The Sparrows – Short Story of Family
Let me introduce myself. We are House Sparrows closely related to the Lark family. Some of our close cousins from the Lark family are the Ashley Brown Sparrow Lark and the Black Crowned Sparrow Lark. I do believe I’m flaunting my connections with the Lark family, though it really is something to be proud of, for us humble House Sparrows!
Don’t be deluded by the name Lark. Yes, those of the original Larks are beautiful singers, like my second cousin the Sky Lark. They even had an ode penned to celebrate the beauty of their song, by Percy Bysshe Shelly the poet.
We live scattered all over the length and breadth of the world. I for one, live in the Indian Sub continent, the South of India to be exact; loving the Indian summer heat, the cool monsoons and breezy Junes.
We are an eco friendly lot and try our best to live in peace and friendship with other birds, insects, animals and the human beings around us.
We live in a flock beneath the shade of an expansive banyan tree that stretches its bountiful branches wide around the huge tree trunk. The tree is a haven with its perpetual shade and the breeze from the thousands of its glossy leathery leaves fanning and rustling in the early morning air. I love the feel of its elliptically shaped velvety leaves and brush my feathers upon it.
“I love your dark cool shade, Banyan” I said to him one day, to which he replied amicably,
“Do you now know why I spread my arms so wide Sparrow? So I could embrace all you creatures!”
At this I snuggled close into one of his swaying slim aerial prop roots, as I have watched children, snuggle into their mother’s sari pallu for comfort and refuge.
“There were times, Sparrow, in the days gone by” (he seemed inclined to reminisce) “when traders with their ware stopped to rest and make or finalize transactions here at the sheltered base of my trunk!”
“Really?” said I, swinging upon the aerial root, my soft feather rustling in the breeze the movement made. Other Sparrows joined me and we felt like flying trapeze performers as we swung faster and faster around Banyan’s trunk.
“Did they come often, Banyan?”
“Oh, yes, Sparrow! Almost every day! And at times many times in a day, too! Yes, yes, swing away, you flouncing Sparrows! You’re cooling the air around me!”
“Yes, they were called ‘banias’ or traders and how some of them argued and quarrelled! Oh there was so much noise and activity about me! Anyway, thanks to the banias, I have been called Banyan ever since! Hailing from the fig family basically, I might have been called Figgy if it hadn’t been for the banias! Ha!Ha!”
He laughed away quite overcome by his own humour.
“Figgy,Figgy!” I chanted happily enjoying the joke as much as the swing.
At this point he suddenly said,
“I do have a Fig name, Sparrow! But one which makes me a little ashamed!”
I was quite surprised at this declaration by my friend Banyan. “I’m called ‘Strangler Fig’ by some! Yes, I remember now, but I don’t like being referred to by that name, Sparrow!”
“Oh no, Banyan, did you strangle someone! How terrible! But it’s a treacherous name!”
“Nothing sinister about it, Sparrow. I remember my seed was dropped into the crevice of a stately Neem by a Mynah, after he had eaten his fill of a red juicy banyan fruit. There I germinated and grew and soon my roots growing downwards clawed into the Neem’s trunk and subdued my host. As a thriving youngster my roots grew quickly until the Neem now stays within my heart and all you can see is me! Do you think I have done a terrible thing, Sparrow?” he asked dolefully, all the elation of a while ago having vanished.
For an instant I was at a loss for words. I almost stopped swinging and said softly,
“Is he really in there?”
I hopped close to the Banyan’s trunk and peered in. The Neem smiled feebly at me through the thick woody curtains of Banyan.
“He has given food and shelter for thousands of birds,” said the Neem, our silent listener.
“And a multitude of insects nest in him! Tell him that. Tell him we are all a part of the ecological balance! I’m fine in here though a bit sapped, but very happy to be a part of his benevolence. It feels good to live in his heart!”
“Wow”, said I, and loved the Neem’s docile spirit.
The Banyan seemed to shed dewy tears of maybe remorse or relief and joy at the hidden Neem’s tender words, I really couldn’t tell.
I thought to myself that I will set about taking a census of the residents of Banyan straight away. Even as I flew to start my new assignment as a censor, a swarm of fig wasps whizzed past to feed upon Banyan’s clusters of red figs. They half hummed and half buzzed a mid- summer tune.
I heard the chirping of the tiny white Babblers who had made their nest among the dark leaves. They hopped from branch to branch as though they had a game going among themselves.
I heard the black Crows caw at the far end. They were the biggest of the birds residing in Banyan and commanded everyone fear and respect, stuttering with their black coats like advocates and lawyers from the court house at the far end of the village.
I hopped from branch to branch discovering the residents of the interiors of the beautiful lush Banyan. My first stop was the nest of a White Cheeked Barbet, where the mother Barbet sat upon her eggs and simply said, “Hi!” then dozed off again upon her warm eggs.
Heart Spotted Woodpecker, a duty bound worker went knock, knock, knocking upon a thick branch where he suspected a small band of termites had gnawed in. He had rid Banyan of a few such silent deadly invaders lately, but his work was never done, he said to himself with a sigh. He nodded to me cordially and continued pecking.
A few Orange Headed Thrushes flew in at the moment, and settled upon the branches of the Banyan, ruffling their yellow feathers after the long flight. The sunlight filtering through the leaves in soft strands lit their feathers to a beautiful fiery glow. They fluttered amidst the branches like orange-yellow flames of fire! They gobbled the caterpillars, weevils and stray termites hungrily and so, the fig wasps, a little away, feeding on the red fruits kept a wary eye on them.
The raucous green Parrots stopped their chattering and sat still in their clutches as I hopped by. They squawked their greeting and offered me dry berries and fruits that was their dinner. Their lemon green feathers were a wild contrast to the darkened foliage of Banyan. I had no idea Banyan had such an array of brightly coloured residents!
A White Bellied Treepie who sat musing on a lower branch seemed very lonely. He was a beautiful graceful bird, in startling white, black and brown. His tail was a long flow of black and white, cascading elegantly behind him. He waited for the return of his mate, gone in search of food to a nearby forest. He bowed, then with the droop of his wings called to his mate. His nest was a platform of twigs made ready for egg laying. He gave me a dreamy smile and seemed to be engrossed in the Yellow Browed Bulbul’s soulful singing that drifted from a thickly covered branch of the Banyan.
Of the passerine family, the Bulbul’s song enraptured all the residents of Banyan. I have often been lulled to sleep by his melancholic tunes.
Quite a flock of us Sparrows resided in Banyan. We had the most number of nests here, among the branches or in the holes and niches that dotted Banyan’s thick woody trunk.
Some of my cousins had moved to the eaves of houses nearby, for want of privacy and space. For surely, in a tree that housed almost so many varieties of birds ,not to mention the Mynas that were our frequent visitors, and the insects which constituted a partial part of Banyan’s residents, we were a hardly a quiet, secluded household!
A swarm of Lemon Butterflies fluttered around the tree trunk like little shreds of sunshine. They flew in between the leafy boughs and rested upon the tender red leaves of Banyan. Soon a small swarm of Peacock Pansy Butterflies in a startling green blue flew between the aerial roots, alighting upon them in colourful rows.
“Hello, my friends” said Banyan as his long ropey roots swayed in the evening breeze.
“Hello, Banyan” they all chanted in unison though it was a feeble chant. They were never inclined to much chatter since they busied themselves with powdering their soft gossamer wings to look delicate and dainty.
“How exquisite you all look!” said Banyan, always generous with his compliments especially when well- deserved.
The birds and insects paused to watch each time the gorgeous Butterflies fluttered by, as though they were pretty ballet dancers in their shimmering brightly coloured wings.
Since Banyan stood by the banks of a river there were lengthy patches of thick grass and reeds growing along the banks. Tiny flowers on weeds grew in profusion. The Butterflies had their fill of nectar from these flowers. Sometimes they hovered over the pink water lilies in the river or rested delicately as though on tip toes upon the flat round lotus leaves that floated on the green water. It really was a beautiful sight as they admired their reflections on the fat dew drops that rolled like blobs of diamonds on the velvety leaves.
Our days were thus spent with finding a mate, mating, nest building, breeding, feeding – surviving in all the tranquil that swathed the Banyan and its whereabouts.
One day I dived down, as we all do, with partly closed wings and rose up in a glide. Our flights are undulated, accompanied by a long low whistle. At the tip of the rise I voiced a sharp chip note. All the sparrows around me arose with me and the air was aflutter with hundreds of tiny sparrow wings. We all flew away in different directions.
About ten to fifteen of us rested upon the taut telephone and electric wires that spanned the miles like fine black silk thread. We were like notes on a music sheet – sometimes in a continuous sequence, and at times accommodating uneven gaps of blue sky, between us. Hurrying passers- by paused or stopped to watch us in sheer admiration. Children waved to us and for most part we flew away in fear though we knew no harm was meant.
While we had sat gossiping upon the wires, a Black Crowned sparrow lark, that we had named Blackie, gave us some news of his well being. He had moved in with his mate, Tikku to a house in the village to nest upon its rafters.
The first few days when Blackie and Tikku had flown into the house in search of a place to nest, their chipping and flutter had caused Grandmother and the Mother of the house to call their daughter Meena and say excitedly,
“Look, look, Meena, those sparrows seem to be searching for a place to nest! Don’t talk loudly, lest you frighten them off!”
Soon Blackie and Tikku flew in with twigs, feathers and strange little scraps to build their nest and Grandmother said happily, her joy overflowing her toothless smile,
“They are nesting on the rafters! That’s a good omen, indeed!”
Blackie and Tikku hearing this thought it was an auspicious beginning as well, and twitted,
“How nice!” said Mother, “But I hope they don’t mess up the floor!”
Then they all took the greatest trouble never to disturb the sparrows. They spoke in low tones as far as possible, and rushed to the door to quiet a vendor when he yelled to announce his wares. Even the grinding and pounding sounded softer these days.
From below Grandmother and Meena watched the rafter eagerly. All was quiet up there. Blackie flew away often to bring tidbits for Tikku. Meena noticed Blackie was quite a handsome bird with starkly contrasting black and white markings on his face. Yellow Browed Bulbuls, Thrushes or Barbets, when flying past never failed to give him a second glance. Tikku, on the other hand was of a subdued sandy brown hue, with her feathers always a glossy fluff. On occasions when she had rested on the floor before flying up to the rafter, Grandmother, with her dwindling eyesight had mistook her for a powder puff! Naturally, she was startled when Tikku flew up!
Meena and Mother left pieces of food each day on a cracked blue porcelain saucer. They left water in a cup that had lost its handle. Blackie and Tikku made it a habit to help themselves of the offered crumbs of food.
One golden morn when the sun dazzled through the coconut palm fronds, shedding spots of dancing gold light upon the courtyard of the house, tiny chip, chip noises came from above. Meena jumped in glee and shouted to her Mother and Grandmother.
“Amma, amma, paati,paati, the baby birds have hatched! They have hatched! I can hear them, amma!”
Mother was busy getting breakfast and lunch ready in the kitchen and she ran out wiping her sweating face with her sari pallu. Grandmother waddled into the room and looked up and clapped her hands for joy.
“We are very lucky the babies have hatched!”
And she made some weird chipping sounds trying to get the attention of the birds. Mother gazed up, smiled and returned to the kitchen muttering,
“ Times are hard for us! May God send us His bountiful blessings! Don’t stand gazing at the birds Meena, get ready and be off to school. Take your lunch, and run to school or you will be late!”
Meena tore herself away from staring in delight at the nest and grabbing her lunch box said goodbye to her Grandmother and Mother and disappeared from the house.
Blackie was seen bringing in tiny caterpillars, flies and bark beetle larvae to feed the hungry babies. He made short trips to and fro with a grasshopper, millet, corn or sunflower seed in his diminutive beaks. This went on for nearly three weeks and Meena gathered courage to climb up their bamboo ladder to softly peep into the nest on the rafter. Yes, the soft fluffy little baby sparrows were in there. They tweeted all the time and Grandmother was rather annoyed by and by.
Soon the babies began trying to fly, and Meena finished her homework very early each day just to find time to be with her little pets. Tikku and the babies had got quite used to having Meena watching them and soon allowed her to softly stroke their downs that had now grown into brown feathers.
The baby sparrows fell off their nest on and off and Mother or Meena would pick them up gently and place them safely in the nest. The roof being low they did not really hurt themselves and loved being stroked gently by Meena. They did love all the pampering, and at times Meena fed them with tiny grains or kernel even while they were in the nest, and Tikku didn’t mind.
Then one day, much to Meena’s shock and grief, after they had fluttered outside the house for a few days, the baby sparrows flew away never to return. Blackie and Tikku did return to nest in the evenings, though. They hopped from the rafters to the window sill to peck at the grains and peanut kernel left on the porcelain saucer, then ventured close enough to Grandmother even as she sat fanning herself with a palm frond fan. At times they visited the kitchen and pecked rice and curry leaves lying on the floor. Or watched twitting as Meena sat colouring her picture book or finished her homework.
One sullen evening when the sun seemed reluctant to leave turning dejectedly from orange to yellow to cream to a sad pale white, the bamboo gate of their house creaked and swung open. A tall brown man stood there for a few seconds and then unsure of himself walked into the house. He bent at the door and called,
A gasp was heard from within and Grandmother yelled,
“My son, my son!”
Mother from the kitchen stepped forward to see who the intruder was. Then she turned a beetroot red and vanished into the kitchen. Meena wondering who the stranger was got up to enquire.
The man stared at Meena and smiled.
“Where is your mother? Call your mother, girl! Amma!” he exclaimed when Grandmother was near enough.
Grandmother wept for joy since the man before her was no other than her own son, who had in a drunken frenzy, beaten his wife till she fainted and thinking her dead had fled to a distant city and had not been heard of since.
Meena had been born, and grew up a fatherless child. The Grandmother stopped lamenting her son’s departure after her birth and Mother had busied herself in menial cleaning and cooking in various houses in the vicinity. She had struggled to provide food and shelter for Grandmother and Meena.
When Meena had queried about her Father, Grandmother simply said,
“He has deserted us. He is gone forever! Don’t talk about him, girl!”
Her Mother maintained a staunch silence, sighed and changed the topic every time, until Meena had stopped asking her anything about him.
So when Father did return, and Meena heard Grandmother address him as ‘son’ she knew. She eyed him suspiciously though Father smiled and tried to talk to her. She moved away and hid behind Grandmother.
Blackie above tweeted to Tikku and they peeped over the rim of their nest and watched the unexpected scenario below.
There was a honking heard from outside the courtyard. It was an auto. The driver honked impatiently and walked to the threshold of the house with large suitcases.
Father paid the driver who drove away into the crowded streets and walked in with his suitcases. Grandmother was surprised to see the sign of opulence since it was obvious he had done himself well in the city.
So what had happened to Father in the city? He had indeed grown sober once faced with the harsh realities of the city. He had begun by mulling over his disoriented life and the cruelties he had meted his unfortunate wife. He had heard later from one of the villagers seeking work in the city that his wife was indeed alive and had given birth to a girl child. He had wept at the thought of Grandmother and his wife and of course the baby he had not seen.
He resolved to set his life right and began working hard. He avoided the toddy shops like the plague. He saved money, was cheated twelve times, robbed of all his savings many times and was out of work for six months at a stretch when even the little he had saved was used to keep himself alive.
He worked tirelessly unmindful of the bodily fatigue and nights of sleepless labour. He multi- tasked and began saving passionately for his return home. Father struggled thus for seven years. He had decided that when he did choose to return, he would return as a changed man of sound means!
Mother emerged by and by after grandmother ordered her to bring Father his meal. She busied herself with serving him the meagre meal of rasam, rice, brinjal fry and buttermilk, with downcast eyes.
She did dart sharp glances at him on and off to size him up. Yes, he was thinner, but looked healthy and strong. He didn’t smell of toddy anymore. He looked clean in a crisp white cotton shirt that was a little crushed and dusty from travel. He wore a thick silver plated wrist watch. Mother was secretly happy to see this new apparition, and wished she didn’t smell of the kitchen and had worn some jasmines in her hair! But had she known he would return today and thus?
This is the happy ending to the events that Blackie and Tikku witnessed from atop their rafter which they narrated to the Sparrows at Banyan.
When we Sparrows heard of this phenomenal change in the house where Blackie and Tikku nested, naturally we all flew there in flocks to see things for ourselves. When some twelve to fifteen of us Sparrows fluttered in Grandmother looked up in astonishment and said,
“Meena, Meena, see the sparrows! There is quite a flock in here! Come and see, girl!”
Meena was sitting on her Father’s lap when she heard her Grandmother’s excited call. Her Father was reading a story to her and showing her the colourful pictures.
Off she went to see the Sparrows and soon Father and Mother joined them, and oh, what a pretty sight they saw! Soft brown sparrows sat in a long row upon the rafters chipping away and Grandmother said,
“They are here to bring us more luck! Didn’t I tell you sparrows were a good omen?”
Mother whispered a prayer to God in thanks for the copious fortune that had invaded them with her husband’s return. We Sparrows saw for ourselves the four happy smiling upturned faces which watched us from below with equal interest. Later we flew away after bidding farewell to Blackie and Tikku and retired for a fitful sleep upon the gracious branches of Banyan, after this eventful day.