Down In Jungleland
How much interaction can you have with nature on a day-to-day basis if you live in a city like Delhi or Mumbai or Kolkata? Or any such urban centre? Quite a bit actually, if you come to think of it: Not all red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, of course, though sometimes it can be.
It starts off at that darkest hour — just before the dawn. Around 3.30 am, the peafowl in the cemetery next door suddenly give tongue en masse and you know that the ghosts have probably rollicked home from a rave at the ‘Rattlin’ Bones’ nightclub… By 5.30, the red-whiskered bulbul has started its mellifluous whistling, perched upright as a palace guardsman on the bougainvillea outside the bedroom. The magpie robin hastens to join in with a flute recital as do white-eyes jingling softly in chorus from the bottlebrush tree. A koel begins its insistent calling, and suddenly there is urgency and alarm all around as a shikra emits its shrill hunting cry from the tamarind tree in the cemetery. It’s probably raising a family and on the lookout for unwary birds and lizards, to ambush-snatch.
On the way downstairs, you meet a big shiny brown cockroach contemplating life on the landing — it appears to have eaten something nasty or is suffering from a hangover. It crawls tiredly under the steps and you leave it be. A peep into the kitchen thankfully reveals no sign of overnight rodent bandits. You eye the massive bunch of green garden bananas that have been ripening slowly on the sideboard all winter: the ones with hints of yellow are sweet and ready. You’re going to have to throw a banana party to get through that lot — and there’s another load to come.
In the garden, the little laughing doves have started cleaning up the bajra dropped by profligate parakeets being fed upstairs. Halfway through breakfast you pause: A soft tattoo is being hammered on wood… On the dead rubber tree outside, a clown has come, seeking a home. The coppersmith (in photo) or crimson-breasted barbet: tapping industriously on the dead wood. Wonderful, because it’s the bird that started me off on birding all those years ago in Bombay — now come home to stay… But alas, it was not to be: the little fellow worked on the tree so industriously that he hammered a perfectly round hole, right through to the other side of the limb.
The winter flowers — purple, blue and mauve cineraria mainly — are wilting, though the main flower bed looks like a massive wrestling match has taken place; with dahlias and marigolds fighting their way up through the tangled foliage. The two papaya trees, which looked so shriveled all through winter, are putting out new, healthy leaves.
There are things to see even on the drive into town. There’s open green country on both sides of the Salimgarh bypass to ITO; not far away the river glints silver and overhead, egrets fly in formation occasionally kept company by a languorous purple heron or two.
Back home in the afternoon, you are roused from slumber by a shrieking, yowling catfight that has erupted accompanied by shouts and thuds of lathis on the ground. It’s just as well the fight is being broken up: you remember one such that took place virtually at your feet; one tom with a face like someone had used a cheese-grater on it and the other ripped up and bloody everywhere.
Out walking on the Ridge in the evening, you note a new crop of baby monkeys has just arrived, clinging to their nervous moms, while their year-old siblings are jumping into the ponds just the way urchins do.
And at night, the biggest killers of them all come out to hunt: mosquitoes wailing dengue in your ear.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher