Bird watchers and purple prose

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-10-25

Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

It's not surprising that the responses are all positive, of course. These lists are meant for discussions about birds, after all, and not literary criticism; and a bit of overeager prose never killed anyone. I imagine anyone who cares enough to distinguish between good writing and a string of adjectives would be best served by silence. Besides, as I've learned from bitter experience, a few authors have pretensions to great writing, and react to anything other than fawning praise with suspicion and—more likely than not—another pompous screed.

It's a pity, though, that people read such reports and see that they are well-received, and are made to feel that their own reports should aspire to the same outmoded standard. Victorian England, with all its class distinctions, lives on in the kind of English taught to the Indian upper crust. (An aside: Wikipedia says that the phrase "purple prose" comes from the Ars poetica by the Roman poet Horace, who used it to caution against literary excess more than two thousand years ago.)

Although examples of flowery prose are legion, one mailing list post in particular stands out as an indelible indigo scab on my consciousness, cratered with swooping metaphors and pock-marked with… ahem. Here are a few passages, excerpted with some difficulty from the dense surrounding context. The account begins thus:

Eastern UP is Old India. The towns spill onto the roads or what is left of them after the tractors and other mechanized farming vehicles have ploughed their way through, deepening the already deepened furrows. The roads appear hand-crafted. Over-laden lorries of village wealth packed sky-high with hay or sugar cane traverse these hand-made roads. Level crossings criss-cross them. On the rail tracks of the smaller crossings, red cotton sheets are stretched across two bamboo poles that seem to arrogantly shout at the train to halt. In between the passage of trains chugging past, cycles, rickshaws and bullock carts put their lives on the line and make a dash for the other side.

We drove from Shahjehanpur to Dudhwa National Park for nearly 4 hours, over a grey-brown road against a grey, smog-darkened sky. The smog tried in vain to push back the dawn of the lightening sky. Several smoke stacks came and went leaving their dirty trail of soot robbing the morning of its innocence. Smelting factories, brick kilns and soot-blackened fields inevitably contributed to the sluggish miasma of fog. Little did we know that this landscape would characterize much of the once-rich Terai and its adjoining Bhabbar fields whose gravelly alluvial detritus supported a decent dry deciduous forest.

A decent dry deciduous forest? Is that all? After that setup, I expected no less than a magnificent dry deciduous forest spread across a great swath of the ancient alluvial detritus! But the body of the report lives up to its early promise—at great length—and features a number of adjectival masterpieces of which, for want of space, I shall reproduce only the following one.

Having spent two days at the hutments at Dudhwa, we visited Sathiana one morning and were charmed with what we saw. Its sights and sounds and scents and flavour intoxicated us with a healthy intoxication. So we succumbed to Sathiana's beauty and drove in the darkening night for a change of address. On a dusty track crimson-pink bulbs rose up and danced. Some, but not all nocturnal birds, have a tapetum lucidum — a reflecting layer behind the retina, which turns photons back in their tracks to give the retinal pigments a second chance to intercept them, which, lucky for us, makes for easy spotting.

If some sick fascination holds you to this unrestrained outpouring of literary yearning for another two hundred and fifty odd lines, you are rewarded with the climactic and spiritual ending.

Now we walked into the fire of sunrise, exploiting our senses, forcing ourselves to consider relationships, to embrace the pattern that connects. Walks do this. When we merge our soul with Nature, it makes the intellect fruitful and that gives birth to imagination. We hope to return to explore other areas of this National Park - perhaps in the winter months. The sun was already beating down on us, using us as its own private anvil. In the months to follow the sky would assume a most ruthless blue without compassion of even a cloud; and then the deluge would begin.

Walks do this, do they? I'd better make note of that.

I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the author of this report was just trolling to see how much abuse the audience could possibly take. But if that wasn't really the case, I wanted to do it. So I began to pre-compose my next trip report (this was more than two years ago).

It was dark when we set out, but the brief summer night was little comfort to a planetary crust forever tormented by the liquid fire within, and with scant protection from the relentless onslaught of the fiery celestial orb. Even enclosed, as we were, within a sleek bubble of modern automotive technology, we could not help but be keenly aware of the sullen warmth beneath our wheels as the first luminous rays of dawn roused the parched soil from its restless slumber.

The journey seems but a blur now, a discordant cacophony of wheels and air horns. We could imagine, but dared not lower our windows to listen for, the mellow strains that must attend suburban Gurgaon's awakening, and its increasing enthusiasm to sieze a day which, by now, had gained a firm purchase on our consciousness. I have but fleeting impressions, of swerving to overtake carts pulled by surly oxen, of slowing down to negotiate welts and blisters on the dusty grey road that unwound in front of us, our only tangible physical connection to what seemed an alien planet (but which was, we struggled to remember, only Haryana).

Our destination: Sultanpur lake (or jheel, in the harshly aspirated but essentially good-natured vernacular), an artificially managed wetland in the midst of a dust bowl with its scattered fields, where stunted crops maintain a tenuous grasp on an existence based on nutrients leached at great cost from the uncooperative earth.

At that point, however, I made the mistake of stopping to review what I had written; and I was overcome by a wave of nausea so intense that I was unable to continue. Even the thought of the universal acclaim that would surely attend its unveiling was not enough to renew my flagging spirits, and my magnum opus remains sadly incomplete.

Something to look forward to, perhaps.