Saturday, 27 June 2009
Birth of an ornithologist
It is early morning in a bitterly cold January. Darkness is reluctantly making way for light, but this morning, the sun has clearly lost its battle against the fog. Trees and buildings have vanished as if by magic. Trains would have got stuck in their tracks, and cars-trucks-buses, on highways. Airlines passengers across North India are sulking at airports. And beyond the unreal world of airports, on roads and allies of fashionable cities and squalid towns, death is stalking people who don’t have roofs over their heads.
A short teaching assignment has brought me to a dusty township that has grown around a thermal power plant. It is a welcome reprieve from a cacophonic city just 60 kilometres away; the serene silence around me is broken only by soft trills of unseen birds.
In front of the guest house where I am staying, a barren field stretches to a private road through a fog that’s so dense that one could perhaps cut it with a knife. Beyond the road, the land gently slopes down into a lake, the background of which has faded into the mist. Not a soul is seen anywhere. Of the six gigantic chimneys of the power plant, three aren’t visible at all. The others have turned into three unconvincing lines on the horizon and look like inadvertent pencil strokes on an otherwise perfect water colour painting, waiting to be erased off.
The field in front of our guesthouse is barren and empty, except for the rusted crumbling remains of a concrete mixing machine casually abandoned after construction of the township. With its spherical drum lying face down on the ground and legs and wheels helplessly jutting out skyward, it reminds one of a metallic sculpture of a shattered man, perhaps a relic from a distant future.
A solitary bird has ventured into the field, away from the marshy banks of the lake, possibly in search of a more wholesome breakfast. She is not big, but not very small either: she has long, thin, black beaks, bulging shoulders and legs about eight inches long. From above, she looks a dirty shade of grey, and for a moment, I wish that I saw a more polychrome bird in such a dreary morning. For some time, the bird struts about haughtily, nibbling at grassroots. Oblivious of my presence, she comes right under my balcony. Looking up suddenly, she observes me for a long moment and flies off, perhaps reciprocating my lack of admiration for her looks!
The moment she is off ground, she becomes a different bird. The underbelly and the insides of her wings are milk white, or rather, whiter than milk. From below, she appears to be an entirely white bird with a surprisingly large span of wings that work through the misty morning air with the effortless grace of a master’s strokes.
So, birds too can have dual personalities. Here is one that looks gloomy and unfriendly on the ground but so cheerful and bright when she’s flying. There is something distinctly faraway about her, something different from the tropical birds that we see in this part of the world. She must be a visitor from a faraway land that is presently covered with snow as bright as the underside of her wings.
[Photo courtesy Wikipedia. Published in the Statesman on 2 November 2006.]