I had forgotten about Koels until I read ‘Zara’s Witness’ by my journalist friend Shubhrangshu Roy. The book is a journey of revelation into the infinite lap of nature, in a reverse trajectory, from sanyas to youth. The book is a letter to a daughter from her father.
In Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’, the restless seeker travels beyond the seductions of worldliness, erotic love, beauty and friendship, and Buddha. He finds all the final answers in the river; he lives as a boatman on its shore, the river speaks to him.
In ‘Zara’s Witness’, the river is part of her journey into the deepest self-consciousness of nature and life’s mysteries, inside the density of the green, with the birds, bark, bees, trees, dew, moon-lit sky, rain-soaked dawns, hungry nights full of forest whispers, the tangible smell of grass, leaves, petals, the wild. The Koel tells Zara: “Don’t fall in love. It is a trap. Be free”
The last I heard a koel was in 2015 at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Calcutta’s sunny spring, next to an undulating pond, drinking tea and reading a Bengali newspaper. Before that I had heard the koel on a peepal tree next to the balcony of my niece’s home in Pune. Piyu, my niece, would imitate her exactly, and the bird would reply instantly. And thus the jugalbandi would go on, even as the sun would move into the twilight with a remote chill from the western ghats arriving, with me holding a glass of whisky, waiting for the dark.
I went to Thrissur in early March to deliver a lecture on the contemporary relevance of the Indian Constitution, which is under attack now, at the famous St Thomas College with its illustrious alumni, including top Left leaders, and where Mahatma Gandhi came in 1927. I gave the lecture in a packed hall and then joined in a panel discussion with legendary cartoonist and my former colleague in The Economic Times, EP Unny, and Professor CS Biju of the literature department.
Night arrived after a ‘typical’ Kerala evening with old JNU buddies, academics and writers/artists. I am a nocturnal creature, so I generally wake up late. However, in Thrissur, I woke up at just about dawn, when the darkness had not even receded. And then I could not sleep.
Why? The koel. It was like a morning opera, with all other bird sounds in the backdrop, a melody of brilliant sweetness. The beauty of sound; you could touch it, see it, sense it. I could not sleep.
Then I arrived in a PWD guest house in Fort Kochi, with the half- moon tide moving to and fro beyond the walls. And then it happened again. Early morning, the koel arrived on a walnut tree.
Is it the same Koel, Zara’s koel? Am I losing my mind?
I returned to Delhi. I have not heard a koel or a sparrow here for the last two decades. In my last house in Mayur Vihar, where I lived for 20 years in solitary freedom, a crow would come at dawn and hung out there the entire day. I never ever told him/her to go away. Next to my bedroom window, an owl family had lived for generations. Often, I would go up to them, and gaze at their magical beauty in the dark. They would gaze back, their eyes unblinking, their bodies relaxed and friendly.
In Delhi, I have moved to a rented house next to a school with tall trees. So, what do I hear first thing in the morning after a late-night flight from Kochi?
The koel, its brilliant melody in symphopny, rejoicing the joy of its own song. The sweet song of the morning.
Is it the same koel? Chasing me here and not letting a nocturnal character sleep the delicious sleep of early morning?
I hope and pray it is.