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.


Anonymous said...

Ooh, I LOVE this post. And Seth's poem, and your Haikus.

I've heard this bird many a time Gardenia, but thankfully never at nnight.

Strangely I did just one on the koel call which is equally maddening!



Poor brain fever bird - but is its sound really so maddening? I guess it would be if it kept you up all night. It was a bit of a surprise when I read that its Hindi name is papiha - isn't its cry supposed to be musical, if plaintive, according to all those Hindi film songs?

Thanks for Vikram Seth's poem.
And yours too. Your haiku (?) is well and tightly packed.

And last but not least, for finding the melodious notes of the boukothako.

pentatwo said...

Yes, I do remember the 72 hours there most vividly. Note, I did not say three days and nights as the two blended into one thanks to "brain fever" and another reason I do not need to get into.

Here, we have our own version of "brain fever". This year we have been invaded by a few robins, and a couple of them start off at 3:15 AM! At times, they do sound like "brain fever". That maybe because I was brainwashed by your birds. Here is what they sound like:

Yes, they are just outside our bedroom (east) and our living room (south)and we do get a streophonic duet!

At times, I think I prefer The Bee Gees and their Night Fever to my feathered friends/enenies.

Where is Elmer Fudd? I want him to go "Wobin Hunting"!


Gardenia said...

Pentatwo, you tell the non-believers!! The Bee Gees' Night Fever - your choice conveys it all.
Those who haven't been kept awake by it - thank your stars!

Anonymous said...

Lovely Gowri. We have our 3am koel here - its been three weeks and he is yet to find a mate. Might he have better luck there?


Viji said...

Oh Gowri the Koel in the Yewoor Hills has been palintively begging for the rains and the heavens answered its prayers non stop these last six days. But your sweet post encourages me to share this rather sureal experience of mine -there is a bird in the hills that calls out every morning ; all the while that I walk in them ; five stacatto notes ; lilting and uplifting . Never seen the bird but look forward to hearing him / her every morning thrilling to the familiar tune i can never tire of.
Always wondered what bird it was. A couple of years ago watched Madhumati - a special screening on the classic's 50th anniversary and in one of the scenes where Madhu is waiting for Anand Babu in the jungle this very bird ; this very bird song has been captured by Bimal Roy ( the film was famous for its "real" soundtrack of the jungle ). Somehting moved in me that day - a bird that trilled today in my back yard jungle had an ancestor who sang that very song which was captured for eternity 50 years ago in a celuloid sound track....

Angel said...

thank you for posting the poem... it always gave me chills, and it was nice to find it so readily available online!

Marilyn said...

Fascinating bird stories.

Indian Bazaars said...

I liked so much what you write as the description to your blog/yourself.

NP said...

Lovely post
told beautifully

shalini mehra said...

Dear Gowri
you are such a natural writer . Fora few minutes I was transported on the scene listening to the nonstop cacophony of the bird. Bou- Kou- tha- ko always gets me nostalgic about Tea gardens. luckily for me here too i get to hear variety of them as there are lots of trees . One particular one sounds as my father would often say - Faticher Fatichar - every morning as if it brings his messages to me. How associations work is a remarkable mind process and a bird evokes a memory. One transports me to Assam the other resounds my father's voice. Now i am waiting for the Koyal as mango tree is laden with flowers to fruit ..... waiting eagerly for Koyal's arrival.