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Priya Rajan: A window as wide as the world

I live in a concrete maze that boasts a few yards of curbed open space and calibrated greenery. High-rises clutter the view of sky; pigeons and mynahs rule the roofs. Urban wildlife often feels incongruous, surreal. A praying mantis sheltering from lashing rain makes the windowsill suddenly more meaningful, though that is not its purpose.

Priya Rajan, Orion Magazine

One afternoon, my two-year-old daughter and I idled around our apartment complex in Bangalore, watching a dragonfly hover over a thorn, when suddenly she began pointing toward the fringe of lawn below. There, a cat leaped at a wiry viper hatchling as it peeped out of its hole. We watched rapt as the cat shoved its paw down the hole and drew out the young snake, only to see it writhe free and vanish into the insecticide-soaked hedgerow.

I live in a concrete maze that boasts a few yards of curbed open space and calibrated greenery. High-rises, dish antennas, and bare poles clutter the view of sky; pigeons and mynahs rule the roofs. Life here often feels sterile. Still and barren. But my daughter was ecstatic after seeing the snake, and, wishing to borrow some of her young wonder, I began to look out my window with new eyes, in pursuit of my own private awe.

One gusty evening, gray clouds hung low, and the air was pregnant with moisture. An updraft of water droplets sent the pigeons skittering before things abruptly grew quiet on the lawn. The mynahs’ ruckus died, and a wagtail abandoned its sentry post on a nearby pole. A small raptor swooped down. I grabbed a pair of binoculars, rushed with my daughter to the balcony, and focused on the bird. There, perched on that same pole, was a female shikra. She sat still, as if meditating, yet alert, her yellow irises fixed in a faraway gaze.

The name shikra comes from the Hindi word shikar, which means “to hunt,” and she looked every bit a hunter. Experts say that these elusive little banded goshawks are adept urban dwellers, though they prefer forested cover. I had not imagined an iconic raptor could appear in my neighborhood, let alone sit exposed, allowing me to take in her piercing eyes, diminutive but daggerlike talons, and exquisite rufous-striped body. She lingered for a few minutes, then flew away leaving a hailstorm behind. My excitement lasted for the rest of the day.

After that day, the pole itself was changed. I often peered out to look at it with piety, and I started to take notice of things around it.

One dawn, above that pole, I watch a flock of egrets flying eastward, followed by a flock of rose-ringed parakeets. I momentarily worry for the egrets as they head toward the frothing lakes in the city, but even the knowledge of foaming effluents cannot taint this image of the flock fleeting in the alpenglow.

Another day, we spot a small bird darting in and out of a neighbor’s balcony with a leafy green tail trailing. It enters with the tail and exits without it. It is a scaly-breasted munia, a finch, building its nest behind an air conditioner vent. This narrow patch beneath the patios is bare except for a thicket of reeds, and I only notice it now by following the bird. When I look again after the monsoon, it is alive with an overgrowth of tridax daisies swaying beneath green-tailed jay butterflies.

In late winter, a red-whiskered bulbul tilts its crest to pick at twigs that have fallen from a lone Gulmohar tree, its canopy level with my balcony. In summer, when the tree comes abloom with scarlet flowers, a pair of greater coucals hop on the branches, basking in the morning light, their glossy black bodies and burnished brown wings gleaming against the tree’s fiery crown.

Outside my apartment, near the compound wall, a pair of black kites roost on a transmission tower. More scavengers than hunters here, these birds feast on whatever refuse the burgeoning city has to offer. But when they perch high up on the tower and let out a shrill, or cartwheel against the orange sky in the evenings, they momentarily transform and elevate their surroundings. They look assured, tucked into a fork of metal frame, as if resting in a tree by a stream.

Urban wildlife often feels incongruous, surreal. A praying mantis sheltering from a lashing rain makes the windowsill suddenly more meaningful, more beautiful, though that is not its purpose. At times I find myself overwhelmed by the presence of these mantises, frogs, coucals, and vipers—an entire food chain on a thin slice of land marked by metal and clipped garden grass.

Priya Rajan lives in Bangalore, India. Her work has appeared in NatureWriting, Snapdragon, and Flock.


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