeated fear at dinnertime.

A friend said one of her professors keeps abandoned birds and she would ask him to take this one. I decided to take it to the school the next day to hand it over. And so, as I packed my own lunch, I packed a tiny lunchbox with the bird’s food. I kept the bird on the window of my bedroom at night and went to sleep.

When I woke up with frantic chirping in my room, it was 5:45 by my watch and darkness was just fading. I was probably being told to fetch the early worms, but I just cursed the bird under my breath and tried to sleep until my alarm went off at 7:00. Then I got up, got ready for school, fed the bird, fed myself and just as I was about to leave, the friend called to let me know that the professor was out of town. So I was back to my earlier dilemma.

I had done some reading about birds the previous night and a website suggested leaving baby birds in trees or makeshift nests near their original nest often caused the parents to resume feeding them. However, the sooner it was done after rescuing the bird, the better. So I put the chick in a “nest” that I made out of a cardboard box lined with foam and tissue, and put it in a tree near where I had found it. After I went to school I updated this on my Facebook profile.

Over the next few hours, I was berated, booed and criticized by friends on Facebook and Gtalk who accused me of “writing a certain death sentence” for the bird, and also told me what a more compassionate person (such as Gerald Durrell) would have done. By late afternoon I was feeling so guilty and overcome with visions of the chick being devoured by hawks that I left for home early to check on the bird. I could see the box from afar where I had left it, but when I came near and peeked into it, it was empty.

Something told me the chick was alive. So a thorough search ensued which first revealed the original nest on a branch just out of my reach, and then revealed my chick in the grass about 100 yards from the tree I left it on. As I reached for it, it opened its mouth and asked for food. I couldn’t tell whether the parents had fed it, so I put it back in the box and brought it home. As the tired bird fell asleep after a hearty meal, I put a net over the face of the box and considered my options. But before that I gave it a name. Since I was not sure about its gender, I decided to call it Twitter.

I was to realize over the next few days that giving something a name is a sure-shot way of falling in love with it.

Over the next three days I tried various methods to get rid of Twitter. I took him to the university police, the SPCA and some other humane society. Everybody kept redirecting me to somebody else, and finally one of them gave me an address five miles away and told me to drop off my bird there. Everyone also made it amply clear that they primarily handled stray cats and dogs and it was my fault that I had picked up a bird. I wasn’t sure whether they would feed Twitter the way I was doing, or feed him to one of their stray cats. So I decided to stick around with him until the professor returned. By this time, I was an expert in reading Twitter’s gestures and Tweets. My friends jokingly called him my child and tried to convince me to keep him. But I had my objections – I spend the whole day at the university. I go off to Edison on weekends. I go to India for a month every winter. So keeping him permanently was out of the question – Twitter would have to be given away. But before that, I wanted to try one last experiment.

On early Saturday morning, I took Twitter to the park with to put him back in his original nest. I had not done it yet because I was afraid of scaring the other chicks that I had seen there. Now as I climbed on a chair and put Twitter into his nest, I realized just how twisted God’s sense of humour is.

The nest was empty. No sign of the two chicks that I had seen the day before.

As Twitter sat in his nest, I sat a little distance away and kept watch. Gradually he got bored and came out onto the branch, before jumping down and landing softly onto the grass below. I realized the other chicks couldn’t have learnt to fly either, and would surely be around if they were alive. Over the next three hours, Twitter roamed around in the grass mostly alone. The adult robins approached him a couple of times but they maintained their distance. There was no sign of the other chicks, and I was sure they had been eaten by predators.

Wikipedia says robin chicks have a 25% survival rate in the wild. By a strange quirk of fate, Twitter was the first one to fall out of the nest, and he was the only one alive.

At the end of three hours I decided to take him home. He seemed relieved to see me and remained perched on my finger as I walked home. I also shot this video of one of his first attempts at flight.

I had to leave him at home for a few hours on Saturday evening and Sunday morning as I went shopping. Every time I re-entered the house, I was greeted by his joyous tweets. Everything seemed to be going nicely. But all stories do not have a happy ending.

Last night as I was about to take him downstairs for dinner, he fluttered out of my hand and landed on my chair with a thud, before fluttering down to the floor. This did not seem alarming at the time, because this was usual behaviour. However, that thud must have been different, because he was not the same anymore. I could feel he was in pain, and hardly ate anything. He didn’t tweet much and just lowered his head and slept in his box. I knew what was coming. However, being prepared did not prevent me from crying when I woke up in the morning to find that Twitter had not chirped at daybreak, and was sitting still and limp in his box. He was still alive when I picked him up, but very relaxed – not his usual clawing and fluttering self. He did not ask for food, nor ate anything when offered, and within fifteen minutes, he slowly lay down, curled up, and breathed his last as I caressed his little head and neck. I could tell the precise moment when he died as my mother consoled me over phone and told me not to feel guilty for his fall the previous night.

How does one explain these six days? Was it just coincidence or destiny? Being a Hindu, I would probably like to believe that we had shared some bond in a previous birth, or will do so in some future one. Although I was sad as I buried him in the garden, I knew what happened was the best thing that could have happened to him. Twitter was a wild bird. I would not have liked to see that free creature spend his life behind bars. I don’t know for sure, but I would like to believe that he has gone to a place where he can be free. At least until God decides to play a little cruel joke on someone else.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Two Years in America

Yesterday I went to the airport with a couple of friends to pick up three new students who arrived from India. As I stood waiting for the delayed Jet airways flight with a sheet of paper announcing the name of my university, I remembered that I arrived in a similar fashion exactly two years ago.

I landed in the US on 13th August 2008. True, my arrival was very different from this – I arrived with my cousin sister-in-law and my cousin brother took me to his home. I didn’t have to worry about food, money, phone or any other basic needs for the first few days. Yet, something about these girls reminded me of my first day in this country. The apprehensive glance, the genuine wonder at seeing a lot of things, the evident disappointment on seeing some other things (Newark and Harrison are not among the cleanest and best-looking places in the US), the inability to understand any English spoken by a non-Indian, the too-tired-to-care body language and the melancholy of homesickness hidden ineffectively under their beaming faces – everything indicated to a state of mind that I recognized very well. I had been through it two years ago.

So how was “America” different from my expectations? I had written about some of it back then, but one does not realize everything in the first month. So here I’ll discuss a few more things that surprised me during these two years.

As soon as I came, I was surprised with the lack of people on the streets – especially in the residential areas. I wrote about that earlier. What I did not realize at the time is that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States, and New York City has the highest population. So if I felt these places wore a deserted look, then places like Ithaca, some places in upstate New York en route Niagara and almost everything we saw between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon felt like out of this planet. In this country, you can drive miles without ever coming across a pedestrian. Although I like crowds sometimes, this lack of people along large stretches of highways does create a very soothing view of the countryside which in India would have been dotted with slums, huts and roadside shops.

Americans produce an unbelievable amount of trash. Nobody ever recycles anything that can be thrown away. Whether they are plastic and glass jars, or fully useable furniture and appliances, everything gets thrown away. Tennis players don’t fetch balls that they hit outside the court. Golfers don’t look for balls that don’t land where they intended them to. People don’t climb the stairs if there’s an elevator. Some people have forgotten how to walk. The amount of damage they are doing to the environment is incalculable. But this will not be evident if you see the cities here. New York, one of the largest cities in the world, has an amazingly clear air. The sky is pristine blue and the visibility is about ten miles in clear weather (in Kolkata it is never more than two). Also, in spite of being one of the most light-polluted cities in the world, more stars are visible from New York than from Kolkata (a city that is mostly dark). While this difference probably has a complex explanation involving types of car engines and the quality of fuel used, one thing that is immediately evident is the presence of large parks inside the cities. When I say parks, I don’t mean dusty patches of ground with a swing and a slide, but several hundred acres of wooded area with lakes and wildlife. Once you enter Central Park in New York, only the distant skyline serves as a reminder that you are still in Manhattan. When the people of Kolkata protest against the court’s protection of the Maidan, they fail to realize that they are trying to destroy the city’s only chance of survival. Company Garden in Allahabad is almost exactly like an American park – large and wooded with small areas for gardens, monuments and playgrounds. I’m sure some other Indian cities have such parks too, but we need more of these in our country.

Another thing that I have come to realize about this country in these two years is the fact that the whole country is very much homogenized. You may go to Boston or to Las Vegas and the roads and buildings will look exactly the same despite the fact that the weather is very different in these two places. Having similar houses everywhere may look “neat” but it actually results in tremendous amounts of energy wastage for artificial heating and cooling. But then, energy is cheap here. Petrol is cheaper than water and Coke.

Americans are a strange people. Men have no problem showering naked together in a common bathroom at the gym, yet they will hesitate to sit next to strangers on a train. While a three-seater bench on a Kolkata local train always has four people on it, a three-seater on a New York train will usually have two. People will actually prefer standing to occupying that empty seat, and I have earned quite a few stares by squeezing into empty spots between strangers.

In fact, almost all the differences between the US and India can be traced back to a single factor, and that is population. I realized that soon after coming here, and I will say the same thing now after analyzing this country for two years. What are India’s problems? Pollution? Dirt? Corruption? Rudeness? Dishonesty? Indiscipline? Poverty? Illiteracy? Everything would have gone away (or at least reduced to the level of the US) automatically if the population were to reduce to 10% of the current value. It is not feasible to smile at strangers and say “Hi, how are you doing?” when you meet five hundred of them between your home and the bus stop. It is not rudeness, it is just common sense.

I did not tell these things to the new students. I will let them figure out these things by themselves. I am happy to see that many people of my generation seem to be able to look beyond the outward glitter and see this country for what it is – both good and bad. Many of these people are planning to return to India and make a difference there – something that people who came a few decades earlier did not do. But all that comes later. For the first few months, it is a time for unfeigned wonder: the wonder of seeing skyscrapers, visiting world famous places, looking at things that one has only read about. That does not mean the seeing stops after the first few months, but the enjoyment of seeing things for the first time gradually fades away.

I enjoyed it immensely. Now it is their turn. I will, in the meantime, watch their reactions and relive my memories.