Follow the birds

Uncork the champagne !!! 
October 8 and 82

Hi All,
Thank you all so much for your birthday wishes, and all the loving messages. It felt so good to hear from friends around the world, with some lovely e-cards too. Facebook announced it, so I had messages from students and friends from across the country and the US. It was really a great way to celebrate the networking of friendship across space and time.
My sister Shanthi came from Bombay to celebrate my birthday and as usual I had to plan a get-away to a different exotic place!! Many years ago when we were children – in 1943 to be exact, we had a lovely family holiday in Bharatpur, a princely state in Rajasthan, where Dad’s friend Mr. KPS Menon ICS was the Dewan – (British Government Minister representative) to the Maharaja. It was our first encounter with a Maharaja, and we were filled with awe at the opulence of the palace at Bharatpur, the lovely maharani (who was a princess from Mysore) confined in strict purdah in the women’s wing of the palace. Our host’s family and we were special guests at the palace at Deeg, about fifteen kilometers from Bharatpur, where the maharaja and maharani went for summer retreats. It was a magical evening as we were served at a long table on a balcony overlooking a large spring-fed tank, and two thousand illuminated fountains transformed the gardens and lit up the night sky. The next day we all went to the bird sanctuary where every winter migratory birds arrive from the cold north to breed and fill the air with their cries. The maharaja and his British guests then enjoyed duck shoots – which shocks us today, as we see the list of numbers of birds killed, a wanton slaughter by these so-called sportsmen. Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, came with his group as guests of the maharaja and shot down over 4000 birds, boasted the record list.!(As a visitor once remarked sarcastically, “how courageous they were!”)

Shanthi and I talked about re-visiting the place – she had not been back in 70 years although I have re-visted more recently. So my birthday celebration was at the Forest Lodge in the Keoladeo National Park.
We rented a car from our good friend Vini, and took the new fast expressway to Mathura, accompanied by a dear friend and ardent birdwatcher, Papsi Bhasker.
In this town of Krishna’s birthplace we stopped to ask the way to the Museum, but were invariably accosted by enthusiastic “guides” who wanted to take us to the Krishna temple for a fee –
The Archaeological museum which had some excellent stone carvings of the Gandhara and Kushan period – including the famous headless statue of Emperor Kanishka, 1st century AD, with his long coat, sword and Reebok designer shoes!! The imposing red sandstone museum had a large standing Buddha statue in the garden juxtaposed incongruously with a seated imperious Queen Victoria holding scepter and orb.
The museum was under renovation and while carpenters and painters worked briskly, the statues were all shrouded in plastic some of which we were permitted to remove and examine the sculptures. The only other visitor was an older woman, art historian from Belgium who knew the subcontinent well and spoke Hindi fluently. She chatted and told us with wonder that this museum had more excellent stone sculptures than the National Museum in Delhi! I wish more people would visit the Museum at Mathura.

We were prepared to be disillusioned by the Deeg Palace which has been neglected and “falling apart” for years. The last time I was there we had to contend with a number of bats and their sharp unpleasant odour.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find grounds and buildings in a fairly good shape, if a bit unwashed and dusty! Bats were gone. The maharani’s Mysore teakwood furniture (part of her dowry) was faded and out-dated, the stuffed tigress in her glass cage too seemed to have aged with time! There was little magical about it this time, and, as expected, childhood images crumbled into the dry fountain ‘pools’.. But the sun shone on beautiful arches and battlements and I had visions of renovating this place into a popular tourist destination.Hopefully the Rajasthan government and the archaelogical survey of India will have some plan to do this.The only sad sight was the litter of plastic, and paper floating on green slime in the once beautiful tank.(Modi should ask his Chief Minister of Rajasthan to get busy with some cleaning up!)

Arriving at the National park, we were surprised by a thunderstorm and hail as we arrived – we sat in the car with the loud clatter of hailstones the size of marbles, wondering if they could break our windshield! Soon the ground was covered with hailstones, – and just as quickly as it started the rain stopped, and we could get out.
We found cars are not allowed inside, so we took out our bags from the car and climbed into cycle rickshaws and were pedaled to our hotel, about 1.5 km inside the forest. The rickshaw –wallahs are all expert bird watchers and as we pedaled along they pointed out various birds including too lovely little owlets snoozing on a branch by the roadside. The vivid colours of the brown-breasted kingfisher will remain etched in my memory of that morning.
Early morning, and late afternoon of the next day we went by rickshaw on three hour bird watching expeditions into the forest, saw water birds – cormorants, painted storks, ibis, and cranes – some animals (antelope and sambar )– and many many varieties of birds too numerous to list here, but what a joy to see the diversity of birdlife amidst the green of the trees and bushes. The previous day’s rain had refreshed birds, animals and insect life, and every species was busy with the business of feeding and looking after their young ones. There was so much to observe and learn.
That evening we had a birthday celebration with champagne that had cooled nicely in the refrigerator. The hotel was most solicitous in giving us whatever we wanted, and served a birthday dinner in our room with the chef’s fish curry – he being a Bengali said it was his best recipe.
(We had expected to observe a full lunar eclipse (announced by NASA) – but it turned out NASA had intended the announcement for the people in the US because it was not visible for us during our daylight hours.
Late in the evening we were surprised by the arrival of a birthday cake! Vini had asked the driver to buy a cake for me. The driver, of course, could not deliver it, so he gave it to a rickshaw-wallah to deliver at the hotel. The next morning, when we checked out and got into rickshaws with our bags, the rickshaw-wallahs surprised me with a Happy Birthday greeting!
We said our last goodbyes to the owlets and the peacocks, as we set off for home, three old birds flying free.

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