The secret of the Thattinpuram

Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Asian Paradise Flycatcher

A flash of a long tail gleaming like burnished copper, accompanied by a sharp skreek disappeared into the thick canopy overhead. Ajit spotted the rufous tailed Asian Paradise flycatcher perched on a low branch. It was a glorious day for a nature walk – the breeze was pleasant and the Jacarandas and the Pink trumpet trees were in full bloom. He savored these weekly trysts with nature which had become indispensable.
Today was a departure from the usual. He had brought his son, in whom he saw the same passion for nature. The little chap was curious to a fault but he had patiently answered all his questions on birds, trees and butterflies. Now he turned to find the child at his elbow holding out a jasmine flower he had picked from an overhanging vine near the fence of a house. As he inhaled the rich scent of the white flower, a long lost memory tugged at his senses.

-oo-

He plucked the fragrant flowers for his Ammamma (Grandmother) as she waited in a nearby alcove clad in her impeccable white mundu-veshti (Traditional dress of Kerala).

Naalukettu
Naalukettu

Vacations usually meant traveling across half the country to get together with his bevy of uncles, aunts and cousins at his grandparents’ place. His grandparents lived in a huge Naalukettu (traditional house of Kerala with a central courtyard open to the sky) in Manjeri , a small town in Kerala. A two storied rambling house with umpteen rooms and a plethora of common areas encircling the Nadumittam (central courtyard open to sky) , it was ensconced within a tree grove and situated in the midst of lush paddy fields. The branches of a massive peepal tree kissed the sloping roofs of the house.For him, the enormous tree was akin to a wise old sage welcoming his pupil with open arms. He used to spend countless hours exploring the varied life forms fostered by the tree. Amidst the thick canopy of shade and the ever soothing sound of the rustling of the leaves, the tree unraveled its mysteries to the discerning seeker.
Common Jezebel butterfly
Common Jezebel butterfly

Clear-winged forest glory - Damselfly
Clear-winged forest glory – Damselfly

The serendipity of seeing the tree hoppers camouflaged as thorns among one of the many creepers snaking around it, always used to be a source of delight. Apart from the myriad birds flitting on its branches during its infructescence, it hosted a plethora of butterflies,dragonflies, damselflies, insects, squirrels, skinks and yes, it used to host yet another kind of life form which he would come to know of later!

Paddy fields
Lush paddy fields

The smell of wood and trees permeated everywhere.He walked barefoot on the cool red-oxide flooring and ran down the wooden steps with resounding thumps.He loved everything about the house with its nooks and crannies, innumerable places to run and hide,its Nadumittam– where he could gaze at the raindrops falling inside the house, the kulam (small pond adjoining the main house) with its frogs and the Neerkoli (Checkered Keelback – a non-venomous snake) .

And even the Thattinpuram (low roofed attic) .

Nights at the Naalukettu ushered in the blackness which enveloped one like a shroud. The soft sounds of the night lulled him to sleep – sounds of crickets and croaking frogs, water drops trickling somewhere or a tiny rivulet flowing, whispering of the trees, a nightjar calling far away. But there were also the sounds which kept him awake half the night. And it came from the Thattinpuram.

Naalukettu
Naalukettu

The Thattinpuram was situated directly above the room where he slept and the only way to reach it was climbing the rickety wooden steps right next to the room. It had small windows overlooking the sloping roofs of the house, which were normally kept closed. Nearing midnight was when the strange creaking noises would start followed by rapid shuffling sounds. It had transpired that more often than not, the sounds followed a heavy downpour with strong winds. Night after night, he would lie awake waiting for the noises to start which would die away within an hour. He made up his mind to get to the bottom of these nocturnal goings on.

Daytime exploration of the place didn’t yield any clues and he waited for the one person who he was sure could help – Mavunni. He waved at Mavunni, who was already leading their cow to be milked and issuing instructions for the coffee bean to be plucked and dried. Everything they needed, they grew. Money was redundant for his extended family who needed it only for clothes.
A timeless old man, Mavunni was responsible for everything around his grandmother’s house. A soft -spoken, shy and retiring man by nature, he was extremely knowledgeable. Ajit had spent endless afternoons accompanying Mavunni on his chores while he listened in wonder to the old man elaborating on the various flora and fauna surrounding the house.Yes, he was sure Mavunni would find a solution.

Kulam
Kulam

At long last he managed to find Mavunni alone and explained his predicament. Mavunni pondered over it and then proceeded to give him very precise instructions. Though the old man was certain of the reason behind the strange noises, he decided to let the child learn for himself. Feeling as if a big load was off his mind, Ajit picked his way through the grassy path to the Kulam. As he floated in the still water surrounded by the dense trees, he listened to the bird songs high above. Bulbuls, drongos and flowerpeckers were all twittering away interspersed by the steady tap-tap of an industrious woodpecker. The kingfishers perched at their regular haunts swooping in now and then into the water to snatch a fish. With the tiny fishes nibbling at his feet, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply as he prepared himself for the night
Nadumittam
Nadumittam

It was the Tulavarsham (north eastern monsoon) and dark clouds gathered overhead almost every evening. Normally he would spend hours watching the pitter patter of drops falling through the Nadumittam. But today there was work to do, as he gingerly made his way to the Thattinpuram. The last remnants of the evening light was fading quickly. A big huntsman spider lounged nearby. On any other day, he would have spent more time studying it but today, he quickly made the arrangements just like Mavunni had explained and beat a hasty retreat. A window banged somewhere.
After rains
After rains

Dinner consisted of kanji (rice porridge) with chutney and chutta pappadaam (Dry roasted rice fritters) which he insisted on eating with the jack fruit leaf spoon just like his great grandfather used to eat. He wolfed it down quickly ignoring the curious stares and hurried upstairs to wait. A good three hours passed and he was almost nodding off when he heard it.A curious shuffling and scratching. Yes, the sound repeated. The scratching sound was approaching closer to where he stood waiting at the bottom stairs of the Thattinpuram. He hardly dared to breath. And suddenly he saw it.

It was a marapatti – A civet cat !

It had the ripe papaya in its mouth. Its eyes glowed momentarily in the torchlight.As he advanced for a closer look, it spurted a noxious liquid which luckily missed him, before it bounded back to the Thattinpuram and through the window which had flapped open in the rains onto the branches of the peepal tree. The mystery of the Thattinpuram was finally solved.The peepal tree aka the wise old sage had unraveled one more of its mystery !

In the morning, when Ammamma came upstairs, a strange foul smell assailed her senses which almost made her gag. But curiously the obnoxious smell was mixed up with jasmine fragrance wafting from the flowers strewn all over the steps to the Thatthumburam.

-oo-

His son was tugging at his hand and asking ‘Don’t the flowers smell nice ?’
‘Yes,they do son’ He smiled as he remembered his frantic and ineffectual attempts at masking the Marapatti’s secretion with Jasmine flowers.

Marapatti
Marapatti – Asian palm civet aka the Toddy Cat is an omnivorous animal living on trees.It emits a noxious secretion as a last line of defense when threatened.Though not endangered, Asian palm civets have been drastically affected by increasing deforestation and habitat loss


This post is written for Kissan Nature’s Friends contest. My husband Ajit , an avid nature lover and an active contributor in several bird, butterfly and tree forums, still fondly reminisces about his time in his grandparents’ Naalukettu. He attributes his current passion towards nature to the gay abandonment of those times when boundaries between homes and nature were just imaginary.

Advertisements

Wife to a birder

My husband was behind the wheel when suddenly he shoved his head out of the window, exclaiming “What a beautiful Raptor!” But all I could see was the fast approaching pot-hole,the size of a small well, as all good pot holes worth their salt should be.”Aeeeee ! Forget the blasted raptor, look where you are headed!”
Somedays it would be “Look a brahminy kite !” Frankly I didn’t care if it was a Brahminy or a Rukmini, all I wanted him to do was to keep his eyes on the road. One reason for increase in road accidents is now clearly evident, if you ask me.

C&H with a birder twist !

That and many such experiences later, I prefer to drive while my husband admires the winged creatures and goes into voluble raptures.For someone like me, for whom, birds were, well er.. just birds.. suddenly had to get accustomed to a lot of Golden Orioles, Green Bee Eaters, Drongos, Prinias, Wagtails and Shrikes ! I learned that Bird races are not some archaic animal(read bird)-abuse game but actually is a bird spotting race. I wonder how they manage to spot so many, because every time I have squinted at somebody pointing out a bird, I have only been able to make out suspicious leaf formations. Initially I did attempt to ask ‘where’ but later realized, it was easier to just look in the general direction and gush “ooh! what a beauty!”

The problem with birding as a hobby is its all pervading nature.Of course, they can be spotted only at day time, so they are not as bad as social networking but still there is no hard stop. Now, if I were to have a hobby like writing or painting or even something more exotic like Hikaru Dorodango (Hah, bet you didn’t know about this one !!),I would eventually stop, raise my head, observe the world with a satiated smile,be my affable spirit, spread bonhomie all around ..but imagine a hobby like birding..they are always around, twittering and flapping their wings and all chances of a meaningful conversation with a birder comes to naught, the moment the species is spotted.

I launched into a detailed discussion on division of labor and just as I conclude and congratulate myself on being the ultimate negotiator in getting him to agree to take the car for servicing, I am suddenly startled by a vacant/distant look accompanied by a frantic sprint to find the camera to capture a new bird which is sitting right outside the balcony ! And alas all my carefully planned talks and negotiation strategies have been spoiled by a Purple Rumped Sunbird !

This was even more annoying over the phone when one doesn’t have a chance of spotting the absent minded look on the face and many deeply meaningful and philosophical conversations have been brought to an abrupt end by squeals of “Ah ! Its a Malabar Grey Hornbill”

On Sunday early mornings, when I am in deep slumber, he’s off on an unearthly hour with some equally bird brained people to some lake or trekking trail. He did invite me once to one of his birding haunts and I made the big mistake of accepting..where I had to endure him standing under a big tree looking up for almost 4 hours..I had a crick in the neck by the time we came back and a lot of unspoken and not so loving thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, I , on my part , did do some spotting – pointing to birds with some pretty intelligent comments like ‘Big bird’! crow ! Parrot ! to which he disdainfully looked at me and told me it was a Plum headed parakeet ! Ah save me from the snobbery of the elitists ! I don’t care what color of head it has, that’s a parrot I was looking at, the same which we read about in our school books , what eats chillies, which will say ‘Honorificabilitudinitatibus’ if it hears someone saying that !

One day he told me – I saw a great tit in office today ! I changed colors and was just getting ready to bury my fangs when I realized belatedly that he was referring to some winged creature ! When we went for a vacation, he packed along his camera, Binocs, USB drives, laptops in case the camera memory ran out, so he could keep transferring photos and all this courtsey, of course and no points for guessing, the birds.In my husband’s absence, my son has taken it upon himself to be the in-house bird consultant. So he would nod at some white bird ‘Ah.. the White winged stork’ and I have learned to say with equal elan ‘no no its the Black Headed Egret’ ! Equality be damned, one has to stand up for oneself !

A lot of parcels from Flipkart get delivered from time to time and I realized that most of our retirement money is going into buying bird books.As if birds were not enough, recently many more books have started turning up on butterflies,spiders and snakes ! I don’t know how many more creatures will join the fray, but I vow to definitely draw the line if it comes to Sloths, Mole rats, Tarsiers and Aye-ayes, just so he knows who’s the boss !