The Muthirapuzha is all of noisy pulchritude. One of three rivers that rise in Munnar and give Kerala’s charming albeit brutally oversold hill station its name (Munnar is Malayalam for Three Rivers), it bumps along a bed of time-smoothed rocks, thundering past the graves of primal rainforests, sour-smelling tea gardens and decadent spice plantations ringing with the din of diurnal cicadas.
Pallivasal Power House near Kunchithanny is Kerala’s first hydroelectric power station, founded in the 1940s when Kochi was still a princely state. Unfailingly, then as now, it rouses the neighbourhood at daybreak, siesta time and in the dead of night with the protracted, mournful wail of an industrial siren from a time long gone by. A mosque, a church and a Hindu temple then take up the challenge and shake the somnolent air free of every trace of drowsiness.
The birds are quieter, or maybe the river has deafened us to their dawn chorus. It is still dark when the Oriental Magpie-Robin begins singing his Lauds. At first light, a dolorous, hissy screech rings out from a ledge of one of the chalet-style cottages of the overpriced resort where I am lodged.
Then there is the outpouring of a whistling song, spirited and melancholy and hymnal all at once. It has a deeply human quality, ranging up and down the scale unconstrained by structure or meter.
I know that minstrel. But it is not always that I hear it sing like this. Or from so close. Its song drips like dew from a moss-girded trunk. When I lay eyes on it, it is unremarkable: In shape and aspect it is as dark as a crow, but with firmer, more insistent upstrokes in flight. It disappears into a crevice among the gables and I think I’ve seen the last of it.
For the Malabar Whistling Thrush, the fabled ornithologist Dr Salim Ali preferred a more poetic moniker — Idle Schoolboy. That name might not ring a bell to present-day schoolboys whose idle pursuits, sadly, don’t encompass the skinning of knees on gnarled tree barks, or the pleasant whiling away of time learning to whistle a tune, or putting a pen-knife to good use fashioning a flute from a reed in the hope of recreating that faun-like melody.
Those who have walked in the hills of southern India, particularly in the Western Ghats, know that the Malabar Whistling Thrush is — unlike most schoolboys — often heard but seldom seen.
I hear that anxious screech again. And again, at eye level from the window of my temporary lodging, I see that sprite-like shape again. In that cruddy light its form is dazzling – with highlights of electric blue against a satiny sheen of deep indigo-black.
Camera at the ready, I lie in wait on the balcony, a crick in my neck from too much peering and craning for a potbellied birder in his forties. Soon enough, Myophonus horsfieldii shows up, bill brimful of lichen, moss and twigs.
A nest is being lined in anticipation of a brood.
Soon, the rain will come. The southwest monsoon will drench these hills incessantly for months to come. Pouring in sheets and ropes and braids, it will infuse its magic, lending its voice to the river.
By then that schoolboy song will be a choir. What cheer!