Today, November 11, commemorates the end of World War I. Traditionally, in commonwealth countries, this is associated with the poppy. I found photos I took of poppies in the island of If, near Marseilles, one summer at the beginning of the decade. In France this day is known as Remembrance Day.
74187 Indian soldiers died in this war, some in East Africa, and others in the Western Front in Europe. At the beginning of the war the British Army had marginally more men than the Indian Army’s 2,40,000. By the end of the war, the strength of the Indian Army was 5,48,311 men. As the largest army in the erstwhile empire, Indians were called on to fight for Britain. More than a million Indians fought in the war. I was only vaguely aware of this history until I read Shrabani Basu’s book called “For King and Another Country: Indian soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18”. Remembrance Day is something that India should keep in mind.
While emptying out a bag for travel, this card dropped out of a forgotten pouch. The card must be twenty years old; the chip has verdigris on it. It seems that this kind of chip card came in use around 1994, and I have a faint memory of using them around then. On visits to Paris it was convenient to pop into a phone booth in a street, insert this card into a slot on the phone, and make a quick call home. Soon after that I began to buy services off the net, where you only had to memorize a phone number and a pin to make a call. This period was brief, because Skype was available already in 2003. In ten years we profoundly changed the way we make calls home while traveling. This card called up as many memories as a photograph.
I had time before catching my train. I sat down in the cavernous central hall of Paris Gare Montparnasse for a petit dejeuner. It was not to be complet, because a bunch of fearless sparrows descended on my croissant and picked it to pieces. It was a small price to pay for the photos. These Parisian Passer domesticus were perhaps the most fearless that I have seen, although I’d grown up watching sparrows steal grains of rice from my grandmother as she cleaned it for lunch.
I remembered these photos when I read a report about the genetic mutations which separate P. domesticus from its nearest cousins. The comparison of genomes of different species of sparrows showed two kinds of mutations: one which affects gross structure, and a subtle biochemical change. About 11,000 years ago, about when humans were busy inventing agriculture, the domestic sparrow separated out from its nearest cousins by changing its skull shape to give its beak the power to break the hard-to-shatter grains which humans were developing. At the same time, it developed the ability to digest starches, just as dogs did.
The house sparrow is not a domesticated species. It is a wild animal which has learnt to live around humans, like the peacock. And now we are beginning to learn how deeply we have changed the living world around us.