An ornithologist is born

It’s early in a bitterly cold January morning. Darkness is reluctantly making way for light, but this morning, the sun has clearly lost its battle against fog. Trees and buildings have vanished as if by magic.

Trains must have got stuck on their tracks, and trucks and buses, on highways. Airlines passengers across North India are sulking at airports. And beyond the synthetic world of airports, on roads and allies, death is stalking people who don’t have roof over their heads.

An assignment has brought me to a dusty township that has grown around a thermal power plant. It’s a welcome reprieve from a cacophonic city (Kolkata) just 60 kilometres away; the serene silence around me is broken only by soft trills of unseen birds.

An entirely white bird with a surprisingly large span of wings that work through the misty morning air with effortless grace

In front of the guesthouse where I am staying, a barren field stretches to a private road through a fog so dense that one could perhaps cut it with a knife. Beyond the road, the ground gently slopes down into a lake, the background of which has faded into the mist; the bushes in front of the lake too are barely visible. Not a soul is seen anywhere.

Of the six gigantic chimneys of the power plant, three are not visible at all. The others have turned into three unconvincing lines on the horizon and look like inadvertent pencil strokes on an otherwise perfect water colour painting, waiting to be erased off.

The field in front of our guesthouse is barren and empty, except for the rusted, crumbling remains of a concrete mixing machine casually abandoned after construction of the township. With its spherical drum lying face down on the ground, and legs and wheels helplessly jutting out skyward, it reminds one of a metallic sculpture of a shattered man, perhaps a relic from a distant future.

No love at first sight

A solitary bird has ventured into the field, away from the marshy banks of the lake, possibly in search of more wholesome breakfast.

She is not big, but not very small either: she has long, thin beaks, bulging shoulders and legs about eight inches long. From above, she looks a dirty shade of grey and for a moment, I wish that I saw a more colourful bird in such a dreary morning.

For a while, the bird struts about haughtily, nibbling at grassroots. Oblivious of my presence, she comes right under my balcony, looks up, observes me for a long moment and then flies off, perhaps reciprocating my lack of admiration for her looks.

From arrogance to awe

But the moment she is off ground, she becomes a different bird. The underbelly and the insides of her wings are milk white, or rather, whiter than milk. From below, she appears an entirely white bird with a surprisingly large span of wings that work through the misty morning air with the effortless grace of a master’s brush.

So, birds too can have dual personalities! Here is one that looks gloomy and unfriendly on the ground but cheerful and bright when she’s flying. There is something distinctly faraway about her, something different from the tropical birds that we see in this part of the world. She must be a visitor from some distant land that is presently covered with snow as bright as the underside of her wings.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri
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