Unlikely band of heroes

“Hey guys, how about going on a picnic tomorrow?” Naani asked.

“Where to?” asked 10-year-old Ishan.

“A tiny village called Mangalajodi, around 65 kilometres from here, on the northern shores of Chilika.”

“Isn’t Chilika the largest coastal lagoon in India?” asked Riya, who was older than Ishan by a year.

“Yes, and it is home to hundreds of exotic birds,” Naani replied.

“That sure sounds exciting,” exclaimed Ishaan, hugging Naani.

Riya and Ishan had come to Bhubaneswar from Delhi to spend their winter holidays with their grandma.

Paradise of birds

The next day, they started early in the morning. By 6.30 a.m. they had reached Mangalajodi. Their driver stopped the car and led them down a narrow path through thick undergrowth. They reached a marshy wetland sprinkled with reeds and vegetation. Two men in a boat were chatting; one got up and came towards them.

“You want to see the birds?” he asked in Odia.

“Yes, but we will need a guide as well to tell us about the birds?” Naani said.

“Maaji, I will be your guide.”

“Uncle, can the canoe move in this swamp?” Riya wondered.

“Don’t worry, beta. There is a channel of water running through the marsh. I can navigate the canoe quite easily.”

Soon, they were on their way. It was all silent and the only sound was that of the oar gently slapping the water. Suddenly, there was a sharp hoot and Ishan jumped up, almost falling off.

A colony of reeds had come alive. They could see birds of different sizes and shapes taking flight at diverse speeds and to various heights. The air was filled with a euphony of sounds.

It was an awesome sight and Riya wasted no time in clicking pictures on Naani’s mobile.

“Uncle, what is your name?” Riya asked the boatman.

“Sadhu Behera.”

“What is this book you are carrying?”

Unlikely band of heroes

Sadhu gave her the tome and she looked at the title: Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali.

“Can you read and write English?” Riya asked him.

“No, beta. But I can recognise each bird from a distance. Once I spot the bird, I show the picture to tourists who then tell me the correct pronunciation. That is how, over time, I managed to pick up the names in English.”


“Uncle, how long have you been a guide?” Ishan asked.

“Beta, we have been guides since 2000. Before that, we were all poachers for many years.”

“Poachers?” Naani was stunned at the confession.

“Yes, we used to trap the birds and eat them up or sell them in the market. We used to sell their eggs too.”

“What made you change your ways?”

“In 2000, someone from an NGO counselled us. He told us that the birds are our lifeline. If we keep killing them, soon there won’t be any left. What will happen to us then? So, rather than killing the birds, we should protect them for our own good.”

“He was absolutely right,” Naani said.

Sadhu nodded and continued, “We were convinced and agreed to follow his directions. We knew the territory intimately, were aware of the tactics used by hunters, and had excellent knowledge of the birds. So, from poachers we became not only guides but also protectors.”

“Are you happy with this change?” Naani asked.

“Of course, we are. We make as much money by working as guides during the tourist season and for fishermen at other times. Today, we not only take pride in showing tourists around, we also educate them.”

“How is that?” asked Riya.

Beta, we tell the visitors about how to preserve nature, maintain hygiene and coexist with nature. When we notice anyone poaching, we catch them and hand them over to the Forest Officials. As protectors, we get a lot more respect. We have also won awards and recognition at the State level.”

A few minutes later, Sadhu stopped the boat and softly whispered. “Look to your left.”

Unlikely band of heroes

They turned their heads and Riya let out a gasp. The most beautiful bird she had ever seen was resting gently on a water plant.

“That is called the Black-Winged Stilt.”

As Riya watched fascinated, she noticed that the bird’s wings were jet black while its underbelly and neck were fluffy white.

However, what took her breath away were the winged creature’s legs — bright orange and delicate like those of a ballet dancer!

“Uncle, where all do these birds come from?” asked Ishan.

“They travel all the way from Russia and Mongolia, as well as the Caspian Sea!”

On the way back, Naani said, “Isn’t it strange that Sadhu, who has not been to school, taught us one of the most important lessons — to treat nature with empathy and respect?”

The other two nodded in agreement.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 5:20:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/unlikely-band-of-heroes/article34524384.ece

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