We have superpowers. We can make good things disappear from our lives. Ambitious goals turn into pipe-dreams. Exciting jobs become boring routines. Serendipitous affairs crumble into sexual favors. Warm relationships are deputed to cold storage units. It’s not as though we pursue unhappiness. Ruining a good thing is our self-defense mechanism; an inherent villainy.
But the world can show us that it has extraordinary powers too. It balls up a fist, punches us on the bridge of the nose, and announces, “Well, here’s what I can do”. We wipe the blood off and look up to see something beautiful. Some proof that everything will turn out to be okay.
A Malabar Grey Hornbill may then fly past us, holding hostage in her throat – a song to shake the love out of our hair, and to scatter it on a bed of leaves. Instinctively, we will throw our hands up, palms cupping the sun, semi-confused and aroused.
I haven’t had much to say about Malabar Grey Hornbills until now. They are mid-sized hornbills endemic to the Western Ghats. They have large beaks and piercing eyes. Their plumage is milky-grey with white streaks covering the underparts. Their calls are eerie and hysterical, like the Laughing Kookaburra but with more baritone.
A few weeks ago, one Sunday afternoon, I was on a birding trail in Adimali, Kerala. I was having a lover’s quarrel with myself because I had a bus to catch in a few hours. I didn’t want the trip to end. What if a white-morphed Asian Paradise Flycatcher had planned to visit me? So I took a short detour and went for a long walk by the river-bed.
In the back of my mind, I knew the chances were slim. It was hot and humid – God’s own squealing teapot. An hour into the stroll, I had only spotted a few Jungle Babblers and a pair of Racket-Tailed Drongos. I was in a bitter mood by then, covered in sweat.
As I was huffing and puffing my way out, I heard the call of a Malabar Grey Hornbill. As I looked around, she skirted through the trees in full view. It was an adult female. I followed her until she found a comfortable branch to perch upon. I got into position to take a few photographs.
She stared back, coyly, as though I had interrupted a laryngeal tai-chi routine. She let out a loud and piercing cry. In a matter of seconds, there was a response. And then, another. Soon, there were about 8-10 hornbills just a few meters away from me.
They didn’t seem to mind having me around. At least, that’s what I told myself. I can’t be sure. I can’t rationalize this feeling I have around birds. Why would I want to? I am just happy that the world still takes the effort to disable my superpowers, as and when it sees fit.
It makes me ordinary. Saps me dry. It lets the light leak out and leaves me without luminescence. Leaves me to bask in the brightness of birds. Their colors. Their songs.
These Malabar Grey Hornbills.
With every petal unfurled
– she smells less like a daffodil,
with every tail feather plucked out
– she flies closer to the ground,
puttering around, gowned in dust,
once a wild sonnet and
now a wise parable.
(Photographs: Munnar, Thekkady, Adimali)