The way it was: Birds of a feather...

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Since the paddy saplings have yet to be replanted so they flock together in the saplings fields

In the early morning of a hot summer day, my friend Majzub and I were having breakfast at my farm about twenty miles on the other side of Ravi. This friend has already been introduced to the readers in one of my earlier narratives. He will reappear as the villain of a shoot on the bank of River Tawi at Head Marala. The shooting party was organised by another friend called Heera, who found life tedious and tiresome. Heera also found the world morally and aesthetically unbearable. He has since plunged into the ocean of time and now resides in the memory of those who knew him and loved him. It doesn’t really matter who he was. It only matters to a few who intimately knew him. In the end it doesn’t really matter. Time takes care of all. ‘Season follows season / Time grows old’ wrote Archilochos, an early Geek poet. Indeed, even time gets old and rusts with time. So, what does it matter.

Majzub was there with us at the shoot. He didn’t look like Hemingway then. Today, he has a flourishing white beard and the patina of time lies well on his statuesque face. In school he looked more like the Persian boy of Alexander the Macedonian. Having large blue eyes — he insists they are green — and fair skin can be a hazardous endowment at a public school. But Majzub survived and after school took to hunting. Majzub has a retired Major for a friend, who is quite a relic. The Major in addition to having had a passion for hunting, is a lively conversationalist. He talks in a funny way and unremittingly narrates funny episodes, which keep everyone amused. The Major, because of his hunting engagements, married a bit late in life. However, he picked his fruit with judicious taste and good sense. In the season when apricots are rich orange and sugar sweet, he stalked and captured a young princess from one of the States in the northern mountainous regions. The little Princess, the youngest of her sisters, is naturally beautiful and has a cute but sharp sense of humour. Once I remember after she had taken a deep defiant puff of a cigarette she casually remarked: ‘When they cannot shoot straight and kill, they become protectors of wild life.’ A foul if ever there was one, a punch below the belt, a case for a Yellow Card, perhaps, since the Major at that time of life, was deeply involved in protecting the urial, which he had preferred to hunt all his life. The aside must have hurt him but he still had the hunters’ courage to smile when he knew that he had been outwitted.

But back to our breakfast. Majzub with his tea; I with my diet paratha and a pair of cholesterol-free eggs which a few hens have been trained to lay. I was about to start working into the yoke of the second egg when Majzub excitedly drew my attention to a bird with iridescent yellow plumage and black wings. He cried, ‘How is it possible that Orioles are here in this heat! They should be in cooler climes’ he added. But here they were, flying in and out of a shisham tree, protecting their small territory, chasing away invading birds, some much larger in size than them. It is such a blessing that we still have a large species of birds in our country.

The Lahoris, like all good people of the world, have always had love and respect for natural bounties, especially birds. I remember in the good old days even the poorest household in the walled city, whenever it could afford to buy meat, would make it a point to get canners and cutters from the meat sellers for the kites. They cared for the kites that floated above in the sky over their homes, like their own children. The flesh would be left on the roof and the kites would swoop down and enjoy a snack at their leisure. Lahoris have also loved keeping birds like Surkhas, small little birds that change their colour from fawn-grey to rust in a particular season. They keep Pigeons for pleasure as well as for sport. There are these Tumblers who seductively catwalk like professional models or fly into the sky and come tumbling down like trapeze artists. The sporting pigeons have fierce eyes and are trained to fly for hours. They are fed on a special diet and are so lovingly caressed and groomed by their owners that makes most wives jealous. ‘Look at him? Wasting all his time on the roof! Damn these pigeons!’

There is of course the talking Parrot with red collar and shoulders who can be mutually acceptable. But some of these parakeets embarrass you by repeating bad words or leaking private information, which they can pick up from casual conversation. The Lahoris have also an endearing tradition of buying captive birds and releasing them with a prayer. Some argue that if people didn’t buy birds to release them from captivity, there would be no captive birds in the first place.

They have a point.

We are fortunate that we have a great many species of birds in our country. Isn’t it a pleasure to be woken in the morning by the chirping of sparrows, or to hear a dove’s sleepy cooing in a nearby tree? Or hear the call of a black partridge from a mustard field, or the whistle of parrots diving towards their arboreal habitat. But there are some birds that can be quite insufferable. Take for instance the Brainfever Bird. It has earned this name because of its endlessly repeated triple call, becoming more frenzied as it rises higher and higher and higher. The metallic single note of the Coppersmith’s monotonous call can be maddening because he goes on and on and on, tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk, and tonk! Most bird lovers also find the call of the Peacock, shrill and raucous. My friend Majzub is convinced that the British left the subcontinent because of the call of these birds. Without doubt or challenge Coppersmith would be the captain for the bird’s team at the Sharjah Cup because he can go on and on, like Hanif Mohammad.

There are a large number of birds in our countryside. Recently, I even saw a pair or Steppe Eagles who had landed in a clover field to rest after a long flight. The most spectacular sight these days is of course that of Eagrets. Since the paddy saplings have yet to be replanted so they flock together in the saplings fields. The male Eagrets in this season change their plumage around their necks and wings to light ochre. This is the mating season and they think that ochre will attract the ladies in virgin white. Remember this when you next need to make an impression.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee