Post 50 – Day 28 ‘North by Northwest’ (Pt 1)

Post 50a Post 50b

There is a terrible screaming and cacophony outside. I am disturbed by the raucous banging and scampering of monkeys on the metal roof shades of my room’s verandah. There is a battle taking place but it is amongst the members of a single troop, not warring tribes. No territorial boundaries are in dispute and no prey is being run cruelly to ground. At a hurried estimation the troop numbers some twenty individuals. Any romantic notion on my part of peace and harmony among my fellow creatures quickly dissipates. There is a harsh reality here that does not sit comfortably with theories of Nature’s primal bliss. Several monkeys have ghastly injuries, one monkey missing half a hind leg, the place from which it was torn partly healing over. A young one, not more than a year old, is missing all of a forearm, the gory wound gaping fresh, done within a day or two past. Yet both these animals scramble about the building’s architecture with little obvious respect for the injuries they carry, nor do they seem deterred by the varied heights and structures that they must confront. What limbs are left and function, grasp and hold firm to any surface. Over what, or for what cause, they fight and make horrible assault I do not know, but if they are given to moments of wisdom this tribe has learnt nothing from the folly of their human brethren with whom they cohabit.

It is only part light, the sun rising relatively late here, and at 6.30 am it, this Surya, is nothing but a dim red glow on the horizon beyond the dam, this structure below and to my right. Prayer calls, divine readings of scripture perhaps, had begun whilst darkness was still complete, but these ended at sunrise. As I begin to update my diary the protracted war outside finally subsides, the sounds of unbridled aggression replaced by that of two young monkeys playing on the verandah. They assume the idyllic, and jump from that of my room to the verandah of the room adjacent, then return still playful in their interaction giving no hint of the grim conflict that had gone before. Where elsewhere have I seen images of such ready adaptation by children to the torment of the world; Biafra, southern Sudan, the systemic domestic violence of Sydney’s inner suburbs?

There is no time within the fast depleting tour schedule to revisit the town’s streets, and my driver hurries me to his waiting car. We proceed northwest through fields of cereal crops, ripe chillies, and pawpaw plantations, to the town of Maheshwar, detouring from the route’s itinerary to briefly inspect a contemporary Hindu shrine just off the main road. It is brightly coloured, the choice of colours stolen from the jars of an old fashioned candy shop. At Maheshwar, the tour car barely parked, I am immediately greeted by a cluster of young gypsy girls each keen to sell me items, whose nature and names I do not recall, from baskets worn about their waists. They do not harangue, simply harmlessly gathering about, but I disappoint them all the same. Most gauge that I offer nothing but a waste of their time and depart, yet one or two follow for a few moments longer in hopeless hope of some trade.

I first visit the Ahilya Fort. Its circular bastion and crenulated battlements of grey stonework, water-rounded smooth stones, and red kiln-dried bricks overlook the Narmada River, the arcing tiered steps of its main gate leading directly to the river’s edge. Carvings of elephants, single or in procession, stylized sacred lotus blossoms, and musicians playing hand-drums and flutes, ornament the courtyard and exterior walls of the fort’s buildings. Squirrels abound amongst its ramparts and pavements, the roots of small plants of diverse kinds finding purchase in the crevices of the masonry walls. At the base of the riverside ghats, small craft are moored, their roof tops of pink and green cloth and plastic. Nearby sit occasional vendors, and here and there are clusters of little shrines, some frequented by devotees, others devoid of attendants and pilgrims, and barred shut by iron grills. Boats sport engines whose propeller shafts are long and straight, like over-sized egg-beaters, terribly dangerous yet easy to lift from the water when encountering shoals or floating debris. They have a simple utility of design and purpose the only flaw being the wicked ability of their unshielded blades to disembowel the unfortunate. A manufacturer’s sign on the air cleaner of one engine reminds the operator to clean daily under dusty conditions, though the only dusty water I am familiar with is usually referred to as ‘mud’. A woman by the water’s edge, her hair newly washed, the dark dripping locks cascading about her shoulders, looks attentively to my camera. A row of stone Shiva-lingas are exposed at the river’s low water line, and a young man slicks back his oiled and shiny black hair, the choreographed movements of his comb meant solely for my liking. My camera works constantly in record.

Away from the river’s edge I find a small eatery, a place of gustatory chic hidden amongst shady trees and gardens. There I dine on a sweetened curd lassi, a bowl of spicy peanut chat, this a wholesome snack food dish, and a plate of alloo peratha, the latter a kind of potato pancake with a filling of vegetables. The helpings are generous, the washroom facilities spotless and strategically located. The management charge about $AUS 3 for the privilege of food and personal ablutions. In the courtyard a red-flowered tree, its flowers somewhat like that of an Ixora, attracts a small nondescript brown bird, yet the length and curvature of its beak proclaims it a female sunbird of some kind. With little warning it is joined by a male, a Purple Sunbird Cinnyris asiaticus, its plumage blue-black, the colour flashing resplendent metallic bluish purple in the day’s full sunlight. Purple sunbirds are widespread residents in India, being found in open deciduous forests and in gardens, but these two, a pair I assume, are the only ones I am to see.

Sunbirds are placed in a single family, the Nectariniidae, and are fully adapted to feed from the nectar of flowers, though in doing this a certain amount of pollen is also incidentally ingested. Their tongues, as in all nectarivorous birds, are structurally modified to draw nectar from flowers. They do this by capillarity, with licking rates of 6-17 per second. However, the speed at which they lick differs in response to changes in the sugar concentration of the nectar for viscosity affects uptake. This can change throughout the day owing to evaporation through the effects of sunlight and temperature, or the reverse, due to rainfall diluting the nectar. The length, or depth, of the flower can also influence the bird’s ability to access nectar held deep within. But the depth of the flower tube that can be probed exceeds the length of the beak for sunbirds extend their tongues beyond the tip of the beak. As a rule male sunbirds have longer bills than females, the reason for this unknown. The tongues of all species are divided, bifurcated, at the end, this forming a prolonged tip. In some species the tongue is tube-like in shape throughout most or part of its length, this achieved by the curling of the edges. Sunbirds of different species can be found in Africa, Madagascar, southern Arabia, the Oriental region, Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Only a single species, the Olive-backed Sunbird Cinnyris jugularis, is to be found in Australia, its distribution here restricted to the northern tropical zone. Numerous subspecies of the Olive-backed Sunbird occur widely throughout south-east Asia but it is only the subspecies Cinnyris jugularis frenatus that residents of north Queensland will observe. It is a striking bird, the male yellow with a shining blue-black throat. Some species of sunbirds perch to feed but a number, whilst feeding fully hover in the manner of humming birds. Hovering burns up calories. It demands a lot of energy. Thus a bird using this strategy needs to be able to get a lot of energy back in return from its flower source otherwise it is in a negative energy balance; an exertive way to risk starvation. Birds of all kinds starve readily. It’s an unfortunate side effect of their peculiar body metabolism. Sunbirds utilise a range of habitats, the Australian species, like that of the Purple Sunbird feeding before me in Maheshawar, commonly frequenting gardens. I recall in the 1970s watching with fascination sunbirds hovering at the flowers of pawpaws growing in the backyard of an outer-Cairns seaside house, their wings in partial blur, their tongues flickering in and out at such speed that these seemed held in motionless action. Sunbirds can be important pollinators for some plants but the Purple Sunbird is implicated as an agent for dispersing parasitic mistletoe plants, these a threat to Sal tree Shorea robusta plantations; an important timber tree on the subcontinent. In India they are also known to attack grapes under cultivation, piercing the fruit and sucking out the juice. They have been recorded capable of damaging up to 45 percent of a grape crop. Some people advocate their shooting. Several species are threatened by the destruction of habitat, and also by pollution through the unfettered use of pesticides, and are classed as critically endangered, and though only a relative small portion of India’s cropland is sprayed with pesticides the country has the highest level of residues in the world.


Post 50c Post 50d

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s