The Dawn: 4th January, 2013

Winter: migratory birds and metaphors

Mushtaq Soofi 

People in Punjab anxiously wait for the arrival of winter. But when it actually arrives, it is greeted with mixed feelings. It provides a welcome relief from the nasty heat of summer when temperature soars up to fifty degree Celsius, making outdoor life miserable. But winter in the absence of material means to create a cozy corner, can also be quite cheerless with shorter days and longer nights, pushing people to confine themselves to indoor activities in unheated rooms which offer little comfort. That is why there is a saying in Punjabi; “only couples who sleep together, will survive the Poh”, the harshest month of winter in the indigenous calendar which starts from mid December.

What can save one from the biting chill? Human warmth! Physical contact born of love is what makes winter for Baba Farid, fascinating. “Winter embellishes lovers embrace,” he says in one of his couplets.

Usually the winter in Punjab is a time of great excitement for bird lovers and greens. Not many people apart from bird watchers, hunters and poachers, know especially in our urban areas that Punjab — both Pakistani and Indian — is home to large variety of migratory birds during winter. Birds of various species leave Siberia when its weather becomes unbearably cold. These birds take a sky route known as Indus fly zone and fly over Hindkush, Karakoram and Suleman ranges before flocking our wetlands and lakes, natural and man made. Their journey of more than 4,000 kilometres ends at Bharatpur in Indian Punjab. The flocks land in these areas between September and January every year.

The exotic and colourful birds comprise cranes, swans, flamingos, falcons, geese, waders, mallards and cormorants, white ibis, harriers, kingfishers, herons, spoonbills and egrets. The sky comes alive with not so familiar sounds and colours. Not just the bird lovers, our poets too have been greatly moved by this unusual spectacle of sounds and colours, creating sensuous awareness of diversity of the natural world which they are part of. Nature is not just what we are familiar with. Contact with unfamiliar compels us to redefine our relationship with the known and unknown, making us aware of vast network of interconnections and interdependence which sustain our world.

So it should not be surprising that a bird like crane (kunj in Punjabi), apparently alien in the plains and hills of Punjab, becomes one of the most popular poetic metaphors in our folklore and classical literature. Cranes fly in flocks led by guides with their forceful shouts. If one of the cranes goes astray or loses its way due to exhaustion or some other reason, it cries inconsolably in great pain and anguish. Sight of a lone crane crying incessantly is as pitiable as is the sight of its flock pleasurable. It cannot survive out of the protective ring of its tribe. And this is what stirred the imagination of our poets. Lonely crane, down and out, yielded itself to be appropriated as a symbol of separation.

In the peasant society of Punjab, arranged marriage has been a norm and love based on the free choice of individuals, a taboo. Love violated the so-called moral values born of caste and tribal compulsions. So lovers would inevitably end up being physically separated from each other. In the context of such social hostility to love relationship, crane, a bird removed from its flock becomes a potent metaphor for separation. In the Punjabi folklore we find ubiquitous presence of this metaphor.

Crying like a crane is almost a refrain in many a folk song. In some folk songs it is employed very creatively. “Flying cranes descend on walnut trees/Punjabi folks with white teeth and rosy lips tell tales/hear a word or two before you leave” (Potohari folk song). Here the bird is an inseparable element of natural and social landscape evoking the subtle feelings of latent unity that exists between nature and man.

Among the Punjabi classical poets Baba Farid was probably the first to bring in crane in his description of changing landscape in different seasons. We see cranes in Katak, riot of colours in chet and lightning in Sawan [the months of katak, chet and sawan are harbingers of winter, spring and monsoon].

Waris Shah, having a unique sense of language, elevates ‘Kunj’ to the status of a metaphor. After the forced marriage of his heroine Heer, he describes the departure of her love Ranjha from Jhang city in his inimitable manner; “a wagtail like a crane leaves its habitat” suggesting that Ranjha though as delicate as wagtail has a long distance to go all alone like a crane in search of his beloved.

Another bird we come across in classical poetry is ‘Bagla’ (heron). Baba Farid used it as a symbol of false devotion and hypocrisy exposing the religious and spiritual trickery of his times. ‘Bagla Bhagat’, now a common phrase, means a false devotee, a hypocrite. This word has multiple meanings. This is how Nijabat in his celebrated epic “Nadir Shah di Vaar” describes the Indian troops ready to take on the invading army of King Nadir Shah in the battle of Panipat: “heralds in front of seven hundred thousands horsemen and great vassals shout like a flock of herons ahead of advancing clouds”.

Long is the list of foreign birds which captured the imagination of the people and poets. What this phenomenon reveals is the capacity of our people to appropriate what can enrich their lives whether it is indigenous or foreign. Birds coming from far-off lands form an essential part of our social and cultural firmament. Sadly, Wildlife experts have noticed 80 per cent decrease in the population of migratory birds in Punjab in recent years.

With vanishing of forests, drying up of lakes, unrestrained hunting and poaching and unregulated construction activities, the future is quite bleak for the migratory birds that are a metaphor for perpetual movement of life. Losing them would make our material and spiritual world as lifeless as Siberian ice.

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