Two years ago, I was inside a taxi – returning home after a birdwatching expedition to Valparai. I have never been fond of return journeys. I get upset over the beautiful things I must leave behind. But I wore a grin on my face. It was not because I was happy. That would have been unlikely. Because I have never understood happiness. It seems like an arbitrary emotion. It cannot be measured or weighed. It does not feel like foam, taste like cotton candy or smell like flowers. I have no idea what people mean when they claim to be happy.
I would rather just be satisfied. The longevity of contentment is never within our control, so why make big plans that have no clear action points?
The taxi driver was a dear friend, and so we had been chatting throughout the journey. I am unsure of the details of our conversation that day, but it probably had something to do with hornbills.
Upon reaching the town of Udumalpet, we stopped for a tea break. The landscape was scattered with windmills, coconut trees, and sugarcane crops. It was inviting; perhaps, a little alien. Puffing on a cigarette, I stepped back to distance myself from an approaching water lorry. Its wheels, gnashing with the thick and wet mud, made a familiar thudding sound. It reminded me of the noises that filled the air when I had spotted a pair of Great Indian Hornbills the previous day. The loud flapping of whitewashed bumblebee wings remained afresh in my memory.
I had spotted these birds four times before.
During my first two encounters with the Great Indian Hornbills, I had to wait many hours to catch a mere glimpse of them. It was worth the effort because I saw a couple court each other. Since it was the post-mating season, the male had taken it upon himself to feed berries to his pregnant mate. It was as though they had flown out of a fantasy novel. There I was – a bookmark lucidly dreaming of being a bookend. I could not believe that I had run into such magnificent creatures; that too during an intimate moment.
A month later, I had met the hornbill couple again. This time, we had company – a gorgeous chick. Unfortunately, the little fella was barely visible. I showed up at the location 3-4 times, but I could not see any of it except a few fledgling feathers and a portion of its beak.
Thankfully, we caught up during my recent visit to Valparai. I had been sitting inside a parked car, a quarter a kilometer away, at the crack of dawn. When the light of day spilled through – the juvenile had peeked out of the nest. It was still too young to leave the nest. But I had caught a clear glimpse. When I had zoomed in the camera for a closer look, my heart ballooned – sans strings.
The adults had then flown in from another section of the forest. Like jet-propelled Chinese lanterns, they made a perfect landing. Immensely satisfied, I had hung around to watch the feeding session.
Getting back in the car, I wondered what valiant deed I had accomplished to be deserving of such beautiful birds. I felt hopeful. Maybe after all my actions had been tallied, and my words had been weighed – I was found to be a deserving spectator. Rubbishing such biblical conundrums, I flicked the cigarette out of the car window. And we were off to our destination in the Palani Hills, which was a few hours away.
It was high noon, and the sticky yellow sun made me drowsy. While passing an intersection outside the town, I noticed a motorbike – cushioning a family of three. A middle-aged couple and their daughter were in a rush somewhere. The girl, presumably around 15 years old, was seated in the middle. Her arms wrapped around her father, as her mother firmly clutched the sides of the bike seat. They rode past us in a huff.
Then, suddenly, they violently crashed into a moped, which had come out of nowhere. The husband and daughter were flung with force into a nearby ditch. The lady was flipped over twice on the road, and her head seemed to be cracked. My friend slammed the brakes by then. We ran outside to check on the lady. She was motionless; bleeding profusely from the back of her head. It seemed eerily familiar because I had watched people die in accidents before.
Death is always messy, and the most disturbing parts lie in the details. A blood stain, a handful of hair, a cracked mirror, a tattered piece of cloth, the smell of smoked flesh, the expressions on the faces of bystanders. Gods and monsters haunt the details alike.
The girl was trying to get back on her feet. She was crying, and her arm – severely injured. Her father emerged from behind where the bike had crash-landed. He was holding his chest in pain. He looked in my direction, and he mouthed, “Sir, please help my wife”. I knew that she had passed away. But I said nothing. Muted, I walked towards them, to lend a hand. A crowd was gathering, and someone had already called the nearest hospital.
I left because I was late for my bus. As we drove away, I saw an elderly couple – standing next to a rickety moped. They seemed to have sustained minor injuries. They had their eyes to the ground, as blood trickled down their scattered hair.
I did not speak much to my friend until we had reached the bus station in the Palani Hills. While having dinner, though, I spoke incessantly to him about death. I remember telling him that it was a universal common denominator, and how we – as human beings – have an irrational fear of it.
That night I could not sleep. Because I fear death too. I replayed the moment of impact inside my head over and over again. Spending time with a Great Indian Hornbill family may have meant a lot to me. But watching another family ripped apart in a road accident seemed to have left just as large of an impression.
I never spoke much about the accident until many months later when I had written this piece. I am re-posting it because I know something now that I did not then.
That was the last time I had seen these Great Indian Hornbills. I was told, earlier this year, that they had vacated the area by the end of 2016.
I have seen a few others in nearby regions, but I have not been able to locate the couple . Well, neither have I been able to move past my fear of death.
Somehow I am suspicious that the two outcomes may be related.
So, I must keep looking for one of them.
– it is hardly