The Flight of the Peacock

The highway stretched purple and steely blue under the fabulous spread of a blue sky. Wisps of clouds hung around wafted in the strong breeze, turning grey and greenish blue sometimes even a darker shade, but mostly tendering into grayish white as they  twisted and split, sheared off by the force of the breeze above. Through the windshield of the car I could see the road below quietly spreading nonchalant and unending. They have widened almost all the highways than run through Tamil Nadu.  And in the process changed the landscape of the Tamil country. My hands rested lightly on the sturdy wheels. My eyes were focused on the fast shifting landscapes shaped and sculpted by the roads. The car sped at an amazing speed, wheels perhaps barely caressing the road.

I recall those days when we drove through the plains of this part of the world with shady tamarind trees lined on either side of the dark bumpy road –bullock carts tottering along with men with reflective shiny eyes and creviced faces in white dhotis and large turbans. And women in multicoloured saris scrambled across with bronze water pots balanced over their covered heads. They had such wonderful heavy gold coloured ornaments that dangled on their ears and noses. Their dark smiles spread a natural charm over the golden land blessed by the yellow sun overhead. Life was peaceful, silent, and pleasant.  Deep crevices split the red soil on either side of the road on the undulating softness that touched a steely blue horizon. And straight grayish palms shot upright into the relentless blue of the skies. An occasional black-winged kite hung wind-treading overhead.  The skies always held floating clouds that never rained.  All this is now changed. The road bifurcated a flat land smooth and indifferent to the traffic that flowed at break-neck speed unmindful of the carts and bullocks and the sleepy-eyed stray dogs that barked away at the strangeness of it all. In between the binary roads ran a parallel patch of greenery with rose-pink flowers, as though to break the monotony of the steely blue of the road.  There were several breaks in the highway between miles to allow for the villagers to greet each other across this great divide.  At any point any day or night one can easily sense the indifference of the motor- world  blaring by,  and come across the mashed carcasses of unfortunate dogs cats and squirrels, which even the hungry and adroit jet-black crows or pariah kites, however nimble they be, couldn’t get at on account of the increasing traffic.  Life in these parts has changed and so has the sky-scape. It is as though all of a sudden someone has opened a huge hole above and let in the massive spread of the sky dominating everything below.

Inside the car we were relishing the exotic nuances of a rare Dhumri of Swati Tirunal rendered in the amazing voice of Ramesh Narayan, disciple of the maestro, Pandit Jasraj. All of us were literally transported to another world another time. It was near perfect.  And then, the peacock flew across from east to west.  It was just a flurry of colours and forms plastered on the windswept terrain. With the large tail drooping, with the heavy wings flapping, desperately straining against the tearing wind and the onrush of the charging motorcars, the bird flew.  Its mate followed close by. The magnificence of it all! The moment that remains frozen in all eternity. If I could rewind time slowly and unwind it leisurely I could stay frame by frame and relish the moment. Nevertheless the moment has lasted in its long-drawn-out, lingering, lasting, enduring.  The sky, the wind, the song and the flight, all in one unending thread of being. Nothing lasts forever in nature, as everyone knows, but all things move and in their movement there is a design. The design of life, existence, and meaning. The road had taken us so very far from the point where our vision was bisected by the flight of the peacocks. We had left an experience so far behind in time and place. And yet the road was never the same again.  It was as though the land had closed in all of a sudden and a moment frozen in all eternity.

In the Mahabharata there is a minor episode of the famed Nala-Damayanti story narrated during the Pandava’s Vanavasa, jungle days and nights. When Nala in his transformed state as Bhahuka rides the chariot with the King enroute to the professed marriage of Dhamayanti, the angavastra, or the upper robe of the King slips off and is caught in the fleeting wind. When the King asks Nala to retrieve it he is informed that they had moved miles by then because they were riding at the speed of the wind! Nala as Bahuka was supposed to be the master of aswahrdaya, or a special knowledge of the horses that enabled him to ride at breakneck speed. The angavastra that flew in the wind had disappeared the moment it left the chariot, like the peacocks that fleeted across our dreamy eyes. We were all in the epical chariot for a brief moment that transformed us. The birds, the car, and the song all trailed in the timeless flow of being. Myth and reality had become one. Fable and fact were frozen in time and place.

All birds live in the air of their own spaces. Big birds like the peacock need large spaces to dwell and fly. They described their time and history only between the sky and earth, inscribing their lives in the space of timeless life. The Dodo and the Passenger pigeon had passed without trace through the history of life on this planet. The Ostrich could always duck its head under the moving sands and lurk within the confines of its own biology. But the peacock is the national bird of India and painfully preserved in its fast depleting natural habitat. In our hurry to conquer new spaces and reach against the rush of time, we have very little space in our minds and hearts for the soft swell of its usually lazy unhurried flight.

When our roads become wider and wider and the huge spreading tamarind trees uprooted perhaps for a better cause, no doubt, uncaringly we have deprived the innumerable other forms of life with very little choice but to flee at our approach. The birds had so little time to reach across to the other side.  When the first venturing seamen arrived at the isles of Madagascar, we have known, the innocent Dodo driven by inquisitiveness and curiosity came by to investigate only at its own peril. Having had little or no competition or natural predators these ground dwellers had become flightless. They found new danger—in the human being. What began as mere easy pickings for food came to be slaughter eventually. Perhaps humans were innocently unaware of the consequence of their actions.  Just as what happened to the Passenger Pigeon in the great lands of the North American continent. At one time, we are informed by researchers, large flocks of these birds used to flood the skies to the extent that the sun threw huge floating mass of shadows down below. They would block out the sun! Such were their numbers that anyone could easily bring a few down by a merely flinging a casual stone up into this cloud!   It really didn’t require a Billy the Kid or a Mad Tex McGraw or any other famed shooter to drop a dead pigeon down. Anyone could have with the mere fling of a stone done that! Such were their numbers so that no one expected them to vanish as a species completely. We humans are used to thinking only around ourselves at any given time. We think of silently and secretly disposing of one plastic bag or a beer bottle or some such environmentally-unfriendly garbage so naively over our neighbour’s wall or fling it across away from our own walls. Little do we think of the consequences. It happened: A certain guru was to celebrate his birthday and so he ordered his disciples to bring buttermilk for the lunch get-together the next day. One little fellow went home and consulted his mother about what to do.  His mother told him: Look, everyone in your class will be bringing butter milk and pouring it into the big vessel in the corner.  They will only notice each other in the act of just pouring. So then why don’t you simply carry water in a bowl and pour it innocently into the buttermilk vessel! The boy did just that.  And what happened is anyone’s guess. The big vessel held nothing but water. Each one of us thinks that our little actions will go by unnoticed and their consequences would be so very negligible. Of course we would outsmart others! However, all of us apparently think so very alike when it comes to deception and wrong doing as this tale proves! More than everything, there is something of a collective responsibility that we humans have to share. Seldom do we think on these things.

There are many instances in the environmental history of the earth when many species of life forms—birds, mammals, insects, reptiles—have disappeared due to human intervention and what goes under the name of habitat destruction. Living things no doubt are dependent on the land they inhabit, and when we change that landscape those which can easily adapt to the change survive as a species; others die and disappear. Every little act has its consequences; even our casual deeds have their reactions whether we are aware of these or not. In Chaos Theory they speak of the tremor of a tiny butterfly wing causing huge ripples in the cosmic dimensions eventually.  All things are connected—the living the nonliving and what we usually consider as empty space. The earth is just another extension of this emptiness. Just as we move through our roads on the face of the earth, the earth traces another invisible path through space.

Our roads are our signs of progress and development. They are our nerves in our great cultural and civilizational structure. We cannot do without these anyway. Our history is scribbled all over the globe through the ever expanding network of roads and highways.  The landscapes that we saw in our childhood have definitely changed for they have to change. The birds and animals insects and reptiles, trees and bushes we cherished as children have disappeared, no doubt. Some that remain are transformed completely. After all, nothing remains the same forever. However, when the land disappears like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon it leaves traces of nostalgia, of tragic sadness. The innocent trail of the peacock’s flight hopefully has not traced this path! Perhaps it has found its other-side of safety!


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