August 14, 2009

Flamingo pink, Bombay blue

It had been a long, hard grind at the office. I had not stirred from my computer, struggling to make it perform the tricks I knew it was capable of. Mentally exhausted, I leaned my head back in the train and closed my eyes. It dawned on me as the ache spread down my leg: only one of my feet was firmly on the floor of the train. I could conceive of no way, standing there with bodies all around me, that I could either shift to the other foot or get both feet on the floor.

So I consoled myself with the memory of some more famous one-leggers. Flamingos.

Ah, flamingos! Just a few weeks before, on a drowsy Saturday afternoon, we had wandered out to Sewri to see them. Sewri! The very name, among Bombayites, might buy you a few wrinkled noses and the question: Why Sewri? Because out from the shore there, about a thousand of these strange pink birds spend a few months every year. And the thought of this always tosses me.

I mean, I have travelled as far afield as Calimere on the southeast coast of India, Walvis Bay on the southwest coast of Africa, in search of flamingos. Even saw flocks in both places. Came back happy I had trudged that far. Who would have thought, Sewri?

The Sewri shore on a weekend is a deserted, sleepy place, pleasant in a lazy, flyblown, dreamy kind of way. Long roads stretch away emptily, trucks parked on either side. Strange hulks of machinery lie here and there, their disuse falling off them in rusting bits. A few boys play cricket and even they seem half-paced. At low tide, an occasional curlew stalks little curlew delicacies in the mud. On the crumbling piers that dot the area, lonely herons keep watch, hunched and still.

The only real activity is the frenetic performance of stints -- tiny water birds that collect in large flocks. As one, they wheel and twist above the mud, undersides of hundreds of flapping stint wings glinting in the sun. Without warning, the wheeling is done and they settle somewhere; only to rise up again, phoenix-like, just moments later. They're impossibly busy, active little creatures, true. But even the stints find their involuntary way to add to Sewri's weekend drowsiness.

And rising above the whole scene, almost palpable, almost alive, is a kind of pervasive quiet, somehow achieved without absolute silence. There are sundry sounds that you hear: boys shouting their cricket appeals, the rumble of a lone truck. You hear them and it's because you hear them that you know how quiet it really is.

Quiet like that is lost in Bombay, nearly vanished from our normal lives. If I had started with flamingos as I travelled home in the train, with my right foot numb it was that quiet I was now savouring.

It is a crowded, polluted, noisy and sometimes violent city I live in. But there are still some places where, some times when, the crowds and the noise are only memories. One is only as far as an afternoon watching flamingos on the Sewri shore.

So go. Walk east from Sewri station. Stop when you come to the shore. Leave the city at home.

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