I’ve often been asked what my favourite animal is and I’ve never been able to give a straight reply. And I have now realised that I don’t have a single bestie beastie (that would open me up to charges of nepotism!) but I do have categories of favourites. Here they are:
* For its sheer spunk and ability to even drive away the big cats — the pugnacious ratel or honey badger. Sure, it may belong to the weasel clan, but this diminutive creature packs some serious punch! Always eager to take on all threats from leopards to cobras: it rips apart hives for a living (and honey) and bees are not an issue! Nor will you be, if you dare cross its path.
* For its chubby baby face and the ability to pirouette in featherweight fashion — at 35 mph, despite weighing two tons — the one-horned Indian rhinoceros. This one is really a baby-faced badass ballerina, wearing body armour with rivets to boot. Its fighting weapons are wicked incisors, not that horn, which is just tightly matted hair.
* For looking and behaving like a wacko, hairy buffoon in a horror-comedy flick — the wild boar, especially while mud bathing and bogeying its bottom with a rock or log. It will close its little piggy eyes in bliss and grunt ecstatically, and then just roll over in oodles of cloying black mud. Who can resist its babies, scampering with their tails and squeaking plaintively in madcap chase — or fleeing from a pursuing leopard?
* For its benign smiling face, unhurried gait, and constant swaying — the elephant. Even very dangerous bulls in musth, stoked up with 60 times the recommended dose of testosterone, seem more baffled than downright ugly, but if they come after you, you are in big trouble.
* For being the most beautiful dude/dudette in the jungle, with regal behaviour to match — the tiger.
* For expressing sheer joie-de-vivre like no other and being the consummate canopy acrobat — the gibbon.
* For its spiky defiance of all comers — the porcupine. Even though a rodent, it is suspected to have five reverse gears (like Italian tanks in World War II) and no rear-view camera. So it backs into victims (like tigers) at full lick, generously pin-cushioning them. The hit-and-run assailant par excellence!
* For its sneering contempt of every other living thing, especially its rivals — the blackbuck. Dripping with the kind of condescension you’ll only encounter at the most la-di-da of cocktail parties, it knows that nothing can come near it, let alone catch it.
* For being the most beautiful, audacious representative of malevolence — the leopard, which is now daring to take back some of the territory we snatched from it in many city fringes.
* For its ability to leap straight up 20 feet from a standing position and bat down a partridge or (better) pigeon straight out of the sky — the rare caracal: who can resist those fringed triangular ears, twitching this way and that, mesmerising you, and the silly birds?
Surely there were other worthy contenders? Yes there were and here is why they didn’t make the cut:
* Indian lion: so why didn’t the jungle king make it? He’s handsome, macho, lazy, has a hairdo etc… Ah yes. But years ago at the Delhi zoo, I was approached by a young man who breathlessly asked me, ‘Sir, which way to Indian loin?’ Need anything more be said?
* Monkeys, particularly the langur and the macaques. They’ve learned all their awful habits from us, or worse, have taught them to us. Go stand near the monkeys’ enclosure at the zoo and watch both — those outside and inside. You’ll understand.
* Bears: too shambolic and always look half-crazed (any creature that hugs you and rips your back to shreds simultaneously has to be). They bumble around, drooling copiously, making incomprehensible ferocious sounds, and wear fur coats all through the year in our kind of climate! No wonder they seem off their rockers…
* Gaur: Big, burly, and magnificent for sure. But somehow lacking in personality. All that cud they chew all the time — like gutka — turns them into something like zombies…
* Crocodile: Nearly made the cut, with that toothy grin and wicked glint in the eye. The way they sink below the water’s surface having picked out a victim is spine-tingling. But ask one to give you a lift across the river and see what happens!
* Chital: Very pretty, for sure, but heck, it spends its whole life in a state of paranoia bordering on panic, trying not to be eaten.