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          Volume 10 |Issue 10| March 11, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Monsters of the Mind
(Part II)

Farah Ghuznavi

Phobias are almost always problematic for those who experience them, but there are undoubtedly some fears that affect peoples' lives on a more day-to-day basis than others; and therefore require more time and effort to manage. On the subject of such inconvenient phobias, I was recently commiserating with a friend who is terrified of dogs. Judging by the number of canines the average person is likely to encounter in the course of their life, and the fact that dogs tend to react badly to anyone who is nervous around them, that particular fear must be a difficult one to cope with.

However, since that discussion I have realised that there is yet another set of creatures almost as inconvenient to have an aversion to as dogs. And these are (drum roll, please): birds! Most of us who do not suffer from avian phobias rarely even notice our feathered friends, except perhaps to marvel at the unfamiliar sound of birdsong in Dhaka, or register some irritation at the occasional loud cawing of crows in mid-afternoon when you are trying to have a well-deserved nap. In fact, unless they have just emerged from a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's "Birds", most people don't give the creatures overhead a second thought.

This is not, of course, to claim that birds are incapable of being a serious nuisance. For example, when I was at university in London, our campus was notorious for harbouring dive-bombing pigeons that would ruthlessly carry off any food in your hands, often narrowly leaving your fingers intact. But most of us just dealt with this by making sure we weren't holding food while walking through the courtyard.

These days apparently London's pigeons are no longer prone to such hijackings since they have access to enough leftovers dumped in the various rubbish bins in the city, particularly by visiting tourists. In fact, it's probably just as well that they can now stroll over to the nearest garbage can and retrieve their food, since the Lord Mayor of London expressed concern some time ago that the pigeon obesity endemic (no, I am not kidding) resulting from eating so much junk food meant that many of the birds could no longer fly!!

Fed such stories about the abundance of edibles, I had in recent years more or less forgotten about the capacity of birds to behave aggressively towards humans (worms and rodents were always fair prey, of course. So I was taken aback on a recent occasion when I met a friend for coffee and we sat outdoors, to find a crow suddenly swooping down on us for no apparent reason. I was quite puzzled by it, but my friend seemed particularly rattled. It was only after the third or fourth time the bird had entered the covered veranda area where we were sitting, that Anasuya finally confessed that she was terrified of birds. Under the circumstances, I could only marvel at her willingness to remain on the veranda after the first couple of aggressive flurries from the crow.

As it turned out, Anasuya had a veritable treasury of bad bird stories; and each was more bizarre than the previous one. In sum, they provided a fairly strong case for disliking our (false) feathered friends, with or without a preview of Hitchcock's film. In fact, my friend told me that when she saw the movie, she had an "aha" moment. She had finally come across someone who, like her, understood the truth about birds!

Anasuya's problems with these creatures started when she was very young, perhaps five or six, and their family lived in one of the old-fashioned bungalow style houses common in small town India. Sparrows had nested on the upper part of the windows in their home and one day a young chick fell out of the nest and somehow landed on the child's head. This may have been, for animal lovers, one of those classic "they are more scared of us than we are of them" moments, but you will be hard pressed to persuade my friend about the truth of such a statement. Instead, she ran through the house with the baby sparrow perched on (and pecking at) her hair, managing to get tangled up in it - and even more desperate to get free - in the process. The rest, as they say, was history as far as Anasuya is concerned.

Not that there weren't moments of hope. As a young girl, she had clearly blocked out the childhood incident with the baby sparrow, when she came across - yes, you guessed it, another sparrow - this time lying unconscious by the side of the road. The tenderhearted (some might say foolhardy) child attempted to revive the bird by sprinkling some water on it. It worked. The creature returned to consciousness with a sudden flapping of its wings, nearly colliding with her face. This time, she ran screaming away, and there was no subsequent merciful loss of memory, so things have never been the same since…

Anyway, as those who suffer from a phobia will tell you, there are always wicked people willing to exploit their fears. Like my friend Polly, who has no hesitation in collecting small bugs from the vegetables when she's cleaning them in preparation for cooking a delicious array of bhajis. After she is done cleaning, she displays the insects in order to terrorise her sister Shilpi, who invariably runs through their flat shrieking whenever Polly holds finger and thumb together with an unhappy bug trapped between them, threatening to flick it at her. Polly has no hesitation in abusing her power to make Shilpi do her will by whipping out and brandishing a bug as and when necessary. In fact, she quite shamelessly admits that sometimes all she has to do is pinch her finger and thumb together and pretend that she is holding a bug, to get the desired level of obedience from Shilpi!

Of course, sometimes such fears can have unexpected consequences - as a friend of mine found out some time ago when she and her husband were out driving in Dhaka's congested streets. After a spider had materialized unexpectedly on the windshield of the car, her husband almost had an accident, paralysed at the sight of the hideous beast so close to him! In order to prevent an imminent meltdown, my friend actually had to climb out of the 'stalled' car, and brush the spider off the glass with a stick, before her husband would resume driving (and yes, you are correct in thinking that names have not been provided here because I value my friendships…)


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