by Raju Peddada
"One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself: what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?"
—Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
(Swans - July 29, 2013) A gloom blanketed me for days that summer; I missed it. The disappearance of the monitor was an abandonment. I had no control over it. Control is a rich concept to most in India. People are resigned to being not in control over much of anything. In such ambiguous conditions, stumbling into control and precision was not only alluring, but downright exciting. For me, having no control was frustrating at a different level. The creatures I saw and wondered about were free to disappear whenever they pleased, leaving me unfulfilled and in despair. The wondrous ecology and the interaction was abstract, unreal, as if on some theater screen that I could not reach, nor touch. The solution to this problem came in an insidiously innocent way.
It all started innocuously in the early fall of 1965. I had seen a gun only in the movies, till I saw Darrell one day with his air gun. He was the teenage son of our English neighbors. It was the sound of the empty cans being shot that got my attention one Saturday. I clambered up and peeked over our wall, and what I saw was a beautiful gun, with a shiny blue barrel and action, embedded in polished wood with a rubber shoulder pad. He broke the barrel down, inserted a lead pellet into the breech and cocked it back up. I loved the mild "Pffitt," when he pulled the trigger. I was his audience every weekend -- he became rather puffed up, as his targets got smaller. It was over an afternoon tea with them that I came to know more about the gun. It was called "Diana," in .177 caliber, and was made in West Germany. I wondered why they named a gun after a girl. And how could one forget that name?
Who or what a Brahmin is, is an intimidating explanation. But, one principle defines us clearly -- we are vegetarians. We never ate anything other than organic fruits and vegetables devised as traditional recipes that could never be traced back. We had entrees like spice-stuffed eggplant, amaranth greens with ginger, myriad chutneys and pickles, gooseberry and mango-dals (legumes), and tomato-cilantro rasam, just to name a few. Recipes that were a thousand years old. My father, an avid risk-taker in all areas of life, never risked eating meat. He, in many ways, expressed that meat was a risk to his conscience, and he never wanted to risk the corruption of his body either. A gun was not something that Brahmin homes usually had. It was against our nonviolent way of life; it translated to immorality. But the gun had become imprinted on my mind, as I had lost interest in everything else. Bamma was confused over my moroseness, while everyone else ignored it.
The curtain on 1965 came down in a dramatic manner. My father took us on an unimprovised 3,700 miles round-trip through a tribal, heavily forested, and mostly undeveloped India, in his Fiat 1100 -- his first car. "Astonishing" is still an understatement in describing it. We also moved from No. 205 to another place immediately after the trip, but that house had become the harbinger of many things in our lives. More than anything, it became the symbol of our transformation -- from rural to cosmopolitan. The year 1966 dissolved fast, as another 1,000-mile trip loomed over us that December. This time, it was a transfer from Patna to New Delhi. The years between 1967 and 1972 in New Delhi were glorious for my parents in their material, as well as social, ascension, but tumultuous for me. I, more than my brother, struggled with studies, perhaps due to the instability as a result of frequent moving, but more than that it was the method of teaching -- I found it terribly boring to be a parrot and memorize my subject rather than understanding it. Those were my sling-shot years.
I think it was early 1971 when I started to nag my father in earnest for a gun. I had reached Darrell's age, and after a good year at school that summer, my father appeared to be in good humor, and this was enough for further solicitation. I could not understand his motivation, perhaps the reason lay in some murky psychology of his boyhood. He got us everything that he never even had a chance to think about -- his deprivation was not transferred to us. I was there that afternoon when he made that purchase in Lajpat Nagar, despite my mother's resistance. It was a "Pioneer" in .22 caliber, and till today it remains a mystery as to where and who had made it. Nevertheless, it definitely unmade me.
I always wondered how birds knew the direction to their nests, how life materialized in stagnant puddles, and how even the smallest creature knew danger. It was different now; within a few months my curiosity was shot, and I only saw targets. This gun did more to me than I could ever explain. My 70 mm view of nature was reduced to the narrow view of cross hairs. I was hovering over a vast landscape of life and color, then suddenly was plunged into a dark cave with a small opening. I was desensitized. Instead of observing, the paradigm had shifted to obliteration. I was soon bored to death of plinking at marbles and cans -- as I could not retrieve nor reinvigorate my capacity to wonder, which I did so naturally the years before, even when watching seemingly mundane things like ant trails. An inexorable and involuntary transformation was taking over. I started to stalk, be deviant, deceptive, and focused in locating sounds. Seeing turned to sighting, as I approached the culmination of my desensitization. In my naiveté I had sought control, but now I was being controlled by something I could not decipher.
It was a summer morning like any other, and the bushes with yellow flowers were busy with winged visitors. I cannot remember nor find the reason for my action, but involuntarily, as if under some sinister spell of an unknown force, I was impelled. And, despite my 15 years of being raised in a setting of empathy that abhorred what I was about to do, I did it anyway. I vacillated, watching the hummingbird for what seemed like interminable moments. Then slowly I leveled my gun, first in trepidation with my heart pounding, then in cold mystifying resolution like a seasoned sniper, at this hovering emblem of life's beauty, about 15 paces away, and squeezed the trigger. The hummingbird exploded instantly, like a tiny balloon with feathers. The tinsel-like feathers, some no bigger than snowflakes, descended slowly over where only one of its broken wings, still attached to a tiny part of the body and head, with an eye, plus the lower half of the beak lay -- one leg, a few centimeters away, also lay there. It was linked to the eviscerated head by a fleshy red string that may have been a tendon. The reflexive elation from that distance, immediately after the shot, was reduced to abject deflation when I stood over my work. I had become an author of death before I could even understand the basics of life. As I stood stupefied over the irretrievable, my gun, held parallel to my body in guilt, slid down vertically from the sweaty fingers of my right hand and hit the dirt. It was much more than the gun that slipped out of my grasp that searing day -- a cold desolation inducted me.
If you find Raju Peddada's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Raju Peddada 2013. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)