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  • Writer's pictureAmrita Ghosh

Nir: a bulbul's nesting dream with me

Her hair dispersed like an ancient unlit night in Vidisha,

Her face captured craftsmanship of Sravasti. As the helmsman when,

His rudder broken, adrift in the distant sea,

Finds relief at the sight of verdant land of a cinnamon isle, like that

Through the darkness I saw her. She asked, "Where have you been so long?"

And raised her bird's-nest-like eyes—Banalata Sen from Natore.

This is my quite audacious and simultaneously inadequate attempt to translate in English an eponymous lyrical poem in Bengali, which captured the expressions of a weary traveller who met a woman called 'Banalata Sen', hailed from Natore district of Bangladesh, during his long enduring journey.

Straight from the heart of a pagan lonely timeless traveller, Jibanananda Das, this is one of the eternal poems in Bengali, a creation that successfully created synergy between romanticism and mysticism. Of course, my translation didn't do justice to the surreal immanence that the poet had absolute mastery over, and then, the two languages are way too different. I realized that it's almost impossible to portray the complete essence in English what imagery he etched in reader's mind originally. However, that's not the intent of my effort at the first place.

I primarily want non-native readers to get introduced with a Bengali word, 'Nir', which is used with rhapsodic deftness by Jibanananda Das in the original. The last but one line captures this reference:

Bengali Nir (নীড়) - Bird's nest (পাখির বাসা, কুলায়)

"চুল তার কবেকার অন্ধকার বিদিশার নিশা

মুখ তার শ্রাবস্তীর কারুকার্য,

অতিদূর সমুদ্রের পর

হাল ভেঙে যে নাবিক হারায়েছে দিশা,

সবুজ ঘাসের দেশ যখন সে চোখে দেখে

দারুচিনি-দ্বীপের ভিতর,

তেমনি দেখেছি তারে অন্ধকারে

বলেছে সে, এতদিন কোথায় ছিলেন?

পাখির নীড়ের মতো চোখ তুলে

নাটোরের বনলতা সেন।"

A woman with eyes like a bird's nest, tell me anything more pulsatingly intimate! An allegory as ephemerally beautiful like a hush of the evening dew he mentions in the next paragraph. Yet far from vain admiration of beauty. It's difficult to explain the whole oeuvre of this one metaphor. But it's not this poem which presented the word 'Nir' to my world, even though it endeared for sure.

I was seven when I first came across this word. I was travelling from Sealdah to Diamond Harbour in a local train with my parents and few relatives. The young members of the group were standing because the train was overcrowded. When I was jostling to maintain my balance with tender posture, a stranger asked me in Bengali where did we stay and used the hitherto unknown word (তোমাদের নীড় কোথায়?). It totally stumped me and other cousins and looking at our stupefied expression, he explained that he was asking about where did we stay. When I figured that 'Nir' meant bird's nest, I was amused and asked my mother later about it. She said it's an uncommon usage but the meaning of Nir can be extended to human home as well, even though it originally indicates shelter for birds.

Three decades later, one can well imagine that this conversation had been as good as forgotten, until I wanted to name the home I recently moved in. I never had such naming wish before. Perhaps I first time felt at home by the sight of this place. I chose the place because of its healthy ecosystem and greenery around, without me needing to compromise on necessities of my urban lifestyle. It was originally a settlement for the Eurasians and Anglo Indians of Bangalore and very well-positioned, while at the same time, it has the essence of an outskirt, as if you'd like to come here for a weekend gateway.

Yet, I didn't expect that I would actually wake up with the call of chicken's anticipatory predawn crowing here when I named my new home 'Nir' (নীড়). I discussed the signage idea with one friend who also stays in the same neighbourhood. She has been kind enough to silently get the personalized name board done from Calcutta and presented me when I shifted. None of us anticipated that by divine grace or through the magic of natural serendipity, the name was going to live up to its significance.

Nest of Birds signage in the patio

After a month of moving in, I started noticing a red--whiskered bulbul. Every day in a specific time he started making appearance on the tree next to my terrace conjoining the master bedroom. I have been a hobbyist bird-watcher at an amateurish level and my visits in forests are incomplete without special attention to avian life. So I was naturally thrilled because due to the pressure of urbanization, I stopped seeing any bird in Bangalore other than ravens, pigeons and occasional wagtails, unless there's a lake, garden or empty space nearby.

Although this medium-sized songbird's presence are not uncommon in garden, wooded areas and farmland, here I was suddenly getting to watch the bird right from my bed! Soon he started visiting us twice a day at a specific time. The days when he didn't, I started unconsciously waiting. Peeping. And when he did, I greeted with a smile. I spoke, so did he. None of us understood each other's language, yet that didn't stop us being a buddy! I convinced myself that I made friendship with a Bulbul because every time I spoke to him, he would respond with a high-pitched chatter: picki-pikao-pick-pickawaooo!

I got busy with my work nevertheless after few days of wait and even though at times I used to feel some presence and movement in the terrace, I also started being irregular with my attention. And then, I wasn't always present in my bedroom to notice him. I kind of got settled after the initial excitement.

One fine morning, I saw a bulbul right on the edge my terrace, as if trying to investigate something. Not sure whether it was the same bird, but I captured him from bedroom in my camera. 'Is he trying to get in now?', I wondered. And also got little concerned thinking what if Moa, my dog, ended up hurting the bird driven by instinct or unwittingly.

The next morning, when I stepped out in the terrace after waking up around 6 AM, I remember looking around and appreciating the natural beauty of the surrounding till my eyes got stuck in the biggest plant of my terrace garden. My sleepy eyes didn't adjust with the bright dawn of summer still and so I squinted.

''What's that?', I wondered in my mind as I started approaching the plant.

I saw an open small bowl-sized nest of twigs. My heart skipped a beat or two. That red-whiskered bulbul has started spinning magic and created the basic framework of nest. My hands were still shaking in thrill when I messaged after an hour or so the friend who got the nameboard done that 'Nir, indeed so now!' My eyes were full of tears of joy. As if Anthus, the God of Birds according to Greek mythology, has taken notice of the unspoken wish and made the dream a reality. 'There are numerous terrace plants and trees in the surrounding. Why on earth a plant of my terrace is chosen by a pair of Bulbul out of all other options? Is it plain randomness or a phenomenal force of nature is unfolding its magic right in front of my eyes?', I wondered in delight.

I can't express the absolute exhilaration I felt for the next 3-4 days to closely observe the pair coming in at intermittent intervals with grasses, roots, twigs in their mouth and diligently building up their Nir for rearing dream. Both male and female equally participated in the process. The male used to come first in the early morning and he used to call the female. Once the female came with some material for the nest, the male used to go away to procure more. One of them always kept a watchful eye to avoid early damage from predators. Even when I couldn't see them, I felt their vibration around the tiny nest they built at about four feet from the ground. But their building activities used to stop by afternoon.

I started protecting the nest by not intruding at all. Stopped visit for all in the terrace and used to keep the door closed, while I could still enjoy the proceedings through the transparent glass door from my room. Human activity near the nest could trigger fear response in birds, even though it's a myth that mother picks up scent trail and abandons the nest. Birds actually have a poor sense of smell. Still, I have ensured to watch them from inside only.

Through my telephoto lens, I zoomed in and realized how different the final nest looked like from the one I saw in the beginning. The material in the bottom was thickly layered with dry twigs and leaves while outside of the nest was covered with dry coconut leaves, cobwebs, grass blades in a criss-cross pattern. Their craftmanship and collaborative effort were amazing to say the least. It was not merely functional, as if they had a sense of aesthetics. While humans indoor in pandemic were still largely struggling to decide which chores belonged to which gender with their distorted pathological version of individualism, rights and sovereignty, a pair of bulbul were weaving their dreams quietly at a corner of my terrace. Who taught them?

Nest building is a very complex behaviour and basics are genetically hardwired. So we often see this as an instinctual activity, the knowledge of which most of the 10000+ species of birds are aware of (some birds like common cuckoo, common murre don't build nest). But could this be a learned behaviour too? Something that they get better at with experience? Every time, they slightly change their architecture of nest. Without constant learning and adapting, that wouldn't have been possible. One study found that zebra finches will sometimes change their nesting material preferences in response to their success raising chicks in a given nest. How many times these bulbul pairs have built nest together before? Or is it their first time? I wondered. Apart from the yellow-whiskered greenbul (found in Western and Central Africa), out of the 150 species of bulbuls, most of them are monogamous. So this might not be their first adventure together.

On the morning of 21st May, I noticed for the first time a pale pinkish egg with reddish brown spots. I jumped in joy. 'Seriously?', my father reacted with utter excitement, uncharacteristically so, upon me breaking the news.

Next morning, I found another oval-shaped egg. My thrill got replaced with a strange sense of serenity. It contained a clandestine message addressed to me personally: My home turned complete now in lyrical justice. "Nir" it became, with nature's blessings. My eyes got moistened. For a moment, I experienced the deep ecstasy of natural synchronicity like a divine intervention.

Soon after, Mr. and Mrs. Bulbul, at times interchangeably and at times simultaneously, started natural incubation, by sitting on the clutch to provide right warmth. I quickly captured one photograph from behind the glass door but couldn't negotiate with the curtain well. I opened the door to swiftly click photos of eggs before, but when birds were around, I totally refrained.

The nest was occasionally left unattended, causing me worry. Predators were around. But the territorial patrolling during this time was a sight to behold. The parents ensured that nobody could touch their nest. Once I observed a squirrel coming down from the adjacent wall when the parents were not in the nest.

I glanced around with concern from my room. While I felt a certain protective instinct, I didn't let it overpower me. It didn't seem right to intrude into a natural flow of events. Within a minute, the father came around and started making shrill sound. The squirrel left as briskly as it came. I felt relieved. He was always looking, even when I felt the birds were slacking.

On 26th night, it rained heavily at night. I couldn't sleep fearing the thunderstorm must have caused havoc of the nest. A rain has never made me sadder. I tried to cling to a hope, but the strong whiplashes of wind was giving no ammunition to my faith. I expected the nest to be totally destroyed next morning, but when I checked, I was astonished to see it apparently intact. The birds were nowhere to be found for the entire morning, and I told myself, 'They left. They abandoned the nest.'

Next, I was gripped with a strange fear – what if something bad happened to the parents? What if the thunderstorm had created short-circuit on some wire and that case, these unborn hatchlings would never know that their parents have loved them for real! They would feel betrayed in the embryo. Birds after all can hear through their eggs, allowing them to imprint things like who their mother is. In some species, the mother can actually send acoustic signals inside the eggs which impacts and programs the development of offspring.

Unbeknownst to me, I have become part of this birthing process. The joy, the struggle, the pain, the coordination, the teamwork – I have been the first-hand witness. But this wasn't about me, I scolded myself. I tried to hold my ruminations together and started searching for incubation chamber online, assuming the worst. However, I did some research before buying and most experts advised against it. Even if hatching becomes successful, those birds are not accepted often in wild, devoid of all learnings and life-lessons from parents, and they eventually die. I looked at the eggs and said, 'If you were to be saved, it has to be by your parents.'

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and release when I saw one of the parents in the noon, still wet. Humans have a tendency to feel obligated over things on which we have limited or no control over. That's perhaps because partly we are sentient beings with a moral/ethical axis, and partly because of our ego. We find it difficult to digest that our self-importance is not enough to change everything under the sun as we please. 'It's not my handcrafted nature, so let it be,' I told myself and went for catching up on my sleep.

I woke up to the grief of a missing egg, which later I found out on the soil of the plant on which the nest was made. Broken. How did it fall? Did the bird push it down knowing that the environmental condition wasn't conducive for hatching anymore? Or the nest became internally damaged due to the rainwater retention and it automatically fell from the nest? Next morning, another egg experienced the same fate. Broken-hearted, the parents left.

After 4 days of building and 5 days of brooding, a dream crash-landed, leaving the "Nir" empty. I wondered why it had to happen when the dreams are not going to materialize anyway. Why they have to go through this? Why nature is so pointlessly cruel as much as it appeared as suggestively benevolent?

From a zoological research paper (refer to the citations below), I got to know that "A nest was considered failed if there were the following occurrences: egg loss during the incubation period, broken eggs, cold eggs, no hatchling emergence even when the incubation time had exceeded the maximum for other observations, and signs of predation (i.e., disturbed nests with the nestlings disappearing before fledging, nestlings that died in the nest with wounds produced by parasites, or nestlings found on the ground with nests upturned after a rainstorm). Successful nests were defined as those where at least one nestling fledged." This is a failed attempt, but then the overall nest success for them is a meagre 34.22%, I knew beforehand. So it was just a matter of some random chance when everything didn't fall in place, even though it had a promising start. That's the analytical part which heart didn't lap up. It just felt broken.

For the next 2 weeks, no bulbul came near my terrace. I stopped having my morning cup of tea in the terrace. The endless wait became painful. I knew they were grieving somewhere, but I perhaps selfishly wanted them to grieve here with me, as if we could all console each other. As if I wanted to tell them, it's 34.22%, so don't worry, just by mathematical probability, you will be having success within few seasons. I started avoiding that sense of loss and hence I stopped spending time on that terrace in the morning. My sense of loss was more around the fact that those birds have stopped paying visits. The loss of unborn were the original stressors, but due to this, the father also stopped coming, with whom I thought that I made friendship to start with. But then I told him in my mind: "It's okay if you don't approach here ever. I understand."

The nest started looking slightly disheveled and bent with the weight of their loss. I observed so one evening while I was taking a break from work. I was reading something intently while I heard picki-pikao-pick-pickawaooo!

He looked in his usual chirpy self while the mother was flying from tree to tree with a great intent for berries. She vanished from my sight before I could get my camera to capture. Standing on the terrace that I started avoiding, I smiled. My surrounding appeared beautiful -- full of love, loss, healing, creation, destruction and regeneration. Like a truly complete nest. "Nobody understands the cycle of seasons and nature better than you", I told him. He seemed to nod in agreement.

"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment," said Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. "This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath."

"সমস্ত দিনের শেষে

শিশিরের শব্দের মতন সন্ধ্যা আসে

ডানার রৌদ্রের গন্ধ মুছে ফেলে চিল,

পৃথিবীর সব রং নিভে গেলে

পাণ্ডুলিপি করে আয়োজন,

তখন গল্পের তরে জোনাকির রঙে ঝিলমিল

সব পাখি ঘরে আসে

সব নদী ফুরায় এ জীবনের সব লেনদেন,

থাকে শুধু অন্ধকার

মুখোমুখি বসিবার বনলতা সেন।"

When evening comes surreptitiously like dewfall

And eagles golden wing melts into sunset

That distills into the smell of darkness,

As one by one light leaves from this earth wiping all colours

to arrange tales like scintillating fireflies,

Then all birds are homebound, all rivers,

at the end of their course,

So are all transactional aspects of this life,

The only permanence remains this darkness --

Face to face with Banalata Sen.


PhotoStory Date: 26.6.2021

Place: Bangalore

Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh


Citations and Resource: The breeding biology of Red-Whiskered Bulbul

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