Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of Birds and Bird-calls

Last morning I was reluctantly getting some housework done, when I was roused from my indifference by the shrill call of a bird. Unlike my seventy-two year old teacher, who needs but listen to one bird-call to place the exact name and species of the bird, and who can softly whistle to lure birds to her window to admire them, I cannot, for the life of me, identify birds, or their calls. Having spent most of my life on the outskirts of little towns and overpopulated cities, I have been subjected to birds quite naturally, and hence like one who is so frequently exposed to beauty that (s)he takes it for granted, I took my daily dose of bird chirping with indifference and apathy. Until yesterday, that is. Feeling slightly irritated at my life-long inability to appreciate some thing that is close at hand, the call of the bird flung me through a labyrinthe of memories, and experiences, and observations. Although I still cannot remember the names of most birds that I've seen in my life, or their characteristic calls, I do recall what they looked like, and the curious set of circumstances that often accompanied their involvement with me.

Growing up in a quiet household of expat parents, the one bird that was often romanticised was the cuckoo. I had never heard a cuckoo's beautiful call in my childhood, and when I finally did hear it while visiting our ancestral home in Calcutta, I was thrilled. My cousin had suddenly barged into our room, and taken me by the hand to their balcony overlooking the road. Then he roughly pointed to a clump of trees in the distance and said, "Listen!" I remember my heart beating very fast and my jubilant cousin saying, "Have you ever heard that before? It's a cuckoo. It sings twice every day -- morning and evening. Stay back this time, and you'll get to hear it every day." And I did hear it every time I visited that house over the years. I had read all about cuckoos laying eggs in crows nests to avoid building nests of their own, and all my grandmother's jokes of cuckoos being lazy were lost on me. The Bengalis have an expression for a gifted singer, and the metaphor kokilkonthi draws on the sweet call of the cuckoo. The first few times when I heard the cuckoo in Panihati, my voice would choke at the beautiful yet sad call. When I moved into the neighbourhood years later, I would sometimes hear it, but the calls grew rare, until it stopped altogether. I now think it a testament to our old house: once so full of life and warmth and the call of the cuckoo, and now abandoned and silenced by death.

I should have technically begun this post with the book I received from our school principal on March 1995 for scoring very good marks in the finals despite having chicken pox. I remember feeling very happy and important to be gifted with books by our Sister Principal of whom we were mortally scared; and riding the autorickshaw home with Baba with a fixed smile on my face. Strangely enough, that book was full of little anecdotes about birds. I remember being a tad disappointed on discovering that it didn't have "proper stories"; nevertheless I read the book from cover to cover. I remember one particular anecdote about a city-dweller taking a vacation in the country to relax, and being awakened at the crack of dawn in the first morning by the shrill cries of various birds. He complained to his country-dwelling friends, and I remember laughing with them at his irritation at some thing so commonplace in my life.

Then there was the crane and the little Bengali rhyme that I had learnt perhaps nineteen years ago in our old house. Every morning, while my parents had tea, and I some boring health drink; as the sunshine poured though our open windows in the ground floor of our old house in North Bengal, my Maa would draw my attention to the crane that would come sweeping on the long, empty plots of land behind our house. She then taught me this rhyme,

Bok mama, bok mama,
Doodh diye jaa,
Narkol gaache poriya ache,
kuriya niya jaa.

Or perhaps something along those lines, I don't exactly remember. Bok being 'crane' in Bengali, and likening a crane to a maternal uncle shows the inherent Bengali affinity to familiarise animals into simple household customs, where every thing and every one is related to the family. I don't see cranes often now, and the cranes of my childhood quitted our neighbourhood once the real estate boom took over. 

I also remember the groups of little birds, often by the hundred, who would chirp loudly before dusk, and would make beautiful patterns every couple of minutes before resting on telephone poles and wires. I think they are called shaat bhai chowmpa in Bengali, but in all probability I'm wrong. I can now remember lying on our ground floor bed, all of six years old, and looking out of the open window on summer evenings to their staggering numbers singing chaotically and making majestic patterns as they flew. I can't remember how they finally vanished as darkness fell, and as my grandmother blew the conch shell in the next room to appease the gods at dusk.

Once for a school project we were asked to collect feathers of birds and label and paste them in a scrapbook. Unable to find any random feather that had dropped and was clean, I was finally taken to a shop which sold bronze utensils and colourful feathers. The proprietor was the father of a friend, and a friend of my father's, and he handed me an envelope containing beautiful feathers in bright colours of pink and yellow and green. When I asked him to which birds they belonged, he said, "Ask your father, he'll help you." The help comprised getting down our inherited Progressive dictionary, and finding out its entries about birds. We read about them together, and separated the feathers on the basis of their descriptions in the big book. By the end of the vacation my scrap book was full of beautiful feathers belonging to obscure birds who would never fly to a tropical country like the one I lived in. But I didn't mind. I was blissfully happy at having learnt the names of exotic birds, and having imagined their romantic, natural habitat. All of seven years old, I was already feeling a Sehnsucht for the places where these birds could be spotted.

My parents had box windows in their first floor room, and I would climb the bed to get to the window, and sitting comfortably, with my back to the sun, and legs dangling, would make up stories in my mind. One such day in '95 or '96, I discovered a nest behind the corner window with two little green eggs. I screamed and called Maa, who together with our odd jobs man, M, who was working, forbade me to touch the nest or the eggs, or they'd die. I solemnly swore that I wouldn't do such a thing, learnt that I was intruding into a family of sparrows, and fantasised a day in the life of a sparrow couple. Our prescribed school English reader, aptly named 'Gulmohar' had a story about a sparrow couple, and I read it again and again to acquaint myself with the daily chores and loves of sparrows. For many days I would visit the window and check on the eggs, waiting for the parents to return, for the eggs to hatch, and hoping to watch the parents feeding the chicks just as I had seen in the pictures. However, I never did find the couple. Once my school reopened, my visits became irregular, till one weekend I discovered that the nest had gone. M told me that there must have been some accident, and the eggs had rolled and fallen down. I had cried myself to sleep that night, and had held myself responsible for the death of the unborn chicks.

Yet Calcutta, with its old world hangover and crowded houses was not altogether corrupt. My best memories of my Mama-r bari are sitting in the balcony at night, while the family has a late dinner, and most of the para is asleep, and staring at the ancient Neem tree of the house opposite, whose branches spread across the road and can be touched from the balcony. The tree still stands, although most of the old houses in the road don't, and it was in those nights that I spotted birds' nests from such close quarters. The branches were full of crows nests, and they cawed from early in the morning. Still being city birds, they didn't fall asleep with dusk, but were quite active until late at night. When they had babies, I saw the hungry chicks waiting for their parents, and saw the latter continuously flying in and out at all times of the day. I would think of them in Berlin every time I'd see repulsive hairy ravens. 

I was still mortally afraid of eagles and kites; and at school, we'd often mistake the latter for the former. During the drills practice for Sports Day, we would often notice kites circling the sky overhead, mistaking lying children for corpses. The thought sent a shiver through my spine. Once driving to the forest near our home, we crossed a Zoroastrian cemetery, and I saw many vultures roosting around. I hated them, and was glad to drive away.

And then, at the beginning of the last decade, a pair of beautiful birds came to build home in our garden. Maa said that they were dahuk birds, but to me they looked like pretty black cranes. The pair had built a nest behind our swimming pool, and though I'd never actually seen their nest, we could see them at all times of the day, strolling around the pool. They eventually got friendly, and wouldn't mind walking around with us when we worked in the garden. They stayed for many years until Maa said that an evil snake had crept into our garden and had  eaten the couple. I was in Calcutta by then, and though distance and the news breaking over the telephone diluted the emotions, I did go to bed feeling sad at having lost yet another thing close to my childhood.

This was how it gradually came to be that I stopped noticing birds and their calls. Living in an unremarkable big-small town takes the mind off noticing little epiphanies. Yet at times, you have mornings like yesterday, when you're awoken from a reverie by the call of an unknown bird, and hark back to times when you marvelled at the tail of a bird that was calling in your garden, laughed when you learnt that the bird was called 'Bulbuli', and woke up at all hours of the night to cries of owls, and ran to your terrace to find so many of them sitting majestically. You even had the gall to name one white owl (or a lokkhi pyancha) Hedwig, before it scornfully turned its head towards you and flew away.

I sign off tonight with this brilliant video from BBC's Earthflight showing starlings flying in Rome before dusk, and a peregrine chasing them in vain. It's narrated by my favourite Scotsman, David Tennant.

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