The fog rolled out in the sky over us, like water spreading over a shore.
The only light in that winter evening was from lampposts, and the fog curled its fingers around it. The world now looked old, sepia, like something seen through a screen of gauze.
I was in a wooded garden, looking for birds and animals as twilight fell. In the cold and fog, things looked pearly and indistinguishable. With the added predicament of coronavirus, people were also wearing masks. Everyone looked like a humanoid, with age, gender and faces rendered invisible.
In that strange, half-discernible world, I squinted my eyes for the birds.
At night, one can hear the hooting and calls of owls: usually, a guttural, nerve-wracking sound. One of the commonest owls to see and hear in cities is the Spotted owlet. This small bird hunts in open areas as the blanket of twilight falls. As we prepare to retire, it’s the rise of many owls.
And if you take walks in the night, you may often see flying animals darting ahead of you. These could be bats chasing insects, or owls chasing moths – or the bats themselves. Around a goolar tree I watch – also called cluster fig, because of its bright profusion of orange and yellow figs – a bat comes like a tornado at night. I can’t see it clearly, because there is never enough light in the night to see a wild animal that moves like the wind. But one knows there is something there, moving like a sword through the air, chittering to itself, filling its tummy after its long flight. And yet all I see is a dark, leathery whirlwind.
And the charm – and fear – of the night is exactly that: not being able to fully see. We don’t have the large eyes that many nocturnal animals, like loris, have. We can’t see in the dark like cats. So, whatever we pick up are just clues. Secrets almost. When a man walks through a field in the night, he hears the sound of the forest waking up – a bird that’s calling, a mammal that’s moving through the sugarcane, scorpions clattering over fallen leaves, chasing after insects. The man’s lack of vision creates mythologies: of demons, possessed animals, and bad omens – apparitions of fear.
That night, while I looked for owls, I could not find any. I settled at a freezing spot, wondering whether I’d end up with fever, not owls. The January wind moved like a fiend through the trees. The trees themselves looked like their leaves were made of leather and lace, their bark reptilian. As if they would step out of the soil and slink away as night fell and they gained privacy.
As I waited, I listened. The night – especially a winter night – seems lifeless. Yet it is anything but that. Soon enough, a harsh call came to my ears.
Did he do it did he do it?
It was the call of the Red-wattled lapwing, also called tateri in Hindi. What sounds like ‘did he do it’ in English, sounds like ‘tateri tateri’ to those who speak Hindi. A pair of lapwings were furiously looking through the grass, piercing through it for their prey. Red-wattled lapwings are often found in damp areas – areas suffused with water. They are plovers who use their longs legs to wade through marshy areas. That night, the watered lawn was a marsh, the trees were reptiles, and the tateri was a knight on a mission.
Before it stepped anywhere with its long yellow legs, the tateri would put out its foot in mid-air. It would wait. Then, it would step. Daintily, precisely, and slowly.
In the foggy light, its yellow legs gleamed like old wax. In the background, bats darted out of an old tomb, seeming to bounce off the walls like a ball.
In other parts of the city, civets would be sniffing around. Porcupines would be raising their clever heads to find food. Closer to the forest, nightjars would be hunting, stiffening like a rock on the road when threatened.
The cold wind kept rustling the leaves around me. It felt like there were many people standing near me, shifting their feet, deciding where to walk to.
But it was nothing scary – just what I failed to see. If the day is our kingdom, the night puts us in our place – showing us we need to overcome fears.
The tateri lifted its wings and flew off, shrieking.
I could hear an owl I couldn’t see from a tree, and from the distance, another tateri was calling.
A witch’s laugh for some perhaps. For me, it was the knowledge that there will always be a bird to see – come night or day, fog or rain. And that the night held just a little terror, and a lot of wonder.
Photos: Neha Sinha
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