My wife Tara is the birds-person in our family. I know next to nothing about the feathered kind. But about a couple of months before we left Kolkata after our five years’ stay in its leafy Raj Bhavan, I made friends with two mynahs.
Or rather, two mynahs flew into my life.
A verandah has edged the governor’s apartment overlooking the mansion’s spectacular south-western garden for as long as the building has stood, some 206 years. This verandah has been enclosed with a tight meshing in an ingenious design to keep the estate’s prolific pigeons out. No pigeon, or any other bird for that matter, could violate the governor’s privacy — nor anoint his person with the siftings of avian blessing.
But Tara and I longed for an unobstructed view of the garden and the trees around it. So we had the ‘cage’ opened through a series of windows. The delectably airy stretch on the first floor, a screen of blue sky and green earth, now became the site for our morning coffee, biscuits and newspapers.
One morning as I was taking in the bitter berry draught and breaking my biscuit in half to dip into the brew, a mynah darted in and stood on the window’s ledge directly in front of me, no more than two feet away. Bobbing his head, going ‘keek-keek-keek’, he made his interest clear. But would he acknowledge it? No way. He cocked his head sideways, upways, every conceivable way, as if looking for something he might have inadvertently left in this public space where his entitlements were no less than mine.
My proximity to this bird being what it was and perhaps the newspapers having been (incredibly) dull that morning, I struck up a conversation with the visitor. “Here, here,” I said to him, “Biki, biki,” the half-biscuit held out a single peck away. “Biki? What biki?” the self-respecting mynah seemed to say, as he flew right over me to a distant ledge, well inside the verandah.
“Your choice.” I said, and crunched into the crumbling disc. Back into the columns of printed news stretched out on my lap, I almost forgot about the mynah when he came back and sat on the floor, beside my feet. “Now we are talking,” I said, “You want a bite, don’tcha?”
This time, he didn’t posture. He dipped his head as if looking for a moth or ant on the verandah floor. I dropped the uneaten half onto the marble. Within moments, he had hopped up to it and slanting his head, lifted it up nimbly with his yellow beak. Hop, hop again, and further down the verandah, he bashed his find on the hard surface breaking it into powder.
The pulverised protein grains were picked up individually and ingested in a trice. At this point, in flew another mynah. “A pair!” I exclaimed. The first one inched aside, not seeming all that pleased. But he was not affronted enough to shoo the second visitor away. More biscuit bits were now laid on and soon the floor looked like a pair of very sandy feet had walked over it.
The next morning the ritual was repeated, and the next. And so on for a succession of mornings. Tara , who had been out of town when the first visit took place, joined me a few days later at the spot. “I have named him Biki,” I told her. “He loves the Marie. I don’t have a name for the second one.” As I said this, the second one came and took a crumb from the ground. “Oh, look,” Tara said, “She should be named Tuki.” So Biki and Tuki they became, our morning companions for nearly two months, our last two months in Kolkata. We observed them closely each morning. The pair would come in almost together, sit on the ledge for a moment of posed unconcern and then, as I opened the biscuit dabba, would go still and chirp, from throat, gut and beak.
Biki was bigger, stronger and was clearly the boss. And what a boss. Tuki would not as much as venture towards a biscuit piece or crumb unless Biki had trod all over the place and, so to say, left the field to her. If we sent a biscuit flying in Tuki’s direction, she would look at it longingly for a second and then turn away, as Biki would swoop over the victual and demolish it. “What a bully!” I said to Tara, “He is the typical domineering husband.” “How do you know Biki is not the dominating wife?”she asked.
We tried a few tricks, like giving Biki his lion’s share and when he was busy with it, send a bit quietly towards Tuki so that she could have it in peace. But no. Biki would catch us at our subterfuge, leave his portion and come flying, establish his claims on the new bit and return to his corner, already laden with earlier grains. Tara caught the sessions on camera more than once, hoping the couple would come up to me or her some day and actually take the crumb from our hands giving us a ‘photo-scoop’.
One morning Tuki came in before Biki, looking as if she had been in a fight. “Domestic violence,” I suggested darkly. Tara who knew better, laughed and said, “She is probably moulting.” “But does a mynah moult overnight to this extent? She looks as if some bird has tried to chew her head off.” A couple of days later, she was looking better, head smoother, fur less uneven.
Another morning, Tara and I had our breakthrough. Biki was not around. Tuki, by herself for once, was another being altogether. Confident, self-possessed, she came up right close to us, within touching distance. I placed a biscuit piece on my knee and, sure enough, there looped Tuki, sat on my leg for a fleeting second and picked the bit up and flew away.
Hurray! Tara rushed in to get her camera to catch this scoop. But Tuki would not oblige again. Who knows when the swami will arrive?
It is not as though life was all about biscuits for the couple. There was time and mood for higher things. We saw them on a few occasions move up to each other, go rubby-dovey, cheek-to-cheek, beak-to-beak, and one morning Biki placed his closed beak tenderly into Tuki’s open one. Again, the camera was sought, too late. We need our privacy, okay?
On our last morning in Kolkata, we went through the ritual as before. The two came, joined us and when done, just flew away to face another day.
Now, when we are far away, we wonder if the pair wings towards the verandah and, finding the windows shut, hover around the mesh expectantly and after some minutes decide that the old couple have just ceased to be. They do not know of governors and their tenures.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009
The views expressed by the author are personal