Ahalya and I met him first in the 90s at Koonthankulam, a nondescript village near Tirunelveli.
A huge lake in the village attracts a host of winged visitors, especially during the migratory season.
We lost ourselves watching the amazing avian diversity of the place and failed to notice a slender, sprightly man besides us. He introduced himself as Balpandi, forest guard of the place.
Over the next few hours he kept us company and narrated the story of himself and the place.
Balpandi was working in a factory in north India and during one of his visits to his hometown, noticed the abundant bird life of the lake and the region. He was fascinated and noticing his interest, a visitor gifted him a binocular and Salim Ali’s book on Birds of India.
It was a turning point in his life. He decided to stay in the village and devote himself to making people aware of the importance of protecting the water body and the bird life. This involved not only measures to curb poaching, but also increasing awareness about important role of birds in the community. He composed songs on this theme and being endowed with a good voice, started singing them in village meetings. He also initiated educational activities in the schools and engaged the youth in conservation efforts.
He took us to his small forest guard room, introduced his wife Vallithai and proudly showed us all the awards and recognitions he has received over the years. When we noticed a few injured pelicans around, Vallithai quietly told us as to how she sold the only piece of gold she had, her mangalasutra to feed them. Women in South India value and cherish the mangalasutra which they call as thaali and would hesitate to part with it. We were deeply moved and touched at her magnanimous, noble gesture.
Nadaswaram music was wafting from a temple nearby. Bal Pandian told us that preparations were underway for the Thaipusam festival there and that year he was going to pierce his cheeks with the alagu (a miniature spear). We thought that it was to fulfill a personal vow and were surprised when he told us that he was doing it to pray to the Lord for bountiful rains so that more flocks of migratory birds would come there the next year!
As we were leaving, I asked him as to where can we stay and without hesitation he pointed out to his one room tenement and said, “Dr you can stay inside, this is your home…and I will sleep outside.” I can never forget his kind gesture, personal warmth and genuine hospitality, that too to a stranger.
The few hours we spent in the company of Balpandi and Vallithai is one of the most ennobling moments in our lives. Both of them have invested their whole life for the preservation of birds. Vallithai passed away a few years ago but his commitment for conservation not just to the birds but the entire habitat continues unabated. Though he has received recognition for his efforts, he richly deserves to be awarded with honorary doctorates by the higher academia for his unparalleled conservatory efforts over the last four decades.
During our last visit I noticed that he had an old binocular which had seen better days and on our return sent him a good one to pursue his passion. He called me a week later to tell me with a childlike exuberance as to how he sees the birds with such clarity now.
He lives in dire economic circumstances but never draws attention to it. Periodically he calls me to inform me about his latest sightings. I know that there is an unexpressed need beyond it and would quietly transfer an amount to his account.
Jim Corbett mentions in his masterpiece, Jungle Lore, that knowledge of the wild cannot be learned; it can only be absorbed. Balpandi is a stellar example of this. He is one with nature, in close communion with birds, feeling their presence in their songs and continues to have a very special place in our hearts…
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