Songs and Solitude: What Birds Taught Me
'Birds taught me all I needed to learn about life', says the writer
Besides me, another creature lives in the room
On the same rent,
A wall lizard.
Our only difference,
It has no food scarcity.
In these lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s prose poem, Banshi or The Flute, a clerk working in Calcutta describes the execrable state of his life in the city even as he thinks of his village home with wistful exhaustion. As I read them, I think of the creatures -- sparrows -- who similarly shared our living quarters when I was growing up in Delhi. We had only recently moved to our own, well, my grandmother’s house in Chittaranjan Park (C R Park to the locals) in South Delhi, and come summer, the frisky sparrows would enter our living room and build nests -- on top of pelmets and in the hollowed space behind photos and paintings hung to the wall by cords. All through Delhi’s burning summer, they lived rent free in the coolness of our home’s interiors. There was an air of nervousness and perhaps even exasperation among our family members regarding this avian encroachment. Not because we didn’t want them making homes and raising families in our midst, but more because of the risk of a bird occasionally getting caught in the whirr of a ceiling fan in motion and dropping dead on the floor. I now wonder if that was the first time I learned how setting up home in an unfamiliar environment could be possible, if fraught with uncertainty and even danger. The sparrows returned every summer year after year, notwithstanding our chafe with the ruckus their young ones created or the mess their abandoned nests caused on our floor, in our hair.
Before I saw the tenacious sparrows of C R Park, as they might be called in this age of Instagram, I had read about another tiny but mighty bird -- the Tuntuni. From her, for that -- as a female -- was how the author, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury introduced her to his young readers, I learned how valuable presence of mind could be when dealing with imminent crisis. The tiny tailor bird, a new mother with a brood of fledglings she shelters in a nest she’d neatly stitched with the leaves in a brinjal plant, had to protect them from the greedy eyes of a cat on the prowl. In the fantasized world of children’s literature, she finds a language -- of strategic deference -- bowing to the cat and addressing her as Maharani, her royal highness, to earn the feline’s trust. Up until the time her chicks learn to fly, that is. The moment they’re able to take off on their own, little Tuntuni stands up to the cat, makes a face and calls out her slyness before flying off herself.
The sparrows of C R Park gradually disappeared. So did my grandparents, lost to cerebral thrombosis and heart ailment within a year of each other, during my teen years. Their journey hadn’t been unlike the sparrows themselves. They too had to set up a nest in Delhi, a foreign environment with an unforgiving arid climate, far away from Bengal, their homeland. As the country got divided in 1947, their migration to Delhi came with a one-way ticket, with their home and ancestral property in purbobongo, then part of East Pakistan, consigned to the exigencies of Partition. The losses stretched far beyond mere bricks and soil, though and showed up as fractured relationships, financial strain, smothered dreams and lasting psychological horrors. For me, the passing of my grandparents was a body blow; it wasn’t my first direct encounter with death alone, but also my first steps through the valley of loneliness. Like a growing fledgling that had to find its way through solitary flights, I had to grapple my way through that darkness, tottering and stumbling, waiting for specks of light to sneak in through the cracks.
In my early thirties, I made a major career shift. Taking a break from nine-to-five day jobs, I began freelancing full time. Suddenly, I had the luxury of time as I could set my own schedule. And suddenly, the world of birds opened up to me in the most delightful of ways. One of the perks of my freelance life included taking a walk on our C R Park terrace every morning and seeing birds -- of different feathers and temperaments -- up to their antics. From the cacophony of crows to the laid-back stupor of pigeons, from a kite’s majestic flight to the swiftness of a parakeet flock swooping upon a guava tree laden with fruit, my walks gave me more than footsteps to count as part of some exercise regimen. They made me pause to take in the thrill of watching a kite sweep an entire stretch of sky with its wings and also the tense jitters of negotiating my walk when an aggressive murder of crows hovered close by. The power of flocking together, the freedom of self-exploration, the value of quiet resting, the pleasure of feasting together -- from the birds I met during my terrace walks, I gleaned lessons for life, lessons in the aesthetics of life.
On the backwaters of Kerala, where my husband and I went shortly after getting married, I saw cormorants for the first time. Having lived in dry Delhi most of my life, I wasn’t all that acquainted with water birds. To absorb the poise with which the birds sat on logs along the breadth of the lagoon was to witness a Lonely Planet moment without finding it any bit artificial. The birds seemed to have all the time in the world; they were alert in their search for fish and yet visibly calm, some almost in the vrikshasana, the yogic tree pose, with one leg raised and the other grounded. In a strange coincidence, years after my brush with the crows of C R Park and the cormorants of Kerala, these two birds would come together in a flashback scene in Victory Colony, 1950, my debut novel. In the scene, Amala, the protagonist is reminded of the apparent serenity of the cormorants in her village in East Pakistan one morning. Later that morning, as she looks out of the window of the public bus that takes her to her workplace, she sees a murder of crows foraging through a dumpster with gusto. Amala is seen to admire the crows for their feistiness and community spirit, attributes that helped scores of faceless refugees rebuild their lives as they crossed borders to escape disgrace and death.
In March 2020, when the world went into a lockdown because of Covid-19, I, like many of us working from our homes, became a birdwatcher. The backyard window, next to my work desk, drew my attention to birdsong I must have heard before but never really paid attention to; to the relaxed stance of robins as they sat on the grass looking for a worm; to the friskiness of finches who couldn’t have enough of the food in the bird feed and would often bring over friends for partaking in the buffet of seeds and nuts; of the tireless and incredibly musical whistles a northern cardinal couple exchanged as part of their courtship. Birds taught me all I needed to learn about life -- to pause and reflect but also to get busy; to embrace solitude but also to engage with community; and most of all, as I wrote in one of my poems, In Praise of Slowness, to reserve my haste for love alone.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction is 'Victory Colony, 1950'. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English is 'My Days with Ramkinkar Baij', for which she received the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship at the British Centre for Literary Translation in the University of East Anglia. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals. She lives in Ontario, Canada and is currently working on a nonfiction book on New Delhi, India. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/