Ranjit Lal on why his writing table faces a wall (or the story where I finally talk to my absolute favourite Indian author)
House crows that filch melba toast from under the noses of members of the Willingdon Club in Mumbai, a lady sparrow that throws a tantrum and a “pipsqueak of a purple sunbird” who goes berserk on a bottlebrush tree outside author Ranjit Lal’s house are some of the protagonists of his new book, Birds from my Window and the Antics They Get Up To. In the introduction to this book, Lal said that he has been watching birds from his window and balcony for several years and finds it a “wonderful way of never having to get bored”. Peacocks, bulbuls, babblers and sparrows are always at hand to distract him so now his writing desk faces the wall, or “this book would never have been written”.
What inspired you to write Birds from My Window and the Antics They Get Up To? There was so much happening around the home, with regard to everyday birds that it was worth following up their lives and writing about them. Also, there are a lot more species of birds around in cities like Delhi than one would imagine. Basically you just need to spend a bit of time, standing and staring!
Your book is a guide to Indian birds but unlike most guides, it’s laced with generous bouts of humour. Birds can be quite hilarious – in looks, deportment, behaviour – and on occasion they’re not too different from us! They have the same ego issues, desire to impress the fair sex (though in birds the males are the dandies and the females are the critics!).
Many of your books introduce children to animals and birds in the city. Well, if you’re just a little observant and interested in the world around you, you can’t help notice the creatures that share our space. Keep observing and you’ll see patterns of behaviour emerge, showing that they too have orderly, disciplined lives, which generally will fit into the grander scheme of things.
How difficult is it to hook young readers onto wildlife? The trick to get them interested in wildlife is not to make an academic meal out of it. It’s got to be fun and appeal to their sense of adventure, not to say curiosity.
What’s your average day like with the birds in your garden? I’ve started putting out bajra and peanuts every morning, plus of course water. The peanuts get gobbled up very quickly – by peacocks, mynahs, babblers sparrows et al. The bigger guys usually shove the little ones away. There are ego issues within species too, some big dada sparrows will bounce down and drive the wimps away. They hold their parties at any time of the day; it could be early morning, mid-morning, afternoon, evening: there seems to be no fixed time, probably because a lot of other people also leave out stuff, so the birds are spoiled for choice!
Tell us about your experience of birdwatching in Mumbai. I wasn’t very interested in birds until I bought my first pair of large (and rather heavy) binoculars. We had a peepul tree growing outside the verandah and so I trained my binoculars on that. The first bird I spotted and saw close-up, was the coppersmith barbet, which had a face like a clown (and seemed a little tipsy, what with its hiccups). That was enough – if the first bird I saw looked like a tipsy clown, what would the other 1,200-1,300 be like, I wondered. That’s what I’m still finding out. Incidentally, that peepul tree, that overlooked the whole of Central Bombay, had over 15 species, including a pair of nesting black kites, which would dive-bomb me when they had chicks. And they were very cunning about how they went about it, slipping off the nest, below the cliff, banking away to one side and then gaining height out of sight, before zooming around the corner and whistling down screaming, with claws extended! Exciting stuff.
Birds from my Window and the Antics They Get Up To, Scholastic, R125. Ages 8+
By Bijal Vachharajani on May 26 2011