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.
Conversations with children below the age of five and animals can be more heuristic than those with adults. Sometimes, halfway through a grownup discussion, I lose track of the plot. I slip and fall on the regurgitated mess of inorganically-acquired information. If the other person looks close enough, the sheepish bewilderment is evident on my face. I used to think it was because I was smarter than most of the people I had met. Then, I grew up. And it became clear that I was as dumb and distracted as the rest. Possibly I have been more deluded for having believed, for so long, that I was different from anyone else.
I love talking to children and animals because there are no clear agendas. They are jazz compositions. Free-flowing and nimble discussions. With neither the conformance of structure nor the pressure of outcomes. Also, if I get bored – I can walk away without feeling like a mean bastard. But, I don’t ever see that happening. At least, not when I am talking to birds.
Great Indian Hornbills look visibly upset when they sense danger in their surroundings. They let out a guttural cry as they take flight like wondrous paper planes, to find a vantage point. They aren’t scared easily, though. They are one of the largest hornbills in the world. Any predator would think twice about pissing them off. Malabar Trogons panic, like most smaller birds, when their nests are under attack. With one swift movement, they position themselves at a safe distance. Then, they stare at the intruder, dead in the eye, and purr softly – like a spellbound cat.
Earlier this year, I had the dubious distinction of interrupting the feeding sessions of these gorgeous birds. Yet I was spared the guilt of being a nuisance, and the Hitchcockian tragedy of being pecked to death by birds.
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.
Seeing Orioles makes my insides flutter. They look like they are on a mission from another planet. Perhaps, they are here to tell us that there is such a thing as too much yellow. Or that our ancestors weren’t primates; they were plants. And how silly it is that we move around so much instead of sitting still and reforesting our homes.
I bet it was something our ancestors had never bothered to listen to. It is probably why the Orioles gave up and turned into earthlings. Eat. Poop. Procreate. Sleep. Repeat. No more spilling of universal secrets through subliminal birdsongs.
I have seen three different sub-species. The Golden Oriole, the Black-Hooded Oriole, and the Black-Naped Oriole. They haven’t yet asked me to take them to our leader. Perhaps, they know how poorly governed we all are.
Over the past 11 months, I have spotted and photographed 200+ birds in South India. I have also spent the year working on two documentaries. It means that I was not gainfully employed. So, time was on my side. I got to watch birds every single day. I was on the lookout for bird poop that drizzled from above. The thin branches that swayed when all else remained still. Dancing phone lines, scissoring through cities and forests, on which they perched upon. Quick movements in shrubs and bushes.
But, it was mostly several gigantic strokes of luck. I saw them wherever I went. Soon, I started to believe that the birds found me as often as I searched for them.
Over the past two weeks, Lady Luck has been on my side. I saw nearly 50 Ashy Woodswallows. Over fifteen Spotted Owlets. Three spiffy Sparrowhawks. A flock of hyperactive Eurasian Spoonbills foraging for food; they looked like giant headless chickens, clad in priestly gowns, playing ice hockey. A White-Throated Kingfisher at war with a pond crab. And a Glossy Ibis finally decided to let me close enough to photograph it.
If my semi-charmed life was a movie, these sightings could be indicative of some grand design. But the truth is that birding season is a month away. The first fleet of winter visitors has already descended upon burnt soil of ours. Even the local bird sanctuary has opened its gates earlier than usual; its lake brimming, despite the scarce rainfall.
I first saw Grey Wagtails during a taxi ride in Kodaikanal. One was perched on a wooden gate, looking like a June morning. It wore the hues of an early sun, flanked by greying clouds.
The driver told me, in Tamil, that they were called Valikaati. Loosely translated, it meant “pathfinder”. My mind started to drift . Rudely interrupted only by the sound of a passing truck. I imagined the bird to be a compass with wings for people who were lost in the wilderness.
An alarm clock for the weary to wake up and find their way back to safety.
The crack of the dawn fills my head with colors. It does weird stuff to my lungs. Leaves my insides all shook up. But I don’t feel like puking. It’s like the sky is undergoing a cesarean section to the tempo of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2. And I am watching the rebirth of the sun.
Waking up early has become a habit these days. A few years ago, it was a hard bargain. Because I used to have a soft corner for the nights. There was nothing poetic about it. The city just seemed so much quieter. And it made all the difference.
About two summers ago, I was in Gudalur during a trip to the Nilgiri Hills – with a few friends. Barely five minutes after reaching the spot, we spotted a pair of Indian Eagle Owls. It was my first sighting. They flew past us, and into a section of the forest. And it all happened so quickly.
I couldn’t giggle over my good fortune. There wasn’t any time to react, much less – to celebrate. We kept our eyes glued on the couple, as they shifted their positions. But the light was fading fast. We couldn’t tell if we were looking at owls or a cluster of shadows. The evening sun blushed in sleepy orange and turned them into ghosts.