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.

Wife to a Birder – II

My son hollered ‘Boridyem playmobilia’ which promptly got my husband’s attention.Translated from tree-latin it means – ‘I am dying of boredom and I am going to play on your mobile’. It’s our in-house language which we designed shortly after my husband suddenly developed a strange disease.

Whenever we went out, he developed this weird habit of looking around and muttering under his breath and no, he wasn’t looking at the birds.If you remember, we had narrowly escaped bankruptcy after I put my foot down in ‘Wife to a Birder‘.I tried to listen in ‘Caesalpinia pulcherima…Holoptelea integrifolia…Bombax malabaricum…Barringtonia acutangula…Ficus religiosa…Pongamia pinnata…”
C&H
This was serious.Finally my bird-brained husband was becoming hair-brained.Of course, that didn’t surprise me one bit.All that hankering behind Munias and Prinias was bound to take a toll.

He was still taking off to his early morning birding jaunts, but mornings soon stretched into afternoons. I would eye his uneaten breakfast balefully and attack it with gusto.Better not to waste tasty,wholesome,healthy grub ! Oh..okay..hold your horses,I will strike off the ‘tasty’.

Coming back to the topic at hand, when afternoons threatened to turn into evenings, I decided to take matters in hand.Finally he trudged in with the SACK. During his early days in birding, he would just carry along his camera or a pair of binocs..but lately, he had starting carting around this mammoth sack which he wouldn’t let go even for a minute.I grabbed an opportunity to sneak a glance inside,when my husband was busy ogling a pair of silver bills nesting in the verandah. Bird book…butterfly book..insect book..tree book…tree book..tree book..leaves..more leaves..sticky fruit…EEK ! what was that..dead butterflies ! I hurriedly stuffed them all in.

I decided to broach the subject without further ado. There’s no easy way to break this, is there ? Yoohoo ! Sorry old chap, I think you are finally turning into a fruit-cake and you ought to go see a shrink.He barely raised an eyebrow.He was still muttering and furiously checking his camera and one his books.’Dalbergia lanceolaria’, he shouted suddenly startling me out of my shrink reveries. That evening, I had a hurried and whispered consultation with a family doc..he had gone completely over the top after seeing this Dalbergia somebody (Gosh ! I didn’t even know if it was a man or a woman ?? I hoped for his sake it was a man). That night, I had a fitful sleep with my husband mumbling strange names in his sleep as well..”Terminalia …..Limonia acidissima….” He was going to terminate me with lime-acid ? and he was speaking in code.

And all of a sudden on a fine sunny day, on a leisurely drive, who should I meet ? Dalbergia ! Not Dalbergia lanceolaria but Dalbergia latifolia. My husband was giving a commentary..also known as the Indian rosewood..a large deciduous tree…

Finally the fog cleared and so it was,that our in-house tree-Latin came into existence destined to attract the attention of this special category of ‘tree-ers’.

And I never thought I would say this..but I missed BIRDS. The Brahminis aka. the Rukminis, the Wagtails and the Bee-eaters.Such cute twittering creatures who would eventually go their away and let sane people suffer birders better. But not trees, they were everywhere – more ‘everywhere’ than I ever thought birds would be. The only other ever-pervading, omni-present hobby these days can be based on garbage – The Garbagers ?
Sitting beside my husband while driving has become an extremely dangerous sport with my teeth rattling every 2-seconds as we jumped over a pothole while he loving admired the wayside Tabebuia argentea. Once when a friend invited us to a garden party, I had to endure eating endless Paneer-Tikkas by myself as I waited for my husband to join me for lunch,who was busy enjoying the gardeners company.
We were watching a murder thriller…as the murderer’s hand slowly emerges from behind a tree and in the pin drop silence ‘Cupressus torulosa’ booms and earns us a few well-earned glares.

On a particular family dinner, I turned to see my husband in deep conversation with his brother when suddenly they shouted in unison ‘Tabernaemontana alternifolia’ ! I assured some gaping onlookers that it was the new series of Hannah Montana.
Ah..heavens forbid..it was catching !