A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

Puffer fish

On a walk in the intertidal region of the Marine National Park at Narara reef in Gujarat, I saw a live puffer fish (family Tetraodontidae) for the first time. I’d only seen it in restaurants in Japan, where it is called fugu. It is famously poisonous. One of these small fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill about 30 adults! But the neurotoxin is not genetically programmed into the fish, apparently the protective poison is accumulated from its diet.

The tiny thing was swimming at a leisurely pace. Our guide picked it up, and it came up almost as big as his hand. I was amazed by its big eyes; apparently puffer fish have very good vision. Inflating rapidly by ingesting water seems to be its main defense mechanism. It deflated to normal size and swam away as soon as it was released. Which of the over hundred species was it? An inventory of this region mistakenly calls it Tetraodon lineatus. It doesn’t look like this purely African species. Distribution maps and pictures eventually led me to the conclusion that this is the Takifugu oblongus.

Rage against the dying of the light

Like many others, I must have discovered Dylan Thomas’ poem in my teenage years. In those days it was a sort of a secret anthem on how to live for a cryptic club. The anthem adapts to circumstances. On a late afternoon walk through the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, I thought about the poem again. People I knew in Wuhan were already in lock-down, and in February it was already clear that the pandemic would strike some time, but that was not what was uppermost in my mind.

We strolled for more than a kilometer out to the waterline. The tide in this gulf is spectacular, and the receding sea had left pools in which we could see sponges, puffer fish and crabs. Over the years I’d discovered that I was similar to a migratory shorebird, like the common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), which visits these pleasant coasts in winter, striding through tide pools, stopping to inspect things, turning over little stones. The sun was about to set. “Time to go back”, said someone. “Just a few minutes more”, I said, trying to prolong the pleasant day, raging against the dying of the light.

The poem is about living right, as all teenagers know. It is not about dying.

Star-tailed

In this sweltering heat of Mumbai it feels nice to look back at the photos of the winter that’s just gone by. The many winter visitors include these gulls with stars in their tails. Once you notice that, you have narrowed the identification down to three: Mew gulls, Caspian gulls, and Heuglin’s gulls. Mew gulls are the smallest, and very rare in India. This was too big. The Heuglin’s and Caspian are about the same size, and distinguished by the shape of the head (Heuglin’s is broader) and the darkness of the wings (Heuglin’s is darker). This could be Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini). I consulted an oracle, and it was.

Hectic times on tidal flats

Little Warsaw (there”s a long story there) of Jamnagar stands near a tidal flat. We reached when the tide was coming in. A group of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) was foraging in the low waters. They are wonderful to watch at all times, so it was a while before I took my eyes off them to look at the tourists basking on a spit of sand beyond them.

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They were mostly Crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) winter visitors from Sri Lanka and Maldives. You wouldn’t think anyone would leave those Indian Ocean islands to come and winter in Gujarat. There has to be a story there; one that I intend to follow up some time. As they roosted, a noisy flock of Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) came flying in. As they picked their way between the roosting Craab plovers, I noticed some distinctive Heuglin’s gulls (Larus fuscus heuglini) floating behind the islet. The gulls roost in the water.

A knot of locals were sitting by the shore when we arrived, and now they decided to wade out. Their village was probably on the far side of the flats, and they seemed pretty sure of the route to follow. I heard more commotion, and I took my eyes off them. A bunch of elegant Eurasian Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) cam flying in. The Crab plovers were beginning to get crowded out. There was a lot of squawking and crying from the mixed bunch on the island. The villagers had turned in the meanwhile. They were definitely following a fixed route.

The Great Knots were alert to the approaching humans, and took off in a flurry of wing-beats. The Crab plovers had given up on their sleep and here on their feet. The villagers were very close to the islet when they birds took off. As the humans crossed the sand on their way home, a few brave plovers stood their ground. When they were gone, the Crab plovers came back to reclaim the island for themselves. They wanted to spend the afternoon roosting. We were off for lunch.

Afghan sparrow

I never really learn to pay attention. Long ago, a very competitive bird watcher had challenged me to tell whether a nearby sparrow was male or female, and I vamped my way through the test. Males of birds are generally more colourful, and the bird we were looking at was pale and mousy. I guessed female, and although I was correct, I did not win the argument. Also, I didn’t go back and look carefully at the description of an Indian house sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus). Otherwise, when I saw the bird in the featured photo, I would have known instantly (by the lack of a black bib covering its chin, neck, and chest) that it was not your garden variety house sparrow. This is a the only migratory subspecies, the Aghan sparrow (Passer domesticus bactrianus).

Colourless flamingos

Juvenile flamingos are not a bird enthusiast’s favourite. Unlike the well-fed adults, with their attractive pink colours, the young look dowdy and unremarkable. But, these young lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) presented a pretty picture as they fed in this stagnant stretch of water, green with algae. The algae are exactly what attracted these birds here. The lesser flamingo’s diet is largely made of algae, unicellular plants, and cyanobacteria that fill such stagnant pools. These microscopic organisms are rich in the beta-carotenoids associated with the chlorophyll that they contain. These carotenoids will eventually be deposited in the feathers of the flamingos, and turn them pink, red, or orange. What a marvelous transformation!

On a lark

When I saw the pair of ashy crowned sparrow larks (Eremopterix griseus) and took the photo that is featured, it was the end of a morning’s hunt. As soon as we arrived in this place. Adesh had identified a female by its call. I was excited, because I’d only seen the male of the species before. Even now I kept seeing glimpses of the male. Adesh was certain that the female had not left. Eventually, waiting paid off, and the female appeared in plain sight to sit with the male. I was struck by the differences in colouring and behaviour. Often, such differences point to different roles in the rearing of the young.

Apparently not in this case. From what I read, both sexes play equal roles in building nests, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The difference between the birds is a result of what Darwin recognized as sexual selection, the process of choosing mates leads to escalating behavioural and morphological differences between the sexes: the overt masculinization of the male and the overt femininization of the female, without other important biological differences. The different appearance of the male must be part of this process (although I am going out on a limb, guessing here, because no one has tested this idea out). The most visible difference in behaviour is the courting ritual of the male: the high flights, the trills let loose at the apex of the dive. So wonderful that Shelley wrote a long ode (Hail, to thee … that from Heaven, or near it, pourest thy full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art, and so on) to the lark. But when behaviour is different, and biology is almost the same, that’s when gender politics rears its head. Apparently the female works harder at feeding the young!

Lakhota lake

On our last morning in Jamnagar we went for a walk to Lakhota lake. The lake was originally a defensive position, but was expanded into a water reservoir for the town after successive failed monsoons in the middle of the 19th century CE. This was amazing in the morning: an island of serenity in the middle of this crowded and bustling town, full of gulls, ducks, and other water birds. I’ve posted photos of some of these birds earlier, and will continue to post others for a while.

The circular building in the middle of the lake (featured photo) is now called the Lakhota Palace. It was originally a fort, as the blank facade still proclaims. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had lost its purpose. Now it is an archaeological museum. I’d read about the recreation of a medieval Gujarati village inside the fort, and would have liked to see it. But when we arrived the doors to the causeway leading to the fort were firmly shut. It wouldn’t open for another three hours. By then we would be ready to drive out to the nearest airport, which was some distance away. This was a bad miss.

Standing outside the barred gate I looked towards the middle of the city, and saw this strange structure. It was also barred to entry. I found later that this was called the Bhujiyo Kotho, and was another medieval fortification. It is reported to have had a tunnel, now collapsed, connected in a straight line to the city of Bhuj. The tunnel would have had to go under the Gulf of Kutch, and I wondered whether this kind of engineering was possible in the medieval period in Gujarat. In any case, the fort had been badly damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, and has not yet been restored. It would be a massive effort to restore it.

So that left us with only one thing to do, which was to take a leisurely walk around the lake. At this time of the morning the place had quite a few visitors, all out for a morning’s walk. We met families curious about our binoculars and scopes, and Adesh Shivkar was in his element, telling children about ducks. Passing children were fascinated by the views of birds through the scope, and I realized again what a wonderful asset he is for conservationists.

After an hour of walking slowly around the lake, pausing every now and then to watch birds, we were ready for our breakfast. I looked back at the womderful broad promenade around the lake, and took a photo which tries to capture the serene atmosphere of that morning.

Not such a common babbler

The common babbler (Argya caudata, formerly Turdoides caudata) is a bird which I find hard to recognize by sight. When they are in their usual noisy foraging group, I can tell them from their voice (the recording linked below was made by Peter Boesman) and behaviour. Among the babblers they have perhaps the longest tails, and they are smaller and slimmer than the other babbler species. Certainly, their call is sweeter than the querulous grating calls of the other babblers.

At the end of a day’s bording outside Jamnagar, as we drove along a country lane, we spotted a lone bird on a meswak tree. We stopped the car. All four of us had puzzled looks on our faces. What could it be? Eventually, The Family asked tentatively, “Is it a common babbler?” We sheepishly agreed, thanking our luck that the more experienced people in the group were not close enough to have seen this piece of rank amateurism.

We’d seen a lone common babbler earlier in the day and paused to recall how to identify it: small, long tailed, overall dusty colour, streaked head and back, and a very distinctive white patch below the throat. But when confronted with a small brown bird, we were like absolute novices. The torturer there could have let out a song to help us, couldn’t it?