It’s only mid-morning but it’s already oppressively hot as we make our way to the foot of Horsley Hills in Andhra Pradesh, a southern state in India. Even the rush of wind – whistling and wild – pouring into our car is hot. I’m sweating into folds of my skin that I’d long forgotten existed.
This isn’t my kind of habitat at all. I’m only tagging along with Ishan, my flatmate and friend, an evolutionary biologist and herpetologist, and his two field biologist friends, on their search for rock-dwelling dwarf geckos (Genus Cnemaspis).
As we make our way up these hills, I notice that these solid stone hills aren’t so at all, instead they are a collection of carefully cradled together rocks, boulders, and stones. It looks like an ancient giant baby had been tasked with piling them up as a distraction while its mother got on with the real work. To keep the shapes, the giant baby had stuck the rocks together with mud, dry long grasses, thorny stubby shrubs and Eucalyptus trees all the way from Australia (In truth, these trees are inexplicably planted everywhere by the officers of the national forest department in a misguided attempt at afforestation though they aren’t a native species).
I could have happily stayed in the car and looked out of the window, remained nestled in the coolness of the air conditioner and enjoyed the views. We had only driven halfway up but it was already spectacular. But I wasn’t going to give these three straight scientists the pleasure of being right about someone like me. So, I stepped out of the car along with them to track down dwarf geckos.
I’m a nearly six-foot-tall, Black, queer, femme-presenting body with ten years of dreadlocks bundled atop the head, a stack of silver bangles on the right arm, pierced ears, kohl-drawn eyes, and vintage schoolmarm glasses. I’m dressed in a simple unbleached cotton top, a colourful Sri Lankan sarong and rubber yoga slippers. We had parked on the side of the road, and climbed our way into the sparse, thorny forest. That was my first hurdle. The three of them had been on many field research trips before and were equipped with caps, Dri-FIT tees and shorts, and sensible, suitable shoes. I stood on the side of the road and waited for them to make their way up first. I lit a cigarette and acted aloof but watched the individual choices they made to make their way from asphalt to the terrain above it.
Quite quickly, I realised that my city clothes were going to add a degree of difficulty, but it wasn’t going to be impossible. It was simply a matter of hiking up my sarong, holding the rocks and hanging onto the branches. At first, I felt like a baby giraffe finding its footing but eventually, there was a rhythm to the way I chose to negotiate my movement between these obstacles. I found myself grappling with feelings of enthusiasm and accomplishment. Once I was over those initial doubts, I found myself being useful, lifting rocks, spreading out the leaf litter and keeping an eye out for the tiniest movements around me. At other times, I stepped away from the trio to simply sit on the side of jutting rocks and look out onto the valley below.
Below: the land stretched out. The green of the brambly and gnarly vegetation ranged from dusty to dazzling, lit by sharp sunlight punctuated with grand scabs of rock formations. At the edge of this view, I could just about make out hints of human existence – houses and farming patches.
Perhaps it was the unrelenting heat and sweat steadily streaming down my face and pooling between my toes or the sudden gust of wind that made temperature dip but sitting there, I felt transported to the evergreen, rolling, cool hills of Kalimpong, a small town in an eastern state of India.
On the first day of every school summer holiday, Dewaki, my maternal Nepali grandmother, and I would begin our three-day train journey, three-hour bus ride and two-hour jeep ride along hairpin bends to spend three months with her side of the family in their native village. While in the city, my Blackness was always read by others with caution, over here it was distinctly different. Among my Nepali relatives and their neighbours, at first, it conferred me with casual celebrity and an air of coolness, and over time we seemed to forget about this viscous distance between us till one day I was just one among them. I’ve always thought that I earned my stripes when I ate sixteen soupy steamed pork momos in one sitting to an awestruck audience and thundering applause.
Once there, Dewaki and I had to find our own pitch to harmonise with the song of the big house. On most days, she would find her way into the roomy, firewood-warm kitchen strung with drying meats and leafy greens. Her six sisters and she would plan and execute the day’s meals for all the many visiting mouths that ritually came in during the summer months. Occasionally I’d join her, sitting on a wooden stool out of the way of the garrulous gang of grandmothers. I’d overhear stories of secret affairs, family eccentricities and other wilder times. They were happy to have my company, but it also didn’t matter if I was there, I was always just meant to overhear. It is through those conversations that I learned: it always used to be better.
All these memories came flooding back at Horsley Hills while I was hiding from the sun under a web of bendy branches, on a rock, looking out. I also remembered that I would spend most of my stay accompanying my cousins to graze the cows and goats owned by my great-grandfather, up in Kalimpong’s hills. For a city brat, it was hard to wake up to join them, they left at first light, but each time I did I enjoyed it so much that it was easier the next time.
Since I wasn’t really responsible for these animals, I would just run around through the trees. There, unlike Horsley Hills, the trees grew column-like, stretching to the sky. Sometimes we would go on long, winding walks to find the various streams or collected pools of water or explore abandoned houses that survived despite the stranglehold that tree roots had over them.
We would play games like cops and robbers, hide-and-seek, seven stones or team sports like football and cricket. Sometimes, we’d invent games or act out sequences from action movies. Other times, we would have these Sisnu or stinging nettle (Urtica Dioica) round-robin and knock-out tournaments where all the cousins – girls and boys – would first have to carefully pick stinging nettles, dip them into the stream and then attempt to hit each other. One strike and you were out. In the end, everyone would be madly itchy. The trick: never scratch at it, ever. If we picked extra, we would take it back home where our grandmothers would turn it into a delicious dinner.
I was curious about everything, constantly asking questions, annoying my cousins about the names of plants, flowers, trees, birds, bugs, butterflies and so on. They’d patiently tell me everything, but it was all in Nepali and I can’t seem to remember any of it now. Occasionally, I’d take along a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery, find a patch of grass and oscillate between reading, daydreaming, and settling into a nap.
My favourite thing to do on each of these holidays was to accompany my cousin Eunice, who was the same age as me, to her secret spot. We were the youngest and usually the butt of the jokes or baggage to the others. So, we became easy best friends and while we always tried and managed to keep up with our elder cousins, we did sneak away to do our own thing too.
After several summers it seemed like I had earned her trust, and one afternoon, when the rest of them were being slothful while the animals grazed, she dragged me away. She was the sure-footed leader on this adventure, I literally followed her, imitating her every move as we left the flat grazing lands behind and gained ground. It was too late to turn back by the time I realised that this was an unfamiliar route to me, and we were walking beside a tiny, temporary waterfall that had erupted because of the recent rains. But even then, I knew that any weakness on my part would be attributed to that thing that made me even more different.
I’d already come to see that Blackness was seen as a strength, and therefore scary too, but this was something else that I hadn’t even begun to name yet. Soon I was rewarded for pushing through, and we came upon an ancient, abandoned chapel carpeted with dusty pink, round bushy flowers and nearly-perfectly intact stain-glass windows. That in itself was impressive, but Eunice had one more trick up her sleeve: she rushed towards the walls, wildly waving her hands and touching each of the leaves until they closed up. They were touch-me-nots (Mimosa Pudica). I haven’t been able to resist ruffling them ever since.
Either they’re following me everywhere or they are one of the few plants I can identify without seeking confirmation, but I do seem to find touch-me-nots all the time. I even know and like that their scientific species name Pudica is derived from the Latin word for ‘bashful.’ At Horsley Hills, I became aware that it wasn’t the first time that someone like me had been outdoors. I too had been in the great outdoors before, and I remembered loving it. Out there, one was extracted from the borders of one’s body and was simply one’s senses.
I found that I didn’t have to go as high up as the three men if I didn’t want to, or at least I didn’t have to choose the same paths or match their pace. I could make my own way up. I learned to trust my abilities to negotiate the gravel in rubber slippers, to know that a branch could take my weight if I decided to use it as a lever, to step on a rock knowing it was solidly embedded and wouldn’t move, and to be sure that the knot in my sarong wouldn’t open before leaping, and the coming to each of these conclusions was wonderful.
As Black, queer and femme-presenting, performing the simplest of acts is often complicated. I’ve never wanted to disinvest myself of these identities even for a second, and they continue to give me more than the world has taken from me. I know that the trouble hasn’t ever been me, it is the way others around me have been taught to see someone like me. It is the string of negative attributes that they assign to me. Even in a city of twelve million, I feel over-seen. I don’t simply mean the constant supervision and surveillance, which is stifling. But also, being seen too much. There was always the feeling that each of my moves was magnified — that everyone could see every little thing, or was it that they were always watching? I’m never sure.
Up in Horsley Hills, as the one accompanying three field biologists, I felt these daily demons fall to the wayside. Other kinds of feelings emerged, erupted, and exploded from within me. I enjoyed feeling the solidity of the rocks beneath my slippered feet, the sweaty clump of the sarong in my fist that enabled easier movement became a part of me, and my eyes burrowing into the crevices of gigantic granite rocks with a flashlight, looking for the eyeshine of these well-camouflaged Cnemaspis. Ishan even discovered a new species of these dwarf geckos on Horsley Hills that day (adding to the 40 other species he has already discovered and named) and has called it Cnemaspis Graniticola.
Though it is unforgivingly hot everywhere on these hills, this species, which is endemic to rocky montane habitats, has been able to survive here for the past several million years while global temperatures have been rising.
I like sunsets and long walks in nature. Whenever anyone used that sentence to describe what they liked, I used to burst into loud laughter.
I have known Ishan for a little more than five years at this point, and our trip to Horsley Hills wasn’t my first in-the-field experience, and it hasn’t been my last. I’ve attempted to attach myself to all his trips and treks over the years. Much like waking up early as a child in Kalimpong, it began as difficult but on trying, the thrill and time have made each expedition easier and more enjoyable. Besides, each time it gives me a window into the past, reminding me that I’m making do with prison when there’s so much space to roam around in. After all, I’ve known its taste and it can still be mine.
I’m no fool. I understand that I can’t have it all the time, not in the world that I presently walk out into, but that hasn’t stopped me before. But lately, my freedom is made of firmer fibre. You know, people always say that dogs bark at “people with bad character” and over the years, I’ve come to understand that they mean unfamiliar. And like my approach to barking dogs: I stand my ground, let them satisfy their curiosity, watch them, make sure they calm down, and hold my ground a little longer. Then depending on my mood, I decide if I will play or punish them by walking away. In time, if we constantly see each other, we each earn our way to becoming friends.
I’ve always attempted to take this route with people, even those most uncomfortable with my physical presence. I’ve learned: don’t fall for their shaming, don’t shrink, and don’t show even a hint of fear. I’ve been revelling in the deliciousness of this newfound layer, and I’ve begun to unabashedly experience and embody myself and my surroundings. I’ve also solidified my belief that binaries aren’t an interesting lens through which to view the world.
Over this lockdown, Ishan has been documenting the innumerable invertebrates in his backyard at his mom’s bungalow on the outskirts of the city. I’ve been seeing it through his Instagram page, and it has made me take a closer look at the creepy-crawlies who visit the plants on my balcony too.
In tracking his Instagram posts and through my own observations, I have only now, perhaps naively, come to see and understand variations and excitements engendered in nature. How can an ant with spikes even exist? Genus Polyrhachis. Why do white weevil faces remind me of human skulls? Family Curculionidae. Who does one compliment for the psychedelic colours of a jumping spider? Genus Stenaelurillus. Why do the wings of lace bugs remind me of my grandmother’s crocheted tea towels? Family Tingidae. Where are the blueprints for the mechanics of these many robber-flies? Family Asilidae. These features and fancy flourishes don’t always seem to have a function at first. At times, scientists might push to study them, depending on funding, but mostly there are informed guesses and theories thought up to assign purposes. But as Ishan has consistently pointed out, it is always the megafauna that brings in the big bucks. In the words of the great Missy Elliot, “Come on/Is it worth it?” (The answer: it always is).
It has taken a little over three decades to confirm and know that value doesn’t come from other people understanding my purpose too. While I had always known that there was nothing unnatural about my wants, needs and desires – perhaps you alone knowing is completely natural. In still being able to be mystified by the natural world around me on these field trips, in recalling childhood walks through jungles and even in the potted plants dotting the urban tenements, I feel justified. I understand that the world hasn’t changed enough that a gaggle of gays can go traipsing through the wild (I mean, they can if they are straight-passing men). But when I attach myself to research trips with these intrepid field biologists or escape to Ishan’s house on the outskirts of the city, I’m grasping at the promise, potential and possibilities of shedding these identities – to be flesh, not figure alone.
But I’ve also learned to bring back a bit of that feeling to my apartment life in the city. And with each expedition, the way this nearly six-foot-tall, Black, queer, femme-presenting body with ten years of dreadlocks bundled atop the head, a stack of silver bangles on the right arm, pierced ears, kohl-drawn eyes, vintage schoolmarm glasses, draped in metres of handloom yardage, and rubber yoga slippers, occupies the city becomes fuller too.
Hi, I’m Joshua Muyiwa. I have come to love sunsets and long walks in nature too. Please don’t laugh.
About the author
Joshua Muyiwa, not yet 36, started writing because he was told, ‘it is time to stop seeming arty and pretentious and actually earn the tags by doing something’. He is queer. He presently writes Arts & Culture — South India, on the queer life and on television for News 9. He has worked as Editor–Dance at the magazine TimeOut Bangalore, has written a weekly column in the Bangalore Mirror – Gazing Outwards – that talked about race, sexuality, art and the police force in the city for seven years. He has written for publications like The Week, Tehelka, Hindu Businessline, Firstpost, Mint Lounge, Fifty-Two.in, Chimurenga, LensCulture, Conde Nast Traveller, The Goya Journal among others. He is a poet and has won the Toto Award for Creative Writing in English in 2012 for The Catalogue, a series of nine poems on the history of photography and poetry told through the relationship between a photographer and a poet. His poems have been published in Poetry with Prakriti, The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia and elsewhere. And he makes poetry-performances like Come, Lie With Me, where strangers were invited to a one-on-one poetry reading experience in the poet’s recreated bedroom.