This weekend may haunt me forever. I saw The Great Indian Hornbill feed his brooding mate for the second time in my life. It was my third encounter with these magnificent birds in the Western Ghats. I also watched a person die, a few meters away from me, in a horrific road accident.
I am unsure what affected me more – the death of a stranger or the return of a friend.
Early last December, I had spotted this hornbill couple courting each other (above picture). A month later, I saw them again. This time around, he seemed more comfortable around me – although I suspect that it is just my wacky interpretation of normal bird behaviour. I was just happy that they hadn’t shifted houses.
The weekend was in fact off to a rousing start. On Saturday morning, two Great Indian Hornbills flew above me in the foothills of Valparai. I pointed at them, like a confused child, and mumbled – unable to control my emotions. I couldn’t bring myself to focus and take a decent photograph. I wasn’t dejected though; only confident that they would visit me again.
In the evening, I went to the spot where I had last seen the couple. Much to my chagrin, there was a crowd waiting for them. I waited for over an hour before they started to disperse. Only a few lingered around. By then, I had met an eager conservationist who was enthralling me with his birding stories. The others were swapping jungle book fantasies.
Suddenly, a helicopter-like sound filled the air. I could hear the familiar flaps of giant wings. I grabbed a clump of my own hair and said aloud, “shit, hornbill”. We watched, with our jaws split wide, as a Great Indian Hornbill descended, like a creature birthed by imagination alone, on the nesting tree. He looked like a flaming Chinese lantern against the dull evening sun.
The next morning, I was there at 5:30 AM. I waited inside the car, tapping my fingers to the sound of insects dying on electric fences meant for elephants and gaurs. Finally when the light of day spilled through – so did my beautiful friend. I could see then the upper part of his beak was broken. Still, he looked like he could swallow the sun.
I photographed him as much as I wanted to, and left with a lot of love in me.
Later that day, I was inside a taxi, on my way to the bus station. I felt content about the trip, even happy about the days to come. In February, the hornbill chicks would be out, learning to fly, feed and fleece our hearts dry of love, laughter and languid days.
While on the bypass road in Udumalpet, we noticed a motorbike, with a family of three, speed past us on the left side. A minute later, we saw them – about 100 meters away – violently crash into an elderly couple, on a moped, taking a turn towards their direction.
The husband and daughter were flung with force into a nearby ditch. The wife had hit her head on the road as she flipped over twice after the collision. A few of us ran in to check on her, and found her motionless in the middle of the road. She had a broken neck, and was bleeding profusely from her head. We didn’t lift her off the ground immediately because we were afraid of making things worse for her. The husband was on his knees, holding his chest in pain; he looked in our direction and begged us to help. Their daughter was still trying to regain her balance; her face and arm were all torn up.
A large crowd gathered in a matter of seconds. We called the nearest hospital to send over their ambulance, and to check on what we could do. They just asked us for the location, and advised us to keep her as still as possible.
I was late for my bus and so I decided to leave. As we drove away, I noticed the elderly couple involved in the accident. They had sustained only minor injuries. They had their eyes to the ground, as blood trickled down their hair.
It is one of the visuals from this weekend that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Death, in general, has been on my mind since then; the tragedy, not the eventuality, of it. But I feel like a self-obsessed and insensitive fool even thinking about it.
As time goes by, I am sure that I will remember this weekend for the third encounter I had with the Great Indian Hornbills, and not the tragic passing away of a stranger.
I just don’t know how I am supposed to feel about that right now.
Where do poems go
when words so miserably fail?
Maybe they should follow
the Great Indian Hornbills
as they pierce through
the light of day.