The following is an account of a few things I have learned first-hand on night walks during this ‘turtle season’. I have chosen to stick to the happier part of the story but that is by no means all of it.
For a few weeks now I have been walking on Friday nights on a stretch of the beach that runs northwards from Neelankarai to the south of the Adyar estuary in Besant Nagar, Chennai:
These walks have often been exhausting but that has hardly kept me away from walking by the Bay on Friday (and sometimes Saturday) nights. Partly because I like the idea of spending a night walking by a dark sea, listening to the white waves, staring up at the twinkling stars and planets, and often bathing in the moonlight. But more so because there’s beauty to be witnessed and a lesson to be learnt in one species’ struggle for survival in these times when we are stuck in a relentless race to consume more and contribute less to the planet we call home.
The Olive Ridley sea turtles nest sporadically along the Chennai coast every year between late December and March, and in these walks by the coast, I’ve come to like these creatures in a way that is rather uncharacteristic of me, especially when it comes to reptiles. Along with SSTCN, I walk on a treasure hunt of sorts. The treasure? Turtle nests! The idea is to relocate the eggs that the turtles lay to a safer hatchery on the beach so that the hatchlings have a greater chance of survival, and of making it to their home, the sea. This exercise is necessitated by the fact that, left to their own devices, most wild hatchlings are never able to make it to the sea because of the bright lights on the beach. On starry nights, especially the moonlit ones, the surface of the sea would ordinarily carry a gleam, forming the brighter horizon towards which the hatchlings should instinctively move on emerging from the nests. However, owing to the artificial lighting on the beach, the hatchlings often move in the direction opposite to the sea, towards the land, and either starve to death or are eaten by dogs. It is to prevent the extinction of this vulnerable species that we have to relocate the nests to hatcheries in the darker parts of the beach, fenced off from the dogs, so that when the eggs hatch the hatchlings don’t go astray and are safely released into the sea. Of course, ideally we shouldn’t do this because, as Arun says, these animals have been nesting along these beaches for millions of years and to recreate and relocate the nests that the turtles know best how to make is tricky business. In our less than ideal world, though, we have to do this to ensure the hatchlings find their way home.
The key to identifying the nests is to look for a flat ‘clearing’ on the beach that the turtle makes to camouflage the nest. Also, one has to look for the turtle’s tracks, which are easier to spot because of the distinct shape of the flippers. The nest is an interesting structure, it’s neck about 20 cm deep and beneath the neck is the chamber in which the eggs are laid. The chamber is round in shape and more spacious than the neck. You could think of a flower vase with a round bottom and narrow neck to get some idea of what the shape of the nest is. Apparently, the Olive Ridleys come back to nest on the same beach where they were born, although I have no clue how they do it.
(Eggs being collected from a nest for relocation to the hatchery.)
The Olive Ridley’s eggs look like ping pong balls. The egg-shell is soft when the eggs are laid. This ensures that when the eggs fall on top of each other in the nest they don’t crack. The shell hardens in about five to nine hours from the time of the nesting, and relocation makes sense only within this five hour window. If the nest is found after the shells harden, we usually leave the nest wherever it is and watch out for the hatchlings when it’s time. Another interesting fact about turtles (and reptiles in general) is, what is known as, Temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). The mechanism of this process is not very clear to me, so I’ll refer you to this. Our friends at Wikipedia tell us that the pivotal temperature for turtle hatchlings is about 29 degrees celsius. Eggs incubated below this temperature (28 deg C or less) yield male hatchlings and at higher temperatures (31-32 deg C) they yield female hatchlings, with a mixed bag of male/female hatchlings at intermediate temperatures. Clearly, extreme sand temperature can severely skew the sex ratio in these animals.
Olive Ridley sea turtles typically nest two to three times during the nesting season. The first nesting may have 120 to 160 eggs, second, 80 t0 120, and the third anywhere from 60 to 80 eggs. The incubation period for the eggs is roughly around 45 days.
In the early hours of the morning of February 9, around 0530 hours, I was fortunate enough to witness a turtle nesting near the Adyar estuary. We were close to the end of the walk and by the time I reached there the turtle had started nesting so I missed the part where the turtle climbs ashore to find a suitable nesting spot. While the night was making way for the dawn, most of us stood transfixed as the turtle went into a “nesting trance”:
Nesting Olive Ridley
After the turtle was done laying eggs, it was time for the ‘turtle dance’, an elaborate exercise to flatten the sand covering the nest and camouflage it. The turtle dance starts around 5 minutes into this video:
Done with the reproductive chores, the turtle made its way back to the sea. With some difficulty we managed to steer it towards the sea after it wandered around the sands for a while, perhaps confused about directions or maybe in the mood for a little stroll by the beach before going back to the usual humdrum of the sea:
‘Hello world! Here I come!’
This Sunday morning I had my first glimpse of the hatchlings. After a long dry walk (we did not find any nests), on our way back from the hatchery, a few wild hatchlings were spotted in the fishing hamlet nearby. One of them was stuck in fishing nets, and had to be carefully untangled from it. Two others were also found. However, much of the rest of the nest (a typical nest has about 100 eggs) was not found. Clearly, chances of making it to the sea if you are a hatchling born in the ‘wild’ are rather slim.
I was holding one of the hatchlings and carrying it to the clear sands near the shore so that it could make its way home when the little fellow started waving its flippers in the air, as if in excitement, “I’m flying!” That brief moment was more beautiful than any I have known in a long, long time. I have never been a big animal lover in any real sense, and I barely even deal with dogs. I have never been into wildlife, forget marine life, except looking at pictures and watching it on video. But this time it was different, perhaps because I felt relevant, and my usual indifference to animals melted away when I saw the little fellow wave its flippers. It made me happy.
When I placed it on the sand, and another volunteer stood in the water and used the torchlight to attract the hatchling towards the sea, after an initial tense moment in which it stood still, the little fella rushed towards the sea taking quick short steps, as if eager to say, “Hello world! Here I come!” Almost like a little toy that magically comes alive and rushes towards the sea on cue.
The folks at SSTCN have been doing some great work in turtle conservation and I’m quite grateful they let me walk with them during this turtle season. This was my first lesson in conservation and, hopefully, not my last.
This is my attempt at using Women’s day as an excuse to reminisce about some women teachers who in one way or another left some trace that persists in my adult memory, especially when I listen to the child that speaks to me in my head and tells me to make a record, to write these reminiscences down, before I grow too old or too tired or too busy to listen to him. I don’t think I will stop listening to him, though.
Meenu ma’am. I stand in the second row from the front.
Outside of home, where my mother and my sister reign supreme, I have learnt from women in many ways. Memories have a habit of fading away, or failing that, reshaping themselves in our minds every time we recall them. My recollections, therefore, are probably coloured by the present, but I will stick to the story that I like to tell myself, and most of it is true, though I may miss or mix a detail or two. It is my nursery teacher, Meenu ma’am, that I remember as the first school teacher I have any memory of. She really liked my handwriting, I’m told by my mother. Then, in first standard, there was Shukla ma’am whom I distinctly remember asking me after the morning assembly, on a Vasant Panchami, “Are you a Bengali?” I said yes. I did not understand the question but I was too timid or perhaps too embarrassed to admit that. I guess I said ‘yes’ because she seemed to guess I was a Bengali, and since I didn’t know any better than my teacher, I must be a Bengali. Besides, I figured saying ‘no’ might provoke further questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer. I came back home that day and, over lunch, asked my mother, “Ma, what is a Bengali?” She laughed. She asked me why I asked her that. I told her about the question my teacher asked. My mother said my teacher must have assumed I was a Bengali because I carried this yellow handkerchief with me to school which my mother gave me every year on Vasant Panchami. She also told me that people from Bengal are Bengalis and that I am from the Kumaon hills and that I could call myself a Pahari. That was my first lesson in an identity of that kind. That said, I don’t think I went back to correct Shukla ma’am’s impression that I was a Bengali.
In my second standard, my class teacher was Pant ma’am. I remember her as this fairly strict lady who always wanted me to do better than I did. She used to think my handwriting had worsened as I moved up from one class to another. I do not know if that was the case and unfortunately I do not have any of my notebooks from that time to go back and check. I wish I had preserved those childhood notebooks, just to look at the things I wrote, and the shapes that I made on paper. Then in third standard there was an even stricter lady, another Shukla ma’am, who gave me a really hard time but she meant well. She seemed to complain that I was slipping from my ‘first rank’ in class. In any case, I think I stood third in that class. I wonder why everyone was so insistent about those things. It bothered me and perhaps also conditioned me into thinking that it was my sacred duty to stand first in class. Although I remember my mother telling me not to worry about those things, even as she was strict about when I should study and when I should go out and play. Instinctively, I knew she wouldn’t love me any less even if I messed up things, which I often did.
Fifth standard was defined by an old lady teacher, Mrs. Mukherjee, who was a Bengali and who was really, really strict. She taught math and science and she came to like me in due course of time when I did well in those papers. Everyone in class was petrified of her, even I was. But it was fun to hear her break into Hindi once in a while when she was angry at some kid who did not follow her reprimand in English. Then there was Rimjhim Pandey ma’am, who taught English literature in sixth standard. She was incredibly nice to everyone, and her name made me think of rains, and I like rains, so perhaps I associated the image of falling raindrops with her. There was Asthana ma’am in seventh standard who used to think I had a problem because I apparently wore this really brooding and glum appearance and I never seemed to smile. She once made me write on the blackboard, during a grammar lesson on ‘former’ and ‘latter’, something like, “Ravi and Ma’am Asthana are friends. The former never laughs and the latter always smiles.” I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do but smile sheepishly and meekly suggest that I did smile, that I did laugh. My friend, Kundan, helpfully chipped in with, “Ma’am, it’s not his fault, his face is like that only.” Everyone burst into laughter, including me. I don’t have any grudges against him, though, for another random memory that comes to mind is of this one time, during the Hindi class, when I got Dayal ma’am, who was this ferocious Hindi teacher, to reprimand Kundan for some mischief that I had done. He got punished for it, and I had the laughs.
There was Chowdhary ma’am who taught History and Civics and who always mispronounced my second name. I never bothered to correct her, though. Her classes were somehow fun to attend for she had, I think, this knack for a narrative style of lecturing, almost like story-telling. A biology teacher, I think her name was Sadhana Singh, also comes to mind. She used to make us do these botany practicals of sorts, a particular one that I remember being one that involved dissecting a hibiscus flower (“China rose”, I called it) to examine its petals, sepals, the stigma-style-stamen, etc. In fact, I remember stealing that flower from someone’s garden early in the morning that day, along with my partner-in-crime, Kundan, because we really needed the flower for the class and didn’t know where to find it. I am not sure why but it didn’t occur to us to go ask the owner if we could take the flowers. Another thing I remember the biology classes for were the prizes she used to give away for doing well in her tests. I earned a Cadbury Temptations once.
I could go on reminiscing but I think I should stop, and sleep. It’s a rather disjointed recollection, this one, but that is how my memories are — a patchwork of moments I remember for no particularly profound reason, except that the child in me wants to tell these stories every now and then, and I must listen to him when he speaks, and sometimes write them down too. I hope he is happy.
Update: Watch out for the livestream of the event, here: http://ekalavya.imsc.res.in/stream/
This is a heads-up to anyone in Chennai regarding the IMSc Open Day, on March 10, 2013. It’s a Sunday! This will be a day-long affair, morning to evening, open to the public. If you’re a school/college student, you may either nag your parents to take you to the event, or show up on your own. If you’re neither, feel free show up anyway. It will be fun. Indulge your curiosity, and feel free to tinker around with the many science demos that will be set up on the day. If this is enough to convince you (or kids you know) to show up, spread the word and go to the homepage and register! If not, read on.
Once upon a time, I indulged in a long rant on education (science education in particular), where I argued why those in academia must reach out to the public, especially children. The Open Day is one such effort we are making at Matscience and it would be hypocrisy on my part if I do not spread the word around. The idea is to have a day-long interaction with the public where anyone can walk in and attend any of the events and also interact with members of the Institute.
The events typically kick off with short public talks on some aspect of math, physics, and computer science by researchers in the respective fields. These talks are meant to be accessible to school students. An example of what such talks might be like is this lecture by Jam (RamanuJam) on playing games (meant for high school kids!):
Jam’s inimitable talk!
After the talks, you can walk around the Institute and inspect the math and science demos that will be set up at various places on the campus. There may also be a treasure hunt! There will be an event called ‘Ask the scientist’ where you can ask some scientists/mathematicians all the random questions that catch your fancy. You can also catch unsuspecting graduate students (yes, the ones with that distant look in their eyes) who, I am sure, will be happy to feel relevant for once. They might tell you how exciting science is and will be glad to indulge your curiosity as long as you don’t ask them, “How’s research?”, or worse still, “When do you graduate?” Those are questions they may not have good answers to, so be nice, and avoid those questions. For they may provoke them into rants you may not want to hear on such a happy day! Then again, if such a thing happens, don’t be scared. They are normal people (more or less) and will be nice to you if you offer them free food (perhaps you can get some along from home?) or just ask them what their favourite method of procrastination is. They are seasoned experts in both of those departments.
‘Elephant’s toothpaste’, they called it.
I’ll be organizing the Science Quiz at the end of the day, by the way. So feel free to drop by if you like science trivia and puzzles of the logical kind. There will be prizes! The quiz is open to school and college students. There will be five teams, each with two school students and one college student. Of course, there will be a written preliminary quiz to choose teams for the main quiz. The audience will get to answer questions that all the teams pass, and will be rewarded for the same. There may also be questions exclusively for those in the audience. To give you a flavour of what the event looks like, here are some pictures from 2011:
Quiz in progress
If all this doesn’t convince you to show up, there will be free food! Register here! See you on the 10th. Cheerio
There’s the famous ‘awkward’ silence we all know. There’s the conspiratorial silence, between knowing eyes. There’s consolatory silence, one that comforts because it’s there. There’s the listener’s silence, one that listens carefully. There’s the critic’s silence, that listens intently and critiques brutally. There’s the I-know-you-too-well silence that smirks quietly. There’s introspective silence.
There’s also a silence that is pure, that has no purpose, no intent, no hidden agenda, but is merely a part of one’s being. It’s a silence that speaks when words do not suffice, it is a quietude that seeks the unspoken in your eyes.
There’s silence that is bubbling with words before they are spoken. It is a silence that is troubling, unless it is broken.
There’s silence that is empty for there is no one to break it, it’s a silence that is alone, you could pass it by, or take it.
There’s also a silence that is fearful of saying what’s on its mind, it’s the silence of the oppressed, a silence of the vicious kind. It is enforced, and it offers little choice. It is a silence that needs a voice.
The light lay heavy on her. She was locked up in the prison of light. White light on white walls. She longed for darkness, for a chance to move away from the light. The light did not let her dream. It didn’t let her pretend she was somewhere else. Or that she was someone else.
It was all there for her to see. Her imprisonment. Her lost life. Her helplessness. She was drowning in light and dying a slow, quiet, suffocating death. Her imagination deserted her. The light flushed it out of her being. Burning in the light inside her, she wasn’t sure she could take the torment any more. The light consumed her, defeated her, crushed the darkness she once feared but now yearned for. Closing her eyes, she would try to pretend it was dark, but she couldn’t. The light would not let go of her.
The boundary between sleep and wakefulness dissolved in that eternal deluge of light. She didn’t know if she was awake or asleep. She had no clue what time of the day it was, nor what time of the year. She tried to keep count when she was first locked up, but couldn’t keep up with it after a while. She had lost all hope of ever being in the dark again. She was cursed with light.
There are two doors on opposite walls. She doesn’t know what lies behind them. She tries knocking but no one ever answers. She wonders if there are any answers.
She explores corners of the walls, tries to talk them out of their stupor. To dance with them. Even hug them. But walls don’t hug anyone back. They don’t dance either. She clings to them, but there’s nothing to hold on to, even as she desperately tries to find a third dimension, one of meaning, in the two dimensions of unfeeling walls. The silence between her and the walls was one of companionship, though. She wanted to tell them her story, and listen to theirs too. But no stories were shared. Only silence.
She rolls on to the floor, tired of cajoling walls to dance with her, and buries her head in her shadow — a little piece of darkness she could still call her own.
The following is my reaction to ‘Wall Dancing’, an experiment in “stillness and movement” (by Padmini Chettur) that I was a keen witness to. It is not a judgment on the merits of the work since I’m ill-equipped on that front. It’s just what I thought about it — before, during, and after the event.
Before the dance
The very first thing that piqued my curiosity about the work was the blurb on the poster: “The audience may enter and exit at any time, they are also free to sit, stand, or walk around the space.” This was avant-garde stuff, I thought to myself, and asked Madhusree (one of the five performers) whether it really was as anti-proscenium as I thought. And whether the audience really could do all that instead of sitting quietly, affixed to a spot. She said yes, except I wasn’t allowed to tickle the performers. I didn’t, of course.
The proscenium is the usual paradigm of the artist-audience relationship that involves a clear separation between the artist and the audience — the arch surrounding the stage (the “proscenium arch” facing the audience) defines the boundary, apparently also called the “fourth wall”, of this relationship. Obviously, it is a rather asymmetric relationship. The artist is the creator, the audience the consumer. The interaction between the artist and the audience is mediated by the “fourth wall”, which on account of its two-dimensional nature only allows a restricted range of vantage points, literally or otherwise. The governing metaphor seems to be, from the audience perspective, “I pay you, you entertain me.” In other words, it’s a fairly passive contract on the part of the audience. From the artist’s perspective: “I perform, but I decide how you see it.” That is, although it is a more active contract on the part of the artist, the artist could have hidden motives that seek to convince you to see things in a particular way, or perhaps hide other ways of seeing from you, the audience. I am, of course, stretching the metaphor a bit here, using “proscenium” to imply the perspective that the artist wants you to consider.
During the dance
The reason for my curiosity should be clear now. I’ve only ever seen the proscenium style of things, on either side of the “fourth wall”. This was an opportunity to consider an alternative. So, after a train ride and a walk, I arrived at the venue on the appointed day. The first thing I was handed over was a paper with a list of ‘Titles’ and ‘Prices in INR’ which contained “items” like:
- Opening rolls (10000 INR),
- Arm Section (6000 INR),
- Large corner trio (12000 INR),
- Horizontal tracing (10000 INR),
- Walldancing (15000 INR),
- Finale: duet, trio, solo, duets, solo (25000 INR)
My first thought was: “Is this some hoax, selling (presumably) dance for money? Or perhaps it’s one of those ‘arty privileges’ that only the ‘highbrow’ or the wealthy can afford. Very phony stuff.” It didn’t occur to me — as it turned out — that the ‘pricing’ was more a joke than anything else, perhaps also a satire on putting a price to art. I am not sure about the latter bit. Anyway, that part clarified (and my worries about being ‘found out’ — that I am neither ‘arty’ nor ‘highbrow’ nor even wealthy– put to rest), I surveyed the performance space. Walls, of course. Also, the open space the walls enclosed where the audience could sit, stand or walk around. White walls. Mostly white and yellow lights. Minimalist.
The performance itself started with the ‘opening rolls’ which involved the five dancers standing near different parts of the walls making extraordinarily slow, even subtle, turns around their body-axis. If you watched their feet, you could tell they were turning, but otherwise the movement was quite smooth. I think two of them turned counterclockwise and the other three clockwise when looked at from above. But I could be wrong. It’s a minor detail anyway. All the 25 ‘titles’ on the list were performed, and I saw no money being exchanged. The music, when it was used (it wasn’t, mostly), was rather minimal again. I am not sure what I mean by ‘minimal’ here, except that it wasn’t flashy. Mostly the silence substituted quite well for any other kind of music. It was so quiet that I couldn’t help wondering how awkward a fart might sound if someone were unfortunate enough to break into one.
After the dance
Here’s what I thought of the performance itself:
It was an experiment in slowness. The movements were deliberately slow, and there was a conscious effort to keep the movements smooth in places — like the hour hand of a clock, which moves but you don’t see that over a matter of seconds. It’s not easy to stay with slow things, given how accustomed we are to speed and immediacy in our time. So it was, I think, a nice attempt at taking one out of the usual ‘hurry up!’ mode to the ‘take your time’ mode. Of course, there was the occasional faster piece involving some manoeuvers with the walls or the corners, sometimes solos, and sometimes duets, and the occasional trios.
It was also an experiment in patience — and I do not mean it in a pejorative sense — on the part of the performer, and the audience. I imagine it required quite a bit of patience and focus from the performer. I was happy to move around and look at the performance from different places in the room, sometimes unintentionally disturbing the performers (which I tried to avoid, though).
Most importantly, I think, it was an experiment in perspective — the performer’s and the audience’s. For the audience, there was clearly a potential for greater levels of engagement with the work than the proscenium would allow. They had the freedom to explore their space, to view things from a perspective of their choosing. A perspective that is not affixed to a “fourth wall” but is fluid. The relationship between the artist and the audience was more open, more alive in this format. There were more than merely two sides to the performance. The audience were not so much a collective as they were individuals trying to find perspectives that drew them in. So in a way, this was a more active contract on the part of the audience. The audience was very much a part of the performance, for the perspective one brings to the performance can significantly influence one’s experience of it. There was no one way to see it. It is this capacity for nurturing many perspectives that allows art to be more than an object or a commodity with a ‘price’. It allows art to be not merely a ‘thing’, but instead a relationship between the artist and the audience. One’s unique experience of this relationship makes art an avenue for self-exploration, as much for the audience as for the artist herself.
I think I liked it. It’s good to see things differently. To have the freedom to do so. Although, a passing thought occurred to me that one could perhaps do more with the medium — walls, in this case. There was no obvious ‘story’ to draw the audience into the performance. Perhaps adding a narrative to the bare movements would enrich the experience. That said, it might also take away the focus from “stillness and movement” to “narrative and intrigue”. Anyway, I am just thinking aloud on some possibilities that occurred to me. I usually don’t think much about art — it’s either “good” or “bad”. This one was different.
Plugged into the matrix, aren’t we? As we make the transition towards a life that’s mostly lived online, the meaning of our online relationships is something that is undergoing a metamorphosis, and not always for good. Luca Silvestrini’s contemporary dance production, LOL (lots of love), performed by Protein, confronts love, longing, and connectedness in these times of instant messages, video calls, and online profiles. I watched the production in Chennai yesterday, and came away impressed by the novelty of the production. The music, soaked in sounds of people tapping away on their keyboards, connected one to the theme. If you happen to catch it any time anywhere, do not forget to notice also the shadow play that goes on in the background during the performance. There’s something about shadows. I liked the dancing shadows in the background more than the dancers on the stage. There’s a certain purity to watching a shadow dance, one that is perhaps lost in the flesh-and-blood performance on stage.
It was funny and poignant at the same time — the travails of lonely souls searching for love online, making up flashy profiles, and looking forward to meeting someone special. You can watch the trailer here:
I have to say the show I witnessed was visually (and aurally) way more appealing than it is in this particular trailer.
I have some ruminations on the whole “living your life online” deal. The real change has been in the ways we communicate. The availability of multiple fora for communication has enabled, yet perhaps trivialized, a lot of our interactions. We communicate way more than we have ever done in human history, yet mostly we really have nothing to say. And, of course, the Internet takes “stalking” to a whole new level. Perhaps there’s also a growing discomfort with the very idea of going offline for a while. For a lot of people — count me in, mostly — it is almost unimaginable. The Internet is becoming the panacea for everything that ails us. There’s a particular motif in LOL — a guy clinging to a lot of wires with him, suggesting how much of his life is run via them, and the extent to which that substitutes for offline interactions.
The deeper process, I think, is one of a disengagement of the message from the medium. One doesn’t have to meet someone in person to have a conversation, and ideas can be exchanged even anonymously. This disengagement is a powerful thing, and an enabling thing. I’m unsure how much of a bad thing it is, given that the boundary between the virtual and the real world is constantly shifting and is blurry all the time. Even so, it helps to have occasional reminders from the real world. I live a lot of my intellectual life online, but I return to the offline world when I need some inspiration, or when I need to do some quiet thinking, or for that matter, when I want to go watch real dance theatre instead of a youtube video. By the way, the next performance of LOL is in Mumbai, here, followed by Delhi, here. Watch it if you get the opportunity, I recommend it.
Poetry with Prakriti
Before the LOL performance, there was also a poetry reading session. Three poets — Manasi, Uma Devi, and Tishani — read poetry, mostly on love, scars, losing, and a poem by Tishani on Madras (this one can be read here). I did not follow the Tamil poetry by Uma Devi, only listened to the sound of it. Poetry with Prakriti is an annual event organized by the Prakriti Foundation in Chennai during December.