A robin on a branch in an apple tree in an English garden.(Getty Images)
A robin on a branch in an apple tree in an English garden.(Getty Images)

Unlock Diaries: The robin on my apple tree by Moin Mir

A medieval text and a little orange-breasted robin teach the author the meaningful ways of existence he intends to embrace in a newly unlocked world
Hindustan Times | By Moin Mir
UPDATED ON JUN 02, 2020 11:03 AM IST

In 12th century Andalusia, Spain, as the warm Solano breeze lost itself in olive groves, the polymath Ibn Tufyal finished the first philosophical novel titled Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. The novel had a unique story line. The main character is an infant Hayy, the only human on a desolate island. Hayy is brought up to boyhood by a gazelle until the beautiful animal dies. In order to survive in complete isolation Hayy relies on the skills and the knowledge the gazelle had taught him. He grows into adulthood on the uninhabited island learning about and respecting nature. His rationale teaches him that his tiny island only survives because of the right balance -- rain brings life, the sun brings warmth, and the earth grows food. He knows he must not disturb the balance; take only as much as is needed. His rationale also establishes the existence of a single cause that created everything -- God. A deeply-thinking Hayy, who had by now, through reason, established that he was different from all creatures on the island, wants to experience a connection with the Creator and so he retires to a cave to meditate. His mystical experiences create a new dimension of compassion within him and he emerges blazing with enlightenment. Ibn Tufayl emphasises that Hayy’s enlightenment was achieved through solitary contemplation. Hayy later writes down the values of life he had learnt and, through a chance encounter with another marooned human, hopes to spread his word to mankind. But he fails to convince his own species about the beauty of balance, the merits of rationale, spirituality, and compassion for all. Disappointed, he returns to his cave to see out his last days. In time, Ibn Tufayl’s powerful novel became a model for Robinson Crusoe.

Moin Mir (Courtesy the author)
Moin Mir (Courtesy the author)

Nine hundred years later, mankind was forced into isolated existence. I had just read a synopsis of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan as part of the research for my next book when London went into lockdown. Debates raged on whether Britain had done too little, too late, whether China had to be taught a lesson, and on how rioting could break out in the streets at any given moment. Days became weeks and the trepidation within me grew as the number of Covid cases in London soared. There were nights when I slept uneasily. I realised I had to set up a routine to keep myself sane and happy. That’s when I saw him, the one who would become a source of joy and knowledge. A tiny orange-breasted robin flew into my kitchen garden and sat on a branch of the apple tree. He flew in every morning at 11am dug the soil around the tree looking for worms, then flew to a branch and rested on it. As weeks of isolation turned into months, I watched him each day and he became used to my presence. Some days he met with success flicking an earthworm into his beak. Other days, he simply enjoyed the shade of the lush green leaves. One day, Robin, as I have come to address him (and have even come to win a response), dug hard in the soil. I had just placed a bowl of water for him at the base of the apple tree when he unearthed two wild nuts. He devoured one, then curiously looked at the other. In seconds he carried it off into a bay tree at the corner of my garden. Curious, I rushed to see what he was up to.

Rs 495, Roli Books
Rs 495, Roli Books

High up in the branches was a little nest of sparrows and Robin had dropped in with a little gift -- the other nut. Robin and the sparrow had competed for food in my garden but now that the sparrow had set up a home, Robin was exhibiting compassion to his competitor. The next day, I spread out some nuts. He didn’t take even one. It was apparent I had overwhelmed him with excess. A nut or a worm a day, that’s all he wanted from mother earth. They say robins love nesting on apple trees that stand opposite each other. With “Unlockdown” approaching, the first thing I will do is rush to the plant centre and buy a mid-sized apple tree. I have picked the spot where I will plant it. In time, I hope my friend will build a home on its branches. I’m aware that with life slowly trudging back to normal I might not see him every morning and his life lessons will be missed. As I will engage with the ruthless commercial world that awaits me outside my doors, I take comfort from hope that in my kitchen garden, a lifelong friend might alter his timings of flight and hunt to teach me new meaningful ways of existence. Ibn Tufayl, you listening?

Moin Mir is a London-based writer. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed non-fiction book, ‘Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince’, which was also published in Britain as ‘The Prince who beat the Empire’.

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