It’s not about birds


  • a person who watches and identifies wild birds (Merriam-Webster)
  • a person who watches birds in their natural environment and identifies different breeds, as a hobby (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary)

I am not sure if I qualify as a birdwatcher according to the above dictionary meanings—I love watching birds and observing their antics but struggle with remembering their names. Even after long possessing a copy of Ranjit Lal’s Birds from My Window, a delightful little book describing the antics of ‘ordinary’ and not-so-ordinary birds in Delhi, all seen from the author’s bedroom balcony, I didn’t follow his advice that ‘you don’t have to go tramping off into the wilderness in order to see birds’ for quite some time. Between 2010 and 2012 when I lived in a concrete apartment block (with exactly one tree) in East Delhi, I didn’t expect to ‘see’ birds there and always went to see them elsewhere in the city—in Lodi Gardens or my parents’ lush garden in Chanakyapuri, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary or the Ridge—or outside the city in the hills or sanctuaries I went to for holidays. It took a severe case of typhoid and consequent insomnia, which involved long hours of sitting in my balcony through much of the evening, night and early morning hours, for me to see the birds amidst the concrete. I noticed a barn owl family living in a nook of a vacant house adjacent mine, blue rock pigeons continuously mating on the terrace opposite and sometimes being caught by the resident tomcat, parakeets chilling out on a cable, crows cawing on my balcony ledge asking me for water, mynas having a high-pitched argument next to the stairway, the lone brown rock chat hopping about on a parapet, tailorbirds skipping away among my plants and nibbling on the fruits of the curry patta plant, and much more. These birds hadn’t suddenly descended to cheer me up in my illness. They had always been there, but I was ‘seeing’ them for the first time in the environs of my apartment.

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‘I don’t do mornings and I don’t want to go looking for worms. And why has my pajama grown overnight?’ complains this sleepy and grumpy red-vented bulbul.
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‘I can see you too, you silly human’, says the jungle babbler.

Lal writes that ‘ordinary’ birds in the city like sparrows, crows and kites are ‘so used to our presence that they usually carry on with their lives as though we did not exist’. One could argue the reverse and say we are so used to the presence of ordinary (and not so ordinary) birds in the city, or so preoccupied with our lives, that we stop seeing them, and they cease to exist for us. And it’s not about birds, but about various ordinary things, activities, creatures and people that make the city and yet escape our seeing because we are so engrossed in getting from here to there or using city spaces for very instrumental purposes.

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‘Why can’t I just sit here all day long?’ ponders the tailorbird. 

So what makes us see or not see certain aspects of the city? John Berger’s aphorism that seeing is not merely ‘a question of mechanically reacting to stimuli’ provides the most obvious starting point to unravel this question. We only see that which we look at or look for—it involves choice, interest, concern and intentionality. We notice aspects of objects that we focus on and we actively seek out certain objects, whether it is birds, trees, modernist buildings, crowd behaviour, shop designs or anything else that interests us. Cities are such massive, heterogeneous and excessive creatures that anyone with any eccentric interest can pursue that to see and create her own little world. One can choose to see certain aspects of the city and use it to demonstrate practically any argument (and its opposite). Seeing not only ‘establishes our place in the surrounding world’, as Berger argues, but also makes that world in its image. So the same city can be simultaneously made as cruel and compassionate, abundant and poor, an environmental disaster and a delight for nature lovers.

Signage and typography: everyday designs in the streets and bazaars of Delhi.

Interests are, however, not always limiting. Sometimes they make you stumble upon things you were not looking for in the most unlikely places or allow you to see something anew. When I started doing my fieldwork on the weekly bazaars of Delhi, design was not something I was interested in, empirically or conceptually, despite my immersion in graphic design as a practice. But a few weeks into my fieldwork, I realized that I was being drawn to (and mapping) designs in the bazaar—of shops, signage, displays, objects and spaces. Design was not what I set out looking for in the bazaars, but here it was helping me maneuver through the sensual excess of the bazaar and allowing me to notice patterns and eccentricities.

Mapping of vendors
Mapping vendors in the 200-metre stretch of pavement outside my apartment. These are the regular ones with more or less fixed spots on and around the pavement. There are others who are there on some days or who stop awhile en route or ply for very short hours in the course of the day.

While design made me see weekly bazaars through a particular lens, fieldwork among the vendors of Delhi’s weekly bazaars has made me see street vendors everywhere I go around the city. But more importantly, it made me see for the first time how the 200-metre stretch of pavement outside my apartment with its diverse vendors constitutes a little world in itself—a micro-economy and a micro-community, partly stable and partly shifting continuously.

It is impossible to see or experience, let alone know, a city in its entirety. It is only through what Jane Jacobs refers to as the ‘smallness of big cities’ that we experience and make sense of the city. This smallness can blind us from seeing or open up new possibilities of seeing. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to see and enjoy Delhi’s birds. Nor do you have to be an anthropologist studying bazaars to see and appreciate the innumerable micro-economies that not only activate the city but also make its spaces lively and usable. However, to see, you first need to look. And ‘oh what we see when we finally stop looking’, but that’s the subject for another post.

—Samprati Pani

All photographs and map ©Chiragh Dilli.

4 thoughts on “It’s not about birds”

  1. That thought that the birds carry on oblivious to us, must be a rather common thought. But that didn’t stop me from treating this as a rather ennui lined epiphany when actually sitting in a small office in the hills, looking out the window at a bird which was phudaking, or doing phudak phudak – if you please. It was two days after Modi Ji had very sweetly decided that most of my currency was now invalid, and I was left wondering if the bird cares.

    On a completely unrelated note, when my esteemed mind started giving me auspicious signals that I have gotta be the world’s most talented amateur birdwatcher, my rather pompously modest friend lent me his copy of Simon Barnes’ How to Be A (Bad) Birdwatcher. My career ended in a whimper.

    On another unrelated note, I spent one (yes a full one) rather sweaty hour in the Jahanpanah forest, looking for trees that I could identify. Saw the most moist cactus I have seen in my life instead. Don’t know if the cactus has read the Hidden Life of Trees or not, but I am surely to going to return and lecture it with my new found wisdom of the apple, or the Cactaceae, not falling far from the tree. I think it will be a thorny issue.

    On yet another… this is tiring, the dogs on the pavement in my neighbourhood where vendors rule all do not eat either paneer or tomatoes. All 8 odd of them. I tried. Sachchi.

    I think I will rip your baazaar design idea instead and show the dogs their place.



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