The Song of the Whistling Thrush

Come to think of it, we have known each other for over thirty, thirty- five years! That is a very long time indeed.  We speak of each generation in terms of a gap of thirty years, and so this is over a generation of friendship. He was always a calm and composed person, and when he did laugh his whole body shook, and his long dark mane of hair flew in the breeze like a flag behind him. He was Shanthiprasad– we called him Shanthi. Many a time I had been tempted to ask Shanthi whether he had allowed his beard to grow without any trimming at all! In fact someone had the cheek to ask me one of those days how I managed to maintain my beard! With the characteristic impudence of youth I had derided: I don’t maintain it, it just grows! But Shanti’s beard was much longer than mine and bushier. Yes, in those days all of us friends had unkempt beards and we also dressed carelessly in loose fitting garments sometimes much longer than our knees, and I had always been at home only in jeans! This was a generation that didn’t fit anywhere just like that. Born after Independence, and not being able to connect to the previous Gandhian era in any meaningful manner. Religion did not hold much sense either and neither did skepticism for that matter.  We were willing to believe, provided we could.

I had taken up teaching in a state Government College in north Kerala in the early eighties and then one day a whole host of admiring students ushered in two kurta-clad bearded forms right from the highway all the way up the hill to the college. I was in class lecturing when Shanthi and Raman came up to the open door. For a minute I couldn’t believe myself, I had given up hope of ever being with my old friends once I joined the Collegiate education department. And here they were right in my classroom! I had just about winded up my lecture on the nuances of modernist writing and so we all trouped into our college canteen. Shanthi said while munching banana fries: we are on our way to Kollur, care to join us?  I said yes and then we were off in no time. I stuffed some things into a haversack and we jumped into the first available bus north-bound. Travel in those days was a little more difficult than that of the present. Buses were rather few and far between. Trains two times a day. Our journey took us to Kannur, to Kasaragod and then to Mangalore. There we got into a private bus and were on our way to Kollur and the Mookambika temple. We reached sometime in the late evening and stayed at an Ashram. The next day Shanthi went around looking for his friend and guide to the hills Chandukutti sami.  He was a rather short dark tough person who spoke very little and smoked beedies. He agreed to come with us into the hills. And we set off the next morning. Santhi and Raman had gone about collecting a few essential stuff for lighting a fire, vessels for cooking etc. The walk into the shola forests of the greener parts western ghats was memorable. Trees of the tropical evergreen always appeared to reach right into the skies and each one struggled to reach higher than the rest for the favoured sunlight and warmth. Dew dripped from above on to the bush and creepers below.  The rivulets sparkled in the speckled sunlight as the breeze blew high among the trees. It was late September and the touch of autumn was on every leaf. The climb was slow first and then became arduous and demanding as the path became steeper and steeper. Once we were on the top of the Kodajadri I was informed that the total walk was but 16 kms. However, the scramble through the tangled bushes and creepers dodging thorns and sharp rocks appeared then to me pretty long indeed. This was my first exposure to the wonders of Kodajadri.  As the ubiquitous mist withdrew briefly I could see the breathtaking panorama of the blue and purple hills. All three of us were silent for the most and our stops and pauses were as though decided in unison. Perhaps this was what they meant by the touch of the hills. I had written in a rather long poem about Ganga a couple of months ago:

The mountains know the hand of god. They are so huge, so mute, so invincible.

I have lost my bearings confronted with such vastness.     

I recalled my experiences in scrambling up the lower Himalayas in search of the trickle in the bosom of Himvant!  Here in the far south of India I was experiencing almost the same breathless joy! The touch of the hills was magnificent, almost religious. What is prayer but the heart’s lonely mutterings to the unknowable? The seeker and the search have become one here in the silence of the hills. Kodajadri will remain with me forever. The profundity of feeling, the depth of emotion, the largeness of vision my heart experienced cannot be expressed in plain words and I did not try the impossible either. I had just let myself go and merge with the rising curling unknowing mist of unreason. Where was I? Was it morning or time to sleep? None of us cared. We were in the thick of being. That was all. Shanthi always had a smile as answer to many of my queries. Raman was one of those people who could simply fade away here in the hills. He kept pace with the breeze and clouds.  He helped to light the fire and make the food, wash up and get our sleepings places readied. Shanthi sometimes would talk about many things, about his Guru, about meditation and meaning. We sat around the dancing fire near the Sarvajnapeetam and listened. This was the sacred place that Adi Sankaracharya lay when he was sick and the benignity of the Devi brought water trickling down the hills. We huddled together in the late evening and watched wide eyed as the sun disappeared over the hill tops and the cave Chitramoola became mysterious all the more. The trickling sound of falling water and the gathering dark were extraordinary. And then I heard the whistle. Because I had heard it earlier in many of my wanderings in the hills I recognized it immediately. The Malabar whistling Thrush, we call it the Whistling Schoolboy. Because the thrill and the casualness of a truant boy straying off from school was there in the song. Now this day it rang mysterious, while the bird lay hidden in the darkening evening. This entire Kodajadri, this outcrop that descended from the hump of the hill that held the Sarvajnapeetam, on to the sheer drop below the cave of the ancients called Chitramoola, reverberated with the song of the dark thrush. We did not know the passage of time, neither did we care. The trees were shivering in the coldness of late September and the sky was vibrant with vanishing and merging colours. The hills were sentinels of a strange experience a hastening in of complete being.  I had not felt such calm mingled with such excitement; the sheer touch of amazement. The bird would not stop.  The breeze was becoming chillier and night was swirling up the carpet of darkness through which some strange points of lights flickered. Kodajadri was lighting up with the mystery of all being. Here was the centre of all life. This was the point where everything returned. My mother’s arms reached forth and embraced me. I was a child once more.  I didn’t know anything. There was no knowledge. The song and sky and mist and breeze and star all rolled into one. The rock on which we sat for meditation had disappeared and the sound of falling water was so loud. Where is the thrush song leading me? A deep fever rose in me—deeper than the distant seas, dreams and forms rolled into one long experience of nothingness.

It took me a few days to get well. We slept in the cave and meditated on the sun and wind. Water was there a plenty and silence through the colours of the rainbow as the sun’s rays danced on the droplets. Then many days later we decided to regain our mortal existence as Shanthi and Raman and myself. Our walk downhill was even more silent. The thrush song was everywhere but the touch of mystery had lifted. Life was so ordinary afterwards. But then we are all mortals. We live and we pass. I had kept in touch with Shanthi for a long long time. Much later when I was travelling toward Umeo in Sweden, I flew into Stockholm and the old familiar face with the long beard appeared at the airport. Shanthi had driven all the way from Goteborg where he was living then and he brought me a large case full of warm clothing.  He had known I was flying further north and had come to arm me for the severity of the northern winter. By then he had become quite well known and had followers and disciples all over the world as far away as Rome and Italy and Sweden. We both looked up at the moon and marveled at its upturned figure. This was close to the north pole and cold.  There was thrush song too in this late autumn in Europe. But I recalled our Kodajadri.  Our own Himalayas. The toughness of the mountains and the pure existential touch of the hills. The song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush!  Nothing like it before and after.

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