The black kite was huge; when she soared over the grounds of the embassy where I was waiting for a visa, her shadow from wingtip to wingtip was so solid and so vast that it made all of us look up at the sky, and at her. I could not stop watching, taken by her grace, the power she exuded even at a distance.
The guard said, after a while: “You’re admiring our kite? She is one of the oldest residents here.”
“Really?” I said, trying to imagine how old she might be. Milvus migrans (scientific name for the black kite) has been known to live to 26 years or so in captivity, but birds in the open would face more predators, disease and threats.
“Yes,” said the guard. “She was already fully grown when I came here 12 years ago.” He laughed. “She got her security clearance before I did!”
Two humans, one bird: what briefly bonded us was residency, if not exactly citizenship. My husband and I understand now that we are accidental citizens of Delhi: this became our city around the twelfth year of our marriage, not because we had claimed Delhi or Delhi had claimed us, but for the simpler reason that we had not left after all. The black kite, circling around the guard and me one last time before she returned to her post, nested comfortably in a high perch on a telephone pole, had an even greater claim to the city than we humans did – she had been born here, and had lived here all her life.
I wrote The Wildings out of a love of cats and their complicated clans, but also out of a single and unforgettable moment of perception: the understanding, once admitted never unlearned, that cities might be built by humans, but that their residents stretched all across the bird and beast kingdom, whether or not we wished to acknowledge this.
The most obvious symbol of animal occupation can be seen in the imperial, sarkari heart of Delhi: the monkeys of North and South Block, who are there to greet government officials as they trooped in every morning, and whose tenure outlasts the assorted secretaries, deputy, joint, cabinet.
Their less fortunate cousins are permanent refugees in other parts of Delhi, entire families rounded up from colonies across the Yamuna and dumped in Tughlaqabad like the city’s homeless people. And like the homeless, these urban monkeys find the strength to survive, to form close huddled groups and makeshift families as they sneak back in, crossing city limits with illicit glee.
Stray dogs thrive in South Delhi, where local animal lovers have joined hands to protect them against the scourge of municipal dog squads and cold-hearted non-dog lovers alike; cows and pigs have adapted to life among the malls in Gurgaon. The bird life would require a book of its own to do justice to the annual immigrants at the Okhla barrage, the strutting mynahs who think they own all of the Capital, the cunning, streetwise crows who rule Connaught Circus.
It is a curious blindness among humans, to have a vision of their cities and settlements that is restricted to only one of the many species who live within these constructions. And it is a universal blindness, except when people are forced to acknowledge the ubiquity of their fellow creatures. New Yorkers spent a lot of 2014 debating the vexed question of whether there really was, as urban legend suggests, one rat to every human; a new study suggested that there were only two million rats to the eight million people who live there. That makes it enough rats to go around, but at least it’s not a one-to-one ratio. (That would be the bedbugs.)
Londoners don’t even know how many pigeons they share their city with, but one estimate suggests that 30,000 can be found in Trafalgar Square on a daily basis. Moscow’s stray dogs used to commute on the subway until they began to face threats from professional dog hunters, the canine equivalent of dangerous muggers. Chicago has at least 2,000 wild coyotes living tail-by-jowl with the Windy City’s residents; they know city life so well that they’ve learned to look at traffic before they cross the street, according to researcher Stan Gehrt. And in cities like Hunan in China, unscrupulous hair traffickers have been known to shave resident goats en masse, passing off their hair as human for the wig trade.
I have never completely understood the human fear of animals in their city. A monkey pack attack can be terrifying, the occasional stray dog can be rabid or mean-tempered, and I still remember being charged by, of all things, a very cross cow and limping around with bruises for days afterwards. But measure for measure, what we do to animals – our casual cruelty, our calculated viciousness – far outstrips anything they might do to us. In city across city around the world, the two-legged ape remains the meanest, nastiest, most deadly of predators; we’re at the top of the threat chain.
Back after a visit elsewhere, to a city in Europe that had few animals, where the pollution had picked off most of the birdlife, I went for a long walk around Delhi, taking the Metro from one beloved place to another. Peacocks strutted in one of the Old Delhi parks, their permanently alarmed calls competing with the parrots chorals for attention. Coming out of Jhandewalan, I waited for traffic to sort itself: two horse-drawn tongas and an entanglement of handcarts were hastily backing to give an elephant, caparisoned for a wedding, the right of way.
Closer to home, the local stray dogs greeted me with immense delight, dashing off eventually with apologetic barks in order to do a spot of squirrel-chasing. In Lodi Gardens that evening, the sounds of traffic on the streets outside were drowned out by the loud jagaran practice of the birds squabbling and gossiping as they prepared to roost for the night. My fellow citizens, I thought, and felt happy to be sharing a city with them.