It was March; the month of March has always been fraught with magic for me. How is it that these last few months the cold earth had sustained warm life? And where had they been -- these living creatures that dote on the sun? For come the enchanted month, they perform their bacchic dance of joy.
The mated birds now pair in every brake,
Iranians celebrate the vernal equinox as the Eid-e-Nawrooz; on March 21. They mimic the creatures out of doors, ecstatic at winter's end and a new beginning. Perhaps only an ancient civilisation can celebrate spring with such mathematical precision, wherein the intellect and the heart are one. The impulse from the earth had an additional message this March for me: a pair of golden-backed woodpeckers.
And build their mossy homes in field and brier,
And the green lizard and the golden snake
Like unimprisoned flames out of their trance awake.
The red-crested golden-backed woodpecker must be one of nature's recherche specimens. It contributes as much to the eyes' delight as to the ears'. How much more precious the gold on its plumage than King Hiero's crown (or any crown, for that matter)!
How much more spontaneous and mellifluous its strident drawn-out cry than any human exclamation, instrumental or voiced! And no hand could have devised that complementary red crest. Human fashions last as the seasons do; unfashionable nature alters with the aeons, endowing mortal seasons with permanence.
In a sense we 'owned' the woodpeckers, my wife and I; for they had selected as their home a hollow in the dead trunk of a coconut palm that just reached our bedroom window on the third floor. Whenever we looked down, one of the pair would look up, askance! A too-rapid movement would frighten it and prompt its flight to the nearest coconut tree, where it would cling to the bark and look frantically around. We learned, however, to be more dexterous in our observations. We grew sensitive to the fact that we were looking from our bedroom into theirs.
Then came the myna birds. The party of four was perched on the branches of a tall palm tree that reached us. Occasionally, the fronds would get into our window and would have to be pushed out. Noticing me, the nearest two flew off and settled on another palm a few feet away.
Our neighbourhood is well endowed with trees, which makes a natural home for the birds. The remaining two were on the alert, ready to take off.
I parted the curtain ever so carefully; I stood as riveted to the spot as the palm that supported the spectacle. I couldn't take my eyes off these brown birds with yellow bills and legs. Whenever one of them would fly, the white of the wings would be plainly visible. Sitting, the white is only a speck.
It rained a little, and the birds got soaked. The rain stopped as soon as it had begun. I was already very happy when the wind lifted, and it put me into a more carefree mood. It was a storm. It came with a mission: to cleanse, to cool, to renew. It was the first storm and the first rainfall of the year.
Before embarking on its mission, however, it announced itself in a most unsavoury manner: by kicking up a fuss of dust. When it ended, I lingered at the western window. The sun could only be guessed by the fracture of light that filtered through gray clouds and a faint smudge of gold in the horizon. Another rent towards the south-west revealed a faint blue. The southern sky was dark and full of rain. It was like a poet's inspiration that had yet to find outlet in poetry.
And then it came, the downpour. The odour of the earth rose towards the sky. The palm fronds danced like frenzied women in saris. The taller trees swayed with a little more dignity. The rain fell in oblique lines, and as they hit the concrete, gusts of wind shimmied them away and needle-like points disappeared in patches momentarily. In the north, above the open field, the rain fell in an oblique angle, and the wind interrupted its descent like a muslin curtain fluttering in the breeze.
We had trepidation regarding the woodpeckers. Our anxiety was allayed, however, by the announcement of safety that proceeded the next morning from outside our window! It stormed, it rained, it blew. . . yet the pair remained constant to their home and to each other. And when a third head peered out one morning, the situation became a metaphor for the vicissitudes that love and life must and can endure.
One morning, however, I encountered quite a different aspect of nature, one that I will probably never forget. A pair of magpies were being pursued by a pair of crows -- and one of the larger birds captured one of the smaller. The other magpie dived in menacing arcs over the aerial thugs, of which one stood sentinel to frighten the widow or widower away. The crows flew off with their prey, and probably devoured it for breakfast!
I was sobered into an appreciation of the difference between civilisation and nature. Nature has its order, a harmony that appears to be without government. And this very lack of authority seems magnificent until we realise that nature is order without conscience. It is man's prerogative to achieve conscience though order, and rise above nature.
And it was then that the ongoing hartals* appeared more repugnant than at any time in my life. Several rickshaw-pullers were burnt to death -- a sixteen-year-old boy struggled for his life for eleven days! To what level of bestiality had we descended in the name of freedom! The freedom that is our proud boast is the freedom of the jungle. In my admiration for the denizens of the forest, I have never felt the desire to cease to be the citizen of a state. Yet I find myself living in a jungle.
* hartal general strike