One of the small joys of life during lockdown was the heightened awareness of our non-human neighbours. The myriad species of animals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants that actively share our world but were hitherto largely ignored.
As most of us looked inwards, some discovering spirituality, others, Dalgona coffee, there was a decided increase in the number of social media posts around pampered pets, perceived pests and everything in between!
Many pets have since acquired their own Instagram handles. Some have got a fashion-forward wardrobe. Singing cats, somersaulting cockatoos, high-jumping dogs, they have all found a fan following. The owls are a hoot too. The go-getters have got a career and paid promotions.
Meanwhile, oblivious to their ambitious extremely online peers, the denizens of the world outside (and sometimes inside!) my window carry on entertaining me for free. The antics of the parakeets that my neighbours feed twice a day are as engrossing as a David Attenborough series. The interactions between the more delicate rose-ringed ones and the larger Alexandrines are more comical than the stand-up comedy acts we used to pay through the nose for in the pre-Covid era.
I’ve also been privy to the breeding habits of sparrows. There is a particular corner of an external wall that is a favourite of chirpy males wanting to strut their stuff while looking for a mate. Every morning, like clockwork, you’ll see an eager boy sunning himself, fluffing up his feathers and hopping about with much energy. When a female comes to inspect him and the nest he has built, his chirps acquire sten gun-like speed. Born in the cable TV box in our corridor, he hopes to father the next generation in the same place. He hasn’t met his soulmate, the woman of his dreams, the mother of his future babies yet though. So, he continues to preen and prance, and stay positive.
I’ve grown to be more accepting of lizards after a courting couple had its first date on my kitchen ceiling. They probably were Swedish lizards, in hindsight, because they didn’t speak much over their shared moth supper by tube-light but got jiggy with it almost as soon as they finished eating. The things I now know about lizards and their post-coital cuddles!
Acceptance is key. Irrational fear often comes in the way of this. I have friends who are afraid of dogs, of cats, even of pigeons! And I recall how I had to face my own fear of roaches when my friend and I were holidaying in Goa. There was a big cockroach in our bathroom and I wanted her to get rid of him. But Dr Prerna Vaswani, being a compassionate veterinary doctor who owns The PetVet clinic in Churchgate, talked about him being a geriatric old gent, slow moving and probably sick. She actually made me see his side of the story, which is what we need to do for all the creatures that we find abhorrent. This is how I got over my fear of spider webs and actually went on a spider walk on a recent trip to Kabini in Karnataka!
Interaction helps to get over any inter-species awkwardness. There are many people who feed a variety of birds and animals. This is great as long as you don’t overfeed them, give them food that isn’t good for them, or make them lose their natural instincts of foraging or hunting. The migratory seagulls may have developed a taste for gathia, but that doesn’t mean we should give them bagfuls of it! But giving something to another species and having them appreciate it is very satisfying, especially as they can be affectionate in their own way and a relationship develops over time. A particular crow has been visiting my mum’s place for meals for years. We’ve learned how to understand ‘crowese’, as they have different types of caws for different moods. Often, the crow will just sit on the sill for hours, almost as though he’s craving human company.
This is certainly true of the cats I meet on the little walks I take whenever possible. While many sidle up in the greedy knowledge that I bring offerings (I carry cat kibble for just these occasions), there are several innocents who just want the love. They shut their eyes in pleasure with a few pats and purr away, much to my joy. There are streeties everywhere but I’ve often made the trip to picturesque Pali village in Bandra just to meet the feisty felines there.
Street dogs too love human companions and most streeties are happy to welcome you with open paws. The relationship between these fur buddies and the people who dwell and work in close proximity to them is undeniable and aww-inspiring. For almost every watchman and cobbler missing the warmth of family and friends back in their village, there is a four-legged friend (or 20!) to help add cheer to the dreary days. Everywhere I go, I see them spending from their meagre salary on food and medicines and helping in the sterilisation programmes for the streeties.
Abodh Aras, my friend who is CEO of the NGO Welfare of Stray Dogs, had pointed this out to me more than a decade ago and I have taken note ever since. He also helped me understand the animals’ rights. The areas we inhabit are as much theirs as they are ours. We may have paid a pretty penny for our property, but they have a natural as well as legal right to live there too. We are all territorial beings and want to stake our claim on our space. But co-existing with our fellow creations brings an unexpected amount of happiness that is far more valuable.
So, be it that tree that leans on your wall or maybe the predator that ‘gifts’ you their hunting trophy, it’s all part of learning to live and let live. There are so many varieties of creatures within the urban jungle. Birds such as grey hornbills, flamingos, bee-eaters, barbets, mynahs or kites, trees from all over the world, reptiles like snakes and turtles, insects such as butterflies and moths, animals like monkeys and even leopards. All of them and more are not too far away from you if you live in Mumbai. Just a little bit of homework and you could discover your own discovery channel around your home.
(The columnist is Associate Editor, Travelgram, and a bespoke Mumbai tour specialist. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @priyapathiyan and @thehungryhappyhippy on Facebook. She blogs on thehungryhappyhippy.com)