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Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, Kolkata


Trapped in a metropolis: The jackals of Saltlake

If you are working in the lab late in the evening or in the week ends, you my have noticed the jackals moving around our VECC campus. Dinesh Kumar Srivastava closely observed their compelling change in lifestyle and narrates an interesting sad tale of such wild animals trapped in Kolkata.

The (following) article was published in English daily "The Statesman" on 25th January, 2015.


ARJUNA, while pleading for avoidance of war in the Gita, worried about the birth of varna-sankars or persons of mixed races or mixed “colours” or mixed castes, following wars. Jean M Auel wrote several delightful books under the series Earth’s Children, exploring the encounter of early modern men and Neanderthals. Rudyard Kipling went on to develop a character in a short story to almost a cult status when he introduced Mowgli, a boy brought up by a wolf in his masterpiece, The Jungle Book. And who can forget the story of Buck, the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie of Call of the Wild, going on to father a breed of wolves with an interesting streak in their fur and its sequel, White Fang, the story of the domestication of one of them, narrated by the great story teller, Jack London.
   But I am going to narrate a simple and sad tale of our wild animals trapped in a metropolis. The passage of time changes the meaning of words. Metropolis originally meant “the mother city”, which sent out settlers; but now it simply stands for a large and busy city. And we shall use it in that sense.
   And we shall talk of Calcutta or Kolkata, as one is supposed to call it. While this land mass must have existed for ever, its more modern history started with the landing of Job Charnock at one of the ghats at Sutanati, fortified with permission from the Emperor Aurangzeb, on 24 August 1690, according to his note in his Chuttanutty Diary. I do not have the courage to go against the courts, which have decided a markedly more ancient history of the city!

   Our institute started much later in a distant suburb of Calcutta in the late 1960s. The area was known as Salt Lake. Earlier, it was simply known as “The Maath” or “The Field”. Bimal Mitra would have us believe that Lord Clive and “Begum Mary Biswas” saw it from the roof of his kothi at Dumdum. Amitav Ghosh tells us of pilot whales getting blown into that area during the great cyclone of 1737.  The term cyclone itself was to be coined much later by Henry Piddington in 1848, though.
   Later, in 1741, the Bargis (Marathas) invaded Calcutta, perhaps from the direction of the same “Maath”. Fifteen years later, Nawab Sirajuddaulla invaded Calcutta in June 1756 and renamed it Alinagar and British historians damned him forever by stamping the term “black-hole” against his name. His army had stayed in “The Maath”, and our own Nirad Chouaduri visited it while writing about it in Clive of India: A Political and Psychological Essay.
   The jackals of Salt Lake had seen it all and survived it all, even thriving with famines, murders, riots and outgrown vegetation. The oldest picture of our institute shows a vast field covered with “kaans” grass, bushes of ber (Indian plum or Ziziphus Mauritiana), and trees of wild palms, figs and jungle jalebi (Pithecellobium Dulche). There were several small ponds with fish in them, mongoose, snakes and a huge swarm of mosquitoes. A large variety of birds —  parrots, bulbuls, weaver-birds, golden orioles, sunbirds, sparrows, mynahs, jungle babblers, etc — lived there throughout the year. The neighbouring Kestopur Canal used to be covered by migratory birds during the winter. And we reached the site by crossing it with a ferry from VIP Road.
   One of the first structures to come up there was a high brick boundary wall covering about half of the area and a chain link fence for the remaining part. And there was just one gate, continuously manned. This sealed the fate of the jackals that were trapped forever within the boundary walls. What follows is just a story of their struggle for adoption over decades of living within these walls, with their shrinking habitat, with their changing food habits and even becoming almost diurnal from nocturnal in their lifestyles. The birds flew in and out and ultimately moved away as bushes and shrubs were cleared, and the snakes slithered away, but the jackals could not leave.
   And now they were two classes of jackals, one that was stuck inside the boundary walls and the other that still roamed the Salt Lake area and beyond and lived along the Kestopur Canal. As evening approached, they started their calls and counter-calls, which went somewhat like “hua, hua, hua, hukki, hua, hua”, which have filled the Indian forests and countryside for millennia. A call would start from where we now have the Central Park, it would be picked up by the jackals living around the green belt along the Kestopur Canal and then it would be followed by the jackals inside the institute. Recall that in eastern Uttar Pradesh jackals are called paharua, as they give out their calls every “prahar” (about three hours) during the night.
   As the night descended, they would come out from their holes and play in the sand brought in for construction. There were enough wild birds and small animals for them to survive and they did. The institute expanded, more buildings were needed and more people joined. Stray dogs moved in and have stayed since then. The dogs would bark through the night at the sight of them and chase them, losing them in the growth still covering the unbuilt areas. A cafeteria came up and produced enough trash for them and they survived.
   Slowly they started becoming a little more adventurous and came out even before it was too dark, at least during the weekends when there were not many people around. They maintained their distance from the dogs and people, because the dogs would chase them on sight. We had planted some fast growing trees like Casuarina and Eucalyptus. The ber bushes also prospered and gave patches of thick foliage for them to live and hunt.
   When a patch had to be cleared, they started living close to the garage where our drivers stayed during the night shifts and who often found them moving near their retiring rooms. The drivers would throw some food their way and slowly they were less scared of them. The dogs still chased them and barked at them from a distance.
   Perhaps it started it with the pups, but no one is sure. The pups would, during the nights, approach the guards at the gate and happily “smiling”, approach even the dogs and play with them. After some initial hostility, the dogs, too, started playing with the pups and slowly stopped chasing the jackals when they came out during the nights. The jackals were still nocturnal.
   As the Salt Lake area got more populated, the jackals outside the fenced-in area started moving away. We also moved into the campus of our institute by then and on the nights when I was up reading or working, I would see them come out from the foliage, chase a rat or a mole, look into the trash-cans and play in the sand, sometimes digging up the ground to the annoyance of the gardener. Our gates were always manned and the jackals looked in that direction with soulful eyes, never daring to approach a gate with the watchmen with their sticks and a number of stray dogs that gave them company during the long nights. It was then that we noticed that the calls of the jackals during the night were becoming less and less frequent, coming hardly once a week — even though still answered by the jackals that were fenced in.  It was not difficult for us to realise that not only were the calls fewer and far between, even the number of jackals participating in the “chorus” was perceptibly decreasing. We have not heard these calls for a long time now. And strangely enough, the jackals trapped inside also do not give a call anymore.
   Some years ago I started noticing, especially when I went to the institute on weekends or when I worked till very late, that the jackals that were still left, appeared even before sunset and they were given a “friendly chase” by the dogs; the jackals not running fast enough and the dogs not making any serious attempt to catch up and attack them, and definitely not barking.

   And now, since early last year, we have started noticing some “dog-jackals” that emerge from the very little foliage that is still left in the institute, a little before the sunsets. They are still rather shy and keep a safe distance from people but do not hide from them and, sometimes, they are seen moving with the dogs. Their fur is not as rich and shiny as those of jackals, which is normally black on the back, golden on the sides and white in the belly region. Their tails do not have longer fur and they often hold it horizontally and straight.
   Now they are trapped forever in this metropolis. The chase in the wild, the call every three hours, the hunting in pairs, the eating frenzy after the kill of a wild animal or on finding a carcass are all forgotten as they learn to survive anew. Will their progeny, after a few more generations, retain any of the traits of their ancestors who must have dominated the landscape of Calcutta at one time as names like Baghmari (“tiger-killed”) and Sealdah (“pond of the jackal”) are to be believed?
   Yes, Arjuna, you were right, this war between urbanisation and the wilderness has given rise to a varna-sankar of dogs and jackals that are neither dogs nor jackals and which neither bark nor give a call — and yet they do not fully trust either men or dogs.