White-Throated Kingfishers sound like a jackhammer in the hands of a jazz drummer. Asian Koels can be mistaken for star-crossed Shakespearean strangers cooing goodbye one last time. Black-Winged Kites shriek as though they are auditioning for musical satires. If the world was any crueler, music labels would hire poachers to hunt down Malabar Hornbills, and steal their summer playlists.
The most beautiful bird call I have ever heard belongs to a whistler in an electric blue coat. Found in the Western Ghats, it is the Beethoven of alarm clocks.
I first heard its call during the summer of 2014. I was on an evening stroll at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. It had started to drizzle when I walked past the gate. I tucked an umbrella under my armpits and confidently went ahead.
An hour went by before it began to pour. I had to take refuge by a tortoise-shaped tourist store. A family of Bonnet Macaques, out in the rain, were glaring at me. I was hogging space in their shelter. The skies didn’t look like they were in the mood for love. I waited a few minutes before deciding to head back to the cottage.
I felt a little defeated. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to spot birds for the rest of the day. Maybe I could get into staring contests with moths later at night. They cheer me up. But I needed immediate relief. And so I put my headphones on.
Music is my first line of defense whenever I am upset or angry. It makes a long-distance swimmer out of me. A marathon runner, distancing himself from an unfortunate situation. An attentively-thumped bass note. A row of piano keys touched in all the right places. A singer crooning about chasing storms. They wreck me in beautiful ways.
It was thundering by the time I reached the cottage. But I was too engrossed in the music to pay attention. I put the backpack away and sat on a chair in the balcony. I saw a Malabar Whistling Thrush on the railing, at an arm’s length from me. I had seen my first one earlier that year in Kodaikanal.
I took off the headphones and ran inside to get the camera. It wasn’t the most well-coordinated dash. I was distracted by a satisfying heartache of a whistle. It was a lovely melody. And I had not a tune on my playlist, or in recent memory, with a tenderer note.
By the time I could take a photograph, it flew away. The whistling continued, though. The sun retired, and the rain followed suit. The piercing call of the Malabar Whistling Thrush didn’t stop until the last light of day disappeared. The birding websites were right. It did sound like a carefree child, exhaling a merry tune.
Some ear candies:
Break me down
into loud staccatos,
and stack me up,
unbroken and still,
like dusted LPs
(Photographs: Kodaikanal, Thekkady, Chennai, Munnar)