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.