The Tragic Life of Ugly Birds

by Diksha Basu

Outside my third-floor window, in a narrow, leafy lane of Bandra West, a suburb of Mumbai, a crow had got itself stuck in some leftover Christmas decorations that were hanging off a tree. One of its feet was caught in string and the crow was dangling in mid-air. As it became more aware of its situation, it became more frantic, wrapping the string around its foot more securely. I’m not an animal activist and crows are not likable but I could not watch it die a slow, painful, and terrified death.

It was too high up and too far away from my building for me to be able to reach it. I went downstairs and looked around for the building caretaker. I pointed up to the crow and asked him if he could do something. His rickety wooden ladder could barely reach the overhead light in my living room; it certainly wasn’t going to reach the crow. I asked him what he suggested I do. He suggested I go back inside and avoid the midday heat.

Back inside, I decided to call the emergency 1–0–0 number. I know a dangling crow cannot feature high on the list of emergencies in Mumbai at any given moment but I wasn’t sure whom else to call. A bored sounding man answered the phone and asked lazily, “Kay zhala?” I tried to explain what had happened. He was confused and my Marathi wasn’t strong enough to try to chat him up. “Pakshi?” he finally understood that I was talking about a bird, “Pakshi?” He laughed a little laugh, said, “Call later, please,” and put the phone down.

The bird looked disheveled and scared and I was getting worried. The only thing worse than a panicked crow caught in Christmas decorations outside my window would be a dead crow hanging like the victim of a suicide outside my window. I looked up the number for the SPCA in Mumbai and called them. “Call 1–0–0,” they said and put the phone down before I could tell them I had already tried. Next I sent a message to someone I know at PETA India and asked her what I should do. She snapped to attention. “Get a ladder and get someone to climb up and rescue it,” came her helpful reply. I repeated that it was out of reach of a regular ladder. “You’ll have to get a taller one,” was the valuable advice.

I managed to find the number of the local Bandra fire station and finally spoke to a friendly man who seemed somewhat interested in the situation. He also sounded a bit bored but willing to help — clearly there hadn’t been many fire emergencies in Bandra that day. He said he’d send help as soon as possible but he wasn’t authorized to do that until he got a dispatch order from the central fire department whom I could reach by calling the emergency number. I said I had already called the central fire department and they weren’t very helpful. “Call them again,” he said, “Make it sound more urgent. As soon as they call me, I will send my men.” Hearing him want to help me made me want to help the crow even more.

But then my doorbell rang. I opened it and found a man wearing an obviously donated tracksuit with the Nike logo on it and a pair of tinted sunglasses. Indian, and clearly not affluent, his hair was dyed blonde and on his shoulder was an albino rat.

“I heard there’s an animal emergency,” he said in Hindi, “I can speak to animals. I will calm the crow down while we wait for help.”

I was too taken aback to not let him into my house so he could poke his head out of the window and speak to the crow. While he did that, I called the emergency phone number again and the same man answered.

“Parat pakshi? Hay kai?” he asked, surprised that I was determined enough to call again. I tried to inject more panic into my tone and told him that the situation was getting dire and he simply had to send someone immediately. After much explaining and convincing, he finally agreed to issue a dispatch order and the blonde Indian man, his albino rat, the caretaker, and I stood by the window and waited for the firemen. The doorbell rang again and the cobbler who sets up his tarp outside my building every afternoon was standing there saying he had heard there was an emergency and was there anything he could do to help.

“The fire department is on its way,” the blonde man said, “And I think the crow is calming down.”

“Turmeric. We will need turmeric to soothe the crow once we get it down,” the cobbler said to me. “Do you have turmeric? Bring two teaspoons in a bowl with a pinch of salt and some water and I’ll make a paste.”

Even though that sounded suspiciously like a marinade, I did as I was told. My small apartment was starting to get crowded and despite the albino rat being well-behaved so far, I was not keen on taking chances and having it or its animal-communicating owner run free through my home. I suggested we all go downstairs and wait for the firemen there. My rescue entourage and I headed down with the bowl of turmeric paste.

Downstairs, despite the Mumbai heat and relentless sun, a crowd was forming. Word of the rescue operation had clearly spread far and wide and animal lovers from all walks of life had gathered at the bottom of my building. The old Catholic lady who lives in the bungalow across the lane was standing in her doorway in her brown skirt and collared shirt giving people water and discussing the opportunity cost of saving a bird. When I reached them all and gave them an update on the situation, I felt like a hero at a press conference. We all became friends and chatted about animal rights in Mumbai.

About forty minutes later, five firemen, clad in blue uniforms with knee high boots and hard hats, came marching down my lane. They weren’t the burly shirtless calendar firemen I had hoped for but I was thrilled to see them and greeted them with joy. They greeted me with irritation; my lane was too narrow for their truck so they had been forced to leave it on the main road and walk in. Most of them had probably been enjoying an afternoon siesta in the fire-house and did not want to be dealing with a trapped crow.

But soon into the operation, their irritation lifted. They, too, were heroes and they were enjoying the attention. They fashioned a 100-foot rod with a hook at the end of it. They then went into the neighboring building and asked for access to the second floor balcony. On that balcony, they set up a sturdy ladder, climbed up, unhooked the bird and gently lowered it down to the crowd waiting below. By this point, someone had arrived with a wicker basket.

The crow was placed in the basket by the blonde man while the cobbler applied the turmeric paste to its foot. The crow looked happy. The blonde man and the owner of the wicker basket offered to take it to an animal hospital. I headed upstairs, proud, smug, and impressed that in a country where so many things don’t work, a few people could save a trapped crow. It felt like the ultimate act of crowd-sourcing. There’s hope after all. I felt one with nature. Back in my apartment, I opened all the windows and sat down to work. A crow came to the window and caw’d loudly. I smiled and then got up, shooed it away, shut the window, and put on the air-conditioner.

Diksha Basu is an actor and writer who divides her time between NYC and Mumbai. Illustration by Mur34 via Shutterstock.