A Boat in Keoladeo

Supriya Ambwani

© Copyright 2012 by  Supriya Ambwani  


Algae covered waters at Keoladeo.

"Last year, a tiger ran away from Ranthambore and travelled 240 kilometers to join us here in Bharatpur. I don't know why they took it away--it was so peaceful here," remarked Keru Singh. 'Peaceful' is among the first adjectives that comes to mind as one sits on a boat in the middle of the still, algae infected waters of Keoladeo National Park.

'Breathtaking' is a close second, if one ignores the non-biodegradable souvenirs left by careless tourists scattered along the paths, below the trees, entwined in shrubs, and floating on the stationary pond.

We were on the last boat of the season. Even as we got on, park officials were busy herding the rest out of water and locking them up. I can't be blamed for mistaking the winding pond for a green living carpet--the algae on its surface was so dense that the water resembled an Amazonian forest floor more than the watering ground of hundreds of species of birds. The algae, green under the afternoon sun, displayed a brilliant spectrum of reddish hues at dusk.

After hiring two government-registered cycle rickshaws- the drivers of which double as excellent guides- we entered Salim Ali's winter home. One of the drivers, Keru Singh, had been a rickshaw driver/guide for 22 years and knew more about the park than most professional guides. He was fluent in multiple dialects of the same language- the Language of Nature.

No sooner had we entered than a grey hornbill perched itself on a branch to preen itself. Typical male bird behavior- pretentious and vain. He was followed by a succession of antelopes, monkeys, cows, deer and squirrels. Of course, the star attractions were ubiquitous. A rather disgruntled family that had exited the park when we entered asked us not to bother because we wouldn't see anything. To rub their misfortune into their absent faces, we came en face with a spectacular parade of birds that ranged from egrets to peacocks to owls to ducks.

Gluttonous cattle and other hungry herbivores fed on the old, withered shrubbery to reveal the tops of juicy green shoots shoving their way upwards. A garden woodpecker pecked at the soil in gaps between the dense undergrowth to forage for bugs. A bee-eater buzzed elegantly behind a bee and devoured it leisurely, swallowing its tiny body slowly.

The rickshaw showed us the dry half of the forest while the boat navigated through the marshy land. We visited during a particularly special season for the park because water had been released from a dam into the park. The dried-up riverbed flooded and promptly turned into a fertile ground for the carpet of algae. Previously absent birds, like typical fair-weather friends, returned in droves. Brown turned to green, dry to wet. Mosquitoes appeared along with the more desirable migratory birds.

The boat halted for a few minutes as a white-breasted, sapphire-backed kingfisher plunged into the water to grab an unsuspecting little fish. It perched on a low, hanging branch to contemplate what to do with its prey as the unfortunate fish thrashed its tail weakly. Then, in an epiphanic instant, it swallowed the fish and glided away.

A little way ahead, skimming the surface of the pond or relaxing on boughs that arched over it, we observed a variety of birds performing their routine ablutions early the next morning. The darters stretched their wings and extended their long necks- the namesakes for their alternate name, 'Snake Birds'. On the same branch, sticking out high above the foliage, a painted stork screeched at its mother to feed it. The mother resolutely turned her back before relenting and disappearing to find fish for her offspring. A paddling of ducks paddled with typical languor in the pond while a second one soared high in the sky, faster than any jet fuel-propelled airplane. Little ripples in the water followed by tiny splashes revealed the characteristic childishness of someone who feels secure.

A machan (tree house) in the centre of the park is almost at level with the tallest trees. It looks over the pond on most sides. The ducks paddled in the water; darters and storks stood stoically on branches; parakeets and sparrows chattered excitedly. On the tree next to the machan, a spotted owl stared unblinking from its stationary position on the node of a tree trunk. All of a sudden, it flew away without a warning and landed on a tree behind its previous abode to settle down, statuesque, beside a second member of its species. The two just sat, folded wing to folded wing, and continued staring piercingly. The eerie grace had a sort of majesty about it.

As the boatman rowed gently yet strongly, the disturbed algae behind the boat knit itself back together instantly. Within a few seconds, it looked as thick and unrelenting as it did before we cut across it. Its resolute finality, highlighted by the uncaring birds fluttering around and the antelopes playing in the shallow water, sent out a strong message: humans are unwelcome. We are no longer a part of the very system that birthed us, and that, in my opinion, is what they've been trying to tell us for so long. We're just too dense to comprehend their unsubtle messages.

Supriya says, "Writing is my legal drug."

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