About two summers ago, I was in Gudalur during a trip to the Nilgiri Hills – with a few friends. Barely five minutes after reaching the spot, we spotted a pair of Indian Eagle Owls. It was my first sighting. They flew past us, and into a section of the forest. And it all happened so quickly.
I couldn’t giggle over my good fortune. There wasn’t any time to react, much less – to celebrate. We kept our eyes glued on the couple, as they shifted their positions. But the light was fading fast. We couldn’t tell if we were looking at owls or a cluster of shadows. The evening sun blushed in sleepy orange and turned them into ghosts.
We hadn’t a clue where they were.
We left – having decided to wake up early in the morning to photograph them. So, we returned to a broken down warehouse. It was free accommodation so we couldn’t complain how disheveled it was. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway, if it had been worse. Three types of owls – including the Mottled Wood Owl and the Brown Fish Owl – had been recently spotted in the area.
After having swept aside the rat pellets, we had to circumscribe the sleeping area with small pieces of garlic. The stench was putrid, but it could repel rodents, insects, and reptiles.
We were exhausted. The oldest in the group was already snoring before we could finish laying out the makeshift bedspreads. But I just couldn’t stop thinking of the owls. Or maybe it was just really cold. The chilly wind was gnawing on my ankles through a cracked window. To distract myself, I thought about the beautiful creatures I had seen during that trip.
When the alarm ran at 4:30 AM, I woke up with a loud gasp. I was surprised. I assumed I would have been awake all night. The rest of my friends were asleep, though. Like moist logs in a cozy fire. I tried waking them up but in vain.
I looked out the window and saw that the sky was still dark. It was a misty morning. I left immediately, worried that I might miss out on spotting the owl.
Since it was a downhill trek, I made an impetuous dash for it. The confidence was short-lived, though. I realized that every passage to the forest looked similar. Confusion crept in. As did a sense of panic. So I decided to sit down on a boulder and wait for the darkness to dissipate. I tugged at the hoodie over my head and rubbed my palms together.
The mist quietly began to drown in hues of green, brown and gold. The yellowing light swam through the trees, like crazy spaghetti. I got up to find the magnificent bird. I had a pocket-sized digital camera back then. I drew it out as if I had a premonition.
Two hours later, there was no sign of the owl. I had been walking back and forth. Looking here and there, with no luck. The camera was tucked inside a leather pouch.
I found a soft mound to lay back, stretch my legs, and listen to some music. As time went by, I was drifting into unmapped sections of my mind. Out of the blue, I noticed an adult Indian Eagle Owl staring daggers at me .
Instantly, I felt something. I couldn’t recognize it as being anything familiar. I don’t have a name for it now. Not even a metaphor or an analogy to capture the essence of that rare moment. I only know that we ended up having a staring contest that I couldn’t lose, no matter how persistently the world might have tried.
It was love at second sight.
Since then, I have spotted this large horned owl at on several occasions. But I doubt if any of them were as special.
Sketches of algae, bathed in electric red,
bloom on her breasts,
a pair of eager lips
thieve from her neck
– a lungful of air;
a gust of wind,
born to the trees
and her sturdy wings,
catches her unaware
and she glides away, far away,
from a lover’s stare.
(Photographs: Gudalur, Kumily)