The Beautiful Forest
Arti and her family lived on the banks of River Matla which flowed quietly beside the famed Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Their mud hut with the tarpaulin sheet roof secured by ropes and stones, stood in the centre of their field where they grew rice, chilies and potatoes like other villagers. It was past sunset now and it seemed to Arti that some one had splattered a giant plate of vermillion in the sky and the waters.
Her reverie was broken by excited shouts of her brother Bishnoi calling out to her. He worked as a tourist guide, taking motley groups through the maize of waterways in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in a bhatbhati or diesel driven country boat. Arti squinted her eyes in the dark trying to make out what the excitement was all about.
Bishnoi was holding something dark and slimy in his hands, which smelt strongly of petroleum. He deposited his load carefully on the side of the mud path leading up to the hut and asked Arti to bring a lamp.In the light of the lamp Arti saw that the dark and slimy object was actually a young flamingo covered in oil slick. Her brother told her that he had found the bird near the Mongla Port where a boat had run aground. The flamingo appeared to be lifeless and its eyes were stuck shut with muck.
Arti went inside and brought out a tub of warm water. She placed the bird gently in the tub and rested its snake like neck against the side of the tub. There was a slight movement in the wings as warm water engulfed the limp body. She started with the head scrubbing it gently,running her fingers over the eyes to loosen the dirt and oil and cleaned the upper and lower bill as best as she could. She then turned her attention to the neck and the body.Her brother joined her in cleaning the webbed feet and the wings. Several tubs of water later the crimson colour in the neck, legs and wings was back but the little fellow did not show any inclination to move.
They wrapped the flamingo in an old torn dhoti of their father's and placed him in one the baskets where they stored their farm produce.
Arti poured a few drops of wild honey into a glass of water and made a ball of a small piece of cloth. She dipped this in the glass and squeezed the liquid into the bill. The semi sweet concoction was quickly lapped up by the bird. The brother and sister named the bird Dhanu because of the bow like profile of the bird when in flight. They took turns at feeding Dhanu through the night and took care to keep him warm and comfortable.By morning Dhanu was able to move his legs and wings a little more and was able to open his eyes to observe the activities in the hut.
Arti's father and mother were offering prayers to Bonbibi the guardian deity of the forests. Arti's father was a honey collector and this was his daily morning ritual before entering the forest, for protection against attacks from tigers, crocodiles and snakes. Arti took five of the small raw fish kept for breakfast and offered them one by one to Dhanu. He swallowed them slowly but with easy familiarity.
Dhanu was beginning to follow Arti's movements with great interest. He liked the way Arti's small fingers caressed his bony head and the great beak. He would cock his head in a comical way and close his eyes partially and Arti could almost feel a gentle vibration in the small body under the mass of feathers. Though Dhanu was recovering, Bishnoi decided to take him to the clinic on the neighbouring island where sick and injured birds and animals were tended to.
Arti carried the bird which weighed no more than a new born baby, carefully gathering the wings and long legs, to the boat which was moored by the river.
The boat cruised noisily in the river. There was deathly silence all around except for the occasional sounds of the chital, the monkey and the birds. The wet muddy smell of marshes hung heavily in the air. Since it was low tide the mud flats lay exposed in the sun. The breathing roots of the mangroves protruded upwards like spikes from the ground. A monkey was collecting fruits and leaves while egrets feasted on the debris left by receding waters. Had it been high tide the mangroves would have been partially or fully submerged under water.
After about an hour of travel Bishnoi deftly maneuvered the boat into a shallow cove on the island. They carried Dhanu to the clinic where he was examined for injuries and adminstered medicines to prevent internal damage. However it was felt that Dhanu should be kept in captivity for a couple of days more before being released into the wilderness as he was still not ready for flight and such a bird would become easy prey for predators in the jungle.
A small pool was dug out beside the river and an encosure loosely covered with thatch was built around it. Small fishes would slip in through the enclosure along with the tidal water. Dhanu at first seemed reluctant to go in but after much coaxing he did so.In the begnning he just sat and observed the water flowing in and out of the enclosure. After a long time he attempted to stand on his long stilt like legs but fell down clumsily. He stood upright in the fifth attempt and instinctively began to dig into the loose soil with his heel to feed on little creatures from the circulating water. The next day Dhanu seemed more comfortable in his surrounding and he would now and then, raise his crimson black tipped wings as if preparing for flight.
As another day went by Arti and Bishnoi sensed a growing restlessness in the young bird. He would stare into the sky and hold his head attentively when birds called out to each other in the surrounding forests. He would make warbling sounds when birds flew past his enclosure. The children realised that Dhanu was pining to be released from captivity.
The same afternoon Arti climbed into the boat and placed Dhanu beside her.Bishnoi steered the boat till the place where fresh waters of the Hoogly Matla rivers mixed with the brackish water of the Bay of Bengal and the pristine mangrove forests stood guard at the southern fringe of West Bengal. Bishnoi sighted a herd of crimson far away in the horizon. He lifted Dhanu and held him high in the sky.
Sunset was fast approaching and the birds were calling out to each other frantically. Bishnoi felt Dhanu stiffening. His eyes were alert and his magnificent wings with jet black tips were stretched out fully. The long neck and legs were taut and ready for flight. With a loud flapping of his wings, he suddenly swung into the air and rode higher and higher in the crimson tinged sky to join his friends yonder in the estuary. Soon he became a streak of colour in the sky.
Arti continued staring at the spot in the sky where Dhanu had disappeared. From now on sunsets in the forest would always bring fond memories of her dear crimson feathered friend.