Asian King Vulture

Sarcogyps Calvus

Also known as the red-headed vulture. Relatively common, though not as widespread as the white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the Indian vulture (G indicus). Approximately thirty inches in length, it has an average wingspan of seven and a half feet. Plumage is generally a dark brown with grey stripes on its wings. Adults have crimson heads, which are featherless with prominent flaps of skin on either side of their necks; juveniles have grey heads. Like all vultures their digestive tracts are highly acidic, allowing them to eat rotting flesh, which contains toxic bacteria and other pathogens.

March 11, 1962. Guy Fletcher discovered the body a day before Jackie Kennedy arrived in India. He had been standing on the rooftop terrace of a guesthouse on Malcha Marg, just after sunrise, watching a flock of rose-ringed parakeets and other birds beginning their day. Silhouetted against the sky, he noticed half a dozen vultures circling over a broad expanse of acacia forest immediately to the west of Chanakyapuri, New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave.

A wild, untended green belt, the forest marked the southern extremity of the Delhi Ridge, eroded remains of the ancient Aravalli Range that runs like an arthritic spine through India’s capital. On earlier bird sorties, Fletcher had explored sections of the jungle and discovered an interesting mix of species in the understory, from babblers to pipits and peafowl.

Returning to his room and picking up his backpack, Fletcher headed downstairs and walked to the end of Malcha Marg, then dodged light traffic on Kitchener Road, before entering the jungle. Several weaverbird nests were hanging from the unpruned branches of ornamental shrubs bordering the road. A pair of grey partridges flushed in front of him as he headed down a dusty path between overgrown margins of acacia trees. The President’s Bodyguard used trails through the forest for riding and there were a number of horses’ graves amongst the trees, some of them with headstones:

beloved horse of Major T S Khullar, President’s Bodyguard

The ruins of a fourteenth century hunting lodge, called the Malcha Mahal, lay within the scrub jungle, which covered more than 2,000 acres. This area seemed safe enough in daylight, though there was a sense of isolation despite the surrounding city, which made Fletcher alert to danger. It was the sort of place that attracted miscreants and loiterers, though nobody was about. At one spot, someone had dumped a pile of garbage in which rhesus monkeys were searching for edible scraps.

Through gaps in the trees overhead, Fletcher could see the vultures still circling. With his binoculars, he was able to identify their bald heads, which looked badly sunburnt. A number of kites and crows were also spinning a loose gyre above the urban forest. Slowing his pace, he kept an eye out on either side, feeling as if he was being watched.

Fletcher had arrived in Delhi a day ago, driving up from Bharatpur, where he had been conducting his fieldwork, observing flights of bar-headed geese departing for Tibet. It felt as if winter was over, though at this hour of the morning a slight chill lingered in the air.

After three months in Bharatpur, he felt out of place in the city, even if New Delhi was more like a provincial town, with posh colonies attached, its streets laid out in a web of avenues, roundabouts, and ring roads. A decade ago, in the early fifties, Fletcher had grown up here as a boy, and he knew his way around the city, though it was rapidly expanding.

Treading as lightly as he could, he passed a ruined brick structure overgrown with a bougainvillea creeper that had gone wild, sprouting a few magenta blossoms. A magpie-robin was perched on its thorny tendrils. By now Fletcher could smell the odour of rotting flesh and he knew he was close to whatever carrion had attracted the vultures. Moments later, two jackals crossed in front of him, stopping briefly to glance in his direction before skulking away into the undergrowth.

About fifty feet ahead, in a dusty clearing, the vultures were squabbling amongst themselves, hunched and ravenous. A couple more of the big birds came swooping down and joined the feeding frenzy. Though he was close enough to identify them with the naked eye, Fletcher focused his binoculars on the birds. Definitely Sarcogyps calvus. He’d seen a few in Bharatpur, but not as close up as this.

Removing his Asahi Pentax from the backpack, Fletcher tried to take a couple of photographs, though the vultures were moving about restlessly and it was difficult to get a good shot. He paused, remembering that the roll of film had only a few exposures left on it. At the same moment, something caught his eye and made him reach for his binoculars again.

He had imagined the wake of vultures were feeding on the carcass of a tonga horse that had died from malnutrition and mistreatment, or a street dog run over by a car, maybe even a sacred cow that had succumbed to natural causes. But as he peered through the feathered scrum, Fletcher noticed a pair of walnut brown Oxford brogues. As soon as he moved in closer to get a better look, one of the vultures spotted him and let out a warning squawk. Within seconds the committee of raptors took to the air in a chaotic flurry of wings.

A couple of house crows remained on the ground for a few seconds longer. But they were wary of the human intruder and flew up onto a nearby tree, cawing loudly. Feeling suddenly alone and exposed, Fletcher approached the body with caution and unease. He could see where the birds had torn through the pinstripe trousers and disembowelled the corpse, starting from the soft tissues near the anus, as was their habit. The body lay facing upwards but was twisted at the waist, legs askew.

The smell of decomposition seemed much stronger suddenly, as if Fletcher’s senses had become more acute after he realized that the vultures were feeding on human remains. The sight of the man’s entrails spilling into the dust and the white vulture shit on his suit, made Fletcher take a step back, though he could see that the torso and head had not been disturbed. A blue silk tie was neatly knotted at the man’s throat and his pale features were remarkably calm.

Resisting an instinct to walk away, Fletcher circled the body. The dead man was not Indian but clearly of European descent, with thinning grey hair. Removing the lens cap on his camera again, Fletcher stepped closer and focused on the corpse’s face, which was the colour of boiled cauliflower. There was no reason for him to take photographs but somehow it seemed as if it was his responsibility.

From the right side, he could see a gunshot wound above the dead man’s left eye, where a scab of dry blood marked the spot. Fletcher guessed that the bullet must have blown out the back of the skull but the exit wound was hidden, for the body lay facing up at the sky and both of the man’s eyes, a grey-green colour, were staring at the clouds. After the second photograph, the film was finished, advancing no further. Fletcher closed the camera and stepped away from the corpse.

He had no idea what to do next, though he realised it was important to inform the police. Retracing his steps out of the jungle, Fletcher went back to the guesthouse, which was a private residence owned by Mrs Ruby Khanna, who rented out rooms to foreigners on a weekly basis. One of the administrators at the Fulbright office had recommended the place and Fletcher found it clean, convenient, and relatively cheap at twelve rupees a night, including breakfast.

At 9 am, he decided that he would go to the American Embassy, which was a ten-minute walk from the guesthouse. Most of the diplomatic enclave was still being built and the surrounding area looked like a vast construction site with only a few trees. The US Chancery had just opened and the ambassador’s residence was nearing completion. The Embassy was elegantly modern with straight, simple lines and a white facade of concrete grillwork that screened in the entire structure. Metal columns supported a broad, flat roof.

Fletcher carried his passport with him and showed it to the marine guard at the entrance, who waved him past. Inside was a sign for the consular section and he made his way through a labyrinth of bare corridors to a sparsely furnished office, where a US flag stood in one corner, along with an official portrait of JFK. The president stared out at him with a calm and confident demeanour. Fletcher had voted for Kennedy, though the rest of his family members were devout Republicans. The Chancery smelt of fresh paint. On the back wall, behind a chest-high counter was a poster listing “Citizen Services.”

One of the junior consular officers, a young woman with an anxious frown, met him and, after he explained why he was there, asked him to wait. Several minutes later the Consul himself came out and questioned him. The man’s impatient expression made it clear that he didn’t have time to deal with trivial matters like a dead body, especially since everyone at the Embassy was preparing for Mrs Kennedy’s visit.

“When did this happen?” he asked. “About two hours ago,” said Fletcher. “And you’re here on a Fulbright?”

He nodded.

“Doing what?”

“I’m an ornithologist, studying migratory birds.”

“How did you find the body?”

“By accident,” Fletcher explained for the second time. “I spotted some red-headed vultures and discovered they were feeding on a corpse.”

“Is the dead man an American?”

“I have no idea,” said Fletcher. “He’s definitely a foreigner. Maybe a diplomat.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” the Consul asked.

“I wasn’t sure if I should go to the police on my own,” Fletcher explained. “According to the instructions we were given during our Fulbright orientation, I was told to get help from the Embassy if I ever needed to contact the police.”

The Consul asked him to wait. After ten minutes, one of the Indian staff, a man named Ravi Jacob, was sent with him to the police station in Chanakyapuri. They drove across in an embassy car. Jacob seemed to know the station house officer, or SHO, who took down a First Information Report from Fletcher, which he signed. After that they went across to the green belt, so he could show them the body. Two jeeps accompanied them and six constables, as well as the SHO himself.

The corpse was exactly where Fletcher had left it, though the vultures had come back and eaten more of the man’s flesh from his buttocks and thighs. Another few hours and they would have cleaned him to the bone. Ravi Jacob, who had been chatty and reassuring until then, fell silent as soon as they came in sight of the body.

Moments later, he went off to one side and threw up. Fletcher’s Hindi was good enough for him to answer questions from the police, who examined the site without much interest. It was obvious that the man had been killed somewhere else and his body dumped here.

As he looked down at the corpse again, Fletcher noticed something he’d missed seeing the first time around and it sent a current of fear and horror through every nerve in his body. On the dead man’s right hand, three of his fingernails were missing. The blood had dried, but it was clear that the nails had been brutally ripped out and the fingers were bruised to the first knuckle.

Birdwatching: A Novel

Excerpted with permission from Birdwatching: A Novel, Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company.