October 2, 2020
Autumn feels like spring in Aravali Biodiversity Park – lush, wild and weedy, and humming with a dizzying assortment of creatures.
I’m here in this 378-acre dry deciduous forest seeking only the Jewel Bug, that shimmery little character who looks like a metallic hyperrealist painting. I spend hours in reconnaissance along with my tiny army of two bug spotters, Joginder and Shriansh, but we wander around luckless.
We pause and confer and conclude that we are being unfair to that other beetle that has been demanding our attention, and quite loudly, for a long time. They have even attempted nosediving into us in reckless drunken stupor, and that’s not something J&S are excited about. They keep ducking and swerving, waving their arms frantically in the air.
They like bugs, but from a distance. They ask me if these beetles bite and I tell them they don’t. They look like they think I’m making it up. I am.
I move my focus to the Orange Blister Beetle, the hyperactive Falstaffian characters – plump, jolly and debauched. They proliferate at this time, and are being particularly brazen today. They are flying, dueling, copulating, feasting and excreting in frenzied succession. It’s as if there is no tomorrow.
Well, for many creatures, there isn’t.
We have several memorable serendipitous encounters next: the Indian Common Silverline, the butterfly with a deceptively expressive posterior (it looks like a ferocious face); the grasshopper lost in deep contemplation; the praying mantis lost in deep prayer; and the carpenter ant immersed in yogic experimentation.
I now find myself suddenly drawn into the utterly enchanting lives of bugs. Would Gerald Durrell object to an inspired sequel called ‘My Friends and Other Bugs’?
The Bugs of Gurgaon
Though tempted, I don’t intend it as a metaphor.
I am at the Aravali Biodiversity Park again. The Orange Blister Beetles have all gone, save a few stragglers engaged in trapeze acts, hanging delicately from a thin stalk or possessively hugging a bud. They remind me of the Chipko movement.
It’s the day of dragonflies. The three we spot are doing some colour calibration – yellow then orange then crimson. Their chiffony filigree wings are exquisitely designed, and I wiggle and bend to try and catch the glint off their gilt-edged wings. Joginder reminds me that back home, we call them ‘helicopter’.
Just when I am in position, nudging myself gingerly into a crouching position a few inches from the face of the dragonfly, I hear a bellow: “Sir ji kucch hai kya?” This is an overzealous young man who is curious to know what the three of us are gazing at. Before I can convey to Joginder and Shriansh my dismay, and a plea to shoo off the offending creature, the man is bellowing louder, “Jaldi ao, kucch hai.” He is calling out to his wife and son. They scurry up to us. We look at them and just shake our heads vigorously. They drift away.
My dragonfly, meanwhile, has changed its perch and it takes me many slow-motion minutes to sneak up to it. J&S are on high alert for intruders.
It’s sundown. On the walk back, we stop three times: for the white fuzzy caterpillar, the dung beetle that leaves tractor-tyre marks in the dust, and the tiniest beehive I’ve ever seen – just two-three bees and a hive the size of a small teacup. What’s equally new to me is that the hive is on the underside of a cactus leaf.
Game of Thorns
The dragonflies are flying too high, he complains. Those fat bright beetles have gone, he murmurs. We are stepping into winter, what can we find now? He scours the thorny thickets with resignation.
While I continue to pause now and then to marvel at the understory, Joginder, my chef when he’s not a bug spotter, continues to grumble against the weather and the sauntering Great Dane which comes up to his shoulders.
In dodging the dog while pretending not to, he ventures into the brambles – and that’s when his epiphany happens. He spots the Jewel Bug, the one we had been seeking for several days! We spend a long time admiring and shooting this tiny wonder, though it means pushing through the thorns and getting pricked in many places.
The bug grows on J. In a moment of unrestrained adoration, he decides to try placing it on a leaf so he can hold it closer. He contorts himself close to his object of affection, ignoring my warnings about being pricked in the posterior. His laboured manoeuvrings conclude not with the bug onto the leaf but deep into the thicket. I give him the ‘I told you’ look and we amble on.
I give him some homegrown gyan: Love is not enough, Joginder, and neither is persistence. You also need strategy.
I regard what I have just spouted as some iconic wisdom. One of those spontaneous moments of sheer genius. I am so impressed by me. J isn’t. In fact, far from it. Looking neither soothed nor edified, he shuffles along forlornly.
When we start ambling back, I can’t stop him from examining that thicket again.
Lo and behold, the bug is back there! Once again, J casts aside my injunctions about risks to posterior, crouches in, a large leaf in one hand, and this time manoeuvres successfully. Once he has extricated himself from the bushes, he holds the leaf to me with a triumphant grin.
We gaze in awe: the legs are painted in gradients of blue, and the underbelly is a flaming pink. This is psychedelic.
Thankfully, I am able to persuade him to not get the creature home. “Think about his wife. How will she feel?”
“She might just thank me,” he says.
I ignore this truism and we proceed bug-free. We spend the rest of our Biodiversity evening chattering about the beetle and pulling out thorns.
Billi ka Balota
Over the years, Sandeep and Joginder, the chauffeur and the chef, have learned to work around their many incompatibilities to become complementary comrades. Almost all their conversations end up as a fine balance of the commonsensical and the nonsensical. Almost always, the objective is achieved expediently – and hilariously.
Sandeep finally agrees to come along into the Park this evening. They both emanate easy amiability and within minutes they have made friends with one of the watchmen. I’m happy that my army of bug spotters has grown, except that soon enough I’m not sure if they are looking for bugs or for berries. Every now and then I find them paused in their tracks, experimenting with colourful little fruits of questionable edibility and then discussing degrees of pungency. My merry-berry gang.
Sandeep uses his height – he is sixish – to examine the higher reaches of trees. Joginder uses his own height to peer closer to earth. I use my median altitude to cover the gap. Sandeep spots a pair of large praying mantis lodged way beyond my macro lens. I zoom in on Joginder’s find, a speckled grasshopper with red underside lining.
During one of my random researches, I had discovered that carmine was once derived from insects to use as a crimson colourant – even in food. This fact is difficult to digest. I wish I hadn’t looked up kermes vermilio.
I get urgently beckoned by Sandeep. What he points at takes my breath away, and just when I was thinking carmine. Wedged between two stems is this cluster of tiny red blobs with antennas. I imagine they are little ladybug hatchlings, and they seem to be popping out of a thin strip of bubble-wrap. I admonish myself for not bringing my zoom lens along.
I chance upon those strange blue-black balls again, some quaint wild fruit or seed. When I had first done an image search on the net, all I had got were matches with black pearl earrings. I ask the opinion of the berry experts. Here’s what happens next.
Sandeep: This is Billi ka Balota
Joginder: Billi ka lota? What’s that?
Sandeep: Lota nahi Joginder ji, Balota
Aanye, pronounced like tryin’ minus the tr, is his reflexive response to instruction, request and question alike. Sandeep chuckles, Joginder ignores, and we move on when further deliberations on Billi ka Balota yield no promise of moving towards an empirical botanical conclusion.
I decide that I’d like to take along this oddly well-matched twosome on all future expeditions. They are berry lovely company. (My apologies for that ghastly pun, but it is too much fun.) I’d love to also invite Shriansh, a family friend, but these days he is preoccupied with quite another journey, which might be less adventurous but more imperative. He is going to college.
Sow and Nymph
The gaze is mutual, unflinching and indecipherable. Joginder doesn’t blink, and neither does she.
Sandeep and I watch them with curiosity and concern. We wonder in whispers if Joginder is scared or transfixed, and whether she is basking in the attention or plotting an ambush.
The early-winter sun is melting and we need to potter on. So far, none of us has been able to spot a creature we’d like to show off to the world today. The creature Joginder has spotted – and looks besotted by – doesn’t qualify.
When he continues to ignore our exhortation, we intervene, and J comes unstuck with great reluctance. What were you doing, Joginder?
“I was trying to see if she had teeth.” What! Why?
“She didn’t have teeth, so she can’t be a bunsooar.” She must be only a domesticated sow, he concludes, and not a wild boar. I detect both disappointment and relief in his tone – this wasn’t a deadly wild encounter after all. He will need to make something up to impress his children tonight.
J&S let out a tiny shriek. They have spotted a massive spider with long white legs. It’s the biggest I have ever seen, each leg about an inch and a half. On close inspection, the legs turn out to be a cross-weave in the web – like a white zipper. Perhaps this black-and-white Garden Spider is trying to appear larger than it is?
This is almost as dramatically deceptive as the orange-striped Common Silverline Sandeep finds today. This is the second time in a few weeks I am gazing at one, and once again it takes me a while to realise that this end is actually that end. Sandeep and Joginder stick to their stubborn realities. The more vehemently I try to correct their perception, with more abandon they laugh.
“Butts don’t spout antennas, bhaiyya, haha!” What can I do if this one’s does?
Sandeep gingerly bends the branch towards me so I can get close. In that moment, bald giraffe comes to mind. Sandeep and Joginder get their heads shaved off and on, whenever the whim strikes.
The two-inch mottled grasshopper we see next has dragon-like scales lining its legs, beautiful almond eyes, and a pout. If it didn’t look intimidating, I’d call it coquettish.
I have a workshop to attend, and this evening’s excursion needs to be cut short. There is no mistaking the urgency in my message. We scuttle back. I clutch one camera, Joginder another, Sandeep the backpack – not how I plan it. I like carrying my own gear but they both say they like the feel of the backpack and the camera. Ultimately, it’s an amiable division of labour.
A few steps from the exit, I think I have passed by a clutch of green coruscating gems on a leaf. I carry on. I am getting late.
A few more steps ahead, I find myself juddering to a stop, turning back, and rushing to the gems. This, in my world, is the real palpable fear of missing out.
These are four tiny wriggly Jewel Bugs – beetle nymphs. They have neat orange horseshoe outlines on half their back. J and S join me, and then an inquisitive couple.
The lady asks, gaping at the gems, “How do you find such amazing creatures?” I don’t have a definitive answer.
When I look back at all my Aravali evenings, all the poring and scouring, and I relive all those epiphanic moments, I realise that many of the most memorable moments in my life have been felicitous fortuities.
Perhaps all I really do is let them occur.