Sunday, August 24, 2014

Titali तितली

     In the springtime, the southwestern edge of my apartment courtyard becomes a butterfly highway. Sandwiched between two concrete walls, edged with barbed wire, I sit on a small patch of grass watching them fly by.  They bob through the branches of a few trees, flowing with gusts of wind, around the sharp leaves of bamboo trees, up and over the wall.  They often slip between the spaces of taut barbed wires not much larger than themselves, seemingly oblivious to the jagged spurs that could destroy a wing. 

     Sometimes they take breaks on the leaves of bamboo stalks, or on the curls of fallen leaves.  They bask in the sun to warm their fragile bodies, pumping wings providing glimpses of otherworldly colors.  The most common are the small ones that harbor pale shades of green and yellow.  Once when I held one, its color remained on my fingertips, long after it flew away, its brilliance shimmering like fairy dust.  Others butterflies are varying shades of brown, easily camouflaging themselves on the bark of trees.  The black ones with tiny dots of color flitter like small vortexes in the sky, commanding the eye to behold their fleeting presence.  My favorites are the giant ones with wings of shifting shades of bright blue and green, lined sharply in black.  They weave around various obstacles, up and over that wall, to a world beyond which I cannot see.  I sit there amongst fallen leaves, counting them fly by in haste, wondering to myself what butterfly business they could all be participating in. 

     In Hindi, the word for butterfly is Titali.  Somehow I feel this name is more fitting.  The word is broken into short and fast syllables, the sound sweet when vocalized, embodying their flittering movement and their beauty.  In Sanskrit, the word for butterfly is Chitrapatanga, composed of two words – chitra meaning “picture,” and patanga meaning “flying insect.”  Chitrapatanga then, is “the flying creature worthy of a picture.” 

     Indeed a titali is worth photographing.  Yet, the luminosity of their colors cannot be as vividly recorded in a photograph as when witnessed with the naked eye.  Modern science attributes the striking colors of butterflies to iridescence, an intricate phenomenon that involves the filtration of light through layers of scales on their wings, creating multiple reflections, ultimately amplifying color perceivable to the eye from various angles. 

     Their unique ability to play with light makes them one of the most attractive insects on Earth.  Beyond their shimmering wings, I think most people like butterflies because of their symbolism. Across many cultures, they are a symbol for metamorphosis, both in the literal and intangible sense.  Caterpillars face immense obstacles before becoming such delicate beauties. And as adults, butterflies have to take care to survive seemingly harmless natural elements like the wind or rain. Butterflies represent perseverance – the ability to face all obstacles and transform into a being of extraordinary beauty.  Their delicateness reflects this, their presence reminding us that life is fragile.

     While humans are reminded of the delicateness of life, for butterflies, daily life is becoming increasingly fragile, the obstacles growing greater through environmental degradation.  The prevalence of habitat loss, and the extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers create greater burdens for the existence their species, not just in India, but across the world.  In a much larger sphere, climate change is disrupting natural cycles; its effects reverberating throughout the ecosystems and worsening the environmental conditions through which the butterfly must struggle to survive.

     Throughout the environmental classes I took for my B.A., I read how butterflies play the role of indicator species – a term given to specific species who are sensitive to environmental changes.  Their presence, or lack thereof, in a given ecosystem is an indicator to the environment’s health and vitality.  At an alarming rate, many species of butterflies are facing extinction; a issue that serves as a testament to the environmental degradation we are ultimately the root cause of.  The extinction of any butterfly species, in any part of the world, in any ecosystem, inevitably creates an irreversible loss to the web of life, ultimately degrading the Earth’s biodiversity.

     The threats of extinction for butterflies are also degrading something less tangible, but something I feel to be immensely important.  The disappearance of such wonderful creatures is slowly deteriorating one of the world’s greatest symbols of surviving and thriving in a world ever changing.  Butterflies are the embodiment of hope for the future of Mother Earth, its ecosystems, and all living beings – animals, plants, us.  If we lose them, we lose hope.

Indian Native Dogs - The Gems of India

     Bangalore is filled with street dogs.  Actual numbers have never been tallied, but it’s estimated that at least 200,000 dogs are left to the elements, homeless without shelter or food, or the slightest bit of pity on the part of the other residents of the city.  I remember the first time that I came here, to India.  It has been a secret of mine for a long time that the most perturbing, moving, and raw experiences I have had in the city were not me feeling for the human suffering, but for the anguish of the thousands of dogs, struggling to survive in a world that fails to care that they were born in the first place.  I have seen and continue to see animal suffering here and human apathy toward it that breaks me despite the walls I have built up around myself to shut out the reality of life here. 

     I have seen dogs with broken legs that never healed, most often caused by being hit by a vehicle the driver of which continued onward as if the animal they hit were invisible.  Left without medical attention, and the need to continue to fight for survival, the dogs struggle through their disabilities.  Sometimes the broken leg is snapped clean off, other times it becomes deformed, twisted in unnatural directions, of which the dog is forced to painfully utilize.  The loss of the use of a back leg is survivable, the loss of a front leg is a death sentence.   

     The Indian Pariah is the original Indian Native dog, its lineage most probably linked to ancient times, although their origins remain unknown.  They come in an impressive assortment of colors, sizes, and shapes, but most commonly harbor a sandy brown color and a medium size.  Pariahs have sleek, defined bodies with sharp pointed erect ears, deep brown almond shaped eyes, and chiseled faces that end in a long muzzle.  The largest populations of Indian Pariahs are often found in cities, where breeding has gone unchecked next to the more pressing issues of human populations.  Known for their intelligence, Pariahs have skillfully adapted to urban environments, learning to manipulate the world around them to suit their survival. 

Amulya (2010) - My First Indian Dog (Adopted out to a kind family)
     Everywhere I have been in India, every place I’ve lived, visited, vacationed I have met an Indian dog that steals my heart.   They are all unique in their own way, in the ways in which they have survived unimaginable hardships driven purely by the will to live.  But in one way, they are all the same, when they are shown the slightest bit of human compassion, of caring in any way, they latch on to it for dear life.  You – the human who shows them kindness has suddenly become their God.  It has happened to me over and over no matter where I have gone.  A smile and a pat on the head, maybe a little food, and I have their permanent dedication, their loyalty forever.

PeePees (2010) Indian pup I rescued from the underside of a van.
     My first time here in Bangalore, it was Amulya, the street dog adopted into our small apartment building.  She became my best friend, and would climb the stairs to the second floor and bark at my apartment door for me to come out.  There was the robust and street smart alpha too, who lived on the stoop of an ATM stop, and would pick me out of a crowd of people on my daily walk to follow me to the local bakery several blocks down for cheap bread buns.  In New Delhi, it was Black Dog, a small silky girl with only three working legs who took up residence on the sidewalk outside my apartment gate.  After the first time I stopped to give her a moment of attention, she found me every where I went, hobbling after me down sidewalks, across intersections and to the market, for no other reason than to just be with me.  Now, back in Bangalore, it is Peetal, the dog I rescued off a busy street when he was just a pup, wandering aimlessly down the road without senses, to others, nothing more than a piece of garbage carried by the wind.  To me, he is my child, lucky enough to have been whisked away from certain death, a torn ear and some scars, the only remnants of a fate he narrowly escaped.  

     The majority of people who reside in India’s cities are terrified of dogs.  Despite that dogs walk among them on nearly every street, despite that the behaviors exhibited by them toward humans are largely submissive and friendly, the fear prevails.  A stigma rooted in the fear of contracting rabies.  Like a sick tradition, the fear is passed on down the generations, loving mothers whispering words of warning into the ears of their small children on the dangers of dogs. 
Black Dog (2011) My Delhite Dog

     None of this makes sense to me – planting the seed of irrational fear in the minds of children, teaching them to exhibit behavior that is more likely to provoke than protect.  Children either clearly demonstrate their fear by screaming and running, or hide it by taunting Pirahs, sometimes even resorting to violence.  Of course I am biased in that I grew up in the village, far away from the pollution (both mental and physical) of the cities.  I had more dog friends than human friends, and I still do.  The ignorance that takes form in rude looks when I’m walking my dog, the screams of children who run away, yelling to others “he will bite!” people who refuse to ride in the elevator with me, it is all enough.  But such ignorance has evolved into quite literally a blatant disregard for a fundamental element of the Hindu way of life – honoring the divine in all life.

Peetal Ji (2012) Shortly after he was rescued
     It reminds me of the time I flipped through the pages of my husband’s thick and heavy Bhagavad Gita, the script Devanagari (the language of the Gods) unreadable to me, but the colored replications of paintings clear.  One page in particular caught my attention.  Entitled “Impartiality,” it reminds Hindus that God resides in all living beings – the small glowing blue face of Krishna embellished upon the hearts of every being, the king, the sage and the farmer – the elephant, the cow, and the dog. 

Peetal Ji (2013) Happy and Healthy
     I have always been amazed at the merits of dogs – their simple happiness in just being alive, their expressions of loyalty, their inability to be corrupted.  They are pure beings, hearts untainted, capable of great love.  In Indian dogs, the validity of such characteristics is even more so, because they understand the blessedness of receiving a meal, a little attention, of small acts of kindness.  Perhaps that is what draws me to them, an ability to see beyond dirty fur and thin bodies, the ability to see their divine essence.  Maybe when we meet, it is the acknowledgement and intermingling of souls, a divine connection threaded through life.