First published through EarthLines Magazine, Issue 16
I sing to elephants. It’s what I do. I sing because I like to, and because I believe my elephant neighbours are comfortable in my singing presence. I sing all the time, and it’s when I sing that I know more precisely how I feel. My own speech never does justice to my thoughts and emotions: always a little clumsy and coarse, somehow inadequate, and inexpressive.
It’s different when I sing. My utterances are more in tune with my intentions. I’m no elephant whisperer, nor do I claim to have complex exchanges with them by moonlight, but the reverse is true: when they come by, I am whispered out of my den by their calls and cries, by their trumpets, rumbles and whooshing sighs. When elephants arrive in the valley, I scoot out of my sheets at night. I also sing to the langur across the river, and the whistling thrush when he graces this ridge where I live. I sing to treefrogs in the monsoon. I sing to hornbills when they swoop by, matching their cackles and caws, so they swing their heavy-beaked heads to look at me.
I sing to hill mynahs all through the winter, my favourite of all musical pleasures. I sing to crows several times a day. As they increase in number in this once crowless place, signifying changes both local and global, the crows here hold lessons in ecology, as well as in musical discovery. As do the macaques, with their so-called commonplace behaviours, and commonplace sounds.
I am typing this on a sunny monsoon morning in a little garden in this forest in the mountains of southern India, amidst a symphony of our own making, all of us here: a racket-tailed drongo, two tree pies, a barbet, a flock of loud hill mynahs, two scimitar babblers, two coucals, a red spur fowl, three sunbirds, two yellowbrowed bulbuls, some red-whiskered bulbuls, a wood pigeon, a couple of crows, a nilgiri langur, a quiet chittering troop of bonnet macaques, a number of small undiscernible birds, and me. My vocal cords get a good workout. Hooting, cawing, cackling, trilling, whistling, squealing, croaking and humming between headvoice, chestvoice and bellyvoice. I learn about fine-tuning, resonance, thick sound and thin sound, staccato and slides.
I learn riffs and runs too, along intervals that defy our usual human scales. My vocal range grows and strengthens through years of daily practice. I am able to sing in ways today that I could only have fantasized about before. Of course, I sing to my nonhuman neighbours because they sing so sweetly to me all the time. It is their generosity that I aspire to match, such music calls forth a response. Back and forth. So easy, so lovely, so perfectly tuned to the mood of the moment.