If you have tried gardening, you will notice that nature has her own method of functioning. Try as you may, you cannot dictate terms to her and she will grow exactly as she wants to. With every passing day, one can learn something new from nature. Some lessons are learnt the hard way. For example, one should never cut down a tree or plant and expect another to grow in the same place all over again. This is exactly what happened to our curry-patta plant.
After we cut down the first one, year after year we tried planting some more saplings in the same place. Like a curse, this patch of earth became barren while the mogra nearby had a luxuriant growth. We abandoned this patch as a possible location for the new curry-patta tree and planted a young sapling in another spot. To our relief, it started growing faster than we expected. When the tree reached our shoulders, we plucked its leaves with a sense of achievement. But it lacked that special tadka fragrance. The gardener from the nursery was sent for to confirm whether it was a curry-patta tree or some other plant. He crushed a leaf and breathing deep into it proclaimed that it was an original. Nevertheless, he was surprised that the leaves did not have the fragrance needed for curries.
The following monsoon we bought another curry-patta, this one with a guarantee. We planted it next to the one without fragrance, assuming the land was fertile there. The new curry-patta also shot up in a year. But we were afraid to pluck the leaves. What if this one also did not have a fragrance? Luckily, it had a strong curry flavour. The gardener informed us that it was a female tree because she had flowers. He insisted that the one without fragrance was a male.
To grow, apparently they needed each other. When planted together, they had struck the perfect balance. If marriages are made in heaven, this was it.
We also had a similar experience with the champa: an ancient tree suffocating under a canopy of trees refused to bloom. But a champa that peeped over our garden wall was always laden with fragrant white flowers. Every morning, this tree sprinkled her flowers on our lawn. These were collected and arranged around the house in bowls of water.
Last monsoon we repeated the curry-patta experiment. We planted a young champa close to the wall. The method worked. In a few months, we noticed the young champa had grown and blossomed. By next year, this plant should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the champa next door. Here, the plot thickens since it is difficult to differentiate the male from the female as both have a luxuriant growth.
Anyone interested in the natural world must have noticed many such miracles of nature. The effect of the sun, moon, seasons, hours of the day, growing, fading, falling, flowering and growth. Everything in nature is connected to each other in some way or other.
Sometimes, at midday, soon after winter and before spring, I hear the call of the koel when the mornings are slightly cold and the days warm. I heard the koel before I saw the bird. Slowly, it was moving from one branch to the other behind the tamarind tree.
A barbed wire on the wall separated our housing society from the house next door. From my kitchen door, I saw it was a koel, but when it felt watched, it hid in the leafy creeper where the morning light fell on it, catching the white specks on its wing feathers, like an impressionistic painting. These are moments when my mind flies back to my old house and I feel I am standing amid its thick, forest-like foliage. When we had first moved into the newly built house, I had climbed the stairs to the upstairs bedroom, opened the window and seen a yellow bird moving behind the curtain of trees. I stood there transfixed for some time, and as I was about to turn and return into the house, I saw it was a golden oriole. I watched its beautiful kohl-filled eyes before it flew away towards the fields behind the house.
While reminiscing, I was watching the koel hiding, moving, disappearing amidst the overgrown bougainvillea creepers. I ached for all that I had lost, home, trees, flowers, dogs, family, everything, and in the process I had left behind the serpents. Perhaps, I could have continued living in the old house. In my apartment, I always feel homesick. Last week, my cell phone charger was not working and I went to my neighbour’s flat to borrow hers. I rang the bell and waited on the parapet outside her flat and watched her potted plants. I heard the call of a bird and noticed that a plant with a floral stalk had attracted a sunbird that hovered over the flower, flashing its metallic blue feathers and occasionally diving into the flower to feed on the nectar. I was taken back to the old house and in my mind’s eye I could see a sunbird hovering like a helicopter over a nest it had woven on the awning on the front verandah, unafraid of us, as his drab looking female bird sat inside the nest watching him with affection. This used to be my world, not the one I could see from my apartment, surrounded by highrises jamming the network of my cell phone.
That is when I heard another whistle-like-call: it was the spunky tailor bird with its smart upturned tail, flitting from one plant to another. In the old house, a pair of tailor birds had diligently chosen a plant with leaves that were double their size and stitched them into a tiny cocoon hidden between the leaves, not visible to the human eye. But from the balcony upstairs, I could see them snuggled together inside the nest while, at times, the protective male bird flew around the plant as the female hatched the eggs.
For years, nature was part of my life, like the golden oriole. I saw the bird almost every day, as it flew from one tree to another and then soared into the sky and became one with infinity. With so much beauty around me, how could I have left the old house behind to live in a rather arid apartment cramped in between high-rise buildings and private bungalows. Often, after a post-lunch nap, I wake up feeling empty, homesick and homeless. In this housing society, there is an eerie silence around me. I cross the street and see an almost dry tree that has few leaves and notice that the rosy pastors have arrived with their rose-pink plumage and black wing flaps, resembling pink blossoms.
My apartment in this housing society does not have a boundary wall where I can stand and say “this is my garden”, where I can keep a pet poodle or Dachshund, which would chase squirrels and give me a joyous welcome when I return home. There would be a small lawn with a trimming of seasonal multi-coloured flowers and the house would be bordered with tall trees like shishir, asopalav, mulberry, laburnum and many others standing like sentinels against the bright colours of bougainvillea creepers in magenta, pink, white, orange and purple draped all over the garden wall. In a corner, I would make a rockery with cacti, which would appear to say, “touch me not”.
The touch-me-not is a small plant, known as lajamani in Gujarati, which means “shame”. This shy plant fascinates me because it is sensitive to touch: as soon as you touch its leaves, they close and the plant falls asleep. It opens its leaves only when left alone. Each stalk has delicate tiny leaves, as its heart is wary of intruders and cautiously signals it to fall asleep. It is so delicate that it cannot bear harsh sunlight, so it has to be planted in shaded nooks and corners or kept indoors.
Last week, I was invited to an exhibition of sculptures and drawings by a friend and started thinking about chikoos, or sapodilla. This artist is from south Gujarat and grew up in a village where his family had orchards where they grow fruits like guavas and chikoos. His farm was known as “Chikoo-Wadi”. Much later, somebody gifted me a chikoo sapling that I planted in the backyard of my old house. Try, as I may, it remained stunted and shed all its leaves but one. When I met this friend again at his exhibition, he had retired from a design school where he had taught ceramics and returned to live on his farm, where he worked in a small studio under a tree.
While looking at his work, I remembered that he lived in a “Chikoo-Wadi”. When I met him in Ahmedabad and asked him about chikoos, he stood there thinking, as though he was transported back into his orchard, and said, “Chikoo trees need lots of water, every day.” With one line, he gave me the mantra to nurture trees. Thereafter, with constant watering, year after year, the chikoo tree shot up and in three years I collected my first harvest of fruit. But I was disappointed as they had a rather rancid taste.
During the fifth year, the tree was covered with bigger and sweeter fruit. When I cut the fruit, I saw four black seeds that looked like its lungs, breathing ever so softly. It saw many more monsoons and grew tall, reaching the first floor and the terrace. The day I sold the house and had to vacate it, I closed the first floor windows and could see the head of the chikoo tree that had clusters of ripe fruit. Aching with a feeling of loss, I closed the window, latched it, turned around, went downstairs to the ground floor and walked out of the house.
Later, I grew to love the custard-apple tree I had planted in the housing society where I live. The land is fully paved over with bricks, but the builder had left three feet of wide open unpaved space next to the wall, hoping that if and when one of the residents wanted to grow trees or plants, they could. Through the years some had planted saplings, which had grown into unkempt foliage, neither watered properly nor manicured.
Some five years back, someone had eaten a custard apple, or sitaphal, and thrown the seeds closer to the wall. There, it grew unnoticed till it reached the garden wall and three monsoons later, it became taller than the trees next door. I saw it had tiny white blossoms with delicate petals, which eventually took the form of a tiny custard apple. During the first year, there was one fruit and in four years we had 20 and I waited for them to ripen. Sometimes, they were stolen but still the tree was fertile and full of fruit. I assumed the langurs that frequented the society had eaten the fruit, but I was amused when the gardener told me that langurs never ate custard-apples.
But even this tree was jinxed as the society committee decided to install a CCTV camera. Within a week, the custard apple tree was chopped in half and like a paradox, one fruit was left hanging from a branch, almost like a gift for me. Although the ground of the society was paved with bricks, I decided to prepare a lawn at my doorstep and bought readymade slabs of lawn grass. The ground was plastered with water where these slabs were affixed there and where I looked for bird feathers.
Here, I often heard the call of a red-vented bulbul and saw it perched on the branch of a champa tree, showing off his black, helmet-like-crest and calling out to his mate. It was the perfect timing to make a nest together. Yet, the ground floor around my apartment looked forlorn, stark and rough as the trees looked like unwashed, ragged spears. The only consolation and pleasure was the gulmohar tree, which had shed its leaves before summer and as small green shoots appeared, the tree prepared to burst into bloom with its vermillion-red flowers. This is also when the jasmine flowers blossom, fragrant with their bright sparkling moon-beam like flowers.
Soon after summer, during monsoon, I dread the arrival of cows looking to feed on grass and plants. There is no boundary wall and these cows, a mix of Marino and Indian strains, enter the housing society, trample and eat all that is green, leaving pats of cowdung all over the garden and ruin all that I may have tried to grow. To add to this, stray dogs dig holes in the wet, soft earth close to the walls and sleep on the landing of the staircase. Often they snarl and it is impossible to drive them away.
Disheartened, I watch the dry, chopped stump of a bougainvillea creeper, cut for obstructing the view from the CCTV camera. After three consequent monsoons it grew higher with fresh, green leaves, but the gardener was instructed to cut it and make sure that it did not grow. The password for the CCTV footage was not saved and nobody remembered it, yet a lot of plants and trees were cut and chopped because of the camera.
From here, I always turn back, enter my apartment from the front door, disappointed that with continuous chopping the custard apple tree stopped growing. Maybe, it will have the same fate as the bougainvillea, which was not allowed to grow. When it dries up, the gardener will be instructed to cut it and throw it into the mound of dry leaves burnt periodically. I often walk past this bougainvillea stump and hope that with constant watering, it will magically shoot up, but that was not to be.
But then nature has her own ways and a few months later, someone threw a custard apple seed in the soft earth next to the garden wall closer to my drawing room window and after a long monsoon last year, it started growing. But I dread looking after it, as I do not know its fate. A few years back when the gulmohar had shed its leaves and blossomed, the ground was covered with a carpet of flowers and I spent my mornings collecting them and arranging them in bowls of water. This continued for three years and I felt vindicated.
But this pleasure was not to last and on a winter afternoon, I heard the sound of an axe felling a tree. I assumed they were cutting trees in the next house. I opened the door and was shocked to see the gardener and his helper sitting on the forked branch of the gulmohar tree and cutting it. When they climbed down to collect the wood, branches and leaves, I saw the tree was cut into half. I was told that it was obstructing the view of the main road, rather far away, but the society committee members had decided to cut it. All I could do was lament and marvel at the whims and fancies of human beings.
More so, I was pained to see an old bungalow next to my housing society being demolished. I could not see the process, as they had covered the entire area with tin barricades. When I had shifted to my present apartment, I had seen the aging owner living there with her cook. My bedroom window faced her backyard, which was like an unkempt forest of trees with a clump of bamboo that covered a part of the garden wall. They say that when a bamboo takes root, it spreads in the earth like an octopus. It looked like a Japanese ink drawing, when its shadow fell on my window panes and resembled a theatre set. The bamboo had grown tall and big, resembling a collection of spears, standing upright next to the dying bungalow.
As a child, I was told to keep away from bamboo clumps because sometimes serpents lived in their knotted branches. Although I lived in an urban jungle, I kept away from the bamboo. I had often thought of buying this particular house as there was a chikoo tree in her backyard, similar to the one I had had in my old house. But then I came to know that she had three daughters and the youngest had the power of attorney and the house was caught in a legal battle. With the arrival of the pandemic in 2020, the owner moved in with her youngest daughter and the house was kept locked for three years. Often, her old cook opened the house, cleaned it, locked it, watered the trees and left. Then the new owner of the bungalow demolished it, save for one tree.
My mind flew back to the terrace of my old house, from where I could see an ancient neem tree that had small, star-like tiny flowers and a subtle bitter fragrance. This tree was home to many migratory birds during winter as they stopped in the water bodies of Ahmedabad and then flew away to unknown destinations. On one such winter morning, I saw a family of black ibis roosting on the topmost branch of the tree. I was fascinated to see their hooked beaks and red napes. I liked them, as they reminded me of the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth. They stayed on till mid-February as flocks of other migratory birds flew over them and returned to their country of origin.
Till April, I watched them as the female appeared to have laid eggs and the chicks emerged and were taught to fly. I noticed the ibis pair had made their nest bigger and comfortable for their brood, but never left for their country of origin. Often, I saw them flying out to forage for food and return by evening and late at night. I heard their cries, strangely similar to the screeching cries of human babies, as they reassured each other that all was well in their adopted home.
Maybe, every winter when the migratory birds arrived, they argued amidst themselves with Hamltesque angst, “To leave or not to leave.” Maybe, sometimes their brood returned to the parent-nest and gave news of their original home.
Watching the ibis pair with their red napes reminded me of the cassowary I had seen at the zoo. A tall, flightless bird, it looked like a soldier with its strong legs, sharp toe-nails and angry eyes shining under its hard, rock-like crown tinged with blue-bronze hues while beautiful, turquoise-blue feathers bristled on its head like a Roman helmet and its red wattles trembled when it fed on fruit, seeds and hibiscus flowers. When crowds gathered to watch this exotic bird, it appeared to be nervous and kept walking around its enclosure in circles like it was uncomfortable in this alien country and perhaps wished it had wings like the ibis so that it could fly back home.
I have rarely seen ravens in Ahmedabad. They are darker, blacker and bigger than crows seen all over India but I rarely stop to watch them unless they are having a pre-roosting bath in a water body. Sometimes, ravens are not seen for months, but suddenly they appear, either alone or in pairs. When the ravens arrive, I put aside all that I may be doing and watch them with awe and fear, because they look ominous dressed in their black cloaks. At that moment, I saw a raven tearing apart a baby squirrel. They announce their arrival with their harsh calls and believe in the law of the jungle.
I have also seen them tearing apart bandicoots, rats, mice, squirrels, fledglings or shredding the intestine of a goat picked up from a butcher’s garbage bin. After the kill, they start looking for water to wash the blood off their beaks. Sometimes, they fly alone or in groups of twos and threes, or perch on the awning of the apartment building, a tree or on the ground, fearlessly strutting around on their sturdy legs. It is not unusual to see a raven gripping a dead squirrel in its big horny talons. They arrive twice or thrice a month, in accordance to their beat. Their behaviour is similar to the common house crow, but they are different.
Crows announce their arrival with a cacophony of caws. If they are teaching a baby crow to fly and it falls on the ground with a broken wing, the crow fraternity immediately flies around the bird, creating a shield of black wings, and caws together. If one of them were to die, it is mourned by the community of crows as they lament the passing away of one their own. This funerary song can continue for a long time and as it slowly subsides, they fly away in different directions and the sky resounds with their song of unity.
It is said that sparrows have disappeared from most Indian cities due to several reasons. Ahmedabad and other cities have many high-rise buildings that have resulted in an explosion of pigeons. Most balconies, windows and verandahs of apartments are covered with agricultural netting also known as pigeon nets. Earlier, sparrows were seen around bungalows and tenements, sometimes in medium-size housing societies, where they made nests behind photo frames, in nooks and corners, or in ceiling-fan cups. It was common to see sparrows holding nesting material in their beaks flying into homes. If someone switched on a ceiling fan, the sparrow would hit the whirring blades, transform into a ball of feathers and fall on the floor, its neck severed, sprinkling dots of blood in the room, but still holding the blade of straw in its beak.
Eventually, as high-rise housing societies covered their verandahs and balconies with pigeon nets, they became a “no entry” signal for sparrows. The birds made half-hearted efforts to build nests in bushes or young trees, but it was difficult as they were experts at building nests in households, but had forgotten how to make nests in public gardens or the jogger parks of the city. Maybe, they had felt safer near human beings. In open areas, they did not know how to hide their nests, eggs and fledglings and protect them from predatory birds or garden lizards. With time, they were rarely seen in housing societies and wildlife lovers embarked on “Save the Sparrow” campaigns by distributing ready-made nests that could be hung on tall bushes or medium size trees, so that sparrows learnt to live closer to housing societies.
In contrast, pigeons have learnt to deal with “bird-proof netting” and know how to adapt to urban life and challenge human beings. But, if you are sensitive, this particular bird can be annoying. Earlier, artisans made clay birds and animals that were made for the showcase and displayed in some homes, like pigeons, which were painted in gray. Even from the showcase, they appeared to be watchful, threatening and daring human beings, almost saying, “don’t you dare stop me from entering your homes”. They entered our homes and how. Nets are also used to cover balconies and windows of apartments in housing societies to reduce the intensity of bright sunlight and now some of the best architectural designs appear to be disfigured with pigeon-netting.
Earlier, when apartments and houses did not have sliding windows, grills and pigeon-nets, the birds started nesting in homes, especially on the mezzanine floor or cupboard-tops or electricity-metre boxes. In most cases, they were discovered only after the eggs were laid or the chicks had hatched, so most people hesitated to discard the nest as it is believed to bring misfortune. They continued to breed in our homes till the fledglings became adults, learnt to fly and left behind discoloured patches on walls and droppings on the flooring while the domestic workers were told to remove the nest, but then they always returned during their breeding cycles.
Since then, as new housing societies were built, architects and engineers added hooks and other appendages on the ceilings, balconies, verandahs and windows so that pigeon-netting could be attached all over. Yet, it is not the netting that kept them away. Pigeons have highly developed brains and if they are denied entry they know of a thousand and one other ways to enter: like the slanted glass panes of bathrooms, where they perch on the ledge with guttural calls and roost, as though it was their private property. Their calls are so jarring that one would have to wear ear-plugs, as the sound attacks our finer sensibilities. These hardy birds always find a loophole in the pigeon net to enter the balcony, or if the sliding door to the apartment is slightly open, they fly in, like unwanted guests, angrily staring at you with their orange-lined beady-eyes as they fly in and out with single-minded determination to build their home in your home. Even if you shoo them away, they fly out and land on the removable glass-pane ventilators of the bathrooms.
If you assume that you had got rid of them, they make their presence felt with their non-stop calls, till you look for a place where there are no pigeons, but that is impossible as they are omnipresent. Like the time they broke open the window panes of the bathroom of an apartment, which had been empty for a year, and used it as their private maternity-home-cum-open-public-toilet till the owners returned, opened the apartment and staggered back due to the obnoxious stink. It took them some time to find someone to remove the squatter-pigeons from the bathroom, replace the ventilator panes and clean the place. It was an incident not to be forgotten and it took the owners some time to block out the droning sound of pigeons on silent summer afternoons. For those who have experienced such situations with pigeons, their existence in the city depends on these birds.
When pigeons entered my life, I noticed that these birds have delicate pink feet, red eyes, metallic-green neck feathers and that parent birds feed their young ones “pigeon-milk”, a skin secretion similar to mammal’s milk. I had noticed that shopkeepers in most areas fed pigeons, as a form of piety, by filling bowls of seeds at traffic circles. While watching these flocks of pigeons, there was always one bird that stood out with its speckled, mottled grey-white feathers and kept a safe distance from others, almost like an outsider,
In contrast, fan-tail pigeons are dainty and look ornamental with their puffed chests and fan-shaped tail, but are different from the bleeding heart pigeon I had seen at the zoo. The bleeding heart pigeon closely resembles doves: it is mild-mannered, bigger than the common pigeon, has a white, puffed-up chest, a touch of gray on its wings and a red mark on its breast that resembles a wound, like an uneven patch of blood bursting from its heart, almost symbolic of the harm we are inflicting on nature.
In contrast, the turtle dove and ringed dove appear to be delicate, docile and mild-mannered, unless they are aggressively chasing crows from their nest. They have a graceful form, from beak to claw. No wonder they are connected with peace and at some public events, they are released in large numbers to fly free and are known as “doves of peace”.
In Ahmedabad, there are two types of doves: the turtle dove has a warm, grey colour, while the ringed dove has a subtle terracotta-pink tone. I like to look at them walking on the ground with short steps, watching their surroundings and soundlessly flying away if they sense danger.
The other day, I was watching a film on kites – the birds of prey. It showed a sky full of kites as one of them swooped down and snatched the main protagonist’s spectacles. It reminded me of my school days when during lunch time we sat in groups in the playground, tiffin boxes open, and terrified of the kites watching us, swooping down and artfully snatching food from our hands and flying away. It was a matter of surprise that these carnivorous birds had developed an appetite for everything that human beings ate, like ghee-soaked chapattis, stuffed parathas, sabzis, sandwiches and snacks. Much later, the memory of their carnivorous tastes came back to me as I saw flocks of kites encircling butcheries as they swooped down dangerously while measuring the distance between earth and sky, picking up offal strewn around these shops as cars slowed down and pedestrians veered off the road, but miraculously nobody was injured. I marveled at their timing and perception of gauging distances at the risk of their own lives and those of others. They are aggressive, daring, fearless and have a shrill, eerie whistle-like call and do not appear to be afraid of human beings.
Falcons also fascinate me, as falconry is also a sport. The falcon sits with its eye-flaps, which are opened just before they are flown out for a kill, on the leather gloved hand of their trainer-falconer. Their eyes resemble marbles, as they watch the landscape for prey with their telescopic eyes, yet they look dignified as they observe their prey and attack with precision, never missing their target. They have a single-minded purpose and never falter, as mid-air they capture birds or lift a hare they may have seen hiding in a bush on the ground. Even before they appear, birds hide in bushes and a sudden silence falls on the entire area as they know that a falcon is flying in the sky or sitting still like a statue in the thick foliage of a tree. Falcons have sleek bodies and a dignified look even as they swoop down when they see their prey on the ground. I remembered this aspect when I saw an impressionistic style painting of a flame of the forest whose flowers blossom in spring during the Indian festival of colours, Holi.
Thinking of oranges and reds reminds me of when the old house was built and I was told that behind the house were fields of marigold flowers that blossomed soon after winter and in full bloom resembled carpets of deep orange and yellow flowers. In Gujarati, they are known as “hazarigal”, or the flower with a thousand petals that seem to burst out of the pistil, resembling a bouquet. These are auspicious flowers and used for weddings and festive occasions and garlands of marigolds light up homes and venue decorations.
Once, while watching marigold flowers from my terrace, I suddenly felt the landscape was covered by a dark shadow for a few minutes. It was not yet monsoon and I looked up to see a flock of demoiselle cranes flying over the house. I could hear their calls and the beat of their wings as they seemed to make sure that the flock was together and nobody was left behind. Much later, I saw demoiselle cranes in Nalsarovar, about 62 kilometres from Ahmedabad, a second home to migratory water birds that arrive in Gujarat during winter. I had seen them flying in the sky from the terrace of my old house. At the water bodies they frequented, if they saw bird-watchers wading into the water, they retreated further away into the lake with their streamlined grey bodies, black necks, fiery brown eyes and flowing white plumes extending from eye to nape of neck, as though cropped by a hair stylist. I had a similar experience when I had seen a pair of sarus cranes courting each other in the fields behind the old house. From the terrace, I could see these tall cranes, supposed to be the tallest flying birds. They were standing on their long pink legs, necks entwined amorously, engrossed in each other.
There is a blue house behind my apartment, facing the drawing room window of my present home. I can see the backyard of this house and have seen a woman doing household chores there. I do not know her, but I have heard her voice and the colour of her house reminds me of artist Frida Kahlo’s house I had seen in Mexico, which had a bright indigo blue garden wall – a monument to her memory. I watch the blue house, which belongs to an unseen neighbor and an unknown voice, while writing. I always see the woman’s back and notice that she wears a sari in the Gujarati style. In her backyard, there are a few jamun trees and a curry-patta plant, where I see her filling the bird-feeder with grain and filling bowls with water for birds, especially during the summer months. All year around, I have seen a variety of birds in her backyard. While passing in the street, the main door of her house has an iron gate through which I can see her garden, where she has magnificent mango trees, a custard-apple tree and four jamun trees.
From my vantage point, I can see koels, pigeons, bulbuls, robins, crows, doves and a variety of smaller birds and squirrels feeding at the bird-feeder at different times of the day. I wait for a flock of Alexandrine ringed Parakeets, which arrive chattering and quarreling for food and drink. Then, they announce their departure with whistles, trills, gurgles and squawks. Often, the bird-feeder becomes an amphitheatre of birds eating, calling, screeching, flapping wings or challenging each other. For reasons I have never understood, a smaller flock of parakeets arrives late in the evening and roosts on the awning and ledges of the sixth floor of a multistoried building next to my housing society. Maybe they feel a sense of security, but they fly away before dawn. Another flock of parakeets roosts on a neem tree on the main road along with the migratory Rosy Pastors or Starlings when they arrive in winter. I have noticed some birds stay back and feed on flowers, berries, fruit, insects and grains from the bird feeder at the blue house.
I have met many people who have expressed a deep desire for keeping parrots as pets, but according to forest department rules, it is against the law to trap and cage plum-headed parakeets, which can imitate sounds they hear around them and repeat words spoken by human beings. Once, I was invited with other friends to see the bungalow of a well-known businessman of Ahmedabad that was built by a world-famous European architect. Graciously, he showed us around the architectural marvel, which was built in a garden landscaped like a forest, home to innumerable birds. He led us into the drawing room that was designed like an old Gujarati house, complete with wood carvings, “Pichwai” paintings and a jhoola, or swing, with silver chains embellished with peacocks and parrots.
As we sat on a settee next to a huge window, I could see the manicured lawns over which a flock of plum-headed parakeets flew around. As we watched in admiration, our host told us his garden was home to parakeets, where they bred and taught their fledglings to fly. But during monsoons or even an unusual storm, around the month of August, some parakeets got caught in the swirling winds and died. The garden floor was covered with half-dead parakeets of all shapes, sizes and ages. Sometimes his gardeners saved some, but they never survived.
This story was a metaphor of grief for that particular plum-headed parakeet that had lived with us for so many years that we had forgotten how old he was, till one day he looked tired and I held him in my palms, fed him water with an ink-dropper, but he died. We had spent a lifetime together, as he always preferred to sit on our shoulders, hands or the dining table and talk to us, often imitating us and insisting on eating freshly made chapattis before he agreed to return to his ornate cage, which was placed right next to our dining table so that he could be part of our conversations between breakfast, lunch and dinner, or off and on, when we were in our kitchen-cum-dining room. Nobody knew how he had come into our lives, but we felt he had lived with us forever. Often, I am haunted by all the birds and dogs, lying dead in a graveyard buried deep in the labyrinth of my heart and mind.
Since the past few years, a vendor often cycles past our housing society with a bread and biscuit box tied to the back-seat. He lives in a shanty-town in the far-east side of Ahmedabad. He stops at my door to fill his water bottle and tells me about his village in Ghaziabad. There is a bamboo forest behind his home, where he likes to watch birds and animals. He confides in me about his fascination for fan-tail pigeons and a deep desire to keep a parakeet for company, which he could teach to talk and that he was hopeful of getting a plum-headed parakeet.
He was disappointed when I told him that there were forest department restrictions to keep certain birds as pets. Last month, he rang my doorbell and told me that a pair of Parakeets had made a nest in a cavity of the trunk of a gulmohar tree near the main gate and that he had decided to steal the fledgelings when they emerged from their nest. Sternly, I told him to leave them alone. Half-heartedly, he agreed, but everytime he passed by the tree, he stopped, looked longingly at the tree and went ahead.
One afternoon when he met the gardener of the society and told him that parakeets were breeding in the tree and asked for his help to steal the birds. Later, the gardener told me about their adventure. They had climbed the garden wall, peeped into the nest, but did not see anything, so they returned, as they were afraid that there could be a serpent in the hollow of the tree. I was furious and confronted them as the gardener tried to calm me with a parakeet story. He said that once a year, when he went back home to Lucknow, he looked forward to spending time with the family’s caged parakeet and that as soon as he entered the house, the parakeet asked him, “kya laya” – what did you bring?
I have met many people who have a deep desire to keep parakeets as pets.
A few days later, I saw the parent parakeets sitting on a branch near their nest, where I saw the fresh, green head of a fledgeling open its red beak, waiting to be fed. It was heartening to realise that the parakeets had laid eggs and when the young ones had emerged from the egg, the baby birds had remained hidden deep within the hollow of the tree. I saw the parent birds perched on a branch higher up watching over their brood. Every day, I checked on them and said a silent prayer for their safety. Last week, I saw the parent birds sitting on a branch of the gulmohar tree with younger birds, which had a faint neck-ring. I saw them flying together towards the bird-feeder in the blue house and then flying back to roost in a neem tree across the road, chattering and telling each other stories about us.
Alongwith chattering parakeets, I often see babblers, also known as “Seven Sisters” in Gujarati, as they keep flying around. They seem happy as they hop, skip and jump and are always seen in flocks constantly talking to each other, one to the dozen, as they fly from plants to trees to parapets to balconies to garden walls around human inhabitation. Babblers are amusing, non-descriptive gray birds with yellow beaks, but when they find a soft, sandy patch of earth, they flutter their wings and have a sand-bath, like babies splashing in a swimming pool.
I have also seen magpie robins around my apartment, showing off their black feathers, a white bar on their wings, chestnut coloured underparts and a cocky upturned tail that resembles a flag. They are always looking for insects in the hollow stump of a creeper that had been chopped off. It was a bougainvillea creeper, with flowers that resembled paper-thin petals in magenta-pink or white, that obstructed the view of the CCTV camera and almost everybody complained that its thorns had scratched the top of their cars as it had spread itself on the parapet of the garden wall, climbed over the barbed wire fence and onto a tree.
Bougainvilleas are popular with the garden department of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for landscaping the city and highways. They are planted all along the narrow lanes of road dividers as they lend that much needed colour to the city. Between the bougainvilleas, the saat-parnni, or seven-leafed trees, are planted. They resemble champa trees, but do not have that special intoxicating fragrance. Shopping centres, malls, multinational companies, university campuses also landscape their concrete, steel and glass structures with a touch of green to complement their buildings.
From my bedroom window, I can see a vermillion flower on the bare branches of the gulmohar tree as a red-vented bulbul perches there, shaking its crest, hopping from one branch to another. I notice a movement in the shadow of the overgrowth of creepers spread over the garden wall: it is a big bird with black-cum-red-ochre feathers, stealthily moving in the foliage. I have seen it walking at ground level, behind plants along the garden wall or in the foliage of a tree, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible. Look closely and it can be identified as the crow pheasant. I wonder how it got its name. Maybe because it is in the impossible position of being both a crow and a pheasant with its awkward body structure and size. Anyway, it has habits that are similar to a crazy crow and sometimes a regal pheasant. It is a rather long, horizontal bird from beak to tail-end, marching confidently like a soldier hunting smaller birds and bird-eggs.
At shopping centres, potted plants are arranged with white lilies, a little frilly, a little faded, often drooping and I start relating them to funerals. They also remind me of egrets, as they are seen almost everywhere, sitting still in water bodies in and around the city.
Earlier, before the riverfront project, during the monsoon months when the Sabarmati river was in spate, while crossing the river over the bridges I saw a variety of water birds and other creatures: herons, dabchicks, egrets and ducks looking for fish, worms, frogs and algae that surfaced in the water.
As I write this, I can see the bird-feeder next to a young tamarind tree, which had grown close to the garden wall, as tall as its parapet. Somehow, this tree always reminds me of our old house in Shahibaug where my parents lived in a compound, an abbreviation of present-day housing societies. The main mansion of the owner was built at the back of an orchard where there were cottages that were rented out. My father had asked for extra land where he could keep dogs of various breeds. The owner had agreed as dogs gave a sense of security to the compound, known as Laxmi Nivas bungalows. The compound resembled a forest that covered all the houses. Besides others, there were many tamarind trees and it was a pleasure to breathe into the tangy fragrance of their blossoms that ripened into tender shoots, hidden in the cover of brown pods, which invited large flocks of birds, squirrels and langurs.
Dogs and langurs have an expertise at crossing roads, even if there are traffic jams. These langur brigades almost always have an outsider, as he or she is not accepted in the troop. It can follow them, but from a distance. I wondered if it was a male, defeated in the fight for a female, or if it was a female with a mysterious story, which I would never know. Sometimes, they also have one lone, aggressive male langur, which threatens everybody by baring his teeth and I wonder if he is a loser or a winner, old, unwanted or injured. Langurs terrorise human beings by appearing in troops and looting whatever they get to eat, even if it means entering homes, which they study in detail, and if shooed away, they know exit points to flee through, after causing havoc and terror.
Stray dogs also fall in the same category, disputing the myth that “a dog is a human being’s best friend”. These dogs move in packs and are almost always against each other as they fight for territory or are in an attack-mode when it comes to a female in heat. I often hear dogs barking in unison at night and am afraid to venture out as they are formidable opponents. Many people living in apartments or even bungalows have canine pets. Early morning or late at night, one can see owners taking a walk with them, as their pets litter the streets with their faeces. These dogs are either pedigreed or of mixed lineage. If two stray dogs walk into our housing society, the squirrels, which normally have full freedom to run around the grounds, take sanctuary in the trees or run around on the parapet of the garden wall and return when the dogs are not around.
Bird-watching is always on my list of things to do during the day as when I hear a birdsong, it gives a good start to the day. If one can turn a deaf ear to the barking of stray dogs and observe birds, it brings us closer to nature. Often, birds around homes and housing societies are unafraid and if you look carefully and listen to their calls, you will see that they are all over the place. Even squirrels run around and give final touches to their nests in secret corners, woven with spun strings, shredded textiles, pieces of cotton, moss and dry grass.
The other day, a sun bird flew into my ground-floor apartment when the door was open. Then feeling rather confused, it made a U-turn and flew away. A friend told me the babblers are now outnumbering pigeons around her housing society and when she is in the kitchen, making her first cup of coffee, sparrows fearlessly sit on her kitchen windowsill or knock on the window panes with their beaks and make her smile. Behind her apartment building there is an unused green zone where a flock of black Ibis roost on a tree. From her balcony, she watches the Ibis and many other birds flying amidst the foliage or nesting in the trees.
Last week, a young friend living in a tenement opened her front door and was excited to see a sparrow, which she believed is an endangered species. She quickly closed the door so as not to frighten the bird perched on the branch of a mogra creeper she had planted next to the main door. Since then, every morning, she leaves bowls of grains and water for sparrows.
I now spend my mornings watching the aerial gliding of sun birds, along with bulbuls, robins, mynahs, babblers and flowerpeckers, common green bee-eater, a drongo and a shrike. If I am lucky, I also see a stray egret or starling and I can also hear the distant cries of a kingfisher, coppersmith, koel and peafowl as kites and falcons patrol the skies, looking for prey down below on earth.
Every morning, I study a flowering bush close to my bedroom window, disturbing a few butterflies flitting over the flowerbeds. As they disappear, I look for the nest that the tailor birds were making in one of the broad-leafed plants, stitching the leaves into a cosy nest for their brood. To add colour to our surroundings, during the sleepy mid-afternoon hours, a flock of the chattering Alexandrine parakeets arrive to perch on a young neem tree.
I try to decipher the hidden meaning of these bird songs as we have a lot to learn from nature, because, as they say, “nature is a great educator…”
Esther David is an author, artist and sculptor who lives in Ahmedabad.