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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.