Bo-ko-ta-ko! Bo-ko-ta-ko! This four-note song is the vocal signature of the Indian Cuckoo, known as bou-katha-kao in Bangla. Its song is unmistakeable and the bird decidedly prefers to be heard rather than seen. Like other members of the cuckoo family, it hides among leaves usually high up on a tree, so if you see it at all, it is partly covered by leaves. I was able to photograph this bird, whole and uncovered, only once, in the Kalenga forest, and that too because it was a juvenile and less wary than an adult.
The furtiveness of the bird is not that well-known but, reading his poetry, I realized that the great Bengali poet Jibananda Das (1899-1954) knew about it. Many of his poems are replete with specific, precise details of nature in Bengal, in a way only a keen observer would notice. Not satisfied with simply the names and physical appearance of birds, his poems often allude to their behaviour and activities.
Thus it is – in the poem Ekhaney Ghughur Dakey - he says, essentially, that if you happen to catch sight of that bou-katha-kao hiding in the jaam tree, and if you happen to hear strains of the song of the ghughu (spotted dove), then you will be captivated forever in this forest.
There are numerous other examples sprinkled throughout his poems. For example, in Hai Cheel, he mentions the weeping of the golden-winged Brahminy kite, whose call is indeed melancholy. Owls – both lokkhi pecha (barn owl) and neem pecha (scops owl) - show up repeatedly in his poems. And the poet knows which bird eats what. In Tomader Booker Thekey he pictures the neem pecha picking up a field mouse at sunset while wishing for a similar ending to his own life.
The shalik also makes frequent appearances in his poems. There are several species of birds in Bangladesh called shalik. Jibananda is usually talking about bhat shaliks (common mynas), which he must have observed with great attention. For he mentions their brown wings and yellow feet, their frolic with each other among the leaves and branches, their feet sinking into the velvet soft grass while picking up seeds until they fly off as if answering the call of a hijol (barringtonia) tree nearby.
Insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, fireflies, bees, beetles, butterflies and hornets feature in his poems, as do mammals such as mongoose, jackals and mice. His rich evocation of Bengal fauna – trees, shrubs, weeds, even different species of grass - also adds much to his poetry.
He seamlessly blends in both real and mythical historical figures, as well as mythical creatures such as the shuk bird, weaving a tapestry of a beautiful, dreamlike Bengal, or ruposhi bangla. And he declares over and over, in many ways: he does not want to see any other land as the beauty of Bengal is enough for him, and that he wants to return to Bengal after death, not necessarily as a person, but nevertheless immersed in her elements.
There was sadness in Jibananda's short adult life, much of it spent moving from one teaching job to another. But out of that sadness came poetry that captivates us, perhaps in the same way the birds, trees, rivers and grass of Bengal captivated the poet.