'The birds have not come yet 'said the shift-in-charge to the general manager at the end of his detailed account of the events of the night.
At the other end of the phone, Mr. Menon came out of his sleepiness. His voice became loud and clear.
'They didn't come? All right, they will come. Don't you think so? There might have been slight variations in weather conditions in those parts of Siberia from where they come. Winter might be late this year. Let us wait and see. So that is all. Thank you.'
He waited for his boss to disconnect the line and then put the receiver on the cradle.'
Over the pond the dawn weakened the reign of the flare that dominated the night sky with its orange glow. One more night of waiting ended without the sight of the birds. The men in the cabin by the side of the pond moved with fresh energy that is characteristic of the dawn. The morning tea was about to come.
Williams took out the bread from the snack packet and placed on the hot plate improvised with steam coils. Coming to the table he gently tapped on the back of Salim who was dozing in the chair.
'Enough for today. Get up. It is time for tea.'
Like an obedient boy Salim got up and went to wash his face. At the same moment the canteen boy opened the door shouting 'tea' and at the opposite door Peter entered returning from his morning stroll around the pond.
'One more night and no sign of the birds.'
'It is rather puzzling. What could have happened to them! They were to reach here three weeks ago. 'Said Williams who was waiting beside the hot plate for the butter to melt into the bread. 'Perhaps they might have lost the way and gone astray.'
'How can that be, after all these years? Never once did they fail to appear.'
'I don't know. But there can be many reasons, which are beyond our comprehension. Per-haps they might have vanished from the face of earth and all this fuss about them might just be a figment of fancy, a futile exercise. Or, to be more on the positive side, we can hope that the winter might not have set in in Siberia yet or they are on their way and we might see them very soon...'
'Come friends, forget about the birds', shouted Salim who had washed away his sleep and was in an expansive mood. 'Let them come or go, who cares! It will not make any difference to us. Whether they come or not, we have to do our job. Well, now let us drink tea and leave the birds to their own devices.
They gathered around the table. Salim poured out strong steaming tea in all the glasses. Williams took away the bread slices from the hot plate and others fetched their snack packets. There was silence as they slowly sipped tea and ate something from the packets.
The pond stood between the two hills occupied by the plant and the residential quarters. It served as storage for wastewater from the plant. Water from the plant contaminated with oil and other chemicals joined this pond after treatment. The pond remained full throughout the year. But the water was unfit for drinking and was put to many other uses such as fire fighting, etc. So it was nicknamed 'fire-water' and the pond was called 'fire-pond'.
'This is what has befallen to a beautiful countryside'. Tears welled up in his eyes and his words choked when the old man told the story of the place where he spent his childhood. Some years ago the two hills were entirely covered with thick vegetation and the lake between the two hills was seen like a drop of water in a taro leaf. The water was crystal clear. In the rainy season the lake was full to the brim so that the branches of the trees surrounding it almost touched the water. It was the haunt for diverse kinds of birds and their incessant chirping amidst the blossoming trees and the warm breeze, all gave the place a pristine beauty and harmony.
Here, centuries ago some birds from the north flying thousands of miles in search of shelter from cold touched down and made their winter home. They were huge ducks with powerful wings and webbed legs. They could fly very fast in the air and swim in the water as well. Hundreds of them would settle down over the water in a single group and spent the whole day slowly drifting in the water. Occasionally one of them would beat up its wings, fly just a few feet and move to an-other place in the pond. But in the morning and in the dusk all of them would rise up in the air, fly round and round above the pond cackling wildly and would again settle down over the water like a fitness exercise to enable them to fly all the way back to their homeland.
In small clearings between the woods people lived in little huts made of mud and palm leaves. Children roamed through the woods engaged in all sorts of pranks-playing, fighting, catching dragonflies, chasing squirrels and what not! They played on the banks of the pond, sometimes leaped into the water and swam after the birds. Slowly the birds got used to the children and after sometime got very friendly with them. They swam in the water and the birds went round and round cackling with merriment.
Then the first showers came and it was time for them to depart. One morning when the children came running to meet the birds, they were gone!
But the children were not made to wait too long. Towards the end of the year, as the winter set in they came again, year after year. The generations changed but the birds never forgot the place.
When the plant came the children had to get out. All the inhabitants were sent away with their little things. Bulldozers plied on the ground. The huts were razed down. Bushes were cleared. Hills were leveled. Strange little men strode here and there with self-proclaimed authority over the place. They bared the earth of its green. It lay naked and helpless at their feet. They tore and mutilated her with giant superstructures. The incessant roar of the plant shattered the pristine serenity of the place. It spewed out smoke and acrid vapors into the pure immaculate air. They filled the lake with wastewater from the plant. Still every year the birds came unseen, unattended. Nobody knew them. They disappeared into oblivion for years.
Now everybody was talking about the birds thanks to our new general manager. With his appointment the birds got a champion and an admirer. Even in the thick of his duties he found time to watch the birds. They somehow touched his imagination. He took it upon himself to study about them reading all available books on migration phenomenon and consulting many naturalists and ornithologists. He took all the trouble to visit local people to collect all the information regarding the birds- their arrival times, food, breeding etc. and kept all this information recorded in his diary.
Others watched his activities with growing interest. Some jeered at him privately for his waywardness. Some others pretended to ignore the birds altogether. Anyway when they came in the recent years, people gathered around the pond in the off duty hours to watch their frolics. In the evenings they came with family and children to spend the time with the birds as they circled against the rosy evening sky.
From the top platforms in the plant where the air fin coolers stood you could see the birds as tiny dots in the water. Workers coming up for their routine rounds stopped here to have a look at the birds and to cool off their sweating body. They stood under the fan with hard hat in their hands watching the birds far away in the pond glittering in the sun.
One day Ravi came for duty with a small black leather bag, something like a camera case. But camera was not allowed in the plant. And so it aroused the curiosity of everybody. At last, surrounded by his colleagues, Ravi dramatically opened the bag and took out a binocular.
It was an evening shift. A power dip occurred in the plant. The supervisor was attending the control panel as others were outside. So there was nobody available immediately to attend to the power dip. The supervisor had to go outside and start the pumps. This issue went up to the top and the result was a notice of plant manager in the notice board.
'It is noticed that workers are deserting duty and are seen for unusually long time on the top platform engaged in sight seeing etc. Moreover it has come to our notice that some of the workmen are bringing binoculars into the plant to facilitate their pass time activities. These are highly detrimental to the smooth and safe functioning of a sensitive plant like ours. All are advised to keep away from such activities.'
There were bird hunters too. In olden days they wore an earthen pot over their face with holes for eyesight. In this way they walked in the shallow water still and silent so that the birds mistook them for something floating in the water and came around them. When they were sufficiently near the masked personality slowly moved his hands under the water and suddenly caught the birds by its legs. In an ornithologist's point of view this was a rather harmless way in comparison as the other birds never knew what was happening and had no doubts about the overall safety of the place. Whereas nowadays people came under cover of night with air guns. The sound and the death struggles of the bird were enough to scare away the other birds. Repeated incidents like these might prompt the birds to abandon the area forever and we would never be able to see the birds again. Foreseeing this Menon assigned two persons for guard duty over the place during the visit of the birds. The area around the pond was left as such to facilitate the free and natural growth of trees and undergrowth for the primitive appeal.
All through these developments the plant went on as ever with its usual ups and downs. Tons of oil ran its course through the maze of pipelines dissociating into various products. Whether the birds came or not, it sent out another million tons of products into the storage tanks for which it burned and fumed and rent the air with its incessant roar. Did anybody think about the tremendous activity that was going on inside the still, monumental exterior of the plant? The tall rusty heater stacks and columns hoisted silently into the sky had the brooding look of an abandoned ship in a remote part of the world.
Men in blue boiler suits went around the plant checking its pulse beats, looking for any variation from its normal condition. When everything was all right the control room could become boisterous with loud laughter and hot discussions. People cracked jokes upon one another. They watched birds leaning on the railings of the top platform and expressed their concern about the birds having not arrived yet. In the control room they swore at the notice board. The small type-written words without feelings or emotions glowered at them menacingly.
'-noticed that workers are deserting duty and engaging in sightseeing....'
'A wonderful discovery that! Fantastic!'
'Let us stop going up and checking the platforms altogether.'
'But won't that be again neglecting duty?'
'How can both be true at the same time? Either we go up and check everything or not go up at all'
'The notice never says you should never go up, but to stop spending too much time idling around there.' The supervisor who was reading the notice interfered.
'Oh! I see. I am a damn fool. I don't understand even the plainest English. My parents and English teacher could never beat it into my head...So then, how much time should we spend on the top and how much on the ground. If you could be kind enough to supply a list to everybody it would be extremely useful.'
'It is rather unfortunate that he has chosen notice board as a means of tying up people's limbs. Why can't he come down here and speak up that we are neglecting duty?'
Then, I am sure, he won't have much to talk about since the plant is running as smooth as ever, if not better'
'Whatever it be, neglecting duty is not good '
'That is too heavy stuff for me. We do our normal duty and are paid for it. There is nothing more to it.'
'For my part, I think, there is some truth in what the notice board says. A petrochemical plant is no place for birds. If the general manager loves birds-I admire him for it-let him do it out-side his duty instead of mixing it up with company affairs.'
'I wish the management were as wise as you!'
'What happened to you, young people? You seem to forget that we are workers. We came to work and that is our only business here. But now I see people chasing birds of fantasy. In our days we broke our back with hard work day and night, without rest, without extra pay. And we had our modest rewards too. I came, empty handed, as a helper. Today I am what I am, living some-what happily. I have no complaints to make. I have just two more years here. And I wish to do my job as well as I can in the remaining days also...'
Thus went the general discussion in the plant during lunch breaks or duty changes or small gaps between work. People sided with different viewpoints for their own reasons with or without understanding the real relevance of the issue in question. For them it gave a lively diversion from the monotony of daily work. Thus the atmosphere in the plant became once again charged with a sudden enthusiasm. The idea of birds from the far away lands seemed to work upon their imagination.
The continued absence of the birds baffled the general manager. For the last fifteen years they had come during the second half of November. Never once they had come earlier or later than that. Now it was the third week of December. And the pond lay, in silent anguish-waiting.
Many famous ornithologists visited the site to study the new developments that might have had an environmental consequence. A new medium sized plant had come into operation some distance away on the eastern side of the pond. A large flare tower had been installed on the bank of the pond. There were some minor earth works and buildings scattered here and there. But the pond and surroundings were kept intact. Of course, temperature had increased by an average of two degrees. The noise level had also come up a little bit. A small tuft of smoke lifted up in the sky from the flare tower. On the whole there was nothing to support the view that the birds might have abandoned the place due to some environmental changes. If anything, these minor changes must have been quite ordinary thing for the birds that braved many adversities during their phenomenal flight from Siberia to this part of the country.
Somehow the birds failed to appear. And the waiting continued with round the clock guard over the place to see whether the birds appeared at any time and went back without landing which could be a sign that they have abandoned the place. Employees and their enthusiastic children joined them on either side of the pond.
There were wild speculations as to what might have happened to the birds. People formed their own theories giving free reign to their imagination, some of them even edging on superstition. Would they have abandoned the place? That was the big question on all faces. For them it signified the departure of an ancient glory, the loss of the primitive sanctity of the place. Or, why did the birds choose, of all places, this little piece of land thousands of miles away from their homeland? Why did they, year after year, fly these thousands of miles against all odds to spend sometime in this unassuming little pond? For they came in indescribable joy and exhilaration of a long waited reunion. Once they arrived they flew round and round cackling ecstatically for several hours. And when it was time to leave they left silently, possibly with a heaviness in the heart that choked their voice. One fine morning, quite abruptly, they were gone!
The top flare was put off. The plant had to be run with little less throughput for this. The area around the pond fell once again into darkness. There remained only the little flame on the ground flare.
A meeting of the top officials was summoned to decide upon the future course of action. Menon held forth at length about the importance of environment and about the wonderful phenomenon of migration in nature at the end of which he came to the real issue. He proposed to send a team of ornithologists to Siberia from where the birds came. The team would be able to meet other scientists and naturalists studying about this particular bird and also would have the opportunity to visit the actual dwelling place of the birds.
The plant manager was the main opponent.
'Would you please stop this nonsense?' was his immediate response. This foolishness about the birds has gone too far. It is already killing the plant. We have lost all discipline. The operations are in total disorder. Workers have lost all interest in their job and are loitering here and there as if they were in a park. Now you have compelled me to reduce the throughput. I don't know where all this will end up. Seeing all this I am tempted to ask whether we are running a chemical plant or a bird sanctuary. What is our primary responsibility?'
'Mr. Varghese,' Menon said hiding his disappointment behind a smile,' I know you are worried about the whole thing. But I assure you that there is no need to be too concerned about the plant. No doubt, our primary responsibility is the plant itself. And I am sure that the plant will run all right. I know those guys there as well as you. As for the birds, there is ample provision in the government directives about environment and wild life around a factory. It also comes under the purview of an industrial establishment to study the environment around it and how far the factory affects its surroundings. There is nothing secret in what I am doing. I have informed the ministry about all my activities.
The manager sat without saying anything. But it was obvious from his look that he was not at all satisfied.
Two days later another notice appeared on the notice board.
'We are planning to go on an efficiency drive soon. As a first step we have to check the plant more thoroughly and effectively in order to detect abnormal conditions well in advance and root out them before they grow more complex. With this view we are increasing the frequency of checking the plant. Accordingly all plant operators are requested to note down the process readings every two hours instead of the present four hours from tomorrow onwards. New log sheets will be supplied today evening. All are requested to take their duty more seriously. Your co-operation is highly appreciated.'
Resentment rose instantly. Workers were restless throughout the day. Hot words were ex-changed with superiors. Bitter sarcasm and poisoned comments were heard from all sides. People ignored the supervisors, defied their instructions and slowed down work. Supervisors had a tough time between the devil and the sea. They had to do a lot of work all by themselves to avert unpleasant scenes. And when the new log sheets came at seven in the evening it was welcomed with an ensemble of catcalls, noisy drumming and hooting.
News spread to all sections. Excitement ran high. The atmosphere was tense as if some-thing was going to happen. It was long since the plant had seen something like this.
There was nothing unusual about the next morning except that each section had the new log sheets on the table. Everybody went round checking the plant and noted down the readings in the log sheet against the particular time as if nothing had happened. After two hours it was time for the next reading according to new orders. After some time supervisor Rao came out of his room and examined each log sheet. Nobody had written the second reading. He went back quietly just as he came. After half an hour he came again. The second column was still blank. This time he went straight to Francis.
'Francis, why didn't you write the second reading? Didn't you read the orders?'
'Yes. But there are orders to be obeyed and orders to be ignored.'
'An order is an order. You have to obey it.'
'That is for you people.'
There was silence in the control room. Everybody was watching with excitement.
'Come, a word with you'
They went to the supervisor's room. Others followed them up to the door.
'Francis, perhaps you might not have fully realized the seriousness. I have suspension orders ready with me. Since I have nothing against you personally I will give you enough time to think. Don't blame later. You and you alone will be responsible for the consequences. And for such a silly thing!'
Wasn't there a sudden pull of some obscure muscles in his face? Didn't his face turn pale for a moment? It was a tense moment. Anybody would have fallen before it. But Francis held his ground. And that was exactly what the planners of this feat wanted- to teach a lesson!
'I accept the suspension,' he said.
Somebody shouted a slogan. Others repeated it. Within moments the control room turned riotous with so many people shouting in one voice. Rao was bewildered for a moment. At once he regained his composure and filled up the personal details in the order. Francis put his signature in acknowledgement.
He changed his working dress calmly amidst the shouting. When he had finished the security jeep was waiting outside. They carried him outside the main gate.
For the workers it was point of no return. Open confrontation was the only option before them. A total strike was planned. Work was slowed down. Meetings and processions were organized. People squatted near the main gate shouting slogans.
Amidst this rumors spread that Menon was about to be removed from the company ser-vice. Some said that he was resigning.
'Somebody is pulling fast one against him. Otherwise it cannot be like this.'
'He, of all people!'
'If he is leaving, the good days are over for this organization. We can be sure of that'
'Perhaps it might be a mere stunt.'
'But the news came through the supervisors who got it from the top'
'It doesn't prove anything. Things like that happen in these days without any substance behind it'
In spite of all this, the waiting continued more or less in the same spirit. There were still guards at the pond side day and night. The tall flare still remained unlit. In the evenings people came to spend time chatting. Young enthusiasts spent most of the night around the pond. Menon visited the pond in the early morning and late evening without fail.
It was the fifth of January. The guards were sitting in their chairs outside the cabin. On the other side were men and women chatting and children running here and there. Across the water the shadows were lengthening ushering in yet another dusk.
Suddenly a group of five birds flew past the pond followed by a large flock of about hun-dred birds. The guards caught sight of the birds instantly. They jumped out of their chairs and shouted at the top of their voice.
'Birds! Birds! They have come! They have come!'
For a moment the crowd on the opposite side stood silent. Then a sudden uproar of joy fol-lowed echoing in the air.
'Birds! Birds! Birds!'
Some ran to the nearest houses to pass the news. Cars and two wheelers poured in from all sides. Workers left their job and marched towards the pond. Menon rushed to the scene at once. There were engineers, officers, and other top officials in the crowd. Meanwhile the birds returned to the pond and started circling above the pond. Their shrill cackling mingled with the human voices in a curious harmony.
'This is truly an occasion to rejoice for every one of us, Menon said leaning on his car. Here ends our long wait for birds and the woes that have befallen our organization as well. Here we stand together forgetting all our differences, casting away the masks that our artificial lifestyle had forced us to wear. Let us remain thus for all the days to come in all our endeavors to build a glorious tomorrow. I entreat all our friends who are on duty to return to their work. I understand that all the disciplinary actions were resulted from some silly misunderstanding and are cancelled unconditionally.
With a final sweep the birds settled down over the water and became silent while numerous mercury lights in the plant came on one by one like little fireflies.