Everybody in his family called him ‘shy baby’ — not ‘cry baby’ to be sure, but shy baby. Young Somu was shy, but not just a little shy. Somu was very, very shy. When guests came to his house for tea or dinner and asked him his name, Somu would dig his chin into his neck and close his eyes and after a few minutes he would run out of the room. His parents always felt embarrassed about his behaviour and every time after the guests left the house Somu would end up getting a sound scolding.
“You’re eight years old now! You’re not a baby any longer! Why can’t you answer when you’re asked a question?” And so his mother would thunder away like an angry, rumbling monsoon cloud, while his older brother would chant teasingly, “Shy baby! Shy baby!”
Somu spoke only when he simply had to speak. In school, he preferred to sit at the far end of the classroom so the teacher might not spot him. More often than not when he was asked a question he would pretend he was sick and wriggle his way out of answering. The teachers had grown tired of his shyness and usually left him alone. His family grew tired of his shyness and left him alone. Everybody left Somu alone and he became a very lonely little boy.
So, as you can see, life was difficult for Somu. His family didn’t understand the reason for this great shyness and, in fact, nor did Somu.
Every night as he lay in bed he prayed that he should be able to overcome this terrible shyness and every morning when he awoke he discovered that he was still the same old shy Somu. He wished he could be more like his brother, Hari, who was full of life and chattered away all day long like a monkey. Everyone liked Hari but everyone left Somu alone.
One day, as Somu and Hari were returning from school, Somu decided to take the longer way through the woods and he split away from Hari and his friends. Hari who, as usual, was busy chatting never noticed that Somu was not with them any longer.
The woods became thicker and the sun went into hiding behind the heavy curtain of leaves. Somu liked this part of the woods. It was always quiet and cool here with nobody around to bother him. He put his school bag down and sat in the shade of a cluster of high Eucalyptus trees.
He thought for a moment about how angry his mother would be with him for coming back alone and late from school, but then he shooed the thought away from his mind. He wanted to enjoy the beauty of the woods and not think of anything else.
A squirrel charged past him almost running over his shoes. Somu chuckled. A yellow-beaked mynah hopped around him, pecking busily at the ground. He thought he’d practise speaking to the mynah, so he cleared his throat and said very slowly and softly, “Namaste! My name is Somu.” He heard his own voice so seldom that it always sounded strange to him! He continued, “I live in village Bhilwa. My house has a well…” he wasn’t really thinking, he was just saying anything that came to his mind, “…my brother plays hockey, but not very well….”
Suddenly he heard a sharp, small voice, “Yes, yes. I know all about you. Stop introducing yourself!”
Somu shot up and looked around him. He narrowed his eyes and looked through the trees, but there was no one around. Somu was worried now. He had heard about dacoits hiding about these woods. He picked up his bag and was about to dash off when the same sharp, small voice called out, “Wait! I want to talk to you!”
“Where are you?” Somu asked weakly.
“Here, silly! Down here!”
Somu looked down around him and saw the mynah lolling in the dust on its back, holding a thin twig in its mouth. Well, well! A talking mynah! Somu was delighted. He immediately thought of scooping it up and taking it home and keeping it in a nice cage.
“Oh, no! I know what you’re thinking, you little rascal. You’re not going to keep me in a cage. I’m a bird. The trees are my home, the sky is my road. I’m not going to be made a prisoner in some tight, little cage.”
Somu was amazed. He’d heard about talking parrots and mynahs before but they never spoke more than a few sentences taught to them by their masters. But this mynah was really special.
“Listen, my name is Aazaad. You know what that means?” The mynah twirled the twig in its beak, “It means, “free”. Anyway, the point is this — I can help you if you help me.”
Somu thought about this. How would Aazaad, the mynah, help him and how could Somu help Aazaad.
“Yes, yes. I know what you’re thinking. ‘How can this silly little bird help me?’ I’ll tell you how, my friend. You are shy, right?” Somu nodded, even more amazed now!
“Okay, so here’s what we can do for each other. If you keep talking to me you’ll stop being shy. That’s how I’ll help you. You, in turn, will get your father and his neighbours to stop chopping down the trees in this part of the woods. If they chop down all these trees we’ll lose our homes and then I won’t be Aazaad any longer.”
It sounded like a good idea to Somu. The plan was for Somu to meet Aazaad everyday in the woods for the next one week. During that time, Somu would talk to Aazaad and try to rid himself of his shyness.
They parted company and Somu walked back home thinking all the while about this remarkable bird. His mother was at the door of their house, waiting with a broom in her hand. Somu knew that he would be spanked with the broom, but it didn’t matter much to him. He was too excited to worry about brooms!
The next afternoon, Somu found his way to the same cluster of Eucalyptus trees as planned. And, sure enough Aazaad was there. This time he was resting on his side, his head on his wing and he was humming a song! He really was a funny little bird and Somu couldn’t help but laugh.
“What is it? Never heard a bird sing before?”
“No!” Somu answered, still laughing, “I haven’t!”
“Look! Isn’t this super? You just talked to me!” Aazaad clapped his wings together. And so their conversations started from that day onwards. Soon Somu realised that Aazaad was doing all the listening while Somu was doing all the talking! Somu was thrilled. It was a dream come true. Now, he too would be like Hari, and he too would have friends. At long last, he would not be called ‘shy baby’.
And so the week was coming to an end. At home, Somu’s parents had noticed the change in him and they were thrilled to see their younger son talking to visitors and chatting with the neighbour’s children. They wondered how this tremendous change had come about but did not ask Somu.
On the last day, Aazaad asked Somu whether he had spoken to his father about not chopping down the trees. Somu promised he would, he then thanked Aazaad, who shook his wing the way people shake hands. As Somu was turning to go, Aazaad said, “Remember friend, if you don’t keep to your promise you will become shy again.”
Somu returned home, wondering how he would get his father to stop chopping down the trees. He knew that talking to his father wouldn’t make any difference. And if he told his family that a mynah had requested them to stop the felling of the trees they would just think him crazy!
Late that night, Somu went into the shed at the back of his house and picked up the axe his father used to chop wood. He then jumped the wall and took the axe from the neighbour’s house. He collected all the axes from all the houses and took them to a field where he buried them.
The next morning there was chaos in the village. All the axes were gone! Everyone asked everyone else if they had seen a thief. No one could solve the mystery. One of the elders of the village spoke up. He said, “It’s the Spirit of the Forest. She doesn’t want you to kill her trees any longer. The creatures of the forest suffer when they lose their homes. Don’t cut another tree or else you might anger her!”
The village folk agreed and said the old gentleman was right. They would not cut down any more trees.
Somu was happy. He had kept his promise. Aazaad would remain free and Somu would never be shy again.
At night after dinner, Somu heard a sharp little cackle outside the door. He stepped out and saw Aazaad. “So, Somu! We’re going to be friends forever, you know. That’s how it works — you kept your promise and I kept mine. If you ever need me again you know where to find me.”
“Yes, Aazaad. Thanks again. You’ll always be my friend.”
From inside the house, Somu’s mother called out, “Somu who are you talking to?”
“Nobody, Ma!” he called back.
“It doesn’t matter. You can talk to the birds just as long as you talk, Somu!”
“Yes, Ma. I’ll talk to the birds!” Somu replied and Aazaad winked back at Somu