It is now more than forty years since I started birding! In 1976 when I walked into the Department of English in the famed University College in the heart of Trivandrum city, I was accosted by my smoking Professor, “Murali, meet me at 5.30 am in front of the GPO” It was more of a command than a friendly demand! KK Neelakantan smoked only Charminar and walked with a slight stoop. The undergraduate students were terrified of him. More than anything, he was a pioneer in ornithology in my part of the world. He introduced me to Whistler’s Hand book of Indian Birds, and Prater’s Book of Indian Animals. It was through him that I got to know the legendary Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian birdwatching—the birdman of India himself, in real flesh and blood! Much later he was instrumental in gifting me a copy of the priceless Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali signed by the author in our presence! And now when I think back on those days a profound amazement awakens in my insides. Walking on the forest tracks with these two avid birders, listening to the wind on the high trees of the moist wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, slinging my borrowed 8×30 binoculars over my frail neck, clutching my notepads and sketchbooks, learning to hold my breath and restrain my over enthusiastic bubbling mind from spilling over with the excitement that one feels in the denseness of the jungle, looking wide eyed and with awe at everything around , I was very much “there” What more is there to say? I recall that there were usually a couple of other young birders alongside us when we took those short forays into the wetlands of Veli and Akkulam. Many of them grew into genuine ornithologists and wild lifers and some dropped off along the way that led them onto other avenues. My love for literature and art led me into the sunny world of books and academia. Prof. K K Neelakantan was more at home with his feathered friends than with Shakespeare and Milton or even Keats. He also tried his hand at sketching and painting. Many a day when I visited him in his small house behind the GPO he would be hard at work on his watercolours—he would sketch with such ardour and colour in each feather with deep diligence. He admired the sketches of E H Aitkin and the Australian Goulds as well as Peter Scott. With him I learned to identify and categorise innumerable species. He was critical of my overflowing optimism and often restrained me from delving deep into the forests. Above all, he had a sharp tongue. My marriage with Usha was a personal and private one—we did not extend any invites, neither did we make it an event. Neelakantan Sir was sorely troubled I didn’t let him in to our secret. Later, much later, when we walked into the Victoria Jubilee Town Hall in Trivandrum where he was being honoured on stage, he espied us and snapped across the crowds: Murali, although you never informed me about your marriage you can have my blessings now! The birdman of Kerala had one secret desire: he loved boiled eggs. Many a day after our strenuous walks over the marshes just before we headed home he would lead us to a small shack of a hotel and order boiled eggs. And boy, did we all relish those! Here is a poem I had dedicated to him:
Stone Curlew (a poem for K.K.N.– naturalist and professor)
Once again we froze against the stony shore,
as the curlew turned, with a graceful sweep–
wings light, open, alert, eyes wide, beady bright.
We knew it knew and yet was game to play
all over again the very same game
of hide and seek in the softening light.
One foot bent and the forward thrust
of the westerly breeze did the rest–
the bird rose and soft-landed, leading our eyes
away from her speckled brood. The stream
passed silent. The wind kept pace, and
no stone moved while the curlew called.
A shrill whistle, plaintive, lone, while
her mate somewhere heard and turned.
The sky lay vast, unquiet in its intense spread.
The bird rose and called again. A feather
floated down.We stood silent,
amazed at both bird and sky.