I was never particularly interested in birds except if they were cooked well … I have searched high and low in the annals of cookery books for the choicest recipes on how to marinate birds, and turn them into delectable dishes
Everybody I know has a story of how they did something for the very first time. A story about their first day at school or college, for that matter. A story about how they met their first love or a story of their first kiss. A story of their memorable first time abroad. The mind replays these stories in a long, unending loop and sometimes the smell of the freshly white-washed wall of a classroom changes, the taste of the first kiss seems different or even the textures of the myriad greens in a beautiful forest transform in strange kaleidoscopic forms. And sometimes these memorable encounters peer out from the deep recesses of the mind into the world and one feels all the more richer for it.
Lest I forget my first encounter with birds I have decided to commit my fading memory to the hard drive. And of course share it with you, my dear reader!
I was never particularly interested in birds except if they were cooked well. I have relished my sandgrouse, my Peking duck and of course, the more common chicken tandoori, with utmost satisfaction. I have searched high and low in the annals of cookery books for the choicest of recipes on how to marinate birds, and turn them into delectable dishes, enjoying every moment of them being cooked on a slow but sure fire. I still do! Even after becoming an avid bird watcher. I still eat birds with the same love as I watch them.
But we digress. Back to our story of bird watching! It happened at that point in my life when I was stealthily escaping a particularly painful episode and running away to the hills. Neurotic and wasting away on self-deprecation and single malts, I was to meet an equally crazy bunch of middle aged and geriatric people from various parts of this beautiful country. We were to teach in a small village school in the hills of Waccham, Uttarakhand under the aegis of the ECHO program devised by the coordinator of the Leafbird Foundation.
Walking up the hill I could only pay attention to the cobbled road and my daughter Medini. Both of us found it most challenging to trek up this arduous tract hewn from mountain rock by our erstwhile colonial masters. A friend remarked on a bird that flew past and said “Look! that’s a Verditer Flycatcher.” I couldn’t care less whether it was a verditer, an alligator or a terminator, I was beat with the climb. My dear reader this was me, before I was infected with the dangerous bird flu! But, we shall come to that later!
For the first week I assisted my sister in the art classes she taught, walking up to the Khati School with Medini every morning and returning by lunchtime. The village of Khati was nestled in the valley looked over by the majestic Maiktoli and Nandakot peaks. The river Pindari raged wildly in the valley below, making terrifying noises in the day and moaning loudly at night. Tall conifers stood still like silent sentinels along the pathways of the hills and terraced fields embraced every bit of sunshine on the hill face. Bhotia dogs lay snoring on the village roads, shedding their old fur coats. The first week saw nothing out of the ordinary.
We got used to life without electricity and the nights were reserved for tall tales, old monk and of course rajma chawal from the local farms. Sometimes a fire raged from hastily picked wet twigs in the nights at the guest house. The still cold night air made us all huddle together. Medini and I shivered in the night and in the day too!
The second week I was to assist Billie who was to teach birds to the Khati kids. I was to help her with the bird cards, changing the posters on the black board and watching over the kids’ class work. I was to attend all her classes. And my ears were meant to listen carefully to her mellifluous voice describing bird physiology!
Billie was a retired professor of English literature from the Kumaon University, around that magnificent age of 70, a sturdy pahadi with the ancient blood of Dutch Burghers of Sri Lanka in her, and a vipasshi, who yearned for the elusive stillness of a ‘still Chinese jar’ of an Eliot poem. (She often rebuked me for all my irreverence, complaining that in my presence all her stillness was wrecked! But then, that’s another story!)
No sane person could escape the magic in her eyes, the thrill in her voice and the excitement in her soft frame when she began on her birds. The kids would sit mesmerized as she divided them into groups and asked them to tell her about the local birds. No teacher had ever begun a class by asking the students for their understanding of their own world. They had always thrust their version and asked the students to gulp down that deadbeat knowledge as gospel truth.
The kids fell over each other to tell her, all about the birds they had seen, and the colour of their eggs and how they made these silly noises. Dear reader, I beg you to imagine me as that silent pillar in your school on which you probably leaned during an interesting conversation or stuck your dirty chewing gum on or even scratched hearts on for your budding romance.
She had ignited the flame of curiosity and piqued their imagination. They were now ripe enough to begin to pay attention to her words, as was I. Unlike our morbid science teachers from school who cut up parts of the human body to classify and label them, she asked them to describe the oft-sighted mynah. And then she asked them to go home and look closer.
Oh! how they came back full of news of this most astonishing, common bird which they had seen all their lives. Flying past their homes, making nests in their roofs or picking grain from their farms. They were her little Columbuses, each discovering a new continent. I was to see a mynah for the first time too. Actually see it. The colour of its eyes, its legs and the beautiful mirror on its wings. I could admire their temerity as one would sit on the table and pick from Medini’s breakfast.
She had taught us all how to see! All of us, a part of that non-sighted crowd that plagued various dubious classrooms!
By the third day, she had our collective blood pressure rising as we sat in her classes and watched as she showed us body parts, beaks and functions of each. Their great and sturdy wings and their slender tails. She described each bird as a person, with his or her own peculiarities, she animated them and told us about the strange sounds they emitted and what each meant! She mimicked a bird song, “I’ll beat you” or “paan bidi cigarette” or told us stories of how a bird song came to be called “Kaphal pako main na chakho.”
She asked the students to make up stories about birds and the next day we had kids creating stories of birds befriending bears, tigers and trees and how they all ganged up to fight human greed! Yes, they were now seeing amazing connections of the natural world, kids who would one day, she believes, fight to protect their birds and trees and the bears. Oh! How cleverly she had sowed the seeds.
She taught me too. Of how birds and words have the same source. “You just needed wings”, she indicated, “to begin new flights!” Writing stories and bird watching according to her were afflictions of a life-threatening kind. Bless her! As she infected me with both.
But that was not all. Not in the least. She continued her classes by getting the kids to draw the birds and paint them. She said, that is the last test. You never see them till you see them on a paper. So, the kids all hunched over and drew the birds. She taught them to compare sizes of the body, the tail, the beak and the legs and look deeper into their palettes to find that precise shade of blue or brown. She was so nit picky! And a taste of that we did get, not in the class, but interestingly, outside it.
Birdwatching taught me many things. First of all, to see in ways that I had never ever seen before. And that’s very important because whether it is people or stories, one must see and hear well.
After classes we were generally free to do our own thing. After all the washing and the cleaning we still had time. So, Bela, our coordinator, decided that we should paint birds on the walls of our tea adda. We spent so much time at Lal Singh’s place, talking till sundown, she thought we could be gainfully employed for those few hours. What started as a harmless activity to pass the time, turned out to be serious obsession.
And of course we had our very own slave drivers who would insist that we, a pack of four painters, finished painting the birds by sundown, lest the old monk suddenly disappear into the Pindari. Aditi another cruel pahadi did most of the bullying, aided of course by her aunt, Billie. So we bent down to paint, Bela, Gita, Kedar and I with no decent colours or brushes and some old powder paints. Makeshift brushes were procured such as those made from ear buds and bhotia fur shed recently from those snoring louts on the roadside.
But we were no professionals, except, my sister, who was the lone Leonardo of our group. The rest were artists, rummaged from the sidewalks of Jehangir art gallery, making a piteous living selling duplicates! But Billie’s keen eye and unrelenting nagging did wonders. Oh! How she made me cry over the Verditer Flycatcher. The bird ought to have been green from its name ‘verde’, but no, he was copper sulphate blue with streaks of ‘verde’. She made me paint it and repaint it so many times that if I were ever meet to that lousy bird, I would wring its neck and made a blue-green soup of its miserable life!
Well, you could be cruel to a bird, but not to a nice seventy-year-old professor. So I swallowed my ego, my rage and learnt patience on bended knees. And thanked most fervently, our local help when he brought us brushes. Once in a while, we do need the tools of the civilised world. With new brushes we were now armed to face our Sistine chapel, our Ajanta and our very own Tunhuang.
Billie had made me pick up a brush after almost twenty years. I was thankful to her and Bela, who perhaps had more confidence in me than myself.
But to end this rather long story I would like to say this – birdwatching taught me many things. First of all, to see in ways that I had never ever seen before. And that’s very important because whether it is people or stories, one must see and hear well. It taught me to look up to the skies, to peer into shrubs, to look for strangeness, to understand behavior and lastly, to nurture patience. You can’t see birds with all the turmoil within. You need to leave a lot of that ugly stuff behind. You must be still.
As still as a ‘still Chinese vase’.
All photos are the author’s own