Encounter: God, Darwin, Ali and the Blue-capped Rock Thrush

In the foggy ruins of time, most memories can get blurred, or muddied entirely. But not a birder's remembrance of a cherished bird. The story of me and the Blue-capped Rock Thrush involves God, Darwin and Salim Ali -- playing significant bit-parts.

Back in the day when I believed that God had created the world, I honoured periodically a votive my mother had made to send me with my father to Sabarimala, a hill shrine in the southern Western Ghats reached after a half-day pilgrimage on foot from a check-dammed river that curls sluggishly at its feet. I loved the vagabonding, and the uncustomary walk in the forest. It’s been two decades since I last went. That temple – now among this land’s richest, and visited by 300,000 pilgrims daily in the season – occupies more acreage than it did then, what with the permanent habitation enveloping it. That sorrowing forest river, Pamba, swirls now with plastic, detritus and the excrement of pilgrims too blinded by devotion to consider what their ecological footprint has stamped out. It’s another matter altogether that somewhere between then and now Messrs Darwin, Sagan and Dawkins interrupted my religiosity with questions of pressing urgency, eroding it first with guilty discomfort but eventually washing it away albeit without disrespect to the forces worshipped by those who had brought me up. 

That said, some nights when I attempt to command my mind to sleep as effortlessly as I did as a child, the temple and the forest surrounding it surface from my subconscious, embellished with shards of innocuous untruth, deliberate fictions that soothe and console the pangs of losses irreparable in this lifetime.

When that comforting reverie takes hold, I feel the moist trampled earth comfort my aching bare feet, the damp of the forest condense on my shirtless back, the overwhelming scent of vegetation. I hear a faraway chuckle, then see the bough of a forest tree bend and swing as it receives the crashing burden of a leaping Malabar Giant Squirrel. I always hear birdsong – the jubilant squeals of Hill Mynas, the sweeching of Scarlet Minivets, the percussion of White-bellied Woodpeckers, the squabbling of Rufous Babblers, the trilling of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters...

Sans field guide or binoculars, my birding was incidental and a touch surreal. Sometimes the shadowy shape of a bird would announce its presence urgently, fleet past and melt into the jungle. Malkoha? Drongo-Cuckoo? I’d peer, I’d dither, but I could not afford to linger: A pilgrim must stick with his flock. Thus, many sightings were approximated, assumed and, not unwittingly, concocted.

Yet, one encounter I remember clearly. It was December, a few weeks before Makara Jyoti, and our pilgrim party was camped in the muggy shade of a tin-roofed shelter, open on three sides, with the bare ground for a floor. Gruel was cooking on an open fire. Robber-flies were hunting winged things infatuated with my fragrant preteen sweat. Bitten by both, scratching, and tolerating the misery of that tropical afternoon (and dreading the imminent night that would tempt airborne roaches out of uncharted crevices), I gazed longingly towards the tops of trees in the forest verge that began about twenty metres from the shack.

Jungle Crows, sparrows and mynas abounded. Red-whiskered bulbuls overreached to filch morsels. As I watched lethargically, an unfamiliar bird flew into view. It was smaller than a myna, dull, slaty-blue with a rusty brown breast. It lingered, unafraid, doing nothing. It just perched there on the steel beam and looked idly about.

My birder’s eyes, schooled on Collins and field guides of suchlike Imperialistic abstraction, tagged the bird as a thrush. I noticed the aspect, the overall blue appearance, large black eyes, rich rufous chest and belly, white patches on the wings, and the bluish grey head. I watched the bird for a good five minutes before it flew away into the forest. I didn’t see it again until I embarked on informed birding a few years later. I made a mental note then and later an entry in my diary: “Blue-headed Thrush”.

In 1989, when I got my first legitimate field guide – Salim Ali’s 'The Book of Indian Birds' – this was the first bird I looked up. Turning the page feverishly, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was almost correct. This was Monticola cinclorhynchus, the Blue-capped Rock Thrush.

Every time I see the Blue-capped Rock Thrush – and I have seen it frequently in southern India in winters and in the Himalaya in late spring and early autumn – I am reminded of myself at twelve, a scruffy, itchy pilgrim gazing in rapture at a sprite, a vision, a gift of the forest.

Thank God, or whoever is in charge, for that epiphany.

Text: Beej
Photo: Sandeep Somasekharan

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