Bird Watching in College

My roommate is fast asleep when I shut the door behind me. In the hall, laundry that was supposed to be collected on a Wednesday has begun to settle down on the cold marble comfortably. In a room nearby, someone is talking in her sleep.

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We made a plan to go to Ooty. Someone’s someone had an empty house where we could crash, they said. Then we were supposed to go to Mysore. A day trip, we decided. Only the three of us this time. We’ll show the boys. Then my phone was being cranky. Boating on Ulsoor Lake, they said. “We’ll distract the guy, you throw the phone in.” “Okay, practise the face you’ll make when you’ll pretend it fell in. It has to be believable.” On Sunday morning, I wake up at six, look at my phone, wait for someone else to say that they want to go back to sleep. We all do, in the end.

There’s a bucket in the hall. Steam rises from the thick water, leaving curls in the air. My nose is cold. The day is cold. I call the lift.

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At six thirty, we are in college. The canteen is open, but not quite ready for us, so we give it space to wake up. S is the reason we’re here. A boy from college has written a book about all the birds you can spot from campus. S wants to write about it, so she makes a WhatsApp group. M gets kicked out of the group for being unenthusiastic. We get special permission from the principal to be at college so early. This time, we all wake up.

A and I reach at the same time. A unlatches the college’s main gate, looking taller in the process. Everything is grander in the morning. I’ve opened this gate one evening after Meta, but I’m convinced now that I can’t reach the lock.
S is the last to arrive. We glare at her because we found out that she sent N a message in the morning, saying, “Tell them you want to go back to sleep. I can’t say it.” N sent us a screenshot of it.

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In the quadrangle, we let our heads fall back on our necks. Our voices come out croakily, “Sparrow, sparrow, pigeon, crow.” “Shush,” I tell them. I think of my mother and her friends, Salim Ali bird book and disgruntled children in tow, never pointing at the birds, never making a sound. This is where my brother and I learned how to roll our eyes and communicate irritation quietly, our feet always moving over the crisp leaves, as if on purpose.

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I look for the moving branches, the shaking leaves. “That’s how you spot the birds,” L used to say. (Says?) A offers me the monocular he has brought with him. He looks like Captain Haddock when he uses it, but I can’t see anything through it, and give it back.
There is a white cotton ball-like bird on a branch two storeys up. “There, where the vine falls, behind it, on the right part of the v-shaped branch,” I try. Finally, I point. N sees it. P has gone to the field, and returns with tales of all the birds he has seen. He can only find one of them in the book. We all watch as Father C strides into the quadrangle, books in arm. He doesn’t look any different this early in the morning.

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We climb to the third floor. On the landing between the second and the third floor, a running figure almost crashes into us on his way downstairs. We look at the boys’ hostel across the badminton area, through the grills. Then we decide to look away. We don’t know what state of dress or undress the boys will be in. We see brahminy kites and parakeets. The parakeets fly from a tree in college, to a large one outside campus. They move down branches with their tails in the air. A pigeon flies through the corridor, over our heads. Downstairs, under the banyan tree, a boy stands in a strip of sunlight. After a few seconds, he turns around to warm both sides of his body equally.

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We sit in a circle in the third floor corridor. We don’t manage to see the cotton ball bird from up here, but find it in the book. We’re thrilled when we read that the boy who wrote the book has never spotted it himself. “Extremely difficult to spot,” he writes. P has sandwiches. We pass them around, and the only egg sandwich falls. S and A eat in anyway. Soon we begin to want coffee and tea. When we go to the canteen, it is wide awake. The college is quickly filling with students. A guard stands at the gate checking ID cards. I look at the lock. It doesn’t seem so high anymore.

 

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Zenisha Gonsalves

Editor at The Open Dosa

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