SHORT STORY : BIRDS
By Mashiul Alam
(Translated by Hasan Ferdous)
Koshkin called me on the morning of 3 December. Koshkin, that is Andrei Pavlovich Koshkin, is a young diplomat at Dhaka’s Russian Embassy. I had met him in Moscow where I once lived as a university student. I have returned home some five years now. These past years I have had no contact with him, until last year when we unexpectedly met at an international conference in Dhaka. I learned that he had been reassigned here from New Delhi only the previous month. We soon renewed our old friendship and spiced it up with Vodka. These days we see each other once in a while, and speak quite often over phone. Each time he goes home, he returns with a bottle of Vodka for me. There are days when we also eat out at restaurants.
Koshkin, whom I call Andrei, is crazy about birds. In fact, not just birds; he has a deep curiosity and love for all kinds of animals. His hobby is taking pictures of birds and animals. He has an expensive camera fitted with large lenses. Koshkin has traveled to many countries to take pictures of birds and animals. On the 3rd of December morning, he told me, “My dear friend, winter birds have arrived. I want to see them, let’s go.”
So we went out together. Andrei himself drove from Gulshan to East Raja Bazaar to pick me up. Inside his air conditioned car, with his stereo playing music by Alla Pugacheva, it felt like early spring in Moscow. Andrei offered me potato chips and Heineken beer.
Forty minutes later we arrived in Savar and stopped next to a chor — a sliver of sandy land rising out of a dying river — by the road. At the end of the sandy strip stood a swamp, which was somewhere between a river and a bayou. Beyond the swamp, amidst the morning fog, there lay faint dark lines of a village. Soon the sun rose with all its glow; its crimson light spread out all over the marsh, slowly replacing a misty blanket that lay over it.
I asked Andrei, “What about the birds, where are they?”
Andrei smiled. Pointing a finger in one direction, he said, “There, right there. So many of them, can’t you see them?”
From a distance, the birds looked somewhat like a mass of water hyacinth or lotus floating over the water below.
Andrei smiled again, “Yes, those are birds.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. Never in my life had I seen so many birds in one place. I had no idea that so many birds could actually flock together to cover an entire body of water. We left our car near the sandy strip and walked closer to the swamp. We could hear birds chirping, as if they were whispering among themselves. Some birds merrily hopped from one place to the next. On the other end of the landscape, about twenty birds flew in a colourful formation. Some of the more sporty ones flew up and down, splashing aloud into the water. Andrei, ever ready with his camera and telelens held on a tripod, began taking pictures. Rejoicing aloud in Russian, he began clicking his camera shutter. At times he would remove his fingers from the shutter and clap, speaking to the birds in Russian, “Go, go, fly. Don’t you know how far you have come? Look around and see how beautiful it is.”
Andrei danced, coaxing the birds to dance along and to show their grace. As if reciting a poem, he said, “Pretty, how pretty! Look, there is a little village, and further down, there the sky is descending to kiss the earth.”
Suddenly we heard the sound of a gunshot. Andrei, startled, looked around; my eyes followed him. Afar, on the left side of the swamp, stood a man jumping in delight with a gun in his hand. Andrei, carrying his tripod on his shoulders, began running towards the man. I followed him. As we drew closer, we saw an elderly man. With a shotgun in his hand, he was pointing something at the water excitedly, “There, there.” On the water lay a wounded bird, still fluttering its wings. A kid, aged 12 or 13, was swimming towards the bird.
I turned to the gentleman, “It seems you are an educated man, and yet you have no respect for law. Don’t you know it is illegal to kill migratory birds?”
“Who are you, boy? How dare you teach me about law? Where do you come from?” the man hollered.
“Please, don’t call me a boy. I am 32 years old and a father of one child.”
‘Do you know who you are talking to?”
“I could not care less. The fact is you have broken the law. I am a journalist. OK, tell me, who are you? Are you a parliament member, chairman of the local union council, a retired military officer, or a former senior government official? Which one are you?”
“Look young man, you sound rude. I am perfectly aware of the law. Who says it forbids hunting a few birdies?”
“Can you break the law deliberately? You don’t look to be poor; neither are you in need of hunting birds to make ends meet. You have done it wrong, do you admit?”
“You better watch your words. It seems all journalists feel we owe them an explanation for everything we do.”
“Not an explanation, all I wanted was to ask you whether you knew that killing migratory birds is an offense punishable by our law.”
“Look, you have been rude from the outset. I am much older than you, you can’t scream at me like that. In fact, I could be as old as your father. I won’t tolerate it that some guy like you could show off his journalistic credentials and insult me. No, I won’t tolerate that.”
“Are you trying to threaten me?”
“My people have little regard for journalists and such people.”
“So, you are threatening me, aren’t you?
Meanwhile, the kid swam back to the shore with a rather large duck. It was already dead. With blood dripping down its body, the bird’s head hung down and its pupils motionless. Andrei ran to the boy and hurriedly grabbed the bird. Holding it close to his chest, he moaned, “My God! How cruel!”
The hunter gentleman, startled at Andrei’s howling, looked up at him with surprise. Andrei, lifting a leg of the dead duck to examine it, saw that it carried a plastic ring. On it was written, “Moscow Zoo, Duck, Series No. 3,009.”
Moaning audibly, Andrei fell on the ground.
I stood face to face with the gentleman, “Now, you see, this was a bird from a zoo. You are nothing but a brute, a butcher.”
The gentleman, obviously embarrassed, could not find words to respond. He held on to the barrel of his gun and glanced guiltily at Andrei.
Andrei slowly rose from the ground. Bringing the dead bird close to his heart, he turned to face the multitude of birds on the swamp. Addressing them in a somber and anguished voice, he said, “Friends, now go home. Not a moment more at this place.”
Andrei’s words reverberated throughout the swamp, fading out slowly. Soon thereafter we could hear the birds fluttering. With their wings and feet, they began running on the water. The sound of their wings flapping could be heard all over. As they began flying up above the swamp, the sky became covered with countless chirping birds, drowning the earth with the sound of their flapping wings. They began flying towards the north. All around one could only hear the birds tweeting and their wings flapping.
When the last batch of birds faded from our vision, we looked at the swamp. Not a single bird was left. Only the morning sunlight shimmered on its yellow, muddy water.
The next day, newspapers reported that the migratory birds that had taken refuge in Savar had left the swamps and nearby ponds. Experts fearing that this might have been caused by a serious environmental pollution urged immediate investigation of the water, soil and other natural elements in the area.
Two weeks later on a Sunday morning, Andrei telephoned me. “My friend, I have been transferred. I am leaving you country for Poland.”
“Don’t people in Poland kill birds,” I joked.
Andrei laughed, “You silly.”
Mashiul Alam, an assistant editor with Dhaka’s daily newspaper Prothom Alo, has written seven novels and three collections of short stories.
Hasan Ferdous, writer and journalist. A columnist for Prothom Alo, lives in New York and works for an international organization.