CHENNAI: Sometimes just the name is enough to evoke a particular image. In this case, the imagery is of intelligence, cunning and stealth. It finds a place in Egyptian mythology as it does in Indian folklore. In Kipling’s Jungle Book, it is christened Tabaqui. In one film, it features as the assassin’s code name. Those are enough pointers for you to know that we are talking about the jackal or should we say the Golden Jackal, also known as the Common Jackal.
Native to India, Pakistan, Burma, Bhutan and Nepal, the Indian jackal (Canis aureus indicus) belongs to the dog family Canidae. Indian jackals are smaller than dogs. They appear similar to wolves but are much smaller. They are found on the outskirts of villages and towns at dusk and dawn. But sighting them is not easy as they are almost never in the same place.
In a village, it is getting to be dusk. After a hard day’s work villagers are returning home in their bullock carts and on bicycles. Some are walking carrying on their shoulders farm produce. The evening dust raised by the cattle and the bells jangling from their necks adds a subtle melancholy. Cormorants, storks, ibis and ducks return in groups — some of them calling, adhering to a delightful flight pattern before going home to roost. This scene never fails to delight me and I carry on waiting, looking from my vantage point on the lake fringes across the open fields. My wait is rewarded. A pair of jackal heads emerge alongside the paddy field. The sun’s golden glow illuminates the paddy grass blades and the healthy jackals’ black and white fur glitters, though they are still camouflaged. Soon, they go deeper into the fields, occasionally turning their heads towards us. It’s getting darker but I hope for more sightings. I move in a different direction to a far away location. And then I see another pair emerging on the lake edges from their hideout, running to drink water from the lake. Jackals are clever and people seldom know their hideouts even when they are in their own farms and fields. When the thirst pangs are over, the jackals glance at us a couple of times and vanish again into the darkness.
Back when we were kids, when it came to harvesting paddy, my grandma would entrust me with the job of carrying dinner to people working in the fields. As I walked along the fields, dusk would give way to darkness in no time, making it as thrilling, even scary, an experience as nocturnal life would unfold — toads calling out loud, owls screeching with sometimes a loud splash in the river courtesy the otters and bitterns. One day it was getting chilly when all of a sudden I heard the faint howling of jackals from different directions coming from a couple of kilometres away. The howling intensified and I walked faster until I reached my destination. After dinner, my bed was on top of the piled up paddy husk. The jackal call seemed nearer now. I nodded off to sleep until I woke up at midnight to hear a not so soothing symphony — a number of jackals howling from just 100 metres away. And yet I could not see even a single member of this canine orchestra. I woke the others and we huddled closer, burying into the husk and going back to sleep.
Recently, during the monsoons, I was lucky to see three jackals emerging from the sugar cane fields fringing the Cauvery backwaters and moving onto the lush green paddy fields until finally climbing onto a small mount which held the sacred peepal tree in the centre. I stayed still. One of the jackals managed to catch a field mouse and slowly circled the tree thrice with the mouse in its mouth with the others close behind. One tiny movement and they were gone before I could say ‘Indian jackal!’