On a visit to Chowra Island in the Nicobar archipelago in October 2008, on being told to wait until evening to contact my islander informants, I was passing time with an assortment of police constables on duty on the islands’ lookout-post. They were involved in an intense game of cards, while I sat around bored (not being the card-playing type). We were crowded together on a plywood platform carefully erected to receive the shade of a beautiful Barringtonia tree. Chowra, like many islands in the Nicobars, is without electricity during the day. Most islands receive electricity only from 5.00 pm, heralding both the arrival of mosquitoes and the end of day. Daylight hours were for work outdoors—sitting around under a hot tin roof was impossible under a tropical sun. Not being interested in the card-game, I switched on my music player playing songs of Jimi Hendrix, beginning with ‘Foxy Lady’. I was grooving to the beat, thinking of all I needed to do during my short field visit and making a mental note of the tasks I had ahead of me. I had a few days to collect data before moving further afield to kick off similar work elsewhere. The air was still and hot, with no noise from any creatures except for the occasional laughter and cursing from the gambling cops. The game went on.
My music player switched songs to ‘The Wind cries Mary’ just as my eyes wandered towards some trees. A speck of white on one of the tree trunks caught my eye. I looked again and noticed more white circles along the side of the tree trunk. With a guitar wailing in my ears and my mind doing a scan of the bark for a possible critter, I moved closer to the tree. The white circles had more dimensions than I thought. They were eggs.
My mind instantly raced back to a rock crevice I had seen many years ago on a hill in Vellore. I had spent many years there during my childhood, exploring the hillsides and seeing lizards of all kinds—rock agamas, golden geckos, garden lizards, monitors, termite hill geckos, and of course common house geckos. Of these, the golden geckos got some scientific attention when the area became part of a range extension in their distribution across India. It was also here that I got to see gecko eggs cemented on the sides of a rock and learnt that this was how some geckos ‘nested’.
Back at Chowra, I walked up to the tree and gazed at the spherical moon-shaped blobs stuck on the tree trunk. There were eight in all, in four pairs, a little distance from each other. I wondered which gecko could have laid such large eggs when there was a movement next to the eggs and there appeared a flat-tailed gliding gecko (Ptychozoon nicobarensis). She was large and beautifully camouflaged against the bark, and obviously didn’t like the look of me, for when I took two pictures of her, she disappeared behind the trunk and out of view. I figured she was mom to those eggs. (Rom Whitaker later told me that she would have laid only a pair, and other females quite possibly laid the rest in pairs, as if in a nursery, with one female taking the responsibility as nanny of the brood.)
Despite my attempts to creep up behind her, she always had the advantage of stealth and camouflage and I had to return in the dark to get a few more pictures. In the evening, she was more approachable and decidedly more active in the comfort of the darkness. She hunted insects along the trunk, spotting potential prey, creeping over, and flicking her flat tail with a flourish, then leaping if need be to return to her perch to munch and swallow her food. She would then look out eagerly with her large eyes for more prey, licking her chaps in with a grin. This was my first brush with wildlife on Chowra (I had seen a few species of birds during the day, but the birds being finicky and airborne much of the time, I didn’t get a chance to observe most).
A few days later, while interviewing a young Chowra couple—beautiful hosts who were the first to invite me to a lovely lunch of spicy fish curry with chillies and rice—we heard a screech and looked around to see children race out from near a young coconut tree where they were playing. They were pointing to a slithering snake on the branch. I left my notebook and lunged for the snake. It was a bronzeback tree snake but with unusual black blotches along its neck. Thin and graceful, it was all the more fascinating for its fearlessness at my approach.
Within a few seconds, it calmed down and all I had to do was give it enough assurance that I was not going to do it any harm. I was the centre of attention, having grabbed a snake. ‘Paich’—the word for snake in Sanenyo, the language of Chowra Islanders—was uttered by everyone as more people came to see the commotion. They knew that it was a non-poisonous snake, but asked me why I wasn’t scared that it would try and get inside me through the orifices on my body—specifically the one in my rear! This was of course the strangest of thoughts, and I quickly dismissed it with a laugh. Snakes slithering through the anus—it was a strange but imaginative connection! Then I had a problem. No one was willing to help me photograph the snake by holding it while I took pictures. I resorted to holding it with one hand and the camera with the other. Thank god for auto-focus digital cameras! I got a few decent pictures before I released it onto the tree, after assuring the villagers of the snake’s decided non-preference for regions like human rears, nostrils and ears.
This was getting better—first a lovely and large flying gecko and then this gorgeous bronzeback. After a few days of fieldwork, I planned a visit to the swiftlet caves on Chowra. These were located on a cliff within a small forest. We trudged past a few plantations and kitchen gardens beyond the main village before entering the forest. At the base of the cliff, I was asked to wait along with a few others while the owner of the cave climbed up past the craggy rocks, using the roots of a Ficus tree draped over the cliff as handholds and footholds. We followed suit and I took a host of pictures before we returned in single file to the forest floor. I was the last on the path, when a brown tail in a crevice caught my attention—snake? All of us had placed our hands in this crevice, using it as a handhold while climbing up and down the cliff. I stopped and peeked in and saw a pit viper, its head resting on its coils, unmindful of our proximity or the use of its den. This was the best yet!
I had not expected to see a pit viper, because I was told they were quite rare on the island. I took as many shots as I could and didn’t disturb it with an intrusive scale count—thinking rather of showing the picture to people who were interested in taxonomy to find out which species of pit viper it was. I was happy and pleased that within just five days of ethnographic work on the island, I came across more than one species of herp. The wind cried ‘Mary!’ as Jimi Hendrix’s song played itself out in my first brush with the gecko, giving me luck and a song to play in my mind—making what was otherwise a focused field trip far more exciting than I’d expected.