Monday, April 07, 2008

The Mysterious Beast

On last Thursday night, a cat gave birth to three kittens inside the shoe rack in our verandah at our house in Hooghly. When I returned home on Friday night, I found three tiny creatures mewing on the ground. One black and white, and two ginger and white. On Saturday morning, when my mother went out into the verandah to unlock the gate, one kitten was missing, another was lying dead with two of its paws severed, and only the head of the black and white one was lying on the floor. What ate them? Maybe a tom-cat. Or more probably, a mysterious beast whom we call "bham" in Bengali.

I have heard about the bham since my early childhood although I do not know its English or scientific name. In our old ancestral house in Chinsurah, the bhams came at night to look for scraps of food among the dirty plates. I had never seen it, and I had no idea whatsoever what this creature might look like, and so I had formed an image of a fearsome animal maybe as large as a tiger. As I grew older, I came to understand what a bham was really like. It was, I was told, an omnivorous creature something like a mongoose, and a cat, and a raccoon all rolled into one, and more ferocious than any of those.

When we moved to our new house in Hooghly, the bhams came every night on our roof terrace and knocked at our doors. They ate guavas from our tree and left their droppings on the roof. However, all my attempts to see the creature were in vain. Ferocious they may be, but they are also very shy of people and I could never glimpse even the shadow of one. My cousins in Chinsurah, however, had frequent encounters with bhams and they could never understand why I would want to see them. Would I want to see a cat, dog, or monkey with the same enthusiasm?

During the first ever floodlit cricket match in Eden Gardens (Hero Cup pre-final, most probably), the camera found a very surprised animal on the outfield. I don't expect many people to remember that incident. However I do, because my father told me that it was probably a bham.

My first bham sighting was in my college fourth year when I saw a creature cross the main road near my house in Hooghly one evening. It was a mongoose-shaped animal, but larger, and was lightning fast. The most noticeable thing about the creature was that it had a bushy tail as long as its body. It ran across the road and at the same speed, ran up a betel nut tree. It was already dark, and I could only make out the silhouette of the animal. A few days later, I again saw the silhouette of another bham in our neighbour's garden, once more in the dark. Since then, I have several times seen the creature, but strangely, always in the dark. Always only its outline.

The only time I saw something other than the outline was again, in my fourth year. I used to sleep alone in a ground floor room with a window that opened in front of the guava tree in our garden. One night, on hearing movement among the branches, I shone my torch out of the window and into the guava tree. My batteries were almost dead, but still, the yellowing beam froze the animal like the proverbial deer caught in headlights. All I could see were two big glowing eyes set amidst the black outline of a face that best resembled a lesser (red) panda. The light was too low to see more details.

But I can't see it does not mean the creature is a myth. It is very real for creatures like the mother cat who is still searching for her kittens. The bham lurks in the dark, and since Hooghly, as a small suburban town, is more dark than lit up during the evenings, this animal still thrives there. I don't know if it is endangered, but I actually like the fact that it is so difficult to see. The 21st century hasn't left a lot of mysteries for us, and while I wouldn't turn away my eyes if I came face to face with a bham, I wouldn't mind it if the creature remains shrouded in mystery for me.

[Update: Thanks to Google, I have finally found out that a bham is known as a "civet" in English, and I found quite a few photos on the Internet which look different from each other. I am attaching one of the pictures here.]