The month of Katey /Katak (Oct 15 to Nov 13) is upon us. What it’s known for? It’s traditionally celebrated for two things, if you know something about the cycle of season and culture of the Punjab.

One, the month is the harbinger of change in season; it announces the beginning of winter. Two, it paints a changed sky with exotic birds’ rhythmic fluttering and joyful noise. Sadly, winter has lost its intensity and thus its associative charm. The birds come in dwindling numbers and thus are now a marginal phenomenon. Both face a serious threat from climate change, an inevitable result of an unwise profit driven interference in the process of nature. The exotic birds may be familiarly unfamiliar but not strangers as they are perennially etched in our collective memory due to cultural assimilation of the phenomenon that has an unbelievably long history.

Migratory birds leaving their frozen hell in the North and land in the Punjab and rest of the country in search of sunnier climes. Rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and water channels are their sanctuaries. Some of the birds have captured the imagination of people and poets alike and have been raised to the level of metaphors expressing our eternal dreams and anguish. Take the case of the crane, the Koonj in Punjabi, for example. It has come to stand for joys of love when in flock and for pangs of separation when alone. The metaphor/image/symbol is so intensely charged that it has become an inseparable part of the experience of love expressed in folk as well as classical literature. The Koonj appears blissfully happy in the company of its partner and if separated it relentlessly cries out in an excruciating pain for reunion. In the company it thrives and alone it dies. And possibly this is the reason why it has been made into a metaphor of love and its trials and tribulations.

First the folk lore. Look how the aesthetic dimension the bird is sign of is hinted at in a folk song from Pothohar region. “Udiyan koonjan, udiyan koonjan, jaai paiyan akhrot / chittey dandd, gulaabi hoth/ gallan karan Punjabi lok / ik gall suni jaana [The flying cranes have landed on the almond tree / Punjabi people with their white teeth and rosy lips are in conversation/ leave only after having a listen to it].

In another popular folk song the opening line uses the metaphor in its traditional meaning. “Koonj vichhar gai daaron / te labhdi sajanan nu [The crane having separated from the flock searches for its loved one]”. This is how a balladeer expresses Punjab’s undying love for buffaloes. “Hik gall majhin di bhairi a / choraan naal karan usaarey / dhaaga lendey ghatt muhaar nu / shodhiyan jaandian hinn viddey krendiyan/ pya vichhora koonjan de daar nu [Buffaloes have one failing; they attract the thieves/ the thieves lead them away by the nose / the poor things! They depart/ the flock of cranes gets scattered]”. Verses in folk poetry are innumerable which project the crane as an epitome of human predicament.

Now let’s look very briefly at classical poetry. Baba Farid’s poetry is laden with evocative references to nature, seasons, seasonal changes and above all birds. See how he describes months and implied changes in the stirrings of nature and human activities. “Katak Koonjan Chet daunh, Sawan bijliyan / sialey sohndiyan pirr gall baahirryan [Cranes in (the month of) Katak, Fire in [the month of) Chet, lightning in (the month of) Sawan / in winter arms around one’s beloved’s neck are a sight to see}”. In another couplet Baba Farid subtly paints a magical scene of arrival and departure of birds with a philosophical dimension. “Chal chal gaiyan pankhiyan jinhaan vasaaye tull / Farida, sar bhrya bhi chalsi, tehkey kaul ikall [Farid, the birds that populated the lowlands have gone away / the surging waters would go away too, the lone lotus in bloom would stand]”. In yet another verse he employs the image of migratory birds to hint at the interminable human journey. “Kallar keri chappri, aaye ulathey hanjh / Chinju boran, na piwan, uddan sandi danjh [On the saline pond the swans land / they dip their beaks in the water but don’t drink in their thirst for flight]”. The migratory Koonj even in our bird hostile times hasn’t lost it symbolic significance.

A contemporary says: “In the month of Katey the cranes go flying far away above the city / the sky is a mottled frill with wings”. Sindhi literature also has this bird painted in its poetic landscape. One of Shaikh Ayaz’s poems translated into Punjabi starts with the line: “haye haye, Koojn na maar shikari [Don’t shoot the crane, you damned hunter]”.

Sadly the beautiful birds from far off cold climes fly huge distances in their seasonal migration to our warm region. They have been adorning our land and sky from time immemorial. But unfortunately they no longer find safe sanctuaries here. Their number has plummeted from millions to a few hundreds thousands. Soon, one can assume, mothers will tell their children stories of the winged creatures called birds which once fluttered in the air. They already have started drawing the sketches of birds such as flamingo, swan, teal and pheasant, for example, to show how once upon a time some colourful flocks smoothed our elders’ ruffled feathers. Reasons for destruction of nature and culture are well-known. Drying of lakes, ponds and water bodies due to increased population and its activities goes on, rampant hunting and general apathy of the populace misguided by a narrow anthropocentric view has no end. Devastation caused by human greed can be limitless. Exasperated by such a human folly Nietzsche was forced to declare; “the earth has a disease called man”. Let’s not forget; what can make the earth denuded of richness will surely make us poorer. We must learn the art of living from the birds; they do not destroy the place they inhabit. Can’t we try to be rid of avarice and hubris before the planet becomes completely uninhabitable? — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020

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