Monday, May 01, 2006

The Sadhu and the Shor Birds

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny, where I am on again as a regular blogger.]

[Also, the following is part of a little series I'm doing -- postmodern Sadhu stories; see another effort here.]

Sadhu liked to sit on the porch of his son's new house and write poetry, but lately he was finding it difficult. The problem was a group of noisy birds that lived in the trees behind their house. They gathered in the trees and bushes and seemed to do nothing but chatter, not in quiet, birdly chirps, but angry squawks. Most of the time Sadhu couldn't even see the birds, as they seemed never to move from their respective perches in the trees, so sitting on the porch was a little like diving into pit of greasy wrestlers. Sometimes this pleased the Sadhu, as it reminded him vaguely of India -- the loud voices of the street hawkers arguing with customers over a few paise in his home town of Maramari. But he had heard that type of argument rarely since leaving India fifteen years ago, and now it had begun to seem abrasive and somewhat troubling. And anyway, that type of marketplace arguing usually ended in a sale, and the restoration of good will. But these birds squawked and squawked with an endless amount of stamina, which was almost mechanical in its regularity.

Every so often (mainly at dawn and dusk), Sadhu would see the barking birds making small movements in the trees behind the house. Some birds, he saw, had bright saffron beaks, while others had a sort of greenish hue. A few, he noticed, had little blue feather tufts on the tops of their heads and a black crop below the lower mandible that looked almost like beards. Quite a number of birds had pronounced red and blue feathers on their breasts, graced with small white flecks. Most strangely of all, some of the birds seemed to be confused, and wear different colors depending on the time of the day or month. But even with their myriad differences, as far as Sadhu could tell, the birds all emitted exactly the same type of sound: a loud, angry, and utterly tuneless squawk.

As a young man, Sadhu had had aspirations of becoming a famous writer, like R.K. Narayan. In his school-days, he and his friends had been fiercely competitive in sending their poems and stories to literary magazines and the local newspaper, The Maramari Daily. Some had been successful, and one or two had actually tried to pursue the writing life, but in vain. Eventually, they had all grown up, gotten regular jobs, and married. Sadhu himself had worked as an Inspector (eventually Chief Inspector) for the State Government of Jagrah for nearly twenty-five years. Upon retiring, he came to live in suburban Shpilkes, Pa., with his son and his daughter-in-law. They had recently moved to a house with a porch, which Sadhu happily claimed for himself.

Now Sadhu was an old man, and all his old writerly aspirations were gone. What remained was simply his love of language, and the pressing need -- which grew more acute as he grew older -- to record his experience of the world. He felt he wanted to write to make the life he had lived meaningful, to tell his story. He didn't think at all of publishing any of his poems, only of the pleasure of writing them.

The first poem he wrote on the porch of this new house was the story of his childhood and the frightening death of his older sister in the famine of 1943. It was so beautiful to him, so strange and true, that he almost couldn't believe it had come from his own pen. (The birds were still relatively quiet then, and didn't impinge on his thinking.) In a strange fit of elation at his accomplishment, he tore it out of his speckled notebook, and threw it into the grass. And he was surprised to find that a bird came out of the trees almost immediately, looked at it for a moment, and then pecked at it. Then another bird came out, and another. Soon, a half dozen birds were inspecting the now tattered page, pecking it with their beaks and tearing it with their sharp little claws. Sadhu was aghast, but strangely excited at the ruckus his poem had created.

From that day on, to spite the birds in the trees and perhaps also to challenge them, Sadhu had gotten in the habit of writing his poems and then simply reciting them to the trees in a loud voice. Though it was a relief to have a kind of audience for the poems, each of which was precious to him, the practice of reciting only seemed to excite the birds and make them more and more angry. At first it was exciting (if slightly odd), but now Sadhu felt he couldn't write at all, because of the deafening din it would almost certainly provoke.

On one particularly frustrating Saturday morning, his grandson came out with his little video game toy to "hang out" with his "grandpa" outside (surely he had been encouraged to do so by his mother, who worried too much).

"What's the matter, grandpa?" the boy asked.

"It's just my 'shor' birds, beta."

"Shore birds? Like, they're from the ocean?"

"No, beta, shor, meaning noisy. These birds are very noisy. See, listen." He pointed to the trees, and the birds, obligingly, squawked a little louder. But the boy looked nonplussed.

"So why don't you go inside?"

"I can't write my poems inside."

"So why don't you get an Ipod?"

"What is "Ipaad"? Is that your toy, beta? I don't think..."

"No, grandpa. An Ipod plays music so you don't have to listen to those birds! Here, Dad made me put some Indian songs on it for the car..." The boy pulled a little white toy out of the pockets of his very baggy pants. He showed Sadhu how to use the device, and fitted the earbuds in his ears.

The mellifluous sound of Jagjit Singh's voice filled Sadhu's ears, and as he stared at the trees, containing those now barely audible birds, he exhaled in deep relief. It wasn't silence, but it was beauty, and it would be enough: he could think; he could write. This little toy (for he could not think of it as anything but a toy) would help him leave behind the pointless squabbling of the multi-colored birds in the trees.

It was far from perfect, but Sadhu was confident he had the space he needed to write his poems, and tell the story that was his alone to tell. To whom they would be addressed he still did not know.

[Update: Perhaps I was a little too subtle. Hint: think of blogging]


Anonymous Kush Tandon said...

I read the story late last night. It does have "hazaar" hints. Like the color of the beaks, mob-mentallity, general mindlessness, being called "shor" birds.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous prashanta devkota said...

Really liked ur story. Strong human element very touching. Simple yet very effective.

For my own practice I would like to present a few of my interpretations. Kindly tell me if they are on or off at

I think the part about the young boys competing is autobiographical in some way.

You are a deep thinker who likes to observe people. You might be middle aged and you must have observed some old people very keenly. You sympathize with old people and you must be a careful planner with bursts of spontaniety in between.

Once again, great story and please tell me if I was on or off about my interpretations.

7:51 AM  

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