Thursday, September 2, 2010


This morning, as the rains in the northern plains were pitter-pattering out the last notes of the season, I headed west to see, if I could, the tigers of Sariska, the king’s uneasy bastion in eastern Rajasthan. I reached around mid day. Since it was the worst possible hour for wildlife-viewing, I drove straight to the first check point inside the park to ask the forest guards about the last sighting. The guards at the check point weren’t in the mood for a conversation and instead pointed at a portly figure hunched over a large log, staring intently into the bushes. I started walking towards the man when without even looking at me, he held out his arm and motioned for me to stop, then he turned towards me. And then his eyes, that’s what I noticed first about Raghav Meena... bloodshot and baggy on the left and an opaque, cold glass eye on the right. He was a short squat figure, dressed in olive green, his silver grey hair brushed back, and when he spoke, his tongue darted in and out of that gap where his lower incisors had gone missing…

Anyway, he looked at me with his one good eye and put a finger to his lips and slowly tip-toed towards me. His manner suggested that there was an animal in the bushes that he didn’t want to disturb. As soon he was within earshot, I whispered “Tiger?” The question seemed to disgust the man. He shook his head. “No tiger… Babbler! Jungle Babbler… jungle mein aur bhi jaanwar hain…” Those were Raghav Meena’s first words and as he eased his considerable girth into a steel chair, I could make out from his demeanor that he was sick of pesky tourists and journalists coming and asking him about tigers. “Sab yehi poochchte hain… where is tiger? Where is tiger? Kal dekha tiger… gate ke pass… had to drive it back into the forest… like a cow. Earlier nothing was important. When we lost our tigers, the tigers became all important, but the forest needs every animal… tiger bhi… babbler bhi…” and his lone eye burned with a strange indignation, an intensity that seemed to transcend his dowdy appearance and apparently insignificant station in life. Intrigued by Raghav Meena’s eyes and his angst, I became, at least for the moment, more curious about him than the tiger. So once he’d cooled down a bit, I asked him, “What’s a babbler?” He frowned, and stared at me for a while, weighing my question to see if I meant it in earnest and then he half smiled and his one eye lit up. He motioned me forward and quietly inched closer to the bushes where a handful of dull brown birds, almost the size of a common myna, with a yellow beak and yellow eyes, were hopping about in the outer branches. Raghav raised a finger and pointed at a fork in the branches and whispered “ghosla… the babbler’s nest” And then he confided, “There are eggs… four blue eggs!” Raghav’s eyes, yes… yes… even the glass one, were shimmering with joy and emotion. And it was infectious… Unable to contain my excitement, I tried to look around for the nest, and forgot that I had to be quiet and careful. My clumsiness attracted the attention of the babblers and all five-six of them turned towards us and started chirping and chattering. Since I’d heard that birds oft en abandon their nest if they fi nd out that a predator has discovered it, I was worried that my clumsiness might scare these birds away from their eggs and the nest. But I needn’t have worried for instead of flying away, these birds, all six of them, flew towards us. They landed on branches closest to us, above our heads and just an arm’s length away from our faces and started screeching and squawking furiously till I thought they would spill their guts. “Darte nahin hain…” said Raghav. “These tiny birds never back down. Though tiny, they’re a united lot and whether it’s people or a mongoose, or even a snake or a hawk, they fearlessly defend their nest and their turf. The jungle babbler, turdoides striata, isn’t much to look at but it has the heart of a tiger; it lives its life with the enthusiasm of a child who’s known neither death nor defeat.”

Wow, now how did this forest guard know so much and learn how to talk like that?

“Long story…” he warned, but continued nevertheless… “I’m from Bharatpur, home to the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, one of the world’s richest wetlands and avifauna populations. I spent my early years hunting ducks and teals for the pot and trapping owls and parakeets for the pet trade with my cousins and friends. Then, when I was in my teens (I don’t remember the year, some winter in the 1960s), I met Dr Salim Ali, the legendary birdman. He was there in Bharatpur and he needed some boys who could help him with ringing birds that had migrated here so that we could find out more about them. My friends and I found the thought fascinating and we followed the man around all day. From him I learnt to look at birds as not just food to eat and feathers to sell but nature’s living canvases. We were transformed. Beyond their ecological roles it’s their beauty and great spirit that touches my heart. I could sit and watch them all day…”

I remembered I had to return before the park gates closed so I thanked him and was about to leave when he said “Sir, take my number. I wanted to be birder like Dr Ali, but couldn’t… at least, this job kept me close to the forests. But I retire in two months. My sons have jobs and I have my pension. So now I’ll return to Bharatpur, learn to read and speak better, read all of Dr Ali’s books and then finally become a birding guide. I’m just starting out… do call if you need a guide, sir.” Those eyes… they were glistening again.

We shook hands and as I headed towards the gates I thought that it isn’t just the babbler ‘that isn’t much to look at but lives its life with the enthusiasm of a child who knows neither death nor defeat…’ God bless Raghav Meena…


1 comment:

  1. Sir,good to see that some people also care about Babblers..
    nature's living canvases.............
    really felt good reading "The Babblers"