My Tryst with Birds, Beasts and More

By John B Monteiro
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July 16, 2019

“I went to the animal fair, The birds and beasts were there...”

These are the opening lines of a traditional folk and children’s song dating back to 1898 – attested as often sung by American sailors.

I was a child once, some 80+ years ago, but not in an English medium school and I had no opportunity to go to an animal fair. I only came across the song much later when putting my grandson Zach and grand-daughter Maya to sleep.

I now realise that the song has its origin in the first chapter of the Old Testament – Genesis 1: 24-26, describing the creation of the world. I quote selectively: “Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds...and everything that creeps on the ground ...’ Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominance over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air ... and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth..’.”

Protected from ants and crows

What I missed gleaning from books about birds and bees, I experienced in real life in my village setting. There is a rustic saying, pronounced by the bride’s family foreman, while offering the bride to the bridegroom’s family at the emotionally moving finale of wedding ceremony, that the bride had been brought up protected from the crawling ants on the ground and the flying crows in the air.

I was not so lucky. When I was born, a new house was being built for the family; we lived in the shed where paddy was pounded into rice and stored alongside in a room. I imagine in hindsight that a wooden cradle hung from the ceiling was my protective cocoon from crawling ants, scurrying rats and flying crows. The word “Infection” was not known then.

I have never been to an animal fair. My first tryst with a bird was bloody. My uncle shot down a white crane sitting on a low tree with the family’s muzzle-loading gun. It fell to the ground wounded, but not dead. As a primary school kid, I picked it up and spoke to it in “English” – holding it close to my face. In response, it pecked my upper lip hard with its sharp beak. I bled profusely. Ever since, the scene comes back, haunting me, in my dreams. With a thought: What if it had pecked my eye?

Haunting nightmares

Cobras that I had chased and stoned also often haunt my dreams. They would pounce on me with raised and expanded hoods, and I would always fight back – only to realise that I had kicked or slapped my wife, Lynette, sleeping beside me. Since her departure on August 11, 2017, her side of the bed is sans a cushioning quilt and my hard slaps and kicks rebound, leaving me to nurse the pain.

What about the fish mentioned in Genesis? I used to be an angler, with primitive contraptions, when fish was plentiful in the paddy fields and flowing streams before chemical fertilisers and insecticide killed them. While the bounty prevailed, I was like a Pied Piper, with a small group of admiring village children following me as I hooked and landed fish before one could say “Jack Robinson”. The highlight of those outings was hooking a long snake-like fish that I had never seen or heard of before. In the normal course, any person my (young) age would have left hook, line and sinker and run for dear life. But, not John (then called Bautis – a corruption of Baptist; John came later with my brush with cities) - with his excited curiosity. I landed the wriggling “snake” into the adjoining dry paddy field with line and hook still attached to it. I tried to catch it by the neck and unhook it, but it was very slippery in my bare palm. Thinking fast, I untied my folded loincloth (langot or casti or komana – 2.5X 2.5 ft. standard cloth tied across the bottom by a rope or silver belt), and, spreading one end of it, I bent over the wriggling head of the “snake” and managed to get a grip on it even as it remained hooked with the line and stick still in situ. With my left hand holding the “snake” close to my ‘midriff’ and the stick with line in the right hand, I marched home along the paddy fields in which women were transplanting paddy seedlings. Looking up, these women giggled, perhaps wondering: “What is such a long thing dangling out of Bautis’s langot?”

Fish or snake?

At home, though no one had seen one before, they decided that it was a rare fish called Marimoogudu (Mari = cobra, moogudu = catfish). This fish does not have the large head and sharp ‘side-pins’ of a catfish, but a hood that expands like a cobra. In our home, typical of the practical attitude of village life, they cooked it anyway, and we all relished it.

This often self-serving attitude is confirmed by an oral-account folk story. The villagers went out to hunt for rabbits. They beat the bushes and set fire to the wild grass so that they could flush out the hiding animals. There were dogs that barked and drew out the panicked animals from the bushes. Among their catch that day was a large burnt “rabbit”. They took it home and everybody wondered at a mouse-deer (over-sized “rabbit”) the size of a small dog. When they cut it open, they found a piece of ‘roti’ in the stomach. They debated and some said that a hunting dog doesn’t go into a blazing fire, while others said a rabbit doesn’t eat ‘roti’. Yet, all of them ended up relishing the meat.

Tales of the tiger

The men and boys in our Biarikody rural homestead slept in the outhouse across the forecourt of the main house, common to Bunt houses, called “mogasale”. Except for close relatives, other visitors were met and dispensed with in such outhouses. I used to sleep in our outhouse with my bachelor uncle. During the tigers’ mating season (November/December), we could hear them roaring and moving around in the surrounding forests and meadows. Some would come right up to the house and carry away the domestic dogs sleeping at our feet – leaving us untouched.

More than dogs, the tigers used to kill and gorge on cattle left by day to graze in the forests and meadows. The owners helplessly mourned their loss. Then the need for revenge entered the scene. Strong pesticides, duly diluted, had become part of farming. If a tiger killed a cow, its carcass was generously laced with undiluted pesticide. When the tiger came back to feast on the leftover-carcass, it became its last supper. The poison also killed the crows, vultures and jackals that feasted on the carcass.

The story doesn’t end there. We had a “house-servant”, who worked, ate and slept in our house, called Sila (Silam – Sila Uncle – to us children). His family lived on our farm and kept a cow for milk. One day, the cow did not return from the meadow. The sad conclusion was obvious. Silam mourned the loss and sulked.

Two days later, when we were returning with Silam from Sunday service at the church, we saw and heard crows making a scene on a small hillock, 20 yards away from our path. We went there to find a tiger with a bloated stomach, apparently dead. Silam became emotional and, saying something about his dead cow high-yeilding, kicked the stomach of the tiger with all the fury he could muster. As he did this, a loud growling sound emanated from both ends of the tiger. It was entrapped gas, but Silam did not know that. Shouting that the tiger was not dead, he ran for dear life up to the house – a good one kilometre away.

More birds…

Now fast forward to the year 2000 and Mangaluru. We retired to Mangaluruafter 40 working years in Bombay, and finally occupied Johnlyn Cottage, which had been ready for two years. The birds would not vacate the cottage when we arrived. Unable to tolerate the bright lights, the mini bats, creatures of the dark, that had made their residence in the untenanted house, faded away; but the sparrows that nested in niches atop the unused fan handles didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. They say that sparrows nesting in the house foreshadows new arrivals. In time, looking at us two retirees, they must have arrived at their own conclusions about having any cradle in the house, and flew away for good.

Singing cuckoos

But, outside the house, Johnlyn Cottage, we could hear the melodious singing of cuckoos. They were love calls. We couldn’t figure out who was initiating the love calls – males or females. We longed for them to come into our compound and sing for us, but the one old cashew tree in Johnlyn compound held no attraction for birds. Then my green-fingered wife raised a number of papaya trees yielding fruit. We went by the changing colour of the papayas to pluck the ripe ones, but the toddy cats (beru) by night and the cuckoos by day decided by the smell of the ripening fruits and gobbled them before we could pluck them.

Johnlyn Cottage being at the edge of a great wooded valley, we had visits from birds, animals and reptiles. My old nemesis, the cobra, would crawl around the boundary walls as we played cards on the basement floor – only to be driven off by our dogs. Then there would be monkeys and peacocks paying us occasional visits. One unusual visitor was an iguana that entered the compound only to be barked away by the dogs. The toddy cats no longer come, because they are being poisoned by residents for no good reason; I see their carcasses on the road on my way to the maidan for the sessions of the Bondel Laughter Club, founded by me in 2002 and still surviving (Google “Laughter Club Bondel” for video).

Crab’s grab

The Biblical account in Genesis is about the creation of animals, birds and fish – but nothing about crustaceans like crabs that live in water and on land. My tryst with crabs was at the edge of a large tank on my father’s farm. The tank was host to fish and crabs. The best way to catch the crabs was to bury a vessel with stinking prawn shells at the edge of the water. At night, crabs (and tortoises) would follow the scent (or stink), crawl to the edge of the submerged (in mud) vessel, peep inside, and fall in. One morning, I found three large crabs trying to crawl out. I salivated at the thought of cooked crabs and grabbed one of them in my right hand and a second in my left. Then I got greedy about the third one; I was scared someone else would catch it. Thinking fast, I tucked one crab into my tight loincloth, and went back for the third one. That was when the creature in the langot decided to work a vice-like bite inside the langot. One of our farm-hands, a woman called Sesu, was passing by the tank bund and I pleaded with her to release me from the vice-like bite of the crab in the langot. Knowing my mischievous record, she flew into a rage and threatened to complain to my taciturn father. Left to my own devices, I waded into the water and loosened my langot; the crab was happy to be liberated. Not much permanent damage was done as evidenced by my two lovely and loving progenies – Prima and Mohan – but the incident is imprinted on me as I am born under the star Cancer, whose symbol is the crab.

Motivated lizards?

Coming back to Johnlyn Cottage, the current crawlies are lizards. One of Lynette’s routines was to shoo them away from the large framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus before we began evening prayers. They would scurry behind the picture frame and perhaps sleep there for the night. Now that I live alone, they wait for me to open the main door, crawl along as I climb the 15 stairs to my living floor as if guiding me up the stairs or giving me a guard of honour. Then, as I work on the computer, they crawl on the floor as if to find out what I am typing. Then, when I sip the sun-downer, they watch me pouring the liquids and then surround my computer chair. They are not interested on the crumbs of chakna that might fall to the ground from my plate; perhaps they get drunk on just the fumes of the spirit. Or are they trying to give a lonely soul company or say something about my drinking?

Post-script

Some time ago, a friend presented me with two large catfish. I put them in a basin of water and covered it with a piece of heavy-duty cardboard. The following morning, I found the cardboard pushed aside and the catfish missing. Later, I realised that a stray cat had done the damage and left their skeletons behind. That triggered off an idea to build a fishpond and, later, a grotto to preside over it – in memory of Lynette – as can be seen in the photo above.

Comment on this article

  • john Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Sun, Jul 28 2019

    Thank you Merlynbai for your long-distance encouraging comments. God willing, there would be more on this prime space thanks to the generosity of Daijiworld family.

    Agree [1]

  • Merlyn R Brito, ORLANDO

    Sun, Jul 28 2019

    Enjoyed reading your reminiscences - you captured the simplicity & rhythm of a life amidst nature that one is nostalgic for today.Keep writing and sharing your memories because you are able to paint vivid pictures laced with humor and wisdom!

    Agree [1]

  • Vincent Rodrigues, Katapadi/Bangaluru

    Sat, Jul 27 2019

    Great article indeed providing thrill and joy.

    Agree [3]

  • john Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Sat, Jul 27 2019

    Thank you Anita Madam for your crisp, positive comments from such great distance. My day is done today.

    Agree [2]

  • Anita Britto, Mangalore/Auckland

    Fri, Jul 26 2019

    Beautiful narrative with love photographs which took me back to childhood.

    Enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Thank you for this well-informed and very entertaining article.

    Agree [4]

  • Vincent DeSouza, Mangalore

    Tue, Jul 23 2019

    Thank you for your brief gift of time travel. Your narrative took me back to a time of serenity, when life was simple, people were less pretentious, where needs were nominal and the future held no worry. A time when nature was intrinsic to our existence, where a childhood was shaped of a far more basic mould than a childhood today. As that time we lived for the moment, our expectations were few and in hindsight, it was a really a time of great joy.

    Agree [8]

  • john Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Mon, Jul 22 2019

    Thank you Naveenbhai for your nostalgic response. I got nostalgic after you mentioned glow-flies ( kazulo) that dotted the night – specially in the rainy season. They flew beyond rural settings – also seen in Mangaluru. Alas! Today they are a rarity even in rural areas. That tempts me to quote an old rustic saying: “The glow-fly thinks it lights the world” – a referring to boastful persons.
    That reminds me the imprecise reference, in my article, to “large burnt rabbit”. It was wrong and I had corrected it to “mouse-deer (Barinka). Because of not saving the correction properly, it didn’t register. Sorry for my poor computer literacy.

    Agree [2]

  • Naveen Frank, Sharjah

    Sun, Jul 21 2019

    Your lovely article brought back nostalgic memories of my childhood days. Although I grew up in the Mangalore city, we had cows, hens , rabbits, dogs and cats at home, fully tuned with nature.

    But my sweet childhood memories take me back to Loretto Bantwal, where I spent most of summer holidays with my cousins. It was here I learnt to be one with nature. Swimming in lakes tying coconuts around the chest as floats, fishing out of streams, walking through paddy fields, crossing streams over make shift wooden planks. The nights were even calmer. The spectacular glow flies ( kazulo) were a feast to the eyes.
    In this article, you have so beautifully fused your childhood village life with the present city life where nature is still present around you.

    Agree [2]

  • john Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Sat, Jul 20 2019

    Thank you Prescilla Madam: People above 60 as admitted by you need not physically see paddy fields and ponds in the villages. Imagination can actualise them as reflected in your articles in Konkani and English which I read here and there. Your imagination, visualisation and literary flourish make up for your physical absence from the scene of action. May your literary potential flourish to the full.
    Dear Ivan: I appreciate your Frankness and the trouble you took to respond. I am elated to read your encouraging comments.
    At 81, I do more than climbing the 15 stairs twice a day. I do it ten times more since I spend most of my day in my basement – reading five dailies, variety of magazines and meeting visitors. Besides, as anchor for Bondel Laughter Club, founded by me in 2002 and still surviving, I go to a maidan at 6 AM and have 20 minutes of physical and voice excercises. Inquisitive about it? Google: “Laughter Club Bondel” for a 12-m video.
    Prescilla and Ivan: your appreciation spurs me on.

    Agree [3]

  • Ivan Frank, MANGALURU

    Sat, Jul 20 2019

    A very Interesting article John "My Tryst with Birds, Beasts and more “narrating your childhood memories in Biarikody and the present life in Johnlyn cottage. Had a hearty laugh when you so wittily narrated your experiences with the birds, animals, reptiles and fish especially with the white crane kissing your upper lip till it bled, catching the marimoogudu and then the crab in your langoot. You are very fortunate that the crab was kind enough not to cause you any permanent damage.
    Climbing the 15 stairs couple of times a day at Johnlyn cottage and surrounded by lush greenery and the melodious singing of the cocoons, should keep you young, energetic and healthy. Looking forward to reading more of your articles.

    Agree [3]

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Thu, Jul 18 2019

    Very interesting and entertaining article Monteiro sir. The marimugudu and crab -imagining the ordeal of catching and taking it to your residence is really wonderful. The people above sixty years like me have a little knowledge of paddy fields and ponds in the villages and your narration is well understood. I really had a good laugh after so many days. Thank you and post many articles in the days to come.

    Agree [3]

  • Charles dsouza, Loretto/Mumbai

    Thu, Jul 18 2019

    Very hilarious. I thoroughly enjoyed.

    Agree [4]

  • John Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Wed, Jul 17 2019

    Thank you Jossybab and Mangalurian (You must be fronting for so many in this blessed city) for your encouraging comments.
    Marimugudu seems to be different from puriyol or eel which may not be uncommon to Canara region.
    To my mind the differentiation is the long snake-like slippery body and cobra-like expandable hood.
    My farming family of many generations seems to have heard the name marimugudu and not the corresponding fish or “snake”.
    I invite readers to demystify this.

    Agree [3]

  • Antony D'Cunha, Permude/Muscat

    Wed, Jul 17 2019

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading the article. It took me to my childhood days and brought back the memories of my early life in my village.

    Agree [4]

  • Jossy D Souza, Urwa

    Wed, Jul 17 2019

    Nice article which I read with interest.

    Agree [3]

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Wed, Jul 17 2019

    Great article, Mr Monteiro.

    I read your article right to the end. As usual this one too was entertaining and informative.

    The marimugudu seems to be a large eel. Everyone seems to have heard about them, but am yet to find someone who has seen one.

    I have seen some smaller eels caught in the streams of the district. I think they are called puriyol.

    Thank you for the great article.

    Agree [6]


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