By Yoginder Sikand
The thing that Romi remembered most fondly about his childhood years was growing up surrounded by lots of little creatures. He was a shy boy, and he didn’t like interacting much with boys his age. He couldn’t see why his father continuously pestered him to play cricket and football with the neighbourhood kids. He didn’t like that one bit”all that pushing about and shouting and fighting. Why couldn’t his parents respect his wishes? After all, he wasn’t asking for the moon”he just wanted to do the things he liked, and there was nothing more that he liked than ambling about in the park near his house on his own.
Romi grew up in a city, but that was almost fifty years ago, when Indian cities were much less crowded than they are today. There were still lakes and vast green spaces, which hadn’t been taken over by land-grabbers, ‘property developers’ and mega-malls. These were still home to abundant wildlife.
Romi spent almost all his afternoons in the neighbourhood park. There was so much to see and do there! There was an amazing variety of birds: parrots, doves, pigeons, cranes, storks, eagles, vultures, weaver-birds and tailor-birds, besides, of course, sparrows, crows, an occasional peacock, and a number of different brightly-hued species that Romi couldn’t name. He could spend hours watching them hop about, build their nests and feed their young. It was delightful listening to them chattering away and singing at the top of their voices. They never fought with, or bossed over, each other, Romi noted, unlike human beings.
Then, there all sorts of interesting insects that had made the park their home: caterpillars, earthworms, centipedes, giant ants, termites, dragonflies, moths, butterflies, bumble-bees, crickets, praying mantises, wasps, and so on. How fascinating it was to observe them go about their work! They were busy all day, foraging for food and building their homes, and they never seemed to get tired.
The park had a little pond, and Romi had made a special viewing seat for himself on a rock on the pond’s edge, from where he could view all the many goings-on deep inside. How he wished he was one of those fat goldfish that smoothly sailed about, swishing their enormous fan-like tails! There would be no need to go to school then! The pond was also home to a couple of turtles, and, of course, any number of frogs and snails. There were also delicate water-spiders that ran about on the surface of the water—Romi could never get over how they managed to do that!”and plenty of tadpoles in the monsoons.
Almost all of Romi’s friends were the little creatures who lived in the park. He didn’t have too many human friends. He didn’t feel bad or embarrassed about this, although his parents never stopped needling him for being ‘friendless'”that was something he didn’t at all like. ‘My park friends are enough for me,’ he would tell them, and then they would say he was ‘mad’. But it was really true”those delightful creatures in the park were really the most harmless, loving and friendly beings Romi had ever come across, and even if his parents and others couldn’t accept them as his friends, he knew that they were so. He would call out to the birds, the insects and the fish, and hold long conversations with them. They seemed to fully follow what he said. He would even sing for, and with, them. He would spend long hours sketching his friends in his notebook as they went about doing their work. If you saw his sketches, you would instantly recognize them as works of great love.
As you might expect, Romi’s classmates found him strange, and most of them kept away from him. Almost no one wanted to be friends with the ‘Sissy Animal Boy’, as they derisively called him. But that didn’t matter to Romi, for he had all the friends he wanted in the park!
Romi’s parents were sure he was going to be miserable and friendless when he grew up. But Romi followed his heart, rather than what others, who didn’t care to understand and appreciate him, wanted him to. And do you know what came of that? When he grew up, he became one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in India, championing the cause of birds and animals and other such feathery and furry creatures.
You will agree, won’t you, that it was right of Romi to listen to his inner voice as a child rather than to cow down to others for fear of being thought odd and silly?
By Yoginder Sikand