Monday, June 21, 2010

Two in the (Tea) Bush

I used to think only Englishmen dying of malaria in colonial India could hear the brain fever bird. I had no idea that it's a bird we've been hearing for many years and I paid for this knowledge with one night's sleep.

It was a night in March, and the bird shrilled outside my window without a break. There was no way I could sleep. It felt as if the bird was crying inside my head. By morning, I thought I'd gone mad. The bird didn't stop. Morning is supposed to bring great clarity of thought to the human mind. I had my moment - it became clear that the bird was saying, 'Brain fever! Brain fever!'

There are three shrill notes which the bird repeats over and over. Then there's the variation. It breaks off to do a warble of continuous climbing notes that serve as a short introduction to the same old three note cry.

Once you find out what the cry means, you hear it even more clearly and you find yourself waiting for the next one. There's no way you can mistake it for anything else. My brother Bala, who was visiting at the time, thanked me drily one morning for having explained it all to him. He'd lain awake the entire night while the bird went full throttle outside his window. We two were fellow sufferers; my husband slept the dreamless sleep that comes to tea planters!

When we'd finished making plans to eat the bird for breakfast, we read as much as we could about it on the internet. The bird is called the Hawk-cuckoo. It is small - about as big as a mynah - and black in colour. It's Hindi name is 'Papeeha', and it's said to be crying 'Pea Kahaan' (where's my love?) in search of its mate. In Bengali, they say the bird is crying 'Chokh Geilo' (Lost my eyes!)

Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy has a poem called 'The Fever Bird'. I could not find the text anywhere on the web so I've copied it here.

The Fever Bird

The fever bird sang out last night.
I could not sleep, try as I might.

My brain was split, my spirit raw.
I looked into the garden, saw

The shadow of the amaltas
Shake slightly on the moonlit grass.

Unseen, the bird cried out its grief,
Its lunacy, without relief.

Three notes repeated, closer, higher,
Soaring, then sinking down like fire.

Only to breathe the night and soar,
As crazed, as desperate, as before.

I shivered in the midnight heat
And smelt the sweat that soaked my sheet.

And now tonight I hear again,
The call that skewers through my brain,

The call, the brain-sick triple note--
A bone of pain stuck in its throat.

I am so tired I could weep.
Mad bird, for God's sake let me sleep.

Why do you cry like one possessed?
When will you rest? When will you rest?

Why wait each night till all but I
Lie sleeping in the house, then cry?

Why do you scream into my ear
What no one else but I can hear?

(A Suitable Boy; 1993, Viking, pp. 949-950)

I've always admired Vikram Seth's poetry, but this poem is especially meaningful now. The lines I like best are :-
'The call, the brain-sick triple note--
A bone of pain stuck in its throat.'

The mynah, crow and peacock are all sweet-sounding compared to this horror. It kept me awake for hours every night. I filled my time writing my own poems to the tormentor.
These are my two Hawk-cuckoo haikus:

Brain fever bird bores
sleepless mum. Delhi, daughters
dream of birds singing.

"You complain of noise.
We long to hear a bird singing:
Town, bird, a far cry."

The bird's frenzy reduced somewhat by April, but it still goes off like an alarm once every few nights. If you have never heard this bird, you're lucky. If you want to risk it, here it is on youtube:

We hear another bird now, one that sings sweetly. The Indian cuckoo is called the 'Bou-Ko-Tha-Ko' bird in Bengali. Its song has four notes. The story goes like this. The bird has just brought his bride home. She is a shy girl who doesn't say anything. The bridegroom pleads, 'Bou, kotha kou', meaning, 'Bride, say something.'

In North India, it is said that the bird cries out upon waking and discovering that his bride has run away with her lover. He goes, 'Main sota tha'. (I was sleeping!) through the night. The song has a variation, where the notes move higher up the scale. This is also explained in the legend. The deserted husband makes enquiries everywhere. He hears that the lovers have fled to a town called Champapur. He decides to follow them and changes his cry to a more urgent call, 'Chal Champapur!' (To Champapur!)

Tea planters say the bird is calling, 'Orange Pekoe', 'Broken Pekoe' or 'Make more pekoe'!!
You can hear it here on wikipedia.