The onset of a new season usually stirs nostalgia, more so, monsoon. Besides the fun we associated with it — savouring hot pakoras and chocolate after drenching in the downpour, sailing paper boats in puddles and if it rained heavily, a break from school. My other fond memory is the monsoon orchestra — the guttural chorus of frogs as they serenaded their mates in the pools formed by the showers. The croaks, while not high on the melody scale, were welcome, as they meant the wet season, along with the song of the pied-crested cuckoo, in Hindi lyrically called the megh papeeha, the song bird of the clouds.
After the sunset as the din of the urban jungle dropped to an occasional sound, a different set of acoustics gradually set in: ‘tchak tchak charrk’. The sound of the house gecko, invariably glued to the roof — defying gravity — in the neighbourhood of the bulb. Small, slim, bulging eyes and a tail that had a life of its own even when cut off from the body. It was a ploy to distract a predator, and in this endeavour the tail would wriggle around, while our friend simply grew another one. My mum, who had a philosophy of ‘live and let live’, dismissed my fears and pronounced the creature harmless, and useful, as it ate flies, mosquitoes, etc. I now understand the wisdom of her words, and have adopted her philosophy.
The sounds of nature played through all seasons. Like bird songs, I recall the varied ditties that accompanied the day — the raucous call of the peafowl at dawn and as the sun rose, the soulful cry of the koel. Sparrows cheeped, babblers bickered, and the magpie robin, attired in a dapper black and white suit, sang its heart out. Cawing, cooing, cheeping, tweeting (I mean it the old fashioned, bird sort of way). Wonderful!
Insects fluttered, bees buzzed, squirrels chattered, but what moved me the most were those memorable nights when the jackals howled, the eerie yowl piercing the soul. It was primitive …the cry of wilderness in a concrete jungle. I marvelled at this ghost of the darkness, which I only heard, rarely saw. Where did it live? Who was it calling? How did it survive in this hostile, peopled world?
I can’t pinpoint when nature went silent, but it has. The only sounds that I hear in Gurugram is the blast of horns, the din of traffic and construction and the deafening sound of planes. Our world is getting noisier. The increase in noise follows the graph of human populations, only it grows faster, the decibels doubling every thirty years, by some estimates.
The cacophony of Homo sapiens has drowned nature’s magnificent symphony to a soft, apologetic murmur. Birds still sing, but the tremendous orchestra that drowned all other manner of sounds is an increasingly rare pleasure. I hear the occasional parakeet screech, welcome the odd squirrel into my garden, sparrows visit, attracted by bird seed and water I put out. Dawn breaks, silently, and dusk still falls, but minus the soft hoot of the owl, or the insistent call of the lapwing.
There are fewer trees for owls to tuck themselves in, no messy, undisturbed corners for the ground nesting lapwing to hatch its eggs. Most lawns in gated colonies and complexes are neatly trimmed, lined with ornamental trees and sprayed with pesticides that does no insect, bird, or us any good. Old trees with canopies and deep roots are not favoured as they mess with overhanging wires, and their roots interfere with underground pipes and cables.
Old bungalows with their nooks and crannies—prime real estate for birds—have been replaced with high rises and apartment complexes which offer little room for nesting.
As wild creatures retreat and extinctions occur—the earth has lost 60% of its wildlife since 1970 —nature falls silent in our backyards, in forests, in the oceans.
We are all witness to it, but we have chosen to close our eyes and ears to it.
(Though she lives in Gurugram, the writer is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017)