IN OUR HUNTER-GATHERER DAYS, sound helped us avoid predators. On a safari, it helps us find them. But just as the truancy of a sound doesn’t confirm the absence of its maker, the presence of a sound doesn’t vouchsafe the sight of it.

Presently, the continued bellows of the sambar in concert grip you in a state of peak anticipation. Your awareness is so heightened, you can hear every sound, feel every nerve. The cumulative effect is that of an intravenous injection of caffeine. Your heart revs like a twin-cylinder, four-valved engine running on 94-octane adrenaline.

Moments pass. By degrees a lantana bush some distance away parts, and something emerges. Your breath stalls momentarily. But it’s ‘only’ the sambar.

Tall, handsome and imposing but not overbearing, he casts a look of suspicion standing broadside in all glory, before making a dash across the narrow track to melt into the relative safety of the lantana wall over on the other side. Like a curtain that falls on a stage, the bush closes up back into place as the crunching of the dry leaves under the deer’s hooves recedes into inaudibility. The vehicle creaks as the naturalist props himself up in his seat for a better view and a harder listen. Seconds tick away against held breaths, burps and other necessary emissions. It’s so quiet that you start hearing the inner workings of your anatomy. Most notably, there is a fullness of the ears that occurs due to extreme silence, which is otherwise absent in cacophony, as you now realise for the first time in years. This being an alien feeling, you mentally reach for an auditory branch to hold on to; a grab handle of familiarity.

And it comes, with the advent of a stentorian voice, as though rising on the laws of Doppler, until it becomes a musical statute that surrounds you with unseen tweeters. Ti tee, ti tee, ti tee, ti tee, the song ascends pendulously, like in the Shepard tone, before sounding reconciliatory, with a conclusive and descending tee ri titititi.


Common Hawk-Cuckoo – Photograph: Santosh Saligram


But this is only an ominous intro, the overture. The chorus, which now begins on the tail of the preface, is a rapidly ascending series of short full-bodied assertions of a non-sanguine medical diagnosis. “Brain fever! Brain fever!” it hollers repeatedly in manic excitement to a crescendo, like Archimedes’s famous all-baring rush of “Eureka!” upon his bath-time discovery of buoyancy.

The vociferous customer in the jungles of Kabini, however, is no Greek scientist or physician, but the common hawk-cuckoo, a pint-sized predator more akin to a stage actor that sets Nature up at its theatrical best, by pressing the full array of effects into the service of its operations.

As a parent, however, it is far less dramatic and a lot more covert: it is what we call a blood parasite, laying its eggs in the nest of the nearest babbler, especially in April, which is thick in its breeding season, a time when it is also particularly clamorous. The hatchling may or may not evict the eggs of the host, and is reared to adulthood in complete innocence by the unsuspecting foster mother. The understudy of a busy rapper turns out in adulthood to be in actual fact a type of medical canary; a qualified virtuoso opera singer who ever cantillates the same diagnosis in notes of three, a family anomaly the nonplussed babbler-parent must attribute to the ever-capricious idiosyncrasies of adolescence.

Then, with the abruptness that belies the preface with which it began, the song ceases. And it is near-immediately replaced by a rather less musical utterance. In fact it is decidedly industrious: the noise that results from the repeated and reciprocal abrasions of a sharp cutting tool against the grainy hardness of wood: a sawing!


Langur – Photograph: Santosh Saligram


You’re about to ask the naturalist whether a poacher isn’t afoot truncating a precious tree, when from her aspect of unabated sanguiness, you abandon that conjecture. “A leopard!” she exclaims in a loud whisper, her eyes lit up and mouth shaped into a smile. A guttural sound to invite females while also asking other males to stay out of his amorous diaries, the sawing is a series of loud, aspirated grunts engaging the larynx that makes the leopard one of only four cat species on the planet that can roar.

This sends the upper storey of the neighbourhood erupting into delirium, for from the canopy start issuing what at first seem the coughs, followed soon by a catatonic attack of asthma.

As you concernedly wonder what unfortunate young man is beset by such ill health, in truth a langur watchman, having spotted or at least heard the sawing leopard, is calling in alarm at the emergence of jeopardy. The hoisted sentinel presses on with his broadcast business with a number of throaty, catarrh-churning chattery and snarly chicks and khrrs, punctuated by a frequent five-syllable articulation of a long-drawn inhalation, khuh…khuh…khuh-khaaaaaa-khuh, as if someone were sobbing themselves to hiccups at the memory of a past incident that was summarily traumatic. Soon, other langurs in the neighbourhood within earshot of the whistleblower pick up the baton of the call and relay it in turn to their vicinity.

You wait for several minutes but the leopard does not make an appearance, and as you reluctantly move on, you realise that a safari is no sightseeing drill, for it isn’t merely about seeing, but also sensing, and in the wilds of Kabini, the unseen is a bigger set of experiences than merely the spotted. And most of all, you learn that where the line-of-sight ends, sound imparts light, and ears give us eyes that can see through objects otherwise opaque.