Beastly encounters

The Squirrel’s Victorian Secret

[or, Thongs from the Wood]

The local squirrels and I get along very well.

Every day, I set out water for them – well, for the squirrels as well as for the pigeons, mynas, sparrows, crows, bulbuls, doves, sun-birds, babblers, wasps, chameleons, and all the other assorted creatures that have permanent citizenship and visiting rights to the terrace upstairs.

1 Community ground
Terrace

Whenever I can, I toss the squirrels – and all the others – snacks to nibble on. Regular snacks include peanuts, cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, bits of biscuits, pieces of buttered toast, and leftover rice. And in winter, when Delhi is at its best, with blue-and-gold mornings and clear, chill nights and the air crisp as the Marie biscuit that accompanies your hot cup of chai, I sit out on the terrace with the squirrels et al., and we bask in the sun for hours on end and chew assorted snacks and contemplate the beauty of the Universe, the subtleties of Creation, and the idiocies of Indian Polity.

Sometimes, the squirrels and I do yoga together.

2 -That's my spot

“You’re sitting in my spot!”

 

3 Yogi Gileriswamy in aerial Uttanasana
Aerial Uttan-asana

I’ve discovered squirrels eat all kinds of things we eat: potato wafers, murukku, samosa, paratha, slices of apple and mango (well, who wouldn’t eat that!), even gobs of ice-cream. I had always thought squirrels were vegetarian. And then, one winter’s day, I saw a scampering squirrel come to a screeching halt beside the tiny, desiccated remains of a long-deceased beetle. The squirrel peered at the hors de oeuvres; sniffed it thoroughly from end to end; and then grabbed it in two little paws and scrunched it down with thorough enjoyment before racing along on its interrupted errand.

Once, I offered a young squirrel a fish tikka in its foil wrapping, complete with a liberal daub of peppery green chutney. The squirrel unwrapped and ate the tikka with great delicacy, as though it were a gourmet dish, proceeded to lap up every last drop of the green chutney…and then sat on its haunches licking its chops and staring at me hungrily, hoping for more.

The squirrels are adapting to my ways, just as I am adapting to theirs. It is deeply comforting, this mutual bonhomie and peaceful coexistence.

Yet, the squirrels and I have our personal spaces; for do not strong fences make good neighbours? We too have our border; a Line of Actual Control (LAC), reasonably well demarcated, that both sides respect and do not breach, barring occasional, unarmed tests of strength that are as brief and non-violent as the scuffle between unarmed Chinese and Indian soldiers on the LAC in Sikkim, and as speedily and honorably settled with mutual withdrawals to our respective ground positions.

Thus, barring a few choice epithets hurled in their general direction, I do not bear the squirrels ill-will when I discover that they have vigorously uprooted and consumed all my carefully planted bulbs and seedlings in the terrace garden; nor do I run to the United Nations wailing for third-party mediation when a cheeky little squirrel-pup filches the buttered toast from the saucer that I had left unguarded for a minute while I went indoors for a coffee refill. Likewise, beyond tweeting a few derisive comments about me, the squirrels don’t complain when I chase them away from the chili plants whose slender twigs they love to use as toothpicks; or when I periodically clean up the window-sills that they use as community toilets (inspired, no doubt, by the Swacch Bharat Mission).

Recently, however, the spirit of Panchsheel that has hitherto governed our relationship was shaken by an unprecedented security breach on the LAC.

It started with a strange aroma in the kitchen: a scent that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant but quite distinctive: a cocktail of ancient pocha-kapda (mopping cloth), straw, damp leaves, grease and dog fur.  For two days I hunted for the source of the smell. I checked every cupboard and shelf and drawer, every container and bottle; the fridge, toaster, the sink, the drain, the waste bin, even the water filter. No luck.  The scent grew stronger, my appetite weaker, my mood fouler.

And then, returning home in the evening on the third perfumed day, I saw a squirrel taking a stroll on the kitchen counter-top. It executed a hop-skip-and-jump via the water filter up to the exhaust fan vent, within which it disappeared.

4 Exhaust fan
Theatre of action – LAC

The exhaust fan vent…the one place I hadn’t thought to check! So I climbed on to a stool, stood on tiptoe and peered into the recesses of the vent. Voila! There it was, the source of the aroma—a pile of shredded cloth and rope and string and straw, carefully arranged layer upon layer to make it soft and springy, so tall that it completely obscured the hinged vanes on the far side of the vent. Of the squirrel, there was no sign.

The squirrels had built – or were still building – a nest.

But how on earth had they managed to get into the vent, that too with all this nest material, when the vanes on the far side  normally remained shut and opened only when the fan was running? I soon discovered the answer: professionals that they were, the squirrels had wedged some kind of rag tightly between two vanes, so that the vanes remained half-open during the great construction project to allow smooth ingress and egress of squirrels and building materials.

5 Spring bed
Playpen in the making…

The discovery of the nest plunged me into a great moral dilemma, such as that which nearly undid the great warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra before Krishna talked some sense into him.

I didn’t have the heart to demolish the nest. For the squirrels, the cool and dark tunnel of the exhaust fan vent provided the perfect refuge from the scorching summer heat. Besides, wasn’t it possible that Ma Squirrel was expecting to deliver a batch of little squirrel-pups, and was making this snug little nursery for her young-ones-to-come? How cruel it would be for me to undo all her hard work, her labour of love!

But countering this emotional response came the harsh yet compelling voice of reason. The nest was fragile, precariously located…in the exhaust fan vent of all places! Wouldn’t it be awful if I, or someone else, turned on the exhaust fan and hurled the feather-light nest – and possibly the pups – against the cruel vanes?  Even worse, the fan blades might cause injury – or worse – to the squirrels. Surely that would be far crueller than removing the nest now, when it was empty?

And then, there was the little matter of mosquitoes. Every mosquito and her sister-in-law, from Noida to Gurgaon, must surely be making a beeline (or mosquito-line) for this inviting gap in the vanes, which, from a mosquito’s point of view, was like a blazing signboard over a fast-food joint; namely, me. Little wonder that of late, I was being eaten alive every night by the bloodthirsty members of the Family Culicidae…

What was I to do?

Like illustrious Arjuna, I chose the path of vacillation. Like brave Arjuna, I thought up seventy-six excellent reasons why I should not do anything. Let’s give it a day or three, I told myself: maybe Ma Squirrel will give up her nest project now, because she knows I’ve spotted her.

And so three days passed, with strict instructions given to one and all not to turn on the exhaust fan at any cost.  The kitchen walls and ceiling grew grimier, the mosquito bites grew more numerous and painful, the nest grew thicker and wider. This made me feel worse: I had to do something fast, before it became too late for Ma Squirrel to change her plans…and before I was completely consumed by the mosquitoes.

On the fourth day I had a brainwave: I would simply remove the rag that held the vanes open! The vanes would snap shut; Ma Squirrel wouldn’t be able to get into the vent; she’d fret a bit, and then shake her furry head sadly and find another site for her nest.

So I fetched the stool, reached into the vent and tugged at the rag holding the vanes open till the rag suddenly came free and the vanes snapped shut. Leaving the nest intact, I descended and examined the rag: it turned out to be the frayed remnants of my face towel that had gone missing from the clothesline on the terrace the previous week; I had assumed the towel had been carried away on the gusts of a dust storm.

Problem solved…or so I thought.

Two days passed uneventfully. On the third day, while sipping my morning chai and scratching idly at a mosquito bite, I glanced up at the exhaust fan vent and noticed that the nest was distinctly thicker. What’s more, there was something blue resting on top of the nest. I climbed on to my trusty stool and peered into the vent. Not only was there a fresh layer of shredded pocha kapda on top of the nest, but carefully placed right in its middle was a blue clothes-clip – no doubt, Ma Squirrel had chosen it to decorate and liven up the little nursery.

Ma Squirrel was at it again! But how on earth had she got into the vent ?

I peered into the dark tunnel…and groaned. Once again, there was a piece of fabric carefully and tightly wedged between two vanes to hold them open. Muttering like an irate old squirrel, I tugged out the piece of fabric, descended to examine it closely…and nearly gave up my ghost there and then.

In my trembling hands was a pair of panties.

Slightly worn, slightly frayed, but definitively a pair of red panties. Size L, by the look of them; though I did not look closely.

7 The ghastly evidence
Exhibit A

Well might you chortle, O dear reader. But picture my plight…and empathize! Leave alone Arjuna, even Bhimasena would have quailed at the dreadful situation in which I found myself.

Here I was, a single man, a senior citizen at that, holding a pair of panties. Whose panties they were, I knew not; nor did I want to know. I just had to get rid of them, fast. Imagine if someone walked in and found me in possession of lingerie!

How could I explain it? What could I say?  Speak the truth?

You see, I found these panties in my exhaust fan vent…The squirrels were building a nest in there…and they used these panties to prop the vanes open, so they could get in and out…”

It sounded a highly unlikely story, even to me.

I had to get rid of them! But carefully; I couldn’t risk anyone tracing the thingies back to me.

For a brief wild moment I considered burning the panties out on the terrace – but discarded the idea with a shudder. Imagine if the fire, and its source, drew the attention of neighbours…

And so, feeling like a murderer disposing of an inconvenient corpse, I wrapped the panties in three layers of newspaper; placed the paper package deep inside a black garbage bag; and then, deploying nest-layering skills and care that would have made Ma Squirrel shake her furry head in admiration, I buried the package beneath layer upon layer of vegetable peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, shredded paper, and finally and regretfully, the material of the nest.

A month has passed since that traumatic day. To my immense relief, there has been no discernible change in the neighbours’ attitudes, or in the attitudes of the squirrels. Clearly, the panties have been safely consigned to the landfill.

It’s now safe for me to reveal the truth, complete with photographic evidence – such as it is – in the interests of transparency.

Ma Squirrel has not resumed her nest-building. Still, I continue to check the exhaust fan vent, and especially the vanes, thrice daily…just in case.

You just can’t underestimate the squirrels. Or under-rate their underwear-filching skills.

 

 

 

Beastly encounters, Musings, Potshots

A coffee bean’s trauma (or, Nightmare on Dung Street)

Feverish insights into the goodness of dung and the oneness of all living things

Warning

A week or so ago,  a great Indian thinker—the Hon. Mahesh Chandra Sharma, recently retired judge of Rajasthan High Court—provided new and wondrous insights into the Divine Attributes of the Indian Cow [click here to read full report].  We were enthralled, delighted, by his revelations; we were eager to believe.

Alas, many highly ill-reputed intellectuals in India and abroad greeted Hon. Sharma’s revelations with amusement, skepticism, and even scorn. Our belief was shattered.

Was Sharma-jee wrong?

Is the bovine no divine but a mere mortal?

These and other weighty  questions kept us tossing restlessly in bed night after night, till we resolved to seek wise counsel from one of the world’s leaders in bovine research: Dr Pashupalan Moosa, Senior Director at  the Indian Cow Research Institute (ICRI), Gurgaon and  Head of the Product Innovations, Design & Development Labs (PIDDL), located in the sprawling 1400-acre campus of ICRI.

We met Dr Moosa in his spotlessly clean lab-cum-office. He was a curly-haired, bespectacled gentleman of about sixty-five, wearing a white lab coat and the placid expression of the Indian water buffalo. On the wall behind his desk was a fetching portrait of Kamadhenu, the Celestial Cow. Dr Moosa bade us sit and poured out two cups of black coffee from a large percolator. We accepted a cup gratefully and took a sip. The coffee was excellent: just the right warmth, strong yet not bitter, heady in fragrance, with a kind of wild, mossy, moist flavour that evoked the freshness of rain forests.

“We have ten minutes,” Dr Moosa murmured.

“Sir,” we began hesitantly, “the Hon. Mahesh Chandra Sharma has provoked considerable mirth and wrath with his claims that the cow is a divine creature. As a leading expert in bovine sciences, what do you make of his statements?”

“Of course Sharma is right: the cow is divine,” Dr Moosa murmured. “Just as you are divine! As indeed is a tapeworm, an ant, a chicken, a tick, a bacterium, a cuttlefish!” He leaned forward, warming to his theme.  “Listen: all living creatures on Earth are made of the same genetic stuff. Whether we are bacteria or Bactrian camels, conger eels or Congressmen, capuchin monkeys or capitalists, Komodo dragons or communists, giraffes or jihadists, all of us share the same DNA and RNA at the cellular level. We are all, at the core, truly One—whether we like the idea or not. All living things have spawned and evolved in the same great river of the Genetic Code, which some people call God by various names and others simply call names. So why should we exclude the poor bovine from this all-embracing divine realm?”

He was being a tad evasive, of course; but we were so awestruck by the potency of his words and his coffee that we let it pass. “All right, sir…but what about Sharma-jee’s other claims? For instance, he declares that a cow inhales as well as exhales oxygen! What kind of respiration is that, sir? It flies in the face of science!”

“Not at all,” said our colleague gently. “Haven’t you heard of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?  It works because you can actually exhale part of the oxygen you inhale. So…it’s not only the cow that can inhale and exhale oxygen: we all can!”

“But…Hon. Sharma also quotes some obscure research by some untraceable Russian scientist named Shirovich to claim that a cow’s bellows can kill germs in the vicinity! Surely that’s absurd enough to make a buffalo laugh?”

Our learned colleague chuckled. “Well, first the point about a cow’s bellows killing germs. Here too Sharma is factually correct. It’s the media that’s got the story wrong! The media has misinterpreted the word ‘bellows’ to mean the sound a cow makes with its mouth, and ended up looking at the wrong end of the cow…um…pipe. You see, a cow does not bellow; it moos. By ‘bellows’, Sharma is referring to the simple, age-old mechanical device used for squeezing out gas from a bag at high pressure. Now, it is an established fact that a cow…er… squeezes out more than 60 litres of methane and other gases daily from its stomach bag – a direct result of its grassy, high-protein diet.  Think of it: 60 litres! Forget germs, no living creature can possibly survive such saturation bombardment by the highly aromatic emissions from a cow—not even an elephant that’s lost its sense of smell!” Dr Moosa paused and looked at us keenly. “If you like, I can take you across to PIDDL’s integrated cattle shed complex; you’ll vividly appreciate the point when we’re half-a-kilometre away.”

“There’s no need for that, sir!” we assured him hastily. “But then, what about this Shirovich, the Russian bovine scientist that Hon. Sharma referred to? He’s untraceable! We’ve hunted for Shirovich and his purported work on the Net, in libraries…but to no avail.”

Dr Moosa shook his head sadly. “I have no doubts at all that this Shirovich exists or existed, and that his work is authentic. My guess is that Shirovich must have quietly succumbed to an excess intake of bovine emissions while undertaking some long-term experiment, doubtless in some remote bovine lab in Siberia or the Ural Mountains where his demise went unnoticed. That’s why he is untraceable, poor fellow: a great loss to the scientific world.”  He sighed and refilled our cups with steaming coffee.

We fought off the feeling of unreality that was slowly enveloping us. “There’s also been a lot of unkind comment in social media over other things Hon. Sharma said. Like, he says the cow is a clinic! And he goes on and on about the healing powers of cow urine and cow dung…”

“Of course he’s right!” broke in Dr Moosa.  “You must try and ignore the cackling of the hoi-polloi!”  He paused, reached into a desk drawer, took out a small dark-brown package wrapped in plastic and handed it to us.

“Behold!” he cried. “This is the latest product from the PIDDL stables…er…cattle pens. It’s pure, fresh cow dung, painstakingly collected by my team from cows that have grazed only in the ISO 9001:2008-certified organic pastures of PIDDL. We’ve enriched the dung with vitamins and minerals, added subtle flavours, and given it a catchy brand-name: ‘PIDDL Dung’!” His face was flushed with pride and enthusiasm. “PIDDL-Dung is now being marketed as a breakfast-food supplement in 114 countries, including USA, EU, UAE, Japan and Australia. It’s one of the greatest success stories of the Make in India initiative!”Grazing dream

“That’s amazing,” we whispered, holding the PIDDL-Dung package gingerly. “But why is it only being exported? Why aren’t you marketing it in India?”

Dr Moosa smiled tolerantly. “Our marketing team knows what it is doing. Indians will never embrace any traditional Indian product—until the West first embraces it. Now that other countries, particularly the West, have started consuming PIDDL-Dung by the ton, Indians will soon follow in droves!”

We tried to speak but only succeeded in making soft mooing noises.  On the wall, Kamadhenu twitched her tail and gave us an inquiring look.

“PIDDL-Dung comes in six flavours at present,” Dr Moosa went on. “This one’s chocolate-almond; please accept it as a gift!”

“Thanks, but sorry, sir,” we mumbled, placing the package down on the desk. “It’s just a little hard to stomach the idea of eating cow dung…”

Arre bhai!” he cried. “If you can eat sheep’s brains and goat’s gonads, if you can gobble up fish eggs and frog’s legs, if you can wolf down globs of pounded flesh stuffed into bags stitched from pig’s intestines in the name of sausages, why’s it so hard to savour some clean, tasty cow dung? Hahn-jee?”

His logic was irrefutable, yet hard to swallow. “But …but these are animal feces!” we protested feebly.

Dr Moosa relapsed into moody silence.  But after a moment he looked up and smiled. “Did you like the coffee? Would you like some more?”

“So kind of you, sir… the coffee’s really superb. But we’ve taken up enough of your time, thank you.” We rose, nodded at Kamadhenu who nodded back, and shook our host’s hand.  He walked with us to the door.

“This is Kopi Luwak coffee, you know,” he murmured as we reached the door.  “It’s from Indonesia. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world. A kilo costs anything from 1200 dollars to 3000 dollars, that’s two lakh rupees…”

We were stunned. “What’s in that coffee, gold?” we asked.

He chuckled. “No, it’s not gold.  Although curiously, gold is the word used by local Indonesians to describe the animal feces from which they get the coffee beans…”

We clutched the door for support. “What!”

“Yes…you see, the coffee beans are picked out from the feces of the Indonesian palm civet cat. This lovely animal likes eating coffee cherries. The cherries are digested, but the beans stay intact as they pass through the animal’s stomach and intestine. In the process they absorb certain unique flavours, and so when they emerge…”

Dr Moosa broke off and started to laugh at our horrified expression. It was an extraordinary laugh: not quite human, rather a series of shrill, persistent monotonic beeps that grew louder and louder. It was almost like the sound of a morning alarm…

Mercifully, it was.

Beastly encounters, Potshots

Cow’s laughter

Cow's laughter 001

Ah! Recycling is such a joy, for the environmentally aware citizen as well as the struggling writer. Buoyed by this ignoble sentiment and by the nationwide brouhaha over divine bovinity (bovine divinity?) and whether it is right to hog beef, I dust off and present an ancient piece carried by The Times of India on 15 April 1999 under the title ‘Cow’s laughter’.

“What do you feel about cow slaughter?” asked the chairman of the interview board.

“Well,” I began confidently, “the issue’s unfortunately been clouded by religious sentiment…”

“Indeed, we know cows have religious feelings,” interrupted the chairman, “but what do you feel about the issue?”

Mercifully, the interview was terminated soon thereafter. Yet the true significance of the chairman’s remarks struck me – literally and rather forcefully – only many years later. I was in an auto-rickshaw, and my driver, like so many of his tribe in the Great City, was knowledgeable and voluble. Having discoursed at length on rising prices, falling morals and the urgent need for a Truck Driver Eradication Programme, he turned to the subject of cows.

“Ah! What a creature!” he breathed reverentially, swerving us towards a passing dog and missing narrowly. “She gives us milk, from which we make butter, cheese, curds, ghee…her strength pulls the cart and the plough, her very dung fertilises the soil…”

“And her meat is rich and nutritious!” I cried, caught up in his enthusiasm. “Her hide makes footwear, and her…” but I stopped short at his cry of horror. Indeed, so agitated was he at my remarks that he accelerated and braked at the same time, and our chariot executed a series of skips and jumps before shuddering to a halt. He turned to me.

“Sacrilege!” he whispered hoarsely. “To speak of eating cow’s flesh. But then you, sir, are undoubtedly a product of inadequate spiritual education, and therefore ignorant of the divine attributes of the cow. Let me tell you…”

At that moment, disaster struck. A dappled cow had been grazing contentedly on the grassy divider nearby. A passing truck sounded its horn; the cow jumped out of her skin; and the next instant she was charging straight towards us, mooing plaintively. I yelled in alarm; the driver twisted around, but too late. The cow lowered her horns instinctively before hitting the windshield, which disintegrated with a splintering crash. Stunned by the impact, I watched as the cow – not a bit put out by the incident – poked her head through the gaping hole where the windshield had been.

“Moo?” she inquired softly. But the driver, who had assumed a foetal position on his seat, did not reply; and so, with an apologetic nod at me, the beast withdrew her head and trotted off briskly down the road.

I disembarked and joined the interested crowd of sidewalk ghouls which had gathered. At length, the driver uncurled himself, a limb at a time, and lurched to his feet. And then, he began to curse.

We were awestruck by the flow and fluency of his expression. He began with a general character assassination of the impugned cow, went on to cast ghastly aspersions on its antecedents and parentage, and finally dismembered it with ritualistic slowness. “It should have been strangled at birth!” he cried, and demanded to know what the government was doing in the matter.

At this, a bystander chided him gently for speaking ill of divine bovinity.

“Rubbish!” the driver yelled. “That was no Bharatiya cow! I saw the spots on it: it had foreign blood in it. It was a foreigner, I tell you, a foreigner…”

Beastly encounters, Musings

Bondla Ramble

The silence is deafening.

Last night too there was silence, when we were sitting out on the verandah of our little cottage. It was quiet then too, but a different quiet – the dense forest around us was alive, filled with a sizzling, electric, watchful kind of silence, a silence strangely intensified  by the rhythmic breek-breeks of an orchestra of crickets, muffled bumps and thuds, sudden bird calls, a startled cry from some unknown animal (a fawn? a bear cub?), the excited chatter of a faraway monkey, the rustling of leaves, the steady drip-drip of raindrops from a billion leaves…

Our abode in Bondla
Our abode in Bondla

But now, at dawn, the silence is absolute. The air is clear, cool, still but for an occasional stray breeze; the sky is overcast, a great brooding grey presence that portends more heavy downpours. The creatures of the night are deep in slumber; the leopards and civets and owls and other nocturnal hunters doubtless dreaming of sweet meals had and yet to be had, while the deer and squirrel and countless other hunted ones are only now wakening wearily yet watchfully from the shadowy realms of half-sleep, thankful to have survived another dreadful night, already gearing themselves to brave a day filled with perils old and new…and the night to come.

I look to the right, up the road. About fifty metres away stands a small spotted deer, nibbling leaves off a bush. It looks up at me and then gets back to its repast; but its ears are cocked now, there’s a new tenseness to its limbs. I turn and hesitate…should I wake the others? Udai is in deep delta sleep; the door to the other room, where Rekha, Nisha and Tarini are, is shut. Quietly – or so I think – I step back into the room and open the side door, thinking to step down the path that leads to the road. The door swings open silently, but the deer is gone.

I walk down the slippery, mossy flagstone path and amble along the road, looking in vain for signs of animals among the mist-blurred thickets on either side. Giant carpenter ants march busily among the inch-thick avenues of dead leaves on both sides of the road. Countless black centipedes wander about like tourists lost in a metropolis; one runs headlong into a soldier ant, pauses and scratches its head thoughtfully with about seventeen limbs; doubtless it is asking for directions?  But the ant offers no assistance; instead it executes a remarkable backward spring of about three inches, capers around the centipede several times in an ever-widening circle, and then sprints away at about 60 kilometers an hour. Clearly put off by this discourteous behaviour, the centipede flexes its mandibles, shakes its head in disgust and moves on.

I wander into the gently sloping forest on the right, walking as silently as I can—the faded blue bathroom slippers make this task easier, but I am acutely conscious of how vulnerable my toes and ankles are to uninvited explorations by all manner of creatures, from leeches and spiders to centipedes and snakes. A slight flicker of movement in the corner of the eye…and I see them! A group of five, no, six spotted deer are standing about a hundred metres away, staring at me; their bodies are barely visible in the deep shadows , but the occasional twitch of an ear gives them away. After a long moment they decide I am harmless; with twitching tails they turn and walk away deeper into the woods, soon to be lost among the dark green caverns beneath the tall trees.

I move on towards a small hillock where the road ends in a flight of steps, leading up to a low, rectangular building with CI-sheet roof; this must be the canteen. The steps are covered in bright green moss and treacherously slippery. Emerging on to a large paved courtyard,  I stare at the sightless windows of the canteen; there is a large lock on the door. To the right of the door is a small shed—just a roofed enclosure with low walls, inside which are piled rusting table fans, broken chairs, a cracked plastic table, and similar junk. As I approach the shed there is a sudden scuttling noise from within; I freeze and hastily move the other way, towards the low wall around the courtyard. All of the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary is visible from here. Beyond the wall, the forests fall away into a valley; above the tree-tops, and behind and all around, are high forested hills, their outlines blurred by the moisture-laden air.

A steady drizzle begins as I make my way down the steps. I see Nisha wandering through the woods where the deer were browsing. We meet on the road and walk slowly back towards the cottage.

“When does Krishna take his morning walk?” I ask, a tad anxiously.

“Around 9.30, I think,” Nisha replies. Krishna is the lone, slightly psychotic tusker who resides in magnificent isolation in the forested hills surrounding us; last evening we’d been told by Loveleen – the Veterinarian in charge of the Bondla Zoo and the Sanctuary – that Krishna enjoys taking a stroll down this very road every morning to inspect the lower reaches of his kingdom.

Nisha pauses and points towards an overgrown path leading off the grassy verge down into the wooded valley. “Here’s one of the nature trails.”

“Ah…so should we walk down it a bit?”

She nods. We move slowly and cautiously down the path, she leading the way, treading as silently as we can on the wet leaves. The slope is steep and slippery in parts; I stumble now and again, trying hard not to make so much noise as to scare away every living thing from Bondla to Kaziranga.  At one point the path curves sharply to the right, ducking behind thick undergrowth. I decide on a short-cut and plunge bravely into the thicket.  The earth seems alive beneath my feet…I look down and realize that it is, with large, fierce red ants. I execute an agonized leap that would have turned a spotted  deer green with envy, and narrowly  escape the ignominy of landing rear-first on the other side of the path.

As we descend, the forest closes in on us. It is like walking through a colossal green cathedral; a hall pillared and arched with countless trees of every imaginable size, shape and hue, tall and thickly leaved and so densely gathered in patches that the grey sky above is completely obscured. Many tree-trunks are festooned with creepers that swing lazily in the slightly chill breeze. The air is filled with a cocktail of scents, the primary ingredients comprising damp soil, crushed leaves and rotting wood. The earth is carpeted with a thick layer of sodden leaves. Bushes gather in fraternal clumps; some tall and thin with tendril-like leaves, others short and thickly leaved, with huge curved thorns;  still others sporting flowers blue, white, yellow and red. Mushrooms poke their yellow-white heads from rotting twigs and fallen boughs. There is water everywhere; myriad little trickles of rainwater flowing down the slopes, coalescing to form larger channels that eventually merge with the stream that bubbles and chuckles its way along the bottom of the valley.

Gallery of green
Gallery of green

Nisha pauses, holds up a warning hand, points to her left. I squint in the direction she’s pointing and see nothing but a large tree with thickly-leaved branches. And then, one of the branches shakes violently and I see two huge squirrels leap off it on to an adjacent branch, where they sit on their haunches and make derisive faces at me. They’re the largest squirrels I’ve ever seen in my life; each the size of a well-fed cat, and as agile too. “Malabar giant squirrels,” Nisha murmurs. The squirrels stare at us awhile, chattering their disapproval of the current political climate, and then turn in unison and leap out of view behind the foliage.

Spot the squirrel
Watching me watching you [photo: Nisha]
The drizzle is now a heavy rain; Nisha steps off the path to find shelter under a huge tree. I join her and we wait for the rain to subside. Incredibly, not a drop of rain falls where we stand; so thick is the canopy above us.  I am acutely conscious of the gaping hole in the tree-trunk right next to my shoulder. A perfect nesting place for a cobra, I think to myself gloomily; perhaps there’s an entire joint family of cobras in there, the young ones even now fighting over who among them gets to take the first nip at my scrawny neck…

Nisha touches my shoulder, startling me out of my serpentine reverie. She’s pointing towards a tall tree about a hundred metres away.  I stare hard at the tree, bringing into play all my powers of observation honed by two decades’ wanderings in the wilds of Meghalaya and Assam.  All I can see is the tree. Like a befuddled visitor at some gallery of modern installation art, I study the tree very carefully, closing one eye and then the other as I examine and appreciate its features. No doubt it is a fine tree, with a thick tapering trunk and many branches. The lowest branch is long and twisted, with a large oval-shaped knot halfway along its length…

“I don’t give a hoot” [photo: Nisha]
“It’s an owl…a tawny frogmouth owl,” Nisha murmurs helpfully. She’s now aiming her camera at the knot on the branch.

And then, at last, I see it. The knot is not a knot; it’s an owl. It’s huge, perched on the branch with its back to us, shoulders stiff and slightly hunched, its ruffled feathers clearly silhouetted against the slate-grey sky. “It’s sulking,” whispers Nisha. “Maybe because it’s wet…or maybe it doesn’t like being photographed by strangers.”

The rain thins; we leave the owl to its sulking and move on. Suddenly the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds, bathing the green hall in golden light from a billion glittering leaves. But only for a moment; like a curtain dropping, the thick grey veils of cloud conceal the sun again.

Now, slowly but surely, the creatures of the forest are waking up.  The air is filled with the hum of insects; dragonflies hover, butterflies flit about.  A sweet, fluting bird call wafts through the trees.   Nisha pauses, holds up a hand. “That’s a ruby throated yellow bulbul…the state bird of Goa,” she murmurs, scanning the tree-tops above us. After a moment or two she points; I see only a bewildering tangle of leafy branches.  She takes a few pictures, and then all of a sudden there is a flash of brilliant yellow amidst the green, and the bulbul does a fly-pass high above my head, a distinctly sardonic tone in its musical cheeping as it stares down at me. “Whee wit wit wheeNow do you see me?” it seems to chant.

The gurgling and murmuring of the stream grows louder and deeper, the light grows dimmer, as we near the base of the valley. Suddenly the stream is before us, about five metres wide, its dark but clear waters foaming among rounded rocks and pebbles and rushing between the bushy banks.  I step down to ford the water, and pause as a faint but pungent aroma reaches my nostrils. It’s a distinct odour, evocative…

“Elephant dung!” I whisper hoarsely. Nisha nods, eyes wide.

Silently, cautiously, I cross the stream, clamber up the bank on the other side, and emerge into a small clearing. On all sides the dense forested slopes press in; in the foreground on the left stands a light-grey rock formation; a monolith with an extraordinary shape…

It’s Krishna. He stands at least four metres high at the shoulders; his tusks are like giant yellow-white pincers; his legs as thick as tree-trunks. His eyes are open, but he is as still as rock from giant rear to pliant ears, from slender tail to stupendous trunk.

Nisha’s already crossed the stream and is climbing the bank. I point towards Krishna. For a moment we stand there, frozen, staring at our colossal slumbering colleague. And then, we turn and hasten back across the stream. Our ascent through the forest is far more rapid than our descent. I bravely lead all the way, happy that I’ve redeemed my reputation as a keen-eyed wildlife spotter.

After all, I’ve successfully spotted a three-tonne elephant at ten metres.