Malaika Mathew Chawla
My college friends and I were in Deussua, South Goa. Our field station was a cattle shed. The sky got lilac and then grey, full of birds and then bats. Grazing cows were heading back into their sheds and the poder (bread maker) with his horn entered the village on his bicycle. At sharp seven, the church bell rings. Almost immediately, the entire village erupts with sharp, piercing cries. The jackals have arrived. Just in that moment, every other being and sound become insignificant. Bhagrati bhaiya, a migrant worker employed at the cattle shed, remained cool and said in matter-of-fact manner: “Sham ke chaar baje, kutton ke jaise idhar udhar ghoomenge aur phir raat ko bahut awaaz karenge” (At 4 in the evening, they will roam around like dogs and then they make a lot of noise at night).
The golden jackal Canis aureus is found in many semi-rural landscapes of Goa. So much so that it finds a place in folksongs– mando and dulpod– and folktales. Children grow up listening to stories of kolo mama (Uncle Jackal) and kolo mami (Aunty Jackal). In one such story, the jackal climbs up the jamun tree to feed on ripened berries. The neighborhood children call out, “Kolo mama, kolo mama! Amkai thodi jamblam udoi re” (Uncle Jackal, please throw down some berries for us!). Instead, kolo mama has a good meal of the jamun and throws the seeds at the children. Other than sighting them, there is also hope and excitement with finding jackal scat. We learnt that the jackals fancied the same berries as we did– Syzigium caryophyllatum or ‘bhedsa’ in Konkani. I also recall being warned by neighbours about ‘foxes’ in the village. In Konkani, ‘kolo’– the term meant for jackals– is wrongly translated into English as fox.
Queries about jackals elicited a range of responses from residents of the village. Some were indifferent, some nostalgic, while some shared fascinating stories. One story, retold with relish, was that of a man who was circled by jackals in a field. Apparently, in an act of self-defense, he takes out his violin and plays a tune. Listening to this, the jackals take flight. Another story brought deep-searing pain, of a jackal pup, separated from his mother and sold, in the guise of a German shepherd dog. Day after day in our cattle shed “field station” we dreamt with open eyes. Of jackal packs with their pups, munching on jamun and living free. Not just in a village in Goa, but wherever they choose to be.
It was a chilly December morning in Buxa. Accompanied by Sitaram, my field assistant, we went to observe the Great hornbills at their roost site. We reached there before sunrise, and were waiting at a watchtower which was adjacent to the cliff where hornbills roost. While we sat there waiting for the sunrise, we could hear the calls of different birds. It was like an orchestral performance. Just when there was a hint of light pouring in down on the forest floor, tearing apart the dense canopy, we could see some movement in the undergrowth just opposite the watchtower. We were exhilarated to see a pack of dholes emerging out of the undergrowth and coming down to the waterhole in front of the watchtower. In the meantime, a wild boar had also arrived at the same place from a different direction. Seeing the pack, it bolted away! Interestingly till this time, they hadn’t noticed us.
The dholes went out around the waterhole, making sure nothing else was present near them. They looked at us for a few moments, then looked at each other, and decided to take a bath on that chilly winter morning! While they bathed and drank water one of them was keeping an eye on us. We sat perfectly still except for my finger which moved to click the shutter of my camera. Once they were done, they went into the undergrowth and sat consecutively like the formation of a railway coach, one beside the other, looking straight up at us. With all ten eyes gleaming at us, all I could think now was about those “shy” canids, and unaware of my surroundings. Almost 10–15 minutes passed with them staring at us. What they did after that was amazing. The one sitting the farthest from us disappeared into the dense vegetation inside, then another one and followed by the other two. But still, one individual was sitting there and looking up at us. Soon after, we heard the whistling sound of those individuals. We thought this to be the signal for the sentinel to join them, and leave us silly humans behind!