The Allegory of Other Life

On a cool monsoon evening, I sat on a bench made of rock and cement, crusted thinly by moss on a layer of black mass. This bench has been here for not more than a year, and this is its first season in the rain. Beside this bench is a dense mass of grasses, sedges, and herbs like Common Balsam (Impatiens balsamina) and Pot Cassia (Cassia tora), growing taller than the surrounding.

I sat gazing at this small island as thin raindrops settled upon the blades and the spikes of grass. Like sitting on a safari vehicle, looking out into the grass for signs of a crouching tiger, I looked on. A grass frond sprang up from a corner of the island, the drops settled upon it now flying through the air. Like a tiger shuffling after arising from a cool pond. A grasshopper sat munching upon the blade of grass, right where the blade could take its weight. Munching; engrossed. Like a tiger, I reminded myself, like a tiger. A snail slowly made its way on the stem of the spikelet, just as another started descending from another. The raindrops increased in size. And another grass frond sprang up. The grasshopper sat munching, lolling on its now-thinning blade of grass; the snail reached the spikelet of grass as the other reached the base of the stem. The rain increased, and I looked for cover under the Mahua (Madhuca latifolia) tree across the island; its thick broad leaves a waterproof crown. From there I noticed the island of grass was once a bench like the one I sat upon.
The bench I sat upon
The evening wore on quickly. I decided to write a short note to remember this little moment, an allegory to the moments cherished, or yearned for, by most visitors, once I reached the station. The rain persisted; filling all the dents in the ground with crystal clear waters. A pair of Black Drongo chased after Jungle Owlets as they went in search of a dry bough to roost in.

On dark mornings and evenings when thin rain allows for a walk, birds, mammals, and reptiles, are all in hiding. The parks are closed, and a general consensus lingers amongst many tourists that wildlife and monsoon do not gel well. But monsoon is probably the only season of sheer adventure of all. And one of the most unique to see the other life. Look at your feet, near you, and you will see the other life, the life that encompasses over 75% of all life: insects, spiders, and myriad forms of arthropods. They’re on leaves, on ground, in tiny burrows, hanging in the air, wading on water or submerged under it; chewing, biting, piercing, licking.

In a world under your feet lay a world quite visible but believed invisible.

I sit every morning and evening observing these as and when time permits. A troupe of ants, six strong, strode over the wet path one day, dodging rain and tiny pools. If they sensed something fishy, or interesting, with their tiny elbowed antennae, one ant would take the lead to investigate, and invisibly signal others to come. They all would stand around the object of interest, and, if disinterested, move on in a bunch after an antenna-to-antenna discussion. I cannot help but allegorize these Camponotus ants with dwarves in search of lost treasure.

Under the Mahua hangs a light bulb reigned by a mighty horde of Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smargdina), their numbers, I reckoned, in multiples of thousand; like a thousand-strong pack of Dhole (Cuon alpinus).
The hunting pack of Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smargdina)
Every night over a leaf under the shine of the light the ants struggle to tear tiny insects in pieces, not to consume selfishly, but to take them back to the nest and feed their larvae. On the platform surrounding the tree, a myriad of beetles, ants, moths, and bugs roam and fly around haphazardly – their motion signifying absolute randomness in the sea of an incandescent light.
Insect trails
Most of the beetles, moths, and bugs come here to seek the warmth of the light. The ants, however, have different intentions. Be it the penumbra or umbra of the light, the ants are heaving, panting, struggling, pulling, and fighting, to get maximum of this bounty. Their nest is meters up the tree, in total darkness, created out of leaves green and brown sewn together by the larvae, their children.

In the morning this same place is clear of any struggle. Only a few ants with raised antennae and open mandibles guard the trunk and leaves of the Mahua. Elsewhere, where paths or forest clearings are free of water, roam another kind of a predator named after the very tiger – the Tiger Beetles.
The Tatooine Tiger Beetle (unofficial name) (Cicindela bicolor haemorhoidalis)
They’re one of the ephemeras of Central India. The common Tiger Beetles of Central India, to name a few, are C. bicolor haemorhoidalis, C. viridilabris, Calochora flavomaculata, and most probably Cicindela dasiodes and C. undulata, however no one really knows the real diversity of these beetles here, or the entire of peninsular India for that matter. They chase after ants as tigers chase after deer. They are said to be the fastest of all insects in the world, reaching such preposterous speeds that research says they temporarily go blind.
Larva of a Tiger Beetle in its burrow
Their adult life begins by June and comes to an end by August; as fast as their flight. On one August evening along a muddy bank of a paddy field I found little holes and heads popping in and out. These shy little creatures were the grubs of the Tiger Beetles: infamous ant-killers. Any passing ant within the reach of their heavily built mouth is a sure kill. How they survive the rain, cold, and summer, until they can emerge out once again as adult tiger beetles to rule the undergrowth, is a story of bravery and struggle best left to our imagination.

Walking in grasses sends a number of insects flying in all directions: moths, grasshoppers, beetles, are some of them. It is like walking in a forest, your troll feet flushing out all that you could eat, if you get the hyperbole. The grasses are their micro-habitat where they roost, feed, or breed. Some would only emerge under the cover of darkness, while others would remain here from birth to death – such as the grasshoppers.

These niches are no safe haven either. In here lurk the master hunters of the other life – the Praying Mantises.
 
Mantis is the superb opportunist, capable of empowering anyone smaller or bigger its size. Trouble one, and you’ll be sure to get a good pinch from its saber-toothed raptorial legs. So brave is this hunter of the undergrowth that it would even try to scare you with its superb display of aggression.
The Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) in defensive pose
Imagine yourself on a stroll through the forests, and coming face-to-face with a mantis crossing the road by bobbing its body back-and-forth. It does this to match the wind playing in the leaves, and it believes that the dance is so cunning that you’ve probably not seen it, and so it doesn’t mind you walking in its direction, until the vibrations in your footsteps catches it by surprise, and it unfurls its wings, arches its thorax upwards, and spreads out its knife-sharp raptorial legs – and to your horror, hisses so well that you feel nothing but awe and surprise. This defensive mechanism works well to surprise an intruder, and the closer you go into the mantis’ comfort zone, the frightening it looks, if you were an insect.

But the bluff called by mantis is only to scare off the intruder. There are others belonging to the undergrowth that show-off their brute strength with not much ado: the scorpion.
The Giant Forest Scorpion (Heterometrus sp.)
The scorpions, especially the Giant Forest Scorpion, do not threaten or move about much when confronted with an intruder. They lay quiet, cover their face with the enlarged pincers, and keep the stinger raised, in wait of striking at the moment the limit of patience is crossed. The scorpion does not bother itself with putting up aggressive display, for its reputation is well known. The dog that does not bark bites.
The hunting party of Myrmicaria brunnea
The most common animal you will confront on your way through the forest is not Chital, nor Sambar, nor any bird, but an ant; lots of ants. Ants unfortunately have a bad reputation probably because they bite and sting, but more so because they do not have pretty names like the said deer species they share their habitat with. Ants common in the Central Indian forests, which peculiarly live on ground, are Myrmicaria brunnea, Leptogenys processionalis, and several species of Camponotus, and Pheidole.  Remembering one ant name is akin to remembering titles to tigers of any nature reserve.
The hunting party of Leptogenys processionalis
But they’re here, most probably in numbers weighing more than that of tigers of that reserve. Most of these ants are scavengers, but also opportunists, with the ability to harvest seeds and leaves, herding aphids and treehoppers, as well as hunting. Walking in forests is not dangerous just because there lurk carnivores, but also because of ants. Camponotus ants depend upon their hard mandibles to tear flesh, while M. brunnea and L. processionalis are notorious for their sting that throbs and itches for a week after the first encounter.

Not all animals gang up to either kill or sting, however. There are others that do so for protection, just like deer. In monsoons you are likely to come across a mass of blood-red strings piling on top of one another, travelling like a herd of Chital or Gaur. These little creatures are millipedes, probably hatchlings.
Herd of Millipedes showing the first wave
These hordes eat and travel as a group. There is no one leader to lead them, but they walk by piling on top of one another such that the leaders of first lap (I call them the first wave) are overtaken by the second wave which walk over the top of the first wave, and the third over the second, and so on, until the first wave is the last to pile upon the last wave to come back to the lead. No average herbivore, of the world, is capable of such efficient movement system.

When disturbed, they travel in group, but the slowest are left behind – but that is no matter for their aposematic colours warn the predators that they are likely poisonous.

And last but not the least, the insect which even the tiger-throbs would not forget – the butterflies. They do not form the core of the insect diversity of Central India, but are an important species for their aesthetic values.
Rabble of Danaines (Common Crow, Plain Tiger and Striped Tiger) on Heliotropium indicum
Who would not want to see a butterfly, or a rabble of them, fluttering about? The irony lies in what you like – the past-life or its incarnation. I’ve come to observe that people, for obvious reasons, would like to have butterflies visiting their gardens than their caterpillar which eat up plants to become butterflies.

These animals, if I use the human hierarchical system, form a layer over that of plants, or that slimy layer of oil which allows free movement of the door of your car, or that rag-picker keeping your city streets clean. They perform the most basic function for which they are unrewarded. In an ecosystem, however, they form the very core of wildlife. Wildlife is not about marvelous animals and magnificent birds, but about life that is independent of any human interference. And today, of all the animals, it is insects, and a large number of arthropods, which are free from man’s dominion. If I went to one and asked its opinion about this era being dubbed the anthropocene, there sure could be a potential upheaval and a rebellion (and likely human extinction).

We see the allegory of the more famous animals in the other life, which renders us visionless to appreciate them in their true form.  If only people would pay a little more attention to the other life of the nature reserves, one would not have to resort to the rhetorical use of figures of speech to signify this larger diversity of life.

The Cry of the Jackal

A jackal cries in the shadow of rain
Howling to the wind, in love or in pain,
For whom, I wonder, by the waters untame 
Into twilight, into the moonlight, in glory or disdain
With a cry of sorrow or victory, that no man can explain
With what power or prowess, that no man shall [ever] tame
They lament for defeat as beautifully as they sing for glory. I’ve often found comingled tracks of the Indian Jackal, Canis aureus indicus, and the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, in the muddy areas around the fragmented forests, but I can never tell the difference. I can simply assume it to belong to them, at least some of them; because I know they hunt this hillock. In the dark I hear a pack of these night-stalkers howling and yelping – for a fallen comrade or for securing a kill – I can never tell the difference, but their presence always fills me with gladness that they’re around. The calls are usually heard between dusk and early dawn. It starts first with yelps, sounding as if in pain – not the like of a dog’s yelp at being punished, but the likes of a singer adjusting his voice before singing, followed by a long howl. The howl, I believe, reverberates in the body of the Jackal like trumpets at the gates before the battle, as much as it fills my soul with the feeling of trepidation and a little with fear, and has at times invoked the feeling of vulnerability. And with the start of one, the others follow suit, yelping and yapping and howling in the darkness. Their invisibility only adds to the mystery, their calls magnify their prowess at being invisible. Only on one occasion have I been blessed to see one of the neighbouring Jackals cross the path in the fading light, and he appeared neither powerful nor with the ability of possessing any prowess. He appeared as a vulnerable being of the forest, adjusting to the rapidly changing environment around his home.
The hillock we dwell upon is surrounded on three sides by a calm river, and is crisscrossed by a number of mazes created by rivulets. This peninsula is home to human settlements, cattle, domestic dog, domestic cat, Black-naped Hare (Lepus nigricollis), Common Langur (Presbytis entellus), the Indian Jackal, Wild Boar, a wayfarer Leopard, Mongoose and Civet cats, rats, shrews, a number of amphibians, reptiles, birds, spiders, and insects: all of these supported by the nimble leaves and branches of the peninsula’s sparse floral diversity. The tiny grasses that the cattle do not allow to grow are thinned out, encouraging the growth of other, often exotic, invasive species. These no-man’s-nor-beast’s plants, like Lantana camara and Ipomea carnea have put all their powers in overtaking the landscape. It is one of the most common habitat along villages where the natural ecosystem has been overrun, creating an entirely new ecosystem dominated by the beasts of man.
Not all hope is lost though. I often hear the Jackals crying, reminding me of that little hope. But does this hope remain for the fringes of the cities, where the union of the urban and the rural world is at war? Perhaps it doesn’t anymore, for it is here that the breaking of the truce, of love, with nature is at its peak.
As a city kid, I had learned, involuntarily, to fear the wild. It is this apprehension that I carry when I go on a walk in the woods in the dark. My fellow friends who have been listening to the Jackal howls and barks do not fear this beast, nor do they celebrate it like I do – they merely ignore it. But in the middle, between the mind’s city-ness and village-ness, lies a space which raises your curiosity to explore. Explore not only the natural world, but somewhere on the way you explore your inner self. This space is rapidly eroding. I will of course blame it on rapid urbanization, deforestation, and poaching to be the prime causes, along with you disconnecting your own chord with nature; you, disconnecting your child’s chord with nature. You, who chose to laugh it off at the thought of you braving it out on a short trek organized by your friends. There’s a lot more waiting to be discovered by you out there than school or books or the internet can ever teach you. And the fruits of the sweat, a little scratch and a drop of blood, are worth a lot more to your health than filing papers and getting a paycheck. In the words of Thoreau, the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

A walk in the wild reveals things that are very real. Fear is one, probably the only one of them, to bring the real you out; to bring the loneliness in you out; and to know this fear is to know that the fear of anything other than to survive, is merely a psychological trap devised by your mind.

A slip on a muddy bank of a bulging stream reminds me of blood and bone. A thought of what might lie behind a thicket in front of me, that which I have to cross, fills my body with adrenalin; my hands tighten around what I hold, my eyes focus on the bush. A tree tall and dense, an ideal place for a leopard to loll, remind me of the pugmarks I saw the night before. Crossing a stream bored deep within the hillock makes me pause and wonder what may lay waiting at the top. But as I stand along the edge of this hill, looking out at the river, fear takes the back-seat, and awe and wonder fill my thoughts.

Often at twilight, as I go in search of the Jackals, a light rain settles on my skin, and all I hear is the wind rustling in leaves, a brain-fever call of the Common Hawk Cuckoo, the sound of the crickets and frogs, and a deep blackness which hides the Jackal in its dark cloak. More often than not, it is just the same – the same disappointment of coming home with no sign of the wildlife. The night I see the Jackal on foot is yet to come, but as is the wont of wildlife, you will only see what you wish to see when you least expect it, or become wise enough to see it.

Doctor sahib told a very interesting story on one of our excursions. A local legend says that Jackals formerly lived within villages, and the dog lived in the forests. One day the dogs decided to hold a marriage function in the village, and at the same time the jackals decided to hold a marriage function in the forest. They both agreed to spend one day in each other’s habitat. On the next day, the jackals began crying hua-hua (are-you-done? in Hindi), addressing the dogs which were still in the village, whether they were done with the function; the words signifying the typical howls which one hears on the fringes of villages. And to this day, the Jackals have been asking hua-hua from the forests, with no response from the dogs. Although the birth of this legend is obscure, it portrays a hidden message that jackals are commonly seen and heard along the village fringe, and have come to rely much upon discarded organic wastes from human settlements.

The Jackal, that animal who has fought back the demeaning gaze of man by calling him a scavenger, an opportunist, a garbage visitor, has a lot more to its scrawny appearance than the idea fed to our mind. His eyes were not meant to look at you in fear, his nose was not meant to sniff garbage, nor was his call made to jolt you up at night. And yet somehow, we went along with what was fed to us. When I first saw my Jackal in 2002, from the back of an elephant, a small little canid with salt-and-pepper sprinkled back and golden flanks, crouching in the distance, his gaze set on the ribs of a Chital deer killed by a mother tiger for her two adolescent cubs, I was looking at the tigers content with their meal, with only a sideward glance at the Jackal who, perhaps, had been waiting for a feed for weeks, or who was waiting to feed his young, or was simply waiting to eat, and he waited patiently with his tail tucked between his legs, crouched, until we left. It was only more than a decade later that I first thought of him, that it was our elephant he was afraid of to go near the kill, not the tigers.

And today, when I hear their cry, I feel rewarded to have heard them so close. Their yelps tease me for being so judgmental of the wilderness. And as I stare into the blackness, seeing with my ears, I hear a distinct low growl at the end of their song, and as the song diminishes, so do they, far into the fields to hunt for another prey, leaving me with the yearning of seeing and hearing them the next day.