Damsel-flies!

In the warm sticky evenings that immediately follow the southwest monsoon, our badminton evenings on the terrace buzzed with new visitors: these utterly gorgeous dragonflies and damselflies. They were ethereal; like gauzy clothespins on wings. It had been a long time since I’d seen so many. And we’d watch, dazzled, as they flew around, dodging our twanging rackets as they sliced through the air (full disclosure: because one sorry evening, we’d seen one get entangled, mangled, in the cross-hairs, so to speak, that could get out only with human, i.e. our help). After that fateful incident, I resolved it would never happen again; these creatures were too enchanting to die stupid meaningless deaths by racquet. And so we placed a mini-moratorium on badminton until the flies called it a season.

I’d seen dragonflies, of course, all through my life growing up in Hyderabad and Rishi Valley. And when I moved to the US for graduate school, I’d compare the bigger ones I saw there to the desi versions. But I don’t really remember seeing the smaller, slighter damselflies in such droves either in DC or in Hyderabad after I returned in 2014 (or could it be that I hadn’t been able to distinguish one from the other then?!). Imagine my delight and surprise when wildlife cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty (of Green Humour fame) posted this wonderful cartoon on the discovery of four new South Indian damselfly species in South India: http://www.greenhumour.com/2020/10/new-damselflies-from-southern-india.html

Rohan’s post inspired me, in turn, to write something for my new flying friends. And so, without further ado, here’s a poem whose somewhat confused form (sonnet? villanelle? whatever) shouldn’t get in the way of its intended function: a celebration of four new South Indian damselflies, ca. Autumn/Fall 2020.

On the discovery of four new species of South Indian damselflies
(Protosticta myristicaensis, Protosticta sholaei, Protosticta cyanofemora, and Platylestes kirani, October 2020)

How long have you hovered over that well
You beautiful bug-eyed sapphire beast
Half dragon’s tail, half Tinkerbell
Forged equally from sunlight’s East
And water’s darkening pools and ponds.
Your gossamer wings grew after birth
Unfurling like some fiddlehead frond
You announced your arrival upon this earth
With one giant exoskeletal explosion
Cracked like a peanut, dripping wet
You entered the kingdom of the sun.

And even after you were hatched
Your wings outgrew your little face
Their delicacy unmatched
By any Victorian crochet or lace
Though even that comparison’s out of date
Because it turns out your ‘native place’
Is south of the Vindhyas, Western Ghats!
You’re homespun. Desi in so many forms
What you wear is no foreign tulle
But this season’s blue kanjeevarams
And your English surnames don’t have me fooled
Who first called you – medieval word ahoy —
Damsel?! Excuse me, but isn’t chivalry dead
It’s a word that separates ‘girls’ from ‘boys’
Questing knights from passive maids
Which couldn’t be further from truth or fact.
You have – all told – reptilian tact
In pouncing on your hapless prey!
Which makes you no timid has-been
But an ancient predatorial queen.
Your insectivarian predatees
Include mosquitoes and fleas
And nothing seems to make your day
Than lopping off their heads at play

And now there’s science, O Odonate
That brings genealogy home through the garden gate
The first rule of taxonomy
Is to find order in suborders, to find the many
In the one (the opposite of E pluribus unum)
So here, then, is a herald’s drum
Or should I say the mridangam?…

Oye oye oye calling all official registrars!
Your old name damsel reeks of Arthurian myth
And suggests a shy, retiring fly
Often in distress, ready to cry
But this is so very far from true
You’re anything but a meek rescue
To the contrary, you’ve sown your oats
And you have Salem steel under your Ghati petticoats
Like the aquatic nymph you once were, you queened
It up before you crawled on land.

Turns out you damsels aren’t so young
You long preceded us on earth
Much like the dinosaurs your ajjis knew
You once were big; your wingspan two feet wide
A giant insect, iridescent blue
(coloured indigo before the plant arrove on land!)
And as you’ve shrunk and modernized
Part ancient drone, part modern plane
Part dandelion, part helicopter
Evolutionarily, this question remains a whopper:
Are you my mother? You tiny exquisite Dr. Seussian crane?

If 2020 taught us anything at all
Its that old viruses need new names
In order to know them better.
So too with you, our four damsel molls
You’re alike, but you’re not the same
As any taxonomist will claim
Its difference that makes the heart grow fonder
Biodiversity that spins the earth around
So instead of seeing just one sub-order:
Zygoptera, we looked for species and found four!
The scientists who gave you your IDs
Were South Indian too.
So here without any further ado
Are your new Linnaean names
At their arangetram debuts:
Platylestes kirani, Protosticta myristicaensis
Protosticta sholaei, Protosticta cyanofemora

Latin for Dakshin India’s Fabulous Four!