Art and science come together rarely, and they come together with humour even more rarely. In this book, as in much of Rohan Chakravarty’s work, they all meld beautifully, with touches of allure, sensitivity, and grace. Here, he brings to life in his unique style the lifestyle quirks and natural history of a hundred species of Indian birds. Each artful page on a particular species grabs you with its visual and aesthetic appeal. It also distils information on the bird’s habits and natural history, and bustles with the vitality, peculiarity, and idiosyncracies of that bird’s behaviour. And all of this is done in a manner that no field guide, bird book, encyclopedia, or video documentary on Indian birds has ever achieved.
This is a chirpy and sprightly book, brimming with life, with scarcely a dull moment in its pages. The birds leap and glide and whistle and wag and swoop and spear and court and cavort. They dive into oceans and wing over mountains, they chisel into trees and probe into mud, they sing their hearts out and serenade their mates, they nest in trees and houses and earth-tunnels and mounds, they gobble garbage and slurp nectar, they drink and dance and do the doo-doo.
There’s so much liveliness in each page and the behaviour of each species is illustrated so well that you may be tempted to flip quickly to the next page, skipping past the words to the next eye-catching illustration. But that would be a mistake. The writing, too, is not to be missed. Rohan’s brief word-portraits of the birds and accurate and charming descriptions of their curious adaptations and behaviours will bring you many a chuckle, much jaw-dropping astonishment, and ultimately a new or renewed intimacy with these wonderful birds.
For children and adults, there is much to learn within these pages. I say this not just as an admirer of Rohan’s work, but as a hobby birdwatcher for over 35 years and a bird researcher for at least half that period. I learnt much that I never knew and felt delighted afresh in the little that I did, seeing it portrayed in this unique way. The species illustrated here also offer a glimpse of India’s remarkable diversity of 1300 bird species: from the house sparrow and barn swallow familiar to almost everyone, the black kites of our cities and the cattle egrets of our countryside, from daytime larks and eagles to nightjars and owls, and rarities like the satyr tragopan and the endangered great Indian bustards.
The book both reveals and evokes a love for birds and a concern over their plights and lives. In our rapidly changing planet, the plight of birds only reflects our own plight and, in that sense, bird business is our business, too. This, you can discover for yourself, when you turn to the delightful pages that follow.
How should we as humans value and relate to other animals? When we use animals in research, in zoos and aquaria, as food items or body parts, as specimens or experimental models, as pets, as machismo-inflating trophies to be bagged, or just as objects for entertainment, do we fully understand their needs, their welfare, their interests? Do we also comprehend our own underlying values, overt or covert, that are revealed in the way we deal with other animals? Is it right to speak of animal interests, pain, and suffering? The implications of the knowledge we have gained in recent times from scientific research on animal societies, behaviour, and cognition on the way we view animals is profound. This year, I was fortunate to read two very different and remarkable books, both compelling and thought-provoking, which bring these issues to the fore. Taken together with the leading primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy, that I have referred to in an earlier post, these books are a valuable read for wildlife scientists and all those who have the interests of animals at heart.
My first reaction to these two astounding books, as a practicing wildlife scientist with a claim to be involved in animal research and conservation over the last two decades was: “Why were these profoundly important issues never a formal and thorough part of my academic training or practice?” Is it because issues of human values, morals and ethics are considered outside the pale of training to be a wildlife scientist or ecologist? Is it because they are considered wishy-washy or vague, or, devil-take-you, too subjective? Or is it simply because most present-day wildlife scientists actually do not have a deep understanding or appreciation of the central issues, or if they do, they prefer to keep it to themselves? But why not? We use animals in research. We make claim to efforts to understand them. We make conservation appeals, ostensibly, on their behalf. We probe, we peer, we collect, we tag, we trap, we handle, we follow, we even sometimes kill animals for scientific study. Do we really do all this on the basis of a comprehensive ethical and moral foundation? Or do we shy away from these issues because of being tagged an animal-rights activist even if we are not really speaking of rights? In the context of conservation, can we achieve our goals if we lack a foundational conservation ethic? These books give plenty of food for thought.
A brilliant work by a Nobel laureate in literature and a wonderful book to start the year with. A superb form of academic novel (a novel genre, I could say, if the pun may be forgiven), this is top-notch writing on a theme of profound and enduring significance for anyone concerned with human values and connections with other animals.
J. M. Coetzee, invited to Princeton to deliver the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values, presents the lectures as a fictional story with debate and dialogue crafted into the form of this book. Within it is the story of Elizabeth Costello, herself an academic, invited to deliver lectures at a University, and the lectures she delivers and the ensuing responses. Reading it as a sort of literary dialectic, one is swept by Coetzee’s tight and engaging prose into central moral, philosophical and ethical issues related to the lives of animals. The four commentaries that accompany the central work by Coetzee are excellent, too. The book’s introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann, and accompanying essay commentaries by Wendy Doniger (religion scholar), Barbara Smuts (primatologist), Marjorie Garber (literary theorist ), and Peter Singer (moral philosopher and author of Animal Liberation reviewed below) are worth reading and add great value to this book.
Coetzee touches on vital issues that relate to whether we perceive other animals as beings with interests or as objects for our manipulation. Cruelty, sentience, sympathy, empathy, and the morality of our actions towards other sentient beings is the undercurrent of Coetzee’s words, of Costello’s debate. Vegetarianism, animal intelligence and how we perceive it even as trained scientists, pain and suffering, animal slaughter or ‘sacrifice’, these are all themes seamlessly woven into a gripping narrative thread. Coetzee brings sudden and scathing clarity and depth to the work of a litany of earlier writers, scientists, and philosophers: of Thomas Aquinas and Jeremy Bentham, Franz Kafka and Tom Regan, Wolfgang Köhler and Mary Midgely, and many others.
And yet, the implications are not thrust on you as absolutes, as dogma. It comes in measured words, prompting a dawning awareness. To do this Coetzee draws brilliantly on Kafka’s Red Peter, the ape presenting A Report to An Academy, and Costello’s words only seem to echo his own hidden voice:
I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.
A phenomenal work, worth reading and re-reading, even if only to be touched by Coetzee’s prose, or perhaps for introspective and outwardly illumination.
Compelling and well-written, Peter Singer’s book is a classic that should be required reading for anyone concerned with the interests of animals. Without taking recourse to the issue of the rights of animals, Singer explains how moral and ethical positions we can take and understand become inadequate if restricted only to humans. Trying to separate humans as a species as somehow distinct and above beings of all other species (speciesism), if pursued logically and through all its implications, only leads to moral, ethical, and philosophical positions that are untenable.
A considerable portion of the book is devoted to detailed and balanced consideration of two major issues affecting the interests and welfare of animals: (a) the millions upon millions of animals used in research and vivisection, and (b) the billions and billions of animals ‘reared’ (=imprisoned) in factory farms and other facilities in cruel conditions and inefficiently (from social and ecological perspectives) only to be ultimately slaughtered, often painfully, for use as food for humans. This is not to overlook the (ab)use of animals for other reasons, such as for fur or other animal products such as leather, but just that the number of animals cruelly treated for vivisectional research/animal testing and for food is enormous. According to Singer, the greatest impact on the largest number of animals will result from immediate changes in these two areas: by avoiding and finding alternatives to animal testing and vivisection, and by going vegetarian, vegan, or being far more circumspect and choosy about where the animal flesh or produce you eat comes from and how the animals were raised and treated.
Besides bringing these issues forward and in-your-face for serious consideration, Singer’s major contributions in this book are a lucid articulation of some central issues. First, the issue of what equality involves (not assuming that everyone is equal as there is undeniable variation, but the ethical imperative of equal treatment). Second, bringing consideration of the interests of animals to the forefront (without need to draw on or call for animal ‘rights’). Separating issues related to preventing pain and suffering, from issues related to the actual killing of animals is another distinction that leads to nuances in treatment of animals and animal welfare in various contexts.
The book is perhaps titled Animal Liberation to raise analogies with other liberation movements, for instance against slavery, racism, and sexism. In fact, many ethical and moral issues raised are consistent across these various movements. The way these are highlighted by the author and the analogies that he draws are very useful both to understand issues and to strengthen reasoned debate. One can ponder on the ideas Singer presents. One can grasp practical suggestions he gives for more ethical personal choices. And one can act.
Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, say the news reports. Really?! Or should I say—not again?! He’s been killed twice in India already! Once in 2006 and again in 2008. Yes, it made news splashes even then, although not as large a splash as his most recent death. Osama’s first death occurred in December 2006 in a tea estate in Assam in north-east India, at the hands of a hunter, a hired gun tasked with taking out the terrifying serial killer. And as if that was not enough, he was killed again in May 2008, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, at the hands of an empowered mob of government authority—the Forest Department and the Police. The second death was not easy. It took 20 bullets to silence Osama. And from the recent news, it seems even that did not work, after all.
The painful truth is that the first two deaths of Osama referred, not to the terrorist mastermind and leader of al-Qaeda, but to two separate individual Asian elephants Elephas maximus, Asia’s largest land mammal, with the contrasting reputation of being the gentle giants of its forests. These individuals were named after a feared human, on the most-wanted list of a distant superpower. They were labeled serial killers and raging bulls, as rogues and as terrorisers. And yet, when people came to see the prostrate corpse of the killed elephant, they placed flowers on its body, even as many asked whether the right animal was killed or it was just another innocent elephant victim.
It is a year, today, since he passed on from this world, almost unnoticed, unappreciated even. Not that he looked for appreciation. For as long and as far as I knew him, he looked for other things in his long and self-made life. Till the end, there were things that could light up his eye—a reminiscence of hours spent in the wilderness in years past, his younger biking days and his Calcutta, tinkering with binoculars and radio equipment, a good book or a new stock of interesting tobacco for his pipe, getting together with friends for a chat, and, of course, a good joke, the dirtier the better.
The name given him was R. K. G. Menon, but that was not how he was known. He had a nickname of long standing—60 years, no less—emerging from the hallowed corridors of the Madras Christian College: Cutlet. He was always, to all of us who knew him, just Cutlet.