I had been to my native place recently. My folks were quite excited about my visit as I was going there after five or six years. Although, I was looking forward to meeting my relatives and friends, I had my own hidden agenda in mind. Meeting my people was great after a long time, however, I was looking forward to indulge upon a journey into this landscape, its flora, and fauna while retracing my memories. We started from Thanjavur one early morning. The bus travelled through the vast carpet of rice fields in different shades of green. Since, the road has not yet been ‘improved’ as a four-lane highway in this place, there were quite a few trees along the road side.
Another nice thing about this road is that for some stretch it goes along the River Vennaru—one of the tributaries of River Kaveri—until a place called Thiruvarur. It is not uncommon to find some huge Ficus trees along the bank of this river with their roots falling on top of the water surface. It makes for an amazing sight to see kids grab these roots to swing back and forth, and plunge into water. I always fancied doing this someday but have sadly not managed so far. Hopefully some day in future!
We reached Thiruvarur to catch a train to reach our village. I was very excited about this train journey. When I was a kid, my parents used to take us to our native place every year during the summer holidays. The best part used to be this 20-minute train journey. It was great fun just sitting by the train window and watching the fast-moving trees and electric and telephone posts go past. When the train passed through some villages there used to be a bunch of kids standing by the rail tracks waving their hands happily and yelling out. As a kid, I never understood why they did that and why they were so happy to wave at strangers. Nevertheless, whenever I see them, I too wave back and it has always felt really good. Another exciting thing is the sound of the running train (..tadak..tadak..tadak..tadak…) and especially that distinct loud noise it makes when it passes through a bridge on a river (…dudun..dudun..dudun..dudun…). It used to move on a coal engine in old times and sometimes sitting by the window was not always fun. In a compartment near the engine you could get minute particles of coal and soot in your eyes, which spoil your experience of the journey. This time there was no such problem as the train ran on a diesel engine and interestingly the track has not changed. Still a metre gauge! I was by the window experiencing fast-moving trees, electric and telephone posts, waving at kids, listening to the music of train track on the river bridge. I watched birds perched on power lines and vast green sheets of paddy fields.
The train slowed and stopped at the station and I got down to see the first thing on my list. The banyan tree by the side of the ticket counter. No change. I was pleased. I passed a bazaar to reach our village and was greeted by some old familiar faces. As I entered the village, I looked at the pond by the temple (I learnt swimming in this very pond with a dry bottle gourd on my back as a float). The water was not looking very clear. Later I learnt that fishes are being cultured there now and the water is not potable anymore! One thing that still remained unchanged was the sight of cow-dung cakes on the parapet wall surrounding the pond. There are about four ponds in this village. I was walking towards the second one which has lotus and lilies, and a huge Madhuca indica tree by its side. No change here as well.
These trees and ponds are natural landmarks that helped people find their way and directions. If I asked for a short-cut to my uncle’s house ten years ago, this is how the known local person would have explained…
From the lotus pond go straight and take the cart track which goes through the paddy fields. After about half a mile there will be an eecha tree (Phoenix sylvestris) with baya weaver bird nests, walk for about a mile from there and you will see a series of palm trees with toddy pots on it. From there take the road which goes north and you will see a small Shiva temple with a pond. Walk up to the fourth lamp post and you will see a poovarasu tree (Thespesia populnea) in front of one house…that’s your uncle’s house…
There is a nice tar road that goes to my village now, but I preferred to take the short-cut. I saw the Phoenix tree, but there was no baya nest; I saw palm trees, but no toddy tapping now. I remember having palm and coconut toddy when I was there last time. I wanted to have Phoenix toddy but the season was over. I wonder if I will have another chance to taste that ever!
I walked through the cart track with a paddy field on one side and a small canal on the other. I reached a small concrete bridge. I remember as a kid we used to sit on that parapet, fishing, using a long bamboo stick with suspended nylon thread and earthworms as bait in the hook. I got my first (and the last) fish from there. It could take us almost half a day to catch one long fish. I remember how fascinated we used to be to watch schools of fingerlings swimming on the clear water surface in that canal. I stopped there for a while and looked around. Vast spread of paddy field filled with spider webs gleaming in the morning sun. The irrigation canal hosting a checkered keelback snake that peeped out from the water and looked around like a periscope. A blue jay on top of a crown-less palm tree, black drongo and yellow-billed babblers sitting on a small nochi tree (Vitex negundo), palm swifts flying overhead, ditch jewels, yellow-tailed ashy skimmers, picture wings, and golden dartlets perched and flew along the canal bank vegetation. Crimson tips, danaid eggflies, and angled castors fluttered around as a lone crab on the bank of the canal moved slowly inside the turbid water. I was surrounded by the nostalgic thoughts of my childhood days and the different lifeforms of my countryside.
I looked at that moving crab and remembered how locals used to catch it. This crab is called vayal nandu in Tamil (crabs found in paddy fields—is it the Indian rice field crab Oziotelphusa senex senex Fabricius?). These crabs are not huge, like sea crabs, so they won’t yield much flesh but are very tasty when cooked with pepper. It was a dry season and burrows of these crabs along bunds of the paddy fields were visible prominently. People used a small kite made of very thin paper (sometimes very thin plastic sheets), which whirls when wind blows as it is twisted and bent to the shape of a wheel. While it rotates, it produces a sound somewhat like flowing water. They would keep this near the entrance of the burrow while inserting a stick/rod inside the burrow. If the crab catches the stick then they pull it out immediately. But it’s a meticulous work which needs quite a lot of patience. People believe that as the crab hears (?) the flowing-water sound from the kite, it believes that water has come and slowly comes out of the hole. I am not sure about the hearing skills of crabs, however, inserting a rod into its burrow would surely irritate the crab to catch the other end of the rod and fall into collector’s vessel.
I walked towards my house. It is still thatched with dry coconut leaves in the front and rest of the roof is tiled. Still the same mud walls. It is fenced with adu thoda plant (Justicia adhatoda earlier know as Adhatoda vasica—Adu thoda means in Tamil a plant avoided by goats and other cattle). After meeting my folks, I looked around that old house to find some of the things on my list. They are, the flying insect which goes inside the mud wall with a caterpillar, another insect which wags its tail up and down, a huge black flying insect, and a millipede. I saw all of them! The first one is a wasp which takes caterpillars and other small insects inside the mud wall and seals the hole after sometime. The second one is also a wasp (Evania sp.) that wags its abdomen constantly. This wasp deposits eggs in the egg capsules of cockroaches and the developing larvae feed on the cockroach eggs. The third is a carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.). When we were kids, our elders told us that it was a kulavi, i. e. wasp in Tamil, although this insect belongs to bee family. As a kid we were very scared of this insect, especially, of the buzzing noise it makes as it flies around you. I have seen this insect recently in other places but I was particularly interested to see their roosting or nesting site in our old village house. We generally see them going inside the bamboo pole which supports the tiles/thatches on the roof. And I was lucky to spot one this time. I wonder if we can even find this beautiful insect in concrete jungles, and even if we do, I wonder where they would roost or nest.
The last one is a black-and-yellow millipede. I remember everyone hates even the presence of this organism and women in particular. We generally see this millipede in moist walls, bathrooms, and near water taps. Sometimes we can see them in a group and they will fill that place with a strange unpleasant smell. I saw a group of millipedes in the backyard of our house. What was missing in that place was a red-and-black millipede. This one is double the size of the previous one. Apart from this black-and-yellow millipede the other interesting thing that I noticed in our backyard is an unusually high number of snails. I was hoping that this is not an invasive snail. In the quest for identification of this millipede, I later found that it is (Harpaphe haydeniana—yellow-spotted millipede) an exotic species native to America!
My next target was Naked Neck! Yes, it is a kind of chicken that I used to see in my village. This breed does not have feathers on their neck and vent. Only a bunch of feathers decorate the top of their head. Locally, it’s called as krappu kozhi, due to its funny-looking hair style! Krappu is a distorted Tamil version of crop—crop-cutting is one type of hair style in Tamil Nadu and kozhi is fowl. The hen and the chicks of the Naked Neck are really cute-looking things with a patch of feather on their head. This was added to my ‘bucket list’ just before my trip as I was reading an article on diversity in farm animals by Theodore Baskaran in one of the Tamil Magazines Uyirmmai (November 2010 issue- http://www.uyirmmai.com). In this article, he mentions how this type of breed is now rare to see as there is more demand for broiler chicken. I took a stroll on the streets of my village with some kids accompanying me searching for and inquiring about krappu kozhi. Although a few old people were aware of this type of chicken, they were unable to tell me where I could find it. Finally, in one corner of the village we manage to sight a Naked Neck rooster but not the hens or chicks. Upon searching on the internet on this, I found that Naked Neck is a breed originally from central Europe.
It was Diwali eve but there was hardly any noise of crackers. I sat with my folks on the steps of our house facing the street. We recalled our olden days when we used to go swimming in the temple pond, fishing in the canal, visiting our own paddy fields and, watching the toddy-tapper skilfully climbing the coconut trees and elegantly descend from there, constructing toy buildings with sticks by joining the unripe fruits of Morinda pubescens, having stone-skipping competitions in the pond, riding in the bullock cart for temple festival, throwing stones at jamun and tamarind trees for fruits and hurriedly picking them up from the ground while competing with others, watching movies sitting on the sand in the only touring talkies of that village, panic-ridden cycle rides through the graveyard to the second show of the movie in our village and many such stories.
It was late evening. Street lights were on and the surroundings were filled with the cacophony of birds. But our stories of our past in the village continued like the non-stop call of the common hawk-cuckoo that was calling from the nearby neem tree…