High Flying Birds

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I

Calcutta Airport

Trouble among the crows had been building up for quite some time but handsome young Kaliya never thought that a sudden turn would change his life. There were very few trees left on the main road connecting Calcutta city with the airport. The problem was too many crows and too few branches. The wise owl advised them to fly away at dusk to the suburbs and return at dawn like daily train passengers for feasting on the vats of fancy eateries.

There were daily squabbles. Today his rivals were more aggressive than usual; it was not just over dead rats but for the hand of fair Mukti. She was unique in crow society – her feathers were flecked with white. Everyone cawed for her attention but Kaliya had eventually won the day. She had lowered her head and sidled up to him.  The mood was however tense because young Chandu was unwilling to give up easily. It resulted in scuffles and the two fell on to the highway pecking at each other.

Suddenly a cab rushed past! Chandu flew away in the nick of time but Kaliya lay helpless as traffic whooshed past. He was injured. Kaliya could not fly. The heat was scorching. Kaliya began to pant. Mukti immediately flew down ignoring Chandu’s warnings.

“He’s finished. Don’t waste time on him, fair Mukti?”

But Mukti circled her lover and replied with dignity “But I have given my heart to him. If he goes I will follow him to the land of the dead and with him be reborn …”

She landed near Kaliya and opening both her wings wide shielded him from the sun waiting for the next set of wheels to free both from this life.

But that did not happen.  A six-year-old little girl saw them from the window of her car –  on the burning tarmac a pair of crows – one injured and the other shielding it with unfurled wings.

The little girl’s excited voice cried out. “Oh Stop! Driver-cha-cha stop! Birds! Stop!”

Nurse Rokan sitting beside the girl put aside her knitting and scolded the child

“But Brinda-baba, we have a flight to catch. Your father will be at the airport. We must not miss the …”

“I know!” And before anyone could understand little Brinda yanked off the door and rushed out. The driver was aghast while her nurse hastily followed the girl. The old driver added his warning voice, “Brinda-baba, don’t go near the birds. They will peck you.”

Deaf to warnings Brinda picked them up into the shelter of her skirts and put the birds in a string bag she had with her. Somehow the crows knew that this human meant no harm; they did not flutter but kept quiet.  Making the winged creatures comfortable she lined the bag with newspaper.

But nurse Rokan was adamant. Those crows were not going with them.

Brinda pleaded “Rokan-chachi, we can take them with us as hand luggage.”

“Impossible. If the airlines found out we would be fined. Immediately throw the crows out. Your father will blame me.”

“Never! Never!. I will explain to Daddy.”

The old driver intervened. “Rokandidi, you are taking a box of mangoes on the flight. Let’s put in the birds with the fruits. The birds are in such a state of shock that they will keep quiet.”

Brinda was not too happy. “But the birds will suffocate in the box”

The driver quickly replied, “I will make small holes in it.”

Rokan was most annoyed “Okay! Okay, Do it now before we drive into the parking lot.”

Ever since Brinda’s mother had died nurse Rokan was in charge. The holidays with the grandparents in Calcutta were over and Brinda was now returning to her father in Bengaluru.

But before that, the crate got lifted into the hold something else happened.

II

Kempegowda Airport

A family of sparrows had for generations been roosting near Calcutta’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport but with high-rise buildings coming up all the niches had vanished. There were no longer holes and crannies – only straight walls. Many sparrows had lost their lives hurtling into the hard shining glass. Where would they go? Their news agencies, pigeons coming and going in the holds of planes reported that the best place was to go to Bengaluru. There was absolutely no competition there – not a single sparrow had outlived the transformation of Bengaluru from a green paradise to a concrete wasteland; not one had survived. There were no sparrows there! Unbelievable!

The most talkative journalist was the old pigeon. “All you have to do is to arrive at Kempegowda airport. Here more have left than entered and this meant? Empty houses – many, many new empty houses.”

“Why?” asked one inquisitive sparrow

“There is no water”.

“No water?” The listeners were alarmed. “Why should we go to a water-less …”

“Stupid chattering birds! No water for humans you fools! With fewer humans, there is more water for us. We take what we need – no wastage.”

“Why are the people going?’

There is a demon loose out there. Humans are confused. They can’t track it down and keep hitting at each other – even their own shadow. They’re afraid!  There is smoke and fire inside lakes as the demon crackles and laughs.”

One sparrow – Chiria tweeted.

“But how can we survive?”

“Don’t you understand that when humans squabble it’s best for us? There will be no one around but only the trees and us and the ponds. These plane flights will also stop – so hurry up. Don’t delay. Hop onto that mango crate with holes and go and colonize Bengaluru with sparrows.”

Chiria did not hesitate. She and her mate Rana flew into the box. On board, the sparrows were surprised to find they had company inside the crate – their enemies – two crows. But the newly-married crows absorbed in each other hardly looked at the small birds. At one moment Kaliya thought of offering a juicy sparrow to his bride but just then the plane bumped. It shook all the birds. So they decided to bury the hatchet till they reached firmer ground.

So they landed at Bangaluru’s Kempe Gowda airport. Brinda smiled seeing her precious crate loaded on to the cab But she was tired and half asleep when they reached their flat at Ejipura. Daddy had to carry her upstairs. Nurse Rokan took this chance to take out the bag of birds; she threw it into the nearest drain.

The crows were got thrown out straight into a drain exiting from a small temple –Munnishewara Temple. And the sparrows? In this temple lived a pigeon, Buddha, who welcomed the sparrows and showed them a shelter in the crevice of the walls of the ancient structure. The crows lay still unable to get their bearings but the chirping of the sparrows was reassuring –  two known songsters from their native Calcutta.

The resident pigeon of the temple, Buddha was happy to get news of pigeon-cousins of Calcutta. The lone old priest of the temple too was very happy to see the newcomers and began to keep a bowl of water and throw some grain in the courtyard for them.

The story would have ended here if nurse Rokan had not stoked up trouble.

III

Ejipura Kidnapping

Rokan wanted money. Lots! Her big burly friend Dardar had promised that if she gave him money things she would become a queen. So she kidnapped little Brinda!

It was easy. The little girl trusted her. Brinda was overjoyed when told she would not go to school but to the zoo. But instead of the zoo, the two wicked kidnappers took her to a musty, damp room on the fifth floor of a deserted empty building.

Now it so happened that on that very day it rained in Bengaluru and the gush of water rushed the crows out of the drain. The rest and the Prasad of the gods had healed Kaliya’s wound. Once outside he regained his strength and soared into the blue with his beloved Mukti. As they circled each other trying to find a perch Mukti saw Brinda come out with the conspirators. She drew the attention of her husband, “Caw! Kaliya look, the little girl is there. Let us go and thank her – oh dear the car is moving fast – come let us fly with it.”

The crows followed the kidnappers to the dark hole where they had confined the girl. Somehow the clever birds sensed that things were wrong. Why was the girl crying? Not far behind the crows flew Buddha pigeon. They all waited until Rokan came out and returned to the house of Brinda’s father.

Buddha was inquisitive. Where to were the crows flying”  Were they looking for a place to stay? Suddenly Buddha spied the little girl in the window of the house where she had been kept hidden.  Buddha knew her well as the little girl next door to the temple. The matter seemed serious. Keeping a safe distance he sidled up to the crows and told them to keep guard.

“Stay here! Let me go back to the temple and hold an emergency meeting”.

At the temple, he called the sparrows and the temple owl Pechu. The sparrows came from such a big city –  their views had to be respected. The sparrows felt mighty important.

“Ah yes! In Calcutta kidnapping is very  common.”

Pechu owl rubbed her sleepy eyes and put in words of practical advice.

So they chattered bobbing their heads without coming to a conclusion until they suddenly spied Rokan with her knitting sitting near the window of Brinda’s home.  Charai sparrow immediately flew up to the ledge and hid behind a curtain. She waited till Rokan left her knitting and went out.  The sparrow made a grab for one end of the knitting-wool and flew off.  Holding it firmly in her beak she flew to the house where the little girl was jailed. The clever bird wound the end round a projected nail and then continued her flight with the strand back to the temple to Buddha.

Buddha now took off a gold necklace from the god and wound the woollen strand around the god’s neck and flew off; another bird followed with the jewel Rokan’s room and dropped the jewel and the loose end of the strand inside her knitting bag.

The stage was set.  It was dusk. The birds returned to the temple; so did the crows. Once Kaliya had thought of killing the sparrows but Mukti reasoned that if the sparrows were allowed to live there would soon be plenty of little birds; what was the point in killing the bird that would lay the golden eggs?

At night the commotion started. The priest began to beat the drums. Crowds gathered. Jewel stolen from the temple! Kidnapping of a child! All in Ejipura? What was the police doing? A new recruit in the police force was alert and pointed to the strand of wool around the neck of the deity. The priest too began to wonder. The sleuths then started to follow the strand and reached the crying girl in the dark room. From there they traced the strand to the knitting bag of Rokan. All hell was let loose.

Rokan began to cry and spill the beans. It was Dardar’s plan! Where was Dardar? Brinda was not bothered; neither was Daddy when she jumped into his arms.

The priest offered the birds a special Prasad treat the next morning. He was a very clever old man and could understand and talk with the birds. He asked

“Why did you take away the jewel?”

Pechu owl replied

“Oh Ancient One! Man loves shining metals and stones. It was only when the jewel was stolen from the temple that Man began to make a lot of noise and put their heads together to unravel the thread of mystery!”

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