As I have a clinical history of having suffered bird-watching virus infection during youth, even now I often get a relapse when I see a bird-post on Facebook. So, when I saw a hornbill-outside-my-window post from a distant city that still sits in the lap of nature, it took me down a nostalgia lane to remember an Ahmedabad that is long gone.
My moment of ornithological (let me add “unclaimed” before my checklist-totting bird-watching friends are up in arms) glory came on one fine morning in late eighties, as I cycled into School of Architecture, Ahmedabad campus to attend an early class.
As I recollect that moment, I realise that, in those day a lot of things were still right with School of Architecture.
It had not yet become CEPT, most of its students failed pragmatism miserably and only few had started writing about stuff like morphology, archetype or materiality.
More importantly, it had massive banyan trees and a pond full of relaxing buffalos at the entrance and there was a large tract of un-Benninger-ed wilderness with bamboo groves full of birds that were perfectly comfortable with Black Sabbath and AC/DC blaring out 24×7 from the studios.
As I was parking my cycle, sound of rustling of leaves high above caught my attention. Just when I was about to discard it to be antics of a fidgety female Koel, the bird in question decided to move out of the canopy and sit on a lower branch (possibly taking a cue from some of my professors) as if it wanted me to doubt my sanity.
As hornbills carry a bill that disallows misidentification, I had no option but to believe that either it was a hornbill or I was out of my mind (In hindsight, it looks to be actually a more likely possibility for a school of architecture student in those days).
This mean little (grey for the nit-pickers) hornbill sat there just long enough so that I can roast in doubt all my life and then vanished into dense banyan tree canopy.
It was my first and most likely last encounter with this symbol of Indian jungle inside the city of Ahmedabad.
Though I have met a lot of them, including its glamorous cousin the great hornbill, it is this encounter that is etched in my mind.
In those days, the unkempt wildness of school of architecture campus had a magical power to transform itself into a natural wonderland every evening.
If one walked down the slope from the north lawns, it was like entering an oasis.
The real highlight of this areas were bamboos planted in circles that formed natural auditoriums where nature held her grand shows with different artists every season. The only ticket I required was to find a fallen log to perch on and I had a grand orchestra to enjoy playing in front of me.
Of all the seasons, the best time to enjoy this theatre was winter, may be because the increased tilt of the sun shot pure-gold sunbeams. As they penetrated through bamboo leaves, they formed pools of light just like spotlights that showbiz artists should prefer (a clarification, even more wonderful was the complete absence of cameras, so this great quality of light had only one use, i.e. make the task of drinking horse-pee tea In dog-licked cups while precariously perching on a rough log unforgettably enjoyable). But, for some strange reason, the real performers of my orchestra always waited for the glow to fade.
As the winter evening would quickly turn grey, cicadas now adequately warmed up would intensify their background music while chirping crickets would start adding some zing to it. I must admit that it was also an hour of the mosquito, but most of them were be innocent males who, probably would buzz in your ears only to warn you about the females waiting in the wings with malicious intent. But, females being smarter (PS: You can use that statement when your child asks for an example of rhetoric), they always waited for the right time.
As the floor of the theatre consisted mainly of bamboo leaf carpet, there was always a lot of shuffling, but if you are really lucky, you ended up finding a skink.
Though the reptilian class is rarely appreciated aesthetically, I doubt that there exists any animal more perfectly constructed than a skink. As I don’t think my prose can give justice to these copper-clockwork beings shining in golden sunlight, I will leave it to your luck to see one.
As you wait for the show to start, you may hear some babblers behaving like uncouth audience refusing to settle down, some parakeets screaming like women waiting for Beatles show to start or a caucal booming to demand silence amongst the ranks, or even a peacock arriving on a top branch like a Indian VIP visiting the venue and upsetting everyone; but once the lead players arrive, you become all engrossed and forget the background ruckus.
The winter evening at school of architecture, for me, has always belonged to flycatchers. Even before the sunlight has faded, you do sense their presence in the canopy above, but other than the fan-tailed flycatcher, rest of them always waited for a bit of darkness.
The fan-tails, often in pair would move around inspecting the carpet of bamboo leaves, moving a bit like rodents but time and again they would find a fallen branch as a perch and put up a show by fanning their tails and sounding as if a child is walking wearing a pair of squeaky boots.
Once all shadows are gone, the chuck-chuck-chuurr of the flycatcher family would intensify with couple of unidentifiable (for me) warblers adding a note to make it more melodious. There would be red-breasted flycatcher and even paradise once in a while, but the bird that was not just a show but heart-stealer was a Tickell’s blue flycatcher, in fact a specific individual that was literally and figuratively dashing.
This bird would arrive overhead in the bamboo canopy and start its song; increasing the pitch and lowering its elevation by the minute, it would soon alight fearlessly on a branch in front of me. I would sit perfectly still and silently suffer the (female) mosquito hordes that apparently wait for this specific moment to attack me. It was such a magical feeling to have a perfectly wild bird sitting at an arm’s length and putting up a show exclusively for me that I never mind paying for it in blood.
Today the school, the bamboo groves and the birds are long gone (though I am not sure if the bloodsucking pests have). But, as I stare out of my window looking at what should be a winter morning, the architect in me trained at School of Architecture, Ahmedabad makes me feel that all urban planning norms should be replaced by a simple test.
Walk into a garden or an academic campus of any city. Close your eyes and listen to birds. If you can figure out which season is going on from the birdsongs, it is a city worth living in.