Cats and alterations in personality

‘If the mind is a machine, then anything can control it – anything, that is, that understands the code and has access to the machinery’

Let us take for example the orb spider. Typically, the orb spider weaves a web that is no less than an engineering marvel, a mosaic of spiral non-sticky web and a final sticky web line to hold the entire web together. It must be a matter of great pride for the spider to achieve such a feat in a matter of hours. However, these plans can be foiled by the Polysphincta gutfreundi, a small tropical wasp whose entire image is built on what it does to the orb-weaver spider. The female wasp lays an egg in the abdomen on the spider, after which a tiny larvae emerges out of it, deriving nutrition from its host’s body. However, that is not enough for the larva. The larva needs a safe spot to undergo metamorphosis and emerge a wasp, and what better than to use the extraordinary intellect of the spider in building itself a home. The larva imparts certain chemicals in the spider that makes it weave the web just a little differently. This “drugged” spider is under the influence of the larva, weaving to its tunes and constructing a web for the benefit of the larva. These webs are strong and specifically designed to keep the larva’s cocoon suspended and away from the sight of larger predators.

 

spiralorb

If the larva is removed from the spider’s body by human intervention, the spider lives and returns to its normal web-making abilities soon enough.

The rabies virus, too, evokes the feelings of rage in its host so that the host bites another living being, and transmits the virus to more hosts.

Such a parasite exists closer to home, and much more elusive than a rabies virus. Let us talk about the infamous Toxoplasma gondii.

This protozoan has a fairly complicated life cycle which begins inside a very common animal, and only inside this animal.

Cats.

Inside cats, the protozoan spends time reproducing and generally having a gala time, after which zygote-filled cysts are released along with the cat’s poo. From here on, it can go anywhere it wants – water, soil, food, other hosts, and even humans (but we will get to that later). Depending on who ingests this infection that is now free to roam the world, the infection is concentrated in various parts of the body. In pigs (if that is the intermediate host), they are mostly in the muscles, and in the case of rodents, they are mostly in the brain. Inside this intermediate host, the protozoan can’t really reproduce, so it yearns for a way out and into a cat again, where it can continue to reproduce more protozoa. However, this might not always be possible.

In rodents, this protozoan has evolutionarily built a great way of escaping. It has been proven, that rats infected with Toxoplasma doesn’t hate cats quite as much. In fact, the smell of cat’s urine even sexually arouses the rodent towards the source. It also makes the rodents wary of predators around it, and makes for very easy prey for cats. Most of what the rodents do after being infected is a way for the cat to devour the host, and as such makes it the protozoan’s doing. It can happily reproduce again in a cat’s body.

When the passage from the intermediate host to the cat’s body is not really possible, the protozoan just chills in the host’s body for as long as it can, which is generally the lifespan of the animal. Globally, 30-50% of humans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii. And it alters the personalities of humans too.

Other than decreased reaction times, the infected humans showed a lot of changes in terms of their behaviour. The interesting part is that it shows up differently in both men and women. To quote a study,


Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Compared with uninfected people of the same sex, infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. 


 

The underlying difference that the study found was how differently genders handled anxiety and emotional strain, and that is the kind of alteration that affected people when they were infected with the protozoan. Of course, if a woman is an introvert, Toxo would not turn her into a raving extrovert, just a little less of an introvert. But over a larger sample size, the evidence is shocking.

This brings up the question that if Toxo can affect and alter the personalities of so many without them even realizing it, would it affect the entire human culture as a whole? When 30-50% of the human population is affected by this protozoan, does it seep into the cultural and societal aspects of our lives?

References:

http://insider.si.edu/2010/01/drugged-spiders-web-spinning-may-hold-keys-to-determining-how-animal-behavior-is-controlled/

Flegr, J (Jan 2013). “Influence of latent Toxoplasmainfection on human personality, physiology and morphology: Pros and cons of the Toxoplasma-human model in studying the manipulation hypothesis”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 127–33.

Webster JP, Kaushik M, Bristow GC, McConkey GA (Jan 2013). Toxoplasma gondii infection, from predation to schizophrenia: can animal behaviour help us understand human behaviour?”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 99–112.

Lafferty, Kevin D. “Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 273.1602 (2006): 2749-2755.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2015/10/29/parasite-human-brain-control/#.WFe4GqJ95MI

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/308873/

Apathy

Everyone is opinionated. We all know that. Some are opinionated by not being opinionated. What I have seen most of my friends do, even myself, is to have an explanation for everything we do. What generally happens is that we commit to an act because we want to, and then defend it by setting it up in an environment of reason. I could obviously be wrong here because this is not an articulate case of cause and effect, but both these acts are intricately linked. Why this is on my mind is because I took some important decisions in the past few months.

I remember the numerous Facebook arguments about vegetarianism. It is such an over-discussed topic that all these arguments settle at the tip of your fingers. So I got to the edge of my seat, folded my sleeves and began to fight a horrific typing battle with a lot of my vegetarian friends. Obviously, I was against them. I grew up in a Jain family, so I am a vegetarian myself, but I always made it a point to stress that it was a matter of choice. I put up the worst argument, claiming that no one will accuse a lion of aberrant behaviour when it devours another animal to satisfy itself. To be clear, their argument that a lion has no other choice never really satisfied me. It still doesn’t. I disrespected the animal rights activists, as I was never a supporter of animal rights per se.

Then one day, a friend suggested that I watch “If slaughterhouses had glass doors…” which had been narrated by Paul McCartney. That video is available on YouTube. It is barely ten minutes long, but I ended up more moved than I have rarely ever been. I had only started eating eggs when I came to college, and no one really stopped me. I had only tried chicken once, and I did not like it, probably because I had it in a sandwich (at least that’s what my friends said).  But this video made me speechless for a few minutes, to say the least.  I realized what I had been guilty of: Ignorance. Day after day, I read and watched more of the meat industry and its cruelty to animals. Before the reader realizes how much of a cliché I have been drawn into, take ten minutes to watch the aforementioned video. Later, I watched “Earthlings”, another documentary about the cruelty to animals. What really happens has escaped the media since such a long time that all we have been misinformed about what animal rights’ activists are probably fighting for. I may or may not support PETA, I truly do not know enough about them, but I do have a sense of empathy to the creatures that share the planet with us. I am not being overly sensitive; you would realize that if you watch pigs being hanged upside down and dipped in boiling hot water alive, or cows so stunted in growth (because of not being given enough space to move and caged in a cage barely the size of your bed for their lifetime) that they cannot support their own weight (fattened for the meat). Poultry has not escaped this torture.

My idea here is not to criticize non-vegetarian people. There are many sociological impressions behind food habits. But it is the hypocrisy that I have seen in people. There have been people I know who refused to watch the video at all. This is ignorance. There were people, who, in spite of watching the videos, have turned a blind eye to them and refused to change. This, I assume, shows the most dangerous characteristic of us humans. Apathy. Apathy has always been considered the sentiment that separates “humans” from psychopaths. The friend who first brought all of this to my notice recently told me to convince him not to buy a leather case for one of his gadgets. I was surprised to say the least. I understand the temptation, but I did not have to think twice when I refused to buy shoes (that I had loved at first sight) as soon as I realized they were made of leather. I am guilty of many crimes too. Cows (in USA) are tortured horribly for their milk. I reckon that does not really happen in India, because milk production is not in the hands of dairy corporate, but local herdsmen and women. Vegan diet consists of no dairy products as well. If there is a time in our country that mass production overruns the local milk production units, and the cows are tortured here as well, I will be force to reconsider my choices. Most vegetarian friends I know who are in the States have not given up drinking milk, I doubt it is as easy as I think. Probably, I wouldn’t either. I would clarify that I would never condemn the dietary choices of anyone who chooses to eat meat, I do not have the moral superiority to, but that there are people who will choose to be ignorant and apathetic rather than make a decision that will change a very fundamental aspect of their life. Granted, I have no idea how hard that choice might be, I have not had to deal with it as much as a non-vegetarian person has to.

What disturbs me is this – my principles will boil down to what is convenient for me.  As someone on the way to moral nihilism, I should be the last person to be worried. But it worries me that there are more nihilists in the world than I thought; there are more immoral people in the world than I thought. And no, I am not calling non-vegetarianism immoral. I am calling lethargy immoral. The willingness to sit back and not act is immoral. I do not need assurance from a cynic that the world is a sad place; I think everyone must be aware of it by now. I also do not need naïve assurance to know that the world is still a beautiful place with good people still working to be their best.

Unfortunately, I am as guilty as the butcher who hanged an animal upside down, slit its throat and let it bleed dry, while it was still alive, if not more.

Imitated Art is Always Dire Art

I watched my now favourite film“Amadeus” with great reluctance, it was a movie well over 180 minutes, and based on the life of an artist. It did not appeal to me, and classical music was not my interest during the time. As minutes tricked by my face in a badly lit room, I was so engrossed in the film that I patiently sat upright and felt the ambush of my adrenaline every time Salieri complained to God as to why Mozart had been chosen to make the music of the Lord himself, and why not Salieri himself.

A movie viewing experience consists of many facets of movie making itself. Articulate direction, unambiguous editing, flattering cinematography and expressive story-writing are effects I personally look for in a film. Watching a film is a much more complicated and intimate process than most people might imagine. The story-writer and the director (and many other hands) have the right to toy with your minds, make you happy or sad, to build you or break you. It is intimate because no human has the vision or the lifetime long enough to experience everything, and movies and books are the best way to go about it. A movie is a more difficult piece of art to make, I opine, because it relies on the individualistic relation to the story and the perception of the story. This may or may not be coherent or even steady. An actor will be a different story-teller than the story-teller themselves.

The reason why I would assume that a movie watching experience is overall much more complicated than reading just a story is the number of details to be cared after in a movie. A novelist’s job is to make sure they do enough to make the reader imagine, but a filmmaker’s job is to steal the viewer’s imagination and make it their own. Although, I am of the opinion that script-writers and story-writers get much less credit than they deserve, a film is about much more than just that. When a film like Barfi! is viewed, it is going to create deep discussions about how much of a tribute it was, as claimed by Anurag Basu himself. Numerous scenes have been copied frame by frame in the film, and Charlie Chaplin has been responsible for most of the funny moments.

Before getting into the intricacies of the originality of a film, it is necessary to elucidate the meaning of originality per se. When a movie is made from an already existing piece of literature, one form of art is being converted into another altogether. The point here is, that even if a story is available to use, the director’s job is not even half complete. A whole set of visual cues and imageries are to be set up, score and dialogue is to be inserted and so many complications of the cinema in general that I dare not venture to explain. The movie may still end up being original. The basic construct of two movies can be exceptionally similar; it is how that construct is handled that shows us the skill of the filmmaker. For instance, the Holocaust has been a popular movie theme since ages; there are still movies which revolve around the theme. But, to emulate the excellence of Schindler’s List or The Pianist is a rare achievement. Both movies have told a similar story, of pain and suffering, and have told it differently. A much better example would be Maqbool (directed by Vishal Bhardwaj), an Indian spin on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I have watched Macbeth performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and this movie and have loved both. The literature is essentially the same. In fact, even the characters are identical to that of Shakespeare’s creation. But Maqbool is still quite original because Bhardwaj has made the film his own creation by making developing in it a newer concept using cinematic discretion. All he has adopted is the story. This is much more than most filmmakers have been able to achieve.

Most movies have a complex story line as well, but some films have been impressive without making it over-dramatic and shockingly overt. For example, Before Sunset is a simplistic love story, very true in its essence. But the movie has been made such that it will move you. What I mean to prove by this example is that the essence of the movie lies in the movie-making itself, and the story pieced together with all the other elements is the only way a movie will worth the time we enthusiasts spend on it.

Why I stress that originality is not overrated is the fact that when a filmmaker starts to mimic another’s ideas and imagination, we can assume that the credibility of that film is under grave danger. This is because the filmmaker has refused to do the job that they are supposed to do; have original ideas to bring a story to life in its most blatant form – cinema. I cannot stress enough on the fact that the filmmaker has denied to do his job by taking scenes directly from another film, or even pick up identical characters. The more this is done, the worse the film is. If I find out that the movies that I have so loved have blatantly picked up ideas from other movies, I would dislike the movie. A filmmaker especially, as opposed to other artists, has more responsibility to create something new because cinematic excellence will be judged only by his final output. To summarize, the story of any film may not be new every time, but the essence of cinematic tact is in all the other things after all, all of which have to be as original and personal as possible.

Art has always been about new ideas, about privacy of emotions and feelings. If, as an artist, you fail to bring something new into the world, then you have ultimately failed. Whether it is in the form of a cliched story line, or a refreshing new story, there must be originality in a movie, which is in the filmmaker’s hand. I will always look for this, and if I see it lacking, the filmmaker has failed.

Read Rand, Only To Know How Philosophy Can Go Wrong

Ayn Rand, when asked how she would summarize her philosophy of objectivism, she responded with a very clear summary herself [1]:

  1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  2. Epistemology: Reason
  3. Ethics: Self-interest
  4. Politics: Capitalism

Majority of this article will be about tackling the first three definitions, since at face value they look very straight forward, but, according to me, it has major flaws that Objectivism fails to address. Capitalism, in itself is a very vast concept, and a debate in itself, and therefore beyond the scope of this discussion.

The keyword when the metaphysics [2] is concerned is the word ‘objective’. According to Rand, and to Objectivists, reality exists outside of consciousness and that a human’s perceptions have little to no role to play in how reality inherently exists. Basically, humans can perceive reality through their senses and then, through inductive logic, can decide upon a morally desirable decision. This means that moral propositions are equivalent to propositions of biology, mathematics, chemistry, physics et al, such that it is independent of emotions and feelings. Fundamentally, my thoughts are driven by Cartesian doubt, which asserts that (as Descartes philosophized) there is no objective reality, and we all only just perceive reality. The human mind is a weak, albeit treacherous, thing. It can convince people of seeing things that do not exist, so that there can be simplicity that is maintained in its functioning. Whether this is convincing a person to think they have limbs when they really don’t, or that they are really experiencing whatever it is that they are experiencing when they are actually dreaming, the mind can fool itself. The real life that we are talking about now, may not be real at all.

For example, the simplest form of perception is how we perceive colours. When I imagine the colour blue, I imagine a certain ‘colour’. It is possible that what is blue for me, is actually perceived as red by you. It is not necessary that either of us be correct, but that it is a possibility.

What the main point of this argument is, and which I find myself disagreeing with, is that Rand assumes that there is an objective reality, which might simply not be true. There is also a possibility that the Randian objectivist is correct, and that there is an objective reality, but there is no proof of it. Rand also was an atheist, a stance that is often an objectivist characteristic. Regardless, atheism has its own flaws and truly so, not much different that asserting that there is, in fact, a super power controlling us.

Rand has asserted, and so have her successors, that there are some things that are ‘reasonable’ and some things that are not. Whatever that fell under her line of thought was rational, and the rest was simply ‘irrational’. This was one of her most popular, and defensive, of criticism of her opponents, albeit an unexplained one. Most of what Rand believed about irrationality was poured into bad literature. She never defined irrationality as such, but left us with the dictionary meaning of the word; decisions driven by “weak” human emotions.

Coming to the other aspects of objectivist metaphysics, there is an assertion about free will and determinism.

These are two very important schools of thought when it comes to how causation occurs. Determinism believes that the outcome of the future has only one possible outcome, and is inevitable. This means that other than human actions (we will come to this later), nothing will really affect the outcome of a situation. On the other hand, libertarian view tells us that a human being is free to choose whatever action he/she desires to choose, and it asserts on the concept of free will. Rand believed in both of these simultaneously.

Leonard Peikoff, a prominent objectivist, claims (and Rand approves) that any entity (non-human) will have a certain nature that will let it choose a certain position in a situation, and no other. But this directly means that (i) either human is not an entity in this scenario or (ii) Rand is contradicting herself. A human not being a forceful entity when it comes to decided how future events unfold is not just incredulous, but also quite uninformed. It was attempted to correct this error by Rand claiming that humans not being such entities actually means that humans have a variety of choices when it comes to decision-making, and the person will choose the outcome most in accordance with his/her nature. So basically, Rand is telling us that people just act the way they act, which is not only not a strong philosophical statement, but also quite a useless one. I say this vehemently because the statement that ‘a person will act according to their nature’ is a logical fallacy. It is, in fact, begging the question. If a human acts differently, that becomes part of their nature, thereby making the statement nothing but an empty truism.

Rand’s epistemology said that her philosophy of Objectivism was based on reason, and that reason was enough to deduce and understand morality. The problem is not her thinking that; the problem is that she never defined what ‘reason’ really was. Being reasonable is objective in people’s mind. Most humans do things that seem reasonable to them, and Rand decided that her reasoning was the most accurate because it relied on perception of reality, which may be false in itself. People are always reasonable; their reason just does not conform to someone else’s.

Ayn Rand contradicted herself again and again throughout her life. She believed that emotions were uncontrollable and could not form the basis of cognition. This also meant, that like most emotions, sexual attraction is also uncontrollable, and this Rand agreed with. She meant numerous times that the basis of love must not be physical attractiveness but the strength of the mind. On the other hand, she believed in love at first sight, which is what happened with Dominique and Roark in “The Fountainhead”. Dominique decided she loved him before having really talked to him, and Rand defended this by saying that people of similar premises will find similarities in each other just after looking at them. This is, apparently so, rational.

The last and the most important facet of Rand’s argument was individualism and selfishness. In “The Virtue of Selfishness”, says that selfishness is generally perceived to be “concern with one’s own interests”, and that altruism is the moral ideal. This is, quite simply put, just wrong. If “concern with one’s own interests” is selfish, then brushing one’s teeth is selfish. A keyword that Rand misses out on is “excessive concern”. But, according to Atlas Society, whimsical decision making without considering the feelings of loved ones is not selfish [3]. This is because Rand specified that a person is only selfish so as long as they try to fulfill their innate psychological and biological needs, backed by rationality. As I mentioned before, the subjectivity of rationality is under question here as well. To a psychopath, rationality is to kill other people for his psychological need. Is this then, according to Rand virtuous and individualistic? Apparently not, for she refused to call such people selfish extremely whimsically, and ironically so.

In “The Fountainhead”, Howard Roark (the protagonist), destroys a building because it had been meddled with. He destroyed a building that hundreds of people had been working on, including engineers, laborers and the people Rand so loved, the investors. This is the selfishness that Rand so conveniently defined as reasonable, although to her opponents it may not be so. But then, all of her opponents were irrational, thereby making their argument void.

According to Objectivism, altruism is an evil, since the socially needy are leeching off the socially and economically rich, and that a person who is altruistic cannot be reasonable. Rand forgets, that the basic needs (psychological and biological) to make one selfish also includes a need to be social, since this is an instinctive need of humans. But this instinctive need, the animal requirement, is suddenly not a requirement anymore, since it is emotional and again, “irrational”. Altruism in itself, is a need that people fulfill in order to satisfy themselves in some way or the other. Either it will make them feel like better people, or convince themselves that they have been assured a peaceful after-life. Whatever the reason may be, Rand ignores the fact that altruism is, in fact, a very natural response. And when it is not, when a person is not altruistic, the society’s reaction is not to condemn the person, but to mostly be oblivious to it anyhow. And even if it wasn’t, it was now the individual’s choice to not care about what society has judged about him/her, and keep their resources to themselves and not share. These are choices that all individuals make and have nothing to do with moral stances.

Fundamentally, the issue with Objectivism lies in the very word “objectivism”, which means that there either a right way of doing something, or there is not. Rand looked at the world in black and white, and refused to leave room for discussion because most discussions were “irrational”. Most Objectivists that I have had the pleasure of knowing have been similar in nature – assertive, angry and adolescent. Individualism sounds good, but most Objectivists would shy away from trying to implement it. Take college placements, for instance. A person who has already acquired a job in a particular type of company, is not allowed to appear for the procedures of similar companies. In an individualistic world, this will simply not happen. The same contestants who identify themselves as individualists, might even fight for this approach to the placement process.

Therefore, not only is Objectivism contradictory and weak as a philosophy, but Rand’s poor understanding of society, law, and humanity, also makes it a tool to make hot-blooded adolescents its willing victims.

References and explanations:

  1. http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_intro
  2. Metaphysics is a traditional branch in philosophy that, in lay terms, answers two basic questions:

(i)                  What is ultimately there?

(ii)                What is it like there?

  1. http://www.atlassociety.org/virtue-selfishness

My Favourite Song

I was asked a few days what my favourite song was, and as anyone who is even slightly passionate about music will know that that is a question that never has an answer. There are always a few songs that manage to never disappoint you, but there is never that one song that you know will definitely never give up on you. But I found my favourite song a while back, and this is how I was lucky enough to have the ears to hear it.

This was a few odd months ago, when I was aimless enough to walk around my college campus late at night. I like to generally look out my windows during dusk, when the birds in the trees are starting to settle and they invite silence as quick as darkness is invited. One of the most amazing sights I have seen is during late evening, when the birds perch on the highest branches they can find, and shoot out simultaneously and fly across the small patch I could allow my eyes to see, covering everything blue with an ever moving conglomeration of dark and light. I made sure I had ten minutes every day to witness this. Later at night, most of the trees are silent, and one can only hear the random burst of white noise when some scared little bird finds that it is not alone. It was a similar night; it was not expected that I be followed by a sound that was going to haunt me for weeks after.

I tethered myself to stray thoughts and noticed that there was one particular sound that faintly tugged at my ear drums. It sounded like a whistle; it was definitely some kind of music. But it seemed like it was coming from above me, from the dark leaves that gave away nothing but the sky beyond it. I assumed it was some other human whistling, and that was when I heard it again. And again. That night, I heard that tune numerous times and various distances, and I have to say I have rarely been confused as much. It was most definitely a whistle; no animal was capable of producing that sound, and that musical note. But I knew for a fact that it could not have been a whistle, with its changing positions and unexpected randomness, it had to be something more primal. It had to be some invisible bird that will stop singing after a while; making me blind to it forever.

I heard the sound numerous times in the coming two weeks, because I kept listening for it. Sometimes, now that I think of it, it might even just have been my ears trying to fool me into believing I had heard it again. It was, without a single ounce of doubt in my mind, the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. But I never saw the bird; it hid with its shyness on the tops of trees, shrieking and inviting me to look for it. But I was only a short girl who could barely life her eyes to look at the sky, looking for a bird that was deliberately hiding was just not something I could get myself to do. But nature is only so unkind; I got a chance to find the bird in the coming week.

It was cold, dry morning, and I was just as far into the day as I had been into the night before. It was very early, the sun had only been up for a few hours and I could still hear all the birds chirping. It has hard to distinguish between all the sounds, but I knew my ears would not lie to me if they did hear the sound I was trying to listen for. I had enough free time (it was a Sunday), and I was finally rewarded. I heard the whistle, it came from a tree much too far from me and I wasn’t sure if it was heard correct, in spite of my confidence. There it was again. This time I was sure it came from the tree right in front of me. I entered the patch of grass that I had never entered before and looked around, trying to find source of the sound. Another whistle. This time it was so much closer, I could’ve sworn it was coming from inside me. And as soon as I looked above me, I saw a little bird fly right into the branches, floating downwards until its feet found a wooden fence underneath them. It was for a few seconds that I saw it, and it shot up again into its foliage. The fence was a few yards away from me, and my deceitful eyes did not help me see the bird clearly. It was like the bird had learnt the last few weeks learning to mock me, and had swiftly shown me itself to tell me there was no way I would ever know if I heard correct. In those few moments, I knew it was black or very dark blue, and had a white throat. Or white wings. I wasn’t sure if this was the bird that I had heard and hunted for the past few torturous weeks, but I had one opening and I wasn’t going to let it pass me by.

I wondered if my searching skills will help me find the bird that I had seen. So I used the internet and looked for a “black bird white wings”, and “black bird white throat Gujarat” and every other combination I could think of. I put in my geographic location as well, but I could barely come close to what I wanted. I even looked for “black birds singing”, and found precisely nothing. So I knew I had to work harder than that. And that is when I came across this.

This was a list of all the birds in my geographic location. I had one and only one lead; and the thought that I might be wrong about it (it may not be the singing bird at all) was something that I couldn’t allow myself to think. So I scrolled the list; slowly and steadily, trying to jolt my memory to find one bird that matched my description. I found atleast four.

Fortunately, a little bit of thinking from my side saved me the trouble of having to realize which bird it could be. I do not live near the ocean, so all the sea birds were out of consideration, even if they were black and white. I first thought it was a white-breasted woodswallow, but I knew for a fact that swallows aren’t known for that musical singing. It could also have been a white-browed fantail, and I stacked it as one of the possibilities as I knew nothing about fantails. Going through the list, I was struck by a horror I didn’t imagine would affect me so much.

Some of the birds had no images put up for them. I just knew that the bird I was looking for was one of those. But I steered clear of that disappointment by thinking that I will handle it when time comes. By this time, unless the reader hasn’t already noticed, finding this bird had become a necessity. This was going to be the only victory I was to see in the past (and eventually the coming) months and I needed it like I needed a lungful of breath. I could not let the bird go. It had become an obsession, and I am not proud of it, but I had to find the bird that had managed to keep me cooped up under its wings for months.

And that is when I saw it.

The black bird. Patches of white on its wings. It was a Magpie robin. I knew robins are known to have beautiful voices and I was sure it was the bird I was looking for all along. So I searched the bird on YouTube, and found a half-good audio of the bird’s singing. I was holding my breath as the video started to play.

But… This wasn’t what I had heard. The sound was unmistakable, it was perfect. It was the same, shrill whistle I had been hearing since the past month, but it wasn’t the same tune. The sound I had heard was melodious, it was straight out of a cheery musical instrument. It wasn’t raw and primal… But I knew I had found the bird. Now, granted it is shameful to admit when something so ordinary could have really made an impact on me, but I remember the bubble that risen from the base of my stomach slowly rising up in my throat as it stuck there as a lump in my throat. I had finally found my bird.

But I wondered now whether the bird I had heard had been one bird all alone. The melody was unmistakable. If I didn’t find that same tune anywhere on YouTube, maybe this bird had learnt it by itself. Maybe it had been the same bird sharing that one tune with me all along. I still have no idea whether that thought brought me solace or depression, because I knew that if it was the only one bird, it wouldn’t be long before I stopped listening to it altogether. I figured if a song is good enough, it is all right if you can never listen to it ever again.

It has been almost 3 months since I found the bird. And I still hear it sometimes. The rains have made it sing even more loudly, and I hear it everywhere I go. I wonder if there was any way for me to explain to the reader what I am listening to, but there isn’t. Maybe I am being fooled by my own self; maybe there is no bird, only a remnant of a sound that possessed me, not willing to let me go. Or maybe the square kilometer in which I live has some magic at work. That the birds around me have conspired to make me hear the same song again and again until two years from now, I leave to not return. Maybe then I will never hear my favourite song again.

Poetry and its accompaniment

There are those who read, and then there are those who read poetry. I have known several people in my life who have been passionate readers, and even more people who were open to how much they might enjoy reading. Unfortunately, a love of mine that rarely saw audience was poetry. Much like most other literature, there are false claims that all poetry could be good, but that is not true. There is abysmal poetry, but there is, albeit rarely, soul stirring poetry.

The first few times that I came across good poetry was in 12 grade when I thoroughly enjoyed the poetry that I was to study, in spite of my friends trying to convince me otherwise. Even our English teachers gave up on poetry, one of them claiming that poetry could never be taught. If you enjoy poetry, you just do, and if you don’t, then poetry might just not be the literature for you. There are few sentences I disagree with more than this. This does not stem from experienced reading of poetry (or people), but an intuition that anyone will probably understand. I truly believe, that there is only a need for an interesting story, or an explanation, behind rhymed or free verses to make it appealing to people who have the patience to stand a string of unnecessary lines, to finally find something that speaks to them. What I think is the reason for poetry not being popular enough, is that it requires much more patience, and (for most people) not enough profit at the end of it.

Notwithstanding whether or not one likes poetry, there are certain poems which need to be discovered and read, whether it is the embracing the earth, or an utter rejection of the society. Some of these poems of the following list have carried themselves to be my favorites after a span of over a year, and some have only just condensed into my mind. Regardless, here are some of the poems that I think might change your mind about poetry:

1. The Primer by Christina Davis

This has to be, honestly, the shortest poem with the most impact. It is succinct, and plenty, both at the same time. Whatever purpose it needed to admit, it did so with dignity.

2. Tithonus by Lord Alfred Tennyson

This is a poem written way back in 1859, but do not let that discourage you.  The overview of the story is that Eos, the goddess of dawn, and Tithonus’ (a mortal) lover, asked for immortality from Zeus for Tithonus, and Zeus granted her that. This meant that Tithonus would live forever. But a grave error on Eos’ part resulted in him not obtaining eternal youth and he started to grow ever old with time. Eos, on the other hand, was a goddess and never aged. The poem is a dramatic monologue that Tithonus narrates, helpless about the state of his body and mind. He has become a mere shadow of himself. It is long and weary, but SparkNotes read will be more than worth your time.

3. The Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Robert Browning is a shocking poet, to say the least. Whether it is him talking about a man strangling his lover to death with her own beautiful, golden hair, or that his protagonist is talking to a messenger about his dead wife (whom he presumably killed). The poem is a dramatic monologue, and a Duke is talking to a messenger who has been sent to the Duke for the arrangement of marriage with another powerful family. While he is showing the messenger around, they come across a veiled portrait of an exceptionally young and lovely girl (who, we find out, is the wife of the Duke). The lines “I gave commands; the smiles stopped altogether”, gives me chills to this day.

4.  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot has been one of the poets that I have loved for a while now, and his post-modern poetry actually appeals to me more than I generally care to admit. This particular poem is a fruitful insight into the mind of an overeducated man who wants to (probably) consummate his relationship with a potential lover. Classic Eliot does consist of a dark cityscape, and an eventual idea of destruction. But in spite of that, we never lose sight of the protagonist who is neurotic, and eccentric, exactly the kind of protagonist who we like to read about. The poem is long (and can get tedious), but it is simple and articulate.

These are only some of the poems that I have come to love over a longer period of time. Other poets like Charles Bukowski, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath have always intrigued me, and transformed me into a patient reader, a quality that ever reader should hope for. After all, you never know how slow you need to go to finally get to where you want to go.

Why pigeons should be flying higher

I have hated pigeons with a physically-felt madness ever since I moved into hostel room. Every morning, before I am fully prepared to wake up, I find my reverie broken by the flutter of wings in my room. I never could sleep with my windows and curtains closed, and so this was the fate that I had to accept. I even tried placing a balloon fashioned out of paper (it looked like an owl), and waiting for the birds to realize that they were under the insomniac eyes of a predator. It was a proposition I found online but I suppose the pigeons in my college are too used to human company to feel threatened by a foolish attempt to keep them away from their dream home above my closet.

There were times when I had met mousy pigeons that did not fly into a metal blade whirring at fast speeds just to see if they could. These were pigeons of another time and place, watchful in their judgment of the roads they barely survived on. Most of the details of the day that I met one of such have been erased away leaving behind a melange of every other unimportant detail, like the smell of wet muddy grass on the seats of the old car, and my grandfather snoring loudly in the passenger seat. I even remember the color of the little ducks on the pyjamas I was wearing, and it was pink, not yellow as I have now realized to be a better option, and a more sane one. Pink does not look very good with blood all over it.

It was a warm, sunny day, I suppose, since my grandfather decided to keep his side of the window rolled down. We were cruising along the highway at around 120 kmph, gray roads lay stretched way beyond their ability in front of us, pulled and scratched until satisfactory. I was still younger back then, and not every moment in a car was spent imagining car crashes. I had already given into my nausea, and was sleeping in the back seat, leaning on my mother’s arm. My grandmother sat farther away, her windows (and mine) rolled up, staring into blue trees steadfastly, like there was some wisdom that was lost on her, that age had denied her. Of course, these are just the fake memories of a 12 year old, most of it has now attached itself to other memories that have been more particular.

It is difficult to place the exact moment when it happened. But I remember the sound more clearly than I remember my own voice. A bird, struck by a push of pressure, flying against the direction of our car, got sucked into the one open window, and flew right in. I heard a heavy crack, and a soft but strong plop, and I woke up to what was the goriest sight I have ever seen in real life. The pigeon had had nowhere to go; it had crashed right by my right shoulder. A piece of its broken beak lay on my lap. The rest of its body, headless, was lying near my feet. It was the remainder of a broken pigeon (I only identified the bird now), headless and blunt. My pyjamas were not not recognizable, it as covered in red goo that felt like clotted blood, but I’d never seen blood so close. And so much.

They stopped the car. Someone held me while I threw up a digested breakfast. Someone helped me change into clean clothes while someone else cleaned the car and threw the pigeon onto the side of the road, in deep bushes. I didn’t feel much else other than disgust then, but I realize now I should have felt worse for the bird. But it’s too late now, not that it is possible to decide how late it is now, and why it wasn’t late then. I couldn’t have saved the bird, I couldn’t have removed the fear of the possibility of that bird landing at my face, and I definitely wouldn’t have lost my favorite pyjamas. But remorse eludes possibility of a lack of possibility, and I have repressed the dead pigeon inside me for quite a while, not that it made for an interesting story or a good, dinner conversation. But I know for a fact, that I cannot see one more hapless animal slashed through a good body because of… Determined fate. Maybe pigeons should have realized by now they should be flying higher than they already do. And find homes among tall trees, not upright sand, stone and metal.