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.]

19 comments:

  1. a very good observation, i had never thought about 'bhaams' before. and now i am trying to contextualise the colloquial phrase 'briddho bhaam':-)

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  2. @the dervish: Ha ha! Good observation on your part too! I have never thought about the context of that phrase. Only thing that I can infer is that probably bhams live to a ripe old age.

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  3. hmmm...
    i always knew that u hav a v inquisitive brain.... and this is another proof abt it. :)
    btw.... wassup on d MS front... no news frm ur side since loooong... do scrap or bttr mail smtime wen u r free...

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  4. The only bhaam I had heard about was of the type the dervish refers too. Now thanks to your post I know that there is a real animal out there by that name.

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  5. heyy! thanks to your post I now know the real name for bhaams!! (civet)
    They have been creating havoc at my place for the last few years...and heaven knows when we will get rid of them!! :(

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  6. Bhaam is a highly threatened species and is called the Indian Large Civet. Its scientific name is 'Viverra zibetha'. It has 5/6 subspecies. please see more details here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Indian_civet

    The Indian Large Civet is different from the masked palm civet which shares the same urban/semi-urban habitat with the former, but is not as threatened. The belt between Uttarpara and Bandel still provides enough vegetation cover for a small number of Bhaams to survive...

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  7. Pritha, can I appeal to you to learn to live with the Bhaam and not try to "get rid of them". They are a rare and graceful animal, who mostly leave people alone. They are forced to come into houses to raid for food because there are no more fruit trees left that they can feed on. Think of it like this...it is actually us that are raiding their natural habitat and building concrete structures on them....may be we should become more conservation oriented and think about how to save the spoecies from final extinction...

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    1. Glad you think like this. I use these exact words all the time. My parents have build a garden house in New Town, Kolkata and they are visited by this cat which villegers call Shorell. I wonder if it is the same as Bham!

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    2. Glad you think like this. I use these exact words all the time. My parents have build a garden house in New Town, Kolkata and they are visited by this cat which villegers call Shorell. I wonder if it is the same as Bham!

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    3. I believe there is one in Duncan House just in the heart of Dalhousie.Your article was reassuring as some fear had crept in.

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  8. @Aditya => You are absolutely correct .

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  9. oh god i saw bham several times they enter my house whenever no one is there

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  10. hey!! i and my family are also sick and tired of these so called "bhams" for these bhams we do not open our windows at nights ,there are 5 to 6 bhams visiting vour apartments during nights ,at day time where they stay and how to get rid of them..

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  11. Hi am Aakash as far as i know there are 5to 6 subspecies.. Of this endangered animal...there are myths about this animal that it can eat human babies and all.sorts of things bt the truth is it cant even kill a cokroach properly because its jaws are very weak..so leave them alone..this is my earnest request to all

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  12. saw a bham just 5mins back at Golf Green in Kolkata..Though its a rare sight here, it is quite commonly sighted at our neighborhood areas like gandhi colony, netaji nagar etc.

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  13. I live in Habra. Beside my residence there is a land full of debris and thickets. I have not seen the animal but had experiences of their visits, especially when there are fruits in my room. They come and eat and neatly go away. I hope I may have a good luck to see them in future as they are going to be an extinguished specie in near future.

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  14. I have not seen a Bham, although have been subjected to its notoriety. There are quite a number of them in Ballygunge, Kolkata, where I live. One came to a toilet (why are called "Restrooms"?) at night -- I saw several footprints very similar to a cat's and also its excrements, not similar to cat's. I was told by my driver that they do not come in daylight as they are pecked and attacked by crows.

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  16. I saw a bham biral today. The only striking thing about it was it's looooonnnggg tail. And it disappeared like a bolt.

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