When the summer is at its peak, the trees of central India burst into a green flame – it is a calm flame – soothing on the eyes, cooling to the body, kind to the soul. It is a flame of life that sparks like fire – literally and figuratively – and lingers on.
Every new leaf looks peculiar. The leaves of Sal are a waxen green, of Harra a silvery velvet, of Mahua are particularly interesting – some are lush green with a down of golden hairs, some are a red of a dying flame; of mango are a dark maroon, and those of Kusum the brightest crimson – and they all, in a matter of few weeks, turn to a play of light and dark shades of green. It is still the hottest part of summer when everything is still or buzzing shyly in the shade.
|A lady passes through the barren field on the edge of the Sal forests one summer evening.|
The tigers make their hunt; the stags don a bouquet of leaves. But life seems to be in a diapause. As the season ages, especially towards the beginning of June, some sort of activity begins: the stags bellow and spar, and the tiger, as always, makes its kill.
|The Checkered Vanda, Vanda tessellata, adorns the forests of Kanha during summer.|
If you stretch your gaze up on any such hot day of May, you’ll observe starry flowers glimmering with their own aura under a scorching sun: large and checkered, these Vanda tessellata orchids decorate the grooved waists of Sal and Saja in a girdle of flowers.
|A Cricket Wasp (also called Digger Wasp) carries a paralyzed House Cricket to her burrow, where she will lay and egg|
so that her offspring grow and emerge during the peak of monsoon to continue the progeny.
And if you bend a little you’ll observe life flicker and fade: a potter wasp builds one pot-shaped nest after another, and after building five of them, disappears. A resin bee plasters her burrow with tree resin and seals it off before vanishing. A cricket wasp brings in countless paralyzed crickets by their antennae into her obscure burrow before she herself goes into oblivion. The Calotes and the Agamids don red war paint and strike a pose on rocks and trees and termite mounds butting their head into the air as if waving a flag.
|A male Peninsular Rock Agama, Psammophilus dorsalis, displaying.|
By the time life moves on at its own pace something stirs above that aren’t clouds, the clouds are still beyond sight. It is the wings – black of colour with prominent white round mirrors on each – flapping its way into the canopy around, snatching away hairy caterpillars and announcing its arrival. The Chatak, the harbinger of monsoon, has arrived. Also known as Jacobin Cuckoo, they arrive like rain to the central India, only that they come a few weeks ahead of the literal monsoon.
|A Jacobin Cuckoo thrashes a caterpillar before gulping it down - if they find a reliable source of food, they keep|
coming to it until they've fed themselves after their long flight to Kanha.
I saw my first on the day of twelfth of June, foraging far off into the riverside forests. A few days later it sat right by the window, thrashing a caterpillar before gulping it down, and a few more days later I saw three of them sitting high on a mango tree, singing loudly to the yonder clouds, directing them to come hither. And they came. That evening we received the first of monsoon rains, shrouding the sun, soaking the ground, and singing in the trees. I saw a Jacobin Cuckoo taking shelter from the rain in a Saja tree. Its black-and-white coat of feathers is not particularly made for rain, but it does its job superbly.
|The same fellow greets me at the window. Jacobin Cuckoos are curious but wary birds.|
The Jacobin Cuckoo is one of the few harbinger of monsoons to these parched lands. They arrive in small numbers to central India by early June and remain until the end of July. After that they vanish, too.
There are three subspecies identified, one that resides in Africa, and two that reside in northern and southern India. There are no residents in Kanha, and the one to visit central India probably come from Africa to breed – they are brood parasites of Turdoides babblers (such as Jungle Babbler) (source), although I’ve never seen them after July-end in these parts.
The first rain did not last more than an hour; by the time it ended it was already dark. The morning revealed a transformed environment: the air was cool, and insects in their millions had taken to the wing. Little Red Velvet Mites had left their underground abodes, and roamed boldly on the exposed ground like Little Red Riding Hood through the woods.
|A Red Velvet Mite passes through a micro-forest, probing with its front limbs for small intervebrates such|
as the springtails, and finding a suitable partner.
The central India is a hot country during summer, but we gladly receive those occasional – often common – thunderstorms that brew up over the horizon and rip apart trees as they pour heavily over you, only to pass – or rather vanish – within a few minutes. They’re the grandest phenomena of the central India. Yet they do not provoke life to burst out.
Closer to the beginning of monsoons, the sultriness in the air increases, thunderstorms stop altogether, the sky becomes hazy, and the clouds arrive from the west like a horde, and crackle and thunder as the warm rain greets the ground. This is the rain the harbingers sing for.
I spent one day by the edge of a village to witness this upheaval, waiting for the second wave of the monsoon downpour. Already the first monsoon rains had summoned the velvet mites, the dragonflies and damselflies, the alate termites, and the tiger beetles, to be witness to another, albeit a smaller, grandeur.
That afternoon, when it rained, the ground breathed. Like a satisfying sigh, the ground released hundreds of flying termites, their silent wings beating to the warming air that rapidly rose from the ground – and within a few minutes of the rain the sky above me was made of only two things: raindrops and winged termites. It is the epitome of the life of a pioneering termite: to fly, to fly as far as possible, and to mate and establish a new colony.
|...and many die and feed the others. A Myrmicaria worker takes one back home.|
Countless die as some succeed in forming large underground halls and grand galleries above. In their death the others build their strength. Ants – the hunch-backed Myrmicaria, and the Camponotus both bring their armies to carry the dead for food. And soon after their alates – the future queens and drones, take flight.
With the ants, though, comes another – a freeloader some call them – the Bengalia, a Calliphorid fly that specializes in stealing food items carried away by ants. They always sit on a small protrusion on the ground, their eyes blankly staring at a line of ants, and suddenly zap towards them. I’ve not seen them steal ant food, but they do lap up on dead termites. If the dead lie in their hundreds, as they often do during the first rains in Kanha, the ground is abuzz with flies that come to feed and breed on them.
The second rain lasted a good three hours. The ground was soaking wet, and another insect was on a prowl.
|The banner-bearers of monsoon: every tiger beetle has a unique design on its elytra. Shown here (from L to R) are: Calochora bicolor haemorrhoidalis, Cicindela (Ancylia) guttata, and Cicindela (Pancallia) priniceps|
The tiger beetles are like banner-bearers of monsoon; each species carries its own flag over its back. They are the most prominent, and first, of monsoon creatures in central India – but there’s another one that can help you tell that monsoon is on its way even before the tiger beetles emerge, or even before the Jacobin Cuckoo arrives; her name is Methocha.
|A Methocha on the prowl: it is one of the least studied insects of India|
This small, inconspicuous, wingless wasp is the nemesis of central India’s tiger beetles. She is an expert at locating the predatory grubs of these beetles that stay close to the opening of their burrows in the ground waiting for passing insects. Sometimes, the insect happens to be a Methocha passing by, who somehow tricks the pouncing grub and squeezes itself inside its burrow – and then lays an egg upon it.
They emerge towards the end of May and early June, and hints at one less tiger beetle that season, but they are quite rare to come across. Seeing them, however, in advance of the emergence of the adult beetles is a sign of the coming monsoon.
The insects are like little, highly volatile, stars that flicker to life, burn bright, and disappear completely. The best way to see them is at a light trap. A light trap isn’t exactly a trap, it is a canvas to attract the light-seekers to visit during night hours.
|Just as the sky is a canvas for an astronomer, the light trap is a canvas for an entomologist.|
Both are equally numerous, possibly immeasurable even, and all made up of similar elements.
The first nights are almost always dominated by alate termites and a few alate ants, the next are treehoppers and leafhoppers, the next are the beetles, and as monsoon saturates the ground and the air, it is a mixture of all of these and moths, and sometimes a stray dragonfly and a damselfly, and mantises that come to eat – but these hunting, carnivorous insects are always fewer in numbers, whereas the phytophagous ones are in overwhelming numbers – it seems like the ecological replica of the larger forms of life at a micro-level: herbivores always outnumber carnivores.
The grasshoppers become ubiquitous, whether they congregate during the dry season and then spread out during monsoon is unclear, but they seem to be everywhere where there is green grass, singing with their cousins the crickets and katydids.
The birds are also singing and dancing in the rain. As soon as the afternoon outburst began, a male White-throated Kingfisher started following a female around, and both of them perched on the bare branches of a Mahua tree. The male raised his head, erected his tail up, and danced. Sometimes the female joined him in the courtship, but mostly it was the male who actively displayed and sang. Just in front of the kingfishers a female Magpie Robin caught a large grasshopper to feed her juvenile chicks that had only recently left her nest.
In the corner of a mud-house, a male two-tailed spider coaxed a female with his long, slender legs – but the female took no interest in him. A wolf spider trotted on the wet ground, waving his white-socked front pair of legs in the air.
The Buff-striped and Checkered Keelbacks were also out and about in search of food and mate, and the frogs were singing from the trees and the moistened waterbodies that were bone-dry during summer.
All this behavioural change, from the tiny Methocha to the birds and the deer, came from an atmospheric change brought about by a few elemental forms – the sun, the water, and the air.
What is this connection, and if there is one, is it more than with water and the sun? Why does life race in all directions so rapidly that it appears to be chasing something, like a rat-race we find ourselves in, in cities?
|A tiger beetle, an obligate carnivore, consumes a detritivore, a millipede. |
In this case the tiger beetle later discovered that a millipede, although easy to catch, is toxic, and threw it away.
Perhaps the plants relate to the water and the sun more closely than animals. And animals, in turn, relate more closely to plants, and those that depend on plants are followed by those that depend on animals – this is essentially seen as: lush green foliage being eaten by a grasshopper being eaten by a Magpie Robin.
And they all, in a way, are competing against each other to outwit one another: some plants, over a million years or so, developed a way of deterring foliage-eaters by turning the first leaf of the season a non-green: a crimson, a maroon, a sunset orange – a colour that does not appear in most phytophagous insects’ ultraviolet vision (read more here). Some found that the robust, long, hind-limbs not only help them jump high and far, but the spines on their feet help them deliver a stronger, more painful, kick to the lores of the birds, the region between the eye and the beak. Some insects learnt that sending out a horde to conquer new territories works for them and some found that it’s easier to be around the most resourceful of insects to find food effortlessly. Some went a step ahead and targeted the singular weak-point of the skilful hunters – turning them into helpless prey.
|A Forest Cockroach grabs onto an alate termite that has shed its wings, chewing onto it as it struggles to escape.|
Cockroaches are largely detritivores, but are opportunistic, like the jackal.
This phenomenon was called the survival of the fittest by Charles Darwin, and it is said to have set the tone for the evolution of all that lives. It is however considered as an invisible, immeasurable force. Seeing life pace so rapidly during the small window of the monsoon could indicate its form: it is not invisible, it is in front of us but we haven’t the vision to notice it, neither it is completely immeasurable, it can stretch its pace for many millennia to a few minutes: the small decisions made by an individual animal can transform its life; the Methocha that can find a way to squeeze itself into the burrow of the grub that, for her size, is a skilful monster, may be a process that required thousands of years to master, but it would have taken just a moment for her to – consciously or subconsciously – realise it.
Observing all of this happening in one single moment of time shows that evolution is working at different levels for each and every species but the set of rules are all the same, if not constant. The resources fluctuate. During summer the resources available are less. And this is what the beginning of monsoon changes: the resources multiply, and each and every organism aims towards using it to the fullest.
|The monsoon clouds shroud over the central Indian hills.|
The first of rains are the most vital because the summers are spent in preparing for the resources that the rains bring. Most devote their energy into preparing for them, some by building nests (like potter wasps), some by ensuring their young ones are old enough to relish the bounty of monsoon (like the Indian Roller), and some begin after they become resourceful (like the White-throated Kingfisher). All these species learnt this resource availability independently in the last more than 11,000 years, in the era known as the Holocene epoch since the south west monsoons have been greeting India (read this, and this).
This sort of evolution brought about by the climatic phenomena is something that we witness every year, although we don’t realise it. We have a fair bit of idea about what happens when the rains are delayed – especially since we are an agrarian country – what happens to the non-humans is not really clear.
A thousand kilometres away, in the city of Mumbai that boasts of a moist weather year-round, the monsoon seems different. Only a small cluster of insects flutter around a streetlamp. The city holds a fraction of the resources that Kanha offers, albeit the region being more diverse in terms of its biodiversity than central India. This city receives plentiful rain but its survivors are those that have eked out a living on this limited resource; they are one of the few survivors of this urban habitat which can feed and breed in the organic wastes of our city. This shows that rainfall alone does not matter as long as it cannot translate into readily available resources the animals can consume.
|A Praying Mantis, Creoboter sp., feeds on a small wasp using both its raptorial legs as hands|
In the cities, the mantises and the ensign wasps – the predators and the parasitoids – are rarer than before, so are the frogs. The butterflies are sporadically seen visiting urban gardens, but a large portion of the biodiversity is lost. Whether this holds any value in an urban habitat is unknown, but if the same were to repeat in a place like Kanha (or the Sanjay Gandhi National Park which lies in the heart of Mumbai), it could be disastrous to the ecosystem. It is true that they are far more resilient than we are, but on a micro-level, and with climate change in the picture, this complex system that built itself can get adversely affected – it will not only deprive us of the spectacular, ephemeral show of life, but it will add less nutrients to the soil, it will reduce the decomposition of the dead, it will even consume itself, and it will lead to its own demise.
Life is constantly on the edge, competing with itself and with another, trying to become better than it was before, and it is more apparent during the first of rains, but amidst all this killing and stealing, there is romance in it: in singing with the Jacobin Cuckoo for the coming of the rain, in flying like the alate termites with the first rains, in shining like stars under a maroon sky the way the fireflies do, a hope for a new life, and in letting these little things overwhelm our mind.
|A queen Weaver Ant, Oecophylla smargdina, that shed her wings and laid the first batch of eggs inside a folded|
banana leaf: this is the beginning of a colony that, in some cases, rule over entire trees.
The beginning of monsoon seems chaotic, but it is only because we can’t see its harmony. It is more of an orchestra than a plain flute playing, and, interestingly, it transcends the physical boundaries, quite like music.