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.
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.
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 have tried before to harness the power of positive thinking. But I used to feel worse than I already did. I became angrier over how things never worked out the way I wanted them to. So, one fine day, I just stopped. I am unsure when exactly it happened or what led to it. I only know that letting go of positivism, during certain times, was the best decision I could have made.
It liberated me. It taught me that karma isn’t some magic trick. Nobody owes us anything. First, we see the rabbit. And then, we don’t. But there is no argument over where the rabbit is.
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.
The scariest part of a downward spiral is the speed at which things fall apart. You are always a bad decision away losing it all. One phone call. Just one unexpected turn to find yourself in a bottomless pit. But life doesn’t come crashing down. It caves in. Crumbles under the weight of despair. Then, like some injured lizard, you try to pick yourself up. But you feel helpless. Uncoordinated. So, you collapse to the ground. And you just lie there, with fistfuls of dirt, tonguing your cheeks and hoping that this too will pass.
Conversely, when something good happens – seldom does it snowball into something more tangible. There are no formulas to sustain an unexpected burst of happiness. It can be a one-hit wonder that leads to sophomore slumps. Often, it just slinks away on its chubby hindlimbs.
A writer’s block can be infuriating. It isn’t a melody to go out of tune. Neither a slip of the painter’s brushstroke nor an itch on the sculptor’s wrist. It is akin to a difficult conversation with someone you love about where the relationship is going. If things are messed up, you must find a way to work things out. There’s just too much to lose.
But it isn’t easy. It can be paralyzing. A sharp blow to the eardrums. A lone whistle reverberates inside your head and seduces a series of dull aches. You have stared long and deep into the abyss. Now the abyss is staring at you and mouthing, “What are you looking at?”
In 2013, I saw a large squirrel hiding in-between the branches of a plum tree in Kodaikanal. Bashing its bushy tail against the leaves, the creature stared at me with its beady eyes. Its reddish-black coat shone in the sun. I had never seen anything like it before. The only squirrel I knew then was the three-striped palm sub-species.
When it leaped onto another tree, a taxi driver – standing nearby – pointed at it and said, “There it goes”. He looked at me and asked, “Ever seen a Giant Flying Squirrel before?” I shook my head sideways and mumbled. Words escaped me. I was shaken. I felt like I was on the precipice of something strange and important. It was the only time I ever wanted to write a novel.
We have lost people to distance. A part of us gets up, packs up its bags and leaves. However sweet the goodbye. Or brief the quota of time we had with them. It’s still as though something is broken. It can’t be fixed, no matter how hard we try. We may know that things will be better soon. And we may move on quicker than what we think is possible. It doesn’t mean that we can forget the sound of it.
Whenever someone important to me disappears from my life, I hear the passing of a distant train from a bygone era. Even if they are taking the bus, going to the airport or walking down the road, the squealing of an old steam horn beseeches me. And I feel safe and warm.