A murder of crows

Yes, Mr Corvus of the family corvidae which includes the common crow, the rook, the raven and the jackdaw. To be found in all temperate zones and continents except South America – why? How has South America sinned, or not sinned? And you wouldn’t dare to put Bengal, especially Kolkata aka Calcutta in the temperate zone if you’d lived there for just one summer, with the rains to follow. Just ask the crows. Why ask one, ask the whole flock, what the hell, go and ask a murder of crows – yes, that’s the other collective noun for a group of crows. How fitting.

Crows are now considered to be among the world’s most intelligent animals, Wikipedia will tell you. Now? Has it taken the human race so long to wake up to the fact? In which case I wouldn’t consider the human being to be among the most intelligent animals in the world. Look at me. Did I know that a crow has an encephalisation quotient equal to that of many non-human primates? Did you?

As a Bengali child growing up in Calcutta aka Kolkata, I grew up with crows. Right from the moment that the fish arrived from the market and the cook squatted down on the inner verandah with the long, mounted knife to cut and clean the fish – the crows would be there, sitting on the roof of the makeshift bathroom built around the cistern in the middle of the courtyard, or on the boundary wall, loudly informing each other of this diurnal opportunity for theft and/or daylight robbery. They’d grab the fish bladder, if nothing else, and then fight over it amongst themselves.

Crows are the punctuation marks of Bengali life, its diacritical marks, if you prefer, its commas and full stops, its interrogation (‘Caw?’) and exclamation (‘Caw!’) marks. Bengalis wake up ‘before crow-crow’, get ‘wet like a crow’ in the rain and look like a ‘crow in a storm’ afterwards – and naturally we have our own word for the scarecrow, kaktarua, I had an uncle who looked like that.

And the definition of emptiness, ennui and vacuity is the desultory caw of a crow breaking the monotony of a long and leisurely, soporific Calcutta afternoon in the middle of the summer holidays – something like this sentence, come down to think of it – ‘caw!’

Otherwise I’m neither an ornithologist nor the Wikipedia and there’s been cases of bloggers being hounded from the Net for stuffing their blog with too much information – whether about crows or about their (the bloggers’) grandmothers – hence I desist from all other details regarding crows except that when I came out West – was sent out West by the GOI in their wisdom – I found at least two old acquaintances who seemed to have accompanied me to my distant exile: the moon and the crows. So that I wouldn’t feel lonely, I suppose.

The moon seemed to be exactly the same as in Kolkata, though now it hung over Boppard-on-Rhine or over Bonn. If they need one witness in Heaven to hang me, it will be the moon, I know – the things it has seen! And the crows who used to live in the mango tree on the neighbouring plot on Hazra Road – next to the motor repairing workshop – the tree never produced any fruit because it had turned infertile, drawing its sustenance as it did from the whitish fluid trickling out of the carbide-heap for the oxy-acetylene – where was I? Ah, with the crows.

The crows are still there, just as the moon is still there. Now they follow me and Mika around on our walks in the Rheinaue, hoping to find the treats that even Mika’s hellhound nose has missed in the grass. Or I can see them from our office building: two large groups of maybe two hundred crows each who have chosen two huge trees – beech, I suspect – to do their communal roosting. So these two gangs of crows straight out of West Side Story return at dusk to their respective trees right next to the Rhine in a noisy ceremony which consists mainly of crowing and bickering and much flapping of wings and even more bad language, I’m sure – all because some crows of the one gang, who look exactly like the crows of the other gang, have landed on the wrong tree.

Can’t tell you how strongly that reminds me of the boys of our block back in Kolkata vis-à-vis the boys of the next block.

Or generally of Bengalis.

Or generally of the world.

So today when I drive to office, I see the crows of the Rheinaue gather for their morning’s conference on the overhead traction wires for the trams right on top of South Bridge! It’s the highest vantage point, with trams below and motorised traffic from all sides on two levels – hence safe as an island. And then I see the crows again towards evening – at least one flock or gang or murder – a fairly large one – who flutter around the glassy Post Tower now dripping in sunset colours. The crows look like a bunch of black handkerchiefs lost by a bunch of absent-minded widows. But they, the crows, do not seem sorry at all. They seem to be having fun, great fun, as a matter of fact – before they settle down in whichever hapless tree for their night’s unrest.

And the crows always have a friendly caw for me as I wait for the bus, which is more than I can say for most primates, human or non-human.

I know, I know, the sticklers among you will be asking themselves: how come he’s waiting for the bus if he drove to office in the morning?

That’s why I prefer crows.

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