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.
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.
I miss movie montages in which protagonists beat insurmountable odds. The storyline progress at a breakneck speed. Pulsating synth-infused rock music erupts, without fair warning. Friends and well-wishers encourage and applaud. One of them will fist-pump the air, as squealing guitar sounds build to a crescendo.
It is easy to mock them for being cheesy or just strange. Often, their inelegance is inconsolably consistent. But, imagine if we could use such time-warped narratives to deal with our own problems. How great would that be?
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 often wonder if birds think that I am a stalker. A person with a fetish for voyeurism. Look at the facts. I follow them around. I try to escape their line of vision so that they don’t fly away. Then, I photograph them before coming back home to admire them.
I post it on restricted groups across social media. Engage others in the stories that led me to them. And hope that they will come back for more.
I feel like the gatekeeper of an underground pornography racket. Excepting that, nobody is paying me for it.
If it weren’t for birds, I wouldn’t have met any of you. This blog is almost two years old. Some of you have been visiting me since the beginning. It’s the second longest relationship I have ever been in. I don’t know how special this has been for you. But, it has meant a lot to me.
I may not know all your names. Not everyone stops long enough to leave behind a comment. But a WordPress widget lets me know that you exist. And I am thankful for it.
At times, birds fly away quickly too. Even before we consciously share something beautiful together.
Weekends are usually when I go bird-watching. I drive to different parts of my city’s outskirts to photograph residential and migratory birds. I love writing about the experience too. It has become a favorite routine of mine.
But, I couldn’t go out during the weekend that just passed. Because I had recently sprained the lower part of my spine. And I was told that for about a month, my body would ache whenever I had to sit upright. Whether inside a car or in front of the laptop.
So, this morning, I drove about 60 kilometers away to spend time with the birds of the Siruthavur reserve forest. I had a great time despite the discomfort. It wasn’t as though I overcame adversity in the pursuit of passion. No doubt that such theatrical nobility would have been amiss. It was one of those things that could have happened to anyone.
During late evenings, colonies of fruit bats fly across pale orange skies in my city. With militant grandeur, they soar. With purpose and showmanship. But I see them so often that I don’t look up in admiration anymore.
But it makes for a beautiful sight. The resilience with which its cold claws still clutch onto the wire. The fragile grip of its melted rubbery skin on the rotting skeletal frame. As if the two were star-crossed lovers in the middle of their last dance. Or perhaps, the tenderest end to a quarrel. And all they want to do is never let go of each other.