Updated: October 8, 2012 23:47 IST

Notes and sketches of a naturalist

Sarath Champati
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Chenai: 29/06/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: of Birds and Birdssong. Author: Shanthi and Aahish Chandola, foreword by Zafar Futehally M. Krishnan.
Chenai: 29/06/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: of Birds and Birdssong. Author: Shanthi and Aahish Chandola, foreword by Zafar Futehally M. Krishnan.

M. Krishnan shines as an extraordinary naturalist and an inimitable writer in an exquisite collection of his articles, ‘Of Birds and Birdsong’. Shanti and Ashish Chandola have done a splendid job of editing and selecting these essays and one can clearly see that this is their ‘labour of love’; to have pored through an ocean of work of such a prolific writer like M. Krishnan (their detailed end-notes is a reflection of this labour).

Zafar Futehally, himself such a towering naturalist and a gifted writer, fittingly wrote the ‘Foreword’ to this lovely book, which takes the reader though the myriad world of birds and their behaviour. A quote from Zafar Futehally sums up this book beautifully: “every piece in this collection has something original even for the seasoned naturalist and even his (Krishnan’s) description of common events holds your interest because of his writing”.


As a naturalist with a special interest and fascination for birds, I thoroughly enjoyed poring through this gem of a book and savoured every word! The book has been divided thoughtfully into eight sections. The first one, ‘Those were the Days’, has Krishnan’s early ‘reflections on bird life’, written during mid-1940’s and 50’s. Krishnan’s acerbic humour shines throughout the book. One instance is his piece, ‘The poor man’s dog’, in this section, in which he lampoons the middle class’s lack of time or patience for keeping pets. He writes, “The middle class, of course, can never afford it (to keep pets), for in addition to the constant pursuit of living, such folk are hopelessly preoccupied with keeping up appearances — but some day I hope to break clear of the traditions of my class and go in for a Partridge’.

In the same section, ‘Seen through a carriage window’ he writes about the ‘tele-fauna’, one can watch as the train chugs along. He writes, “One can convert an otherwise tedious journey into a pleasant trip by watching out for friendly little birds outside. For wherever the railroad goes the telegraph wires follow-interminable perches, specially designed for their (birds) convenience”.

In the section, ‘Splendour in the wild’, Krishnan admires some birds with spectacular plumage and their behaviour. In a piece ‘Sea Eagle behaviour’ (‘The Sea Kings Eyrie’), he writes, “there was a patrician lack of haste about the feeding and flight of these eagles that was impressive; who would believe that it is the same birds that flogged the air above the sea with untiring wings and chased each other in giddy flight, clamouring raucously all the time, earlier in the year!”

‘Fond recollections’, is a collection of everyday encounters with ordinary birds and this is where Krishnan revels the most in his compelling descriptions, combining his observation skills and his mastery over the English language. He writes about house-crows, as he throws some ‘un-palatable chaklis’ at them, “One crow was far cleverer at the game than the rest: its interception of the parabolic trajectory of the morsels was sure and easy”.

He takes a dig at ‘scientific-minded’ people who mock at his sentimentality, “… and if science is the elimination of all feeling and perception and an un-willingness to believe what is not printed in a book, then I have no use for it”. (Talking about Pied Bush Chats in a piece by the same name, ‘Fond Recollections’).

Krishnan’s descriptions of some of the urban birds (‘Birdlife in a City’) are fascinating. Writing about the Hoopoe, “there are many birds with highly emotional tails, but here it is the head that wears the crown that is uneasy. The folding and unfolding of the volatile crest express the entire emotional range of the bird, and each passing mood”. About the Crow Pheasant, he writes, “The Crow-Pheasant is an unhappily named bird, for it is neither crow nor pheasant but a non-parasitic cuckoo, the sort of cuckoo that takes posterity seriously and builds a nest instead of foisting its eggs on others”.

In a delightful piece, ‘March Roller’, Krishnan’s account of the Roller is simply divine! He writes, “For the Roller is sedentary bird at other times, respectable, even gentlemanly in a lazy sort of a way. Then, all at once it sheds its reserve and becomes a thing demented. Love is a powerful influence; even in the highest animals it has been known to induce a sudden, abandoned silliness”.

Writing about one of my personal favourite birds, the Green Bee-eater, “The Bee-eater had no difficulty at all in catching its speeding quarry. It sailed out to meet the ill-fated dragonfly at a particular point in its headlong flight, as if by punctilious appointment, plucked it casually from the air and returned to its perch”.

Illustrated with Krishnan’s quaint black and white sketches, superbly reproduced by Soumen Chakravorty, this is a masterpiece of great nature writing, natural history, and wit at its best, by one of India’s greatest naturalists ever. This book is a must read for anybody who is a nature enthusiast or who simply loves prose and is surely a collector’s delight!

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