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In search of silence
A happy orangutan family

There is little sympathy for the late riser. If you aren’t prematurely roused by noise within the home — other family members on the prowl; the incessantly-ringing doorbell to announce milk/maid/newspaper; clattering dishes which perhaps need not have been hurled to the ground quite so vociferously — you will surely be awoken by the noise outside.

If you, like I once did, live on a road with less traffic than most, it might surprise you that between 7am and 9am, anyone with a car feels the urge to keep his hand pressed down on the horn the moment they enter your road till the moment they turn it off. Ditto the buses, except those are far louder, adding the violent rattling of their tin bodies to the soothing mix.

In Calcutta, there is also another source of din even better designed to disrupt slumber: the cries of industrious salesman appealing largely to that section of housewives who wake with the sun.

“Breeeaaaad!”

Papita!”

“Sabji!”

Kagoooooj!”

Any or all of these shrill cries have regularly pierced my sleep over the years, well before I was prepared for it.

I thought moving to Shanghai would mean an escape from all that. Till I ended up in an apartment situated on a major intersection. Not only in the morning did the traffic noise float 20 floors up, all through the night a surprising number of people would race down the road with their heads hanging out of the windows of their cars, screaming at the top of their lungs. Inebriation of an acute kind is the only cause I can think of for such behaviour, but it is possible there is a deep cultural explanation that currently escapes me.

As a result, while looking for a house this year, a quiet location was on top of the list of priorities. We finally settled on a cosy apartment that seemed perfect for just that: overlooking a beautiful neighbourhood park and a small body of water, with not a car or bus or road in sight.

eeping was now effortless; wakefulness came only when it was desired and not a moment before. Every morning as I sipped my coffee I listened to the chirping of birds and watched a plump squirrel leaping from branch to wintry branch. Cats, fat from their fluffy fur coats and too much indulgence, sat below with watchful eyes.

It wasn’t till after my first night on the town that the idyllic illusion was shattered.

Cries of “Fire! Fire!” and then gunshots — numerous and in rapid succession — were what woke me with a start as I slept a little later than usual. It was enough to send me shooting out from under the toasty covers to the draughty window. All seemed tranquil enough. Yet a few moments later, the same alarming shouts were repeated. Immediately after, to increase my confusion manifold, started the unmistakable tune of Happy Birthday.

Was it nothing more fearsome then a child’s party? But then I paid closer attention to the lyrics. In place of the usual “Happy birthday to you”, I could decipher the words “Good morning to you”. And then, down the path inside the park I saw a child running, wearing so many protective layers he was almost perfectly round, his mother behind him. And he was headed for what had previously escaped my attention, shielded as it was behind some trees: a children’s play area not 300 feet from my bedroom window, as the crow flies.

I feared it was time to become a morning person.

Perhaps seeking any sort of peace and quiet in a city of 20 million people, or any city at all, is sheer folly. It feels like the last time I was truly immersed in green was on a trip to Goa, and even there, the only wildlife I spotted was a hawk, which in my ignorance I called a stork, a mistake I was told caused the bird to fly swiftly away in shame. The only other non-humans we got close to were beach dogs who were much more friendly.

NOISY NATURE

But the biggest mistake may be in assuming that man is what makes all the noise and that nature is silent. As I discovered when, to get a real shot of the wild, I ventured deep into the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo last year. When night fell, with no traffic to mask it, the jungle was loud beyond anything I could have anticipated.

And wonderful though it was, there was little about the experience I would describe as idyllic. Like many who crave nature, I am remarkably ill prepared to deal with its less pleasant accompaniments. Before embarking on the trip, I spent a good deal of time ensuring I would be protected from leeches in particular, which my reading told me infested the jungle. After a day of searching every sports shop in town for leech-proof socks, I came home empty-handed, except for a broad-brimmed hat to keep away any blood-suckers that may fall from the trees and onto my head, pesticide spray that seemed capable of killing just about anything, and a stash of rain ponchos because it was, at the end of the day, a rainforest.

Finally I didn’t encounter any leeches, or rain for that matter. But I did get my fill of the good stuff — herds of pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, birds of several exotic kinds (I won’t attempt to name them to avoid giving offence) and even snakes which, happily, did not cause me to rapidly decamp. We didn’t spot any of the increasingly rare orangutans in the wild, though we did see numerous at a lovely sanctuary and halfway home, of sorts, for the primates.

Amongst them was a mother dextrously navigating a rope while her precious cargo, a tiny infant, clung ably to her chest. She stopped for a while in our view to eat some apples and to groom her baby. Both looked shockingly like old, withered men —thus justifying their name, which means old man of the forest. Then there was a couple that engaged in a brief session of cuddling, followed by an even briefer bout of mating. When the deed was done, the male pushed the female away with some force. She was thrown from her precarious perch but, being an orangutan, caught herself just in time with those famously long arms. Without further ado, she swung to a feeding station and proceeded to eat a large amount of fruit.

Like many women, this orangutan appeared to have fallen prey to emotional eating. Perhaps she would not mind switching her tree house and inconsiderate lover for a flat in a big city with a view of a sometimes-noisy park, the only males a safe distance away and on two legs. But I don’t think she would take as much delight as I in that fluffy little squirrel. Our habitats may in fact suit us better than we think.

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