I once saw a movie that featured a scarecrow and his bunch of friends, who sing and dance through a magical land called Oz. I was recently reminded of the story, while driving through a rural stretch of the road between Okara and Lahore. My journeys through such areas invariably awaken the rustic in me, forcing me to raise my foot off the accelerator and coast leisurely, imbibing and enjoying the scenery.

What prompted me to stop and reroute myself was a wide expanse of lush green vegetables, planted in neat looking furrows, that appeared to conflict with a bizarre figure in the middle. Unlike the Oz story, this ‘scarecrow’ (named so, because it is designed to scare away crows) had been ‘imaginatively’ designed as something out of a horror movie (I am indeed reminded of a film featuring such a ‘thing’, which loved doing away with its victims after a lot running, stumbling and screaming). What made me burst out laughing was the fact that three crows were busy preening themselves perched on the head and shoulders of this ‘hatted and coated’ object. Regretfully, the photo I impulsively snapped was not found by me in the chaos that symbolizes my study or it would have been a fitting accompaniment to what readers are now perusing. Nonetheless the memory of three members of the most intelligent and innovative members of the feathered family, provided me with a subject for this week’s piece.

My first interaction with the extraordinary grey and black bird was as a young boy in our ancestral home on Lahore’s Queens Road. My late mother had a habit of storing left over ‘rotis’ of the day in a canister. Over time, this bread dried up and was mixed with the fodder for our milk producing animals (do not be surprised since my grandfather had created a farm yard setting in, what was then, well-known residential areas of Lahore. A large family of crows living in the huge ‘pipal’ tree that overshadowed the ‘cow shed’, knew exactly, when the bovines were fed and made it a point to ‘pilfer’ pieces of the dried bread from the ‘khurli’ (the brick and mortar feeding trough), the moment Ismail, our man on the spot turned his back to walk away. I was amazed to see that the birds flew straight to the water trough and made short work of their feast by repeatedly dipping the hard dry bread in water in order to soften it. Then one day the ‘pipal’ tree became the scene of a strange event – a crow funeral.

A cacophony of raucous sound engulfed the otherwise quiet surroundings of our compound with its highest decibel level at the tree mentioned earlier. A search revealed a deceased member of the crow family lying on the compost pit under the ‘pipal’. As we watched, birds swooped down on us in anger, as if we were unwelcome intruders, forcing us to retreat and watch from a safe distance. What we saw was almost unbelievable - a number of birds descended from the foliage, walked around the body uttering nerve shattering squawks and flew back into the tree. The unbelievable element was the fact that this activity was being repeated as if a ritual was being performed. It was not only the birds living on the tree that was apparently involved in what can only be described as mourning, but crows from surrounding areas appeared to be congregating on the spot, in one of the most extraordinary scenes I have witnessed. One hour later, we felt the noise subside, until minutes later it stopped altogether and peace reigned over the ‘pipal’ at last. Another search of the ground around the tree intriguingly failed to locate the dead bird, leaving everyone, who witnessed the spectacle wondering what had happened to it. Had it been interred and if so by whom – the crows or had it been carried away by a stray cat that frequented the spot? We decided not to research the matter and leave it, to be recounted to visitors as something of a story from the ‘Tales of the Unexplained’.

 

The writer is a historian.