By Salmon Friscia
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I have yet to see a dead crow, which is not to say I expect to see them raining from the sky like black hailstones, or heaped in piles on every street corner, but the absence of seeing at least one dead bird after months in this country, is puzzling.
The reason I bring it up is the sheer number of crows in India. There are so many, common as sparrows. In the country, the villages, the cities, large and small, they are in the hundreds, in the thousands. They take up space,too-this isn’t a hummingbird. And they die, they must. How can so many deaths be invisible, go unnoticed? What happens to them? I’ve asked Indians about this mystery but they seem unwilling to talk or, maybe, they have never given it any serious thought. The best I can get is.... they are unclean.
Enveloping India, is an unseen cloud; it’s the smell of burning cow dung. Coupled with this is the ever-present cawing of crows coming at you from all directions. You’ll never forget either. There is not much to say about the patties, except it is splattered against the side of a building still steaming, left to dry in the hot sun, scraped off, and later used to cook with, mainly by the poor.
The crows, on the other hand, are another matter. Intelligent, social birds their language gives every impression of being a practical one. Upon spying carrion the call goes out, the equivalent of a chuck wagon’s summons. The scout is joined immediately by a flock of jostling birds who begin feeding ravenously, all the while retaining some dignity, if I can use that word.
They are always on the hustle. Life isn’t easy in a country where each day millions barely have enough to eat, a situation which has to change. Must change. No opportunity is overlooked. Leave food out unattended, they’ll steal it.
This is how I entered their lives:
The room I had just taken in a non tourist hotel overlooked some roof tops. The window let out to a small concrete extension. There was a bed with drooping mosquito netting, and an inside shower. That was it, no chair, no table. It was clean as these hotels go, but the building, like so many recent concrete structures, was undistinguished in every way. I took the room. Having traveled all night I was too tired to be choosy,.
My first move, after putting down my pack, was to walk straight to the tiny balcony to get a feel of my surroundings. The hotel was part of an unattractive jumble of buildings of unrelieved, vapid architecture. But wait.
Not more than forty feet away, in a large banyan tree, a cabal of glistening black bandits was in conference. They all seemed to be talking at the same time. The instant I appeared there was an abrupt lull, the raucous exchange became muted, almost like a bass purr. Involuntarily I smiled, waved and went inside.
My fascination with crows is embedded in my childhood, in a book, to be precise. That’s where it all began. What I remember most was an illustration of a crow dandy with a cut away coat, top hat and pince nez. Was he sporting spats too? My memory may be playing tricks, it often does. But what I do remember with certainty was my clamoring to be read these stories. Besides the crow, the other animals and birds in those pages also spoke, which seemed perfectly natural to me.
In real life he is a funny bird. When he is on the ground he struts about like a drum major with an air of self importance placing each foot down in a measured and exaggerated way, turning his head this way and that, surveying the scene, on high alert, but still going about his business.
This is the cunning and scheming bird who despite these character faults, in the end amuses you. In the Esop Fables the owl is always portrayed as wise, the crow practical. How many times does he turn the tables on his adversaries? What a knack he has for putting one and one together, hitting on a solution. He’s a scoundrel but a handsome bird.
There is always that business of Karma in India. If crows represent a stage in the evolution of the soul, whatever their past lives, they are paying for it dearly in this one. Any group of crows will reveal the most pitiful jokes of nature.
A sightless eye, half a beak, a stump instead of a foot, deformed claws, twisted legs, a drooping wing, or one too small for the body, mange, wounds, every imaginable affliction. Look around you. They mirror what you see in the people suffering in a frighteningly similar way.
Showered, I left the hotel to find a restaurant. It was not difficult since there were so many near by. After eating an indifferent meal I decided to walk a little and explore the area, but only briefly. The sun was blazing.
It was not long before I came upon a cluster of vegetable and fruit stands, and just about everything else, a sprawling market place . No matter the season, I could always find something to buy. This time I was in for a surprise... bunches of plump, green grapes; that would be a treat. Turned out they were sweet. I bought half a kilo.
The heat was a palpable force from which there was no escape. I languidly made my way back to the hotel, letting the activity, the sounds, the smells, swirl around me. Nodding to the owner as I entered the tiny lobby, I started the long climb to the top floor and my room. Sweating and out of breath, I pushed the door open, postponed showering and went straight to the balcony.
The crows were gathered in the dusty banyan, from what I guessed was their favorite piece of real estate. It was loaded with black bodies. Too hot to fuss, their conversation was in low, modulated tones, Looking me over and calculating I was of no immediate danger, they ignored me. Perhaps it was this indifference which made me determined to engage them in some way. But how? Crows are skittish, even in India. Then I remembered the grapes.
As I held up the paper cone containing the grapes all attention suddenly focused on me. Reaching inside the bag I removed a handful and spread these along the ledge. As if choreographed, all heads followed the motion of my arm. The conversational tone was replaced by a sort of murmur, a question....I’ll translate. What’s going on?
Crows will eat just about anything. Live, dead, or almost dead, it doesn’t matter. It turns its beak up at nothing. Grapes? I doubt they had ever appeared on the menu. How could they? They were interested. I was beginning to feel like the pet owner who gets so much pleasure by offering a treat to his animal.
What gave my actions such a peculiar and surreal coloring were the country and circumstances under which it was unfolding. It was a mixture of unreal elements. India, a long haired American, insufferable heat, a tiny concrete balcony, a batch of crows, and grapes as desert. I watched with fascination the quick and indecisive movements along the branches and tracked the changing sounds.
There was a cautious but distrustful curiosity among them. Muttering, not quite sure how to handle this novelty, this unheard of gesture of someone offering them food, they were unable to act. Watching me carefully they kept hopping, altering their position on the branches. I withdrew into the room.
Soon, two of the boldest, wings clapping, launched themselves from the banyan, heading straight for the overhang above the window Once alighted, I imagined them pacing back and forth on the overhang, not knowing what to do. I didn’t have long to wait for a decision. One of the birds plummeted to the ledge, beating its wings, unable to make up its mind to stay or beat it.
The loose grapes obeyed, as they must, the laws of physics, the turbulence scattering them in all directions. Most bounced inward, to the floor, a few over the side.
Immediately the second bird came crashing down, and both, forgetting the danger, darted here and there, furiously gobbling the grapes, which disappeared as if by magic. Finished, they shot up from the ledge, cleared the railing, and plummeted to the alley below. A little too late for seconds. Some of the crows had already left the tree and were squabbling over the few grapes which had fallen.
This brief and intense event unlocked a cache of memories. The black brash bird, I suddenly realized was very special and important in my life. Spring and plowed fields meant crows, not robins. Bitter winter days, empty snow-covered fields.... bordered by skeletal trees, dotted with crows toughing out the cold, were indelible memories linked to my boyhood. These thoughts, alien in the heat of India, nevertheless filled me with a strange nostalgia.
I took a shower to cool off.
The sun was up and so was India. I rolled out of bed. This was a rhythm so unlike the one I lived by thousands of miles away. Leaving the hotel the first stop was a tea stall, breakfast, and after that, the market.
Picking my way through the fruit and vegetable stands, I found the seller from whom I bought the grapes yesterday. I complained when he tried to raise the price. That settled, I bought a kilo, stopped at a tea stall for another cup and then headed for the hotel. There was something I had to do.
As I entered, the owner and his assistant behind the desk in the tiny lobby, immediately stopped talking. They did not respond to my greeting and presented, instead, blank, unreadable faces, something Indians excel at doing. I took a deep breath and began the long climb to my room.
Still holding the bag of grapes I hurried to the balcony. Perched in the banyan were some twelve or fourteen crows, that I now began to think of as my audience. It seemed we each had a part to play. I was the creature with the food, they were the unlikely recipients. A chorus of voices arose from that glistening black gallery.
Tearing away some of the paper, and exposing the grapes caused an excited stirring, and short hopping movements along the branches. Carefully lifting out a cluster I held it aloft for all to see. Slowly I began plucking grapes one by one, carelessly letting them drop to the balcony floor. The best word I can find to describe the audiences’ sounds reaching me was consternation. I broke off a bunch, which I would hold for later. With a flourish I shook out the remaining grapes from the paper, then backed into the room to watch unseen.
There was no hesitation this time. Not one crow stayed behind. On they came, straight for the balcony, a clattering whirling dervish of black bodies. The beating wings, the noise, the confusion, the jumble of bodies dumped itself onto the small space and was instantly transformed into one body intent on one thing only, grapes. Hierarchy, if there was any, no longer existed. It was every crow for himself. I stood transfixed.
So intent was I on the drama taking place before my eyes that I was oblivious to everything else around me. Bursting suddenly into the room, the owner charged in with his two assistants, one waving a towel, the other carrying a bucket. All three were shouting so loudly it drowned out the sounds from the balcony.
The owner, a small man, roared with rage, surprising me with the force of his voice. His face, livid, contorted, and only a few inches from mine frightened me. Get out of my hotel! Get out, get out, he screamed! All guests are leaving because of pollution, everything unclean! You are crazy man, get out. The assistants yelled along with him.
Shocked, pulled back into this world, I recognized too late what I had done. There was no mystery here, I should have known. The fixation on the crows had blinded me. Had I reflected Iwould have seen the connection between the crows and pollution which is a grave matter here, one against which the Hindu must be constantly vigilant. I had ignored this, given offense. Unintentionally I had violated something so basic to him.
I tried to speak, express my apologies, convey to him how truly sorry I was. He would have none of it. He kept insisting I leave immediately. Finally I was able to out-shout him and make him understand I was sorry, and if he would allow me a few minutes I would pack and leave.
A parting bucket of water was heaved on the balcony. Get out of the room I pleaded, herding them towards the door. They had to get out. The show was over. The magic was gone, evaporated. I felt empty. The owner continued excoriating me as they reluctantly left. Five minutes, no more, he warned. Otherwise, police are coming, were his last words.
And the crows? Poor birds. As soon as the three men had burst into the room, the crows exploded like rockets from the balcony . They scattered, the air reverberating percussively with their flight. It was only after they had gotten out of range somewhere out there, did they begin to complain in loud querulous caws. From the window I could see with acute clarity bits of feathery down in mid air, that began to drift and float on spirals of hot air, the only visible sign of the remarkable scene that had just ended.
I quickly stuffed everything I owned into my pack, then ran my eyes around the room. Had I overlooked anything? There in the corner was the small bunch of grapes. I picked them up, slowly turning them over in my hand, struggling with indecision. I wondered. Did those crows think I had led them into a trap, luring them with the grapes? I wanted to shout to them that something had gone wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
The banyan was empty; what did I expect? But I was sure they were out there. Holding the grapes by the stem, I swung my arm in an arc and let them fly towards the nearest rooftop. Grabbing my pack I started down the stairs, the payment for the room crumpled in my hand
The jury was waiting in the miniscule lobby eyeing me malevolently. I dropped the rupees on the counter, strode past those aggrieved faces and into the street. Hailing a motor rickshaw,I began to get in but could not help glancing up at the roof. A black body streaked across the sky between the buildings. Crows don’t give up easily.
Throwing my pack on the seat, bending under the cover to get inside the tight space I shouted to the driver over the whine of the motor .....main train station..... hurry.