"Give it here!"
The flying disc came and hit me hard. I dropped the binoculars as I pressed both hands on my chin. The suddenness and the force of the impact had stunned me. I was sure that there was no cut, but I sat on the ground for a long time, slowly rubbing my chin. I picked up the binoculars and was relieved to see that there was no apparent damage.
She stood on the other side of the low hedge. "Give me the disc!"
It was not a request. It was an order. Quite bewildered, I held out the toy while she stood with her arms akimbo.
"Why can't you get up and hand me my disc?"
I stood up slowly, and held out the plastic toy across the hedge to her. She snatched it and ran away. No princess ever thanks a serf for performing an assigned chore.
I picked up my binoculars and rubbed my chin again. No blood. Thank God! The golden oriole I had been watching had taken flight.
Over the next several days, I noticed her again in Lodi Gardens. She was of that indeterminate age - no longer a child but not yet a girl. She sometimes played with a ball but the flying disc appeared to be her favourite. She was invariably alone and displayed considerable skill in throwing the disc in several ways.
A few weeks later, I sat on one of the benches in Lodi Gardens. I kept as still as possible to see how close some raucous warblers would come. Just when it seemed that one of them was eyeing my undone shoelace as a potential meal, a familiar looking disc came sailing and landed at my feet. The birds flew off with indignant noises and I looked around for the imperious owner of the disc.
"Give me!" she said.
I handed her the toy but instead of running away, this time she stood there without saying a word.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Why do you carry those glasses?"
"I look at birds."
"Is that why you stay so long? No one else sits down. Can I have a look?"
"Can I have a look? Through your glasses?”
I handed her the binoculars, looping the strap around my wrist.
"Don't you trust me? Do you think I will drop this thing and break it?"
She peered through the binoculars and was genuinely amazed to see objects appear so near.
"Why do you look at birds?"
"Because I am an ornithologist."
"You’re an ornithowhat?"
"An ornithologist. I study birds."
She laughed loud and long. "Study birds? Whoever heard of studying birds? You study Science. You study Arithmetic. No one studies birds!"
With an amused twirl of her head, she ran away.
Next week, I became especially interested in a couple of sun-birds which had quite surprisingly decided to nest in a hedge near the north gate of Lodi Gardens. To watch them, I spent hours sitting on a grassy patch near the gate. The girl would often walk over and flop down on the grass beside me.
"My name is Eisha. What's yours?"
"Eisha? Now that is a nice name."
"No, it’s not! I hate the name. I would like my name to be something else."
Together we watched the pair of sun-birds rear the chicks, till one day the nest was deserted. We never saw the sun-birds again.
"If the mother sun-bird dies, will the father sun-bird marry again?"
Our discussions were characterised by a random choice of subjects, often totally disjointed. There might have been a very elliptical stream of consciousness but, if so, I was seldom able to see the relation between her observations and questions.
"My father bought me a book about birds. It is written by some man called Salim Ali. I think I will call you Salim Ali."
And from this ersatz Salim Ali, she learnt enough to be able to identify the more common birds, as well as the occasional green bee-eater or kingfisher.
"Where do you live?"
"Oh, I live there," she said, waving her hand in a large arc which could encompass any of the residential areas near Lodi Gardens.
"Why do you always come alone?"
"Why do you always come alone?" she countered.
"Because I have to spend hours watching birds and there is no one to keep me company."
"Well, I come alone because I have to spend hours watching television and there is no one to keep me company."
"What about your parents?"
"Daddy and Mummy have to go to office."
"What about school?"
"What about school?" she said defiantly. And we left it at that.
"If you had a choice, Salim Ali, what name would you like? My name should have been Irshya. Irshya means jealously, doesn’t it? You should call me Irshya." "Okay. Irshya.”
Between disjointed conversations, we watched birds, we imitated their different calls and we ran short races against each other. We also played with her flying disc. My throws had a tendency to be erratic and she chased the wide throws with lightning speed.
She was fascinated by the call of the red-wattled lapwing. I pointed out the birds to her, standing in the nearby dried up water channel.
"The call of the lapwing is best imitated if you whistle the words 'Did-he-do-it?'"
"Did-he-do-it? Did-he-do-it?" she tried to whistle.
"Yes, you are getting it."
"Are you sure the lapwing says 'Did-he-do-it?' and not 'Did-she-do-it?'"
I had never thought about it. Nor had I ever suspected Irshya of being a feminist!
Irshya quickly learnt how to whistle the call of the lapwing, "Did-he-do-it? Did-he-do-it?" On a few occasions, she surprised me by imitating the call so exactly that even I turned around to see where the lapwing was. She explained that the secret was to whistle the words "Did-she-do-it?", rather than "Did-he-do-it?" From that day on, whenever I heard a lapwing call, I imagined that the question was "Did-she-do-it?”
Irshya was thrilled one day when she spotted a couple of mynahs making repeated trips to a bush. By pushing away a few leaves, we could see the small nest which contained three chicks. We patiently watched the two adult birds make innumerable trips to feed the ever-open beaks of the hatchlings.
Three days later, there were only two chicks in the nest.
"One must have flown away," said Irshya.
"No, I don't think so," I said, "The chicks are much too small."
We soon spotted the third chick. It had fallen out of the nest and lay in a twisted heap. The adult birds kept feeding the two chicks in the nest and the third on the ground. After repeated attempts to coax the fallen chick to somehow climb back into the nest, the adult birds simply gave up. Thereafter, they fed only the chicks in the nest and completely ignored the pathetic cries of the third chick.
"Do something!" yelled Irshya.
I explained that it would be best to let nature take its course. Even if we picked up the fallen chick and placed it back in the nest, the parent birds would not feed it.
"Nature is not wasteful. You can see that the parent birds are barely able to feed their offspring. A chick with a broken wing has less chance of survival. The mother and father birds will not feed it and shall, thereby, increase the chances of survival of the other two chicks that are fit."
"But it ought not to be like this."
"I agree. But that is how it is."
In order to soften the harshness of nature, I explained that other animals took greater care of their young.
"Among the mammals, and especially the primates, the process of thinking is more developed. You could call it emotion or love. A mother is more likely to favour a disadvantaged offspring."
"I know," she said.
It was not so much the vehemence of this simple statement as the quality of certainty in her voice which made me study her face carefully. I imagined I saw wisdom far beyond her age in the child's eyes.
It is not uncommon for those using Lodi Gardens for a walk to visit the nearby Khan Market while returning home. One of the charms of this market is that it is quite small. At the same time, it is large enough to meet most of your needs. It is difficult not to meet one or two friends or acquaintances, and some who you would be reluctant to classify as either. The shopkeepers nod at the regulars; window-shoppers smile at someone they think they know and there are always a few residents of nearby areas in jogging shoes and shorts. It is also one of the few markets left in Delhi where pavements are broad enough to walk on.
About a month ago, I spent a happy day bird-watching in Lodi Gardens, and then walked to Khan Market to buy some groceries. As I walked along the pavement in front of the shops, I came across Irshya sitting in a wheelchair!
"What happened Irshya? Why are you using a wheelchair?"
The girl just stared at me. I knelt down on the pavement and asked again, "What happened? Have you hurt yourself?"
Irshya gave me a stony stare and in a deadpan voice said, "Mummy says I should not talk to strangers."
"But I am your Salim Ali!" I said, "Talk to me. Tell me what happened?"
"Mummy says I should not talk to strangers. Mummy, this man is bothering me!"
"Yes, mister? What is it?"
I turned to face a woman who had just emerged from a shop. She held a few grocery bags and clearly disapproved of the whole world. I slowly rose from my kneeling position and looked at the woman. She could have been no more than thirty. Striking, rather than beautiful.
"Yes? Do you want something?" she repeated.
"No. No, thanks," I said, "I was just talking to my friend Eisha here."
"I don't know what you mean. Her name is not Eisha. She is my daughter and her name is Kalpana."
"Kalpana? Not Eisha? What's happened to her? Why is she using a wheelchair? Did she have an accident?"
The woman looked at me and then at the girl. She looked at me again and snapped, "That's none of your business!"
"But look here, ma'am. I was just being polite. I have met your daughter several times and we've run races against each other. I just want to know why she is now using a wheelchair."
"You must be mistaken, Sir. My daughter has not been able to walk for the past five years or so - almost ever since I married her father."
Could I have made a mistake, I wondered.
"Oh! I am so sorry. So extremely sorry!" I stammered in embarrassment.
The woman pushed the wheelchair around and I squeezed against the side of the pavement to let her pass.
I kept staring at the woman as she went down the pavement, pushing along her invalid daughter. When they had gone about thirty or forty yards, I heard a single sharp call of the lapwing, "Did-she-do-it?”
Though I have looked for her each time I visit Lodi Gardens, I have never seen Irshya again. Nor have I ever again heard the lapwing's call in Khan Market. But in Lodi Gardens, I am reminded of her each time I hear a lapwing ask, "Did-she-do-it? Did-she-do-it?"