Monotony of Hornbills
The thin white tent wrinkles and flutters ever so lightly, microbes dying under it this very instant. The heirloom brass coffee filter teases me with laughing mirror images. Seventy to thirty is the ratio he swears by – coffee beans from Coorg and chicory from … some root? It’s incredible how I’ve gone about my life accumulating questions.
Milk from oxytocin injected cows or buffaloes – denied to hungry calves. Piped water – now UV irradiated – from the river where people spread ashes of dead kin. Trees and dinosaurs buried over millions of years ago – reborn as blue LPG flames. Salem steel utensils scoured by maids for twenty-five years with lemon-scented soaps. Cherry red ceramic cups bought off craftsmen at a handicraft melas. Sulphur-free, bone char-free demerara sugar from the pricey organic store. How can anyone drink a cup of coffee in peace?
The white tent billows, buffeted by an internal storm. Shekar’s physics can, no doubt, provide equations for the square dimple forming on the surface. A dome rushes up with a hiss, hovers a few micro seconds and tears apart.
I fumble with the stove’s knob, grab the milk vessel with tongs, and slam it on a wooden coaster. I snatch a kitchen towel, and a whole bunch of them tumble out of the drawer. I staunch the milk dripping off the counter, and the tongs drop on my foot. The velocity of hot milk is definitely higher than that of cold milk.
‘Not again! Weren’t you watching?’ Shekar is at the kitchen door, with a frown that goes well with his dark grey night suit. ‘I’ve lost count. Is this the second time this week, or third? You might as well cut the milk packet into the drain.’
With the care I’d reserved for experiments involving concentrated acids in the laboratory years ago, I brew two cups of coffee. He arranges four Marie biscuits on the tray beside the cups.
I remove two biscuits and my cup, and set them back on the counter. He takes the tray to the teapoy between two old cane chairs in the balcony, and shakes the Sunday newspaper open.
Five rinses and multiple wrings later, the kitchen towels still release cloudy water. I mop the floor and wipe under the stove again. Burnt milk is a nasty give-away; every time I use the stove today, everyone will know.
I reheat the coffee, and carry my cup to the balcony. Shekar has already left, dressed in his Sunday morning best: khaki pants, olive green shirt, brown baseball cap—though most of us have no clue how baseball is played, sneakers, and two pairs of binoculars. Last week, Diya, the single mother who lives in the building across the road introduced herself at the vegetable market and thanked me for the use of my pair. I’d no idea Shekar takes them for her.
Three techie couples dressed in greens and browns greet Shekar at our building gate with high fives. After sun-less weekdays of slog over their laptops, these youngsters run or cycle – in fluorescent gear marketed by the best in the world – on the fringes of busy roads. After Shekar’s passionate speech during the New Year celebrations of our apartment complex, they armed themselves with binoculars and Salim Ali’s, The Book of Indian Birds, and joined him on Sunday mornings. I’ve given Sunday morning walks a miss.
Call me naïve or stupid, but when Shekar asked me if he could join me on my walks last January, I really believed we were rebuilding bridges. He referred to the egret on the buffalo’s back as ‘duck,’ and was astonished to learn the ‘parrots’ squawking in the guava tree were parakeets. Over the year he learned the name of every bird I stopped to watch. Once home, he researched and updated his new blog. My sister chanced upon it and called to ask, among other things, if Shekar’s new hobby involved only birds of the feathered kind. Afterwards she remembered to laugh and assure me she’d been joking. I’ve realised in my twenty-five years of marriage there are myriad ways of framing that question.
When Shekar refused to see how unwise it was to publicise the green pocket, I resumed my walks alone, taking my old route through a goatherds’ settlement. Luckily, I’d never trusted the fragile friendship between us enough to take him there. And so my secret remained – mine.
I’ve counted twelve adults in Shekar’s bird watching group, and there are rumours he’ll start a winter camp for kids and teens. How much longer before a signboard pops up, and hordes of noisy families descend to gawk at the birds? The nests will empty, and the birds will remain only in blog posts and the techies’ SD cards. But he’s resourceful; he has started reading about butterflies and trees.
I promised my third year chemistry honours students I’d be back in a few minutes when the peon interrupted my lecture on acyclic stereochemistry that afternoon. I never returned. I reached Shekar’s room in the Physics Department unsure what to make of his unusual summons. He had just put in his resignation papers, and sat on short fuse. What was the point staying on, if after twenty years of service, the management readily institutes an investigation based on allegations by three girl students, and pointedly suggest he resign? Shekar wanted to know. I resigned too. And for the first time in my fifteen-year teaching career, I left a syllabus incomplete.
It took us only two months to wind up twenty-five years’ worth of memories in Calcutta, and relocate to Mysore. Those months will remain the only time in my life I was relieved that our son, Vikrant, lived so far away.
Vikrant claims he chose to study Japanese because ‘all through his childhood we’d explained the principles of physics and chemistry in daily life to puke point.’ Did mathematics, biology, statistics and law also bring about nausea? Shekar had shouted. Vikrant replied he was thankful blinkered vision wasn’t hereditary.
In the initial photos Vikrant e-mailed us, we saw cherry blossoms and buildings in his university campus in Tokyo. Now we see him with his girlfriend, Akiko, backpacking through Europe. Five years ago when I sent him pictures of our new neighbourhood in Mysore, he gifted me a pair of binoculars and wrote an encouraging note.
Maybe I should set the facts right. This is no bird sanctuary. Sparrows, robins, rollers, kingfishers, bulbuls, bee-eaters, babblers, tailor birds, mynahs, parakeets, and a whole variety of tiny birds have fled the city to the woody expanse near our apartment block.
The doorbell rings, and I let the maid in. While she works, I bathe and get dressed. I eat a bowl of cornflakes. Shekar breakfasts with his disciples every Sunday. When she leaves, I step out with her and lock the apartment. I’ve three missed calls from the Senior Citizen Day Care Centre where I volunteer from 11 am to 5 pm every day. My cellphone rings again. The centre is closed today. One of the patrons has organised a day trip to Brindavan Gardens, and I’m invited too. I mumble excuses.
I unlock the door, and let it bang open. I throw my handbag and hear it strike the plastic water jug on the dining table. It’s childish, but I don’t want to stay home. I kick off my sandals and put on my walking shoes. I take my sling bag with my note book, and stuff a bottle of water inside it. I lock the door again, and walk briskly in the direction of the woody area.
Life at the goatherds’ hamlet has the permanence of a picture postcard. Ten huts are huddled together. An old man sits outside his hut smoking a beedi. He stopped making conversation and grew resentful after he realised I had no influence of any kind to secure government jobs for his sons. The women are always busy with chores. Some smile, while others probably envy an older woman the luxury of sitting under a tree, writing or gazing into the distance. Sprightly chocolate brown goats leave trails of pebbly droppings everywhere.
I sit under the Peepal tree with my notebook and pen. The goatherd’s dog shakes off sand and ambles to sit at my feet. I pluck a blade of grass, tickle his nose, and watch it twitch. Two goats bleat, and engage in playful head-butting. Eucalyptus scented smoke swirls out of chimneys.
I crane my neck to look up when I hear raucous cackling, ‘Kyah, kyah, kyah.’ He’s there, right amongst the shiny heart-shaped leaves, preening his grey wings. Soon he’ll pop figs into his long orange beak and fly into the thicket. On a page in my notebook I’ve written ‘Monogamy of Hornbills,’ under ‘Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).’ I stare at the words till they blur. I’ve grown dafter with age: I envy the female hornbill imprisoned in the cavity of the Gulmohar tree with her chicks, secure in the knowledge her mate will be back. She shed her feathers to make a bed for her chicks; if he doesn’t return, they’ll all die. How does he know that?
Initially I’d followed the hornbill into the thicket with my binoculars. He’d perch outside a walled cavity in the Gulmohar tree, and regurgitate food into a slit in the wall he helped make with droppings and mud. He has probably never missed a day since the beginning of April. I dread coming here one morning and finding them all gone.
Is fidelity hard-wired in the genes, or in the brain? And how do experts confirm the identity of the hornbill pair?
It can’t be! That’s Shekar’s voice when he’s having a good time. I watch him lead his group towards the huts. They must be stopping by for a drink of water. The old man stubs his beedi and rises to meet them. I stand quickly and sidle behind the wide trunk.
‘Kyah, kyah, kyah,’ chuckles the hornbill as if sensing my dismay. The bird watchers exclaim when they train their binoculars to the tree. The treacherous goatherd talks volubly, gesturing in the direction of the thicket. Shekar strolls casually towards the Peepal tree and looks up. He picks my red notebook lying on the grass and reads the page where the ballpoint pen is clipped. He doesn’t look around for me. He tosses the book back on the grass and strides back to his friends.
‘It’s our lucky day. We can see the monogamy, sorry, the monotony of hornbills.’ Amidst loud guffaws, he repeats the sentence. They exclaim over the absence of the casque on the hornbill’s orange beak. The female has a yellow beak, somebody reads aloud. Can’t we see her, asks another. She won’t be around now because she’ll be doing her duty, Shekar replies.
Much like a goatherd’s herd, they follow Shekar into the thicket. I take my book and leave. I mustn’t worry. It’s now the last week of May, and the nest will be cramped with the grown chicks. If her feathers have come back, she’ll peck away at the wall, and fly to her freedom before the next weekend. Last year, for weeks the couple had held insects to entice the hesitant chicks out of the nest.
The couple stayed together even after the chicks flew away. Why? Why not?
Are there anomalies in the hornbill world?
What drives her to stay without wind and sunshine for sixty days when she knows the wall was never invincible – only made of mud and poop?
What will she do if he finds another mate? Eat figs and be merry, or find herself another too?
It’s time to face my answers.
I call the Senior Citizen Centre to inform them I’m sorry, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s no problem, really. I can reach the Brindavan Gardens on my own.
Jyothi Vinod is a writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction. A post-graduate in Electronics and Communication Engineering, she taught undergraduates in Jaipur, Chennai, and Bangalore for about ten years. During a break in 2013, she chased her childhood dream of becoming a published writer, quit her job, and hasn't looked back since.
In the annual Katha short story contests conducted by India Currents, she won second place in 2015 and third in 2016. Three of her stories were selected for anthologies in 2017. Several 'middles', humour and travel articles have been published in Deccan Herald. Her short stories have appeared in Good Housekeeping India, Femina, Woman’s Era, Spark, Reading Hour, Open Road Review, DWL-Papercuts, and India Currents.
Jyothi lives in Bangalore with her family, and likes books, travelling, birds, and trees.