Written by Nisha Bhakat

Content warning: Childhood Abuse

In front of our house in Baharampur town, there used to be two large trees. One sprawling Delonix regia with its boisterous scarlet blooms, and one lightning struck shell of a Cassia javanica. Despite this, the Cassia tree continued to host interesting birds. It’s where I saw a barbet drill its nest for the first time.

It was a Coppersmith Barbet, a determined little thing with its plumage a striking green against the dead bark. I didn’t have a great view from our ground-floor balcony so I climbed a few steps up the caged railing with my small camera in hand. That proved to be quite the task. My thighs were nursing fresh bruises courtesy of a bamboo rod sitting innocently in a corner of the house. For killing snakes, he’d tell you. It found frequent use too. But of course, I wouldn’t let anybody hurt a snake. 

The very next day, I told my friends at school about this new bird with a flaming red forehead and a metallic call. I left out the unimportant details.

The Coppersmith Barbet is ubiquitous to Indian cities and suburbs. Other birds seem to let it mind its own business, even when it’s calling its head off. It’s an ambient sound I have grown used to, back at home and in the field alike. But in the field, so many birds outshine the Coppersmith. Working in tea estates for my Master’s thesis, I rode high on the euphoria of living my dream life. I would strut into forests I’d dreamt of working in for over a decade. With time, euphoria eased into routine, the chubby green bird of my childhood became a data point. On a short break back home, I managed to dig out my old nature journal. There are years worth of carefully crafted accounts of wildlife sightings on family trips. “Over a hundred species!” I told my friends about fieldwork. Something about the experience seemed oddly nostalgic.

Bangalore was different; White Cheeked Barbet is the most common around here. The bird, like the experience of moving across the country, was new to me. It’s just what I need, I told myself: something new and different, yet familiar enough. To my utter frustration, familiarity continued to elude me. Bangalore with its nice weather, lovely people, and peaceful evenings made me feel out of place. Against my best judgements, I found myself dwelling on the sweltering heat of Baharampur afternoons. No longer having to parse through days to weed out details had started feeling like a loss. It reminded me of the time my team had come dangerously close to elephants during a survey. As real as those tense moments had been, I have no photo evidence to show for it. 

Late one afternoon in Bangalore while working on the thesis, there was a knock on my door. I must have been staring blankly at an unfinished R code that should’ve taken me less than an hour. It’s something I did more often than I was comfortable admitting. There’s a Coppersmith right outside, my friend told me. It’s on a thick Ficus tree, two storeys up. In the dim light, we could just about make out its silhouette drilling away at the branch. The first-floor rooms are locked, we sighed, and squinted to get a better look. Then sometime not too far in the future, I turned in my thesis. As always, I left out the unimportant details.

But maybe, times are changing. I am no stranger to hearing horror stories of academia, or of working in the field as a woman. But none of them had prepared me for the utter helplessness of being unable to work my best because of things not even remotely linked to wildlife research. I was shaken at how personal and work lives blend together in the small community of wildlife enthusiasts. The loneliness of clamming up because in these small interwoven circles, ‘word gets around’. This world doesn’t take kindly to people who aren’t at peak physical and mental health, or at least, appear that they are. There’s enough sympathy to go around, as long as you trade in some of your opportunities. And of course, there’s also me, and my unending obstinacy to power through. All because the truth sounds like a lame excuse when coming from me.

Mine isn’t a story of hope, or of happy endings. It’s a story of cycles and patterns. It’s similar to wondering “What level of human disturbance can a certain species tolerate before it spirals towards extinction?” or “Are environmental processes driven by recent events or are they a relic of the past?” I like to draw comfort from that, from knowing this is a tale as old as time.

The next time the Coppersmith visited the leafy Ficus, we were armed with binoculars. It perched itself and started calling, throat patch puffing out with every note, shining a brilliant red in the falling light. My camera lay forgotten as I watched it till it hopped down to its nest and disappeared. Settling into another peaceful Bangalore evening I mused; not much has changed, but things have changed enough.

For more of Nisha, visit @nickel.salt on Instagram