Oedipus, came into my life on 8 March, 2017. I don’t know when he was born, but I saw him for the first time on that day.
His mother let me see him without taking a bite off my backside or pecking at my dwindling greys. I don’t know why I called him Oedipus, because he could easily have been a Kovalan or Arjun or Birsa. I didn’t even know whether he was male or female. The name stuck in my head, and though I might sound an uptight, colonized subject, I shall go with the name.
Oedipus was born in a proud family of black kites, a true-blooded Milvus Migrans. He was a Greek hero with a Latin middle and last name. And he was brown.
When he was introduced to me, his mother or father was teaching him to balance himself on the coconut fronds, and peck away at a delicately de-feathered and decapitated pigeon. His parent had cleaned away all the feathers for their son to eat the flesh. The young lad couldn’t manage both together.
Here was a bird that would actually fall off a tree, and then perch back on to it. I watched the entire scene, trying very hard to suppress my laughter at his piteous efforts. The entire family was watching me watch him.
When I say I watched him, it was basically though the lens of a camera. I dared not laugh. For fear of my eyes being gouged out.
You can never trust an angry, black kite.
I had become a proud grandmother that day. Am I appropriating the kite family as my own? Maybe, but I did have a small part to play in their lives.
It all began from June 2015 after we had returned from the ‘ECHO Camp’ in Khati, District Bageshwar, Uttarakhand where I had taught for two weeks, and had stolen some very juicy mint plants from the Himalayan farms of the locals. I needed to plant these in a large pot to give them all the sunshine and love that the pahadis had given them. I planted them on the terrace of our building. By July, in the rains, they were flourishing,
Seeing this I slowly began to grow more plants on the terrace, illegally, because I had not sought permission from the society. I still run an illegal operation of about eighty odd pots on the terrace. Before anybody gets any ideas, I am not growing any other pahadi stuff. So don’t place any orders.
Something interesting began to happen. Birds would flock on the terrace to quench their thirst from the water that would pour from the pots that I watered every evening. Later I kept terracotta basins as birdbaths for them.
After the watering, I would hide myself in the corridor, and watch how one species after another came to drink, bathe or just splash about in the water.
The mynas were a real delight. After one vigorous bath, they would look a shade paler. The pigeons, as usual, not only drank the water but also shat in it. The crows left their hard dried bones to soak in the water, and munch a day later.
All of them had made a maid out of me from then on.
I didn’t mind it at all.
All of these happy domestic rituals continued for a couple of months. One day, on my evening watering routine, I found a decapitated pigeon lying near the birdbath. The seeds it had eaten had gushed out from a hole that once held its head. The head could not be found in any corner of the terrace.
I had no idea who had committed such a heinous murder. Couldn’t be the crows. They do hunt, contrary to them being labeled scavengers, but they hunt smaller birds, usually juveniles or wounded birds. This was the handiwork of a master predator.
I admired how the head was ripped apart from the body almost surgically with pincers or scalpels or something nastier. I did not move the body.
Next day, the headless body had disappeared.
Two days later, I found another headless pigeon, this time in the birdbath. I had to clean that up too.
Next day, that too disappeared.
Many pigeons were martyred on the terrace after that, and I figured that a master craftsman was at work.
That’s when I heard the sharp whinnying call of the black kite as it landed just 15 meters away from the terrace on the coconut tree, growing at one edge of the building fence. That was my murderer; one look at him or her and I was floored.
It was love at first sight.
This was the first time I saw a black kite up close. My heart missed many beats.
I almost felt like one of those decapitated pigeons.
I wanted to run to my flat, and get the camera. What if it flew away just then? I wouldn’t get to watch this magnificent bird. The first evening I locked my eyes onto it, I must have been staring at it for almost a good fifteen minutes, before it flew away.
Did I frighten it?
Would it come back?
I didn’t have a single picture.
I had my killer all to myself for a good fifteen minutes, and that was enough to give me a good night’s sleep.
Everything about the Milvus Migrans is fascinating and grand. The way they soar up in the sky blocking the sun for a few seconds, till they ascend the heavens. The way they land noiselessly onto branches of big Palmyra palms. The way they perch on lampposts like ballerinas, and the way they majestically perch on gargoyles of colonial buildings that adorn the city. It’s quite suggestive of the fact that they rule the sky, and our imagination.
They are the one of the few species of raptors from the family of Accipitridae we have in our cities. While other birds scavenge or feed on grains, fruits or measly insects, these fellows hunt. Along with the leopards (whom we do not generally see), the owls and kites remind us sadly of our erstwhile wild prehistory.
We were once them, till the city with its malls, offices, trains, and banks finally domesticated us. Some hurried pictures, a stray tail feather fallen on an empty street, or the sound of a momentary flutter of their wings as one alights from a BEST bus … all tell us tales of a different side of this wild and alluring city.
I began seeing this bird of prey regularly on the coconut tree, sometimes in the day, and sometimes in the evening. I do not know whether this was the future mother or father of Oedipus. At that time, I did not foresee any such developments.
They had made the coconut tree their daily perch. By late November 2016, with the demonetization drama in full swing, I was caught up spending more time outside banks to procure cash. Bird- watching had willy-nilly been pushed into the background.
I remember having seen two birds on the tree together. Oh, what a time they had picked to romance.
Soon enough, they were building a nest.
By now the couple had got used to my prying camera. On lucky days, one would sit sunning its wings in the sun, and allow me to shoot it as the eastern rays fell gently on its brown mantle. The site of decapitation had been shifted. Both sat facing the water basins most of the time.
Sometimes, if I went on the terrace early in the morning, I would see one of them sitting on the plumbing vent, sometimes balancing itself on the dish antenna, or, perched on the water tank above. I could go out, and shoot them in peace within a safe distance.
I knew they were watching me. If you are a birdwatcher, you know that you are being watched. It is an instinct that you learn soon enough because you need to create a relationship of trust with the bird.
You need to tell them that you mean no harm.
That you come as a friend.
Of course, they are no fools. They never fully trust humans and quite rightly so. That’s why they have survived in these badlands of human existence.
Soon enough, I was being attacked. Every time I would bend down to fill the bucket with water, one of them would fly really low, and give me a sharp nudge on my backside. (This was also the time I learnt of another bird habit. They attack you when you are not looking at them. When your eye is not visible to them.)
I was reminded of Jim Corbett being stalked by the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag as he waited night after night for it to appear.
These repeated backside brushes continued on a daily basis, and I had to arm myself with a broom every time I bent down. It was most surprising to find them attacking me so mercilessly.
Had they gone crazy?
Did they think I was food?
Had they been consuming some narcotic substances?
You never truly know what this city offers as food to its inhabitants. I had to water my plants, and there was no escape. I tried changing my timings to lay them off, but to no avail. One of them always got a nip of my juicy backside.
I consulted Billie, my guru in matters of birds and others. She too was clueless. I waited it out.
True enough, the truth was revealed on 8 March, 2017.
When they allowed me to see their gorgeous, little, big fellow. They were after all only protecting the scion of their family. After that, the bottom-pinching episodes died down.
My camera reappeared again.
The decapitated pigeons captured at the watering hole of a Kandivali terrace, all landed on the Palmyra palms as food for their precious one. I was privy to this delightful domestic scene, evening after evening. They taught him how to fly, to eat and deal with the neighborhood bullies, the crows, in the most dignified manner.
Sometime in June, I almost died with fear as I saw a man climb their tree. He reached right up, and began breaking the branches of their tree. Their nest was destroyed or so I thought. He was pruning the tall trees for the coming rains.
I wondered about the birds. They had disappeared. Thankfully they came back soon enough. This was another lesson in bird behavior. Birds mate and bring up their babies well before the rains, factoring such mishaps. Another lesson in human existence in this metropolis.
No matter how many times the State tears down the homes of the dispossessed people, they build new, humble homes and new dreams … endlessly. There is after all a raptor in each of them.
When the rains lashed the city, everyone worried about their homes and their dear ones. Water entered through the door, through the windows, and sometimes through the ceiling. Being wet and cold became a daily misery. On sleepless nights, I would stand near the window, and look at the rain beating against the walls. I would see one of the kites sitting on the tree all night keeping watch on their little one. Night after night the vigil continued, braving the rain and thunder.
Today, the parents have left, and Oedipus sits alone on the tree. It is his tree now. They did not both leave together. I think Jocasta remained behind for a few months, and gave him a loving childhood, and perhaps more.
As Sudhir Kakar reminds us, in the Indian context, one must imagine Oedipus as a happy individual.
Photos: Nivedita Rao
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