Swimming Across The Media River

One week-end evening, the devices in the house were barking mad. Twing, twang, tring. Video calls, phone calls, instant messaging systems were all driving themselves to a tizzy. Far away, far, far away, 5000 miles away a temple bell was clanging.

I yearned for some quiet and asked if anyone cared on joining me for a walk in the cool Spring evening. Everyone sprang out of my sight like a cat let loose in a party of rats. The husband was trying to yelp his way out of a walk when the first free WhatsApp call came. He ran to pick up the phone with a sense of urgency, and secret relief that he did not have to go a-walking with me, but narrowly missed the call. I made for the open skies while he dialed back. 

The walk was a beautiful one. I admired squirrels chittering, birds twittering, even the raucous cackle of the geese seemed musical. I have, in my chronicles expressed an interest in finding out about animal communication. Misguided. It is better if we don’t know. This way, I could let the noise wash over me, and assume best intentions on their part. The breeze gently tousled my hair, and the setting sun threw brilliant hues across the scattered clouds.

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I stepped in to the home after some time, and saw the husband looking drawn and crumpled, like wet cloth tumbled about in a dryer.

Is everything alright? I asked him a little worried.

Yes! Yes! he said, and proceeded to tell me the thrilling tale of the past 1/2 hour. The saga clanged its way across temple towers, cell phone towers, underground cable networks, and busy human ones. Leaping from a small rural temple town in South India, a couple of metropolitan cities, and continents, with data bits coursing through half the earth, it read like the glossy blurb of these bestselling novels steeped in drama and suspense. 

I was intrigued, and gave the sympathetic ear at once.

The first phone call had been from his mother in India. She lives in Madras. WhatsApp calls are free, and people are free, so I will just give the gist. 

Mother in Madras: Can you call your cousin in New Jersey, and ask him for his sister’s number in India?

Husband in California: Why? 

M in M: His sister is here in India visiting no? 

Wait! I see even gists could take a while, alright let’s try this then:

Premise: Husband’s cousin visiting India for a few weeks.

Plot: Said cousin and her mother, viz, husband’s aunt, went to a small temple town in South India.  There, they planned to meet up with husband’s uncle, and go into the temple together.  

Plot Twist: Uncle tried to call Aunt, but she had put the phone in her handbag and did not hear it ring because someone was twanging the infernal temple bell with great righteousness.

Cliff hanger: Will they ever meet? The temple town had all of 3 streets culminating at the temple after all.

That is it. The entire plot. 

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How does that leap across metrops, continents and coasts, you ask? Fair question. 

As I see it, the itch to go temples stems from mankind’s search for spirituality. Learn to calm the inner anxieties and voices and so on. On this spiritual quest, when one does not meet the intended person in the first 32.5 seconds, the mind flutters and they place an immediate call to their sister in Madras. She then calms her brother saying there is no need to worry, and immediately places a phone call to the husband in California. 

Why husband in California? 

Repeat after me: Aunt visiting temple with d. Plot thickens when Aunt does not pick her phone. But the visiting cousin has a phone for use in India. Stroke of brilliance indicates that her brother preparing for bed in New Jersey will have his sister’s number. Call husband in CA *Tring* to call girl’s brother *Tring* to find out temp cell phone number in India. 

Husband misses call narrowly *Tring*. 

Husband calls mother again *Tring* as soon as possible, but mother’s phone is busy for she has called *Tring* her second son in New Delhi to call his cousin *Tring* in New Jersey and get the phone number. 

After several nerve wracking minutes, both folks call the poor fellow in New Jersey *Tring Tring*. The fellow moans sleepily that he has already fielded five free calls from various parts of the globe asking the same thing and there is no need for any of this, since they seem to have found each other. 

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Then a next set of phone calls were completed for the express purpose of letting everyone know that the concerned parties had met each other, and all was well. In all, I guess about 23 different calls were made. If one party had stood still for 5 minutes, the other party would have simply fluttered into them in the breeze. 

Though tactless, I laughed heartily. The husband looked like a spent force after dealing with this hurricane of calls. He eyed me, and said somewhat icily, “Let’s talk about something else, shan’t we?”

“Do you know how trees, and wild boars communicate to each other?” I asked the husband grinning. 

“Tell me”, he said, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing acacia trees, giraffes, wild boars and hunting laws in Geneva. (Inner Life of Animals, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben)

“Did you know the wild boars are so smart, they have figured out that the Geneva side of the river has a hunting ban, and the France side doesn’t? So when the first gunshot rings out in France, all the boars scramble, splash into the river and swim to the other side of the river. I suppose they poke their tongues out at the hunters on the other side!” I said.

“Is there someplace that has a free-calling ban, so we can swim across the media river when the first phone calls start?” moaned the fellow, and I patted his hand in commiseration, wisely refraining from telling him that all of this could have been avoided if he had just come out on the walk with me leaving all modes of communication behind. 

The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals