An Indian Summer with the Bulbuls

A story from Purulia (West Bengal, India) made quite a few headlines last week. A tusker, also known to have killed three people last year, smashed a house into bits and started moving away. Just then it heard the cries of a helpless 10-month-old baby from under the debris. To the crowd’s amazement, it immediately turned back and gently removed every last bit of stone, brick and mortar from the infant’s body before heading back to the forest.

A similar incident was reported from Jalpaiguri (also in West Bengal, India) about six months ago where a herd of elephants carefully removed a little girl from the way before going on a rampage.

Very recently, it has been reported that elephants and dogs too recognize certain voices and languages. On a lighter note, now we know how justified is ‘HMV’ and its logo – His Master’s Voice !! ūüôā

Incidents as these that sound straight from India’s Amar Chitra Katha series or Jataka Tales or western Fairy Tales, have been observed all over the world. In about two or three separate articles starting from this particular write-up, I would love to narrate a few remarkable ones from my childhood. These would also constitute my humble attempt in appreciating all Nature-lovers, observers and researchers. And I hope that readers will enjoy this curious side of life where Nature vividly communicates with man in symbolic languages.

Before I begin, I would like to mention that my parents have always ardently hailed Nature. My mother (here addressed as Ma), was not only keen at gardening but also guarded all life-forms in our garden just as she was protective of her own family. And therefore we believed that’s perhaps how she was more well-recognized, completely trusted and sort of much admired by the other occupants of our green ambience.

In this article, I shall focus on one episode based on birds in the district of Mayurbhanj (Odisha, India), where I spent most of my young days, almost 25 years.

The jovial Bulbuls seemed to be eternally present in the green, calm surroundings of the bungalow. Once a pretty young Bulbul-ma (that’s how I used to call the mother-bird) over-estimated her plans of a good nest and the entire fledging process after her cute eggs hatched. Consequently, on a scorching summer day in May,1990 she anxiously fluttered up to Ma who was watering the plants in the patio. She chirped madly and then flew to and fro in the direction of her unsecured nest. Ma lost no time in understanding that she had to rush as per Bulbul-ma‘s directional moves. I tiptoed along on the grassy patches here and there, intermittently starred by some bright seasonal flowers. Bulbul-ma perched on a nascent palm tree planted in a clay pot. Its leaves had quite dwindled away in the heat that was everywhere. The tree barely supported the small nest built for three members. Ma peeped at the centre and her heart sank to see three tiny nestlings struggling to survive the heat, thirst and hunger. Hair on their skin was singed and beneath it was visible the tender skin, slightly reddish. Their beaks were wide open with its pink delicate but almost dry inner linings exposed towards the clear blue sky that was absolutely unpromising of a shower for the next couple of days. They were desperately waiting for Bulbul-ma‘s solace. But she was utterly helpless because she could not have transferred them anywhere at this stage! The well too was far from the pot; so she could not have even managed a small spray on her nest with her wings soaked in the water from any container.

With the gardener’s help, Ma quickly but carefully shifted the pot to a spot in the verandah where shade was almost perpetual and we could monitor them maximally. A polythene sheet was later hung at one side as a double guard against all the remaining rays. Ma found a very innovative way to artificially feed the nestlings- she took a new ink-pen dropper and with it, very smoothly let droplets of water and mango-juice into their mouths. They gulped and gulped…and I was always very excited when Ma delegated this task to me after a simple demonstration. Then she taught me to spray their almost singed bodies with cool water and to often check their nests for enemies- ants and insects. When they grew better, Bulbul-ma would feed them small dead ants and insects. At nightfall, it was the watchman’s turn to guard the nest as well. Ma also regularly gave hand-mashed mango pulp and nuts to Bulbul-ma, who sitting on the same palm tree, would sincerely observe us when we nursed her nestlings. Her expression was like ‘achaa! itna kuch karna parrta hai kya? mujhe nahi malum tha!! (oh! we got to do all these, is it? I didn’t know!!)’ :-).

And Bulbul-ma was somehow acquainted with saree (Ma, grand-ma and domestic helps), dhoti (gardener and grand-father) and casual skirt and top (me). Till date, I wonder why she missed out the formal shirt and trousers (my father)! So initially, when my father went near the palm tree to see this interesting episode, she would scream and again start seeking Ma or me. We explained to her in a language of the homo sapiens that ‘a father’ is the man-of-the-house, someone who would ultimately rescue us all in case there is a danger…that he is Ma’s husband and my father, the little girl’s father. And several times, we took him along with us to the nest so that Bulbul-ma would learn that he is after all a safe visitor :-).

I had just stepped into my teenage. Once, during a mid-day chat with Ma who was my closest friend, she very jokingly remarked ‘perhaps, this Bulbul-ma has not come of age…looks like these eggs are borne out of a pre-matured wedlock’… ūüôā Then in the next few moments, her tone transformed to that of immense appreciation and respect for Bulbul-ma– ‘but one thing my girl, note she hasn’t ditched her eggs…rather she has accepted Nature’s rule in rearing them up, even all alone in this scorching heat’ !! And again she rushed towards their nest to check on them.

The monsoons were nearing when one day, the now hearty¬†fledglings flapped their wings for the first time. Bulbul-ma spent two days in fruitlessly trying to teach them fly. We concluded that they had got used to the comforts in badde-sahaab ke bungalow (big man’s bungalow)- all our family and helps accused Ma and me :-). On the third day, as evening approached, two of them managed to fly out; after hobbling for a few metres, they took to the air smoothly. The last one just didn’t move. It was indeed robust. Ma blamed it on me saying that I over-fed my pet and now its wings could not bear its weight. Bulbul-ma pricked its back with her beak so as to stimulate it. The¬†fledgling merely shrugged off the sensation and continued to stubbornly sit in the nest :-). Then my Ma gently brought it out and placed it on the floor in the verandah. Using her fingers, she prompted the¬†fledgling to follow it and walk. There was no response. Then she slightly stroked her nascent wings and blew some mouth-air over it. We were still surprised how this little fellow was unable to decode natural instincts! Just then, my grand-father happened to sit on a mattress on the floor barely a few metres away from it. Suddenly, the¬†fledgling flapped its wings and flew onto his cosy lap in a manner most unlike of even a distant-cousin of birds :-)! I think it had understood by then that it had to perform under the full glare of spectators and the view of the short distance to be covered at a small altitude helped it muster some strength to fly- ‘bhai, udd le…isse asaan aur chance nahi! (hey,lemme show I can fly…there can’t be an easier chance to do it!)’ :).

Then it again sat there seeming to be very satisfied with its flying skills. I wanted to feed it again with the dropper because I believed it might have got exhausted with its efforts. But Ma stopped me as she seriously wanted it to fly as a natural response to thirst and hunger, and she also empathized with Bulbul-ma in her desperate efforts. Evening was nearing…

In the meanwhile, Bulbul-ma had brought in either Bulbul-baba (the father-bird) or some Bulbul-masi (Bulbul-ma‘s female friend) !! We didn’t try to figure out exactly who it was. We had better tricks of Bulbul-ma to watch. The adult birds had caught hold of a big grasshopper and another insect in their respective beaks and started luring the lazy¬†fledgling towards it. As the latter hobbled after a few minutes, the adult birds continued moving back, maintaining a minimum take-off distance on the runway :-). The trick went on until the¬†fledgling successfully flew towards the trees that the birds had flown to with the insects still held in their beaks.

Even years later, Ma used to recollect this particular trick and was very amused each time. She said ‘wasn’t that so much like human adults who try to lure their kids to desired activities or places by holding out a chocolate or a flashy toy in front of them ?’. Perfectly so.

That lazy¬†fledgling was a female and she continued to be robust. So, we could always identify her as long as we all lived there. I roughly built a nest the following summer at the same spot (to lure my cute lazy fledgling) and I believe she only laid eggs. She turned out to be an intelligent Bulbul-ma and we didn’t have to look after any of her nests. Honestly speaking, I would have loved to bother about all subsequent¬†fledging processes :-).

It was during this phase that I learnt about Dr.S√°lim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, the great Indian ornithologist and naturalist. He is known all over the world for having conducted systematic bird surveys and giving a wonderful fillip to the subject. He is also referred to as the “”bird-man of India” and was conferred the Padma Vibhushan in 1976 . I wonder what a whale of observations and conclusions Dr. Ali must have had in his extra-ordinary pursuit to understand the ways of varieties of birds! The International Jury had rightly honoured him with these lines-

Since the writing of your book, the Book of Indian Birds which in its way was the seminal natural history volume for everyone in India, your name has been the single one known throughout the length and breadth of your own country, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as the father of conservation and the fount of knowledge on birds. Your message has gone high and low across the land and we are sure that weaver birds weave your initials in their nests, and swifts perform parabolas in the sky in your honor.
For your lifelong dedication to the preservation of bird life in the Indian subcontinent and your identification with the Bombay Natural History Society as a force for education, the World Wildlife Fund takes delight in presenting you with the second J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize. February 19, 1976.

More similar articles to follow, if Aamjunta approves… ūüôā

Drifting Spirits

Whether it is Amarnath Yatra or Haj or any other pilgrimage, a few concerns have always bothered some of us !!

It is a fact that at some point in life, even some atheists among us tend to become extremely religious or try to take a spiritual discourse. This is a natural thing. Therefore, I am not at all opposed to such sentiments or pilgrimages. But linked to it, there are some concerns regarding Safety of the public and strength or mobilization of the Forces which must be primarily addressed.

Nothing should gain priority or significance to these two aspects.

Religion or such holy belief is only a way to realize or connect to God- whatever be the name. It is not universal. There may be some religions in the world still unknown to us. When compared to other religions or beliefs, some seem so simple or have such less followers that it may cast a doubt on its spiritual pursuit or existence even; these also tend to be forcibly preached in all possible ways.

Yet, religious fervour cannot be more than the awareness of public safety and a sense of national security. Because in its very essence, no successful religion has ever ignored such concerns of humanity and patriotism, and still claimed spiritual connection with the Almighty- that’s just not possible. Every page of history also proves this fact.

Let us consider the major pilgrimages of Uttarakhand- Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath.

It is a treacherous terrain, and the rainy season further adds to its woes and makes it terribly unfriendly. First of all- the people, then the religious leaders, and the government should be very careful about such pilgrimages. The meteorological department may advise against a bad weather but no doubt, the initiative and go-ahead of pilgrimages always comes from the three classes I just mentioned. Such programs must be strictly limited to the summer months, however less counts of pilgrims turn up. Because a huge disaster like the recent one, causes not only loss of lives but also lot many inconveniences across societies. Some are not that candid.

The foremost of them being the burden on our already drained Forces. They are as such deficient in personnel with respect to the number, variety and quality of tasks they have to shoulder- foiling infiltration bids, counter-terrorism activities, watching the borders 24/7 right from Siachen to Kanya Kumari, serving as Commandos, building infrastructure in harsh terrains, some civilian utility jobs requiring military expertise, etc., etc. Even if a kid falls into a bore-well pit, the Army is called. Internally, they too deal with Maoism and other criminal activities daily. It has been gnawing at our roots since long. Our men, women, kids and environment- nothing is safe now.

Unfortunately, we also do not have enough of Police forces and the much needed infrastructure to address the ongoing issues. The state has failed to empower the Forces both in terms of number and might for various reasons, notably among it are huge corruption and red-tapeism. The Forces undergo a hard training and notwithstanding facilities or allowances, take home less salary than the white-collared jobs. During any crisis, they are the ones to first bear the bullets and their families are also awfully affected. Well, some may argue on the very selfless nature of their jobs.

But… when it is possible, why can we not avoid such¬†unnecessary burden on our Forces and call for priceless sacrifices ?

In my opinion, spiritual realization or any similar enlightenment can be attained in other ways also. For example, helping the poor is a service to mankind and hence, a service or reverence to the Almighty. Howsoever ardent I might be, I cannot justify myself in unnecessarily straining our Forces (or unduely risking other people’s lives) because I have to be at Amarnath to “see” God or fulfil the final religious mission of my life. This especially, when my society needs their assistance much more than I do…when my country’s porous borders need to be guarded by them day and night, without the blinking of an eye…when and where I know I cannot practically help them in any way irrespective of nature’s whims.

This becomes crucial to consider that till date, we do not have a robust national defence strategy whether or not under a single command. How do we then quickly mobilize our Forces (on massive civilian duty) if there is an urgent demand on the borders ?

Therefore, it is my sincere request to aamjunta to consider such issues while opting for a pilgrimage. In this ultra-modern era, we are supposed to be aware of the climate, the routes, the political situation at a place, the possibility of such a journey, the probability of a disaster, the repercussions, etc. In a comparatively good situation, there may not be constraints. The pilgrimages shall be smooth. But thinking about the boiling situations in which we are caught, then at least, let us re-instate our Forces in an indirect way by choosing a safer path. It may be a charitable work or a visit to a holy shrine nearby.

Let us – keep it simple; focus on the Almighty and our spiritual quest; serve the society; strengthen our Motherland.

What are your views aamjunta ?

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