A Virus Itihasa (an it-was-so history)

Inspired by Dr. Seuss’ Ode to the Lorax. Written between May and November 2020 (no, scratch that – started in May, languished for months, and posted just before two critical events, both announced on November 9, that will likely change the course of this virus’ history and itihasa: Biden’s win in the US elections and Pfizer’s announcement of a possible Covid vaccine! Until which … )

  1. Virus, n. late Middle English (denoting the venom of a snake): from Latin, literally ‘slimy liquid, poison’. The earlier medical sense, superseded by the current scientific use, was ‘a substance produced in the body as the result of disease, especially one capable of infecting others’
  2. Itihasa, n. Sanskrit, Hindi. Literally, इति  आस (iti ha āsa, “so indeed it was”), from अस्ति (ásti, “he is”).

Way back in the pre-Covidean mists
The viral ancestors of our contemporary pests
Rebels, no doubt, who wanted more
Threw lipid coats over their RNA core
And decided to venture out far from their ’hood
Go forth and multiply, went an adage they knew
So they hitched rides on anything that moved
A furry hide, a flea that flew
A bat that bit, a chimpanzoo too
Until over the years, they found the perfect host to tarry a while:
Those arrogant bipeds who’d taken over the world,
(In other words, us!)
As viral waves reached our human shores
In each successive era
Viruses looked in the mirror
Liked what they saw and said, let’s replicate
Let’s copy ourselves, let’s get more of us made.
These warm human bodies make perfect motels
Let’s skinnydip in their organelles
Let’s unzip our coats, Let’s start to play
And once we get our feet in the door
we can have wild parties:  facsi-melees!
As we know, the viruses proved terrible guests
They overstayed, didn’t clean up their spills
Or mop up their mess as they made their hosts gravely, seriously ill
Never learning that Athithi Devo Bhava also applied to cellular quests.

I first heard the word virus – meaning any virus, all viruses
In Thomas Akka’s sundrenched high-school biology lab
And while I remember so much about those classes
I cannot gloss over a very big gap:
We mostly ignored Virus and Co.
And that may have been quite the lapse
(This was of course before AIDS went pro
making its HIV virus a household name).
Because even way back then, if memory serves, they didn’t seem to fit
In the great Chain of Being, the tall Tree of Life
And even as we learnt about all creatures small and big
From “animalcules” to hammerhead sharks
We traced Darwin’s evolutionary arcs
Through mitosis, meiosis, Lucy, Watson and Crick
Galapagos finches, Mendelian peas
Or how life crawled out of the Jurassic seas,
The missing links archaeopteryx, eohippus
Only proving the point that while the rest of us
From starfish to geese
Evolved from the same genetic stuff
We didn’t know enough/about the lowly virus’ makeup.
If anything, they seemed outliers that had slipped through the cracks.
Betwixt and between, anomalies that couldn’t be seen
Microscopic contradictions in terms
A very very strange kind of germ
Not quite alive, not quite dead
Inert with a nucleic heart, but no other street cred
In Python-speak, they were organisms that weren’t.
Neither Archaea nor Bacteria; neither pro nor eu-karyotic
Truth be told – biologically, they seemed downright idiotic.

But … (sotto voce) had we read them completely wrong?
Could it be that viruses were not in-betweeners at all
But pioneer species, the earth’s proto-critters?
Or anatomical relics like coccyx or appendix
Forgotten remnants of our own double helix?
Its unclear. But as more and more viruses leaped into our genes
We get to 2019 in the Age of the Anthropocene
That great tipping point where human destruction
Of nature, ozone layers, wildlife and wildforests
Created the sets for a new virus to arrive on the scene.
What form did it take? This viral Kalki
Did it inherit the wind, did it resemble a demon?
Turns out it had its own geneology: Seven
corona’d ancestors including common cold and the flu
Crazy aunt Nipah, mad uncle Ebola
Begat and begat, and like a game of tambola
Lo and behold, out tumbled the novel SARS-Cov2
Which straightened its crown and went out for a spin
Leaping from bat to – we think – pangolin
Remembering lessons from illustrious kin:
Balance deadliness with contagion; You want to keep those humans alive
Just isolate them and put them in quarantine
Hitchhike on their trade routes by plane, ships and rail
To make it truly pandemic, a global travail
They can’t see, hear or smell us so hit them through touch
The sense they use to show affection, caress, make love
They’re the only great apes with fully opposable thumbs
So target their tool-making laboring hands
And then, and then, go straight for the lungs, their central command.

Oh the lungs! Oh the lungs! those dense green arbors (and arbiters) of life
That hang in our ribcage like two giant beehives
Its funny how old bio classes leave us with vivid images
That stay in a brain even as it dimmages
Of all the visuals seared into my aging cortex
Thomas akka gave us this: a picture beyond text
The lungs, she said, when completely unraveled
Look less like bellows and more like a well-traveled
Tennis net. Spongy and grey, like wet cauliflower
Dipped in cement or caught in rain showers
And – she’d continue with dramatic pause
When you disentangle a single human’s lungs on a board
Trachea, bronchi, alveoli and their pulmonary gauze
The area covered would be a whole tennis court!
That’s 78 by 36 feet for anyone counting,
Just to keep one human respirating.

A tennis court of lung! Strewn like exploded balloon!
This is what happens when we try to lasso the moon.
In Covid-ean times, could there be a more vivid metaphor
Of how human hot air was brought to its knees by
A game! Serve and matchpoint, the winner takes all
Survival of the fittest in a high stakes play-ball?
Through volley after volley of the fevered nightmare
The virus gains inch by microbial inch
Until its global domination is a cinch
As it slits us wide open – the whole goddamn species – and lays our lungs bare
Its easy to see how Homo sapiens’ breath becomes air.

After the deluge – the cyclones, the locusts — the pandemic’s first round
Could such a pulmonary court offer a reckoning for trial?
The prosecution might bring as witness our first and last gasps
A baby’s first squawl, an old woman’s rasps
A meditator’s om, a migrant’s tired ‘saans’
Piped oxygen tanks, ventilators when we are under distress
Breath, inhaled air, is what makes the world’ s animals soar
And what’s at stake when we can’t breathe anymore
As the novel coronavirus devours our lungs
Its cold-hearted Descartian mantra: I exist, therefore I expunge.
While the criminal charge is murder most foul
The defendant covSARS2 stands in the docket and crows:
You forget, the death tolls could have been much much more!
Its time for you to shift your lens, from telephoto to wideangle
And then you’ll see that Darwin may have erred a bit
What matters is not survival of the fittest but the fit
Between our ACR receptors and the seat of your souls.
Evolution’s great leaps
Are not what happens to you at the top of the heap
But among the masses that throng the bottom floor
So if you ask us, in evolutionary terms
The crown for best fit with diverse habitats
Belongs not to you, but to us
And we have the coronas to prove that.

We don’t want to kill you, what good would that do us?
Just periodically infect you, like our Grandpa ‘Flu does
In fact our seasonal affair could lead to a beautiful marriage
We would bring our own babies (and of course horse and carriage)
You wouldn’t have to do a thing other
Than meet, touch and kiss one another
We’d do the rest and not even charge you the tariff.
The fact that Covid cracked open your society’s faultlines and dark holes
Your ugly class divides, your castes, your races
Your lack of compassion for the poor and the proles
Your neglect of the migrants who broke their soles
Your tendency to war, your constant skirmishes
Isn’t our fault, its yours!
When its crystal clear to us all that you can’t take care of your own.

If you truly love this blue twirling planet, our third rock from the sun
Do us all a favour and cut emissions by mega-tons
Your capitalistic greed, your oil rigs, your factory farms
Have kept you from seeing the incalculable harms
You are doing to forests, icecaps and seas
Its as elementary, Watson, as the birds and bees
Your tinpot dictators have made crises of calamities
And everywhere people have taken to the streets
Suggesting that Covid is not as bad as other pandemics
Plaguing your lands like race, class and religious fanatics.
Which makes us not the murderers you charge, but harbingers of change
So pay close attention: We’re not the bugs you undermine
We are just the proverbial canaries in coalmines
Warning of danger.

Our message is this: It’s the bloody apolocalypse!
So if you want a new normal, try understanding
That you have to completely transform your relationship with our earth
Stop, just cease and desist, from your constant plunder, loot, corporate branding
Your deforestation and fracking, your wet markets, your logging,
Give Nature time to recover, and come out to dance
Again. And then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a slim second chance.

PS: A CODA (written in October 2020)

And now, five months since those lines were first written
Here at last is a belated postscript
We’ve all been stung, we’ve all been bitten
By the virus and morbid tales from the crypt
So in response to Pitta, my pesky persistent friend
Here’s a start to a beginning to this poem’s end.

That second chance above? Was never seized
Corona continued to play while nations sneezed.
Bear in mind those words were written way back in June
But everyone’s STILL singing the very same tune.
No one’s made the pudding, no one’s pulled out the plum.
No vaccine, no immunity; no data, no errata
Everyone’s at risk, and nobody’s won.
Fatigue and cabin fever are ruling the course
Fear and rising infections are making it worse
Meanwhile, many world ‘leaders’ have caught the bug
They’ll recover, while others cannot be so smug.

Police brutality still reigns, caste violence is real
Democracy hangs by a thread, a political deal
The economy has tanked, like some great viral prank.
Contagion, it seems, is deadly twice over
If you’re ill (or you’re not) but then pass on the fever.
And yet maskless Covidiots think they’re over the hump
Don’t they get that they’re acting like Donald J Trump?

As to saving the environment, that’s out of tune
With the new mountains of plastic, the viral PPE runes
Now taking their revenge and rising from seas
While the media confuses forests for trees.
From the green perspective, the ecological view
That’s enough to make us all feel deep blue
To be sure, eco-warriors continue to show us the harm
Done to our planet; they keep sounding alarms
David’s made a new film, Greta’s still on board
But hello! we’ve not met a single one of the Paris accords.
If their predictions are accurate, and surely they are
We humans are doomed and guess what?
SARS-CoV2 is nature’s new star.
First wave, second wave, it keeps coming back to our shores
In fact, its here to stay on earth; Naysayers, karo mat bore!
Much as Thomas akka hinted at so long ago
Evolutionary predators come in all sizes and shapes
For all of us who’ve descended from great apes
This tiniest of bugs could be our mightiest foe.

— Sita Reddy

Acknowledgements and shukriyas: Thanks to Kavitha Buggana, Rebecca Mathai, Usha Raman, B.V.Tejah, Sadhana Ramachander, Malini Waghray for a close reading in writing group. And also to Venkata Kumar Sattapalli, Lakshmi Menon, Pearl Mistry, Gayatri Rajan, Murali Mohan, Shyamala Mani, Uma Magal, Gowri Reddy, Suchitra Reddy, Archana Atri, Mitali Sen for enthusiastically supporting the ‘josh’ of the first telling way back in May/June, and the second one as things dragged on before I posted. This is an incomplete history, of course, as we are bang in the middle of this pandemic. But since the virus isn’t going anywhere and is the protaganist, perhaps this is a tale that needs telling while its history is still being lived, as it appears to us (hence, itihasa). I write this as we go through another peak in India, the worrying surge in the US, new lockdowns in the UK and Europe. Should this be a virus murdabad, not an ode? I think so. Nothing to celebrate with this one.

Ode to the Banyans

Ode to the Banyans: Banyan-Sahasranamam/ A garland of names (and a prayer)

Originally written on  for Save the Banyans of Chevella blogspot/ http://www.savebanyansofchevella.com

Written by Sita Reddy, inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: “For I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the Trufulla trees, for the trees have no tongues”. Drawing by Kobita Dass Kolli

The sad saga of NH163
Is that development often misses the forests for the trees
For that widening road is meant to replace and ride over
Telangana’s perfectly good StateHighway4
Along which live more than a 1000 stately banyans, marked for the axe
Since holocausts rely on cold numbers, not faces or names
This is an ode to putting hearts back.

Names matter, say the ancient banyans gracing that road
If we could speak from our shaggy-haired crowns
Our voices would rumble from our roots through our habits
For we are far from voiceless, we speak many tongues.
And we have more names than we can count on our thumbs

What’s in a name? Everything, it sets things apart
We name what we love, what endures, what should stay
Its where we believe the environmental movement must start.
We love what we name, we protect what we love
It’s the high-minded road we believe green policy must take
Our story begins in primordial mists
Around 80 million years ago some of our fig ancestors
Cut a deal with a wasp: Eupristina mason
iBoth species (tree and wasp) got their Latin tags later
When Linnaeus coined his binomial nomenclature.

But eons before we were named Ficus benghalensis
On jambudvipa, our peninsular home in the tropics
The earliest tree names (in Sanskrit, in Tamil) described our strange forms:
Bahupada, many-footed
Nyagrodha, downward facing
Inward blooming
Outward branching
Secret flowering
The oldest, largest, noisiest canopies in the world.

Every tree a circus! A mela! Teeming with animals and birds
The most cosmically upside-down trees on the planet
Sanctuaries, shrines, pathshalas and groves
To put it quite simply – each one a whole forest!
Colloquial names soon followed; nouns, less adjectival
Reflecting the many tongues of people who loved us
Marri. Badh. Bar. Bor. Bargad. Bargot.
Although our genealogies trace back to jungle figs
We slowly began to travel where moved
Via wasps and animals, birds and bats
Where seeds found their way and decided to stay
We found singular spots to hang our marri chettu hats
Our names became place-names, linked to journeys and roads
We spread north, we went west, we flew east, we grew south
From Calcutta’s swamps to the Adyar mount
Each tree carried tales of its own spirits and ghosts
The largest, from Thimamma’s funeral pyre where she followed her husband
The oldest, from Kabir’s toothbrush when he threw it in a dustbin!

And then came the Europeans (no strangers to naming), to maraud and to plunder
But lo! when they saw us were struck in nameless wonder
Alexander was gobsmacked; his general Syko too
He waxed about 10,000 soldiers standing under one tree roof
But the Greeks couldn’t name us; even that botanical guru Theophrastus
Saw in us only scientific proof
Of giant fig cousins to those on their islands.

It wasn’t until medieval times when function followed form
And we got our current name based on those we sheltered
Our birthplace may well have been Bandar Abbas in Iran
Where one Thomas Herbert saw a tree festooned with garlands
Bannyan, he and other Englishmen called it, the tree under which the baniyas (traders) gathered
Baniyans, said the Portugese, who recognized the same in Gujarat
And our name banyan was born; For an entire tree species, the largest figs of them all.
Much like our girths, the meaning of ‘banyans’ kept expanding
To any tree that was strangler or epiphytic
And thence to an entire figure of speech
So that now banyans refer to (and it could’ve been worse)
A sheltering, sweltering, skyholding universe
A collective noun, an umbrella, a canopy of things.

Which is entirely appropriate for us banyans of Chevella
For nowhere else in the country – we think – would you find such a large road-lining cluster
To get rid of us, to cut us till we bleed
Would be to decimate a clan, an entire demi-fleet
Put a ban on cutting banyans before its too late
They are Blake-ian worlds sprung from little seeds of sand
To name is to care; naming is an act of love
And so, since our name comes from traders whose language was commerce
Let’s do the math …We are NOT mere numbers, we have many names
Mark us with love, with drishti and haldi and charms against harm
With spell songs and poems and art galore
But do not mark us for death, that’s way premature.

If names don’t convince you, here are some numbers that might
Sway your bureaucratic minds with our plight:
1165 trees lining both sides of road
(and that’s just one fig species from at least 850 more)
At least 200 bird and animal species count us as home
And I’m not even including the ghosts and spirits who live in our branches
Or the countless villagers who sit in our considerable shade
To commune and gossip and sing songs and dances

We cannot be translocated; our canopies will die
And our interlocking branches would surely collapse
We are keystone species; we support entire eco-systems
If you cut us to stumps (and we are stumped why you would!)
It will take us decades to grow back and develop those broods
But if saving trees as ecology will not convince you, here are some figures:
We will cost to be moved; at least 4 lakhs per tree
And that’s not even counting the risks of sure death
As you cut off our arms and hack down our roots.
Some 80% die each day in this foolhardy migration
We ask and beseech you: Please let us stay!

We hold in our arms your heritage, your pasts
Tagore wrote about us, as did Sarojini Naidu
Your nationalist heroes even made us your state tree
But what state do we stand for – if its not reciprocal?
Stand for us! Now that would be a grand gesture!
More so because we think we are utterly unique as a group
So be good fellas
Think plural, think larger; no other road in the nation has this many banyan clusters
As our beautiful old tree-lined SH4 to Chevella.

Don’t make us history; that would be foolish
Think forward, not backward.
Let US be your future.
Do it for your children and your children’s children; think big
Let them know you cared a whole fig!
For once make the right call
Don’t be cruel; don’t cut us to heartwood
Will we not bleed just as you would?
Name us Heritage Banyans and let our Xylems stand tall!