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The Illusory Game Birds of Usmanpur Swamps

The Illusory Game Birds of Usmanpur Swamps

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Published by zchoudhury

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Published by: zchoudhury on Oct 27, 2010
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10/27/2010

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The Illusory Game Birds of Usmanpur Swamps
 Ziauddin Choudhury
Hunting for game birds such as ducks, wild fowls, and egrets was a passion of mymaternal ancestors. We heard tales of the legendary hunting expeditions of our maternalgreat grand father from our Nani (grand mother) and aunts. He would actually go out for several days on such expeditions and return with sacks of game birds that would becooked in a variety of ways. After his demise, his hobby passed on to his son-in law, our  Nana who was an equally passionate hunter.I never saw our great grand father; he had passed away much before my birth. But I hadseen my Nana. Like his father-in law Nana was also in the habit of spending days awayfrom home pursuing ducks and wild fowls in the forests and swamps in theneighborhood. He had two shot guns—a single barrel Winchester, and a double barrelRemington. Nana took great care of the guns, and he had a full time attendant for maintaining the guns. The attendant, Muslim, was a youngish guy who also acted as Nana’s companion to hunting. Himself a good shooter, Muslim would carry the guns andthe bag of cartridges on his shoulder, and of course carry back the sack full of game birdsthat were hunted down.One of the big attractions of our annual winter visit to Usmanpur in my childhood was tofeast on the game birds that Nana would bring home. Muslim would unload the bags onthe courtyard, and we would behold with thrill the array of herons, red jungle fowl, teals,and an occasional goose. Nani, the expert chef, would make delicious roasts and other  preparations from the game birds, and we would heartily enjoy these for the next fewdays.I had always wanted to go with Nana on a hunting expedition. Nana would assure methat he would do so when I was older; I was only five or six then. Unfortunately that daywould never arrive, since Nana gave up hunting rather abruptly. I would learn about it
 
from my Nani several years later, after Nana’s death. The story below is what she hadheard from Nana. Nana’s game hunting season usually lasted all of winter since in this period the swampsand the just harvested paddy fields would be the feeding grounds of migratory ducks,wild fowls and herons. Normally Nana would camp out at night in places frequented byhis preys, and hunt them at dawn as they descended. The life changing event for Nanahappened in one such campout a year after our last visit to Usmanpur.That winter season Muslim brought news of a large gathering of fowls and egrets in aswamp some five or six miles away from Usmanpur. The swamp was not far from anancient mosque, which also had a burial ground in the adjoining field. The burial groundhad graves dating from hundreds of years, and was actually not functional any more sincethe space was used up many years ago. A large swamp separated the mosque and thegraveyard from the rest of the village. Muslim said he had seen several flocks of migratory birds and white herons feeding in the swamp at dawn the previous day. Thatevening Nana and Muslim left for their outing in that remote village. Nana and Muslim set their hideout in a bush near the swamp adjoining the mosque andthe graveyard. From that vantage point they would observe the movement of the game birds, and it would give them enough time to sneak out and shoot. On principle, Nanadid not shoot at night, and in any case the birds did not start assembling in a good number  before dawn. Nana and Muslim lay covered in the blankets that Muslim always carriedwith him as part and parcel of the hunting expeditions. Nana had dozed off to sleep as Muslim kept watch. He woke up suddenly at a nudgefrom Muslim, who pointed out at the field adjoining the swamp. The night sky was justgiving way to the first grey lights of dawn. A bewildered Nana saw that the field wascovered end to end by thousands of heron like birds. The white plumes of the birds had brightened the field to the point of making him blind. As Nana was taking some time torecover from this awesome spectacle, Muslim took out the single barrel gun excitedly andaimed at the flock. Before Nana could stop him, an impetuous Muslim fired the gun.Almost instantaneously, the flock of a thousand heron vanished. When Nana turnedtoward Muslim to rebuke him, he found him lying by his side shaking convulsively, andfoaming at the mouth with eyes that appeared to be coming out of their sockets. Nana looked at the swamp and the field beyond only to find it totally bereft of bird of anykind. Not even a common egret stirred in the swamp. He shook Muslim several times tomake him come around; but he kept groaning and shaking. Nana realized that somethingterrible had happened, and they had better get out of the place as quickly as possible. Allhe knew that the game birds that they had seen were not birds after all. They weresomething else.Fortunately for Nana and Muslim, some people from the village were gathering beforethe mosque for the Fajr prayer. They knew Nana and about his hunting hobby. Whenthey saw Nana, they approached him. Nana explained to them that Muslim had just

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