Before I met Rom, everyone I knew thought termites were pests. When the rains first arrive, clouds of these winged creatures begin to swarm. They buzz around lights and eventually commit suicide in our beverages and dinners. The rest of the year, diligent workers find devious ways of attacking wood furniture. Friends who cry “Herbal mozzie repellent only please” nuke termites with awful chemicals without a second thought.
When Rom and I moved to our farm, I realised that a termite swarm is a major natural-history event. Termites are a rich source of protein that every creature regards as a feast. As the insects soared on their conjugal flights, watchful drongos made acrobatic sorties snapping them up.
Once termites find mates, they lose their wings and burrow underground to nest. Lacking superior aerial skills, shikras perched ungainly on the ground, pecking at these wingless ones. The birds’ prime prey, garden lizards also engorged themselves. They scurried noisily through the dry leaf litter aware that for the moment, their nemesis preferred the fat succulent bodies of these insects to their own scaly, tough ones. Nearby, a flock of white-capped babblers competed with magpie-robins and bulbuls in chasing termites through the grass.
Toads sat like statues, only their tongues flicking in and out mechanically. These were especially greedy little buggers, stuffing themselves more and more when they couldn’t even waddle out of the way. Scorpions rammed so many insects down their throats that the wings stuck out of their mouths, looking like feathered chimeras.
Perhaps this was the only occasion when nocturnal and diurnal creatures, predators and prey dined together. We once found a monitor lizard lying draped over a termite mound, sated, incapable of movement. Even palm squirrels, which I thought were vegetarians, joined in. The normally alert mongooses were so focused on stuffing themselves that they didn’t notice our presence.
Our two young emus were nowhere near as proficient as the others in finding termites. With their large round eyes affixed on an insect in flight, they chased it round and round in comical circles, only occasionally snatching one from midair. Later when the sun rose higher in the sky and the swarming died out, life returned to normal.
The arrival of rains is the cue for the insects to take off on their nuptial flights. But the Irula tribals are wizards in exploiting this resource even without a shower. Many years ago, on a moonless night, I watched them tie a sari around a mound to simulate the stillness before rain. A tin can was buried in the ground. An oil lamp, the only source of light, was balanced on cross-sticks on top of the can. They blew the powder of a local seed called ‘eessal kottai’ (‘termite nut’), which smelt of rain, over the mound. They chanted with a lot of sibilance, like the whispering wings of termites.
Initially nothing happened and I thought this was all hocus-pocus. Then the termites started emerging. They were unable to fly; perhaps their wings were not fully formed yet. They headed for the light and fell into the can. Soon, hundreds of thousands of them came pouring out like a black river. The Irula emptied the can into a gunny sack every few minutes and within an hour, the sack was half full.
Back at the Irula hamlet, we gathered around the fire as they roasted the insects on an iron griddle with rice, turmeric and chilli powders and salt. The fat from the termites sizzled and made the rice grains pop. When I gingerly sampled a roasted termite, I could barely taste it.
I followed the Irula example and shoved a whole handful into my mouth. And then another. Was it insects I was eating? They tasted of fried nuts with a buttery texture but the flavor was unique. Like those toads, I couldn’t stop stuffing myself. With a knowing grin, one of the Irula asked me how the midnight snack tasted.
I answered in Tamil, “Super.”