I Netaji Airport trouble among the crows had been building up for quite some time but the handsome young Kaliya never thought that a sudden turn would soon change his life. There were few trees left on the main road connecting Calcutta city to the airport. The problem was that there were too many crows and very few branches. A wise owl advised them to fly away to the suburbs and come back in the morning, like the humans that flocked to fancy eateries on a daily basis before returning to their homes.
Every day there were squabbles but this time his rivals were more aggressive than usual; it was not just over dead rats but for the hand of the fair Mukti. She was considered to be something unique in crow society for her feathers were flecked with white—a mark left behind by one of her albino parents. Everyone cawed for her attention but Kaliya had eventually won the day. She had lowered her head and sidled up to him soon after noon. The mood, however, was tense because the other young adolescent Chandu had not been willing to give up easily. It resulted in a fight and the two combatants fell on to the highway, pecking at each other.
Just then a cab rushed past them. Chandu flew away in the nick of time but Kaliya lay helpless as cars and cabs whooshed past. He was injured. Kaliya could not fly. It was scorching hot and he began to pant. Mukti immediately flew down, ignoring Chandu’s warnings.
“He’s finished. Why are you wasting your time, oh fair Mukti?”
Mukti circled her lover and landed near him. She replied with dignity, “But I have given my heart to him. If he goes, I will follow him to the land of the dead and be reborn with him…”
She stood next to Kaliya, widely opening both her wings, shielding him from the scorching heat, waiting for the next set of wheels to free them from their lives.
But that did not happen. A six-year-old girl witnessed the scene. There, on the burning tarmac was a pair of crows—one injured and the other shielding it from the scorching sun with its wings unfurled.
Four wheels screeched to a halt as a little girl’s excited voice cried out, “Oh stop! Driver Chacha stop! We can’t leave them to die. Stop!”
Nurse Rokan sitting next to the girl put aside her knitting and scolded the child authoritatively “But Brinda Baba, we have a flight to catch. Your father will be at the airport. We must not miss the …”
“I know!” She yelled. Before anyone could interrupt, little Brinda yanked open the car door and rushed out. The driver was aghast while her nurse quickly dropped her knitting and followed her. The old driver warned, “Brinda Baba, don’t go near the birds. They will peck at you.”
Turning a deaf ear to them, Brinda picked up the helpless birds and placed them in a string bag she had with her. Somehow the crows knew that this human meant no harm and they didn’t flutter but remained quiet—the winged creatures felt reassured by her presence. She emptied her bag, removing a notebook, to line it with a newspaper.
But nurse Rokan was adamant. Those crows were not going with them.
Brinda pleaded, “Rokan Chachi we can take them with us as hand luggage.”
“Impossible. If the airline finds out, we will be fined. Throw them out the window. Your father will blame me for this.”
“Never! I will never throw them. I will explain to Daddy.”
The argument would have gone on had the old driver not intervened. He made a practical suggestion. “Rokan Didi, you are taking a box of mangoes on the flight. Let us place the birds in the box with the fruits. The straw lining will prevent detection. The birds are in such a state of shock that they will keep quiet.”
Brinda was not too happy with the plan. “But the birds will suffocate in the closed box!”
The driver was quick with a reply, “I will make small holes in it.”
Rokan was most annoyed, “Okay…do it now, before we drive into the domestic parking lot.”
Ever since Brinda’s mother had died nurse Rokan was in charge. The child’s holiday with her grandparents in Calcutta was over and Brinda was now returning to her father in Bangalore.
And so the mango crate got lifted on to the hold of the plane. But before that something else had happened.
Kempi Gowda Airport
For generations a family of sparrows had been roosting near Calcutta’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport but with the newfangled building coming up, all the niches had vanished. There were no longer holes and crannies but straight walls made of glass. Many sparrows had lost their lives hurtling into the hard, shining walls. Where would they go? Their news agencies – pigeons coming and going in the holds of planes – reported that the best place to go to was Bengaluru. There was absolutely no competition there—not a single sparrow had outlived the transformation of the city from a green jungle to a concrete wasteland; not a single sparrow had survived. There were no sparrows there—it was unbelievable!
The most talkative journalist was the old pigeon. “All you have to do is arrive at Kempe Gowda airport. There are more people leaving than entering and this means empty houses—many, many new empty houses.”
“Why?” asked one inquisitive sparrow
The pigeon rubbed his two wings with glee. “There is no water and there are power cuts.”
“No water?” The listeners were alarmed. “Why should we go to a water-less …”
“Stupid chattering birds! No water for humans, you fools! If humans go there is more than plenty for us. We take what we need—no wastage.”
“Why are the people going?’
“I have heard there is a demon loose out there. Humans are getting confused. They can’t track it down and in the melee keep hitting each other; they attack their own shadow—they’re so afraid. There is smoke and fire. Some say that the demon is cackling with laughter.”
One sparrow named Bindi slipped in a word.
“But how can we survive?”
“Don’t you understand that when humans squabble it is best for us? There will be no one but us, the trees and the ponds. These flights will also stop—so hurry up. Don’t delay. Hop onto that mango crate with holes, go and colonise the land with sparrows.”
Bindi did not hesitate. With her mate Rana, she flew into the box. On board, the sparrows were surprised to find they had company inside the crate – their enemies – two crows. But the newly married pair was so busy with each other that they hardly looked at the small birds. At one moment Kaliya thought of offering a juicy sparrow to his bride but just then the plane jerked as it hit an air pocket. It left the birds feeling shaken and out of their element, so they decided to bury the hatchet till they reached more stable grounds.
And so they landed at Kempe Gowda airport of Bangalore. Brinda saw to it that the precious luggage of crows in the mango crate was loaded on to the cab at the airport terminal. But she was tired and half asleep when they reached their flat at Ejipura. Daddy had to carry her upstairs in his arms. Nurse Rokan took this chance to take out the bag of birds; she threw it close to the nearest drain.
The rough handling had been a blessing for the crows. They got thrown out of the bag straight into the drain that led to another opening near a small temple—the Munnishewara temple. At this temple, with Lord Shiva there lived a pigeon who welcomed the sparrows and showed them a temporary shelter in the crevice of the walls of the ancient structure. The crows lay still, unable to get their bearings. The chirping of the sparrows before the sun rose was reassuring; at least there were two songsters they knew from their native Calcutta.
The sun rose. Kaliya was now really worried. He had to get food and care for his wife. What could he do? He peeped out of the drain and came face to face with the pair of inquisitive sparrows. It was summer and the drain was dry but some dried leaves had made a comfortable bed for the pair. After a while some water seeped in; the temple was being washed. With the water flowed in leftover prasad helpings. The crows were overjoyed. What more could they want?
Meanwhile, the resident pigeon at the temple had warmly received the sparrows. He was happy to hear about pigeon-cousins back in Calcutta and after gossiping told them that just opposite to the temple, there was an abandoned new building—perfect for raising a bevy of sparrows. The lone old priest of the temple, too, was very happy to see the newcomers and began to keep a bowl of water for them, alongside regularly sprinkling grains on the courtyard.
The story would have ended here if nurse Rokan had not stoked trouble.
Rokan wanted lots of money. She had a big burly friend named Dardar who made promises that if she gave him money, things would be great for her—she would live like a queen. So she kidnapped little Brinda. It was easy because the little girl trusted her and was overjoyed when told that instead of going to school, Rokan and Dardar would take her to the zoo. But instead the two wicked kidnappers took her to a musty, damp room on the fifth floor of a deserted building.
Now it so happened that on that very day it rained in Banglore and the gush of water forced the crows out of the drain. The prasad they had had healed Kaliya’s wound. Once outside he regained strength and soared into the blue behind his beloved Mukti. As they circled each other trying to find a perch, Mukti saw Brinda come out with the conspirators. She drew the attention of her husband, “Caw! Kaliya look! The little girl is there. Let’s go and thank her – oh dear the car is moving fast – let’s follow it.”
And so it happened that the crows followed the kidnappers to the dark hole where they had confined the girl. Somehow the clever birds sensed that things were not all right. Why was the girl crying?
Not far behind the crows flew the pigeon. The pigeon was always inquisitive. The crows in the drain had always interested him and more so when the sparrows had narrated in detail their love marriage and accident. Were the crows looking for a place to stay? Suddenly the pigeon too spied the little girl—a familiar figure. The matter seemed serious. He sidled up to the crows and told them to keep guard.
“Stay here. Let me go back to the temple and hold an emergency meeting.”
At the temple he called the sparrows; they came from such a big city that their views had to be respected. The sparrows felt mighty important and discussed the matter.
“Ah yes! In Calcutta kidnapping is a common occurence.”
The temple owl rubbed her sleepy eyes and joined in, doling out practical advice.
And so they chattered, bobbing their heads without coming to a conclusion until they suddenly spied Rokan with her knitting, sitting near the window. Bindi immediately flew up to the ledge and hid behind a curtain. She waited till Rokan left her knitting on the table and went out to go shopping. The sparrow made a grab for one end of the knitting and flew off. Holding it firmly in her beak she flew to the house where the little girl was jailed. The clever bird wound the end around a projected nail and then continued her flight to the temple.
The pigeon then helped the sparrows remove a gold necklace from the statue at the temple. They then tied the woolen strand round its neck. The three birds swiftly carried the necklace and the free end of the wool to Rokan’s room and dropped it inside her knitting bag.
By the time the stage was set it was dusk and all the birds including the crows came back to the temple. The crows were flustered about where to perch but soon the owl showed them the empty house. After feasting on prasad leftovers, they all retired for the night. For a moment Kaliya had thought of killing the sparrows but then Mukti reasoned that if the sparrows were allowed to live there would soon be plenty of little birds; what was the point of killing the bird that would lay golden eggs? Kaliya was too sleepy to argue.
At night the commotion started. The priest began to beat the drums. Crowds gathered. Jewel stolen from the temple! Kidnapping of a child! All in Ejipura? What was the police doing? A new recruit in the police force was alerted. He pointed to the strand of wool round the neck of the deity. The priest, too, began to wonder. The sleuths then started to follow the strand and reached the crying girl in the dark room. From there they traced the strand to the knitting bag of Rokan and all hell was let loose.
Rokan began to howl and spill the beans. It was Dardar’s plan! Where was Dardar? Brinda was not bothered; neither was Daddy when she jumped into his arms.
The priest offered the birds a special prasad treat the next morning. He was a very clever old man and could understand and talk to the birds.
“Why did you take the necklace?”
The owl replied, “Oh ancient one! Man loves shining metals and stones. It was only when the gold was stolen from the temple that man began to make a lot of noise, put their heads together, and unravel the thread of mystery.”