The first time I ever saw an owl outside a book or a screen was when I visited Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan, India in November 2016. Having spent a richly rewarding day spotting many kinds of birds, my husband and I were preparing to leave when the guide showing us around suddenly cupped his hands and made low-pitched sounds. We curiously gazed at him only to see him pointing towards the upper branches of a tree. “See there,” he whispered. “Owls.” It took us a while to spot them in the increasingly mauve dusk air but we eventually did: two small owls perched upon two separate branches, intently peering down at us. I couldn’t stop staring at them myself, unable to quite believe that I was seeing an owl for the first time in my thirty odd years. And indeed, even though we had many memorable bird sightings during that visit including witnessing painted storks raucously nesting on snowy guano-enveloped trees, it was spotting the owls that I most vividly remember of them all.
Up till that point, this is all that I knew of owls: they were nocturnal creatures, they could rotate their heads a disconcerting 270 degrees, and they regurgitated undigested food in the form of owl pellets. Growing up in a hybrid Hindu-Jain home, where we followed superstitions almost as if they were an alternative religion, I was raised to believe that it was unlucky to spot an owl during the day. I paid little attention to that particular superstition though given the unlikelihood of me seeing an owl even at night, let alone during the day.
However, all that was to change when I moved to Bangalore soon after my owl sighting at the bird sanctuary. The past year had been a testing one in many ways and I had taken to observing and documenting nature as a form of healing and nourishing myself, particularly finding solace in trees. Even though like many other Indian cities, Bangalore too has been subject to rampant, unchecked urbanization, often involving rash destruction of green cover, I was relieved to discover that there were fortunately many green spaces still thriving in the city that I could seek refuge in.
I was especially grateful that my apartment building happened to be located inside one such green space, surrounded by many trees, including fig, avocado, custard apple, jackfruit, and raintree. While all these trees attracted a number of birds, it was the smaller tamarind tree neighboring the soaring, spreading raintree that especially appeared to be an apartment in itself, giving home and sustenance to many creatures. Leaf-green parakeets wove in and out of its leaves while squirrels flew from one branch to another, like gravity-defying trapeze artists. The brown-headed barbet may have pecked a home in one of the raintree’s stumps, yet it was the tamarind tree’s fat brown seed pods it snacked upon. However, little did I know that the tamarind tree would also provide a home for an owl couple.
I first heard their hunting screeches late one November night in 2017. I had never heard anything like those cries before and when I asked my husband the next morning if he too had heard them, he said they must have been an owl’s hunting cries. We were standing in the balcony while having this conversation, facing our raintree and tamarind tree neighbors.
“And there they are,” he suddenly said, gesturing towards the tamarind tree.
“They?” I repeated. “Are there two of them?”
“Yes, there is a pair sitting on that branch,” he said. “See there…”
Reflecting on that first encounter with the owls, I am unsurprised that it was my husband who saw them first. If I was the one who pointed out trees or flowers to him, it was he who always spotted and identified the birds. It was from him that I learned to develop an eye for eagles and kites flying high above, allowing a glimpse of their magnificent plumage only if they deigned to swoop low by us. Yet, it was so much easier to spot these birds of prey, who arrogantly and perhaps even deliberately made felt their physical presence while the other smaller, shyer birds in contrast often revealed themselves only through their songs or calls. And yet, my husband was somehow able to see them too, his gaze parting away the veil of leaves beyond which they hid to render them visible.
We remained standing in the balcony, me struggling to spot them until suddenly, as one finally sees an optical illusion, I too saw them: two plump, furry gray-brown commas huddled together on a low hanging branch of the tamarind tree. And from then onwards, I christened them as the owl couple, simply because they were always together, also because we had first seen them as us, four eyes becoming two.
Its monsoon ending often as late as October, Bangalore experiences a mild winter from November onwards, which is when the owl couple first made their appearance. They were subsequently always to be seen sitting on the same branch of the tamarind tree until mid-February, after which it presumably became too warm for them and they returned to their native land. It soon became a daily ritual for me to see them first thing in the morning during this period. I usually saw them together, presumably slumbering after a hard night’s work of hunting although they were also occasionally to be found perched on separate branches. “They must have had a lovers’ quarrel,” I would mournfully tell my husband only to be happily reassured to see them once more together the following morning, their faces and bodies turned toward the other.
For the last few years, I had derived much peace and strength from the changing seasons, knowing that things would always change, that they would never remain the same, no matter how it seemed so. And so, no matter if I stood in the balcony in contentment or sorrow, full of questions or answers, my mind empty as a desert or loquacious like a rainforest, the owls would always return to claim that very same branch for their own year after year. And long after they were gone, I would still see them despite their absence, conjuring up their forms on the branch.
The past year was a series of one health crisis after another, leaving me utterly dispirited and exhausted. As the date for the owls’ arrival drew closer, I realized that I no longer seemed to be as much in anticipation as waiting for the owls, to console myself with this one constant in my life amid all that had otherwise become so perilously uncertain and fragile. But did too much anticipation ultimately and unhappily curdle into the act of waiting? Of late, I seemed to have become a permanent resident of the country of waiting: for questions to be answered, something to happen that might never happen, and even my favorite trees to bloom. If I was spending my entire life in wait, I asked myself, when then would I start living life?
And then, one morning, I suddenly saw them: a soft, fuzzy blur, almost appearing as one creature than two. “They are back!” I called out to my husband and he came running to the balcony to join me in welcoming them back to our midst. And they in turn later graced the night with their usual jagged cries, cries that oddly enough lulled me to sleep.
This year, they stayed for a shorter period of time, leaving earlier than usual, their changing patterns perhaps in inevitable response to the beleaguered earth’s own changing cycles. However, just before they actually left this year, I momentarily panicked when I believed them to be gone, having seen that their favorite branch, the ones which they called home, had suddenly vanished.
“How have they gone already?” I asked my husband when he returned home from work that day. “It felt like they had only just arrived.”
He said nothing, his eyes preoccupied in transforming into birdwatching binoculars. A few minutes later, he pointed them out to me—or at least, tried to do so. “See, they are tucked behind this branch,” he said, placing his hands around my head and gently turning it around. “Can you see them now?”
I contorted and craned my neck but to no avail. “I still can’t see them. Where are they?”
He spent the next few minutes trying to make me successfully spot them but we eventually both gave up. “They are there, that’s what really matters,” I said and indeed, that’s what truly did. It reminded me how this owl couple spotting has been one of the many bricks that constitute the house of our marriage, of making the other see what they never had before, of re-seeing what they had seen a hundred times before, to discover the poetry of an eagle in flight or the river delta hidden inside a tree canopy.
The other day, someone once more reminded me of the superstition of it being unlucky to see owls during the day when I tweeted about our owl couple. I replied that I instead felt how fortunate we had been to witness their presence and them making a home opposite ours. We are now most likely to be moving out of this apartment in the coming months and we may never see the owls again. The owls’ favorite branch in the meantime too has gone; perhaps the owls will find a new branch or another tree altogether. And yet, in my heart, the owls will still be returning here year after year—and both my husband and I will still be standing on the balcony, watching them make a home in the tree and inside our hearts, a powerful reminder that in the end, no matter how long the wait, there will always be—and nothing like—the joy of anticipation.
Priyanka Sacheti is a writer and poet based in Bangalore, India. Raised in Oman, she studied at Universities of Warwick and Oxford. Her literary work has appeared in Barren, Berfrois, The Lunchticket, and Popshot as well as various anthologies. She’s currently working on a poetry collection. She explores the intersection of her writing and photography at Instagram: @anatlasofallthatisee. She tweets @priyankasacheti.
featured photo courtesy of the author