Personal Essay

Dispel the inky darkness

Photo credit: Prarthana Krishnamurthy

This book was born of quiet reveries on lazy weekend mornings, sipping hot chai. I fondly recalled my young twin sons, brimming with curiosity about our adopted stray dog and her arsenal of fleas that would cling onto her furry coat. No matter what she did, or what we did, or how hard she tried and shook herself, the fleas would cling onto her viciously and could not be persuaded to leave.

“He’s not giving up,
He’s not buckling down.
The flea doesn’t flee
Because if he did,
He’d miss the dog terribly!”

-From “The Flea”

The dough of this book was kneaded, shaped and mixed when I observed my sons with all their teenage zeal, making bold and cautious forays into the mysterious world of bugs, bees and other beasts.

I noted with trepidation that along with unabashed curiosity, my sons were seized with an overwhelming urge to extinguish the bug or bee as the case might be. It was this repulsion and repellence that I wanted to address in my book of verse.

“An ant
Came under a shoe,
And instantly
Became an “ant”iquity”

-From “The Ant”

I wanted to replace this cold and cruel fascination and substitute it with fellowship with these smaller and more obscure creatures. I hoped to consciously foster solidarity and heartfelt companionship with these lesser-known species of biodiversity.

Part of my motivation to consciously evoke empathy with these microspecies of biodiversity was driven by the urge to rectify the glaring flaw in campaigns for conserving biological diversity, the flaw of being ‘megafauna-centric’. Biologists often turn the spotlight onto the more sexy and appealing larger species — the feathery and furry. It is well known and widely reported that the sexier beasts attract a disproportionately mammoth share of funding from the West for conservation efforts (no offence to the mammoth, a now extinct trunked mammal with curved tusks).

For example, the dung beetle, perhaps because of its diminutive size, is not as attractive or sexy a poster child for conserving biodiversity as the magnificent tiger in the wild. I chose to write verses on “the road less travelled,” and lesser-known species of biodiversity were my chosen mascots. I had hoped in my own way to puncture the mega bias of megafauna-centric conservation. Questions still pour forth on how I thought of the bug as a ‘protagonist’ in the first place. I think that I was just trying to do my bit as a conscientious parent and an avid environmental activist, working for the conservation of biodiversity.

“The praying mantis,
When she prays,
What does she ask for?
What vows does she take?
I eavesdropped on her prayer one day,
She was asking pollution to go away”

-From “The Praying Mantis”

I had hoped to remove some of the stigma and unfounded fears associated with insects and arachnids through my poetry. I knew from the very start that we could not be complacent in allowing ignorance to abound, given how important these species are for the survival of all species.

“The pet scorpion,
I thought he would give me a pinch
To see if I would wince”.

-From “The Pet Scorpion”

It is this same conscience that propelled me to write about the Gnu, a more mysterious and obscure species of wildlife found in the African sub-continent. The Gnu or the wildebeest is still unknown to many young readers located in the Indian subcontinent. It is a truly enigmatic and gregarious herbivore found in Africa.

“The gnu is a very strong beast.
With an ox-like head and horns that curve,
The fright that he commands is well deserved.
Yes, I do love wildebeests,
And the gnu not in the least”

-From “The Gnu”

I also wrote about the hammerhead shark, a highly vulnerable and endangered species that are not likely to crop up routinely in the conversations of young adults living in landlocked cities in the Indian subcontinent.

“In the day, he swims and hunts in a school
In the night, alone he hunts and rules.”

-From “The Hammerhead Shark”

The message about the seemingly insignificant mascots of biological diversity is one I am still preoccupied with. In my next project ‘Trivial Pursuits,’ I explore further the world of more bugs, bees and beasts.

In terms of what garnered interest in these creatures and amused readers, are the parallels drawn in the human world, and my overall wry comments on human eccentricities. These human traits in bugs, beasts and bees drew both attention and criticism in equal measure and became the most talked-about subject, especially at my book readings. The mood was infectious, and adults often joined in the conversation about bugs, bees and beasts of the obscure kind. The kind that is less photographed and media-hyped. Human beings with all their foibles and idiosyncrasies were under the magnifying lens in my verse. In the poem below, I make a tongue in cheek comment on people who keep changing their colours so that you never really know who they are.

"The grasshopper went green with envy, imagine,
When he saw the chameleon.
How could he be green one minute, rusty orange the next?
How could he change colour even before the context?"

-From “The Grasshopper”

I compared the centipede with its 100 feet to the former first lady of the Philippines, Mrs Imelda Marcos, who had once boasted of owning more than 100 pairs of shoes. This was a comment on the rampant greed and consumerism amongst human beings and amused many readers. I was told that without being excessively ‘preachy’, I had provoked a discussion amongst my audience about the alarming trend of growing consumerism worldwide.

The quirky comments on the similarities between bugs and human beings enticed the discerning reader. Otherwise, poetry is often viewed as the ugly stepsister of fiction and is certainly not the obvious choice for publishers.

Well, if my conscience stoked my imagination then so did my sense of humour shape the contours of the verse.

“She is both busy and free.
How she does this, beats me!
She doesn’t even have a smart secretary,
Or even a hands–free!”

-From “The Bee”

While writing this book, I couldn’t help sharing some hearty laughs with my young sons as they embarked on their journeys in this intriguing world. The book sparked lively conversations across distinct generations and that was extremely gratifying. When readers told me the book transcended age, I was surprised and pleased. What was meant for young adults soon got ‘older’ adults interested and that was a bonus.

While writing this book, I was apprehensive that the environmental messages embedded in the verse might be lost. At the book readings, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my audience was acutely aware of the challenges surrounding the conservation of endangered species like the hammerhead shark and the humpback whale. I think that I succeeded in arousing curiosity towards conserving biodiversity even amongst children who attended the book readings.

One young girl from Mysore, India, kept in touch over email and vowed to become an environmental activist. She claims to have been profoundly moved by my poems. It is gratifying to me that my verse kindles the conscience of the young and old alike, and does its bit to dispel the inky darkness surrounding us.

"The moth,
What doth
He think when he
Immolates himself
On the light bulb?
Does he think that he has found
The light within,
And there’s no need to go on?
Oh moth, do live, pray,
And with your wings dispel the inky darkness away"

-From "The Moth"

This poem and lines from poems excerpted from “Of bug, bee and beast” by Devaki Panini, published by Zubaan, 2015

About the author

Devaki Panini is an environmental lawyer who returned to her first love of writing in 2015 when she wrote her first book of verse “Of bug, bee and beast”. Since then, she has been spinning words and webs of ideas and loves every moment of it.

Instagram @Devaki.Panini