The last book I read by Bulbul Sharma was Shaya Tales, which left me enchanted, and envious. Her lyrical writing of her life in a small hamlet in the hills of Himachal Pradesh was my life - so how come I was reading it in polluted, grimy, overcrowded Delhi? Curiously, though she authored other books in between, the next Bulbul Sharma book I picked up is about this same city - the urban capital of India, and of pollution in the world. Yet, Sharma's Delhi is of another world - beautiful, full of colour, replete with bird song. If only we had the eyes, and ears for it. I wonder how many of Delhi's over 10 million citizens know that their city has about 450 distinct bird species; the second highest tally of any capital city, second only to Nairobi.
Also read: Book review | A new approach to leadership
I have glimpsed this Delhi, ever so often - but the one instance which has a special place in my heart is of a balmy March, scant years ago. I was stuck in traffic, seemingly for hours, on the crowded Barapullah road. It was one of those hot, cross mornings when I hated the metropolis, and was liberally cursing the gods and fate, when something changed. I felt as though the sun had softened. I looked up, to see a dark cloud shadow the sun. The cloud, moved glided, swooped. Of course, this was not a cloud, but copious numbers of rosy pastors. Those lovely pink and black starlings are winter visitors, pests and friends (they feed on crops, and also locusts) alike to farmers, and known for their spectacular flight.
A Great Indian Hornbill at Delhi zoo in New Delhi on Sunday, March 02, 2008. (Photo: Sunil Saxena/ HT)
As I read Sharma's description, "hundreds of rosy starlings are gliding in the sky, like waves of black ribbons" I am transported back to that morning, as my heart soared with the birds, far from the hideous din on the street. For me, the afternoon was now magical, memorable; for the rest of Delhi's road ragers, it was just another cantankerous day. It is sights and sounds such as these that sustain me here, and this is the Delhi that Sharma introduces us to. She does it so beautifully - marrying her acute powers of observation and years of bird watching experience to weave an ode to Natural Delhi as she rambles through the city's scrub forests, old gardens, shady avenues, monuments and bazars.
Grey Hornbills at Dusk by Bulbul Sharma; Aleph (Rs 295; PP171)
She does this through the cycle of the seasons, starting with the frigid winters, when thousands of migratory waterfowl and passerines descend on the city's now vanishing wetlands. Delhi in January is bitterly cold with mist and fog. You too wonder, as she does "if it is the same city where hot dusty winds will blow in four months time and the same weak and pale sun will blaze ferociously on every blade of grass and turn them white." But even the scorching summers in Sharma's book have their pleasures -such as the song of the koel, coppersmith and the green barbet, besides the cooing of doves. None of them are great songsters informs the author (surely the koel?) but they do carry the languid moods of the summer in their voices. The calls of the pied cuckoo herald the monsoon - and while the romance of the rains may now be washed away in clogged roads, the writing provokes nostalgia. The scent of wet earth, of upturned faces raising their eager eyes to the sky, and new ponds that incite not the fear of dengue but are replete with frogs, dragonflies and an assortment of birds. Even the hardest heart is charmed by Delhi's-all-too brief spring, when Lutyen's Delhi's myriad trees are in bloom. These include the silk-cotton or the semul which bursts into gorgeous coral and ochre flowers. I had no clue that the 'cotton' from the semul is stuffed into pillows. I would love one, Ms Sharma, do tell me where.
Also read: Shadaab's murder in Bollywood has many layers
The narrative weaves in folklore and passages from classic (and beloved) nature writers and poets, from Tagore (Gitanjali) to Kalidas to Corbett (My India). However, there is one glaring hitch. The writer waxes eloquent about Bharatpur, the wintering grounds of the Siberian crane. Sadly, the crane doesn't visit Bharatpur anymore and is locally extinct. Bulbul Sharma's writing on Delhi's flora and fauna is tinged with sorrow at how its many natural and birding areas have been destroyed. "I used to birdwatch where the bustling Saket Malls are now," she mourns. It's a lament echoed by nature lovers in cities across the country. And that's why, though Grey Hornbills at Dusk is about nature in a particular city, it's also one that everyone must read.
The writer is trustee, Bagh Foundation, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.