Thursday, 15 March 2012

By the canal

In the delicious cool of dawn I walked today by a canal not far from my hotel. What flows here is not water. At the canal's edge a green sandpiper bobs his tail; the feathers of his back and the putrid liquid from which he feeds of one colour. The garbage of ten thousand Indian lives is here too, the plastic bags, the broken pots, the food scraps and much worse. The air, even in this kindly cool, throbs with the stench of it, but here are birds. A female grey wagtail gives her sharp call, last heard by an icy river in North Norfolk. Red-vented bulbuls bounce and burble in the trees and a Blyth's reed warbler inches suspiciously along the canal's brick bank. In the water are sulky pond-herons and over it - incongruous - a startling white-throated kingfisher and a singing magpie robin.

From a crack in a factory's tumbling wall pops a rat. My interest pricks as this is likely to be a black rat, ship rat, house rat; call it what you will, it's new for my yearlist. Twice more his sparkling eyes emerge but I don't see enough to be sure which rat he is. His nerves are justified as shortly afterwards a grey mongoose ambles past, heading home from a night of mongoose mischief. Over his head are brahminy starlings, their perky plumage quite out of place in this dismal scene.

Coppersmith barbets bound overhead, koels call, coucals boom and - how India still shocks - wading through the filthy, shitty water a scrawny man lugging a dishevelled bag. Ankle-deep in parasites, bacteria and only India knows what else, he's picking rubbish. A few paise are still to be made in this end of all places. A black leather shoe is chosen, a glass bottle too, and as he passes a foreign, white-skinned rat-watcher, he looks up, straight into my eyes. 

I can not hold his gaze for shame.

You bring to India what is in you. The people, animals, gods and bacteria you meet there decide what you do with it.

Ruth Padel
Tigers in Red Weather

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