Tag Archives: wildlife

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Carrying

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In her natural habitat of the Pacific Northwest, an orca that whale researchers have named Tahlequah swims, carrying the corpse of her newborn with her. The calf died shortly after birth, but its mother has carried it with her for over ten days. She keeps it afloat on her nose, pushes it with her head. Tahlequah’s family, her pod, take turns to carry the calf when she cannot. The lost baby was their first birth in three years, rare and precious among their disappearing species. They are grieving. Tahlequah would have gestated the calf for seventeen months.

I lost my grandmother one October, and the month ever since has had a pall around it. One year as the anniversary approached, I made vague plans to tattoo the opening lines of an e.e. cummings poem I connect to her on my forearm: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in/ my heart)”. Commitment is not something I’m careless with, so I cautiously decided that I’d wait and see if I still wanted it the following year. But that month has often been precipitated by other difficult events, landing in my calendar the way one always seems to fall on one’s bad knee. And so it was that when the next October came my heart was something that seeped. Like a sieve, it could not hold much at all, even if it still carried my grandmother in its shards.

I’ve begun the hard work of putting that heart back together, because it never quite recovered from that particular devastation. A part of this work is dialogue. There were three people, other than me, involved in that fall. I met the only one of them I think I can still trust, and we wept and exchanged notes. We’d carried different stories with us during the interim years. But more love than the other knew, too. She said: “I’d wondered if you’d ever write about me”. I said: “It would have been something horrible.” Tell me, teach me, how to live with all the love and loss in the answer that came: “But I’d have known you were thinking of me.”

The word “carrying” evokes a very specific memory for me. A couple of years ago, I hailed an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic, and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle of the seat so the ride would be less bumpy. He said he thought that I was “carrying”. I was not – not carrying a baby, that is. But I carried other knowledges, memories, and the longing for a lover who would understand with kind eyes and hands how I hold my pain as flesh in my lower belly. I sat in traffic, struggling not to cry, counting backwards at the end of a bloodline, carrying the face of my mother and her mother before her and the shock of how my soft and fallow body had become a mirage of motherhood. Why would I need that poem tattooed? I already carry everything – dead, alive and never-born – and where I cannot, there is a love or many that carries it for me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 9th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Song

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Sometimes the forest stretches her limbs, lets loose her hair so its tendrils unfurl – a little like territory flags, but those are human contrivances – into the places in our lives where we have forgotten her.

She reminds us. She asks that we watch, and that we listen for her. On certain city roads, there is an even keen of insect sounds that surrounds us for exactly as long as we ride under an arbour of embracing branches. Then we re-enter the sunlight and that forest essence vanishes.

Do you hold your breath under that canopy cover? Do you slow down?

So I both wonder and don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking, the leopard who was caught in a Bengaluru school last week. He was tranquilised and captured, and has since fled his cage again. He is at loose in the Bannerghatta National Park, his habitat, as I write this. It takes only minimal empathy to imagine why he might abhor his cell. Around the city, there other sightings. What could they be: tricks of the eye, wishful mirages, or truly: animals of the wild, wandering?

The forest seeps into civilisation in ways brutal and beautiful. Sometimes, both at once. In Munnar, mountain elephants stumble onto highways, lumber into jeeps and onto people. In the Sundarbans, tigers whose ecosystems are ravaged by natural upheaval seek human meat. Meanwhile, at the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, where Soligas live alongside them as per longstanding tradition, the tiger population doubled between 2010 and 2014, and no animal-people conflicts occurred. In times of disaster, there are rumours circulated about beasts escaping captivity: about disintegrated walls at Vandalur Zoo during the recent floods, for instance.

Tell me who among these is most brutal: the lost one, the lacking one, or the liar?

So one reads about these leopards, at a safe distance admittedly, and watches and wonders a little more.

Sometimes, I sit with people and sense the sea in them calling. Or the mountains, or the starlight. Or once in a while, in the aura of a particularly battle-weary individual, the desert. Most of all, though, it’s the sea – biologically, our bodies are made almost entirely of water. A sun-kissed beach and a cliff-jagged coast will each offer a different conversation, but it is nourishment just the same.

The forest calls to me often, and even if I no longer chase its song, I know its resonance. Amidst the vehicle horns of the city and its bandage of artificial light, I seek it. And in doing so, invoke it.

I am waiting for April, when a particular jacaranda tree will empurple my daily route. I am waiting for a dark crow taking shelter among tamarind pods on a day of rain. But most of all, I am waiting for escape: for the helix of a montane highway, for the bite of clear cold air, for a place where I can sink my feet into the lush red earth and know it to be a homecoming.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.