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Odia Story: The Kingfisher of Mangalajodi

By Lalit Das, Translateted by Rabinarayan Patnaik | PUBLISHED: 24, Nov 2018, 0:22 am IST | UPDATED: 24, Nov 2018, 0:22 am IST

Oh! Steam- driven cart, halt a while

The charming picture of Chilika behold I will. 

Thus sang the poet Gopabandhu when he saw the lake through the window of his compartment of the moving train. But we were going in a car. We intended to spend some time in Chilika to recite what the poet aptly said, ‘A thing of beauty is joy for ever; the more you behold the more contented you are. It is always fresh, ever.’

When the idea of going to Chilika comes to the mind tourists invariably think of Barkul, Balugaon or Satapada. Few people know that Chilika is at a stone’s throw distance from Bhubaneswar. The name of the place is Mangalajodi, one hour drive by car; only sixty kilometers. In winter large flocks of avian guests of various types and colours from far off countries throng this place for a change. And again they go back to their homes taking the winter with them. They fly down thousands of kilometers probably in search of food. They go back strong, healthy and happy after eating well from the abundant store of food that

Chilika has. Like the Olive Ridleys who swim thousands of kilometres from the Pacific Ocean to lay eggs, the Flamingos fly down from Siberia, thousands of kilometers away. This is something astounding. God only knows how they navigate the distance without error. Man with a brain in his head needs the help of  the GPS to go places in a city, yet how do the birds with hardly any brain manage the to and fro journey home so joyously promising Chilika that they would return next winter?  The villagers bid adieu saying, ‘By your departure you have made us sad.’ There was a time when the villagers of Mangalajodi earned their livelihood by shooting the birds. Buy now they have turned bird-lovers and work for their conservation. For this work many Organizations have rewarded them.

Kedar is a government officer. He has been transferred from New Delhi to Bhubaneswar recently. His friends say, ‘Kedar is a nature-lover, almost mad for it’. He has visited all the national parks of India. He spends almost half of his salary on sight- seeing. Come a holiday, he would plan to visit to a near-by place. To enjoy Nature away from the city life purchasing travel kit like tent, sleeping bag fibre-boat mountain bike etc is a continuous process for him. His intimate friend Vikram always gives him company on such outings. Both of them are members of the bikers’ club. Both of them love boating in the river or pitching a tent in the jungle to spend the night in the heart of Nature. Aversion to city life and the tide of renunciation rise high as life’s philosophy at such moments. They feel they are the incarnations of the Budha. They themselves enjoy and let others enjoy too.

That was the first day of the year, the wintery morning of January. It was quite cold in Bhubaneswar. The whole world appeared to be shivering. News had reached that the Siberian and the Mongolian birds had flocked in large numbers at Chilika to escape from the bone shattering winter of those areas.

As the first day of the New Year coincided with Sunday Kedar planned to go to

Mangalajodi to watch the migratory birds. He shared his thoughts with friend Vikram. Vikram was excited and proposed to take friend Shravani along to make the trip romantic. Kedar, too was overwhelmed as the friend was excited. Vikram talked to Shravani and finalized the tour programme.  Vikram could not tell Shravani over phone that Kedar would accompany them. Kedar proposed to take his wife along so that Shravani would have someone for company. Amused Vikram said, ‘There is no dullard like you in the whole of the universe. If you always have your wife as companion you lose romance. Since you are my friend, I told Shravani that your wife would also accompany us. Shravani rejected the proposal outright. What do we do now? If we don’t have a lady friend wont we feel inferior to the bird-couples we are going to watch? Mangalajodi tour has to be romantic at the least. But now I cannot coax Shravani to accompany us’. Probably Kedar in his heart of hearts wanted the situation to develop this way. What is the use of taking Shravani along instead of Sambhavi who has just come from Mumbai? Sambhavi is smart. Last night he had danced with her to his heart’s content at Disco Point. He had discussed with her the Mangalajodi trip and she gave her consent. If Shravani does not want to go, fine; Sambhavi would go and that would be as romantic. Vikram liked the idea. Appreciating the magnanimity of friend Shravani he said, ‘ All arrangements for the tour has been made by her- boat, guide, breakfast, lunch- everything; these are her gift to us.’ Lord knows how, but Vikram has the capacity to impress girl friends. He has this quality from his college days. Even now the father of children has the same ability as the college hero had in yester years. It is said that in the army one has to remain hero all the time, whether it is war or love affair.

It was not yet 5 o’clock in the morning when Vikram rang the door bell at Kedar’s residence. Kedar was under the spell of laziness. What the hell was this army punctuality?  The car was loaded with food, drinks, binocular etc. Sambhavi was ready at her hotel. She was also equally punctual. With a red winter jacket and head scarf she looked like a wax doll. When Vikram saw Sambhavi his face lit up. Before being formally introduced he embraced her saying, ‘Good morning’. Kedar was displeased. Is it courtesy to embrace an unknown lady? A hand shake would have been sufficient. He was so utterly disgusted that to leave them alone he asked them to sit in the rear seat while he himself sat at the steering wheel.

The car sped on the National highway. Intimate gossip was going on in the rear seat. In the front silence prevailed. The Eastern sky was brightening up. There was hardly any traffic. The ambience was peaceful. The soft rays of the rising sun cast a blanket of comfort and intimacy. The new Innova Creta was sailing over the Highway noiselessly. Without the grace of the Lord it is not possible to get the Bramha Muhurta, true friend and the soul elevating morning breeze- all at the same time.

To get closer to Sambhavi Vikram was reeling out jokes. They were engrossed in sweet talks but Kedar was happy to see the sun rising from behind the mountain. School days came back to flood his mind. The sun rise through the cleft of two mountains, the small flocks of birds flying overhead and the fading morning star-etc crowded his mind.

They veered from the Highway to take the Tangi Police station road. After crossing the market centre they came up against a railway level crossing. A train was about to pass. The gate was closed. All of them got down to stretch themselves. Some cyclists and motor bike riders crossed over to the other side by bending low at the closed gate. If these people would take all aspect of life as emergency duty! At some point of time they might get trapped. Let it be. It is not good to think of unpleasant things at such a good and beautiful morning. By the side of the railway line a crane was standing motionless on one leg as if in deep meditation. Do birds also do ‘pranayam’ and yoga? How peaceful they are! Yet how stressed is the man! God has created all kinds of nuisance by giving men the power to think! Unlike birds man is not always happy, rather mostly unhappy. The speeding passenger train whistled past the level crossing cutting off Kedar’s line of thinking. As soon as the barrier was lifted people jostled to cross over to the other side ahead of others. Kedar’s car also got into the melee. Vikram connected his phone to guide Madhu’s with the number that Shravani had given him. Madhu informed him that all necessary arrangements were in order and that he was waiting at the jetty with a boat. After negotiating the difficult road around the village the vast lake Chilika came into the view. The lake water was reflecting the morning sun rays like a mirror and the flocks of birds circling over the water were probably having a look at their own countenance through the water-mirror. Vikram called Madhu again and asked him to raise his hand and spotted him instantly. Madhu escorted them to his boat. They all sat on the boat. Boats of other tourists were also floating in the water. In a particular boat a man dressed in military outfit had set up a huge camera. When the gentleman spotted Vikram he shouted in a manner as if he knew them for a long time, ‘You people have surely come from Bhubaneswar. I am Sambit. Shravani madam has asked me to keep an eye on you people. Sometimes the boat turns turtle in the Chilika, but this has never happened to Madhu’s. Enjoy your boat ride without any fear.’

All of them sat on the wooden planks in the boat. The binocular was set at the most suitable place. Madhu advised them to seat such that the boat was perfectly balanced. Vikram and Sambhavi sat on the plank at the front. Behind them sat Kedar and Madhu on the last plank behind him. The boat sped deep into the lake through the Nalavana. At some places the boat hit the mud.

Kedar was visibly upset. Madhu assured him, ‘This part of the lake is shallow. When we move further into the lake all will be ok.’ The boatman deftly steered the boat deep into the lake but no one thanked him for his skill. He on his part never cared for anybody’s appreciation. For him rowing the boat was just a routine work. Now was the time to loot as much pleasure as possible; but Sambhavi would be heaped with praises for all the pleasure they experience! It just happens like that. At Mangalajodi the lake is quite shallow with a grand combination of reed and water. Madhu gave a running commentary on each type of bird- Godwit, Wagtail, Turn, Moorhen, Swllow etc. Madhu knew in detail which birds came from which country; which bird ate what; some ate fish, some grass while some others ate snails, insects and grass hoppers. Some ate from the surface of water while some dived deep to collect their food. Madhu is an expert on this subject. As per Madhu birds select their favourite food from the abundance of food available in Chilika. They don’t have to fight for food here. These birds come from different countries have different habits; they are different in nature yet they all live here in harmony. One bird was sitting silently with wings spread wide. On enquiry Madhu said that that one was a Cormorant. After having its fill it was drying its wings in the sun. The birds by nature take care of their wings when their stomachs are full. They don’t rush to the hospital like men. Neither do they earn nor do they spend!     

Kedar was keenly observing the birds while Sambhavi and Vikram were engrossed in talking sweet nothings. At times Vikram was leaning over Sambhavi on the plea of showing a particular species of bird. Kedar was amused. He now concentrated on knowing more about Madhu.

Madhu was a bird hunter earlier. Hunting birds in Chilika was his passion. That was his profession too. He used to be happy if got one. Once he was caught by the Forest Officer at Nalavana while hunting. He was thrashed the whole night. The treatment of the Forest Department staff shattered him. After his release he vowed to take revenge on them. He killed thousands of birds at Nalavana. Kedar asked, ‘How did you kill thousands of birds?’ ‘Very easy’, he replied. ‘If you put poison in water, thousands will die at one go’. He even challenged the Forest Officials to catch him if they could. So dexterous was he that each time they tried to catch him he escaped by deceiving them.It is said that he declared himself the ‘Veerapaan’ of Chilika. He knew each atoll, each island and every water way. It was almost impossible for the Forest Staffers to subjugate him.

Tourists avoided Mangalajodi for the nuisance created by bird hunters like Madhu. Mangalajodi was considered to be  a dark spot of Chilika.

On a particular day something good happened to Madhu. He was tired after hectic hours of hunting and to avoid the blazing sun of the afternoon he was resting under the shade of a tree. A car came and stopped by his side. A maiden got down from the car and asked Madhu if there was a way to the Chilika water front. Madhu asked her, ‘Why have come here instead of going to Barkul or Satapada?’  The girl replied that she saw in the Google map that this was the nearest place from Bhubaneswar. ‘Here, there are atolls, Nalavana and of course, water. So, migratory birds flock here in large numbers. I love to shoot birds through my camera. You can see some of them.’ She showed photograph of different birds from her album. Madhu was deeply impressed with the girl’s knowledge on birds, her passion and love for them. Although he saw birds for years he never realized that they were so beautiful. These photos opened his eyes. He became sad and thoughtful. Tears filled his eyes. The maiden was bewildered.  Controlling his emotion Madhu said that he was bird hunter and had killed thousands of birds. Now after seeing such beautiful creatures in the album he repented his action.  ‘Where do I do my penance?

Who will pardon me?’ he moaned.

The maiden caught hold of Madhu’s hand. ‘Promise me by holding my hand that you will never kill a bird henceforth; rather you will love them, protect them. That will be enough free you from your sin’. Madhu promised as told.

From that day onwards he not only stopped killing birds but also bade others from doing so. The maiden had given him a few pictures of beautiful birds. The villagers on seeing them were marvelled and they too vowed not to kill birds any more.

The maiden said her name was Shravani. She also gave a book on birds to know more about them. After that incident Shravani visited Chilika many a times and each time Madhu escorted her into the lake. Madhu rowed the boat while Shravani did her research on the birds. At the behest of Shravani the inhabitants of the nearby villages shunned bird hunting. Her words had magic in them. They not only loved the birds, they also loved Shravani. Mangalajodi turned into a sanctuary of birds. There- after it became the most sought –after place for the tourists. By taking the tourists on boat ride, the income of the villagers increased substantially. Now many cottages have been built at Mangalajodi. Government of Odisha has rewarded the villagers by declaring them ‘Nature- lovers’. Forest department has declared Madhu as the ‘friend of birds.’ The Forest Officer who once arrested Madhu embraced him after giving him the reward. With tears in his eyes Madhu said, ‘I would have been happier still if the officer would have rewarded Shravani madam and embraced her, not me.’ Kedar abruptly interjected, ’No, no Shravani madam only gave the idea, but actual work was done by you. Why would have the Officer embraced her’? Madhu replied, ‘ I am really happy today to know that you are guests of Shravani madam. Please convey my namaskar to her’.

Overwhelmed Vikram said, ‘Look, what a magnanimous personality my friend Shravani! Today Mangalajodi is not only known all over India but the world as well only for her. She is a beauty and speaks English so well that listeners are captivated. Even if she says something wrong people accept as right, but then she never says anything wrong.’ Immediately after saying so, Vikram understood that Sambhavi’s mood had changed. He realized his mistake. To restore normalcy in the mood of Sambhavi madam he showed her some pictures he had taken. But Sambhavi continued to sulk. What was the point in heaping praises on Shravani after inviting her to the pleasure trip? Both Kedar and Vikram felt uneasy. Sambhavi agreed to join the party as a friend of Kedar. But in the boat it was Vikram who talked with her most of the time as if he was her friend. Kedar was sidelined. Kedar was forced to talk to Madhu and good qualities of Shravani became the topic of their conversation. Then Vikram iced the cake. Those who know women have advised not to praise another woman in the presence of a woman. Vikram’s dimwit caused Sambhavi to spoil the party. He now started to repent. Kedar chuckled when he saw the grim face of Vikram. It is good; Vikram has learnt a lesson for his over bearing attitude towards his friend.  Kedar then observed that Sambhavi has careened towards Madhu. Even God cannot penetrate the heart of a woman!

Something unusual happened at this moment. A River tern picked up a fish from the water. As it was flying upwards the fish slipped from its clutch and a kingfisher grabbed it just as it was hitting the water. All of them gasped. The poor fish escaped the frying pan only to fall in the fire! But lo! An eagle came swooping down on the kingfisher. To save its own life the kingfisher let go the fish from its grip and dived into the water. Unable to get either the fish or the kingfisher the eagle soared high. Both the fish and the kingfisher were saved. All this happened within a twinkle of an eye. A similar drama among Kedar,

Vikram and Sambhavi was going on since morning. But the moderator in Madhu kept all of them in good stead.

Sambit reached then and invited them for hot coffee at Godwit cottage. Kedar and Vikram exchanged a glance and declined the offer. They were sulking. Sambhavi smiled and remarked caustically, ‘They have just escaped from the beak of the kingfisher, why would they like to come under the clutch of the eagle? Rather they would take food at home cooked by their wives! The holiday shall thus end well. They might come some other day to stay in the cottage as the guests of Sambit’.

They all laughed. Kedar took out a five hundred rupee note and offered it to

Madhu as tips for pacifying the angry planets. Madhu immediately said, ‘Shravani madam has forbidden me to accept money. Can the value of good relationship be only five hundred rupees?’ Kedar replied, ‘This amount is not to put a value on anything. Spend this money to pacify the planets. Today both the fish and the king fisher escaped death. Convey our pranam to your Shravani madam.’ Vikram was speechless. Sambit was bewildered. Sambhavi said, ‘As the birds fly to their own nests so shall we return to our homes; but we go back with some warm feelings. Like that fish slipping from the clutch of the king fisher if avoidance of misunderstanding at each moment of life can be made an art, then every moment in life shall be unique.’

# Originally written in Odia by Lalit Das

Translation to English by Rabinarayan Patnaik