Kids Story with Moral – Where did the Sparrows go?
I stood gazing into the pale blanched sky of dusk. Today a dramatic sunset didn’t greet me. It seemed like the day had blazed itself out with exhaustion. Soon a heavy darkness weaved into the sky till the whole canopy was a stringent black. Soon the stars emerged gingerly and began twinkling sparsely. Then they burst out everywhere across the sky in a violent silver brilliance.
The trees stood silhouetted against the indigo of the sky until I could hardly see the sky for the trees. It concealed itself behind a clear black mask. The twittering and chirruping of the birds had stilled and all I could hear was the murmur of the wind rustling the leaves.
I live in a small town Periakulam, snuggling at the foot hills of Kodaikanal, a lovely holiday resort in the Hills of the Western Ghats. Periakulam is basically an agricultural town, attired in acres and acres of mango orchards, coconut groves, chickoo, guava, cotton, neem, tamarind and banana farms that skirt the sleeping town. Thick fodder grass fields along with rice, corn, sugarcane, cotton and grain fields stretch like emerald carpets between the fruit farms and groves. It a scenic quilted landscape in varied hues of green! Heavily foliaged banyans, silk cottons and tamarinds flank the tarred roads leading to the town. Dry, arid land filled with rocks, acacia and hardy thorn shrubs and cactus coruscate on the greenery in pale warm brown patches.
The town is neatly sliced in two by the river Varaganadhi which splits the town into the North bank and South bank. The river runs to an unmurmuring trickle in the peak of summer and deluges into a vehement flood during the monsoons. Two bridges, along the length of the narrow river connect the North and South bank.
The lush orchard which surrounds our house has silk cotton, chickoo, coconut, guava, lime, amla, drumstick, tangerine, curry leaf, papaya and neem trees. I have often watched the sparrows, parrots, mynas and crows from my upstairs window pecking at the ripe papayas. A friendly woodpecker once settled in a hole in the coconut tree trunk and spent his day- light hours pecking away at the insects that had invaded the tree trunk. A kingfisher frequents the orchard though there are no large water body in or near our house. But it does snip the curry leaves and I love the flash of colour in his wings as he flies around.
Quite unnoticed by us, the sparrows began frequenting the orchard lesser and lesser and soon just stopped coming. It took us a while to even miss their presence since there was a constant flux of other birds and the tiny sparrow’s absence was hardly missed. But when we did notice it I felt perturbed and perplexed!
“Where are the sparrows, I wonder,” I said to myself one day.
We have always had sparrows along with the rest of the common house birds. But of late I hadn’t thought they were diminishing in such large number and that they had decreased so drastically until no sparrow was in sight anywhere in our orchard. When I realised their absence I began missing their constant twittering and little hustle and bustle as they hopped into the portico to pecked insects that had dropped beneath the night lights. They had flown between the hens and cocks and pecked the grains scattered for the farm birds. They drank off the puddle where the geese and ducks swam. They chomped away on the fat earthworms wriggling under the dark alluvial soil at the base of trees.
I remember them riding on the backs of milking cows and fed on the fodder and seeds from grass and hay the cows chewed on. There was always plenty for my little friends here in the orchard or around the house.
So why did the sparrows leave? Perplexed and answerless, I set about finishing my household tasks and surfed through websites fed by ornithologists, environmentalists and bloggers in quest for answers to the mystery of the missing sparrows.
The day sped with an array of tasks around the house to be finished. Soon I propped up some cushions on my front room sofa to recline and read ‘The House of Blue Mangoes’. I rested my weary back. I was annoyed, naturally when I heard a rapid scratching sound upon the glass panes of my window shutters. Though I tried hard to ignore it the sound persisted and I got up at length to investigate the source. I opened the window. It was a dwarf.
I jumped in fright at the sight. He gave me a friendly smile that stretched from ear to ear. Friendly or not, smiling or not, he was a stranger and a dwarf at that! And the last thing I expected to see was a dwarf scratching my window pane at the tether end of day.
“Watchman, watchman!” I yelled, my voice anxiety filled.
The dwarf had a small stick and tapped it on the glass pane lightly, to grab my attention.
“How did you get in? Watchman! Come here at once!”
“He has gone to drink tea, madam. I saw him loitering at the tea shop. A small request, madam….”
“Watchman!” I screamed again though I knew the dwarf was telling me the truth about the watchman and I didn’t want to hear his small request.
“Where is he, now?” I muttered to myself, “Watchman!”
The dwarf watched me and quietly hopped off the plant box from where he had been scratching on the window pane. He began walking away towards our large red gate. He did not look back because I think he was rather saddened that he had frightened me and had not made his request.
I quickly closed the window and sighed in relief. Then I open the window cautiously just an inch wide to see if he had indeed walked out of the gate.
To my utter fright he stood in the plant box still, with the widest of smiles. He had quickly returned, the little ras*al! He was sensible enough to avoid stamping the aglaonemas and coleus that grew profusely in the planter boxes.
“What do you want?” I asked, my eyes darting in search above him for the watchman or the cook. Nobody was in view. I noticed he held the short annoying stick in one hand. The other hand held a ring from which hung a rusty old bird cage. I heard twittering from the cage.
“Just a small request madam”, said the dwarf. “I have some friends in here in need of a place to stay. They are rather special, you see.”
He held the cage well above his head for me to see. I peered into the cage. There were seven little sparrows inside, hopping and chirruping.
“They’re just sparrows” I said. “Do you want to sell them? How much are they?”
Since he didn’t express any desire to come in or for the door to be opened, I felt quite safe bargaining through the window grill. And I thought it a strange coincidence that I had just that morning wondered where the sparrows had disappeared.
He was very pleased that I seemed really eager to buy the sparrows and named a reasonable price. I paid him through the grill, and went to the front door to pick up my cage of sparrows. I was surprised to see the dwarf was there already and I thought, “He must be from a circus, moving so fast with lightening speed! What a strange fellow! But I’d better be careful!”
So when I opened the veranda door to take the bird cage I was terrified when the dwarf pushed his foot in like a wedge between the door way and prevented me from closing the door. His shoes were the weirdest I’ve ever seen. It was a patch work of different coloured leather, the small pieces stitched together and a big yellow stone adorned the top of each shoe. When I saw the dwarf in better light I found he was dressed in a patchwork shirt and red pants. He wore one tiny silver earring on his left ear that dangled as he spoke.
But it really was too late. He walked in without any trouble and looked around the room and said,
“Let me teach you how to care for the birds. I’ve told you, they’re very special. What a nice house!”
Fear shook the life out of me but I was too afraid to say or do anything. And it was then that I heard the watchman’s return. The dwarf didn’t seem to notice, for he drew a brown leather bag from his pocket. He emptied the contents onto the palm of my hand. They were sugar coated almonds, in soft pastel colours.
“ Bird feed,” was all he said as if he were a doctor prescribing pills for a patient. A sugar coated almond sweet, a bird feed!? I thought the dwarf was nuts! At this point I was overcome with joy when I heard my husband’s car horn and I dashed to the partly opened door, and rushed to my husband.
“A dwarf……” I blurted, “in the house….. a dwarf!”
My husband rushed in as did the watchman. There sat the bird cage on the veranda floor. But the dwarf had disappeared. However there was a sparrow fluttering in the veranda though the cage door was still shut.
“Did you buy the birds? From whom? A Dwarf? A birdman?”
My husband bombarded me with questions not waiting to hear the answers.
He ran from room to room in search of the dwarf. The Sparrow Man, as I later named him was nowhere to be seen. He certainly wasn’t in the house though it was thoroughly searched. Strange as it was the sparrow that fluttered outside the cage stood docilely at the door of the cage and hopped in when we opened the door.
I eyed the sparrow very suspiciously. I counted the sparrows wondering how this one had flown out. I counted eight sparrows now though formerly there had only been seven. I was quite certain it had been seven.
When we retired to bed we left the sparrows in the kitchen, with water and food grains. I counted the birds again, and found there were indeed eight. And though I was extremely tired, due to the hectic day, the fear and tension mounting from these strange happenings, I’m certain beyond doubt that the eighth sparrow winked at me. I left the kitchen quickly and wondered what the dwarf had meant by ‘special’. The sparrows seemed like any other house sparrows to me. Still uneasy about the missing dwarf, and the winking sparrow, I slept a sleep of turmoil.
My husband believed someone had sold me the birds and left. He ascribed my ‘dwarf blabbering to my disturbed mind and fertile imagination or my day dreaming. But I was not to be deterred. The eighth sparrow? He said nothing to that for it remained a mystery. Yet we were uneasy about the event and the silence between us grew thick and he ate his dinner fully absorbed in the one day cricket match between India and Australia.
The next day I opened the kitchen door to see the sparrows flying within the limited cage and felt sorry for them. I was really relieved one of the sparrows hadn’t metamorphosed into that creepy dwarf!
“Maybe I will let them fly out into the garden and orchard outside. They’re too cooped up in here, poor things!”
And I took the cage to the square courtyard behind the kitchen and open the door wide. Out flew the sparrows, except the eighth. This agitated and surprised me no end and before I could speed to my husband with this uncanny situation, I heard the dwarf say,
“ Madam, no,no, don’t be startled, but I’m the dwarf- turned- sparrow in here.”
I quickly shut the cage door.
I heard my husband climb down the stairway and I told him what had happened. He laughed most heartily and said,
“A talking sparrow, now? Ha,ha! Maybe he likes being in the cage! So let him stay!”
With that he wolfed down his breakfast and was off, giving me a nice hug, laughing all the way to the car.
I was very reluctant to go to the kitchen, but I did.
The sparrow winked again and said very amicably,
“Pass me an almond!”
And when I did he pecked away at the pink almond sweet and I walked outside to see how his companions were doing. I thought the impertinent dwarf couldn’t do me any harm if he stayed put in the cage. The rest of the sparrows fluttered happily upon the branches of the guava trees and pecked at the fruits. Some picked grain and seeds from the ground. One pair had already begun collecting feathers and twigs to nest on the neem tree.
I gave the cook the shopping list, the menu for the day and with my cup of coffee, the cage in hand, went to my bedroom. With the sparrow secured within the confines of the cage I decided to shelve my fears and have a conversation with the Sparrow Man, as I called him.
“Sparrow Man, are you a magician?”
“Not really,” said he.
“Will you return to being a dwarf?”
“Not while I’m in the cage!”
“Are you actually a sparrow or a dwarf by origin?”
“A sparrow,” said he.
I sipped my coffee and said,
“Ah! A magic sparrow! Why did you turn into a dwarf, then?”
“There are things you have to know.”
Now I settled down on my fat sofa with the cage on my lap, ready to listen. I continued sipping my tepid coffee. My cell phone beeped a SMS message. The Sparrow Man was visibly shaken and seemed to lose his cool.
“Tell me,” I said, smiling at him for the first time, wondering why he had been disturbed momentarily just now.
“It’s your cell phone; we sparrows go crazy with all the electromagnetic radiation from the base stations or towers as you call it.”
I discreetly laid my cell phone away.
“We sparrows get terribly disoriented with all those electromagnetic waves streaking through the air. Thousands of my cousin sparrows have gone berserk! They navigate through the air at random because it has caused our behavioural patterns to change drastically. Initially we couldn’t account for the sudden slump in our productivity. Now we know why.” And he cast an accusing glance at me.
“Is it due to our mobile phones, Sparrow Man?” I queried beginning to feel alarmed by the havoc we were unintentionally causing in the kingdom of birds.
“Yes, yes,” he said vehemently. “Do you see that GSM base station piercing into the very heavens?”
I looked out of the window and could see a cell phone tower, looking very majestic and lofty, against the mid morning sky of blue.
“What’s GSM, Sparrow Man?” I queried humbly.
“Global System of Mobile Communication”, said he and I thought he was very knowledgeable for a sparrow.
“I have been around and I know these things,” he said even before I could voice the compliment.
“Most of my cousins, uncles and friends living close to areas near relatively high electronic field strengths of the GSM base stations, left for good. When the intensity gets higher the sparrows are in great discomposure, as it were. Then they die early or leave for good. We have thus grown lesser and lesser. Some of my friends the squirrels, pigeons, sun birds, tailor birds, mynahs and storks also made similar complaints and find the situation hazardous! Ah, we are all affected, madam!” he said dolefully.
“You know, the long term exposure to higher levels of radiation has such a negative effect, we male sparrows sing less these days and breeding among our species has deteriorated. Have you heard us sing, of late madam? No, you haven’t! You haven’t even missed us!” He looked so pathetic while he said this that I had to pat his tiny soft feathery head with my finger tip, through the slim bars.
He brightened up then, but continued,
“We are so disoriented due to the electromagnetic radiation emanating from cell phone masts, our breeding couples began fighting frequently while constructing their nests! Such things were never heard of before! There existed a fine comradeship between young nest builders! But now there is a mammoth unrest among us.”
I noticed Sparrow Man had tiny tears in his eyes and I fished out a lavender almond sweet for him to eat from his little brown leather bag. It lay untouched on the cage floor.
“Do eat, Sparrow Man,” I coaxed. “Shall I find you some seeds or grain?”
He remained mute and sullen as though controlling an avalanche of tears.
Soon I was at a loss of words and remained silent. Eventually he said, his voice packed with emotion,
“My father and mother and thirty seven of my other bird comrades died colliding into telecom masts! The occurrence has become too common of late.”
“Oh no!” said I, for the information truly alarmed me. “Didn’t they watch out for the towers while flying, Sparrow Man?”
Sparrow Man gave me an incredulous look and I felt ashamed of my glaring ignorance.
But he said with constrained patience,
“They collide at night while migrating, madam. And some don’t see through the mist and fog or any bad weather!”
All I could do was hear him attentively and feel helpless. Yet I thought it would do the Sparrow Man some good to pour his grievances to me. I resolved to help the best I could.
“You know, madam, we birds, not only us sparrows, mind you, all of us birds use the earth’s magnetic fields for navigation. We get seriously disoriented by the microwave radiation from telecom masts! Oh, it is our undoing!”
Now he gave vent to a flood of tears. It was only an extremely hair line thin line of tears, by our human standards, but a flood by sparrow standards.
I offered him the tassel that fringed my light cotton saree. He moved close to the bar and rubbed his face and beak upon it. I put the cage down on the floor and said,
“Just a sec, Sparrow Man,” and raced down the stairway to the kitchen. An aroma of drumstick sambar, the sound and smell of vegetable seasoning greeted me. I peeped out of the window and found a sparrow drinking water that dropped from a dripping tap. I filled the small green bowl with water for Sparrow Man and grabbed a fistful of rice kernel from a container on the kitchen shelf.
I raced up taking two steps at a time, as I do during times of emergency or hurry. Sparrow Man had started pecking on the lavender almond sweet during my absence and I thought I heard a teeny tiny burp once he was done with the rice kernel and water that I placed in the cage. I thought he was a rather sweet fellow, for I really preferred him as a sparrow to a dwarf. I was truly concerned about the reasons for the diminishing of his breed and thought I should help.
Sparrow Man gazed at me through the bars. He hopped around the little space inside. I opened the cage door and said generously,
“Hop out, Sparrow Man! Take a walk! There’s no one here!”
I almost opened the door fully before a terrible thought struck me. What if he turns into a dwarf once he is out of the cage? So with all caution and speed I closed the door again and said,
Sparrow Man was very puzzled, indeed, and cast a querying glance my way. Then the reason for my change of mind prompted him to say,
“Not to worry, madam, I will remain a sparrow!”
I knew the dwarf in him grinned from ear to ear!
So with a little apprehension, I asked myself if I was asking for trouble, but with a brave smile flung the little door open. Sparrow Man hopped out, flew blithely around our bedroom, sat upon a wing of the ceiling fan and twittered to me. I switched on and immediately switched off the fan so he went for a little merry-go-round ride on the ceiling fan as it twirled slowly around. When it stopped he flew to the grill on our window and greeted the sparrows outside and said,
“Good luck to you!”
I heard the young sparrows busy with nest building tweet in reply.
“See them help each other build their nest. I hope the telecom tower doesn’t turn them crazy!”
I hoped the same and felt helpless about the hazardous waves that streaked the invisible air about me. I even hated using my cell phone, contributing to their peril.
He flew to our row of photographs and examined them one by one as though he were in an art gallery, viewing paintings.
I found a toy parrot that would squawk when moved from side to side which we had bought in Thailand. The parrot’s squawk however frightened the little Sparrow Man, and he flew quickly into the cage!
I took him downstairs and laid the cage on the dining table while I lunched. He perched himself on the thin iron pole that stretched through the diameter of the cage. He seemed to be dozing, while I silently finished my food.
While I took my afternoon siesta, the house was quiet except for the chirping of birds, the steady cawing of crows and the staccato sound of squirrels while playing on the walls and trees. My husband had called me to say he would return only at night since he had to leave town on a business matter. I had the day to myself.
I woke earlier than usual since the Sparrow Man’s presence was taking its toll on my sleep. Fear had replaced curiosity. I had yet to hear of anyone encountering a sparrow turned dwarf and vice versa. It was an uncanny, unheard of experience not to be taken lightly!
The twitter from the bird cage that I had left in the kitchen before my afternoon siesta was an indication that Sparrow Man was awake. So I hurried to him after I gulped down my evening tea and munched on a biscuit as I picked up the cage once again and went to the privacy of my bedroom. I hardly wanted my cook to see me in serious conversation with a sparrow, nor did I want her broadcasting it!
“No more almond sweets for me, madam,” said Sparrow Man. The sparrow’s little belly indeed had an extra bulge and I knew I had over fed him. I remembered he had said ‘one almond sweet a day’. It was a strange diet for a sparrow naturally, but I knew it was the dwarf in him that craved the almond sweet!
Soon with the cage on my lap, I was ready to converse.
“You have dense trees here, madam,” said he. “I love the cool neem breeze and the Painted Courtesan Butterflies flitting across the window! They are very friendly, you know. But the trees’ rustling leaves remind me, alas, the cities no longer have lush foliage like they used to. I am one for the city life myself, but our nesting places have vanished! It’s a concrete jungle out there. There are more buildings than trees, to be honest. I hear from the travelling crows and parrots that new constructions of offices, IT buildings and housing complexes are mushrooming on every vacant piece of land!”
“And they landscape the gardens with exotic unheard of trees from foreign lands. We cannot live on those! Some prop artificial plants and trees to add greenery to the place! We will end up with a green desert ultimately! And turf! What do we do with plastic turf, I ask you! We cannot nibble on turf nor find our proverbial worm on patches of plastic turf!” He was full of red contempt.
“Even the natural grass, plants and trees reek of pesticides and urea sprayed to boost their growth, yuk, I hate going near them! All of us dread the taste and smell, ugh! Some of the very young birds have died in large numbers.”
“And do you know madam,” he continued, “toxins sprayed on plants and the radiation from telecom towers has reduced our reproductive capacity? Our hatchings are destroyed or hatch with serious deformities!”
“Oh, no!” said I, utterly astounded by the revelation of these terrible facts.
Sparrow Man was angered by the hopelessness of the situation. I tried recalling my own childhood days in the city.
Having lived in Madurai until my marriage, I clearly remembered the lush trees that dotted the landscape liberally, during my childhood days. I was born and grew up in a large squat house on the East Veli Street, on the street running parallel to the historical Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal. The Christian Mission Hospital stood across the road. The hospital was mostly hidden by the numerous dense dark leaved trees which canopied the buildings and all we could see were small patches of the white washed colonial buildings here and there.
We were always greeted by the loud tweeting of thousands of birds that resided in those trees when we woke up early each morning. Koel songs were a constant music to my ear.I loved to watch the sparrows stand on the parapet walls of my house or hop on the veranda where we played. They perched upon the electric wires that ran in front of our house or sat on the ventilator rods. At times they sat on the window and peeped through the bars and I loved their shadows against the green and yellow glass panes through which sunlight streamed in. We flung puffed rice and ground nuts on the veranda floor hoping to catch one when they flew in close enough! Yes, I knew exactly what the Sparrow Man was talking about!
Sure enough they were now all gone. The trees across the street were now replaced by flashy rows of shops dazzling with lights. I haven’t heard the chirping though I do hear the hardy black robust crows. No sparrows remain. And tragically I hadn’t missed them, amidst the bustle of shopping and visiting relatives when I visited the city!
I asked myself what had happened to the bird feeders. It was almost a ritual to lay food for birds on the terrace! I have watched from our terrace, a Sowrashtra lady in a chungudi cotton saree with food in a bowl coming up to the terrace, rolling tight balls of rice in her hand and placing them neatly on the parapet walls for birds to feed.
“Ka,ka,ka,ka!” she would call. When crows flocked to their meal, the sparrows followed to feed on their leftovers.
Not so today. Everyone is at work or school, hurrying off early with packed lunch, though I do know an old lady doctor, practising this bird feeding ritual!
Now I began to understand why the sparrows have left.
I began narrating how things were during my childhood ‘sparrow days’. Sparrow Man was extremely attentive, for I told him things he had not known.
“Is it true then that most of the concretised walk ways, and open spaces were just mud paths and muddy open grounds?”
“Of course!” said I, warming up to the conversation and feeling glad I had information to impart. “In fact most trees, plants and shrubs have been rid of to accommodate parking lots for the thousands of cars! And tiles or concrete veneered over mud grounds.”
“And did they really throw away leftovers and not stack them up in the fridge?”
“Yes! In fact having a fridge, like a motor car was a luxury only the rich could afford! So I guess the sparrows feasted on the throwaways!”
“Talking about cars, we hate the pollution emitting from vehicles, madam. Some of our birds choke on the toxin! Since we fly through different areas the pure air around vegetated spaces, exhaling of oxygen is God’s own boon! We didn’t realise it until we inhaled the polluted air around populated cities! When we fly the higher levels like the hawk and the eagle (though it is rather rare for us sparrows to take those heights) we find the fresh purity of the air exhilarating!”
I thought of the city’s heavy traffic hours. We were pumping toxins into the air from our cars. The grey fumes from exhaust smoke polluted the atmosphere. And adding to the pollution invisible electromagnetic radiation has plunged us all into an X-ray environment! And the sound pollution with the honking of hundreds of cars in each street and the blast of film songs over loud speakers, it drives even us human beings crazy! Oh, the poor, poor birdies! It must be deafening!
Feeling very subdued by the state of things, I found the evening was sultry and I almost switched on the air conditioning but thought the better of it. I knew I would be depleting the Ozone layer. So the fan whirled on and I opened the windows wide. I resolved to use the air conditioning only when and if absolutely necessary! Sparrow Man seemed spent with all the complaining and explaining.
“You should rest Sparrow Man, good night! But before I leave you in the kitchen, do you want water to drink?”
I heard no reply, for Sparrow Man was snoozing already, his tiny head to one side.
Finally we heard the sparrows’ chirp subside. A black koel cooed beautifully as though in farewell to the parting day and a greeting to the twilight hours. Soon all was still and the day was lulled to a drugged sleep. Sparrow Man slept very fitfully, too. I just watched the wonder of it all and decided to observe the sparrows more attentively henceforth.
The next morning I tried to see how the nest builders were faring. They had begun the nest and it was slowly taking shape as the week progressed. I made sure the cook scattered plenty of rice kernel, and grains for the birds. They flocked to peck at rice and left over food from our washing place outside. There was surplus water for the birds since the watchman dug long channels on the ground for water to flow, whereby irrigating the coconut trees.
Sparrow Man thankfully remained a sparrow and never once wished himself a dwarf. I found him perfectly safe to be with. In fact he often hopped or flew around the house or perched himself upon the window grill and made friends with the passing butterflies and squirrels. We had hens, ducks and turkeys in our backyard, and Sparrow Man was soon acquainted with them and spent intervals through the course of day chatting with them. He conversed with the pigeons and doves which nested in niches and ledges within churches, temples, mosques and old buildings. The squabs flew frequently into our orchard for nest building material or food. Their cooing which sounded like gurgling was a perennial sound.
Somehow he never did get over his fright when encountering our watch dogs. He maintained a respectable distance with them, or simply flew up to perch on a branch at the sight of our dogs!
One day as I sat throwing dry bread and pedigree cubes for the dogs, the Sparrow Man sat high up on the space above the lentil of the doorway and said,
“The city is teeming with dogs these days madam. Its increasing numbers of stray dogs and mice have reduced our food supply severely. We fly home to our nests hungry for want of morsels to eat! I have spent sleepless nights on a hungry stomach! It’s tragic when we cannot feed our fledglings! Oh, the losses we have witnessed!”
This brought tears to my eye as I fed the dogs the last of their pedigree and went indoors. I busied myself with folding clothes to be put away neatly in my cupboard. The Sparrow Man actually sat on my shoulder chatting amiably.
“That’s really sad, Sparrow Man! I think the Blue cross should remove all strays from off the streets. They do have sound methods to rid mice, you know, but these things have to be implemented regularly. ” I sighed.
“Have you ever seen the thick black clouds of smoke?” he said, taking off suddenly in a tangent from the topic of dogs and mice. Perhaps he thought the air pollution a bigger menace.
“Tell me, in some of the outskirts of towns and cities why do those enormous puffs of black gloomy smoke rise all day and night into the sky, madam? We sparrows and other birds too, feel choked by the smoke when flying even a good distance away from it. Ours eyes sting and feel blinded by it.”
“That’s smoke from factories and industries, Sparrow Man. Yes, acute industrialization could be a factor. Did you know the exhaust fumes from vehicles mix with fog and smoke and causes smog? Smoke + fog = smog!” I said, trying to sound very mathematical. Sparrow man smiled a sweet sparrow smile.
“Have you seen the drab grey blanket of air hanging around cities and industrial areas? Well that’s smoke and soot. It’s really fatal for us human beings too. We fall ill, are diseased and succumb to terminal illness. You birds die. When this happens the world over, the earth’s atmosphere is globally warmed. We’re all threatened!”
Sparrow Man listened very attentively to every word I said. He was beginning to get depressed and we both sat there thinking the situation was really hopeless. And there was nothing we could do about it. Then Sparrow man brightened up and said,
”Let me have a bath. I really need to cool off!”
His impulsive nature always made me smile and I said, “Do!”
The drab smoke and pollution talk had contagiously stolen into our disposition turning us both sullen somehow.
And I followed him as he fluttered into the orchard and took a bird bath in a bucket of water left outside to water plants. Some of the sparrows joined him. They made merry and I felt happy just watching them. The depressing mood of a few minutes ago had vanished, at least momentarily. Some of the sparrows bathed in the trough which held water for the cows, as the cows watched them with calm eyes, swishing the flies with their tails.
The sparrows enjoyed their bath and soon shook off the water from their feathers. They then pecked at the of guava fruits and had their fill of mealy bugs, the scale insects and the bark eating caterpillars. Then they flew away content in different directions.
Sparrow Man returned to the house. I had discarded his rickety cage for I found no use for it. My husband first thought it strange that the sparrow was having such free play in our home. Soon nobody bothered to even wonder at his presence.
“Did you enjoy your bath Sparrow Man” I asked knowing very well that he did.
“Refreshed and clean!” he exclaimed.
Then as though confronted by a mental flash back, his little bright eyes lost their spark and his face fell. I felt a little apprehensive and wondered what the sudden cause for distress might be.
“Sparrow Man, are you alright?”
“Fine, fine,” he said slowly in words weighing him down.
I was silent for I knew some parlous memory had invaded the quiet of his mind.
He twittered and even whistled trying to disguise his change of mood. I waited patiently and hoped he would confide in me as he had always done.
As though in answer to my thoughts he said,
“ We sparrows have had some bad experiences in ponds and rivers, you know. Our favourite rivers and ponds are things of the past. Flocks of us after a tiring flight or frantic scavenging for food in the sweltering summer heat dive into pools or rivers and what do you think await us?”
“Don’t tell me, Sparrow Man,” I said, having already guessed the reason for his glumness.
He gave me a stern accusing look. I cringed as though I had been guilty.
“It has to be the chemical wastes and waste oils from cars and factory spills! Run offs from petrol stations and industrial farm wastes! Am I right? And pesticides, fertilizers and manure slurries, to name a few! I know, Sparrow Man! I have to tell you four thousand five hundred human beings die each day due to water borne diseases! Isn’t it tragic! We call it liquid pollution! We are all affected, again!”
Sparrow Man was quite appalled by the number, and said with great sympathy,
“Really? We have a common problem then madam! The last time I dived into the river, I emerged dirtier than I had been. My feathers were coated thick with oil and garbage floating on the water. I thought I would drown! Many from my flock died from drowning in the sludge, unable to take off in flight again, for the chemical slush weighed them down! I managed somehow, being one of the few lucky sparrows that managed to fly away though flapping my wings painfully. The contaminated river actually destroyed the oil lubricating my wings and feathers. It took me many days to clean off the residue coating my wings! And the stink! Ugh! Sheer torture! I really don’t know how the poor amphibians and fishes survive in this muck!”
By the end of it all I at least knew why the sparrows had dwindled and vanished especially in the more progressive areas.
I pondered over his words of woe and wondered if a solution could come forth.
“How do you think we could help you, Sparrow Man? Is there any hope?”
“You have helped a few of us already here, madam.”
He hopped to the window grill and tweeted to his mates.
“We need food, fresh water and trees to nest. Our needs are really very simple. But some of these sparrows have complained of a mild head spin on and off.”
He flung a sharp angry glance at the telecom tower that loomed colossally above us, at a distance.
“But I guess there’s nothing you can do about that; though I wish you could!”
I couldn’t find anything to say since none of us could possibly do without the cell phone these days. So I waited in confusion. Could the mobile phones be replaced by something more an eco friendly? I had no answer.
“I know of neighbourhoods in metropolis and towns where bird lovers have bird houses for sparrows to nest without being hindered by other bird predators like the crows and mynas,” said the Sparrow Man having casually switched topic, while I pondered over the mobiles.
“They feed the sparrows daily with fresh water and grains and seeds. Maybe each house could have a bird house for starters. It’s the next best thing, since so many trees have disappeared! Children especially love us, you know!”
I visibly lit up at the suggestion this lissom little companion of mine had come up with. Now I was all ears. All was not lost.
“They adopt a bird.”
“Adopt a bird?” I said in disbelief. “How so, Sparrow Man?”
“Like I think you have now adopted me,” he said quite amused by my confusion.
“Well, I have heard there are bird clubs and organizations that help people adopt birds by feeding, sheltering, breeding and protecting us. They are generously funded by bird lovers. That’s a very thoughtful genuine gesture, I must say!”
I could not have agreed with him more.
“There’s something called ‘adopt a bird kit’, did you know? I’ve heard some of my friends travelling from Bengaluru in winter, mention it. These are bird houses that can be mounted on poles, trees, walls, terraces, balconies and the backyards of any home in rural or urban areas! Isn’t that a fine idea?”
“Of course!” I said making a mental note to avail myself of a bird kit at my earliest.
“And do the sparrows find it a comfortable place to stay? Do they nest and breed in there?”
“Certainly! They are fed millets, sunflower, niger and canola seeds which are some of our favourites. They have fresh water every day. And the entrance to the bird kit is just small enough for us sparrows. So bigger birds cannot enter nor disturb them, they say. Apartment dwellers find bird kits very convenient, since they have no gardens. They place or hang them on balconies and it looks quite ornamental along with hanging pots of creepers!”
I felt happy about the growing awareness of residents in cities and rural areas who really cared and were concerned about our feathered friends.
“I guess it’s the next best thing to having a garden and trees and shrubs for you to nest,” I said, since so much of vegetation had been shaved off to accommodate buildings, flyovers and four lane highways.
“Yes, I loved the garden until the smell and taste of weed killers and fertilizers killed or drove the insects away from plants and shrubs! Many of our birds succumbed to the toxins. Maybe just planting more native trees, plants and shrubs near each house will attract insects. The more insects the more birds! After all insects constitute a major portion of our diet!”
“Superb! Sparrow Man, you’re smart!” I said as Sparrow Man rattled off valuable suggestions.
I remembered some of our organic farms. They used natural pesticides like crushed neem seeds and organic manure like dung from cows, goats and fowls along with leaves and coir dust. That would protect the plant as well as the birds! In a way, sparrows themselves were helping us in dieting on harmful insects!
I thought planting more trees and shrub was a good idea, and not too hard to follow either. Trees would exhale oxygen and attract the rain as well. That would be a most welcome all round benefit!
“And how about leaving small patches of lawns to overgrow? We would find juicy fat earth worms tucked beneath the grass! Ah, the taste of succulent earth worms from the moist soil!” He dribbled by his little yellow beak at the thought, much to my amusement.
“I think the process of landscape make-over should simply stop too, though that might be wishful thinking. But constant chopping of trees, trimming of shrubs and bushes and bore wells replacing the good old fashioned draw wells! Ah, how we loved the puddles of water around the wells! So cool and sweet! The ponds and lakes that once lay teeming with fishes, frogs and water birds have dried up and now house colonies of concrete structures. All this certainly reduces our available resources!”
I thought back on days when women folk drew water from wells. They had the time to stand gossiping around wells, or chat while washing cooking utensils or clothes as the sparrows flitted close by helping themselves to the healthy buffet of cast away curry leaves, vegetable pieces, rice, dhal and onions!
I felt really sorry about the changes that had occurred in recent times and the terrible effect it was having on the sparrows. I told myself I’d do all I can to help them survive, since the existing environment hardly favoured their existence. I thought the birds needed to be watched sharply because they were bio monitors to detect urban pollution, and a sound warning to human beings when we see them dwindle so drastically.
I watched Sparrow Man as he nibbled on a pale blue almond sweet. I was surprised to see it had been the last in the now empty little leather bag. It was a reminder that the Sparrow Man had been with me for almost ten days! I wondered how to replenish his bag for he really loved his unusual quota, each day!
It began raining now that the monsoons had set in. There wasn’t much bird activity outside my window though during pauses of the downpour, sparrows, mynas, parrots and crows zoomed out of their foliaged hideaways in the trees and emerged to feed on the grass and wet grounds. Sparrow Man of course was always dry since he never ventured to the exteriors of the house during the rains.
Today however he streaked out in a hurry and bathed in a puddle of rain water and chirruped and frolicked with his companions.
“The baby sparrows have hatched!” he said in delight. “All the eggs have hatched and I’m happy none of them are deformed!” I was happy too. I couldn’t explain how though, with a telecom tower at quite a close range. Of course I didn’t voice my wonderment. As always I attributed all deserved and undeserved blessings to God’s grace. I began singing softly a hymn I knew,
“Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart feel lonely?
And long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion
A constant Friend is He
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me!”
Sparrow Man listened to me soulfully. He was impressed by the words and waited for my pause.
“We sparrows feature in a spiritual song? Wow! I never thought we were that significant!”
“Why not, Sparrow Man? In fact you sparrows are mentioned seven times in the Bible! Did you know a sparrow doesn’t fall without God noticing it? He cares for you as much as us! God cares for us all through other people.”
“Pal Pandi!” exclaimed Sparrow Man. I was stunned for a while and thought the radioactive waves from the tower had after all begun having its undesirable effect!
“Pal Pandi, madam,” he explained, “is a very good friend of ours.”
I could see the connection, now. I waited to hear what he had to say regarding his friend Pal Pandi.
“Has he helped you anytime, Sparrow Man?”I asked with my interest in Pal Pandi aroused.
“Yes madam, he is a simple villager from Koonthangulam in the Thirunelveli District. His simple love for birds has made him a bird activist of renown. When you mentioned even a fallen sparrow doesn’t escape God’s notice and that God helps us through people I couldn’t help thinking of Pal Pandi. He has a rescue centre where fledglings falling from nests are taken by the villagers and he nourishes and cares for them till they are able to fly!”
“What a wonderful man! But how about the rest of the villagers, are they concerned too?”
“Oh yes, thanks to Pal Pandi’s efforts, migrating birds from the world over have access to the sanctuary near his village. The villagers work hand in glove with Pal Pandi to protect the birds. I once saw a man have the hair on his head shaved off for disturbing a nest! Wasn’t it a funny sight watching him scratch his bald head in shame! Ha,ha!”
I laughed too and said, “Really! What a guy!”
“And once, a boy had to ride on a donkey through the village for the same offense!”
I simply couldn’t stop laughing at these harmless yet effective punishments.
After our laughter had subsided somewhat, Sparrow Man said in a placid tone,
“In the village of Koonthangulam you will hear no sound of fire crackers even on Dewali day, for fear of birds flying away in fright. Isn’t that really something, Madam?
I was more than just amazed by a single aviation activist’s influence on an entire village!
“Wow!” I breathed in disbelief.
Sparrow Man had somehow uplifted my spirit with his account of how an individual can accomplish unusually impossible feats. I concluded that nothing was impossible with a little awareness and genuine concern. I sat in a daze of deep musing until I suddenly remembered something as mundane as the almond sweets for Sparrow Man. I asked Sparrow Man where I might buy them. He hopped onto the palm of my hand and said demurely,
“You will not need them anymore, madam.”
He then rubbed his soft feathery head on my cheek, to my pleasant surprise, and said,
“Thank you for your time! Good bye!”
Before I realised what was happening Sparrow Man had flown into the thin drizzle and vanished into the silver grey sky. I thought I had dreamt it all, for he never appeared again. I scanned the sky each day from the windows and terrace, hoping he would return for I missed him so! Maybe I had just imagined the whole thing! I felt lost and let down at his sudden departure. As the days sped by, I told myself woefully that he had disappeared as abruptly as he had appeared in my life. I cried for his return. I prayed. Then I questioned myself about my own sanity.
“You dreamt it!” said my husband. “It must be a dream!”
“You imagined it all!” he said the next day.
Soon I began believing his words, for within a month Sparrow Man seemed nothing but my phantasy’s.
There were sparrows in the garden though and I thought maybe they had always been there and I just hadn’t noticed. I scattered seeds and removed the dry leaves and garden detritus from the water in containers I left around for sparrows to drink and bathe. Then I remembered the nest. Was there a nest up the neem tree, still? I strained myself to see between the branches and twigs. There was a nest and my heart beat grew faster. I climbed upon a low crate to peep inside. The baby birds had obviously flown away. But something attracted my attention. I put my hand in and retrieved a little brown leather bag. I felt heady with the find. I took it indoors and spilt its content upon the palm of my hand. There dazzled two yellow stones and a tiny silver earring.