Anand Vishwanadha on his versatile poetry collection Stray Birds, and what birdwatching brings to his life
Anand Vishwanadha's Stray Birds reads like a birder’s journal, but one that has been pruned to hold only the most memorable images and resultant thoughts.
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“The seconds are precious minutia
waiting for the wagtail to swagger into the frame.”
- From Anand Vishwanadha’s 'White-Browed Wagtail'
Anand is a poet and bird photographer based in Hyderabad, who identifies as deaf, and whose writing should be read more widely than it has been. I was introduced to Anand’s poetry when I read with him at a literary festival. When I got my hands on his collection, Stray Birds, I was amazed by the versatility in his poems – most of them focus on bird species found in India such as the titles 'Spotted Owlet', 'Green Bee-Eaters (juv.)' or 'Siberian Stonechat (female)'.
The collection reads like a birder’s journal, but one that has been pruned to hold only the most memorable images and resultant thoughts. The poet isn’t missing in these lines, he’s watching, lying in wait, craning his neck to note the smell, the light, the time. Many of the birds in the collection were familiar to me, and I suspect many readers from India will recognise some of these as their frequent neighbourhood visitors or the flock they glimpse in the evening sky. I was quietly thrilled to discover new details about these birds – what a purple sunbird feeds on, the tenaciousness of terns. When I first read it, I found 'Stray Birds' to be an ode to observation, to the limitless visual possibilities within a single species. But on later readings, I saw that the poems were also a way to convey the balm that bird-watching can be. He writes of the loneliness that birding can assuage in 'Black Kite',
No man has more friends than me
no land do I find strange
if there is sky above
so, are you.
He revisits the sentiment in 'To Know The Birds', where he brings attention to birding’s ability to take a person away from a relentless and claustrophobic awareness of time,
To know the birds
is to be deaf to the tick-tock clamour
of days and months.
In this revealing interview, Anand shared with me his love for his childhood home in Rourkela, Orissa, his move to Hyderabad, the choosing of the title of the collection, what birdwatching and bird photography bring to his life.
Let's start by talking about the title. Why "stray" birds?
Actually, this is from more than six years ago (the first edition of the book came out in 2013, at HLF 2020, what we had was the launch of the second edition)..so I am not sure if I remember right...there was some kind of evocative appeal in lines I had read of Tagore's somewhere — "stray thoughts don't be afraid of me, I am just a harmless poet" (if I remember them right). My approach towards birds (both as a photographer and a poet) is somewhat like what's embodied in these lines. Then again, many of my memorable birding encounters weren't really planned, and none of the poems in the book were planned, so the name did seem apt. You could say the birds and the poems strayed into my psyche and found home in the form of this book.
When did you first become interested in birds?
I remember being enchanted by them since whenever — way back in my boyhood. I remember sparrows, parakeets, crows, brahminy kites, mynahs and vultures. I think one of my earliest (and a really bad one at that) poems was about the vultures that used to roost on two tall Toddy Palms near our home in Rourkela – I was probably in Class 8 or 9 then. I also developed this habit of stopping whatever I was doing, to gaze forlornly at arrowheads of birds whenever they would fly over me which used to happen a lot, because where we used to stay, we had fields and wetlands, and open country all around. This fascination for arrowheads remained in me...and much later in life, when I was an avid motorcycle tourer, riding solo on the road, in the midst of nowhere I would see an arrowhead of birds and feel a little less alone. Also, our vacations (summer, winter and others) used to be mostly spent in Visakhapatnam and that would always involve a train journey, so, some of my earliest memories of bird-watching are from a train's window.
Tell us about growing up and birding in Rourkela. Would you describe the natural habitats in Rourkela a little for our audience? Where did you go to see birds?
Much before I ever heard or understood the terms, I guess I was a "backyard birder" and an "amateur naturalist". Most of my waking hours (when not at school) were always spent in the great outdoors and I was rarely ever home! We used to live in a small, single storied, one bedroom 'PWD Quarter', and we had sparrows, robins, bulbuls, doves and the like nesting all around, and many snakes too. (And, bullfrogs 'croaking in concert' – which I still remember!). My earliest friend was a guava tree that grew in our courtyard...and I would just grab a book and go climb the tree, spending up to three to five hours at a stretch in it. There were many cuts and bruises and colds, fevers and other mystery illnesses, much strife and pain too – but I wouldn't trade that childhood for anything else in this world, not all the money, certainly not for a posher, big city way of living. We had open fields in front of our house, and a small chain of hills behind...the rest of the tableau comprised of two pokhuris and endless expanses of rice fields. There was a lovely spring in those hills too, and every time I visited it, I remember cupping its water up in my palms and drinking it. The birds were everywhere...but I mostly remember the sparrows that used to live in our house, the vultures, the hundreds of parakeets that used to raid the corn fields, and the brahminy kites that used to speck the skies above me on desolately hot days – when I would wait it out in the shade of a tall wild mango tree for a breeze to spring, so that I could fly my kite again.
When you moved to Hyderabad, how did your birdwatching experience change?
My idyllic association with Rourkela ended with my early adulthood. I came to Hyderabad almost 25 years ago and have mostly been here since then. My initial years here (my parents hadn't moved with me back then) were as a struggling copywriter with not much time to see anything much of Hyderabad – and I guess I was a bit overwhelmed by the 'City', being a small town guy. I think I 'reconnected' with birds (and birding as an activity) only when I moved into an independent house in the cantonment part of Secunderabad, where I again had fields, lakes and open spaces all around me – all this is of course gone now. Can't really compare Rourkela with Hyderabad...the idyllic and innocence elements were never the same, but yeah I have been very very lucky to have struck gold with the area I moved to. It was almost like I had moved back into my boyhood past, almost...
What would you say birdwatching and photographing birds brings to your life? What do you carry with you when you go birding?
Firstly, awe – I think birds are a joy, a profound wonder, and that they can fly makes them rarefied in a way we will never be. Secondly, exhilaration – there is an element of unexpectedness, 'birdness' associated with every avian encounter. You never know what will happen (the adrenaline rush of being amidst eagles and other raptors is not easy to describe...these are apex predators and when you match your wits against them, spend time with them, they elevate you in more ways than you can count). Thirdly, gratitude – being with birds calms me down and locates me in a belonging that I find nowhere else. Over everything else, when I am birding (or for that matter when I am in the midst of nature, in the company of trees...) I am overwhelmed by a sense of tranquillity that is a lot like the peace I get from a darshan. I do a lot of un-aided birding, over the years I have learned how to blend in or become inconspicuous when amidst birds, so I manage to get pretty close to them. When I do plan an outing, I am a little weighed down...a heavy lens, D-SLR, gimbal, and tripod. In fact, lugging around all this gear is tiring, but the challenge of it all makes it more enjoyable.
Tell us about the first moment that you notice a bird. What do you make note of?
Since I have been hard of hearing or deaf for almost half of my life, there has been no aural element in my birding – I have forgotten what it means to hear a bird call. It’s a bit of an oddity because it is believed that the best birders are those who bird by ear (I also somewhat concur with this school of thought). I mean, I don't know why I have persisted in this...I do manage to see birds (without hearing them), I don't know how. I 'notice' the mannerisms (I am not sure if I am using the right word). In fact, I thrill in watching birds (especially the little guys like Prinias, Sunbirds, Tailorbirds and the like) go through their characteristic repertoires – like when they are feeding, exhibiting territorial behaviour, or just basking in the sun.
Do you maintain a diary of bird sightings? How did you approach the writing of these poems? Tell us about your process.
No, I don't have a life list. I have no idea of 'how many' species I have 'ticked off'...to me all birds are equally worthy of awe and that's why I recoil at the term 'common' when describing a bird. My birding philosophy is aptly summed up by – so many birds, so little time. I don't really plan my poems...there were some that I did 'sit down to write' but mostly the poems in Stray Birds were written on the spur of the moment, whenever they arrived, and then worked on later, more than once. I have no specific process as such...but many of the poems in Stray Birds have roosted long in my being before they fledged.
The bird behaviour you describe in your poems — is that something you learned through observation alone or through a combination of observation and research?
Like I have said above, all these poems have roosted in my being...so yes, those descriptions were imbibed (or should I say, inked on my being) by time in the field, by repeated observations. No real research as such...nothing that I undertook specifically to write the poems...I do read a lot about birds, though. Actually, when I think about it, what I gather is that every time I am out birding, I am probably observing more than I realize (or use). From a photography point of view, there would be times when I would come back after five-six hours in the field, but no photographs – because there was nothing worth documenting (or no photograph worth keeping). But simultaneously, the poet, writer, naturalist in me is also at work, and has seen many birds, noted many things!
Have you been separated from this activity during the lockdown? Can you see birds from your house? Does that bring you some solace?
Oh yes, I do miss being separated from my favourite activity during these lockdowns. But, all things considered, I wouldn't really complain about it. Then again, at many levels to me this virus looks like a 'reset button' for Nature, and as someone who sees himself primarily as a "poet and photographer of Nature" it has been a time for contemplation, much thought, and hope for Nature. I do get to see some birds from my house, or rather the shed on my terrace – Spotted Doves, Asian Koels, Black Kites, House Sparrows, Oriental White-eyes...even the occasional arrowhead of waterbirds! Of late, I have seen more House Crows flying around than before, and this had coincided with the days when the lockdown was very strict. Yes, the sight of a bird is always solace...but I worry, and I worry a lot...what after the lockdown?
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