The Butterfly Effect of Kaziranga

As of this month, I begin a monthly column for First City, Delhi’s primary city magazine, on my travels in northeast India. Since First City doesn’t seem to believe in having a website, here is the first article. Comments more than welcome.

The Butterfly Effect of Kaziranga

What does the name ‘Chocolate Albatross’ conjure up in your mind? Perhaps, for instance, one of those animal-shaped chocolates made for kids. How about ‘Yellow Jack Sailor’? Perhaps a grizzled pipe-sucking mariner out of Popeye or Moby Dick, or maybe even a pub on a pier.

Actually, the former is deep ochre offset by white, with a fondness for sunbathing. The latter possesses brilliant yellow and black stripes, and enjoys sitting on a log to preen. They both have wings that can flutter at blurry speeds, eight legs, a slender torso, and a pair of antennae. They endure a youth with enough identity changes to give a schizophrenic a complex, and after all that, they only live a couple of days. The Albatross and the Sailor are butterflies.

For city dwellers, one of the big impediments to stopping to smell the roses is that you usually inhale a lungful of carbon monoxide as well. And if you live in Delhi, your CO comes spiced with generous helpings of the Thar Desert. So we block our nostrils, put our heads down, and soldier on, always packing more into our schedules and dividing the day into ever smaller yet fairly arbitrary parcels of time. Surrounded by fellow time-keepers, we often forget how truly weird this is.

As a result, when my Hegel-quoting naturalist friend took me along on an expedition to transect (don’t ask!) butterfly populations in the Pan Bari woods outside the World Heritage Kaziranga National Park in Upper Assam, the first question that bubbled through my consciousness was, “How long will this take?” But, not being on any sort of schedule, I had no valid reason to ask the question; the impulse to do so was purely a result of the toxins of programmed city life.

So I bit my tongue and reminded myself that I was here to detox from Delhi, as we strode through a narrow path between rows of tea shrubs in the picturesque tea gardens that outskirts the woods. Soon, with my expert guide pointing out exotic butterflies such as the Plains Cupid and the Gaudy Baron, in addition to our friends the Chocolate Albatross and the Yellow Jack Sailor, I was engrossed in watching the graceful yet rapid comings and goings of these vivid will o’ the wisps of the woods. Gradually, I was able to forget the time passing, forget the metropolis I had left behind, forget even the presence of the massive mammals – rhino, elephant, tiger, water buffalo – in the National Park nearby, and focus on the remarkable range and quantity of butterflies and dragonflies inhabiting these few hundred metres of forest.

Butterflies intrigue ecologists because, like frogs, they forewarn us about changes in the ecosystem. Since butterflies are dependent on plants for nourishment during their caterpillar stage, diversity in plans naturally leads to diversity in butterfly evolution. Butterflies and plants co-evolve and therefore changes in butterfly diversity and behaviour can indicate changes in flora, which in turn indicate changes in the ecosystem that we humans are part of and depend on. So butterfly ‘sinks’ such as the Pan Bari woods provide excellent spaces in which to study and observe butterfly diversity over periods of time.

This, however, is a whole other species of time than the one we city-dwellers attempt to tame. And time is a slippery concept here in northeast India. When you’re just here to travel and you can immerse yourself in the rhythms of nature, time can seem irrelevant. Yet, this region is geographically east of Bangladesh (which is 30 minutes ahead of IST) but exists in time with Delhi. Thus, in winter, dusk is around 4:00pm and pitch darkness arrives by 5:30. Which means that time has profound implications for economic activity, not to mention its social and political consequences for youth who have no daylight after mid-afternoon in a deeply troubled region where authorities regard groups of young people with suspicion. So, when you say that Arunchal Pradesh is behind the times, you’re not just being figurative.

But I’m not here to change public policy. I’m here to leap over streams that are too wide to jump and land face down in the slippery water just short of shore and, much too often for my liking, stand on one leg like a stork in order to pluck slippery leeches off the other leg. All this to provide merriment to the butterflies in return for their silent lectures on stripping away time.

It’s a valuable lesson. When we return home, I’m informed that I will be woken up at 4:30am to clamber aboard an elephant sailing a sea of wild grass in search of the last remaining one-horned rhinos in the world. At first, I balk at the timing, and spend the evening jokingly grumbling about it. But when the knock comes the next morning along with a pot of tea and chocolate-cream biscuits, it’s really not that hard to shake off sleep and venture into the dawn.

But old habits die hard and so life throws up another test. Sitting on the elephant is a challenge because elephant saddles – like sleeper berths in trains and seats in buses and Air Deccan planes – discriminate against tall people. So, much to the annoyance of Ramu the mahout, my legs dangle off the saddle precariously close to the pachyderm’s ears. The real challenge comes when we enter the ‘elephant grass’, which literally is grass as tall as an elephant. Away from the saddle, my legs get tangled in the grasping grass and I’m forced to spend as much time trying to stay on board as looking around for wildlife. But just as I’m cursing all and sundry, and especially my idiocy for trying to overcome years of not being a morning person, the grass clears and in the swirling early morning mist, we come upon our first rhinos of the day. And my first rhinos ever.

I feel like I’ve passed a test. For the moment, at least, because trying to get around in the northeast is not recommended to those in a hurry. Nevertheless, this is a timeless ecosystem, as the ruminating rhinos remind me. They needn’t have bothered. My friends the Albatross and the Sailor were way ahead of them.


Acknowledgement: My travels in the northeast were partly made possible through the support and encouragement of Pravah, a Delhi-based organization that is “dedicated to equipping young people with skills essential to building sensitivity and responsibility towards the society we live in, and developing them into positive Changemakers of the future.”

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