Woebegone Forest

Written by Cho Dharman
Translated by Padma Narayanan

AMID the swaying of the breeze, in the still silence of the forests, listening to the lullabies that the rustling leaves sang, breathing in the subtle fragrances of the wild flowers with the tender nerves of their beaks, two parrots were enjoying life's pleasures. They joyously flitted from branch to branch, swooping down occasionally from the skies like wind-blown flowers falling off the trees. New lives yearned to break away from their shells, feel the natural heat of the sun and taste their first whiffs of outside air. The parents flew out in search of a place to hatch their eggs.

They flew to the nooks and corners of the forest, looking in the trees for hollows. The trails from earlier journeys guided them in their search for the place of their origin. Their native land was not where it had been. Not a single trace of their old house. Had they lost their way? They looked for familiar trees; they were missing, too. "We were born on a big ilava tree with many hollows; near the nilavahai tree... its canopy of branches kept the sun out; with open arms, it welcomed all the birds into its cool comfort, as if they were inside water… where did the fragrance of the sandal go?" And the dense matti, kongu and pillai marudhu? Where was the teak with its thousand arms spread out? In that nest, there had been a threshold-like stub beneath, where the mother could sit and feed her little ones. Their noses could no longer smell the scent of ripe jackfruits. Had the land swallowed all its bounty and digested it all? The benevolent soil could never have done that. Where, then, were all those huge trees? Become food for big forest fires? The earth would have converted even the ash into manure and fed the plants to help them come alive again and produce seeds.

The parrots kept looking for a place to safely deposit the fruit that was inside the mother. They wandered the skies like rain-bearing clouds that roamed the forests. Tree trunks with hollows were nowhere to be seen. Their seeds could not be laid on the ground; prowling snakes might be around. Their red, fruit-like beaks could peck at soft fruits, not drill holes into trees.

Driven by the weight of the eggs within, the female parrot flew further and further away. The helpless male was crestfallen. It was a treeless forest that had lost its beautiful colours and scents, with no hollows; a forest bereft of the wild animals that had once roamed around.

After their long flight, wings tired, the parrots finally found a palm tree standing all by itself. They looked down: a deep hole filled with a few dead palm twigs. The female nestled inside that hollow. The male sat on the top-most point of the tree and looked around. Bare land as far as the eye could see.

A national highway ran by the lone palm tree and passing vehicles, with their horns, made a continuous noise. A roadside canteen made the whole place float in bright light. Its stereo speakers blared out film songs. A tall, smoking chimney was close to that tree. The bird winced at the strange smell of biriyani, the obnoxious smell of petrol and diesel, and the other unpleasant smells that wafted in on the breeze.

The bird flew out to refresh itself after its long, tiring flight. It flew in search of waterfalls that fell off the hills and flowed in serpentine paths on the plains. It swooped down to peer closely at a pond some distance away. Unable to stand the stench of the dark, slimy pond filled with waste from a workshop, it flew away. A crane was patiently waiting at a pool of water filled with scales of fishes, cast-offs from the canteen. The bird kept away from that water, too. Far away, in the middle of a plantation, was a well, fitted with a motor pump. The bird sipped at that brackish water and returned to its hole.

Atop the palm tree, the male peeped into the hole, and felt a warmth. It knew. It flew down to collect a few grains of biriyani and puliyodarai thrown out of a bus window near the canteen and fed its young. It stayed in the nest, roosting, while the female went down to have her meal. One day, finding pieces of a fruit discarded by somebody, it went happily to peck at it and discovered the tomato, which no living being other than humans ever ate. Disappointed, it picked up a piece of bread that an angry child had thrown out. Another day, it drank water from a plastic cover filled with water: thrown away by some stranger? Slipped from the hands of its owner? Or the result of a petulant child's missed aim?

The glaring lights and the loud noises of the vehicles, the demonic screeches of the honkers and the non-stop blaring of the speakers at the canteen made sleep impossible. Added to that were the pricks of dry palm fronds. In the forest, an elephant or a lion or a tiger or thunder or lightning would occasionally produce big roars and instil fear in them. But here, not a minute went by without the onslaught of a thunderous noise. Hearing some different sounds one day, the two parrots stood on top of the palm and peeped down. They went back to the refuge of their hole happy, for they had seen a few peacocks, a few koels and a flock of doves. Had these birds, too, come looking for places to build nests? Had their forests been destroyed, too? Armies of sparrows also flew by that single palm tree.

Every time the parrot fed its young, the sound of hooters drowned out the kee-kee sounds of the parrots. Though they shouted hoarse, they did not succeed in familiarising the little ones with their lingo. The two looked at each other in surprise when their fledglings lost their natural parrot-green colour and took on a reddish-green hue. They were pained and shocked when the sounds from their young ones sounded like hooters. The female parrot, once, brought a half guava thrown out of the window of a bus and fed her young ones. She expected the young ones to enjoy the fruit, but her hope was crushed when the little parrots, so unfamiliar with the smell and taste of fruits, spat the fruit out. The parent birds shed tears.

Some days later, the sound of a horn was heard from the lone palm tree during a one-minute interval when no vehicle was on the road. People said it was a ghost. They believed that the ghosts of a couple of lorry drivers had made the palm their abode after they had died in a collision. The 'ghost-inhabited' palm was uprooted, to protect them from the ghosts and let them move around fearlessly. Flapping their wings in the wind, the two parrots went back to the forest with their little ones. Earlier, the forest had had only shrubs, and now even they were gone. There were only creepers now. The forest trembled at the honking sounds the parrots made. Lions and tigers perked up at this new sound. An elephant or two that were still around, lifted up their trunks, bewildered. The blarings thrown out into the skies echoed throughout the forest. The older parrots hid themselves, rueing that this was a curse on them.

The parrotlings found it difficult to accept the new environment and its smells. They roamed around, making the highway vehicle noises all the time. They knew not how to peck at fruits or to become one with the leaves of a tree when they faced an enemy. One day, they suddenly heard the whistle of a train from the other side of the forest; the whistle was coming closer. The two parrots waited. Two young peacocks were coming towards them, making the noise of a train.

A few days later, they heard a loud siren, A factory in the forest? The inhabitants of the forest looked around curiously. It was from a cuckoo that flew by. At times, the noise of a machine in operation could also be heard. The medley of alarming cries made the forest shrink. The last straw was when a flock of sparrows appeared, making the noise of bursting crackers. The forest became mute, its eardrums ripped by all those harsh sounds. It soon turned into a lime kiln and sent out hot burning vapours.

Far in the forest, the varied sounds raised by the different birds can still be heard.

The original story “Soga Vanam” was first published in the Tamil edition of India Today (June 23rd 1999). The English translation first appeared in The Hindu on Sunday, December 18, 2005.

Author’s Bio:

Cho Dharman(b. 1953) has published six short story collections and four novels. He also has a monograph on villupaattu (bow songs), sung by artiste Pitchaikutti, to his credit. His work has been the subject of doctoral work and is part of the curriculum at various universities and schools in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He won the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Sool (Embryo/Pregnant) in 2019. His novel Koogai (translated as ‘Owl’ in English and ‘Moonga’ in Malayalam) won the Iyal award from the Toronto-based Tamil Literary Garden; his other honours include the Tamil Nadu state-government and Katha awards.

Translator’s Bio:

Padma Narayanan(b. 1935) is a short-story writer and translator of Tamil literary fiction into English. Her translated works include Imayam’s Video Mariamman and Other Stories (2021); the anthology Along with the Sun (2020); Aadhavan’s I, Ramaseshan (2008); La. Sa. Ramamritham's Apeetha (2014), The Stone Laughs and Atonement (2005); Indira Parthasarathy's Poison Roots (2014), and two collections of short stories by Appadurai Muttulingam (2009 and 2017). Her work has appeared in Agni, Words Without Borders, a Bloomsbury Academic anthology, and elsewhere. Her translation of Dilip Kumar’s ‘A Clerk’s Story’, published in Caravan in 2012, inspired a movie adaptation, Nasir (2020).