Posted by: cochinblogger | August 26, 2013

Cicada Story

Picture 293_cr

It was dusk at Kulamavu in Idukki, and I was taking a nature walk along a road behind the resort where I was staying. There was only one house in view, and plantations covered the entire area. In fact, my resort was itself located in a plantation. In front of me stretched an overgrown path that led all the way to Nadukani Viewpoint.

It was then that it began, the rasping, grating sound of a cicada right next to me. I stopped. In a few minutes, the sound became a swelling crescendo, with all the near-by cicadas lending their voices. A silence followed, and then the cicada near me began calling again. I moved closer toward it; it seemed very close. And then I suddenly saw it, on a tree inside the plantation bordering the road. There was no doubt that this cicada was the orchestra conductor. I then took the photo at the top of this post.

I’ve been re-reading The Tiger Roars by the well-known Indian shikari, Kenneth Anderson (a free e-book of Anderson’s first book is available at the preceding link; please check the legality of the offer yourself), whose books on hunting man-eaters in the jungles of South India I first devoured when I was in school, and there is a little cicada story in the chapter titled “The Lame Horror of Peddacheruvu.” I’m cheating a little here, because the insects in the story were not cicadas but crickets. I’ve always wondered about the cicada/cricket distinction. From my reading, it appears that cicadas call at dusk but never at night, and there are differences in the music they produce. Now that I’m aware of the distinction, I’ll be more alert to cicada/cricket music from now and will try and tell them apart.

But on to the Kenneth Anderson cricket story. Our hero is atop a machan in the middle of the night over a man-eater kill:

A squat kind of wood-cricket inhabits the forests of Andhra Pradesh in large numbers, which I have never come across nor heard in the jungles of Madras and Mysore. This little insect chirrups loudly, and when hundreds of them chirrup together the noise is loud enough to drown all other sounds. At times these vibrations synchronize, and the resulting throb has the intensity of a tractor working nearby.

I had been listening to this noise that had started soon after sunset. It appeared to be growing steadily in volume and intensity as more and more of the insects joined in the chorus. Nothing else could I hear. Suddenly there was a sharp diminution of the sound. The crickets in the distance appeared to have stopped chirruping, and in a matter of seconds those nearer to me, becoming aware of the silence of their distant companions, stopped chirruping too. It was as if the tractor had come to a sudden halt.

The ensuing hush was relieving to the nerves in one sense but in another way it was strangely foreboding and terrifying. Just what had made the crickets stop their chorus?

The night herons were still wailing to each other in the distance when I heard the cause: the call of the man-eater! He roared in the valley. Once, twice, and again.

Now I knew why the crickets had ceased their chorus so abruptly. They had heard the first roars of the tiger that had been inaudible to me because of the din they were making. Only after they had stopped was I able to hear him. But what had the man-eater to do with crickets? Why should they fear him? I fell to wondering at the answer to this question. It intrigued me so much that I decided to put it to a friend of mine in Madras, who is a naturalist. The answer, as I found out later, is a simple one, and I shall tell you about it before I end this story.

After the man-eater is slain, Anderson explains the cricket mystery:

To conclude, I will explain why the crickets ceased their chirruping when the man-eater started roaring. My naturalist friend at Madras says it is because the tiger’s roars made the ground vibrate. Apparently crickets cannot hear, but they have an acute sense of touch. The vibrations had given them cause for fear — perhaps even an earthquake in the offing?

Anderson is not just a hunter with a big gun; he is a skilled observer of jungle ways, and his books combine the thrills of hunting man-eaters with hard-won jungle lore — as the cricket story illustrates. Especially thrilling are his encounters with man-eating tigers on the ground — one of them at night! — and not just from a lofty machan high on a tree. There are also fascinating anecdotes of the people he encounters on his forays into the jungle, such as the feared dacoit whom he set on the straight and narrow path, first-hand experiences with black magic, and the strange episode of the tourist who fell sick with a mortal illness after taking a lamp from an abandoned temple and only recovered after returning the object to the temple. Also unforgettable is his spine-chilling, blow-by-blow description of how a pack of wild dogs get the better of a tiger that had stolen a deer the dogs had been chasing. I had read all these stories many years ago, but they were just as fresh and entertaining when I revisited them again.

Most connoisseurs of Indian wildlife swear by Jim Corbett’s books, but I prefer Anderson’s books — he’s more human, more down to earth, and also has a terrific sense of humor.

And I must mention a couple of Kerala connections in the book. One tiger hunt is set in Wayanad. Anderson has this to say about Kerala:

In my opinion, the state of Kerala, in the extreme south-west of the Indian peninsula, offers a scenery second only in beauty to that of the Himalayas, though very different. It is a land of dense forests, fertile plantations of tea, coffee, cinnamon, rubber and tapioca, and emerald-green fields in the areas bordering the sea; of gently flowing rivers and waterways without number, along which palm-thatched river boats glide among coconut palms laden with huge bunches of green nuts, and a sea coast without parallel, culminating at the southern tip of the peninsula in the famous beach of Cape Comorin.

Back to cicadas/crickets. These musical insects abound in Kerala, and the ebb and flow of waves of cricket music on a still night is one of my fondest memories of staying in the Kerala countryside as a boy. However, the famous biodiversity hotspot, Silent Valley in the Western Ghats, got its name because the forest in the valley lacks cicadas/crickets, and so is unusually silent.

One wonders what as-yet unidentified earth-shaking monster of the night could have driven the cicadas/crickets away from Silent Valley.

Does anyone know?


  1. Hi,

    You might be interested to join a group on Facebook dedicated to Kenneth Anderson.

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