Excitedly, I woke up at 4:30 AM. It was my first visit to the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. I was there because of the Malabar Trogon – a brightly-colored creature that looks like the afterbirth of a psychedelic experience. With a spring in my step, I walked out of the cottage – as jolly as I could be. I was going to meet a local birder at the tea shop outside the sanctuary.
By 6:00 AM, though, the excitement was gone. Sipping on a cup of watery tea, I thought about what a shitty morning it had turned out to be. First, I was stung by a wasp that was hiding in my left shoe. Then, it dawned on me that the skies were way too overcast. To make things worse, four other people, who had hired the same birder, were going to accompany me. So, I dragged my feet past the front gate. There were banners all over that showcased the brightest, the bluest and the most bewitching of endemic birds. Each one looked like it fell out of a dream.
At a distance, a mynah sang an eerie tune. I tightened my grip on the camera and took a deep breath. Spoiler alert – Everything is going to be okay.
Lately, my maternal grandfather – Mr. Clarence Motha – has started to bear a slight resemblance to Spotted Owlets. Especially, the curving slope on his cranium. These days, it looks smooth and swollen, like the skull of an elderly owlet.
My grandfather is 91 years old. His health has been deteriorating of late. He has been referring to this phase of his life as the “sunset years”. Bed-ridden for most of the day, his body and mind are crumbling. All that seems left of him is a ghostly reminder of someone I once knew.
When it is time, I hope he finds the inner strength to let go of the life that he had led for close to a century. Because I don’t want him to suffer much longer. Despite not having exchanged a word for about 10 years, he has always been a driving force in my life.
I ache for solitude. A few minutes of uninterrupted silence. I want it so badly that I can taste it under the roof of my mouth. I can smell it in the air that I breathe out. And I want to make a dash for it. Kneel before its fountain, and tongue its sweet nectar; wincing as I feel it on my skin.
Because solitude is not a rash. I cannot scratch it, and make the itching go away. It travels through my small intestines. Finds a home wherever the human soul is supposed to be hiding. It is my ticketless passenger. By now, it has hitched a ride so frequently that I am not sure who is giving directions anymore.
And it is not a disease I carry around. It is a beautiful scar. A pivotal part of my psyche. A bar graph that precariously body-surfs on the totem pole of my actualized needs. It comes in different shapes and sizes.
Pond Herons are one of the easiest birds to spot. They can be found all over the city. But I have never written about them. I barely photograph them. Every day I see them, alongside the distressingly-polluted Cooum River. They saunter through shallow waters, like stoned tap dancers, and hunt for crustaceans and small fishes.
Profundity has been amiss; the mind – adrift. I have nothing special to tell you about them. Because I haven’t learned anything valuable from them.
Whereas spotting a notoriously shy bird is an incomparable thrill. It is better than sex on a wintry morning or a really good sneeze. There are hurdles in traveling to a new location in search of some rare bird. The urge to overcome them is addictive. Especially, when there are dangers involved. Then, it gets exciting.
As much as birdwatching lends itself to transcendental possibilities, I am painfully aware that I don’t speak the same language as birds. But, it has never stopped me from talking to them. I try to keep it short and one-sided. I tell them about the little things that pass, like thunderstorm clouds, through my head.
Either they ignore me and continue their daily businesses. Or they turn extra attentive about perceiving me as a threat to their nesting areas, and they become frightened and annoyed. It may be a selfish relationship, but nobody gets hurt – so, I don’t feel bad about it.
After all, my biased interpretation of what is right or wrong is more important than anyone else’s. Simply because they are mine. All my world’s a chicken coop. I will poop wherever I want to.
Many of the houses I grew up in never felt like home to me. No matter how sturdy their foundations were. How well-cemented the bricks. All the fine craftsmanship that had gone behind them. They lacked the comfort and warmth I wanted under a roof. Or they belonged to an ecosystem that seemed alien to me. Their walls were sturdy but they held grudges. The ceiling fan was too loud. Beyond the front door, privacy was in absentia. And the view outside the window often a peek into the lives of my neighbors; how unhappy they can be when they don’t realize that somebody is watching them.
But in the winter of 1988, I found myself in a four-storied residential building in Chennai called Joy Apartments. My parents had rented a flat on the third floor. No matter the weather, its ambiance was stuck halfway between a siesta on a rainy day and a funeral procession of woodland creatures. It was tranquilizing and charming. On Sunday afternoons, one could hear the rustling of leaves, in the streets, under a broom. Or the sing-song squawking of the fish vendor as he crooned his way into our bellies.
White-Throated Kingfishers sound like a jackhammer in the hands of a jazz drummer. Asian Koels can be mistaken for star-crossed Shakespearean strangers cooing goodbye one last time. Black-Winged Kites shriek as though they are auditioning for musical satires. If the world was any crueler, music labels would hire poachers to hunt down Malabar Hornbills, and steal their summer playlists.
The most beautiful bird call I have ever heard belongs to a whistler in an electric blue coat. Found in the Western Ghats, it is the Beethoven of alarm clocks.
Today, I saw a Black Kite skirting past the opaque moon against a teal-blue evening sky. It was a refreshing change of scenery. Considering I had been bed-ridden since February. About two weeks ago, my spinal chord was operated upon. The disc bulge in my lower vertebrae had become worse. There was a growing risk of suffering permanent nerve damage on my left leg.
So, I had decided to opt for surgery. Now, I have a giant scar to show for it. If things don’t go according to plan, I may have a T-Shirt idea. Buy one for yourself and get two for your friends. But, strictly no refunds. I have a mouth, below my nostrils, to feed.
During the Christmas weekend, while in Ponneri, I saw the flycatcher breakfasting on a large moth. It was a breathtaking sight. How beautifully its iridescent crest glistened. The whirling dervishes that were its milk-white tail-feathers. Unable to contain my emotions, I cried. Not in a way that makes passersby smile at how kind and wonderful this deranged blue planet can be. It was sort of awkward. Weird-sounding. There was definitely some reverse-blowdrying of the nose. I had been waiting for the moment since 2013, after all.
On January 2, though, bad news arrived. I was diagnosed with a disc prolapse in my lower back. And it had struck a nerve that is connected to my left leg. There isn’t a cure for the condition. However, with the right treatment, I may be able to return to my routines.
On December 5, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had passed away. The city of Chennai came to a screeching halt for 24 hours. The stillness was eerie. It didn’t help that we were already dealing with demonetization, the government’s mischievously impotent strategy to fight corruption. It was a stressful day. But it was nothing compared to how the city would look a week later.
On December 12, we were bruised by the state’s worst cyclone ever. The wind was howling at speeds of 150 kilometers per hour. Roofs and panels were getting blown away. Glass windows shattered, trees uprooted, and power lines disrupted. Ten people died. Many livelihoods were lost. It was our second consecutive winter of managing a calamity. Last year, we were put through a flood crisis. It has not been a good winter for us so far.
I won’t ever forget it. But it isn’t because nothing eventful ever happens in the city. Or because I live in a third world country in which the progress is adjudged on the seamless accessibility of Starbucks and 4G. It is because I finally spotted wild cats during the first weekend of this month.