by Bharatram Gaba
Three years ago, on a wet afternoon, we
moved the last of our bags up to our new house. The atmosphere
was dreary and incredibly humid, but the hope in our hearts
dispelled that. We were moving from a spacious three-bedroom
apartment in the affluent Western suburbs to a 300 sq. ft
cubbyhole in the heart of middle-class Dadar (an area of
Bombay). No air-conditioner, no lift, no microwave, not even a
shower, but the spring in our steps and the song on our lips
shooed these piffles away. We soon discovered that the roof
leaked incessantly during the rains. It was wetter inside the
house than it was outside. We didn’t care.
Together we spent long nights adjusting buckets under the leaks
and emptying the full ones, even shifting the sleeping kids
around the place so that they weren’t in the way of spreading
puddles. In the heat wave that followed the rains, the house
was little better than a 300 sq. ft oven, being directly under
an open terrace. But, this was our first HOME.
year later, we installed an air-conditioner. For this, a
box-shaped grill had to be made around the unit just outside the
window. That was when it began – the attack of the pigeons.
morning, one corner of the grill sported a new, half-finished
nest and a mosaic of patterns on the machine where the birds had
obviously performed their ablutions. We tried everything. Junk
was put on the grill to starve them of space. They found a way
to nudge it aside, however heavy, and make a new nest. A
scary-looking doll was kept on the machine to act as a
scarecrow. The next day dawned on a scarecrow that had
bird-droppings in all its openings.
Finally, we resigned to it as a fact of life and instructed the
helper to clean out the grill every day. He did this with
religious fervour every single morning, destroying the nest that
must have been so painstakingly constructed the night before.
It became such an integral part of our daily ritual that like
most other routines, we ceased to think about it. Then, for our
elder son’s holidays, we went back to my parents’s house.
stayed there for nearly two months – the duration of the summer
vacation. When we got back and opened the windows, an
overpowering stench hit us. The air-conditioner could hardly be
seen under the carpet of excreta and feathers. And in that
familiar place on the grill, there was a large nest that looked
complete in every respect. Within the bowels of the nest were
three small, yellow-white eggs.
Fatigue from the heat gave way to rage as I armed myself with a
broom and violently cleaned out the machine. At that time, I do
not know what stopped me from cleaning out the nest itself, but
I gave vigorous instructions to have it disappear before I got
back from work the next day.
sure as hell don’t have a good memory. But that next day,
something about the nest kept nagging my mind. Try as much as I
did, I just couldn’t get any work completed. I was surprised
and a little frightened by this new feeling. I called home to
check whether the job had been done. Nope, the helper hadn’t
turned up that day and wasn’t expected for at least a week.
strange mixture of relief and irritation swept over me. The
irritation was because I was going to have to do the job. About
the relief, I hadn’t the faintest idea. That night I went to
bed with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
following morning saw me up at the crack of dawn, something I
haven’t done since the day I was to get married. After the
daily unmentionables, I made myself a cup of tea and just sat
back and gazed goofily at my family. In the first light of the
day, the children looked like little Angels, sleeping the sleep
that only the innocent could. That particular morning, my
wife’s face looked more beautiful than I could ever remember.
thoughts wandered to what we’d been through together. The last
thirteen years had been one hell of a roller-coaster ride and
she’d stuck by me every inch of the way. It was a massive
struggle to be able to make our own home, but we ultimately did
it. We had our own little place we called home and it was worth
all the heartaches. All at once, the stench from the open
window hit me again and brought me back to the real world. In a
fit of anger, I jerked myself up, picked up a stick and rushed
to the window.
looked out at the nest. The female pigeon was in it, sitting on
the eggs. That day, she didn’t fly off scared as she generally
did when someone approached. I could clearly discern what
looked like naked fear as she looked at me from the corner of
her eyes. I could even sense her begin to tremble. But she
didn’t move from her place.
the stillness of the morning, a tiny cracking sound reached my
ears. It seemed to come from under the female pigeon. Then it
hit me like a ton of bricks. The eggs were hatching!
was not a female pigeon sitting on the eggs,. That was a mother
nestling her babies. I could still make out the fear in her
eyes, but she wouldn’t budge and leave her babies unprotected.
I looked back over my shoulder at my children again and
remembered the times when my wife and I had put our bodies
between them and the leaking roof. I remembered the times when
we’d stayed up nights taking turns fanning them with a newspaper
because the power had failed. The times we’d used our bodies to
shade them from the morning sunlight as it streamed in through
the curtainless windows. I remembered that last Diwali (an
Indian festival, supposedly of Light but more about Sound
nowadays) when I’d held my shivering thirteen-month-old son
tightly to my bosom and sung to him to try and calm his frayed
nerves and protect him from the noise.
kept the stick down and looked back out at the nest. Fed on a
steady diet of “the manly things to do”, I tried
desperately, but could not hold back the tears that began to
form in my eyes. That was not a nest, that was their Home. And
we had been destroying their Home. I slowly withdrew from the
window. The daily routine pushed the incident out of my mind,
and I left for work.
first thing I did that evening was to go over to the window and
check on the birds. There was nothing there. Stunned, I was
told that our helper had come in after all later that morning
and had cleaned out the nest. I couldn’t eat or sleep that
night. I was too scared to ask what had become of the eggs.
ritual of going over to the window each morning continued for
quite some time after that. It gradually slowed down to
checking once in a while for any signs of branches or feathers.
But I needn’t have bothered. The birds never came back.