Keeper turns Trapper

A bulbul's nest with purple-speckled eggs

This post originally appeared in ‘Rooting For Nature’, my monthly column in Deccan Herald. The published column is linked here.

Most fields in Navilu Kaadu’s vicinity are rainfed and lie fallow in between planting seasons. Our neighbours detest weed, grass and most trees. Tamarind trees are the only trees of value in these parts. Even the revered banyan is fast losing favour, with many a grand tree falling prey to the chainsaw. That is a story for another day.

At Navilu Kaadu, we interfere sparingly with the natural vegetation to the point of derision from our neighbours, for leaving our parcel unkempt! As natural farmers, chemical weedicides are off-limits, manual de-weeding is prohibitively expensive, and labour crunch is the major bugbear we contend with.

The upshot is a grassy biodiverse little patch with lizards, insects, rodents, snakes, bulbuls, larks, peafowls, mongooses, black-naped hares and many other beings making themselves at home and raising generations of young ones in nests and burrows.

Image of grass

Though safe within Navilu Kaadu’s perimeter, these creatures end up drawing unwanted attention from time to time and find themselves in peril.

It was a day when we had sparse hands on the farm. I slipped into my boots, threw on my hat and walked towards the mango plot behind our cottage, and was greeted by a strange sight. Our two helpers seemed to have turned to stone. Mariyappa, our neighbour-cum-caretaker, stood frozen with his left arm outstretched and his right arm pulled back, striking an Usain Bolt pose. Kumara, his companion stood still with a hand on either hip. I noticed something else as I tiptoed in their direction – a big stone in Mariyappa’s right hand.

The scene turned animated and Mariyappa hurled the stone with all his might. The missile appeared to have missed its mark as Kumara let out a pitiful, ‘Aiyyyoooo ooyithu’. The grass came alive around the spot where it fell, and something scurried towards the fence.

The pair resumed uprooting a weed in a trice as they turned around and spotted me. I had a sense of the mischief they were up to and warned them to leave the creatures on the farm alone.

It was possibly a black-naped hare, or an Indian garden lizard, a grey francolin (a ground-dwelling bird) or even a lucky snake that narrowly missed ending up in the duo’s bellies that day.

Nest of the Grey Francolin bird
Nest of the Grey Francolin

Many locals in the region have a proclivity for wild meat, and Mariyappa had the most notoriety. Visiting farmhands had primed us about his taste for exotic meat when we hired him as caretaker knowing as they did, that the wild residents at Navilu Kaadu were undisturbed under our watch.

Raiding bird nests and trapping animals were no mere pastimes, but Mariyappa’s life pursuits. He was like a feral cat whose rapacious instincts got the better of him at the sight of anything that hopped, scurried, slithered or flew! There was nothing he wouldn’t devour and no animal, barring humans, whose meat he didn’t relish.

A bulbul's nest in dried banana stem
A bulbul’s nest wedged in dried banana stem

On another day, Mariyappa didn’t return for a while after I dispatched him to find wooden poles to serve as markers for our foot-high jackfruit saplings. Enquiries with other farmhands revealed that he had spotted a monitor lizard in the overgrown pit by our main gate. Sending word didn’t help since nothing could distract the man from his mission.

I finally had to haul myself towards the pit. ‘Uda, Uda’, a visibly excited Mariyappa exclaimed as I approached. The monitor lizard had by then made a providential escape into the bushes beyond our fence. ‘Ashtu maamsa haalaaythalla’ (so much meat just went waste) he whined pitifully.

I had to remind him that the ‘Uda’ and anything that crossed his path at Navilu Kaadu were out of bounds and redeploy his attention towards finding marker poles for my jack saplings.

Another desire of Mariyappa’s was to have a muster of peacocks strutting about his yard. He reared chickens and was actively examining ways to introduce peafowl to his flock. I was aware that he kept an eye out for peafowl nests at Navilu Kaadu.

Mariyappa lasted but a few months in our service. Thankfully, our present caretaker doesn’t share his predecessor’s taste for ‘bush meat’.

As for Mariyappa, he got his wish. We now see a lone domesticated peacock grazing among his chickens. Is the bird from a wild peafowl nest at Navilu Kaadu? I can’t say for sure.