By TISTA SEN
My husband was no longer the man I had married. He had become grumpy and short-tempered, acting as if life had dealt him a bad hand.
He works in publishing, an industry that has its own share of problems. A self-made man, he worries that our sons have been handed too much. Our marriage was facing the familiar strains of midlife. All of this was getting him down.
Until he installed the bird feeder.
“But that’s so messy,” I said. In Mumbai, India, where we live, apartments are tiny. And while we have a little veranda with a few green plants, we do not have birds, and I did not see the point of putting up a bird feeder on our small open space to feed nonexistent creatures.
To try to feed birds in a city that’s rife with starvation and poverty also seemed too privileged and romantic a notion, something only rich people did in the Western world. Not here. Not in Mumbai.
“We live in India,” I reminded him.
“Birds belong to the world,” he replied. And that was that.
So up it went, an ugly contraption he bought on Amazon and had shipped to us. It was transparent, cylindrical and odd-looking. Grain was dutifully filled, and I watched skeptically as it stood solitary and defiant on our veranda in the muggy monsoon weather in a city where I neither saw birds fly nor come to roost.
Our lives were busy with the inevitable commotion that forms the basis of any marriage today. We worked hard. We spoke less. We watched too much television. We spent many evenings answering emails and responding to texts. Our sons were grown-up and had their own lives. We had ours.
One lonely morning in a long succession of lonely mornings, I caught my husband’s eye over the newspaper. He was signaling to me in that grotesque, animated fashion adults use to convey something unspoken through improvised sign language, pointing to our little veranda.
I turned. And there it was: a bright green parrot with a red beak perched on the ledge of the bird feeder. The parrot cocked his head. We cocked ours. The parrot studied us. We studied him. And then he settled down and dug right in.
I glanced at my husband. He beamed in response. He looked as if he had just given birth.
And soon our mornings became a bit more than the rush to catch the bus. There was anticipation to our workday until our winged visitors would arrive. One morning, a cocky sparrow came to us.
“Did you know they are almost extinct in this city?” my husband whispered.
We waited to see which feathered friend would drop in next. Who would be vying for top spot? Who would win the day?
“So you think it’s too tiny, the entrance?” my husband asked me one evening.
I looked at the doorway to our apartment, puzzled, only to realize that he meant the entrance to the bird feeder. “Well, they have tiny beaks,” I muttered. “They don’t need a granary.”
He looked contemplative, as if he were seriously considering my response. “But it helps when you have a wider plate on the dining table, doesn’t it?” he said.
“That’s a little sunbird!” I exclaimed with disbelief. “In Mumbai!”
And suddenly the grumpy man’s face lit up, his stress lines disappearing. Could this be a new him?
He would measure the level of the grain with great care and fill the feeder.
“Oh, no,” he would exclaim with dismay. “They did not eat today.” But he was not referring to our sons, whom we seldom saw, or to any human beings. He meant the birds. Everything was about his feathered friends.
Soon there was a sprightly quality to his mornings. Our mornings. In the busy monotony of our lives, we were parents once again. Except this time he was the mother.
Our mornings became the hours I most looked forward to. We exchanged far more than a glance. It was like the intrepid excitement of opening our doors to strangers or new friends and having a meal ready. Will they come? Will the food be enough? Will they enjoy their dinner and come back for more?
One evening, I came home to find my husband sitting with little bowls of different grains of different textures. “This food is very good for the birds,” he said as the grains slipped though his fingers. “It’s good for their digestion.”
I watched the sifting grains, thinking: What’s next?
He spent many a Sunday on the internet researching birds, bird food and eating patterns. When do they feed? How much? Why so little?
Our conversations often began with a bird fact. A male songbird sings 2,000 times a day, for example. A pigeon’s feathers outweigh its bones.
At night, my husband took stock of his day by keeping track of how many birds had visited and for how long.
One very windy Sunday, as we both gazed out from our little veranda, he seemed pensive. “Is it your job?” I asked anxiously, eager to help.
“No,” he said, glaring at me for being so hopelessly insensitive. “There hasn’t been a bird visit in the last 24 hours. I’ve been watching.”
“Perhaps it needs a GPS tracker,” I said jokingly. I mean, they were just birds. I was the wife.
That evening, I found that he had moved the bird feeder to another location.
“It’s easier for them to find it,” he said. “They need to be comfortable. After all, they come to eat.”
Can you be jealous of birds? They commanded his attention more than I did. I began glaring at the pigeons and muttering cuss words at the noisy crow. “You are upstaging me,” I muttered to the cooing dove.
Sea gulls gave me the eye, and I was suspicious of the eagle that swooped too low. I felt like Cruella de Vil from Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” devious plotter and coldhearted criminal. I was coming in the way of their happiness. And his.
As I cleaned up after dinner one evening, I thought of the food on our table, feeling grateful for all we have in a country where malnourishment is rampant. “Finish what’s in front of you,” I used to snap at my sons. “And no, you have to eat what’s at home, not order a pizza again.”
One morning while my husband was away, I sat in my little nook nursing a coffee. My father had been hospitalized, and I was inundated with work and a pressing deadline. The hopelessness of life kept creeping up on me. I wiped my tears in anger and gazed at the bird feeder, which was now an out-of-focus blur.
Someone cocked his head around the feeder. It was my friend the parrot. Or rather, my husband’s friend.
Well, tough luck, pal, I thought. There’s just me to contend with today.
He stared at me. I stared back. We seemed to be playing a silly game of who blinks first. I moved closer, but he didn’t budge.
He continued eating in little bites from the bird feeder as I inched closer. And just when I could see him up close in his magnificent finery, he looked at me sideways and a little crossly. Keep your distance, he threatened.
And for once I listened. I watched the bird eat and fill his tummy. I imagined his pleasure. I shared in his contentment. If he were able to roll onto his back and rub his belly, he would have.
It was such a simple joy. Such a simple kindness. I smiled as fresh tears threatened to spill again.
That night, I snuggled close to my once-grumpy man and held his hand tight.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I whispered. “I shared a meal with your friend today.”
These days, my husband smiles more and grumbles less. He now looks at the trees in the neighborhood and talks about how important they are.
“For the birds, you mean?”
“For us,” he says quietly.
And perhaps that’s it. You reach a stage in life when you yearn to do something new. You yearn to do something good. To give back. To find yourself. To rediscover love. In order to live better.
Some nurture a hobby. Others donate to charity. A few travel the world or volunteer to teach. The wealthy may take themselves out for elaborate meals or on a trip to an exotic city, where they can dance in the rain or go bungee-jumping or learn to speak Mandarin.
My husband did none of those things. He visited none of those places. Didn’t tick off items on his bucket list.
But he found himself anyway. And in doing so, he found us. All he did was go online and order an ugly bird feeder. And it has made all the difference.