The Dawn: Jan 17, 2014

Cities without birds: Metaphors for lifeless tomorrow!

Mushtaq Soofi 

When we think of cities it is not an image of birds that immediately appears on our mental map. What evokes the image of a city for us is a sort of architectural ensemble, a verticality symbolising a leap into limitless space. But can one imagine a city without birds however new it may be, displaying its modernity or post modernity? Birds are our oldest companions. They were there in the trees to cheer us up when we struggled with the ground covered in slush in the primeval forests. The sound, coming from the leafy domes that were roofs over our heads, hinted at the existence of a much bigger world which was not within the reach of our nebulous imagination at that point of time. They showed us that one could go up and beyond. And we did go up and beyond as we slowly and gradually learnt to build cities. Birds moved with us from jungles to our new habitat. They stand as a metaphor of our flight; a flight from the misty past to the sunny present.

Punjab’s cities not in so a distant past were different in more than one ways from the present ones. A typical city would be small in size with buildings not having more than four floors, surrounded by gardens and vegetation. Though the interior of city could give you a feeling of congestion, it would have lot of open spaces, public squares and water-pools. Bazaars, public buildings and houses would have nooks and corners with niches, offering the birds shelter. In most of the houses one would be delighted to hear the bird-songs wafted in the air from the specially built dove-rocks. Open pools refreshed the flocks with their cool splash. Indigenous trees like ‘Kikkar (Acacia), Tahli (Dalebergia Sisu), Nim (Azadirakhta Indica), Bakyan (Melia azadirakhta), Phulai (Ficus retinosa) and Pippal (Ficus religiosa) with their green umbrellas and thick foliage attracted birds resulting in a high nesting rate. In addition to big trees the indigenous fruit trees which people planted aplenty were ‘delectable both to behold and taste’ in the words of Milton. Older generation took pains to take care of sparrows, mainas, koels (black cuckoo), pigeons, doves, crows, parrots, starlings, kites and host of other birds by ensuring an uninterrupted supply of feed and water at private and public places.

Sacred sites like shrines and monasteries have been and still are the spots most frequented by birds due to their friendly architectural structures and ambiance. Feed in the form of offerings reflects God’s plenty and danger to birds’ life is minimal as such places are considered violence-free. Capturing, injuring and killing of birds is deemed tantamount to a sacrilege, hence a great sin that may invite the heaven’s wrath.

As a consequence of high population growth and booming construction activities no old city in Punjab any longer appears to be neatly old. It rather looks like a palimpsest. Open spaces have fallen victim to insatiable corporate greed as the builders of new world see no point in using the precious urban land for other than commercial purposes. In place of traditional green patches what you find now is some arboretums here and there nurtured by die-hard nature lovers at personal expense. This is a logical outcome of a so-called new development phenomenon. Military men turned town planners and civil bureaucrats turned horticulturalists have re-shaped and de-shaped our cities with scant care for our fast decreasing flora and fauna and bird life which connect us with nature and thus with ourselves. The planners build cities ‘without people’s wisdom’ in Brecht’s words. New high-rises are little more than fudges of erected steel and concrete hostile to anything living, especially the birds. Why to waste precious space on birds which one can see in the city’s zoo if at all one has to see them. But remember that birds are not an isolated phenomenon which we can afford to wish away. They are an integral part of a natural chain that sustains what we call life. Can we imagine our earth sans water, air, trees and birds? If we break the chain by eliminating any of the elements, we in fact disrupt the cycle of life. And by disrupting the cycle of life we would be endangering human life which is only a small part of it.

In order to maintain an already fragile ecological balance we must do at least two things. What we build must be bird friendly in the sense that it provides small safe spaces to birds, thus restoring us as a productive partner in the ever renewing holistic process of nature which we are a product of. Secondly, we have to overcome our obsession with so-called non-indigenous and fast-growing trees like Alstonia scholaris and date-palm which line our modern boulevards these days. Such trees, apart from being alien to our soil and climate, are hostile to bird life. We will have to act collectively while endeavouring individually if we do not want to be a self annihilating part of the whole. “Even in a flock of birds, each bird has to fly for itself” goes a Vedic saying. Birds are metaphors of dreams. A city that loses its birds loses its dreams. And losing dreams means the loss of what lies at the threshold of tomorrow. —

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page