On December 5, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had passed away. The city of Chennai came to a screeching halt for 24 hours. The stillness was eerie. It didn’t help that we were already dealing with demonetization, the government’s mischievously impotent strategy to fight corruption. It was a stressful day. But it was nothing compared to how the city would look a week later.
On December 12, we were bruised by the state’s worst cyclone ever. The wind was howling at speeds of 150 kilometers per hour. Roofs and panels were getting blown away. Glass windows shattered, trees uprooted, and power lines disrupted. Ten people died. Many livelihoods were lost. It was our second consecutive winter of managing a calamity. Last year, we were put through a flood crisis. It has not been a good winter for us so far.
I won’t ever forget it. But it isn’t because nothing eventful ever happens in the city. Or because I live in a third world country in which the progress is adjudged on the seamless accessibility of Starbucks and 4G. It is because I finally spotted wild cats during the first weekend of this month.
In 2013, I saw a large squirrel hiding in-between the branches of a plum tree in Kodaikanal. Bashing its bushy tail against the leaves, the creature stared at me with its beady eyes. Its reddish-black coat shone in the sun. I had never seen anything like it before. The only squirrel I knew then was the three-striped palm sub-species.
When it leaped onto another tree, a taxi driver – standing nearby – pointed at it and said, “There it goes”. He looked at me and asked, “Ever seen a Giant Flying Squirrel before?” I shook my head sideways and mumbled. Words escaped me. I was shaken. I felt like I was on the precipice of something strange and important. It was the only time I ever wanted to write a novel.
I have mixed feelings about pet dogs. While I want to kiss every dog I meet on its wet nose, I am unsure if it is a deep and purposeful bond. It seems to be a symbiotic bond between two emotionally-needy creatures. The Homo Sapien and the Felis Domesticus.
I had a pet Pomeranian called Terry. We grew up in the same household for 12 years. We were family. He came to us when he was two weeks old. Instantly, we became best friends. Because I lived in a neighborhood where there weren’t any other kids to play with.
He was mellower than the average Pomeranian. A goofball despite born an animal without a sense of humor. I loved him because he gave me a lot of attention. I suspect that he followed me around because I was a recurring part of his ecosystem. We felt safe around each other.
During late evenings, colonies of fruit bats fly across pale orange skies in my city. With militant grandeur, they soar. With purpose and showmanship. But I see them so often that I don’t look up in admiration anymore.
But it makes for a beautiful sight. The resilience with which its cold claws still clutch onto the wire. The fragile grip of its melted rubbery skin on the rotting skeletal frame. As if the two were star-crossed lovers in the middle of their last dance. Or perhaps, the tenderest end to a quarrel. And all they want to do is never let go of each other.
I first saw Grey Wagtails during a taxi ride in Kodaikanal. One was perched on a wooden gate, looking like a June morning. It wore the hues of an early sun, flanked by greying clouds.
The driver told me, in Tamil, that they were called Valikaati. Loosely translated, it meant “pathfinder”. My mind started to drift . Rudely interrupted only by the sound of a passing truck. I imagined the bird to be a compass with wings for people who were lost in the wilderness.
An alarm clock for the weary to wake up and find their way back to safety.
Nilgiri Tahrs (or Ibexes) are goat antelopes exclusively reside along a 400 kilometer in-between the Nilgiri Hills and the Ashambu Hills. Found at elevations of 1000 to 2500m above sea level, they are cautious, tough as nails and dashingly-handsome. The last time I saw them was early this year in Valparai. It was unexpected since it was late in the morning. They are known to disappear into the thickness of shola forests during these hours.
The three years I spent in college felt about two-and-a-half years too long. Since I possessed none of the characteristics of the Tahr, I needed a happy place to survive. A shola forest would have been perfect. Not to escape the soulless drudgery of the modern education system. Just to hide behind a tree. Stay there until the smoldering heap of embarrassment that was my pursuit of individualism turns into sawdust.