Archive for the ‘family’ category

Requiem for a kitten!

11 December 2010

Courage

By Aditi Baindur

In the pouring rain, a mewing sound emanated from our garage into my room. My dad and I took flash lights and went to investigate. We found that the sound came from an empty cardboard box piled high along the wall. Inside, I found a tiny ball of fur, a hungry and emaciated, flea-covered feline calling for its mother.

After I got it down, we took it home. I fell in love with its soulful eyes at first glance. I felt that it would be a loyal pet. My mum, who is fond of cats, was graciously willing to allow the new little addition to our family. I decided to name it “Courage”. Tick powder, milk and a dropper were purchased from the store and immediate help was given.

Courage was white with a black spot on both of his ears and one on his back.  He could comfortably fit in the palm of my hand.

To begin with, Courage was not in the best of health. A two-week old kitten normally cannot survive without its mother as it depends on her for nutrition, immunity, safety and hygiene.

When we showed the kitten to Dr Vinchurkar, our visiting veterinarian, he mentioned that while Courage was not healthy as he had picked up a fungal infection from his mother, he still had a slim chance of making it. We started dosing Courage and hand-feeding him. We used cotton, ink-droppers and a children’s bottle to feed him milk. Courage would cling on to the bottle while drinking which looked extremely adorable.

Slowly he gained strength and became active. When he was not feeding or sleeping, Courage was playful. He made a purring sound when he played with my hair. I spent most of my time playing with him. Very soon, all of us got used to him being in the house, so did our dogs.

My Labrador retriever, Aslan could not make up his mind about whether to growl at the kitten or simply play with it. My other dog, Tashi did not like Courage as it took away our attention from her. She never hurt the kitten but growled if it approached her.

We converted a cardboard cartoon into a play-pen. Courage used one corner to relieve his needs so it was easy to change the papers and keep both him and the box clean. He soon learnt to climb out of the box which was taller than he was. He dug his claws into the cardboard and centimetre by centimetre climbed out of it. We clapped the first time he managed to get out unaided. Courage was loved by everyone; guests who came over would coochie-coo over him.

One day, our little kitten just stopped drinking milk. When we would try to feed him, he would shut his snout tight and not open it. We tried to force it down his throat but he would spit it out. We called the veterinarian doctor to examine him but Courage did not live that long. We put all of Courage’s chew-toys and baby bottle with him when we buried him in our backyard, except for one toy which I kept in his memory.

Even now, I remember him playing with my hair, running under tables and beds, mewing when not given attention. Though Courage is no longer with us, memories of the short time he spent with us live on in our minds. Rest in peace, Courage. We love you!

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The Tribes on my Frontier

15 January 2009

Having moved into a quiet bungalow in the College campus, I looked forward to a pleasant interlude after all the years of toil. Very large in my scheme of enjoyable solitude was my garden; still coming up after a marathon of planting by my father-in-law and now blooming from some TLC after a couple of years of neglect. What can be better than a quiet Sunday morning snooze on a garden chair in the lawn or an afternoon 40 winks on the diwan under the verandah shade before a refreshing cup of tea emerges forth from the house lovingly proferred by wifey. Paradise, I thought and began to enjoy it all. Alas, it was too good to be true. For you see, I had not accounted for the tribes on my frontier!

They creep up on you unsuspectingly. One drowsy Sunday morning, with head nodding, I heard a plop on the small teapoy in front of me. It was one of the avian tribesmen, golden and black in colour, making an offering to the great sahab of his guano. The wretch not only spoilt my newspaper but thoroughly woke me up with a musical trill which brought my son, Aashay, out saying ”Oh look Pappa, its a golden oriole!” I ask you would you forgive Lata Mangeshkar or any other heavenly singer if she crept up on your slumber in the garden and blasted you in the ear no matter how melodiously she sang. You would despatch her rather quickly, but with a reputation for being a bird-lover, I was forced to smile to match my son’s enthusiasm. It seemed that the bird would never stop singing! By the time it left, I couldn’t sleep any more.

I tried the early afternoon instead, and found a green red-whiskered barbet delightfully tapping out his monotonous beat on the dead tree next to my garage. Finding a dirty look instead of appreciation, he cringed and flew off but sent big brother, a Maratha woodpecker, instead. Louder, bossier, and tapping fast enough to get him an interview in any workshop, dirty looks were of no avail as he had his speckled back to me. Words of abuse did not get him to lower his red cockade. I shook the tree violently and sent off this ruffian ‘Katphora’. But it was too late, I was wide awake.

Few things gave these creatures solidarity as their endeavour to disturb my well earned repose. One rainy afternoon, braving the occasional leak and rejoicing at the absence of birdsong, I had barely settled down when a large shiny black carpenter bee, no doubt an MES employee, came inspecting the rotting rafters of the verandah. He buzzed loudly around me ignoring the frantic swats from my newspaper. He paused overhead as if to say, hey Bud, you know I have no sting, let the rain stop and I’ll be out of here before you can sing honeybee. At long last, the rain stopped and the bee went away but now the soporific patter of a rain shower was replaced by a mismatched drip drap of different series of drops with one freshly born stream created just for anointing me. It was useless, I moved into the house.

As I had worked very hard for this pleasure, there was no way I was going to let these pesky aborigines deprive me. So one day I selected a nice hammock under the Gliricidia trees, but rushed back very soon as I had forgotten the carnivorous mosquitoes of CME who descended on me like the hordes of Genghis Khan on an unsuspecting Central Asian city.

The large cemented patio at the back of the house finally seemed to do the trick and in the warm sunlight I blissfully entered the jungle of my dreams. A soft rustling disturbed me. I ignored it awhile hoping it would subside but it persisted. At last I blinked awake to stare into the astonished faces of a pair of mongooses taking some quality timeout together. They looked at me as would a pair of Burmese natives if suddenly a pot-bellied laughing Buddha statue of their pagoda suddenly came to life. They did a disappearing act worthy of Houdini but not before a bunch of lascivious ‘sathbhais’ or large grey babblers in the ‘Parijaat’ tree beyond, who had been ogling the svelte mongooses, set up a devil of a cackle on being deprived of their entertainment. I rushed inside into the dark shadows of my bedroom for some solace but it was not to be – the neighbourhood tomcat encouraged by my daughter Aditi’s daily offerings of milk had alerted my pet dog Tashi with predictable results. Sometimes you just can’t win. Seriously, its almost enough to put you off wildlife.

Note. This blog entry is dedicated to the late Edward Hamilton Aiken, naturalist and writer extraordinary, whose classic account of nature in Kutch holds the same title as this piece. Read more about him at the blog entry above.

Solifugids ko salaam!

13 January 2009

(Hindi  :  Hail the Solifugids!)

In my family, it is usually my son, Aashay, or me who exclaims at the beauty of a bird or goggles at the Chinkara loitering amongst the dunes. My daughter Aditi, is the sophisticate, who has a been-there, done-that attitude towards this whole ‘animal thing’. Animals do not interest this ten year old; she is into horror films, the more gory and Gothic the better. So it was with some surprise that during a trip in 2006 to the Jaisalmer desert, where I was posted, that Aditi had an interesting interlude with, of all things, Solifugids.

Solifugids are mysterious arthropods. Unknown to most people, they are misunderstood even amongst those who are familiar with them. I suspect that the only people who might be supposed to know about them, scientists, don’t actually, because till date none of them has bothered to tell me anything about these strange creatures!

What are solifuges, you ask? Don’t worry, I take no offense at your query. Solifuges are large members of the tribe ‘arthropods‘ (meaning jointed creatures). The arthropods consist of the millions of six-legged insects, and the many more-than-six-legged other creatures such as crabs, spiders and the various -pedes. A solifuge is not an insect but one of the others, a relative of the spiders, and other eight-legged creatures, which are referred to as Arachnids. The clan is scientifically so named because of its dislike for the sun. They take refuge from the sun, so Sol (meaning Sun) and refuge (meaning refuge) = Solifuge. Get it?

As far as the common names are concerned, the common people have not quite decided what they resemble more – spiders or scorpions so that they are commonly referred to, both as wind-scorpions and camel-spiders! And sometimes, most insultingly to all solifugids, they are also called sun-spiders or sun-scorpions despite their obvious and lifelong abhorrence of the sun.

If a Solifugid is disturbed by day, he will first of all dart into the coolest shade he can find which may well be your shadow. If you move away and so does your shadow, you should not be surprised to find the solifugid following in order to keep out of the blazing sun. This behaviour can be quite un-nerving to those who don’t know much about Solifugids and has led the birth of many urban legends about Solifugids in Iraq amongst American soldiers.

The desert floor is the hunting ground of these creatures who spend their day deep in the crevices of rocks or nooks amongst roots or wherever they can hide from the heat and light of the Sun. They emerge after dark, still careful to keep in the deep shadows or even deeper, if possible. Being cup or saucer-sized, a Solifugid in the light is guaranteed to get screams from the female members of a party. In actuality, they are completely and totally harmless to man!

Each self-respecting garden in the Thar desert has a solifugid so did my garden in ‘Casa Grande’ as we colloquially referred to my modest bungalow. So it happened one day, as we sat in the garden at dusk with some of the verandah light weakly illuminating patches between our legs and those of the chairs, that a shadowy figure darted in between causing my wife to involuntarily lift and fold her legs onto the chair.

”Ashwin”, she said, ”there is a crab under my feet!”

”Dont worry dear, just a desert crab, I’m sure!” was my enlightened response. Those were the days when I too was ignorant about Solifuges, not having been introduced to any, thank you!

The kids immediately said, ”Where, where?”

But the solifuge wisely decided to stay out of the limelight and so a torch was sent for and obtained. The torch beam was pointed here and there between our legs but with limited success, for, the creature, once illuminated refused to stay put! Now this became a prestige issue for the family. I always maintain that any creepy or crawlie which heads towards us does so at his own embarrasment and risk. The family rallied together and cornered the recalcitrant beast. It was a most curious creature!

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

A solifuge looks like a thorny, bristly, cross between an insect and a large spider. Though it may look poisonous or venomous, it is not. It has an insect-like body but with eight ten legs instead of six, with the forward-most pair of ‘leg’s actually being pedipalps which are used for feeding and capturing prey. The solifugid has a pair of eyes perched closely together at the top of his head and you very soon get the feeling that he understands whatever is happening and knows everything! The solifugid kept moving throughout the garden and we succeeded in getting photographs by night despite my inexperience in photography.

At that point of time my kids were going through a scorpion fetish. The scorpion mania took the form of not just asking questions about scorpions or reading about them, but by incarcerating any scorpion foolish enough to come within ten yards of the two. Aashay in his quiet confident way mastered the art of capturing scorpions safely and painlessly. He would herd a scorpion onto a large piece of cardboard and once the creature got onto it he would place an empty jar upturned over it and flip the cardboard so that the scorpion first found that he was trapped on a cardboard with glass all around, then found himself falling through space into the glass-jar as it was inverted. Many unwary scorpions on venturing out after dark now found themselves part of a glass-jar menagerie. But with Solifugids around, scorpions are small game. Inevitably, desires escalated and it was resolved that there was no reason why they should not catch a Solifugid, so the scorpions were gratified to gain clemency, a larger piece of cardboard and a larger jar were procured and in due course of time the Casa Grande solifugid was trapped!

''Soli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family.

''Solli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family. Note his pointed jaws which are chelicerae. He has two above and two below which have a strong pincer grip.

Aditi promptly declared that the scorpions had been Dada’s pets so this pet was hers! This was violently contradicted and like siblings the world over the two feuded and had a fierce yelling match with accusations and counter-accusations. The matter was finally resolved with a truce suggested by the Missus that the Solifugid was to be shared till they procured another when they each would have their own! My forceful remonstrations that while by catching the Solufugid they had proved a point but that keeping it would not be a good idea, were not even acknowledged by anyone.

If you have a pet, it must have a name. So Solifugid number One was promptly named ”Soli”! The Solifugid then proceeded to become the darling of our lives. It had a large plastic bread-box as a temporary home. Here he paraded while he was inspected and examined and shown to anyone within range!

Solli took grave exception to being disturbed. Even a finger extended towards him outside the translucent box angered him. Then he would sway back and forth on his legs waving his forward pair threateningly and gnashing his jaws in a up-down motion. At one time, he took such an exception to a toothbrush waved at him that he jumped and almost succeeded in escaping out of the box. This performance increased his value and he became a dearer pet to Aditi.

Gesturing fiercely with his front legs!

Gesturing fiercely with his pedipalps!

The very next day, another Solifugid, this time a juvenile was caught in a neighbouring compund, and there was another fight before it was decided as to which Solifugid belonged to whom. The juvenile then underwent the indignity of being christened ”Rustam”. Rustam was overall smaller in size, his legs were proportionally smaller, he was more docile or well-behaved but he was never quite as interesting as ”Solli”.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

That night I had nightmares of finding myself sharing the bed with a solifugid instead of my wife! Fortunately for all concerned, the Solifugids had resolutely refused all offers of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food so that I could lay down the law. The kids agreed very reluctantly to release them but not without an elaborate release ceremony the following evening. Though Rustam and Solli had ended their membership of the Baindur family, Solli continued to be seen on his night-time hunts in the garden.

Free at last!

Free at last!

Soli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Solli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Thus ended the saga of the strangest pets that our family had!