During my last visit to India, I studied yoga in Chennai for more than 2 ½ months. During that time, focusing on breath and body and mind and observation, I noticed things I had never noticed before, as if I was seeing them for the first time. Yoga tends to do that to a person.
For a few days, all I noticed was crows, dogs and mosquitoes.
The Indian crow sits on the branch of a tree, on top of the garbage bin, or on the ledge of a balcony. Sometimes it holds a piece of food in its mouth as it sits. At times it is simply making its trademark “kaaa kaaa” sound, beak open wide. Sometimes it is flying around and swooping with purpose (usually food is the goal). Other times it is scratching its broad body with its beak, weary of me walking towards it and disturbing its groove. I rarely see it with a friend. Its nearest companion is often couple of tree branches over, and it does not appear to be bothered with the fact that there is no socializing happening.
The crow seems to do its “thing”, to fulfill its purpose, without any concern for anything else unless it feels immediately threatened. Crows are not pretty creatures at first glance. They are mostly black with a greyish-brown coloured neck and head, skinny and gangly legs, a curved yet unshapely beak. They have beady eyes that seem to drill holes into you when you look at them. And their annoying crowing sound can get on the nerves if you are listening too closely or in the middle of an activity that requires “quiet”. All in all, the Indian crow is one of the most unattractive and seemingly irritating birds I have ever seen (in Toronto, I would have to say pigeons).
But, crows are actually quite brilliant.
They are confident and steady, stable and grounded. They are re-users and recyclers of things. They appear quite independent and free. They can even be handsome or moderately attractive, when their well groomed black feathers shine off of the rays of the sun. Their voices carry courage, the courage to express themselves, to share their truth, even if others may not necessarily notice or appreciate it. They do not seem to care if they do not have friends or a social circle, and they always look busy and alert even when they seem to be doing practically nothing. They seem to call out for people to notice them, tolerate them, throw scraps at them, just because they have the right to be where they are, which is to exist, to live free, and to help us clean up our messes.
And then there’s the Indian street dog (sometimes many of them) that makes its way down the side of almost every street on which I travel. Some of these dogs look completely tragic, limping, blood shot eyes, skin eaten through by who-knows-what insect, malnourished, and confused. But despite their grungy appearance, some of these dogs have been adopted by some individual or the other who lives nearby and has decided to take the responsibility of feeding them, taking care of them when they are sick, holding them when they want to be touched, playing with them. These dogs are homeless and yet they often find a home wherever they are.
But they are on display for the whole world to see their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, and their struggles. They take lazy naps on the beach and search for scraps near the garbage piles. They bark loudly when they want to be heard, and they make friends with other dogs along on their journey. They look at you with their big soft eyes when they see you have food to share. Their hearts always seem to be open yet they are realistic and practical about the ways of the world. They are accepting of what “is”, i.e. their life circumstances, and they seem to trust that they will be taken care of wherever they are – that they will be provided for if they themselves cannot find what they require to meet their needs.
The stray dog gives many children, families, and lonely homemakers a chance to bond with a living thing that expects very little and yet provides a purpose. I have heard about a woman a few streets over who drives around the neighbourhood each day, feeding over 50 street dogs at a time. And these dogs know her now, and she knows them and what they like to eat. Do they prefer dhal or rice? Chapati or sooji? She knows these things, and she will not miss a day of feeding them. If she has to go out of town for some reason she makes sure her daughter flies down to Chennai from Delhi to take over her daily dog feeding duties. What a miraculous thing, that these dogs who really belong to no one in particular, can create such a bond with people and be fed even more frequently than the homeless people sleeping in the middle of the streets…
Oh and then the over-confident and highly egocentric Indian mosquito shows up. Buzzing around anyone with a pulse, knowing full well how annoying they are, only seeking what they need from others and nothing more. They leave a mark, and sometimes a bump, and usually an itch. Sometimes that itch turns into a bigger itch and potentially a minor or major disturbance. That disturbance sometimes leaves a mark (like the one I still have on my right calf from the summer of 1989). Sometimes the mosquitos are carrying something more serious than an itch – malaria, dengue fever, an unknown virus, and they are quite willing to pass these on and share their baggage with others. Those that come into contact with these ones have to pass through a journey of pain, high body temperatures, shivering, and discomfort before they can move on.
Every time the mosquito pricks someone they somehow remind that individual of all those minor and not so minor disturbances and irritations that make people want to run away or squash the thing itself. But squashing the mosquito often makes no difference because another proud mosquito comes along almost immediately afterwards to replace the one who has been squashed, and this new “friend” is seeking the same blood. They keep flying, buzzing, swarming, poking, and repellents can only do so much. I know of those who sleep with a net around them, only wear long sleeves, swat at the things with a vengeance, but to no end. If a mosquito is meant to bite you, it will. And then you will pay somehow, either in a minor or a major way.
But mosquitoes have to be admired for their diligence and their one track purpose. They are not distracted by what does not serve them. They get their needs met, even if at the expense of others. They are selfish and self-serving, just like the majority of the human race. And yet we swat at them like they are so alien to our space.
The crow, the stray dog, and the mosquito all have much in common with us, even if we pass by them on a daily basis without much thought. But when I do think about them, they are mirrors for me to gaze into, and to reflect on who I am in this world. Thank you, India, for allowing me to get to know these lovely creatures, and myself, just a bit better…