The Song of Birds
(A Short story by Sidharth Vardhan first written on November 12, 2020)
Tejasvi madam has not aged much in the fifteen years I have known her. For someone her age – nearly seventy (she has been retired for five-six years now), she is still physically very active and perhaps she has to be for she lives alone.
She has become one of my most regular clients over the past three years ever since I decided to drop my studies (after doing badly in my senior year at school) and become a plumber. Her demands are almost always tiny but she never bargains and pays whatever I should ask her (a major component of which is mostly the price of fuel to and from her house) and also, she won’t let me leave without drinking a cup of tea with some snacks she will have baked herself. I don’t mind having a cup of tea in her drawing-room – a small room dominated by an almirah full of all Hindi novels you could find in our town. I have often looked at this personal library of hers and often wondered how many hours of her life must have been buried in them – as if one didn’t really have too small a life to waste it on by hours on these dead things, instead of actually enjoying on little chances one gets between studies, work and responsibilities. The very idea of it is scary enough to make one resolve never to touch a book all one’s life.
Sometimes she may have something delicious made just for me. Come to think of it, I particularly enjoyed these calls.
The only thing that I dislike about these visits is that she always reprimands me on these occasions for not taking my studies seriously. As they say once a teacher, always a teacher and she was my Hindi teacher once.
My last visit though was intensely different from other usual visits.
She had called me to clean the water storage tank she had on the roof. When I got upstairs to check the tank, I saw that there was a small earth bowl put on its cap – full of water and a small plate full of grains both meant for birds. And there was also, in fact, a nest next to it full of eggs though the bird itself was absent.
She had followed me upstairs and told me how she put water here for the poor birds – which must have been an act of some willpower given how hard it was for her to climb up and down the stairs with her aging and weakening knees. Maybe I have grown to care for her over the years because I actually advised her to give up the habit, telling her that her body was no longer strong enough to handle the toil.
This suggestion she ignored in the way the girls in my high school used to ignore my proposals. She went on, instead, to tell me that it was impossible for her to live without having the music of birds chirping. The tank, thus, must be cleaned without disturbing the nest. This, I told her, was impossible – the nest was right at the top of the tank’s cap. So, after some persuasion, I convinced her that we could put the nest back when the cleaning is done. She agreed but only reluctantly.
It is difficult for me at times to remember that it was the very same person who used to strike terror in me and my friends when we were a group of willful children and she was a scary teacher in my school known for her strict disciplinarian ways.
Even before she had taught me a single class, she had already given me a couple of thrashings with that one-foot long wooden ruler of hers which was one of her two loyal companions in those years – the other was the big red bindi on her forehead. Her name was a terror in school playgrounds for rebellion spirits like yours truly. Back then I won’t have ever thought that she could be someone so kind as to want to feed the birds
Having put the nest aside, I was already a few minutes into my job when the absent sparrow came back to find it’s nest was missing. Chirping loudly it made a few rounds around the reservoir in the air, not too far out of the reach of my hand if I was to reach out to grab it. It was a soul-shattering sound that the bird made but Tejaswi madam was far more affected than me “but it’s still here” “but it’s still here” she started saying hysterically as if the wails of the bird were accusations to her and she was in a rush to justify herself. For someone her age, she moved pretty quickly but unwisely toward the bird which scared it and made it flee. I don’t think mam realized her mistake but already she was moving over to where I had placed the bird’s eggs to somehow point it to the bird but by the time she had reached it, the bird was gone.
So she fell shattered to the ground and crying silently still murmuring “but it’s there, right there, come back and see, I didn’t destroy your eggs .. I didn’t….”. It was a good fortune that a reflex action checked her fall and ensured that she didn’t break any bones.
Even with the acquaintance I have had of her for years, I couldn’t imagine her being capable of such emotional collapse. Was it her years making her heart soft? Only once before this, I have seen her show such weakness.
It was I think in fifth or sixth standard when she was the Hindi teacher for my class. She had a strict disciplinarian manner even in those days I remember how smothering the silence in her class would be when she would be angry. No one, not even me, the class clown, could make a noise for the fear of being punished with that ruler of hers.
And then one day her husband died.
That day when she came back from her AOL is one of the strongest memories of my school years. Her bindi was missing from her head, and she looked far less authoritative because of that. Moreover, she was slightly absentminded – quietly dismissing our singsong greeting ‘Good morning madam’. While she was sitting at her desk, her ruler fell off her desk but she seemed to not have noticed it. Normally such absentmindedness would have made us take the risks and start whispering amongst each other but, of that respect which a new grief often commands, students didn’t trouble her much.
I remember how Vinash, my studious, class-monitor, and class-topper friend, didn’t want to write her name on a school-record he had to maintain as one of his duties as class-monitor – not sure whether he should use a ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ before her name.
I was always everyone’s fool even as a child so it is no wonder that the task of getting her signature on the record sheet fell to me – I remember how she suddenly went silent when she saw the ‘Ms. Tejasvi Kumar’ written on paper. It was a silence so potent that it seemed to have captured the whole class and students had grown silent but, even though it was so tainted by grief, it wasn’t smothering as was usually the case. For at other times, our souls wished to make noise as life in its purest form always does; just like the birds who must make their songs; but were being disciplined out of it. Today though, this very soul of ours wished to stay silent of our respect – not to the husband whom we hadn’t seen, not to the teacher we didn’t love (she was too much of a disciplinarian to be likable) but to the grief.
And thus we shared in her silence as she just sat there staring at the paper with a blank expression on her face for what, at least to a child’s mind, looked like a really long time. How I wished that I knew a way to console someone several times my own age! All I felt was miserable helplessness. For so many in class that day, at least to me, it was first timed realized why death is such a big deal – it’s momentous finality visible in the bindi-less face of our teacher.
Once she recollected herself, perhaps she was too weak to deny herself the sweet respite that day, but she did something that she never ever did before or after that. She started us on a fun class game. I don’t remember details of the game but it had something to do with one of us acting and others guessing; that was the only time we played it but it was a lot of fun for us. Occasionally she would smile when a student would guess something funny or when I would make a stupid joke.
This change was not permanent, the very next day she had returned to being her old self but for days afterward, we would be talking amongst ourselves of that game.
From that day to the day she called me to clean her tank, I still hadn’t learned much because I was still as clueless as on that day back in school as to how to console someone. I didn’t know what to do to take her mind off the misery of the sparrow. I stopped my job of cleaning the reservoir and went and stood next to her saying without any confidence in my own words “it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
How do birds deal with their grief? Definitely better than humans I believe, Tajaswi madam seemed far more shattered than the bird was. While the sparrow hadn’t broken down and lay there in self-abandonment, vulnerable to the whole world even when suffering from the loss of its children; but seemed to have silently moved on; Tejaswi madam was so lost to the agony of her guilt of having destroyed something beautiful, that she seemed to have lost interest in everything.
It appears strange how I have come to like her as a person. Over the years, I have realized that though a strict disciplinarian, she always had had a deep affection for children and their company, was in love with her job, and took it seriously which is more than you could say about most of our teachers. I remember some students including Vinash were definitely saddened at her farewell when she retired.
That she had a genuine affection for us, her students, was something that would be proven again to me at least in my final year at school. I was taking tuitions from a teacher who happened to be her neighbor. I remember how when she would be there to watch us as we would leave his house talking in groups and horsing around. I remember at times stealing a glance to see that same smile she had shown that day when we had played that game on the day of her return after her husband’s demise. Perhaps because she didn’t expect to be noticed or perhaps since she was retired by now and we were too old to be scolded, she didn’t maintain those old disciplinarian ways and I could see how she genuinely enjoyed our merriment. Personally I can never understand the need that teachers have to act like tyrants when they really are good hearted people.
Now, I stood there next to her having abandoned my task of cleaning her tank hoping to somehow see her smile that way again.
After finally recollecting herself a little, she told me to continue my job. The cleaning of the reservoir took several hours during which I had to stop for lunch and once for tea. Usually, she would make these herself but this time she didn’t seem to have much energy and thus I decided to go to a neighboring dhaba for the purpose. Realizing she won’t be cooking lunch for herself either, I brought some chapatis for her too. When I came back she was still upstairs and won’t eat the food I now offered her. Tired of insisting and being refused I went back to my job.
Who would look after her if she was to break down like this when no one was around? It seemed a pity that she should live alone like that but she had been doing that for years. It was so already for years by the time I was in my senior year. I would sometimes show up for tuition a few minutes earlier than the appointed time and would notice her, if I am right she was over sixty by this time, cleaning her house with a broomstick and gathering the dust in a dustpan at her main door. By this point apparently, she was left alone in the house, her only son was married and settled with his family in Canada. At these times, I would want to go and offer her help or at least wish her a ‘good evening mam’ but I was afraid that she may not like it. It was only later when I became her plumber that we became something of friends.
It was in these memories that my mind was lost while I carried on my assignment half-heartedly.
I decided I couldn’t just leave her alone like that once my work here was done. But what alternative did I have? I couldn’t just presume to stay at her place just to look after her. And even if I was stupid enough to do so, what use would that be if I couldn’t even make her eat her meal? I didn’t know any of her relations either and her neighbors obviously hated her …. Or at least, I had good reasons to believe they won’t be too excited to look after her. And at the very least won’t understand this animal-love of hers. I knew this because I have been audience to an argument on this very point.
It was in the very last days of my senior year that this drama occurred – a huge argument her neighbors made about all the animals – cows and dogs who were making the street ugly by shitting and pissing wherever they like in the streets. Of course, you can’t close your street to stray animals but way many of them visited the street or even seemed to have made the street their home because of the regular availability of food from Tejaswi madam who always cooked spare bread cakes for them and offered them to these animals like thrice a day and often more. Tejaswi madam was considered guilty because she was in the habit of offering them food like thrice a day at least and often more. This didn’t go well with her neighbors who preferred cleanliness over kindness to animals. It is only ever since that in the list of things I hate, cleanliness is next only to godliness.
In the next few days, while I was still studying at tuition, I saw her lose respect in the eyes of the whole neighborhood including our tuition teacher because she was firm on her habit of feeding animals. Even today two bowls – one full of bread cakes and the other of water sit on either side of her door.
Toward the end of my job of cleaning the reservoir, I intentionally grew slower so as to gain extra time in which to decide the course of my action toward her but by the hour of twilight, I could delay it no longer and thus finished my task and placed the nest, the plate of grains and bowl back on top of the reservoir at top of the box.
I now walked to where Tejaswi madam sat. She was more conscious of her surroundings by now but grief still sat on her face. “If it only came back once it could see I meant no harm” she pleaded to me. I bowed my head and nodded wondering why she pleaded to me. I have no power over the bird. Perhaps begging and pleading seem to come naturally to us when we are in despair. When you can’t find someone who could give you what you want, you beg to whoever you can beg from anyway – perhaps that is why we hold on to gods. To always have someone to beg or plead on to. Mam too now turned to her god’s “Mahamayi, bring it back – save the innocent Bird needless suffering!” she moaned aloud.
“I have to go now madam” I said after letting a moment pass, not knowing what else to do, and having said that, I started to leave.
“Wait!” She called from behind, “your money. Can you please help me go downstairs.”
To be honest, I didn’t care to be paid for today’s work but I thought at least she would be coming downstairs on this pretext and, it was better she should climb down when I was still around.
The pain and the weakness in her limbs seemed to have increased in response to her grief and, for the first time, she needed my (or anybody’s) support climbing down the stairs.
Downstairs she found her purse and paid me with a tip which probably was in lieu of my lunch and tea which she hadn’t cooked this time. I took it without a word.
“Son, can you do me one more favor and take me upstairs again?” there was a sense of defeat in her voice.
I protested that there was nothing for her to do upstairs but she insisted and this was for the first time she called me ‘son’ and that carried its own weight. Grudgingly I took her back upstairs while also carrying a bottle of water for her. There, she filled the bowl on the reservoir with the water from her bottle and, after looking longingly toward the horizon for one more time, commanded me “come! let us go down again.”
It was when we had yet climbed down only the very first step of the stairs, that we heard a chirping sound. We turned back to hear the excited sound of the sparrow who had returned and was now looking at its nest making rounds of it in the air. It sat on its eggs for a few moments making the same excited sounds as if wanting to touch them, not trusting its eyes. It next went to the bowl and drank a little water – still making that same sound in between its sips. Then it returned once again to its eggs, by now its chirping was settling to a more cheerful tone. I turned around to look at Tejaswi madam but she seemed to have forgotten me, smiling with two tears forming in her eyes as she saw the sparrow settle down to sing its usual songs.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan