I had come down from Delhi to Dehradun, the small town in the foothills where my family lives, in a daze. Now, strangely enough, the exigencies of the lockdown helped me cope with ma’s absence: procuring two months’ worth of medication for my bewildered father in case the lockdown became too restrictive, paying bills digitally for my aunt, or explaining to my ageing uncles that hand sanitisation was not preventive in nature. It felt like the home of my childhood was itself growing old and vulnerable, losing its immunity.
The one spot of undeniable life and thriving beauty in the house was my mother’s favourite bottlebrush tree; she used to spend hours looking at the squirrels and birds it sheltered. Periodically, in the middle of my other life in Delhi, I used to get fuzzy photos of birds from her, with the demand that I identify them. ‘I know we call it “ghughuti” here, but what is it called in English?’ she would ask, sending me a lively grey blob for which her phone camera was no match.
I found myself sitting nearly all day, day after day, under the bottlebrush, looking at her birds and squirrels, yearning to become a part of the tree’s ecosystem. Flowers shed and got entangled in my hair; bees bumped into me, a bit drunk on the nectar, but did not sting; and squirrels came ever closer. I began to revel in an anthropocentric glow of being accepted by this world. Soon, just like ma, I was photographing birds and sending the phone-camera offerings to my naturalist friends for identification.
My harassed friends promptly sent me a digital version of their Bible: Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I now evolved into a self-important pair of binoculars-on-legs who kept telling the family that she couldn’t quite come in for lunch yet. Between Google image recognition and the e-book, I started making sense of calls and songs, vents and wattles.
It was as if a new planet started materialising all around me, with its own sharply defined forms, colours, shapes and sounds. Many more birds began to appear than had in my older non-avian life. My vocabulary expanded from ‘parrot’ to ‘rose-ringed parakeets’ (who exhibited a mad passion for eating the bottlebrush flowers), and from ‘bulbul’ to ‘red-vented bulbul’ and ‘Himalayan bulbul’. I began to recognise the multifarious calls of the Oriental magpie robin. The day I correctly identified a chestnut-tailed starling without my friends’ help, I grew wings of my own. And when I – perfectly aware of epic animal migrations – realised that this starling had flown in from the Malabar coast in south India, I started crying with some inexpressible feeling.
Images of another kind of migration, and other kinds of tears, came to me everyday. Left stranded by the sudden lockdown without savings or support systems, and with transportation banned, daily wage earners and labourers in cities now set off with their families and meagre belongings to walk back home, sometimes as much as 500 to 1,000 kms away. In Delhi, my friends got busy putting together food packets and dry rations for the poor. I would compose a fund-raising appeal describing the distress of those stranded and suddenly find myself going blank. Then, I’d look up to hear the summer-time Indian cuckoo, called ‘kafal pako’ in the hills, her local name announcing that ‘the kafal berry has ripened’.
Kafal pako was one of the many common birds that I had known since childhood but only by their local names. Our ‘goriayya’ was, of course, the sparrow, whose vanishing from so many cities around the world – including Delhi, my home for 30 years – still creates angst in nearly everyone I know. The ‘saat saheliya’ (‘seven friends’), so named for they are seen in noisy large groups, now revealed themselves as jungle babblers. The ‘ghughuti’ – whose name my grandmother invoked when she swung me on her knees saying ‘Ghughuti, ghughuti, what are you eating? Sweet milk and rice!’ – turned out to be the spotted dove. (I looked up skywards and told mumma so.) The beloved ‘koel’ was the Asian koel, whose song full of yearning reminds us north Indians of hot afternoons with precious mango juice running down our young chins. The ‘papeeha’, the hawk-cuckoo, whose insistently ascending call is associated with a longing for the beloved in traditional Indian songs, is in English given the name: brainfever bird.
News features tell me that all over the world people have been turning to bird-watching during the lockdown. I feel a oneness with them all in our common delight of discovery, our need for solace, our gratitude and grief. Every day I call my partner in Delhi brimming with newly-gleaned knowledge. Inevitably, he is on his solitary walk in his own neighbourhood park. We are 250 kilometres apart. Delhi has sealed its borders and I don’t know when I can return. Sound being the one sensory medium available to us, we pour in what we can in these conversations. Our calls are full of babbling, chirping and twittering. He finds that many more kingfishers, hornbills, barbets, and peacocks surround him now.
Nearly every day, as I hear his words, I can also hear the call of the koel in my house through one ear. And the call of the one in his park through the other.
– Juhi Saklani
The Meat Queue
By all accounts, the monument’s sculptor, Otakar Švec, was no admirer of the Soviet project. After receiving an invitation from the authorities to enter the design competition, however, he had done so out of fear. Refuse the regime, in those times, and you might never work again. Švec was more famous for works of futurism during the 1920s than this puffed-up socialist realism, and he had little intention of winning. Assuming that victory would be reserved for a communist party acolyte, it was much to his surprise that his work was chosen.
The artist would not live to see the monument finished. His personal life fell apart and, depressed at being forced to dedicate his life to a work he never intended to create, Švec killed himself shortly before its official unveiling in 1955. Stalin too died before the monument was finished, and de-Stalinisation began shortly after. The reluctant artist’s tragic creation was destroyed a mere seven years after it was unveiled.
During its short life, the statue became a focus of typical Czech dark humour. Locals said that when the statue was demolished, the dictator’s enormous head rolled down the hill, ending up in the Vltava river. Comprised of a line of people, it became known colloquially as “The Meat Queue” (fronta na maso), in reference to the ongoing food shortages. At that time, if you didn’t have family in the countryside who could smuggle meat to you, you would have to queue for hours to get some. Arrive later than 3am, however, and you were likely to leave with an empty basket. To this day, Czechs refer to a long queue as being ‘like for the meat’ (jako na maso) or ‘like for the bananas’ (jako na banány).
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, from the 1950s onwards, the story being spun of capitalism was quite the opposite. The age of mass consumption had arrived, with goods stacked high in any colour you could desire. That seductive story has endured, albeit through the occasional crisis, but has once again teetered in recent months.
I watched from afar, as panic buying took hold in the United States, England, Australia and other parts of the world. Gaps began to appear on supermarket shelves. Pure animal fear set in, hair being torn out in brawls over toilet paper, hospitals pilfered of basic hygiene products. Perhaps because a collective memory of those meat queues lives on, however, the Czechs around me stayed relatively stoic.
All along, beneath the shining veneer of plenty, capitalism has been founded on scarcity, hoarding and, when push comes to shove, a fight to the death. While the overnight queues for some goods, such as iPhones, started long ago, it was only a matter of time before this became more generalised.
Is there much of a difference between the socialist ‘meat queue’ of 65 years ago and the queues for food banks being seen across ‘the West’ today, as millions are thrown out of work? The spell of false choices was cast long ago. No matter the ideology, no matter the ‘ism’, systems dependent on a bubble of fossil fuels take parallel trajectories, asking the impossible of the earth. The West has long come to resemble the USSR: Land is stripped from communities, concentrated into enormous parcels, and left devoid of nature. Huge centralised warehouses, operated by power-mad oligarchs, pock-mark the landscape. Bureaucracies of surveillance, of a complexity which Stalin could only dream, creep into place. The worker is reduced to an expendable cog.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union shattered, a 23-metre-high metronome, painted red, was erected on the exact site where Stalin’s Meat Queue once stood. What is it keeping time for? Many saw it as measuring the new era: the arrival of democracy, the victory of capitalism. This time-keeper would mark the end of history.
The metronome didn’t take long to stop ticking, however, and the locals now have another folly to joke about. The last time I went there, it remained still.
– Tom Smith