1. Of a Place
I am an early bird, who spends several minutes lying in bed after waking up, just to listen. To listen to the passing of the communication baton from insects stridulating and frogs croaking the night to, the songs of different birds, come dawn. One fades out, while the other fades in, in a masterful orchestration by the Divine conductor. Chirps, whistles, chatter, shrieks, twitter, songs, alarms, this beautiful medley that comes together in that first flush of the morning, is called the dawn chorus. Many species are up in this magic hour when the sun is just rising, but it’s not yet bright enough to forage. So, what do you do? You sing. Soon, other bird species also wake up, and they too sing, and voilà, there’s a chorus.
Are you wondering about the real purpose, as singing expels a lot of energy? It is to attract potential mates, but more than that, it is each species of bird making it loud and clear that this is their habitat, that they are of that place, which could be a tree, a specific canopy, or a few metres or several hundred acres. In the crisp thin morning air, when sound travels far, the message is clear.
Martin Shaw, the mythic storyteller offers, ‘belonging is not as much about being from a place, but of a place’.
I do have the memory of being of a place, not just from a place. In the quiet, simple, lower middle class community in the HMT factory quarters in Bangalore, I woke up every week day and went to one of the best schools in that area, which my father stretched his salaries to put us into. I bloomed and expanded, as the school fed and nourished me. Leader of the class, first in exams, prizes in extracurricular activities, dancing, playing sports, that joy on my parents’ face, the joy on my face. And after school hours, it was about chasing butterflies with friends in the neighbourhood; plucking flowers in their gardens to be strung together by mothers in our building to worship the innumerable Hindu gods and goddesses; losing track of time playing local games like lagori, goli, hide & seek, swing, making cork balls with seeds, and then of course the all mighty Indian game of cricket. Soon it was late evening of few bruises, some arguments, much laughter, and many friendships, till the pleasant calls from the window to return home, changed into a stern pitch. We knew then, we had to drop everything, and run home, so we would be allowed to do it all again.
In this defined habitat between school, home and the vast expanse of empty space where we played, I chirped, whistled, twittered, and sung. I was of the place.
2. Marking Territory
‘This huge dump of dung pile here, is of the Nilgai, the largest Asian antelope, marking their territory’ said the naturalist, pointing to the rather elaborate large pile of poop. In a matter of one day on a jungle safari, we had spotted several different signs – the dung pile of Nilgai, the scraping and rubbing on trees by sloth bears, urine spraying on trees by tigers, scratch marks on the trees by the male sambar deer using his antlers, each a clear sign post of territorial protection by these species. Smell, sight, sound, and sometimes a combination of sensory signals, defending their resources, their offspring, their homes, themselves. Area or territory of defence, just enough to survive and thrive, to develop and grow, for defending space involves energy, time and risk of injury.
I learnt early on to mark my territory. I didn’t wish to belong, neither to the highly pious religious Hindu practices, nor to its customs, its rituals, and the expectations that came with it. Saying `yes’ to this as a teenager, I realised, was dangerous for my growth. `In our tradition, girls have long hair, why do you constantly chop off that lovely hair,’ my father argued, unable to comprehend my new look. I kept my hair real short, inch by inch, cleverly cut off when I accompanied my mother to the salon, until it reached the length I knew was sufficient to send out the signal that I am different, from the many women in our conservative family and neighbourhood. I wore pants, western clothes, sleeveless tops, skirts that showed my legs, all of which wasn’t welcome in my Brahmin middle class family. `Why can’t you wear traditional clothes on festival days at least?’. No, I wouldn’t. `We have to go to the temple this evening’. `No Appa, I will go to the temple, when I wish to see God, not because it is a festival. I have my own relationship with God’. Any form of adherence would send out a signal that I would follow the path which women were `expected’ to take in our society. I didn’t want that for myself. My mother understood. Every now and then, she was willing to bear a short outburst from my father, about how his daughter isn’t adhering to any of the practiced customs. But then, my father loved my mother way too much, and loved us way too much, and I smartly used that to nudge myself into new ways of being, different from what my gender was `allowed to’ in most middle-class Hindu Indian families. The way I dressed, spoke, behaved, socialised, my sensory signals, my territorial boundaries were getting established, not just within the family, but within the community.
3. I am not an Endemic Species
Within minutes of arriving in Tanjung Putting Reserve, Indonesia, and getting into the boat to go downstream surrounded by the lush green rainforest of Borneo, I had spotted one of our closest ancestors, up in the canopy, bringing all of us in the boat into a pin-drop silence. The Bornean Orangutan. Catching the afternoon light on his orange-brown hair, the young male with broad shoulders, hanging on a high canopy, looked stunning. Shy as these creatures are, within a couple of minutes, he vanished into the thick canopy. We were about twelve of us on the boat for a week-long study of the Orangutans, with the highly esteemed Dr. Birute Galdikas, also referred to as one of Professor Louis Leakey’s three angels, or Trimates, the remaining two being Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees, and Dian Fossey, the gorillas. Before Dr. Galdikas, hardly had anyone studied Orangutans in their habitat, and decades later, she is still among the pioneer advocates of their conservation. In her lifetime of over forty years spent in Borneo, she shared how a really healthy population of Orangutans, had now come to the brink of extinction. Orangutans are only found in the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, of Indonesia. These solitary creatures, spend their entire lives in the canopies of the primary and secondary forests, as their main diet consists of fruits and leaves gathered from these trees. This is also the school and playground for the next generation, the baby orangutans, as they are highly dependent on their mothers for the first seven years of their life, travelling on her back, learning how to gather the right food, and survive the canopies. Alas, the sharp decline in their habitat due to extensive development of palm oil plantations, illegal logging which includes shooting of mother orangutans to ease down bringing of trees that leaves several young ones orphaned, has critically endangered the numbers of our closest relatives. This study tour opened me up to the fragility and vulnerability of being endemic, where one’s survival and growth is dependent on a limited area, and the offspring’s survival, to a long period of nurturing by the mother.
I lost my mother, young. To an accident, by a reckless bus driver. She was the backbone of laughter, adventure, dreams and joy, of our family. For six years thereafter, I had to confine myself to my city of birth, Bangalore, to care for my father. I had to learn how to care for him, harnessing the memories of my mother, in how she created space for everyone, over her dreams, so effortlessly. I also had nurtured big dreams, and being limited to Bangalore post my graduation wasn’t a part of the plan. But my mother had shown me what it means to adapt, prioritise, and still find my niche, no matter where I am. For now, belonging to a place was about holding space for the threatened, the fragility and vulnerability of my father. For those six years, Ogilvy, the advertising company I joined, became my canopy, my primary forest of work. I learnt to make films, to collaborate, direct, produce, build relationships, fail in relationships, go wider, as wide as I could within this island. And in staying put, make my father a wee bit stronger, physically and emotionally. All of this, even as my heart knew, I am a creature of migration. I am not an endemic species, and this is temporary, I told myself. This fragility, and vulnerability, would pass. So, it did. I would soon meet the man, who was as migratory in behaviour as me. We wouldn’t be confined.
4. Time, Tide & Migration Wait For None
`Movement is one of the ten great `inventions’ of evolution’
– Nick Lane, Biochemist & Writer
Come November, Greater and Lesser Flamingos arrive in thousands to the wetlands, the mudflats of Mumbai. To breed, to feed, to expand. As the months pass, the whole visual sight turns from white to pink, just as they each do, feeding on the rich algae and shrimp that metabolises the carotenoid pigments. Their promptness of arrival and departure and their attention to fulfilling the purpose of their travel, leaves me mesmerised, each season. Migration is a movement of organisms, which can range from a few metres to a vast portion of the earth’s surface. In most migrations, whether through flying, swimming, walking or drifting, the individual moves out of the current habitat, to a new one, to find the resources necessary for their survival and growth. We see both round-trips and one-way migrations. The amount of energy required, the precision in navigation, the physiological adjustments, the instinctual need to move, these are broadly the inherent characteristics. Time, tide, and migration wait for none.
And so, time passed, tides turned, and migrate I did.
Married, my husband and I moved to Mumbai, to expand, ourselves, each other, and our work. We became of the Maximum city, and from here, began to access the world. Flying, swimming, walking, drifting, into the vast portion of the earth’s surface, to several towns, countries, continents, making films as a part of my work, travelling for holidays, discovering, exploring, learning, making mistakes, connecting to the abundant natural world of jungles, oceans, to local cultures. The outer fed the inner. The inner when challenged-expanded, when expanded– was challenged. My father in Bangalore, moved from strength to weakness, weakness to weakness, with his health. Visiting home filled me with both love and sadness. My partner and I, were also going through our own movement, from strength to weakness, weakness to strength, in our relationship. The broad characteristics of movement – highs and lows, obstacles and gifts, spontaneity and surrender.
5. Being Claimed – To go Deep, not Wide
The earthworm works with the earth. She is from the earth, but she is also of it. Her area of work isn’t wide, it is deep. I see her move through the soil in my garden, creating pathways for air and light to pass through, gently loosening the soil as she does that. She may know tired, and she may understand boredom, but she seems to befriend both, through love and discipline. Martin Shaw, the mythic storyteller brings to attention, `a stretch of earth you have not claimed, but which has claimed you.’ It is true of the earthworm. No matter how narrow her territory, her habitat, she has become of it, until she has been claimed by it. Until neither looks separate. A beholding.
I lost my father in 2013. I lost my mother again, when I lost my father.
The soil within crumbled. I had held it all, hard and tight. I had taught myself how to, for my father. For he had taught me much in his lifetime. In his passing, I once again started the journey of belonging, to the new earth within me and outside of me. Like the earthworm, digging, listening, loosening, learning to behold who I am, how I am, and where I am. Allowing my habitat within to claim me, the radius of which is both small and vast. And through this beholding of myself, hoping to be claimed by the stretch of earth around me. More so, to any narrow stretch of earth. Like the earthworm, in this phase of my life, I am being called to go deep, not wide.
Right now, this is my way of belonging.
6. Ways Of Belonging
I invite you into a reflection through the following prompts.
If you wish to, my offering is that you spend about fifteen-twenty minutes free writing on the page.
Let your heart guide you. Do not scratch out any words, do not over think, let your pen be guided from your within.
I offer the prompts through these questions:
- Is dawn chorus a sign of belonging to a place?
- Is marking a territory a sign of belonging to a place?
- Is being endemic, or staying in a limited habitat, a sign of belonging to a place?
- Is movement, migration, the joy of a new place for short periods, a sign of belonging to a place?
- Is the capacity to behold our inner selves, by going deep, and through that, allowing the place around to claim us, a sign of belonging?
How have you navigated belonging through each stage of your life?
What does that reveal to you?
What way or ways of belonging is claiming you right now?
You can start now, and free write for 20 minutes.
May it bring you what it needs you to know.
Thank you so much for reading. I really look forward to your sharing, to what this essay and prompts brought up for you.
Have a beautiful weekend of beholding and belonging.