Silence isn’t usually associated with parrots. But intelligence is, and in the farmlands of Madhya Pradesh, a wickedly intelligent pandemonium of them have learnt the value of keeping watchfully quiet. They wait until a farmer enters the poppy field and cautiously slits a pod to help it ripen, exposing the latex inside. And then they swoop in, diving right for the opium milk – sometimes tearing the stalk off below the pod so they can fly away and feast. Then they perch somewhere and bite into the pods, holding the stalk in one claw like a kid nibbling at candyfloss. They can’t get enough of the high. One opium expert said the parrots enjoy opium like we enjoy caffeine. Except they crash into branches, lie around dazed and evidently take evolutionary leaps in their desire for the next hit. Parrots that don’t squawk? Stoned, surely.
These parrots are addicted, and are causing severe damage to the livelihood of farmers in the Malwa-Mewar belt, where opium cultivation for medicinal purposes is legal, monitored by the International Narcotics Control Board. But illicit smuggling is a problem, licenses are renewed based on production, and the farmers are struggling, just like farmers all over India. Throw in a frenzy of drug-addled parrots and you can see why the pods are cautiously slit. Not because the flowering plant is delicate, but because it becomes liable to immediate plunder. Nilgais, scorpions and snakes are also common pests in poppy fields, attracted to the opium. But the parrots have the advantage of flight. And obsession.
These marauding parrots call to mind ones from classic literature who enjoyed trickery and entertained themselves by distressing people. It’s easy to imagine some of them drug-intoxicated. Take the raunchy one from this poem, translated by Martha Ann Selby, from the medieval Sanskrit anthology Subhasitaratnakosa: “At daybreak, / when the parrot / was bent on mimicking / her cries of passion / in front of her elders, / the doe-eyed girl, / embarrassed, / drowned it out / by jangling / her stacks of bangles, / clapping / as if to make / the children dance in play.” I must confess I was amused when I first saw videos of them guzzling opium. I wondered: how did they escape with their loot without it falling out of their beaks during a triumphant cackle, like a bird in a cautionary folktale?
But this was ignorant. Not long ago, I was upset by a photograph of the corpses of poisoned peacocks – only to learn that they are actually pests in paddy fields. In these cases, parrots and peacocks are to the farmer what pigeons and mosquitoes are to us in cities. For me to find the thought of junkie parrots hilarious was only a few steps removed from those who snatch beloved creatures away from indigenous minorities in the name of animal rights. For us humans who do not really co-exist with undomesticated wildlife in our ordinary lives, our views on fauna will always be lacking. We could learn from those clever parrots, maybe – how to be quiet (and listen) when all we’ve known to do is talk, talk, talk.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 7th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.