In Goa, recently for a brief holiday, I wandered down to the shops one morning to buy some beer. And as I walked back with my bottles, I suddenly realised that buying beer in Goa was possibly more enjoyable than drinking it. In the course of my brief transaction, the shopkeeper and I had exchanged smiles and greetings and at least three “thank-yous” apiece. In Delhi, buying liquor is like doing a dirty deal with a scowling cut-throat who hasn’t bathed or shaved for at least a year and who would rather break a bottle over your head than sell it to you. Even the birds have it easier here, and by the end of March, when the big semuls or silk cottons offer their thousands of goblets of nectar, the bar opens even before dawn.
Ah, let me hasten to add, it’s not immoral alcohol the birds and animals are after first thing in the morning, but their sugar fix, or so it’s said. Like us, they have a hard day ahead and need to be well fortified. And it’s said, that each semul goblet produces 5 to 10 cc of delicious nectar every day. So if there are a thousand blooms on one big tree, that’s 50 to 100 one litre bottles of golden liquid energy.
If you stand beneath a flowering semul at dawn and look up, it’s a picture of conviviality. Nearly every species of garden bird will be present — parakeets, babblers, mynahs, sunbirds, crows, drongoes, tree-pies, white-eyes, barbets, bulbuls, rosy pastors et al — even the shy, but oh so glamorous, golden oriole. There is much chatter, some singing, a lot of jostling and shoving, some belligerence and bullying (usually by crows and mynahs), and shrill excitement, especially from the likes of parakeets and sunbirds, which seem to be on a permanent sugar-high. Ravaged blooms will thud heavily to the ground (and can bruise you if they land on your head from 40 feet up) and lie like so many discarded goblets after an orgy of binge-drinking.
Of course, it’s not only birds that imbibe madly first thing in the morning. Squirrels and monkeys will hasten to the bar — and usually drive away the birds. Bees simmer over the big blooms feeling justified, no doubt because of the vital role they play in pollination (so do bats!), but watch out for lurking crab spiders in search of a sweet honeybee brandy! If you want to meet up with and get to know the locals, visiting a flowering semul at dawn is like going to a pub or bar on Saturday night to meet interesting people.
And yes, they say it’s only innocent sugar syrup that the birds and animals are quaffing back. But if you watch them carefully, you wonder — has the sweet stuff inside those goblets by any chance turned into a magical elixir by um… the process of fermentation? Are these innocents really secret drinkers? But yes, so far, I haven’t seen any bird or animal fall out of the tree or pass out, let alone fly erratically, so they can be booked for drunken flying.
Apparently, it’s different in the jungles of India when that other great tree — the mahua — blooms. The tribals have for long made strong liquor out of the flowers, and it seems that the birds and animals know it. Small animals and birds do get sloshed, but that’s relatively harmless when compared to a herd of inebriated elephants that turn up trumpeting belligerently and barge into your home looking for free drinks, knocking down the walls and roof in the process. There was one newspaper report of a herd of pachyderms that downed 500 litres of mahua liquor in one night — and you can imagine the aftermath of that binge… Drunken bears probably just dance and hopefully fall over and pass out, and monkeys, I suppose, would twirl around madly and then hold their heads and keel over as the hangover takes hold…
But yes, let’s give the good birds of Delhi at least the benefit of the doubt — they’re all teetotaler tipplers because they know that the consumption of alcohol is injurious to health. Besides, apparently there’s only one avenue in Delhi which has a licence to serve liquor — the road leading from the Claridges Hotel to Lodhi Gardens, which is lined with mahua trees.
I think I’m going to stand beneath some of those trees and meet some interesting creatures…
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature