All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.               Cecil F. Alexander

This was a hymn we sang at the morning assembly at our school.  During my vacation in Kerala in April 2017, these lines came back to my mind as I took a stroll through the farmland behind our home.  Three small but great creatures caught my attention.  They are not great because the Lord God made them all, but because they were my companions as I grew up as a child.

The very first is the Antlion.  It  is surely neither an ant nor a lion, else a little three year old kid could not have played with them.  The Antlion is called so because it feeds on ants and hence is like a ‘lion’ for the ants. In Malayalam it is called കുഴിയാന – Kuzhiyana – meaning an elephant in a pit.  It is surely not an elephant, but its hump looks like that of an elephant and it did live in a conical pit.  In North America, Antlions are called ‘doodlebugs’, because of the doodles they leave on the sand while looking for a suitable spot to dig its pit.  It is in fact the larval form of a dragonfly.

A fully developed Antlion is about a centimeter long, with a larval  life cycle similar to that of a caterpillar.  At the end of the larva stage, it spins a cocoon and after a few days an adult a dragonfly emerges.

Antlions like to set their pits in places where it is dry and where the soil particles are loose and small. They dig a circular, funnel-shaped pit and hide at the bottom of it. When an unsuspecting ant  falls into the pit, the Antlion grabs it with its jaws. The prey cannot escape the pit because the wall is crumbly.  As the prey tries to climb up, the grainy wall crumbles down.

Antlion with its bean-shaped body and ant like head appear to  move rearwards.  As a child, I used to locate Antlions’  pits and blow the sand away with my mouth.  As the sand blew away, exposing the Antlion, it would further dig deep down to escape until I caught it.  The Antlions caught would be stored in an empty matchbox.  After a few of these creatures were caught, I used to line them up like elephants paraded during Thrissur Pooram.  The Thrissur Pooram is held in the city of Thrissur in central Kerala (India) and is a cultural highlight that is unique in its pageantry, magnitude and participation. 30  elephants are paraded on this occasion, attired  with the traditional Nettipattam (golden headdress), decorative bells and ornaments, decorated umbrellas, palm leaves and peacock feathers, and beautifully-crafted kolam (paintings).

The Antlions grow into dragonflies and would flutter around in search of insects, their staple food.  As a kid, I chased and caught a few of them and tied a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.  Then I would prompt the dragonfly to pick up small pebbles and increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

The next creature is the dangerous  നീർ – Neer – The Red Weaver Ants .  They are found in the tropical forests of Africa, Australia and the Solomon Islands. In India I have found them only in Kerala.  All animals, insects, birds and humans are scared of them because of the painful bite they inflict.  They are very aggressive territorial ants and tend to be very aggressive and responsive to disturbance.  They have a vice like grip and tremendous strength while inflicting a painful slicing bite.  With the bite they spray formic acid into the resulting wounds.

They are seen in almost all fruit trees in our farmland, mainly the  mango and  jackfruit trees.  They are natural insect killers as they feast on the fruit flies that hover around these trees.  It takes a few minutes for a fruit fly to find a suitable spot on the mango and inject her eggs under the skin of the fruit and make the fruit rot.  The weaver ants on these trees chase them away or capture them. When other insects, squirrels or birds detect the scent of weaver ants, they prefer to stay away.

The only catch is that when one needs to climb these trees to get the fruits down.  Then one has to apply a strong insect repellent – usually kerosene – and carry a bag full of ash.  As one climbs up the tree, ash is spread all around to keep these weaver ants at bay.

These weaver ants are famous for the elaborate treetop nests they build. They are champions of cooperation when it comes to building a nest.   They build nests by stitching five to ten leaves together using larval silk.  They first find a suitable location on a treetop and then bend down the leaves and place them in a tent like shape.  Holding down such leaves demand the force of a thousand ants, each drawing down with all his might and the others fasten the joints to build a spacious nest that protects their colony from impending danger of predators.

Using precise coordination, the weaver ants create very strong ant chains by linking legs to pull and bend leaves into desired tent like positions. Then they  glue them with silk.  The silk comes from their own larvae.  The adults carry larvae in their jaws and squeeze them gently so that the larvae secrete a drop of silk on one end of the leaf edges. The ants then carry the larvae along the entire length of the leaf edges, squeezing as they go, using the larvae like living bottles of glue, until the edges of the leaves are stuck together from end to end.

Weaver ants live in a highly organized, co-operative society, where every individual has a role to play in the survival of the entire colony. Their jobs are based on their physique and they execute the tasks with utmost sincerity and discipline. Those in charge of food bring anything edible back to their colony to feed other ants.  They also have a workers army who construct the nests and repair them and very aggressively protect the nests filled with ants and their eggs.

As a child, I used to stand next to the mango tree and observe these ants at work.  I used to talk to them, reporting what all happened at home.  This time I did watch them curiously, but had nothing to talk to them.

Photographs Courtesy Sherrin Koduvath 

A Note that Dissonates, Once Again

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Our friend Suresh Nellikode invited me to watch Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Malayalam movie ‘Pinneyum’ on September 13, 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  I had seen many classics Adoor had made before – Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elipathayam and Mathilukal – which remain in my memory.  In all these movies I was impressed with the use of natural sounds with minimum background score, unlike may Indian movies.

In his latest venture ‘Pinneyum’ (Once Again), he has captured the natural sounds and used it to convey the time and the environment to the viewer.  Was it that effective like his earlier attempts?  Has Adoor done justice to the natural sounds which obviously changed with the times in Kerala’s rural background spanning a timeline of over 17 years?

The first time I left Kerala was to join Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu in 1971 at the age of nine.  Every year I came home for the summer vacations.  During this homecoming, I could not make out any changes to the ambient sounds of nature.  The wind would create music, caressing the paddy fields downhill through the tapioca and pineapple cultivation uphill to our home.  A few notes changed with the swaying of the coconut trees and the tropical fruit trees – tamarind, bread fruit, jack fruit -that grew abundantly in our farm.  The air had the aroma of the flowers in bloom or the fruits that had ripened. The road in front of our home had very scant traffic with a few cars and the hourly bus service, only connection to Kottayam town.

Only one or two homes in the village, of those who could afford,  had a telephone and a car.  Obviously we could not afford either.  Even a wall clock and radio were rarities.  We had a wall clock, a mechanical pendulum one, which struck once every half hour and the number of hours at the hour.  This striking sound was a break from the sounds of nature – from the birds’ chirping and calls and the shrill cries of the crickets and the flying lizards – an evolutionary link between lizards and birds – which flew from one palm tree to another in search of insects.  Every household in the village reared cows, goats, chicken and ducks.  Their moos, bleats, rooster’s crowing and hens’ songs – filled the air all through the day.

The evenings marked prayer time and as one strolled along the road, one could hear readings from the Bible, hymns and devotional songs – both from the Hindu and Christian homes.  The nocturnal music of the nature was very much different with the owls, insects and dogs pitching in with their parts.

The artificial sounds that one heard once in a while was from the Chenda (drums) of the announcer who came along the road to announce the release of a new movie in the village talkies (thatched theatre).  The temples and churches hired the Mike Set (Public Address system) and the Chenda Melam (percussion using Chenda ) only on the annual festival days.  A Gramophone was a vital element of the mike set.  Luckily in those days the songs lasted only three minutes as one side of the gramophone record could only hold as much.

The early eighties brought prosperity to our village due to the increased salary of government employees, higher prices for the cash crops and spices the village produced and many seeking employment in foreign lands, mainly in the Gulf countries.  Our eldest brother moved over to Sultanate of Oman.

The natural music I was used to during my annual vacations started to be corrupted by the artificial ones.  With every passing year, the changes were audible.

That was when the first Television came into our home beaming the national channel Doordarshan.  On Saturdays they telecasted a Malayalam movie and all the neighbours would congregate at our home.  Our eldest brother brought in a digital electronic clock which chimed its musical notes every fifteen minutes.  Now the old mechanical clock got pushed away on to the wall of the side room and its Japanese cousin took its place of pride in the family room.  We also got a telephone connection and the metallic ringing sound of the rotor dial telephone also added to the milieu.

Exorbitant labour costs, pests and  crop diseases turned the village to rubber plantations.  Most tropical fruit trees were cut, tapioca and pineapple cultivations discarded – all to make way for the rubber trees.  The herbal plants which grew abundantly became extinct.  Many species of birds and the flying lizards disappeared as they could neither nest among the rubber trees nor could find any food.  Rice cultivation disappeared too being uneconomical.  Thus Kerala turned into a consumer state.

The traffic on the roads kept increasing manifold with new varieties of automobiles – from motorbikes to large trucks.  The Churches and Temples procured their own Mike Sets and the competition to please their Gods with highest possible decibel levels all through day and night started.  Thus the natural sounds now gave way for more synthetic tones.  The noise of the wind passing through the rubber trees was no more music to the ears.  Why, even the aroma in the air had disappeared.

The nineties marked the opening of the Indian economy and with it came telephones and televisions in every homes in the village.  The rotor dial telephone had made way for their electronic avatars.  Cable Television came in without any government controls or regulations and in the absence of any red-tape, each and every home joined the cable yugam in a matter of few weeks.  This resulted in the many channels reaching the homes and families getting closeted indoors glued to the television.

With the turn of the century, cows, goats and fowls disappeared from the cow-sheds and pens.  Every house had a car parked in the porch.  The era of Bible reading and hymn singing evenings ended as everyone got fixated to the tear jerking serials various channels beamed with vengeance to each other and to humanity.

This aspect of changing sounds was missing in Adoors ‘Pinneyum’ with the storyline spanning about 17 years.  He, well known as a perfectionist in the art of movie making, has captured even the minutest sounds like the coconut leaf dangling in the temple rubbing the shoulders of the actors.  It is a puzzle as to how Adoor failed to capture the changing sounds to depict the timeline in his movie.

When Kerala Saw Red

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Kerala state in India was carved out of the Madras State in 1956 as a result of reorganisation of states based on linguistic lines.  Until then, it was called Madras State – a name that was derived from Madras Presidency of British India.  The then state of Madras was reorganised into four: Madras, Mysore, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala based on the linguistic majority of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam respectively. Incidentally ‘Malayalam’ is the only language in the world which forms a Palindrome- when spelt in English would read the same both right to left and in Arabic style left to right.  A person whose mother tongue is Malayalam is called a Malayalee.  In recent times the nextgen has stylised this to ‘Mallu’.    

Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969 and their Kannada speaking brethren renamed Mysore to ‘Karnataka’ in 1973.  Andhra Pradesh was further subdivided to form Telangan State in 2014.  The city of Madras changed its name to Chennai in 1996.  The only vestige of the erstwhile Madras Presidency in the Indian Army  is the Madras Regiment – a group of Infantry Battalions and Madras Engineering Group (MEG) manned by soldiers from the erstwhile Madras Presidency states and in the civil front, the Madras Cricket Club (MCC).  Even though the Madras Presidency became history and the Madras city changed its name to Chennai, the North Indians, until recently continued to refer to the people by the demonym ‘Madrasi’, perhaps in a wee bit derogatory sense and therefore deemed an ethnic slur.

There is also a French connection to this ethnic, linguistic and colonial chaos.  The French in the Seventeenth Century established trading posts in South India at Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanaon on the East Coast in the Tamil speaking area and Mahe on the West Coast in the Malayalam speaking region.  Post Indian independence in 1947, the French continued to hold these areas until 1954.  A general election involving 178 people in Pondicherry Municipal and Commune Panchayat was held in 1954 and 170 people voted in favour of independence from France and eight people voted against.  Thus on 01 November 1954, Pondicherry became part of the Indian Union.  In order to maintain their French identity, these areas came directly under the rule of the federal government and was known as the Union Territory of Pondicherry.  They also underwent a name change and became Puduchery in 2006. 

After formation of Kerala State, the first elections to the state legislature was held in 1957 and the world was in for a surprise.  The Communist Party of India won the elections by a slim majority, forming the first democratically elected communist government in the world. It also became the first “non-Congress” ruled state in India. The Communist victory raised hackles in USA, especially at the height of the Cold War.  There were concerns within India too, particularly in the federal capital  of New Delhi, but Prime Minister Nehru, true to the spirit of federalism was willing to work with the then Communist Chief Minister, EMS Namboothirippad.

 A notable feature of the first EMS Government was the calibre of distinguished personalities who occupied Cabinet positions.  They initiated thoughtful changes in state government policies, mainly oriented on enabling the poor and the downtrodden.  Their actions were, in my view, mainly responsible for the current state of affairs in Kerala, with 100% literacy, good healthcare, zero population growth, eradication of poverty, very low child mortality and so on, all typical indicators of a developed country in the world.  The state’s development has been so well studied that the ‘Kerala Model’ is frequently referred to by economists, anthropologists, and policy-makers alike.  The United Nations’ annual Human Development Index (HDI) reports, rank Kerala along with developed countries of the world.

Through the Land Reforms Act the EMS government sought to confer ownership rights on tenant cultivators, grant permanent ownership of land for the agricultural labourers, by putting a ceiling on the individual land holdings so as to distribute the surplus land among the landless.  The landowning communities in Kerala, from all sections of society had an issue with this bill.

The introduction of the Education Bill added fuel to fire.  The Education Bill claimed to regulate appointments and working conditions of the teachers in the government-aided schools.  It also mandated to takeover any government-aided educational institution, if they fail to meet the conditions set by the newly promulgated bill.

Within hours of the passing of the Bill, ‘Vimochana Samaram’ (liberation struggle) was called to bring down the Communist government, mainly lead by the Churches, the upper caste Hindus and Muslim clergy, all whom had a stake in the ‘education pie’. The efforts  of these vested interests along with the manoeuvres of the political front led by the Indian National Congress Party, resulted in the dismissal of the  state Government by the Central Government,  using the notorious Article 356 of the Indian Constitution in 1959. Be that as it may, the leftist lean continues till date and the left ideology had taken deep roots.

The CIA’s role in Kerala did not surface until Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was ambassador to India in the early 1970s admitted this in his 1978 book ‘A Dangerous Place’.  In an interview of Moynihan with Ellsworth Bunker, the then US Ambassador to India (1956 to 1961), admitted to the US involvement.  He contended that the CIA had provided financial assistance to the Congress Party because the embassy had hard evidence that the Soviets were funding local communists.  He opined that “as they have done everywhere in the world, but as we have done elsewhere in the world, we have come to the assistance of our friends when we knew and had evidence about what the Communists were doing financially and otherwise (sic).”

That was the left side of Kerala state and until I was selected to join the National Defence Academy in 1978, I was in no way affected by a left leaning Kerala. When a successful candidate from a state other than Kerala, had to fill in only a few forms for police clearance, I had to fill in a dozen more.  All because I hailed from a Leftist Kerala State.  Now I needed a special verification from the various intelligence bureaus of the state police and the central police.  I was well advised by my father never to disclose any connection of our family to the Communist Party – my uncle M Thomas was a Communist member of the Legislature from Kottayam (1971-1977).  The police clearance procedure resulted in many policemen, from different departments, making frequent visits to our home and my father had no option but to grease their palms, else his son may be denied entry into NDA.  Luckily, now days, this practice seems to have ended. 

 

Thankachan – Our Fish Vendor

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In our young days the fish vendors would come cycling down the street early morning, howling at the top of the voice mathiye  mathi… roopakku aaru  (Sardines, Sardines – six for a rupee). One of the women from the household would go to the street on hearing his calling and the vendor would dismount. Putting the cycle laden with the heavy fish-basket on the rear carrier gingerly on its stand would commence the procedure. It would begin with ascertaining the freshness of the fish, the type of fish and the price. The lady would most often complain that the fish he sold last time was not all that fresh as the vendor would have claimed. After exchanging a few bargaining words, the price would be settled and the vendor would count out fish as demanded. Sometimes the men would also go out to the road to purchase the fish.

After our eldest brother turned a teen, it became his duty every alternate morning to buy the fish. As we all grew up, everyone took turns. During my vacations from boarding school, I was entrusted the duty for the two months. Whenever I bought the fish, Amma would always compliment me for the ‘deal’ I clinched from the fish vendor. Our eldest brother became suspicious of my ‘deal’ and one day he asked me the secret behind it. I told him that I would tell Amma not the actual price I paid, but half a rupee or a quarter less. He then wanted to know as to how I managed the balance change and I told him that the few coins I saved up from my pocket money at school was used for this. If I could gather a few brownie points over my brothers and above all if I could make Amma feel pleased, it was worth it, I thought.

We generally bought fish every alternate day as we all liked a day old fish curry.  It was only with the a day of ageing that the kodampuli, a specific type of tamarind from the Malabar region in Kerala, would soak into the soft flaky flesh of the fish from the backwaters of the Arabian coast… and that is also when all the spices let out their combined aromas. The day after, the fish curry with steaming hot fresh puzhungarisi choru, boiled ‘boiled’rice, tastes truly like it was made for God, in his own country, none the less!

After our father’s retirement, he would rise early, clear the fallen leaves in the courtyard and await the fish vendor. We never had any particular vendor, but would buy the fish from the one who arrived first. One day Thankachan came with the fish and our father bought some from him. Again after two days it was Thankachan who sold fish to our father.

Promptly, Thankachan appeared on our doorsteps the next day requesting our father to buy fish. My father explained to him that we bought fish only on alternate days. Now Thankachan narrated his story.

Thankachan had been into the fish vending business for the past two years and not even one day he could sell off all his fish. At the end of the day he would sell all the remaining fish in the basket to the Toddy Shop at half price and this always ate into his earnings. Our father was his very first customer for the two days and on both the days his basket was empty by noon. That was why he did not sell any fish to anyone on his way from the market to our home and wanted our father as his first customer, being a good omen.

From that day we bought fish every morning and Thankachan would give us a good deal, but always made sure that he received the payment only from our father. This customer relationship continued for the next ten years until Thankachan called it a day from his business of door-to-door fish vending.

Many vendors in India still feel that the business for the day would depend on the first sale they execute and the day will go well only in case the first customer is a lucky person for the vendor. The vendors hate when the first customer wants credit and some even refuse such customers or in case it is unavoidable, would request them to come after an hour.

With the changing times, development and prosperity setting in Kerala, where in all the strata of the society prospered together, the fish vendors discarded their bicycles for motor-bikes. Now they do not howl at the top of their voices, but would text preferred customers the details of the type of fish and the price and the interested customers would confirm by a return text message. Once they got confirmation for their entire stock, then only will they set out on their bikes from the market.

The days of the haggling fish vendor has now been confined to history.

Where to Find God

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A very pertinent question being asked in today’s world, filled with evangelists from all religions and sects, standing on rooftops and on TV, shouting at the top of their voices.  Everyone it appears want to prove to the world that the Gods they sell are the best, accompanied  by miracles in various forms.  Most of these evangelists, exploiting the greed of humanity, have amassed wealth that even their Gods cannot fathom.

The city of Kottayam in Kerala, which boasts of near cent percent literacy, is better known as the city of three Ls – Latex , Letters and Liquor.  It is the trading centre of natural rubber in India and the Indian Rubber Board is also located here.  The city boasts of many educational institutions with their glorious past and also is the home for most publishing houses in Kerala with Malayala Manorama and its allied publications leading the pack.  It also set many records in liquor consumption, but of late, other smaller towns have leaped miles ahead of Kottayam.  The city boasts of many Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches that dot the townscape.  It is the headquarters of most factions of the Syrian Christians.   

Panhandling has been banned in Kottayam since my childhood, but one can always spot a few beggars in and around the town, especially adjacent to religious places of worship.  On the  days of various festivals in these religious places, an army of beggars, mostly immigrants from the other Indian states, congregate here.  It appears to be an organised racket and the way they are moved from one place to another and the methodology employed in locating them at vantage points would put any army to shame.

On a Friday morning, a  beggar, desperate to get a few bucks as he was really hungry, located himself in front of a mosque in Kottayam.  In the afternoon, everyone came for the prayers (Jummah).  (The schools in Kerala have a long recess on Fridays, extending till 2:30 PM to facilitate Muslim students to offer Jummah).   On culmination of the prayers, everyone folded their caps, dusted and rolled their prayer mats and went home.  No one even bothered to give a glance at the hungry beggar.

On Saturday morning the beggar placed himself at the vantage point of Shiva Temple of Kottayam.    The devotees came in droves (Second Saturday of a month is a holiday for all offices and schools of Kerala) and offered Poojas, Nivedyams and Abhishekams and left and no one gave any offering to the hungry beggar.

On Sunday morning the beggar placed himself in front of the Cathedral.  He reached there well before the priest and the church manager could even open the doors.  During the Holy Mass, Gospel reading was from the Gospel According to Saint Mathews – Chapter 25 – Verses 35 to 40.  Verse 35 says  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”  At end of the mass, priest in his sermon reminded all true followers of Christ that they must feed the hungry as it would be equivalent to any offering to God. 

The beggar was full of hope that he would surely get something, especially after the priest’s sermon.  The Clergy and the Laymen all assembled after the Holy Mass for the meeting and elected  committee for the coming year and dispersed.  No one gave anything to the beggar.

On Monday morning, by about 10′ o clock, the beggar perched in a shady corner, next to the outlet of Beverages Corporation of Kerala (liquor vent).  A queue of about 30 people had already been formed, without any jostling or pushing, awaiting the auspicious time of 10 AM for the sale window to open.   The salesman at dot 10 AM opened the window and brisk sales proceeded and more people joined the queue.

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By about 11 AM, the beggar found his pan full of money and overjoyed with it, he prayed to God Almighty.  He wanted God to answer his query as to why He gave him His wrong address.  God appeared in front of the beggar and explained to him His reasons.

“Look! These are the real devotees.  Everyone has formed a proper and well disciplined queue which you will never find in front of any other places you had been till now.  There is no difference between rich and poor; literate and illiterate.  There is no segregation  along caste, creed or religious lines.    They stand in a queue in most descent manner, braving storms, rains or hot sun.  They respect each others’ privacy and ensure that they do not even touch the one in the front.”

“These devotees are only asking for what they want and never for their parents, children, relatives or friends.  They never request that others should not be given what they want.  They ask what they want in minimum words, in a language everyone understands.  They neither sing praises about their brand of liquor  nor do they sermonise about evils and goodness of liquor.  Here there are no VIPs and one does not have to pay upfront at various counters and obtain a receipt for services rendered.  There are neither  any commission agents nor are there any long forms to be filled.  There is no need for any written application on a white sheet of paper.  They never try to bribe Me with their offerings in cash or in kind, without realising that if offered to the needy would be of immense help and if offered to Me would never be of any use to anyone.”

“Hence isn’t this the best place in Kottayam for the God to be?”.

On hearing the reasons given by the God, the beggar asked “Then why did You make me beg around for the past three days?”

The God replied “That is to show you beggars as to where to find Me.”

My First Sex Education

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During our childhood my brother, the youngest in the family, then aged four, came up with an unusual request.  He wanted someone younger to him.  It was all because he was at the losing end of all the physical fights we siblings had.  At the time our parents solved the problem by getting him a kid – a goat’s kid – a female one.  That was how goat rearing commenced at our home.

In the evenings, after school, we used to take the goat out into our farmland for grazing.  We had to be on the lookout to ensure that the goat did not forage on the Tapioca (Kasava) cultivation, mainly to save the cultivation and also to save the goat from food poisoning. Little did I then know that the toxicity of the tapioca foliage was due to the presence Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN).    During the Monsoon rains, we had to cut the necessary forage from the trees which acted as support for the black pepper wines.

The kid grew real fast with all the attention and forage that we children heaped on her.  In a year she matured into a beautiful doe and was ready for a mate.  A Doe would come to heat by the end of summer and it lasts for two or three days and the cycle is repeated every three weeks.

In Kerala, the schools reopen after the summer vacations on 01 June but my Alma Mater, Sainik School Amravathinagar, reopens only by 15 June.  During my Grade 7 summer vacation, after the schools reopened for my brothers, our doe bleated one entire night.  In the morning Amma said that the doe is on heat and it is time to mate her.  That day our farm-hand did not turn up as he had pneumonia due to drenching in the monsoon showers the previous day.  I was the only one now free to take the doe for mating.

The village had a tea-shop run by a man named Kuttappai.  The tea-shop served as the meeting place for all village elders and doubled up as a reading room.  All dailies and magazines published from Kottayam found their way there.  It also served as the village ‘parliament’.  It was indeed a house of knowledge, and doubled up as a cultural-political-social-entertainment institution, where anything and everything under the sun – from international relations to state and village politics; science to the Bible; communism to capitalism – were discussed.  Gossips too found their way in, obviously as spicy as the narrator could make it.

Kuttappai reared a flock of goats housed in a thatched shed to the rear of the tea-shop.  He used the milk from the goats to make tea and obviously the village folk relished his special tea.  The flock was led by a majestic buck.  The buck also served as the village stud and Kuttappai charged Rs 10 for every mating.

At about 11 o’ clock, I walked our doe to Kuttappai’s tea shop, as per Amma’s advise because that was the time  when the tea-shop would be empty of customers as people would have returned home after fiery debates and discussions.  Obviously that was the only time Kuttappai would be free to facilitate the mating.

On reaching the tea-shop, Kuttappai instructed me to tie our doe closely on to a coconut tree adjacent to the goat shed.  The smell and sight of the doe in heat made the buck tied in the shed restless and his snorting and kicking increased, at times reaching a violent stage as if he would bring the entire shed down.

After 15 minutes, Kuttappai emerged from his tea-shop.  The buck was tied with a long rope and Kuttappai released him so as to make him reach the doe.  The buck went around the doe, smelled and licked her vulva and when he was about to mount her, Kuttappai pulled him back into the shed and tied him up.  That was a staged foreplay for the buck.

Now the buck had turned real violent as the frequency of his kicking multiplied and the volume of his snorts became louder.  After 10 minutes Kuttappai again released the buck and he came charging in and mounted the doe and the entire mating was completed in a few seconds.  Kuttappai now pulled the buck back into the shed and like a conqueror, the buck stood with his head high, but the tone of his snorts had changed as if to announce his accomplishment.

A doe generally gets into heat in the later part of summer and in Kerala, it coincides with the onset of Monsoons (June to September).  There are certain indications the doe gives out when in heat.  Her vulva swells and become red, and she may have some vaginal discharge.    She tends to eat less and become restless because the hormones associated with fertility kick in.  A milk producing doe may decrease her milk production due to the hormonal changes.  Her frequency of tail-wagging suddenly increases and her bleats become longer, especially at night.

During the monsoons when the doe goes into heat, the buck goes into rut.  During rut the buck urinates into his mouth and on his chest, face, and beard, turning them yellow.  The scent glands near his horns become overactive.  These lead to an unbearable stink – in reality the stink is to attract a doe in heat towards him.  During rut a buck would snort, grunt and kick its hind legs.  It tends to give a terrorising look with its upper lip curled up.

In the evening when Amma returned from school I dutifully reported to her the events of the day and posed some uncomfortable questions about the procedure and the need for it.  The School teacher in Amma responded with poise and she summarised the entire event as an act of depositing the sperm by the buck in the doe’s womb where it would fertilise an egg and would result in formation of an embryo.  She also explained that the rooster and the hens also did the same and so did humans. Thus began my introduction to sex education.

Hen’s Egg Song

HenSong

Every morning in our childhood, we were woken up by our Rooster’s crowing.  The rooster crows to announce his supremacy in the territory and in the brood.  During the day, one often heard the hens crying loud “bak bak ba kO” after laying an egg. This is often referred to as the hen’s ‘egg song’.

Our house had a barn about 50 meters away from the main building.  It housed the cows and had a room to store hay, the main fodder for the cows.   The hens utilised the hay area to beat the afternoon heat or to save themselves from the heavy monsoon downpours.  The brooding hens stayed there most of the day, hardly ever going out.  Most of the hens laid their eggs too over the hay stacks.  Some would find their way into the house and lay their eggs in the store room where Amma stored the grains and other yields from the farm.  They would also use the area where old newspapers and magazines were stored to lay their eggs.

Hens often resort to ritual singing after she has laid an egg.  The hen’s song generally lasts for a minute or two and at times extend up to five minutes.  Many a times, it turns very irritable to one’s ears and one would wish they would stop their endless singing at the earliest.  It appears that the hens want to broadcast to the world that they have achieved something great.  It is surely a great event in the hen’s day to have laid an egg.  But why do they do it?  Why does a hen feel the need to broadcast to the world that she has laid an egg? Would it not be sensible for them to be silent so as to protect their egg from predators and humans?

One possible explanation is that the hen is feeling proud of the achievement for laying an egg. So, in fact she must be ‘crowing with pride’ about her accomplishment.  It may also be that she is feeling relieved to have it plop out.   Another possibility is that having gone off to lay her egg in private somewhere, she is calling to the rest of the flock to rejoin them.  It could also be that she is protecting her egg by moving away from it and distracting predators from the nest itself and focusing their attention to her instead to keep her egg safe.

The song could also be an invitation to the rooster for mating.  At the end of the song, the rooster would often approach the hen with a dipped wing, waving his colourful tail feathers and dance around her in a circular pattern. It often culminates with a successful mating.  One mating can leave enough sperm to fertilize each egg for up to a week, hence it may not be a daily ritual.

The hens are not only vocal when they lay their eggs, they also make sounds of purring, growling, predator warnings, squawking and calling chicks to food. Certain breeds are more talkative than others and some chicken are louder or quieter depending on their breed and genetic constitution.

We also had a few ducks.  The ducks would quack all through the day and one could never fathom the reason for the ruckus they created.  There was hardly any pattern to it.  They normally laid their eggs at night and would remain quite after their accomplishment.  Sometimes they laid their eggs early in the morning while being taken to the water filled paddy fields.  Mostly these eggs were often lost.  Once the water was drained out from the fields to sow rice, one could often collect many eggs from there.

The duck’s egg is surely much bigger than hen’s.  Some claim that the duck eggs have twice the nutritional value of a hen’s egg and stay fresh for a longer period as compared a hens egg due to their thicker shell.    Duck eggs are rich with Albumen, making cakes and pastries fluffier and richer, as compared to hen’s eggs.  Duck eggs have more Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 apparently prevents irregular heartbeat, reduce fatty plaques inside artery walls, decrease blood clotting, decrease triglycerides (blood fat), increase HDL (good cholesterol) and decrease inflammation.  That may the reason why the Chinese preserve duck eggs by soaking in brine, or packing each egg in damp, salted charcoal. It is said to be a delicacy and have been known to be edible for years.

The hens announce their accomplishment of laying an egg to the entire world around, but the duck, even though does a better job, keeps quiet after the accomplishment.  We as kids used to get into the hay stacks to look for an egg before the crows snatch it away on hearing the hen’s song.  A few times it turned out to be hoax, as some hens may sing without laying an egg.

The ducks do not brood and do not sit idle in one place, hence poor hatchers.  At our home, a brooding hen hatched the duck eggs.  The hen would take care of the ducklings like her chicks.  After a week or two, the ducklings would jump into the water in the paddy fields and would start swimming.  The poor mother-hen would run  around crying, unable to get into water and swim and unable to get near her ‘chicks’ and protect them.  This event marks the end of the mother-chick relationship and the ducklings now go their way in a flock.

Perhaps, there is a human parallel to this comparison.  A few people execute difficult tasks and accomplish great deeds, but keep quite after all their hard work.  They do not announce it to the world and often their works are recognised many years after their death.    Galileo Galilei – a scientist, mathematician, and astronomer; Vincent van Gogh – Dutch Post-Impressionist painter; Johann Sebastian Bach – as a composer; Gregor Johann Mendel – who discovered the basic principles of Genetics; and the list is endless.

Some people do announce to the world all their accomplishments and many make much noise about small feats.  Some would fake it too; no job but only noise.

May be it’s better to be a hen than a duck in the present days of social media dominated world, where even the silliest activity is broadcast as a great accomplishment.  So, are you a ‘duck type’ or a ‘hen type’?