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A place called home

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on March 13, 2021

Life on a wing: Birds are on a quest for eternal spring, always moving from dwindling resources to abundance   -  IMAGES: SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

Both birds and humans are migratory creatures, with different parameters for where they choose to settle or belong

* A thousand kilometres to come and rest on this njaval, which has stood here forever. How many brown-breasted flycatchers would have visited the tree during its lifetime?

* Home, if birds think of it at all, is probably wherever they feel safe, are in good company and thrive. They belong to themselves and everywhere

* In my fondest remembrances of school, there was this shady njaval at the entrance. Kindly shedding juicy fruits for us to stain our teeth purple with. The last time I visited, the tree was gone, and, in its place, loomed an ugly building block. I never went back again

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The path is steep. It hurtles from the shoulder of the road where impatient cars honk, down through rows of undulating tea trees and in to a sleepy valley. At a brief pause in its rapid descent stands a monumental njaval (jamun tree) which makes me hold my breath.

A tired jeep is parked to the side where the tea ends and forest begins. A small spring crosses over here, catching the morning sun. And the njaval draws the water, holding it in its roots and spreading it gently down the valley. Epiphytes dangle like bushy eyebrows — wizened and wrinkled but wise, unlike humans who seem to age backwards.

Old trees have this magical ability to make time stand still; to mould and paint the sky with their thoughts. I can only wonder about the things they know and have seen.

Somewhere up in that mosaic of green and sky entangled in the branches is an inconspicuous little ball of fluff that refuses to show itself. The same bird that led me down the path on a merry chase, popping in and out of bushes. My neck hurts from peering upwards, a perennial birder’s curse. So much of birding is about being patient, silent and uncomfortably still; and luck. A clumsy Malabar grey hornbill clambering about the higher branches mocks my predicament with cackling, maniacal laughter. On other days, this big-beaked endemic would be a prize catch. But today he is just a commoner.

When I finally give up and straighten my back, a drab brown bird floats down to perch on a twig a few feet from me. It is a brown-breasted flycatcher. My season’s first, it proceeds to live up to its name by sallying forth from that perch to grab some flying critter. The only bright markings on the bird are its yellowish legs and a distinct white eye ring.

But this remarkable creature, all 10-odd grams of it with wings as long as my little finger, has flown thousands of kilometres to be here. Probably from north-east India, Myanmar or Thailand. Perhaps as far east as central China. For me, even the climb back up the slope seems insurmountable.

A thousand kilometres to come and rest on this njaval, which has stood here forever. How many brown-breasted flycatchers would have visited the tree during its lifetime?

Comfort zone: Some of us are happiest when close to nature, others in malls

 

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Why then do birds migrate? What compels them to make such journeys? The truth is they are on a quest for eternal spring. Always moving from dwindling resources to abundance; food and ideal nesting conditions. They are driven by instinct to keep their kind going and the will to survive. The apparent preference for warmer climes is only coincidental. Most species are incredibly tough and able to survive weather extremes given a reliable food source.

This is why migration is so fascinating to us, because it is precisely what human societies are built on. Waves of people moving here and there in search of promised lands. We, too, leave home. Only our reasons may be different. And unlike birds who relentlessly follow seasonal cycles, we often linger on.

Our own migrations are often driven by the need to find, create and adopt places as our own. For how many of us is it even a choice to abandon ways of life, mother tongues, ancestral lands and families? What of those who cannot return home because there is none left? And others who adopted a land but were never accepted there, driven away by hate and others who came before them?

We linger so long that our return becomes a complex affair. We gradually lose our cultural origins and geographical moorings. We lose them only to gain new ones and shared identities. The word ‘home’ itself takes on new meanings. Lines blur till we aren’t even sure if ‘home’ will feel as homely as our adopted lands.

And then, there are some of us who fall into the cracks in between. Perfectly attuned to getting along anywhere, but also out of place everywhere. A native and a stranger, all at once.

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Where is home then? To birds, is it where they nest and raise a brood? Or a comfortable land of plenty when where they came from freezes over? Home, if birds think of it at all, is probably wherever they feel safe, are in good company and thrive. They belong to themselves and everywhere.

Home, perhaps then, is not a place at all. Not four walls with a roof. Is a house a home if you take the people out of it? It is memory and feeling. In my fondest remembrances of school, there was this shady njaval at the entrance. Kindly shedding juicy fruits for us to stain our teeth purple with. The last time I visited, the tree was gone, and, in its place, loomed an ugly building block. I never went back again.

Home is sanctuary. A sense of identity and comfort; freedom and respect. It could be a street with familiar neighbours or the company of loved ones. A friend’s living room or a route always taken.

It is a yearning for things as they were and people we forgot to be. It lives in the little things that we love. In old songs and the shade of trees, fresh coffee brewing and curry leaves sputtering in the wok, the damp of rain and the scent of the sea; even a stack of crisply folded clothes!

Some of us are happiest when close to nature, others in malls. Some find their refuge in art and still others in offices and work, much to the detriment of everyone else around them!

*****

When my mind grows weary

and the world heavy,

When memories fade

and the future pales,

When the way is lost

and my will unsure,

I walk home

to where the wild things are;

To the hush of creepers

who climb at will

unburdened by thought,

the song of birds

sung for no one

but their own ends,

the goodwill of trees

who have seen it all

and never do hurry,

the chuckle of streams

making their way

past rock and wood;

I know I am home

for here I am free,

I know I am free

for here I can rest.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on March 13, 2021
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