A vast field of snowy catkins on the other bank of Taudah beel tempted us to terminate our morning walk at Purbachal and find our way to a modest village named Malla. A truly large, unmolested and quiet field of catkin between the village and the beel was waiting for trudging to our hearts' content.
Catkins grow naturally on the chars of mighty rivers and the banks of large beels all over Bangladesh. The swaying snow-white catkins and the slowly drifting piles of stratocumulus clouds are the most enduring features of 'Sharat' – an agreeable transition from the wet to the dry season.
Just like the cloud, the catkins are ever ready to ride the temperamental autumn breeze. The gusts of wind gleefully bend the yellowing stems to break off the mature catkin seeds with fuzzy white fibres and carry those to the distant shores of our beels and rivers.
Along with the hurtling wind, there were other steeplechasers bounding between the stems of the grass to harvest the ripe, woolly catkin seeds. They were the endearing little birds called munias, nimble as a zephyr and as greedy as the wind to grab the ripening catkin seeds.
A few freshly fledged munia chicks with beautiful brown back and warm buff belly were insatiably feeding on the catkin seeds. We wondered how a munia chick might get enough nourishment from the seed so tiny that the wind was able to pluck it and carry it away like a snowflake!
The munia chicks went on cracking the catkin seeds with composure and did not struggle for the ready harvest the wind roguishly claimed. They knew that there was no end of harvests swaying on millions of catkin stems all along the bank of Taudah.
We debated whether the chicks were of Chestnut Munia or Tricolor Munia. The fledglings of those two species look alike. Our debate was cut short by a few parent birds flying in to give us some hints and the juveniles some company. The parents were Chestnut Munia, one and all.
The adult Chestnut Munias seemed to prefer the seeds of green grasses bordering the catkin field. Their polished steel beak worked well on the hard and spiny seeds that the juveniles were not good at cracking. The juveniles were captivated more by the woolly catkin seeds swaying in the wind.
Such an expanse of catkin was unlikely to be the exclusive property of that single species of munia. We expected to come upon quite a few others. We saw five species of munias in the scattered patches of catkins at Purbachal in the wet season. We expected the same at Malla on a single morning.
And Malla did not keep us waiting very long. A fairly big flock of Scaly-breasted Munia flew in and kept fluttering frivolously between catkins like a bunch of butterflies. Their mellow focalisation 'klik, klik, klik' prompted the Chestnut Munias to find their own voices suddenly.
The excited klik-klik is an inter-species salutation of the munias, not a call to arms. After the brief klik-klik, the two groups carried on with their happy harvesting routines. We did not have to witness a fight between groups over the feeding rights.
Our wandering was rewarded again with the sighting of a third species of munia. It was a dazzling male Red Avadavat, one of the most colourful birds of Bangladesh. Interestingly, that beautiful bird was named after a place from where it was used to be traded to pet markets.
The English naturalist Eleazar Albin illustrated the bird in 1738 and named it Amanduvad because it came from Ahmedabad in India. Further corruption of that awkward name over time came to settle as Avadavat. What a name for our cutest munia!
We left the merry munias to their devices and ambled on through the field of endless grass and let our hair turn grey with the adoring catkins. We wished our muffled scuffles with the barrage of catkins would go on as long as the cool morning hours did not roll into hot noon.
We recalled what Robert Frost, the great 'rural poet' of New England with 'the good sense to speak naturally' wrote about a quiet October morning a hundred years back:
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief,
Hearts not averse to being beguiled.
We wished the blissful morning to roll gently as we and the munias were dawdling and in no hurry to be anywhere else. We knew that the catkins and the munias would not be around forever. There will indeed be no catkin or munia there when the city-people move in to populate Purbachal.
Then the villagers of Malla would, in all probability, turn the catkin field into a flea market for the wealthy residents of Purbachal. The Taudah beel would be smaller and smellier. The munias of Malla would go where the birds of other razed catkin fields went – to their doom.
Some eccentric residents of Purbachal perhaps would keep the last catkins as pot-plants and munias as cage-birds. They could even be vaguely content to see their pot-plants and cage-birds cling on to their incarcerated lives – a sad caricature of the elegant catkins and the merry munias of Malla.
What an awful thought to ruin an idyllic October morning!