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A Bird In The Hand

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Walking around Mussoorie? Are you joking?’ she says to me, adding, ‘Footloose up here? With all l those cars ready to run you over!’

‘Where on earth does Ruskin Bond see those whistling thrushes singing around his home?’ author Anees Jung complains. ‘Or Stephen Alter’s crowing koklass pheasants? When does one spot Bill Aitken’s migrating bar-headed geese?’ Anees had escaped, or so she thought, to get away from the blistering heat of the Deccan in summer, only to end up in a modern-day concrete hotel on the Mall.

There are, believe me, walks that the believers may take. The infidels are not allowed to see our avian friends. They may please drive past.

As I write, I am reminded of a twenty-something year old Officer Trainee of  the 88th Foundation Course at the National Academy of Administration. Abhiram Sankar had walked into one of my classes to learn the delights of photography and ended up teaching me a trick or two.

During his five month rigorous training he soared above the delights of the Code of Civil Procedure to find the time to photograph over a hundred birds of these hills by the simple expedient of using his own feet. He knew exactly where the swifts nested or the thrushes hid. His long lonesome walks produced The Birds of Mussoorie, his  first book, and it proved to be a run-away success. How I wish someone would reprint it and leave behind a handbook for generations of other bird lovers.

Then there was the day I met pretty Pooja Sharma, an ex-banker from Delhi, in Landour’s Upper Chakkar who turned fulltime birder. ‘My claim to fame,’ she said, ‘is that I’ve photographed the elusive Spectacled Male Finch here. It hadn’t been spotted for years!’.

So, here’s some free advice for bird-watchers: the next time be careful where you stay!

Or, like ‘the actor’s actor’ Victor Banerjee, look for a place like The Parsonage which is surrounded by a canopy of oaks, rhododendrons, deodars. In his strawberry patch he spots the birds. On a quiet day, you will find him with a pair of binoculars, a pile of bird books, happily conversing with the Red-billed blue magpie or the Black-throated jay. I don’t blame him for disliking the pesky crows. They flap in from the nearby army Mess, with desiccated scraps in their beaks to moisten in his bird bath.

‘They muddle the birdbath!’ he moans.

Mudding of another kind happened many monsoons ago when, as luck would have it, his mother-in-law arrived.  A no-nonsense person, she had arrived to keep her daughter, Maya, company while our thespian hared off to perform at the York Mysteries of the York Festival in England. What mom-in-law did not approve of was sharing the strawberries with the birds. In the wood store, she stumbled upon a dilapidated stuffed-toy panther. Pleased with herself, she gleefully hoisted it in the middle of the garden like a scarecrow to frighten away the marauders.

Scare them?

Of course she did! Almost out of a year’s growth!

The skittish avian visitors left the fruit, left the garden and left the area, not to return. A full month passed by before Victor came home. He shook his head in disbelief. Poor fellow! He failed to join the dots of the plot and sat there gloomily, with his binoculars and bird-books beside him for hours on end, scratching his head, puzzled why there was not a bird in sight. Why had the birds gone missing this year?

Now that, if you asked me, was a very reasonable question, if ever there was one.

Who was going to spill the beans and enlighten him? Certainly not the mother in law or Maya. Nor could I, for that matter. We were all sworn to secrecy. Our lips were sealed.

Good news began with the Simla tits returning and snapping up the odd moth that overslept. Or to gambol in the birdbath.

‘Nothing matches birding in the hills,’ muses Victor..

‘Always better if you have a bird in hand!’ I remind him.

Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books, some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.