The Painted Stork

 mycteria_leucocephala_-_pak_thale

I probably read the map wrong.

I thought that Verdengtal was a town. So it seemed logical, in order to visit the Verdengtal bird sanctuary, to catch the bus to Verdengtal and find a hotel. But Verdengtal wasn’t a town: it was a road head next to the bird sanctuary. There was nothing there; some hawkers selling coconuts and a few primitive stalls selling cool drinks and biscuits and plastic souvenirs.

I had a problem.

I was at the bird sanctuary – where I wanted to be – but I needed to find somewhere to stay for the night if I was going to visit the sanctuary more than once (early mornings and late in the evenings were by far the best times for bird watching). I approached a few of the vendors to try and get some information about possible accommodation in the area, but none of them could speak more than a few words of English.

At the ticket office at the entrance to the sanctuary, however, I had a stroke of luck. There was an elderly man there who spoke excellent English – something I realised when I asked him, one word at a time, if I could leave my rucksack with him whilst I wandered about the bird sanctuary – and he answered:

‘I don’t see why not.’

We went into an adjoining room where I eased off my rucksack and he handed me a glass of milky tea; we got talking and I soon discovered that he was a remarkable man who not only spoke good English but was also a walking encyclopaedia about birds and many other subjects including history and politics. He was one of the  people whom I have often met in India who, given better opportunities in life, would have risen far higher on the socio-economic ladder. In another life, this ticket seller might have been a professor.

We talked for a some time. He lived in a small town about 10 kilometres away from the sanctuary. He rode his bike there and back every day, except during the monsoon, when he took the local bus. He had worked at the bird sanctuary for 40 years and met many avid bird watchers from all over India and, the world.

‘The British and the Dutch are the great bird watchers of Europe, we see a lot of them every year.’

I raised the subject of my miscalculation with respect to ‘Verdengtal’ and asked him if he knew anywhere nearby where I could stay.

As a matter of fact, he did. There was a government rest house about two kilometres back down the road. He knew a lot about that rest house. It was over a hundred years old. It was built during the time of the Raj to provide accommodation for the district administrator during his tour of duty. It was one of those district administrators who was responsible for the establishment of the bird sanctuary, he told me.

I left the ticket office and entered the sanctuary.

 

The sanctuary was a series of overgrown green islands set in a shallow lake.

On one side of the lake was a short dyke and on top of the dyke, a paved walkway. Between the walkway and the first of the islands was about twenty metres of water. Every one of the islands was covered in birds, lots of them. On some of the islands, one species of birds predominated, on others, there was a mix.

It was claimed that during breeding season – November to March – up to 30,000 migratory birds appeared there. I wasn’t quite sure how anyone could measure the number of birds in an 85-acre bird sanctuary, but one thing was for sure: there were an awful lot of birds there, certainly running into the thousands.

It was really quite incredible.

Most bird sanctuaries have a particular species which is their ‘crown jewel’, a type of bird which is unique to that sanctuary and becomes its USP. For example, take the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (it’s not far from the Taj Mahal in Agra). Whilst Bharatpur is famous for its many birds, for many years its crown jewel was the Siberian Crane. This bird alone brought bird watchers from all over the world. In 1983 and ’85, I was lucky enough to have visited Bharatpur and seen the Siberian Crane; it was a magnificent bird of pure white plumage with an enormous orange beak and haunting call. Every year it migrated from the far north of Siberia to one place and one place only in the world: the Bharatpur sanctuary. The last Siberian cranes were seen in 2002. It is now believed to be extinct. Effectively, Bharatpur lost its star attraction.

The crown jewel of the Verdengtal sanctuary was the painted stork. This was the bird which was most visible from the walkway and in prolific numbers. The painted stork indeed looked as if someone might have painted it on a canvas – albeit running the risk of being accused of exaggeration. It had a long slender orange bill and snow-white plumage. The underside of its wings and the tips of its wings, however, were jet black. Its tail feathers were bright red. Its long legs were orange. Like the Siberian Crane, the painted stork was a glider, its wide wings allowing it to float on upper air currents with little expenditure of energy – and to carry it every winter from Tibet to the south of India. It is here that it built nests, mated, raised it chicks – and then began the long flight back to Tibet.

 

From the walkway, there were only three good spots from which to watch the birds. The rest of it was lined with trees growing out of the water which obstructed one’s view. I ensconced myself in one of these good spots and got out my binoculars.

It was sheer pleasure to watch the painted storks. The species was a miracle!

Later in the afternoon – I was looking forward to the sunset which was always a good time for bird watching – a large party of Indians appeared. It was not your normal group of loud, middle class fun-seekers with their video cameras and kids. Such people generally appeared, made a lot of noise, got bored with the birds, and moved on. This group, however, consisted of an important politician and his entourage. The politician wore a loose white cotton shirt and a longyi coming down to his sandaled feet. Around his neck was an orange scarf, the ends of which hung either side of his sizeable paunch. He was an elderly, jowly, man, partly bald, wearing thick black rimmed glasses. In his entourage, there were five or six younger men wearing safari suits and their wives, dressed in saris and wearing jewellery and looking as resplendent as peacocks. There were three police, all of them armed with automatic rifles. Following up the entourage was a photographer carrying his camera and a tripod. The group had come to the sanctuary to have photos of them taken with the painted storks as a background.

And the spot that I had chosen as the best place to watch the painted storks from – was also the same spot that someone in the politician’s entourage decided was the best place to take photos.

 

There was a local or regional election in the offing and the politicians were evidently visiting their constituencies to elicit votes. In a country where so many people are illiterate, symbols play a crucial part in political campaigning. Every party has a symbol. At the national level, the Congress Party has the palm of a hand, held upright – as if to indicate ‘stop’ -, and its major rival, the BJP, has a lotus flower. All over India, the various symbols of the political parties can be seen painted on the walls of buildings and houses and bus stations, along with written exhortations to vote for the relevant party or politician. During my travels, I had made a habit of noting the symbols used by the various political parties. Once you got to the regional and local level of politics, there was a proliferation of symbols as every party tried to latch on to something. Very popular was anything suggesting light – eg, a candle, a lamp, lighthouse, light bulb, rising sun. An obvious one was, of course, the cow. The others I noted were: a drum, chair, comb, clock, truck, ox and cart, spinning top, tap, keys, two leaves on a stem. During the bus trip out to Verdengtal and my walk to the rest house, I noticed that there were political symbols everywhere. Some of them were painted on to bus stops and shops, others on people’s huts and houses. Some were even painted on the road. The predominant symbols I saw were: bucket, padlock, palm tree and plane.

I didn’t know which symbol the politician in the bird sanctuary represented. What I did know was that any hope I had of he and his party disappearing soon was in vain. The photo session seemed to last forever. Various combinations of people were assembled for each photograph. Some of the groups were of only the men, others of the wives; still others were a mix of men and women. The only person who consistently starred in every photo was the politician. The others who weren’t in the photo stood aside and spoke volubly and laughed. Obviously, no one gave a damn about the birds. The noise they made was hard to credit given the number of people involved.

The impression that everyone wanted to convey was that they were having the time of their lives. Maybe they were. Maybe being in the orbit of a powerful man gave them a feeling of fulfilment such as could never be comprehended by a bird watcher.

I gave up for the day and departed.

 

The Verdengtal bird sanctuary is located in the midst of classic South Indian landscape – lush green tropical countryside carpeted with rice paddies. Walking down the road in the mid-afternoon heat and humidity, rucksack on my back, I passed small, thatched roofed houses, tall trees, rice paddies, a temple and a school; women filling up pots of water at a hand pump and a small boy herding water buffalo and cows.

The rest house was, in comparison with the local dwellings, a grandiose two-story structure set back from the road and surrounded by a high wall. There was a big painted wrought iron gate and a drive. Opening the gate, I was greeted by the sight of a neat and very English looking garden; there were paths and beds of flowers.

I walked down the drive and was met by the surprised caretaker (or ‘chowkidar’ as they often known in India). He had a plum job, which was to maintain the rest house and provide meals when Indian bureaucrats or bird watchers booked the place. With sign language and a few words of English, he gave me to understand that he would ring his boss in Chennai to see if I could stay the night. It was Thursday; he had no bookings for that night but on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights it was fully booked.

After a lot of discussion on the phone, I was given permission to stay.

On the lower floor, there was a hallway opening onto a large room with tables and chairs and view of the garden. On the walls, were large paintings of birds in polished wooden frames.

On the top floor were large, spacious and clean rooms. I chose a room and dumped my rucksack in a corner.

The caretaker indicated he could make me an evening meal; we arranged a price.

In the evening, the chowkidar appeared with two bowls of curry, a pot filled with rice, and 12 chapattis. I’d ordered a large number of chapattis in order to have something to eat on the following morning when I was planning to get up early and walk to the bird sanctuary. After he brought me my food, I paid my bill, gave him some extra, and then he disappeared.

I was in the place on my own.

 

In the darkness of the deserted house and the creaking of the floorboards, I felt as if I was in a museum.

Lying in bed, enshrouded by darkness, the story which the ticket collector had told me about the bird sanctuary and how it was established echoed through the silence.

I saw the generations of British district officers who had stayed in this very rest house: Oxbridge men with lofty, aristocratic accents.

How simple politics was in those days!

The Englishman appeared, listened to local complaints, and administered justice.

In the eyes of the Indian nationalists, the district officers had been a part of an oppressive and racist regime. That was understandable of course. Yet none of the nationalists had realised then just how massively corrupt independent India would prove to be. A man like the politician I had seen in the bird sanctuary that afternoon was typical. He could have been a character straight out of Aravand Adiga’s brilliant, Booker Prize winning novel, ‘The White Tiger’. He knew how to exploit local grievances both real and imagined. He had a symbol which meant ‘vote for me’. At the same time, he was a man for sale, just like every other politician in India – as well as the judges, bureaucrats, lecturers and doctors. In India, like so many nations, everyone was for sale and everyone had their price.

The British district commissioners were not corrupt. They did their duty.

‘England expects that every man will do his duty’

They tried to be fair. Sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t.

But they couldn’t be bought.

In 1936, the basis for the Verdengtal bird sanctuary was established when local villagers protested to the district officer about the English ‘sportsmen’ who were appearing in the area in ever larger numbers and shooting out the birds. The villagers knew only too well that the birds were an essential part of their economic survival. The birds ate the insects and pests and their droppings fertilised the paddies.

The district officer, who hailed from the same nation and same class as the ‘sportsmen’ – decided in favour of the villagers.

The birds were saved.

A good man, working for an oppressive colonial system, made the right decision.

 

On my way to the rest house that afternoon, I had noted that in amongst the technicolour figures in the local temple was a pair of loud speakers. I thought nothing of it until the following morning at 5.30, shortly after I got up and an hour before sunrise, when blaring devotional music started pumping from those speakers.

And not just them.

Dotted around the nearby countryside – apparently – were many other such temples and all of them also began cranking out music. It seemed as if one temple was trying to outdo the other, leastways in terms of volume if not in quality (none of the speaker systems was designed to handle mega decibels).

In the soft darkness of a tropical morning, I walked past the eerie forms of tall trees and the moon reflected on the watery surfaces of the rice paddies, whilst out there somewhere came the thumping sound of drums, the whine of over pitched violins, the howl of flutes, and the screaming of high-pitched female voices. At the roadhead, some of the stall owners were up and decided to add to the din by playing loud Bollywood music (why? They had no customers).

At the entrance to the sanctuary was an information booth. On the wall were a number of rules for bird watchers, written in Tamil and English.

Rule no 1 stated that bird watchers should have a:

‘Determination to Maintain Silence’

Oh really?

In the normally tranquil moments before sunrise, now invaded from every angle by a terrible and ungodly din, it occurred to me that in India, only a Saddu meditating in a cave deep in the Himalaya was capable of understanding the concept of silence. For the rest of the mortals living on the subcontinent, noise was a natural part of the cycle of being born and dying.

But the birds weren’t bothered at all by the noise.

It was a problem for me, not them. I suppose they’d got used to it. Maybe they were deaf.

The painted storks were fast asleep. It was quite a sight to see large birds balancing on thin branches, fast asleep, whilst the air was rent by so much noise. The open billed storks, two-tone grey birds, were awake, but then again, they had already hatched their young and vigilance was called for.

 

Shortly after sunrise, the temples stopped. So did the Bollywood from the stalls. Silence, that precious rarity against which all of India conspired, descended suddenly and unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning on a clear day.

The painted storks woke up.

The air was filled with the sounds of birds calling and their wings flapping.

Yes, this was why I had come here….what a sound!

Eyes wide open, all my senses alive, I watched thousands of birds in the silence of a beautiful tropical morning.

I got about an hour of uninterrupted bird watching before several four-wheel drive loads of people and their kids turned up.

The kids came roaring down the walkway carrying plastic machine guns which emitted a realistic ratta-tat- tat noise….

 

I left and went to the entrance, where the ticket collector was sipping a glass of tea and smoking a cigarette. There were no one in sight.

We talked about the sanctuary.

He was pessimistic about its future.

‘The birds are no longer a part of our life…’

This was where for him everything had gone wrong in modern India.

In 1936, he explained, when the sanctuary was established, there no chemical pesticides and fertilisers, so the birds were essential to the lives of the farmers. They were worshipped. They were regarded as aspects of the Divine.

 

I left the sanctuary with those words in my mind: ‘the birds are no longer a part of our life.’

That statement could be made for the entire human race. I only had to think of the declining numbers and diversity of birds in Europe. It hardly ever made the news, but it was catastrophic.

Perhaps, I reflected, the painted stork might  one day become the symbol of another aspiring Indian politician.

This at the same time that it was going the same way as the Siberian crane.

 

The Splendid Siberian Crane - now believed to be extinct
The Splendid Siberian Crane – now believed to be extinct