There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
My favourite Ruskin Bond story is called A Crow For All Seasons. My family and I have had some interesting interactions with crows and we have a healthy respect for them. Way back in our Kolkata days a visitor-crow had adopted us. It used to come and perch in our Alipore Estates balcony and greet us every morning with raucous bonhomie. It appreciated fresh bread and would reject anything that even remotely smelt stale. Later when our friendship had matured, he once even brought what we could only construe as gifts – earthworms, pieces of rubbish — for he laid them on our window-sill and cawed at us to come and behold!
Another pair of crows inevitably turned playful when one of us walked on the terrace in our Allahabad home. They made aerial forays all round our heads, wheeling closer and closer in pairs, alternately dipping and whizzing past our ears in obvious delight at our surprise. That seems to be a common crow game. ‘The old one-two’ is what Bond calls it. For the crow in his endearing story is someone really special, and his story might be variously titled ‘A Day In The Life Of The Uncommon Crow’ or ‘The Universe According To Speedy, The Crow'.
This Speedy is a wise, discursive thinker. His observations on life in general and stupid humans (and boorish dogs) in particular are keen and perceptive. Consider the following samples of wry contemplation:
‘This dog… likes to pretend one of his ancestors was the great (Genghis) Khan’s watchdog – but, as often happens in famous families, animal and human, there is a falling off in quality over a period of time and this huge fellow – Tiger, they call him – is a case in point.’
Or ‘After all, I don’t eat rubbish and throwaways all the time. Just occasionally I like a ripe guava or the soft flesh of a papaya. And sometimes I like the odd beetle…. Those humans in the bungalow should be grateful to me for keeping down the population of fruit-eating beetles, and even for recycling their refuse; but no, humans are never grateful.’
Speedy and his less dynamic cousin, Slow, have claimed this particular bungalow as their territory. A reasonable apportionment of territory with all the other crows of the area in the interests of peace and accord. Their days pass in outwitting the family that lives in the bungalow. There is the Colonel Sahib, the kind memsahib, the enemy Junior Sahib, a nephew violently disposed towards our Speedy, a younger boy addicted to throwing stones and a dog unremarkable for either finesse or practical intelligence. To say nothing of the cook and the gardener. Some throw orange peel, some throw spades, some rain stones. But our Speedy is undaunted, mettlesome and upbeat in his dealings with the human race. It isn’t easy, for he is often at the receiving end.
As when nipping in through a window to help himself to some food laid out on the breakfast table, he accidentally gets his neck stuck in a serviette ring. What greater proof of human idiocy can there be, he reflects, than such an irrelevance as a serviette-ring, but then humans do some pretty senseless things. To Speedy it is a crisis because his fellow crows outrightly reject his membership in the clan by reason of the ring round his neck. Because anything different and out-of-the-box is seldom tolerated, and swarms of crows pounce on him to lynch this stranger. Speedy’s outraged shout is another gem: ‘You’re just like a bunch of lousy humans!...this is just the way they carry on amongst themselves!’
Mercifully, in the brawl the napkin ring gets smashed and the clan recognises him as ‘one of us’. Other trials occur. As when the Colonel Sahib, playing a trick on Speedy, who is given to stealing eggs, places a ping-pong ball in the basket and Speedy, in the innocence of his venturesome heart, mistakes it for an egg, carries it away and almost breaks his beak trying to peck it open. Most trying is the Junior Sahib who carries a chronic animus against Speedy and tries to exterminate him time and again. But Speedy expertly introduces a substitute who receives the pellet from the air gun and gets martyred in the great cause of Confounding The Human Race. Of particular interest are the Songs Of Speedy The Crow, which intersperse the events — for Speedy is a composer and lyricist par excellence. Consider the following high-spirited song uttered at the height of elation:
‘I understand you want a crow
To poison, shoot or smother;
My fond salaams, but by your leave
I’ll substitute another;
Allow me then to introduce
My most respected brother.’
The grand design of the tale is the elevation of a sinner to a saint by virtue of a simple unraveling of sanity in delusion. The arch-enemy Junior Sahib is thwarted time and again in the great war of good versus evil, traumatised by hordes of assaulting crows who raise the battle-cry ‘Carvus Splendens!’ (Latin, no less!) He is pursued mercilessly until, altogether unstrung and annihilated, he is driven into believing himself a crow, reversing his former antipathy by turning patron saint, scattering his largesse on crows in ample measure until he turns into a veritable candidate for canonisation.
A delightful story and one of Ruskin Bond’s best. If A Flight Of Pigeons was memorable, this Flight Of A Crow leaves you cawing for more. Look out for it. I found it in The Complete Stories And Novels Of Ruskin Bond, a Penguin India Tenth Anniversary Commemorative Edition.
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Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 13:05:58 IST