Vignettes from Life: Gift of a Crow
By Ronald Tuhin D’Rozario
I have never been intrigued about the world of ornithology nor by the phonetics of a Horbola ( a Bengali word covering the sounds of birds, animals and other things of everyday life) but can identify the sounds – call, hum or chirp — of certain birds that have a strong attachment to my childhood memories. Humans have this unfailing dependency on instincts which make them to try to classify everything that their senses gather. Just as I have dissected the DNA of light depending on their changing textures during different times of the day into thin, thick, bright, warm and dull, I feel an urge to relate each call of these birds to various ragas signifying a different hour of the day. My usage of the word, ‘to relate’ now creates a ‘relationship’ between me and the birds as — ‘relatives’ converting their calls into a recital around the sphere of my consciousness. Crows, pigeons, sparrows, parrots and bulbuls are some of the birds whose sounds have grown with me like my age.
As I write, my thoughts intensify into an introspection of my life with these birds. Apart from their sound heralding the advent of a season, a wakeup call at dawn or just making me aware of their presence in my vicinity, I realise that during various stages of my life, there have been some birds whom I have caged for my amusement and there have been some I have consumed on my plate.
Quite strangely now in all these years, for the first time, a deep sense of guilt gnaws at me. In order to justify my belief in my own guilt, I begin to accept the punishment given by avians. When a bird has spoilt my shirt with its dropping or stooped low enough to slap my head with a wing during their flight, I accept it as an expression of disgust over certain habits of mine.
My observations brings me to a conclusion that some birds like the crows and the pigeons too have a deep attachment to old structures and its longings — finding comfort inside the windows of minarets of old mosques or inside the ventilator of houses whose plaster holds the scent of a bygone eras. The two spirits despite their opposing natures seem to blend into one without any conflict: one, that of the old structures with their calm, grounded, stationary existence and the other is that of the birds who are free, spirited, and mobile.
Sparrows, pigeons and crows are some of the visitors to our house that I get to meet each day. They come down flying to feed on whatever edible they manage to find or dip their beaks into water to quench the dryness in the throat. I would sit motionless in my room fearing my movement would bother them and watch — I would think if what if they had slipped out of the classroom on a water break. My imagination would often draw me back to school days, especially during my history and maths lessons when many of us looked for an excuse to go to the toilet, travelling all the way down the corridor at our own pace lost in thoughts — enjoying the little break that we stole.
The design of my house can still be said as one belonging to the residents of old Calcutta Bengali middle-class household. Though a lot has been added and removed from the original identity of its architecture in the course of multiple renovations, yet it collapses when it has to qualify as something ‘beautiful’ even today — as if the fluidity of time has shrivelled the very essence of beauty out of the structure. The thick white plaster over the dull walls make the winters damp and more intense inside the room than the temperature outdoors. To hide the ruins that I have exposed subconsciously, my lungs struggle to exhale a phrase to make it feel opulent. In the book, The Architecture of Happiness (2006), Alain de Botton writes: “We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.”
Sometimes I move around the house with a heaviness in my chest. I find the rooms full and compressed like an atom above an atom inside an atom with four walls and a ceiling within the perimeter of the main structure filled with knowledge, experiences, memories, odour, and breath of my older self. It reminds me of my childhood when l used to store marbles in an empty Horlicks bottle.
I long to have more rooms in the house with more sunshine and air without the interruption of furnitures — where I could store the self that has grown and evolved beyond what it used to be. In my head, I seek a new room each day like a museum — collecting the remnants of my life on a day-to-day basis with its growth and losses and experiences — mummifying it by the dusk for the rest of the life that remains in me.
The verandah in my house and the little open space that surrounds below its level carry earthen pots and containers in which baba (my father) has grown plants. During the month of November 2019, when a very severe cyclonic storm ‘Bulbul’ hit my city — in its massive overpowering rains and wind, unable to withstand the force of nature one of our tall plants with a slender spine broke. It left a noticeable mark of its absence, creating an emptiness. A few days later, I discovered — a crow dropped a sapling (with a bit of root attached to its stem) from its beak amidst the potted plants.
I never had an affinity towards this bird being stuck with my peculiarity and negative perspectives. These avians seem to lack in grace and culture, have dirty eating habits and their black colour signifies death. I have always associated the harsh tone in their ‘cawing’ with a curse. I also found myself often bothered by their stubbornness when I attempted to make them fly away from my premises uttering ‘hush-hush’. I absolutely do not subscribe to the belief that that when a crow caws it ushers in a guest into the house.
But there are days that bring me surprises — making me learn more about my unawareness of my surroundings. I am familiar with the different sounds of birds but remain inefficient in understanding the syllable of their recitation with my knowledge being limited to whatever I have learnt in the primary level in my science book where I got introduced to plants — animals — birds — mammals — and the aquatic life. Now I begin to realise that there exists a certain degree of intimacy in communication, especially when we are unable to comprehend each other’s tongue, we communicate leaving behind some signs.
Both in the Eastern and the Western cultures there have been omens associated with crows and ravens. In Varāhamihira’s Brihat Samhita, the Sanskrit encyclopedia, in chapter 95, there is a detailed analysis on the ‘Cries of Crows’. At one place it reads: “For the people of Eastern countries the sight of Crows to their right and of the Karayika (small kind of crane), to their left is favourable. This is to be reversed in other countries. The demarcation of countries is to be understood duly from convention.”
Varāhamihira has dealt with the geography of India in chapter 14. He knew that there were differences of opinion even about the cries of crows in India! He further explains: “If the Crow strikes a vehicle or weapon, slipper, shade of the umbrella or man himself, the person concerned will face danger. If it ‘worships’ with any of these, he will get honour. If it passes excreta on it, he will get food.” “A person will gain or lose the same article as has been brought or taken away (by the crow) be yellow in colour, it will be gold; if cotton- clothes, if white- silver.”
I find myself being suffocated between two opposite polarities, the first being what religion teaches us and the second is to what we are made to believe. The Sanatana Dharma, one of the world’s oldest religion, teaches that: “Crows play a major role in linking the dead and the living people. Thus by feeding the Crows they, in turn, carry the food to our deceased ancestors.” This practice of feeding our ancestors through the crow is known as shradhdh. In its ancient texts it elaborately mentions — the prathha or the custom of feeding the crows during the shradhdh was started during the Vedic Age when the rishis (Hindu sage or seers) realised that peepal and banyan trees could only be grown fertilised by crow droppings. These trees were considered medicinal and life giving in Ayurvedic lore.
One has to admit, from a very young age our minds have also been conditioned to a long list of wrong beliefs, practices, negligence, and indifference towards certain plants, animals, reptiles, birds, insects, aquatic beings, fellow humans and the crow. Since ancient times, a crow has always been considered a totem of death and ill omen by many. But now I begin to believe that a crow knows how to reclaim its worth. It knows to how bring life. In the words of James O’Barr, author of The Crow (1989): “People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.”
The crow further challenges my perspective as I live and experience life and my surroundings intensely, making me believe that crows are not only demanding and fearless but are resourceful too. They seem to be aware of the stories in the houses they visit as I’ve observed them turning their little heads with an acute look in their eyes, gathering every minute detail of sound and sight. Their degree to communicate and understand is more than most can comprehend– and if one is able to win their trust, they have a way of being loyal and expressing gratitude.
As John Milton puts it: “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” I think about the lives that have migrated to the other part of existence — if the dead too express gratitude to the world of the living — I am left to rely on the universe for an answer…and perhaps the crow from O’Barr’s definition.
Ronald Tuhin D’Rozario writes from Calcutta, India. He can be found in Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/ronald.drozario1; Twitter:@RTDRozario and Instagram:
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!