Mist rides the Sundarbans waters–a river of white floating a river of ochre. It is 5:30 am; dawn on the east coast of India. I can see some fifteen feet out into tidal waters bordered by thick-leaved mangrove trees. Exposed roots support their leafy weights like thousands of walking sticks standing in mud. All slide past the soft chugging of the motor boat I hired for the day. A white-bellied sea eagle utters its high squeal. A sandpiper’s two-syllable reply sounds jittery, closer. Both are beyond view. Sounds travel far over water, the distances difficult to fathom.
The Sundarbans (Sundar bon–beautiful forest) is one of the greatest transition zones between rivers and sea, sprawling across some ten thousand square kilometres that are about as many years old. Here the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna meet and flow south in a tangled lacework of tidal rivers, channels and sloughs running ribbons of water through low-lying islands–south into the Bay of Bengal. Great drifts of sediment pulled down by the rivers continue to collect; the islands are fluid as tidal waters but slower–far too slow for the eye to perceive their endless flux. Mangrove roots cling to the quagmire as if their survival depended on it. As if the survival of hidden Bengal tigers and spotted deer depended on it. And it does.
A stork-billed kingfisher’s rattle breaks through.
Hush–Listen to the birds.
My mother’s words have lived long past her. They were was one of my first lessons before the age of five. We were in Burma, now Myanmar, also a land of lazy rivers. If my sister or I tried to interject her morning listening time with demands, my mother put a finger to her lips. If we persisted, her hands touched our restless heads. The words followed. Hush–Listen...
So I listen. To a jungle cat’s rasp, like a throat being cleared. To the motor’s drone, the slap and suck of waters flung against banks of naked muck. The sounds are small and private, speaking to the silence of immense expanses. Chugging along is a seamless passage through rooms and corridors of mist that gentles this world, bordered by tide-washed forests. I’m searching for brahminy ducks–the first birds my parents pointed out to me. Apparently they are here.
There’s that shrilling again–the sea eagle. The air above swishes and it breaks into view, an expanse of flashy white bordered by primary feathers of night-black, splayed out like giant, tapering fingers. Head down, its raptor eyes are anchored to water one moment, gone the next.
I’m grateful for the quick air, the beady droplets setting all surfaces glittering. Layers of woollens and a waterproof “wind-cheater” keep the chill out, the warmth in. The boatman is wrapped in a cap and woollen shawl, steering his boat from a one-windowed cabin. It was dark when I climbed in by the light of his lamp, up a ramp with ladder-like rungs so slick with condensation one misstep would have sent me sliding off and sinking into mangrove ooze.
Now brightness sets all ablaze and brings heat, and heat brings the insects, followed closely by birds. Blue-tailed bee-eaters, bronzed drongos, white-throated fantails and golden orioles loop and swing after the insects hovering above the canopy. Rose-ringed parakeets squabble on a woody perch.
Listen. The oriole’s song is honey dripping into a brass bowl.
During her last year alive, my mother yearned for views of water. We travelled to Bombay to visit doctors, returned to a hotel room with windows facing the sea. She would gaze out, thoroughly delighted. All exhaustion, all thoughts about chemotherapy, the pink dye swallowed before her many scans–all were dropped for the moment. She began singing a Bengali song about eyes being thirsty for water. I picked up the first few lines and chimed in. Later she sat on a hospital bed singing about a parakeet, and my father cried like a child.
That was almost exactly twenty years ago.
Now the boatman turns towards a narrow, curving channel. Waves from the boat’s wake rush out to splash against muddy shores. The river of white over water thins and parts ways, a weightless curtain between past and present. Sun rinses the waters.
There they are–a flock of brahminy ducks bobbing in the bright expanse. The flock is forty-plus strong and mostly awake, preening and dabbling. Magnified by my binoculars, each glows a pale bronze. A few, with heads swivelled back and beaks tucked into wing feathers, are just waking up. I ask the boatman to switch off his motor.
All goes still. Short peeps and grunts confirm their togetherness. Their companionship is one mind, one ethos, a spirit floating me back.
My family and I once watched a pair of brahminy ducks each morning and evening for several days. We were overlooking the constantly shifting blues and silvers of the Manas River, far upstream of the Sundarbans. My father was ambassador to Bhutan. I was ten, my sister eight, both of us well aware of the morning listening hour.
Twice a day the ducks were loyal to light. They flew downriver at the first touch of sun and flew back upriver by twilight at the latest. Their timings seemed to be tuned in to the moments my parents spent scanning the river and forest canopy beyond the steam that rose from their cups of tea.
None of us had binoculars. Yet the black-tipped wings and sun-burnished bodies were clear as they flashed overhead, cheering each other on with sharp calls as they followed the flat water. The pair was so dazzling that I thought the word “brahminy” must surely be another word for gold. It was my first lesson in realizing how faithful the wild is to light and habitat.
These days brahminy ducks are called ruddy shelducks. Only classic guidebooks written by India’s first bird expert, Salim Ali, use the old name.
We have drifted close. The ducks are growing restless, echoing each other’s Aang, Aang calls. The waters release them. The air is full of whistling feathers charged with brilliance. So many so alive! I spread my arms wide to fully appreciate wingspan. This is where birds, wind and the constant transformations of sky and water can bring the past so close, so within reach, it brushes against the present like a pair of wings.